They had won. The Wraith had left thinking Atlantis destroyed, but what had been the cost? John stored the Wraith stunner back in the weapons rack and sat on one of the benches in the armoury with his head down and his arms braced on his knees. Countless Marines, both from Atlantis and the contingent brought by Colonel Everett, were dead. The Colonel himself had been fed upon and was near death. And Ford was strung out on Wraith enzyme and missing.
John tried reminding himself of the positives, Atlantis was safe. Rodney and Teyla were alive. He was still alive, despite his best efforts with a suicide run at a Wraith hive ship in a puddle jumper loaded with a nuclear weapon. His brain, however, chose to spiral back to Everett, the makeshift morgue down in one of the empty rooms under the control room. Ford glaring at him through the windscreen as he left in another jumper.
He knew better than to play the what-if game, but he couldn't help feeling like he should have done something, anything else to get Ford the help he needed. John scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. He needed to get back to work, he told himself. There were condolence letters to write to families, after-action reports to write and read. An abandoned jumper and a friend to find.
He was still sitting on the bench several minutes later, exhausted and lost in thought when he heard his name over the radio.
"Weir to Sheppard."
John sighed. He considered for a few seconds just ignoring the call, then reminded himself Elizabeth wouldn't try to contact him unless it was important. He sat up slowly and tapped his earpiece. "Sheppard here."
"Chuck scrubbed the 'gate activity logs. He thinks he's found the planet Lieutenant Ford 'gated to."
John frowned. Why wasn't Rodney the one searching for the jumper, he wondered. McKay had been in the control room when Ford made his escape. Where had he gone? He shook his head and stood. Maybe he was finally getting some sleep. John hoped that was the case. Besides, it didn't matter who found the jumper, he told himself, as long as they had the right planet.
"I'll be right there," he replied and tapped off the radio.
He climbed the stairs up to the control room a few minutes later and found Elizabeth standing next to Chuck. No Rodney or Zelenka in sight which seemed odd to John.
"Where did he go?" he asked without preamble.
Chuck glanced at Elizabeth, then over at John. "Umm, P9X-565, sir."
The designation sounded familiar, but John couldn't place why he knew it.
"What do we know about that planet?" Elizabeth asked with a glance over at John.
Chuck turned back to the computer in front of him. "Doctor Volkov and a geology team attempted to explore the planet several months ago. They brought back some mineral samples, but reported the planet had a low oxygen atmosphere." Chuck looked up from the computer and glanced first at Elizabeth, then at John. "They weren't able to stay very long or do much exploring."
"That's why it sounds familiar," John mumbled.
"John?" Elizabeth asked.
He ignored her and asked Chuck, "Are you sure that's the planet?"
Chuck nodded. "Yes, sir. The logs record all 'gate addresses dialled, but there's no time stamp, so to speak. We had to match up destinations with missions. This is the only one we couldn't account for."
John turned to Elizabeth. "That's the planet Rodney sent Rasha's men to when they wanted the 'gate address for Atlantis." John looked down at the stargate below. "Ford isn't taking any chances we might be able to follow him after ditching the jumper. He chose a planet he knew would be difficult for us to track him and figure out where he went next." John suspected there was another reason Ford chose P9X-565, but he didn't say anything to Elizabeth.
John glanced over at Elizabeth and found her watching him. "I'll go through and bring the jumper back," he said, and turned toward the stairs leading down to the gateroom.
"John, you're exhausted," Elizabeth protested. "Maybe you should wait until after you've had a chance to rest. You said yourself, Ford probably left as soon as the jumper was through the 'gate."
John worked to keep his temper in check as he turned around. He knew Elizabeth was right. The odds Ford was still on P9X-565 were slim at best. Still, he had to try. He didn't abandon members of his team.
"We need to get the jumper and Ford back here," John told her. "He doesn't have the gene, there's no way he could fly the ship once it was through the 'gate. The only reason he got as far with it as he did was because of the docking system in the jumper bay."
"And what if he set a trap and used the jumper as bait?" Elizabeth asked. "He knows we'll follow him."
"He wouldn't do that," John replied stiffly.
Elizabeth frowned. "He tried to throttle Carson, and he attacked Doctor Zelenka in the jumper bay. I don't think either of us can really say one way or the other what Ford will do at this point."
John ducked his head. He hadn't known about Zelenka. That would explain why Rodney suddenly disappeared from the control room after Ford had run off, he realised. Someone must have told him what had happened to Radek.
"Someone needs to go, and I'm about the only person left who can fly the jumper back," John said.
"You shouldn't go alone. Call Sergeant Stackhouse or Sergeant Thompson to go with you," Elizabeth suggested.
John shook his head. "Stackhouse is helping Teyla shuttle the Athosians back to the mainland. And Thompson has his hands full dealing with the clean-up. If Ford is still on the planet, sending a team after him will only spook him."
And might get someone hurt, he didn't add.
"I'll have better luck talking to him if I'm alone. If Ford isn't there, there's no reason to take more people. Rodney told me the planet was deserted. The atmosphere is too thin to support any sort of life. The jumper won't be far from the 'gate. I'll be fine."
Elizabeth took a deep breath and finally nodded. "Just be careful," she admonished as John ran down the steps. "Dial the planet," she added to Chuck.
John checked his Beretta as the 'gate started to dial. He'd thought about running back to the armoury for the Wraith stunner or a P-90 but changed his mind. If Ford was there, waiting for someone to come through the 'gate, John hoped showing up minimally armed might convince Ford to trust him and come back to Atlantis. If Ford wasn't there - something John wasn't ready to accept until he saw for himself - there was no reason to carry the extra weapons.
The wormhole formed with a whoosh and John stepped forward.
"I know you want to help him, John, but don't take any chances," Elizabeth called down from the balcony.
John looked up, gave her a nod, and stepped through the event horizon.
He felt his breathing hitch, and his chest tighten as soon as he stepped through the other side. Memories of nearly dying from suffocation, of finding Rodney half-dead and not breathing, assaulted him as the 'gate shut down.
This was the other reason he thought Ford had chosen this planet to ditch the jumper. While the thin atmosphere wouldn't affect him, thanks to the Wraith enzyme, Ford knew John would be the most likely one to follow him and would remember the all too recent trip to the Ancient outpost. John had to give Ford credit, he was thinking strategically, something he would have to remember if he wanted to find his lost teammate.
He looked around as he tried to take a deep breath.
P9X-565 was as desolate as John expected. No plants were growing in the fine, black dirt. He didn't see any signs of animal life either. The area around the 'gate was completely flat, but he spotted what looked like low hills through the hazy air in the near distance.
John shivered slightly, the thin atmosphere didn't hold much heat, as he stood bent over with his hands braced on his knees trying to catch his breath. He gave the area around the 'gate a sideways look and slowly stood up. Ford hadn't tried to attack him on sight, and John did a slow turn surveying the immediate area near the 'gate.
The DHD stood a few feet away from the 'gate. John could tell the ground around the device was disturbed. The jumper sat a few feet away, the hatch closed, and already covered in a layer of fine black dust. To John, it almost looked like the ship was covered in ash or soot.
There was no sign of Ford.
So he's left, John thought to himself as he shuffled over to the jumper, kicking up more of the ashy dust. He started coughing, from the dust or the thin air, he wasn't sure which. All he knew was he couldn't breathe, and he could feel his heart hammering against his ribcage.
He pulled out his remote, triggered the rear hatch of the jumper, and stumbled up the ramp. Once inside, he pushed the control to close the hatch and collapsed on one of the rear bench seats. He sat for a few minutes gasping and coughing before he slowly made his way to the front of the ship. Once he was in the cockpit, he reached across the co-pilot's seat and pressed the tiles to reset the environmental systems then turned to the pilot's seat as he started coughing again.
You need to sit down before you fall down, he told himself and froze when he saw a small knife and two uniform patches on the chair.
John picked up the items and sank into the chair. He was breathing easier as the oxygen level in the jumper returned to Atlantis standard and he sat back in the chair studying the objects in his hands. He recognised the knife as the one Teyla had given Ford as a Secret Santa gift a month ago.
Why leave them? John wondered as he ran a thumb over the stitched Atlantis patch. Was it an apology? Some last remnant of the Aiden Ford he knew trying to protect the city by leaving his insignia behind? Or was this a sign he was cutting ties to Atlantis and everyone in it? That he didn't want anyone to look for him.
"Damn it, Ford, why won't you let us help you?" John muttered to himself as he pocketed the patches and the knife, ran through the preflight checks for the jumper, and dialled the 'gate.
"Atlantis, this is Sheppard," John said once the wormhole formed.
"Go ahead, John," Elizabeth replied.
"Ford isn't here," John reported. "I've got the jumper. Coming back now."
"Understood," she replied, and John heard the sadness and regret in her tone.
John lifted off and did a quick pass over the area just to be sure Ford really was gone. He didn't see anywhere Ford could hide and no signs he'd gone anywhere except back through the 'gate to who knew where. John pursed his lips and turned the jumper for the 'gate.
A few moments later he was back in Atlantis and rising up through the gateroom to the jumper bay. He took his time powering down the ship and opening the hatch. While he wasn't really surprised Ford was long gone from 565, he was still disappointed, and more than a little hurt, Ford refused to trust them, trust him. He sat in the pilot's seat a few more minutes, forcing the memory of Ford standing in front of the transporter, pointing a P-90 at him, into a box that he carefully locked and stuffed into a corner of his mind.
John had tried talking to him, tried to convince Ford they just wanted to help. In the end, he'd been forced to shoot Ford in the back with the Wraith stunner to keep him from escaping. He was surprised when the stunner had had no effect. John had been hit with a blast from the stun weapon in the past, he knew it felt like a kick to the chest. But Ford had only glared at him as he stabbed a finger at the touch panel and the transporter doors closed.
John scrubbed a hand over his face, grimacing at the gritty feeling of the ashy dust on his skin and wondered if the stunner had been the nail in the coffin of Ford's faith in him. Had he lost whatever chance he had to win back Ford's trust by trying to stop him?
He shook his head and made his way out of the jumper. He wasn't going to solve Ford's problem in the next few minutes, or even in the next few days if he were honest with himself. Elizabeth had given him tacit permission to continue the search assuming he found a lead. He'd have to talk things over with Teyla and Rodney and see if they had any ideas on what to do next.
John walked back through the jumper bay, thinking only of a hot shower, a hot meal, and his bed, when he spotted Doctor Tsao and a team of engineers working on the jumper Rodney and Zelenka had cannibalised to make the cloak for Atlantis. The fact neither Rodney nor Radek was leading the repair effort reminded him of Elizabeth's comment Ford had attacked Zelenka when he'd stolen the jumper.
John watched the engineers work for a moment and felt guilt stab at him. If he'd been able to convince Ford to accept his help, Zelenka wouldn't have been hurt. Ford was a trained tactical fighter, John reminded himself, Radek could be very seriously injured thanks to John's inability to reach Ford and help him.
Was that why he still couldn't find McKay? Was Rodney down in the infirmary, alone, wondering if he was about to lose another friend?
They hadn't had any time to talk about Grodin and what had happened at the weapons station before the Wraith arrived. Now Zelenka had been hurt as well. Not to mention your own stunt with the jumper, John grimly reminded himself. He'd hoped his inability to find Rodney meant he was getting some well-deserved rest. He suspected the opposite was true.
There wasn't anything he could do about Ford at the moment, but another friend probably needed his help just as badly, he told himself.
He brushed at the dust on his uniform and instead of heading to his quarters for a shower, he turned toward the infirmary. He'd make sure Zelenka was going to be all right, and hopefully, find McKay still in the infirmary. Maybe he'd have better luck convincing Rodney to get something to eat with him and go to bed than he had convincing Ford to stay.
John walked into the infirmary a few minutes later to find organised chaos. Several med techs scurried about the space, organising supplies, fetching items for one of the few patients that hadn't been transferred to the Daedalus, or folding up the empty cots still lining the back wall near the medical lab where the overflow of patients had been housed during the worst of the siege.
John stared at one of the empty beds against the wall, the memory of Colonel Everett apologising to him, telling him he'd wished John had been able to do for him what Sheppard had done for Sumner played through his head again. He knew Everett had been moved to the Daedalus before the last wave of Wraith ships had arrived. Was Everett even still alive for the trip back to Earth? John shook himself out of the memory and looked around the rest of the room.
Sharon stood near a bed across the room checking the monitors for one of the Marines from the Daedalus who smiled up at her even though John could see his left arm was missing below the elbow. Two other nurses were with other patients. John saw Sergeant Stephens in another bed, his chest swathed in bandages. Corporal Ortega lay a few beds down from him, one arm strapped to his chest and his leg held immobilised by a metal brace. Both were either asleep or unconscious, John wasn't sure.
He found Zelenka asleep in a bed on the other side of the room, Beckett standing next to him looking at the monitor next to the bed.
Unfortunately, he didn't see Rodney anywhere.
"Carson," John said in a low voice as he stopped next to Beckett. "How's he doing?"
Carson glanced over at him and gave him a tight smile. "He has a moderate concussion and several bruised ribs from falling on a case of equipment," Carson told him, and John wondered if he imagined the accusatory tone of Beckett's voice.
"I realise the Wraith enzyme is what's really to blame here," Carson continued, "but Aiden could have done him a severe injury. As it is, Radek will be my guest for the rest of the night. If the concussion resolves without any complications, I'll release him back to his quarters tomorrow afternoon."
John glanced over at Beckett. "That soon?"
Carson's smile widened. "Unlike you or Rodney, I know he," Carson nodded at Zelenka's sleeping body, "will follow doctor's orders and rest."
John chose not to try and defend himself and said instead, "Speaking of McKay, have you seen him lately?"
Carson gave him a measured looked and walked back toward his office. "He was here earlier. Someone told him what had happened with Zelenka, and Rodney came to check on him." He stopped outside his office and studied John for a moment. "He didn't stay very long, though, not after he found out Radek would be fine in a few days. He left muttering something about checking the ZPM."
John sighed. So much for getting McKay's ideas on how to track Ford, he thought to himself. He started to leave the office but stopped when Carson called his name.
"John? If you find Rodney, you need to get him to rest," Carson told him, worry plain in his expression. "He looked completely done in when he was here earlier." Carson stepped forward and tapped John's arm. "You need to get some sleep as well. I know you're worried about Ford and want to help him, but you won't do him any good if you don't take care of yourself."
John nodded and turned back toward the door. "Food, shower, bed, not necessarily in that order, is my plan."
He entered the mess hall, showered and in a clean uniform, an hour later surprised, not only at the number of people scattered around the room for how late it was, but the smell of hot food waiting in the mess line. After everything that had happened over the last few days, his highest hopes were for a not-stale sandwich and coffee.
"Compliments of the Daedalus, sir," one of the cooks told him as he handed John a warm plate of meat and vegetables.
John nodded his thanks, grabbed a cup of much-needed coffee and wandered over to where Teyla sat at their usual table, her back to the night darkened windows.
"Hey," John said as he sat down across from her. "How're you doing?" he asked when he saw her lip was still swollen from her fight during the Wraith invasion of the city.
"I am tired," she replied with a tiny smile. "As, I think, is most everyone in the city."
"Were you and Stackhouse able to start moving your people back to the mainland?"
"Yes, though many plan to stay until after the memorial tomorrow," she replied and looked down at her hands. "There were many losses among my people. The mourning will be a long one."
"I'm sorry," he said and touched her hand.
Teyla nodded. "Thank you, John. They died protecting their homes and their families. It was an honorable death." She glanced around the room. "Your people suffered great losses as well."
John nodded and glanced at the various teams seated around the room and the empty chairs around their tables. It was a sobering reminder of how many people they'd lost over the last three days.
Sergeant Thompson and Corporal Daley sat at one table not saying anything as the food on their plates sat ignored. John knew Corporal Tate had been killed in the fighting.
He found Sergeant Stackhouse seated at another table. Corrigan sat beside him, his arm in a sling, speaking softly. He remembered Stephens and Ortega were down in the infirmary, and Carson had yet to decide if they would be staying in Atlantis to recover, or if they would be shipped back to Earth on the Daedalus.
Davis, Sanchez, and Jeffries had all been with Ford when the Wraith invaded the city. All three were down in the makeshift morgue waiting for transport back to Earth.
John toyed with the food on his plate, suddenly much less hungry. He hadn't thought about the memorial until Teyla mentioned it. He wondered how Elizabeth would deal with Ford. Would he be listed among the dead? Would she be forced to tactfully not mention him at all, as technically he was AWOL?
Teyla put down her teacup a few minutes later and said, "I understand you did not find Aiden on the planet where he left the jumper."
John shook his head and started eating. "He was already gone by the time I got there," he replied after a few bites. He pulled the small knife out of his shirt pocket and laid it on the table between them. "He left that, and his uniform patches, in the jumper."
Teyla picked up the knife and smiled sadly. "He knew you would be the one to come after him. He wanted you to find this," she said holding up the knife. "Something of our Aiden is still there."
John pushed away his half-empty plate with a frustrated grunt and picked up the coffee cup. "Then why didn't he wait? Why won't he let us help him?"
"Doctor Beckett said the enzyme was affecting him mentally. In his mind, there is nothing wrong with him. He believes we would be … diminishing him somehow if he allowed us to treat him."
"Well, that's just nuts," John retorted.
"I agree, Major. But it is something we must keep in mind when we find him again. We will need to tread carefully, or he will only continue to run away from us."
John finished his coffee in silence. He was grateful Teyla had said 'when they found him' instead of 'if'.
"I assume the memorial will be tomorrow morning?" Teyla asked as she stood.
John looked up at her and nodded. "Probably. I haven't had a chance to talk to Elizabeth about it yet."
"I will see you then, John." She squeezed his hand and left.
John sat drinking coffee as the mess hall slowly emptied over the next hour. He knew he should head back to his quarters and get some sleep. Instead, he filled his coffee cup for the third time and sat with his chair angled to look out the windows. Someone had turned down the lights in the mess hall, and John stared out at the light from the two moons reflecting off the ocean, promising himself, and Ford, he would find him and help him any way he could.