Colonel John Sheppard closed the last file and tossed it on the desk. He sighed and leaned back on his chair. He'd been reading personnel records for the last three hours; his eyes were starting to itch and he was getting restless. After almost a week stuck under the mountain, he missed the sky. He glared at the ceiling, but unfortunately, X-Vision wasn't among his Gifts, and the rock stayed stubbornly gray and solid.
John stretched out his arms, trying to wake himself up. General O'Neill wanted his preliminary choices and any suggestions he might have by tomorrow's meeting. There were about 200 positions to fill, and as the mission's commander, he was supposed to give his opinion for both the military and civilian ones. He’d tried to get out the civilian selection process, but O'Neill had just smirked and told him that he was sure Dr. Sheppard will be up for the job. Damn the man. Paperwork and bureaucracy were the things about command that he truly hated.
He sighed, and his eyes fell on the file he had set aside at the beginning. It was the only one he had no choice about: Dr. Rodney McKay, the Chief Science Officer. John took the file and re-read the handwritten Post-It note Sam had stuck on the cover:
McKay's an ass, but he's also the best expert in Ancient technology we have.
You may want to invest in a muzzle, though ;)
John smirked. Sam hadn't changed since he last saw her.
John opened the file. The photo showed a man with thinning hair, a fierce expression and amazing blue eyes. The file seemed to confirm Sam's assessment: McKay's IQ was stratospheric, and his list of degrees, doctorates and achievements was huge and awe-inspiring, but the portion of his file dedicated to complaints and grievances was almost three fingers thick. John quickly chastised himself. His own wasn't thin either, and that was considering that his status as Bloodfire had helped him weather out things that would have meant a black mark or a discharge for a mundane.
McKay had been chosen as CSO for the first Atlantis Expedition, after lobbying heavily for it, but he’d stayed behind to help his seriously ill sister, as he was the only compatible donor for the bone marrow transplant she’d needed. That was something John respected and it said a lot about the man.
O'Neill had warned John that now that McKay's sister was healed, nothing short of shackling him down with reinforced titanium chains to a rock deep down in the Mariana Trench will prevent the man from going to Atlantis. Even if that meant hacking the gate, which will piss off Carter, so the General really preferred to prevent it, thank you very much.
John's eyes wandered back to McKay's photo. He'd been informed that McKay had returned from the Antarctic Outpost this morning. Maybe it was time to meet him.
John heard the scientist before he saw him.
"Did you find your degree in a box of cereals or did you just buy it off the University of Stupidland?? Did you think I like to spend my time fixing the mistakes of a bunch of morons?? I should let you use that equation and take yourselves out of the gene pool!"
He followed the voice to a medium-sized lab. Three men and a woman were looking at McKay with varying degrees of anger and fear. One of the men, a short guy with round glasses, seemed about to pee himself, while the taller African-American guy would have incinerated McKay right there if looks could kill. Behind them, a strange contraption about the size of a computer tower made of metal and crystals sat on a long table. A piece seemed to be missing from the top, probably the same crystal McKay was poking the scientists with.
John leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest. McKay in full rant was a sight to behold. None of the scientists had time to interject anything, simply because McKay barely stopped to take a breath before following his tirade.
"Did you think that when I order you to do something, I only do it to hear myself talk? No, don't answer that. Have you even bothered to read the report about that thing? I didn't forbid you to activate it before the math has been triple-checked just to annoy you or give myself extra work!" The black guy muttered something John didn't catch. "Yes, Pearse, I do know better because oh, I spend five years studying the damned things while you were destroying your neurons with some black market chemical compound in that poor excuse for a learning institution you attended!"
John smirked. This was the best entertainment he'd seen in a while. He turned his head to look at the whiteboard. While he didn't know what the equation was for, he spotted the calculation error quickly enough. Pushing himself off the doorframe, he walked to the whiteboard, mentally calculating the necessary changes. He grabbed the eraser and deleted the error, taking care not to allow his claws to grate the board. Even sheathed, they could tear the surface to ribbons.
"Hey, what are you doing..." McKay's voice faded out as John began writing. For a moment, as the black marker glided over the whiteboard, he allowed himself to get lost in the world of numbers, one that made sense like nothing else did.
After he finished the corrections, he took a deep breath, capped the pen and turned to McKay, a smirk on his face. For a moment, McKay seemed startled by John's amber Bloodfire eyes, but recovered quickly.
"Who the hell are you?" McKay demanded.
"Colonel John Sheppard, USAF. I think you're on my expedition?"
McKay stared intently at him for a few long seconds. Then, he straightened and turned just enough to glare at the other scientists.
"Get out all of you! If even a flyboy can see the mess you've made, you have no business being here!" he barked at them. The taller man seemed to want to protest, but the other three bodily herded him out the lab. McKay looked back at him, narrowing his eyes. "You and I have much to discuss."
After kicking his colleagues out the lab, McKay closed the door and plopped down on his chair. He looked pointedly at John, then at the chair on the other side of the lab bench and then back at John, and raised an eyebrow. John snorted, sauntered to the chair and sat down on it.
"So, you're the one who has to lead us to Atlantis?" McKay started.
"General O'Neill seems to think so," John grinned.
"Were you trying to impress me with that bit of math? Because I'm not impressed. My 3-year-old niece could have fixed that equation."
"If you say so..." John replied. "But no, I wasn't trying to impress you," John continued before McKay could interject. "Being a Thales is one of my Gifts. Seeing wrong math is like a stabbing in my eyes. Fixing it is akin to a compulsion," he informed the scientist.
McKay stared at him, his lips thinning in a frown, and his hands twitched on a file. Dialing up his hearing a bit, John could hear McKay’s heart beating faster. "You know, it's the first time someone is envious of that particular Gift." McKay's face reddened. "People are usually envious of the Healing, the Sentinel senses or even the claws..."
"I'm the smartest man in the galaxy!" McKay shouted. "Do you have any idea of what I could accomplish with a Gift like that?? But no, the one who gets it is a flyboy who uses it to calculate the best way to make things explode!"
John tried very hard not to laugh at the scientist’s obvious frustration. By McKay’s glare, he wasn't completely successful. McKay opened his mouth to talk, but stopped and closed it again, giving him a vitriolic glare. He grabbed a thick file and smacked it down the bench, glowering at John the whole time. John just relaxed back in his chair.
"O'Neill deigned himself to inform me that you have the final word on all mission personnel, except myself..."
"He told me so, too,” John quipped.
McKay glared harder, if that was possible.
"The SGC and the IOA had been trying to push a bunch of morons at me," McKay informed him, gesturing at the file. "Half of them are not even worth the time I lost reading their sad excuse for files. They even had the gall to add back to the list morons I already rejected the first time around! I sincerely hope your standards are higher than theirs, or we're going to have a problem." McKay narrowed his eyes. "Being a Thales, I do hope your degree is in some real science? Because if you say it’s in the soft sciences, I'll be forced to ruin the credit of all the IOA windbags until they see the light!"
"Relax, McKay," John drawled. "I got a math degree, so leave the credit ratings alone."
"Good, good," McKay relaxed. "So, about this bunch of morons..."
The Bloodfire's gym was on level 20. Unlike other SGC rooms, the walls were made of reinforced concrete padded with a material that was non-conductive as well as fire and water resistant, mostly for the protection of the mundane soldiers who semi-regularly trained with Bloodfires.
One officer was going through his warm up exercises when John entered. He nodded at the man, who nodded back, before throwing down his towel and starting his own warm up routine.
While his body went through the practiced moves, John observed the other officer. Major Evan Lorne was the highest ranked of the Bloodfires O'Neill had asked him to consider for the mission, and would be both his XO and Pride Beta if John chose him. That was the reason he'd wanted to combat test the man alone. He couldn't do this without a Beta he can trust, both in the field and out.
Lorne finished his warm up first and waited for John in the center of the mat, clad only in running shorts. After finishing his own warm up, John also discarded his shirt, keeping his shorts, and padded barefoot to the mat.
"Lorne," he acknowledged the other man, not using his rank since this was a Pride affair, not a military one.
"Sheppard," Lorne nodded respectfully, taking position opposite him. John allowed a partial Aegis to slide over his skin. The organic gelatinous polymer generated under the skin settled and covered his torso, forearms and pelvis, quickly drying into the dermal armor that all Bloodfires possessed. Lorne's Aegis covered only his trunk, leaving the arms free to allow the use of his Blades, three sharp bone spikes on each of his forearms. Neither bothered with leg protection, preferring the freedom of movement. John unsheathed his black claws while taking position, dialing Sentinel hearing and touch a bit above normal.
As a fellow Warrior, Lorne's physical abilities were a match for him, enhanced well above mundane levels. While he didn't possess John's Sentinel abilities, his Shield Gift to generate force fields made him a formidable opponent. Ritual Test Combat only had one rule: the first to break the other’s Aegis won. Everything else was fair play.
They circled each other on the mat. John made the first move, feigning an attack to Lorne's unprotected shoulder, only to pivot over his right foot at the last possible moment, going for the knee instead. Lorne couldn't block the move, but moved with the fall, rolling away from him. John’s dialed up hearing heard the distinctive clack when Lorne's kneecap returned to its place as his Healing took care of the damage John inflicted. Feeling a tingle in his right leg, he looked down to see three parallel nasty cuts being closed by his own Healing. Lorne smirked, and John nodded, acknowledging the hit of Lorne's bone spikes.
For the next several minutes, they traded blows and kicks around the mat. Since speed had always been one of his strongest abilities, John tried to move fast enough to prevent Lorne from generating effective force fields, hitting him in fast, precise blows of his hand and foot claws, while Lorne tried to use them to limit John's movement. John's Sentinel touch gave him some advantage as it allowed him to feel the air displaced by Lorne's fields, but the man was highly creative in its use, so there were a few times when John dodged one just to have his feet or arm trapped in another.
When they finally took a moment to get their breaths back, they both sported a myriad of half-healed cuts, tears and bruises on the skin not protected by the Aegis. John's muscles felt sore with effort and half-healed damage, and he could feel the blood seeping from his lip, split by Lorne's last move. Lorne was not much better, with an eye still half-shut from John's last hit.
It was the best workout John's had in a long time. They were both grinning.
John used the lull to shift his vision to the infrared range and did a quick scan of Lorne's Aegis. The uneven thermal surface of the Aegis gave John clues about its weakest spots. He quickly shifted his sight back when Lorne moved to attack again.
After trading several blows, John used the wall as a springboard to try an attack from above, but Lorne quickly moved to generate a force field to bounce him off. But John intentionally hit the field sideways, making Lorne stumble and slide to the floor in the same movement. Quickly shifting his sight to IR again, he put his strength in a single blow to a crack on Lorne's solar plexus, breaking his Aegis and sending him flying backwards into the padded wall.
John slid to his knees, panting hard but smiling.
"Good move, Alpha," Lorne said, acknowledging both John’s victory and his new status over him.
"Good fight, Beta. Though, when we're not on duty, my name's John."
"Good, Evan. I think you owe me a beer?"
Lorne laughed. "Lead the way, John."
General O'Neill let the last page fall on the table and leaned back on his chair.
"I've never seen a list of scientists catalogued by level of incompetence before," he admitted, bewildered.
"McKay is certainly... unique," John pointed out.
"That's a way to put it," O'Neill snorted. Sitting straighter on the chair, he rested his arms on top of his desk. "Seriously, though. Can you work with him? Being CSO, he's the highest-ranked civilian and basically your second in command on the mission. He can make things difficult for you."
John crossed his arms over his chest and took a moment to answer.
"He's obnoxious, abrasive and blunt... but that also means he's sincere, and his file shows he doesn't even bother playing the politics game. And I find that very refreshing," John answered, giving O'Neill a knowing look. The General nodded. The mundane politics game was one Bloodfires, especially those in military and law enforcement, had to learn to play early, even if they hated it. "Also, unlike other people I’ve known, he can really back up his claims of being the most intelligent man on the galaxy. And watching him berating down the scientists is… very fun, to say the truth," he smiled. "Did you know people around here place bets about it? I heard there’s $700 on the one about how many scientists he's going to make cry this week."
"I try not to know about it," the General answered, dryly. "But Carter has $20 on five."
"He's distracted by the expedition this week,” O’Neill quipped, making John chuckle.
"OK, let's get back to work," O'Neill ordered, going back to McKay's scientists list. "Most of the ones he wants are from Area 51, but a third of them are not even in the program. They'll have to be thoroughly vetted."
"Yes, I know. He also said something about the IOA pushing morons at him, and I think only one made it to the 'Almost Competent' category. Is it going to be a problem?"
"A little, but nothing that can't be worked out," O'Neill answered, flipping a page. "Basically, the IOA doesn't want the USA monopolizing the expedition. Some are afraid we might not tell them the truth about the fate of the first expedition or what we’ll find there."
"Which is the reason I have military personnel from seven other countries to choose from?"
"Yeah," O'Neill confirmed. "But McKay doesn't care about a minor thing like nationalities and the scientists he wants are from a dozen different countries, so I can sell it to them. As long as they don't see his original list, of course," he added, turning a page to show John one particularly scatting remark from McKay about a scientist being some president's pet.
"Yes, I think it'd better keep that one just between us," John admitted. O'Neill raised an eyebrow in an ironic gesture, and John tried not to laugh.
"Well, I'll get the background checks going with high priority." O'Neill informed John, closing McKay's file. "Now, for the military and Bloodfire contingent... is there anyone you want who's not on the list?"
John straightened in his chair and opened the folder in front of him. "There are a couple of men I've worked with in the field who would be assets to the expedition." He gave O'Neill a resume sheet. "Captain TC Callahan. Army ranger medic. A Bloodfire Healer and Warrior.”
“An unusual combination," O'Neill's commented.
"Yes, Sir, but I've seen him do real miracles on the field. Once, he saved the lives of all his men after disposing single-handedly of the Taliban unit who ambushed them. I know Beckett is an excellent doctor, but he's not field material."
"But if he gets confirmed as CMO, Beckett should sign him off for the medical team," O'Neill warned him.
"I know, and I've already shown Callahan's medical qualifications to him. Beckett says he'll be an 'excellent addition', his words not mine."
"OK. Who else?"
John hesitated a bit before handing the second name to the General.
"Lt. Kyle Donovan. Delta Force," O'Neill opened his mouth to talk but John pressed on. "And a Bloodfire Shadow Warrior."
"What?" O'Neill yelped, straightening in his chair. "I thought the Fawkes were the only Shadow bloodline in the US?"
"Donovan’s mother is a Griffin."
"The original British Shadow bloodline? And they haven't Claimed him?"
"I don't know the full story,” John explained, “but Donovan mentioned his mother had some kind of fallout with her Clan."
O'Neill read the highlights of Donovan's profile, then looked seriously at John.
"You know that Delta Force won't be willing to part with their only Shadow operator, not in a million years, don’t you?"
Sheppard leaned forward, reclining his forearms on the desk. "Sir, we don't know what we're going to find in Pegasus. We don't know what kind of people are out here, or what shape the original expedition would be in. To have someone who can go invisible to get intel... it might make the difference."
O'Neill looked at Donovan's file and then back at John.
"Tell me you wouldn't have wished to have had a Shadow available when the shit hit the fan out here," John pressed.
"That's playing dirty, Sheppard," O'Neill admonished, leaning back on his chair. "I'm probably going have to fight not only the Delta Force's commander, but also the Army's Chief of Staff and SECARMY for him."
"I thought you liked a challenge, General." John sassed.
"You're going to owe me one, Sheppard, a really big one."
There was a distinct air of nervousness in the conference room. While they waited for O'Neill, Jackson and Carter to arrive, John watched the other people seated at the table. Besides him, Major Lorne seemed to be calmly reading messages on his phone, but John could see the fluttering of his sleeves as his forearm bone spikes twitched nervously under them. Major Teldy was keeping her hands curved inwards, trying not to show her extended Arachne claws. On the other side of the table, McKay was practically bouncing on his seat while his second, Dr. Alison Porter, was biting her lips while pretending to read. On the other side of McKay, Dr. Beckett seemed to be the only relaxed person in the room, but dialing up his hearing, John could hear his heart beating faster than normal.
John winced when the door opened, the metallic sound of the mechanism uncomfortable for his dialed-up hearing. McKay looked at him quizzically, but John just smiled and leaned back, while dialing down his Sentinel hearing to normal.
General O'Neill took the head seat, with Jackson on his right and Carter sitting beside the archeologist.
"At 10:00 hours, we received a communication from the Daedalus, after they entered subspace communications range..."
"Yes, yes, we know that! What did they find?" McKay interrupted the General.
O'Neill glared at McKay, who glowered back at him challengingly.
"As I was saying," O'Neill continued, emphasizing the last word. "the Daedalus sent us a preliminary report on their findings in Pegasus, which basically amounts to... nothing."
"What?" McKay blurted, almost jumping out the seat and looking at O'Neill like if the General had lost his marbles.
"They didn't find Atlantis, McKay. The planet was empty." Dr. Jackson clarified.
"Did they have the right coordinates?"
"Yes, McKay, they had the right coordinates. The ones you calculated yourself." The General pointed out. McKay tensed, and opened his mouth to reply, but O’Neill beat him to it. "They did, however, find a working Stargate network, and tried dialing Atlantis from an inhabited world. Carter?"
"The Daedalus reports the Pegasus gate connected to Atlantis, but when they tried to send a MALP through, it failed to re-materialize,” Carter informed them. “Hermiod thinks an energy shield was protecting the gate, something akin to our iris. They tried communicating in several frequencies, but though Hermiod assured Colonel Caldwell that the signal was getting through the shield, they received no response."
"That makes absolutely no sense!" McKay grumbled.
"I know, McKay, and they do too. That's why they returned to Atlantis' planet, where Hermiod and Novak spent two days doing a deeper and more thorough scan and found... this." Carter explained to him while she activated the screen on one end of the room to show an image not dissimilar to an echography, only using several colors. John squinted his eyes, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.
"An energy anomaly?" McKay guessed.
"At 3500 feet underwater," Carter informed him.
"and the island of Atlantis disappeared in the depths of the sea..." Sheppard murmured. McKay frowned at him, but John turned to Carter. "Could Atlantis be underwater like in Plato's account?" he asked her.
"There's a strong possibility. It will certainly explain the data." She agreed.
"At 3500 feet? You know the pressure it would have to withstand? The shield it would require..."
"It's something the IOA is highly interested in," O'Neill interrupted McKay’s ramble. “Especially with the threat of the Ori so close to our backyard.”
"We have a go, General?"
"Yes, Colonel, you have a go."
After that, things moved quickly. The Daedalus was in orbit 72 hours later, needing only a tune-up after the intergalactic trip. McKay's chosen scientists began arriving to the mountain within the week. The ones new to the program did a double (or triple) take at the Stargate, but adapted quickly. Callahan also arrived at the mountain, but O'Neill was still fighting the Army's Chief of Staff and SECARMY for Donovan.
After Evan acknowledged John as Alpha, the rest of the Pride formed quickly around him. John thoroughly combat-tested the military Bloodfires, making sure he had a strong Pride with balanced and complementary Gifts. He also made sure the civilian ones could defend themselves, tasting first hand Beckett's clever use of his Healer abilities to temporary incapacitate an enemy that got within touch. The man may hate to fight, but John didn't want to get on his bad side, or that of his mate and wife, Dr. Kate Heightmeyer. That empathic overflow had hurt like a bitch.
McKay grumbled at having a couple of military scientists added to his team. Being a linguist, Lt. Lindsay didn't impress him much, but he accepted that she could be useful. Captain Harris was another matter. McKay caught him tinkering with some Asgard tech he had declared off-bounds, and they got in an argument that could be heard three levels down without Sentinel hearing. Having met Harris before, John bet $30 the man would be coming with them, against the base consensus. Three days later, after McKay grudgingly conceded that the combat engineer knew what he was doing, John collected all the winnings, since he'd been the only one to bet in Harris' favor.
He used some of them to treat O'Neill to a celebratory steak dinner after the General finally got Donovan on the mountain. Fed up by SECARMY's dilatory tactics, O'Neill went directly to the President and then used the Daedalus to transport the Lieutenant to Cheyenne after getting the POTUS' approval. Kyle had a shell-shocked look on his face when John saw him, one that he didn't quite lose for the rest of the day while he was being given the tour around the SGC. At least until TC came and took him away, a six-pack in hand.
Major Davis told Sheppard SECARMY's was livid when he found out. When John relayed that to him, O'Neill just smirked and ordered the priciest steak on the menu.
On departure day, the embarkation room was fully packed, even though most of the civilian staff and the biggest part of their supplies will be going to Pegasus on the Daedalus, which was departing with the ZPM after the Stargate has closed behind them. In the control room, Sheppard was looking at the gate with a fluttery feeling in his stomach.
"You're going to tear your arm to ribbons," O'Neill chastised him. Sheppard looked startled. He had not even noticed he was drumming his claws on his arm, getting them caught on the fabric.
"Sorry, Sir," he apologized, crossing his hands behind his back. O'Neill smirked.
“I was nervous before the Abydos mission, too. Even if…” O’Neill shook his head and looked down at the gate. “It’s OK, as long as you don’t let it control you. It means you care, and that’s something I want in my commanders.”
O'Neill's radio crackled. "Carter?" The General listened intently. "OK. We'll start when you get there." He turned to John. "Carter and McKay got the ZPM installed. We're ready to try. Are you?"
John inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. "Yes, Sir."
Carter arrived at the Control room almost the same moment McKay burst into the embarkation room, shouting orders to his scientists. Breaking protocol, Carter hugged John. "Take care, John." John awkwardly returned the hug of his old friend.
"You too." Turning to O'Neill, he saluted. "Sir, permission to leave."
John all but ran to the gate room. He took his backpack he’d left near the door, and put it on. Lorne passed him his P-90, modified to suit his claws, and John walked to the gate ramp.
"OK, everyone. We're going to try dialling. You all know what to do. The recon team goes first. Afterwards, the rest of you and the red-marked crates. The SGC people will push the blue ones through if they have time. No exceptions. I don't care what's in the crate. If anyone tries to go back for a blue one, I'll kick them out the expedition myself. Remember: we only have a 15-minute window since we are going to need the ZPM's power in Atlantis. You're still on time to back out. Anyone changed their mind?" John asked. Nobody moved. John looked up to the control room and nodded.
The inner ring of the Stargate started spinning.
"Chevron 1, encoded." Sgt. Harriman's voice resounded in the room. The Stargate spun again. "Chevron 2, encoded." Once again, the Stargate spun, a chevron illuminated and Harriman's voice informed them. "Chevron 3, encoded." Then it was four, five and six. The Stargate spun once again. "Chevron 7, encoded." The room was eerily silent, except for the metallic sound of the Stargate spinning. A chevron lit. "Chevron 8, locked."
The Stargate whooshed to life, the vortex's splash of energy shooting from the gate and then returning to it, leaving a blue puddle in its wake.
An SGC technician maneuvered a MALP through the gate. John looked up to the Control room, and saw Carter discussing something with O'Neill, who then nodded. The General leaned forward to activate the comm.
"Atlantis Expedition, you have a go."
John got on the gate ramp first, his weapon ready but his Sentinel senses dialed down below mundane levels to prevent the vortex breaking havoc on them. That was an experience he was not interested in repeating. The rest of the recon team formed behind him, and John signaled them to move.
The trip itself lasted barely a second. Even with his touch dialed down, John could feel a cold shiver running through his body. When they stepped on the other side, the city was dark and silent. The recon team fanned out to check the room, with the flashlights mounted on their weapons as the only light source. John dialed up his senses. Apart from his people and the rumor of water around them, he could not hear anything else. The ceiling was high, and he gave Major Teldy the pre-arranged signal. Passing her P-90 to Captain Vega, Teldy took off her backpack and boots and crawled up the wall at a surprising speed. John hadn’t been around many Bloodfires with Arachne gifts before, but he had to admit they were amazing.
John climbed up the stairs, using his dialed-up senses to check on the space above and trusting his men to cover his back. From the landing, the top level branched out to the left and right. On the left, there was an empty space closed by a circular wall. To the right, John found a spacious area with several consoles, all protected by plastic tarps, and another set of stairs at the back, besides a small walkway that lead to an empty crystal-walled room.
Major Teldy landed besides him so softly that he wouldn't have heard her if his Sentinel hearing wasn't dialed up.
"Report, Major," he ordered.
"There's nothing up here, Sir, and the structure looks solid. No damage that I could detect. The door downstairs and these stairs seem to be the only exits."
John clicked his radio. "Anyone else found anything?" he asked.
"Colonel, I found a pack of Kleenex, unopened, in a corner besides the Stargate. It seems to have been trampled upon," Liutenant Kemp informed.
"You're sure it's Earth-made?"
"It has, umm… Hello Kitty on it, Sir,” Kemp stuttered between the merriment of his teammates.
"Understood, Lieutenant," John acknowledged, trying to keep the amusement out of his voice. On the floor below, Kemp's team mates had no problem teasing the young lieutenant.
"OK. Everyone silent. I'm going to do a sense sweep. Major, could you anchor me, please?"
Major Teldy moved forward, grabbing John's forearm in a strong grip. John closed his eyes and concentrated. The firm touch was his anchor as he dialed up his Sentinel hearing and smell to its maximum and swept the city around him. Discarding the sounds and smells of his team, as well as the soft whooshing of the gate, he worked in a circular pattern as he'd been trained to do. Energy buzzed as it moved through the walls. Water bubbled here and there. The air was stale, with a sharp tang of saltwater. A regular background buzzing that he couldn't identify seemed to enclose the city. Beyond it, he could hear a faint echo that reminded him of a whale song.
There was no sign of any other living creature, human or not.
Dialing down his senses, he shrank his sweep radius until he could hear his team's heartbeats again and opened his eyes.
"Thank you, Major." Teldy just smiled and nodded at him, letting go of his arm. "You can return to your position."
"Yes, Sir," Teldy ran down the stairs, putting on her boots and backpack on before accepting her P-90 back from Vega.
John clicked his radio.
"Stargate Command, this is Sheppard."
"What's the status?" General O'Neill asked through the radio.
"The city seems to be in good condition, but apart from us, there is no one else here. We found a trampled packet of Kleenex, through."
On the other side of the radio, O'Neill chuckled while someone groaned in the background.
"Old team joke, Colonel. I'll tell you some other time. So, it seems our people arrived at Atlantis, but are no longer here."
"That's my guess, Sir."
"OK, I'm sending your people through."
People started pouring out the gate. McKay was one of the first ones, pushing through scientists and military alike to reach the consoles where John was. He threw the tarps off the consoles, and looked sharply at John when they remained off. "Not my fault, McKay."
While McKay tinkered with the consoles, John kept his eyes on the gate floor, watching his men herd the crates and scientists to the sides to make room for the people and equipment still coming through. As planned, Sgt. Mehra was the last one over, and nodded to John, confirming no one was left behind. A few blue-marked cases rolled in behind her, but then John's radio crackled.
"Atlantis, the 15-minute window is up." O'Neill informed him. "The Daedalus is beaming the remaining cases up. It will rendezvous with you in four days. Telemetry says you’re at the designated coordinates. Don't make another vanishing act on us, OK?"
"We'll be here, Sir."
"Hope so. Good luck."
The Stargate disengaged.
"Let's try to..." John fell silent when a pillar rose out the floor in front of the Stargate. On top of it, a red light blinked over a hand-shaped plate. McKay reached the pillar first and scanned it.
"McKay?" John asked.
"Nothing. It's not giving off any signals."
John extended his hand over the top.
"Wait!" McKay interrupted him. "Are you going to put your hand here? We don't know what it does!"
John looked around pointedly. "It's the only thing that reacted to our presence, McKay. We already know the door doesn't open. I don't see many other options." He placed his hand on the plate, which flashed an amber light for several seconds. Finally, the red light changed to green, and the lights started to switch on around the room, while the pillar descended to its hiding place again.
"The consoles are initializing!" Dr. Branton shouted from above. John and Rodney ran up the stairs. Though the consoles were active, they didn't react to anyone, until John touched them. One screen flared to life, and a single phrase in Ancient rolled in, written in an extra-large font and perfectly centered.
Frowning, John turned around and called out "Lt. Lindsay?"
The long-haired Lieutenant stuck out her head between Major Teldy and Captain Vega, who moved aside to let her pass. "Yes, sir?"
Sheppard pointed at the screen.
"It says, ‘Welcome to Atlantis, Praetor.’"