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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.

Chapter Text

At 1000 hours, Thursday, 22nd of May 2014, Jack stood at attention with the other senior staff of the SGC in the F-305 hangar tucked away into the base of Cheyenne Mountain to welcome home the members of The Lost Expedition to Atlantis, as it had become known.

Ten years, give or take a few months. Most everyone had given up hope on seeing their people again years ago. Daniel was one of the few still scanning his material for hints of a ZPM to re-establish contact, in his spare time, since his working hours were filled with other projects these days. Not many people still even thought about the expedition much on a daily basis. Jack himself had to admit he only spared them the occasional thought. Nothing like the first year or two, when every gate activation, every report landing on his desk, every ringing of the phone called to mind, however fleeting, that this could be it, this could be the news that Atlantis had established contact, that a gate team had found a ZPM… No, they had become the Lost Expedition– a Lost Expedition to complement the Lost City. The Pegasus project had vanished from the desks of bureaucrats even quicker, requests for funding likely to get you laughed out of the office. Other matters required the money. The clean-up after the Ori. Squabbles between the Jaffa, or the Jaffa and the Tok'ra. The expanding influence of the Lucian Alliance. The newest F-series model. Building ships. Keeping the Stargate programme secret.

And now here they were, waiting for their returning SG personnel to set foot on Earth for the first time in ten years. SG personnel that seemed strangely reluctant to leave their odd ship circling the planet. There had been… negotiations. Who, how many, how well armed? Jack had to admit to some unease at that. What had ten years in another galaxy done to these people? The expedition had been supposed to be a peaceful one, a scientific one, the military contingent at the absolute minimum. Protection to the scientists, nothing more. Now… now one of their own, young, rule-breaking Sheppard nonetheless, was… what was it? Supreme Commander or something, of some alien confederation. Yesterday evening, after the excitement had abated a bit, and the negotiations for this meeting concluded, Jack had once more reviewed the file on the man, the one he had read ten years ago. And he found it a bit worrying that someone with Sheppard’s record now had command of a ship that was capable of destroying two of those huge hive ships all on its lonesome. Yes, Jack was aware that his own record wasn’t exactly spotless (far from it, actually), but it was one thing to be the guy with the insubordination problem and to deal with someone else of the same kind. Especially if the guy now obviously in charge had had no experience with gate travel whatsoever, no standard SG training before going off to become a starship captain. But then, it had been ten years. Maybe Colonel Sumner had trained the kid up to his current position.

A quiet hum made everyone break their formal stance slightly to look up. A small, cylindrical ship was descending out of the bright blue sky. Sunlight glinted on a wind shield and threw the lines and edges on the ship’s olive green hull into sharp relief. An Ancient gate-ship, Jack realized after a moment. He wondered whether it could time-travel as well. The ship swung around a couple of metres above their heads, engines burning with a bright, clear blue. It touched down with nary a bump, the twin engines retracting into the hull to form a seamless circle. A moment of silence, during which Jack could almost see the barely contained excitement emanating from the welcoming committee as the hatch opened in the back with an electric whirr.

Boots thumped down the ramp, and Jack (and, he was sure, the rest of the people with him) took a moment and a surprised blink or two to study their new arrivals.

For some reason, he had expected them to look just like they had when they had left, standard BDUs and tack vests, back-packs and science uniforms.

They didn’t.

While the three people walking down the ramp wore uniforms, they weren’t SGC style. Instead, they were made from what appeared to be black leather, heavy and shiny. The jackets were the most obvious article of non-Earth clothing. They were short, barely hip-length, and sported high standing collars. They were fastened on the left side of the neck, a diagonal buckle over the left shoulder and three more down over the ribs. The buckles were broad but flat, not overly bulky, and their metal had been blackened. In fact, Jack realized, the oddly archaic feel of the uniforms came from the fact that there wasn’t a single zipper or Velcro fastener in sight. The boots had three buckles identical in design to those on the jackets, and the leather pants were laced down both sides with black leather cords, their ends swinging with every step from an oddly shaped metal clasp at the hips.

Jack recognized Sheppard first, in the middle– and he looked exactly like he had the day he had flown Jack’s helicopter to the Antarctic base. He didn’t seem to have aged a day. If anything, he looked even younger than he had that day. His black hair was sticking up at odd angles, just like in his old photograph, and his face was smooth and unlined. A gun was holstered to each thigh, belts crossing each other in front and fastened with those self-same blackened buckles over his hips. Jack got a glimpse of a small patch on Sheppard’s left upper arm, where the nationality flag would be in a standard uniform. Instead of the flag of any nation on Earth, however, Sheppard’s patch showed some sort of highly-stylized, six-pronged snowflake on a vibrant turquoise background. The only thing that distinguished his uniform from those of his companions and might therefore be an indication of his military rank was a narrow, vertical pin of gold on his collar, to the right, in counterbalance to the buckle that held the collar shut over his left collarbone.

Finished with his split-second assessment of Sheppard, Jack’s gaze went to the tall, broad-shouldered form on Sheppard’s right. He'd definitely never seen this man. Jack was pretty sure he would remember someone who looked like he could give Teal'c a run for his money, with thick, brown dreadlocks on top of it. The man's skin was a bit darker than could be accounted for by a deep tan, and he carried something that looked suspiciously like some form of large gun casually on his left shoulder. His collar was decorated with one narrow silver band and there was a small tattoo just above the collar buckle on the other side of his neck.

It took a moment before Jack realized that he did, in fact, know the person on Sheppard’s left. Wearing a military uniform like the other two, gun holstered to his thigh, was Rodney McKay. His hairline might have receded a bit, grey was starting to show around the edges, but his face was tanned and Jack was reasonably certain that, while still stocky rather than lean, McKay was actually hiding muscle under that uniform. He carried a flat black rectangle under his left arm and from the glimpse of a screen Jack caught he assumed it was some sort of computer, like one of the tablets the SGC had started using a few years ago.

Their new arrivals stopped once they reached the tarmac of the hangar and for a moment, the two groups surveyed each other, the welcoming committee in formal uniforms, standing stiffly at attention, and the returning members of the expedition, with Sheppard in the lead, arms crossed over his chest and stance loose, its casualness only belied by the lack of expression on his face and the sharp spark in his eyes. If anyone had expected a warm, heartfelt reunion, they were disappointed.

“Major Sheppard,” Hank finally greeted, stepping forward, hand extended. “Welcome back to Earth.”

Sheppard looked down at the extended hand for a moment with a faintly perplexed expression, then reached out and shook it somewhat awkwardly.

“General Landry. Thank you. Good to see you again. It’s Commander Sheppard these days, though.”

Hank's eyes narrowed for just a moment and one corner of his lips tipped down at the correction, but he inclined his head.

“Commander Sheppard, then. I believe introductions are in order. You have met General O’Neill-“ Jack gave a little wave that brought him a short scowl from Hank and a raised eyebrow from Sheppard, “- and Doctor Jackson.” Daniel also stepped forward to shake hands, and this time, Sheppard took it with no visible hesitation. “Colonel Carter,” another handshake, “and Colonel Mitchell. Mr Woolsey from the IOA is expected to arrive tomorrow to extend their welcome as well.” Sheppard nodded and stepped back again. He gestured at the tall man to his right.

“This is Specialist Ronon Dex of Sateda, First Commander of the Neo-Satedan Armed Forces.” Hank stepped forward, but Dex gave his extended hand only a look and a raised eyebrow, then lifted his head, swept them all with a glance and grinned, flashing them rather too many teeth to be termed entirely friendly. “Hi,” he rumbled. “Nice planet.”

As intimidating as he was, Jack had a feeling that he was going to like this guy if given the chance.

“And you all probably remember McKay,” Sheppard said with a vague wave in McKay’s direction, looking like he was suppressing a grin at Dex’s antics. McKay frowned at Sheppard.

“What?” he snarked. “You’re not going to introduce me properly?”

Sheppard rolled his eyes expressively.

“Fine. Everyone, meet Doctor Rodney McKay, Chief of Research and Engineering for the United Armed Forces of the Confederation of Sentient Species of the Pegasus Galaxy. Better?”

The corners of McKay’s lips twitched.

“Much. Thank you.”

Jack pointed at the ship and asked what he considered the most pertinent question of the moment: “Does it time-travel?”

Every eye turned to look at him, Daniel, Carter and Hank with vague disapproval, the Atlantis contingent with surprise. Then Sheppard raised an eyebrow.

“This one? No. There was apparently one in Lantis when we first arrived, but Elizabeth used it and never brought it back, so…”

“Dr. Weir? She’s not… with you anymore?” Jack knew the expedition must have lost people in the intervening years, it was just part of travelling to other worlds. God knew the SGC lost people frequently enough. But somehow, he had never thought that Elizabeth Weir would be among them.

“What?” Sheppard blinked. “No, no, she’s fine. Sends her best, by the way. No, I mean the Elizabeth from the alternate time line where we all drowned on arrival ‘cause Lantis was submerged under the ocean and the shield failed… Long story,” he added quickly at the looks he was receiving. Hank gave a little “lets get back on topic” cough.

“A story we’ll be thrilled to hear just as soon as Doctor Lam has given you your medical exam. Come this way. We have prepared some refreshments in the conference room after you are done in the infirmary.”

Sheppard and McKay exchanged a look.

“Yeah, about that medical exam…” Sheppard said slowly, scratching the back of his head, which made his ridiculous hair stand up even more wildly. Hank frowned.

“It is standard procedure for people who have been off-world for some time, you know that…”

“Sure, sure,” Sheppard agreed. “It’s just… well, you’ll be getting some unusual results.”

“Unusual how…?” Jack asked slowly, and if he sounded suspicious, well… they had had their share of parasites, impostors, and bad space-disease surprises.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” McKay said with acid sarcasm. “Just the Ancient Tech Activation gene and the Wraith Tech Activation gene, oh, and Sheppard’s got bug DNA.”

“You’ve got that Ancient protein marker from the time you almost Ascended.” Sheppard added.

“And Ronon had Satedan measles as a child, which apparently turns some kinds of test strips really, really pink.”

“And there's probably some other stuff,” Sheppard finished with a careless shrug.

“Wraith… Aren’t those the bad guys?” Jack asked, just to make sure.

“Yes,” McKay answered, turning to him with that chin-up, looking-down-at-you superior look of his. “Well, most of them anyway. However, their technology uses a genetic activator quite similar to the way Ancient technology does, and since most of our technology borrows heavily from the Wraith as well as the Ancients, it was necessary to develop a gene therapy for the Wraith Activation gene just like we did for the ATA.”

“So you’ve got bits of the bad guys inside of you?”

“It’s just one gene! Or, okay, three, but it’s not like it’s enough to make us go all Wraith and eat anyone! Not like Teyla and her thing…” McKay waved a hand around vaguely again.

“Rodney…” Sheppard drawled in what was clearly a shut-up-now tone of voice.

McKay blinked at him. “Right, right…”

Jack had an eyebrow raised, Daniel blinked quizzically and pushed his glasses up his nose and Hank didn't quite manage to cover how disturbed he was.

“Infirmary?” Sheppard drawled.

***

Chapter Text

They finally did finish their medical exam by the pretty lady doctor who was, they all agreed, a total step up from Carson (who was, well, Carson) and Dr. Biro (who was scary), and were cleared for free movement around the base. She did need to swap test strips twice before she found the ones that didn’t turn a bright, useless pink on Ronon’s samples, and she looked quite disturbed at the amount of foreign proteins in their blood work. Privately, Sheppard thought she was giving them the okay based mainly on good faith, since she had little chance of knowing which of these proteins were supposed to be there and which weren’t. But, in the end, they all trooped back upstairs from the infirmary, and into the conference room. John steeled himself for the things to come. He was reasonably certain that Landry expected a full report from them (or as full as time allowed), and, well, that was just not going to happen. They hadn’t had much time before leaving to discuss things, but John had ascertained that Elizabeth and he were on the same page when it came to sharing Lantis' technology and their scientific advancements: They were happy to negotiate. Which meant there was no way he was just handing over ten years of research and return to the fold like a good little soldier. Things had changed, and he had responsibilities. Responsibilities that were first and foremost to the people under his command, people who, unfortunately for the Earth military, considered themselves inhabitants of Pegasus, whether by birth or by adoption.

Oh, yes, this was not going to be pretty. And it didn’t help his nerves any that he as highest-ranking military officer in the entire Confederation and their most brilliant scientist and another chief officer were here, in potential enemy territory, without any guarantees. Under a mountain, where extraction would prove… difficult. Well, the Cyrinius was ready to take out the two ships in orbit if necessary, and Jinto and his boys were on stand-by with a cloaked jumper right next to the one they had landed officially. He had done what he could to ensure smooth negotiations. Still, he would ordinarily never have met with a new trading partner in this fashion. But then, Earth was hardly normal.

They settled in at the conference table, across from the SGC personnel, while Landry, of course, commanded the head of the table. Rodney and Ronon took their places to each side of him, and that felt almost like he was home. Then he noticed the mugs and the round glass pot full of dark liquid.

***

Jack watched as their guests settled at the table, with the studied casualness of cats in a strange house. On the surface things seemed perfectly fine, but he could feel the currents of tension curling around the expedition members. Tension that had him, in turn, twitchy. He didn’t like that he didn’t know Sheppard. Jack would have felt much more comfortable dealing with Weir. With Sheppard, he had no idea which way the man would jump, what went on in his head. The return of the Atlantis expedition shouldn’t have felt like first contact with some unknown alien civilization. And what knowledge he did have about Sheppard did nothing to calm his nerves. Jack recognized certain traits of himself in the man, and he didn’t like that one bit. They were the traits that usually led to explosions. Big explosions.

McKay was no easier. Sure, he was a somewhat more known factor, but the obvious familiarity between him and Sheppard was… disconcerting. They had a rapport like… like a team. A gate team, like SG-1: friendship that went beyond what normal people considered friendship, the sort of friendship that developed when disparate characters were thrown together, forged by alien weapons, watching each other’s backs, by stepping onto worlds that were beyond human imagination day after day. McKay… wasn’t supposed to have friends like that. McKay wasn’t supposed to have friends at all. Too arrogant, too self-centred, too damn obnoxious! McKay, whiny, fussy, hypochondriac McKay wasn’t supposed to survive for ten years in a hostile galaxy with no regular contact, no comforts of home. He wasn’t supposed to come back looking like a soldier, with a gun familiarly at his side and a wary look in his eyes. He might still sound like McKay… but the fact of the matter was that Jack didn’t really know this man any better than he knew Sheppard.

Dex, at least, was easy: He was a soldier, and if Sheppard told him to shoot, he would. Not exactly reassuring, but at least one guy Jack was reasonably certain he had pegged, could predict.

Then their guests spied the coffee on the table. Sheppard’s and McKay’s hands shot out at the same time, McKay’s fingers curling around the handle a moment before Sheppard’s hand landed on top of his. But instead of letting go, Sheppard turned his head to glare at McKay, who answered with a glare of his own. For long moments, a staring match ensued.

“Rodney,” Sheppard finally said slowly, a dangerous undertone to his usual drawl. “Let go.”

McKay’s chin went up. “I was there first.”

“Rodney. Me. Supreme Commander. Let go. That’s an order.”

McKay’s eyes widened in outrage. “You’re pulling rank on me?!”

“Yes. I am. It’s coffee. Real, drinkable coffee.”

McKay huffed, and took his hand away, even as his eyes spit spite at Sheppard. “Fine. Fine. But just so you know, you’re going to regret this.”

Sheppard pulled the pot over with an entirely smug look. “I doubt it.” Then he poured himself a cup with all the attention one usually paid to sacred rituals. He handed the pot over to McKay, wrapped his hands around his mug and leaned back in his chair, slouching, with a sigh of pure bliss. Only then did he seem to notice the looks they were getting.

“What? We ran out nine years ago!”

That... had been astonishingly childish, Jack thought, and wondered whether it was done on purpose, to put them more at ease, to make them underestimate Sheppard. On the other hand... he tried to envision the SGC without coffee. For nine years. He wasn't sure the mountain would still be standing. The scientists would probably stage a mutiny after a day.

Hank cleared his throat and leaned forwards, hands folded on the table.

“Glad to be able to offer you a little piece of home, gentlemen. Now, let’s get this meeting started, shall we? These Wraith… how much of a threat are they?”

“Well, they’re physically very strong, and a well-fed Wraith has an incredible ability to regenerate. In addition, they’re essentially a telepathic species and can play tricks on your mind, making you see things that aren’t there. Their technology is pretty advanced, though not quite as far as Ancient tech. Thankfully, these days, most Wraith are near starvation and relatively easy to bring down. In addition, they’re fighting among each other over the available food. The main thing driving a Wraith is hunger and survival. They can hibernate for incredibly long periods of time, and when they do, they don’t show up as life-signs on scans.” Sheppard shrugged. “Wraith are bad news, but we’ve started to establish some front lines, push them back. They’re not the unchallenged rulers of the Pegasus galaxy that they used to be.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of how much of a threat they are to us here in the Milky Way…” Hank said slowly.

“Oh.” Sheppard gave a surprised blink for a moment, then shrugged again. “Well, as long as they don’t manage to establish an intergalactic wormhole, the Milky Way should be relatively safe. The Wraith don’t have access to ZPMs or a power source of similar magnitude any more than we do, and as yesterday’s battle has proved, our ships are superior to the hives in both speed and weaponry. Besides, if the Wraith war continues as it has, it is rather unlikely that they will have many hives to spare to send here, even if the group that developed the intergalactic hyperdrive were willing to share… which I consider unlikely. No queen would want to share a feeding ground like this.” Sheppard waved a hand to indicate their surroundings.

“About that…” Jack spoke up. “What exactly do you mean when you say ‘feed’?”

“Oh, right. Wraith feed off of human life energy.” And as if that statement wasn’t extraordinary enough, he then proceeded to tell them about how the Wraith fed through an opening in their hand which they pressed to their victim’s chest. And how that feeding caused the victim to rapidly age until it was nothing more than a mummified corpse.

Jack shared a disturbed look with Daniel, and Carter looked a bit green around the edges as well.

Hank sighed and rubbed his chin.

“Maybe you should start at the beginning, Commander Sheppard. What happened after you stepped through the gate? How did you meet these Wraith? How did you come to be involved in this war?” And if he was fishing for how their people had come to be part of an alien confederation, well, Jack couldn’t say that he blamed the man.

Sheppard poured himself a second mug of coffee and resettled in his chair.

“Sure. It’s gonna be a long story, though…”

***

A good hour later, Sheppard had covered their arrival in Atlantis (which he apparently only refered to as ‘Lantis’), their meeting an alien people called Athosians on the first planet they went to, learning about the existence of the Wraith and promptly encountering them, their lucky escape from a watery grave and a daring rescue mission to a hive ship, inadvertently awakening a galaxy full of nasty aliens. Knowing the unpredictability of space travel, the impossibility to always foresee every possible outcome, Jack couldn’t say that he held that against the man, and he had to admit he approved of the spirit of the mission and the guts it took to pull it off.

Who was he kidding? He would have done the same thing, had done similar things time and again. He did feel a bitter pang of regret when he heard how Sumner had died, mere hours after arriving in the Pegasus galaxy.

Sheppard was busy explaining how it was actually Doctor Weir in an alternate time line who had established the fail-safe that saved the expedition’s collective ass when McKay spat a string of syllables that made no sense whatsoever to Jack, but which had the ring of profanity. Sheppard’s surprised blink and raised eyebrow as he interrupted his tale rather confirmed that. Dex lifted his chin from his chest. Jack suspected the man had gone to sleep not five minutes into Sheppard’s tale.

McKay was staring at his tablet pc, fingers flicking over the screen. His face was pale.

“English, Rodney,” Sheppard chided with amusement. “What is it?”

“Wha…?” McKay looked up. “Oh. We’re all dead.”

Jack was wondering what to make of this dire pronouncement… until he saw the way Sheppard’s eyes hardened, how a frown settled over his features. Then he started to worry.

“It’s a message from Lannik. The Cyrinius’ long-range scanners have picked up something. Hives. Coming this way.”

“How many?” Sheppard’s voice was harsh and the look he shared with McKay was full of dread.

“Seven.”

The colour visibly drained out of Sheppard’s face, and he closed his eyes for a moment like a man in pain.

“We’re dead,” McKay repeated. “I mean, sure, we can take the Cyrinius and get the hell out of here, but then the Wraith will establish a breeding ground here, and with six billion people to feed from they’ll be over this galaxy like locusts in a matter of years, and then it’s only a question of time before they come back to Pegasus, and they’ll get their hands on all the technology here, too. I bet they’ll just love naquadah bombs, oh yeah. Won’t matter what we do, they’ll have reinforcements just two months away…”

“Rodney…”

“… and they’ll overrun us with sheer numbers, and there’s no way the shield can withstand more than two or three naquadah bombs, not without at least two full ZPMs…”

Rodney.”

“… but I guess it won’t really matter ‘cause we won’t be able to hold the fronts, not if they’re fully fed…”

“RODNEY!”

“… and we’ll probably starve before they even reach Lantia… what?”

“Shut up. Focus. We’re not running. We have to take them out or convince them to surrender. The Wraith can’t be allowed to get Earth.”

“Seven hives, John. Seven. We have one ship!”

“The Cyrinius has just proven that she can take on two hives on her own, maybe even three.”

“Yes, two! That leaves five others free to fire at us or cull to their heart’s content! Fighting a fleet of seven isn’t like fighting two!”

“Yes, Rodney, I know that, thank you very much!” He turned to Hank. “Would you mind if I contact my ship directly, Sir? I need to know exactly what’s going on up there.”

“I’ll be needing that screen,” McKay jumped in and pointed to the front of the room, “and a laptop or something.”

Hank nodded. “Certainly, gentlemen. Colonel Carter, see to it that they have what they need.”

Ten minutes later, while Jack, Daniel and Mitchell exchanged uneasy looks, McKay had cobbled together his tablet with one of their standard-issue laptops, and connected the whole contraption to the screen.

“There, that should do it,” he mumbled. “You’ve got a channel, John.”

“Thanks.” And that was the last word Jack understood as Sheppard called his ship. A voice, scratchy through the speakers of the laptop answered in what was probably the same language, and definitely not English. Jack looked at Daniel and saw his linguist’s eyes grow big, even as the screen filled with blinking dots and writing in high, narrow, blocky letters.

It took Jack a moment to realize that he did, in fact, know the sound of the language in which Sheppard, McKay and the unknown third party on the ship were conducting their rapid-fire conversation. They were speaking Ancient. No wonder Daniel looked as if he had just died and gone to geek heaven. Jack looked back to the screen, but, nope, the writing there was definitely not Ancient. He leaned over and nudged Daniel.

“Daniel!” He pointed with his chin towards the three people clustered around the screen and the laptop. “What are they saying?”

“Oh.” Daniel blinked rapidly, twice, and pushed his glasses up. “Oh, right. Apparently, the hive ships are going to reach Earth in two weeks. They’re going to have to make three stops for several days at a time to rest… something, I didn’t quite catch what. Now they’re discussing which Wraith faction these ships might belong to. Sheppard wants to know whether there was a…” Daniel cocked his head with a quizzical frown, “… a subspace transmission, I think, before the two ships earlier were destroyed. They’re waiting on that… Jack, this is amazing!”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “What? Evil alien spaceships on the way to Earth to… feed on us?”

“What? No, no! Ancient, Jack! They’re speaking fluent Ancient, and some of these pronunciations… I mean, I got most of it from when you had that Ancient library downloaded into your brain, but actually hearing the language used in real conversation…! It’s simply amazing!”

“Glad we can amuse you, Dr. Jackson,” Sheppard said dryly from the front.

“Oh, sorry, sorry,” Daniel hastily apologized, blush crawling up his neck. “It’s just… how did you come to use Ancient in conversation?”

“Well, it’s not as if the rest of Pegasus speaks English, and since our ships are staffed with people from many worlds, we had to find a common language. Ancient seemed like the logical choice because it’s what a lot of the technology uses.”

“That’s not Ancient over there,” Jack pointed out, gesturing at the letters running over the screen.

Sheppard gave a slightly sheepish shrug. “No, that’s Wraith, which is what the rest of the technology uses. But speaking Wraith is a bitch, so Ancient it was.”

“Really? What makes Wraith so difficult?” Daniel asked, in full eager linguist mode.

“Telepathic species, remember? Our linguists tell us that’s why the grammar is so rudimentary that it’s just not really enough for everyday conversation, and the vocabulary’s practically all technical, the stuff they need to record their scientific findings, not much more. You’ll run into serious snags if you try to express how much you look forward to that picnic at the beach with your friends.”

McKay snorted. “Besides, it’s not exactly meant for human throats. Wraith’s all hisses and growls. It’s just not worth the trouble trying to pronounce it.”

“Then why have the ship’s systems use it at all?” Mitchell joined the conversation.

“It was easier to get the Ancient systems to recognize the Wraith commands than the other way around,” McKay explained in a tone that suggested that this should hardly need explaining. The look he gave Mitchell was decidedly unfriendly. “Seeing as Ancient tech is more sophisticated than Wraith tech.” Obviously, you moron hung heavily in the air.

Sheppard clapped a hand on McKay’s shoulder, a friendly grin on his face that didn’t quite match the tense lines around his eyes.

“Now, now, Rodney, play nice. Let’s discuss what to do about these Wraith, shall we?”

McKay snorted, shrugged Sheppard’s hand of brusquely, and stalked back to his place at the table, reaching for the coffee pot. Dex drawled something from his place by the screen, arms crossed over his broad chest. McKay gave him a glare that, if physically possibly, would have disembowelled him, and spat something in return. Jack looked at Daniel in question, but his linguist just shook his head with a baffled look on his face. Not Ancient, then.

Sheppard raised a quizzical eyebrow at them. “Kids,” he chided, which was pretty hilarious, Jack thought, considering the man looked almost young enough to be McKay’s son (scary scary thought, that, McKay procreating). Dex gave Sheppard one of those toothy grins, completely unrepentant, and McKay seemed to try and hide in his coffee cup.

“Yes, what is the status on these hive ships, Commander Sheppard?” Hank asked, masterfully ignoring the expedition members' bickering.

Sheppard gestured at the screen. “According to our calculations, they’re gonna reach Earth in two weeks’ time. Wraith hives have to travel in jumps, because their hulls need to regenerate the radiation damage they suffer during hyperspace travel. They’ll be stopping twice more before they arrive here, at these coordinates.” Sheppard gestured at the screen. Of course, no one could read the coordinates, which he either ignored, or genuinely didn’t remember. “So, we have two weeks to come up with a viable plan for defending this planet, and we need to check whether the hives will be passing close to any other populated planets. I’d rather keep them hungry.”

“How many of these Wraith are we talking here?” Jack wanted to know. “And how much firepower to take down the ships?”

“In theory, a hive can be operated by only a handful of crew,” McKay explained in his superior tone that really rubbed Jack the wrong way. Always had, always would. “Of course, it’s highly unlikely that we would be that lucky. No, I expect those hives are fully staffed, which means we are dealing with between two and three thousand Wraith, maybe more.”

Jack was sure he wasn’t the only one whose eyes bugged out at that.

“Two to three thousand? You’re sure?” Mitchell sounded hopeful that someone might tell him they were just kidding. McKay rolled his eyes at him.

“No, I’m not sure, which is why I said ‘approximately’. But considering that we’ve taken out quite a few hives in recent years and that they would hardly bother taking the long travel to an unknown galaxy for a Sunday outing, I would say it’s a pretty safe bet that they will be operating under maximum capacity. Every hive carries several hundred darts, which in turn need several hundred Wraith to fly them. Multiply by seven, and, yes, two to three thousand. Of course they could have all eaten each other by the time they arrive here, but I would rather not bet my life on it.”

“So, how do we take them out?” Jack inserted before anyone else could trigger a new round of sniping.

“Rodney, schematics,” Sheppard ordered, apparently also concerned with getting on with things, and for the next little while, the Atlantians taught them what they knew about Wraith hive ship blueprints, weaponry and possible weak spots. They didn’t arrive at any conclusive strategy, but agreed to see what Earth and their allies could muster in terms of defence. Hank finally declared the meeting over in favour for lunch, and their guests agreed to stay for that and then fly down to Antarctica to help check out the status of the Ancient outpost.

Chapter Text

They chose a big table in the mess hall and cluttered it up with their trays, Jack, Daniel, Sam and Mitchell with the Atlantians. Landry, of course, had a pentagon to inform about the impending alien threat. Sheppard stayed flanked by Dex and McKay, but he seemed more relaxed than he had been when he stepped off the gate ship. McKay attacked his food as if prepared for it to escape, but after the first shovel he froze mid-chew, then continued chewing much more slowly.

“I remember this tasting much better,” he observed with a frown at his steak and gravy, fries and peas. Sheppard took a cautious bite of his own, his eyebrows drawing together.

“You’re right. Was there always this much salt in there?”

“Yes,” Jack informed them dryly.

“I never thought the day would come when I say this, but I could do with some tava beans right about now,” McKay proclaimed. Sheppard nodded.

“Yeah, and some fresh kandu stew…”

“Or those river trout the Athosians have taken to catching lately!”

“The marine biologists say they’re not trout,” Sheppard pointed out. “In fact, they’re not even fish, strictly speaking.”

McKay waved that away. “Yes, yes, the marine biologists say a lot when the day is long. They taste like trout, whatever they are.”

Sheppard nodded sagely. “True. I hope that shipment of menida spice made it through okay, it’ll go awesome with the fake trout.”

“It had better, it was outrageous what they wanted for it! Three sacks of tuttle root for every crate of menida? We got it for half of that last year!”

“Well, apparently the weather was really bad on Hoff this spring, they lost a good part of the harvest to the storms…”

“Whatever! We saved their asses from the Wraith how many times? We’re entitled to a bit of a trade bonus, if you ask me!”

“And that is why Teyla handles the trade negotiations. We would have starved years ago if it’d be left up to you.”

“Would not!” McKay retorted in a supremely childish fashion. Sheppard raised an eyebrow, and then stabbed his fork into McKay’s tray to steal a mouthful of fries.

“Would so,” he replied calmly before popping the fries into his mouth and chewing down. McKay simply glared and hunched slightly over his tray, choosing instead to refocus on attacking his food.

Daniel engaged Dex in conversation in Ancient, and Mitchell and Sheppard started to discuss space ships, while Sam apparently couldn’t help herself and asked McKay about his opinion on some current astrophysicist thing. As far as Jack was concerned, they could have been speaking a different language as well. He chose to lean back a bit, enjoy his blue jell-o and observe. Yes, Sheppard and his people seemed more relaxed now that they were out of a formal context. Their shoulders loosened, their gestures broadened, and the wary look in their eyes faded. Sheppard and McKay, at least, looked like they belonged again. Or they would, if it weren’t for their uniforms, which attracted more than one side-long look and raised eyebrow from the SG personnel drifting in and out of the mess hall.

***

A good hour later, they were back in front of the gate ship parked in the F-305 hangar and Landry had rejoined them. Sheppard had agreed to take Jack and the others to Antarctica, which would only be a quick one hour flight with the Ancient ship. McMurdo had been informed of their imminent arrival. Sheppard shook Landry’s hand, and they all trooped up the ramp. Sheppard flopped himself down into the pilot seat, and McKay took the co-pilot seat as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Dex sprawled his tall frame into the seat behind McKay’s, swivelling to the side to stretch his long legs into the aisle. Jack took a seat on the padded benches in the hold of the ship and looked around. The ship looked… lived in. Not disorderly, exactly, but the nets under the ceiling were bulging with equipment, straps dangling out, and the space under the benches was full of boxes, their surface chuffed and scratched from what was obviously frequent use. The air smelled faintly smoky, sweet and spicy, a bit like pipe tobacco.

They were airborne before Jack even realized, inertial dampeners preventing any perception of the forward movement. Only the white wisps of clouds whipping by visible through the wind shield gave him an idea of how fast they were moving. And unlike the last time he had flown with Sheppard, they landed at the Antarctic base without incident after barely an hour.

Inside, Sheppard moved with much less hesitancy than the last time, and dropped himself into the Ancient chair with a decidedly proprietary air after McKay had hooked up an assortment of cables between his tablet and the ZPM. Doctor Lee, who was there to study the thing, and his objections were promptly ignored after one disdainful McKay-look, and since Sam seemed willing to let McKay go ahead with what he was doing, Jack refrained from interfering. Images, writing and graphics started flickering in the air over Sheppard’s head with dizzying speed.

“Damn,” he growled. McKay made a questioning noise. “There are only 28 drones left. That’s one hive down, with luck and good aim. So, nowhere near enough. What’s the ZPM readings say? Response time feels sluggish.”

“No wonder, it’s only at 11 percent. Even firing those few drones will probably drain it too far to be of any future use.”

“So, bad news?” Jack enquired.

Sheppard sat up and took his hands off the armrests, making the watery blue glow of the chair fade, leaving them blinking in the sudden dimness.

“We can restock the drones, but the ZPM is a problem–”

“Restock?!” McKay exclaimed. “Several hundreds, if not thousands, of drones? In two weeks? Are you insane?!”

“We’ve got the Cyrinius’ stores–”

“Which we’ll need to take down the hives, not to mention two thousand darts!”

“Earth, Rodney! We’re on Earth! Plenty of resources, personnel and automated production, which should speed things up considerably.”

McKay blinked at Sheppard in astonishment. “Right… right. You might be right. But a stash of drones won’t help us any without a way to power the chair, and the only way to do that is a ZPM!”

“Yes.” Sheppard stared at McKay, a long, intense stare. McKay twitched and shifted his weight.

What?!” he finally snapped.

“How’s your research coming?”

“Huh? Wha…? You mean…? You can’t mean…! No. No way. We’re still working on the theory. No where near lab tests, never mind practical application!”

“Looks to me like it’s our only chance,” Sheppard observed calmly. McKay shook his head vigorously and waved his hands.

“You have got to be kidding me! Impossible! Do you hear me, John? It’s impossible! I can not finish this in two weeks! Are you completely insane? No, don’t answer that, of course you are! Five hundred hours are not enough time, not nearly, not even for a genius like me!” McKay glanced at his watch. “Make that four hundred and ninety-eight hours, twenty-three minutes.”

“Excuse me,” Jack drawled, “but what the hell are you talking about?”

“McKay is working on a way to re-charge ZPMs, since we can’t seem to figure out a way to build them ourselves,” Sheppard explained helpfully. “If he can re-charge this thing before the hives arrive, we have at least one point of defence that should prove reasonably effective against the Wraith.”

“But… re-charging a ZPM is impossible!” Carter objected.

“Actually, according to what we found on subspace theory and quantum physics in the Ancient database, which is, of course, ahead of Earth physics by light years, it should theoretically be possible, if we could only find a way to preserve the molecular integrity of the crystals while at the same time reopening the subspace point from which the energy is drawn through the application of, once again, massive amounts of energy. Something which,” he added with a dark look at Sheppard, “is not nearly as easy as it sounds, and in no way possible in less than five hundred hours!”

Carter frowned. “Five hundred hours? Didn’t you say the Wraith would be here in two weeks?”

“Ye-es,” McKay drawled condescendingly, “which equates to five hundred hours.”

“Two weeks are three hundred hours,” Carter objected. “Approximately.”

“No they’re not,” McKay protested, frowning. Then Sheppard groaned and slapped a hand to his forehead.

“Twenty-four hour days!” he exclaimed. Everyone looked at him. “Earth has twenty-four hour days! The Cyrinius’ systems count in Lantian days, which have thirty-six hours.”

“Oh.” McKay said. “Right.”

“So the Wraith will be arriving when…?” Jack wanted to know.

“In twenty-one days, Sir,” Carter informed him helpfully.

“Ah.” He nodded. “Well, that’s good news. Now what was that about restocking drones…? And charging the ZPM?”

“I told you, I can’t recharge the ZPM in that time!”

“Aww, c’mon, Rodney,” Sheppard cajoled. “You’ve worked harder miracles. And, look, threat of imminent death! You know you always do your best work under pressure.”

“Oh ha bloody ha! Someone else had better come up with a miracle this time, ‘cause it’s impossible!”

“Maybe we can use one of our new naquadah generators?” Carter suggested. “We’ve managed to increase energy output by over 50 % in the past years.”

McKay looked doubtful. “We could try, I suppose…”

“Great!” Sheppard exclaimed. “You guys do that, but I want you to focus on that ZPM research, Rodney. Even if you only manage to boost it to 50 or 60 percent it should be enough to fire all the drone batteries.”

“Only 50 or 60 percent, he says…” McKay grumbled. Then he sighed. “All right, I guess that means I have to teach you guys how to build drones first of all. It’s really not all that difficult. They are, in essence, small naquadah bombs. The trickiest part was figuring out the hull, which, it turns out, is a polymer that’s amazingly stable while the drones are inactive but dissolves quickly on impact. It’s easy enough to produce in large quantities, once you have the formula, which, lucky you, I’ll hand over to you. And then there’s of course the connection to the MTI, but, in my wisdom, I integrated the necessary machines into my lab on the Cyrinius.”

“The what?” Jack asked.

“The Cyrinius. It’s the name of our ship,” McKay told him condescendingly.

“I got that. I meant the MT-whatever.”

“MTI, mind-tech-interface. It’s the thing that makes Ancient tech roll over and… do whatever Sheppard wants it to.” Jack had the distinct impression that that wasn’t what McKay had been going to say, and he wondered what Rodney McKay would possibly censor himself about. From the amused, side-long look he sent him, Sheppard knew exactly what McKay had been going to say.

“Ah, that.”

“You’ve found out how the Ancients achieved that?” Carter interrupted enthusiastically. “McKay, that’s amazing!”

“Yes, well… I do my best. I have a reputation to live up to, after all.”

“So, how does it work?”

“We’ll leave that for another time, why don’t we?” Sheppard interrupted. “For now, I think we should focus on getting ready for that Wraith visit, no?”

It sounded reasonable enough; God knew the scientists had a tendency to get side-tracked, but Jack had the vague feeling that there was more to Sheppard’s interruption… and that worried him, just ever so slightly.

“Ah, yes, yes, yes… We’ll be needing about half a metric ton of refined naquadah, and access to enough lab and production space to make the hulls, two kilograms raw silicon, ten kilograms platinum…”

“Why don’t you take your shopping list up with Colonel Carter here once we get back, I’m sure she’ll be able to get you everything you’ll need,” Sheppard suggested, sounding fondly amused. Then he seemed to remember himself and turned to Jack. “If that’s okay with you, of course.”

Jack took one look at Carter’s positively beaming face at the prospect of building bombs and McKay’s impatient frown, and waved them off.

“Yeah, sure, go ahead. I’m sure the pentagon will be pleased to endorse this little project.”

In the end, they were all recalled to the SGC for another major briefing before McKay and Carter were finished planning, but that was just as well, seeing as the logistics would be easier to coordinate from Cheyenne Mountain than from Antarctica anyways.

***

They trooped all back into the conference room to find not only General Landry there, but also Generals Caldwell and Smith of the Dedalus and Prometheus II, respectively, and Colonel Samuels fresh from the Pentagon.

Landry’s introduction of Sheppard as “Commander Sheppard” raised eyebrows, of course, seeing as that wasn’t a rank that existed in the U.S. air force, and Jack could see that their outfit didn’t gain the Atlantis expedition members any friends in this crowd, either. It was just too far from regulation, too… alien. Sheppard and company, on arrival, promptly lost what ease they had gained during the course of the day, and Jack knew it was only a question of time before things would come to a head. He couldn’t quite predict what exactly would happen, but he had the distinct impression that the reunion with the expedition would not go as any of them had imagined it. There had just been too many casual references to “home”, “back in Lantis”, to people left behind there, to planets and peoples no one on Earth had ever heard of but which seemed as familiar as next-door neighbours to the expedition members. There was the fact that Sheppard had not offered a single salute, a single “Sir”, that he had interacted with all of them on an equal basis. Yes, Jack was afraid that the Atlantis expedition had gone… feral. Native.

It wasn’t entirely inconceivable, after all, it had been ten years. But still, he (and everyone else, he was sure) had assumed that loyalties forged from birth and childhood would prove stronger, that ultimately, the expedition would look forward to returning home, would want to return home. Now he was afraid that they didn’t want to. That they were much too happy for his comfort in Pegasus.

He didn’t like it one bit.

He had been a military man for all of his adult life, an American military man, and an Earth military man, and his instinctive distrust against all members of a different military was ringing loud and clear in his head right now. If Atlantis had gone rogue… they knew Earth, its weaknesses, the ins and outs of the military in a way none of their other alien allies and enemies did. And they had more access to Ancient technology than anyone else. The expedition had been composed of the best and brightest. To lose them, lose their loyalty to Earth, to its governments… It didn’t sit right with him. In fact, it scared the shit out of him. And he was reasonably sure that he wasn’t alone in that fear, or wouldn’t be, once the other senior officers realized which way the wind was blowing.

Maybe he was being too paranoid. Sheppard and his crew had been friendly enough during the whole day, had done nothing to provoke or threaten anyone. Maybe they were just a bit overwhelmed, maybe they would return to the fold smoothly and peacefully when the time came. They could only hope.

It happened sooner than he would have liked.

“No,” Sheppard said.

Caldwell blinked. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“No, we will not attack the Wraith without warning. We will not ambush them without offering them surrender and conversion.”

“Conversion?” Landry asked, maybe in the hopes of diffusing the situation. From the way Sheppard and Caldwell were glaring at each other, Jack doubted it would work.

“We have a drug that alters the Wraith’s DNA so they don’t need to feed on life energy,” McKay explained. “That way, it’s possible for them and us to coexist peacefully.”

“And have any of them ever accepted this… conversion?” Caldwell asked scathingly. Sheppard inclined his head.

“Yes. It’s a pretty generous deal from our side, apart from the part where they give up immortality.”

“Wait,” Mitchell interjected. “Immortality? No one said anything about immortality!”

Sheppard looked at him in surprise.

“We didn’t? Well, it’s just Carson’s speculation, that with their regenerative abilities, a Wraith would never die of natural causes as long as they feed, but all our experiences support the theory. Of course, there are no Wraith older than a couple millennia, so maybe old age is just really really far away for them.”

Caldwell leaned forward over the table.

“So you’re saying that you’re willing to give up our one advantage and warn several thousand of hostile, immortal aliens about your presence on the off-chance that they’ll be willing to give up that immortality?”

Sheppard didn’t blink. “Yes. It’s Confederation law, and I won’t go against Confederation law.”

“Confederation…? What confederation?!”

“The Confederation of Sentient Species of the Pegasus Galaxy. Article 1 of the Founding Charter demands that any and all Wraith are offered a chance for conversion. We will not indulge in genocide if we don’t have to.”

“That’s an admirable sentiment,” Landry said, leaning over the table as well. “But I have to agree with General Caldwell’s concerns. At this point, with the availability of the Antarctic outpost in question, the ship is our main line of defence. If we can take advantage of its higher speed and ambush the Wraith ships before they reach Earth, that is worth serious consideration.”

Sheppard glared. “No. Sorry, but no.”

Face reddening, Caldwell surged to his feet, palms slamming into the table.

“I don’t know who you think you are, kid, but this is a matter of planetary security, and you will adhere to the proper chain of command! This decision is not up to you!”

Sheppard rose to his feet with cat-like grace, arms folding over his chest in a creak of black leather. His chin tilted up in a manner that reminded Jack strongly of McKay, and the baleful look he gave Caldwell was every bit as potent. He looked ridiculously young.

I am Supreme Commander of the United Armed Forces of the Confederation and Captain of the Class 1 battleship Red Sun Cyrinius. I have fought against the Wraith for the past ten years, and I know exactly how dangerous they are, having actually met them in person and all. Me and my people dropped everything back home to come here and save your asses, and we’re willing to share our technology to defend Earth.” He swept the table with a look. “For free. However, I will not break the law I myself have helped write.”

“You will do as you’re ordered to, Captain Sheppard!” Caldwell barked. His tone made it clear that he wasn’t referring to Sheppard’s claims at star ship captaincy. “Or you will be placed under arrest, and your ship confiscated!”

“Are you threatening me?” Sheppard asked in that tone of deceptive quiet Jack knew from Daniel. With Daniel, it was always a very, very bad sign. “We have come to this meeting on your terms and territory as a sign of good faith. If you try to restrain us, our crew has standing orders to extract us by any means necessary. We do not take kindly to being taken hostage. As for the ship, it will be useless to you without me and my crew. You wouldn’t even be able to read the direction signs in the hallways, never mind actually flying the ship.”

“People, people!” Landry barked. “Sit down, both of you! No one is taking anyone hostage!”

For a moment it looked like Sheppard and Caldwell were going to ignore him, but then Caldwell took his seat after a last glare at Sheppard. Sheppard for his part (and McKay, too!) gave Landry a wary look that made it perfectly clear he didn’t entirely believe the line about no hostage-taking, but then sank back down as well.

Jack released a breath he hadn’t been quite aware of holding, and sourly thought that he should probably be grateful there hadn’t been any weapons drawn. No, this was certainly not the reunion they had expected, and now the cat was out of the bag as far as Atlantis’ quiet return to the fold of ordered military hierarchy was concerned: Not happening.

“Maybe we should all call it a day and go home, sleep on this,” Jack suggested in the interest of intergalactic peace. “McKay and Carter are gonna start building bombs tomorrow―“ he glanced at Sheppard to make sure that offer was still on the table and received a small nod, “―and we’ve still got a few days to come up with a strategy beyond that.”

Tense silence reigned over the table for a moment, then Landry gave a sharp nod.

“I believe General O’Neill has a point. Let’s reconvene at 0800 tomorrow morning for further discussion.”

There was the slightest hesitation, then Sheppard inclined his head. “Agreed.”

And that was that. The meeting broke up, Sheppard and McKay setting off towards the hangar and their ship with long steps that took them there quickly without making it look like they were running away, Dex trailing after them. He had been quiet and watchful during the meeting, and Jack wondered how much English the man actually understood. Jack took it upon himself to follow the Atlantians before someone got the bright idea to have them escorted by a couple marines or any such nonsense.

“Do you think it will be all right, Sir?” Carter asked him, falling into step next to him. He looked at her, than back to the straight shoulders of the Atlantians in front of them.

“I don’t know, Carter. I sure hope so.”

***

With a sigh of relief, John slumped into the pilot seat of his jumper and radioed Jinto to instruct him to take of as soon as the hangar doors opened without de-cloaking. The jumper purred in his mind, stirred awake by his presence, controls familiar under his fingers. The HUD popped up and helpfully informed him that the Cyrinius was still right overhead where she was supposed to be, just a little jump away. He took off the second flight cleared him for take-off.

***

Early evening found him in one of their lounge areas, stretched out on a low divan and wrapped in a thick, hand-woven Athosian rug, belly full of strong, creamy tava bean-and-kandu stew. Ronon sat on the floor next to him, side resting against the divan’s edge, one hand idly playing through John’s hair, the other propped up on a knee. Kimra had decided to join them with little Jeannie, and Rodney, kuma flute dangling from the left corner of his lips, was leaning with his back against the panorama window, watching indulgently as the six-year old, oil smudges decorating her face, was puzzling over some bit of machinery Kimra had given her to play with. The sunlight reflecting bluish from the planet dominating most of the window and the candles burning around the room served to create a dim, comfortable glow. For the first time since they had left this morning, John felt calm, relaxed.

“So,” Ronon rumbled, “what was the fuss during the meeting about? They questioned your rank?”

John sighed. “Yeah, something like that…” He didn’t feel like going into it, but he shortly explained General what’s-his-name’s complaints. Ronon growled when he heard about the threat to confiscate the ship, and his fingers tightened in John’s hair.

“Ow.”

“Oh, sorry.” Ronon returned to his previous slow massage of John’s scalp, which was really damn relaxing. By their clocks, it was still pretty early in the evening, but, also by their clocks, they would have to get up way before the ass-crack of dawn tomorrow morning for the meeting. They could, of course, adjust the ship to Earth’s 24-hour days, but it had taken them long enough to work out a viable daily rhythm with Lantia’s 36 hours, and John stubbornly refused to go back from that for only a couple of weeks.

“So, what are we going to do, Commander?” Kimra asked, coming over to sit down, legs crossed, next to Ronon. She was a small woman, a bit shorter than Teyla, with shoulder-length, pale blond hair and large, deceptively sleepy dark eyes. She looked fragile, but she spent her days crawling through maintenance tunnels and ventilation shafts, and John had seen her handle a gun about half her own size. Like most Traveller women, hell, like most women from the Pegasus galaxy, she could kick any male’s ass if she so desired.

John sighed. “I’m not sure…”

“Caldwell’s not entirely wrong, you know,” Rodney said, detaching himself from the window to join the circle forming around John and the divan. John had to lift his boots out of the way as Rodney dropped himself down on the end. He repositioned his feet across Rodney’s lap and reached out a hand. With a small glare and a soft grumble, Rodney handed him his kuma flute, and John took a deep draw before giving it back. The coffee-like effect of the smoke dispelled some of the comfortable, sleepy haze in his brain.

“I’m aware of that,” he admitted.

“Not that I agree with the way he treated you, I mean, sure, what with that thing two years ago you look hardly older than Jinto...”

John growled. “Not helping, Rodney.”

“… What I mean to say is, the Cyrinius is still your ship, and we are just handing over our drone research! What more do they want?”

“For us to come back just the way we left,” John said quietly, and shared a look with Rodney.

“But we’re not the same people any more. I mean…” Rodney trailed off, his gaze skimming Kimra and settling on Jeannie, still engrossed in taking apart whatever her mother had given her. The child looked up and gave them a toothy, oil-smudged smile and then returned to her playing. For a moment, John missed Corrin and Sanji with a sharp, painful intensity. Four or five months, provided they returned home safe and sound, was a long time in the life of three and four-year olds. Not that he envied Rodney the additional stress of having his kid aboard a battle ship en route for enemy engagement. Sure, safety was a fleeting illusion in Pegasus, but knowing that his children spent their days on a friendly continent on planets far away from the front lines let John sleep a lot better at night. Of course, it wasn’t as if Rodney had any say in the matter. No Traveller woman worth her salt (or maybe her welding torch) would let her kid grow up anywhere but on a spacecraft.

No, they weren’t the same people they had been ten years ago. They had lost too much… and gained too much. Lantis was home, Pegasus was home, and Earth with all its old comforts just couldn’t compare any more. Not with the excitement of discovering new Ancient tech every day, not with the bright, burning, glowing sunsets on Lantia’s endless, endless waves, not with the responsibilities of friends and family, human ties that had been forged tighter and more profound than they had ever been back on Earth by danger and trust beyond death, and not with the knowledge that what they were doing every day, what they were accomplishing, was meaningful. There was no return from that, John was sure.

“So what are we going to do?” Rodney finally asked. “We’re not going to just leave Earth to the Wraith, but seven hives are a problem, especially since we don’t know whether we’ll be able to power the chair at all, and we can only speculate how Earth’s ships are going to fare against hives. Guerrilla-style attack-and-run with the Cyrinius might be our best chance.”

“I know, I know… but I won’t break Confederation law. I can’t. If we don’t follow it, how can we expect anyone else to? And I don’t want to hear anything about it only applying in Pegasus or crap like that. The law was written for the Wraith war, and this is part of the Wraith war. And it’s not like we were in a much better position than Earth is now when we wrote it.”

Rodney raised his hands. “Not saying anything…”

“Good,” John growled. “So, we have to offer conversion, but if they don’t accept it, which they probably won’t, we’re fucked.”

Rodney frowned. “Not necessarily…”

John raised his head. “What d’you mean?”

Rodney waved a hand. “Let me think a bit longer on it… but I might have a compromise for tomorrow’s meeting…”

John knew Rodney better than to press him when he was like this (even if he did it anyway on occasion. Say, the approaching doom of a planet or two).

“Fine… fine. Let’s chill for the evening, ‘kay? Might be the last bit of quiet we get for a while.” Because if Pegasus taught you anything, it was to appreciate what you had while you had it. Carpe diem, that was Pegasus.

Chapter Text

The melodious “ding, ding, ding” of his alarm came, as expected, way too early for John’s taste. Rodney moaned into the pillow and turned over, almost shoving John over the edge of his own bed in the process, and for a moment, John considered forgoing his usual morning run and catching an hour more sleep himself. In the end, though, he dragged himself out from between warm sheets and away from an even warmer body, and stumbled around for boots and pants and an old t-shirt. He knew he would feel restless and just ever so slightly out of sorts the entire day if he didn’t go on his customary run, and it would be a trying enough day as it was. Living a life as unpredictable as theirs made them all cling to their little rituals with a stubbornness that could get slightly excessive, but as Kate had explained to him years ago, that was only to be expected, and so everyone just learned to deal with each other’s little quirks. No one moved Zalenka’s lab equipment around, tried to get a coherent response out of Rodney before his first flute of kuma and breakfast, or thought much of seeing John and Ronon pound through the corridors in the morning. Teyla told her kids a bedtime story every day, and no one dared to interrupt Elizabeth in the hour after lunch, whatever she was doing in her office then. Routine had turned from something boring to be avoided into a sacred, private little space they were all prepared to defend tooth and claw.

John met Ronon in front of his quarters two doors down, and they set off in companionable silence. The Cyrinius was quiet around them, most of her humans asleep apart from the few unlucky souls who got stuck with the graveyard shift.

He returned to his room almost an hour later, sweaty, but mostly awake, and sat down on the edge of his bed where Rodney was still snoring away. He lit himself a stick of kuma and sucked in a deep draw before settling his hand on Rodney’s shoulder and giving him a light shake. It took three more shakes and the tantalizing smell of kuma under his nose before Rodney heaved himself into a somewhat sitting position. John handed over his flute and asked: “Want to come shower with me?” Rodney mumbled something that could vaguely be interpreted as assent, and, with John turning him in the right direction, managed to find his way into the shower.

One thing the Ancients had, oddly enough, never invented, were showers. They had bathtubs, brilliant, large bathtubs that were actually more like small indoor pools, but John was a shower guy at heart. Luckily, the engineers had proved quite adept at adjusting the plumbing accordingly, and Rodney had rewired the MTI from the baths (until he figured out how to build them himself, in any case) so they had really really brilliant showers that read their minds.

Breakfast and their flight down planet-side was a quiet affair, but after they had landed once more in the hangar, John turned to Rodney.

“So, did you get anywhere with that idea you had yesterday?”

Rodney shrugged. “It’s a good idea for a compromise, and should work in everyone’s interest, but who knows what those stiff-necked military drones in there make of it?”

John couldn’t help an amused little chuckle. “You are aware that you’re military yourself, Rodney, aren’t you?”

Rodney just snorted disdainfully. It seemed that with every year he had spent absorbing military habits, from never going unarmed to hand signs, his disdain for the military had grown in direct proportion.

“Okay, folks, let’s go. Though I don’t think we need to be all formal today. First impression’s done and all…”

“Oh thank God,” Rodney said. “Does that mean we can dispense with these and I can have my gear back?” He dangled his uniform jacket from a finger.

“Since it seems highly unlikely we’ll need to be armoured against Wraith attacks in the SGC, yes, I think we can leave these in the jumper,” John agreed dryly.

***

For the second time in as many days, Jack stood in the F-305 hangar waiting for their Atlantian guests to disembark. Unlike the previous morning, though, there was a distinct lack of dress uniforms and welcoming committee today. Basically, it was just him and SG-1 (sans aliens), and a couple stone-faced marines. The higher-ups were already converging in the briefing room, and the current planetary crisis had wiped Woolsey’s official IOA welcome from the agenda for now.

Apparently, their guests had decided on a similar lack of formality. They looked rumpled and bleary-eyed and their uniform jackets were missing. Instead, they wore shirts in the off-white shade of un-dyed linen, and something that looked remarkably like tac vests over them. Well, tac vests made from leather and wool, with laces and those selfsame blackened metal buckles instead of Velcro and plastic fasteners. Dex carried something that looked suspiciously like a sword on his back, and something like a slim, metal cigarette was dangling from between McKay’s lips, bluish smoke curling upwards from the tip.

“Mornin’,” Sheppard greeted them, sketching a sloppy wave in their direction.

“Sheppard, McKay,” Jack nodded in their direction, “Dex. Ready for the meeting?”

Sheppard shrugged laconically. “As we’ll ever be. Lead on.”

They gave the marines long, calculating side-long glances as they fell into step behind them, but none of them seemed to be ready to make an issue of it, for which Jack was grateful. Of course, from the evaluating/dismissive looks, it was probably because Sheppard and company figured they could take them in a fight. Nevertheless, they made it to the briefing room without any outbreak of violence.

***

Sheppard reached into a pocket of his tac vest as soon as he had slumped down into a chair at the conference table, sparing barely a nod towards the assembled generals, and withdrew a slender metal tube identical to the one McKay had dangling from his mouth. He flicked open one end with a swipe of his thump, withdrew something that looked like a small, perfectly straight twig the length of a pinkie from the same pocket with the other hand, and slid it into the tube. Then he swiped the tube shut, clicked it twice like a pen, and brought it to his lips to take a deep draw. Blue smoke started to curl upwards from the tip. All of his motions held the ritualistic routine of a habitual smoker lighting a cigarette. The smoke he blew out of the corner of his mouth, and that issuing from McKay’s identical contraption held a spicy sweetness Jack had smelled before. After a moment he remembered that it was the scent that had hung faintly in the air of the gate ship yesterday.

McKay, for his part, used Sheppard’s distraction to appropriate the coffee pot and pour himself a large cup. Sheppard raised an eyebrow in his direction.

“Kuma and coffee? You better watch out or you’re gonna be hyper as a ch’zapra during mating season.”

McKay favoured him with one of his trademark baleful glares.

“It’s five in the morning! The sun’s not supposed to be up for another four hours, and I’m not supposed to be up for another two! I need all the caffeine I can get!”

Sheppard shrugged. “Suit yourself. But I’m not gonna step in if you make someone cry. Again.”

KcKay snorted and waved a dismissive hand, metal tube tucked between two fingers while he took a deep gulp of coffee. “They can take it.”

Sheppard greeted that pronouncement with a quick, doubtful twitch of his eyebrows, then turned an expectant look at Landry.

“Okay, folks, let’s get this meeting started. Welcome again to our returned Atlantis expedition members.” Landry nodded cordially at Sheppard’s side of the table. “The status of the enemy ships on approach is still unchanged as far as we can determine, and we are as of 0752 this morning at T minus 480 hours. Unfortunately, we have been unable to come up with any solution to our dilemma of last night. Any brilliant ideas on your end?”

McKay raised a hand. “I have. See, your problem is that you don’t want to warn the Wraith about the capabilities of our ship, right?” He continued before Landry could do more than raise an eyebrow. “I mean, they must know their first two hives got defeated, because they would have been receiving sub-space transmissions from them otherwise. So they know that there’s some defences in place. And they don’t know what the Cyrinius is capable of, since she’s a prototype and has never been tested in battle before the day before yesterday. Now…”

“Wait, wait,” Caldwell interrupted. “That ship is a prototype?”

McKay gave him a long blink, as if he had forgotten other people existed during his rant. Jack was fascinated by the way the metal-cigarette-thingie was bouncing as he talked, but stayed in his mouth as if glued on there. “Yes?”

“You flew a prototype to another galaxy??”

“Yeah,” Sheppard replied in McKay’s place. “Take-off didn’t quite go according to schedule, what with the Wraith finishing their intergalactic hyperdrive before we could ours, or we would’ve tested her first, of course. But, well, we couldn’t let the Wraith get to Earth, now could we?” He gave another one of his laconic shrugs.

“But… how did you get here without an intergalactic hyperdrive?” Carter asked, confusion evident on her face.

“Finished it on the way.”

“So… you had no idea whether it would actually work? Whether you would ever make it here?”

Sheppard raised an eyebrow at her. “Rodney built it. Of course it was gonna work. Timing was a bit chancy, last minute and all, but…” he shrugged again, “…nothing new there. We’ve had worse odds. And we made it, so…” He waved a hand to indicate that he considered the matter closed with that.

“Anyway, as I was saying,” McKay jumped in again, “they don’t know the Cyrinius’ capabilities, so we’re not really giving anything away by letting them know we’re here. My suggestion is to take a puddle jumper, gate to a planet close to where the hives will stop to rest, and offer them conversion. We can cloak the jumper, so we should be safe enough. If they accept, wonderful, we arrange a meeting place and take the Cyrinius out. If they don’t accept, we fly the jumper back and can still set up an ambush along the way. Now, I have identified three possible planets with gates…”

“A moment, Doctor McKay,” Landry interrupted. “Let’s discuss this first. First off, what, pray tell, is a puddle jumper?”

McKay blinked, then spread his arms and waved them around to indicate… Jack didn’t know what. “Small ship. Green. Round, goes through the gate…”

“Ah!” Jack made. “You mean a gateship.”

“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” McKay said with a glare at Sheppard. Sheppard just grinned.

“As I was saying–” McKay pointedly turned away from Sheppard, “–if we take a jumper, they won’t have any data on the Cyrinius.”

“What if the Wraith detect you?” Carter asked worriedly. “A … jumper won’t be much protection if they attack you.”

Sheppard gave a snort. “Against seven hives, nothing we have will be much protection. We’ll cloak like Rodney said, and if they detect us, we’ll just get the hell out of there. Hives can’t gate, and landing them planet-side isn’t quick by any means. Same goes for the Cyrinius. So, actually, we’ll have a lot more options with a jumper. I think Rodney’s idea has merit. Let’s give it a shot.”

McKay turned back to Sheppard, eyebrows up and superior expression in place. “Well, you won’t be going, obviously.”

“I won’t?” The question was mildly curious, but the dark look that went with it was anything but mild.

“No, you won’t. Anyone can deliver the message to the Wraith, but you are the best candidate to fly the Cyrinius in an engagement. So we can’t take the chance of you getting shot down before the real battle even starts. Obviously I won’t be going either, since I have things to do.” A pointed look at Sheppard. “Research.”

Sheppard was visibly unhappy with that, but apparently couldn’t think of a good reason why it had to be him going on a potential suicide mission― since there was the even more potential suicide mission later on to be taken on. Jack knew how the guy felt. He also hated leaving the front lines to somebody else. It always felt like cowardice, even if it was just sound tactical reasoning. The same thing was one of the reasons why he missed being on SG-1. They had been the front line. No doubtful, self-congratulatory staying behind there.

The discussion finally got under way, even if it seemed pretty much a settled matter with Sheppard. It didn’t help any that Jack happened to agree it was a good compromise, and so did Carter. Jack could still see the other generals and assorted persons in charge chafe at Sheppard’s cavalier treatment of his own rank in their military hierarchy. The only thing preventing complete hostilities from breaking out was probably the threat of almost-imminent death, and the quick but intense planning session Landry had called all of them to after the expedition members had left the day before. Samuels was full of affronted bluster, but it was Caldwell that worried Jack. The man had a certain, murderous glint in his eyes, and clothed himself in icy civility instead of his usual gruff authority.

***

Eventually, it was Dex who was elected to go deliver the message to the Wraith ships, since he spoke Wraith and was apparently of sufficiently high rank in the Pegasus military to not offend. Since Caldwell and Samuels threatened to throw a fit or two which wouldn’t be conductive to further non-violent relations, Daniel volunteered himself to accompany him. Jack protested, of course. Daniel explained, in his annoying, patient, dreadfully reasonable way, that he was the one who spoke fluent Ancient, and besides, he wanted to hear that Wraith language. This made Jack very, very unhappy, but he knew his scientist well enough to know futility when he saw the fire of new knowledge burning in his eyes. Not that that kept him from trying. Eventually he had to concede defeat, just like Sheppard, and let Daniel go.

Then they got into a discussion about the Ancient drones they were going to build for the Ancient outpost. The Pentagon was anything but happy about McKay’s material demands. Specifically, what amounted to the fruits of a year and a half’s naquadah mining. Of course, the silicium and platinum didn’t help.

“You want me to help you build several thousand drones,” McKay huffed, “then you’ll have to give me enough material to work with! But if you don’t want to, fine, let the Wraith eat you. Oh, wait, that would be bad!”

“Now, Dr. McKay, you have to see that your demands are rather… steep,” Landry said in what was, for him, a very soothing tone. McKay rounded on him.

“No, I don’t have to see!” he replied in a way which suggested he was talking to a five-year old. A particularly dense five-year old at that. Jack could see a vein begin to throb in the general’s temple. “You need my help. And since I’m not any keener on dying than you are, you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that this is what I need. A single drone only requires a few grams of naquadah, but it adds up if you want to build several thousand of them.”

“But McKay,” Carter intervened. Good thing, too. “Naquadah is incredibly powerful. Even with an amount as small as 10 milligrams per drone…”

McKay rolled his eyes at her. “Yes, that would be why Ancient drones make the big holes. Even in hive ships. Whose hulls, as you'd know if you'd read the intel I sent you, are made of a polymer not unlike chitin.”

“Chitin?” Jack asked.

“Like the shell of a bug, Sir. Very light and a high tensile strength.”

“Tough to crack, then?”

McKay snorted. “Very. There is a reason the Wraith haven’t developed energy shields for their ships, besides the whole ruling-the-galaxy-for-the-past-ten-thousand-years thing.”

Grudgingly, Landry finally agreed to speak with the President about the naquadah since McKay insisted that he really really needed that much.

It was going on lunch before they arrived at a rough time-line for the following three weeks. The best planet near the stopping point of the hives was selected, and Dex, Daniel, two soldiers from the Cyrinius and two marines from the SGC were set to leave in the afternoon, with plenty of time left to get into position and await the arrival of the fleet.

McKay was going to be busy with ZPM research and exasperatedly informed them that that would take up all of his valuable time, and there was no way he would be able to help with the drone building or the contingency plan of powering the chair via naquadah generator in person.

“Lannik can help with the chair,” he grudgingly allowed.

“Lannik doesn’t speak or write, or read, English,” Sheppard pointed out.

McKay heaved a put-upon sigh. “Fine, Lannik and Miko can help with the chair.”

“Who’s Lannik?” Carter wanted to know curiously.

McKay waved a dismissive hand. “He’s a Genii kid. Reasonably bright, and he knows his way around naquadah.”

“He’s been Rodney’s prime student for the last eight years,” Sheppard informed them dryly. “That should be all the proof of his competence you need.”

“Oh, I wasn’t trying to insinuate…” Carter waved her hands in denial. “We’ll be happy to have him, of course.”

Sheppard snorted. “Yeah, I bet. Rodney’s student, I just said. He learned more than just science from him, and he wasn’t exactly all smiles and sunshine before, being Genii and all. But he’ll do good work.”

Carter nodded, looking somewhat disturbed now. “So, who’s going to take care of the drones if McKay’s going to be busy with the ZPM research, and I’m working on the chair?”

“Peter,” Sheppard said after a moment of consideration. “You can have Peter.”

“Oh, thanks, John, for offering up half of my team like that,” McKay snarked acidly.

Sheppard rolled his eyes at him. “C’mon, Rodney! It’s not like he’s busy on the Cyrinius right now. The only damage we have are some scorch marks on the hull, that’ll be fixed in no time at all. He knows his way around here on Earth, so he’s the best man for the job.”

“Which Peter?” Jack asked, mentally running through the expedition’s personnel list. There were at least three Peters there if he remembered correctly, and he had taken more of an interest in the military contingent when he had reviewed the files.

“Grodin, Peter Grodin. Maybe you remember him?”

“I do,” Sam spoke up. “It was his paper on sub-atomic particles and time that brought him to the attention of the recruitment committee for the Stargate program.”

Of course Carter would remember some scientific paper from more than ten years ago.

“Ah. Well, he’s more into Ancient tech these days,” Sheppard told them.

Assignment questions thus solved, the meeting pretty much concluded, and everyone dispersed to go and get some lunch. Sheppard declined their invitation to the mess hall this time. Apparently, the lure of Earth food had been short-lived.

They departed with their gateship, to return in the afternoon to send off the ship to contact the Wraith fleet. It gave Jack a small, and mostly irrational pang, seeing them lift off and vanish into the summer-blue sky. Every time they did, he had to imagine how easy it would be for them to just turn around and leave. Leave Earth to its fate. He would have liked to believe that they never would do that, never desert their home in a time of need, but from everything he had seen and heard, he suspected the reason for their help was more along the lines of general principle than true loyalty. It… disturbed him.

Chapter Text

This time there was the big welcoming committee again, but then, this time, two gate ships were descending to the hangar, and for the first time since the Cyrinius’ arrival two days ago, they would be dealing with more people than just Sheppard, McKay and their silent alien bodyguard.

The ramps lowered, and suddenly there were plenty of people milling around, all in that self-same black leather. Carter was shaking hands with a smiling, dark-skinned man Jack assumed to be Peter Grodin, but he had his hands full keeping Daniel from running around like an over-excited three-year old, and giving Dex and his complement a wary look.

Dex was back in his uniform jacket, but he now wore his tac vest over it, and a sweeping, ankle-lenth leather coat open over that. The coat was black, of course, and showed the same patch on the left shoulder that the jacket did. All that leather made him bulk up even more, and the big gun over his shoulder didn’t help matters. He seemed to dwarf Sheppard and the other two men next to him.

One of them was young, early to mid-twenties, dark-haired and slightly stocky. His patch showed what looked like two brown short swords crossed on a dark blue field, and two slender strips of silver on his collar. The other man with them, wearing the same patch as Sheppard and McKay, and one strip of silver on his collar, was older, somewhere in his late thirties, first signs of grey showing at his temple. He had a set of burn scars on his cheek, four diamonds in a flower-like pattern, edges a tiny bit smudged. As if he hadn’t quite held still when they were burned into his face.

Jack was so distracted by the scars that it took him a second glance to realize that he recognized this man, that he was another expedition member. Before he had time to wrack his brain for the name, however, Sheppard turned towards them to make introductions.

“General, this is Second Dart Commander Wex Annathen and First Commander Stackhouse.”

“Nice to see ya, General, Doctor Jackson,” Stackhouse greeted with a grin while the boy watched them with dark, neutral eyes after inclining his head a bit in a fashion that reminded Jack strongly of T. What was it with these formal aliens?

“Nice to see you as well… Sergeant Stackhouse, wasn’t it?” Jack replied.

Stackhouse grinned again, gave a short laugh.

“Oh, yeah, a long time ago, Sir. First Commander of the Armed Forces aboard the Cyrinius it is, these days.”

Jack quirked an eyebrow. “What is it with you people and the long titles?”

Stackhouse shrugged. “Haven’t been at this Confederation business for that long, Sir, so it gets confusing at times with the ranks… It’ll sort itself out in time, I ‘xpect.”

Now here was an expedition member Jack would like to spend more time with. Cheerful and without the reserve Sheppard and McKay had shown so far, and apparently more willing to give them some damn information about what had actually happened during the last ten years. Oh, and he’d addressed Jack as “Sir”, which was a plus as well, of course. Too bad it would be Daniel who was going to spend the next day or two in the man’s company, and he would probably be too busy geeking out at the Ancient-speaking aliens to get them any useful information.

Jack slanted a side-ways look at Daniel. Yep, the man looked like he couldn’t wait to be gone. Not that Jack would deride the possible benefits for humanity gained through linguistics where Daniel could hear him. The man had gotten awfully violent since he Descended that first time around.

***

The prospect of spending two entire days speaking exclusively Ancient had Daniel rock on the balls of his feet in excitement. Sure, he could read the language reasonably fluently, but he had only spoken it in actual conversation a few times in his life, and every linguist knew that spoken and written language could be two entirely different things. And during his one short conversation with Ronon in the mess yesterday he had noted a few differences in stress and pronunciation to the Ancient he was used to. Ronon had, for all intents and purposes, a Pegasus accent. And he had spoken the language fast, all contractions and dropped subjects. Daniel was looking forward to comparing it with the way the other members of the expedition spoke Ancient.

And then, of course, there was the Wraith language. The language of a telepathic species… Daniel couldn’t wait to analyze the particulars of that one.

Of course they had to go through all the song and dance of the military hand-shaking and introducing before he was finally allowed to board the gate ship together with Ronon, Jason Stackhouse and the quiet young man named Wex. The three different patches on their uniforms announced three different cultural backgrounds, yet the identical uniforms and their belonging to a galaxy-spanning confederation also pointed towards shared points of reference. Daniel’s head was swimming with the concept of true cooperation between humans living such vast distances apart from each other. More than ever he wished Jack had let him go on the expedition, people-eating aliens and ten years in exile or no.

Stackhouse settled himself in the pilot’s chair and Wex took the co-pilot one. Ronon sprawled his tall form out in the seat behind the young man, swivelling to stretch his legs into the short aisle. So Daniel took the chair behind the pilot chair, which afforded him a pretty good look out the front window.

***

Jack watched from the control room as the gate ship slowly sank into position in front of the gate. The gateroom wasn’t really meant to accommodate the bulk of it, and McKay was grumbling about the lack of automated security protocols in place, but as far as Jack could see, Stackhouse was doing a good job, lowering the ship nice and steady.

“Flight, Jumper One ready for gating,” Stackhouse’s voice crackled through the speakers. Sheppard gave a vague twitch towards the microphone next to Jack, as if he had kept himself from taking charge at the last moment.

“Jumper One, you have a go. Good luck and God’s speed,” Landry instead replied gruffly.

“Thank you, General,” Stackhouse answered, sounding faintly puzzled. “Commander Sheppard, Sir? Any last words of wisdom?” Jack could feel his eyebrows lift at the vaguely mocking lilt to the question.

“A path without shadows and hearth fires at the end of your journey, people,” Sheppard said, formal and oddly quiet. There was another brief pause, then Stackhouse’s voice sounded again, solemn even through the speakers.

“And the same to you, Sir. Jumper One, commencing dialling.”

As the gate rumbled to life, inner ring spinning and cooling agents wafting from the capacitors, Jack shot a questioning look at Sheppard. The man, though, had his eyes fixed unblinkingly on the ship until it passed through the shimmering event horizon, his hands clasped behind his back and face closed. Only when the gate shut down behind the ship did he notice Jack’s look and quirk a questioning eyebrow of his own.

“What was that you said to them?” It had sounded strangely… archaic. The sort of thing people they encountered on one of the more rustic planets might say.

Sheppard looked confused for a moment, then shrugged a bit. “Oh, it’s just a common blessing. Good luck and safe return, basically.”

“So, what the general said,” Jack concluded. Sheppard quirked an eyebrow at him again, then a small, amused smile lifted one corner of his lips.

“Yeah, what the general said,” he agreed easily. “The other general.”

Jack snorted, because, the man was right. There were far too many generals around here. It was no wonder they spent all their damn time in meetings instead of getting anything done.

***

Shooting out of the gate to steeply pull up into the night sky of the planet, Daniel watched the stars grow through the windshield - until that lit up with a transparent display, dividing the empty blackness of space into neat quadrants, plotting their course in a glowing blue curve. Ancient writing showed around the edges.

“ETA three and a half hours,” Stackhouse informed everyone just as Daniel had deciphered that for himself. Ronon grunted and slid down in his seat.

“Wake me when we get there,” he muttered in Ancient, closed his eyes, arms crossed over his chest, and apparently went straight to sleep.

Well, Daniel thought, so much for that source of conversation. So instead, he leaned forward to talk to the young man in the co-pilot seat.

“Hi, I’m Daniel. You’re Wex, right?” he asked in Ancient.

The young man gave him a guarded look. “That is correct.”

“Where are you from, Wex?”

This time the look was puzzled. “I am from Lantia, like Commander Sheppard and the others.”

Daniel frowned slightly. “But your…” What was the name for patch…? He waved a hand at Wex’s arm, “It’s different?”

“Oh. I am Athosian.”

“And you live on the planet Atlantis is on? Tell me more about your people, Wex.”

Wex slanted a look at Stackhouse, who chuckled without taking his eyes off the windshield-come-screen.

“It’s fine, kiddo. He’s just a scientist. You know how they get. Cultures are his thing. I’m sure he’d love it if you told him about the ring ceremony.”

Stackhouse was right, Daniel did love to hear about the ring ceremony. The cultural implications of living in a galaxy where humans were routinely under threat of a predator were turning out to be as fascinating as he’d thought. Also quite disturbing, of course.

He spend the next three hours talking to Wex about Athosian funeral rites, food production and preparation, fashion and hunting techniques. Every now and then, Stackhouse jumped in, explaining some oddity or contributing some anecdote, usually one that ended in embarrassment for one or more members of the expedition.

They finally arrived at a section of space that looked like all sections of space looked, but which the display informed them was their goal.

Stackhouse woke Ronon, and they settled in to wait for the Wraith fleet to arrive, cloak engaged and sensors probing the space around them. Daniel went into the back to the two marines who had started playing cards at some point and informed them of the status quo, such as it was. He had sort of forgotten about the two men who wouldn’t have understood anything of the conversation he’d had with Wex and Stackhouse, so he thought he should at least check that they weren’t getting antsy or anything.

***

And suddenly, they were there. One moment, the space in front of the windshield was black and empty, and the next the cold, blue light of hyperspace windows lit up the interior of the gateship and the hive ships loomed in front and above them. Daniel felt his throat go dry.

Sure, he had seen his share of hostile space ships, desperate situations, he’d faced certain death more than once, hell, he’d actually died on occasion. But still… these ships were huge. Larger than Asgard war ships, larger than Goa'uld motherships. The only thing he knew of comparable size were Ori ships. And as bad as the Ori were… at least they didn’t eat people.

He still didn’t know what Wraith actually looked like, but the thought of these massive, dark ships crammed full of hungry aliens was enough to send a shiver or two down his spine. Suddenly, the gateship felt like a very small, very fragile shell between him and death by vacuum.

“Holy crap,” he heard one of the marines mutter, and he was inclined to agree. Sure, seeing these ships through video feed on the monitors of the SGC was bad. Floating in front of them in empty space with nothing but a cloaking device between him and them… was much worse.

They were flying in formation, one in the middle, one in the front and in the back, two to the side and one above and below.

“The Queen’ll be in that one,” Stackhouse muttered, waving a hand at the ship in the centre.

“Are you getting any useful readings?” Ronon asked and Wex pushed a couple of buttons.

“They’re in better condition than we anticipated,” he reported. “Hull damage is minimal. It will only take them hours to resume hyperspace travel. The hulls are too thick to get a good reading on life signs, but from the energy readings, life support must be running on full power.”

Daniel saw Stackhouse’s lips compress into a tight, white line.

“So they didn’t all eat each other on the way here. Damn.”

Ronon grunted in acknowledgement.

“Let’s get this over with. Give me a channel,” he instructed Stackhouse. “And keep us moving so they can’t get a lock on the signal.”

“Of course.”

Stackhouse started to fly them around in a random pattern in front of the fleet, while Ronon stood up in the aisle, arms crossed in front of his broad chest and head damn near brushing the top of the gate ship.

Then he opened his mouth and started to speak. Daniel immediately understood why they would prefer Ancient for daily communication.

The Wraith language was harsh, full of hard consonants and guttural sounds, accompanied by an occasional hiss. And still… it sounded almost familiar, sometimes.

There was a moment of silence after Ronon finished what was apparently his message, and then the hissing answer filled the jumper. Daniel felt another cold shiver go down his spine. The language had sounded uncomfortable when it came from Ronon, but this… it was almost melodious, natural… the way the rattle of a rattlesnake was.

“Energy levels are increasing in all ships. They are powering up weapons,” Wex announced.

“Do they have a lock on us?” Ronon asked sharply.

Wex shook his head. “No.”

“I take it that was a ‘no’ to the conversion and peaceful resolution?” Daniel asked even though he was pretty certain. Ronon raised an eyebrow and gave him an amused quirk of lips.

“A very definite ‘no’,” he affirmed.

“Oh, damn,” Stackhouse said, and drew everyone’s attention back out the windshield. “They’re launching darts.”

“Get us out of here,” Ronon ordered, and Stackhouse wasted no time swinging the ship back around the way they had come. Daniel’s last view of the hives was the seemingly unending number of tiny triangular ships pouring out of them. Tiny ships that were about the same size as the gateship they were in.

“They are fanning out, establishing a 360° pattern,” Wex reported. “And they are…” A series of short energy bolts flashed past them, “…opening fire.”

Stackhouse cursed again, this time in a language Daniel didn’t understand, and seemed to try and coax some more speed out of their ship.

For a bit, things got pretty wild. Blue energy salvos missed them by inches and the cloud of darts around the Wraith fleet continued growing in every direction- including their own. But slowly they gained some distance and the enemy fire slowly decreased in intensity. Daniel dared to take a careful breath of relief― and the ship shuddered and groaned with a hit.

Daniel caught himself on the back of Stackhouse’s chair, saw Wex grip the console and Ronon almost tumble out of his own chair.

“Son of a Genii whore…!” Stackhouse yelped. “We’ve lost the cloak!”

“Shield?” Ronon grunted, righting himself.

“Up and running,” Wex announced. “A group of darts has locked onto us and is adjusting their trajectory for pursuit. I count nine.”

“C’mon, c’mon, baby,” Stackhouse muttered, and Daniel could feel some of the speed they were moving with even through the inertial dampeners. The floor vibrated slightly with the hum of the engines, and he could hear the shield thud and crackle with the impact of several hits.

Stackhouse started to add some evasive manoeuvres, sacrificing some speed but significantly decreasing the frequency of hits. If they had been anywhere but in space Daniel thought his stomach probably couldn’t have taken the ride. Even so he felt slightly dizzy when the stars around them tilted and swayed with every dip and swerve of the ship.

“The nine darts are still in pursuit, but the rest of the darts is returning to the hives,” Wex informed them.

Ronon grunted. “I guess that’s something. How long to the gate?”

“At maximum speed at least another one and a half hours,” Stackhouse ground out.

“We’ve got to get rid of them. Wex, shoot ‘em.”

Daniel watched on the screen how the tight cluster of pursuing darts scattered, two of the little red triangles vanishing all together.

The next one and a half hours were among the most nerve wracking of Daniel’s life. Wex shot at the darts, the darts shot at them and stayed persistently on their tail, spinning out of the way of Wex’s shots. By the time the planet came into view they were down to four and showed no sign of giving up pursuit.

Another hit curtesy of Wex lit up the clouds in reds and golds as they dived through the atmosphere towards the gate, friction burning brightly against their shield, rattling the ship and their teeth.

“Jackson, dial as soon as we’re in reach and send the IDC,” Ronon ordered and handed him a tablet computer, the familiar gate symbols in a triangular arrangement on the screen. Of course, Daniel realized, the jumper's DHD would be showing Pegasus symbols. Someone, probably McKay, must've programmed the tablet as a work-around. Daniel looked at Dex, surprised, then took the tablet and nodded. It made sense. Stackhouse needed to concentrate on flying and Wex was busy shooting.

“Damnit!” Stackhouse cursed in English, and they all looked at him. “No security protocols in place!” he continued in Ancient. “I have to slow on approach or we’ll end up plastered against the gate room wall. That is, if I manage to hit the gate! Jackson, tell them to have the roof open!”

“And to close the iris as soon as we have passed through the gate,” Wex contributed. “The darts will no doubt attempt to follow us.”

Down below, the vague brown of the continent was rapidly dissolving into distinct woods and mountains. Daniel could even make out the tiny grey speck of the gate on its little pedestal.

“Dial!” Ronon bellowed, and Daniel did. The triangular arrangement of the symbols was unfamiliar, but it responded with beautiful speed. A flicker of light down below announced the activation of the gate.

Daniel transmitted his IDC, then started speaking at Ronon’s nod.

“Stargate Command, this is Daniel Jackson. Open the roof and close the iris as soon as we’re through. I repeat, open the roof immediately and close the iris as soon as we’re through, we’re coming in hot!”

“Gotcha, Danny,” Jack’s voice informed them. Daniel could hear the alarm blaring in the background.

He actually felt it when Stackhouse stepped on the breaks, so to speak. Their descend started to slow… slightly. The gate still grew larger with alarming speed.

“The darts are gaining on us!” Wex informed them. The young man’s face was pale and Daniel saw lines of tension and concentration around his eyes that made him look older than he should be.

And suddenly the gate loomed in front of them as the ground rushed to meet them, and Daniel was convinced they weren’t going to make it, their approach was much too steep and too fast. And then the event horizon swallowed him up.

Chapter Text

An electric blue blast came through the gate and stamped a hole right through the ramp and into the concrete of the floor, making the marines stationed in the gate room duck behind their shields. Jack could feel the impact through the soles of his boots even up in the control room. Smoke curled upwards from the blackened edges of the hole and he wondered idly whether they were going to patch up the hole in front of the gate or get a new ramp.

Then the jumper emerged from the gate, emerged fast! Jack instinctively ducked as the front of the gate ship came very, very close to the window of the control room. Should’ve closed the blast doors, too, Jack thought as he got a look at Daniel’s surprised face through the wind shield. Then it lifted, its underbelly streaming past the window and was gone. There were two dark smudges on the glass where the engines had come close enough to melt it.
“Iris!” Jack bellowed, but Walter was already on it, had already punched the button, and the metal plates were emerging from the rim of the gate― just as another ship came through, even faster. Jack saw sparks spray from where its edges scraped along the closing iris, saw the first tilt of the ship’s pointed nose as the pilot lost control and he lunged forward and punched the button for the blast doors.

Not a moment too soon. The impact threw them all off their feet. It had happened with a dry, hard crunch, and for a moment Jack stayed where he was, down on his ass, and waited for the inevitable sound of an explosion. When that stayed out, he scrambled back to his feet to take stock. Everyone seemed to be OK as far as he could tell from the faint light filtering in from the hallway. Walter was levering himself up on a console, hand pressed to his head, but other than that he didn’t seem to be any worse for wear. All around people where stirring and climbing to their feet. Jack could just hope the marines in the gate room had fared as well. And then he realized that the Atlantians were missing.

He threw himself out the door and down the stairs, following the sound of running boots down the corridor and around the corner to the door of the gate room. The door was just opening, red warning light spinning next to it, and over the rumble and grind of the metal, Jack could hear the screams from inside the gate room.

They were high-pitched, shrill with agony. Jack had heard screams like that before, had even sounded like that himself on occasion… on the occasion of being tortured to death by Baal (over and over and over and over… okay, let’s maybe not go there). They were the sort of scream people gave when the pain was just too much, was everything there was, and screaming was the only thing left to do.

He saw Sheppard drop into a crouch, guns appearing in his hands. McKay leaned against the doorway behind him, legs braced apart, side arm cradled in a teacup grip, and they started shooting just as Jack reached the doorway as well, slid to a halt and surveyed the disaster that was the gate room, his hands futilely going to his hips for a side arm that wasn’t there, that he wasn’t wearing inside the SGC.

The wraith ship lay crumpled against the wall under the rising blast door, a complete wreck of grey and reddish brown pieces. Bodies, shields and guns lay scattered across the floor wherever they had fallen. Some of the bodies were stirring, Jack noted with passing relief as his eyes fixed on the far wall. It was where the screaming was coming from.

It was a marine, by the BDUs he was wearing, pinned to the wall by a tall figure. Smooth, white hair cascaded down over broad shoulders of what Jack at first glance would have called a man in a long black leather coat. Only this man was pinning a writhing, screaming marine to the wall with inhuman strength, and didn’t react at all as bullets impacted squarely with his back, rocking him and spraying bits of leather and droplets of dark fluid. Red energy pulses left Sheppard’s guns, first one, then the other, then the first one again… relentlessly, one on the heel of the other, hitting the figure’s back just as McKay’s bullets did, the smell of singed leather mixing with the ozone-y smell from Sheppard’s guns. Still the pinned marine shrieked in pain, and Jack watched with growing disbelief as the man seemed to age in front of his eyes. The youthful face became wrinkled, the skin dry, the dark blond hair turned grey and brittle like in some sort of obscene fast-forward. Jack couldn’t believe he was literally seeing the life of this young man pass away before his eyes. Still Sheppard and McKay kept shooting without pause and only minutes, if that, had passed and already what had been a young man in his mid-twenties looked as old as Jack himself.

Then the screaming stopped, cut off, and the marine sagged down, one perfect, round hole between his eyes and a splatter of red on the wall behind him, and the Wraith (for that had to be what it was) whirled around.

Some of the other marines in the gate room were scrambling to their feet, Jack saw out of the corners of his eyes, but his eyes were on the Wraith. Teeth to do a piranha proud bared in a feral snarl, its skin was the colour and consistency of a corpse after three days in standing water, metal-tipped claws dripped gore and goat-yellow eyes, slitted like a cat’s, glared at them to dispel the last illusion of any possible humanity. Then this fanged, clawed nightmare rushed them, completely ignoring the two or three shots of red energy that Sheppard landed squarely in its chest.

A movement in the corner of his eyes caught Jack’s attention, distracted him for a moment as his eyes looked for the quick flicker of shadow he could have sworn he had seen, but there was nothing… or was there? His gaze swept past the marines, stumbling dazedly to their feet, shouting, their P90s swinging around to track the shadows that seemed to be writhing around the corners of the gate room, never quite there.

It was only a moment, but it was enough to take Jack by surprise as the Wraith slammed into their little group. Sheppard fell into McKay’s legs, who stumbled into Jack with a curse and Jack landed squarely on his ass– again. Sheppard was wrestling with the Wraith, rolling back into the gate room, and McKay steadied himself with a shoulder against the wall, empty magazine clattering to the floor as he fumbled a new one out of a pocket of his tac-vest and slammed it home, his mouth a grim, white line, bluish cylinder still tucked into one corner of his lips. The gun came up again, and Jack followed his line of sight to find Sheppard on his back, Wraith crouched over him, one hand around Sheppard’s throat and the other raised for a strike. Sheppard had both hands around the Wraith’s wrist, arms shaking with the strain of keeping the glinting, blood-smeared claws away from his chest. Jack could see the muscles in his jaw bunch as he gritted his teeth, glaring back at the grey, snarling face above him, smooth fall of white hair an eerily beautiful contrast. McKay hesitated, and Jack understood. Sheppard and the Wraith were too close together, the angle bad. He would have hesitated, too. If he had a gun in the first place, that was.

There was a deep, enraged bellow from above, and then a large black shape cut through the air. Dex rolled smoothly, coming up in a crouch next to the Wraith and ripped it off of Sheppard, long arms wrapped around its middle. Jack glanced up to see the gate ship hovering in the open ceiling, Daniel’s face peeking over the rim of the lowered ramp.

The Wraith was snarling, the sound audible over the sudden absence of gun shots and screaming, arm lunging to hit Dex in the chest, flinging the huge man off his feet and propelling him several feet through the air. He landed, slid along the floor, rolled and sprang back to his feet to deliver a sweeping round-house kick that could've knocked out a horse. The Wraith whipped out of the way, spun around to land an elbow to Dex’s ribs, and closed, ramming greedy claws into Dex’s chest. For a moment, everything seemed to freeze as Jack waited for the horrible screaming to start again. Then the Wraith’s yellow eyes widened, Dex smirked, and the body of the Wraith jerked with the impact of the gun Dex suddenly had pressed against its stomach. A second shot made it stumble back half a step, and then two more bolts of energy hit its back. Jack followed them to see Sheppard crouching in the middle of the gate room floor, pale and even more dishevelled than before, red marks starting to bloom around his throat and hand steady as a rock as he squeezed the trigger again. Gunshots exploded from next to Jack as McKay started to methodically empty the next clip into the Wraith.

It staggered and stumbled as shots ripped into its body from three directions, but it still was moments longer before the Wraith’s legs finally buckled and it crumpled to the floor. The Atlantians kept shooting it all the way down.

It lay there, black blood pulsing over bluish-white fangs and the grey chin. Sheppard approached it, cautious steps with knees bent, ready to spring away at any moment, gun never leaving the Wraith’s body. He was coming right alongside the sprawl of black leather and white hair when the fingers of one hand twitched. Shots impacted with the fallen body before Jack had finished a surprised jerk. Sheppard stood motionless, gun trained, for long moments frozen to his spot as silence settled over the gate room again. Then he took the last step, placed his boot squarely over one arm and reached down with one hand to undo some device from the Wraith’s wrist while his eyes and gun stayed steadily on the ruin that was the centre of the Wraith’s chest. McKay detached himself from the wall next to Jack and walked up behind Sheppard, never crossing Dex’s line of fire, and took the device, straps dangling from Sheppard’s hand, gun on the Wraith as well.

“Dead?” Dex asked shortly.

“Yeah,” Sheppard replied and lowered his gun finally. “It’s not healing anymore.” His eyes found Jack’s. “It’s dead,” he said in what could almost be called a reassuring tone of voice.

Jack narrowed his eyes and stiffened his spine. Even if he was a bit freaked out by how hard that thing had been to bring down, there was no reason to show it. And certainly not to a man who looked like he could well be his grandson. He walked over to the group surrounding the dead Wraith, hands stuffed in his pockets and trying for nonchalant.

“So,” he drawled when he reached them, “this is a Wraith.” He stared down at the dead creature that sure as hell didn't get any prettier close-up.

“A male,” Sheppard agreed. “A drone would have been less trouble, but still...” He looked up from his crouch, his eyes meeting McKay's, then Ronon's.

“That son of a Genii whore was fully fed,” McKay grunted. “He had the shadows and all.” Sheppard nodded absently, then gave McKay a quick frown.

“You're not supposed to use that insult any more. No discrimination, remember?” he said reproachfully.

“Fuck you too!” McKay snarled and glared. Sheppard's eyebrow rose and his lips quirked into a sly smirk, but then his eyes met Jack's and he was suddenly all business again.

“If they've got the resources to keep a dart commander this well fed...”

“They've already stopped to feed along the way,” McKay finished grimly. Sheppard glared at the dead Wraith at his feet with narrow eyes.

“That. That, and the hives must be stocked. Fully stocked with... provisions.” His eyes rose again to meet McKay's over the body and the slowly spreading pool of tar-like blood. “How have we not heard about a culling this massive?”he asked in the deceptively soft tone of someone who already knew the answer to his question.

“It couldn't have been on Confederation territory. We would've known,” McKay said with just a touch too much conviction, but Sheppard nodded again.

“Yes, we would've.” Reassurance or true conviction, Jack found it impossible to tell.

“So... these hives are from sub-sector K3, aren't they? They must have culled in Wraith space...”

Sheppard nodded again, a set to his face that looked too grim for his youthful features.

“This was a long term-mission. And nine hives... that's the entire Wraith population of the sub-sector, or near enough.” His eyes slid back down to the grey face, the fangs and yellow eyes. “Nine fully-stocked hives... we're talking thousands of people. Tens of thousands.”

“They couldn't get those numbers with regular cullings,” McKay pointed out, a whitish cast to his face that made it look almost as grey as the dead alien on the floor's. Well, all right, maybe not quite.

“No, they couldn't,” Sheppard agreed, locking eyes again with the doctor. “For numbers like that... they must've taken everyone. They culled an entire sector.”

McKay's fists clenched, his shoulders tense as he stared down at the Wraith for a few silent moments. Jack saw the muscles in his in his jaw flex as he ground his teeth down on the quivering blue cylinder in the corner of his mouth. Then he abruptly turned around and stomped off towards the entrance of the gate room and crouched down to pick up the discarded magazine. He shoved it into a pocket of his tac vest with rough motions. Dex' eyes followed the doctor, but Sheppard didn't pay his departure any heed.

“Er...” Jack made. “Mind telling me what that was about, exactly?”

Sheppard's eyes were flat, his expression jaded as he looked at Jack, clashing again with the smooth skin and youthful look in what Jack considered a very disturbing manner.

“If our theory's correct, these Wraith completely wiped their little corner of the galaxy of human life as provisions for their trip here. Dozens of planets, of civilisations... gone. Empty. And if any of them survived the trip here so far... we're gonna kill them when we blow the hives.”

Jack felt a sick twist in his stomach.

“There's humans on those ships?”

Sheppard shrugged. “Maybe. Unless they've already all been eaten. But this guy-” he nudged a black-clad shoulder with the tip of his boot, “- was better fed than almost any Wraith I've seen in the last ten years. And if he's out in a dart chasing puddle jumpers, he's not very high up the food chain.” He flicked a glance at Jack. “Literally. Wraith are very hierarchical, especially about food. If there's not enough to go around, the important ones eat first. Sure, he's not a drone, but still... He wouldn't be as hard to bring down as he was if they didn't have food to spare. And that means several planets worth of people. Some of whom might not have been eaten yet.”

Jack opened his mouth to say something, he wasn't completely sure what, but Sheppard gave him another of those jaded looks. “And, no, we can't rescue them. Thousands of Wraith, remember? We have our hands full saving ourselves as it is. Sometimes... sacrifices have to be made.”

His eyes strayed to the frail body and bloody spatter on the opposite wall of the gate room, and Jack's gaze followed.

“Oh,” McKay said from next to him and he startled. “Sorry about your man.”

Jack looked at McKay, whiny, egomaniac, scientist-to-his-bones McKay, and then back to the corpse with the small black hole in the head. The bullet hole... and McKay, he realized belatedly, had been the only one in the fight with a gun that actually fired bullets.

“You killed him,” he said, and then could've smacked himself for saying something so inane. He was prepared for a typical, condescending McKay comment, but McKay only raised an eyebrow and said: “Sorry. SOP.”

Jack felt his own eyebrows go up.

“If the victim of an extensive feeding reaches a visible age of about fifty years, the survival rate drops below thirty percent even if you get the Wraith off before death. So it's SOP to mercy-kill the victim and deny the Wraith at least some energy.”

Jack opened his mouth, realized he didn't have any idea what to say, and closed it again, his eyes back on the dried-out husk that had been a young, strapping marine an hour ago. Every instinct in him was offended, furious, at the idea of a standard operating procedure that involved killing their own people. They did not leave people behind. It had been immutable, unwritten law in the SGC since the beginning. Even if it meant hare-brained suicide missions, they didn't leave their own behind. They didn't give up on their people. And mercy-killing them was, in his book, the same as giving up on them. Thirty percent survival rate? Nothing, that was nothing! They had beaten much tougher odds time and again! But then he remembered the screams, remembered the gunfire, remembered the speed and sheer physical strength of the creature before him, remembered the shadows twisting in the corners of the brightly-lit gate room... Then he remembered watching this young man's life passing away before their eyes– and he had to admit that maybe he was out of his depth here.

“Do they ever get it back?”

Sheppard quirked his eyebrows in question.

“The time,” Jack elaborated and gestured at the dead man across the room. “Do they ever get it back if they survive?”

Sheppard's mouth turned down in a grim line, lines bracketing his lips for a moment, moving his young face closer to his real age.

“No. Not with a feeding for any meaningful length of time. Some recovery is possible, yes, stabilization of the system, but... no. We haven't found a way to reverse the feeding process yet. The only ones who can are the Wraith themselves.”

Jack felt his eyes widen. “They can?!”

Sheppard looked at him, gaze steady and flat. “Yes.”

McKay snorted from next to them. “Yeah, right, and good luck convincing one of them to do that. It'll laugh in your face, is what it'll do.”

“Yeah,” Sheppard agreed, but Jack was thinking of his too-youthful looks and thought he understood now. Understood the how but not the why.

His train of thought was interrupted as a medical team rushed into the gate room, Dr Lam in the lead, accompanied by a group of fully-armed marines. Jack looked up to the control room and saw the pale, grim faces of Hank and Caldwell there.

A soft whine came from overhead and he craned his neck further back to see the gate ship take off into the sky, presumably to finally land in the hangar.

“Debriefing in the conference room, ten minutes,” Hank barked and, boy, he wasn't happy. At all. People dying in his gate room tended to do that.

“But...” McKay's eyes were trained on the wreck of the wraith ship and he took half a step towards it before Sheppard snagged his arm.

“No, Rodney. Debriefing first.”

McKay scowled. “Fine,” he huffed with ill grace, then shouted “Don't touch that!” at a couple of marines warily gathering around the ship. “You could blow us all up!” The marines looked over, startled, and quickly took a few steps back.

“Since it hasn't blown up yet, it won't,” Sheppard remarked in an undertone as he towed McKay towards the gate room door.

I know that, but they don't, now do they?” McKay snarked back. Then his eyes landed on Jack, moving towards the door with them, and he looked vaguely embarrassed for a moment before he obviously remembered himself and scowled and glared. Jack merely raised an eyebrow at him. It was probably better if no one started poking around in that wreck without the people who knew the technology around.

A medic bustled up, apparently intent on checking out the vivid marks blooming around Sheppard's throat, but Sheppard just waved him off with assurances that he was fine and continued on his way, hand still wrapped around McKay's arm.

***

This time, Sergeant Stackhouse joined the debriefing to inform them how the entire situation had come about. Sheppard was leaning back in his chair, arms folded, and let Stackhouse do the talking. McKay had reached into one of the pockets of his tac vest and spilled a handful of bullets across the table. He was unusually quiet as he methodically slotted them into the empty magazine, lips a grim line. It went well with the atmosphere of the meeting, which was not particularly comfortable. Jack could tell that his fellow COs were as spooked as he was by their first ever look at a Wraith. Sure, the Goa'uld were creepy as hell, what with the whole parasitic-snake thing, but these Wraith... The main advantage the Goa'uld had had over them was technological. They had been light years ahead of Earth, and they had often seemed invincible, but if you stripped a Goa'uld of its toys, it was just as easy to kill as any human. Hell, if you got it out of the host body, you could crush the damn snake with a single hand.

The Ori had had sheer numbers on them... and powers you might just call magic and get it over with. They had gotten lucky there, Jack knew. The Ori war could've lasted much longer, and they probably wouldn't have stood a chance.

But they still weren't like these Wraith. Powerful, nasty, murderous aliens were nothing new, God knew, but... but this was the first time Jack had looked at another species and seen a predator. A predator of humans. This was the first time he had come face to face with something that would eat him. And it was the first time he saw a predator that had the physical power and intelligence to be damn effective at it. An alien that just shrugged off amounts of damage that would be lethal to anything else, an alien that was larger and stronger and faster than a human, that was intelligent enough to have a language and a technological advantage...

He had known they were in trouble when he heard that there were seven huge hostile spaceships on their way, when he had seen how the Atlantians had reacted. But only now that he had seen a Wraith face-to-face did he feel the bone-deep dread he hadn't known in recent years. And he hadn't missed it either.

Apparently, he wasn't the only one who'd been shown the gravity of their situation. He knew they were all asking themselves the same thing: If one Wraith could make that much trouble in a matter of minutes, what would thousands of them do?

Well, hopefully, nothing, because they were going to get blown up before they set foot on Earth. He shared a look with Hank, and they got to planning how to save their planet. Clearly, they would need to call in some favours with their allies. And he was so not looking forward to brief the President and the Joint Chiefs on this. Maybe he could leave that to Hank...

Chapter Text

John felt the muscles across his back relax as he stepped out of the jumper into one of the Cyrinius' dart bays, the ship's MTI filling his mind with a welcome hum. Out of habit he checked that everything felt the way it should, live-support and power levels and hull integrity all within normal range. With a little blink of surprise he realized that his uneasiness down on Earth came partly from this, from his inability to access the important systems with a thought and check on their status, from how he felt confined to the small range of his own senses, the fragility of his own body, from the lack of control over his environment. He mulled this over as he made his way up from the bay towards the bridge and the living areas. Had he really gotten this used to the Cyrinius in just two months? But maybe it wasn't just the Cyrinius, he realized. Sure, he spent time off-world, but by far the biggest portion of his time over the last ten years was spent in contact with an MTI, either on Lantis or in a jumper or, in recent years, on one of their ships. Huh. He had never realized that being on Earth would feel so strange, so much like being off-world, because he couldn't connect with the tech there. Had he truly spent the better part of his life without this? Yes, he had, and he hadn't ever realized how strange it would be, to walk on a familiar planet, surrounded by familiar tech, the scent of a familiar atmosphere in his nose, and not have that equally familiar, mechanical hum, the chirps and pings, present in the back of his mind. He trailed a gentle hand along the wall, organic curves of Wraith-brown shot through with veins of Ancient grey and teal and turquoise. She truly was a marvel, their Cyrinius. Their very first, very own, hybrid ship. John was aware that he loved this damn machine probably more than he should, but... she'd carried them here, had performed so wonderfully, so completely up-to-par with their wildest dreams. And no one would be able to steal her, use her, not the way they could, because she was Ancient and Wraith, the best of two technologies beyond what humans had achieved on their own so far. He gave a smug little smile. No, no one could coax out of this ship what they, the Confederation, could, not the Wraith and not the Ancients, not Earth-humans and certainly not Genii. Well, Kolya's Genii, in any case. The Rogues, as Laden called them, while Kolya and his people refered to Laden's Genii as 'The Traitors'. The rest of the Confederation just called them Kolya's or Laden's Genii, or, alternatively, the evil and the good Genii.

The corridors became more populated as John got closer to the centre of the ship, the residential areas. The Cyrinius wasn't as large as a hive ship, not even a regular one, but she was large. Large enough to accommodate a small city full of people. Since humanity wasn't exactly thriving in Pegasus, they had only been able to scrape together some hundred-and-fifty people to staff her with, and they formed a small island of population within the many decks and corridors of the ship. On the plus side, they had plenty of storage space for food, weapons and equipment.

He nodded to two Traveller women passing him, bundles of cables over their shoulders and tools under their arms. They gave him a grin and a wave and then continued on their way to fiddle with whatever part of the tech needed fiddling with. There was always something to repair, or improve, in some corner or other of the ship.

John went by the Bridge to pick up a radio and check on things, but all was quiet for the moment, so he left for his favourite lounge and a bowl of whatever was for dinner.

Rodney was a dark silhouette against the panorama window when John entered the lounge, standing in almost exactly the same spot as he had yesterday. John set down his plate on a low table against the wall by the door, and walked over. He leaned against the railing running at hip-height just before the window and cocked his head to the side to catch a look at Rodney's expression.

“Hi,” he offered neutrally.

“Hi,” Rodney replied without taking his eyes off the view. John studied his closed expression, the way the kuma flute barely twitched as he spoke, the tension in his shoulders and the faint wrinkles at the corner of the one eye he could see. John pushed away from the railing again and stepped up behind Rodney, wrapped his arms around the other man's middle and hugged him tightly. Rodney stayed tense and motionless in his arms, but John hadn't expected anything else. Rodney wasn't any more comfortable with expressions of affection than John himself was. So he let go after a few moments, long enough for Rodney to get the message, and moved back beside him.

“I brought dinner,” he offered. “It's naru.” Rodney hesitated for a moment, then uncrossed his arms from where he had folded them on top of the railing, and pushed off.

Their Athosian kitchen staff had taken yesterday’s left-over kandu-stew and baked it, with herbs and sour Lim berries, into palm-sized bars. The Athosians didn't know any form of bread, but baking whatever was left over into these bars, simply called 'naru' whatever stock they were made out of, was a favourite. As far as John could figure, and he was no specialist on Athosian cuisine even if he ate it daily, it was the Lim berries that were the key ingredient for the firm, dense consistency. Naru didn't require any cutlery apart from your fingers, and therefore was also the Conferation's equivalent to MREs, with slightly different herbs for conservation purposes. It was also quite a bit tastier than MREs.

John shooed Rodney to the divan and went to retrieve his plate. Then he sprawled himself out all over Rodney, and got him to feed him his share of the food. When Rodney snidely complained about his “incredible, ridiculous laziness” he knew he had broken through his funk before Rodney went into serious brooding-mode. So John just smirked and licked Rodney's fingers suggestively. Later, he'd reassure Rodney that he'd done the right thing, that putting that poor kid out of his misery was the right decision. Rodney, John knew, hated killing, even after all this time. It probably wasn't a good sign that it generally didn't bother John much, but even that had ceased worrying him a few years ago... right around their last great engagement in the Genii war. Seeing the signs of the torture Kolya and his men had inflicted on his people had led John on an unprecedented killing spree among the Genii. And it had felt good. The regret he had initially expected still hadn't made itself known, and when he looked at Stackhouse, scarred but smiling, tossing one of his laughing children in the air or play-wrestling with another one, he doubted it would ever show up.

***

With the offer of conversion categorically rejected by the Wraith, Sheppard was amenable to the guerilla-style attacks Caldwell had suggested. There was some sniping and grumbling from both sides, but Jack had the distinct impression that the initial wariness was levelling out some, if only because the threat hanging over their heads was coming closer every second. There was a big clock with a countdown running in the conference room of the SGC, reminding them that every hour they wasted arguing, they wouldn't get back. An adequate factory was found and confiscated for the production of the Ancient drones, and McKay set up shop there as well, arriving with six huge crates of equipment and grumbling about the inconvenience of moving his lab the entire time. Jack didn't stay around for much of that. Sheppard took off from the parking lot of the factory in his 'puddle jumper' after a lot of weird forehead-touching with the scientists that would be staying behind at the factory. He was going to take their ship out to the points they had determined (that was, the expedition members had determined) as the resting points for the Wraith ships. Jack felt his lips thin at the thought of those ships, remembering the report Daniel had shared with him and Sam over dinner. Daniel was rather unflappable these days, what with the ascending, and the Goa'uld and the Ori and things, but Jack could tell that fleet had impressed him, and not in a good way. On top of that, of course, there had been the Wraith in the gate room. Not only had it survived the crash of its dart, the things it had done to the young marine... Jack could tell that pretty much the entire base was spooked. Hell, he was spooked. He just hoped Sheppard would come back with good news. He hoped Sheppard came back at all. But, no, a good part of his scientists and a small complement of military were still on Earth, and Jack was pretty certain that there was no way in hell Sheppard would be leaving without them. It made him feel a little better, because the Atlantian ship with the name he could never remember was still their best line of defence against the threatening invasion. Sam and whoever else they could find were going to look into powering the chair with the naquadah generators as soon as they were done with the drones, but there was only so much destruction even the chair could do.

Jack went off to do some briefing at the Pentagon the afternoon Sheppard left with his ship, while Hank and the rest of the SGC were going to try and call in favours from as many of their allies as they could. Teal'c would be returning, of course, and had already promised them several ships and a complement of Jaffa, but with the current tensions between the Jaffa and the Tok'ra, not to mention the need to guard their planets against the Lucian alliance, Jack wasn't too optimistic about the amount of help Teal'c would be able to draw on.

The Prometheus II was being checked over by a swarm of engineers to make sure she was as battle-ready as she was ever going to be, and the call had gone out to the Hammond to return home. The Odyssey, unfortunately, was on a research mission far into reaches of the galaxy they hadn't explored yet, and wouldn't make it back in time for the fight. The Daedalus, venerable old lady that she was, had landed and was getting as much of the long-over due overhaul as could be managed. Bureaucrats, they were going to be the death of them one day. Literally. Jack and Caldwell had pushed for the refitting of the Daedalus for the past two years, but they had been ignored with mumblings of “low priority” and “no budget”. And now that they needed all the fire-power they could muster... well. They would have to make do with whatever could be fitted in the short three weeks until the attack.

Jack just wished he could be out there, maybe with Sheppard, or at least at the SGC, instead of being stuck in even more meetings with the President, the Joint Chiefs, and a bunch of paper-pushers from the IOA, explaining to them just how screwed they actually were. Recent successes, the last couple of relatively peaceful years had made the paper-pushers, and not just them, arrogant. Forgotten were the early days Jack still remembered clearly, the days when they didn't have so much as an F-302, never mind anything actually resembling a space-ship, the days when a single Goa'uld mother ship would have been enough to wipe them all from the face of the planet, when the mere thought of human civilisations on other worlds seemed mind-boggling. With their leading role in breaking the millenia-old dominance of the System Lords, with the technology they had gained from the Asgard, Earth had been one of the big players in this galaxy for a few years now. And now... now the leaders of the planet, official and not so official, scoffed at him, gave him disdainful glances when he told them that doom was approaching again and that their planetary defences would be about as effective as an umbrella in a hailstorm. They had a ZPM, after all, didn't they? They had the Ancient outpost, they had three ships and almost two hundred F-305s. Jack knew he didn't make much of an impression when he told them it wouldn't be enough, and he really, really, missed President Hayes, who had been exceptionally practical for a politician.

So he wasted his time trying to convince a roomful of people full of their own importance that they really weren't much more than bugs on a wind shield, and this particular wind shield was coming up the road fast. He had the feeling he wasn't very convincing, and his suggestion that maybe now was the time to pull out all the stops and out the Stargate Programme, while they had at least a couple weeks to ease people into the whole “there's evil aliens on the way who want to eat you” wasn't received particularly well.

He really envied the others their jobs. Mitchell was whipping his F-305s and their pilots into shape, Sam was building bombs and Daniel helped with the whole diplomacy thing. Teal'c was recruiting his Jaffa and Vala.... well, Vala was probably on the run from someone, somewhere. But at least she had fun. Jack couldn't say that he was having any fun.

***

John watched the quiet streaks of light pass by the windows as the Cyrinius hurried towards the coordinates of their first ambush. It was strange to be separated from Rodney and the other scientists, and he just hoped there would be no crisis in inter-galactical relations while he and the rest of the Confederation military were out here to kick Wraith butt. If they managed to kick Wraith butt at all. Taking down three or possibly four of the seven hives was the plan. The Cyrinius had destroyed two already, so three more shouldn't be too tall an order, right? Only, attacking two hives with one ship, surprise on their side, was one thing. Attacking seven in tight formation was quite another. Space was a big place, and coordinates not always as precise as one would wish for laying an ambush. In approximately four days, the Cyrinius would reach the first set of coordinates, between six and twelve hours before the Wraith showed up there, theoretically. They would strike, take down what they could, then make a run for it, heading back closer to Earth. On the way there, they would wait at the second resting point of the hives, wash, rinse, repeat, and then get their butt the hell back to Earth, where they should arrive three to four days before the Wraith. If all went well. If they didn't get blown out of the sky by the Wraith. At least they had the coordinates of planets with stargates along the way so they could check in a time or two. Still, it was a tight schedule, and if something happened to the hyperdrive... Everyone had agreed that the second attack was optional, depending on how the first one went. Better make it back to Earth in time where they would have at least some backup.

***

Over the next two weeks, Jack saw far more of Rodney McKay than he had ever wished. For some reason, it had fallen to him to play liaison between the scientists, the Pentagon and the SGC. On the plus side, it cut down on the time he spent in meetings. On the down side... McKay. He'd appropriated a corner of the newly-founded drone factory and stuffed it with a baffling array of machinery. Five monitors were crammed onto two tables, graphs and lines and illegible writing running over them ceaselessly whenever Jack came by, no matter what time of day. Cables snaked along the floor, vanishing into crates and boxes full of crystals and metal pieces. Though “cables” wasn't quite the right term. Some of these things looked disturbingly organic. They reminded Jack of entrails. Or maybe roots. Yes, roots was a much more palatable comparison. In the middle of it all, McKay usually sat, often cross-legged on the floor, empty coffee mugs around him, cigarette-thingie in the corner of his mouth and tablet PC in his lap. That was, when he wasn't busy yelling at people. The last ten years had improved neither his temper nor his manners. If anything, the man was even ruder and more arrogant than before. Why the rest of the expedition hadn't lynched him yet, out there in Pegasus, Jack couldn't fathom.

Peter Grodin, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise, for a scientist. He was cheerful and friendly, and treated McKay's outbursts with an eye roll and an ironic smile. He worked well with Carter, and three days after the Atlantian's ship left, Jack was witness to the final assembly of their very first, home-made Ancient drone. The colour of the hull was a bit different than he was used to, more white than yellow, and the form differed slightly, but Jack had to admit he was impressed with the result. Once they had successfully produced a few more, Carter packed up her things, left the drone production to the lesser scientists, and moved out to the Antarctic base to see about powering the chair with a Naquadah generator. Lannik and Miko Kusanagi went with her. Jack didn't think he'd ever heard Lannik speak a single word, in Ancient or otherwise. Then again, he had to admit he found the kid... creepy. Grodin had told him that Lannik was quite young, only about twenty-five years old, but at first glance, Jack had thought he was an old man. His hair was pure white, his skin only a shade darker. He was of medium height, but painfully gaunt, and there were lines around his eyes and mouth that wouldn't have been out of place on a man twice his age. It probably didn't help that his only facial expression seemed to be a sour frown. In contrast to the rest of the expedition members they'd seen so far, Lannik only wore white, a sort of tunic-thing over loose pants. The only spot of colour, as it were, were his black boots.

Despite all this, Grodin and Kusanagi appeared to genuinely like the guy, if the fond smiles and warm tone of voice when they spoke to him were anything to go by. McKay, of course, treated Lannik like he treated everyone, despite Sheppard's claim that Lannik was his “prime student”: He ordered him around, accompanied by imperious shooing motions of his hands which would have annoyed Jack to death. McKay's death, preferably.

McKay stayed in his corner in the factory, fiddling with the empty ZPM he'd brought down from the ship with him, smoking and consuming unbelievable amounts of coffee and, as far as Jack could tell, never sleeping. Jack tried to spend as little time as possible with him, preferring to hang around Antarctica to observe how Carter's work was going. At least she didn't make him feel like an idiot when she explained something to him– intentionally.

The pace of activity was frantic, a hundred things popping up that needed to be discussed, thought through, organized, as they scrambled to put together a viable planetary defence, but at least the craziness kept them from panicking, from thinking too much about the fact that their world might be ending in a few short weeks. Jack could feel the fear hang in the air like a fog, but so far, they all pretended that this was something they could handle, nothing that out of the ordinary. Sure, it had been years since destruction had threatened quite on this scale, but they were old hands at this, right? Wrong, actually. No matter how many near misses there were, how many lucky escapes, one never got used to the approach of near-certain doom. But one learned to pretend. That was their job as soldiers, after all, that was what military training was all about. Don't think, just follow your orders so you don't run screaming into the night. And maybe Sheppard would return with good news, maybe there would be only three hive ships to fight. Yeah, right.

And Jack still thought that this would be it, this would be the one that blew the whole Stargate Programme wide open. They had managed to explain a lot away over the years, and the amount of people in the know had increased dramatically, to the point where there wouldn't be an international crisis when the truth hit the news. Probably. But all the major powers in the world were now involved, uncomfortably, sometimes, true, but all the large governments were in on it. Despite that, the general population was still oblivious, and Jack was sure it could be only a question of time until this bomb dropped. The internet, as always, was crowded with conspiracy theories, most of which could be dismissed out of hand. However, there were a few people out there who were far too observant for comfort. Certainly, it had not gone completely unnoticed that, ten years ago, a certain amount of the world's top scientists had vanished, as it were, from the face of the Earth. At least no one had proposed a theory where they had all gone to Atlantis... Jack supposed he should be grateful for small miracles. So far, the most popular explanation seemed to involve something about planet-spanning, super-national companies buying and/or abducting them to do super-secret research for the next big cash cow.

But how were they going to explain away the Wraith attack? Blowing up seven ships in close proximity to Earth (relatively speaking) was bound to leave some traces. It was a wonder no one had noticed the alien space junk floating around the planet before. But then, the ones who spent most of their time out there knew what was going on.

Jack sighed, tucked on the collar of his dress blues and braced himself for another interminable meeting with the Joint Chiefs. Not that he had much to report. Carter was still experimenting with the naquadah generator, and McKay had nearly bitten his head off when he'd asked about how that ZPM was coming. Not that he'd understood much of the cursing between the words “time” and “miracle” and “impossible”, but he got the drift. Well, at least Mitchell's flyboys were as ready as they were ever going to be, and Teal'c was on his way with three Hatak and a couple of his Jaffa friends. And perhaps, in three days time, Sheppard would be back with good news.

Chapter Text

The hyperspace window flared, and the ship materialized, scorch marks blackening the bright, metallic cap over the tip, fires glowing dully along the hull, nourished by escaping atmosphere. Jack, looking out the window of the Prometheus II, knew the news wouldn't be good.

He leaned over the console, pressing the button for transmission. “Howdy, folks. Please tell me this isn't what it looks like.”

He released the button, and a second later, Novac put through the answer.

“If it looks like we're back with our tails between our legs then that's what it is,” Sheppard's voice came through the speaker, wryly amused, but Jack could hear the underlying exhaustion. “Afraid we got our asses kicked.”

“How many'd you take out?” Jack demanded, trying to keep the sense of doom at bay.

“Well, one hive's badly damaged, and it seems like they're not gonna split up, so we've bought ourselves a few days more time.”

There was a moment of pregnant silence. Then Jack leaned over the console again.

“Are you telling me you didn't even destroy one ship?”

“'Fraid so.” Jack could hear the wince in that. “Almost got the one down, but apparently our shield's not up to withstanding simultaneous fire from seven hives for more than two minutes or so. And that was with the factor of surprise on our side. Didn't get off more than a couple shots at the second rendezvous point, barely made a dent in one of the other hives.”

Jack resisted the urge to brain himself on the comm console and put himself out of his misery. They were screwed.

He rallied after a moment. So that hadn't gone quite according to plan. Well. Nothing new there. When had their plans for saving the world ever worked before the very last minute?

“What's the status of your ship, Commander? Are you badly damaged?”

“Naw, mostly hull damage we didn't have time to fix. We pulled out before anything too serious blew. She'll be good as new in a couple days.”

“Glad to hear it. Briefing at 1600 hours planetside, if that's all right with you.”

“I'll be there,” Sheppard affirmed.

“Good. Oh, and maybe you can dig McKay out of his lab to tell us what he's got. I'll bring Carter.”

“Sure. Sheppard out.”

Jack took a deep breath, and stared out at the distant stars, the planet, the Atlantian ship in front of the windows, and tried to think of a way to deliver this news to the President and the IOA that would express the seriousness of the situation without causing an outright panic.

***

Jack didn't think his short call to the President had gone over all that well, but maybe, after the briefing, he'd have better news. He doubted it.

He had just poured himself a mug of coffee and been about to say something to Daniel when he heard the expedition contingent approach. Well, mainly, he heard McKay complaining in at least three languages. Sure enough, McKay was steered through the door of the conference room, yelling and gesticulating, by two firm hands on his shoulders. The hands belonged to Sheppard, who didn't look much better than anyone else, shadows under his eyes and face pale and drawn with exhaustion, his black hair possibly even crazier than before.

Sheppard pushed McKay up to the table and pulled out a chair.

“Rodney,” he said in a tone comprised of equal parts long suffering and foreboding. “Sit.”

McKay opened his mouth, closed it, huffed, crossed his arms, glowered at Sheppard, and sat. Jack raised an eyebrow. That was quite impressive.

“Have you been sleeping?” Sheppard asked with a critical gaze. McKay glowered some more, then muttered something about “no damn time”. Sheppard crossed his arms and glared.

“You know Carson's standing order: Three hours a night as long as no one is shooting at us. You'll get some sleep tonight or I'll tell Dr. Biro. Hell, I'll fly her down here myself and hold you down while she knocks you out.”

“Fine, fine, fine!” McKay snapped. “I'll sleep! But it'll be your fault if that's the time we'll be missing when the Wraith show up! Pushy bastard.”

Sheppard merely smirked. “At least it won't be my fault that you blew up the planet before the Wraith even get here by accidentally pressing the wrong button in your sleep-deprived state. Now shut up and pass me the coffee.”

From McKay's rebellious glare he was seriously considering refusing, but in the end, he passed Sheppard the coffee. Huh. Apparently, Sheppard actually had a handle on his irate Chief of Science.

With Sheppard in attendance and McKay shut up, they finally got the meeting under way.

Sheppard related in short, precise terms how their attacks had not been successful, but it basically boiled down to what he'd already told Jack: Their shields couldn't withstand the simultaneous fire of the other hives for long enough to destroy one.

“If we had a ZPM to boost the shields...” Sheppard sighed in a tone that suggested it was an old and futile “if”, but his eyes (and everyone else's) went to McKay.

McKay glowered at them all. “Of course. Typical. I knew this was going to happen! Now I'm supposed to pull another miracle out of thin air! I'm sorry, but I'm all out of miracles! I told you this was still in the theoretical stage!”

“So, you haven't gotten anywhere for the past week?” Sheppard asked.

“Of course I got somewhere!” McKay snapped. “I've crammed what would've been months, maybe even years of research into the last week, all while teaching these morons,” he waved a negligent hand towards Carter's and Daniel's side of the table, “fundamental biochemistry, I might add! But that still leaves us a far way from practical application!”

“Well,” Sheppard drawled, eyebrows up, “you've got about another week to do what amounts to another few months, or possibly years of research, I'm sure.”

McKay opened his mouth, closed it again, and glared.

“I hate you,” he declared spitefully, and Jack realised that Sheppard had just let the man run into his own habit to inflate his own importance. Sheppard just grinned and shrugged.

“Fine. Fine. Maybe, I repeat, maybe I'll be able get the theory worked out in time to give it a try. Just don't come crying to me when I blow up the planet because I've had no time to safely test my findings! And I'll need your ZPM,” he declared to Hank.

“Excuse me?” Hank's eyebrows shot up.

“I need your ZPM,” McKay repeated.

“What for, if I may ask?” Caldwell asked icily. Jack closed his mouth, about to ask the same thing. Sure, the tension between their groups had abated somewhat in the last two weeks, but their ZPM? Now that was a touchy subject if there had ever been one. What if the Atlantians grabbed it and made a run for it? With a ZPM, they might be able to fortify Atlantis, hell, they had just said they could use it to boost their ship's shields! And if they got it on-board the ship... none of Earth's ships would be able to catch up with them. Earth would be totally defenceless against the Wraith. Jack would've liked to believe that Sheppard would never do something like this, but fact was, they didn't really know these people, they didn't know how moral standards might have slipped in the ten years these people had fought for their survival, alone.

“I need to analyse the power flow in the crystal matrix,” McKay explained impatiently. “All my findings so far show that it should be possible to re-open the sub-space point inside the ZPM if enough energy is applied. The problem is that the molecular bonds of the crystal will start to disintegrate before the critical point inside is reached. But in a working ZPM, the crystal withstands that energy as well, and transmits it from the inside to the surface. Therefore, it should theoretically be possible to reverse the energy flow, but I have to know which exact points in the crystal matrix are able to conduct these currents. I've been studying the contact arrays for ZPMs in Ancient tech, but it's just not precise enough, and our ZPM is dead, there is no energy flow. I need a working ZPM to get the data I need.”

“That ZPM is, so far, the only way to power the Antarctic outpost. And the outpost is our only viable way of defending the planet at this point,” Landry said dangerously.

McKay snorted disdainfully.

“It doesn't have enough power left to effectively use the chair. And I'm not going to break it anyway! I just need to take some readings!”

“McKay,” Sheppard said, putting a stalling hand on McKay's arm, his eyes locked with Hank.

“I understand this is a sensitive topic,” he continued, tone more diplomatic than it had ever been before. Jack felt his eyebrows rise. So Sheppard was conscious of the potential for escalation between their respective camps here. And, furthermore, seemed to be willing to do his part to avoid it. That, at least, was good news. Maybe the man wasn't as stubborn and insensitive to the subtler currents as Jack had feared.

“Rodney, will your research drain the ZPM further in any significant way?”

McKay rolled his eyes. “Please! Of course not! I just need to put some electrodes on it when you guys plug it into the chair the next time. It won't take any more power than plugging it in would normally. I told you, I just need to know which exact paths the power takes.”

Sheppard nodded and turned back to Landry.

“Would that be acceptable? If we can recharge ZPMs with these findings... And if McKay does his research in Antarctica, your people will be right there as well to make sure nothing else happens.” He nodded at Carter.

“I think Commander Sheppard is correct, Sir.” Carter piped up. “If this helps...” Her eyes gleamed with the fire of new discovery. “And we're plugging the thing in and out all the time, anyway, while we compare the chair's interaction with a ZPM with that of a naquadah generator.”

Hank frowned at McKay and Sheppard.

“The ZPM will not leave the Antarctic base,” he stipulated, and they nodded. “Very well, Dr McKay. You may take your readings. Now, assuming you are successful in recharging your ZPM, how will we use this against the Wraith?”

“We could switch,” Sheppard suggested. “Plug the fuller one into the chair to fire the drone batteries, and boost a ship with the weaker one, either the Cyrinius or one of yours, whatever makes more tactical sense.”

“How will our ships hold up against Wraith weapons?” Caldwell asked. “Do we at least have a guess at that?”

“Not well, I fear, Sir,” Carter said. “I ran some simulations on the side with the data McKay gave us on the fire capabilities of the Wraith ships, and what we know of the strength of their hulls. It would take minutes or multiple impacts in the same place for any of our weapons to penetrate these hulls at any but the most vulnerable points. Unfortunately, those weak points, like the dart bay exits, are too small to hit with precision for our bigger ships, and the F-305s don't have the fire power to do far-reaching damage. There is a weak spot on the underside of the ships which I'd recommend attacking. McKay said that they've often managed to trigger a secondary explosion in the power core by aiming at this spot. Our shields won't withstand much enemy fire, though, so it'll be tricky to manoeuvre in place for a shot like that.”

“So what you're saying is, we're screwed,” Jack summarized and ignored the disapproving frown Hank sent his way.

“Well, not completely, Sir. If we can find an alternate way of powering the chair, we could boost the Cyrinius' shields with our ZPM. If the chair can take out one or two hive ships and the Cyrinius withstands the initial attack, we might get the number of ships down to a manageable size. Once the Cyrinius isn't overwhelmed by sheer numbers anymore, we should stand a good chance at destroying the rest of the fleet.”

No one looked very happy at the thought of letting the Atlantians have their ZPM, and several distrustful looks were shot into Sheppard's and McKay's direction.

“So,” Hank started then, “how is it going with powering the chair with the generator?”

Carter frowned. “The problem is that one generator does not produce enough power for the chair, so we'll have to use at least two. The chair wasn't build to work with more than one power source, though, so it draws unequal, fluctuating amounts of power from the generators, and we haven't yet found a way to regulate the power flow. This unequal power flow isn't good for the chair or the generators.”

“You're saying the whole thing could literally blow up in our faces, right?” Jack asked suspiciously.

“Yes, Sir.”

“And that would be very bad.”

“Yes, Sir. We're talking the equivalent of several nuclear explosions at the same time. Even all the way out in Antarctica, the effects would be potentially catastrophic for the planet. It could alter Earth's orbit or shift the planet's axis, not to mention the immense radiation that would be released into the atmosphere.”

“Ah. Let's not do that, then.”

“No, let's not,” Sheppard agreed, much to Jack's surprise. His bland brand of sarcasm more often than not brought him disapproving frowns or irritated glances when people couldn't tell whether he was being serious or not, but rarely dry agreement. “Even though the ZPM's power levels are pretty low, I agree that it might boost our shields enough that we can take out a couple of hives without blowing up ourselves. But what about the darts? As likely as not, the Wraith are gonna release darts to begin culling as soon as they're close enough.”

“We're hoping to destroy them before they can launch,” Hank informed Sheppard. “However, in case that's unsuccessful, our F-305 fleet will be on standby to catch them before they reach the planet's surface, supported by some of our allies.”

“How many F-305s do you have?” Sheppard asked, astonished. There was a pregnant little pause that highlighted again exactly how tenuous their mutual trust was.

“Several hundred,” Hank then answered stiffly.

Sheppard's eyebrows rose. “They'll be outnumbered ten to one, then.”

Jack sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair because, yes, they were aware of that. It was why he had been pushing for the Stargate Programme to finally go public. Frankly, he thought they had a snowball's chance in hell of keeping this one under wraps. Certainly alien ships beaming people right off the side-walk would be sort of a tip-off. And if they wanted to avoid total panic and anarchy, or uncomfortable questions about where their own ships came from, they would have to come out with the whole thing. Otherwise, he would of course prefer to go public in a more controlled, not to mention less embarrassing manner. “Oh, by the way, we have space ships and aliens are real! And while we're at it, some of them are coming here to eat us all. No, that's not the reason at all why we tell you now, as opposed to five or ten years ago.” Yeah, right. Of course, if the Wraith wiped the floor with them it wouldn't matter much either way.

“Yeah,” Jack spoke up, “they'll be outnumbered. We'll have ground troops on stand-by just in case... but of course we can't guard the surface of the entire planet. You got a better idea?”

Sheppard sighed and shook his head.

“Wish I did. Afraid we never had to deal with a situation quite like this. It doesn't take more than a couple of jumpers and two squads of marines to guard the average Pegasus population.”

“How so?” Hank asked.

Sheppard shrugged. “Centuries, millenia of culling. No planet we've come across has managed to accumulate a population like Earth. Not to mention that the Wraith exterminate every culture that advances beyond a certain technological state, could grow to threaten theirs.”

Not enough that they ate people, these damn Wraith were smart about it, too.

“So, what's the plan for the darts?” Sheppard asked into the silence that followed his cavalier account on the state of things in the galaxy he'd spent the last ten years in.

“We get as ready as we can and hope for the best,” Jack answered, not trying to hide how aware he was of the inadequacies of that as a plan. “Why, you got anything to add?”

Sheppard hesitated only a moment. “We have a couple of jumpers that could help, but moreover, we've got our own darts. Not as many as we'd like or need, but... well, they're used to being outnumbered.”

McKay groaned. “John! If we use the darts, that means...”

“Yes, Rodney, I'm quite aware what it means.”

“I'm not,” Jack broke into what sounded like the beginnings of a longer argument. “What does it mean?”

“Our darts are not visually distinguishable from Wraith darts,” McKay started in that lecturing tone of voice of his. “It's one of our greatest assets, allows us to pick off darts in the confusion.”

“So how do your guys know who's on their side?” Daniel asked, and McKay gave him one of his disdainful looks.

“I was getting to that!” he huffed. “All our darts are equipped with a transceiver unit that emits an electro-magnetic pulse on a specific frequency, and receives that pulse as well. Of course, the Wraith have figured out our little trick years ago and picked up on the frequency. So now, we periodically switch frequencies. There's a mother unit on the ship that sets the frequency according to a random algorithm and initializes the switch of all other units in the fleet. It's like that Alice-in-Wonderland metaphor for evolution, the one where you have to run as fast as you can to stay in place, you know?”

Jack looked at McKay blankly and could see the same look of non-comprehension on the faces of the rest of the military personnel in the room. Daniel, on the other hand, nodded wisely, and Carter's eyebrows went up in obvious recognition.

“Anyway,” Sheppard drawled, “the point Rodney's trying to get to is that if we use the darts, all of your ships will have to be equipped so they can pick up the frequency as well, or you won't know which darts to shoot at. Can we pull this off in a few days?”

“We'll have to,” Hank said grimly. “Unfortunately, the Asgard have replied to our request for help to say that they have no ships close enough to make it in time. Just in case, they are on their way, but unless the Wraith arrive much later than expected they won't be here for the battle.”

Jack stopped himself from swearing out loud. He'd had a faint hope that the Asgard might be able to ride to the rescue. He couldn't say he was surprised, though. After the defeat of the Goa'uld and their assistance against the Ori, Earth safe to develop their technology at their own pace, the Asgard had retreated completely from the Milky Way to their own galaxy to focus all efforts and every possible ressource on solving the problem of their bodies' degeneration.

“Therefore, we will need everything else we can throw at them when the Wraith show up here,” Hank continued. “Make it happen, people! We can put the staff that's been producing the drones on it, since the outpost is now fully stocked again. The rest of you, you know what to do. Doctor McKay, keep on with the research, and you can take all the readings you need. Colonel Carter, do your best to give us an alternative way of powering the chair. Doctor Jackson, try whether you can't persuade the Tok'ra to send us another ship after all. This is the time to call in favours, and we've put ourselves on the line for them plenty of times. Jack, keep the politicians out of our hair.”

There was a round of “Yes, Sir!”, then Carter spoke up before the meeting could break up.

“Sir, speaking of alien allies, I think we should ask whether Jonas would be willing to drop by and lend us a hand. There's hardly anyone who knows more about naquadah than he does, after all. Maybe he can help with the generators.”

“Certainly, Colonel. We can use all the help we can get.”

And on that cheerful note, Hank broke up the meeting, though he caught Jack before he could leave the room. Jack followed him into his office, where Caldwell was already looming, arms crossed.

“I want you to start evacuation protocol,” Hank said without preamble once Jack had closed the office door behind himself. “Please inform the President that it is my recommendation that he and our other key personnel relocate to the alpha site as soon as possible, Jack. And the expedition and their friends don't really need to know about this. They've shown good faith so far, but we don't know what the last ten years have done to these people, so... keep it quiet.”

“No problem at all,” Caldwell growled, and Jack just nodded. He didn't know how much time evacuation would buy them if the Wraith took Earth, but maybe it would be enough to come up with a way to defeat them. Stranger things had happened.

So he took his leave and had the Prometheus II beam him to Washington to brief the President.

***

Jeannie looked up from her weeding as another fighter jet howled by overhead. She sat back on her haunches, resting her arms on her knees. That was the twelfth jet in three days. They didn't live under any major flight path, and she couldn't recall there ever being this much air traffic overhead. The first couple of jets she hadn't really registered, but then there was another, and another... and the frequency of fly-bys was increasing. There had only been four the first day, as far as she could remember, but yesterday it had been six, and that was the second today and it was barely ten o'clock. The disturbing thing was that there was no explanation. Nothing on the news or the internet, nothing at all. And yesterday, she had looked. Somewhere there should be some article, some announcement, some statement by an official, but all she found were other people, posting in forums and on blogs and in comments that there was a lot of air traffic, off of the usual flight paths, and asking why, whether anyone knew what was going on. And from the responses... it wasn't just fighter jets. People living close to military bases had seen troops being moved, vehicles driving back and forth. Truckers had seen Army Jeeps on the highways and fishers had reported warships passing by on the horizon. It wasn't just Vancouver. It wasn't just Canada, hell, it wasn't just North America. The military was stirring, and it was stirring everywhere. For the last few days, some people even said for the last two weeks, the armed forces had increased their activity. In Canada, in the U.S., in Mexico, in Great Britain and Germany and France, in Japan and in China and in Russia. Something was going on... and there was no explanation. No newspaper editor, no university professor in his blog, no politician, no one had an explanation, no one answered the comments, no one issued a statement. Conspiracy theories were breaking out all over the internet, half-joking most of the time, sometimes kindling the usual flame-wars... but something was going on, and Jeannie was less and less successful in telling herself that it wasn't big, that there was a perfectly rational explanation.

A Jeep came around the corner, dark green, soldiers in uniform, weapons slung over their shoulders visible through the windows, sitting in the back. It drove by quite sedately, apparently in no particular hurry, but Jeannie had never seen soldiers in their peaceful little residential street. She kept staring after the Jeep long after it had rounded the opposite corner.

Chapter Text

“Jonas!” Sam quickly jumped to her feet from where she had been lying, fumbling around with the power relays at the base of the Ancient chair.

They hugged, and it was almost as if no time had passed since she'd seen him for the last time, same blindingly bright smile, same friendly blue eyes, even if there were a few more wrinkles around them.

“So, I hear you could use a hand?”

“Yes, we could,” Sam sighed, and started to show Jonas around. Miko scrambled to her feet, blushing shyly, from where she had sat cross-legged on the floor between laptops, monitoring power flow and analysing data and doing a dozen things at once with frightening efficiency. She started to bow to Jonas, then registered his outstretched hand and shook it, even more flustered than before, after that minute pause all the expedition members gave, as if they had to recall what to do with that outstretched hand.

Jonas' bright smile made Miko blush yet further. Sam had gotten to know the woman over the past two weeks and found it hard to reconcile her exquisite, flawless work with her shy, self-deprecating demeanour. Sam had no idea how Miko had survived for ten years under McKay's abrasive personality. From all she had heard, the woman was McKay's personal assistant, and seemed to respect, maybe even like McKay... yet the slightest hint of criticism made her look as if she was about to break out in tears. Sam didn't even try to understand the expedition's relationship to their chief scientist any more.

The chief scientist in question looked up when Sam introduced Jonas, gave him a critical once-over and then turned back to his work with a grunt that might have been a greeting. Or an insult, it was impossible to tell. Jonas looked at her, puzzled, and Sam just rolled her eyes and moved him along. To Lannik, who barely looked up at all to give Jonas a disinterested look before he proceeded to ignore them entirely.

This time, Sam just shrugged at Jonas' questioning look. She had no idea what to make of the young man with the white hair and sour disposition of someone three times his age. He was brilliant, no doubt about it, but he wasn't pleasant company, that much was certain. He barely talked at all, and though of course he didn't know English, he also made no effort to communicate with anyone but McKay and Miko at all. His voice, on the rare occasions Sam heard him speak, was quiet and flat, inflectionless. When McKay yelled at him (which McKay inevitably did, at least once a day) he bore it with an expressionless stoicism that made Sam wonder what in the world had happened to this young man. If they survived all of this and she had a moment to spare the next time, she would ask Miko about it.

For now, she showed Jonas what they had accomplished so far, and they set to work on the continuing problem of the unstable energy flow.

***

John was standing over the conference table in the SGC, his hands braced on it, and stared broodingly at the mess of maps laid out across the expanse of wood, when he heard footsteps come up next to him. He looked up, and was glad that he'd suppressed the urge to lay a hand on the handle of one of his Traveller guns when he came face to face with the handsome colonel who coordinated the F-305s. What was his name again? Right, Mitchell.

“Commander Sheppard,” the man greeted with a friendly smile, reaching out a hand. There was nothing in his voice that indicated that he resented John's title. John repressed the irrational reluctance he'd build up over the past ten years without ever realizing, and shook the man's hand. It was warm and dry, the grip firm but not challenging, and there was of course no ridged, toothy feeding slit in his palm. Nonetheless, John was glad when he had his own hand safely back. If nothing else, it meant he could draw with his stronger, faster right again.

“I'm looking forward to working with you,” Mitchell said, smiling that friendly smile again. John found himself smiling back, probably a bit brighter than strictly necessary. Oh well.

“Likewise.” He gestured at the maps. “So, do you already have a plan for defending the planet?”

Mitchell sighed.

“Not a good one, I'm afraid. We are just not equipped to deal with a threat of this magnitude. We can't provide reasonable protection for the whole planet without spreading our forces so thin they'll be easy pickings.” He gave John a crooked grin. “So, we're sort of hoping you have something better up your sleeve.”

John sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. That was what he'd been afraid of.

“Don't know that I do, but I guess we'll have to see what we can come up with.” He gave the map-covered table a glance. “However, if you wouldn't mind, I'd prefer to move this little planning session up to the Cyrinius. For one, our first Dart Commander's up there, and secondly, we have much, much better maps. Much better. 3D and all,” he added with a significant look at Mitchell. Seriously, how was he supposed to plan aerial defence for a planet in two dimensions...?

Mitchell, to his relief, looked intrigued rather than suspicious.

“Sure, I'd love to, let me just clear that with General Landry.”

***

“Are you sure this is wise?” Landry asked with a frown when Cameron informed him of the plan.

“Sir, with respect, but they've been coming down here for weeks now, and they've never harmed anyone.”

“Apart from that marine in the gate room.”

“Yeah, well, that. Exigent circumstances, Sir, no? I think we can trust them enough for me to go up to the ship. In fact, I think it's a further demonstration of their trust in us, letting one of us finally see the inside of that thing.”

Landry snorted into his moustache. “Yes, well, it's not like they need anything from us, is it? We need their help, and they've got superior fire-power. If they didn't want to stick around it's not like there's anything we could do to force them.”

“Some of them must still have family on Earth,” Cameron pointed out. “Maybe they'd welcome a chance to visit them...”

“Those families have been notified of the expedition's death years ago, Colonel Mitchell,” Landry pointed out with a frown.

“Yes, Sir. But it might still be a point of leverage. Not that I'm suggesting threatening them or anything,” he added hastily at the general's raised eyebrow. “Just that it's something we can offer them, an incentive to stay in contact with us, to fight with us.”

Landry nodded after a moment.

“That sounds reasonable, Colonel. Now, I suppose you might as well go up to that ship and see what there is to see.”

Cameron gave a snappy salute. “Yes, Sir.”

Landry gave him an amused look and waved him out of the office.

Cameron found Sheppard outside in the corridor where he'd left him, leaning against the wall in a lazy slouch that would have Cam's old drill sergeant pop an artery or two. The Marines stationed outside Landry's door looked as if they found it hard not to stare. Sheppard pushed off the wall and straightened up when he saw Cam, a smile lightening his features. It made him look even younger, ridiculously so. Cameron knew the man was supposed to be around his own age, but when you looked at him, you sure wouldn't guess it. However... there was something in that smile that belied the apparent youth, something sly and just a bit predatory. Cameron smiled back and wondered what the meaning behind that smile was. Maybe it was just the way Sheppard smiled?

“All sorted?” Sheppard asked, and Cameron nodded.

They made their way to the hangar where Sheppard's ship was parked and Cameron couldn't deny that he was damn curious to see the Atlantian ship from the inside.

***

It had been a long time since Cameron had approached a space ship from the outside, instead of beaming straight in, and this was one huge ship. It was at the very least three times the size of one of theirs, and at that, it was still smaller than those Wraith hive ships. He suppressed a shudder of horrified fascination. Now was not the time to panic about their impending doom. They would make it or they wouldn't. Couldn't be worse than high school reunion with Vala, right? Not much was, after all.

They approached the ship from behind and below, and entered through an opening in the dark brown hull that seemed the size of a barn door at first glance, but turned out to be large enough to comfortably accommodate several barns, if needed, instead. They touched down in a huge hangar among several other jumpers, and rows upon rows of grey darts. Cameron flexed his shoulders uncomfortably. They really looked exactly like the ships he and his boys had shot down two weeks ago.

Sheppard swivelled out of the pilot's chair with the smoothness of long routine and waved Cameron to follow him as he made his way to the rear hatch.

They crossed the hangar, and Cam couldn't help but stare at how damn big it was. A protrusion like a rock shelf in a cave circled the entire hangar, more darts lined up orderly along it, and a longer look showed a second shelf even higher up, almost indistinguishable in the gloom that hid the ceiling. He was rather glad when Sheppard led him through the rows of ships to a small, person-sized door. It was incongruously pretty, light-bronze metal with blue and green glass inlays, contrasting with the grey floor and the brown walls. The door slid open without command from Sheppard that Cameron could see, and they stepped into a very small room with a small screen on the back wall, full of blue lines and bright dots.

The door slid shut, Sheppard flicked a dot, and the door opened again, to a corridor.

“Transporter,” Sheppard explained, grinning, while Cameron still blinked away the sudden wash of light and the disconcerting feeling of losing a fraction of time that came with being demolecularized.

“Yeah, I... figured.”

Sheppard snorted a short laugh at that and stepped out in the corridor.

It was generous in size, walls and floor the same brown as the outside of the ship, but it was uneven, as if there were veins under the surface. Or maybe tree roots. Yes, that was a much nicer mental picture, it was like a wall of tree roots all grown over and around each other, merging together to form a tunnel. The wall wasn't all brown, though. There were strands and patches woven in and under, patches of metallic blues, greys and greens. Wall scones lit the corridor at regular intervals, providing a warm, yellow radiance.

They moved down the corridor to an intersection. Cameron remembered how Sheppard had proclaimed that they wouldn't even be able to read the signs on the walls at that one meeting where he'd gone head-to-head with Caldwell, and he found that it hadn't been an exaggeration. There was writing on the wall at the intersection, the way he'd expect it from the SGC or a space ship, but he couldn't read any of it. Sheppard, though, took a confident left, and there was a door just a few metres from the intersection, brown, root-like, tendrils framing the same bronze metal the elevator door had been. It opened with a soft hiss when Sheppard was a step away from it and Sheppard strode through without pause.

The room beyond was large, dominated by a big screen across from the door and a half circle of control consoles in front of it. The consoles were clearly Ancient in design, square and full of crystal buttons and knobs. Along the wall there were, incongruously, low couches or benches, draped with heavy blankets in earthy red, ochre and yellow, a dash of blue here and there. Their homey, hand-woven style clashed strangely with the clinical high-tech look of the front of the room. Pillars rose between the benches, seeming to emerge from the floor like tree trunks, the brown roots thinning to show glass cases full of blue-green water, bubbles streaming through it, before merging with the ceiling. The lighting was low, mostly provided by the screen, the control stations and the same kind of wall scones as in the corridor.

“Welcome to the bridge of the Cyrinius,” Sheppard said with a sweep of his arm towards the front of the room. Cameron blinked. For a bridge, the room was a bit on the spartan side, if he compared it to the cramped bustle of one of theirs.

“Er... then where is everyone? Don't you need people here to fly the ship?”

Sheppard gave a laconic shrug.

“She's mostly on auto-pilot at the moment, since she doesn't really need to do anything. If anything comes up, there'll be an alarm.”

He walked over to a console and picked something up. Cam realized it was a radio when he hooked it around his ear and touched it to speak some short, incomprehensible message in Ancient into it, before he turned back.

“Our First Dart Commander will join us in a moment, and then we can get to planning how we'll manage those darts.”

There was the hiss of the door, and Cameron turned to see a young man enter (well, he looked about the same age as Sheppard, actually). He wore the same black leather uniform every Atlantian (apart from that grumpy scientist) seemed to be wearing, three silver strips denoting his rank. He was tall, though not quite as tall as Cameron and Sheppard, his brown hair cut short, and the look in his blue eyes seemed too cool, too composed for his age.

“Colonel Mitchell, First Dart Commander Jinto Sokagen. Jinto, Colonel Cameron Mitchell.”

The young man inclined his head.

“I am pleased to meet you, Colonel Mitchell,” he said, a soft, melodious accent colouring the words.

“Likewise,” Cam answered, so surprised to be addressed in English that he couldn't come up with anything more gracious. He shot a look at Sheppard, to catch the edge of a smirk on the man's face before he wiped it clean and gave Cam a look of such profound innocence that it could only be intentional. Cam had to suppress a chuckle. Sheppard didn't just look twenty-five, apparently he liked to act it, too.

“So, where are those 3D-maps of yours?”

This time, the smirk was completely visible, and Sheppard waved a lazy hand towards the open floor space created by the half circle of consoles. It lit up, a holographic display springing to life, Earth in the centre, perfect little replicas of the various space ships gathered around her slowly making their way along thin lines of light.

From his grin, Sheppard enjoyed Cam's wide-eyed appreciation. It was like the holographic displays Sam had been working on years ago with the Chimera system, but her funding had been cut before she got to this stage, and the project had been handed off to the private sector. Cam hadn't heard anything about it since.

Sheppard moved over towards the display, serious once more, and Cam and the Dart Commander followed.

“The Wraith will exit hyperspace approximately here,” Sheppard explained, seven translucent little hive ships blinking into existence just shy of Mars. “Assuming we don't manage to destroy them before their darts are in reach of Earth, the darts will likely hit the areas of densest population first, if they follow any usual Wraith hunting pattern. That means the big cities of Japan and India are most likely to draw attention first, though we need to keep an eye on New York City, Mexico City and the big Chinese and Indonesian cities, too.”

“Well, as long as we don't have to protect the entire surface of the planet at once, I'm willing to consider this good news,” Cam observed.

“I don't think they'll go after a couple of nomads in the middle of a desert if there's cities with millions of people right there,” Sheppard said dryly.

“I have never seen any world like this,” Sokagen said with a shake of his head. “Are you sure these numbers are correct?” He waved a hand at the holographic display of Earth, where, in time with Sheppard's observation, the planet had grown to fill the space, little lines and writing appearing to denote, Cam assumed, cities and population sizes.

Sheppard chuckled and absently reached out a hand to ruffle the young man's hair.

“Yeah, son, I'm sure these numbers are correct. There's a lot of people down there. I'll show you New York City if we're still alive next week.”

Sokagen looked doubtfully at the hologram. “I am not sure I truly want to see.”

“Let's first worry about living that long.”

With that, they set to planning how many of their limited troops to deploy where, and which patterns of patrol would be the most effective. They all agreed that the Asian area, Japan, India and China would draw the Wraith's attention the most, and that, accordingly, the largest part of their ships would be needed to defend that area. The patriotic part of Cam winced at the fraction of F-305s left to patrol and protect the U.S. air space, but the rational part of his brain told him not to be an idiot. The Chinese, Japanese and Russian governments didn't have a sufficient F-305 complement yet. They were working on their own ships, based on the F-series design, shared through the IOA, but none of them had a fight-ready fleet, not to mention trained pilots. So it would be up to him and his boys, together with the dart complement of the Cyrinius, to stop the Wraith from culling. As they went through dozens of hypothetical attack scenarios, Cam felt the strong urge to curl up in a corner and cry at what a tactical disaster that was going to be. Instead, he stiffened his spine and kept working. He found that, at least, Sheppard and Sokagen were great to work with. They both knew what they were talking about, thinking in three dimensions with a naturalness non-pilots always found it impossible to come by, and they were relaxed and informal, weighing Cam's suggestions and objections with gratifying seriousness. They treated him like an equal, a refreshing change of pace. While Cam loved working with the people at the SGC, superiors and inferiors alike, it always threw him for a loop if he had to cooperate with military outside of his usual circle. The SGC was already, by Earth military standards, one of the most relaxed, sensible environments he had ever worked in and it was sometimes hard to remember that not every general shared Landry's and O'Neill's down-to-earth practicality and grasp of reality. And, well... the less said about the bureaucrats from the IOA, the better. The only competent paper-pusher Cam had ever met was Woolsey, and that was because, as the stories would have it, he had actually seen what they did up close and personal.

There was, as far as he could see, no bureaucracy on the Cyrinius, and Sheppard was so far from standing on ceremony it was hard to remember that he had ever been part of the American military. Not that he'd ever particularly fit in there, from what the rumours flying thick and fast through the SGC said.

After hours of planning, Cam found himself sitting cross-legged on the floor with Sokagen and Sheppard, the holograph of Earth between them, going through some last details of who exactly was going to be where when. He had no idea what time it actually was, the warm, never changing light in the room throwing his internal clock off.

Sheppard yawned and stretched, then climbed stiffly to his feet.

“I'm starving, what about you guys? Wanna grab a bite in the mess hall?”

Sokagen nodded vigorously. “Oh, yes.”

Cam hesitated a moment as Sheppard quirked a questioning eyebrow at him, then thought 'What the hell' and nodded his agreement.

“Great,” Sheppard exclaimed and extended a hand to help him up. Cam found himself hauled to his feet with a firm, strong grip around his wrist. Sheppard shot him another one of those sly smirks when he was upright, before letting go and turning away to the door. Cam blinked at the back of the man's head and was almost sure he was missing something here. However, he'd be damned if he knew what. With a mental shrug, he followed Sheppard out into the corridor.

They didn't go back to the transporter. Instead they followed the corridor for a bit, up several broad ramps. They seemed to be coming closer to the more populated areas of the ship, because they started meeting more and more people, crossing by at intersections or going the other way. All of them had a smile and a nod for their group and a curious glance for Cameron. Most of them wore the Atlantian uniform of black leather, but there was one woman, blond and petite, who wore brown leather pants and a clingy, dark red knit top instead. There was a black smudge on her cheek and she carried a large, open tool-box in one hand and some piece of machinery that dangled disturbingly organic-looking cables over her shoulder. She stopped for a moment to exchange a few word with Sheppard and then continued on her way.

***

The mess hall was another large, cavernous room lit in a warm, dim glow by the ubiquitous wall scones. Low benches were set against the walls here and there while there were many small, low tables distributed over the floor. They stood on thick rugs, large pillows scattered around them. Small globes the size of golf balls glowed on the tables, creating a warm, intimate atmosphere. The far wall... the far wall was all window, opening the view out into space, distant pinpoints of light glowing in the blackness with a steadiness and brightness you only found in space, outside of a distorting atmosphere.

Cam wandered over to the window, drawn by that incredible view. He'd been on spaceships plenty of times, true, but they rarely had windows like this. There was a railing running about a foot in front of the window and he gripped it, grateful for the support as vertigo assaulted him. The window glass went down to the floor, and, from what seemed right before his feet, the bluish, uneven surface of the metal cap spread out like the ice deserts of Antarctica. In the distance, to his left, it rose up, out of his sight, to form one of the two fin-like protrusions he remembered from the video image. In front, it spread out for kilometres, softly curving down, before giving way to space. The devastating emptiness played havoc on his perception of depth and proportions. He had to close his eyes for a moment and breathe, feel the solidity of the floor beneath his boots and the warm metal under his tightly-gripping fingers.

“Impressive, isn't it?” a voice drawled beside him, and he opened his eyes to find Sheppard standing there, thumbs hooked into his gun belts, rocking back on his heels, a contemplative expression on his face as he stared out of the window, deep into the blackness outside. The golden glow from the room and the faint, cold light from the distant stars combined to throw odd shadows about his face, and for a moment, Cam was struck with a profound sense of alienness, as if the man next to him was no more human, no more understandable in his ways than an Asgard or a Tok'ra. Cam blinked and the moment was gone, Sheppard turning his head a fraction to give him a wry smirk.

“Yeah, it sure is,” Cam agreed. “What is that stuff?” He gestured out the window, at the ridged, rippled surface of the ship.

“An Ancient alloy, awesome stuff. Light, incredibly resistant to heat, cold, radiation... Great to cover spaceships in.” He grinned. “Gives us a definite advantage over the Wraith as far as hull strength goes, less need to rest between hyperspace jumps, and it means we don't have to extend the shield to cover the whole ship in battle. The cap can take a lot of damage before hull integrity is compromised.”

“Why haven't you put it around the entire ship, then?” Cam wondered, craning his neck to try and catch a glimpse of the back half of the ship, where it looked like the Wraith ships, but the cap rose too high above and the window was angled too far forward.

“Too expensive,” Sheppard admitted. “We had to calculate for optimal ratio between cap and shield, and this is it.” He gestured to the outside.

“I see.” Cam nodded and Sheppard grinned again.

“Come on, Jinto's got us food.”

Cam turned and saw the young man setting three shallow bowls on one of the tables. Sheppard made his way over to the table, and Cam pushed off the railing and followed. He settled, somewhat awkwardly, on a pillow, facing the window across the table, while Sheppard had plopped himself down with a smoothness that attested that he was used to eat his food while sitting on the floor.

Curiously, Cam examined the contents of his bowl. It appeared to be some kind of stew, pieces of vegetable and meat floating in a thick broth. The vegetables were bright, fire-engine red, the meat almost white.

“Don't worry,” Sheppard's voice broke into his contemplation of the food, “it's really quite tasty.”

Cam looked up, somewhat embarrassed at having been caught, but Sheppard just gave him that grin of his before starting to shed his uniform jacket. His fingers worked the buckles loose in moments, and then he pulled the jacket off and put it on the floor. Then he loosened the ties that held the collar and cuffs of the shirt he wore underneath shut and gave an audible sigh of relief. Cam blinked. With the leather pants and the simply-cut, off-white shirt, Sheppard looked more like a space pirate, like a smuggler of the Lucian alliance, than a Supreme Commander of an alien Confederation. Sheppard, either not noticing or ignoring Cam's surprised look, grabbed his bowl, dipped a wooden spoon in and started to eat with all signs of enjoyment.

Cam picked up his own spoon that, he assumed, Sokagen had kindly brought with the food, and tasted the food carefully. Somewhat to his surprise, Sheppard was right: It was unfamiliar, but quite tasty. The vegetables were a bit like potatoes in their consistency, just a little crunchier, and the meat was so tender it barely required chewing. The taste was flavourful, spicy but without burn, with hints of sweetness.

“This is good,” he exclaimed and went back for more. “What is it?”

“Tuttle root and dry-cured ch'zapra. The red stuff is menida, sort of Pegasus' answer to curry,” Sheppard explained. “It's a pretty typical Athosian dish. They turn practically everything into some form of soup or stew.”

“Ah,” Cam said and got another one of those smirks in return, one that said Sheppard knew perfectly well that the names of Pegasus plants and animals meant absolutely nothing to him. It was a strange reminder that Sheppard was indeed originally from Earth, that he had grown up in the same culture, with the same things Cam had. Then Cam wondered why that would be strange. And then he gave up wondering all together in favour of eating, because trying to think through the enigma that was Sheppard made him feel like he was running in mental circles. Instead, he focused on the food because now that he had started eating, he realized how hungry he was.

***

It was late at night by the time he got back to the SGC, stars bright in the black Colorado sky– though not as bright as they had been through the window of the Cyrinius. Cam waved to Sheppard as the jumper took off again, and headed inside. Sheppard was going to make his way over to Antarctica to check on the scientists, while Cam was going to brief General Landry on their plans (and, no doubt, any and all new information that he could give on the expedition and their ship), and then, he hoped, he'd be able to crash for a couple of hours on the cot Daniel had stashed in his office. It was 62 hours, 37 minutes before the hive ships arrived, and he knew sixty hours went by like nothing while trying to safe the world.

Thankfully, the bed was there, and free for him to claim. Daniel was still off-world, trying to weasel another ship out of the Tok'ra, not that Cam had very high hopes for his success. He set his watch alarm for in four hours, five in the morning, and lay down, uniform and all, weapons belt in easy reach on the floor. It took some effort, but he shoved the nagging worry, the frantic energy of the approaching threat, out of his head and forced himself into deep, even breaths. It would help no one if he was so tired that he couldn't fly his F-3. They had their plans, and he would brief his fleet in the morning. The rest was up to the scientists to figure out.

Chapter Text

John found Rodney cross-legged on the floor in Antarctica, a jungle of cables and equipment around him, hair a greasy, dishevelled mess and dark smudges under his eyes. Three mostly empty mugs of coffee stood at various points between the cables, forming a skewed triangle with Rodney in the centre. Smoke drifted up from his kuma flute, of course. His fingers flew over the touch screen of his tablet, eyes darting between that, two screens and the ZPM, glowing softly in a cage of wires. John meant to feel the nervous energy radiating from him from five yards away.

Carter and a man John didn't know where bending over a table, murmuring urgently, tablet PCs and huge paper blueprints littering the surface. Miko and Lannik were on the other side of the chair pedestal, crouching over an assembly of two naquadah generators, assorted cables, and a bulky thing that looked like the offspring of a deranged mixer and a petroleum lamp, but was possibly a capacitor, seeing as two thick bundles of cables went into it from the generators and only one bundle came out to vanish into an open side panel of the chair pedestal.

“So,” John asked the room at large, “how's it going?”

Five faces looked at him, eyes glazed with, he thought, exhaustion rather than scientific trance. For a moment, no one answered. Then Rodney and Lannik turned back to their work without a word, Carter heaved a sigh and the unknown man looked at Rodney and Lannik with a faintly puzzled expression.

“Good evening, Commander,” Miko greeted. “I'm afraid the problems with the power flow persist. These advanced naquadah generators are just too powerful to regulate properly, but not powerful enough to suffice on their own.”

“That's not to say that we haven't made progress the last few weeks,” Carter jumped in. “So far, it's not optimal, but we're reasonably certain that nothing will blow up, at least.”

“That's... good,” John offered.

“We don't know how effective the firing and navigation of the drones will be, though,” the guy John didn't know pointed out. “It could have disastrous consequences if the power were to fail after the drones were launched. Without a means to aim them, they might indiscriminately target whatever they find.”

“Oh, yeah, that's not very fun,” John remarked, remembering his own very first encounter with a drone. “And who are you?”

“Oh, sorry!” Carter hastily stepped forwards. “Commander Sheppard, this is Jonas Quinn, from Langara. He's one of the top experts in the galaxy when it comes to naquadah. Jonas, this is Commander John Sheppard.”

“It's nice to meet you,” Quinn said with a bright, warm smile, and held a hand out over the table. John leaned forward to shake it. The grip was warm, but non-challenging.

“Likewise.” Really, it was creepy how nice most of these people here were. He was sort of more comfortable with the likes of Caldwell and Landry. At least he knew the type, had had many a CO like that when he'd still been on Earth, and, well... nothing much surprised you in the way of backstabbing, betrayal and self-righteous double standards if you'd spent a decade fighting the Genii. Of course, the Genii wars were officially over. That didn't mean Pegasus hadn't taught them its lesson about trust, and who to reserve it to.

“So... does that mean you can power the chair, or what?”

Carter grimaced. “We can, but it's an emergency solution only. As Jonas said, it could do as much harm as good if the drones got out of control, and there's no telling whether the irregular power flow won't cause permanent damage to the systems. It'd be much preferable if McKay could recharge a zero point module...”

“I'm working on it!” Rodney called, aggravation thick in his voice. John frowned at him.

“Have you been eating? And when was the last time you slept?”

Rodney just waved a vague hand at him.

“I've slept... at some point... don't remember. No time! Seven hive ships arriving in, oh, just over sixty hours, would you look at that?!” He made a show of checking his tablet for the time.

John reached into the pockets of the tac vest he'd thrown on, expecting something like that, and dug out two leaf-wrapped naru bars.

“Eat!” he said, tossing them to Rodney, who almost didn't catch them because he spent a moment blinking at John like they'd never done this before. “And then you're going to sleep. I've got a blanket in the jumper.”

“No time!” Rodney repeated indistinctly around a big mouthful.

“You're going. to. sleep. It won't help anyone if you miss that one clue to the break-through you need because you're so tired you can't think straight.”

“Sixty hours! Two days, John! I can't afford to sleep now!”

“I can call Dr Biro down here right now...” John moved his hand towards the vest pocket he kept the radio in. Rodney glowered.

“Fine! Three hours.” He glared, then turned back to his work. John was quite sure he heard him grumble “Bitch!” under his breath.

“You're welcome,” he retorted with sugary sarcasm. “I expect you in the jumper in half an hour. Oh, and Rodney...?” He made sure to inject just the right amount of leading into his voice. Rodney looked up, a half-startled look on his face. “Don't make me come down here and come and get you.”

***

John stretched himself out on one of the benches in the back of the jumper, dragging a soft Athosian hand-woven blanket up to his chest. It smelled of kuma and candles and faintly of the kandu the wool had come from. It smelled like home. The bench was soft and comfortable, if a bit on the narrow side, but it wasn't like he'd never slept on one before. He told the jumper to wake him in four hours. For a moment, he considered to add another alarm to check whether Rodney had obeyed his directive, but then he thought 'Screw that' and left it off. He trusted Rodney this much, and he needed the sleep himself. Besides, Miko would take John's order as indirect permission to pester Rodney in her gentle, inexorable way into following that order. She knew as well as everyone else how Rodney got when death loomed near and his genius was the only thing standing between them and destruction. She also knew what happened when he let himself go too much. By the Ancestors, that time he'd almost blown up the team, an invaluable set of ruins, and the better part of a continent because he'd been running on kuma for about a week and the Wraith were heading for Neo-Sateda... No, no one wanted a repeat of that particular performance.

***

It was ten minutes past the half hour Sheppard had ordered when Rodney stumbled out of the elevator, and he half expected the man to come bearing down on him with crossed arms, tapping foot and stormy expression, as if Rodney were an unruly child who'd gotten caught stealing the neighbour's apples. (He remembered his mother doing it the one time he had gotten caught, followed by a lecture on how he had more important things to do... like his homework.)

However, when he entered the jumper, he found Sheppard stretched out on the starboard bench, back pressed to the hull of the ship and deeply asleep under a red and orange Athosian blanket. Rodney felt his lips twitch despite his own, bone-deep exhaustion and the nagging awareness of how time was slipping by him. He couldn't help it. Seeing Sheppard like this caused a little warm wriggle of emotion in his belly. His black hair was a crazy mess and three days of stubble shaded his jaw, but his face was soft and relaxed in sleep, the lines that had started to reappear smoothed away again for the moment. He was just too damn adorable, blanket tucked up under his arm and clutched to his chest with a loose fist, legs splayed out and in danger of sliding off the narrow bench, breathing soft and regular.

Rodney shook off the fuzzy feeling of regret at not being able to curl up next to Sheppard, and reached to retrieve his own red and orange blanket from the cargo net overhead, and then collapsed on the other bench. He barely remembered to check that Sheppard had indeed set an alarm at a reasonable time, and then he let his eyes slide shut. Despite all the caffeine in his system, his body gratefully shut down immediately, dropping him into black unconsciousness without time for another thought.

***

John moaned in displeasure when the soft chime of the alarm woke him after what felt like no more than ten minutes of sleep. He lifted his head to blearily take in his surroundings. Where...? Right, the jumper. He looked over, and yes, Rodney was there, stirring reluctantly.

“When this is over,” he announced grimly, “I'm going to sleep for a week. And no one can stop me!”

“Yes, Rodney,” John agreed equitably. When this was over, always provided they survived, of course, there would be no time for sleep, they both knew. There rarely was immediately after a big battle. There would be funerals to attend to, probably repairs on the ship and, John didn't even want to think about it, the political nightmare of their future relations with Earth. The current crisis kept a lot of issues out of the limelight, but they would be back with a vengeance once the Wraith were dealt with, John was sure.

He reluctantly peeled himself out of the warm cocoon of his blanket. Rodney just lay there, propped on his arms, blinking, apparently without the resolve to get up yet.

John stumbled the step across the aisle and slid back down to sit on the floor, back propped against Rodney's bench, unable to deny himself a few more minutes of comfort at Rodney's proximity.

“Fifty-six hours, twenty-seven minutes,” he observed quietly.

“Hm,” Rodney agreed, sliding sleep-warm fingers into John's hair and starting to massage his scalp. With a half-stifled moan of pleasure, John leaned into the touch, his eyes almost sliding closed.

“You... gonna see your sister?” John asked hesitantly.

Rodney's fingers froze for a moment, but then started their gentle rubbing again.

“No. No time.”

“Rodney... this might be your last chance.” John tilted his head a bit to look at Rodney's face.

He could count the times Rodney had mentioned his sister during the last ten years on one hand, but... one time, when they were both rather drunk, lying in cool, fragrant grass next to the remnants of a big pyre after another harvest festival, lazy and satisfied after good food and good sex, staring at foreign stars over a foreign planet, they had somehow gotten to talk about family in general, and their respective ones in particular. John didn't remember all of it, didn't remember exactly what or how much he had told Rodney, the alcohol blurring the edges of the conversation. It wasn't any different for Rodney, according to their awkward morning after. John felt his lips curl slightly at the memory. It hadn't been the drunken sex that had freaked them both out. By then, year five or six, they took that pretty much for granted. But talking about their life back on Earth... and something as personal as their dysfunctional families... that was intimacy neither of them was comfortable with, at all. So, usually they just ignored that conversation had ever happened by mutual silent agreement. And when they startled each other with some careless comment, by referencing some titbit of personal information they weren't supposed to have... they shared a glance and went on. But John knew Rodney loved his sister, cared for her, missed her. He'd named his first-born after her, for crying out loud, violating age-old Pegasus traditions whereby naming children was women's business, asking Kimra for that favour.

“I know,” Rodney answered him, giving him a frown that was meant to be dark but looked pained instead. “But she thinks I'm dead anyway.”

He didn't say any more, but John got the reasoning. Why get her hopes up, why put her through the shock of finding out her brother was alive after all, after all these years, if he was then possibly going to die in a matter of hours for real?

“Maybe she'd like to know you weren't?”

“Or maybe she'd slam the door in my face! We didn't exactly part in peace!”

“Naw, I don't think so...”

“Yeah, right, because you're such an expert! What do you know about these things? You're as much of a social disaster as I am, you just hide it behind that pretty face of yours and that incessant flirting!”

John reflexively glared at Rodney for the insult, considered teasing him about the “pretty” comment, and then settled on a rueful, honest smile.

“Fine, have it your way.” He pushed the back of his head against Rodney's fingers to get him to start up the massage again he'd abandoned during their argument. Rodney huffed, but complied.

“So... are you going to see your brother? Your father?”

John felt himself tense up, apprehension that seemed to have been bred into his very bones resurfacing.

“No,” he answered shortly.

“Huh,” Rodney said. “But maybe you could...” John didn't have to see him to know he was making one of his vague gestures with the hand that had vacated his hair, “make up or something...”

“No,” John said simply. No... no, he knew he was never going to be anything but a disappointment to his father. As for Dave... well, he was the golden boy to John's black sheep, and while they might be brothers there was just simply nothing they had in common. They didn't understand each other. Ten years in exile in a different galaxy couldn't have helped that, John thought.

“Well... okay,” Rodney said, and started his massage up again. John closed his eyes and soaked up the contact for a few seconds, and then a chuckle bubbled up, out of him before he could stop it.

“We're a pair of idiots, aren't we?” he asked, grinning, leaning his head back to look at Rodney. Rodney blinked, then gave that defensive glare/pout combination of his.

“Hey! I'll have you know that my IQ removes me very far from the realms of idiocy. Maybe a military attack dog like you can be called mmph!”

John had hooked an arm around Rodney's neck, had tilted his head back and up, and shut him up with a kiss. It usually worked.

Rodney didn't disappoint. For a moment, he remained still and surprised, because, for some reason, despite all experience to the contrary, he never expected John to pull this particular tactic. Then he kissed back, lips warm and eager on John's, tongue darting out to slide into John's mouth with all that proprietary exploration that was so very Rodney, bold and demanding. John allowed himself to melt into the kiss, blocking out the rest of the world until there was only the wet contact between their lips and tongues, Rodney's hot fingers clenched in his hair, Rodney's broad shoulders under his own arm.

They were both breathing hard by the time they parted. John's eyes locked on Rodney's and a shiver went down his spine at the look on Rodney's face. He knew a lot of people didn't get what he saw in Rodney, but this, right there... this look was what drew him back, time and again, or at least part of it. It was a look of complete concentration, complete focus, like John was the only thing Rodney was aware of at this moment, like he was an intriguing, endlessly puzzling equation Rodney couldn't resist, just had to solve. And something about this intense focus on himself made his blood run hot in his veins, made shivers of primal want run through his body.

Rodney wasn't any better off, pupils dilated and lips parted slightly, and John was reasonably certain that his desire to get fucked right now was plain on his own face, because Rodney had told him, rocking inside of him, their hands clenched together on the sheets, his face pressed into John's neck, how much it turned him on. There was some part of Rodney, nurtured by years of social awkwardness, that just couldn't believe someone could really, honestly, want him. Some days, this made John feel a twisted sort of hurt and anger, a desire to shoot every stupid school yard bully and brainless teenage girl who'd ever fostered Rodney's insecurities. Right now, however, he lacked the brain capacity to think or feel anything that complex. Sharing this look with Rodney, he knew they were both thinking about exactly the same thing.

Then Rodney snorted, leaned back.

“Seriously, when was the last time you cleaned your teeth?” he complained, breaking the mood just as John was about to grab the blankets and drag Rodney down to the floor, tossing reason and impending Wraith invasions out the window.

John felt a grin quivering at the edges of his mouth, because, well... this was as familiar as the sex, as much of a comfort.

“As if you're any better!” he retorted, finally getting to his feet. “And frankly, I don't remember. I had other things on my mind.”

Rodney, laboriously getting up himself, shot him a side-long look.

“Yeah, I just bet,” he muttered.

John rolled his eyes at him. “Like, oh, invading Wraith?”

“Yeah right. Slut.”

John considered for a moment, then reached out and smacked Rodney over the back of the head.

“Ow!” Rodney glared over his shoulder while he made his way down the jumper's ramp, and John lifted his eyebrows, following him sedately. “There's no reason to hit me! You need these brain cells to save your ass, remember?! And it's true enough. I've seen the way you've looked at that square-jawed Colonel!”

“Huh? Who, Mitchell?” Rodney nodded with a dark frown. “He's not square-jawed.”

“He so is. He looks like the poster boy for 'American military drone'. It's ridiculous, it's like he rolled off an assembly line somewhere or something.”

John gave Rodney another of his frequent eye-rolls.

“Your rampant, and unfounded, jealousy is making you delusional. Mitchell's a nice, reasonable guy. More than can be said for you. You should give him a chance, you might like him.”

“What, the way you obviously like him?”

John threw his hands up.

“What makes you think I want to sleep with the man?”

“Wait, you're telling me you don't?!”

“Well, I wouldn't kick him out of bed...” John was forced to admit.

“Aha!” Rodney declared triumphantly.

“But,” John continued with a glare, “you've been giving him the jealousy vibe from the moment you met him! What's that all about?”

Now Rodney rolled his eyes at him. “P-lease!” he said exaggeratedly. “You've been giving him the Look since you met him!”

“What look?”

“The 'Hello there, here I am, come and get me'-look!”

John stared at Rodney and nearly walked into the elevator door.

“I do not have such a look,” he stated with as much dignity as he could muster. Rodney followed him into the elevator and leaned against the back wall, arms crossed over his chest.

“Oh, do you ever!”

“Do not.”

“Do too!”

“Do not!”

“Do too! I would know! I've seen it! Half the galaxy's seen it! You always get it around some piece of hot male ass! And it usually ends with you bent over some ambassador's desk with your pants around your ankles, getting your brains fucked out!”

“Hey!” John protested. Now that was really unfair. “That was one time!” From the look Rodney gave him, that didn't carry quite the argumentative weight he'd intended it to. “And we got a great trade agreement out of it. In fact, we're still getting great trade relations out of it!”

“Whatever! The point is, Elizabeth didn't intend for you to make the deal with your ass.”

“No, the point is, you're jealous of Mitchell and it's making you delusional. Or maybe that's the overdose of caffeine.”

Rodney stopped in loading his kuma flute to glare at him for a moment, then continued what he was doing.

“No,” he said once the flute was at it's usual place in the corner of his mouth, “the point is, you're a slut and you know it. So does everyone else.” He took half a step away from John. “And don't hit me for it again, either!”

John threw his hands up in exasperation. “Whatever! Just don't murder Mitchell in his sleep or something equally stupid!”

Rodney cocked his head, considering. “If Earth was a bit more technologically advanced,” he said slowly, “I could hack into his hot water controls and make him take cold showers for a week or two...”

Rodney...”

Rodney pouted, John glared, and then they spend several long seconds of the ride down to the Ancient outpost in silence. The mood of familiar exasperation with each other their argument had created evaporated, and sombre reality wrapped around them again.

“So, how's it going?”

Rodney sighed, slumping slightly. “Being able to observe a working, active ZPM gave me a lot of the data I was missing, but I'm still not sure I can finish in time. And even if I do, I still don't like that I'll have to implement my findings without adequate preliminary testing. But the naquadah generators...” He winced. “Even with the capacitor we came up with, the variances in the power flow are way more than I would normally like to expose Ancient tech to.”

John nodded. “So, what's the plan?”

Rodney shrugged. “Unless I can recharge our ZPM, power the chair with their ZPM for as long as possible, then switch to naquadah power and hope for the best.”

“We've had worse plans...”

Rodney snorted. “Sure, we did. And it's still a wonder and blind dumb luck more than anything else we survived them.”

“True,” John had to concede. Not everyone had survived them, either.

“Since you're here, run some simulations with the chair, will you? See how it feels when it runs on naquadah.”

“Sure thing,” John agreed. He didn't have all that much to do until the actual attack, apart from keeping Rodney from going absolutely spare. The plans were drawn up, Jinto and Wex would do their jobs in coordinating the darts, the Cyrinius was loaded and battle ready at a moment's notice, Stackhouse was running the crew through a few last drills... they had done what they could, and now it was down to the scientists, as always.

Chapter Text

The next thirty hours flew by, just as Cam had known they would. He got his pilots up to speed on the strategies he'd worked out with Sheppard and Sokagen, made sure every F-305 had that receiver unit installed and tested, everyone knew how to operate it and not to shoot their own darts and then met with General Caldwell and the other ship commanders to discuss their deployment. Daniel returned with one ship from the Tok'ra, an old Goa'uld cruiser, in good condition but hardly the fleet they would need. Teal'c was more successful, returning with several thousand, weapon-bristling Jaffa for ground support and three ships, one of them a former mother ship. Together with the Prometheus II, the Daedalus and the just-returned Hammond they had seven ships. Now if these seven ships wouldn't, taken together, fit into one hive ship with room to spare, he'd feel almost confident.

It was decided that they would hide the ships in the shadow of the planet, maybe buying themselves a moment or two of surprise, and then attack one hive after the other, in bulk, trying to take them out as fast as possible and avoid being split up as best they could. With support from the Ancient outpost and the Cyrinius... maybe they stood a chance. Maybe. If they could take out four hives in the first minutes, without losing too many of their own ships...

Cam scrubbed a hand through his hair, then grimaced at the unwashed feel of it. He just didn't have the time to take a shower. At least all the senior staff looked like that, shadows under their eyes, uniforms un-pressed, hair unkempt, coffee cups clutched with desperate grips. None of the expedition members were to be seen without one of their little metal cigarettes any more, and Mitchell had been tempted more than once to ask whether he could try, too. If it kept them awake... anything to ward off the tiredness. O'Neill had given strict orders that everyone was to sleep eight hours if at all possible before the battle. The infirmary stood by with a huge supply of sleeping pills for those who needed them. Things were winding down for most of them, preparations done, the waiting about to start. The Lanteans seemed to be there already, as eerily laconic about the impending attack as their Commander, apart from the science team. Cam had only seen McKay for a moment when he'd beamed to Antarctica to fetch Sheppard for a tactical meeting. The man looked like a nervous wreck, feverishly fitting pieces from a big pile of mechanical parts into some weird, cylindrical contraption, which, Sheppard informed him, might just save all their lives, because it was the best McKay could come up with to recharge the ZPM. Cam wasn't exactly reassured by that, since McKay looked more like a crazed comic-book scientist than a professional of the Stargate Programme.

Sam just waved a hand at him, herself elbows-deep in another contraption, black streaks of grease like war paint on her cheeks. Some had even gotten in her short hair.

They beamed to their meeting, hammered out the last details to coordinate their attacks, and then... they were done.

Jack beamed with them to Antarctica to familiarize himself with the chair, at Sheppard's insistence, since the chair, running on naquadah, “felt fucking weird. Er...sorry.”, to say it in Sheppard's words.

Somewhere, Cam was vaguely aware, the top brass of the Earth's military was meeting to coordinate the biggest ground defence in Earth's history, because, realistically speaking... at least some darts would make it through, somewhere– unless they managed to blow the hives up before they could launch them, which was the plan. However, as O'Neill said: “Y'always gotta have to have a plan D.”

***

Twenty-three hours and thirty-nine minutes before the scheduled arrival of the hives, Rodney sat back on his haunches and stared at the large metal cylinder that would, if his theories and calculations were correct, enable them to recharge a ZPM. In over twenty hours of painstaking work, he and Miko had assembled conduits and insulation to direct immense amounts of power to exactly the right point on the surface of a ZPM. If they were off by even a fraction of a millimetre... Best case scenario: The crystal would shatter, disintegrate, and they were out a dead ZPM. Worst case scenario: Some energy had already been transferred, the subspace point had started to reopen... and shattering the crystal would destabilize it, releasing all the energy in an explosion of unknown size.

“It's done,” he said numbly. Sheppard looked up from where he was stretched out on top of their two servers needed to compute the data they retrieved from the chair, of all things. Well, Rodney had long since stopped wondering about the places Sheppard chose to sleep in. And since he insisted on being here, Rodney's self-appointed babysitter, instead of up on the Cyrinius, in his bed, like a sane person, Rodney guessed a server case was as good a place to sleep on as any. At least they were warm.

“Done?” he asked.

Rodney nodded. “Yes. As far as I can tell without any preliminary tests, this should do it.”

“And now?” Sheppard was sitting up, boots well away from the switches and lights at the front.

“Now...” Rodney blinked. He hadn't quite thought that far. “Now I need a lot of energy. A lot. Oh my God! Where am I going to get the power from?? I can't believe I didn't think of that!”

“Calm down, Rodney,” Sheppard said dryly, hopping to his feet. “We've still got some time to figure that out. What do you need? A power plant or two? I'm sure the government would be happy to provide you with one...”

“No, no! I need ZPM-level energy! All the power plants in the United States wouldn't be enough, even if we could network them in a reasonable way to channel all the power into this thing.”

“Oh.” John blinked. “That's... a lot of power.”

“Exactly! Where do I get that from? Here? I mean, of course I thought about that when I started this project, but I just figured I'd plug it into Lantis during the next storm, I mean, I thought I could worry about the power for a full charge later, it was just going to be some preliminary trials...”

“Storm? You need a storm?”

Rodney blinked. “Yes. Yes, that would be great. Lightning... lightning would be great. A lot of it, though.”

“Okay.” Sheppard took a deep breath. “Let's find you a storm.”

“Anything we can help you with?” Carter asked, and Rodney and Sheppard both turned to look at her. Only then did Rodney realize that they'd been speaking Ancient. It was his default language, after two months of using it continuously on the Cyrinius, after years of reading and writing it when interfacing with the computers. It was strange, to speak to people who spoke only English.

“Rodney needs a storm to recharge the ZPM,” Sheppard explained to her. “A big storm. Let me just check in with the Cyrinius, they can run a sensor sweep of the planet and tell us whether there's something suitable around during the next few hours,” he told Rodney as he fished his radio out of a pocket of his vest.

It turned out there wasn't anything suitable, and forecasts for the next twenty-four hours didn't look promising either. They had the Cyrinius send the data down to Rodney's tablet and they all stood clustered around it.

“Damn it!” Rodney swore, running his hands through his hair. “This wouldn't be a problem at all back home! Hell, it's storm season in the city! There's two, three a day!”

“Well, we'll just have to look around. There's got to be a storm somewhere in this galaxy! Right?” Sheppard turned questioning eyes to Carter. She frowned, then nodded.

“Let me call General O'Neill. We'll check the data bases, I'm sure we can find something.”

Finding a storm, it turned out, wasn't as easy as one would think. After hearing that all that stood between them and a fighting chance against the Wraith was a lack of forces of nature on Earth, the SGC pulled out all the stops, set a bunch of their meteorologists to comb through the data base for likely candidates and send UAVs through the gate to check the status on the planets they recommended. With ZPM and equipment packed up, the Hammond beamed Rodney to the SGC to wait for a hit. While the meteorologists searched, Rodney, Carter and Sheppard discussed the best way to channel the lightning to the ZPM. In Lantis, Rodney would just have plugged the thing into the grid of lighting rods all over the city, but here, things weren't that convenient. They didn't have the time to build a lightning rod large enough if they found a storm. Sheppard, of course, came up with the idea of just flying a jumper right into the storm. If the man could solve a problem by flying something, he would. However, Rodney had to admit that it made sense. He did point out that there was no way in hell or Wraith space that Sheppard would be the one doing the flying. That, of course, didn't go over well, and, really, Rodney would have felt more comfortable if Sheppard was going to do the flying. But they didn't know whether the hives would arrive exactly on schedule, they didn't know how long it would take them to find a big enough storm, they didn't know whether they wouldn't just turn into one big fireball if they found a storm and Rodney had made a mistake when he constructed the recharge unit. Sheppard needed to be here, needed to fly the Cyrinius. No one else could do that, not like he could. In the end, the man had to listen to reason, even though his martyr complex put up the fight Rodney expected it to. Of course he only got a poisonous glare from the ungrateful bastard when he pointed out that that martyr complex could be satisfied just as well by staying here, since they would quite possibly all die not soon after Rodney if he managed to blow himself up.

He got Stackhouse as a pilot. Then he, Carter and Miko spent a feverish two hours insulating all the essential conduits in the jumper from the lightning that was supposed to strike the hull, a hull which they then screwed a couple of lightning rods to to make it an even more attractive target. Then they rigged cables to the recharge unit, heavy-duty Ancient alloy cables that were meant to withstand the energy output from a ZPM without burning through. The recharge unit was mounted in the back of the jumper, a back they emptied completely for this trip. They even unscrewed the benches. The bulkhead door would protect Rodney and Stackhouse from the lightning flowing into the ZPM. Hopefully.

Rodney paced impatiently through the SGCs gate control room while they waited for the results from the latest UAV survey. Since there were still people being evacuated through the gate to the alpha site, the bright minds in the SGC had decided to send the UAVs on a preprogrammed course through the gate, then shut the gate down and dial the alpha site, moving people through, and dialling back into the potential storm planets 45 minutes later to collect the UAV data and then decide whether to keep checking that planet or try the next one. Rodney knew he should be with the meteorologists to look over the data for a storm of suitable size, but he couldn't bring himself to concentrate enough at the moment. Damn it, he just needed a storm! At home this wouldn't be a problem at all! But here, time was running out, rapidly. They were at T minus 5 hours already! Rodney had sent Sheppard up to the Cyrinius hours ago. It didn't make sense that he waited here when he could grab a few more hours of sleep before they all died. Rodney felt an extra little twist to his general sense of panic barely kept at bay. He'd almost lost John a thousand times, had been in a situation just like this more often than he could count... and it never got any easier. Maybe he should've taken him up on his implicit offer in the jumper. One last fuck... he was going to regret not having taken the chance if he died this time. Or Sheppard died. In Lantis, they would've done it, would've earned nothing but teasing smirks and understanding looks if they ducked out for half an hour. If there'd even been anyone around not saying good-bye the Pegasus way, that was. But this was Earth, and they had orders from Elizabeth to try and be as non-offensive as possible. So no end-of-the-world sex.

“Rodney!” Carter came running down the stairs that led to the conference room. “We might have something! Come on, you've got to take a look at it!”

He followed her back up, taking the stairs three at a time. He grabbed the tablet pc the latest UAV data had been downloaded to and quickly looked through the files. Air pressure, wind strength, extend... yes, this one looked good.

Carter blinked at him as he said so. Probably because she needed the meteorologists to translate the raw data for her. But living on Lantis, and being dependant on the harvest from the mainland, had made amateur meteorologists out of most of the expedition members. After all, as the super storm in year one had demonstrated, they were again in a position where a simple natural disaster could wipe them off the planet, and the weather was crucial in determining whether they would have plenty to eat or have to start rationing again. God, he remembered the end of Year 2... Still hurting from the last Genii war, the entire expedition so homesick Kate, in her calm, professional manner, was the only thing that kept them all going somehow, kept them half-way sane somehow, and then an unseasonal hailstorm had destroyed most of their harvest, just before the onset of winter. The following two months were generally considered their darkest hour, mostly referred to as “that winter”. The threat of starvation hung over their heads as the winter storms howled and shrieked around the towers, the rain streamed down for days at a time. They had pulled through, Mike and Sylvie, their meteorologists, became the expedition's new favourite people and got all the support they could ever wish for, and most of the expedition members, as well as a lot of Athosians, went to the evening lectures the two organized on Lantia's weather patterns.

Rodney shook himself out of the memories and put the tablet back down.

“Let's do it.”

***

Ten minutes later, probably a record for the SGC, Rodney was looking at the Earth gate through the jumper's wind shield while Stackhouse punched in the address. Rodney impatiently shifted in his seat, tapped his fingers on his tablet as the gate dialled ponderously. He had somehow forgotten how old-fashioned Milky Way gates were.

The event horizon whooshed into existence and Stackhouse gunned it as soon as the backwash had settled down.

They shot out into blinding sun-light, and for a moment, Rodney almost had a heart-attack, before he remembered that the storm was supposed to be on the other side of the continent. Stackhouse had already called up the HUD, and there it was, a swirl of clouds just off the edge of the landmass, a few dozen miles out on sea. The readings were looking good, and Rodney felt a first, faint stirring of hope... if the ZPM didn't blow up on them.

They rose until they were high, high above the continent, then Stackhouse let the jumper zoom directly at the storm. When they came up on it and Rodney saw the roiling, pitch-black clouds stretching along the horizon, he felt a shiver of dread and delight at the same time. Stackhouse whistled.

“Better hold on tight, McKay. This is going to be the ride of a life-time.”

“Oh, you mean aside from the several hundreds of thousands of volts that're going to discharge themselves in our rear compartment? Trust me, I know.”

Stackhouse grinned at him. “Touché, Doctor. Here goes nothing! Yee-ha!”

With that confidence-inspiring battle cry, Stackhouse flew them straight into the storm. Pilots, Rodney thought, were all mad. Especially if John trained them up.

Rain washed down their wind shield like someone had emptied a bucket of water on it and the wind hit them like a hammer blow. The jumper lurched. Blinding light bathed them. Rodney tensed as it registered that they'd probably just been struck by the first bolt of lightning, then called himself a fool. If the ZPM was going to explode from that bolt, it would already have done so. He checked his tablet. There wasn't any notable energy output from the ZPM, but it hadn't disintegrated either.

Stackhouse lowered the jumper to the height the meteorologists had judged ideal if one wanted to be hit by lightning, right in the middle of the roiling clouds. That also meant they had to suffer the full force of the storm. Stackhouse soon gave up on keeping the jumper in one place, and focused more on keeping them in the air at all, gales of wind buffeting and spinning them this way and that. Visibility was non-existent. Lightning washed and flickered around them, creating a stroboscopic effect, lighting the rims of individual clouds, shining diffusely through them, whiting out the world all together for moments. Thunder rolled almost continuously over them. That ride was possibly the scariest thing Rodney had ever experienced, tossed about by the winds like a toy thousands of feet up in the air, raw electricity flowing over them. It didn't help that every stroke of lightning could be the one that overloaded the conduits, that ran along the wrong path, and blew the ZPM and them to smithereens, to less than ash washing down with the rain. Or it could be too much for their improvised rewiring and send them plunging down into a sea Rodney doubted would be any more friendly to them than the storm up here.

But it was working. Rodney watched his tablet, barely daring to believe it, but yes, the crystal was holding, the energy was being conducted, and slowly, ever so slowly, his sensors registered a charge from the previously dead ZPM. It didn't happen nearly as fast as he would have liked it to, though. Stackhouse gave him several pleading looks, asking for permission to fly them out of here, but Rodney grimly shook his head, pointing to the percentage displayed in the corner of his tablet. It was only very slowly inching upwards, and anything under thirty percent wouldn't help them any when it came to powering the chair. They would have to stay with the storm for a while. Rodney just hoped it didn't exhaust itself before they had viable energy levels, because they didn't have time to find another one.

***

John paced up and down on the Cyrinius' bridge. The comm channel to the SGC was open, but there was no news of Rodney and Stackhouse. They had been gone for hours. Up in a corner of the bridge's screen, the time was running out, the seconds slipping away as the Wraith's ETA approached.

John knew there was no way of knowing for sure how the mission had gone until Stackhouse called in. With the electromagnetic interference of the storm he couldn't check in regularly. There was nothing to do but wait. John hated waiting. He really, really hated it with a passion. He wanted to be out there, wanted to be with Rodney, wanted to fly that jumper and make sure it came back in one piece.

He took a deep breath and stopped, hooked his thumbs into his gun-belts, and watched as their time ran out on the screen. Twenty seconds... ten seconds... five... three... one... Zero came and went. The timer started counting upwards again. There was nothing on the Cyrinius' sensors that didn't belong there. The other ships, Earth ships and strange, compact Goa'uld ships, were hidden in the sensor shadow thrown by the Earth. The Cyrinius drifted in space further out, closer to the moon than to Earth, but currently roughly over the Pacific. For a while it felt as if the whole solar system held its breath, the counter on the screen running up the seconds and minutes soundlessly, the Cyrinius drifting in the vast, cold silence of space above the little blue planet.

And then they came. Seven hyperspace events where they had expected them, in almost perfect synchronization. Red dots blinked into existence on the screen, moving towards Earth with deceptive slowness.

“This is Sheppard,” John barked into the radio. God and Ancestors, where was Rodney!? “Hyperspace events detected. Wraith hives are approaching. ETA 23 minutes.”

“We read you, Sheppard,” Landry's gruff voice came over the comm. “Our sensors have picked them up. Proceed as planned.”

“Acknowledged.”

John dropped himself down in the Cyrinius' control chair, his control chair, dug his fingers into the soft pads on the arm rests. The MTI surged in his mind, going from a vague background hum to full input, filling his head with data, expanding his awareness until every aspect of the Cyrinius' systems stood in sharp contrast in his thoughts.

This chair, just like the whole ship, they had build themselves. It was usually recessed under the floor, a little trick they had learned from the Ancients when they'd turned up and taken their city from them with one single, small, retractable console. It had taught them that not everyone needed to have easy access to their main control interfaces, gene-locked or not.

John ran a quick check of all their important systems and the status of his crew. They were all where they were supposed to be, Jinto and his kids standing by with their darts and jumpers, ready to launch at a moment's notice, the rest of his people retreated to the central area of the ship. He could fly this ship alone from the chair, but Dr Biro and a medical team as well as Kimra and a few other Travellers joined him on the bridge as soon as the ship-wide alarm sounded, just in case, and Ronon stepped up to the weapons control console to take over the Wraith tech energy weapons so John could focus his attention on the drones.

John realized he was grinding his teeth and forced himself to stop. His whole body was taut with adrenaline, apprehension, carefully-ignored panic. Seven hives. There were seven hives coming towards him. No, he couldn't think too much about that, couldn't think about Rodney, who might not be coming back, who might already be dead, couldn't think about how few, how fragile their darts were, couldn't think of all the young men and women he knew so well, had known since they were barely teenagers for the most part... He couldn't think about all that. He could only think about the plan, the strategies they had drawn up, could only focus on his ship and his weapons, slumbering, ready to wake at a touch of his thoughts. He focused his attention on the hives, carefully selected his first target.

They were approaching slower, warier, than he had expected them to. The damaged one was bringing up the rear, where it was protected by the others. If they had more troops, they could have lain in wait for this, taken that hive out from the back, but they couldn't spare the ships from their pathetic front line that was all that stood between Earth and the hives.

John breathed deep. Speed was what it all came down to. If O'Neill could take one hive out from the planetary defence station, the three Earth ships and their allies managed a second one, and John shot down a third without taking too much damage... then they might just have a chance. If the Wraith managed to take out one element of their defence before they did some major damage themselves... they were fucked. The first few minutes of this fight would determine in which direction the scales were going to tip. If they didn't crush the Wraith's advantage in numbers quickly, evened the odds, they would get overwhelmed in no time at all. If the Wraith were smart enough to ignore some of the attacks and three, four hives focused on one target, they wouldn't hold up for more than a few minutes. Here was to hoping that the Wraiths' arrogance and blood thirst made them overconfident, kept them from ganging up on one of their lines of attack. Of course, even if they didn't, they were outnumbered two to one, with one spare hive. The Cyrinius had proven that she could handle two hives, but John doubted the Earth ships could. The planetary chair was a serious asset... or would be if it could perform at top capacity. As it was, John knew that the Cyrinius was their best bet. She had been built to go up against hives. However, as marvellous as she was, she couldn't withstand concentrated fire from all sides at once. Especially not from these intergalactic hives.

John watched them approach on the screen and through the sensors. God, these things were monstrous! Their hull was thicker, their build heavier than the regular hives, which were big and tough enough. It made sense, of course, since the hull needed to withstand the increased radiation of intergalactic hyperspace travel, without having to rest every two or three hours. It made blowing them up that much harder, though.

John jerked out of his contemplations as the sensors indicated activity from the hives. A lot of activity.

“Motherfucking bastards!” he cursed. “They're launching darts! Jinto, move out! Get down to the planet immediately, establish defensive positions!” Then he switched to the comm channel with the SGC, just in case they hadn't noticed.

“This is Sheppard. The hives are launching darts, I repeat, the hives are launching darts already! Get Mitchell's F-305s in the air! Jinto's already on his way! There goes Plan A,” he grumbled, more to himself.

“Affirmative, Sheppard,” Landry told him. “Our sensors have detected the darts as well. The F-305s are launching as we speak. Proceed as planned. Landry out.”

Right, radio protocol... Something they hadn't bothered with for years and years.

“Sure thing,” he grumbled to the silent channel.

Thousands of darts swarmed out of the hives, combining into clouds and streams of tiny ships, and headed straight for the planet, well out of reach of John's drones, even if he had had any to spare. It almost physically hurt to let them go uncontested. His kids and Mitchell's people were outnumbered ten to one down there. They were going to take losses. Big losses.

It wasn't an unfamiliar situation, he told himself. They had always been outnumbered and outgunned, and they had pulled through. But, he knew, every single one of these kids he lost hurt like hell. He'd seen them grow up, he'd personally trained a lot of them. They would have been farmers, hunters, not fighter pilots, without him. Most days, he was so painfully proud of them he considered it a decent enough trade. Those, however, were never the days he had to send them out to fight and, as likely as not, die. It didn't matter that every single one of them had volunteered, that they preferred to go down fighting the Wraith rather than be helplessly culled, and it certainly didn't help his peace of mind that they damn near worshipped the ground he walked on.

He had no way to help them right now. He had to trust in their skill, in their luck, in their ability to take care of themselves. It didn't come easy.

He waited... and waited, hands itching on the controls, but the hives needed to be close enough for the Earth fleet to hit them from the side, for the chair to hit them from below. They came straight for him, in perfect formation. Just a bit more... just a tiny bit...

And then they were in the zone that had been designated the attack zone, and John woke the Cyrinius.

The engines burned to life, a quiet, almost unnoticeable rumble that ran through the ship. The shield went up, and he launched the drone batteries, throwing the first salvo at the front hive, charging in behind the drones to get in range for their Wraith weapons. Of course, that brought them into range of the hives' weapons themselves.

Things, as usual in battles, became very chaotic after that. The Earth ships rose over the rim of the planet, pale blue beams stabbing at the right most hive, supported by yellow ones from their allies. A swarm of drones rose from the planet to arc into the hive at the bottom of the formation.

John gave it everything he had.

Come on, come on...! he thought. If the damn thing would just explode...! Return fire hit them, scorched along the cap and made the shield glow.

It took long seconds, minutes, of constant bombardment, minutes in which the other hives were free to move, to act, to get into position, but finally, finally, the first hive shuddered, cracked, gouts of flame shooting out, fed for a second by the escaping atmosphere, and exploded.

When the debris and the overloaded sensors cleared, three more were bearing down on him, and one of the Goualud ships was turning into a fireball. And the drones from the surface had stopped, leaving their hive damaged but still in fighting condition.

***

“Oh for...!” Jack sat up as the chair informed him that he didn't have enough power to fire another salvo of drones just when he was about to finally blow that hive ship to kingdom come. “CARTER!”

“On it, Sir!”

Carter, Jonas and that creepy Lannik kid were bustling around (well, Lannik wasn't bustling, he was moving with the efficient calmness of a robot), removing the weakly glowing ZPM, stuffing cables down panels. They were efficient, they were fast, but they still took too long for Jack's liking, because up there, Sheppard and their most important defence were about to be history, and things were not going well. Where was McKay with that damn ZPM, anyway?!

He activated the chair again as soon Carter gave him the okay, and nearly winced at the surges and lags in power. But no matter, he had to get drones up there.

Chapter Text

There was a huge bolt of searing white, and then the jumper jerked, groaned and shuddered. Rodney grabbed hold of the console in reflex, even though the inertial dampeners were working just fine. His eyes, however, stayed on his tablet.

“That's it!” he yelled to Stackhouse. “We've got enough, get us out of here! That thing just jolted the ZPM up seven percent!”

“That's great, McKay. It also killed navigation!”

Rodney blinked, then looked at the HUD and out at the clouds. They were trundling down towards the ocean, spinning and weaving in the wind.

“Oh fucking hell!”

“You can say that again!” Stackhouse was frantically pushing buttons, to no visible effect. Rodney tossed the tablet aside and scrambled under the console.

“Please, please, please be something I can fix from in here!” he muttered as he pulled panels open, visually checked over fibrous wires and control crystals. “Aha!”

A crystal had cracked, nothing more, nothing serious, they had a few spares.

“Hurry up!”

“Yes, yes...” Rodney pulled the fragments out, fumbled a handful of spares out of his tac vest, selected the right one, standard conductor crystal, nothing more than a hub for the wires, and shoved it in the slot.

“Oh thank God and all the Ancestors!” Stackhouse exclaimed and Rodney assumed it had really been that easy.

Stackhouse had already gunned it back towards the gate when Rodney climbed back into his seat, he saw from the HUD, the ocean a white-capped, lead-coloured spread beneath them. A few seconds more, and they would have hit that. He retrieved the tablet and checked the time, then swore again.

“Can't you go any faster?! The Wraith'll be at Earth in fifteen minutes!”

“I know, McKay! I'm going as fast as I can!”

“But we'll never make it to the gate in time at this speed!”

“I know!”

Rodney groaned and leaned back in his chair, hugging his tablet to his chest, and prayed to whoever might or might not be listening that Sheppard could make it for ten minutes without them.

***

They exited the Stargate to find people rushing around, Landry barking orders, the radio channels full of terse military codes and frantic yelling.

“Doctor, do you have the ZPM?” Landry asked into the microphone to the embarkation room, bushy brows lowered as if daring Rodney to respond in the negative.

“Yes, yes, I've got it! 53 percent power,” Rodney answered, then flung himself out of the chair to smack the bulkhead door open. He pried the lid of the recharge unit open, and there, nesting amidst insulation and silvery wires, was the ZPM, glowing a beautiful, mild yellow. He extracted it and found the crystal in perfect condition, not a chip or scorch mark on it, slightly warm to the touch as working ZPMs always were.

“It worked,” he whispered to himself. Only now that he held the ZPM in his hands did he really dare to believe it, dare to contemplate the dizzying possibilities that suddenly opened out to them. They had plenty of dead ZPMs. If they could recharge them... a handful of dead, useless crystals suddenly turned into a source of nearly unlimited power. With this... with this, they might have the first real chance at eventually beating the Wraith for good they'd ever had.

“McKay, stand by for beaming. The Daedalus is going to beam you over to Antarctica.”

He clutched ZPM and tablet to his chest.

“Go ahead!”

Moments and a disembodied feeling later, he was standing in the underground cavern, decorative arches overhead and ice glinting in the white fluorescent lights. He turned around once on his heels to orient himself, then sprinted to the blue glow of the chair.

“Move it, move it!” he yelled at an astonished Carter, who was just taking her hand off her radio.

“That was fast...” she commented even as she started to move towards the chair.

“Yes. Here, take this. Fifty-three percent, should be plenty. Give me the other one! How much remaining?”

“Nine point five percent,” Carter informed him as she took the charged ZPM from him with careful, almost reverent hands.

“It'll be enough to make a difference for the Cyrinius,” Rodney said, taking it from Lannik. He keyed his radio. “Can you beam me up on board the Cyrinius?”

“Negative, Doctor,” Caldwell's voice came over the radio. There was a rumble in the background. “Our beam can't penetrate her shield. We'll beam you back to the SGC, you'll have to go with the jumper. Commander Stackhouse is standing by.”

“Fine, fine, get on with it!”

There might have been a comment from Caldwell, but Rodney didn't hear it any more as he was demolecularized again.

He landed in the middle of the gate room again. The jumper was waiting for him, ramp open. He ran in, threw himself back into the chair he'd vacated not five minutes ago, and they were off, flying up the long shaft of the old rocket silo.

“What's happening here?” he panted at Stackhouse, assuming the man had been brought up to speed. Stackhouse didn't disappoint.

“The hives arrived later than expected, but they launched darts practically immediately. They've headed for the planet right away, and they're breaking through the defences everywhere. The first reports of cullings just came in. The Cyrinius has destroyed one hive already, O'Neill's back to working on the second as we speak.”

They shot out of the mountain into a bright Colorado afternoon.

“The Commander's doing some creative flying, but hasn't had an opportunity to seriously target another hive. They've concentrated on the Cyrinius a few minutes ago. Good news is that that buys the Earth ships some breathing space, they need it. Bad news is, the Commander really needs that ZPM, and we'll need at least ten minutes to get it to him, even though the Cyrinius is flying to meet us.”

They were rising rapidly, but there was no telling whether it would be rapid enough.

Then there was a whine, a whine the exact pitch of which had long-since burned itself into Rodney's brain, his very bones, in all it's modulations and nuances, the sort of whine nightmares were made out of in Pegasus, and the HUD sprang to life, showing the approach of a red dot, a blue one hard on its heels. A Wraith dart and one of theirs in pursuit.

Stackhouse, not changing off the course that would take them to the Cyrinius, opened the jumper's drone batteries, and sent a twin formation of spinning lights at the Wraith dart. Their own veered away, flipped over backwards to head the way it came, rolling right side up again as it sped away. The Wraith tried to avoid the drones with a quick starboard roll, but the drones followed and turned it into a ball of flame and debris.

They passed a few wisps of clouds, headed through the thinning atmosphere towards space. Rodney engaged the shield against the atmospheric friction, then switched to cloak as soon as they had cleared the atmosphere.

The battle was raging up here, spread out over a scale that was only possible in space. Off in front and slightly to the right, approximately over the North pole, the three Earth ships and two of the Goa'uld ships of their allies were harassing one hive, darting at it from all sides, weapons blasting, like sparrows attacking a hawk. The hive was too large and ponderous to turn fast enough to fend all the attacks off, but Rodney saw the shield of one of the Earth ships glow and flicker alarmingly when it caught a few blasts of return fire before diving out of the way.

A flash of light to the far left, almost below them, caught Rodney's attention, and he looked to see the last of the flame vanish as debris slowly drifted away, some out into space, some caught by the planet's gravity. A few lone drones whizzed through the debris field, changing course to impact with another hive ship. A hive ship that was part of a formation of three moving and firing after the Cyrinius, which was heading straight for them, shield glowing, scorch marks and gouges on the cap, smoke and debris trailing behind her. Relief and worry warred inside Rodney. Relief at the fact that the Cyrinius was still intact, that John and their people were alive, and worry at the amount of damage she had already taken. John needed that ZPM, desperately. The shield wouldn't last much longer. From the damage to the front of the ship, Rodney was guessing that he'd already intentionally conserved shield-strength by taking damage there.

“Hurry!” he urged Stackhouse, and got a dark glare in return.

“I am.”

“Yes, yes...” Rodney trailed off, eyes on the Cyrinius, heading their way fast, but still seeming so far away. At least O'Neill was getting good use out of the ZPM down on the planet, salvoes of drones, hundreds of them, ripping into that one flanking hive. The hive was starting to break out of the formation, swinging around to avoid the drones, to head towards their source, but it was too slow, and Rodney didn't think it likely that it would actually get into reach of the outpost.

Then the Cyrinius suddenly loomed large, and Rodney disabled the cloak so John could actually pick them up on the sensors. The ship slowed it's approach, and Rodney winced as the shield immediately flashed with two more hits.

Stackhouse gunned it for the dart bay doors. The dark walls swallowed them up. They had to wait precious seconds as the decompression chamber re-pressurized around them before they could enter the dart bay itself. Usually, Rodney barely noticed the short wait, usually it was just a matter of routine, but today he wished it didn't take so damn long to fill the tunnel with oxygen, today he wished space travel wasn't such an enormous pain in the ass at every turn.

The inner bay doors finally opened, and the jumper whizzed through, swooping through the cavernous room to come to a stop mere metres before the transporter. Rodney was already in the back, hand on the controls for the hatch. Another three endless seconds, seconds in which the Cyrinius rumbled and shivered with the far-off impact of Wraith fire, and then he sprinted down the ramp before it had quite touched down, ran over to the transporter and flicked the point of light to the bridge.

He took the corner a bit too sharply and pushed off a wall with his shoulder, ZPM cradled to his chest, and barged into the room at a full run. He sort of slid the last few feet to the chair, blue light enveloping John, eyes closed and a frown of concentration on his face, as he played tag with the Wraith. Rodney yanked the cover off the shield controls, congratulating himself that he'd had the foresight to build the Cyrinius from the very start to operate on ZPM power when available in a fit of completely unreasonable optimism. He pushed the ZPM down into the slot, gave it a last press with his palm to slide it into place, and abruptly sat back on his ass next to the chair, panting for breath. He waved Doctor Biro away as she made moves to come over and check him out, his eyes fixed on the data on the screen. Shield strength flashed back to a hundred percent, and he breathed a sigh of relief. John was breaking, swinging to meet the hives pursuing him.

“About time, Rodney,” he said, snarky as always, and Rodney gave him a dark glare that was mostly for show. The fact that Sheppard could talk, that his eyes were open, his head turned to look at Rodney, showed him that they weren't in quite as much danger of blowing up any more.

“Well, excuse me if I can't wave a magic wand and wish ZPMs fully charged.” Then something else in all the data scrolling over the screen caught his attention. “There's darts over Vancouver!? What are they doing there?”

“Yes, there are,” Sheppard said tensely. “The defences over the areas of dense population unfortunately mean they're looking for easier targets.” He looked at Rodney again.

“Go, Rodney. We've got the ZPM, we can handle things here. Stackhouse hasn't left yet, he can take you back down.”

“But...”

Go, Rodney! See if you can find her.”

Rodney got to his feet, hesitating for another moment. “But...”

“GO!” It was sharp, it was an order, and Rodney found himself moving almost before he realized what he was doing. It wasn't quite fair, there were other people on board the Cyrinius who had family down there, who didn't get to check on them personally. Not all that many, though, Rodney had to acknowledge, and all of them had vital functions to perform, while he had done his heroic deed for the day. The rest of his science team was still down there, helping at the SGC and the Antarctica outpost, a few were pilots, and the rest was here on the bridge. A good eighty percent of their crew were Pegasus natives, and most of the surviving members of the original expedition, most of those who were from Earth, were still home in Lantis.

Barely three minutes later, he was back in the jumper, for the third time today, after a quick jog down the halls, not the neck-breaking dash from before.

Stackhouse grunted upon seeing him.

“Don't go getting ideas, McKay. I'm not your personal chauffeur.”

Rodney just rolled his eyes and dropped into his seat.

“So, Vancouver, is it?”

“Yes. You have a problem with that?”

“As long as there's Wraith there to shoot, no.”

“Oh, there will be, trust me.”

Stackhouse gave him one of his insanity-tinged bright grins.

“Oh goody. Off we go then, doc.”

***

Jeannie stared at the... creature in her hallway. It was... it was like nothing she'd ever seen, it was like something out of a nightmare. It was something that shouldn't, couldn't exist. Yet there it was, regarding them with cold, predatory glee, its face just human enough to show its pleasure. Jeannie pressed Maddie behind her, pressed herself close to Kaleb, and tried to understand why the world had just turned into Wells' War of the Worlds.

The day had started out perfectly normal, perfectly ordinary, apart from the jets that still flew by regularly. And then, just after one, just after lunch, ordinary had ceased to exist.

Suddenly, the weather forecast had been interrupted by live footage, live footage from India, where, for lack of a better term, spaceships had appeared out of the sky, descending in large numbers... only to be intercepted by something like planes, small planes that looked unlike any she had ever seen. These planes attacked the grey, pointed ships without hesitation, shooting them with economic precision. While Jeannie had still tried to wrap her mind around the fact that there were spaceships on television, and that someone, somewhere didn't seem to be surprised by their presence, more reports had come in, the reporter almost hysterical with the mind-boggling idea that there were spaceships flying around Earth, and that no, it wasn't an elaborate prank, wasn't a conspiracy theory, was nothing that could just be rationally explained away. For long minutes she sat there, listened to the reports of spaceships, of a stream of golden light shooting out into space from what appeared to be Antarctica, listened to hobby astronomers telling about the flashes of light beyond the atmosphere, of showers of something burning up in the atmosphere; debris from an explosion in space?, the reporter dared to speculate, listened to the sighting of people vanishing in a bright beam of light when the grey ships came too close.

She couldn't really believe what she was seeing. Some part of her mind still insisted that this was some huge hoax, even as the reports, the footage looked frighteningly real. Then she heard a high-pitched, mechanical whine. Almost against her will, torn between curiosity, incredulity and fear like she had never known, she went to the kitchen window.

There was one of those grey ships outside, in the bright afternoon sky. It was fast, zooming by overhead, vanishing behind the house. She saw her neighbour two houses down poke his head out the door, crane his neck. Another two ships flew by, and more doors and windows opened, people sticking their heads out, looks of apprehension and confusion on their faces. Her neighbour came outside, stepped down from his porch to see better.

A ship came up the street, much lower than the others, only metres above the roofs of the houses, and just as Jeannie thought to shout a warning, a bright beam of light engulfed her neighbour... and he was gone. Faint, startled cries sounded in the quiet of the afternoon. The ship that had vanished her neighbour pulled up... and another descended on it, looking utterly identical, and opened fire. There was an explosion, and flaming debris rained down on Jeannie's street while the other ship pulled away, suddenly pursued by yet another ship. All was quiet again as the whine of the engines faded in the distance. A piece of debris was smouldering in her tulips.

That was the beginning. The quiet only lasted for a minute or two, and then more ships came, fighting each other, and then, instead of taking people away, the beams brought creatures, and a jeep full of soldiers came careening around the corner, the very same corner one had vanished around days ago. Then there was fighting in the street, shots and screams, and Jeannie ran to see where Kaleb and Maddie were, unsure what the best thing to do was. Run away? But from the TV it was the same everywhere, images still flickering across it, now showing those creatures moving through the streets as well, and soldiers, and burning buildings, screaming, running, panicked people.

She had just found Kaleb and Maddie, had just wanted to discuss with her husband what to do, Maddie's hand clutched in her own, when something crashed against their front door. They froze, turning to look at it. Another blow, wood cracking and splintering, and another, and the door broke out of its frame to reveal one of the creatures, pointed fangs bared in a hungry grin.

Chapter Text

It entered the house, surveying them leisurely as it took first one step, then another. Jeannie frantically tried to think of something to do.

There was a loud, sharp noise, like a car back-firing, and a second, and a third. The creature turned.

A man was standing in their doorway, clad in black just like the creature. He was pointing a gun at the being, eyes narrow and broad mouth down-turned in a grim line.

Jeannie blinked, and blinked again, because this... this couldn't be. This was impossible, even more impossible than spaceships and inhuman creatures with grey skin and pointed fangs and yellow eyes.

The gun fired again, rocking the creature, which turned with a snarl.

No!, Jeannie wanted to shout, because impossible or not, she didn't think it was a good idea for this man who looked like her brother to go up against this thing, whatever it was, with a single gun. The shots so far didn't seem to have bothered it much.

“Yeah, come on, you mother-fucking bug spawn,” the man growled, taking a step back, out of the house again. “Come and get me.”

The creature cocked its head, turned all the way around. Jeannie could just make out the retreating form of the man over its shoulder.

The creature hissed, a long, rolling sound that made shivers run up Jeannie's back. The man opened his mouth and hissed back, retreating another step, down the porch steps.

The creature sped up, striding after the man with purpose, apparently not in the least impressed by the gun still aimed at it's chest. It had just started to descend the porch steps when the man suddenly moved to the side, dropping in a roll off the garden path, yelling “Go!” even as his shoulders hit the grass of the front lawn.

The air seemed to waver, and then there was a ship hovering in the air, round and dark green. Jeannie could make out the vague outline of a man through the glass of the wind-shield. The creature froze for a moment, and then there was a hum, a short yellow streak and an explosion that shook the house, throwing her back against the wall of the hall way, sliding down as she struggled for balance. Dirt and bits of painted wood sprayed everywhere in front of her door. The house creaked and groaned as the front of the porch was just gone. So was the creature.

While she still blinked, realizing she was hugging Maddie close, dragging her down even as she almost fell on her butt, the man scrambled to his feet, much less elegantly then he had dived to the ground. His eyes were on her, hands tucking away the gun in a holster at his thigh without even looking, and he started to run towards them.

He really did look like her brother. If her brother were a gun-toting, black-leather wearing, muscle-bound... something. The face was familiar, the pale blue of his eyes, the pinched look around his mouth. The size was right, the broad shoulders, the compact stature. His hairline was further back than she remembered, grey touching the edges, and there were lines around the corners of his lips and eyes. Gone was the slight softness around his middle, the promise of future over-weight.

But it was impossible. Her brother was dead. They had said so, years ago, that he died in some sort of lab accident, something bad, not even a body left to recover. And her brother... her brother was the last person who would carry a gun, would know how to use a gun. Her brother wouldn't barge in and shoot at fang-bristling, dangerous... aliens. Yes, she'd thought it, aliens. Her brother was a scientist, a theoretician, at home in labs, in front of computers, with variables and numbers and mathematical puzzles, as far away from the 'real world' as possible, so far he found even basic human interaction too messy to handle.

He scrambled up the destroyed porch, a more familiar, wide-eyed, vaguely hunted look on his face now, rather than the grim determination from earlier.

“Well, come on! What are you waiting for!? We have to get out of here!”

“...Meredith?” And he winced, winced just like her brother would when he heard the name he found endlessly embarrassing. “But... how...? What...? They said... they said you were dead!”

He had almost reached her and waved a hand at her in that way of his. “Yes, yes, I know. No time! Later!”

He gripped her arm, pulled her towards the door, and she looked into that face, from less than a foot away, and that was him, it was him. He blinked at her, something briefly flickering in his face, something like pain, like regret, like compassion, but then it was gone again, and he pulled at her arm with a grip that was strong. She stumbled forward, then looked down at Maddie, whose hand she was still holding tightly. Her daughter was pale, shaking, blue eyes huge.

“Mum,” she said, sounding much younger than her eleven years, “Mum, what's going on?”

“I don't... I don't know, honey.”

“Evil people-eating aliens are attacking Earth, and we have to get out of here before they send reinforcements, so move!” Meredith said and made a shooing gesture.

“And you are...?” Kaleb wanted to know, frowning.

Meredith glared. “I'm the guy who just saved your ass, and who's gonna pull a gun on you if you don't get that ass in gear!” he snapped, yanking at Jeannie's arm again.

“Meredith!”

He turned that glare at her, and her mouth snapped shut over her scandalized lecture. “Not now!”

She was so surprised that she put up no more resistance as they half-ran towards the door. Meredith unceremoniously lifted Maddie down the ruined porch, completely ignoring her surprised squeak. He jumped down himself, then gave Jeannie and Kaleb a hand down. Then he herded them towards the round, green ship that had landed in their front lawn, back facing them. Meredith hit something on the side, and a hatch lowered with an electronic whirr. He jogged up the ramp before it had even settled on the grass, throwing back an impatient look when they hesitated a moment before following him.

Inside was a pretty large, empty room, thick wires leading to some form of metallic canister mounted in the middle of the floor. Meredith waved them through to the cockpit, indicating two large, comfortable looking chairs in the second row, dropping himself into the left over one in the front row. Jeannie sat hesitantly, pulling Maddie onto her lap while Kaleb took the other chair with the same apprehension.

The pilot swivelled around and gave them a bright grin. Jeannie was taken aback for a moment by the gruesome burn scars on one side of his otherwise handsome face. If he noticed her stare, he didn't show it. “First Commander Jason Stackhouse,” he introduced himself.

“Je... Jeannie Miller. My husband, Kaleb, and my daughter, Madison.”

“Pleasure to meet y'all, ma'am, sir,” his smile brightened another fraction, “little lady.”

Maddie blushed and curled a bit tighter to Jeannie, but hesitantly smiled back.

Meredith gave a snort. “Oh, cut it out. You sound like a creepy paedophile.”

Commander Stackhouse rolled his eyes.

“Just trying to put the civilians at ease. How'd you come by a sister this pretty and polite, anyways?” Meredith looked up from whatever he was doing with the controls in front of him to glare at the man. “She's married. I swear, if you make a move on her, I'll shoot you. Besides, aren't ten brats of your own enough?”

The pilot chuckled while he pressed a couple of buttons and the ship lifted off the ground with a quiet hum. “Ooh, touchy. You're just jealous.”

Meredith snorted again. “Hardly. Get us up there so we can kill some Wraith, would you?”

Stackhouse grinned another broad grin. “Yes, Sir, at once, Sir!” He mimed a snappy salute with his free right hand. Meredith rolled his eyes.

As they rose above the roofs of the neighbours' houses, a translucent display suddenly appeared on the wind shield. Maddie made a startled little sound, and Jeannie gave her an absent, reassuring hug, while she stared herself. There was writing in strange, bulky letters, a few graphs, and a large window with a grid that showed several bright points of light, many red, some blue, all moving.

“Off we go,” commented the pilot quietly, and they turned, houses and sky whirling by, before they shot off. There was no sense of motion, other than what Jeannie's eyes were telling her. And her eyes were telling her that at the speed they were moving, she should definitely feel something.

She forgot all about that, however, when they were suddenly in the middle of a battle. The dots on the screen, she surmised, were other ships, though by which principle they were coloured she couldn't tell.

Stabs of light fell by the window, just barely missing them as the ship swung out of the way at the last moment, then whirling dots of yellow shot by on their left, then climbed in a steep curve, and there was the sound of an explosion somewhere close overhead before bits of debris rained past them.

Jeannie wanted to ask so many questions, but she didn't quite dare to distract either Meredith or Commander Stackhouse from whatever they were doing, since this was clearly a life-or-death situation. So she sat quietly, and tried not to whimper in fear when shots missed them by inches, when they almost rammed a pointed grey ship, when Commander Stackhouse spun them around in dizzying manoeuvres.

They were chasing one of the alien ships up, and up, and, Christ, how high could they go, when another ship swung in towards them from the left and kept pace with them for a few heartbeats. It was one of those small planes she had seen earlier on TV. Now, from this close up, she could see through the glass top, see the helmet and oxygen face-mask, leaving just the eyes visible of the pilot's face. Still, the other pilot seemed to be smiling, waving and giving them a thumbs-up. Stackhouse returned the signal, then the plane veered off, and Stackhouse flew into a bank of clouds. Greyness enveloped them for a moment, then they broke free again to brilliant sunshine. The now familiar streak of yellow shot past them and hit the alien ship just before they would have collided with it.

They were alone for a moment, flying in a broad curve above a carpet of fluffy white. Maddie was leaning forwards a bit, craning her head to stare out the window with big eyes. It was quiet, the electric hum of the ship, the creak of leather when Meredith or Commander Stackhouse moved, their breaths in the small space the only sounds.

Then Meredith yelled “Darts on our six!”, startling her badly just as she had started to relax a fraction. Her eyes went to the translucent display to see three red dots, from the looks of it behind them. There were several muted impacts, and their little ship shivered.

“Fuck!” Commander Stackhouse cursed, frantically pressing buttons. They were climbing again, leaving the clouds behind. “Where'd they come from?!”

“How would I know?!” Meredith snapped back.

“And here I thought you knew everything, Doc,” Stackhouse retorted with sarcasm thick in his voice, even as one of the dots vanished and the boom of another explosion filtered inside.

“Hard to believe, yes, I know, considering the extend of my genius, but even I'm not all-knowing. But I would venture a theory that either some of our sensors were damaged earlier, or they snuck up in our blind spot!”

“You mean those god-damn bugfaces finally figured out there is a blind spot?!”

Another shudder ran through their ship.

“Well, it looks just like it, doesn't it?” Meredith retorted sharply.

“Oh damn the Ancestors!”

“Yes, yes, I'll figure something out if we live long enough, now shoot those darts!”

“I'm trying, McKay!” Commander Stackhouse sounded frazzled and aggravated, even as they veered to the side and down, the clouds suddenly reappearing to swallow up the wind shield at a crazy angle. They rolled by, too fast for Jeannie to follow exactly what kind of manoeuvre this was, and when the world righted itself again, they were behind the two ships, both of which were already in the process of veering and turning themselves.

“Die, bitch!” Stackhouse growled, hitting a button. The 'dart' on their left exploded just as they were flying by, smoke and flame flashing before the wind shield for a moment, while the Commander was already hot on the heels of the other one which was veering left and right, up and down, to lose them.

They were skimming along the top of the clouds again when suddenly, another two darts shot out of the clouds, one after another, going straight up. Jeannie had barely time to register their existence before the two darts in front, the two that were being chased, collided at full speed, instantly turning into one huge fireball. They veered, but the backlash of the explosion caught them and Jeannie felt the ship tremble and shudder with it, sky and clouds tumbling by.

“Oh not again!” Commander Stackhouse cried, dismayed. “McKay! Navigation's out again!”

“Oh not again!” Meredith repeated, and scrambled out of his chair, down beneath his console and carelessly ripped a panel off. Jeannie craned her neck, curious to see the internal workings of this strange ship.

There were strands and bundles of fine, white fibres, interspersed with crystals and bronze and blue metal.

“Oh, no, no, no!” Meredith moaned.

Jeannie swallowed. “What...” She spoke up hesitantly, “what happened?”

“The explosion knocked navigation out,” Commander Stackhouse replied absently. He turned to look at her over his shoulder. “We're falling.”

“Like a stone,” Meredith commented grimly as he hurriedly climbed back to his feet, ripping another panel off the wall. “Power readings?”

“Normal,” Commander Stackhouse reported without missing a beat. “Navigational controls are just not responding.”

Clouds washed by the window, and Jeannie realized that they were, indeed, falling. She swallowed.

Maddie's fists twisted the fabric of her dress with their tight grip.

“Are... are you saying, we're...” Kaleb spoke up, trailing off, and Jeannie looked over to see her husband's white face, huge, dark, terrified eyes.

“We're what?” Meredith snapped, a flat, square black device with a screen in his arm, poking at the wires in the open panel with something like a thin pen, connected to the device with a wire.

“We're going to... die?”

“Possibly.” Meredith's tone was short, impatient, as he stared at his screen with a frown of concentration on his face. “Unless I can fix this. Of course, first I have to find out what's wrong in the first place.”

He hurried towards the door, opened it with a slap of his hand to the wall next to it, and dashed through into the rear compartment.

Jeannie turned in her chair to watch him, rather than the last of the clouds passing by the window, proof of how fast they were moving towards the unforgiving surface. The wind was whistling past them.

Meredith yanked open a tray full of crystals overhead and started poking at them.

“Aha!” he declared triumphantly after a moment, knelt, put his device aside, and pried one of the metal grilles on the floor loose. His arms vanished up to his elbows into the hole as he rooted around. A moment later, the soft hum of the engines started up again.

“There! That should've done it.”

“Good work, Doc! We're back in business.” Jeannie chanced a look at the window, her heart still hammering in her chest, and yes, they were rising again, the clouds coming closer. She wished they would land, though. What if this happened again? She just wanted to be back where she had solid, non-threatening ground beneath her feet.

“We're not, I'm afraid,” Meredith announced, staring into the hole. “This jumper's a mess. The lightning did more damage then I'd hoped. We'll have to replace half the crystals in here before this thing is safe to fly again. It's not just navigation, it's shield controls, life-support, inertial dampeners... You better get us up to the Cyrinius before something else fails.”

“Understood, Doc. Pity. We still have a few dozen drones left.”

Meredith snorted as he climbed back to his feet, laying the grille back into place.

“You never know, we might need them up there,” he said, almost flippantly, and made his way back to his chair. He caught her eye when he sat down, and frowned.

“What?” he asked, something that sounded almost like suspicion in his voice.

“What do you mean, what?” Jeannie couldn't help it, this tone was so much like her brother, she fell immediately back into old patterns of fraternal sniping. “We just almost died!”

He raised his eyebrows at her, all old, condescending Meredith. “We've almost died a dozen times today. And it's not as if anyone's safe before we get rid of the rest of the hives up there.”

“The what?”

He blinked at her, then waved his hand vaguely. “Oh, right. The hive ships, the ships in which the evil aliens came here. There's still four of them up there, and this won't be over until they're destroyed.”

“Mer... what exactly is going on here? And... and where were you? They said you were dead!”

“Yes, I know. It's a long story,” he answered, a slight, thoughtful frown on his face, and again, that look briefly flickered through his eyes, that pained look she had seen back at the house. It was... it was the most grown-up expression she could ever remember seeing on his face. For all his scientific brilliance, Mer had always been emotionally immature, awkward, full of insecurities and offence at something that refused to come easily to him, something that refused to be orderly and governed by clear rules. Even worse, it was something everyone else had much less trouble with than he did, he, who found all these other things people called difficult quite easy to understand.

She loved her brother, she really did, but she didn't always like him. He didn't make it easy to like him, either, with his arrogance, his temper, his sense of entitlement, with the quickness with which he discounted other people as stupid and not worth his time.

But that had been then, before she had lost him for ten years, and now... and now it was all just too much, too much at once, and she didn't know what she thought or felt.

“So what, you're not going to tell me?” she asked, hurt and frustrated and upset. She saw him wince slightly.

“No, no. It's just really a long story, and I'd really rather tell it without the threat of imminent death hanging over our heads.”

“Er, McKay...” Commander Stackhouse spoke up. “Non-disclosure agreements...?”

Rodney turned to him with a snort, but Jeannie could make out the relief as he could move back into his comfort zone, back into an argument.

“Oh, please! As if they could keep this,” he waved a hand vaguely into the direction of the ground, “covered up! Really, it's a wonder this didn't happen sooner, but this time it's gonna blow the whole thing wide open.”

Stackhouse grimaced. “S'pose you're right. God, it's going to be a mess.” He slanted a look at Meredith. “Think we can piss off before the shit hits the fan?”

“Unlikely. We've got orders to play nice, remember? There's going to be meetings... talks... the whole nine yards.”

Stackhouse groaned. “Give me something to kill any day. Am I glad I'm not in charge. The Commander's gonna hate it.”

“Is he ever. He'd rather go kill something, too, I'm sure. Hell, we'll be lucky if he doesn't shoot anyone. I wish we could let Teyla handle this. She's good at this nonsense!”

Jeannie was only half-listening to the conversation, staring out the window as they flew higher and higher. The brilliant sunlight was fading, the blue of the sky losing colour.

“Where are we going?” Kaleb asked, a mix of wonder and fear strong in his voice.

“Didn't I mention spaceships?” Mer asked condescendingly. “I'm sure I mentioned spaceships. So, obviously, we're going to where you find spaceships.” He pointed forwards. “In space.”

“You have a spaceship?” Maddie asked hesitantly. “A real spaceship?”

Meredith turned to her, and instead of the bewilderment or disgust Jeannie expected from him at facing a child, there was a small smile on his face.

“Yes, we have a real spaceship. We built it ourselves, too. It's beautiful.”

“Wow. And we can really go there? Aren't we going to freeze to death? Or suffocate?”

“As long as our life-support doesn't short out, we won't. And as long as we don't lose our shield. Or we get shot. And as long as the Wraith didn't blow up the ship in the last half hour since I've been there.”

“O-kay,” Maddie said, with all the doubtful scepticism only an eleven-year old could manage. Mer just nodded and pointed out the window.

“We should be able to see what's going on in just a few moments.”

They stared in wonder as the sky before them deepened, through a reddish glow which Jeannie assumed was atmospheric friction on the shield Mer had mentioned. Stars started to appear, growing stronger and stronger. Then the glow of the shield faded and darkness enveloped them, a huge spread of black emptiness, with speckles of light, bright and steady. They were in space. Jeannie could hardly believe they were really in space. Their little ship flew steady, no difference discernible inside even though they were now in a freezing vacuum without gravity.

Commander Stackhouse changed course slightly, and suddenly she saw the battle.

At first, it was just a mass of dark shapes and a chaotic, stroboscopic flickering of flashes of light. It took her a moment to resolve what she was seeing into meaningful units. There were several huge ships engaged in battle, shooting at each other. She had trouble grasping their real size without a frame of reference, without a way to estimate the distance between them and her, but they were frighteningly large, of that much she was sure. They were dark, almost invisible against the black background, apart from the edges and ridges that were illuminated sharply by the distant light of the sun, an achingly bright pinpoint somewhere to the side, and a diffuse, blueish light that she belatedly realised was light reflected off the planet behind her, reflected off Earth. The light of the weapons flickered across them, too, but it did more to distort the contours than to make it clear. And Commander Stackhouse was steering them straight towards that battle.

Chapter Text

Rodney cast a look around and at the HUD, assessing the status of the battle. Two Earth ships and two Goa'uld ships were harassing a hive off to the left, not that far over Earth's atmosphere. Down, way down, towards Antarctica, another hive, badly damaged, was trying to twist out of the way of the drone salvoes coming up from the outpost. If that was the hive O'Neill had started shooting when Rodney had left the Cyrinius earlier, he was surprised it was still intact at all. Then he saw the flash of an explosion, a good distance of the hull, and had his explanation: Darts. The hive was using its darts to intercept the drones before they could hit. The loss of lives must be enormous, but it was not like the Wraith cared. Now Rodney also understood why the salvoes were so intermittend: O'Neill was trying to conserve his drone reserves, only firing when there was an opening in the swarm of darts around the hive. He seemed reasonably successful with it, but it explained why it was slow going.

And up ahead was the Cyrinius. Rodney felt a painful stab in his heart when he saw her. She was a mess. Smoke rose in dozens of places from the cap, whole sections blackened or sheared off. The shield was holding strong, protecting the most vital parts of the ship, but she was fighting two hives which were tag-teaming her, attacking from opposite sides, keeping the Cyrinius in the middle. Sheppard seemed to be trying to break out, heading downwards fast, engines bright, shield flashing with hits. It would probably work, too, the Cyrinius was faster than the ponderous hives, but she certainly wasn't in top condition any more. Rodney just hoped nothing essential was going to break before Sheppard could finish off these hives.

***

They were heading straight up, Stackhouse calling to inform Sheppard about their approach and getting cleared for landing. With the cloak engaged, and the Cyrinius pulling ahead of the hives, conveniently towards them, they managed to slip into the dart bay smoothly. Rodney was just about to breathe a sigh of relief when navigation shorted out again and they dropped the last metre to the floor, sliding to a stop in a tortured screech of metal.

“Everyone okay?” Stackhouse asked, rubbing the wrist he'd used to brace himself against the console. Rodney carefully let go off his own reflexive death grip on the board before him.

“Other than my blood pressure?” he muttered. “Just peachy.” His heart was still hammering, his mind fuzzy with the renewed surge of adrenaline, something which had happened far too often in the last few days. Or weeks. He wasn't quite sure any more. God, he was going to need a holiday when this was over. Sure, they had catastrophes weekly, sometimes daily, at home, but still... the last three weeks, hell, the last three months had been rough even by their standards. Yes, holiday.

He levered himself to his feet, muscles complaining, and checked that their passengers were all right as well. They looked pale and shell-shocked, but otherwise fine, and that would have to do. He needed to be on the bridge, needed to know what was going on, assess the damage... see how John was doing.

***

Jeannie followed her brother, Maddie's hand clutched in her own, Kaleb and Commander Stackhouse bringing up the rear, staring around herself. Even though she was seeing it, felt the smooth floor under her feet, smelled the tang of metal in the air, she couldn't really believe she was really on board of a spaceship. It all felt so unreal, too much had happened in too short a time. She walked through the halls as if in a dream, taking in only bits and pieces: the uneven surface of the walls, the bright gleam of blue, green and grey breaking through the dark surface; the beautiful, delicate stained glass inlay of the little room Meredith led them into, and out of somewhere else just a moment later; the strange writing on the wall, like no script she had ever seen.

After only a few minutes, they arrived at a moderately large room. Like everything she had seen so far, it wasn't very brightly lit, so her eyes were immediately drawn to the centre, to the bright blue glow enveloping a pedestal and a throne-like chair, and the young man reclining in it. His eyes were closed, and he would have appeared asleep if not for the frown of concentration on his face. Dark hair stood out in a sharp, unkempt contrast against his pale skin and the bright, cold light. He wore the same black leather uniform her brother and Commander Stackhouse were wearing. After a moment, she took in the rest of the room and realized that there were many more people there, standing over consoles or in huddled groups, and they all wore that same uniform. The front of the room was dominated by a large screen. A picture of the battle outside was overlaid with a grid, the big ships of the aliens outlined in red, and trajectories traced over the screen, changing as she watched, she assumed in response to new information. That same square writing was running down in columns at the sides and the top of the screen.

Meredith immediately hurried through the room, over to the consoles and the screen, coming to stand beside a man at least a head taller than him, with a mass of dreadlocks and a floor-length black leather coat. Her brother stared at the screen for a moment, and then turned around.

“What are you doing?” he snapped. “There are two hives right behind us! Why are you wasting time turning around? Shoot them!”

“Because,” answered the young man in the chair without opening his eyes, “heck sensor arrays two and three are out, and I can't AIM.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Now shut up and let me work. C'mon, baby... Just a little bit more, just a bit...”

A deep shudder ran through the ship, together with a long rumble. Jeannie clutched at Maddie, and a woman came over to them from a group to the right. She reached out a hand and looked them over gravely.

“You should sit down. Come over here, come along.” Jeannie blinked at her for a moment. The woman made an impatient gesture. “Well, come on, before you fall over and bust your head open.”

Slightly dazed, Jeannie followed, Maddie and Kaleb with her, and let herself be settled on the floor. A hot, steaming cup was pressed into her hands and the woman was shining a light in her eyes, then feeling her pulse for a moment.

“A bit of shock, it seems,” the woman declared, waving imperiously to a young man off at the side, who hurried over and folded a thick blanket over Jeannie's shoulders. Next to her, Kaleb and Maddie were receiving a similar treatment. Another jolt and rumble echoed up through the floor, and Jeannie's eyes flicked to the screen, to see the close-up image of one of the alien ships, bolts of yellow fire flashing at them, return hits striking the surface. The ridged, layered side of the other ship was quickly moving by, rising, looking like a mountain side full of shelves and caves. Then it abruptly stopped and the bottom of the other ships stretched out on the screen.

“Yes!” the man in the chair hissed and streaks and bolts of light headed right for a section in the centre where there seemed to be a slight recess. “Come on, come on...”

Jeannie could feel everyone in the room hold their breath as the firing continued for long minutes, distant rumbles and tremors meanwhile proof that they were still being shot at by the other ship. And then, there were explosions blooming from the point of impact, growing in size and spreading through the ship, breaking it up in moments, and then the screen turned first bright white and then black, the floor jerking and tilting violently. Warm liquid splashed over Jeannie's hands.

“Damn it!” Meredith cursed, pressing things at the console. “That was too close! It overloaded the sensors! We're blind!” He sounded frantic, almost panicked.

“I know, Rodney,” the young man in the chair said, from the long-suffering tone in his voice not sharing Mer's concerns. “They'll recalibrate in a minute.”

“I could run down to the lounge areas, steer you visually...”

“No! No, Rodney, it's too dangerous with the amount of hull damage we've sustained. ZPM levels are still at 6.3 percent, the shield'll hold a few minutes longer.”

Another impact shook the ship.

“You sure of that?” Mer asked pointedly. “Because it sure doesn't feel like it!”

“I'm sure, Rodney. Just give it a few moments, and we'll be back in business.”

“A few moments? Do you know how much damage three hive ships can do in a few moments? And who's the one who's gonna have to piece her back together, huh?” Mer gesticulated wildly with both hands. “Me! Weeks, months of painstaking work, and you shoot her up on her first flight! That is so typical!”

“Rodney...”

“I mean, that is if we don't blow up completely! You know, I was contemplating a holiday, but with the way things are going, I won't be having a holiday for the next ten years!”

“Rodney, shut up.”

It was said almost mildly, and so Jeannie was quite surprised when her brother, whom she'd known to talk over just about everyone and anyone, actually snapped his mouth closed again.

“And here we go,” the young man said. “Sensors are coming back online now.”

Jeannie looked over at the screen, and yes, an image of the space outside appeared there again together with more and more lines of writing.

They moved, the other alien ship coming back into the centre of the screen, outlined in red as previously- and then, dozens of small red dots started blinking into existence.

“Darts!” Meredith yelled. “They've recalled the darts! Long-range sensors indicate they've abandoned the planet's surface almost completely... there's one complement heading for Antarctica! The rest... they're attacking the Earth fleet! And us!” he added as more distant rumbling and shudders travelled through the ship.

“Get in touch with Stargate Command! Get our sensor data down there if they need it, ask whether they need Jinto's kids to defend the outpost or whether we can recall them!”

Meredith started pressing buttons and was soon talking with a General Landry, discussing strategy like he did it every day. For all Jeannie knew, he did, but it was still disturbing to hear her brother throw around military jargon and bark answers and instructions with military efficiency.

Then another explosion lit up the screen, and everyone turned to look. Meredith pressed some more buttons, and showed a field of dispersing debris way downwards. Something that looked like a swarm of yellow lights changed course at an angle and headed for another ship that was being attacked by several smaller ones, a chaotic miasma of fire back and forth, all of it swarming with the small red dots of darts which added their own weapons to the mix. For long moments it was practically impossible to tell what was happening there, then the big alien ship was ripped apart in a series of explosions. The smaller ships immediately started focusing on the darts while the yellow lights stopped all together.

That only left the one ship they were battling. It was hard to see, there were so many darts swarming around it, taking the fire, exploding, being destroyed, but there seemed to be no end of them. Meanwhile, they were being hit again and again.

“ZPM power dropping, only 5.6 percent now, drone reserves running low!” Mer called warningly. “C'mon, Sheppard, what are you doing?!”

“I am trying to finish this hive off, what's it look like, McKay?!”

“Well, get on with it!”

“Just shut up, Rodney! Ronon, focus all fire on these coordinates!”

Cross hairs appeared on the screen, overlaying the side of the other ship, and the tall man at the console grunted. Jeannie saw what they were doing after a moment when the darts failed to throw themselves in the way of all the blasts fast enough, and hits started impacting with the hive ship again.

“Keep at it...”

Damage was starting to become visible on the screen, small pieces of the other ship drifting away. It tried to move back, away, but they followed it, a definite dent appearing, then something more like a crater. Finally, a whole section broke off, and when the next salvo hit, explosions answered from deep within the ship. They kept firing, and slowly, slowly the other ship broke apart completely, into several large pieces.

“Power core!” the young man in the chair yelled, and the weapons' fire swung to the piece that used to be the back of the other ship. A few seconds, a few hits, and it blew up in a gigantic ball of blue light that consumed the other pieces as well.

Their ship rumbled and rattled with the shock wave and then... then there was nothing but debris drifting across the monitor, debris and a steadily decreasing amount of red dots, joined moments later by a lot of blue dots that hunted them down methodically.

There was silence for a moment in the room, and then the young man sat up from the chair, the lights turning off as he scrubbed a hand through his hair with a sigh, staring at the screen.

“We did it...” Mer said disbelievingly. “We did it! We're alive!”

There was a moment of silence, and then suddenly cheering filled the room, people were yelling and whooping and jumping up and down and hugging. The large man next to him was slapping Mer on the back, making him stumble, and then grabbed the young man who'd gotten up from the chair around the middle and swung him in a circle with a bellow. Once he'd been put back on his feet, steadying himself with a hand on a console, that young man locked eyes with Mer for a moment, then he leaned in, took Mer's face in both hands and kissed him soundly on the lips. Jeannie blinked. So did Mer, for a moment, before shoving the man off with a roll of his eyes, a half-grin on his face Jeannie had never seen there before. It wasn't the self-satisfied smirk she was very familiar with, but a complex expression that seemed to be comprised of equal parts amusement, exasperation and self-deprecation. Other than that, he didn't seem bothered by the public display of affection. From a man. Jeannie blinked some more, and added that to the mental stack of questions she had for her brother.

For now, she allowed herself to relax, to really breathe for the first time since she'd turned on the news. And had that really been barely an hour ago? She checked her watch, and yes, it confirmed that not much time at all had passed. Usually, she would just finish up in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, cleaning the counter, and write her shopping list. Instead, she was miles above her planet, in a spaceship, with the brother she hadn't seen in over ten years, whom she'd believed dead, and had just survived a battle with aliens. It sounded so unlikely that she wondered whether she had possibly fallen asleep and was dreaming up all this. The cup in her hands, the blanket around her shoulder, felt real, though. She finally took a careful sip, and unfamiliar flavours burst in her mouth. The liquid was mild and spicy, with a very soft prickle of alcohol, and it warmed her nicely, made her feel more grounded.

The other people in the room were moving around with purpose, relief and elation still visible in their smiles and body language, the young man (what had Mer called him? Sheppard?) taking a seat in the chair again. They exchanged messages, Jeannie assumed with the other ships, in English and in a foreign, melodious language, and the number of red dots on the screen shrunk until they were all gone.

People stirred and started to leave the room, and Mer, Sheppard following behind, came over to where Jeannie and her family where huddled in their blankets on the floor. She quickly got to her feet, Kaleb and Maddie following suit.

“Hi,” the young man said, giving her a charming smile that was barely hampered by the stubble on his chin and the dark shadows under his eyes. “you must be Jeannie, right?” He bowed his head slightly. “Supreme Commander John Sheppard. Welcome aboard the Cyrinius.”

“Stop that, that's my sister you're talking to! And she's married!” Mer snapped.

“I'm just saying hello!” Sheppard retorted, tone injured.

“Yeah, right!” Mer glared at him with narrow eyes, then added something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like “Kirk!”, but surely that couldn't be right...? Sheppard, in any case, just rolled his eyes at her brother and turned back to her.

“We'll be flying down to the planet for debriefing with the powers that be. We can drop you off at home if you'd like to.” He included Kaleb and Maddie with a gaze and a smile in the offer.

“That would be great...” Jeannie replied hesitantly, her eyes going to Mer. “But... what is going on here?” She frowned at her brother. “Are you going to explain?”

To her surprise, Mer looked at Sheppard, clearly waiting for his nod of permission before answering.

“I'll tell you in the jumper on the way down. Come on, let's get moving. The sooner we go, the sooner we can get this debriefing business over with and I can get some sleep. God, I think I don't even remember what a bed looks like.”

“Agreed,” Sheppard said and proceeded them out the door.

This time, they met dozens of people in the corridors, most of them wearing the same uniform Sheppard and Mer were wearing, all busily heading this way and that, carrying tools and equipment, and more than one stretcher with a young man or woman on it, unconscious or eyes glazed with pain, bleeding and battered. Everyone pressed to the walls to let these through. Jeannie tried not to look too closely at the injuries, because some of them were horrific.

The large cavernous room where Commander Stackhouse had landed was now also filled with people, and lots and lots of ships, the far doors opening just as they arrived to admit another one, one that looked just like the dart ships that had made her neighbour vanish. There were scorch marks along its side and it landed with an undignified thump and slide. People rushed over as a canopy on top vanished and a young man started to climb out with exhaustion written in every movement, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. He saw them, and made his way over as they crossed through the room. Up close, he seemed to be about the same age as Sheppard, with brown hair and blue eyes, and a grave expression. Sheppard and he had a short conversation in that foreign language, Sheppard gesticulating at one of the jumpers and then at them, so Jeannie assumed he was informing the other young man of their plans.

“Jinto!” someone shouted, and yet another dark-haired man around the same age rushed up to them. He grabbed Jinto's arm and talked to him in a rush, urgently. Jinto looked once at Sheppard, received a nod, and set off after the other at a sprint.

“What was that about?” Jeannie quietly asked Mer as Sheppard turned and started walking towards one of the jumpers again.

“Marta was hurt badly,” he explained sombrely. “Dr Biro's not sure whether she'll make it, she's in surgery right now. Jinto, Wex and her are... very close.”

Jeannie raised her eyebrows at the short pause, but didn't ask further.

The jumper Sheppard led them to looked just like the other one from the outside, but inside there were benches along the walls, crates stacked underneath them, and nets bulging with equipment under the ceiling. There was also no strange, metal cylinder in the middle of the floor. Mer and Sheppard both picked up vests with a lot of pockets at the front from the seats and slipped them on on their way to the cockpit where they settled into the seats with an air of long familiarity. Jeannie and Kaleb exchanged a look, then took the other two seats after a moment of hesitation. Jeannie saw Mer reach into a pocket and pull out a slim metal cylinder. He clicked it, then stuck it between his lips with a sigh of relief.

“Okay,” he said, swivelling his chair around as Sheppard lifted the jumper off the ground and slowly flew it towards the exit. “What do you want to know?”

“Well, for one... where were you for the last ten years? They said you died, in some lab accident! If you were alive all this time, why didn't you ever... call, or write or something?!” Unbidden, she felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. Mer pulled a slight grimace.

“I'm sorry, but I was stuck in the Pegasus galaxy. Not like we get cell phone reception there, or anything...”

Jeannie blinked at him. “The... Pegasus galaxy?! How... why...?”

Mer took a deep breath, and then started rattling off an incredible story, about how he'd worked for a secret multi-national organisation for years, how there was an alien artefact called a Stargate in Colorado and how the U.S. Air Force had been sending people to alien planets for almost two decades, how half of the world's governments had been involved in the whole thing for years and years, how he'd joined a dangerous mission to the city of Atlantis in a different galaxy, knowing it might be a one-way trip... which it had turned out to be until just a few weeks ago, when the people-eating aliens he'd been fighting for ten years had flown across the intergalactic void to attack Earth.

It was so mind-bogglingly outrageous that she just stared at him as he trailed off, Sheppard lowering the jumper gently in her back yard.

“You're kidding me, right? Meredith?”

“Nope, not kidding. Sheppard's my witness.”

The dark-haired young man nodded. “He's not kidding, though I don't blame you... wait, Meredith?!” His eyebrows arched up as he looked first at Mer, who was blushing, and waving his hands, and blustering something about a nickname, then at Jeannie. She rolled her eyes.

“It's his name.”

“Your name is Meredith?!” Sheppard asked incredulously, and Mer glared, first at him, then at Jeannie.

“Meredith Rodney McKay,” Mer emphasized, arms folded over his chest.

“Your name is Meredith!” Sheppard sounded positively gleeful, a broad, slightly manic grin spreading over his face. “Wait, why don't I know this? I've seen your... no! Tell me you didn't!”

“Didn't what?!” Mer snapped.

“Tell me you didn't hack into the government's database to erase your first name from your personnel file!”

“Uh... I didn't?” There was a little pause. “It was the IOA's database?”

Sheppard groaned, slapping a hand to his forehead. “Rod-ney!”

“What, you think I want to listen to every intellectually-challenged, testosterone-overdosed, gun-toting toy soldier who thinks he's got a sense of humour think up more stupid comments?!”

Sheppard blinked for a moment. “Well, no. But since you could probably make their brain overload with a few well-chosen polysyllabic insults, I really don't see what you'd have to worry about.”

Mer regarded the other man sceptically for a moment, then huffed.

“Well, thanks... I think.” He turned away, hesitated, then turned back, eyes narrow. “You're never going to let me live this down, are you?”

A broad, downright rapturous grin spread over Sheppard's face. “No,” he announced with relish. “Meredith.”

Mer groaned, thumping his head down on the console in front of him.

***

In the end, after some evasion and gesticulation and rapid-fire talk about “busy” and “repair spaceships” and “you never know” from Meredith, and a quizzically raised eyebrow from Sheppard, her brother finally promised to come visit Jeannie and her family before he was going to leave again. Definitely. The leaving part wasn't so much stated outright, as it seemed to be taken as a given by Mer and Sheppard, something Jeannie had some trouble wrapping her head around. After ten years in exile in another galaxy, wouldn't you want to come home? And once you'd actually managed to get home, wouldn't you want to stay? Apparently, Mer didn't. Jeannie waved good-bye to the jumper as it rose from the grass, right next to her garbage cans, and then looked at the empty spot where it used to be when it went invisible. She had so many questions for Mer... maybe she'd know where to begin when he came by. If he came by. But he had promised, and Mer had many faults, but breaking his word wasn't one of them.

Chapter Text

The debriefing was mercifully short. Everyone was exhausted. Sam clutched her coffee cup like it was the only thing keeping her upright, and Daniel kept pushing up his glasses to rub his eyes. The Atlantians looked like the only thing that kept them awake and somewhat coherent were their kuma cigarettes, on which they sucked with the devotion of true addicts.

The elation from the victory had been short-lived, smothered out by pure exhaustion. Cam knew he would appreciate the fact that he was alive later. After he'd slept off the sudden crash from the adrenaline high. He shifted in his seat and winced, gingerly grabbing his ribs. He hadn't got shot down, but he'd been banged around pretty good while battling three darts at once. Maybe he was getting too old for this... Naw. He'd never be too old to fly, and he'd rather be out there, engaging the enemy than stuck behind some desk or monitor any day.

Cam leaned back, arm still around his ribs, and rested his head against the back of the chair, closing his eyes for a moment.

They'd established the scope of their losses, and the likely amount of Wraith incursion they were still dealing with on the ground. Crashed darts, ground troops missed when the darts returned to the hives– there were still some out there. The Cyrinius' sensors would scan the planet and feed the information to the necessary regional command centres for their own ground troops. Cam felt the urge to bang his head on the table when Sheppard stressed how important fast action was here. Apparently Wraith could go into hibernation, and then sensors wouldn't pick them up anymore. Well. A worry for another day.

The Atlantians took their leave after that part of the meeting, and they were left to discuss the first reactions of populations around the globe to the sudden and irrefutable appearance of aliens. Just as O'Neil had been direly predicting, the cat was out of the bag and the Stargate Programme was well and truly blown wide open. So far, general shock seemed to hold any hostile reactions in check, and the wheels were already turning to mitigate the damage and declassify in a controlled manner. Plans for this situation had been drawn up since the very beginning of the Programme, of course, but still... As every soldier knew only too well, plans were one thing, real-world application quite another.

Not that Cam was contributing much to the discussion, in his current condition. He could barely think in a straight line, never mind conceive of all the repercussions of a public acknowledgement of the Stargate Programme. After working under confidentiality agreements for so many years, he found it almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to own up to what he was doing for a living.

Lucky Atlantians. Sheppard had secured them two days away from the inevitable media circus and general hysteria to mourn their dead and take care of their bodies. After that, they would reconvene for more meetings. No one said it out loud, but there was a general sense that that would be the one, the one where the lines were drawn and the issue of the Atlantian's return and all the questions it raised was finally going to be on the table. Cam really didn't want to think about it before he absolutely had to, but he was aware, hell, everyone was aware, of the potential mine field they would be getting into.

No one had said it in so many words, but from every action and every word they spoke, it was quite clear that the Atlantians were planning to return back to Pegasus... and exactly as what would be up for debate. Cam knew the gleam in Landry's, in Caldwell's, even O'Neill's eyes: The Atlantians had some damn fine technology at their disposal, and they had even more of it back in Pegasus. They'd been stranded in an Ancient city ten years ago with minimal supplies, and they'd taken the opportunity and run with it. God, they'd gotten themselves to the place where they built their own ships, superior to what they had on Earth, in a mere ten years. They operated Ancient technology like they'd been born to it. And the possibility that they would just take all that knowledge, all that power, and leave... and this time, maybe to never be heard from again...

Or even worse, they could take all that technology and remove it from the control of Earth for good, officially, an essentially independent power with the possibility to reach Earth whenever they wished... It was enough to give any head of state and military commander and governmental paper-pusher nightmares. And damn it, Cam liked the Atlantians, he liked Sheppard and Grodin and Miko and that Sokagen kid. He liked them and he would hate to find himself on the other side of them, not just because he thought taking them on might just be finally the point where Earth bit off more than they could chew, but also because he plain didn't want to fight them. He really hoped it wouldn't come to that. He knew the mire of ambition and paranoia that was the upper echelons of government, only too well (Hello, Trust), but the President was a decent man and he had hopes that reason would prevail.

Cam finally escaped the meeting and went home to his own bed for the first time in... days. He was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow, despite the fact that it wasn't even seven in the evening yet.

***

John stumbled his way to his quarters, the thought of a quick shower and hours and hours of sleep the only thing currently occupying his mind. It was a shame, really, that he was so tired he barely remembered his own name, what with Rodney following right behind him, and them being truly alone and with some time on their hands for the first time in weeks. But sex would have to wait, because John seriously doubted that he could even get it up in his present condition, and from the way Rodney was swaying slightly where he was standing, he wasn't any better off. John took charge and steered Rodney towards the shower with his hands on Rodney's shoulders. They helped each other out of their clothes, touches fumbling with fatigue rather than something more exciting, and took a quick, silent shower. It was immensely reassuring to crawl into his bunk next to Rodney's warm, solid bulk again, even if they did nothing but collapse on the mattress next to each other and drag up the covers. Rodney literally started snoring the moment his head rested on the pillow, and John had time to roll up to his broad back and bury his nose in Rodney's neck before black unconsciousness enveloped him as well.

***

The sunlight was bright and warm on John's face the next morning as he stood on a grassy field in front of almost his entire crew. Yesterday, he had asked for a place where they could hold their death rites in isolation and undisturbed, and General O'Neill had offered them this place, an old military air base that had been out of use for years. The Cyrinius' sensors were monitoring the area to make sure they remained alone, because this... this was private. Neither he nor the rest of his people wanted anyone here who hadn't proved themselves trustworthy, anyone who didn't belong to them. It would have been preferable to do this on one of their own planets, but it just wasn't practical to expend the energy to deep-freeze the bodies until they were back home, so Earth would have to do. Because they might live in space, they might die in space, but death rites needed to take place on a planet. It was... proper. John blinked for a moment at his own thoughts, and then wondered when he had become so attuned to Athosian sensibilities that he got the significance of returning their dead to a planet as opposed to send them out an airlock, sea-burial style.

He looked out over his silent, solemn-faced crew, and over the rows of corpses. Thirty-seven dead, another five still in critical condition up in the Cyrinius' infirmary, Marta among them. Most of the dead were dart pilots, bright young men and women he'd known since at least their teens. He knew every single name, every single face, had seen all of them grow up, trained a lot of them personally. Having to say the last words over them hurt. It always fucking hurt, and he was so sick of losing his people, even as he accepted it as something that was just going to happen, out of his control. It also meant they had lost about a third of their pilots, most with their ships, a painful loss in resources, both human and mechanical. It was worth it, of course it was, to stop the Wraith, almost anything was worth losing to stop the Wraith, but that didn't make it hurt any less.

He faced the pain and stared it down, acknowledging its existence but refusing to let it control his actions, and turned his gaze back to his crew, the living, the hundred-and-fifty people he still needed to take care of. All eyes were on him as he turned to address the long rows of bodies.

“May you walk a path without shadows and find hearth fires at the end of your journey,” he said, making sure his voice carried. Only in Pegasus, he reflected as the torch bearers stepped forward to set the bodies alight, would a common blessing also be the traditional phrase at a funeral.

They stood silent and watched the fires, everyone alone with their thoughts. There was little in the way of overt emotional distress. Some people were crying, those who had lost close friends or lovers or family, but even they were doing it in silence. Everything else would be disrespectful, would take away from the gravity of the occasion, would disturb the grief of those around them. The emotional unloading, and healing, would come later, when they were all roaring drunk and no one would recall quite who had said what, or who had had a break-down, or who had made a total fool out of themselves.

It was a way of coping which suited John fine. In fact, he felt far more at home in Pegasus culture, with the way things were done in Pegasus, than he ever had on Earth. It had taken some getting used to, but on a very fundamental level, Pegasus culture made sense, to him at least. Maybe that was just because he heard about two lectures a week on these cultures from the sociologists and anthropologists, when they shared their newest findings and helped them figure out the best way to establish or maintain trade relations. Certainly no one had ever explained a Christian funeral to him in scientific terms. Whatever the case might be, he never felt as awkward and socially incompetent in Pegasus as he had growing up on Earth.

A lot of cultures in Pegasus, the Athosian one among them, were remarkably positive. There was a central determination to get up and start over no matter how often the Wraith or your nasty neighbours or natural disasters slapped you down. After being subject to those same cataclysms, John thought it was probably the only way to go. Pegasus was brutal, and it was get over it and go on, or die. And death was frequent, so frequent that the elaborate rites were reserved for natural death, while a short, simple ceremony like the one they were having now was the norm for all other occasions.

Once the assembly broke up, everyone free to leave at their own time, they would start to set up for the celebration tonight. Because, after the last few weeks, everyone needed to unwind, let down their guard, relax. Most of the time, they had to be alert, be prepared for anything at all times, but that sort of strain couldn't be kept up indefinitely. People would go crazy, so every now and then, it all unloaded in one wild, explosive celebration where they let go of everything and partied like there was no tomorrow... because in Pegasus, there might not be.

Pegasus people liked to seize occasions to throw a party and have fun, and surviving this battle and destroying nine hive ships in three weeks certainly made for occasion. John felt fondness curl next to the grief in his belly as he watched his people, pale-faced but unbroken, start to drift apart, back to the jumpers, a small hum of excitement starting to replace the solemnity, their minds, like his, turning to the evening. When he went to his own jumper to start ferrying party supplies down from the Cyrinius, the first smiles, the first sounds of laughter could be heard already, even while the bodies of their comrades were still burning. When John was finally among the dead, that's just how he wanted it to be for those still alive.

***

Jack stood at attention, looked out over the green lawn and the grey headstones and the neat rows of uniformed soldiers. God, but he hated these things, hated what they meant.

It wasn't an actual funeral– there would be many of those in the days and weeks to come, as they recovered bodies, tracked down missing service members and, yes, finished up autopsies and tests on those that had been fed on by the Wraith. This was a memorial, a gesture, a reminder of those they had lost.

Jack knew it could've been much worse. Considering the scale of the invasion, their casualties could've numbered in the thousands. God, if the Atlantians hadn't shown up when they did to tell them what they were facing– it didn't bear thinking about.

Still. Every soul lost was one too many, as far as Jack was concerned, and as much as he hated speeches, he was determined to do justice by the hundreds of brave men and women who had died protecting their world.

He took his place on the podium, looked out across the people, his people, and started.

“I don't have to tell you why we're here today...”

***

The fire was roaring, spitting sparks into the velvet black of the night, it's heat like a touch against John's face as he sprawled across a thick, soft blanket. The night wind was cool in contrast, carrying the scent of earth and grass, and the chirping of crickets underlying the sounds of the party. Somewhere on the other side of the bonfire people were making music, heavy drumbeats and the hypnotic, gliding melodies of Athosian flutes. John saw the vague shadow of people dancing, bathed red by the firelight, movements free and loose. Laughter rang through the night, together with snatches of conversations. Platters were making the rounds, piled high with every delicacy they could pull out of the Cyrinius' stores in a day. And, of course, alcohol and kuma were flowing freely. John gave a sigh of bliss, and raised his bowl to take a deep, deep draught. The liquor was sweet and milky, the burn of alcohol deceptively mild. It had taken him about two harvest festivals to learn that this stuff packed a punch like nothing he had ever drunk on Earth. It went down much more smoothly than beer or wine, mostly due to the fact that it actually tasted good, and it was bound to get you drunk in record time. He'd never actually enquired after the details of the brewing process, but he had gathered that a main component was kandu milk and a combination of spices and herbs that grew like weeds all over Pegasus, and probably would be on the list of banned substances in every civilized Earth country before you could say “drug committee”.

He lowered his bowl again when it was half empty, and licked his lips.

“I see you've decided to get drunk out of your mind,” Rodney commented from where he was sitting cross legged on the blanket next to John's feet, snacking from a platter he'd secured for their use. John nodded fervently.

“Oh yes. Very, very drunk.”

“Great plan,” Ronon agreed, teeth flashing white in a grin as he leaned back on his elbows, boots stretched towards the flames, legs spread in a boneless sprawl that rivalled John's own. John dropped his head onto a strong, leather-clad thigh and grinned up at Ronon, offering him the bowl. The alcohol was already kicking in, blurring the edges, relaxing his muscles and floating his worries away.

Ronon drained the bowl greedily, then poured more from their pitcher, and emptied that, too. That man could drink like no one else John knew.

Rodney rolled his eyes at them, but took a sip of his own when Ronon presented him with the bowl in turn. He was too much of a control-freak to get drunk on a regular basis, party or no, but even he didn't totally eschew a little artificial help with that relaxing-thing. John watched him fondly for a moment, then pulled out his kuma flute. He emptied out the fine powder that was all that remained of the kuma when it burned down, and thumbed a new pod in. He lit it with a click and took a draw. Aah, life was good. In fact, right now, life could hardly be better.

He stared up at the night sky, unfamiliar constellations shimmering above, just like on so many other planets, on so many other festivals and parties, it was almost like being home again. The only difference was that here the crickets were actual crickets, and he knew which bugs would try to bite him and which he could just ignore, and there was a huge, thriving, gigantic civilization just beyond the horizon, spreading all over the planet. It made him feel strange, almost... claustrophobic. He had gotten used to the space, the privacy of small communities, to the vastness of untamed wilderness surrounding him. Sure, it was scary as hell, but it also made him feel... free.

He shook the thoughts off, threw himself back into the spirit of things. This wasn't the time or place for these ruminations.

The party was lively, just like it always was. For a while, people came by, dropped themselves on their little blanket island to chat and laugh and share a drink or a platter of food. Stackhouse stayed for a bit, and he and John teased Rodney about the whole “Meredith” thing, until Rodney threatened to hack their shower controls and shut off their hot water for a week or two. John cheerfully pointed out that that'd backfire spectacularly, what with Rodney spending at least every second night in John's quarters, and every corresponding morning in his shower. Rodney glared and informed him he might just not be getting any for that time. John pouted, and Ronon, loyal soul that he was, offered to fuck him any time he wanted. Of course, then they all ganged up and started teasing John mercilessly about his inability to “keep it in his pants for more than two days in a row”, to quote Rodney. Affronted, John informed them that he hadn't had sex in over two weeks, what with flying around the galaxy and invading Wraith and all. Rodney scoffed and accused him point-blank of lying.

“After all, every time I turn around, I find you screwing someone else!” he proclaimed with broad gestures. “Alien princesses, Ascendants, ambassadors... It never ends with you!”

“Awww... you're so cute when you're jealous,” John cooed, and got a vicious kick in the ankle in return.

Stackhouse laughed loudly, and heaved himself to his feet, more than a little drunk as well. “I'll leave you to sort out your marriage issues in peace,” he grinned. “Gonna go find some company myself. Of the female variety.”

“What, you aiming for kid number eleven?” Rodney scoffed.

Stackhouse shrugged and spread his hands. “Hey, why not? After all, these genes deserve passing on...”

They shared laughs and a few more taunts, then John slumped and rolled over on his back, head pillowed on Ronon's thigh and feet across Rodney's legs. There was some grumbling from that direction, but Rodney's hand snuck up his leg and started rubbing little circles along his calf, fingers dipping under the rim of his boots. Ronon just gave him a smile before lying back himself, arms crossed behind his head. Their conversation drifted in random bits and pieces, with comfortable, unhurried silences in between. John didn't really try to keep track of what they were talking about. There was something about the stars overhead, some speculation on how things were back home, how Teyla and Elizabeth were doing, whether Radek had managed to let the city sink into the ocean yet, or whether Bates had caused another diplomatic incident with his rampant paranoia.

Kimra came by with little Jeannie in tow at some point, and stayed until Jeannie had fallen asleep with her head in her father's lap, then left them with a smile to settle the little girl in one of their jumpers. They polished off Rodney's platter, bickering over who got what. Well, John and Rodney bickered, Ronon just grabbed and ate, daring them with a toothy grin to object, so they just glared at him. It only made him grin wider, naturally– and ruffle John's hair. John yelped with indignation, and was pretty sure he intended something of a violent nature when he launched himself at a laughing Ronon, but instead ended up in the other man's lap with their tongues in each other's mouths. Oh well, John thought with a mental shrug of his shoulders. That was just as good.

They weren't the only ones moving things along, he saw with a glance as he came back up for air. The music was still playing, and would probably continue all night, but the hum of conversation and laughter had dimmed a little as the night wore on, unmistakeable sounds of pleasure joining in instead. John did a quick survey, far too drunk for any very coherent thought, but happy that his people were here and safe, at least for the moment, and enjoying themselves.

There were, of course, guards around the perimeter to keep out any strangers or nasty surprises, and crates of their strongest detox meds at the ready for an emergency. Minimal staff, most of it medical, was still up on the Cyrinius to keep an eye on things, but most of John's people were here, with him, having their well-deserved break from duty and danger.

He looked over at Rodney, who was frowning at him with fond exasperation. John grinned at him and crawled over to him, settling into his lap. He took a swig from their bowl and leaned in for a kiss, sharing the alcohol with Rodney. For a moment, he could feel the other man trying to hold on to his irritation, but then his shoulders relaxed under John's hands, his arms came up around John's waist, and he kissed back with his usual fervour. The kiss was wet and sloppy with alcohol and enthusiasm, and John had to chuckle slightly into Rodney's mouth. They parted for a moment, and John took in Rodney's expression, eyes black with lust in the dancing firelight, skin flushed and lips reddened. Rodney's hands settled heavy on his hips, with that particular, intent possessiveness that was so very Rodney. John's eyes drifted shut for a moment and he wriggled under that grip with a moan, needing to feel it, test out the strength, and then Rodney was back, kissing him fiercely, mouth and chin and neck, his fingers starting to fumble with the buckles of John's gun belts. John grunted his approval, and returned the gesture by making short work of Rodney's jacket.

He was aware that he had hit the stage of being drunk that had landed him with two children of his own despite his general preference for his own sex. It was also the stage that got him teased mercilessly, and was part of the foundation of his reputation as a slut, as Rodney had so charmingly put it a few days ago. And yes, John was aware of his reputation, and he was also aware that he probably deserved it. No, he hadn't fucked half the Pegasus galaxy, but he did flirt, and he rarely said no if flirting led to something more. He saw no reason to, not in Pegasus. And it was just so liberating, after years and years of hiding who, what he was, years under the constant fear of being found out, causing rumours, after the way his father had reacted, after the military and DADT... after all that, he thoroughly enjoyed not having to bother with covert glances, with subtle hints. Sure, not every culture in Pegasus subscribed to this loose attitude when it came to sex, far from it. The Genii, for one... while they could certainly drink and throw a party with the best of them, they were just too distrustful and paranoid a culture to easily let strangers into their beds... or even their own. But more planets than not had their harvest festivals, their welcome feasts, their cheerful parties. It was a Pegasus thing, they had quickly learned in the first few years of trading, to be wary and distrustful of strangers until they had proven themselves trustworthy. And that, in Pegasus terms, meant a drunken orgy more often than not. As they said, 'don't trust anyone you haven't shared breakfast tea with'.

John's thoughts were yanked back into the present when Rodney tugged his pants down around his knees, and grabbed John's ass with both hands, pressing them together, lips mashed into the side of John's neck, fingers hot and strong. John whimpered approvingly and then pushed back against Rodney's shoulders to get enough distance to continue undressing him.

They separated for a moment to undo boots and shed clothes, then Rodney was suddenly on top of him, lips and hands seemingly everywhere at once, forceful and demanding as usual. He had sort of forgotten Ronon was there until a large, brown hand extended a jar to Rodney above his head. His eyes followed the arm up to Ronon's grinning face, dark eyes appreciative.

“Thanks, buddy,” he slurred happily, then had to laugh at how drunk he sounded.

“Any time,” Ronon rumbled, grin dirty and teasing, while Rodney took the jar from him. John laughed and moaned simultaneously as Rodney put the lube to good use, and spared a grateful thought for biochem lab 4, who cooked the stuff up. It was high-quality stuff too, but then, they had taken a survey about everyone's preferences in the matter in Year 3.

Oh God, it had been hilarious, seeing everyone wander around the halls with their stack of paper, or sitting on benches in the hallways, some cheerfully discussing options, some people with beet-red faces, about seconds away from spontaneous combustion by the looks of it. And between it all the staff of biochem lab 4, with earnest, scientific expressions of interest, handing out and taking back their surveys, assuring anyone who asked that it was Elizabeth herself who had asked them to start production, because medicine was running out. John was sure they were laughing themselves silly on the inside, because why else would they have chosen lunch in the mess hall to start with the distribution?– and continued with it in other high traffic areas, preferably the gate room? There could've just been a discreet stack in the infirmary, Carson gently pointing people towards it, “Oh, laddie, take one of these before ye go, will ye?”, but, no...

John himself had sauntered over to them in the gate room before embarking on a mission, handing his completed survey back with a smirk, and yes, he was sure Doctor Ehrenström was biting back a laugh.

By Year 3, they had had ample opportunity to witness Pegasus' version of hospitality, and had been compelled to arrange more than one trade agreement in the traditional fashion, but it was still a subject no one really knew how to deal with, so the off-world sex, the drinking, the slow erosion of barriers between expedition members, the fact that Stackhouse might have knocked up a native girl, were an open secret, treated with will-full blindness. John wasn't sure how much of it was intentional on Elizabeth's part, but that survey had been one of the first sexual bonding experiences of the expedition. Not the last, of course. No, far from the last.

John stretched and squirmed a bit under Rodney's fingers. Oh, no, very much not the last. Rodney leaned up to kiss him, angle awkward, and John participated eagerly until his neck muscles protested and he either had to push up on his elbows for real or drop his head back down. He went with dropping back down, stretching out a hand to trail his fingers over Rodney's knee and calf as far as he could reach. Rodney gave one of his delicious, needy whimpers that never failed to turn John on, and gave up on the preparation, which was just fine by John. He reached to wrap his arm around Rodney's broad, strong shoulders, curl his fingers around a well-muscled biceps, and wrapped his legs around Rodney's waist. It was easy, it was familiar, it was glorious the way their bodies fit together, and Rodney knew just how to thrust, and John knew just how to arch, to get the most pleasure possible out of this. The stars seemed to whirl and slide overhead, or maybe that was John, dizzy with drink and lust and relief and Rodney, the taste of his skin, his smell, wood-smoke and sweat and kuma and leather, his hot weight on top of John, the slide of slick skin and the rasp of short hair under his fingertips.

The world narrowed down to a swirl of sensations and impressions for a time, earth and grass and sky, warm fire and cool night air and touch and taste and sex, and John was happy. Right now, at this very point in time, he was happy, and he had everything he needed, and there was nowhere he would rather be.

Finis

Chapter Text

You can find the first chapter of the sequel, Children of Pegasus, here: Children of Pegasus: Chapter 1

Thank you for all your support and I hope you'll enjoy it!