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Decade

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The alarm blared, warning lights flashed, and the personnel of Cheyenne Mountain rushed around like a disturbed ant hill. General Jack O’Neil marched into Stargate Command, for once looking the part in his dark-blue uniform including all the chest candy befitting his rank, witness to his abrupt departure from Washington not two hours ago.

“Okay folks, what we got?” he asked as he entered the briefing room, every seat but one on the large table filled with the familiar faces of all the important people at Stargate Command.

“Ah, Jack,” Daniel said, pushing his glasses up and blinking at him with that way he had, as if he was vaguely surprised to find him there, even though he had to have known perfectly well to expect him.

“Our sensors have detected two unknown ships above the planet, Sir,” Carter informed him. Both of them (even after years in Washington, he still thought of them as “his” science geeks) stood next to the large screen at the head of the room, just like old times. Well, their civilian clothes pronounced that they had been called in from Area 51, just as he had been from Washington. Maybe not quite like old times. O’Neil didn’t admit it out loud, but he often found himself missing the old times when they were SG-1, Goa'uld and explosions and frequent end-of-the-world scenarios notwithstanding. However, these days they were all going their own ways, and he himself was certainly not getting any younger. Maybe he ought to try that retirement thing once again. For now, though, he got his train of thought back on track.

“Yeah, I’d gathered as much from your phone call. So what about those ships? Unknown origin, you said?”

“Well, I’ve tried to maybe narrow it down, but I can confidently say that we’ve never encountered a design like this anywhere,” Daniel supplied.

“Ah,” Jack said, took the last free seat, poured himself a cup of coffee, and then turned his do-go-on expression on them.

“They exited hyperspace relatively far out, between Saturn and Uranus, about two hours ago, and have since been proceeding on an approximately earth-bound trajectory,” Carter explained, waving her pointer at the line of red dots on the screen that illustrated the flight path of the vessels.

“It seems they were looking for us, and they’ve entered earth orbit about fifteen minutes ago,” Hank growled. “We’ve tried calling them on all known frequencies, but they haven’t responded. We have received no message from them, and they have shown no hostile intent so far. In fact, they haven’t done anything since they arrived.”

“So, what do they look like? Nice and friendly? Cheery colours?” Jack ignored the looks coming his way with the mastery of long practice.

“Er… no,” Daniel coughed and pressed some button or other to give them an image of their unknown visitors.

Jack felt his eyebrows rise and gave a low whistle.

It was always hard to judge size in space, but these ships were massive. Their shape was roughly triangular, with an uneven, brownish-black surface that looked organic rather than metallic. They seemed to hover above the blue ball of earth like gigantic space whales, if whales were sinister.

“And we have no idea where these come from?” he asked the room at large. Head shakes answered him.

“No. We have also sent pictures to our allies, and neither the Jaffa nor the Tok'ra representatives on base have ever seen anything resembling this design before,” Hank replied. “Now, people, the question is, what do we do?”

Jack raised his eyebrows. “Shoot them down?” he suggested, and, yes, there was Daniel’s patented scandalized/exasperated “Jack!” expression.

“We’d rather not make new enemies if we don’t have to, Jack,” Hank informed him dryly. “So far, they haven’t shown any hostile intent.”

“Yes, well, once they do it’ll be too late, won't it?”

Hank heaved a put-upon sigh. “That about sums up our dilemma.”

“Surely you’re not actually considering…?” Daniel spluttered.

“With the size of these ships, Doctor Jackson, I certainly am considering,” Hank informed him. “We don’t know what sort of weapons they have, but even so, unless they are a lot more fragile than they look, it will take serious fire power to bring them down…”

“Sir…!” Carter exclamation interrupted him, and all eyes turned to the screen which had started flashing red in a way that was not inspiring confidence in Jack.

“Our sensors read… wait, can that be right?” She squinted at the screen.

“Colonel Carter?”

Carter started and turned to Hank with a somewhat sheepish expression. “Sorry, Sir. According to our readings, large numbers of smaller vessels have just started exiting from the two ships.”

“Large numbers? How large?”

The look Carter turned on him told Jack he wouldn’t like the answer.

“Several hundred, Sir.”

Shouts rose from the table and several people started to their feet.

“And just how small are they?”

“About the size of our F-series, Sir.”

That information prevented imminent panic, but there was still a lot of uneasy shifting at the table.

“All right!” Hank barked out. “Colonel Mitchell, inform the second and third wing of F-305s to be on stand-by for immediate take-off. General, Doctor Jackson, Colonel Carter, with me to the gate room. We’ll try contacting them one more time. General Caldwell, return to the Daedalus and prepare her and the Prometheus II for engagement.”

***

Five minutes later, Jack tried to answer the worried look Daniel turned on him with a reassuring grin, but he was pretty certain he didn’t succeed. Daniel, in any case, only gave him a somewhat annoyed frown for his trouble.

Hank had sent off a last message that said “Talk to us or we shoot you”. Well, that wasn't quite what it said, but it was the gist of it. Minutes stretched by. The alien ships continued hovering, now surrounded by a cloud of tiny dots like flies swarming around cows. Only cows couldn’t potentially shoot you with alien weapons of unknown capacity.

And then their uneasy silence was rent by a new alarm.

“Sir! We’re picking up a new hyper space event!” Walter, still manning the consoles after all these years, announced with contained panic.

“How close?” Carter demanded.

“Close! Only a couple hundred miles from the alien ships, between us and them, right outside our atmosphere!”

“Is it another one?”

“Satellite image is coming in now.”

They leaned closer to the screens, to see a third ship emerge from the hyperspace window.

It was smaller than the other two ships, though it also sported a triangular design. But its point was more pronounced, the body narrower before it flared out in flat, wing-like structures towards the base. Bluish-green metal seemed to form a cap stretching from the tip back across about half of the body and around the edges of the wings. The edges of the metal cap were rippled, as if it had melted and refrozen in it’s current form, and under it the same brownish-black surface emerged on the main body of the ship. Towards the end, two ridges from that same blue metal broke through that surface like fins.

Then the speakers crackled.

***

“This is John Sheppard, Supreme Commander of the United Armed Forces of the Confederation of Sentient Species of the Pegasus Galaxy, calling the Wraith hives. Call back your darts and power down your weapons. Surrender yourself and you will be offered conversion and full integration into the Confederation, including unrestricted civil rights as laid down in Article 1 of the Founding Charter. Resist and you will be destroyed. I repeat, Wraith hives, surrender yourselves or we will blast you out of the sky.”

They didn’t have time to do more than exchange confused glances before the speakers crackled again.

“John Sheppard,” a voice hissed, and the tone made it clear that the name was immediately recognized. Unpleasantly so. “How did you know to follow us here?”

“I have my sources,” came the smugly cryptic reply. “Now, I mean it, stand down or we will open fire.”

The rolling hiss as answer made it perfectly clear that the unknown second party in this conversation was not human. “And in turn you will offer us your drug to turn us into humans like you?” Oh, just peachy, Jack thought. Not another alien species that looked down on the human race in contempt. But a drug to turn aliens human…? And who was this Sheppard character? He had a feeling like the name should mean something to him… besides the fact that it sounded like a distinctly Earth name. And, hey, they were all speaking English up there, how weird was that?

“Not exactly human, no,” Sheppard replied in the tone of voice of someone who had explained the very same thing many times. Many, many times. “You’ll retain most of your appearance and strength. The drug is intended to take away your need to feed. Your life-span is unfortunately significantly shortened as an unavoidable side-effect, but, hey, on the other hand, fertility has been shown to sky-rocket in exchange.”

Another hiss. “Or I could feed on this rich, rich world of yours, Sheppard. I have not seen a world like this in millennia! I will feed, and I will establish a breeding ground, and then I will be Queen of a hive such as those in the times of old!”

“You’re not the only nasties in this galaxy,” Sheppard replied dryly. “But never mind that. If you attack that planet, you will all be dead before the first dart gets into range for a culling beam. Surrender, and we can all go home in peace. It’s your choice.”

“I think you are bluffing, Sheppard. All Wraith know what happened at the Battle of Neo-Sateda. It will not work twice. This world will be mine!”

“Have it your way, then,” Sheppard answered laconically. If he was bluffing, he was doing a damn good job of it, Jack privately thought. Couldn’t have done it better himself.

“Sir!” Carter said, eyes on the screens. “Energy-readings from all three ships are spiking… they’re powering up weapons! And the fleet of small ships is starting to move towards the planet!”

“Colonel Mitchell! Small enemy vessels are descending towards the planet! Prepare for launch and destroy any enemy craft that come into range!” Hank barked into the microphone.

Mitchell had barely time for a snappy “Yes, Sir!” before Walter announced an incoming communication– one on a frequency that had fallen out of use as main frequency in the SGC years ago.

“Stargate Command, this is Sheppard. Greetings from Pegasus. Sorry we’re a bit late, folks.”

Sheppard. Pegasus. Suddenly it clicked, and Jack recalled that young, lanky, dark-haired pilot wandering around the Antarctic base, recalled giving Weir the okay to recruit him for that ill-fated expedition, on a whim really, after the kid had made the chair light up like a Christmas tree. Meant to recall seeing him step through the gate right now in front of him, hesitant and shoulders tight. First gate-travel― to another galaxy.

Jack felt his eyes widen, matching the dumb-struck expressions on everyone else’s face. He was sure he hadn’t been this surprised in years.

“Sheppard? Major Sheppard?” Hank asked into the microphone, tone harsh with the shock they all felt. “Atlantis expedition, is that you?”

“Yep, that’s us all right,” Sheppard replied in a drawl that would have been aggravating beyond reason if elation, giddy disbelief, wasn’t flowing thickly through the room, grins starting to grow on faces, Jack’s no exception. The lost expedition to Atlantis…!

“And a couple friends,” Sheppard added. Then a rumble filled the background and the connection crackled with static for a second. “I’d love to catch up,” Sheppard’s voice returned, “but I’m afraid I’ve got two hives to take care of. I’ll hand you over to McKay, he’s assembled a data file for you with what you’ll most need to know right now. MCKA-AY!” The last was a shout that had the tone of frequent use.

“Yes, yes, I’m here, no need to shout!” McKay’s unmistakeable, fussy whine filled the gate room, and Jack would never have thought that the day'd come that he'd welcome it.

Carter leaned forward to one of the microphones. “McKay! It’s a pleasure to hear from you.”

“Carter? Yes, all right, a pleasure, blah blah, are you ready to receive?” Yes, that was McKay all right. Though, considering he was in the middle of a space battle up there, he didn’t sound nearly as hysterical as Jack would have expected.

Carter shot Hank a questioning look, and received a confirming nod.

“Yes, Rodney, please transmit.”

“Here you go. I’ve compressed it using old Earth technology, you should be able to read it. Of course, that means it’s a bit on the large side. The enemy we’re currently fighting are called the Wraith. They’re natives of Pegasus, and they eat people. Our scanners have detected two ships in orbit, so if you’d like to make yourselves useful, I suggest you call at least one and have it help with the clean-up of the darts. Everything you need to know about them is in the file. McKay out.”

There were glances exchanged again, and Jack shrugged helplessly at his former team mates. Aliens that actually ate people? That was new, and nasty. But details would have to wait until later.

“Carter, what’s happening up there?” Jack demanded.

“The alien ships have engaged Major Sheppard’s ship... the readings indicate that they are taking heavy damage while the Major’s shields seem to be holding out well.”

They watched, satellite images relayed to the screens, as Sheppard’s salvoes ripped into the enemy ships. These hives didn’t seem to have shields, and they moved ponderously, while Sheppard’s smaller ship flew between them, shield lighting up with those hits that connected despite the dodging manoeuvres the ship executed. Yellow plumes of fire erupted from the brown surfaces, especially as they inadvertently fired at each other, missing the ship that slid out from between them in a beautiful arc, diving back in for another assault. Smaller bits of light bloomed further down, in the upper levels of the atmosphere as the F-305s met with the descending cloud of darts. Little cylindrical ships left Sheppard’s ship and fell away to join battle there as well.

Hank relayed the bare essentials of what was happening to Mitchell and made sure they knew to leave Sheppard’s ships alone, and the Dedalus rose out from behind the rim of the planet, shields up and weapons primed.

Sheppard took another dive at the hives, and another, and then a series of explosions, silent and majestic as they were in space, shook one hive, then spread and engulfed the other. When the fire and debris cleared, Sheppard’s ship was down among the darts, single streaks of light shooting them down with what looked like deadly accuracy. And those streaks looked a damn sight like Ancient drones, if Jack wasn’t very much mistaken.

Not half an hour after the battle had been joined, Sheppard had indeed blasted those Wraith out of the sky.

***

Arms resting on the sill of his window, John stared down at the big blue ball of the planet, white swirls of clouds bright under the yellow light of the sun. It didn’t look much different from any other planet with an atmosphere capable of sustaining human life. And yet… his eyes automatically, futilely, tracked for the spiral-patterns of storms that might threaten to merge into a super-storm like the one they had had in their first year on Lantia. He looked for the characteristic mid-continent high that would ensure a rich harvest, only to find high and continent missing. Instead he found smaller landmasses, strange and familiar at the same time. The light of the sun was yellower than he remembered, not the clear, almost white radiance sparkling off Lantia’s endless waves. He raised his eyes to look out at the stars instead, and found he couldn’t pick out the constellations from here. He had never seen Earth’s constellations from anywhere but the surface, and from here, in geo-synchronous orbit, far enough out to accommodate their Lantian 36-hour day, they were strangely distorted. A small, blue planet broke the monotony sun-wards. Mercury, he thought reflexively, the memory of a poster of the solar system he had had on his wall as a child rising from deep down.

He heard familiar steps approach, and didn’t resist the quiet tingle that was his door sensors asking for permission to follow the command to open. He didn’t turn around from his contemplation as Rodney stepped up next to him at the window.

Even Rodney had learned some silence over the past ten years, but you really couldn’t expect him to go against his nature for more than a couple of minutes, John thought with a mental smirk.

“John? What are you doing?”

“Looking out the window…?”

Rodney gave a very Rodney snort. “Yes, I can see that. I was attempting to do what Teyla calls ‘evaluating your partner in conversation’, but clearly, such efforts at Athosian civility are wasted on you!”

John felt his lips stretching into a grin, his melancholic mood starting to break under the force that was Rodney.

“I believe we call it ‘small talk’ in English, Rodney,” he teased, and turned his head to look at Rodney for the first time since his entrance, just in time to catch the glare directed at him for his trouble.

“Yes, yes, whatever. If you want me to leave you alone just say so!”

Whoa. Obviously, he wasn’t the only one their arrival in their solar system of origin had on edge.

“Naw, relax, Rodney.” He shifted his weight to give the man a friendly nudge with his shoulder. “It’s just strange, to be back here…”

“Yeah…” Rodney agreed, looking out of the window in turn, a darkly brooding look settling over his face that didn’t bode too well for his mood the next couple of days.

No, this wasn’t the return they had imagined. The first couple of years in Pegasus, they had been looking for a ZPM with an intensity that was almost manic in the end, and John was sure he wasn’t the only one who had dreamed of going back home, leave behind that rough, unpredictable galaxy for the safety and comfort of Earth’s Western civilisation, that he wasn’t the only one who suffered from bouts of homesickness so intense they left him shaking and desperate. Desperate enough to look for some release in the arms of his fellow prisoners. Because that was what it had felt like at times, a prison, a huge, intricate prison out to get them.

But… after those first few years, that desperation had just... faded. Not for everyone at the same time or rate, but as the necessities of survival demanded their attention and routines established themselves, return to Earth had slid from top priority to some vague eventuality. And then they had started building ships, resources and capabilities sky-rocketing with the establishment of the Confederation, and then Rodney had started to work on the intergalactic hyperdrive… and return to Earth had become a certainty (well, as certain as anything was in Pegasus), a certainty John, at least, dreamed of again, but a temporary one, a return that included a return to Lantia… and then, Pegasus being Pegasus, hives were on the way to Earth, the Wraith had finished their own intergalactic hyperdrive project first, and if they didn’t rise to the challenge once again they wouldn’t have much of a planet to return to. So they had two weeks of feverish work, the entire senior staff on tons of kuma and whatever other drugs Carson could come up with to keep them awake and functioning, took off in a ship with a hyperdrive that was a work in progress, and they were racing the hives to Earth while McKay and his little cadre of scientists bickered and sweated and finished their work en-route. There had been no time for reminiscence or mental preparation during the two-month-long journey. Just battle plans and contingency plans and weapons training on an untested ship that was being driven to the very edges of its breaking point.

And now… now they had made it, they were in time and the Red Sun Cyrinius had pulled through marvellously. The battle was won, the hives obliterated… and in the face of success, John suddenly found himself unprepared for what came after.

They were back. Earth. Right outside his window, no more than a little space flight away. No further away than dozens, hundreds of planets he had visited in the last ten years.

Earth. Which he had never seen from space, which he had known before space and inter-planetary travel and alien races and civilisations and technologies had become his daily bread, his routine, his profession. Earth, where waited the people, the civilisation they had left behind without even noticing, so long ago.

“It should feel like home, shouldn’t it?” he said into the silence between them. Rodney looked at him, and they shared a look of perfect understanding, a look John was reasonably certain he would be sharing with most of those of his crew originally from Earth.

“I guess it should,” Rodney allowed.

“But it doesn’t, does it?”

“Well, it’s been ten years, it’s only natural that we would get used to our new surroundings…” Rodney started rationalizing, and John leaned over to shut him up with a kiss. He didn’t need rationalisation, he needed reassurance, home, Pegasus-style. Apparently, Rodney agreed, because they stumbled their way through the room onto John’s bunk, hands working familiar buckles and knots loose. John gladly lost himself in the physicality of sex, hands and touching and sweat, pleasure a sharp reminder of the important things: here, now, his people. Pegasus had taught them its lesson about priorities. In a galaxy where gruesome death rained down from the heavens with certain unpredictability, certain Earthly rules and sensibilities had quickly seemed ridiculous and petty.

Afterwards, with Rodney a solid, softly-snoring warmth at his back, John felt a small smile curve his lips. Yes, he felt much better now. He listened to the Cyrinius’ quiet hum and small chirps in his mind until he fell asleep as well.