by Domenika Marzione

August 2005

"-- in luck. It's only ninety-five at 1030," Breibauer said with a remarkably straight face as they passed the thermometer attached to one of the HESCO barriers outside the office. "Means it should only be hundred-ten, hundred-fifteen by the time we're spinning up."

John smiled; laughing would expend too much energy and make him sweat. He'd never really been anywhere that would've prepared him for the middle-of-the-oven heat of southwest Iraq in summertime, a point well past where the fact that it was a dry heat made any difference. He'd sweated it out in the War on Drugs once upon a time, but the jungles of Colombia were a far cry from here, where a talcum-fine dust got into everything (absolutely everything, inside and out) and the heat never failed to stun him.

Of course, Air Force rotations were short enough that there were very good odds that he still wouldn't be used to it by the time they were redeployed back to Japan. A move that was coming up sooner than later; they already knew who was coming in to replace them and even had a tentative date.

John hadn't spent too much time thinking about Japan, though, beyond having his stuff sent from Peterson to Kadena. He'd shown up two weeks before his new unit's mobilization date and it had been all he could do to focus on assuming command of his squadron -- and grasping that he actually had command of a squadron after being on Big Air Force's shitlist for so long. Getting his head around that and doing his best not to fuck it up -- it had been a long time (and felt like even longer) since he'd been in an actual aviation unit-- had taken the edge off of the worst of his culture shock. It was still there, of course, in spades, but it wasn't as all-consuming as he'd imagined. Back to flying ships that didn't anticipate your thoughts, leading airmen instead of marines, hours of flying to get around one planet instead of near-instantaneous galaxy-trotting, and a group commander who didn't know what to make of the circumstances behind his newest officer. Well, that part wasn't too different, except for the fact that his predecessor here had simply gotten appointed to a Pentagon sinecure instead of getting the life sucked out of him by alien vampires.

If Sumner had died by anyone's hand but his own, John almost could've made a joke about the similarity there, too.

"Ninety-five? Almost a cold front," he finally replied because he was trying to work on talking more. His headquarters staff had largely gotten used to him not saying much and realizing that it wasn't coldness or displeasure, but he still didn't want to get a rep for being too much in his own head. He hadn't meant to turn into one of those silent types, but it was still easier to listen than to speak.

Everyone knew that he'd come to the unit from some classified project, but the assumption was that he'd been working for the CIA and even if he was in a position to correct them, he probably wouldn't. Thinking about Atlantis still hurt too much. He refused to speculate what might be going on back in Pegasus, whether Rodney and Teyla were following someone else around the galaxy, or how the fight with the Wraith was going beyond the obvious fact that they hadn't shown up on Earth. He could keep control of his thoughts during the day -- life was just too busy here to daydream -- but at night, he still dreamed of Atlantis, still missed falling asleep with the quiet, comforting buzz of her in his head and in his bones.

But that was a galaxy away. Here and now, Breibauer was content to carry the conversation as they walked -- slowly, because in this heat even a stroll felt like running through a hair dryer -- toward the DFAC for their belated breakfast. In this way John caught up on the state of the maintenance crew (cranky, overheated, undersupplied, and probably the best at what they did of everyone currently in country), the weather report (possibly it might stay under 120F on Thursday), and the latest rumors of who the USO was going to send over (nobody John had ever heard of; Iraq was now an unpopular war and nobody wanted to come). Breibauer was the kind of XO John had never been able to be and the principal reason he hadn't screwed anything up too badly yet.

"Oh, hey," Breibauer interrupted himself. "I smell bacon. Must've gotten a delivery yesterday."

It had been a quiet day relatively speaking; there'd been an attack that morning, the crump of incoming mortars getting everyone not already up moving at 0620 and then the louder noise of outgoing return fire making sure no one went back to sleep. But their assailants were almost comical in their bad aim and persistence; two weeks of daily attempts and the biggest target they'd hit had been an empty fuel tank while the good guys had blown up their position -- and possibly their mortar men -- every day. John hadn't seen the report of today's activity, but he was sure it was more of the same. Nevertheless, there was a mission scheduled for 2100 with some of his helicopters flying support for an Army raid intended on putting an end to the morning mortars by targeting the supposed depot (a villa long abandoned by the original occupants) and the folks behind it (Sunnis pissed off at the local Shia government and its American thugs). Because even a blind squirrel finds a nut sooner or later and that was the moment it stopped being funny.

There were Army privates at the security check in front of the DFAC making sure everyone cleared their weapons before entering. John was replacing his in its holster when he heard someone calling his name.

"Colonel Sheppard," Airman First Class Robinson was calling as she sped toward them. It made John sweat just to watch someone else run in this heat.

"We forget a meeting, Mike?" he asked Breibauer, who was standing next to him and watching Robinson's approach. She was the headquarters staff's living calendar, the one who remembered everyone's schedule no matter what.

"I know I didn't, sir," Breibauer replied. "Phone call?"

"Hell, I hope not," John said. Because he didn't have anyone who would be calling him, at least not with good news. He'd already had to send one pilot home on emergency bereavement. Go into a war zone and you forget that things like traffic accidents happen back home.

"Sir," Robinson half-gasped as she drew herself up before him. "There's someone here to see you. Said it couldn't wait until later."

John looked over at Breibauer, who shrugged. "Did they give you a name, Airman?"

Robinson blinked the sweat out of her eyes. "Major General O'Neill, sir."

John chuffed out a laugh that had nothing to do with being amused. "Tell him I'll be right there."

He left Mike and got back to his office to find the usual sort of best behavior that would be expected with a two-star in the room. He almost wanted to tell his staff not to bother, that Jack O'Neill really didn't care and was probably more unnerved by the silent efficiency than they were by the stars on his shoulders.

"Sheppard," O'Neill drawled as he spun around in John's chair to face him. "You have a thing against temperate climates?"

There were plenty of answers to that, but none that he could repeat in a room full of airmen and officers desperately trying to look like they weren't hanging on every word.

"I kinda like it here," he said instead.

"Of course you do," O'Neill replied sourly, then stood up. "Got someplace private we can talk?"

John thought that was a stupid question. In the middle of a crowded, busy FOB, privacy didn't extend past the cozy confines of the shitters and, even then, only if you were quiet. His quarters were probably as close as they'd get.

"Yes, sir," he said, gesturing for O'Neill to precede him. Passing through the maze of desks and equipment and computers and crap that accumulated, he paused in front of the sergeant sitting at the banks of computers and phones. "If anyone's looking for me, I'll be in my CHU."

Gone were the days when he had an earpiece seemingly grafted in place. Most of the time, it was a good thing.

O'Neill had his sunglasses on and was waiting just outside the door, next to the thermometer, which still showed ninety-five degrees, except now it was in the shade.

"This way, sir," John said, turning right. It was a ten minute walk if you didn't want to sweat through your undershirt, but he figured O'Neill hadn't shlepped all the way to Iraq to chat about the weather, so he walked faster. He hadn't parted with the SGC on very good terms and sending someone to him -- and that it was O'Neill instead of some flunky or whoever they'd finally gotten to take over SG-1 -- was a bad sign.

"You live in a conex?" O'Neill asked as they turned the last corner before the rows of shipping-containers-turned-housing began. "What happened to tents?"

"Nicest housing on the base," John replied with a shrug, because it was. Pilots always got better accommodations and the guy in charge of pilots got the best of that. His shipping container home had a power source, an air conditioner, and indoor plumbing courtesy of a shared bathroom. The walls were thin enough that he could hear LTC Friesen turn magazine pages, but that was a negligible downside.

He flipped on his AC -- it had two settings, "arctic" and "off," so it wouldn't take long to cool down the stiflingly hot room -- and did a quick check to make sure that Friesen wasn't around. Satisfied, he turned back to O'Neill, who was sitting in the chair by the desk in the corner of the small room.

"The Daedalus is missing," O'Neill began without preamble.

"Okay." John sat down heavily at the foot of his cot. He didn't know yet why this concerned him. At least in a professional capacity.

"It never made it back to Atlantis," O'Neill elaborated. That got John's attention and O'Neill knew it, smirking as John leaned forward to rest his forearms on his thighs.

McKay, Elizabeth, and Beckett would have been on board the initial trip back. As would have Caldwell (the new military commander) and some of the scientists and marines they were bringing back to expand Atlantis's mission, plus supplies and various items for the ones who had stayed behind. He'd been party to some of the logistical discussions before it became clear that Elizabeth was going to lose the fight to get his permanent appointment pushed through.

"Last communication came from the edge of our galaxy eleven days into the voyage, then nothing. It should have reached Atlantis about week later, but never did. We sent the Prometheus out there to check, but she didn't find anything."

He'd left without saying goodbye to anyone, too angry and hurt to even wish them well. If he had any regrets about how he'd parted ways with the SGC, that was it -- he had no reason to take out his humiliation and pain on the only ones who'd been on his side from the start. It wasn't their fault, especially not Elizabeth's.

"Thank you for telling me, sir," he said. Because it wasn't his right to know anymore and the odds are that he'd never have known otherwise.

O'Neill sighed loudly. "I didn't fly out here to be a casualty assistance officer, Sheppard. I came out here because we're up shit's creek and we need your help."

John sat up straight. Part of him wanted to agree to whatever O'Neill asked before O'Neill even said a word. Anything that would put him back in Atlantis. But the rest of him was still the same man who'd consistently chosen being right over being happy.

"I don't know what you think I can do for you, sir," he said slowly. "But I have responsibilities here now."

Atlantis had prepared him for command in a way ACSC never could. And now he had people here who relied on him just as much as anyone in Atlantis ever had to keep them safe and to look out for their interests. His squadron had already lost one CO this year. O'Neill had would need a damned compelling reason -- beyond him being the most convenient solution to the SGC's problem -- to make it two.

"You have responsibilities here," O'Neill agreed. "But what about the ones you left behind?"

"You thanked me for my service and wished me well, sir," John replied simply.

With his disgrace in Afghanistan, he'd thought that the life he now led would be forever denied him. And then he'd wound up in Atlantis and it hadn't mattered. But he'd lost Atlantis and chosen this second chance as a consolation prize and he was determined to make the most of it. He didn't love his job -- the layers of bureaucracy that came with being a commander in a crowded war zone were a sharp contrast after the freedom of movement he'd enjoyed in Atlantis -- but he loved that he was doing something to make a difference, that he was among people who felt the same way. This, not chasing alien artifacts, was why he'd joined the Air Force in the first place.

O'Neill ran his fingers through his graying buzz cut. "Look. I'm not knocking what you're doing here -- it's damned important. But the fact is that other people can do it. The Air Force can replace you here, Sheppard, but you're the only one left who knows Atlantis and the Pegasus galaxy well enough to make a difference there."

John was about to say something to the effect that he wasn't sure how much good he could do when the SGC hadn't thought he could make a difference four months ago, but O'Neill waved him off.

"The Wraith want to come here, right?" O'Neill asked. "Their 'new feeding ground.' If they have the Daedalus, then it's just a matter of them figuring out how to make it work. And you're the one who told us that they adopt new technology quickly."

"I'm not denying the problem, sir." Just the requirement that he be part of the solution. The SGC had gotten on just fine without him for years and had been sure that they could get on just fine without him for years to come.

"Our best case scenario is that Atlantis's entire command element has been wiped out in an accident that destroyed one of our two ships capable of intergalactic travel," O'Neill said. "Every other scenario involves information, technology, and people falling into the hands of the Wraith or some other unfriendly power. If they have McKay... McKay's an ass, but he's a brilliant ass. And they're telepathic."

The scientists on board the ship might be lunch for the Wraith, but McKay would be a gold mine of information if they interrogated him before they fed off of him. John had known that before he had even decided that he wanted Rodney on his off-world team; he'd been sure enough of his own ability to protect McKay (and Teyla's and Ford's) that he'd convinced Elizabeth that the risk outweighed the reward. That didn't change the fact that Rodney in the hands of the Wraith was arguably the worst possible thing that could happen to Atlantis and, by extension, became a big problem for Earth.

"You know we're not prepared to take on the Wraith, too," O'Neill went on. "We've got enough trouble already in this galaxy with the Ori. And the Goa'uld haven't gotten the memo that they've been replaced as Scariest Bad Guys."

"What do you want me to do, sir?" John asked with a sigh. He'd known when the SGC had acquiesced to his request to transfer back to the regular Air Force that they'd find a way to recall him. And he knew, even if he wasn't prepared to admit it, that he wouldn't fight the recall even if he could. How could he leave people he lived with -- lived for -- in the hands of the Wraith? The SGC honchos had known how he felt, so they'd let him have a length of leash with the confidence that they could yank him back when needed. "I don't have anything more to offer than I did four months ago. And it wasn't enough then."

O'Neill rolled his eyes. "You not getting the job had nothing to do with whether you were qualified to do it," he said. "You know that. It had everything to do with the fact that Steven Caldwell wanted it and he was qualified to do it, too. And he has far more friends than you do. Not to mention a record that doesn't give commanders heartburn."

John remembered Elizabeth coming to him, tears in her eyes. They'd made her an offer: she could have everything she wanted for Atlantis -- the personnel, the equipment, the budget -- if she accepted Caldwell as her military commander. If she kept him instead, as she'd wanted, then she'd get nothing. It was not a choice and while he was grateful to Elizabeth for trying to make it one, he'd known better.

O'Neill stood and John rose as well. The room had cooled enough that the blast of cold air on his face was an annoyance instead of a relief.

"We need Atlantis safe, we need the Daedalus back before it can be used against us, and we need our people back," O'Neill said. "And I need whatever you can give to get me those things."

John met O'Neill's gaze; it was the kind of confident, demanding look that the best commanders gave their subordinates, the kind of look that inspired men to try harder because you never wanted to see disappointment in those eyes. John didn't think he had it yet, didn't know if he ever would. O'Neill did and he felt himself standing a little straighter for it.

"This isn't about second chances. For you or for us," O'Neill said, reaching into his pocket to hand him a flash drive. "I'll be in touch."

John accepted the tiny drive and watched as O'Neill stepped away from him, tapping something on his chest. "One to beam up, Scotty."

There was a bright flash and rings that he knew were teleportation-related only because Rodney had babbled on about the Daedalus not needing them and O'Neill was gone, presumably on board the Prometheus.

John looked at the flash drive in his hand, then went over to the small lockbox he kept hidden away. He'd look at it later. He had a mission to focus on, at least one FRAGO sitting on his desk by now, and a whole lot to think about that didn't involve Wraith, missing friends, or a galaxy he'd left behind.

"One war at a time."

September 2005

"What is this?" John asked, gesturing toward the makeshift piggy bank Bagley and Ringler had carried over to his desk with great ceremony. It had once been a water tank, vaguely reminiscent of the plastic kind that was used in office water coolers, but bigger, dry, and full of pogs. And on top of his paperwork (which he didn't mind) and his Twizzlers (which he sort of did).

Airman First Class Bagley hid a smile. "It's our fundraiser, sir."

John cocked an eyebrow. "This isn't the result of you shaking down Captain Bonaventura for running a ponzi scheme, is it?"

Senior Airman Ringler giggled like a girl. Which was still disconcerting after four months of sharing an office because Senior Airman Ringler was six-foot-five and most definitely not a girl.

"With all due respect, sir," Bonaventura called out from where he was updating the area and action maps with appropriately-colored pins, "I told you it was an opportunity involving Nigerian bank managers looking for help transferring money to offshore accounts. And you promised not to say anything."
"I didn't think you'd cut me in," John called back, then looked up at Ringler. "So if this isn't from an extortion racket, then what is the cause of our sudden largesse?"

Ringler was still a little giggly. "We started up a fundraiser so we could get rid of our pogs before we get out of here, sir. We're going to use it to buy soccer balls and stuff for the kids."

The pogs would still be good at the PX at Kadena, but it was a nice gesture. The dismounted patrols were always looking for candy and toys to give out to the kids who swarmed wherever they went. John wondered if he'd been asked to approve the fundraiser and didn't remember or if Breibauer had simply taken care of it on his own.

"Looks like a good haul," he said approvingly. The pogs in the clear blue tank were of various denominations and designs and, even allowing for nickels and dimes among the quarters, it was probably a decent amount of cash. "Are we selling them on eBay or giving them directly to AAFES?"

"You're really killing all of my ideas today, aren't you, sir?" Bonaventura asked with feigned annoyance as he stepped back to admire his handiwork. Their handiwork, because the maps were a testament to the work they (a collective they including everyone at the base) had done. It wasn't awesome -- they just didn't have the resources or the authority to do more than reduce the febrile chaos down a notch or two in some places -- but it was still pretty damned good considering what they had and where they were.

"Isn't 'buzzkill' part of my job description?" John asked, then turned back to Ringler and Bagley. "You're just showing me this so that I can congratulate you, right? I'm not expected to count it?"

He'd gotten the reputation of being a good guy (for a pilot and a commander), but there was no way in hell that he was spending what little spare time he had counting out change in pogs. Not when he had five emails from the SGC to answer -- it could be more by now; he hadn't checked since before dinner.

"No sir," Bagley assured. "We're taking care of it and then getting Master Sergeant Chang to validate our total."

In the three weeks since O'Neill had stopped by to chat, he'd gotten several updates daily via encrypted email. The SGC was planning another trip to the Pegasus galaxy with the Prometheus -- the Daedalus's successor, the Odyssey, would not be ready in time -- and it seemed like he was going to be on board when it left.

"Good," he told the waiting airmen. "So you can get it off my desk before you completely flatten my licorice."

The men complied.

"It's a good thing you've done here, boys," he said before they took it away. "It speaks well of our unit. And all that other nice stuff I'll end up saying later when I give the big 'I'm Proud of Everyone' speech when we get to Kuwait."

"Thank you sir," Ringler said.

He slouched down to get into his pocket. He had a $10 bill from dinner, when he collected on a bet he'd won with the commander of the infantry unit with which they had worked most often. He'd known that the injury-prone Heisman finalist out of Texas A&M would still be injury-prone once he got to Green Bay. He pulled it out and stood up to tuck it in to the jar. "See if they have any footballs," he told them.

"Yes, sir."

Bagley and Ringler disappeared and John picked up his limp candy and looked at it mournfully.

"That shit's not real licorice, sir," Bonaventura offered from his own desk. Bonaventura's wife sent him jelly beans, which he kept hidden because they were the good kind. John routinely pulled rank to get a handful. "You can get the real stuff off of the Norwegians."

John made a face. "I don't want the real stuff," he replied. The Athosians had traded for the Pegasus equivalent, a tarry substance they prized and gave as gifts. He might never want the real stuff again. "And every time I try to trade with the Norwegians, they always want things I don't have in return."

"That's because you always offer them helicopter parts, sir," Bonaventura replied. "They don't have helicopters. At least not here. That's why they're always bumming rides."

"You could have mentioned that four months ago," he said with exaggerated frustration and a knowing look at the sergeant at the radios. Bonaventura knew that he knew that the Norwegians didn't have helicopters in Iraq, just as John knew that the enviably virtuous Bonaventura was no candidate to be running scams. But it made the time pass faster and it made the airmen laugh and Bonaventura understood that.

"I'll be sure to pass that information on to Colonel Mitros." Mitros was the commander of the unit replacing theirs. His headquarters staff had been shadowing John's in preparation for the transition, but thankfully they were off on some orientation thing tonight.

He finished up his paperwork and made sure Bonaventura was set to run the show before he left for the night. They had nothing going on for the first night in a week (the maintenance crews were ready to keel over from exhaustion and had long since drafted everyone from unsuspecting fobbits to flight crews and pilots to help fetch and carry) and John wondered if they'd seen the last action they were going to face on this deployment. They hadn't been moved out of their housing yet, so maybe not.

It was close to 2200 by the time he got back to his room; he turned on his AC and pulled off his boots and stripped down, waiting to cool down before putting on the PT gear that doubled as PJs. The AC was starting to die -- too much talcum dust sucked in -- and instead of "arctic," it only achieved "pretty cold" these days and that only most of the time. His laptop was faring better, unlike most, and he plugged in the flash drive with the day's emails in it.

The SGC's plans were all unfolding as he'd imagined they would and he couldn't help but feel a little awed and a lot like a very tiny pawn on the chessboard. He had spent his time in Atlantis doing his damnedest to prove his worth and nearly died in pursuit of that cause. But when it came time to review, instead of acknowledging that he wasn't the fuck-up who'd barely escaped court martial (he'd been in the Air Force too long to wish for actual reward), they'd gone about tearing him down the rest of the way. They'd questioned his decisions, his judgment, and his honor, then asked that he swallow his pride and accept the command of SG-1 as a consolation prize for doing the job they wanted but not being the person they wanted doing it. But now Caldwell was missing and suddenly he was not trash anymore.

Whether he was suddenly valuable or not, the SGC was still hedging its bets on him. They were giving him his old job but not with the official title, presumably in case they found Caldwell and he was in any shape to take command. The current acting commander was Radner, a captain who'd come through the wormhole with Everett and stayed on to mind the store while the bosses had gone home for a visit. The irony that Radner had found himself in a position similar to John's own had not escaped his notice. He figured he'd make Radner his XO -- it was the least he could do to acknowledge the job Radner had done essentially running Atlantis since March. The SGC hadn't had the opportunity to replace Elizabeth and, by leaving Radner in charge, had in fact tacitly militarized the expedition. John knew that it hadn't been the SGC's plan to finally wrest control of Atlantis from civilian hands and then drop them into his own, but so far there hadn't been any word of a new civilian leader to share authority.

Tonight's batch of emails confirmed what had only been vaguely assumed before: he would be separated from his squadron as soon as they were officially replaced and he would be transferred back to the Stargate program. The Prometheus was almost loaded and ready to go and they wanted to beam him directly from Iraq to the SGC. John spent an hour and a half composing an email explaining why that would be a very bad idea and that he'd rather take a few days to fly back like someone who didn't know that there was a spaceship in geosynchronous orbit. First, going as far as Kuwait with his unit would give him a chance to properly thank and congratulate them on a mission accomplished and a job well done and it would make this assignment feel less like a marriage of convenience. He didn't want his men (and women) thinking that he'd only been with them because he'd had nothing to do between covert assignments. Second, he'd need the time it would take to fly back to Colorado to shift mental gears. This would be no easier a transition on the way back in than it had been on the way out.

Regardless of how his body would travel, his head was already seemingly en route somewhere between here and there; he'd had to constantly remind himself to pay attention and keep his focus and he was grateful that the distraction hadn't affected anything thus far. He didn't want to leave and yet he couldn't wait to go and it didn't matter that he knew that the SGC saw him as nothing more than a key to a lock. That's how he'd gotten to Atlantis the first time and look at what had happened.

October 2005

"Nervous, sir?"

John looked over at where Captain Polito was watching him with a wry grin on his face. He was about to say no, but realized that the pacing back and forth outside the ring room probably had already answered the question. "Antsy," he said instead. "It's like being in an elevator for three weeks."

Polito smiled; the marines were used to taking boats everywhere and they were handling the three-week voyage just fine.

Prometheus had been in the Pegasus galaxy for six days and had been close enough to discuss debarkation procedures with Atlantis since the morning. Pendergast, the ship's captain, had told him that they could expect to be close enough to beam down by 2300. It was 2230 and there had been no corrections to that estimate. John and Polito, the commander of the company of marines accompanying him, had already organized the debarkation. Marines were like Lego -- easy to stack and move from place to place -- so that had taken all of five minutes' discussion with the platoon commanders and senior NCOs. The rest was going to be handled by the Prometheus crew, which meant John had nothing to do unless he wanted to go up to the bridge and get underfoot.

Polito had apparently been irritating the airmen in the transport room with his questions, so the officer in charge had been a little happier to see John than might've otherwise been the case. The marines had mastered being underfoot for the entire voyage; Pendergast had been accommodating, but it was still like having a hundred puppies loose in the house.

Matt was a good guy from what little John could get out of him, very quiet and intelligent and determined to be extremely involved in anything that pertained to the welfare of his marines. He was also, John suspected, still affected by what could be called survivor's guilt -- he and his marines were supposed to have been on board Daedalus when she left, but he'd needed to take emergency leave right before the departure and Charlie Company's storage and berthing had been given over to Science. John knew that Polito's father's death hadn't been the real reason Charlie Company had gotten bounced, or at least not all of it -- from what he'd gathered, it sounded like Rodney had simply taken advantage of the situation to flex his muscles in front of Caldwell -- and he'd hinted as much to Polito, but it was cold comfort.
"Must be like going home for you, sir," Polito offered.

"In a way," he admitted. He had to keep telling himself that he was imagining the hum of Ancient technology, that he was nowhere near close enough to feel Atlantis herself calling to him. "It was the closest place to home I've had in a while."

Polito, like everyone in his company, was new to the Stargate program and hadn't even been though a wormhole yet. And so, belatedly, John realized that he wasn't the only one nervous.

"It's not that different from Earth most of the time," he said, stopping in front of some boxes and sitting down. "Windows, stairs, fluorescent lighting, houseplants that nobody remembers to water. The rest... you eventually get used to it. At least in Atlantis. The rest of the galaxy's pretty much one long surprise party."

The anticipation had grown closer to hunger as the days had passed since their departure. He knew the task he faced was massive, that the odds of success were somewhere between slim, none, and too-late-to-make-a-difference. And it didn't matter, at least not right now.

"Does Atlantis tell you when you're going the wrong way, sir?" Polito's grin turned self-effacing. "I've been looking over the schematics for weeks and I'm not sure I shouldn't be running land nav sessions in the hallway instead of outside."

John laughed. "We have life signs detectors to track down the missing."

It was already 'we', at least when he wasn't careful enough to stop himself. Polito missed it, however, not sure whether his CO was joking about the life signs detectors.

"Gentlemen," a voice from down the corridor said. "Here I thought you'd be on the bridge, noses pressed up against the viewscreen."

John stood up and Polito, who'd been leaning against a wall, stood straight. "Sir," they greeted General Hammond almost in unison.

Hammond waved them off. "I've told you that's not required," he said. Hammond had been named as the interim civilian leader of Atlantis, but a retired general was still a retired general and Hammond deserved the honor.

"Why aren't you on the bridge, sir?" John asked.

"We're fifteen minutes out," Hammond replied with a smile. "Thought I'd presume and crash your welcome back party."

The first trip was supposed to be just him and Polito (and now Hammond), with the people, supplies, and munitions coming later under the direction of Sergeant Major Fowler once a scheme had been set up in Atlantis to deal with them.

"Not presumptuous at all, sir," John said. He'd only really met Hammond -- the real one, not the imagined one he'd seen in his nightmares on the fog people planet -- during their time together on the Prometheus, but he was fast coming to understand why O'Neill had told him that he couldn't ask for a better friend in the position.

The next fifteen minutes were spent edging their way into the ring room and then trying to stay out of the way. The crew was very busy, plus airmen were beginning to stack pallets of cargo for easy transport down to the surface.

"Bridge to Ring Room," a female voice sounded over the intercom. "We have received confirmation and coordinates from Atlantis. You have a go to begin transport."

John looked over at Polito, who was eyeing at the platform skeptically. "They're not going to teleport us into a wall or something. Right, sir?"

"No, Captain," Hammond assured with a smile. "I suspect we'll end up right in front of the stargate."

It felt strange to be the old hand.

"Ready sirs," the technician announced, gesturing for them to get on the platform.

John closed his eyes as the rings fell into place. He knew before he opened them that he was exactly where he was supposed to be. The rush of energy from Atlantis nearly made him stumble. And definitely made Radek Zelenka curse, a tumble of Czech as he watched the readings on the tablet in his hand.

"What did you expect?" Yoni Safir asked him with a sour tone. "Like an addict getting a hit."

"Welcome to Atlantis, sirs," Radner said, saluting. "We're glad you're here."

"Glad to be here," John answered when he realized that Hammond, like Polito, was distracted by the scene around them. John allowed himself a quick look around. It was exactly as he'd remembered from the last glimpse before he'd stepped through the wormhole back to Earth. The railing on the concourse had been full of people then, too.

After introductions and explanations and subdued greetings from those John had left behind -- he looked around for Teyla, but she was not there -- Radner led them up the stairs. John didn't think Radner would be using Elizabeth's office and he wasn't; he was using the office that had been chosen by Sumner and never occupied after. Radner stopped there en route to the conference room so that he could pick up his laptop. John wondered if it had once been his.

"I'll clear out of your office by the end of today, sir," Radner promised as they continued on to the conference room.

"Not necessary, Captain," John replied with a grin. "I wasn't using it before and have no real desire to start doing so now."

He hadn't really spent a lot of non-crisis time with Radner before he'd left -- after the siege had ended, they had all been occupied by the cleanup and securing the city. Radner had assured John that he'd keep the status quo as best he could until John returned aboard the Daedalus with reinforcements and John thanked him for it, fairly certain that he wasn't coming back. But now he was back and he had to make sure that Radner didn't feel disposable, that he didn't feel like John had felt -- the placeholder for the one who is supposed to be there.

Polito was guided to the control room by Stackhouse so that he could coordinate with SgtMaj Fowler to assure the orderly arrival of his marines and their gear. (Fowler had made it very clear that he didn't want any officers anywhere near the debarking process; Polito's 'coordinating' was going to go as far as doing what Fowler told him to do.) The rest of them got settled in the small conference room.

John felt a little out of sorts as he sat down in his familiar seat closest to the door and looked around. It was a perverse mockery of the old Tuesday morning command meetings but with Radner, Hammond, Zelenka, and Safir standing in for himself, Elizabeth, Rodney, and Carson. He could close his eyes and the last six months would disappear; he'd hear Rodney bitching to Elizabeth about something unimportant, smell Carson's tea, and taste the spice cookies Elizabeth always put out because one of their trade partners always threw in an extra six dozen. Even with Atlantis's patter a distracting tingle in the back of his mind, John felt disassociated and disoriented. He wasn't supposed to be here -- he should have either disappeared with the rest of the Daedalus's passengers or he should be back on Earth, getting settled in an apartment on Okinawa. Instead he had returned, like a Ghost of Christmas Past charged with warning his successors to learn from his experience.

Radner skipped over the material they all knew and went straight to that which mattered now that they were in Atlantis. Which started with an update on the search for the Daedalus and/or her crew and passengers.

"With the arrival of Prometheus back in July, we were able to confirm what Daedalus's path to Atlantis should have been," Radner said, gesturing with his head toward Zelenka. "Between the charted course she took on her first voyage and her proposed course this time--"

"They wouldn't be the same?" Hammond asked.

"Daedalus was powered mostly by ZPM on her initial voyage," Zelenka replied. "Her increased velocity and shield capabilities allowed for her to take the most direct route from Earth to Atlantis. Without the ZPM, the return trip along the same path took four weeks instead of four days. With the help of the SGC, we were able to plot a course that should have taken ten days off of that time. It is the path that the Prometheus took, albeit at a slower speed than the Daedalus could achieve."

"Now that the Prometheus has made a successful trip along the same route that the Daedalus should have taken," Radner continued, "we can adjust our list of planets left to check as well as use Prometheus to reach those too hard to get to by puddle jumper."

Atlantis had been searching since a week after the Daedalus should have arrived. They'd started with the stargates most directly on the route, in case the ship had dropped out of hyperspace, first searching from space in case she was adrift and then scanning the planets in case the ship and landed, crash or otherwise.

"How long is the list of planets left to check?" Hammond asked.

"And how many of them do you think are actually where they're supposed to be?" John added. He knew full well that just because the database said that there should be a planet with a certain gate address, it didn't necessarily mean that there was a planet at a certain gate address. Or that the gate wasn't in orbit over the planet. Or that the gate would work. The Ancients' astronomy had been something between suspect and outright comedy at times. Rodney had initially tried to blame the translations or planetary drift or both, but he'd finally been forced to admit that the Ancients made mistakes and were capable of sloppiness and errors just like anyone else.

"We've only got two left on our initial list, sir," Radner answered. "As for where to check if those don't pan out, Science is still working on that."

Zelenka made a rueful face, like this was an old discussion he'd yet to come out on top of. Probably was. "Taking into account the fact that the database has known inaccuracies and we have been estimating the path of the Daedalus," he began, typing on his laptop. "We have been doing fairly well as far as our margin of error has gone."

The projector mounted on the ceiling whirred to life and a map of the Pegasus galaxy appeared on the blank wall opposite them.

"This is the galaxy as a whole," Zelenka explained. The image changed to another star map. "And this is the portion of the galaxy that is between Atlantis--" a blue dot on the left edge of the screen "-- and the edge of Pegasus closest to the Milky Way." A tiny green arrow with EARTH printed on top of it was on the right edge.

"This is the path that Prometheus took to get here -- and that the Daedalus should have taken," Zelenka went on as a purple line moved from right to left. "And these are the planets we have put on our 'short' list."

A bunch of dots, all near the purple line, started to pulse. "There are twenty-three. Fourteen have stargates, another three are within jumper distance of a stargate."

"How far is 'jumper distance?'" John asked warily. He'd made some epic trips in his time here, but mostly they'd been emergencies -- the jumpers were easy to fly and comfortable, but there weren't exactly rest areas along the way for a quick leg stretch and a Big Mac.

"Six hours without a break, sir," Radner answered. "We've got only one actual trained pilot and he's got other duties, so we try to pair up the best of the rest and they can switch off."

"How's that going?" John asked. All but one of the pilots who'd come through with Everett had gone back home; the Daedalus had been carrying five Air Force pilots to fill out the ranks. In the first year, John had trained a few people, but Beckett was among the missing, Markham was long-dead, and he didn't remember if Miller had been among those who'd returned to Earth.

"No accidents," Safir replied with a shrug. "So far."

It was interesting to see Radner, Zelenka, and Safir in action. During John's time in the city, Radner hadn't been here, Safir had held no position of authority, and Zelenka had been Rodney's sometimes shadow but nothing more. Safir had taken part in the city defense during the siege because of his past military experience, Radner had led marine teams, and Zelenka had been building bombs in the basement. That was how John remembered them, but six months of leading a decimated outpost through repairs and everything that had happened since and they were almost different men, changed by having to do much more than the not-so-simple caretaking they'd been tasked to oversee. They were comfortable in their roles now, comfortable with each other, and John felt a renewed sense of not belonging here anymore.

"What happens after this list is run through?" Hammond asked and John sat forward, as if he could escape his thoughts by physical action. "While we'd all love for the Daedalus's disappearance to merely be an extended absence caused by mechanical trouble, the fact is that we have to be prepared for something less benign."

Radner took a deep breath and let it out slowly, nodding. "We've been gathering HUMINT since the start, sir," he said. "Most of it's RUMINT, honestly, and while it has produced actionable intelligence, we've been acting on it more out of hope than out of belief that it's high-quality. That said, we've re-prioritized our resources so that we're only responding to intel pertaining to people -- news or sightings of anyone who could possibly have been aboard Daedalus -- and not those reports related to the ship itself."

"Which doesn't improve the quality overmuch," Safir added sourly. "The typical Pegasus resident isn't able to distinguish between a Wraith vessel and one of ours, but this galaxy is never short of refugees, either."

"Which doesn't mean that we're not listening when people talk," Radner said quickly. "Teyla Emmagan, aided by Staff Sergeant Stackhouse, whom you met briefly earlier, has been invaluable collecting intelligence on many fronts. Staff Sergeant Stackhouse led the Atlantis equivalent of SG-2 last year and has been leading most of our off-world missions since Colonel Sheppard's departure."

"Where is Teyla?" John asked.

He'd gotten the impression from the reports that he'd read that she'd had become something of a central figure in the command element's absence. It was unofficial, of course, because the SGC was not prepared to even entertain the notion of an alien in a position of authority over the Atlantis expedition. But John knew what both he and Elizabeth had told Radner and the others left in temporary command and if Radner had needed to be encouraged to trust Teyla, Zelenka and Safir would have done so on their own. Teyla wasn't qualified for or interested in running the base, but from the summaries of what had gone on in Pegasus, she had certainly assumed considerable responsibilities. Which was why John was wondering why she wasn't here -- apart from his own hoping that she'd be happy to see him.

"Food run," Safir answered. "She is better at negotiating for us than you ever were. She doesn't offer our high explosives for grain."

"It was beans."

"For an atomic bomb," Zelenka countered.

"When's Teyla coming back?" John asked Radner.

Radner bit his lip to hide a smile as he looked at his watch. "She's scheduled back at 1800 Atlantis Standard, sir," he said. "She wanted to be here for your arrival, but the time differences between here and Gathagos were too great."

"I'm sure we'll have time to catch up later," John replied. He felt a surge of something -- relief? anticipation? -- and tamped it down. "What can you tell us about what she's found?"

Radner nodded to Zelenka, who tapped some keys on his laptop. The map from earlier zoomed in and the purple line tracing the path from Earth to Atlantis was re-drawn, thicker and taking up more of the screen.

"As best as we've been able to estimate from Teyla's intelligence, sir," Radner said, "this is the path of recent Wraith cullings in that part of the galaxy in the days and weeks leading up to when Daedalus should have been traveling through it."

Red dots were linked by a red line in the middle part of the upper left quadrant. The line moved to the right, not quite on an intercept with the purple path of the Earth ships, but suspiciously close considering the size of the galaxy.

"What kind of populations were on those planets?" John asked, following the path of Wraith cullings with his finger.

"Not worth the effort," Safir replied. "They had all been culled almost to the point of extinction even before these last raids."

"So the Wraith hanging around is kind of fishy," he said, leaning back in his seat in resignation. Because coincidence wasn't a concept that existed in Pegasus. "Did they continue after the Daedalus went missing?"

"No." Safir dropped his hands to the table. "We've timed the last culling we've been able to get data on to two days before the Daedalus should have reached Pegasus."

John looked back at the wall, to the red line terminating in a pulsing red dot very close to the purple line.

"They knew Daedalus was coming?" Hammond looked surprised.

"It does seem that way, sir," Radner replied with a grimace. "Whether we're reading into the situation or whether the Wraith actually were planning an ambush, we can't yet tell."

"How would they know that the ship was on its way?" Hammond asked before John could. "Do they even know from which direction it would be traveling? Could they have just found it by 'happy' accident?"

"Not likely, sir." Radner looked over at Zelenka. "Doc?"

"The differences in technology between the Asgard and Wraith would have necessitated that the Daedalus be out of hyperspace in order to be sensed by the Wraith, which puts us back at assuming mechanical trouble," Zelenka said without looking up from the laptop as he typed. "Wraith hyperdrives require relatively short jumps into and out of hyperspace, but Asgard hyperdrives and their derivatives allow for a continuous trip."

Images from the Wraith approach to Atlantis before the siege appeared. They were different from what had appeared on the gate room consoles as they'd watched in horror, but John remembered them well.

"Daedalus would not have been sensed by the Wraith -- or anyone else, including us -- if she were in hyperspace," Zelenka said, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "She would not have dropped out unless there was a problem that couldn't have been corrected otherwise."

"What sort of problems would those be?" John asked, because he didn't know the first thing about spacecraft that weren't puddle jumpers. However, he did know that one Hive ship could take the Daedalus pretty easily if she were disabled.

"Almost anything," Hammond replied, nodding slowly as if he'd had his own ideas confirmed. "Daedalus is a much fancier ship, but there weren't many repairs we could run on Prometheus without dropping out of hyperspace."

"Daedalus is in many ways even more vulnerable than Prometheus," Zelenka added. "Both to requiring a drop out of hyperspace and complications once out. With advances in design and increased weapons and shield capacity, there are additional systems and layers of subroutines that are linked into Daedalus's operating system that do not exist in any form on Prometheus. The coding is much more streamlined in the Daedalus's OS, which allows it to do more in the same number of lines, but the tradeoff is the greater risk of a domino effect when things go wrong. There are redundancies, but--"

"But the bottom line is that the Daedalus could have dropped out of hyperspace for any of a dozen reasons, sir," Radner cut him off. Zelenka frowned, but said nothing. "And the exact reason is, for the time being, largely irrelevant. The very idea that the Daedalus dropped out of hyperspace at all is still unsupported speculation." He held up his hands to forestall a protest from Zelenka. "I'm not denying that it's still our best guess about what might have happened. But it's still a guess and I'd rather not get so focused on that so that we end up missing what might have really happened and lose our chance to get our people and our ship back."

Zelenka leaned back, not mollified but not protesting, either.

"Do we know how much the Wraith know about our technology?" Hammond asked. John realized that Hammond had been taking notes the entire time, flipping back and forth on a yellow legal pad. John hoped it didn't reflect badly on him that he hadn't brought so much as a pen with him. "Doctor Zelenka, you spoke earlier about Wraith hyperdrives and their need to make many jumps. I know you timed the Hive ships' jumps when they were en route to Atlantis back in March. Is there any chance that the Wraith have done the same thing here? If they think we need to jump in and out of hyperspace..."

"Ano, ano," Zelenka muttered, nodding. He typed again on his laptop and a graphic came up on the wall. It was the first star map from before, with Atlantis on the left, but now with regularly spaced yellow points connected by a line extending out to the right. The Wraith hunting ground near the edge of the galaxy was delineated by white dotted lines. There were no yellow points inside the box. "Working back from Atlantis, which is as logical a starting point as any, a ship with a Wraith hyperdrive would have bypassed the area entirely. And not by a near distance, either."

"Are we assuming too much by taking for granted that the Wraith know which direction we're coming from?" John asked. "They know there's an Earth and they know there's a Milky Way, but would they know where it is?"

The Wraith knew about Earth from Sumner's interrogation; how much he'd known or understood and how much the Wraith had been able to figure out from that was anyone's guess.

Safir chuckled sourly. "And now you know what we've been arguing about for six months."

"There are valid arguments to be made for either case, sir," Radner said to John after giving Safir a wry look. "They know, they don't know, they somehow figured out a way to track the ship, some other explanation yet to be offered..."

Zelenka looked like he was going to say something but just then one of the doors levered open and a very startled Polito was revealed, still looking at the door as if he wasn't sure how it had opened on its own. And then Polito came back to himself, smiled away his embarrassment, and entered the room. " Prometheus has emptied her holds, sirs," he said, looking at Hammond and John and then looking back at the door. "We've got the marines moving gear and pushing pallets and we'll bring the civilians down once there's some space in the gate room to put them. Colonel Pendergast would like to stand down his crew, but I wasn't sure if you'd want him to head back out with a search party right away."

Hammond pursed lips, then looked at John, who shook his head no. "I don't imagine we'll be starting anything today, Captain. Tell Colonel Pendergast that he's free to do as he will."

"Aye aye, sir," Polito said and disappeared through the re-opened door.

John watched Zelenka and Safir, both of whom had started to fidget as soon as Polito had mentioned new equipment. "Eager for the new toys?"

Zelenka sighed. "We have been waiting seven months for some of these items," he said. "Apart from the people, who cannot be replaced -- and hopefully will not need to be -- most of the equipment that was on the Daedalus was not brought when the Prometheus visited months ago. We have repaired what we could, but..."

"But we have been largely living as we did before the Daedalus showed up the first time," Safir finished, standing up. "Out of resources and short of staff."

John nodded ruefully. A Tuesday rite had been the weekly count of how much less they'd had than the week before. Fewer medicines, fewer tools, fewer bullets, less food. In hindsight, Elizabeth, Carson, Sumner, and whoever had handled the manifest for the Science Division (it hadn't been Rodney) had planned well for an expedition with no immediate ability to resupply, but no plan was perfect and there had been needs, dire and unfillable.

"Why don't we take a break," Hammond suggested, standing up as well. Everyone else rose. "We'll get everything and everyone settled in, then come back to the problem at hand. We've got a big task ahead of us, gentlemen, but we can't do it all at once."

They went out into the hall and toward the control room. Down below, marines -- many faces he knew well, a few he knew less so because they'd come through with Everett and he'd only had a few days of chaos with them -- were making quick work of the pallets of food and boxes of equipment and medication. John watched Safir and Zelenka disappear in separate whirlwinds of radioed commands, emphatic gestures, and curses not in English.

"Here, sir." John turned around to see Radner holding out an earpiece. He must have made a face because Radner laughed. "I know, sir. Believe me, I know."

John put the earpiece on. The movement was automatic -- he had done it in his sleep -- but the feeling wasn't anymore. He'd have to let the skin contact points re-adjust and he'd be fidgeting with it for weeks until they did.

He turned the radio on and found the command channel, which he'd used as his default before. Radner went over to the railing to give Hammond his.

John knew that he didn't have time to be maudlin or nostalgic, but he wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to be doing right now. He knew Atlantis and Atlantis knew him, but things had changed in the time he'd been away and he felt unhappy and lost with the strangeness of what had once been so intimate. He couldn't direct traffic or otherwise contribute to the Great Putting-Away because he wasn't sure where everything went anymore. He felt underfoot and useless, out of step with the pace of the city and its residents. He hadn't realized how much he'd put into this return, how much he'd anticipated it being only a good thing under terrible circumstances, and how badly he'd forgotten that you really can't go home again.

"Would you like to see your new quarters, sir?" Radner asked, reappearing at his side.

John tried not to show the disappointment he felt that someone had obviously moved into the place he'd called his. "Sure," he replied. "Lead on."

He had his ruck with him and the two small boxes of his other personal effects would be among the piles still left down on the stargate platform.

"We found a large residence area when we were cleaning up," Radner began as they headed toward the transporter. John figured that Radner had a million things more important to do than escort him, but it was a nice gesture. "So we moved folks out of the old store rooms."

"Does this mean the people-to-bathroom ratio is a little more reasonable?"

When they'd first come to Atlantis, the priority had been to stay close, stay safe, and stay near the places where they'd needed to be. Even after they'd discovered the transporters, the command element had been quartered for easy access to the control room. As a result of converting conference rooms and storage closets into living quarters, life had been a little dorm-like with the communal bathrooms and whatnot. They'd always intended to move to more comfortable spaces, but there'd never been the time.

"Everyone's got their own head now, sir," Radner replied, grinning when John nearly stumbled in shock as he entered the transporter.

"We've got a couple of floors set aside for the marines," Radner went on, tapping the destination on the transporter map. "Figured everyone'd be happier if they weren't sharing off-duty space with the other species."

They exited a moment later and John gestured for Radner to precede him since, senior officer or not, he didn't know where he was going. The first doors they passed were labeled in neat stencil. One was Safir's and the other would be Polito's and then they turned the corner and there was an unlabeled door and then his, his rank shortened in the Marine Corps style instead of the Air Force's. John wasn't sure if that was meant as compliment or rebuke.

The hall came to an abrupt end a couple of meters down past his doorway with both a giant window and what looked like another transporter entrance.

"We couldn't get it to work," Radner said as John wandered over. He waved his hand at the transporter crystals and, after some ominous noises, the doors opened sluggishly. John turned back to Radner.

"Stackhouse nearly had an aneurysm fighting with that," Radner said, surprise fading into amusement. "Well, you've got your own transporter entrance, then. Rank hath its privileges."

John walked back and opened up the door to his new quarters with a careless handwave. The room was larger and brighter than his old one, although no more regularly shaped. Radner stayed in the doorway.

"You know your way around, sir," Radner said, gesturing behind him. "So I'll let you take care of things. I figured we'd wait until everyone was settled before I pulled people together for your briefing and any change of command procedures you'd like to carry out. Would you like all hands present, just the officers and senior NCOs...." He trailed off, waiting for an answer.

"Honestly, I'd just like to know what's really going on before we start doing the politics thing," John replied. He'd had enough of the proper way to do things back when he'd been on his six-month tour of the rest of the Air Force. "You get the people you need to answer questions and we'll save the establishing-the-pecking-order stuff for later on. If that's just me and you sitting down, that's fine."

"Yes, sir," Radner agreed. He turned to go and John called out to stop him before he did.

"Don't think that just because I'm here that you're not going to be any less overworked and underpaid," he warned. It was as close as he could come to such an assurance as he'd been meaning to make.

"I have no doubt, sir," Radner replied with a smile, but the expression on his face clearly said that he'd been worried about just that. "Thank you, sir."

With that, he left and the door closed silently behind him.

John looked around. The bed had been made with military precision and the entire room was spotless, like it had been prepared for inspection. Probably had been. His old quarters had looked like what they were -- a converted storage room, but this actually looked like a small apartment. He'd investigate later; right now he wanted to get back to the control room and find himself something useful to do. Not looking down, he nearly tripped over a box by the bed, cardboard with "Maj. J. Sheppard/Personal Effects" written on the top in an unfamiliar handwriting. He had a rough recollection of what he'd left behind -- souvenirs, mostly, stuff that wouldn't be allowed to pass through to unsuspecting Earth -- and it wasn't anything that couldn't wait.

He debated changing into the Atlantis uniform -- he was still in his Air Force utility uniform -- but decided against it and instead took the transporter back over to the control tower, nearly colliding as he exited with a couple of marines pushing hand trucks. Staumitz and Laganzo, holdovers from the initial expedition, grinned broadly and welcomed him back before continuing on their way.

The stargate platform was almost emptied by the time John got back to the control room itself. Polito and Radner were hunched over a laptop discussing something involving personnel. Fowler wasn't visible, but he was audible and John figured that Zelenka was probably racing to keep up with double-timing marines ferrying equipment. Hammond was on the catwalk between the control room and Elizabeth's office. Hammond's office now, John supposed as he went over to join him.

"There's a certain irony," Hammond said as John drew close, looking to his left at the still-dark office. "Elizabeth Weir took my place as head of the SGC and now, too soon after, I step in to her shoes here in Atlantis."

With a quiet sigh, Hammond turned to enter the office. John followed, understanding that Hammond wanted a witness, after a fashion, to the fact that he wasn't eager to replace Elizabeth, that he wasn't disrespectful of what she'd done in the job. The lights came on as they entered and John chuffed a quiet laugh. Nothing had been changed, nothing had been moved, and if anyone had been in the room, they had left everything as they'd found it. Elizabeth had kept her office clean and spare and so it remained, accented only by the gifts she'd received from trade partners and allies on other worlds.

"We can find a box to put the decorations in, sir," John said as Hammond's fingers passed over one of the figurines.

"Not really my style," Hammond admitted wryly.

"Not Doctor Weir's, either," John replied with a crooked smile. Most of the stuff here had been given to her by people who visited the city more than once and she wanted them to see that the gifts were appreciated. "The ones she liked were in her quarters."

Now that Atlantis was hidden from the world and nobody would be visiting, there was no reason to keep the stuff lying around, even if Elizabeth returned.

Hammond heaved his ruck onto the desk chair. "How much time do you think you'll need to get set up?" he asked.

John shrugged. "Not long, sir," he replied. They'd already discussed that he planned on leaving Radner (with Fowler's assistance) in charge of day-to-day operations, especially if John was supposed to be running around the galaxy looking for the Daedalus. Radner hadn't had time to go off-world more than a couple of times, so John didn't think there was much of an argument to be made against letting Polito lead the off-world support network. "Everything can either be done in a day or won't be completed for a couple of weeks."

Hammond was about to say something, but then the stargate alarm sounded. "What's that?"

"Incoming wormhole," John replied, looking behind him to see what the control room did. One of the lieutenants who'd come with Everett was standing on the balcony-- Park, Paik, Pahk, one of those -- and he was watching the scene below. One of the techs said something John couldn't hear and the lieutenant replied "Let them in!" and the familiar sounds of the shield dissipating and rifles being readied.

Hammond moved around his desk and John followed him back to the catwalk as the first people came through the stargate. Marines carrying whatever they'd acquired in trade. John looked at his watch and saw that it was almost 1800.

Teyla stepped through into the city a moment later, looking around even as she cocked her head to listen to one of the others speak. She looked up and saw him and smiled and his own smile broadened because Teyla had that effect on people.

"The photos don't do her justice," Hammond said dryly.

"No, sir, they don't," John agreed, still watching Teyla. "Excuse me."

He tried to keep a measured pace as he walked through the control room and toward the stairs, but everyone else was grinning too, so he just gave up and started to jog, taking the steps two at a time.

Teyla was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. She looked him over, eyebrow cocked at the unfamiliar uniform, and took his arms. He reciprocated, leaning down to touch her forehead with his own. They stood a moment and he tried not to think about how she might be all who he had left.

"Hey," he said, surprised at his voice's roughness.

"I am very glad that you are back," she replied, sounding maybe not quite as unaffected as she was pretending to be. "I knew that you would return to us."

There was a meaningful cough behind them and they parted. John scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. "General Hammond, this is Teyla Emmagan. Teyla, this is General Hammond. He's going to be filling in for Elizabeth."

"I'm retired from the general business," Hammond said, holding out his hand. "I'd be honored if you'd call me George."

"George," Teyla repeated, testing out the name. She took his hand and shook it and John knew from the surprised look on Hammond's face that he hadn't expected Teyla to have such a grip. Teyla had been taught hand-shaking and other etiquette matters by the marines, which meant that the odds of her actually calling him "George" instead of "General Hammond" were fairly slim. "I am very pleased to meet you."

"Sir?" John turned to see Sergeant Leary holding a very large bag of what looked to be grain. "Welcome back, sir. Ma'am, where should I bring this?"

Teyla looked to John, but he shrugged. "Life Sciences requested a sample before it was given to the storekeeper," she said. "I believe they fear insects or rot."

"Aye aye, ma'am." Leary turned to go.

"Sergeant, I'd like to accompany you," Hammond said. Leary looked at him wide-eyed. "Get a feel for the place." He turned back to John and Teyla. "If you two will excuse me?"

"Of course," Teyla replied, bowing slightly.

After they left, she turned back to him. "There is much to tell you," she said.

November 2005

"Well, that was entertaining," John said as the wormhole closed behind them. "I kind of liked them better when they weren't so happy to see me."

Staff Sergeants Ortilla, Laganzo, and Gustafson chuckled. John hadn't put together a new team yet, although he was thinking about doing so. Instead, he was rotating through the marine platoons, sometimes taking a platoon leader and sometimes the squad leaders, to better learn about the men he commanded by helping them better learn about the galaxy they were working in.

"It was necessary," Teyla said, voice full of understanding. She'd been bored shitless, too. "The Naltorians were becoming quite suspicious."

As part of her efforts to secure and continue Atlantis's trade routes -- all the more important with the disappearance of the Daedalus and no promise of regular resupply from Earth -- Teyla had been forced to dissemble about the state of Atlantis and its leaders. With Elizabeth and Rodney missing and John back on Earth and Ford... wherever the hell Ford was, Teyla and Radner had come up with plausible excuses why familiar faces were no longer around.

The Pegasus galaxy being what it was, there should not have been much surprise at the disappearances or need to cover for the absences. Courtesy of the Wraith, John knew from personal experience that you could visit a planet in two consecutive months and meet two entirely different leadership groups -- or return to an abandoned world frozen in time from the last culling. But that was the rest of the galaxy and this was Atlantis, where their key selling point was their ability to take on and defeat the Wraith. It was very bad advertising to tell the truth, both in terms of the marketability of their offerings and in their search for allies.

"I know," John agreed. Because he did. Naltor was but one of several visits he'd had to make for the same purpose -- to prove he wasn't dead. "I just wish their 'we're happy to see you hale and hearty' enthusiasm had lasted a little longer before sliding into the usual 'let us talk for four hours about our average rainfall' stuff."

Most of the planets Atlantis dealt with hadn't needed any sort of elaborate ruse because they hadn't asked any questions. The ones John's team had either never visited or only made initial contact with -- Stackhouse's team had handled many of the routine encounters -- had simply accepted that life was no different for Atlantis. Or, in the cases of the least advanced agrarian societies, they didn't see any of the effects of what had transpired because Stackhouse, Meyerhoff, Glynn, and Halling kept showing up just as they always had.

But there were a handful of planets that were either military or technological allies -- Rodney had fixed or built something in exchange for goods or they'd promised support in case of Wraith incursion -- and they necessarily couldn't be told the truth. Those planets, Naltor included, had been fed a steady stream of baloney to avoid having to explain what hadn't even been understood yet.

The 'official' story of what had happened to Atlantis was simple by necessity. Atlantis had been felled by a plague, which meant no visitors and that Elizabeth was too busy to travel off-world. Ford had been driven mad by the disease while John and Rodney were off on extended missions to save their world (which world being left charmingly obscure).

"Thank you gentlemen -- and lady," John said, gesturing up toward Hammond's office. "I'm going to go up and let General Hammond know that we're back and we've secured Naltor's barley crops. I'm sure he's waiting on tenterhooks."

The marines accepted this as a dismissal, Ortilla offering to take his rifle back to the armory, and John turned to Teyla. "You going out again later?"

It was hard to find time to spend with Teyla since his return; they had responsibilities both within and without the city and little time for themselves, let alone for others.

"To the mainland, yes," she replied.

He'd gotten out to the mainland only once since his return, a visit that turned into an impromptu party because if the residents of Atlantis were relieved to see him again, the Athosians and other refugees out there were closer to delighted. It had been a little weird -- he'd been startled by the enthusiasm -- but it had turned out to be a much-needed experience. He'd returned feeling more a part of Pegasus than since he'd departed for Earth and less of a stranger in his own life.

"One of the Dirty Half-Dozen driving you?"

They'd brought six pilots with them when they'd come, replacements for the ones who'd been aboard the Daedalus; a half-dozen young captains who'd been in training for flying F-302s and had been able to acquire the ATA gene through the therapy. They were good kids, eager and cocky, and John hadn't felt as old as he had while teaching them since he'd found himself chatting with the junior airmen in his battalion back in Iraq.

"Yes. I believe it is Captain Atherholt," Teyla said, smiling. Hammond had actually been the one to christen them as such, which meant he'd been the one to explain the reference first to Teyla and then to the pilots, all of whom were too young to get any reference older than Pearl Jam, let alone Lee Marvin.

"Let me know when you're heading off," John said. "Maybe I'll tag along."

Last year, Teyla had spent much of her down time with her people or with John and/or Ford. She hadn't made a lot of friends among the original expedition members outside of the small group she -- and John -- interacted with regularly. But then everyone she'd known best had disappeared and in their absence she had formed personal and professional relationships with people in the city that John either didn't know or didn't know well. She had become her own person within the city dynamic and he didn't want her to feel obligated. And every time he indicated as much, Teyla gave him the look she reserved for Very Stupid Statements.

Like now.

"That would be nice," she said feelingly. "You would be welcomed."

"I'll talk to you later, then," he said, gesturing up to the concourse with his chin. "I should go do my rounds."

"I shall see you later," Teyla agreed.

John jogged up the stairs, heading left toward Radner's office, since he wasn't sure Hammond actually knew where he'd gone, let alone cared about the barley in anything other than abstract 'we have sufficient food stores' ways. Hammond would, however, expect John to be up-to-date on everything else in Atlantis, which was why he stopped at Radner's first.

While the original plan had been for Radner to become John's XO, both John and Hammond had agreed it would be more practical to keep Radner in some sort of city administration capacity since he was the one who knew the place best. The two marine captains thus split up duties largely by 'inside' (Radner) and 'outside' (Polito), although there was crossover and everyone knew they'd have to come up with something a little less ad hoc sooner than later.

"What's the word?" John asked as he entered Radner's office. Through the open side door, he could see some of the staff sergeants tasked to intelligence and administrative duties talking intently with Sergeant Major Fowler, who was the real grease in the engineworks that kept Atlantis's military component functional.

"We dialed Earth while you were out, sir," Radner replied, looking up from his laptop. "They've made contact with Prometheus and expect her back in the Milky Way by the weekend."

After almost three weeks of (fruitless) search missions within Pegasus, they'd thanked Colonel Pendergast and bid Prometheus farewell. They weren't sure whether she would be making the return trip or whether Odyssey would be getting a chance to make the run once she was out of dry dock.

"That's good," John said, since they were still at the point where successful round trips were not taken for granted. "Anything else come out of the databurst?"

The weekly updates had started before John had been separated from the Program; they were viewed alternately as a lifeline and a leash depending on what was being sent from Earth.

"Possibly," Radner said. "The SGC coughed up some of the data Doctor Zelenka'd asked for, so we should be able to generate another search list soon."

While Prometheus had been around, they'd cleared three separate lists of planets to search (and search for). It had netted them a few new trade alliances and had gotten the marines over the worst of their newness to interplanetary operations, but it had also done a number on morale because they weren't finding anything about the fate of the Daedalus. Each list had been put together according to different criteria, so technically they weren't working directly from most likely to least, but it was still disheartening to keep finding nothing, not even space junk or some SGC equipment on the black market. The not knowing was getting to be worse than the not finding.

"I'll be waiting for it," John said. "How's the Big Move going?"

With the arrival of equipment and staff aboard the Prometheus, the civilian side of the operation had the tools to effect long-standing repairs and then natural expansions. The first had been handled as quickly as possible and Zelenka and Safir had been patient up to a point with regards to large-scale non-essential projects, but John knew that they were getting pressure from the IOA to stop recovering and start producing. As part of helping them with that, the relocation of Life Sciences to a more reasonable workspace had been underway since Monday morning, with the hope that everyone would be set up and able to do their thing by the end of next week.

Radner shook his head. "One exploding fuse later, they've discovered that the wiring isn't as sound as they thought it would be," he sighed. "Engineering is hoping to finish that by Thursday, which will probably lead to Life Sciences asking us to work through the weekend. I'm going to tell them no unless the power's not back on by Friday lunch. If it's not, then Zelenka'll probably have them working anyway."

John remembered Zelenka as constantly frazzled and stressed out, which in turn made him frustrating to work with if sometimes entertaining to watch from a distance. But either not being Rodney's chew toy or (more likely) extra time appreciating just how powerless they were in this galaxy had mellowed him out. Zelenka now was both very laid back and very hands-on, aware of what all of his people were doing at any moment, but completely disinclined to interfere unless absolutely required. Safir was more or less the same way, except with far less bonhomie. They were the opposites of their predecessors personality-wise, but not professionally -- everything got done and done right -- and Hammond had pushed for formal recognition from the IOA because of it; that he'd also asked for them both to be named as permanent department heads was not something anyone really discussed.

"Three cheers for benevolent dictatorship," he said, gesturing over his shoulder. "I'm going to go over to Hammond and repeat everything you told me like it was my own. Anything else I need to know for that?"

"Not really, sir," Radner replied with a grin. "If you started talking about materiel, he'd be on to you."

John left and made his way around the concourse to the control room, narrowly avoiding crashing in to Captain Lemert, another one of the Dirty Half Dozen, who was failing to walk and read successfully at the same time.

"You're making our side look bad, Captain," John warned, gesturing with his chin to where the marines on gate room detail were watching.

Hammond's office -- and it was Hammond's office now -- was spartan and bright. There were pictures of his grandkids, a large framed photo of a sunset at Hickam, and a small model of the Prometheus on a stand, but that was it. John knocked on the doorframe and waited for acknowledgment before entering.

"Naltor's backed away from the panic button, sir," he began as Hammond waved him to a seat. "Teyla says that this should help with a few of the other places -- word'll get around."

Hammond closed his pen, setting it down. "We'll hope that it'll circulate to more good places than bad."

"We'll hope," John agreed, since that had been a discussion point -- how long before the Wraith found someone who knew that Atlantis hadn't been destroyed and chose to listen first and eat later? -- but a danger they'd opted to risk. "Apparently we'll be getting a new list of places to check out soon."

Hammond nodded. "I believe it's related to tracking radioactive particles," he said. "'Hyperdrive vapor trails' was how it got dumbed down to me."

John hadn't really had a chance to appreciate Hammond's command style before they'd gotten to Atlantis. It turned out to be a lot of wisdom and insight carefully hidden behind a Texas twang, which in turn occasionally meant that the civilians would underestimate him. ("I've heard better bullshit, son," he'd told the head of the Linguistics unit after a particularly officious briefing. "Come back tomorrow and try again.") Hammond wasn't interested in being Elizabeth, nor was he interested in changing routines unnecessarily just because he wasn't her. John found him easy to work with; the respect came effortlessly all the more so because it was clear that it was returned. Hammond asked the best of everyone, but he also made it clear that he felt the best was within everyone's grasp -- and that made it all the more important to them all to prove him correct.

"It'd be nice if they can pull this off without waiting for whichever ship's making the supply run next month," John said, mostly managing to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

It frustrated all of them that they couldn't get either the Prometheus or Odyssey stationed in Pegasus for a longer stretch. They'd asked for a permanent transfer and hoped for a six-month tour, but had been flatly told that there'd be nothing more than supply runs with the occasional urgent project until at least the Apollo was ready to hit the skies. Which was a fancy way of saying 'forget it' as Apollo was currently just a couple of blueprints and plastic models at Area 51. And a slap in the face considering that a missing spaceship, allegedly their top priority, would best be found by using another spaceship.

"Doctor Zelenka seems to think that some work can be done with long-range sensors," Hammond replied. "I suspect he will be keeping our pilots busy."

"They're underemployed," John said with a shrug. The pilots had been assigned staff positions to give them something to do when not flying -- Fowler had alternated between appalled and eager to have more Air Force officers to corral and/or terrorize -- so they weren't really that bored, but giving them some more missions wouldn't hurt. Would at least shut the marines up for a day or two.

They spent a few more minutes catching up on city doings before John took his leave. Hammond had a full schedule -- he worked long hours every day -- and there were already people hovering on the catwalk waiting for their turn. Hammond was a face-to-face kind of man; he used email but didn't rely on it, which was fine with John.

He headed back to his own office, which was in the military administration/training/storage compound that, lacking any Air Force presence to prevent it, had been nicknamed Little Tripoli by the marines.

His office was possibly even more spartan than Hammond's since John did not have any photographs to put up and Hammond did not have Gunnery Sergeant Washington ruling over the place with an iron fist. Or, as John would tell anyone who'd listen, Hammond had a desk in his office and John had a desk in Washington's office.

Washington had his own office, a sidecar off of John's, but considered the entire space his domain. John's name was on the door, but he merely worked there. However, except for the times when he couldn't find something because he couldn't think enough like a marine, it really wasn't that bad. There was always good coffee.

Washington wasn't around when he got there, but he'd obviously been in recently -- there was a pot of coffee just finishing up and a pile of folders on John's desk. Some would simply be items he had to sign, a few would be ones he had to read and act on. He filled his mug and got to work, leaving his door open for the inevitable stream of visitors.

He got the autographs out of the way first -- skimming things over because, like his airmen back on Team Kadena, the marines were not above hoping to slip a fast one by the CO. The op summaries were next, brief explanations (and more verbose glossings-over) of what the various platoons were getting up to on the other side of wormholes. Most of the missions were still search-related, although an increasing share were about making new friends and finding new technology. As with the civilian side of things, the IOA was starting to pressure John to not spend quite so much time on looking for the Daedalus and her people. Here, at least, John had the support of O'Neill, who was willing to provide top cover for him to continue doing whatever he could. Which was increasingly 'not much.'

They'd continue searching planets and in space, querying anyone they met, and searching markets for anything that could have conceivably come from any wreckage, but John was aware that there was going to come a point where there was nothing more they could do without new evidence and that the IOA's directives would win simply by attrition. It had been more than half a year since the Daedalus went missing and not a single clue existed as to where she'd gone. And he was quite sure that the IOA would have only marginally more use for the wild ideas that had started cropping up in the last month or so than he did. While the Wraith were still everyone's best guess, there'd been some alternate theories proposed, each more unprovable (and more un-disprovable) than the last. Tears in space-time, hyperdrive malfunctions that had left the ship in another galaxy or another dimension or another time (the last of which actually couldn't be discredited because of the time machine in Atlantis's basement), kidnapping by the Asgard (who'd probably have sent word home by now) or another super-advanced species (who would probably not). The Ori, even, but John didn't buy the timing of it. Some of Zelenka's new tests were supposed to rule out the wackier theories, although what qualified as 'too wacky' was a constant question when the life-sucking space vampires were still the prime suspects.

"When you're done with those, sir," Washington said, waiting for John to look up to see the new stack of folders in his hands.

"I ate my broccoli last night, Gunny," John sighed. The amount of paperwork he had to do on this tour of Atlantis was incalculable when compared to what he'd done the first time around. And this was even with staff officers to filter. "There's no need for punitive measures."

Washington smiled wolfishly. "If I were going to punish you, sir, you wouldn't be sitting in a comfortable chair with good coffee and dry boots."

John had his doubts about that, but was wise enough not to share them. Nevertheless, he got through enough so that when Teyla radioed him to ask if he was joining her, he could say yes.

Atherholt was nowhere in sight when John showed up in the jumper bay. Teyla was, however, and she looked smug.

"I told Captain Atherholt that you would fly us to the mainland," she explained, making it sound like it had been a favor to the pilot.

John didn't hide his grin. He so rarely got a chance to fly anymore. "I think I can handle it," he said. "Is it just us?"

"No," Teyla replied. "We are waiting for Doctor Safir and Emit."

John had no idea who Emit was, but found out soon enough when Safir appeared with a medical duffle slung over one shoulder and accompanied by a young boy in a wheelchair pushed by one of the nurses. He vaguely remembered a note in some file or another about one of the jumpers being sent out to the mainland for a medevac the other week.

"He broke his ankle quite badly," Teyla explained as the wheelchair was pushed up the jumper ramp, Safir following. "A 'compound fracture'? The doctors would have liked to have kept him longer, but he was terribly homesick."

They left five minutes later, after Emit had been safely stowed in the rear compartment. Safir stayed with him, leaving John and Teyla the cockpit to themselves. It was almost embarrassing to need the jumper to give directions -- just to double-check, really -- but it was no time before they were cruising at speed toward the mainland.

"I am glad that you are coming," Teyla said after some companionable silence broken only by the quiet chatter of Safir and Emit going through what sounded like a picture book. "I am glad that you are both coming."

If Zelenka had mellowed during his time in command of the Science Division, Safir seemed to have hardened and withdrawn. Yoni'd never been what John would've called social, but it was obvious to everyone that he wasn't happy in Atlantis anymore and he was taking it out -- without restraint -- on anyone who gave him the pretext. John had asked Teyla, since the two of them had always gotten on, and she'd said that she thought he was sticking around out of obligation to Carson and to the city he'd helped lead through very dark times. Radner had obliquely indicated that he thought Yoni would go back to Earth as soon as the Daedalus matter was resolved, one way or the other.

"I'm glad I'm coming, too," John said, since Teyla seemed to want a reply.

It was a gorgeous late afternoon, clear blue skies with the first tint of purple on the horizon as they flew away from the sun. He'd never forgotten how easy it was to fly a jumper, effortless and intuitive in a way that helicopters, with their constant demand for focus and attention, were not. But he'd maybe forgotten -- or willed himself to forget -- how much of a joy it was.

The Athosians were already in party mode by the time they landed; Emit's return had been anticipated. Teyla, too, melted into the embrace of her people, and John found himself surrounded quickly as well. Yoni got about five minutes to explain Emit's care requirements to Charin and Emit's mother before he was swarmed by children; the man who too-frequently reduced adults to shouting or tears was a veritable Pied Piper when it came to kids.

There was a pit with a roast going and endless bowls of this and that; Teyla put up with a good many barbs directed at her lack of culinary competence but was also entreated to sing, which she did.

"How does the work progress?" Halling asked as they sat around the fire to eat; the sun had already set behind the trees and it was growing dark.

"Nothing new," John replied with a shrug, pushing a piece of flatbread around to sop up the sauce on his plate. "We'll start another round soon as Doctor Z tells us where to go."

After Teyla, Halling was the Athosian who spent the most time in the city. He'd formed a solid friendship with Stackhouse, on whose off-world team he was a member, and he'd been part of the searching from the start.

"I pray for them," Halling said, eyes focused on someone on the other side of the fire. He was courting a refugee new to the mainland, Teyla had told John with approval; it had been many years since Jinto's mother had been taken by the Wraith and Teyla seemed relieved at Halling's interest in someone new. At a bad angle with respect to the fire, John couldn't see who he was looking at; all he could see was Safir, a little girl in his lap eating off of his plate with great delight.

It wasn't John's nature to dwell on the absences of the missing on a day-to-day basis; after a few years in the military, you got used to people you'd lived with and for disappearing -- to other assignments, to retirement, to new ranks and responsibilities -- and you formed relationships differently because of it. He missed the people he'd known and feared for their safety, but he did not regularly feel any aching hole made by their absence. He'd been apart from them for months, had transitioned away from Atlantis being his responsibility and his place, and that the people he'd known being gone when he got back had been no more strange than any other trip to a base where he'd been stationed and saw new people in old roles.

Which was not to say that he didn't get a pang of something when other people who'd known them brought them up.

"I hope your prayers are answered," he said. If anyone could help them out, it'd be the Ancients. Of course, that would involve them doing a lot more than they usually did, but he didn't share that part with Halling, who very much believed in the sanctity of the Ancestors.

There was singing and dancing and a lot more food (and drink) and John stayed as late as he could reasonably justify; his radio would work out here, but just because there wasn't an emergency didn't mean that he wasn't needed back in the city. He'd have work waiting for him no matter what time he got back and he'd rather not be up until all hours getting it done.

"Why don't you stay?" John told Teyla once he'd started the process of extricating himself. "I'll make sure Atherholt gets his flight hours in and picks you up tomorrow."

He could see in her expression that she very much wanted to, but also that she thought she should be back in Atlantis tending to her responsibilities there. She'd sacrificed a lot to help Atlantis, she always had, but her efforts and dedication after the siege had been enormous and both John and Hammond had tried to figure out a way to tell her that she could put some of her burden down without making it seem like she'd been anything less than exactly what was needed.

"Be ready at noon," he told her before she could decline the offer. "Don't make me send out the marines as a search party."

"They would not find me," Teyla assured him with easy confidence. "I shall be ready. Thank you."

"You've got enough vacation days banked," he said, then looked around. "Where's Doctor Crankypants?"

Safir was bidding farewell to his small admirers. The two of them trudged back to the jumper in silence. John radioed Atlantis to advise them of their imminent return; those were the last words spoken in the jumper. It wasn't an awkward silence and John was content to enjoy the peace.

He was less content to enjoy the pile of folders Washington (or one of the other staff NCOs) had deposited in a flexible file folder outside the door to his quarters.

December 2005

"Do I want to know, Lieutenant?" John called down the hall as he turned the corner to see a marine platoon approaching, nearly silent because they were in stocking feet with their boots in their hands.

"Possibly not, sir," Lieutenant Gillick replied, making a face. "We've been investigating Pegasus's supply of ginkgo."

John was close enough that he could smell the marines, a stench that was altogether different from the usual odor of leathernecks at play. "Ginkgo," he repeated. "Is that a funny word for 'shit'?"

Because that's more or less what it smelled like. That, or baby puke.

"Might as well be, sir," Gunny Tommasso said sourly. "But it's a fruit tree. Apparently we've got it on Earth, too, but Botany wanted their own local supply."

"As long as they're not planning on slathering themselves with it," John said, taking a step back. "I think not knowing is the best course of action. Go clean up, gentlemen."

Thankfully, the smell didn't linger too much after they'd gone, although he did breathe through his mouth until he got to the stairs anyway.

Captains Polito, Radner, Elgie, and Swinson were waiting in his office when he got there, which would not have been remarkable had this been Wednesday morning, but it was Thursday afternoon. Which meant that instead of John running late to a staff meeting, something had gone wrong. And being that it was Thursday afternoon and not any other time, it was probably something in the databurst, which he hadn't yet had time to skim.

"I'm gathering this doesn't have to do with Gillick's ginkgo hunt," he said as he entered, going to his desk and sitting down. "What hit the fan?"

Elgie, the pilot who'd been tasked as one half of the S-2 office, answered. "They want a hard timetable for restructuring, sir."

"Restructuring what?" John asked, since the 'they' was going to be the IOA and the IOA had a long list of what they wanted rearranged in Atlantis.

"Us, sir," Elgie said. "They want us transformed into a... 'more traditional' element."

John sat there processing the words for a moment. The IOA, he had come to accept, was more interested in getting Atlantis functioning as a highly productive remote research facility than in fighting the Wraith or recovering the Daedalus and her passengers. They had genuinely wanted a good-faith effort put in to the search -- which was why he'd been brought back -- but they were also willing to cut their losses and move on once such an effort had been put forth. It wasn't pro forma, but it wasn't anything that could be confused with 'leave no man behind.'

"Well that's pretty fucking stupid on the face of it," he finally said. Because even without discounting the Daedalus, which John was not yet prepared to do, there was nothing about Atlantis that qualified as fitting traditional parameters. "What did they have in mind?"

"More officers, fewer marines, bigger headquarters, more toys, and fewer bullets, sir," Polito answered sourly.

"They want us to look more like the SGC, sir," Radner elaborated. "Fewer kinetic operations, more emphasis on technology acquisition."

Never mind that it was usually pretty hard to accomplish the latter without resorting to the former in the Milky Way, either.

"They want SG teams?" John asked.

"Yes, sir," Swinson replied. "They want officer-led, Air Force-heavy small units. Because apparently I have more relevant experience for such tasks after having driven a Globemaster than a marine infantry NCO with two Iraq tours under his belt."

"I've seen you destroy unsuspecting marines in the gym, Kate," John pointed out, holding up a hand so that she didn't think he'd missed her point. He waited until he had everyone's attention before speaking again. "Okay, listen. We've known that this was going to come, that there was going to be a point where someone was going to say that we can't keep dedicating such a large percentage of our resources to a wild goose chase and that we have to start remembering that there's a big picture. We've known this. And with no tangible progress on the search for the Daedalus and her people, they've decided that now that time is here."

All they could tell the IOA was where the Daedalus wasn't, which wasn't sufficient here or there.


"Wait," John broke in before Radner could say anything else. "Their job is to tell us what they want out of us. Our job is to best accomplish that without getting our people killed. I'm more inclined to accomplish that by adhering to the spirit of their instructions than the letter."

He paused, letting his words sink in for a moment. He was aware that the people he commanded had varying opinions of him and, especially, of his ability to work with and against their civilian overlords. Everyone in Atlantis knew that he'd been punted out the first time and that he hadn't been given a permanent title this time, either. Two popular theories in Little Tripoli were that (a) he'd be gone as soon as the Daedalus was either found or given up on or (b) he'd do anything and everything -- including sacrificing them -- to make sure the first didn't happen.

"We have to do some restructuring -- we've known that even without the helpful reminders from the suits back home," he went on. "Everything here is a remnant of the temporary transitional authority and reflects the fact that a big chunk of what was supposed to be here never arrived. We've been patching as we go. In the words of our Marine brethren, we have been in a permanent state of expeditionary conditions. The IOA is used to dealing with the Air Force and the Air Force doesn't do 'expeditionary.'"

It bothered him immensely that anyone in Atlantis could think he'd choose himself over the many, that he'd risk lives or careers to get ahead or keep what he had. It was a general assumption in Big Air Force because careerism was a way of life there, but here, where every day was a struggle and everyone had to rely on each other and trust each other, where he'd once proven himself beyond a doubt... You Can't Go Home Again, John Sheppard, and it was time to prove himself all over again.

"There's going to be a lot of politics that we won't be able to influence or understand," he said. "But we can't let that dictate our choices. There's going to be a grace period between this first 'warning order' and when they actually expect us to make choices -- or they start making our choices for us. Come up with something that works before that point and you take away most of their advantage, since all they'll be left with is making change for change's sake. And that's expensive from a galaxy away."

The four captains were watching him carefully; he could see more hope than doubt, but the skepticism was there in all of them.

"How would you like us to do that, sir?" Radner asked.

"I want everyone to have a read-through of what the IOA wants," John began. He'd been thinking about this on-and-off for a while. He'd never really gotten a chance or a choice in shaping Atlantis and while he doubted how much of one he'd get here, he was determined to make sure some distant bureaucrats didn't doom a galaxy. "And then I want everyone to have a concept of what they think this place should look like. Be pragmatic in your assessments -- don't build your dream garrison. Build something lean, mean, flexible, and, most importantly, interservice. Talk to your NCOs, talk to civilians, talk to whomever. Even the lieutenants -- they're the ones who're going to be screwed around most by whatever ends up happening. Make sure you address all of the IOA's concerns with the least amount of additional resources. And then we all get together and try to figure out a way to save Atlantis."

Swinson smiled at him, clearly intrigued by the challenge. "How many days do we have for this version of Genesis, sir?"

"God did it in six days," John replied. "I'll give us seven."

After the captains left, John read through the IOA's letters and then went over to Hammond's office to let the Big Man know that he'd possibly started an insurrection.

"Do you know what you're doing, Colonel?" Hammond asked. It wasn't a question meant as a challenge, nor was it a polite way of asking if he'd lost his fucking mind, but it was instead a face-value query.

They'd danced around the matter of restructuring before, many times. But never directly because it had first been too soon and then because doing so would seem like giving up. Now, however, they had no choice.

"Atlantis isn't like anything the IOA has dealt with before, sir," he replied. "You've been here long enough to understand that it's a frontier outpost, not just another remote facility of the SGC. We have poor logistical support, limited local resources, and we're too far away to adequately plead our case or for anyone on Earth to bail us out. We have to put readiness and flexibility ahead of politics and bureaucracy because we don't get many second chances out here. I'm not going to tell you that I'm the best person to plan out what Atlantis should look like operationally or personnel-wise, but I will tell you that I think I'm in a better position to make those decisions than a room full of suits that've never seen a Wraith except in sketches."

Hammond looked at him for a long moment and John fought the urge to look away.

"It's an uphill climb," Hammond said finally. "You're going to be facing off against a lot of people who don't think much of you or your decision-making ability."

John chuffed a laugh. "They can fire me again, then, sir. I'm not afraid of that anymore."

He didn't want to get punted out of Atlantis again, obviously, but if it came down to it, he'd rather go down swinging. He already knew he'd survive the fall.

Hammond shook his head. "Let's try to avoid that, shall we?" he suggested. "If you don't mind, I'd like to see what you -- and your merry band of revolutionaries -- come up with. I've got a fair bit of experience knocking heads with the IOA."

John smiled. "Of course, sir. I'd be very grateful."

By the time he got back to Little Tripoli, there was already a buzz in the air.

"-- why we should bother if they're just going to recall everyone who is useful and fail to return or replace them," Safir said calmly. "They have plenty of options on Earth. Geneticists practically grow on trees. Let them pick one who will sign a non-disclosure agreement."

"Doctor Safir," Hammond sighed. "I'm sure they've considered that already."

"Probably not," Zelenka chimed in. "They believe that there is a critical mass of people who know about the stargate, after which keeping it a secret is impossible. While that is undoubtedly true, the IOA puts that number at under three thousand on a planet of more than six billion. They have always gone to great lengths to recall personnel with skill sets that are easily duplicated rather than find anyone new. We had to send back mechanical engineers from Antarctica to do work that anyone with a decent understanding of fluid dynamics could have handled."

John hid his smirk behind his coffee cup; he felt bad for Hammond, but watching Yoni and Zelenka team up was kind of funny in an unshaven, agitated-in-accented-English way -- at least until Yoni said something really awful. But they weren't wrong.

"I've looked over what they're doing," Safir said. "It's not specialist work and they don't even need a pure geneticist to do it. And even if they did, I'd still say no because it's not our fault that Carson Beckett's missing and so are the people he chose to fill out the genetics unit. The IOA are the ones telling us to stop looking for them in the first place."

Hammond held up his hand as a stop sign. "We'll tell them to look locally," he said. "But let's not antagonize them unnecessarily. We do enough of that anyway."

He could have said 'you' and Yoni wouldn't have had any grounds for protest. Hammond hadn't been joking when he'd wondered aloud to John if Safir wasn't trying to get himself fired so he wouldn't have to quit.

"Now," Hammond went on, "We should--"

John never found out what they should have done, because at that moment the doors opened to reveal a poleaxed Lieutenant Morrison.

"Excuse me, sir?" Morrison began, looking straight at John. "Someone's dialing in to talk to you."

John looked at Hammond, who looked as confused as John felt. "Who?"

They had left radios on a few planets with trusted allies -- really trusted -- and any of them could have been calling in, but in that case it would be an emergency and they'd have been happy enough to talk to whomever.

"Is he there yet?" a familiar voice asked over the control room speakers. "I know he likes to wander around and all, but just radio him and he'll get to a transporter."

Both Zelenka and Safir stood up; John was already standing and didn't know when he'd done that.

"Colonel?" Hammond prompted.

"It's Aiden Ford, sir," John said, eyes still focused past Morrison and on the control room, as if he could see Ford there. "You didn't drop the shield, did you?"

Ford had been classified as a deserter, which meant that he would be arrested and brought back to the SGC for court martial if he so much as set foot in Atlantis. John very much wanted to bring him home, but not like that.

"He hasn't asked us to, sir," Morrison answered. "He's provided his IDC, which is still in the computer, but so far has just asked for you. Well, for Major Sheppard."

"What does he want?" Hammond asked, half to himself.

"Does it matter?" Safir replied.

"How did he get a GDO and a radio?" Hammond asked John, moving around the table to the side closest to the door.

"There was gear missing from the jumper he took," John replied, moving past Hammond and Morrison and out into the control room, tapping his earpiece to switch channels.


"Major!" Ford replied back with happy enthusiasm. "Was getting worried, sir -- hadn't seen you around much since the siege and all."

"Life's been busy," he said. He was aware that everyone else was watching, but he kept his eyes on the engaged stargate.

"Tell me about it," Ford agreed. "How's everyone?"

"Aiden, why are you calling in?" John asked instead of answering. "You weren't too worried about our fates a few months ago."

"Yeah, I'm... I'm sorry about that, sir," Ford said, sounding contrite. John could imagine his expression, even, the genuine regret coupled with the hope that John would forgive him. "It was pretty crappy timing on my part. Very selfish and not at all like a Marine. I'm not proud of that."

"The timing," Safir scoffed from somewhere behind John. "Waving a gun around would have been more appropriate after the Wraith left?"

"What do you want, Ford?" John asked again.

"I have information," Ford replied. "About the Daedalus."

A ripple of surprise through the gate room.

"What do you know about the Daedalus?" John asked.

"That you've been asking around about it for a while, sir," Ford replied. "That the Wraith have it."

Hammond moved up to where John was standing on the little balcony.

"Do you know where?"

"Not yet, sir," Ford replied. "But I know how to find out."

"And what is it going to cost us?" Zelenka asked nobody in particular.

"You offering to tell us?" John asked Ford.

"I'm offering to take you there, sir," Ford corrected.

"Is there a price attached?" John asked, hating that he had to.

"We're on the same side, sir," Ford replied, sounding disappointed. "I really wish you'd realize that. I've been working real hard these last few months -- I think you'll be surprised."

John didn't want to know what he was supposed to be surprised -- and presumably impressed -- by.

"How do you want to handle this, then?" he asked instead.

"M49-LX3, tomorrow at 1400 Atlantis Standard. You and Doctor McKay and Teyla."

John closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "M49-LX3, tomorrow at 1400 Atlantis Standard, me and some marines."

"I'm not setting you up, sir." Ford sounded defensive.

"Do you want me to rattle off all of the things you said and did on your way out of here?"

"No need, sir. I understand. I'll see you tomorrow, sir. I think you'll be impressed."

The wormhole closed.

"What the hell was that?" Zelenka asked. "Are you going to go?"

"Of course he's going to go," Yoni retorted sourly. "The question is what Ford does once he gets there."

Hammond gestured that they should return to the conference room.

"What do you make of this?" he asked once they were all seated again and the doors closed. "Do you think it's possible that Ford has actual intelligence about the Daedalus?"

Still feeling out of sorts from the surprise of it all, John shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "I have no idea, sir. It's possible, sure. We have no idea what he's been up to for the last nine months."

"If he's still addicted to the Wraith enzyme, then he would be following the Wraith, yes?" Zelenka looked uncomfortable. He and Ford hadn't had the greatest of relationships even before Ford had knocked him out to steal the jumper.

"He's still addicted," Yoni assured darkly. "It has an addictive potency that makes heroin look like sugar substitute. Frankly, I'm surprised he's still alive. I would have bet money on either the enzyme killing him or the means to acquire more doing the same."

Yoni and Ford, on the other hand, had had a very good relationship; Ford had been Yoni's pupil in krav maga.

"Even if he has information," Hammond began, "can we trust him?"

"No," Zelenka muttered.

John took a deep breath to buy time to organize his thoughts. "I think so -- under very limited circumstances. He's ultimately like any other addict. Whatever the enzyme did to his brain -- whatever it's still doing -- there's still some of the old Aiden Ford there. What little we saw of him under its influence, he was driven by a need to... prove himself. Especially to me."

That kind of hero worship had been awesome and a little terrifying to be the focus of; it had made John want to prove himself worthy of it and terrified that he'd let Ford down. For it to still be there, but curdled into a dark, demented form... there was a real danger in exposing himself to that again. In Ford's warped thinking, finally proving himself in John's eyes might go right up to killing him.

"He said he'd been working hard," Hammond said. "Do you think he wants to show you whatever it is?"

"Yes, sir. I do," John replied.

"It's a big risk."

There was something in Hammond's tone that made John sure that the other man was quite aware that John was minimizing dangers he knew to be real and not insignificant.

"It's a bigger risk not to follow up on what could be our first solid lead ever, sir," John said. "We've gotten nowhere, the IOA is starting to get fidgety, and if Ford can so much as get us on the right track--"

"Beyond confirming what we already know in that the Wraith are involved," Zelenka cut in.

"It's not an opportunity we can afford to pass up," John finished.

"Which Ford also knows," Yoni added. "And which he might be betting on. He is in the throes of an addiction that has loosed all of his demons and rendered him either unable or unwilling to fight them. A crack addict would steal from his mother's purse; this is orders of magnitude greater in scale."

"You think this is a set-up," Hammond said.

"I think Ford knows that Colonel Sheppard commands a very high price in at least one marketplace that has his commodity of choice to trade in return," Yoni answered.

"Ford wouldn't sell me to the Wraith," John retorted. "He could've sold us all out months ago and he didn't."

John was sure that that part of Ford, the part with his sense of decency and humanity, was still intact.

"He might not have been desperate then," Yoni countered. "He might be able to justify to himself a little betrayal instead of the city as a whole. I don't like assuming the worst about Ford, Colonel, but he's not the man we knew and we don't know how much -- or how -- he's changed."

John wasn't sure he could argue against that successfully, so he didn't.

"I'd still like to go," he told Hammond.

Hammond nodded slowly, reluctantly. "Take a platoon with you," he said. "And make sure they know to shoot first and ask questions later."

There was no point in returning to the actual agenda items, so the meeting broke up. John ignored the curious looks in the gate room as he passed through it and went straight to Radner's office. He was unsurprised to see Polito and Swinson already there.

He didn't really want to rehash everything, plus the captains already knew the story and had heard (about) the conversation, so he stuck to the main points and let them debate who to send along with him. They all agreed with Safir, more or less -- they thought he was walking into a trap -- but there was no big argument about it. They also knew that he was right, that this could be their best way to find out the fate of the Daedalus and save Atlantis from the IOA as a bonus.

Nobody mentioned that if the Wraith really did have the Daedalus, they were most probably on a recovery mission instead of a rescue.

From Radner's office, he made his way to Teyla's.

Teyla didn't so much have an office as she had a place where people could find her or arrange to meet her. It was a comfortable space crowded with plants and flowers and Athosian furniture (low couches covered in beautifully embroidered fabrics, small tables made of dark wood) and the tapestries on the walls that made it feel a lot like a sunnier version of one of the tents on the mainland. The only incongruities were a laptop, a few novels and magazines, and, if you knew to look for them, some books to teach the writing of letters and numbers. Teyla had been learning to read last year, but had more or less mastered the skill by necessity (and lessons from Yoni, among others) in the aftermath of the siege and was now comfortably literate. Her writing skills, however, were far behind, especially as she'd been using the laptop as a teaching aid.

"Ford called in," John said as he dropped down on to one of the low couches.

"I heard," Teyla replied, filling the electric kettle with water from a pitcher. She took out two small wooden boxes, one the awful Athosian tea and one with the local equivalent of chamomile, and carefully spooned contents into two mugs.

"I'm going to see him tomorrow."

"I heard that, too," she said, sitting down on the couch across from him. They were almost close enough together that if he leaned forward and she did as well, their heads would touch. "Why do you think he has reached out after all of this time?"

She knew about the standing orders regarding Ford, given by the generals on Earth, the ones that basically summed up to 'wanted, dead or alive.'

"Safir thinks it's a trap, that Ford's going to sell me to the Wraith."

"I asked what you think," Teyla pointed out, not unkindly.

"I think it doesn't matter why, just what," he said. "If he's got something that can lead us to the Daedalus, then we deal with the devil. It's not like we haven't before."

Teyla sighed and John looked up at her from where he'd been examining his hands. They'd never really talked about Ford, just as they'd never really talked about Rodney or Elizabeth or Carson or any of the others.

"It hurts to think of him in that way," she said quietly. "As someone no longer to be trusted."

He thought of Ford calling him 'Major', of him asking for McKay. Another world, it felt like, so long ago when it had been less than a year.

"I'd like to bring him in," he said. "However many years in the brig they give him, they'll have to clean him up, dry him out. Give him his life back so he can at least live normally when it's all over."

The kettle finished boiling the water, so Teyla got up again to pour.

"I was under the impression that Aiden faced death should he have been apprehended," she said once she sat back down. "That is why I was so thankful that he was not."

"It depends," he told her, not wanting to get into the distinctions between going AWOL and desertion. "The UCMJ's flexible there. Also, there'd be a helluva argument about whether he was able to understand his actions at the time he committed them. With a good lawyer and a forgiving panel, he'd be okay."

At the time, if Ford had endangered the city with his stunt, then John might've happily voted for a firing squad himself. But his ire had cooled over time, at least in part.

"It will be a relief to know what has become of everyone," Teyla said as she returned to the couches, mugs in hand. She gave him the chamomile and he warmed his hands with it rather than set it down on the small table. "Once upon a time, I understood that if someone went missing, if the Wraith took them, then they were gone forever. But now that I know differently, now that I have experienced otherwise, it is much harder to find peace."

John tried to smile sympathetically; he didn't think he did a very good job of it.

"You do not believe that they are alive," Teyla said. It wasn't really a question.

"I hope they are," he said. "I hope that they're alive and safe and we can bring them home. Even if I have to go back with them."

Little Tripoli's brightest minds were still working on a reorganization plan, but while everyone was still writing in his name at the top, John was fully aware that there was a very good chance someone else would take over the 'new' command. Especially since there'd been no mention on any front of removing the 'interim' on his title the way there was for Safir and Zelenka.

"You do not plan to stay here?" There was concern in Teyla's voice, real hurt and disappointment. He'd always got the sense that she'd never really understood how far out of his hands that decision was, that his acquiescence wasn't required to remove him from his position and that he hadn't wanted to or agreed to leave Atlantis and never return.

"If it were up to me, I'd plan to stay here until I retired," he told her firmly. "That's never changed. But it's not up to me and the same people who got rid of me before can do so again -- and most of them want to. All I can do is work as hard as I can and hope that'll be enough this time."

Because it wasn't last time, they both knew.

"I shall hope that they will be wiser this time," Teyla said, sipping at her tea.

John took a gulp of his own because he was well aware that wisdom and experience had nothing to do with it.

Maguire came to see him a little after nine.

"Drew the short straw, Lieutenant?" John asked when the hulking officer filled up his doorway.

"Apparently, sir," Maguire said with a grin as he entered. "Just came by to see if you had any advice for the mission later."

This was John's chance to dictate the tone of he wanted to set. He gestured for Maguire to take a seat. "My plan is to find out what Ford knows about the Daedalus and see if we can't set the stage to bring him in peacefully and through his own volition at some point in the future. I'd like him to at least survive this encounter."

The last part wasn't meant as funny and Maguire, to his credit, didn't smile.

"Ford's been running around for nine months, presumably chasing Wraith, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he not only knows about the Daedalus, but that he's also got some insight into how they've been operating since the siege," John went on. "I don't presume to know what the general opinion is of him below deck, but the Ford I knew and worked with was an intelligent, capable marine and that Ford could give us invaluable intel. About the Wraith and more."

John was well aware that the lieutenants, more so than any of the other marines in Little Tripoli, had the strongest reactions to Ford. Depending on whom you asked, Ford was a victim, a coward, a traitor, overwhelmed by what he'd been through, or not up to the task in the first place. For the lieutenants, he was the ultimate object lesson, although what he'd taught Maguire had yet to be revealed.

"That said," John continued, "I can't guarantee that that's the Ford we'll be going to meet. I want you to be prepared for that possibility, but not wedded to it. I know what the order of the day's been around here, but I'd like for that not to be the driving force behind our actions."

"Understood, sir," Maguire said.

John met his gaze, saw enough to be comfortable that Maguire did understand -- at least as much as he could before the fact, and nodded. "Good. I'll see you in the gate room at 1345."

M49-LX3 turned out to look much like the rest of uninhabited Pegasus -- tall grasses, lots of trees, no immediately discernible water source. The geography was good for an ambush, so the first thing Maguire did was send marines out to look for one. There were a couple of marines with the ATA gene and they'd been given PDAs; nonetheless, John knew they wouldn't be happy until they saw with their own eyes. It was one of the reasons there'd been some back-and-forth about the start time -- John was quite sure that fifteen minutes was enough to let the leathernecks do their thing; either there'd be no ambush or Ford would have people already well-emplaced and an extra half-hour wasn't going to make a difference.

The sweep came back clear, so Maguire left some men in the best overwatch positions -- John wasn't comfortable knowing that there'd be snipers trained on him and Ford, but he knew better than to argue about it -- and they waited.

The stargate activated at 1402; John ignored Maguire's quiet orders and the not-so-distant click-clack of rifles being readied for action. Maguire and a squad of marines -- none of whom had been part of the original detachment -- were a few feet behind him, waiting with tense stillness.

Ford came through the gate with a motley crew of six men. It was startling for a long minute -- in John's memories, Ford wasn't scarred and disfigured, was instead wearing his Atlantis uniform and looking like the happy young man he'd been right up until he hadn't. But the real and current Ford looked slightly sinister with his alien features and unfamiliar dress. He was clothed in regular Pegasus homespun -- blousy shirt crossed with bandoliers, dark trousers -- with his Atlantis-issued boots and other familiar accessories. His companions were similarly done up, but John could tell that they weren't all from the same place -- or at least weren't all buying their clothes on the same market worlds. One of them looked like he might be Genii, even without the surly glare, and another looked like he might be mad with his tattered rags mixed with worn leather and ratty dreadlocks, trailing behind and looking around as if he could see the marines in their hiding places.

Everyone was visibly well-armed.

"Hey, hey, Major," Ford called out cheerfully as they approached. "It's good to see you, sir."

"Ford," John said by way of greeting. "You brought friends."

"I did," Ford agreed, drawing close enough to extend his hand. John froze for a minute before extending his own. Ford gestured behind John with his chin. "Maguire, hunh? You're the new me? I guess you've gotten into your fair share of scrapes following the Major around by now."

"A few," Maguire said, doing a credible job of keeping the surprise out of his voice -- or the fact that John had gone out with Maguire's platoon maybe three times and none of them eventful.

"Well, I've got my own team now," Ford went on, like this was a VFW meeting and not what it was. "I'd be a captain by now, but I'm not going with the rank thing. We're less about the pecking order, I guess."

"We should get down to business," John said, not wanting to keep up the weird pretense anymore. This Ford, so divorced from reality, disturbed him in ways he hadn't anticipated.

"What about the others?" the dreadlocked man asked, voice a low rumble.

"What others? The other marines?" Ford asked with a laugh and a careless shrug. "They're here to make sure we don't do anything stupid. We're not here to do anything stupid, so you can just ignore them."

Behind John, Maguire moved his hand just barely away from his sidearm.

"What'd you bring? Another squad?" Ford asked, curious and impressed as he looked around. There were in fact two squads, with some of the marines visible if you knew to look for them and some not and John was comfortable with Ford not seeing them. "Not bad, sir. Not worth it, but I understand."

"What do you know about the Daedalus?" John tried again.

"Nothing, actually," Ford admitted. "Just that most of the galaxy knows that there are armed men wandering around asking about a big ship. Didn't take much to put two and two together on that one. You wouldn't be asking around after a hive ship."

John fought the wave of disappointment that surged within him. "So you brought me out here to tell me that?"

"No, sir," Ford exclaimed, amused as if John were missing a really great joke. "I wanted to tell you that I -- we -- have a way to figure out what the Wraith have done with the ship."


Ford smiled. "See, this is why I wanted you to bring Doctor McKay," he said. "It's all high-tech stuff. Jace--" he turned to point to one of his men, a skinny blond guy who looked like he would have gotten beaten up a lot in high school and then stoned a lot in college, "--he's the one who knows what to do and how to do it. I was hoping to have him explain it to Doctor McKay, since it'd only get messed up going from Jace to me to you to him."

John had discussed with Hammond what would and would not be safe to tell Ford should it be necessary. They'd agreed that force size and capabilities should absolutely not be mentioned, that the state of Atlantis beyond 'not destroyed' should be similarly off-limits, and a general rule to err on the side of keeping quiet would be wise. But letting Ford know that Rodney, Elizabeth, and Beckett were among the missing might be unavoidable -- or at least inevitable.

"Give me the stupid people version, then," he said. Since it was not yet necessary.

After a nod from Ford, Jace stepped forward hesitantly. "I've written a program that will give me remote access to a hive's mainframe. From there, anything is possible."

"We could drive a hive ship like a model plane, sir," Ford enthused. "We could network them together and have demolition derbies in space."

John had nothing immediate to say to that other than "Wow."

"Isn't that awesome?" Ford was practically glowing with anticipation and pride. "It'd be nothing to destroy the hives, destroy the darts, destroy the Wraith. We could make Pegasus a safe place."

The possibility was almost beyond comprehension, but John didn't want to get caught up in such grand dreams. He also didn't want to forget that he was negotiating with a very unstable man. He didn't know if Jace and the others were along for the ride, genuine believers in whatever Ford was preaching, or something else.

"You're offering this to us?"

"No, sir," Ford said, still very amused. "I'm asking for your help in getting started. We need to get on to the first hive ship and let Jace do his thing. And in return, we'll get whatever they've got on the Daedalus."

John took a deep breath. "You want us to storm a hive ship so that you can effectively take control of the Wraith," he said. "That's a really big prize."

He wasn't sure he wanted to imagine the Wraith and their toys as the playthings of Ford and his merry men.

"It's huge," Ford agreed. "But you'll be getting an important piece, too, if you help us. Will you?"

Behind Ford, the others were watching him... expectantly. As if Ford had promised them that he'd be able to sell this and they were waiting for the answer they knew was coming.

"You think I get to make those kinds of decisions on my own now?" John asked pointedly, as if chain of command were the actual crux of the issue.

Ford laughed. "No, I know, sir. You've got to talk it over with Doctor Weir. But you've always been able to convince her when you had to... This could be it, sir. This could be the way to do what we always wanted to do -- save the galaxy. She'll come around if you sell it hard enough."

John could only grimace. "How do we get in touch with you?"

"I'll get in touch with you," Ford replied. "I'll call in in three days. That should be enough for you to work on Doctor Weir. Doctor McKay'll help -- he'll be interested in seeing what we've got."

John nodded. He couldn't agree to anything and didn't want to just keep making stuff up about people who weren't there.

"Maybe bring Teyla next time?" Ford suggested hopefully.

"I'll see," John said.

"Cool," Ford replied with a satisfied nod. "Three days, sir."

He turned and gestured to his men, some of whom walked backward for a few steps before turning their backs on John and the marines.

"Anyone able to get an eyeball on the DHD?" Maguire asked quietly into his radio. "See where they're dialing."

Someone was able to, although John had his suspicions about whether that would be Ford's actual destination or simply a detour.

He didn't speak as they waited for confirmation that Ford and his men were gone through the stargate and the wormhole had closed. He wasn't sure he could and he sure as hell didn't know what to say. Maguire watched him carefully anyway.

The rest of the platoon emerged from their positions and gathered around John and Maguire.

"Well done, gentlemen," John told them. "Let's go home."

Back in Atlantis, John went straight to Hammond to debrief. Hammond knew better than to ask for a formal recommendation so quickly, but he did ask what John's instincts told him.

"I think he'd lie to us to get us to help him," John said. "But I don't think he's lying now. If he were, he'd be offering us more."

They both agreed that the potential, should Ford's offer be on the level, was too great to ignore. They'd need some actual evidence that this wasn't a disturbed man's fantasy before committing to anything, but Ford was offering them something they wanted very badly, right on a silver platter, and they couldn't look away.

"We've got three days," Hammond said. "We'll have a good idea before then whether the risk is justified by the reward."

There were several possible stops to make after leaving Hammond, but John doubted that Polito would be in his office and he wasn't ready to face Teyla yet, so he headed down to Science, navigating the rabbit warren of labs and improvised cubicles until he came to Zelenka's workspace.

"Got a minute?" he asked.

Zelenka, scribbling out calculations with one hand, held up a finger on the other to indicate that John should wait. He muttered to himself in Czech, erased something furiously, then found an answer he liked.

"What can I do for you, Colonel?" he asked, looking up.

"Got a few questions," John answered, looking around. There were people here and there, the odd marine serving as lab tech, and a constant hum of noise. "Can we go somewhere?"

"Of course," Zelenka agreed, gesturing with his head toward the door in the rear of the room. "Step into my office."

Zelenka's office was chaotic, but the sort of chaos that indicated that Radek knew exactly where everything was and could tell if it had been moved. John smiled as he imagined Gunny Washington's reaction.

"Ford's put together a crew," he began without preamble once Zelenka was seated. "He's got some computer geek he says has written a program that can remotely control a hive ship. Is that even possible?"

Zelenka ran his fingers through his hair. "Possible? Sure, anything is possible. Probable is something else. Did he tell you anything about this program? What language it is written in?"

John shook his head and grimaced. "I got the very basic layman's explanation," he said. "Ford said that that's why he wanted Rodney there."

A bittersweet chuckle from Zelenka. "Rodney would have been only so much help," he said. "He was not interested in programming per se, just as a means to an end. And he never worked very much with the Wraith programming project -- just enough to get underfoot."

John's lasting memories of Rodney are of him hunched over his computer, typing furiously. He supposes that, like Ford, he just assumed that if it had to do with a computer, Rodney would know what it did and how it worked.

"We have people working on Wraith computers?" he asked, focusing on the present. He'd never paid much attention to what went on in Science; the first time around, Rodney had shared the highlights and John had simply assumed that the rest was irrelevant as far as his own concerns went. Nowadays, the captains handled almost all of the interactions with Science and John was usually only made aware through single sentences in logs and action summaries and the occasional email from Zelenka going over everyone's head.

"For a while," Radek confirmed. "We've had people working on the Wraith programming language ever since we got that data device from the Genii; we've got a handle on its syntax and limitations and there have been some small projects, but we've never tried anything like hacking a hive ship. Our efforts have been geared toward making our equipment work with theirs, like we have done with Ancient technology."

"How's that going?"

Zelenka shrugged. "Our only testing station is built from parts of darts that kamikazed into the city during one of the aerial assaults; it's hard to tell sometimes if it's not working because we're wrong or because it came to us at terminal velocity."

John leaned carefully against a file cabinet that had piles of paper on top of it. "Ford mentioned something about networking -- he wants us to help them set up whatever it is on the first ship and from there, they'd be able to take control of all of the others."

"That part, sure," Zelenka agreed, nodding. "Once you get access to the network, the sky's the limit. It's how viruses work. The Wraith make it easy, too -- we were able to monitor transmissions between the hive ships during the siege. We weren't able to decode them, but they might as well have been hoisting flags like Nelson did -- it wasn't much more secure. If you went in prepared, you could do a lot of damage in very little time."

In other words, there was a decent chance that Ford wasn't bullshitting about Jace.

"What Ford is asking for," Zelenka began hesitantly, "will it be very dangerous?"

John chuckled mirthlessly. "If it wasn't, he wouldn't have asked for our help."

Zelenka paused for a moment before speaking again.

"I miss Rodney. Surprisingly much for how disagreeable a man he was most of the time. I miss Elizabeth Weir because she was never disagreeable. And I pray for Carson Beckett and Caldwell and the crew and the marines and, perhaps most of all, for the men and women I helped put on that ship by telling Rodney that these were the brilliant minds that we needed for Atlantis."

"But," John prompted, not unkindly, since there was a 'but' coming.

"But it has been a very long time and we have never seen anything that could be taken as proof of life. I do not want to sacrifice many more lives just to find out where our colleagues lost theirs."

Zelenka looked embarrassed as he spoke, but he also looked chagrined. The IOA wanted to give up because they were looking at the bottom line and it was cheaper to replace than retrieve. But here in Atlantis, the calculus was very different and Radek's view of the bottom line was one of someone who'd kept track of the dead during the siege.

"If we do this, it'll be because we feel the rewards outweigh the risks," John assured. He couldn't promise that there wouldn't be any -- or many -- casualties, but he didn't think that's what Radek was ultimately asking for. Zelenka had done his military service in a different time and in a place where the lives of the conscripted were not held to have much value; he just didn't want to see that kind of disregard repeated.

Eventually, John made it back to his office, where there was coffee and the nice kind of pastry that should have been impossible to get this late in the day. He didn't say anything because Washington technically forbade coddling and would've gotten pissy if accused of such, especially of the already over-coddled Air Force officer.

Polito showed up a short time later, unsummoned -- at least by John.

"Heard tell that you might need me, sir," Polito explained from the doorway, waiting for John to wave him in.

"I'd say the walls had ears," John replied, gesturing for Polito to enter and sit, "but you people stuck me with the omniscient gunnery sergeant."

Polito was their principal boots-on-the-ground officer. In a little more than two months, he'd made sure every marine in Atlantis was fluent with the galaxy's quirks and habits, able to assess and (if necessary) fight on various terrain, and he'd led or organized almost all of the search missions. He was also their operations officer, Swinson as his deputy, and the person who'd have to do much of the work if they went along with Ford's scheme.

"How much else have you heard?" John asked, since he was sure there were rumors all throughout Little Tripoli by now.

"That Ford wants us to assault a hive ship in exchange for intel on the Daedalus, sir," Polito answered.

"Have any feelings on the matter?" John asked.

"That I'd like to share, sir?" Polito replied wryly. He paused for a moment before continuing. "Are you asking for an assessment of our ability to perform such a feat or whether I think it's a worthwhile idea?"

Polito's initial quiet reserve had faded somewhat as circumstances required a more animated and interactive officer. But he was still, as the service liked to say, a deep thinker, and John had learned to trust his instincts.

"Both," he answered. "I can come up with reasons why we should and why we shouldn't do this. But I want to know what yours are."

Polito exhaled loudly. "From a purely operational standpoint, sir, we can probably do this. It won't be cheap -- it might be very expensive -- but I believe that we can take a hive with the personnel we have now. The question is whether the cost will be worth it, both in terms of the stated goals of bringing down the Wraith and finding the Daedalus as well as the political and cultural ramifications within the city and our chain of command."

John nodded; these were the prime concerns -- if they could win the battle against the Wraith, would they still lose the war at home?

"Swinson and I can wargame this, sir," Polito went on. "We can try to put an estimate on what sort of resources it will take and what we're likely to lose. But there are variables we're going to need to solve for before we can do that with any kind of accuracy, even allowing for the very fickle degree of accuracy we're likely to manage.

"We'd need better intel on the population of the hive and how that population is likely to be dispersed," he continued, ticking off on his fingers. "We'd need to know what kind of weapons and communications they're likely to have. What kind of defensive mechanisms -- are they likely to blow up the ship just to get us as well? And we need to know more about Ford's unit and what sort of role they envision themselves playing while this is going on -- will they be working around us or with us?"

"And are they reliable," John added, since it needed to be said and he was probably the one who had to broach the subject, just as he had earlier with Maguire. He needed his people to understand that he was expecting them to have their doubts about Ford, that these doubts were reasonable and practical and essential to any real conversation about their plan of action. He just didn't want the assumptions about Ford to overshadow the facts to the point of counterproductivity.

"That, too, sir," Polito admitted. "We need some kind of scale by which we can grade his intelligence or else all of this is a live-fire thought problem."

John could hear Washington messing around next door, which was his non-verbal cue that John should wrap things up.

"All right," he said, slapping his desk with one hand. "We'll have a round table where everyone can stick their two cents in. There's only so much we can do before Ford gets in touch with us, but we can hash out what we want from him before agreeing -- or not."

Polito stood. "I'll be ready, sir."

It turned out that Washington had been dropping things accidentally-on-purpose so that John would remember that Hammond had scheduled a principals meeting at 1800. It was only 1740 now and it did not take twenty minutes to get to the transporter from his office, plus neither Safir nor Zelenka were ever on time, but this was another one of those arguments it was easier to concede than fight.

"I've invited Teyla to join us," Hammond said when John entered. Teyla was sitting in the seat that would be next to Safir, insulated sippy cup full of tea like the seasoned committee member she'd become. She looked up at him and smiled, although the smile did not reach her eyes.

"Welcome aboard," John said, dropping down in his chair and putting his pad and pen on the desk.

Safir and Zelenka made their belated appearance -- less so than usual, which John took as a reflection of the seriousness of the topic rather than a desire to end as quickly as possible to facilitate getting down to the commissary for dinner.

Hammond started the meeting by asking John to report on his trip to see Ford, which in turn focused more on speculation as to Ford's sanity and motivation, since by now everyone had heard the terms of the proposal. There was some debate about the possibility that Ford could be both completely delusional about his own situation (in general and with respect to Atlantis) and anywhere close to sane with regard to strategic or tactical planning.

"Earth's history is full of mad geniuses," Yoni said with a shrug. "That he never showed signs of either madness or genius when he was with us is almost beside the point. He's not the same man, biologically or emotionally, that he was then. I could bore you with the details, but the flippant version is that the parts of his brain that had been altered by the enzyme were the parts that make him irrational, not illogical."

That Ford might be crazy like a fox instead of crazy like a loon was only marginally comforting.

From there came the colder assessments of how much blood and treasure Atlantis could afford to spend on this enterprise and how much political capital it would cost them back on Earth.

Stopping the Wraith -- or at least reducing them from major threat to minor nuisance -- would be a goal that would receive support from the IOA, since they could then reduce the military presence in Atlantis. But getting half of the current battalion killed to do so (or, worse, getting them killed and failing to do so) would be catastrophic not only for their careers, but also for the expedition as a whole.

"There comes a point where the IOA will choose to cut their losses in Pegasus," Hammond said. "We can't allow ourselves to put them in the position of making that choice."

Everyone tried not to look at Teyla, who held her head high. She believed that Atlantis was the key to stopping the Wraith and saving the galaxy, but she deeply resented the insinuation that she, the Athosians, or the galaxy as a whole, were helpless without the expedition. They had survived before Earth had come to Pegasus and they would, if necessary, survive afterward.

Zelenka explained the possibilities of Jace's program, mostly an elaboration of what he'd told John earlier. Hammond asked about the possibility of co-opting Jace's work, or at least reverse engineering it, so that if this was less of a success than they'd hoped, then somewhere down the line there would still be a chance of repeating or modifying the plan.

John asked if there was anyone in Science who could be attached to the mission -- they were going to need computer scientists anyway, just to validate that this wasn't all gigabytes of snake oil -- but John knew that they'd need geeks in boots for this.

Zelenka looked terrified until John assured him that he didn't mean Radek.

"We've already had enough trouble with wiping out the senior staff with one bad day," John said. "I don't think it would be a good idea for you to be anywhere this. Especially since I'm taking Safir."

"You are?" Yoni asked with an arched eyebrow.

"The corpsmen can produce small miracles," John replied. "I want a battalion surgeon on hand to produce larger ones."

Safir still trained with the marines when his schedule allowed -- which was a few times a week, since Yoni set his own schedule and the marines were more than happy to absorb his professional aggravation.

"There isn't going to be a thing I can do to treat the most likely injury," Yoni said. Which was true -- the only treatment for Wraith feeding was palliative. But it also wasn't 'no.'

"So you'll take care of everything else," John told him, then turned back to Zelenka. "I'll need names quickly; the marines will probably want them to at least handle a pistol a few times."

This led the discussion back to the operational details of the mission and the likelihood that they could get solid intelligence and put together a plan that didn't seem like folly. John explained a few of the requirements they were looking for, but said that the rest would depend on the military staff meeting. Which he said would take place tomorrow, but privately knew that that was only a guess as he hadn't scheduled it yet.

He didn't have to. Washington, who'd already gone for the evening, left a post-it on his desk informing him that the meeting was at 0830. The post-it was on top of the files he had to finish today.

"The glitz and glamour of command," he sighed to himself.

Ford called in to Atlantis at 1300 on the third day. John was in the control room when he did, having planned to stop by then because Ford was obviously still setting his Seiko to AST and that had always been the time of their team meetings. Perhaps not coincidentally, Teyla was also there. Hammond came out of his office to listen, too.

The actual conversation was not all that exciting to witness. Ford wanted to know if they were in and took the news that they needed more intel before committing relatively well. He was clearly disappointed, but still clearly jazzed and confident that Atlantis would come around. He said hello to Elizabeth, Rodney, and Teyla, whom he assumed were listening. Teyla responded and John almost wished that she hadn't because he could see the horror in her expression at Ford's ebullience -- he chatted to her like he was a kid reporting in from sleepaway camp. This was the first time she'd experienced this new Ford firsthand and it was clearly a shock to her.

John cut him off to bring up the list of things they'd need before giving an answer; it was a combination of intelligence requirements decided upon in the battalion staff meetings and tech specs Zelenka and his team had asked for. Radek also wanted a sample of the code of Jace's program -- it didn't have to be the punch line, just enough to prove that it was in fact extant (and what programming language it was in; Radek's estimate of the probability of success rose and fell depending).

"Do you want a flash drive to put it on?" John asked. "What are you even using for a computer?"

Zelenka had assured him that they'd be able to use Wraith devices or Ancient ones, but while they'd probably be able to figure out anyone else's hardware and software, he should stick to one of those options.

"We got stuff, sir," Ford assured. "Don't you worry."

They made arrangements to meet the next day on the same planet as before.

"You'll take the same precautions as before," Hammond told him. "I don't trust him."

John didn't, either, but there was no reason for worry, at least this time. When he got to M49-LX3 with Maguire and his marines, there was nobody there. And nobody coming, either, apparently, as there was a Wraith data device sitting on a red square of cloth in roughly the same spot where he and Ford had stood earlier in the week.

Zelenka and his people set up at the 'clean' station, a computer and assorted other devices completely off the grid -- no network capabilities, no connections to any other computer or device, no way to spread any kind of damage. From what John understood, everything was going to be unpacked, checked for dangerous metadata, scrubbed, and then distributed.

"You shouldn't sit here and watch," Radek warned as his minions scurried about. He pointed to the corner like John was an errant schoolboy. "We're not going to be releasing any of the data for a few hours."

"We just want to see what's on it," Radner told him. "If you're just cleaning and pressing nonsense, we can spend our time doing other, more productive things."

Zelenka made a noise that could be confused with grudging acceptance and Dave stood where he was. When John tried to move closer, though, Radek gestured for him to move back.

"Well I know where I am in the pecking order," he muttered.

It was fifteen minutes before what looked like the schematics of a hive ship appeared on the screen.

"Do we have people who read Wraith?" John asked Radner.

"I do a little, sir," Radner replied. "Elgie's got some. A couple of the NCOs in the Two Shop have been working on it; after six months, they should have enough for the job."

"Are you satisfied?" Zelenka asked impatiently.

"We'll get out of your hair now, Radek," Radner told him. "Thank you."

An acknowledging grunt from Zelenka, whose attention was directed mostly at the screen.

John followed Radner out, agreeing that they'd all have to meet later to digest whatever Zelenka fed to them.

In the meanwhile, John had the business of a battalion to run, since that didn't get put on hold just so you could make outrageously dangerous plans with your possibly psychotic former protégé.

Which reminded him of another issue that was going to come up -- how to report any of this back to Earth. They'd left everything out of the databurst this week, but eventually they were going to have to 'fess up. Especially with Odyssey due to depart Earth within the next ten days.

The officers' pow-wow didn't happen until the following morning; Zelenka didn't release the data until less than a half hour before the formal end of the working day in Little Tripoli and while everyone tended to work late anyway, John didn't want it to be over this. He expected everyone to have everything read for the morning, though.

There were donuts along with the fruit and biscuits on the conference table when he walked into his office at 0730.

"Since when do we have donuts?" John asked. "I've never seen donuts."

They had marines on KP duty -- marines whose MOS had theoretically prepared them for a life slinging hash for other marines, albeit with food from Earth instead of mostly not -- but while they did many things competently and a few things excellently (and a few things never to be repeated again, even if John had to make it a direct order), John had never seen them experiment with donuts. And these were far too nice to be a first try.

Washington looked at him blandly as he finished loading coffee grounds into the filter. "They're usually gone first thing, sir. It's mostly marines who get 'em."

Because the Air Force personnel, like the civilians, slept too late, of course.

"I'll keep that in mind," John said, snagging one despite Washington's Don't Piss Off the Gunny expression.

Everyone was in place by 0800, where they remained until John finally called a break at 1300. They reconvened at 1400 and worked through until 1930, when John told everyone that he didn't want to see them again until tomorrow. It was a spirited discussion, free-flowing and occasionally contentious, as they debated if, when, and how to help Ford's group.

The data device, in addition to the maps and schematics, had held text files obviously written by Ford himself -- they were in English, first of all, and more or less followed standard military briefing format. The general consensus was that Ford was long on recon and short on foresight.

"This is all lieutenant-speak for 'I plan to make it up as I go along, sir,'" Polito said with a shake of his head. "This wouldn't get you a passing grade in IOC. I'd have my boys outside doing PT in the rain in their underoos for handing me this crap."

"It's not like we were going to give him OPCON," Swinson pointed out, although she, too, looked sorely unimpressed. "We were going to be designing our own battle plans no matter what."

"I know," Polito agreed. "But it shows a poor appreciation for the operating conditions. I don't want my marines dying because Ford thought he could wing it."

In the end, though, they came up with something they thought could work. It took four days of planning, endless arguments, various side-meetings with scientists, senior NCOs from Intelligence and Logistics, consultations with the pilots, and three calls to IT. There was a core group of planners that did not include either John or Radner, since city life had to go on and these kinds of operations weren't their specialty. But they both spent every free minute stopping by to listen in and, for John, giving guidance and the occasional bit of expert testimony, since he'd already been on a mission inside a hive ship.

On the fifth day, Hammond was brought in for the big presentation.

"My question to you is simple," Hammond began with the two Operations captains once the Q-and-A session started. "Is this a good operation, or simply the best you can do with what you've got?"

"Is there a difference, sir?" Polito asked wryly. He looked at Swinson before continuing. "Ideally, we'd like an extra company or two -- or three -- for this, some kind of body armor that actually works against stunner blasts, and some motorized ground vehicles for transport and heavy weapons support. But we don't have any of that and aren't likely to get it any time soon, and so this is the best we can do with what we've got. That said, I have faith in our marines -- and airmen. I believe they are up to the challenge and that we are not recklessly or heedlessly sending them to their deaths."

Hammond nodded; he'd expected that answer. "You've made a decision to exclude the marines coming with the Odyssey."

Odyssey was en route, due sometime between Christmas and New Year's. She'd been chosen as much to test her out on her first extended cruise as for her superior cargo space and weapons capabilities. They had plans to use her as critical nexus of support during the operation -- with Earth's blessing, as they'd finally gone ahead and reported in what they were doing -- although neither John nor Hammond knew if Colonel Ellis, the Odyssey's captain, was aware of what awaited him as the decision had been made after her departure.

"Practical reasons, sir," Swinson answered. "They're coming in with no familiarity with the galaxy as a whole or the Wraith in particular. Keeping them on their acclimation and transition schedule is really the only option."

They were getting another company's worth, plus more support and headquarters staff. With Hammond's help, John had been able to put forth a coherent case for why their current complement was insufficient for fulfilling Atlantis's mandate even if the search for the Daedalus were to be completely abandoned.

"Also," Lemert, the pilot serving as S-1, added, "if we exceed our estimated casualty rate on this mission, we're going to need them to be ready to assume regular duties as quickly as possible."

A key planning point had been trying to find the happy medium between sufficient manpower to achieve the objective and having enough people left over to protect the city should the mission prove disastrous.

Eventually Hammond was satisfied with the facts as they were and John dismissed the group.

"My last question is to you, Colonel," Hammond said. "Are you being honest with yourself about your motivations for this mission?"

John sat down heavily in his chair. "I believe that Ford's intelligence is as straight-up as he thinks it is, that we have a decent chance at getting the information we need to find the Daedalus and her passengers and crew, and that this could be the start of a meaningful fight against the Wraith."

Hammond gave him a meaningful look. "Not quite what I'm asking, is it."

John sighed, since this had been an unspoken question of him for everyone.

"Do I include Ford on the list of people I'd like to bring home on this mission?" John asked. "I do. But that's not why I'm doing this. Aiden Ford is ill, in desperate need of help, and a danger to himself. But I'm not going to risk the lives of everyone under my command to save him. I'd risk my own, gladly, but I have a responsibility to those who follow my orders."  

The captains had never asked him outright, although they had, at times, clearly wanted to. The operational planning had been essentially around Ford and his team, treating them as a related-but-independent element the way they would have treated a Special Operations team on Earth -- it was an unwanted complication, it was an open invitation to confusion, and it raised the chances of accidents resulting from bad communication and non-aligning objectives. But a Special Ops team, whatever they were doing, would be professional, trustworthy, and would have their backs should it come down to it. There could be no such assumptions made about Ford and his team -- all of whom were as hyped up on the enzyme as he was -- and John knew that Polito and Swinson resented how much John was willing to extend the umbrella of their protection to an untested element that could turn around and betray them (or worse) at any moment.

Hammond nodded and stood up; John rose as well. "I was sure," Hammond said. "But I wanted to make sure that you were."

They didn't have a way of contacting Ford and they had no agreed-upon date for him to contact them, so after the rush to get everything done as soon as possible, they were now in the hurry-up-and-wait cycle that was almost comfortably familiar because they'd all been in the military long enough for that to have been the status quo. There were other missions, including other search missions because everyone would be happy to find the Daedalus on their own without Ford's involvement, and other crises and the fuss over the Odyssey's arrival and what that meant not only for Little Tripoli, but also for Medical and Science as well, since they, too, were receiving influxes of personnel and supplies.

While everyone waited, Doctors Capaldi, Zanger, and Liu, the three civilian scientists Zelenka chose for the mission (two Comp Sci, one an engineer of a flavor John didn't know), continued their training with the marines in preparation for the mission. There was physical training (all had been in decent shape before they began their miniature boot camp, but there was always room for improvement as far as the marines went), firearms training, and what was unofficially referred to in Little Tripoli as 'obedience training.' Safir had done three years in the Israeli infantry; the IDF might've been a little casual as far as US forces were concerned, but nobody worried about Yoni's ability to instinctively follow orders in a combat situation. The same couldn't be said for the three scientists; Zelenka was not as bad as Rodney had been, but he still fostered a culture of defiant independence that made scientist-wrangling a bigger challenge than it needed to be on routine missions and nobody wanted those habits to carry over into what was being called Operation Eurydike.

Odyssey was still an estimated three days out when Ford called in.

"Merry Christmas, sir," he said. "You guys get the paperwork done yet?"

They made plans to meet on M49-LX3 later in the day to discuss details.

"There's a good chance he's going to ask for Doctor McKay," Hammond said when John stopped by his office before departing. "What are you going to tell him?"

Despite the assumption that Ford would figure out the change in personnel on his own at some point, Elgie and the rest of the crew from the Two Shop had made 'don't tell until you have to' their official recommendation. The whereabouts and status of the Daedalus and her passengers were bargaining chips and, for better or for worse, they drastically increased in value should it become known that Doctors Weir, McKay, and Beckett were among the missing. Nobody wanted to give Ford any more leverage than he already had.

"The truth," John said with a shrug. "That there's no way in hell I'd take Rodney McKay on a combat assault mission if I didn't have to."

Hammond nodded ruefully. "I suppose that'll do."

Capaldi and Liu were waiting with Swinson, Maguire, and one squad of Maguire's marines down in the gate room. Capaldi in particular looked nervous, which John thought odd because he'd been around since the beginning and it wasn't his first time off-world in a situation known to be less than benign.

"Don't worry, Doc," John assured him nonetheless. "We won't let anything happen to you."

"It's not that, Colonel," Capaldi said with a shake of his head. "I'm... Lieutenant Ford had always been very good to me whenever I needed to deal with him. He was always happy when I saw him, very friendly and accommodating. How he left us, what he became... it's all been very abstract up until now. I'm not sure how I'll react knowing that he's not our friend anymore."

John couldn't help but chuckle. "Believe me, Doc, I understand."

Capaldi bowed his head in embarrassed realization. "I suppose you do."

"We ready to go, sir?" Maguire asked, not oblivious to the moment. "Let 'er rip!" he called up to the control room after John nodded.

Ford and his team -- John knew most of their names from Ford's notes -- were waiting.

"Where's Doctor McKay?" was Ford's first question.

"McKay's not tasked to the mission," John said, shrugging casually. "I've got scientists who can do the job and run a mile in less than fifteen minutes, so I might as well use 'em. Also, they've got better aim and bitch less."

Ford accepted the explanation with a knowing laugh, then sobered. "You're bringing Doctor Safir as a medic, though, right?"

Safir had been their default doctor for missions where they thought medical care likely necessary last year, which was convenient on the cover front.

"We've got corpsmen now, but yes," John confirmed. "This is just a planning confab, not a display of force preparedness."

They knelt in the clearing, diagramming the mission using stones and canteens and other items to hand. Ford and especially his men seemed impressed by Swinson, who projected the same show-no-fear attitude she brought to every interaction with their marines as she explained points, asked questions, and argued with Ford and Kanayo, who was the Genii John had first noticed and apparently Ford's tactical expert.

Liu was the engineer who specialized in Wraith tech, but John had brought Capaldi along so he'd understand (and be able to impress upon Zanger in a way that none of the military would) just what sort of time and force constraints they'd be under. Maguire's men pulled security while Maguire, who'd be on the mission, watched and mostly kept his mouth shut.

There'd been discussion in Little Tripoli about what to divulge about air cover; a couple of jumpers had been suggested by Ford, but with the Odyssey around, it provided a superior option for both casevac and close air support. There'd been arguments both for and against, but John had ultimately gone with 'for' for several reasons -- primarily because it might keep Ford and his people from doing something desperate or stupid and, should Kanayo not be as exiled from the Genii as he said he was, then it wasn't a bad idea to let them know that Atlantis had a warship at its disposal.

The meeting took about four hours and resulted in more minor tweaks than major ones; Ford was happy to leave the planning to experts and Kanayo, if he had any reservations, kept them to himself in the wake of Ford's enthusiasm and Swinson's competence.

Timing was still an issue -- John didn't want to wait indefinitely, but he also wanted his men to have at least a couple of days to familiarize themselves with their roles and their objectives. Ford didn't seem to think finding a hive ship would be a difficulty; Jace had some kind of GPS that would track them and he had a short list of parked ships that hadn't moved in a while.

They settled on ten days -- it would give them enough time to iron out the major issues (and would give Odyssey time to show up and be briefed). The logistical details were relatively straightforward after that.

"It's done," John told Hammond when they returned. "Now we just have to wait."

"Joker Three is in position."

"Good," John said, looking down at his watch. They were ahead of schedule. "Where's Prodigal?"

The sergeant pulling comms passed on the query. John had thought the radio codename a bit unsubtle when he'd seen the list, but Ford had thought it fabulous.

"Prodigal is five mikes from their objective, sir," Lovell reported.

"Tell 'em to hurry the fuck up," John sighed. "Faster we get in, faster we get out."

They'd started ninety minutes ago after three minor screw-ups and one major one (nobody'd brought the NVGs for Ford's team; someone from Atlantis had had to deliver them after Polito had radioed Odyssey to radio Atlantis), but things had been smooth so far. This was supposed to be the easy part, but nobody was going to take anything for granted. Everyone kept one ear cocked for the scream of incoming darts; it would take thirty-seven seconds for the 302s to arrive on station from launch and the darts could do a shitload of damage in that time frame.

Behind John, Teyla shifted slightly. Including her had been obvious because of her connection to the Wraith and all of the marines were aware of her fighting prowess, but she was still not marine infantry, which in turn put her in the same category as Safir and the scientists and, to an extent, John -- the protected.

(Hammond's parting advice: "Try not to get killed, Colonel. It'd be bad for morale.")

While in the grand scheme of things all of Charlie Company was serving as a PSD, John's group had its own detail. They were three hundred meters from the hive entry they were using; this was where the best cover was and John had chosen civilians who could run for a reason.

"Prodigal is in position, sir," Lovell said. "Joker One is oscar mike."

John waited for Lovell to report that Maguire's platoon was on Route Tartarus (the main corridor of the hive) and Morrison's and Negley's platoons had secured Route Aita (the path from their entry point to Tartarus) before giving the signal for his own group to push forward to their next point.

Polito was moving with Joker Three (Negley) while Prodigal was supposed to be making their way to the hive engine room to disable the ship before joining John's group in the room where Ford assured that they would have access to all of the Wraith computer networks.

The dash to the hive ship was less madcap than John had feared it would be; the scientists kept pace well and nobody stumbled. Once inside, John pulled out his Ancient PDA, which showed regularly-spaced dots that were marines and a few others dots that were not. Ford had promised that the ship was mostly in hibernation, like the one they'd been on the first time. He'd explained that hibernating ships were fairly easy to navigate in that they operated with skeleton crews, but all hell would break loose if they came into contact with any Wraith who lived long enough to pass on the intel to the hivekeeper, who had the power to wake the entire hive at once. ("You know what happens after that, sir.") The plan was to get in and get out without getting seen, but nobody really expected that to be possible. They just wanted to keep the chaos to a minimum once the shit hit the fan.

Route Aita was actually made up of several discrete parts and was an umbrella term used for simplicity -- and to keep Polito from geeking out any further with the names. (The NCOs had wanted to name the routes after the parts of intestinal tract, but even John, a true fan of whimsy, had put his foot down there.) Aita was three long, twisted corridors broken up by one stairwell and one ramp, a lot of territory to cover, even for two platoons.

The first hallway was the straightest, a sprint from one end to the other, and silent except for the muffled sounds of packs bouncing against bodies. The hive was as dark and shadowy and creepy as he remembered, even more so because the chitinous walls were contextualized by the iratus bug and the smell reminded him sharply of that awful day in the back of the jumper with that thing attached to his neck.

There was a hairpin turn into the second corridor and John shook his head no when the marines in front looked at him in case he wanted to stop for a moment. They didn't have the time and everyone could catch their breath on this second corridor because it was frequently intersected and they'd have to pause at several of them.

The marines holding the route served as crossing guards for the major intersections, but there were too many other places where the marines needed to be for them to man each one, so while John's group got waved through a few green lights, there were others where they had to stop and look both ways (and at John's PDA) before proceeding.

They had to wait when they reached the stairwell -- the marines reported activity several flights up.

"Everyone okay?" John asked his group as he waited for Lovell to finish listening to whatever he was listening to on the company net. John was currently on a different channel, one that hooked him up to Polito and the Odyssey, and while he could flip over, there was a reason he'd accepted an NCO to play switchboard.

Capaldi, Zanger, and Liu were breathing hard, but they didn't look gassed. Safir and Teyla looked fine; the marines looked like they were feeling a little gypped for drawing PSD.

"Prodigal's taken care of business and are oscar mike, sir," Lovell said quietly. "They'll meet us there."

It was another minute before the PDA of the marine guarding the stairs was clear and they were on the move themselves. John didn't bother to keep his own PDA out; two-dimensional readout in a stairwell meant crap. They ran up five flights to the stairwell with the open door and waiting marines and this time John did pause a moment, as much to give his team (and himself) a breather as for the marines to verify that the next segment was clear.

The third hallway didn't begin straight from the stairwell, instead they had to cross a perpendicular corridor and take the first doorway on the right, also guarded by marines. It was a short sprint that nonetheless became complicated when Zanger tripped and fell, landing hard on the ground with one of his vest pouches opening up. The marines had him upright and repacked within a minute, but it felt like forever exposed as they were.

This penultimate leg of Aita took them across the ship where they'd been previously moving toward the front from the aft port entrance. It, too, was a constant stop-start of intersections except these were T-junctions and not four-way. The lights here were worse than earlier; this was not the main transverse for the ship, instead a kind of shadow route. It was dark enough for John to pull his NVGs over his eyes and to tell the civilians to do the same; the marines didn't need telling.

At the end of the corridor was the ramp that would take them up to Route Tartarus. It was curved around a muddy jewel-toned core and reminded John of nothing so much as the Baltimore Aquarium. The spiral wasn't as tight, nor was the view as interesting, however. The pitch was very steep and John was worried there'd be another accident, but they all made it without incident.

"Joker One, this is Joker actual," Polito said into his radio, giving John a nod. "We have Orpheus."

One of the marines with Polito signaled to another and the next set of double-checking began. Route Tartarus was the big boulevard of the main deck of the hive. They weren't going very far on it, just a couple hundred meters to the relatively easily protected systems room, but there'd been a lot of arguing back and forth about how many marines to station here -- a full platoon was the unhappy compromise between low-profile and "we're gonna need a lot more than that to get anyone out alive."

"Prodigal is ninety seconds out, sir," Lovell reported.

Ford was bringing his people up another way, a more direct route from the engine room than backtracking to the one the marines had staked out. John wanted his people there first -- he wanted Capaldi, Zanger, and Liu ready to watch Jace like hawks.

"Let's go," John said.

Polito accompanied them on the dash to the systems room, but stayed near the entrance with the marines guarding it. John stepped aside to let the scientists hook up their laptops and data recorders. They'd written programs that would let them record everything that Jace uploaded and typed and, if they were lucky, download data from the Wraith.

The marines, being marines, had made Zanger practice the physical motions of laptop setup and program deployment. Which meant that by the time Ford appeared with Jace, Kanayo, and Hans-and-Franz (not their real names, but that's what Ford called them and John could understand why), everything was good to go.

"What's he doing?" Jace asked suspiciously.

"Setting up an external drive," Capaldi replied, holding up a small gray box with cables coming from it. "Laptop's not going to have enough space to store all of the data related to the Daedalus. Damned bloated code."

The marines had made Zanger practice in such a way that the most innocuous steps were last. According to Capaldi, Wraith code was bloated and their laptops weren't blessed with endless bounties of drive space, but there was more than enough for what they expected to receive about their missing ship. The external drives -- Capaldi was carrying several -- were to record everything else, taking advantage of the fact that there was no way for Jace (or Ford, for that matter) to know better.

Jace grunted agreement as he pulled out three Wraith data devices. "Tell me about it," he sighed. "It took me months just to get the code streamlined enough to be stuffed on to only three."

There wasn't much to do while the geeks went at it. Hans and Franz had gone over to where half of the PSD marines were providing security, Safir was standing off in a corner with one eye on Teyla (who looked seasick because she was keeping passive watch on the Wraith) and the other on Liu (who looked seasick for more pedestrian reasons -- sheer terror). The other PSD marines were engaged in a silent bigger dick contest with Kanayo, which John knew they knew better than to escalate. Capaldi had inched his way over to Jace's station while Zanger did whatever the hell he was supposed to do -- John had mostly stopped paying attention to the science side of the mission because apart from knowing which were the important items to make sure they had if they started losing people or shedding equipment, there wasn't a whole lot he could do besides make sure the trio got home safely.

"Where's Ronon?" John asked Ford, hoping to draw his and the others' attention away from the scientists. None of the Pegasus natives would be able to read the laptop screen, but Ford could and he might understand some of it.

Ronon was the dreadlocked wildman; John wasn't surprised to not see him chosen for this mission.

"Can't bring him, sir," Ford replied with a grin that had once been almost endearing but was now almost scary. "He's been tagged by the Wraith. They'd know he was here the second he stepped through the gate."

John blinked and stared. "He's got a tracker?"

He'd learned to stop being surprised by crazy Ancient tricks; the Ancients had been either cheerfully ignorant or (more likely) blissfully unconcerned about the law of unintended consequences. But Wraith projects, like the one that had inadvertently produced Teyla's 'gift', still threw him for a loop because his default for them was 'see food, eat food' and nothing with respect to long-term planning.

"Yes, sir," Ford confirmed. "Like we do with polar bears and shit back home. They call 'em 'Runners' here. Chase 'em around like training toys."

John looked over at Safir, who arched an eyebrow in return.

"What happens when they catch him?" John asked warily.

Ford shrugged. "Hit 'reset.' They can't feed on him, so they just smack his ass and send him off again."

"I have heard of these people," Teyla said faintly. She was still plugged in to the Wraith network and John wished she'd either unplug or focus entirely on that -- it required too much of her attention for her to split her focus like that. "It is said that they die broken and alone."

John thought back to Ronon, standing apart from the group. The last thing this guy needed was an addiction to a psychotic drug. "I think he's well on his way to broken."

"Where is it that you haven't taken it out?" Safir asked.

"He doesn't want to take it out, Doc," Ford answered with a shake of his head and a smile, like Yoni had cracked a bad joke. "He uses it to help us kill Wraith."

"Christ," John muttered, disgusted. "He's in no shape to say."

And Ford, desperate for his regular fix of enzyme, would hardly be a paragon of virtue on that front. Not with his new credo being about the ends justifying the means instead of honor and duty.

"You're using a mentally disturbed man as bait, Lieutenant?" Safir accused with a sneer. "Instead of protecting those in need, you take advantage of them?"

Ford started and John feared that Yoni had gone too far and set him off. But then Ford settled back, as if he'd temporarily lost his answer and now recovered it.

"He's got nowhere else to go, Doc," Ford sighed, disappointed in Safir for not seeing his bigger picture. "His planet got destroyed by the Wraith. All he wants to do is pay them back for that."

Yoni must've realized the precariousness of the situation; all he did was shake his head.

"What'd you teach me in class, Doc?" Ford prompted and John blanked for a second before remembering the krav maga thing. "Anything you need to do to survive? This is how Ronon survives -- we give him a means to fulfill his purpose."

And also giving himself -- and his men -- an easy regular supply of their drug. For the first time, John could almost see Ford as the others did, a disturbing stranger with a passing resemblance to someone familiar.

"All right," Jace announced proudly, oblivious to the tension around him. "We're in."

"To what?" John asked.

"That there is their data core," Jace said, pointing to a subscreen with a red box around it, full of Wraith script scrolling by impossibly fast. John looked down at Zanger's laptop, which was producing much of the screen in English, but it made no sense there, either. "We can put in a search string for a Lantean vessel or--"

"I can do that," Zanger offered quickly. "I know more details about it, names of parts and stuff. I can also search names, in case they got any of those."

John held his breath; this was apparently the key to being able to download from the Wraith database -- Zanger had a list of additional searches to perform to better choose which data to download in addition to the Daedalus material.

"Cool," Jace agreed. On the big screen, the red box moved to a different subscreen. "This is intership communication. All I have to do is introduce the program here and let it get passed from ship to ship. It'll go hive-to-hive first, but each hive will infect all of the cruisers and darts in their battle group."

"Like a virus," John said. "I know how those work."

Jace typed for a few minutes, humming something to himself. If he was on the enzyme, too, it didn't make him as highly-strung as Ford. Kanayo, too -- after some mutual glaring back and forth with the marines, he'd settled in to watch both the door and Jace with the kind of placid hyper-awareness John would have found familiar in special forces types at home. It made him wonder about Ford himself, how much of what had happened to him had been because of the way he'd initially been exposed to the enzyme -- and how much could simply be Ford himself. After everything had happened, John had spent time trying to sort through his own memories of Ford to see anything that could have predicted what he'd become. It had been pointless then; it was probably pointless now, but he wanted something to grasp on to to help him identify this young man he'd once known well.

Teyla gasped suddenly and John was just about to ask her what it was when Lovell turned to him.

"Sir, there's a Wraith on Route Tartarus. He's a hundred meters out."

Fuck, John sighed to himself. Everyone from Atlantis was tagged with beacons for Odyssey to beam out in case of emergency, but John wasn't going to activate that until it was clear they needed evacuation.

"He does not see us," Teyla said in a whisper. "Yet."

The marines along the corridor would melt into the background as best they were able, but hive rooms had no doors and there'd be nothing to stop the Wraith from looking in and seeing them. The room was shaped like a lower-case B, a narrow foyer-type entry expanding into a larger bowl. The banks of computers were against the base of the stem, in a direct line of sight from the door.

"Everyone get back along the far walls," John ordered in a loud hiss. "Jace, Zanger, take your shit and get out of the way."

The two of them panicked for a second, then recovered as marines started picking up equipment and forcefully guiding them in the direction of the others. The marines by the door and Hans and Franz joined them as they spread out along the walls. Lovell used hand signals to indicate the Wraith's progress and John used the silence to indicate that nobody'd been seen yet.

Teyla was to his immediate right and she inhaled sharply and held it, grabbing on to his wrist and squeezing hard. He worried that she was losing her hold on whatever she did to keep apart from the Wraith hive mind. None of them had stunners to knock her out should she be sucked in; they'd have to resort to more physical measures and John was glad that Yoni was on her other side and not Ford or any of his minions.

It was probably only a minute, if that, but it felt like ten before Teyla exhaled slowly, seemingly slumping along the wall. Yoni reacted first, throwing an arm across her chest to keep her upright and in place.

"He is going," she breathed out. "He does not sense that we are here. I 'encouraged' him not to look this way."

She opened her eyes and Yoni dropped his arm after she nodded to him.

"These are not the droids you're looking for," John said, mostly to himself, but Yoni heard and managed a weak smile. "Now we've just got to wait for him to clear past everyone else."

It was another few minutes before Lovell indicated that the Wraith had cleared Route Tartarus. They slowly and quietly got back to work, Jace and Zanger re-settling themselves and Capaldi swapping out full hard drives for empty ones, labeling the former with neon orange circle stickers before putting them back in the slim plastic case he carried in his backpack.

John followed the marines back out to the hallway, taking a look around without traveling far enough to get his PSD nervous. The closest marines nodded at him.

"How much longer?" he asked once he was back by the computers.

"I'm trying to find which hive intercepted your Daedalus," Jace said, not looking away from the screen. "If we can find the hive, maybe we can find the ship."

Capaldi swapped out and stickered another drive.

"How much time do we have to find the Daedalus before you start rattling their apple trees?" John asked Ford.

Even if they knew which hive ship, they'd still have to find it; which in turn became more difficult if Ford was playing toy cars with the Wraith fleet. The hives would be moving around -- or being moved around -- and there was a chance Ford would destroy the ship carrying anyone who might've been transferred on board.

"We're not going to be doing anything right away, sir," Ford assured. "It'll take a while for the virus to spread and we still have hibernating ships to work on. We'll want to clear those out before we go fishing for more. Low-hanging fruit and all that."

Stocking up on enzyme more likely, but at least the answer wasn't 'next week.'

They waited with increasing restlessness until Polito radioed John to tell him that there were under two hours remaining on the mission clock. It had taken them more than that to get in, but thirty minutes of that had been sitting in silence and stillness to make sure they weren't being watched. Getting out would be faster than getting in, but John didn't want to rush safety just to rush.

"Okay, gentlemen, five minute warning," he announced.

Both Zanger and Jace looked unhappy.

"Did you get enough to be able to find our people?" John asked Zanger. Next to him, Capaldi pointedly was not packing up.

"Maybe," he replied with a sigh. "Maybe not. It's a lot of data. It all pertains to the Daedalus, but..."

"Good enough," John told him, tapping his watch. "We have to go now."

Zanger reluctantly started disconnecting the laptop and Capaldi started packing. Jace didn't move, however.

"Ford?" John prompted, since he wasn't moving, either.

"We're going to stay behind, sir," Ford replied. "We've got our own stuff to do."

John sighed and gave him the look that had once brought him to heel no matter how unhappy he was with the situation. But Ford wasn't his lieutenant anymore and his orders were no longer orders that had to be obeyed regardless of personal preference.

"We'll let you know if we come up with anything," Ford said instead. "Maybe we can help you get the Daedalus back."

"Aiden," Teyla began, but Ford shook her off.

"Gotta do this, Teyla," he insisted, not unkindly. He wasn't angry at them, just saddened that they didn't understand the importance of his mission. "You guys get home safe. I'll be in touch."

John radioed Polito to tell him to start the egress. By the time his group was ready and at the entrance to the systems room, Maguire's platoon was stacked up and ready to guard their rear flank as they retreated.

Leaving the ship was much easier than getting in; they were more familiar with the path and the obstacles and, surrounded by an ever-increasing number of marines, it was brisk and purposeful and felt safe. It wasn't without worry -- there was a Wraith in the corridor that intersected with Route Aita and they had to wait him out -- but it was without incident.

"Helios, this is Orpheus," Lovell radioed Ellis aboard the Odyssey. "We have returned to the land of the living. We're on our way to the gate."

Odyssey confirmed receipt of transmission and John jogged to catch up to Polito. They wanted to keep radio contact with Odyssey to a minimum as they had no idea what the hive ship's sensors could or couldn't pick up.

"Hopefully this was worth it, sir," Polito said as they walked briskly. They were already under the cover of the trees, which would keep them out of eyeshot until much closer to the gate.

"Yeah," John agreed. Later on, he'd have to confess his deep unease at Ford's callous disregard for human life -- Ronon's treatment might be an ill harbinger of what sort of response Ford might have to a request to hold off toying with the Wraith -- but he wanted to mull it over a bit first. At least some of his reaction was just shock and revulsion and he'd need to be more rational before making any decisions or approving the actions of others.

They got back to Atlantis about twenty minutes late, but Odyssey had already confirmed that they were en route, so it wasn't an anxious gate room. Hammond was still watching them from the catwalk outside his office, however, and John went straight up there after handing over his rifle.

"The mission was a success as far as meeting our objectives went, sir," he began. "How useful it will be in finding the Daedalus and our people... that depends on what Science can tell us."

Hammond nodded. "You got in and out without contact with the Wraith," he said. "It builds confidence as well as experience for the next time."

Left unsaid that they still had to hope for a next time.

"How did things go with Lieutenant Ford?" Hammond asked as John turned to go.

John debated just saying that it had gone fine, but didn't. "He's... he's a lot further gone than I had realized. And I have to decide how much to let that affect what we do next."

Hammond nodded thoughtfully. "I'm sorry," he said. "I truly am."

"Me, too," John agreed, throwing off a half-salute and heading off.

In the weeks that followed, Zelenka turned over as many people and resources to the Wraith decoding project as he could spare, possibly even more than that, but there was still nothing left for anyone else to do but wait for him to come up with something. Which was different from having nothing to do. John had a battalion to run, a newly expanded one that included an additional company of marines as well as an existing company getting familiarized with their new commander.

To John's somewhat pleasant surprise (although not Hammond's, so John knew who to thank) Radner had been officially selected for promotion to major and confirmed as XO, so Bravo Company was now under the leadership of Ryan Armstrong. (Whose first act in Atlantis had been to get violently ill on the gate platform; he had the ATA gene and Atlantis had apparently been too enthusiastic.) As for the new marines, Alpha Company had been one of the two companies (along with the original marines billeted in Bravo) lost with the Daedalus, so the new unit under Michael Hanzis's leadership was christened Delta Company and welcomed aboard in traditional marine fashion. John asked Polito very nicely to appreciate the difference between 'breaking in' and 'breaking' the new guys. Polito had just as nicely told him that marines were very hard to break and to stop worrying so much.

Odyssey was sticking around for now, which was a boon as far as future operations, but it still made John a little nervous. Ellis had no aspirations for the Atlantis command -- he was clearly in deep love with his ship -- but you didn't get to command an SGC spaceship without having damned good connections. So while Ellis was always respectful of him, John didn't imagine for a second that Ellis wasn't also taking very good notes for their superiors back home.

One week after the hive op became two. There were discussions about sending Odyssey home for a resupply run and Hammond told Science that they had three days to fish or cut bait.

"They've gotten nothing from the Daedalus," Zelenka announced on the third day as he walked in to Hammond's office, the marine who was supposed to be gatekeeping standing sheepishly behind him. John turned to look over his shoulder. "At least about hyperdrives. Which was all they were after, apparently."

John turned around to face Hammond again and cocked his eyebrow.

"And this means what, Doctor Zelenka?" Hammond prompted. John swiveled back again, since Radek was apparently not going to come any closer.

"It means that Daedalus probably saw what was coming," Zelenka answered with a frown and a shudder. "What information the Wraith have on the hyperdrive is not incorrect because it is based on an example that they disabled or partially destroyed by, say, shooting at it. It is wrong on much more fundamental levels. There is no way a hyperdrive constructed like this--" he held up the tablet computer he was holding, showing them a screen that was too small to see and wouldn't have meant anything if they could have read it "--would ever have gotten to Pegasus from the Milky Way without a catastrophic failure."

John gestured to the tablet. "Someone on the ship sabotaged it?"

"Better than that," Zelenka answered, not without pride. "They rebuilt it."

John looked over at Hammond, who looked as perplexed as he felt.

"That would have required both time and expertise," Hammond pointed out. "The latter we knew they had, but the former is not what we'd have wanted to hear."

The ship's crew had hyperdrive experts on it as a matter of practicality, plus McKay and whatever people he had been shepherding back to Atlantis. But hatching -- and apparently completing -- a plan like that required time to execute as well as time to realize what was going on. It probably meant that the Daedalus had been disabled when she'd been set upon rather than ambushed out of the blue, which in turn meant that this hadn't been quick and painless.

"Do we know what happened to the people?" John asked.

Zelenka shook his head. "Not yet. We're hoping that since the ship was apparently not destroyed in a battle, then the people were transported to a hive ship rather than simply killed right away. We're looking for evidence one way or another."

The 'good' option was hoping to find their people in the Wraith equivalent of cold storage... welcome to Pegasus.

"Should we tell Colonel Ellis that his services will be needed soon?" Hammond asked.

Zelenka made a face. "We're not even sure we have the information we need on the data we brought back," he admitted. "And, even if we did, we'd still need to find the ship -- if it's only one, otherwise, we will need to find more."

They thanked Ellis for his patience and service and sent Odyssey home after assurances of a very short turnaround back by Earth.

Science, with help from the Wraith experts in Linguistics, was working almost exclusively on the data from the hive ship. John, meanwhile, gathered his people together to start planning a rescue mission aboard a hive ship.

"It's our best case scenario," he admitted at the staff meeting, "but it's also the only one where we can actually do something. And even if it doesn't happen, we're still averaging at least one hive assault a year, so it's a process we should get ourselves at least passing familiar with."

The marines started scouting places in the city to use as a mock hive ship, then started on modifications. Teyla was recruited to give any possible insights into Wraith routine aboard ship as well as help shape the OPFOR. Marines and airmen were sent to crash courses in Wraith reading and a few of the most computer savvy were taught how to use Atlantis laptops in connection to Wraith networks. In Operations and Planning, several options for ship assaults were proposed and refined until they had three variations on a basic method that, between them, covered most of the likely scenarios.

By the time they got word that Odyssey was en route back to Atlantis, Science had been able to confirm that the passengers and crew of the Daedalus had indeed been transported off the ship. This did not mean, John had to emphasize repeatedly, that everyone had survived the initial encounter or that anyone was still alive now. What it meant was that they were going to try and find out.

The mission, whenever they got a target, was a go.

February 2006

On Valentine's Day, some wiseass left him a giant box of chocolates with a card attached that said 'with love, Atlantis' written in Ancient-y letters. Washington was proclaiming ignorance as to the source, said it came with the rest of the mail, but John suspected he knew damned well who it was. (John had his own suspicions, too, judging by the lack of genuine surprise among certain members of the officer class, but he wasn't about to dust for fingerprints.) It was left it out on the conference table and John figured it would be gone by the end of the day.

A week later, he was watching one of the virtual walkthroughs -- CompSci had programmed up a virtual hive ship, complete with the ability to adjust variables like number of Wraith aboard, in space versus on land, etc. -- when Zelenka radioed.

"It may be more than one ship," he said. John closed his eyes and turned away from where Swinson and Polito were sitting on either side of Lieutenant Gillick and respectively throwing down obstacles in his way and second-guessing every choice he made. "There were two, we think, that came across the Daedalus."

"You think," John repeated. "There may be more."

Behind him, Gillick muttered defeatedly. "That's not fair, ma'am."

"I'm not trying to be fair, Lieutenant," Swinson told him.

"We can't find evidence of a third," Zelenka said. "The information on the Daedalus's hyperdrive in the Wraith network has only one point of origin, but we also have their... meal inventory, or whatever you want to call it. How they log the people they bring aboard to store for food. It doesn't log where the food comes from, just the time and the ship where it is stored. There is an entry for a second ship at about the same time as the ship with the hyperdrive specs, roughly the same amount. It's not likely that they were separately recording such bounties."

"How many?" John asked. Daedalus had left with a crew of 487, including the air wing, and had been carrying 523 passengers.

"The hyperdrive-recording ship reported 374, the other 341," Zelenka replied.

They were looking at about three hundred already dead, then, but even allowing some attrition among those brought aboard the hive for food, that was still more than half. And that was, under the circumstances, good news.

"Any idea on where we can find these ships?" John asked as Polito patted Gillick on the shoulder for a wise decision made.

"Even if we knew where to find hive ships when they're not en route to Atlantis," Zelenka said sourly, "we don't have any way to figure out which is which. These identifying codes aren't license plates we can just look at in a parking lot."

John rubbed at his face with his hand. After so many months of nothing, to be handed actual useful information and not be able to do anything with it was so frustrating he could taste it.

"We're not going to be able to board and search every hive ship out there," he said, then thought of something. "Or can we? You've been looking at that remote control virus thingie Jace uploaded, right?"

He knew they had been, but he hadn't been paying attention to what they'd gotten out of it -- anytime it came up in a command staff meeting, his eyes glazed over.

Zelenka made an interested noise. "It's quite ingenious," he admitted, then realized where John was going. "But we can't use it as it is. I don't know if Ford has something in his secret lair that would allow them access to the network -- if he did, I don't see why he would have needed to storm a hive -- but you can't just stand out in a field and remote control hive ships like something you'd get at Radio Shack."

Ford's team routinely attacked Wraith; they might have something. But Atlantis had no way to reach him.

"All right, Doc, thanks."

John went back to his office and ignored the pile of folders Washington had left on his desk, instead going to the file cabinet with the mission reports. They were all online, but it was still faster for him to search this way. He pulled out the report for the first meeting with Ford, then went to Maguire's write-up. One of his marines had seen the gate address Ford's team had dialed.

Taking the folder back to his desk, John pulled up the remote client for the Ancient database and plugged in the planet address. They'd assumed it was a decoy, a detour, but there'd never been any follow-up. The address gave back Medari, which had been populated during the time of the Ancients but wiped out by the Wraith before the great bug-out to Earth.

"I'd like to take Teyla and check this lead out, sir," John told Hammond fifteen minutes later. "We need to get in contact with Ford."

Hammond did not look like he liked the idea.

"You should send a platoon," he said. "Or, if you insist on going yourself, you should take marines with you."

"With all due respect, sir," John replied, "taking marines is the last thing I should do. By myself or with Teyla, it's just his old teammates looking him up. A platoon of marines looks like a hunting party and he's too paranoid to take that risk."

This could be wildly dangerous -- in truth, he had no reason to believe that Ford wouldn't shoot him and Teyla for some imagined offense. But it was the best option.

"We don't even know if this is going to lead to anything," he continued. "If Ford had any tactical sense at all, he'd have dialed a decoy planet and then bounced on to the next one."

Hammond sighed and leaned back in his chair. "You have one hour," he said. "After that, I am sending marines."

"One hour," John agreed.

Finding Teyla was quick work and she was both eager and cautious -- she understood as well as anyone that this was their best hope for rescuing anyone from the Daedalus.

The marine on DHD duty dialed Medari.

"You have one hour, sir," Lieutenant Negley called down. John set his watch alarm for fifty-five minutes and pulled out his PDA.

It was just after dawn on Medari when they stepped through the gate, bright enough to look but not bright enough to see. There wasn't any sign of a village, nor was there a big neon sign that proclaimed Ford's secret hideout.

"Should we just walk around?" Teyla asked dubiously.

"I guess," John agreed, holding up the PDA to see if there were life signs.

To the left was a large open field that couldn't have held or hidden anything, so they started walking to the right, which was still open but had forests and other interesting topography in the near distance.

"It has been a while," Teyla said, eyes on the horizon. "Since it has been just us."

Once upon a time, when it had been him and Ford and Teyla and McKay, there'd often-enough be the missions where Rodney found something and didn't want to be budged and, depending on how fidgety he was feeling or how antsy Ford was acting, John would either end up surveying the place with Teyla or sending Ford to do the same. This was like that, one of those days when Rodney was treating Ford like the kid brother he'd never had and Ford wasn't trying to prove that he was smart enough and mature enough to hang with the grown-ups, when it would be just him and Teyla wandering around looking at the world.

"Too long," he agreed.

So much time had passed since then, even though it had not quite been a year since all missions not pertaining to the then-imminent Wraith invasion had been halted. Their jobs within the city were different, the city was different, they were different.

He was going to say something else when the dots appeared on the PDA. Instead, he held up the device so Teyla could see. She nodded and he could tell she was looking around for a good defensive position in case these dots weren't Ford and his men -- or in case they were.

"Was wondering when you'd show, sir," Ford said cheerfully as he broke through the tree line. Ronon, Hans, and Franz were with him.

John smirked at him. "Not much for evasive maneuvers, are you?"

Ford shrugged. "It was kind of a test, sir."

Of trust and intent, no doubt.

"Did we pass?"

Ford beamed. "I knew you would, sir," he said proudly. "You get this. You get what I'm doing."

John exchanged a look with Teyla. He didn't and wasn't sure who it reflected on that Ford thought he did.

"We have come to seek your help, Aiden," Teyla said, drawing everyone's attention to her.

"Why don't we sit down and talk," Ford suggested. "It's breakfast time here."

They followed Ford back into the trees, Ronon walking ahead and Hans and Franz behind. It felt a little like being taken prisoner, in a polite sort of way. John looked at his watch; he had less than half an hour. Presumably, Hammond would do a radio check before sending an SAR force through the gate.

"Do we get radio out here?" he asked Ford. "We're on a short check-in leash."

Ford nodded, like he'd assumed this was the case. "You might have to stand next to a window for good reception, but it'll come in."

They walked through the trees for about five minutes, away from the rising sun, and then stopped. Ronon was nowhere around.

"Here," Ford said, gesturing to his right.

"Here what?" John asked, since all he saw was more forest.

"Batcave, sir," Ford explained with glee. Then he took two steps to his right, John's left, and disappeared.

"The hell?" John asked. It was a cloak, he understood that, but how the hell did Ford get one and set it up here? He shrugged and followed Ford through.

The Batcave was, actually, a cave. With a set of stairs that led down to it.

"We had to build our own front door," Ford explained after Teyla and Hans and Franz joined them. "The caverns were already here, but there was only a hole in the ground to get to them. Not bad, hunh? Kind of like that place where the ZPM was on Dagan."

It was, a little. That place had been populated by dangerous eccentrics, too.

They walked down the main corridor, off of which there were several side caverns, each turned into something approaching a room -- living quarters, training spaces, a kitchen. As they walked, it reminded John less of Dagan than of the Ancient base in Antarctica, except with stone instead of ice. They stopped at what was obviously the dining room -- and it was a dining room, not a mess hall. There was one long wooden table, old and well-crafted, and a dozen similar chairs spread around with some at the table and some set back along the walls.

"We don't have good coffee, sir," Ford apologized as he gestured for them to sit. "The good shit's expensive and we'd rather buy other things. But we've got good tea."

"That's okay," John assured, tamping down his instinctive revulsion at the weirdness of it all.

Ford called for someone named Elar to get breakfast out and sent Hans off to get Jace, explaining that Jace was kind of the anti-McKay when it came to food and geniuses.

"Why isn't he here?" Ford asked. "I mean, I know why you didn't want him along on the hive ship, but..."

"But we weren't sure if you'd be here and, if you were here, that you wouldn't shoot us the minute we stepped through the gate," John answered with a shrug. "This was classified as a long-shot mission and everyone assumed we'd be back inside five minutes. It would've taken him longer to get kitted up."

It was a weak excuse; John had sent Ford to get Rodney dressed and ready any number of times for missions with even less going on and he doubted that Ford had forgotten his McKay-wrangling duties. But he was saved from having to dig a deeper hole by the arrival of Elar with a large wooden tray laden down with food.

"Where's Jace?" Ford asked Hans as Kanayo appeared and Elar started unloading the tray, which had fresh bread and fruit and a Liadoran teapot. John recognized the teapot because he'd been given one as a gift last year; they were metal wrapped in cloths and covered with ceramic and kept things hot forever and Gunny Washington treated it like treasure. "Tell him we need his brain."

There were a few minutes of regular table business -- passing out cups and plates, passing around the fruit and bread, and so forth. Teyla complimented Elar on his baking and Elar, a troll-like man, was practically beside himself with pride. John suspected he hadn't seen a woman in a while.

"What do you want?" Kanayo asked as he cut up an apple-like fruit, eating the pieces directly off of his hunting knife. The Genii had Earth-like table manners, so this was purely for show. Everyone else was using a smaller knife and a fork, except for Ronon down at the far end of the table, who was using his fingers.

"We've found our people," John answered slowly. "Sort of. We know which ships they're on, but not how to find them."

"Ships?" Ford repeated with a concerned frown. "As in more than one."

"We believe that they are on two hive ships," Teyla confirmed. "Each holding several hundred of our people."

Hans and Franz both made noises of surprise. John didn't know what Ford had told his team of Earth -- if anything -- or of Atlantis. In the context of Pegasus, a population over a thousand was very rare, so having several hundred people missing was usually the recipe for extinction.

"You want us to help you locate these ships and free your people?" Kanayo asked, looking straight at John with his bitter disregard evident. "In return for what?"

"Chill, man," Ford told him, shaking his head before turning to John.

"We don't need help with the liberating," John said. "If you want to join us, we'd probably not turn you down, but we're prepared to go in and get our people ourselves. We just need to know where to go."

Kanayo said something else, but John got distracted because his radio was beeping. He pushed back from the table and held his hand to his ear. The conversation was brief; he assured Hammond that they were in contact and safe and were trying to work something out. Hammond, not sounding thrilled, agreed to let them stay without support.

"-- in trade," Kanayo was saying to Teyla when John returned his attention to the table.

"We came here hoping to appeal to your sense of humanity," Teyla said, focusing on Ford. "If not also your sense of mission. You left us, Aiden, to prove that you could do better against the Wraith than we had been doing. Would not taking so much from the Wraith, especially through means that could not be developed by Atlantis, be a part of that mission? There are undoubtedly others held captive aboard the hive ships -- are you not interested in saving their lives?"

It was a very loose interpretation of Ford's flight from Atlantis, drawing less from reality than Ford's own narrative constructed after the fact, but one that would clearly appeal to his ego and that might be more important.

"Our first mission is to destroy the Wraith," Kanayo said. "There will have to be sacrifices."

You could take the man from the Genii, John mused sourly, but you couldn't take the Genii from the man.

Teyla shook her head. "If you do not value the lives of those who suffer at the Wraith's hands, then who are you fighting for? What victory will you achieve if it comes at such a cost?"


John looked over at Ford, who was waiting for him to chime in.

He had two cards to play here -- Ford's desire for approval and any lingering regard he had for the people he left behind. Both were risky in different ways, but they were getting to the point where John would have to take a risk or face going home empty-handed.

"Can I talk to you for a minute alone?" he asked.

Ford looked hesitant for maybe a quarter of a second before agreeing and standing up, gesturing over his shoulder with his chin. John exchanged a glance with Teyla and she nodded; she understood and would be fine.

John followed Ford into the hallway and across and then into a room that looked like a pantry.

"What's up, Major?"

John bit his lip before replying. "It's Lieutenant Colonel, actually."

Ford blinked and then laughed, "That's awesome, sir! Congratulations. You totally deserved it."

"Thanks," John replied. "But that's not what I dragged you aside to tell you."

Ford grew serious.

"I got the promotion because it came with a bootprint on my ass," John began. "I got turfed from Atlantis."

"But..." Ford trailed off, confused.

"Colonel Caldwell was named military commander," John went on. "I went home and then to Iraq."

"Jesus," Ford muttered, frowning. "Leave it to the military to screw up whatever works. So how'd you get back? Was that Caldwell who you were calling 'sir' on the radio?"

John shook his head no.

"Daedalus went missing ten months ago," he said, watching Ford's face for a reaction besides surprise. "It was her first trip back to Atlantis after the siege. The big resupply mission."

"And people-moving as well," Ford said slowly. "That's why you had so many passengers."

John nodded. "But what we haven't told you is that in addition to two companies of marines, a handful of other military personnel, and a couple hundred civilian scientists, also on board was the entire senior command element of Atlantis."

Ford stared unblinking as realization hit. "Doctor Weir..."

"And McKay and Beckett and Caldwell," John finished. "I got brought back because there was nobody left."

"Jesus Christ, sir," Ford muttered, shaking his head for a minute, then looking up with hurt and anger in his eyes. "Why didn't you say something? Why did you lie?"

John took a deep breath before answering. "You've been classified as a deserter, Aiden," he said carefully. "You left in a time of war."

Ford wasn't so far gone that he didn't understand.

"They're not going to trust anyone they want to put before a firing squad," he said with a snarl, but then abruptly smiled. "But you did."

John shrugged. "I worked with you," he said, like that explained everything. "I know you're doing what you think is right, that being right is more important than being rewarded for it. Been there before and gotten spanked for it. More than once. Doesn't change my opinion of the practice."

He grinned weakly hoped his own doubts were not reflected in his face. Ford matched his expression, the wildness in his eyes dimming a little further.

"I need you to do the right thing here, Lieutenant." He hadn't used Ford's rank before now and he could tell that Ford had noticed. "They're not going to keep me in Atlantis indefinitely. They haven't given me permanent command. As soon as they decide that the Daedalus is no longer a priority, they'll ship me back to Earth."

"So you can stay as long as it takes to search for the ships, sir," Ford pointed out helpfully. Hopefully.

John shook his head no. "We already know that the Wraith aren't getting anything useful about the hyperdrive off of the Daedalus," he explained. "That means the Wraith aren't getting a superhighway to Earth. Which is the chief concern of the folks back home. So I've got limited time to find our people before they close the file and send me home."

Ford inhaled and exhaled slowly, like he was processing a lot of information. Which he was. John just hoped it was being processed correctly.

"I'm asking you to help me do this," he said. "Help me bring everyone back alive."

Ford said nothing for a long moment. John could hear voices in the dining room, one of them Teyla's. He couldn't hear what they were saying, just that they were talking. They weren't shouting, at least.

"It's not as easy as all that, sir," Ford began. "Finding a ship, yeah, we can do that. Finding your ship -- two of 'em -- is something else."

John was so relieved at Ford's acquiescence that it took a second for his words to register. "Is there a way to narrow it down?"

Ford shrugged. "I don't understand it all well enough. Jace might know."

John fought back his own urge to hurry. "Will he be okay if asked?"

Ford grinned, that happy smile John had once enjoyed but now saw as something potentially more menacing. "He's always saying we don't give him enough credit. That mighty Atlantis is asking for his help... yeah, he'll be okay."

"And Kanayo?"

Another shrug from Ford. "He's still pissed at you for stopping Kolya, sir, and he hates Atlantis something fierce."

"So why is he working with you?" John asked. "You had something to do with Koyla's failure, too."

Ford shook his head. "I left."

"It going to be a problem?"

"I'll deal with it," Ford assured with another wolfish grin. "Don't you worry."

They returned to the dining room and John gave Teyla a tiny nod, which she returned. Everyone else had finished eating except for Ronon, who was more playing with his food than inhaling it as he had before. Ford took his bread and poured himself new tea and told Jace that it was time to show off.

"Particular ships are hard," Jace began as he hopped on to his tall stool before a bank of hardware that looked much like the stuff on the hive ship had. Teyla was standing in front of John, next to Ford. Kanayo was stewing by the entrance. "They don't really seem to regularly report their locations to other ships. Or they do and we haven't figured out how yet."

He started typing and the massive screen filled with smaller sub-screens, each with their own data. It was all in Wraith, which was useless to anyone but him.

"They seem to just do their own thing and occasionally they'll call each other up and say 'come here,'" Jace went on. "That's what happened with your Daedalus. This is that summons, I guess you'd call it."

One of the smaller sub-screens was highlighted with a red outline.

"So those are the ships we would need to find?" Teyla asked.

"Yeah," Jace agreed, "but like I said, they don't have any kind of log of where they've traveled and this seems to be from a long time ago."

"Ten months," John said.

Jace whistled and shook his head. "I might be able to find another call for support from one of these two that's more recent, but even if it was three months ago, that wouldn't be any good for finding them today."

"Can you forge one of these?" John asked. "Send out a summons for a particular ship?"

Jace and Ford looked at each other and Kanayo pushed off of the wall.

"We've already been working on that, sir," Ford said smugly.

"Never tried for a particular ship, though," Jace added. "They don't request that way. They don't need to."

They ended up having to leave without anything but a promise for Jace to keep working. It wasn't much on the face of it, especially considering what John had given up to get that far, but he held out some hope.

"Jace seems really interested in the idea," John told Hammond after their return. "He's intrigued by the concept from a scientific standpoint, I guess you'd say. I don't know that he cares much in particular that it's our people, but that it's something they could use in the future for their own ends."

"Aiden Ford, however, cares very much that it is our people," Teyla added. "There is much changed with him, but there is still some of the man we knew."

Hammond nodded. "Then I'll allow myself to hope for the best."

March 2006

Odyssey returned to Atlantis right before St. Patrick's Day; it had been a month since John and Teyla had gotten back from Ford's lair and there'd been no news, but that hadn't stopped everyone from training for the mission anyway. Odyssey had also brought an especially large shipment of materiel -- extra ammunition, grenade launchers for the rifles (plus grenades), thermal sights, and other tools of the trade. There'd been a protracted argument -- the nature of direct communication between Earth and Atlantis meant that even minor disagreements stretched on for weeks -- about non-nuclear heavy ordnance. John wanted effective options for destroying landed hive ships without turning the planet into a radioactive wasteland; it had taken far too long for Homeworld Security to get its thumbs out of its ass and agree.

Zelenka's people were working, too, hoping to come up with a way to track particular ships. They were using most of the research they'd done when looking for the Daedalus and adding to it what they'd learned tracking the hive ships before the siege.

The anniversary of the siege was coming up. Hammond had suggested a small recognition, since while the casualties from it were dwarfed by those lost and missing from the Daedalus, they were not insignificant.

John agreed, although the entire project made him uncomfortable since he'd come so very close to dying during the siege and yet had turned out to be the only one of that command element still alive and accounted for.

"Colonel Sheppard?" Lieutenant Kagan was on the radio, sounding wary. "It's Lieutenant Ford."

"Patch him through," John ordered, standing up from where he'd been sitting at his desk with Radner and Sgt. Major Fowler.

"Sir?" Ford began, almost giddy. "We've got one."

"Where?" John snapped his fingers at Radner, mouthed Ford's name. Radner nodded, tapping his own radio and summoning all staff officers immediately.

Ford gave him the planet's address. John wrote it down and handed it to Fowler, who transcribed it to the large whiteboard near the conference table.

"It's parked on the ground," Ford said. "We grounded it."

"Can you keep it there?"

Polito and Swinson ran in, followed by Elgie. Radner had co-opted John's laptop and was bringing up the record for the planet on the large plasma screen on the side wall.

"For now, yeah," Ford confirmed. "But you'd be better off disabling it yourselves instead of relying on a remote control."

"You offering?"

"Would love, to, sir, but we've got our own fish to reel in," Ford replied. "Maybe next time."

He gave John some details -- active ship, figure about three hundred Wraith on board, full complement of darts locked into flight bays, no cruisers to worry about -- and then wished them well and disconnected.

John saw that everyone was assembled and watching him. He walked around his desk to the conference table to join them. "I guess we've got a mission. Well, Wonder Twins, activate!"

Polito and Swinson smirked, but Polito stood up and crossed over to the plasma screen while Swinson took over the laptop and started typing away. John repeated what Ford had told him as he sat down. Ellis beamed down from Odyssey along with his own senior staff and they and Hammond showed up ten minutes in.

According to Polito and Swinson, they could have boots on the ground in two hours, but would need closer to four to get everyone mobbed up and through the gate. Odyssey would need six hours to get on station -- it was too close to use hyperspace -- which meant that they had to leave now and continue their participation via radio.

"Nightfall by the stargate will be in five hours, sir," Elgie reported, "but I'm not sure it'll be much to our advantage to wait. We'll have it anyway for the egress."

The number of active Wraith -- Ford had had no idea what they'd be up to apart from trying to fix their hijacked ship -- meant that they had to go with their most robust plan. It was one they had trained for and rehearsed and John was heartened by the confidence he heard in the captains' voices.

"You have a go," Hammond told them when they'd come to an agreement. "Let's get this done."

The captains left to either brief their platoon leaders or perform other preparatory tasks. Radner went to go get the jumper they were using as a mobile command center ready, leaving John and Hammond alone after Washington had disappeared into his office.
"This is what we have been hoping for," Hammond said as he stood. "Now we get to see what we can do with it. Bring them home, Colonel. Those you leave with and those we lost."

John nodded. "I'll do my best, sir."

The idea of having a formation and giving a speech in what was technically a battlefield was a little counterintuitive as far as John went, but everyone didn't fit in the gate room and the marines seemed to expect him to say something. So John did. Afterward, he didn't remember quite what he'd said, just that he knew he'd mentioned the upcoming anniversaries of the siege and the attack on the Daedalus and that this mission was, be it rescue or recovery, the fulfillment of a promise to never leave anyone behind. But the marines seemed to like it, so whatever the exact words had been, they'd obviously been okay.

The marines would have preferred he stay in the TOC with Swinson and Elgie, but hadn't pushed too hard. They knew he'd be on the ground, that Teyla and Safir would be with him, and so they'd just issued him a PSD and moved on. John had Lovell back as his RTO and he made sure to keep the sergeant within arm's reach as they waited to push forward.

A platoon from Delta had the breach mission and once they were through, everyone else started moving quickly.

Platoons had been tasked with securing routes into the ship and to the engine room, systems room, and bridge, all of which also had to be disabled and secured. There were two platoons hunting Wraith, others prepping the storage halls for liberating those trapped in stasis, and one for casevac. Everything would require more manpower than had been used previously, but they did not have the manpower to increase it proportionally to the risk. They'd been practicing for weeks and so everyone was familiarized with their tasks and their environment; training would have to be the force multiplier.

Lovell had already reported contact with the Wraith -- almost as soon as the marines had gotten inside. By the time John made his way in, the sounds of combat were all over, echoing weirdly off the walls, and the air smelled like ozone in addition to the usual hive ship smell. They moved quickly up what had once been the first leg of Route Aita on the other hive ship but was now Route Happy (Route Aita's component parts had been renamed to avoid confusion) and then on to Route Dopey, which was the second leg. But instead of moving on to the stairwell, they kept going until they intersected with Route Sneezy, which would lead them almost directly to the storage areas.

Happy had been easy, just a straight run, but Dopey was not yet fully secured and marines were still fighting at almost every intersection. Most of the time, the marines just yelled for them to pass through, but they had to stop and help at the fourth intersection, since the team holding it had taken a casualty (he'd been dragged off to the side to wait until he either woke up enough to help or got picked up). They pushed through until they finally got to Sneezy, which was less under control than Dopey but would be easier to do so once sufficient force arrived.

The marines moving to secure Sneezy were firing 40mm grenades down the long hall; the blasts were loud in the enclosed space and made a smoky mess, but did more to stop the Wraith than hails of rifle fire. John and his team ended up covering the rear until more marines showed up, by which point Sneezy was secured far enough ahead that they could peel off to the left to continue the run to the storage rooms. They were joined by Maguire and his platoon, with additional marines to guard the entrances.

Nobody had a real good idea of what condition anyone would be in when they came out of stasis; it was why John had brought Safir along. There were corpsmen as well and John trusted them to handle almost anything, but it would be too hard to get Yoni in afterward if someone should need immediate care.

The storage rooms were terrifying. John remembered what he'd seen during the ill-fated assault with the Genii, but that had been nothing compared to this. Rows and rows of sticky, spidery netting covering faces that were unaware but clearly not at peace.

"Get everyone out," John ordered loudly. "Keep a count of how many are ours, but everyone gets out of here."

The marines split up and went to different rows, pulling out their ka-bars to cut through the netting. John followed Teyla across the room; Yoni was already gone.

John was still cutting through his first pod when Lovell told him that they had their first confirmed KIA; Sergeant Ferdidi had been caught and fed upon. "Copy that," John said. "Make sure someone brings him out."

The first pod contained a civilian from Earth; John could tell from the jeans and t-shirt. Unconscious, she fell bonelessly into him as he cut her loose, waking up suddenly as she was free of the pod.

"Oh my god," she cried hoarsely as she clung to him. "Oh my god. Are we-- Are you--?"

"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, commander of the First Atlantis Battalion," he said as he forced her to standing. He pulled a transporter tag from his vest. "You're going home. Go stand by the marine over there and we'll get you out of here."

She looked like she wanted to say more, but John pushed her gently toward where Staff Sergeant Laganzo was waiting to collect the rescued. He had about a half-dozen so far. They were going to move them up to the Odyssey by the score.

The process was repeated again and again. The row he was working was entirely civilian except for one member of the Daedalus crew. He didn't expect to find too many marines; the consensus was that most had probably perished defending the ship.

In his ear with the radio, he heard Odyssey's commo officer confirm transport of rescued personnel. In his other ear, he heard the sounds of battle unabated.

"Lovell," John called over as he moved to the next row. "What's going on?"

The short version, which was what Lovell gave him, was that things were going acceptably but not great. They had two KIA and more than a dozen down with stunner blasts; casevac was moving smoothly. Happy and Dopey, which were the main routes in and out of the hive, were secure, but things were going less well in other parts of the ship. The hunter-killer platoons were doing a lot of damage, but one of them had also gotten trapped by a dead end -- apparently hive ships weren't completely identical -- and had required rescuing in turn. The team assigned to the engine room had had to blow the place because they weren't going to be able to hold it long enough and the platoon assigned to the bridge had not yet been able to breach it, let alone secure it.

Teyla needed a hand because the person in the pod was too big for her to easily maneuver. He was a marine with a blond high-and-tight and a barely-clotted bloody gash along the side of his face -- stasis slowed everything down. He came alert with a gasp, grabbing John's wrist hard and nearly flinging Teyla to the floor.  

"Let go, Sergeant," John barked. The marine did, operating on instinct rather than comprehension, and John read his name tape as he dropped his arm and muttered apologies. "Sergeant Reletti, go stand with Staff Sergeant Laganzo over there and let the corpsman clean you up."

"We're rescued?" Reletti asked, looking around. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. "Let me help, sir."

""You can help by getting casevaced," John told him, digging for a transporter tag.

"I'm good, sir," Reletti insisted. He reached behind himself to pull out his ka-bar from its sheath. "I can cut people free."

John shook his head, used to the mulishness of marines by now. "Fine. You get cleaned up by the corpsman, then you stick to Teyla here and be her muscle."

"Aye aye, sir," Reletti said with a nod. He jogged a little clumsily after Doc Stohr, but John gave him points for noticing the corpsman in the first place.

"If he's too out of it, get him up to the Odyssey," John told Teyla.

"I think he'll be fine," she said. There were tears in her eyes, he noticed, and he didn't think they had anything to do from her getting swatted at by Reletti.

"You okay?"

"I am very okay," she assured with a smile. The tears made her eyes twinkle in the dim light. "Go, end some more nightmares."

John returned to where he'd been working and cut the next person free.

Reletti wasn't the only marine to go from rescued to rescuer, but John didn't see a lot of them in general and he was chagrined that the initial estimates had seemingly been correct.

The giant hall was filling up with people as well as emotion; there was a lot of crying and some screaming. It was hard to listen to, even though this was the 'happy' ending they'd hoped for. The rescued were waking up in a battlefield after having been taken prisoner in one. The trauma of whatever had happened on the Daedalus was clearly still fresh in everyone's mind -- courtesy of the stasis, as far as they were concerned it had just happened and it wasn't over yet.

"Sir!" Maguire bellowed, not needing the radio to be heard across the hall. "I think this one's yours."

"Yours?" An exhausted but indignant and familiar voice asked. "I am not... whose? Don't--"

John ran across the room. "Shut up, McKay," he said once he was a few feet away. "Be nice and thank the lieutenant for saving your life."

"You!" Rodney spun around, nearly falling over. Maguire had to grab him by the scruff to keep him from tripping over his own feet. Oblivious to the fact that he was being partially dangled, Rodney looked around like his head was on a swivel. Oh my god. Where the... oh, god. I remember."

"What do you remember, Rodney?" John prompted, gesturing for Maguire to let him down gently. Rodney stumbled a little, then stood up straight. "What the hell happened?"

Maguire quietly left the two alone.

"We were sabotaged," Rodney replied, looking at John like he was seeing a ghost. "The Wraith infected the Daedalus with a virus. We were dead in the water. They came, we lost, they brought us back to the hive." He looked around again and shuddered. "Maj-- Colonel. You're a colonel now. I remember. Wait. Why are you here? You were going to Iraq. How long has it been? How long have we been here?"

Rodney looked at his hands and clothes, like he could tell the passage of time. He couldn't, of course.

"It's been eleven months, Rodney," John said gently. Rodney looked up at him again with wide eyes. "We still haven't found the Daedalus."

"Oh, god, I think I'm going to be sick," Rodney moaned. "Eleven months?"

John nodded. In his ear, another confirmation of transport. There was still rifle fire echoing from outside.

"You should go be sick on the Odyssey," he told Rodney. "Go find the waiting area to be beamed up."

Rodney nodded, mute. But he didn't move.  

"What about Elizabeth?" John asked cautiously. "And Caldwell and Beckett and Emerson?"

Emerson was the captain of the Daedalus; he'd been captured on his maiden voyage in his new command.

"Emerson's dead," Rodney said bitterly. "I saw to that."


"We realized early on that the Wraith were after the ship for its hyperdrive," Rodney explained, remembered horror on his face. "We tried to get her going again, but it was a brilliantly written piece of code. After we tried everything else, Emerson let us sabotage the hyperdrive. We took it apart completely, making sure the Wraith would never figure it out. But it also meant that we'd never escape. Emerson died being tortured for information he never had. Elizabeth... she goaded them into killing her. She said she had too much in her head for them to reach in and take. So she made sure they didn't."

John closed his eyes and took a deep breath, pushing the hurt down. He'd grieved already for Elizabeth, as he had for Rodney and Carson, but to have hopes raised -- and then those hopes justified by Rodney's rescue -- only to be dashed again...  

"They didn't die in vain," he said, opening his eyes. "The Wraith have your fucked-up hyperdrive as their example and they have nothing new on Atlantis or Earth."

Rodney laughed, but it wasn't the good kind of laughter.

"Go up to the Odyssey," John told him again. "But go say hello to Teyla first."

Rodney nodded and walked away unsteadily, patting John's arm as he passed.

"Odyssey, this is Orpheus actual," John said into his radio. "Doctor McKay confirms KIA status of Doctor Weir and Colonel Emerson."

"Copy that, Orpheus," the commo officer replied. "Be advised that Big Boys One, Two, and Three have been emplaced."

Odyssey was carrying five mostly improvised 'bunker busters', massive conventional explosive devices that would destroy the hive ship without worrying about creating a nuclear winter. They'd be detonated remotely once everyone was clear.

"Copy that."

Work on the liberation of the storage room slowed down some once they got finished with the first level. There were rows of bodies, like some kind of macabre dry-cleaner's rack, and nobody could figure out how to shift the pods. They ended up getting ladders beamed down, which was not efficient but better than having marines climbing walls and dropping people down. They didn't have enough ladders to continue working at the pace they had been, so John shifted marines to perimeter defense and supporting other units, since the Wraith had apparently figured out that this was a raid on their stores and were moving down here rather than trying to defend the ship as a whole.

Lovell reported that Avenger One had found a female enemy combatant. John wondered if she was the 'keeper' of this hive, but apparently she'd been encountered in what was being described as a throne room, so maybe she wasn't. Although John hadn't seen the digs of the one he'd encountered, so who knew? She was dead, cut in half by a SAW, so it was going to remain a mystery.

"What's the butcher's bill, Doc?" John asked Safir, who was stretching in the way people over thirty did when they'd been hunched over for too long.

"One stasis-related fatality, four urgent-surgicals that were pre-stasis in origin, a lot of tachycardia," Yoni replied, rolling his neck. "They were swept up regardless of condition, it seems. Just so long as they had a pulse."

John looked over at the collection point; the Daedalus people were the overwhelming majority of the rescued, but they were still picking up startled and terrified Pegasus natives. Laganzo was being assisted by a marine John couldn't recognize from behind, but they seemed to have everything well in hand. Marines made excellent sheep dogs.

The noise from outside the hall was picking up again. After a particularly loud boom -- the marines were relying heavily on the grenades -- Yoni gestured toward the way they'd come in.

"We going to be able to get out on foot?"

Beaming everyone out of the hive was not the preferred strategy for the same reason they hadn't beamed everyone in -- with a force this size, it was beyond Odyssey's capabilities to do anything but the most organized and piecemeal mass movement. Everyone was tagged for emergency evac, but the plan was still to go out the way they'd come in.

"We're going to try," John replied.

Yoni left him when one of the corpsmen called for him and John went looking for Teyla, finding her near the collection area.

"Where's Reletti?" he asked her, since 'how are you doing?' was not a question he could ask too often.

"He has gone to assist in the defense," she replied, pointing toward the entrance.

"Without a weapon?"

"He said that there were fallen marines and he would use one of theirs," she replied. "He appeared to be of sound mind and had recovered from being in the stasis pod. I did not think it necessary to stop him."

John chuffed a laugh. "Probably would've had a fight on your hands if you'd tried."

They were silent for a long moment. John switched channels on his radio so that he could hear what the marines were doing without asking Lovell. The company nets were busy but not chaotic, marines were shouting over each other, but it sounded more like it was because of the noise than any kind of panic. Everything was going according to plan, within acceptable boundaries of 'according to plan', and he couldn't help but feel proud of the work his people had done and were doing. But anything close to exultation was impossible, even with the tally of the rescued well into the hundreds.

"I saw Rodney," Teyla said. "He has been through much."

John nodded. "He's tougher than he thinks he is."

"I have no doubt," Teyla continued with a small smile in recognition of their past adventures. But then the smile faded. "I am sorry about Doctor Weir. I know that you were hoping to find her here today."

Not wanting to talk about it, John shrugged. "We've done good here."

"We have," Teyla agreed. "But you have still lost a colleague and a friend and, for that, I mourn."

He wouldn't necessarily have called Elizabeth a friend, but she had been more than a colleague, so put together, maybe it was appropriate. He'd still add her to the list of those he'd cared about and couldn't save.

"Maybe we'll get lucky and find Beckett and Caldwell here," he said instead, since Teyla was still watching him carefully.

"Sergeant Reletti believes that Colonel Caldwell was killed aboard the Daedalus," she said as they watched one of the marines climb down a ladder with a small Pegasus woman in a fireman's carry. "He said that there was a fierce battle aboard the ship before it was finally taken."

"I kind of figured as much," John replied. "But we'll wait for eyewitness confirmation before we make it official."

It took another six hours-plus to get everyone out of the hive, counted up, and on the way back to the gate. The evacuations of the rescued and the injured were without complication, but there was rough fighting for the marines' egress that ate up most of the clock, including one battle that nearly got a squad left behind and another nearly killed because of a radio fuck-up and some miscounting. And that was before Odyssey detonated the explosives too soon, with at least fifty marines still in danger close range, which in turn left a dozen injured enough to be stretchered back to Atlantis at a dead run and singlehandedly provided justification for bringing Safir along.

By the time John got back to the city, Atlantis was its own hive of activity.

"Congratulations, Colonel," Hammond said, holding out his hand. He was pleased, but not giddy. By all accounting, the mission had been a wild success, but there had still been lives lost. "That was one hell of an operation."

Three marines had been KIA, a couple dozen were recovering from stunner blasts as well as the group that had been injured in the exfil. Compared to what they'd brought back, that was astounding and it had made a mockery of their casualty estimates.

John accepted the hand and the accolades with a grim smile. "It was good," he agreed. "Better than expected. Even with the screwed-up det."

"Doctor Safir has already expressed his opinion on that," Hammond said with a sour expression that wasn't entirely about Yoni, who had probably unloaded on whoever was closest when he came through the gate, which in turn had probably been Hammond himself. "Colonel Ellis has already apologized, but I suspect you'll be getting your own version."

John nodded. Mistakes happened. "How's the repatriation going?"

In preparation for a sudden population increase in the hundreds, all requiring some kind of post-event care, an unoccupied building had been cleaned up and turned into something between a hospital and a residence. Everyone they brought back would require medical care, including psych evaluations, and they'd need to be interviewed as quickly as possible to generate any kind of intelligence about the Daedalus, the Wraith, and the fate of the other passengers and crew. Radner had been in charge of this half of the operation and John knew he'd need to find him soon.

"It's moving," Hammond replied with an approving nod. "We've been able to shift resources from casualty care. I believe Major Radner is working out of the processing area."

John left Hammond with the promise to both check in later and get some rest and the understanding that only the first was really going to happen. He went down to Medical, which was still very busy and tense. Medical had transformed its spaces in preparation for both the wounded and the rescued; they'd anticipated large numbers of stunner victims, so there'd been a room set up and set aside to deal with the essentially low-risk recovery while the main infirmary areas were kept for the more critical cases. Operating theaters had been set up, although they did not have enough to handle the cases brought in, so a few had been transferred aboard Odyssey while the lowest-priority were lined up on stretchers along the wall waiting their turn.

Safir was moving around from station to station, barking orders and directions. He had exchanged his vest and uniform top for scrubs, but was still dressed like a soldier from the waist down -- including the bloodied knees from where he'd knelt next to marines injured in the hive blast. John made sure Yoni saw him, then made sure to get out of the way of those doing crucial work.

"Those fucking idiots," Yoni snarled at him as he approached, pulling off latex gloves and throwing them angrily in one of the waste bins. "We're going to have to evacuate at least one to Earth as soon as he's anything close to stable. He survived contact with the Wraith only to be blown up by some trigger-happy armchair kanith on his own side."

John didn't bother with the 'accidents happen' approach, instead just nodding. "Everyone else getting what they need?"

Yoni reached behind John to retrieve two more gloves from the box on the table, but did not put them on. "We'll manage," he admitted grudgingly. "If it weren't for the fuck-up on the exfil, we'd have been dancing in the hallway. But I am not going to look at the big picture and smile until I know we haven't killed more than the Wraith did today."

"Trust me, Doc," John assured. "Nobody thinks you're going to shrug this off."

He'd probably tell Ellis to keep his Weapons Officer aboard ship for the next day or three.

"Heightmeyer and her army of headshrinkers are off with the rescued," Yoni went on, accepting a tablet from a nurse, looking it over, giving a direction John didn't understand, and handing it back. "Most of them will be of some use immediately."

"For intelligence or within the city?"

"Both," Yoni replied, putting on the gloves. "There aren't many gibberers -- at least many that can't be convinced to stop for long enough to answer questions. I suspect many will accept the SGC's offer for a return trip home, but there won't be many we'll be ordering back to Earth."

Apart from any medical evacuations, Hammond had mentioned the possibility of opening a wormhole to Earth to send people home -- putting them on the Odyssey for the return trip might be too much too soon -- but it was too early for any real decisions on that front.

"Excuse me," Yoni said, raising his arm to acknowledge a summons from across the room.

John left, stopping by the room set up with cots for the stunned marines. Many were conscious, if not yet able to move well. He spent a few moments at each bedside, making bad jokes and praising each man for his work and the work of the battalion as a whole, before heading off to where they were keeping the rescued.

Radner looked like he was in need of coffee. He was sitting at a makeshift desk with a laptop and several stacks of paper. A pair of NCOs from Two Shop were sitting on the floor nearby, comparing names of the rescued with names on the missing lists. He assured John that they were good for resources and personnel and had gotten into a rhythm with the processing.

"We're keeping everyone in the big rooms for now, sir," he explained, gesturing with his chin in that direction. "We've got quarters set up upstairs, but Doctor Heightmeyer said 'comfort in numbers,' so they're sitting around on mats eating sandwiches. We've got one room for the folks who haven't gotten their ninety seconds of headshrinking, one room for those who have, and a third for the indigs. Teyla's with them; she asked and I didn't see the harm."

The plan for the Pegasus natives was to send them home ASAP if possible, or to the mainland if it wasn't.

"What kind of intel are we getting from people?" John asked. "Are we getting any?"

Radner nodded. "We're getting plenty, sir, and most of it is even making sense. We're getting a timeline for the Daedalus, which might help us figure out where the fuck she is, if she hasn't been towed off somewhere, and a better sense of who survived the assault to be brought to the other hive."

"Do we have confirmed statuses on any of the other command personnel?" He'd assume that Radner knew that he already knew about Elizabeth.

Radner looked around on his desk, then down at the two sergeants working on the floor. "Gentlemen?"

"Carson Beckett's still on the MIA list, sir," one of the sergeants reported after flipping to the appropriate page. "Colonel Caldwell is confirmed wounded in action, but he's still MIA, too."

From one of the rooms came the call for a corpsman; one came running from another room, bag in hand.

"So nobody saw them dead and nobody saw them marched off," John concluded. They'd chosen to be as narrow in their classifications as possible -- any pronouncement required at least one eyewitness, preferably more. "I guess that's good."

"It's not bad, sir," Sergeant Killion agreed. "Witness reliability is sort of hit-and-miss -- we've got four people swearing that Doctor McKay was killed, but we've also got some who seem to have good recall."

John nodded; they knew that this would be problematic, too, which was why they were hoping for more than one witness per. "Speaking of, where is Doctor McKay?"

"Still getting debriefed, sir," Radner answered as Sgt. Major Fowler emerged from the room the corpsman had run into, dropping off another stack of papers by the two sitting sergeants and nodding at John. "He's got more than most, especially about the technical stuff."

The regular interviews were being conducted in a corner of the room the cleared were staying in, but Rodney was in a small room across from where Radner was parked, sitting at a table with both Zelenka and Elgie sitting on the other side and Doctor Zanger sitting on a stool in the corner with a laptop, working furiously on who-knew-what. There was an Intelligence NCO in the corner taking notes and recording everything. Rodney looked like he'd been through exactly what he'd been though -- wrung-out and numb and not-quite-there. He barely looked up when John entered. Zelenka, meanwhile, looked both angry and concerned for Rodney, while Elgie looked like he'd just been let in on a joke.

"What's going on?" John asked.

"It would seem that we have our own version of the Newton-Leibniz priority controversy, Colonel," Zanger said from the corner, not looking up. "It will be forever debated whether it was Jace or the Wraith who came up with the remote control virus first or whether it was developed independently at all."

"What?" John took half a step back. "Jace took the Wraith's own program?"

"Talk about being hoisted on your own petard," Elgie said wryly. "Welcome to the whiskey-tango-foxtrot part of the program, sir."

"Rodney's been reproducing the code for the Wraith virus that disabled the Daedalus," Zelenka explained. "It looked very familiar to us, let us say."

John rubbed at his face, getting a reminder that he'd still not cleaned up after the assault, but put that thought aside. "So we just rescued our people from the Wraith with the same trick the Wraith used to get them in the first place?" Elgie and Zelenka nodded. "Jesus Christ."

"And speaking of people who rise from the dead," Zanger said from his corner, finally looking up. "I think we might be able to figure out how to get our second ship."

That got Rodney into motion. He suddenly became animated, like someone had changed his batteries. He looked up at John. "Clear me to work on this," he asked John, a note of pleading in his voice. "Let me help."

John wouldn't have said no even if he'd wanted to; instead, he looked over at Radek, who gave a minute nod.

"Zelenka's still the CSO," he told Rodney. "He's the boss, you're just helping out."

Once upon a time, Rodney would have looked indignant and annoyed and insulted Radek's intelligence as well as everyone who was working in Science and hadn't figured out a way to find him without resorting to pirated code acquired from sketchy sources. But that was not this time.

"Fine," Rodney agreed easily. "But I want my own laptop back."

"Talk to Zelenka," John told him, then turned to Radek. "Beware of the dog."

John followed the group out of the room, nodding to Radner so that Dave knew that this was with permission.

"They're going to go see if we can't get our second ship without Ford," John told him. "I'm going to go clean up."

"Was going to mention that you were looking a little marine-like, sir," Radner said as John turned to go. He turned back, but Dave was feigning obliviousness.

He went to his quarters to shower and change, then stopped by the chow hall because he hadn't eaten since a couple of crappy energy bars during a break from cutting people loose on the hive ship. He brought his food with him when he went to his office, where he found coffee brewing, Washington in his own office, and no folders on his desk. His laptop, however, was open and on and the screen was showing the file with Daedalus personnel statuses being updated in real time.

"Please don't eat at your desk, sir," Washington's voice came through the intercom just as John was about to open up the container. "That's what the conference table's for."

John was at the conference table working his way through his first meal in more than fifteen hours when Swinson came storming in carrying her laptop and notebooks, stopping short because she hadn't realized he'd be there. They'd used his office as their briefing room and the maps and other diagrams were still taped to the wall.

"Sorry, sir," she apologized. "I'll come back later."

"No need, Captain," he assured, then gestured with his fork to the napkin-wrapped bundle nearby. "Cookie?"

Swinson took a cookie, then started unfurling her maps and schematics, heavily marked up to reflect the differences they'd run into between this hive ship and the previous one. By the time John had finished eating, Polito had joined them. He, too, was freshly washed, although he was also sporting bandages on his neck and shoulder after getting hit with burning debris as a result of being too close to where a grenade had gone off. He greeted his CO, tossed Swinson a can of her beloved TaB, and pulled out his own notebook. Elgie and Armstrong showed up shortly thereafter, and it was soon an unofficial AAR.

By the time John finally called it a night, the Daedalus manifest had been gone through and, with varying degrees of accuracy, they knew who'd be on the other hive ship should they be able to locate it.

April 2006

"I think I can bring the second hive to us, but we might have to be on a Wraith ship to do it."

"What the hell are you talking about, McKay?"

Woken out of a deep sleep by his beeping radio, John was momentarily confused and nearly told Rodney to talk to Elizabeth in the morning about it. But then he came to himself with a sickening start and sat up. "What've you got?"

Rodney, sounding like he'd been living on coffee for the better part of three weeks, which he had, gave a rapid-fire explanation that John didn't think he'd have understood even if he hadn't been woken up. He looked at the clock -- it was two in the morning.

"McKay, listen to me," he said. "Make sure you have everything you just told me on paper and then go to sleep."

An exasperated sigh, one that made Rodney sound almost like he'd once been. "But--"

"But I'm not waking up my staff at two in the morning to tell them to plan a mission that starts with an assault on a hive ship and then goes on to another assault on a different hive ship. If this makes any sense in the morning, Rodney, I promise we'll work on it."

Seven hours later, John and Radner and Polito and Elgie were sitting in on a Science briefing that described how Rodney had essentially beaten both Jace and the Wraith at their own game. As he'd reported in the middle of the night, Rodney had found a way to find their missing hive and to direct it to a point of their choosing. The problem was that he needed direct access to the Wraith network to do it.

"Are there any other ways to go about this other than storming another hive?" Radner asked. "Two in a short time is a tall order, even if the Wraith haven't been chattering between themselves about what we've been up to."

Rodney looked over at Zelenka, who in turn looked over to Zanger.

"We're still working on a way to use a transmitter," Radek said. "We're close, but not there yet. If we got there, it would still require us to be near a hive ship."

John exchanged looks with Dave -- near was a lot better than in.

"We'd be turning a hive ship into the galaxy's most ungainly iTrip," Zanger added.

Hammond eventually ended the briefing when most of the answers started being 'we don't know yet' and 'we'll have to wait for Odyssey to return.'

"The folks back home are going to approve anything we can sell them," Hammond said to John after everyone else had departed. "They got a taste of success and would like another gulp. Especially if it will bring a clear-cut end to this saga."

John nodded. He knew that the IOA weren't the only ones interested in wrapping things up. Hammond himself had hinted about wanting to return to Earth -- he'd accepted the role as interim expedition leader with the understanding that it was, in fact, interim. Now, more than half a year later, it wasn't unreasonable to suggest that a search for a permanent replacement to Elizabeth Weir be started. Especially now that there was no reason not to acknowledge that it was necessary. Hammond had been happy in retirement and he'd occasionally say that this was a younger man's (or woman's) job. He wasn't demanding a firm date, wasn't interested in leaving without a mechanism in place for a smooth transition, but once the fate of the Daedalus was known and her passengers and crew accounted for, Hammond was going to press for a command change so he could get back to his grandkids.

Over in Little Tripoli, they started planning anew, as much to put their recently acquired lessons into practice as to figure out what they'd need to request from Earth before Odyssey got underway. But Odyssey hadn't even gotten back to Earth yet, so they were looking at at least another month of planning and prep before they could even consider acting -- something Science was occasionally forgetful of as they pitched the latest variation on their themes.

Zelenka was still in charge of the division, both officially and in every way that mattered. Rodney seemed not to mind, content to spend all of his time working on how to rescue the rest of their people from the Wraith rather than dealing with management issues or any other aspect of command. But it really was all of his time -- freed from responsibilities to his subordinates and to his off-world team and no longer required to go to meetings, Rodney pretty much did nothing else. He had regular sessions with Heightmeyer, which he bitched about only out of habit, but otherwise his social interactions were reduced to whoever trekked down to his lab.

"He is the same, but he is not," Radek said with a shrug when the subject of Rodney came up during a command staff meeting. "He is unpleasant when disturbed, he is making everyone else around him that much more brilliant, he never makes new coffee when he finishes the pot. These are as they have always been. But he is not driven by what once pushed him so hard. The loss of Doctor Weir, the unknown fate of Doctor Beckett, these things weigh on him. He is motivated by something other than his own glory; whatever happened aboard the Daedalus changed him."

Rodney, for the record, would not speak about what had happened to him. He'd give details about events and actions he'd taken regarding the ship itself, but what he felt about it, where his own thoughts were at the time, those were not for public consumption. Not even for those who'd known him well.

"He is in pain," Teyla said one evening when John joined her on the balcony outside of her 'office.' "He believes that he caused the deaths of many."

John made a face because, yeah, he'd recognized the guilt for what it was. "He saved a lot more," he replied, eyes on the stars. "He did the best he could."

Teyla smiled faintly. "Responsibility for the lives of others is a profound experience."

How much responsibility Rodney had had -- as opposed to how much he was accepting for himself -- was probably a matter for debate. Elizabeth and Caldwell and Emerson had not been unwitting or powerless parties to their fates; Caldwell seemed to have organized a respectable defense, Emerson had died protecting his officers, Elizabeth had made a supreme sacrifice to save her world. Rodney hadn't been working alone -- Doctor Novak (missing, presumed dead) and Hermiod (confirmed deceased) had been Rodney's collaborators in leading an army of Atlantis-bound scientists and Daedalus engineering crew --but there was no one else who'd been there who could now challenge his version of events, who could tell him that he hadn't made some great mistake and they wouldn't have done things differently.

"To learning the hard way," John said ruefully, holding up his mug of tea in a sardonic toast.

By the time Odyssey returned, there was a framework in place for a two-pronged assault on the Wraith to get their people off of the hive ship. The transmitter existed as three different prototypes, none of which had ever been tested for obvious reasons. On the assumption ('guarantee' as Science was putting it) that one of them worked, there was a list of planets chosen as ambush points depending on where the hive ship was when found. The idea was to pick a nearby planet so that Odyssey could both support the assault mission as well as do whatever was required to get the transmitter in place.

"We want to use a jumper," Rodney explained at one of the meetings. "It has a cloak that will let us get close enough to do what we need to do without drawing attention the way the Odyssey would."

There was still a very good chance that Odyssey would need to fly the jumper to its destination, or at least most of the way, but it was a sound notion.

What John had thought would be a big complication -- finding a hive ship to use as a transmitter -- turned out to be a relatively small one. Or at least a relatively straightforward one.

"The data we got off the hive ship with Ford is three months old," Zanger explained with a shrug. "But it shows a pattern we can work with and, with the data we have on Wraith feeding activity, come up with something."

It was the feeding activity that led them to action.

Three days after finding out that one of their local produce sources had been wiped out by the Wraith, most of Delta Company barely avoided becoming Wraith chow on an otherwise unpopulated world. The land nav planet, MJ4-B3L, was in the solar system next door (relatively speaking) from Ejket and there was strong evidence that the hive ship would be sticking around.

"There are five populated worlds in that system," Zelenka said. "The Wraith only stumbled upon the marines by accident because they were there for other reasons."

There was a good chance that Odyssey was going to be wandering around aimlessly ("like the Israelites in the desert," Ellis muttered during one briefing) looking for the hive ship for a while, but it was also probably their best chance.

"Go bring our people home," Hammond told him. "Let's give this galaxy a happy ending for once. Hopefully, the first of many."

Task Force Ragnarok ("Seriously Matt, next time you let the sergeants or Kate name things, okay?") was two full companies of marines, two jumpers (medevac and TOC), and John's small group. They would wait on MJ4-B3L for Rodney to bring the hive ship to them, then assault the hive as they had before, hopefully with even greater success -- and a much slower trigger finger on the explosives used to blow up the ship afterward.

In order to drive the hive ship (codenamed Diyu) to MJ4-B3L, Rodney and his team would need to get close enough for one of their transmitters to work. In order to do that, they would be stowed aboard Odyssey as she trawled for the hive that had been chowing down in the area. Once Moby Dick had been found, Rodney's jumper would deploy outside of the range of the hive ship's sensors and make their approach under the radar.

Rodney's team in the jumper, codenamed Anu, was him, Zanger, two other scientists, and Captain Atherholt as the pilot because he was considered the best of the Dirty Half-Dozen. John had suggested a marine or three on board, but Rodney had pointed out that it would be crowded enough already with the extra equipment and they weren't planning any amphibious landings.

It was evening when Task Force Ragnarok departed Atlantis and late afternoon when they arrived on MJ4-B3L. With nothing to do until they got word that Odyssey had found the hive ship, they kept it low-key -- everyone ate and, after night fell, kept a minimal watch while everyone else slept. It was not quite dawn when Atlantis dialed in to report that Odyssey had indeed located Moby Dick.

"There's no point in making everyone hurry up and wait," John told his officers at an ill-lit meeting where everyone sat on MRE boxes and cradled mugs of coffee in the cold and misty damp. "We've got a couple of hours at least -- and this is all assuming anyone on that jumper can get a transmitter to work and then joyride that ship here. We'll have plenty of warning, so just keep your men engaged without letting them get too excited."

John got radio contact with Odyssey a few hours later -- because of the local stellar and planetary arrangements, finding a place where she could be able to serve as support for both Ragnarok and the jumper and have radio communications with both had proven difficult. But now that she'd found a good parking spot, Ellis confirmed that everything was going according to plan. At least until Murphy's Law kicked in and they had trouble setting up the direct radio connection between Ragnarok and Anu.

"Williams was leaning on a switch," Rodney explained irritatedly when that was resolved. "We're in a tin can driving toward a hive ship and he thinks he's starring in a remake of Abbott and Costello Go to Mars."

John laughed, unable to stop himself. With Teyla by his side, for a moment it was as if the last year had never happened.

"We'll let you know when we have anything interesting to report," Rodney said, cutting the connection.

It was a quiet morning, tension in the air but no thicker than the dissipating fog. The marines played cards and fought with each other and bullshitted while they cleaned (and recleaned) their weapons; John made circuits of the groups, gauging the mood and answering the odd question. Teyla stayed with Yoni by the space where they'd slept the night before; she was quiet, but insisted that nothing was wrong.

MJ4-B3L wasn't the worst place to spend a day, which was why it had been chosen for field exercises, and more than one marine lamented that they were about to wreck the place by bringing a hive ship down and blowing it up.

Not that the prospect of tons of burning debris fouling the landscape later kept them from policing their trash now.

Morning became afternoon became late afternoon. John checked in every few hours, braved Rodney's increasingly short-tempered retorts about having no intention not to announce success, and waited. They'd stay here for as long as they had to, especially with Rodney's jumper already hovering near the hive, but if the wait grew much longer and a second night of camping was required, they'd have to get Atlantis to cough up more supplies.

"Okay, we're in," Rodney announced while John was squishing MRE pound cake into pellets before eating them.

John took a drink of water before answering. "Into what? Moby Dick or Diyu?"

Around him, alertness spread out like a shockwave. Swinson jumped up from where she'd been sucking sadly on a packet of beef stew to go find Lovell, who'd been given a furlough from hanging out with the officers and POGs, to come work the radio.

"Moby Dick for now," Rodney replied, sounding distracted. "Zanger, do you have -- yeah. We should be into their network in... no, not that firewall, that's just... what is that? Something Ford's hacker put up? Bypass it... Okay, we're in. We're sending out the call for Diyu now."

John remembered Jace's handiwork being a factor in whether this operation would be possible. It hadn't been considered a key concern. There'd been no evidence of Ford's group having demolition derbies with hive ships, so either they were still going after hibernating ships or it had proven harder than expected.

"Can you tell where it is?" he asked. "Or, more importantly, how long it will take before it shows up here?"

"Not that far away, actually," Zanger answered. "It's going to use its hyperdrive to get here. It could be here in under an hour."

Back during the planning phase, everyone from Science had gotten very upset at the military's repeated queries about how long it would take to get Diyu under control once it showed up and how complete that control would be once achieved. Rodney had been in fine form pointing out that he rather liked being alive and free and so the answers would be "almost immediately" and "very."

"We're going to take control of Moby Dick now," Zanger went on. "Minimize the panic later."

According to Rodney's brief, Moby Dick would be easily immobilized. ("There are a million ways to make sure something doesn't work. It's a far simpler process than trying to hijack a hive and do something with it.") The darts would be trapped in their bays and the cruisers would be landed and locked; inside, the bridge would be disabled, rendering weapons and steering a non-factor.

Around him, John could watch as the marines went from chilling out young men to warriors. At his signal, Lovell called all commanders in for a meeting.

It was less of a meeting than a quick review of the plan and the different stages; everyone knew the mission cold by now.

It took about forty minutes before Diyu showed up and fifteen very tense minutes after that before Rodney declared her fully under control. Task Force Ragnarok was silent; every clasp closed and every cough echoed.

"I thought you said it would be immediate and complete, McKay," John said after they'd gotten the all-clear.

"It's taking longer to pass commands on to Diyu because we're running them through Moby Dick on a transmitter that's really too weak for the job," Rodney answered, too busy to be truly indignant. "We're running at 'community college radio' when we really need to be '50,000 watt superstation.'"

Not exactly something you wanted to hear while waiting for a hive ship to splash down next to you. "Is this going to be a problem?"

"Atherholt's moving us closer to Moby Dick," Rodney replied. "We'll be fine. Next time, we'll just go bigger."

Atherholt was also supposed to be effectively controlling Diyu -- passing on maneuver instructions to the scientists who were converting them to whatever the Wraith ship understood -- so they had to wait while Diyu idled.

It was about ten minutes later when Odyssey reported that Diyu was in motion, rotating on its axis so that it was oriented toward MJ4-B3L.

"Tell everyone to get into their bunkers," John told Lovell.

The marines had dug foxholes thirty meters behind the tree line to provide cover both from aerial attack as well as whatever happened when Diyu hit ground -- Atherholt was an excellent pilot, but this was not going to be a finesse landing and they'd been told to prepare as if for artillery. The marines had bitched, mostly but not entirely in jest, that they hadn't traveled to another galaxy just so that the Air Force could continue to drop shit on their heads.

"Okay," Rodney announced. "We are beginning Phase Three. ETA for Diyu's arrival in upper atmo is thirty."

It took about fifteen minutes for everyone to get settled in their protective postures. It was after dusk now, but much darker in the forest and everyone was wearing their NVGs. The loss of depth perception was always disconcerting at first and there'd been a lot of mocking anyone who missed or mistook a foxhole for something else.

The medevac and TOC jumpers were about five hundred meters to the rear, in a small clearing. Swinson, who would again be in the TOC, stewed about hiding in the rear in a shielded jumper while everyone else sat on the ground.

"Your Stockholm Syndrome is duly noted," John told her. "The marines can pick up their toaster when we get home."

He was aware that her real frustration was that he had refused to allow her to join the assault force while Teyla was in the thick of things; getting stuffed into a well-protected jumper while Teyla hunkered down in a foxhole was just another indignity despite it being entirely because they needed someone to report on Diyu's progress and not out of any assumed delicacy on Swinson's part. Kate knew that Teyla was along solely because of her Wraith connection, but that ultimately didn't make things any better.

"Let us know when you can see Diyu on your screen," John told her once she had comms in the jumper up and running. "You're going to be a better source of intel on that front than Anu."

John's foxhole was his 'team' -- Safir, Teyla, Lovell -- and his PSD. One of whom decided that now was a good time to start singing Creedence.

"Very funny, Sergeant," John sighed, not turning around to see which one it was. He suspected it was Sanchez because of the high tenor. "Stow it."

"Sir, I have Diyu on-screen," Swinson reported, all sullenness gone. "She's coming up as a cluster -- there are four cruisers attached to her like barnacles."

John wondered why nobody on Anu had thought to mention that.

"Copy that," he said. "As long as they stay attached, we're good. You have an ETA on them?"

A pause while Swinson did the calculations.

"If she continues at her current rate of speed, ETA is seven minutes, sir."

John told Lovell to pass on the warning. And then they settled in to wait. Like most of the others, John lifted up his NVGs to keep himself from getting a headache and to save battery power. There wasn't much to see anyway, just trees.

"Oh, no," Rodney groaned after a few minutes had passed. "No, no, no. Zanger! Switch up thirty millihertz."

"What's going on, McKay?" John sat very still, his back against the foxhole wall, pushing his helmet forward. "Talk to me."

"Sir, Diyu's slowing down and her cluster's breaking up," Swinson reported, calm but concerned.

"We're losing our connection to Moby Dick," Rodney said, distracted. "I don't know why. They could be jamming us with some system we don't have locked down."

"So lock it down," John said.

"I'm trying!" Rodney retorted. "Williams, set Isaac up at the Alpha frequency set, see if we can't confuse them."

The three transmitter prototypes were named Isaac (Newton), Albert (Einstein), and Max (Planck); Albert had turned out to be the one to work best.

"Sir, the cluster is broken. The cruisers are moving into attack formation and Diyu is speeding up. She's maintaining her vector, sir. She's coming straight at us."

A commotion on their right flank; the stargate was engaging. John didn't think it was Atlantis; the Wraith tied up stargates to prevent escape. The marines closest to the gate moved out of their foxholes and into positions to attack if anything came through.

"Orpheus, this is Odyssey. We are moving to engage Diyu. Be advised that radio communication may be cut as we move out of this sector."

"Rodney, fix this," John growled. "Odyssey, this is Orpheus actual. Copy that and good hunting."

He told Lovell to pass on to all units that they might be under aerial assault soon as well and to tell Polito, whose company was closest to the gate, to pull back into the trees. He didn't think anything was going to come through if it hadn't already. He didn't even know for sure that it was an incoming wormhole and not an outgoing one -- they had no idea how powerful the DHDs on the hives and darts were.


"Two minutes, sir."

John looked over at Teyla, who gave him a sad smile in return. On her other side, Safir was arranging his gear so that he could access both his medical packs and his extra ammunition.

"Ninety seconds. The darts have been launched."

Orders were being passed along and reinforced all along their position; John's foxhole was more or less between Charlie and Bravo, so he heard the marines as complementary waves of barked commands and muttered encouragements. It was purposeful and calm; the tension came from the waiting and not what happened when the waiting stopped. The marines drilled constantly on Wraith attack scenarios, including ones set here on MJ4-B3L, and they all knew what to do. Darts didn't automatically run their scoopy beams over forested ground, so as long as they didn't give the Wraith any reason to believe that there was anyone in the trees, they would be fine until there were boots on the ground. Which was not a guarantee in this scenario; there was no saying what the Wraith thought had been happening or why they'd been being sent here. There was every chance the Wraith would lose patience and just firebomb.

John tried to raise Odyssey, but got nothing. Anu, by extension, was also lost. They were alone.

"Forty-five seconds. Switching jumpers to cloak."

The darts appeared in the sky with distant booms and discs of bright light that were visible through the tree cover. He'd been aboard Daedalus when the Wraith had tried their kamikaze divebomb on Atlantis; he wondered if this was what it had looked like from below.

Next to him, Safir and Teyla were watching the sky with grim expressions that he took to mean that it did.

The darts sounded like mosquitoes from far away. Their whine rose and fell as they sped around at a higher altitude than they would have used for a food run -- they were scouting.

"Shoulda gone to take a piss when I still coulda," one of the marines muttered to his neighbor.

Four deeper booms as the bigger, slower cruisers broke atmo.

"We have traversed the stars to relive the wars our grandfathers fought," Yoni said quietly, barely audible over the drone of the darts. "Sitting in a foxhole, hoping the Luftwaffe doesn't find us."

John grimaced acknowledgement, although he doubted Yoni could see him or even if he was interested in a reply.

In situations like this, time tended to bend and flex, speed up and slow down, so John had no idea how long they'd been sitting there when Swinson's voice came over the radio. It felt like forever, but it could've been fifteen minutes; he'd been too busy watching the sky, getting ready to give a scatter order, to look at his watch.

"Sir, the cruisers are pulling back and it looks like the darts are forming up to return to the hive. Anu must've re-established their connection."

John exhaled loudly in relief. "About damned time."

The whine of the darts grew louder as they moved into formation, then quieter as they flew off. The stargate disengaged. Around him, everyone was cautiously congratulating each other on not becoming Wraith chow. John looked at his watch -- fifty-five minutes had passed.

Odyssey did not answer John's radio hail, which was unsurprising but still worth attempting. He told Lovell to keep trying every few minutes.

"Sir, everything seems to be stowed aboard Diyu," Swinson reported. The cruiser are... what the fuck?"


"They just disappeared, sir," she replied. "I can't tell if they went silent or they were destroyed."

"Can you see Odyssey?" John asked. He didn't think any Wraith ships had cloaks of any kind, so he was going for 'destroyed.'

"No, sir."

Maybe Rodney had done something.

"Diyu is in motion again, leveling out at her previous controlled velocity. We should have splashdown in four minutes."

The warning was passed throughout the ranks; everyone got back into their foxholes and braced for impact.

The noise of the hive ship breaking into the atmosphere was thunderous and only grew louder as she grew closer. It felt like every alien invasion movie ever, with the massive ship slowly blotting out the stars as it filled the sky above them. It was clearly a controlled descent, the ship angling slightly this way and that as she was positioned for the ease of the assault force.

"Down! Down! Down!"

Everyone huddled together at the bottoms of their foxholes as Diyu came down with an earthshaking thump, like the ground itself was water riding out the shockwave. The trees above them creaked and shook and a few fell from the force of it. John swallowed as his ears popped.

It took a minute to verify that nobody had been injured, then to get into position to start the long-awaited assault. Diyu was about eighteen hundred meters away and they'd move through the trees to get to her.

"You raise Odyssey yet?" John asked Lovell, knowing that he hadn't or else John would've already had Ellis or Rodney in his ear.

"No, sir. Should I try again?"

"Wait until we're in position in the pod room," John told him. "It'll be informational before then."

They had planned to again use Odyssey for casevac of the marines and then for the rescued, but there had been contingency plans developed in case they had to get everyone back to Atlantis by foot and through the stargate. John just hoped that they didn't have to use them -- getting the injured plus hundreds of weak and disoriented civilians out of a hive ship that was likely to still be a battlefield was not going to be easy or casualty-free.

John could sense more than hear when the TOC jumper took to the air.

"Can you get a head count inside Diyu?" he asked Swinson. He had no idea if that was even possible; he hadn't tried on his own approach to the hive last year.

"Negative, sir."

They were still more than six hundred meters away when there was what sounded like an explosion aboard Diyu.

"What the fuck was that?" Polito, near the front of Charlie, which was leading their approach, asked. "Hipcheck, you have eyes on anything?"

Swinson had refused to let Polito give her a new call sign for the operation; Hipcheck she'd been back on Earth, Hipcheck she'd be here.

"There's smoke and flames coming out of Diyu's fore starboard hull," she replied after a moment. "From its position, I'd say it's the engine room."

"Rodney's feeling his oats," John said to Teyla, who smiled.

"I guess that saves us some C4," Armstrong said. "Is it big enough to be a problem?"

"No, it's small and contained," Swinson reported. "It's very hot and seems to be burning itself out quickly."

"Thank you, Anu," Polito said.

They started moving again.

Assaulting an active hive ship was never going to be a smooth operation or one that didn't strike fear into the hearts of the commanders who were sending their marines (and themselves) into such sure peril. But this was their third actual mission after endless rehearsals and two previous successes and there was a calmness about it, a fluidity, a surer sense that there were not going to be too many surprises or failures. The marines were carrying weapons and equipment best tailored to the mission and had a better sense of how to effectively use what they had; there were less directional fuck-ups and fewer wrong turns even allowing for differences in hive architecture. Everyone had a better sense of how the Wraith operated on their own turf, which in turn made all else easier.

With the engine room blown, the platoon tasked to do just that was instead reassigned to support the one charged with taking out the bridge. John and his team again followed Maguire and his platoon through Routes Happy, Dopey, and Sneezy and into a storage hall that had been better-fortified and defended than usual.

The Wraith, too, were learning from prior experience.

Getting people out of the stasis pods had also been practiced and they'd brought their own ladders this time in case Anu wasn't able to remotely activate whatever the Wraith used to shuffle rows of pods. The ladders were looking to be necessary, however, because they were still unable to get comms up with Odyssey and thus unable to tell Rodney that they were ready for him to start working on that.

It was Teyla who found Beckett, bruised and his clothes heavily spotted with blood.

"It's not mine, love," he told her, distracted and distraught. "It's not mine."

His reunion with Safir was both comic and painful to watch; Yoni was trying to pretend that Beckett was a patient and not his best friend and Carson was too weary to be anything but pissed off by that.

Beckett took the news about how much time had elapsed and Elizabeth's death no better than expected. He sat down at the collection point looking small and old and very worn.

"--yssey, do you copy, over?"

"Odyssey, this is Orpheus actual," John replied before Lovell could. Between pods, he paused. "It's real good to hear from you. We've got people to beam up if you're able."

There were more than a hundred already, mostly civilians from the Daedalus, about a dozen marines, and a small group of Pegasus natives all from the same world who clung to each other in sheer terror despite Teyla's assurances that everything would be fine.

Beckett offered to stay and help, but John assured him that Yoni really was better for the job right now and it was important that Carson get looked over for real and to just rest.

"I've been sleeping for a bloody year!" Beckett retorted. "I'm rested enough."

John held up his left hand in a peace gesture; his right was still holding his knife. "Then help out aboard Odyssey. They're going to be swamped by the time we're done anyway."

Carson went, reluctantly, with the first load. John watched Yoni, who was supporting a tall auburn-haired woman, as he watched Beckett.

"I am glad for him," Teyla said at his right side. John hadn't even realized she was there.

"If this is him being giddy with relief, I don't want to be around him when he's actually annoyed."

Teyla gave him a reproachful look. "We all express our fears and our joys in different ways," she said. She arched her eyebrow meaningfully, which John took as a silent warning not to stand outside his glass house and throw stones.

The liberation of the stasis pods went well, although there were a few minutes of concern when Swinson reported that one of the bay doors on Diyu had opened and a flight of darts had launched. In response, Odyssey sent out some 302s, which took care of the problem with only one loss of aircraft (the pilots had punched out, however, and were getting picked up by the jumper set aside for casevac).

Caldwell was found, alive but badly wounded. He was evacuated immediately without John seeing him and Yoni was too busy to be asked for details. There were far more injured stored aboard this hive than the other one, some in pretty sorry shape -- apparently the Wraith really had picked up anyone with a pulse, even a faint one. They could scoff, but they didn't -- the rapacity of the Wraith had saved lives; had these people been left aboard the Daedalus, they'd have certainly died. Stored in stasis and now evacuated to a facility prepared for trauma cases, they had a fighting chance.

Many of the most seriously wounded were marines; their brethren on the rescuing force were energized after having been told for so long that the decimation of the Corps element had been nearly complete.

When the stasis pods were all empty and all who were to be transported aboard the Odyssey were gone, John allowed himself a smile as he looked around.

"Better than half," he said to Teyla. It was probably going to be well over sixty percent; they'd get precise numbers later once they sorted out the indigs. "I didn't think we'd do it."

She smiled back at him, her pride in their success tempered by the same awareness he had of just how many people were lost in that significant minority. "I had faith."

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His own faith had waxed and waned; his ability to operate as if success were assured was independent of his actual feelings.

"Odyssey, are we getting any help from Anu on the exfil?" he asked.

Rodney's jumper was supposed to scoot down to a nearby planet with a stargate and get back to Atlantis that way. As such, they might still be connected to Moby Dick.

"Negative, Orpheus. It's just us."

"Copy that."

He waited for Lovell to report that all of the marines fighting throughout Diyu were accounted for and ready to move.

"All right," he called out, drawing the attention of the marines in the storage hall. "Let's get the fuck out of here."

Their egress was not unchallenged, but apart from one marine getting stunned and needing to be dragged off by his buddies, they got out without a problem. Mindful of what had happened last time, Odyssey was going to wait until everyone was through the stargate before blowing Diyu. Nobody argued.

Atlantis was... less jubilant that maybe John had expected when they got back. He knew the rescue counts had been reported, so while it would take a few hours for Odyssey to get close enough to start beaming people into the city, there still should've been some more upbeat attitudes than what they were greeted with. It had certainly been that way last time.

Radner was standing on the steps and John went over to him, Teyla following. Dave greeted them with a nod, but before John could ask what the hell had happened -- since it was now very clear that something had -- Dave raised his hand to his mouth and hollered after Yoni.

Mild mannered self-described REMF in Atlantis, Dave had once been an artillery officer. He could shout over howitzers if he had to.

Yoni had peeled off as soon as he was through; Medical was going to be even more of a zoo than last time with so many more seriously wounded returning. But he stopped and turned at the summons, irritation fading to wariness as he had some kind of quick silent conversation with Radner. He gave instructions to a doctor standing by the door, then trotted back across the gate room toward the stairs.

"What's going on, Dave?" John asked.

Radner just grimaced. "The Big Man wants to do it all at once."

John gave Teyla a look, which she returned with her own concerned expression, and they followed Dave up the stairs. Yoni took the steps two at a time until he joined them.

"Congratulations on a successful mission, Colonel," were Hammond's solemn words as they entered. He stood up as they did, but gestured for everyone to sit. Nobody did.

"It is with a heavy heart that I add the name of Rodney McKay to the list of those killed in the course of liberating more than five hundred souls from the Wraith."

John felt like he had when the shockwave had hit them on the planet, except this time he was standing up in open ground. Next to him, Teyla gasped and took a step back, hands to her mouth to stifle herself.

"How?" Yoni asked sharply. Like this was a stupid joke with exceptionally bad timing. "The jumper was never detected."

"Anu was never able to re-establish a connection to Moby Dick," Radner began. "Doctor McKay requested that he be transported directly on board to be able to control Diyu manually. Colonel Ellis agreed and sent along a Phoenix Raven unit for protection, with the intention of getting everyone out as soon as Task Force Ragnarok secured Diyu. Doctor McKay was killed when Moby Dick exploded."

The words all made sense, but the details they were describing did not. "Wait," John said, holding up a hand. "Odyssey agreed to beam him onto an active hive ship? And then they blew it anyway?"

The plan all along had been for Odyssey to try to destroy Moby Dick after she was no longer needed, although that had been a secondary objective and not considered high priority at that. But this was ridiculous, even for all of Rodney's arrogance and Ellis's aggressiveness.

Radner shook his head no. "Doctor McKay initiated the detonation."

"Rodney blew himself up?" John shook his head. "What am I missing?"

"It appears that Doctor McKay's defenders had already fallen and he himself had been fed upon by the Wraith," Hammond explained gently. "Moby Dick was blocking Odyssey's transporter beam and she was unable to retrieve him."

John ran his hands over his face, rubbing vigorously. "Jesus Christ," he muttered, angry with himself for not seeing and angry at those who were supposed to be trained to see. "Fucking guilt complex. Wasn't Heightmeyer supposed to fix this?"

He looked over at Yoni, who grimaced back. "The mind is not a bone," he said simply. "You can't fix what the patient won't accept is broken."

In the gate room below, there was the chaotic noise of satisfied marines. Even with Rodney's loss, which they would respect as any other selfless sacrifice, this was still a coup. It was just hard to see that at the moment.

"Why did Rodney ask to be placed on board the hive ship?" Teyla asked in a quiet voice. "Why did we not abort the mission and try again at another juncture? We are able to call the ships now."

Radner sighed. "There was no way for Odyssey to intercept Diyu before it reached MJ4-B3L and, with the stargate there activated by the Wraith, no way to either order the abort and evacuate you or send out the jumpers in support. There was every likelihood that Task Force Ragnarok would have been destroyed and, with it, our last and only chance to save those aboard Diyu."

If John and his group had been killed or taken, the IOA would've dropped the mission. He knew that just as Rodney had, just as they all did. It had come up often enough during planning.

"Odyssey's logs will have the full transcripts," Hammond said. "Colonel Ellis said that Doctor McKay's own explanation for his actions will serve more fully than any second-hand version."

"Not for what he thinks," John said.

Hammond tipped his head in acknowledgement.

May 2006

The ceremony was brief and solemn. Hammond spoke of duty and sacrifice, of how everyone who had perished -- civilian and military -- had served a greater good simply by reaching for the stars, of how some had served greatness by striving beyond what they or anyone else had expected of them. Teyla spoke of hope, of promise, of not forgetting what the deaths of so many had been in pursuit of and how the simple act of fighting the Wraith, selflessly and with honor, had begun the transformation of the galaxy.

John spoke of nothing, at least not here. He'd said his piece at the smaller ceremony the marines had held for their fallen brethren (and the Air Force personnel they accepted without begrudging as their equals in this case) a few days earlier. He was, as he'd told Hammond, out of words.

The rest of the day was sort of a non-day, a Sunday without joy. There was a Mass, which John had no intention of going to, and some non-denominational thing that was even less appealing. He ended up in his office, where Washington had put up coffee and left out donuts, and worked.

Caldwell had survived his injuries, although he had a long recovery ahead of him. John had not been given permanent command of Atlantis, instead he'd been told that he was being reappointed as interim commander until either a decision was made about Caldwell's return to duty or a new commander was found. The announcement had pissed him off enough that he'd strongly considered rejecting the appointment and going back to Big Air Force rather than dangling indefinitely while the brass figured out who was next going to kick him home. Teyla had talked him out of it, though, by telling him to have hope for the future -- and when that didn't work, she simply told him that she'd rather he maximize his time in this galaxy because she'd miss him when he was gone.

There were still going to be changes in Atlantis's command. Hammond had submitted his resignation ("Again.") and would stay until a replacement could be brought in, a process he'd told O'Neill should be counted in weeks rather than months. Zelenka had been confirmed as CSO while Beckett was reclaiming his title from Yoni, who, as expected, was going back to Earth as soon as Carson felt comfortable on his own. He was leaving the Stargate Program entirely, Dave had heard. Probably from the man himself, or from Teyla, since with Carson back there were now maybe five people Yoni actually conversed with willingly.

"I thought you might be here," Teyla said as she entered. She was wearing the same outfit she'd worn earlier for the ceremony, a deep blue dress that was neither somber nor playful. She picked up a donut and a napkin and sat down in the chair across from his desk, taking a delicate bite.

"Not too many other places to go," he replied with a shrug, putting his pen down. "Certainly not today."

He'd explained to her that he didn't really feel like mourning Rodney or Elizabeth all over again, that he'd done it twice already and a third time wasn't going to make him feel any better.

"I am going to visit with Radek later," she said between bites. "I believe he could use company today."

John nodded; this wasn't a veiled hint that he should go. He'd sat next to Zelenka at the ceremony, had shaken his hand after it was over, and he didn't think any more was expected of him. They'd had their own relationships with Rodney and Elizabeth and while they had a good relationship with each other, their griefs were different and did not necessarily intersect.  

"You're good?" he asked.

She smiled at him fondly. "I am well," she replied. "We have brought an ending to a painful mystery. It may not have been the ending we would have chosen, but it is always better to know than to remain wondering."

Rodney and Elizabeth had died at the moment of their choosing, she'd told him in the days after Operation Gehenna had concluded. In Pegasus, that was a rare gift. All the more so because that by choosing those moments, they had saved so many others. It was as much as anyone could ask for themselves.



further reading: Story Outtakes (McKay, Safir, Swinson)

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30 September, 2009