I must survive
John raced behind the bulkhead of the door, diving for safety in the shadows, while firing blindly down the corridor. Blaster shots ricocheted off the walls and floor around him, discharging electricity so that the air crackled with it. "Now, Rodney!"
On the other side of the door, Rodney had the control panel opened, wires hanging down everywhere, some hooked up to his computer. Immediately, he tapped some keys and the door slid shut. A second later, a blue field electrified the door.
"This should hold them back for a little while," Rodney said, collapsing against the wall, wiping sweat from his forehead. John could hardly see him between the darkness and the bright glow from the door between them. "The energy from their blasters will only energize the force-field, but they've been surprisingly apt at changing tactics. I don't think we should stick around."
John nodded, staring blankly at the blue, glowing door, the adrenaline getting stale in his blood. Never leave a man behind. He'd risked his life repeatedly to uphold that one simple truth and now he'd just damned a man to hell in the blink of an eye. In his mind, John could hear Lorne's defiant screams when the Wraith finally caught up to him, when he finally ran out of ammunition and was forced to his knees while they drained him of life. It was all he could do not to punch his fist through the door.
Just off the main hallway, Ronon held Elizabeth slumped over his shoulder, the material on her jacket singed where she'd been shot. Teyla helped Ronon lay her on the floor with one hand, her other was tucked protectively against her chest. Even in the flickering light from the force-field, John could see the blood staining Teyla's shirt.
With her good hand, Teyla checked Elizabeth's pulse. "She is alive, but her pulse is weak. I am afraid that if she does not get medical help quickly, she will not survive."
"So she's not waking up?" John asked matter-of-factly, too tired and exhausted to register the impact of his next words. At this point, he wasn't processing personal facts, just options. "Two of us have to enter our codes to arm the self-destruct. Ronon, you and Teyla take Elizabeth to the Daedalus. Pray to God there's still someone alive that can fly it. Rodney, you'll have to come with me."
Lifting his head off the wall, Rodney met John's gaze. "Right."
"Keep one of the magazines for your P90; give the rest to Teyla since they have farther to go."
Rodney leaned forward onto his hands and knees and pushed himself up, the toll of the last seventy-two hours evident on his body. He didn't even have the energy to moan. Once he was on his feet, he fumbled through all his pockets, emptying them of extra magazines and power bars. The knife and flashlight he put back in his pockets, the rest he divided up between Ronon and Teyla. Ronon kept the power bars and gave all the ammunition to Teyla. Checking the power levels on his blast weapon, Ronon made a few adjustments, and then hauled Elizabeth back onto his shoulder, moving her so that he could still fire with his right hand.
When they were set, Ronon and Teyla turned to face them.
"That hall should take you to the secondary engineering lab," Rodney said, pointing down the smaller corridor off to their right. "At the back of the room, there's a hatch with a ladder, it'll lead you up into the air exchange duct, it's big enough to crawl through and should support your weight. Follow it down the slope towards the filtering pump, you'll hear a hissing sound, go towards it. If you use the exit hatch, you'll be two floors above the landing dock. I assume you can find your way from there."
Ronon nodded, keeping his face stoic as he looked at them both and John sent him a silent thank you for not making this anymore difficult. Teyla, however, wasn't so accommodating. She leaned towards Rodney, holding her forehead against his for a long moment before pulling back, and when she finally did, she gave Rodney a kiss on the lips. "I am honored to have fought beside you."
Rodney looked away and rubbed his head awkwardly.
When she turned towards him, John had to swallow against the dryness in his throat. Teyla gripped his left arms with her good hand, her eyes glistening. "I was blessed when you came through the Stargate to my home world. I am sorry that I could not do more."
"You've done enough. Now go to your people. If Elizabeth doesn't make it—I hope you'll help our people as well. I doubt they'll be able to fix the hyperdrive. Help them find a way to live here. Keep them safe as best as you can," he swallowed again, forcing himself to meet her eyes. This was the last time he was going to see her, and part of him was begging to drink in the sight of her and Ronon; they were closer to him than any family he'd ever known. The other part of him wanted them to be gone already. It was always easiest to amputate a limb in one quick stroke.
A loud blast against the door made them jump and Teyla quickly bowed her head forward in farewell. John felt her body tremble and he squeezed her arm. Finally she stepped back, the sorrow gone from her eyes as she looked at him with determination. "I will."
Brushing her lips against his, Teyla stepped back towards Ronon and picked up her rifle from the floor. John fought the urge to bring his hands up to his mouth to hold her presence close to him a little while longer. Both her and Ronon gave them one last look before moving off quickly into the darkness.
John brought his P90 up to the ready and turned to Rodney. The sounds of fire were increasing in speed and intensity. "We'd better hurry. We'll give them as much time as possible to get the Daedalus in the air, but we should get to the control room."
They took off down the main corridor. Shattered windows with jagged, multi-colored glass jutting from the frames let in bits of sunlight as the broken glass crunched under their feet. Atlantis shook, shuddering in the ocean as another high-energy bomb exploded in the city, sending John crashing into Rodney. They both tumbled into the wall. Bit by bit, the Wraith were destroying parts of the city they controlled and had no use for, trying to kill the humans that proved to be too much trouble and herd the rest into a corner for easy culling. Nothing had changed. The only part of Atlantis they wanted whole was the control room. It housed the terminals to access the Stargate address to Earth and the control crystals to get there.
Seventy-two hours ago, the first hive ship had dropped out of hyperspace a kilometer and a half above Atlantis, nearly crashing into the central spire. The hive ship was so close; they hadn't been able to activate the shield without disengaging the proximity safeties first. Zelenka had tried—he'd raced down there as soon as he figured out what the problem was, and gotten blown up when the hive ship targeted the power distribution labs. ZPM gone and fourteen people dead before half the base even realized they were under attack.
John quickly lead them through the darkened halls. The lights had been the second thing to go, fifty-three hours ago, when three more Wraith ships had arrived. Using cooperative tactics, the darts had managed to get through the protective covering of their SAMs and had gone directly for the primary engineering lab. Without shields, two strong bursts of fire were all it took. Lights gone. Life support gone. Remote computer controls gone. Twenty-one people dead in the blink of an eye.
Between the fires and smoke, the only reason there was still any breathable air in Atlantis was because the shockwaves from the new high-energy bombs the Wraith had brought along destroyed most of the windows.
Climbing up the last flight of stairs, they finally arrived at the deserted control room; the last defensible position. Rodney immediately went to work on the door, activating the make-shift force-field he'd come up with twelve hours before.
"How long will that Mark-2 hold?" John asked, going to the single computer that was left and powering it up.
"With the minimal systems we have running, it could last for a thousand years," Rodney replied, bringing his own laptop over and interfacing it with hub. "Huh, that's strange."
"What?" John asked, moving so he could look over Rodney's shoulder. The ground shook again followed by a thundering bang as Rodney cringed.
"They got through the first door already…"
John put his hand on Rodney's arm to get his attention. Rodney immediately looked at him. "What?"
"What's strange? Is something wrong with the self-destruct?"
Rodney's attention snapped back to his computer and shook his head. "No, no. It's just that the Mark-2 is at 86% already. Something's draining power."
John stayed quiet. It seemed wrong to be relieved, but the truth was, it didn't matter how much power they had, as long as they had enough juice to arm the self-destruct. Once it was armed, the Stargate would draw power from itself, using the Naqahdah in the ring.
Rodney looked up at him and then slouched against the console in defeat. Blaster fire started banging against the last door between them and the Wraith. "So this is it then."
The pressure from the last three days suddenly felt unbearable and John desperately wanted to sit down. He didn't want to die, he didn't want Rodney to die, he certainly didn't want to destroy Atlantis, but they couldn't allow the Wraith to reach Earth. John looked at Rodney's face and saw the same feelings mirrored there. They were just two men. That's all they were.
John rubbed Rodney's arm in reassurance and felt Rodney lean in to him the tiniest bit. After a minute in the heavy silence, John led him over to the main terminal.
"Sheppard, John. Authorization code delta-sierra-four-seven, one-x-ray-six-echo, charlie-nine-charlie-whiskey, zero-zero-alpha-one."
A light on the DHD across from them lit up.
Rodney took a deep breath and followed. "McKay, Rodney. Authorization code mike-three-victor-victor, three-alpha-six-zero, india-tango-five-kilo, seven-two-yankee-three."
A second light lit up next to the first, and an alarm started to sound in the control room as the blaster sounds increased in response. The walls and ground shook as the blasts intensified.
"We've given them as much time as we can," John said, moving over to the DHD. There was no way to tell if the Daedalus had been able to take off, internal sensors had been offline for the last day and a half. Rodney moved closer to him as a high-pitched buzzing started to sound outside the room. The Wraith were trying to cut through the door.
Grabbing Rodney's arm, John looked at him, letting his fingers find the activation button by themselves. With his eyes never leaving Rodney's, John pushed the button.
Elizabeth's Beretta shot out of her hand as she fell to the floor.
"Cover me!" John shouted and Lorne braced himself against the wall and aimed his rifle towards the Wraith. John dove across the hallway towards the small alcove Elizabeth and Teyla had been using for cover. Elizabeth lay unmoving out in the open. Blaster shots flew through the air, narrowly missing him as he grabbed the corner of her tac vest and pulled her into the alcove.
"I don't think we can hold this position," Lorne yelled at him. John looked back down the hall and quickly came to the same conclusion just as an explosion rocked the city.
"We'll pull back to Junction-34. Rodney's wiring it now."
Teyla screamed as a blast hit her weapon, sending visible shockwaves up her arm. Holding her injured arm close to her chest, she picked up her P90 with her other hand. "We must go, Colonel!"
John risked another look down the hallway. Down through the railing of the mezzanine, he caught a glimpse of two Wraith setting up a bomb on the level below. He cursed under his breath—if that was one of their high-energy bombs—well, they'd learned the hard way what those bombs could do, and once set-up they could be activated remotely. His first thought was to wait until the Wraith pulled out and then send someone to deactivate it. Lorne had some experience; he could do it, if the Wraith didn't kill him first.
Lorne had obviously seen them assembling the bomb as well. "Sir, I should stay back and disassemble it. You guys go, get to the control room. If that bomb blows, it'll cut off the last exit to the Daedalus. We still have injured people trying to evacuate from the med lab."
John knew what Lorne was saying was true, knew he had to give them more time but he couldn't do it. A vivid image of Lorne, kneeling in front of the Wraith, snarling as they sucked the life out of him, filled his mind. He shook his head to clear it, but the image lingered, overtaking the distance he kept in his mind between tactical decisions he had to make and the consequences he realized of carrying them out.
"No," he shouted back to Lorne, regripping Elizabeth's vest. If she was unconscious, he'd have to take Rodney with him to arm the self-destruct and the Daedalus would have no one with any piloting experience. More people had the chance to survive if Lorne could fly them out of here. "We all move back to Junction-34."
He gave them a second to get ready. "Go!"
Teyla moved first, taking the lead and shining the light from her P90 forward so that John could maneuver as easily as possible. Throwing Elizabeth over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, John let Lorne take the six as they leap-frogged between moving down the open corridor and tucking into alcoves that provided some cover. John liked to think he was in good shape, but Elizabeth's thin frame made his muscles burn as they ran.
They were fifty feet from Junction-34 when the hair on the back of his neck stood up. The firing had suddenly stopped and the air was heavy with electrical discharge. It reminded him of the smell of thunderstorms.
"Go, go go!" John shouted, the stillness bursting him into action as he sprinting down the hall. "Rodney, get ready, they're arming the bomb."
Rodney poked his head out the door, saw them coming and immediately pulled his head back in to give them room.
When they reached the safety of the junction corridor, John dove behind the bulkheads, just as Rodney sealed the doors.
"Move away from the door," Rodney barked. Lorne came over to help John lay Elizabeth down. A stitch was deep in his side and he took deep breaths to try and alleviate it, but he could hardly breathe. As soon as they were clear, Rodney armed the door with a force-field and John found a wall to lean against.
"She is alive, but her pulse is weak. I am afraid that if she does not get medical help quickly, she will not survive," Teyla said, brushing a hair out of Elizabeth's face with her uninjured hand.
An explosion shook the city, throwing John to the floor. Instinctively he grabbed his ears, trying to protect them from the sounds of explosion and screaming metal and bulkhead collapsing. The floor shuddered and heaved, and for a second John thought the entire level was going to collapse.
"If they keep that up, there won't be a city for them to conquer," Rodney said bitterly from his place on the floor, shoved up against the corner of the control panel.
John tried to push himself up on his arms, but his elbows wouldn't support the weight and he fell back down exhausted, his ears ringing. "The only thing they want is the Stargate and the computers to get to Earth."
At the opposite corner, John saw that Teyla had thrown herself over Elizabeth, but neither of them looked any more injured than before.
Ronon came running in from one of the side halls, bracing himself against the wall. "What the hell was that?"
"High-energy bomb," John said from his place on the floor before rolling over onto his back and sitting up. "Is everyone on board?"
"Yeah," Ronon said, coming over to offer him a hand. John took it and Ronon hauled him back up to his feet. "The Daedalus is full; I loaded the last of the injured with Beckett."
John nodded, testing out his knees and not letting go of Ronon until he was sure they would hold.
"Sorenson's dead though. We don't have anyone to pilot it," Ronon continued.
John shook his head and tried to concentrate. "Lorne can fly," he said, then started emptying his pockets of ammo, handing them to Lorne who was picking himself up as well. "Ronon, take Elizabeth. Teyla can you still fire?"
Teyla nodded. "I can."
Rodney looked at Elizabeth's unconscious form and them back up to him. "We're going to enter the codes?"
John nodded, looking at Rodney's face. A strange feeling of deja-vu washed over him as the words tumbled out of his mouth. "Keep one of the magazines for yourself, give the rest to Tey—I mean Lorne. They have farther to go."
Rodney did as he was told; Lorne redistributed the ammo between him and Teyla. Ronon snatched up a couple of power bars that Rodney had pulled out before checking the levels on his blast weapon. When he was set, Ronon hauled Elizabeth onto his shoulder, moving her so that he could still fire with his right hand.
When they were ready to go, Lorne, Ronon and Teyla turned to face them.
"Ronon, you can find your way back?"
Ronon nodded. "That blast knocked out the air duct while I was in it, but it opened up a hole between levels three and four. It'll be tough going down, but we should be able to make it."
An uncomfortable silence descended on them and John could only think the things he wished he could say. Teyla looked like she was about to come up to him when Lorne spoke. "So we'll see you at the alpha-site?"
For a second John didn't know what Lorne was talking about. It was impossible to use the Stargate once the self-destruct was armed and Lorne knew it. Then it dawned on him.
He gave Lorne a thankful nod. No goodbyes. It was better that way.
"We'll beat you there," John replied, forcing a smile on his face. "Good luck."
Lorne and Ronon nodded in farewell, Teyla gave them a warm smile and then they moved off into the darkness quickly.
John brought his P90 up to the ready and turned to Rodney. "We'd better hurry. We'll give them as much time as possible to get the Daedalus in the air, but we should get to the control room—"
John stopped in mid-sentence, the feeling that he'd said those very words before making him pause.
"What?" Rodney asked.
John shook his head. "Nothing, just stress. I'm sure."
They took off down the main corridor towards the control room. Broken glass littered the floor, crunching under their feet as they ran. Ten minutes later, they climbed the last flight of stairs, arriving at the control room and Rodney went to work on the door without delay, activating the force-field.
John looked at his watch, trying to figure out how long the Mark-2 generator would hold, and how long they could possibly afford to give the Daedalus. Beside him, Rodney was setting up the laptop when he paused as well. He snapped his attention back to his computer, quickly plugging it in and tapping away at the keys.
"What are you doing?" John asked, the tapping loud in the silence.
"I thought you were going to ask me how long the generator would hold, and for some reason, it occurred to me that the power levels were lower than I thought they should be. Which doesn't make any sense, but—look," Rodney pointed to the screen. "They're at 84% already and it should be close to 100. What's going on?"
"How did you know I was going to ask you about the power?"
Rodney shrugged. "I don't know. Were you?"
John grinned as he tried to relieve some tension. Rodney looked ready to snap, and that was never a good thing. "We've been working together too long. You can read my mind."
"And now we get to die together. Isn't that touching?"
John rested his hand on Rodney's shoulder. Rodney's sarcasm was just a defense, it always was and maybe they really had been at this too long together because it was plain as day to him now.
"So this is it then," Rodney asked quietly and that more than anything brought the reality home. They really were going to do this, they were going to die blowing up Atlantis, and this time there was no one left to rescue them. John let his hand drop from Rodney's shoulder to his arm, rubbing it in reassurance. Together, they moved over to the main computer terminal.
"Sheppard, John. Authorization code delta-sierra-four-seven, one-x-ray-six-echo, charlie-nine-charlie-whiskey, zero-zero-alpha-one."
Rodney took a deep breath. "McKay, Rodney. Authorization code mike-three-victor-victor, three-alpha-six-zero, india-tango-five-kilo, seven-two-yankee-three."
Blast fire started to pound the door just as the alarm of the self-destruct started sounding.
"We've given them as much time as we can," John said, moving over to the DHD, his hand still on Rodney's arm.
"Do it," Rodney said.
John looked at him as his finger found the activation button. With his eyes never leaving Rodney's, John pushed the button.
"We need a few more minutes," Carson yelled over his radio. "I'm by myself, and I have twenty unconscious people here. I'm moving as quick as I can!"
John cursed under his breath. The Wraith were coming at them hard. Pushing Teyla out of the way before a Wraith could fire, he knocked her into Elizabeth and the two of them stumbled into the wall. John only barely registered it.
Through the railing and the crossfire, he could see a couple of Wraith setting up one of their bombs on the level below the mezzanine. The firing suddenly stopped, plunging them into darkness. John patted down the upper pockets on his tac vest until he found his night-vision goggles and put them on.
What he saw only confirmed his suspicions. He watched as two Wraith finished setting up the bomb and pulled back.
John looked behind him. Lorne was in the best position to provide covering fire—he could get Elizabeth and Teyla out of here safely, but someone would have to stay behind to deactivate the bomb. With his goggles still on, he saw Rodney making his way to them from Junction-34.
He pushed off from the wall, activating his radio as he went. "Lorne, take the six, get Teyla and Elizabeth and pull back. Rodney's coming up to meet you. When you get the Junction-34, seal it off. I'm going to dismantle the bomb."
"John—" Elizabeth immediately responded.
"Do it." He cut her off. "If I can deactivate it, Carson gets a few more minutes. If I can't, then you and Rodney will have to arm the self-destruct. Hurry!"
He looked back long enough to see Teyla grab Elizabeth's arm and pull her down the corridor. "Good luck, John."
Risking another half second delay, John focused on Rodney who had almost reached them. Rodney was looking about frantically until his eyes finally rested on John's. There was no way Rodney could see him, John knew that. The light was too dim, the distance too far, but John pretended anyway.
Pulling off his goggles, John turned away and sprinted down the rest of the hallway towards the stairs. He was halfway to the bomb when it exploded.
John turned to Lorne. "Cover me, I'm going to go help Elizabeth, I think Teyla's weapon is jammed," he said over the sound of energy weapon fire. He couldn't explain why he needed to go, only that he knew he should get there as quickly as possible. Elizabeth was in danger.
Lorne nodded and leaned out into the hallway, firing blindly in the direction of the Wraith. John didn't waste any time diving across the corridor and coming up next to Elizabeth.
"I'm taking over," he shouted and gestured for her to step back. "See if Teyla needs a hand, her rifle's jammed."
Elizabeth looked at him quizzically. "I have no idea how to help her."
John shook his head. "Cover her, just in case."
Elizabeth tucked into the alcove just as the Wraith started another powerful volley.
"This is a lot stronger than the last time," Lorne shouted from his position. John was taking cover behind the wall; there was no way any of them could get a clean shot until the Wraith stopped. Usually, energy weapons had a recharging period after each shot, during which conventional weapons could be fired. But enough energy weapons fired consecutively could form a pretty constant barrage.
Between his position behind the wall and the half-light of the corridor, John couldn't see anything.
Suddenly, the firing stopped, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
"Take cover!" he shouted, diving down just as a huge explosion rocked the city. He covered his head with his arms just as the ceiling came crashing down. A stabbing pain shot through his right leg and the air was pushed out of his lungs as everything went black.
John rubbed his head, the throbbing pain in his leg dragging him back to consciousness. Looking up, he saw that part of the outer wall and ceiling had collapsed on top of them, letting in a small amount of sunlight from outside. He tried to sit up, but couldn't. Twisting around as best he could, with every movement bringing him even more pain, he was finally able to see that there was actually a metal pipe sticking out of his upper calf.
Panic and adrenaline flooded his veins. Without thinking, he quickly reached for the piece of pipe that was impaled in his leg and pulled it out. The world swam before his eyes as he clenched his leg to stop the bleeding.
Behind him, Ronon pushed back some debris and climbed towards him. "Sheppard, you okay?"
"No," he forced the word out through his clenched teeth, then vomited on the floor. "I hurt my leg and I'm losing a lot of blood. Can you find something to tie it off just below the knee?"
Ronon got to work, using his knife to cut away a piece of John's shirt. Folding it over, he tied it securely in place. "You need to loosen it every once in a while," Ronon said when he was finished.
John nodded and Ronon helped him to his feet. "I'll keep that in mind, right along with taking my vitamins. Is everyone else okay?"
Teyla was digging through the debris with Lorne. "I cannot find Dr Weir. She was standing next to me, but—"
John followed her eyes as Lorne lifted up a piece of wall and found Elizabeth. Ronon left his side to go over and help, and John tried to as well. Every movement of his leg threatened to make him pass out but he slowly made his way around.
Ronon was already trying to tend to her wounds when John got close. "How is she?"
Ronon shook his head. "Not good. The ceiling girder has her pinned and I can't get it up. I think she's bleeding internally, too."
Elizabeth turned her face towards him. "John."
Back down the hall, he could hear Wraith starting to come back; likely to check on the extent of the destruction they had caused. Ronon backed away and moved towards a piece of wall that was still standing and started shooting to keep them back.
"John...go. You need to go…arm the self-destruct, don't let them get to Earth," Elizabeth whispered. John wasn't sure he was actually hearing her, the shooting had begun in earnest again, but he could see her lips moving. She was right. They had to go.
He pulled himself closer to her so that he could touch her hand. It was cold and trembling, but her grip was still strong. "If you can," her voice was still quiet, but her words too loud to ignore. "I can't fire a gun like this...please. I wouldn't ask this of you, but in case...in case the self-destruct doesn't work, we can't let them have what's in my brain. Kill me quickly before you leave, please John."
Panic, exhaustion, pain—his body was screaming with all of them but he focused on her words. He wanted to argue, but it was pointless; she was so cold and her breathing was getting quicker just as he watched. He realized he could do it. He could put a bullet through her brain and save her from getting fed on. Keep the Wraith from getting any intel from her. He was numb enough. After that, he just had a little bit further to go.
Ronon started pulling back towards them; the debris shielding John from the blasts as the Wraith advanced.
He pulled out his Beretta; there was already a round in the chamber but his hand shook as he brought it up.
Elizabeth squeezed his hand. "Thank-you, Jo—"
He didn't wait for her to finish. Better to do it quickly and not think, he knew. He squeezed his eyes shut as he pulled the trigger, the recoil from the shot jarring his whole body, making his leg scream. When he opened them again, his mind revolted at the sight and his arm started to shake in front of him.
Lorne lay the piece of wall that he'd been holding down, grabbed him, pulled his arm over his shoulders and practically dragged John along as they pulled back to Junction-34. Pieces of floor and wall and ceiling were missing, scattered around them, destroyed. The once beautiful architecture was reduced to rubble and garbage, tripping them up, making some ways completely impassable. Ronon had to pull him through a conduit that had fallen and smashed because there was no other way through while Lorne took over providing cover. The only thing John noticed was that the destruction impeded the Wraith as much as them, deflecting shots and slowing their progress as well.
Eventually they made it to Junction-34, though it felt like it took years. John fell against the wall, sliding all the way to the floor, lightheaded and numb as the doors slid shut.
I'm getting damn tired of killing my CO's, he thought idly, floating a million miles away.
In the background, he heard Rodney's voice demanding, yelling, and Teyla shouting back. Their words buzzed around and around, through him and over him until his head was spinning. Suddenly, it was like he was in high school all over again, learning to fly the single engine Cessna his uncle had. He'd gone up every day he possibly could after school, begging his uncle or one of his uncle's friends to teach him something more. Even better were the days he'd take her up by himself to practice, and see what she could really do. Of all the things he tried though, it was the roller coasters that made him sick; pulling up and pushing back on the yolk over and over again; getting those few seconds of microgravity when he reached the apex of the flight. The first time he'd thrown up, he made it his goal to do those maneuvers over and over again until his body got used to the sensations.
John hadn't felt the twinges of airsickness in over twenty years now, but he immediately recognized the sharp pain just above his eyes, and the nausea that came quickly after. He leaned over just in time and puked, dry heaving because there was nothing left to come out.
When he finally looked back up, everyone was looking at him. Rodney standing by the control panel, Lorne, Ronon and Teyla were packed up with their rifles at the ready. He gave them a forced, weak smile and Teyla came over and knelt down beside him.
"I was blessed when you came through the Stargate to my home world. I am sorry that I could not do more to help you now in your time of need," her words were soft as she pressed her forehead against his. John wanted nothing more than to sink into her warmth, and leave behind the pain and exhaustion he was swimming in. She leaned back too soon though, taking away his retreat. Looking at her for the last time, he knew there were words he wanted to say, things he wanted her to understand. They were going to fly the Daedalus off to safety while he and Rodney were going to die, but the words just wouldn't come out.
She gave him a small knowing smile and helped him stand. When he was on his feet, leaning completely on his good leg and bracing himself against the wall, Teyla took a step back and rejoined Lorne and Ronon. The three of them moved off down the small corridor towards the Daedalus, leaving him and Rodney alone.
Rodney picked up his rifle and the one John had left on the floor. "We should get to the control room. I don't know how long this door is going to hold and with your leg we'll be moving slow. Come on."
Rodney clipped the P90 to John's vest, and John felt Rodney guide his arm across Rodney's shoulders, much like Ronon and Lorne had done before. John found he could actually lean against Rodney instead of being dragged along like he was with Ronon, and Rodney was reassuringly solid next to him. They only had a little bit farther to go. Every time John tried to move too fast, his vision narrowed and his body threatened to pass out and there were places where Rodney had to resort to dragging him until he recovered.
When they got to the control room, John let go of Rodney and slumped against a console.
Looking at his watch, he saw that it had taken them a lot of time to get up here; the Daedalus was long gone by now if they'd been able to take off at all. Rodney came back from fiddling with the door and powered up the last remaining computer by the main console.
The hall outside the control room started echoing with blast fire. Whatever reprieve they'd won from the Wraith was over.
"McKay, Rodney. Authorization code mike-three-victor-victor, three-alpha-six-zero, india-tango-five-kilo, seven-two-yankee-three," Rodney said, after he'd brought up the activation sequence for the self-destruct.
John forced himself to stand and stumble towards Rodney and the control panel. "Sheppard, John. Authorization code delta-sierra-four-seven, one-x-ray-six-echo, charlie-nine-charlie-whiskey, zero-zero-alpha-one."
Instinctively, John looked over to the DHD and saw the two lights blinking on the console. A warning blared through the control room, confirming the activation. The self-destruct was armed and ready to detonate. Looking over, John noticed that Rodney was staring at a blank wall; his brow wrinkled and lip curled in mid-thought.
"What?" John asked, his curiosity peaked enough to overcome the fog in his mind.
Rodney snapped out of his reverie. "If you weren't injured, what would you ask me?"
John stared at him in confusion, no clue what he was talking about. "What?"
"If you weren't injured the way you are but we were still here, ready to destroy Atlantis, is there something you'd ask me?"
John wet his lips, his numbness momentarily lifted, as he focused on the question Rodney had just asked. Was Rodney asking him what he thought he was asking him? John stood there in shock trying to process it all.
"I don't know what you're talking about," John forced the words out because they were the only thing he could think of to say. There were things that John never let himself examine too closely, things that had no place in his life, and for some reason Rodney wanted him to drag it all out?
Rodney just stared at him. "Just close your eyes and think about it. It's not that hard."
"Maybe not for you," John said angrily. It wasn't supposed to end like this. Why couldn't Rodney just let it go? Why couldn't he just let John put his hand on his arm, and let them die together as friends? It was more than he'd ever thought he'd get, he could be satisfied with that. When Rodney only stared at him as the battering against the door intensified, John realized if he didn't say something, anything, then they'd still be standing here when the Wraith broke through. "Please Rodney, just let it go. I can't think, I've got blood on my hands and I'm not any good at this stuff. We're friends. Just leave it at that. That means more to me than anything. Let it go."
Rodney's mouth hung open slightly as if trying to understand. "Oh. Um. Me too. Friends. Right. Actually that wasn't what I was asking. I thought you might ask me about the power levels in the Mark-2."
John's face flushed with heat despite his blood loss. "Why would I ask you about power levels?"
Rodney came around to him and grabbed both his arms. "Does any of this seem familiar to you? I swear, I look at things, around us here and I see them happening twelve different ways. I see you hunched over the console inputting your code, I see you over by the DHD, holding my arm while you push the self-destruct. I see myself here with Elizabeth because you went and got yourself blown up. I see all of this like it just happened, and I have this memory of you realizing it, too, but I don't know if it's part of a psychosis I'm having induced by my impending death or if we've been doing this over and over again and you just don't remember this time—"
John closed his eyes and let the images flood his mind; the numbness and pain had forced him to hold the memories at bay because he thought he was going crazy, but Rodney's words brought them all back. Elizabeth getting hit in the back by a stunner, Teyla injuring her arm, Lorne dead, Lorne flying the Daedalus, Carson asking for more time. He almost fell over from the weight of all the memories.
The city shook from another detonation.
"Sheppard?" Rodney asked, shaking him.
John opened his eyes, seeing Rodney; over and over again seeing Rodney and the countless other times they died.
"I remember, too," John whispered. "I don't know how many times we've done this but I remember so many. What's going on?"
Rodney shook his head. "I don't know but we don't have time to figure it out now, that bomb disengaged the force-field. We only have a minute until they come back."
Rodney helped John move over to the DHD, still facing him and holding both his arms as John's fingers felt for the self-destruct. "We'll figure this out next time," John whispered.
Rodney nodded. "If there is a next time."
John felt the edges of a hysterical laugh trying to get through. Of course Rodney would be Rodney right until the end.
"Just saying," Rodney replied, gripping his arms tighter as he leaned forward until their foreheads were touching.
John leaned into Rodney fully, sinking back into the numbness that was calling him, far away from the pain and exhaustion and explosions that were everywhere. For a tiny, infinitesimal second, he felt the warmth of Rodney's presence and peace descended over him.
A second later, he pushed the self-destruct just at the Wraith beat down the door.
"I was blessed when you came through the Stargate to my home-world. I am sorry that I could not do more for you now in your time of need." Teyla stepped back, her face twisted with regret.
"You've done enough," John found himself saying as if the words just flowed and there was no way to stop them. Almost everyone was dead; they were all dead if they couldn't get the Daedalus off the ground and he wasn't sure there was a pilot still alive who could fly it. "If Elizabeth doesn't survive, help our people as well. Help them live here. Keep them safe as best you can."
The words tasted like ash in his mouth. Teyla rested her forehead against his and when she stepped back, her face was proud and strong again. "I will."
Giving him a quick kiss, Teyla stepped back towards Ronon, and picked up her rifle from the floor. Ronon had Elizabeth slug over his shoulder. Both her and Ronon gave them one last look and then moved off quickly into the darkness.
John brought his P90 up to the ready and turned to Rodney. "We'd better hurry. We'll give them as much time as possible to get the Daedalus in the air, but we should get to the control room—"
The deja-vu was so strong it made him stop.
"What?" Rodney asked.
John shook his head, running his hands through his hair. "I've done this before. I could swear we've done this before."
Rodney just stared at him. "I've got that feeling, too. I remember things, I remember Teyla saying that to you before…that's impossible though."
"Maybe it's just stress. We've been under attack for three days, after a while everything is going to start to run together."
Rodney looked at him. "Is that what happens during war?"
"No, not usually," John replied with a shrug.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Thanks. You're extremely helpful."
They took off at a run down the main corridor towards the control room, their boots crunching the broken glass under their feet. Ten minutes later, they climbed the last flight of stairs, arriving at the control room and Rodney immediately went to work on the door, activating the force-field.
When he was done, they stood alone in the empty control room, staring at each other. John was helpless against the memories that came flooding back.
"We've done this, all of this before," John said, running his hands over the computer. "I remember so many things, different versions of events, but we always end up here to push the self-destruct. What's going on?"
Rodney quickly hooked up his own computer to an open hub and started plugging things in. "The Mark-2 is down to 81%, something's drawing power."
John moved closer so he could look over Rodney's shoulder. "Can you trace it?"
Rodney shot him a withering look and then went back to punching keys. After a moment, he bent underneath the console, yanked on some wires, and then went back to his computer. "It's coming from one of the labs on level 5D...that's all I can tell."
"5D?" John let the new piece of information play over in his mind. Something was ringing a bell, but he couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was. His brain was too tired, his body too exhausted. He just wanted to curl up and sleep, but they'd be dead soon, plenty of time to sleep then-— and suddenly, it occurred to him. "That's close to where we found the other Elizabeth. The one that went back in time."
"That's right. You think this is related?"
John shrugged. "I don't know, you tell me."
Rodney nodded, punching a few more keys. "It's possible...we know the Ancients had the technology to travel in time."
"But I thought the old-Elizabeth said the Ancients ordered that guy..what was his name...Janus? To destroy the time machine Jumper and all of his work?"
Rodney shrugged. "The old-Elizabeth also said that Janus went against the Council and installed the failsafe that released Atlantis from the ocean floor, and then lied to them so she could stay back and rotate the ZPMs. Maybe he didn't destroy all his work...maybe Janus did more than just add that one failsafe. From what Elizabeth told us, he was pretty eager to ensure the city survived."
John shook his head. "You think this is another kind of failsafe? Against what? The Wraith taking control of Atlantis? It's not doing a very good job."
"I don't know, but there's a way I can find more information. If this loop happens again and Elizabeth is able to make it up to the control room with you, I'll go over to the lab on 5D and have a look."
"We should all go. If there's a way of stopping this before it happened, that's where we need to be."
Rodney put a hand on John's arm. "I don't know for certain, but it's possible that the self-destruct is what's triggering whatever is going on and if we want to live we need to make sure the time loop repeats again. I don't remember ever going to this lab before, so the safest thing to do is only change one variable at a time. I'll go the lab instead of the Daedalus like I was supposed to—though if memory serves me, I don't recall actually making it on there more than once or twice."
Rodney shot John a look, as if he was to blame and John shrugged off Rodney's arm. "So we just keep blowing up the city, over and over again?"
Rodney nodded morosely, leaning against the console. "What choice do we have? We can't risk changing anything until we know what's going on."
John closed his eyes. In the distance, he could hear blast fire and for a second he wasn't sure if it was real or remembered. He opened his eyes and saw the fear on Rodney's face and knew. It was happening all over again.
John helped Rodney into the control room, Rodney's arm and legs covered in burns from when the console in Junction-34 had exploded. The going had been tough, but at least they had made it. John locked the doors and tried to activate the force-field following Rodney's directions, but the only thing he accomplished was short-circuiting the whole panel.
"Damn, that won't buy us a lot of time," John said, going over to the computer and booting it up. At least he'd managed to rig a bomb of his own from some of the C-4 Lorne was carrying. After clearing the stairwell on their way up here, John had blown the whole thing sky high. Let's see the Wraith get over that, he'd thought looking down at the rubble.
Rodney limped over, leaning against the console when he got there. "Hook up my computer as well," he said panting, the exertion from walking on his own evident on his face. John reached to the back of Rodney's tac vest and unhooked the laptop.
"Look under the console and rip out one of the wires going into hub for the main computer. Cross it with those two yellow and blue wires coming in from the energy control systems and feed them back into the console. See if you can do it without setting everything on fire this time."
John glared at him. He was more exhausted than he ever remembered being and this time around the memories had come to life in his head even earlier. It felt like he was reliving weeks inside his head instead of only the last seventy-two hours. The last thing he wanted to deal with right now was Rodney snapping at him. He crawled under the console, with a flashlight. There were wires everywhere.
John crawled back out and tossed his flashlight on the console. "We don't really need to check the power levels, do we?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Fine. Better you not blow up the control systems before we activate the self-destruct anyway."
John wheeled a chair over for Rodney sit down on. Rodney couldn't even get into it by himself and John had to help ease him down. "Did you make it to the lab on 5D?"
Rodney nodded. "That part of Atlantis is still okay, I assume the Wraith haven't bothered to blow it up since that whole section is deserted and it doesn't have any major systems. I was right though. There's some kind of time-machine hooked up, feeding right off auxiliary power. As far as I can tell, it's wired to use whatever power is available. If the ZPM were hooked up, it'd be drawing power from there but it's not so it's eating power from the Mark-2."
"So why does this keep happening?"
"It's what I thought. Janus put in another failsafe, this one tied directly into the Stargate. I remember noticing the extra power draw when we rigged the self-destruct, but it didn't seem important at the time. Now I know. In case of catastrophic gate failure, which would likely destroy half the planet, this time machine would send us back in time to stop it."
John grabbed another chair and sat down himself. He was too tired to make sense of half of what Rodney was saying. "Then why haven't we found some way to stop the Wraith?"
"Well see, that's the problem. When do you have the most memories of?"
John thought about it for a moment. "Being here in the control room with you. After that it's the race up the stairs, then I have a bunch of memories of the group of us over in Junction-34. Before that it gets fuzzy. I remember Elizabeth getting shot, something happening with Teyla's weapon. Sometimes Lorne goes after the high-energy bomb, sometimes I do, sometimes Ronon does. Sometimes Beckett calls me on the radio saying he needs more time. But before that I just remember what happened this time."
Rodney nodded. "Me too. When I was examining the device, I discovered it's hooked up to a small AI, and by small of course, I mean in scope not technology. It's light years ahead of anything we could build. From what I could decode of its operating system, its main function is to evaluate how much power is available and balance that with the probability of changing the outcome so that the Stargate isn't destroyed the next time. From there, it brings us back in time a certain amount, in the hopes that we can fix whatever went wrong. Like a reset button almost. The problem is, I think it isn't sending us back far enough for us to be able to do something useful. The last time it reset, it only sent us back fifty-six minutes."
"So fix it. Override the AI and get it to send us back a day or two. Better yet, get it to send us back to before the first hive ship arrived. We could stop this whole mess from happening right from the beginning."
Rodney shook his head. "Sorry. The Mark-2 has a lot of power, but not nearly enough to jump that far back. The power requirements are exponential. To send us back five minutes further, would use up a tenth of the total power. To send us back six minutes would use almost fifty percent. The AI has calculated the best jump it can make, for the most number of times. It's banking on the fact that we're bound to get it right eventually if we do it enough times."
A sinking feeling started to settle in the pit of his stomach. "So how many times can it reset the timeline before the Mark-2 runs out?"
"If it always sent us back fifty-six minutes, the Mark-2 could support five hundred jumps. The AI however, revaluates the decision matrix each time. As the power levels get lower, it will send us less farther back until all we're doing is reliving the self-destruct, over and over and over again."
"This isn't quite how I imagined spending eternity," John said, slumping down in his seat. Over and over and over again sounded like a pretty long time. He rubbed his eyes, trying to take it all in. "So we have no choice but to keep blowing up the city?"
Rodney nodded, looking just as exhausted as John felt. "If the Wraith get control of Atlantis and we don't activate the self-destruct, the failsafe doesn't activate and we become stuck in that timeline. We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't."
"There's gotta be a way to stop them."
Rodney shrugged, leaning his head down on the console. "I'm open for suggestions. An hour ago I was rewiring the doors at Junction-34 and you and Ronon were blowing things up. What can we do differently, beside change the pattern of the explosion so I don't get deep fried? By then we've already lost the three forward positions, we're just trying to give the Daedalus enough time to launch. At this point, we have no choice but to arm the self-destruct, the Wraith have won."
John rubbed his forehead. "The Wraith won when the first hive ship showed up within our shield and blew up the ZPM. Everything we did after that was just damage control and trying to slow them down."
Rodney suddenly smiled and snapped his fingers and then grimaced. "Ow, ow, ow. Oh God, the pain. I've got it though. I think I've got an idea," he said, gripping his hand on the console.
John leaned forward in his chair. "What?"
"What if each time, we hurry up and detonate the self-destruct as soon as possible. It might take us a bit of time, but if we work quickly, we should be able to get pushed back farther and farther each loop, even taking into account the decreasing power source. That's only seventy-two jumps back from here, assuming of course we could arm the self destruct immediately each time. The Mark-2 can support 500 jumps at fifty-six minutes, that should give us some wiggle room in case things take longer sometimes…"
John stopped listening to the words and let Rodney ramble on while he put the pieces together in his own mind. Logically, they could do it, if they didn't wait until the last minute to blow up the city, they could slowly creep back farther into the past with each jump. The question was could they do it physically? He felt like he was drowning in the mist of all the memories from the previous jumps, being pulled down into an abyss from the pain he could remember feeling. The ache of sending Lorne off to die, of watching Elizabeth get shot, of killing Elizabeth with his own gun, over and over again. The searing pain of dying when they finally detonated the self-destruct.
"...we'll have to be prepared for unexpected situations. I mean, we're done this particular jump who knows how many times but—"
"Rodney," John interrupted him by standing up and holding his hand out to help Rodney up as well. "Stop talking. We need to blow up the city."
Rodney snapped his mouth shut and swallowed nervously, taking his hand. "Right. Blow up the city."
John brought them over to the computer to input the codes and then over to the DHD to activate the self-destruct.
"You're sure that the failsafe's going to work?" John asked. The Wraith still hadn't found their way up to the control room and his skin was itching at the thought of killing everyone, killing themselves sooner than they had to. It was worth the risk, he believed that completely, but regardless of what Rodney had always yelled at him, he didn't have a death wish.
Rodney gave him a smile. "There's always the chance the AI might decide there's no point; that we're never going to figure it out, and use whatever remaining power there is to transport itself somewhere nice and sunny and live out it's remaining time in a nice time-share."
John rolled his eyes and found the self-destruct button, taking a deep breath and crossing his fingers as he pushed it down.
They ran full speed into the control room, not even stopping to arm the force-field. Rodney pulled at John's arm, panting and out of breath as he collapsed against a console.
"Why doesn't Elizabeth remember?" Rodney asked when he finally caught his breath.
John shrugged. They'd tried to explain it to Teyla, Ronon, Lorne and Elizabeth back at Junction-34, only to be greeted by three very confused looks. The only one who seemed to remember the other timelines was Lorne. "Maybe it has something to do with the gene?"
Rodney nodded. "Actually, that makes sense. Maybe that's why each time, things have been slightly different. "
"What do you mean?"
"Well a failsafe like this is only good if people remember their past actions, so they know what to change and what not to. If none of us remembered, we'd probably just repeat the same actions over and over and over again."
"How does the failsafe control our memories based on the gene?"
Rodney thought about it for a moment. "It probably doesn't. I think it's only the people with the ATA gene that are being transported back in time. It must use the gene as a way of identifying us."
John shuddered at the thought of Atlantis openly seeking out the gene carriers. It was one thing to need the gene to activate some technology, but if what Rodney was theorizing was actually true, then this was crossing a line Atlantis had never crossed before and it left a bad taste in his mouth. He forced himself to remember that it was only a theory. "Why aren't there multiple copies of us running around then?"
Rodney shook his head. "No, no. It doesn't transport our bodies; it certainly doesn't have energy for that. I think maybe it just transports our consciousnesses. Merging them back into our bodies when we get there..."
John stared at him, the thought of what Rodney was describing making him even more nauseous. "You're telling me it locates us through the ATA gene and then rips out our consciousnesses and transports them back in time at the very last minute? This just gets better and better."
Rodney shrugged. "I'm just guessing, but it does fit all the facts. To be honest, this isn't quite what I imagined when I thought about growing old with you either," Rodney said throwing in a laugh at the end as if to deflect his words.
John looked at him sharply. "Rodney—"
"No, no, I know," Rodney said, waving his arms in dismissal as if his words hadn't meant that much, even if the set to his face told the truth. "Friends. But friends can grow older together too, you know. We're friends. That's what you said; right after you didn't admit that you wanted to be something more. Now, don't we have a city to blow up? We're wasting time."
John looked at Rodney for a long second before he wheeled him over to the computer. They'd only moved ahead by ten minutes or so the last time, but this time they hadn't wasted any time. Lorne had believed their explanation and convinced the rest of the group to provide support while him and Rodney ran to the control room to blow up the city. John prayed that they were right. If not, they'd just sacrificed the Daedalus, left it sitting on the dock waiting for a pilot for nothing.
Rodney interrupted his thoughts. "Sheppard?"
John looked at him. Rodney had already inputted his code and was waiting for him. John took a deep breath before starting. They'd committed to this course now, and it was only going to get harder.
"Is it working?" Lorne asked John, wiping the sweat from his brow. They were sitting next to each other, hiding behind a barricade of chairs and tables, just outside the mess hall.
John nodded, trying to breathe with all the smoke. They were at the second defensive position they'd staked out, there was one more they could fall back to before reaching Junction-34. A fire had started in the mess--one of the fuel lines used for cooking had exploded, and the smoke was quickly filling the hall. "I think so. This is the second time I remember being here. What about you?"
"Yeah. You would think that with all the damn failsafes in this city, the water sprinklers would have kicked in by now."
John gave him a dry laugh without much mirth to it. "Atlantis can keep anymore failsafes to herself. The city sensors have been offline for a day now, so there's no way to put out the fire. How are you holding up?"
"Shitty," Lorne said before risking a look over the barricade. "You should go. The smoke is good cover, and I can hold the Wraith back by myself for a little while. Don't worry about explaining things to Elizabeth and Teyla, I'll make something up if you haven't activated the self-destruct by the time we regroup. I give us another five minutes before we have to pull back from here because of the smoke. Might as well make your break now."
"Thanks," John said, taking in a deep breath before putting his feet underneath him. Waiting for a lull in the blast fire, John looked him over. Lorne had deep circles under his eyes that even the soot and smoke couldn't cover. John knew exactly how he felt.
John moved over to the DHD, the alarm warning them in the background that the self-destruct was armed. "Anything we need to sort out before the next jump?" He asked, more for his own benefit than Rodney's. If he remembered correctly, an hour ago in linear time, they'd been in the infirmary with Carson, trying to help him triage the wounded. With so many to care for, everyone had been called to help. The next jump should be quick since the Wraith were still pinned in the northeast wing and down by the east dock. They should be able to move freely back to the control room.
Rodney came up to him. "We could talk about these feelings you have for me."
"I think I'd rather blow up the city," John replied harshly, wishing he'd never said anything. A stupid mistake in a moment of weakness, and now it was a distraction to both of them because Rodney refused to let it rest.
Rodney grabbed his arms, his eyes flashing with anger. "I guess I was stupid enough to think that even given your propensity for shooting and blowing things up, you still respected life. You know, I had even convinced myself that that's why you did what you did; because you respected life and freedom so much, you were willing to kill to protect it, as ass-backwards as that sounds."
"What do you want from me, Rodney?" John threw up his arms in anger and frustration, knocking Rodney's hands away. Maybe it was better this way. Touching Rodney when he activated the self-destruct was just a weakness, an indulgence he obviously couldn't longer afford any longer. More distance between them would make it easier to concentrate on the next jump and make it easier to prepare for any eventual setbacks. He turned away from Rodney and towards the DHD.
"You know that each time you detonate the self-destruct, there's a chance that it might be our last. It wouldn't be the first time something the Ancients' designed backfired."
John squared his shoulders as Rodney lay his hand down on his arm. "I know," the words came out as a whisper, softer than he had intended
Rodney snorted angrily behind him, turning John around and forcing him to look up. "So you're telling me it's better never to attempt anything in case it doesn't work out in the end? How the hell did you ever get to be a fighter pilot? I thought they were all reckless daredevils too stupid to recognize the possible inherent risks in their jobs and just plowed through one thrill after another."
John's anger didn't abate; he was pretty sure Rodney had just insulted him again. "Some risks are easier to take than others."
Rolling his eyes, Rodney grabbed both of John's arms, and brought his face down onto his. At first, John didn't even realize what they were doing. Rodney's lips were hard under his and when his thought processes finally caught up to him and the word kiss flashed in his mind, he immediately pulled back. Rodney's response however, was to hold on to his arms even tighter, and actually start kissing him. Slow, deliberate movements of his lips against John's, softer and suddenly giving, begging him to respond just a little.
John was too exhausted; too hurt and too brittle to resist very hard. He finally relented, letting the muscles in his lips relax and almost sank into Rodney completely. John brought his hands up to cup Rodney's face, felt the rough stubble on his cheeks and the angular plane of his jaw and gripped a little bit harder.
When Rodney finally pulled back, his lips were dark and swollen, and John was left to catch his breath again.
"Okay, now you can hit the self-destruct," Rodney whispered, moving so that he could stand side by side with John.
John stood there, shell-shocked and numb.
"Casualty reports are coming in," Carson said, grabbing the papers from the nurses and marines as they dropped them off. There were so many people requiring medical attention that they'd commandeered the four other labs on this level. Ronon and Teyla had set up a temporary first-aid stand setup on the south pier where the Daedalus had touched down.
"And?" Elizabeth asked from behind him. John was standing off to the side watching everything.
"It's not good Elizabeth. Everyone aboard the Daedalus requires some form of medical treatment and there are twelve confirmed dead so far. Colonel Caldwell was one of them. The fire on the bridge killed almost all the senior officers."
John heard Elizabeth's intake of breath from where he was. "My God..."
Carson looked at the papers again, his brow furrowing even further before he shook his head.
"We have to evacuate," Elizabeth whispered, turning to John. "Without the Daedalus, we're sitting ducks. We need to get Rodney on the repairs so we can get everyone out of here. Start sending the jumpers out with as many people as possible."
John nodded as though on automatic. He remembered that from here he had sent out all the jumpers and left the Daedalus to last to give it as much time as possible for repairs. It was supposed to transport all the injured personnel still requiring treatment. Pouring over the maps of the city, him and Lorne had detailed the three defensive positions they could hold to keep the passage ways from the medical labs to the south pier open for as long as possible while still keeping a secured route to the control room.
John remembered it all perfectly, but that wasn't what he was going to do now. He turned to Carson and asked quietly, "Do you remember all the times we've done this?"
At first Carson didn't appear to know what he was talking about, but without further clarification, he eventually nodded.
"Good, because not everyone does, if you know what I mean. Rodney remembers, so does Lorne."
"What are you talking about, John?" Elizabeth asked.
John took a deep breath and debated explaining it to her. The last few times it had been getting harder and harder to convince her of what was going on since the situations were less dire, so this time he decided against saying anything.
"Nothing, sorry, Elizabeth. I just have a headache and I'm exhausted. I was hoping Beckett could give me something to stay awake."
Carson eyed him carefully. "I have some stimulants in the back, why don't you come with me and I'll get them."
John followed him into the supply closet at the back of the lab. When they were out of Elizabeth's sight, he immediately brought Carson up to speed.
"You're making my head spin, Colonel. What do you mean we have to jump backwards a tiny bit at a time? What if what we do changes something in the future and you never figure this out to begin with?"
John rubbed his temples. "You're giving me a headache. Look, the only thing you need to worry about is that we have to continue to activate the self-destruct as quickly as possible so we can travel back to the beginning of this whole mess. If I call you on the radio, you need to help me out. Mostly I need you to keep Elizabeth out of my hair and run interference. The longer I have to spend convincing people of what's going on, the more jumps it will take to fix. Less than half the people on the base realize we're repeating time, I need as much help as I can get."
Carson nodded, pulling out the bottle of aspirin, handing two to John and taking two for himself. "Tell me what you need."
"Distract Elizabeth and give me two injectable, fast acting sedatives. I think Sergeant Campbell and another tech are the only ones manning the stations in the control room."
"I can see why Elizabeth might have a hard time believing you if you're going around drugging people," Carson said, crossing his arms.
"Remember, the longer I spend convincing you, the more times we get to die in the self-destruct. It's a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling isn't it, being incinerated at 5000 degrees?"
Carson swallowed nervously and then searched a shelf for two syringes. He filled them both with a clear liquid, tapped out the air, recapped the needles and handed them to John. "Make sure you inject it into muscles, okay?"
"Thanks," John said, pocketing the meds and tapping on his radio. "Rodney, this is Sheppard. Meet me in the control room, ASAP. And if you can, deactivate the audible alarm for the self-destruct."
They were getting closer.
"The Wraith can't beam directly into the central tower of Atlantis, there's trace amounts of Naqahdah in the girders of this section that interferes with their transportation technology," Rodney explained from his seat. "The few darts that have gotten close enough to drop Wraith off in the city have left them on the outskirts of the northeast wing."
John sat in his chair in the meeting room, looking down at his tactical screen. It showed the Daedalus engaging the hive ship in small skirmishes, but for some reason the Wraith never went in for the kill. The hive would push the upper hand when it got it; the Daedalus had suffered damage as a result, but when the Daedalus got too close, the hive ship jumped to hyperspace, only to return an hour later. It was like it was toying with them.
Suddenly, he felt a sharp vertigo—like being in a car crash. Something threw him against the side; accelerating him in the direction of travel only to be jerked back in place by a seatbelt as everything clicked inside his head. All the previous memories came rushing back at once, leaving him breathless. He closed his eyes against the onslaught, but he could see everything. Blood, burning, death, destruction. They were everywhere. Cracking his eyes open, he expected to find himself back in the crossfire and debris, hiding in the hallway leading to Junction-34. He blinked rapidly when he realized he wasn't. He hadn't even moved from his chair. The lights were still on, the city wasn't shaking from explosions, the ceilings and walls were still where they were supposed to be. He wasn't in the hallway at all. He was in the meeting room with Elizabeth and Rodney, trying to come up with a plan.
Turning his hands over in his lap, he was surprised to see that they were clean.
Clenching his fists so they didn't shake, John checked his watch. The three other hive ships were due to arrive in twenty minutes.
They were more than halfway there.
John slumped down on the table in relief, cradling his head in his arms as he tried to remember things about this specific timeline. Things had been tense during the fights with the first hive ship, but not nearly as bloody as the two days following the arrival of the others. That meant the rest of this should be relatively easy compared to what they'd been through already. He glanced over at Rodney as saw that Rodney had stopped speaking. "You okay?"
Rodney looked disoriented but nodded and stood as well, unplugging his computer and getting ready to take it with him. Elizabeth looked back and forth between them with surprise. "What's going on?"
John hit his radio and called Lorne and Carson up to the meeting room. Lorne responded right away, indicating that it would take a few moments to get up there but Carson was in surgery, and not about to stop what he was doing. John bit the edge of his lip, trying to evaluate his options, while Elizabeth stood up as well and put her hands on his hips, giving him a pointed look.
There was only one thing he could do, he realized quickly. He had to convince Elizabeth. Even if Carson could come and sedate her, a glance outside the open doors of the meeting room showed him that the control room was full of people. There was no way they could sedate everyone. On the other hand, if Elizabeth believed him, she could order everyone out of the way and they would listen.
He forced his expression to soften a little so he didn't look as crazy and brittle as he felt. They were so close. He just had to remember that.
He moved next to Elizabeth, keeping his voice low. With the doors open, he could see the control room which he liked, but he didn't want his voice to carry. "Elizabeth, we don't have a lot of time, but you've got to trust what I'm about to say. There's a failsafe built in to the self-destruct that we never noticed before. We think your buddy Janus installed it when he added the other failsafe to release Atlantis from the ocean floor. When the self-destruct is activated, this new failsafe sends us back in time so that we can try and save the city.
"In two days time, we're going to have to destroy the city; that's how we know about the failsafe. However, the failsafe will only transport us back an hour because we've lost the ZPM. The Mark-2 generator can't send us all the way back. I know this sounds crazy, but Rodney and I have been doing these small jumps backwards in time, each time trying to activate the self-destruct as soon as possible so we can jump a little further back."
Rodney nodded confirming his story but Elizabeth still had a look of disbelief on her face. She shook her head. "Why didn't you say something sooner?"
"We just got here."
"You were both sitting in that meeting room for the last hour with me."
"No. Well, yes," Rodney jumped in. "We were, but our old selves just got here and merged with this timeline. Believe me Elizabeth, he's right."
Lorne arrived, panting slightly as he stopped. John patted him on the back, gently pushing Lorne so that he stood between him and Elizabeth. "Lorne can confirm our story as well, ask him all the questions you want. Rodney and I have to get things ready."
Lorne nodded, stepping aside to let them pass and John heard the beginnings of the now familiar speech as he and Rodney moved into the control room. The last few jumps had taken longer than he would have liked to activate the self-destruct because there were so many people milling about. This time was no different, except that there wasn't the edge of panic in the air. The three hive ships hadn't come and destroyed most of the primary and secondary systems yet. The control room was full of people at their stations and others coordinating the repairs with the Daedalus from the last encounter with the hive.
It was almost shocking to see all the computers still hooked up, and all the lights still in on.
"If I can have your attention," Rodney shouted from the main computer. "I have to rewire the main control systems to boost power. However, since we lost the power distribution labs which let me turn off the power I am going to be rewiring, there's a good chance this will backfire in a horrible explosion. Anyone not wanting to become human marshmallows should get out. If I haven't died in ten minutes, you can come back in."
Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to look at Rodney. John had to smile at his improvisation.
Rodney rolled his eyes as if their stupidness wasn't his concern, went over to the main computer and pushed the technician out of the way. "Fine, just stand there. If you're all too stupid to live, I don't need you here anyway."
Eventually, several people picked up what they were working on and left, while most others just decided to take a break and follow them.
When the crowd dispersed, John could see that the only people remaining were the two Marines stationed by the Stargate, on the level below. John went over to Rodney so that he could enter the codes as soon as the computer was ready. Hopefully, by the time the alarm sounded indicating that the self-destruct was armed, they could blow up the city before the Marines had the chance to stop them.
Rodney pulled up the program so they could input their codes.
"John, I can't let you do this!" Elizabeth rushed into the control room, pushing Rodney away from the computer.
Lorne was close behind. "Sorry, sir. She won't listen—"
Elizabeth quickly started punching in keys. "Weir, Elizabeth, authorization code Juliet-five-two-two—"
"Don't!" John yelled, grabbing her arms and pulling her away from the keyboard. "What are you doing?"
"I'm overriding your codes. Obviously something's happened to the three of you, the stress has made you snap. I'm not letting you blow up the city."
"We're not crazy, Elizabeth," John said, not letting go of her wrist. "We're trapped in a damn time machine. If we don't blow up the city, in two days we'll have no choice but to do so and we'll be back in the same position we were when this started, but with even less power. That means that the jumps will be shorter, and it will take us longer to get back to this point and we'll just die, over and over and over again. We have to do this now."
"Even if your story is true and we have to blow up the city in two days, that's a bridge we can cross then. The Daedalus has been able to keep the hive ship from launching an attack so far. If we work together on a solution instead of wiring the self-destruct, maybe we can come up with a way to destroy the hive ship and stop the situation from getting to such a desperate point. We're not there yet."
John didn't know if he wanted to hide his face or scream. His head was throbbing from trying to keep everything straight, trying to remember what had happened, what still had to happen and should be happening in the current timeline. There was also a part of him that wanted to believe Elizabeth. He was just so damn tired of doing this—he could feel his doubt starting to surface.
"What if the failsafe doesn't activate?" Elizabeth continued, her eyes on fire as she tried to jerk her arm out of John's grasp. "You can't just kill us for no reason."
John didn't let go of her, debating her words in his mind. Atlantis wasn't in serious trouble right now. They were holding off the attacks. Maybe knowing what they did about the future, they could change the outcome. They still had to travel nineteen hours into the past to reach the start of the battle, God knows how long it had taken to get to this point and how much longer it would take to go all the way.
Maybe. Maybe the possibility of the failsafe not working outweighed the possibility of them figuring out a way to change the timeline. He couldn't figure it out. He was just so damn exhausted.
"John," Rodney called out to him, and the use of his name startled John into looking over and dropping Elizabeth's arm. It was the first time Rodney had ever called him that. "You told me that after we lost the ZPM, we were just stopping the inevitable from happening. Three more hive ships are going to be here in fifteen minutes and the first thing those darts are going to blow up is Engineering. We have to keep going."
John nodded, remembering everything they'd been through—everything they'd go through again if they continued in this timeline and he knew Rodney was right. Turning away from Elizabeth, he went back to the main computer. They couldn't afford not to continue. "Sheppard, John. Authorization code delta-sierra-four-seven—"
"I'm not going to let you do it," Elizabeth said, shoving him away from the computer with all her weight. John skittered a couple of steps, but by then she was shouting at the Marines for help.
Lorne covered her mouth with his hand, but it was too late. The Marines were running towards the stairs. Rodney didn't waste any time. "McKay, Rodney. Authorization code mike-three-victor-victor, three-alpha-six-zero, india-tango-five-kilo, seven-two-yankee-three."
John pulled out his Beretta, just as the Marines reached the control room, their rifles at the ready. He quickly noticed that neither of them had the gene.
Lorne had to let go of Elizabeth to bring his own P90 up.
"Stop them," Elizabeth ordered as John tried to move closer to the computer. As the Marines pointed their rifles at them, John aimed his sidearm at Elizabeth's head.
"Don't do this Elizabeth. Please don't make me shoot you," John said, begging her to back down. "Not again."
"My God, John," Elizabeth said, her mouth twisted in horror, and a sickening feeling started to pool in John's stomach. There was no way this was going to end well.
"Step away from the computer Doctor," Corporal Brenham said to Rodney, gesturing with his P90 in the direction he wanted Rodney to move.
"Stay where you are Rodney," John replied, keeping his Beretta firmly sighted on Elizabeth. Out of the corner of his eye, John could see Rodney rocking back and forth on his feet, not sure what to do, while Lorne was aiming his rifle at Sergeant Homes. Elizabeth stood between him and Brenham, looking scared but not relenting.
"Are you going to make them kill us, Elizabeth?" John asked, trying to bring the attention to him. If he could just provide a small distraction...
Homes flicked his eyes in John's direction, and Lorne fired, bringing Homes down with a thud. Elizabeth flinched, but didn't drop as John expected her to do so he threw himself to the side, firing rapidly at Brenham hoping to hit him with something. Brenham was already firing though, and kept firing even as blood sprayed out from behind him and he dropped to the ground.
John lay on the floor, breathless as adrenaline pumped through his veins. The firing had stopped, but his whole body was still shaking from the vibrations. He looked around, but he couldn't see anyone standing. Forcing himself up on his arms, he saw Brenham lying on his side, and just beside him, Elizabeth was coughing up blood.
"Shit!" John said, scrambling up and going towards her, slipping on blood that was starting to pool around her stomach. He reached her, grabbing her face and bringing it close to him.
Her eyes fluttered as she coughed again, but she didn't say anything. Following some convulsions, her body suddenly stilled, and John gripped her even tighter. "This wasn't supposed to happen."
"Colonel..." Lorne called from behind him, and the knot in John's stomach tightened even further. There was something about Lorne's voice that told him things were even worse.
John lay Elizabeth back down on the floor and got up, noticing his hands were covered with her blood. He quickly wiped his hands on his pants. Homes was lying on the ground close to the stairs, not moving.
Lorne was over by the computer console, clutching his arm, and as soon as John moved closer, he knew what Lorne had been calling him about. Rodney was lying on the floor behind him.
John ran to Rodney's side, sliding down beside him, feeling his neck for some kind of pulse.
No no no no no no no no no no
Rodney was already dead, Brenham had hit him right in the heart.
John lay his head down on Rodney's chest, shaking with fury. Everyone was dead. Everyone was dying. And nothing was getting easier.
"You should enter your code," Lorne said.
The radio from the side console was buzzing; John could hear it from where he was. People were trying to figure out what those noises were, wondering if Dr McKay really had exploded the systems he was working on. Lorne came over and helped him stand and John noticed that Lorne was covered in blood as well.
John moved over to the computer Rodney had set up for the self-destruct. "Sheppard, John. Authorization code delta-sierra-four-seven, one-x-ray-six-echo, charlie-nine-charlie-whiskey, zero-zero-alpha-one."
The alarm started blaring, and the door opened up, letting in more Marines. They came running into the control room, but were too busy trying to take everything in to stop John from moving to the DHD.
With his eyes never leaving Rodney's body, he detonated the self-destruct.
"How'd they get there? How could a hive ship open a hyperspace window in the atmosphere? It shouldn't be able to do it," Rodney was shouting at no one in particular.
The city was shaking from fire. John's radio crackled with chatter.
"We can't activate the shield. The hive ship is too close, and there are proximity safeties in place that prevent the shield from engaging. I think I can disengage them—" Zelenka said over the radio. "I'm on my way to the main power station, now."
John stared at Rodney, too stunned from the incoming rush of memories to realize what he was hearing.
Rodney however, wasn't stunned at all. "No! Zelenka, stop. Don't go anywhere near it."
"There's no other way to disengage the failsafes," Zelenka replied. "We're helpless without that shield."
John almost shouted. Zelenka was still alive, they were all alive, but the hive ship was already here. Looking around the chaos of the control room, John realized they must have missed its arrival by several minutes.
He grabbed Rodney's arm. "Let's do it, now. No one will notice if we're quick. We're almost there."
Rodney nodded and quickly switched over the system he'd been using and brought up the self-destruct program.
"Did you see what Mackenzie did to the output levels? Idiot. He almost set fire to the lab again," Zelenka said with a smile as Rodney and John stood there staring at him in disbelief.
They were standing on the balcony, just outside Elizabeth's office. John looked through one of the far windows and saw that the sky was blue and clear.
Blue and clear.
The hive ship hadn't arrived yet.
"Activate the cloak!" John said, turning and shouting across the control room, quickly moving towards the main controls. Everyone stopped and looked at him until Rodney started shouting as well, quick on his heels.
"What are you deaf? Activate the damn cloak—-never mind," Rodney said, running towards the console and pushing people out of his way as he clicked switches and pulled up screens on the closest computer. John had never seen him type so fast, flying across the keys.
His heart was hammering in his chest when a barely audible hum moved through the city.
"It's done..." Rodney said, trailing off and collapsing into the closest chair.
Suddenly, John's legs felt like they were going to give out from underneath him. Had they really done it? Was it actually, finally over?
"What's going on?" Elizabeth asked, coming over to them, just as Lorne and Carson ran into the control room.
"Is it done?" Carson asked.
John nodded, leaning against the closest wall he could find, and sliding all the way to the floor.
Ten minutes later, the hive ship arrived. It came out of hyperspace so close to the central spire, Rodney belatedly thought it might interfere with the cloak. Five minutes after it arrived though, the hive ship left and everything stayed quiet.
John looked up and saw Rodney standing over top of him. "Are you going to sit there all night?" Rodney asked, sliding down so he was sitting next to him.
John looked around the deserted observatory. Usually there were a few people in here at any given time, atmospheric scientists and astronomers fighting over computer time or people coming to look at the stars after their shifts. But word about what had happened had spread to those without the ATA gene and when John had come here looking for some peace and quiet, they gave it to him without question.
"I was thinking about it." He was so tired, he thought he might actually be too tired to sleep.
Rodney settled in, looking up. "You know, for an astrophysicist, I don't actually like looking at the stars that much. I find them a little unnerving, you know?"
"I was looking for some peace and quiet," John said trying to give him the hint. He couldn't deal with what he was pretty sure Rodney wanted to deal with right now. His mind was still trying to organize the mess in his head.
Rodney just ignored him. "You know, Elizabeth ordered us all to bed—"
"But I'm fairly certain she meant each of us in our own. I didn't ask for clarification, though."
John couldn't help but crack a smile and shake his head. Rodney was just Rodney, and maybe if he could keep him from thinking too much it wasn't a bad thing. The truth was Rodney could be as stubborn and pushy as he wanted to be as long as John never had to see him die again. The smile faded as the memories swallowed him up again.
"Don't," Rodney said, reaching for his hand.
John almost bolted when he felt Rodney's fingers brush against his. But Rodney's hand was strong and anchoring, and as Rodney leaned against him, John got a stronger sense of peace than the stars had given him all night.
John curled his fingers around Rodney's, testing out this new sensation and feeling the calmness spread through his body.
"How many times do you think we repeated all that?" John asked after a few minutes of silence. He wasn't sure he really wanted to know, but if he didn't say something, he was pretty sure they were going to fall asleep right there.
Rodney straightened up a little. "I don't know. It had to be at least seventy-two times, but probably at least twice that. Maybe even three times. What if you had let Elizabeth persuade you into trying that whole timeline?"
John shrugged. "If I had, we'd probably still be stuck in there."
Rodney snorted in agreement and then went silent again as if he was thinking. "You know, I think there might be a way to find out how long we were in there."
Rodney groaned as he forced himself to stand.
"I didn't mean now," John said, already missing his heat. He'd thought the whole discussion was academic anyway. It didn't matter if they'd done it one hundred or three hundred times. They were out of it now.
"Come on," Rodney said, waiting for him to stand up. "I was thinking the AI must have a log or something. Let's just go see what it says and then find someplace better to sleep. My back is killing me."
John stood behind him and Rodney plugged in his computer to the AI. It had taken him twenty minutes to figure out how to interface them, but now that the problem was solved, Rodney promised he'd be quick.
Rodney tapped a few keys, and then suddenly stopped as the data dump started scrolling across the screen. It was moving too fast for John to read, and it kept going and going. John was shocked at how long the log was. Just as Rodney was about to pull the power cord and start over again, the scrolling stopped and they were left with half a screen that detailed the last few events.
John scanned the text quickly until he came to the end and then he stared transfixed at the last few words. Coldness crept over him as he made sense of all the memories swimming in his head. Any thoughts he had of sleeping tonight or maybe ever again, evaporated into the air.
Last activated at time 13455.6
Codes used: Sheppard, John, McKay, Rodney
Current status: Power level 24% before last activation
Failsafe operated successfully 12,314 times