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Year One – Seventh day of the Expedition

“Are you serious?” McKay looked up from his computer screen, eyes wide and incredulous. “You want me on a gate team?” His mobile mouth twisted and he sneered. “Maybe work on your jokes a bit longer, Major. That’s not even close to funny.”

“I’m not kidding, McKay,” Sheppard said patiently, picking up a small device and putting it hastily back down as it began to hum. He met McKay’s gaze squarely. “I’m setting up a team and I need a science guy. You’re it.”

“Science guy?” McKay repeated blankly. “What?”

“I’ve been reading up on the SGC teams back on Earth,” Sheppard said. “There’s the leader, that’s me. The science guy, that’s you. The kickass alien, that’s Teyla.”

“Wait, Teyla?” McKay interrupted. He glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “The hot one in the leather…” He gestured broadly at his chest.

Sheppard smirked. “Please don’t objectify my kickass alien. There’s no fraternisation in teams anyway, so you can keep your eyes off her… leather.”

“Huh, as if I’d stand a chance with the cool alien princess,” McKay said sourly. “You’re Captain Kirk in this scenario.”

“So you’re Spock,” Sheppard said reasonably. “Look, I-“

Suddenly a klaxon blared out, making them both jerk in surprise. Sheppard jumped to his feet, clicking the ear piece until it connected with the control room. “This is Sheppard. What’s going on?”

“Sir.” The panic in Chuck’s voice was obvious to both men. “Dr Weir’s office has sealed up and she’s… Oh, god,” he said. “She’s down, sir, Dr Weir is down.”

Sheppard and McKay were already running.

888

The scene in the control room was chaotic, most of the shift were pressed against the glass walls of Weir’s office, faces fixed in horror. Chuck and another technician were working frantically on the door controls.

“McKay,” Sheppard said tersely, even as he pushed the others aside to get a look inside.

“On it,” McKay said, bent over the console. “You,” he said, snapping his fingers and pointing at Chuck. “Get back to your console, the door has obviously been sealed, you’re not getting it open from there.”

Sheppard scanned the room, eyes going straight to the slim form of Dr Weir, crumpled on the floor behind her desk. Her head was turned away, but she was deathly still, and it was impossible from his position to tell whether she was breathing.

“McKay,” he said over his shoulder. “What’s going on? Why won’t the doors open?”

“Give me a minute,” McKay said, typing furiously.

“Weir might not have a minute,” Sheppard snapped back. He clicked his comm. “Ford, get to the control room, bring C4.” He clicked again. “Beckett, control room, medical emergency.”

“Already on my way, Major.”

“Oh my god,” McKay said numbly, and Sheppard tore his gaze away from Weir’s still form, hand dropping from his ear piece. Rodney met his gaze, his eyes wide. “It’s the City. It’s instituted a quarantine.”

“The City can do that? Why? For what?”

McKay resumed typing, squinting down at the screen. “No details on the cause, but the City is reporting… an air born pathogen,” he said, anxious gaze darting to the sealed doors and back to his screen. “Uh, the room has been sealed, ventilation cut…” He leaned back, still frowning. “It’s saying 74 minutes. We, uh, reset all the clocks in the system when we got here, even though the days are longer, but we’re obviously still using minutes and hours. The days are – “

“McKay,” Sheppard interrupted harshly. “74 minutes until what?”

McKay blinked. “Until the room is cleared for entry. Automatic systems are…”

At that moment a fine mist filled the room and everyone turned their attention back to the glass walls, as the view of Dr Weir on the floor was obscured for a moment, and then the mist began to clear.

“…decontaminating,” McKay finished. “The City won’t unseal the rooms until the decontamination is complete.”

“The hell it won’t,” Sheppard muttered as Ford entered the room at a run, followed by a dozen marines.

“Sir,” Ford panted. “What’s going on? Are we under attack?” He immediately focused on the fishbowl of a room, whose windows were now glistening with a fine film of condensation. “Dr Weir?”

“McKay where do we plant the charges to blow these doors?” Sheppard said, accepting the small square of C4 from his second in command.

“We don’t,” McKay said firmly.

Sheppard rounded on him and McKay lifted his chin, holding his ground even as his eyes widened. “The room is under quarantine, okay? What part of airborne pathogen don’t you get?”

“What part of Dr Weir may be dying in there don’t you get?” Sheppard said contemptuously.

“So you want us all to die with her?”

“I want to get her out of that room,” Sheppard said through gritted teeth. “And if you won’t help me do it, I’ll do it myself. Ford?”

Ford handed him a detonator while the people gathered around all started to edge back.

“Are you crazy?” McKay said, half hysterically. “All you’ll do is spread the pathogen into this room, the City will seal the control room, and we’ll all be on the floor next to Elizabeth, including them,” he finished, as Beckett and a medical team rushed into the room.

“All non essential personal leave,” Sheppard ordered.

“Sir, we have hazmat suits,” Ford offered. “If we blow the doors then at least someone will be able to treat her.”

“Dr McKay,” a small voice said, and Sheppard and Ford and McKay all turned to look at the gate technician Chuck. His eyes were wide and filmed with tears as he pointed at the widest screen in the room, the Ancient screen usually scrolling an unintelligible alphabet across its green tinged surface. At the moment it showed a map of the Atlantis control tower, small dots of light blinking within various rooms and halls.

Abruptly McKay sat back in his chair, face stunned. “Oh my god,” he said again, voice trembling.

“What? What is it?” Sheppard demanded.

“I thought I’d go get a Life Signs Detector from a jumper, see if I could ascertain Dr Weirs condition,” Chuck said steadily. “And that just appeared on the screen.”

“So, what is it?” Carson exclaimed impatiently. And then he seemed to understand, as everyone else in the room grasped the vital information all at once.

Life signs detector. All the tiny points of light in the control tower, nearly two dozen now in this very room, shown on the map in its distinctive hexagonal shape.

And no light from Dr Weir’s room.

“It could be wrong,” Sheppard said steadily.

“The quarantine wasn’t wrong,” McKay said numbly. “It did exactly what it was designed to do. Protect the entire city from whatever… from whatever killed Dr Weir.”

“How long until we know for sure?” Beckett said hoarsely, breaking the long silence.

McKay glanced at his computer. “69 minutes.”

888

“What exactly happened?” Sheppard asked Chuck, unable to sit but also unable to keep standing and staring at the room that was now bathed in an eerie blue light emanating from ceiling panels.

Chuck sniffed and straightened his shoulders. Like most of the control room staff he had slumped into his seat in front of his monitor or work station. “I helped Dr Weir carry in some boxes,” he said. “Stuff she hadn’t had a chance to unpack yet.”

Well, it had only been a week, Sheppard thought. The longest, weirdest week of his life, but still just seven days since they’d walked through the Stargate on Earth and stepped into the City of the Ancients.

“I offered to help her unpack it, but she said it was just office stuff, and a few personal photos. I… I left her to it.”

It was obviously occurring to Chuck that if he had stayed to help he would probably have been laying dead on the floor next to Dr Weir right now.

“Did you see what she unpacked?” Sheppard said, trying to keep the man focused. Bates was next to him now, a frown on his forehead.

Chuck shook his head, indicating with a gesture his seat and how it was facing away from the glass walls and doors of Dr Weir’s office.

“Did anyone else go into the room?” Bates said, and Sheppard resisted rolling his eyes as Bate’s glance flicked to Teyla and Halling. Fortunately the Athosians were focused on the sealed rooms and didn’t notice. Halling’s head was bent and he appeared to be praying.

“No, sir,” Chuck said. “No one went in. It was barely five minutes after Dr Weir started unpacking that the alarm went off and the doors all slammed closed.”

McKay clicked his fingers and pushed his way between Chuck and his console. “Cameras,” he muttered. “There are cameras everywhere, but we’ve only initialised them in the control tower so far, to save power. He glanced at his watch, muttered under his breath and typed a few more commands.

Suddenly the monitor was showing Dr Weir’s office, angled from above and behind her desk. Chuck walked in beside her carrying a box still sealed with SGC tape. Weir was carrying a smaller crate, the top open, a photo frame clearly sticking out at an angle.

In silence they watched her exchange a few words with Chuck and shake her head, before he left the room. She unpacked the crate first and Sheppard felt his throat tighten as she took out the photo and smiled down at the surface, before carefully placing it on her desk. A blotter, notebook, pens, various paraphernalia was laid on the desk or the shelves, before Weir used a letter opener in the shape of a dagger to cut the SGC tape on the box.

Immediately they all leaned forward around the monitor as her posture changed, and her head tilted curiously to one side. She drew out a metallic object, the size and shape of a small coffee flask, it’s surface gleaming a dull silver under the room’s lights. With a flick of the wrist Weir popped the cap, and a fine spray was clearly visible, almost exploding from the canister and filing every corner of the room.

Weir flinched away, dropping the canister which rolled out of sight under the desk. Her eyes were already closed, her head lolling on her neck as she hit the floor.

“My god,” Beckett said, looking sick. “She was murdered.”

“Bates,” Sheppard said not taking his eyes off the screen. “I want teams to sweep every room, every lab, every place anyone has set foot since we entered Atlantis a week ago. Concentrate on searching everything brought from Earth first, especially anything unopened. The SGC seal was still on that box, so whatever that thing is it came from Earth and we have no way of knowing what else might have come too. Any doubts about anything, pull back immediately and we’ll get the hazmat team to check it out.”

“Sir,” Bates nodded briskly and left double time, a dozen marines following him.

“Ford.” Sheppard turned his attention to his 2IC. “Assemble the hazmat team. You’ve had bomb disposal experience, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lead the team. Don’t take any chances, I’d rather lose a room than any personnel, understood?”

“You think there might be a bomb, sir?”

“I have no idea,” Sheppard said frankly. “Let’s make sure. McKay? Can you track where everyone has been since we stepped through the gate?”

McKay exchanged a glance with the foreign scientist wearing the Czech patch on his rumpled uniform. They both nodded. “Mostly we’ve stuck pretty close to the central spire,” McKay said. “Except when we were looking for Jinto, and that was mainly you and me.”

“Get the information to the teams, they can check any unusual activity after they’ve searched the baggage.”

He turned away and toggled his comm to the city wide band.

“This is Major Sheppard. We’ve had an incident in the control room, prompting the alarms you heard earlier. The situation is under control, but I will ask you to please leave what you’re doing, shut down anything you have running, and proceed to the mess hall. Do not bring anything with you, including computers or personal items. Keep your comms in, stay in the mess hall, and we will keep you updated as the situation progresses. There’s no immediate danger, this is a precaution only, and this most definitely is not a drill. Be patient. Sheppard out.”

888

Just to be safe Sheppard cleared the control room, sealed the doors and instructed the hazmat team to be the first to enter Dr Weir’s lab when the City finally declared the decontamination was complete. Sheppard watched on camera as Dr Weir’s body was carefully lifted into an airtight body bag and sealed inside. He knew she was dead, while waiting for the all clear he’d retrieved a LSD from a jumper and double checked for himself. But there was still something so horribly final about watching her body disappear inside the black bag, her lightweight form laid gently on a stretcher and wheeled out of the room.

888

“I know you’ve probably all heard by now. Dr Weir is dead,” Sheppard said sombrely. No one assembled in the mess hall spoke, a few exchanged glances, someone gave a low sob.

Sheppard tried to meet all their eyes in turn as they gazed at him, feeling the palpable fear and grief in the room, thinking also of the control room staff, a new shift now, at their posts and listening into his speech via comms.

“I want to thank you for being patient. I know this has been a long process, but we wanted to search every single item brought from Earth before we could clear anyone here to leave.”

Now there were a few worried voices as people muttered to one another.

“So it’s true?” A young man in a science uniform with a Japanese flag on his badge asked. “It was something from the SGC?”

Sheppard nodded. “It seems so. Dr Weir opened a sealed box and a device went off. Dr Beckett tells me it was a weaponised form of anthrax. If Atlantis hadn’t sealed the room immediately and shut down the ventilation, it’s likely it would have spread out into the city. Anyone not immediately affected would have been infected themselves when they rendered aid, or when they touched a surface where the droplets landed. Atlantis saved all our lives today.”

“So someone tried to kill the entire expedition?” another scientist demanded. This one had sharp cheekbones and dark hair drawn back in a pony tail.

“That’s our working theory,” Sheppard replied. “They obviously couldn’t have known Atlantis would still be functional, let alone that it had sensors that would detect the airborne pathogen and decontaminate the area.”

“Then we’re safe now?”

Sheppard nodded to Bates who stepped forward and outlined the thorough search procedures his teams had undertaken over the last six hours. These were scientists he was dealing with, not military. The men and women under his command would take orders and expect their commanding officer to supply them with as much information as they needed to know. But scientists wouldn’t be satisfied with less than every detail.

As Bates spoke Sheppard tried to gauge the mood of the room. Worried, scared, nervous, all the usual. No one appeared hostile or confrontational, and as far as he could tell, no one seemed shifty or guilty. Had this only been a long distance attempt to destroy the Atlantis expedition? Or did they have a terrorist in their midst? If so, it would be one prepared to commit suicide, as he or she would have perished along with everyone else. Beckett had assured him that to the best of his knowledge there was no inoculation or antidote to the strain of anthrax used.

“Why would anyone do this?” Dr Zelenka asked him directly as Bates wound down. Sheppard knew him better than any of the other scientists except McKay, he’d been helping him check out the puddle jumper systems just yesterday.

It seemed so long ago now.

“I don’t know,” Sheppard said frankly. “Everyone else here has more experience with the SGC and the Stargate Program than I do. Anyone have any ideas?”

There were a few exchanged looks and shrugs, then Lieutenant Ford cleared his throat. “Sir? Colonel Sumner did confide in me when I was being briefed about this mission that he had worked with General O’Neill to expose some rogue elements in the NID.”

“I heard some scuttlebutt about that,” Bates interjected. “Called themselves The Trust. Anti-alien group, basically. Really hate and distrust anyone not from Earth.” He flushed a little as Teyla looked at him, one elegant brow arching. “I thought they’d been wiped out, sir.”

“Maybe not,” Sheppard said, spreading his hands. “We have no way of knowing. All we can do is take precautions and move forward.”

“Trust no one,” McKay said. “Well, no one who hasn’t already proved themselves,” he amended hastily as Teyla turned her cool gaze on him.

“I’d like a meeting of department heads at 0800 tomorrow,” Shepard said. “We need to have a plan and a structure to move forward. Teyla, I’d appreciate if you and Halling would attend. I hope to let everyone know by this time tomorrow when we can hold the memorial service for Dr Weir. Thank you again for your patience.” People started shuffling to their feet. “Dr McKay, May I speak to you alone?”

“Is this about the trust no one thing?” McKay said nervously as the meeting broke up and people wandered away. The kitchen staff rushed back to their trays and started lifting lids off steaming platters, and Sheppard watched approvingly as a few people took trays and started to help themselves, glad to see some semblance of normalcy returning. “Because I wasn’t taking a jab at the Athosians. I like the Athosians, they have this whole hippy patchouli, Ren Fair vibe going on that I really admire.”

“It’s not about that,” Sheppard said, cutting off his babble and walking out onto the still deserted balcony. He took a deep breath of clean sea air, welcoming the feel of the fresh evening breeze on his face. “It’s about leadership of the expedition now that… that Dr Weir is gone.”

McKay’s mobile mouth turned down. “I knew this was coming,” he said gloomily. “Quite frankly we were taking bets in my department about how soon you’d take over the expedition and that was before Elizabeth was murdered. Typical military mindset, identify a threat and suddenly the civilians are thrown aside and trampled on. Everything becomes martial law, research is ignored in favour of making bigger guns and better bombs, and before you know it you’re wearing dog tags and saying ‘yes, sir’, ‘no, sir,’, ‘three bags full, sir’.”

“My god you can talk,” Sheppard said as McKay paused for breath. “I mean, you’re talking utter nonsense, but on the other hand there’s so damned much of it.”

McKay gaped at him. “What?”

“I’m not taking over,” Sheppard said patiently.

McKay gaped a moment longer and then his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You’re not?”

“Nope. And I had no intention of taking over this time yesterday either. In fact it never even crossed my mind.”

“Sumner would have taken over,” McKay challenged.

“Oh yeah, he totally would have,” Sheppard agreed, and now McKay just looked puzzled.

“He would?”

“If we’d rescued him and he’d made it back to Atlantis in one piece, the first thing he would have done is dethrone Dr Weir and take over the expedition. A near immortal race of life sucking vampire aliens infesting the entire galaxy? There’s no way a military guy like Sumner would have left a civilian in charge of the base in those circumstances, let alone taken orders from her.”

“But aren’t you a military guy?” Rodney said, just looking bemused now.

“I’m a pilot. Not even meant to be in the chain of command. A last minute addition, who quite frankly saw this as a chance to do more to run out my twenty than fly milk runs at McMurdo. I didn’t want command of the military, let alone the entire expedition.” Sheppard looked over at McKay, who was gazing at him wide eyed. “That’s just between you and me, okay?”

“Um, sure. Okay.” McKay frowned. “So are you telling me you want me to take charge? Because I know I’m second to Weir in the command structure, but, if we’re being brutally honest here, you’re going to need every minute of my time spent keeping this city powered up and afloat. I don’t have the time or the energy for the myriad of annoying, bureaucratic trivialities Elizabeth must have waded through every day.”

Sheppard once again waited for McKay to draw breath, sensing that he was going to be spending a great deal of his time from now on trying to get a word in edgewise. “Me either. So that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I have a few ideas I wanted to run by you before the department head meeting tomorrow.”

McKay looked flattered. “Okay, sure. Shoot.”

888

Sheppard chose to use the mess hall balcony for the meeting he called, liking the fresh air and the privacy it gave them once the doors were closed. Dr Weir’s office was dark and empty, and John figured it’d be a long time if ever before it was turned back into an office.

He’d pushed a few of the tables together and sat at the head as everyone arrived and took their places. Ford, Bates, McKay, Beckett, Heightmeyer the shrink, and the Athosians Teyla and Halling.

“Okay,” John said briskly as they all settled down. “First of all we need to discuss Dr Weir’s funeral. We’ve decided on a memorial here in the City, and then we’re going to inter her body on the mainland. I have the engineers putting together an airtight coffin, and we’ll pick a nice spot somewhere well inland. Dr Beckett perhaps you can explain the reasons?”

Beckett cleared his throat. “Although Dr Weir’s body was decontaminated by the City.” He paused and wiped at the corner of his eye. “Sorry,” he said a bit gruffly. “Elizabeth was a good friend of mine. This is very hard.”

“I’m sorry that you had to be the one to carry out the autopsy, Dr Beckett,” John said.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Dr Beckett said, straightening his shoulders determinedly. “It’s my job after all. And please, everyone. Call me Carson.”

Everyone nodded and Teyla reached out and patted his hand sympathetically. Carson gave her a grateful look.

“Anyway. As I was saying, although her body underwent decontamination, the signs of anthrax poisoning were apparent. Careful testing of the interior of the canister used confirmed my suspicions. We got lucky,” he said seriously, looking around the table. “Just one gram of weaponised anthrax can contain up to one trillion spores — enough to cause somewhere between 20 and 100 million deaths. While I’m reasonably sure there’s no danger of contamination from her body, I felt it prudent to inter her in an airtight, sealed coffin, away from the City.”

“Million?” Halling repeated incredulously. “And this is used as a weapon on your world?”

“It’s been used by terrorists,” Carson confirmed. “But luckily while it’s not even that difficult to find and weaponise anthrax, distributing for the maximum desired effect is not so easy. The canister used was actually a brilliant piece of engineering, and if not for the City’s decontamination protocol, no doubt it would have killed us all within minutes of entering the ventilation system.”

“So Atlantis saved us.” Teyla said.

“The science teams getting Atlantis repowered and her vital systems up and running saved us,” McKay said. “Even initialising the cameras that allowed us to see the sequence of events was down to us.”

“Yes, yes,” Sheppard said. “Thank you for doing your job.”

“I’m just saying,” Rodney said, rolling his eyes. “We can’t always count on the City to save our asses. There are whole areas out there that are unexplored, with no power, that may be structurally unsound. We have to stress to everyone to stay in the designated areas until we have time to clear more buildings.”

“I’d like to apologise again for Jinto getting lost the way he did,” Halling said. “It won’t happen again. Our people understand the rules now.”

“We know it must feel confining for you all,” Sheppard said. “That’s one of the things I want to address in this meeting. Now Dr McKay and I have had a few discussions on the whole leadership issue, and we think we’ve come up with a solution, in the short term anyway. Technically I inherited command of the military after Colonel Sumner’s death, and Dr McKay is next in line for leadership of the expedition after Dr Weir’s death.”

Bates and Ford exchanged a look at this.

“I know some people wondered if the expedition was going to be taken over completely by the military after the threat of the Wraith was revealed, but I want to assure you, it’s not. There are a pretty equal number of civilian scientists and military, and I just don’t think it’s practical to try and impose military rule on them all. And that’s not even counting the Athosians. So what I’m suggesting may seem a bit radical, but hear me out.”

Everyone exchanged glances and nodded.

“I think it will come as a relief to a lot of people to hear the expedition isn’t going to be solely under military rule,” Dr Heightmeyer said in her soft voice.

“I should have taken some of the bets,” McKay muttered, and everyone chuckled while Bates rolled his eyes.

“What I’m proposing,” Sheppard continued. “Is a kind of council. Obviously I’d be in charge of the military, and would lead the council. McKay would keep control of the scientific contingent, Carson medical. Dr Heightmeyer I’d like you to have a kind of a dual role. Obviously a lot of people are going to come to you for counselling and support. But I’d also like some ideas for how we can keep morale up, suggestions about shifts and coping with the new 26 hour day.”

Heightmeyer nodded. “I already have some ideas I can polish up for the next meeting.”

“Great,” John said, cheered by her easy acceptance. “Now obviously my plans for running my own gate team are going to have to be put on hold. I will undertake some missions as I feel necessary, but Ford?” He met the eyes of the young Lieutenant. “I want you to give me some ideas about forming gate teams, with you leading SGA1.”

Ford nodded gravely, but it was obvious he was pleased and flattered.

“Teyla?” John turned to the two Athosians. “I’d like you to work with Ford. Do you think any of your people would be interested in being on gate teams? Ideally I’d like at least one Athosian per team, as a guide and active team member.”

Teyla nodded thoughtfully. “I believe I could find no shortage of volunteers,” she said. “My people have expressed a desire to help in the fight against the Wraith, now that they see there are indeed others who are willing and able to fight them on their own terms.”

“Excuse me, Major,” Halling said hesitantly. “Does that mean you foresee a future for our people amongst your expedition? Here in the City of the Ancestors?” He cast a quick look at Bates. “I wasn’t sure if there was a place for us.”

“Well, that’s why I want you on the council as well, Halling,” John said. “I know Teyla is your leader, but I was hoping you’d be the liaison between the expedition and the Athosians. I have some ideas of how you could be integrated into Atlantis, without losing your own autonomy and freedoms.”

“There was some talk of us moving to the mainland to begin farming,” Halling said.

“If that’s what you want, we can discuss it. But I have a few problems with that. For one thing, we’ve barely explored the mainland, we have no idea what kind of wildlife or insect life is present, or even whether the soil and climate will support farming. The other thing is access to the stargate. Your people are used to coming and going at will, do you really want to have to ask for a lift to the City every time someone wants to travel?”

The frown cleared from Halling’s forehead, and he exchanged a relieved glance with Teyla, who nodded and smiled at him. “I must admit those are my concerns as well.”

“The thing is,” John said. “I know your people are used to a more nomadic life, out in the open. And at first glance it doesn’t look like we can provide that on Atlantis. But I do have a few ideas I’d like to run by you and all your people, with maybe the guys from Botany sitting in. Okay?”

Halling nodded again, still smiling.

Finally Sheppard turned to Bates, who wasn’t looking too happy. “Sergeant. I understand your concerns, and that you’re doing your job by being suspicious. I tend to go on my instincts, and you’re more by the book. But we’re in Pegasus now, and the book isn’t going to work here. We have to come up with a whole new book. I’d like you to be in charge of base security, working closely with me. I’ll be the trusting one and you can be the suspicious bastard, and between us we might manage to keep everyone here safe. What do you say?”

Bates looked torn between being horrified and amused. “You’re keeping me in charge of base security?”

“Unless you don’t want the job.”

“I’ll do my duty, sir, of course. But if we do have to, uh, rewrite the book, I have to tell you. I’m not sure where to start.”

Sheppard rubbed his brow, trying to think how to put it in words. “I guess we start by looking at the cold hard facts. We lost Sumner to the Wraith, and Weir to someone from Earth. We had some ancient alien electricity monster roaming the halls of the City. But every threat we’ve faced, the Athosians have been by our side, facing the same risks and dangers as us.”

Bates raised one brow in surprise, but nodded his understanding.

“In the Pegasus Handbook of How To Survive With No Backup, No New Supplies and No Other Allies, I suggest Chapter One is go with your gut and trust people until they prove untrustworthy. How does that sound?”

Everyone gazed at the sergeant while he clearly turned this over in his mind. “I take your point, sir. And I will definitely strive to be only as much of a suspicious bastard as I need to be.”

There was a general chuckle at that.

“But I think you’ll agree, that a base is only as strong as its front door.”

Sheppard frowned. “I’m listening.”

“Well, sir, I always felt the greatest weakness of the SGC was not utilising its alpha site more.”

“Alpha site?” Teyla queried.

“An alternate site to returning directly to your homeworld from another planet,” Bates explained. “I don’t mean any offence here, but if we’re going to have Athosians as well as gate teams coming and going, security is going to be a nightmare.”

John nodded thoughtfully.

“Actually, although we don’t call them alpha sites,” Teyla said. “Many people in this galaxy will travel to multiple addresses rather than directly to their homeworld. Sometimes to prevent strangers from knowing where they’re from, sometimes to protect their sources of trade from rivals. It’s very common.”

“So you’re suggesting all gate travel go through an alpha site?” John said thoughtfully.

Bates nodded, obviously buoyed at his suggestion being taken seriously. “I’d make it our first priority. Set up a secure site, rotating squads of marines, a mobile medical screening unit.”

McKay snapped his fingers. “I like this,” he agreed. “We can set up video links, screen all visitors, test any trade goods for bugs.”

“Bugs?” Teyla said. “You mean like my necklace? I heard the scientists call it a bug. I did not understand what an insect has to do with it.”

“That was more a tracking device than a bug,” McKay said impatiently. “A bug is a spying device. But it’s why I bring up the point. If we hadn’t been scanning for anything anomalous among our personal items after the attack on Dr Weir, we would never have found that Wraith tracking device. The first time Teyla went back through the ‘gate wearing it, she might have been culled. Not to mention that subspace signal could have led a Wraith fleet to our doorstep. Who knows what other booby traps are out there?”

The meeting wound up on a positive note, with everyone walking out chatting about new ideas and suggestions. Dr Heightmeyer agreed to inform everyone of the memorial service, and Halling volunteered to help her plan it. John wanted to pat himself on the back just for getting out of that duty. He was terrible at that kind of thing.

“I like the idea about an alpha site,” McKay said, helping himself to an apple from a bowl. The mess was serving the last of the fresh fruit and vegetables, and John grabbed an apple for himself, wondering when he might ever get to taste one again. He shook off the depressing thought.

“Yeah, Bates surprised me. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into it.”

“Which is just what you wanted. Everyone bringing their own ideas to the table.”

“Well I’m catching up on old SGC reports, but I’m still a newbie when it comes to this whole stargate thing. A good idea is a good idea though.”

888

Year One - Six Months into the Expedition

“So, the food situation is stable. The engineers did a great job on the cold storage units, and my marines and the Athosians filled it in one hunting trip. Rodney, are the units eating much power?”

“No, the smallest naquadah generator can handle all the stores and the entire mess,” McKay said absently, flicking through screens. “The majority of our power is being used on the basics, water filtration, lights and keeping our systems running. That way what little power we have in the ZPM’s can be saved for the ‘gate shield.”

“Solar collectors are being utilised to great effect on the alpha site,” Dr Zelenka volunteered.

John made a note and turned to Halling. “Good work on the fruit gathering party, Halling. I understand the kids from M7G-677 are awesome climbers.”

Halling nodded and smiled. “They’re used to being independent from a young age, but they’re hard workers and have an uncanny ability to find even the most well hidden trees. Carson says the yutta juice we distil is full of vitamins, and will make a good addition to our diet.”

“And it’s not citrus,” Rodney observed. “Now if we just had some alcohol we could have a helluva cocktail party.”

“Shaken not stirred,” John murmured, making another note. He loved being in charge of a council, in fact he was beginning to think his father may have had the right idea running a business. Just sit back and let everyone else do the work while all you have to do is figure out who to delegate to. It was sweet.

“Okay,” he said, glancing at the next item. “The fishing trip next week. How many…” He held up a hand as his comms crackled. “Excuse me. Yes, Chuck?”

“Sir, Lieutenant Ford has dialled in from Dagan. He needs a diplomatic party to negotiate with the Daganians. Apparently he’s pretty excited about something they have to trade.”

“Oh goody, more tava beans,” Rodney muttered.

“We’ll be right there.”

888

The stargate had barely shut down behind them before John was dropping to his knees on the ‘gateroom floor and flicking open the wooden case. He stood and stepped back, so everyone could gaze upon their latest acquisition.

“My god, you did it,” Rodney said, looking dazed.

“Ford did it,” John said, slapping the grinning Lieutenant on the shoulder. “Ford and his team.”

“The Daganians are eager to come to Atlantis and study the writings of the Ancients,” Teyla said, smiling serenely. “As long as they are given the access promised, they are glad to let us use their Potentia.”

“Hey, for a full ZPM they can move their entire town here, including their goats and grannies,” Rodney said fervently. “So if you’re done staring in awe, can Zelenka and I get it checked over and power up the City?”

“Do your thing, Rodney,” John said. “And get Miko and Singh working on that databurst. First priority is securing the City, but I think we can spare enough power for a few seconds to let the SGC know what’s going on in the Pegasus galaxy.”

888

“What do you think will happen, sir?” Ford said as they assessed their ammunition situation. They’d already had to scale back their mission schedule due to ammunition rationing, and Rodney had threatened to push Sheppard off the pier if he asked him to build him a Han Solo gun one more time. “When the SGC receive our message?”

Sheppard scratched his head thoughtfully. “Hard to say. I guess it depends on the situation in the Milky Way galaxy. I assume if they had the power they’d have dialled us already, just to check in.”

“General O’Neill sent us out here for ZPM’s,” Ford said. “What if they want the one we just found? If they send a ship out to get it, where does that leave my treaty with Dagan? They’re good people, sir,” he said earnestly. “They gave us the ZPM trusting we’d keep our end of the bargain.”

“And we will,” Sheppard promised. “One way or another. If Earth needs our ZPM to power their chair, we’ll manage with our Naquadah generators for a while longer. After all, we’ve only been here six months and you secured us one ZPM. There are bound to be more.”

888

“Okay,” Rodney said, white faced and sweating. He and Zelenka had triple checked and cleaned the ZPM before locking it into place, spending more than an hour on every detail. It had been one of the sweetest sights of John’s life, watching that crystal sink neatly into its console, and then feeling the entire city warm and hum around him as automatic systems powered up.

Then it had been two long hours while McKay, Grodin, Zelenka and a dozen other scientists had bustled around turning off unnecessary systems and rerouting power into the array of shields and the drone chair.

Now McKay stood poised to dial Earth, after six months and a dozen tragic deaths behind them. Everyone held their breath. Would they get a lock? Was Earth still there? And what would their response be?

John nodded and Rodney punched in Earth’s address, entering the eighth symbol with a flourish.

Nothing happened. All eyes turned from the ‘gate to McKay, who stood frowning at the console. “I don’t get it,” he said, glancing at John and then Grodin.

“Try again,” John urged, and Rodney nimbly re-entered the address, carefully pausing between pressing each symbol.

Again, no lock. John felt his heart sinking, heard the mutters of dismay from the gathered expedition members, the whispered explanations to their Athosian team mates.

“Maybe Earth’s ‘gate is down?” John suggested, not wanting to voice the horrifying thought that maybe Earth wasn’t even there any more, but Grodin and Rodney were shaking their heads.

“Problem is not at their end,” Zelenka said quietly beside him.

“No, it’s us, we’re not able to dial the eighth symbol. See?” Rodney quickly dialled again, seven symbols lit and faded, but no eighth would engage.

“It’s not a power problem,” Zelenka said, typing furiously and peering at his screen through his smudged glasses.

“I can see that,” McKay snapped. “And it’s not the control crystal, we cleaned every single one of them the first month we were here.”

“Perhaps the crystal was somehow dislodged or damaged during the storm?” Peter suggested, already dropping to his knees and clicking the lower cover from the console.

“Just pray it wasn’t damaged,” McKay began, and then they both sat back on their heels. “Oh my god.”

“What?” Zelenka and John said together. Radek peered over their shoulders and swore richly in Czech. John figured it also meant something akin to oh my god.

“Rodney,” John snarled. “What is it? Is it broken?”

“It’s gone,” Rodney said blankly. “The control crystal is gone.”

John frowned at his white face, at Grodin who had his hand over his eyes, at Radek who had collapsed back into a chair. “This would be the control crystal that allows us to dial an eight symbol address?”

“Yes, obviously,” McKay said waspishly. “We’ve been dialling local addresses just fine. We sent a team through to the alpha site just this morning.”

“How can it be gone?” Grodin said.

“And you’re sure we had one when we got here?” John asked.

Rodney sputtered angrily and Zelenka spoke over the top of him. “We know we had one, Major,” he said loudly. “Not only because we did check and clean every console in the control room within the first month. But because without it we couldn’t have dialled here from Earth.”

“This particular crystal,” Rodney said, heaving himself wearily to his feet. “Turns a normal stargate into an intergalactic stargate. But you can’t just dial any old gate and cross a galaxy, the receiving ‘gate has to have the same control crystal.”

“So Earth might have been trying to dial us all this time?” John realised.

Rodney stared at him. “We are screwed.”

John clicked his comm. “Bates, arm two full security teams and await my signal. Sheppard out.” He turned to Zelenka. “Radek, lock down the city. I want every door, every corridor sealed. Make sure no one is in a transporter, but other than that, I don’t want anyone moving anywhere until I say so.”

“It’s too late,” Rodney said, staring at him wide eyed. “Everyone knew we were dialling Earth tonight. They must have known their sabotage would be uncovered.”

“Chuck, pull up the city wide life signs detector,” Sheppard ordered, and they all turned to the big screen they’d last used the day Dr Weir had been murdered. John felt the same sinking sensation now as he had then. Someone on Atlantis was a terrorist.

“There,” McKay said. “On the outermost pier. No one is authorised to be out there. It’s just one person.”

“And no way to tell who it is,” John muttered. “Chuck, open a city wide channel.” He waited for the nod. “Attention, this is Sheppard. The city has been locked down for your own safety. Please stay where you are and do not attempt to unlock any doors. I would also ask at this time that you stop what you’re doing, it’s possible we have another instance of sabotage. I promise you, we will deal with this. Until further notice just be patient, and take care of each other. Sheppard out.”

Ford was at his elbow, his shoulders stiff. “What are you thinking, sir? A bomb? More chemical weapons?”

“I’m thinking this guy is part of the terrorist group that murdered Dr Weir,” Sheppard said grimly. “And that he knows he’s going to be caught so has nothing left to lose.”

“We scanned for weapons after Dr Weir,” Ford reminded him quietly. Sheppard met his eyes and Ford nodded. “But if this terrorist is a scientist, I guess he could have built something pretty deadly in the last six months. Should I suit up?”

“Let’s get teams checking first,” John decided. “I want you to take charge of that. Bates and I will deal with him.”

888

The lone figure stood at the end of the furthest pier, hands by his side, one gripping a nine mil. Sheppard used hand signals to indicate his team should fan out, scanning to make sure they all wore their tac vests. He moved forward after signalling the marines to hold position, his own P-90 hanging in front of him, his arms casually resting on top.

“Corporal Broward,” Sheppard said easily. “You should be careful getting so close to the edge. It’s a bit slippery out here.”

Broward turned to face him, and Sheppard’s heart sank at the eerily calm expression on his face. He’d seen suicidal soldiers before. Men who’d reached a point when they’d made their decision to die, and were at peace with that decision.

“I was waiting for you,” Broward said calmly. “I needed you to know why you’re all going to die out here. That there’s nothing personal about my actions.”

“Why don’t you come inside and tell us all about it,” Sheppard said, extending one hand slowly. “I’m sure you have plenty to tell us.”

“The control crystal is gone,” Broward continued coolly as if he hadn’t heard a word Sheppard said. “I volunteered to stay during the storm, waited until Patel was in the bathroom, and I took it out. I knew exactly what to do.”

“You were the back up?” Sheppard said, trying to keep him talking. “In case the Anthrax didn’t work.”

“I didn’t know exactly what they were going to do,” Broward said. “Just that I was to act if the first attempt failed.”

“Who is they?”

Broward frowned, seeming to focus on Sheppard for the first time. “The Trust, of course,” he said. “They’re everywhere, they control everything. The SGC, the IOA, even the Pentagon. They couldn’t block the Atlantis Mission without exposing themselves, so steps had to be taken. This expedition could never be allowed to contact Earth again.”

“Why?” John asked softly. “Why are they doing this?”

Broward laughed incredulously. “You ask me that? After seeing what’s out here? We saved the world,” Broward said proudly. “I saved the world,” he said, his eyes once more straying out towards the ocean. “The Wraith will never reach Earth now. You’ll die out here, and Earth will be safe.” He lifted the gun and John shouted out an order for the sharpshooter to take his shot, hoping to hit Broward in the leg and bring him down before he could kill himself.

But the young corporal was too quick, instead of shooting he leaned backward and thrust himself off the side, falling the three stories to the water and hitting with a dull splash.

Sheppard ran forward and dropped to his knees, peering over the sheer metal edge down to the choppy blue ocean. But all he saw was a small circle of expanding waves, spreading on the surface until it vanished.

888

Year Two

Sheppard left Rodney sleeping and shrugged into his jacket, pulling the hood up around his ears. McKay was curled up as close to the portable heater as was humanly possible, snuffling and muttering in his sleep. Since Rodney pretty much always slept as if his brain kept working after his body gave up and fell unconscious, John didn’t worry over much.

He nodded at the marines on duty by the entrance and stepped out into the frosty night air, catching his breath at the icy chill. As always he was stunned by the sheer vastness of the sky stretching away until it seemed to meet the low rise of a sandy dune. Not as many stars visible as in the Milky Way, but the few shining seemed orders of magnitude brighter, white flaming balls in the incredible clarity of the dark blue night sky.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

Ronon turned and glanced at him over a broad shoulder, although John knew he’d been aware of him the minute he left the shelter of the abandoned Wraith ship.

“Looking at the stars,” Ronon said in that abrupt way he had.

“They’re really something aren’t they? Even on Atlantis they don’t look like this.”

“Too much light.” Ronon sat on a low ridge of rock and John took it as an invitation and sat a few feet away, still looking upwards.

“You’re not too cold?”

Ronon was wearing more than he usually did, a massive jacket he’d traded for a few weeks earlier, leather and skins all sewn together with a thick sinewy cord. Sheppard had offered him gear from their store, but Ronon had just thanked him and refused. Still, his head was uncovered, and the puffs of his breath were silent testimony to the chill night air.

“I like the cold. When I was a kid my grandfather taught me to track up in the mountains. Once we got snowed in all winter. I wonder sometimes…”

John waited patiently, aware that Ronon was still getting used to anything approaching conversation after all those years alone as a Runner.

“I wonder if I shouldn’t have just taken Melayna and run for the mountains when we knew the Wraith were coming. Some did.”

“Melayna?”

Ronon just shook his head and John let that go. God knows he knew how hard it was to talk about those long gone.

“You couldn’t have run,” John said quietly. “It’s not in you.”

“We knew it was a hopeless fight,” Ronon said bleakly.

John nodded. “As long as your people were under threat, you couldn’t have run.”

There was a long silence as they both gazed upwards at the eternal, never ending sky.

“Why’d you pick this as an alpha site?” Ronon finally asked, and John accepted the subject was closed.

“This place is actually our third alpha site. The first was pretty awesome. A long valley, easily defensible, nice climate. We actually evacuated most of the expedition there in a bunch of jumpers during Year One when a massive storm threatened the City. Made the perfect Alpha site – right up until the spring rains came and turned everything to mud. When the claymores started to float away we called it quits on that one.”

“What’s a little mud?” Ronon grinned, his teeth shining white in the star light.

“That’s us weak Earthers,” John said dryly. “Anyway, site number two was promising, until their spring came, and along with it these giant blood sucking mosquito like things.” John held his fingers three inches apart. “Freaking huge.”

“What’s a few bugs?” Ronon smirked and John shuddered.

“I hate bugs.”

“So why this place? No spring?”

Now John chuckled. “Don’t jinx us. Nah, the climatologists tell us there’s pretty much only one season here. Long hot days, long cold nights. But it has a few advantages.”

“Like the view?” Ronon nodded at the wash of night sky.

“In a way. In galactic terms we’re practically in Atlantis’s back yard. We’re 15 hours away from Lantea by jumper, so if there’s ever an incursion we can load onboard, cloak, and fly home, no problems. Also that stargate wasn’t on this planet, we harvested it from where it was orbiting around a dead planet.”

“So no one has your ‘gate address. Good thinking.” Ronon nodded at the abandoned Wraith ship, half buried under sand and scraggly weeds. It was about two hundred metres from the ‘gate embarkation area, which was well lit and covered by a squad of marines and various weapons at all times. “What’s with the Wraith ship?”

John scratched his head. “Well, that’s quite a story. See, we came here because of the Ancient Weapons platform in orbit around this planet, and we picked up a distress call.”

Sheppard was just winding down his story when the low alarm sounded and the ‘gate area lit up. He looked at the luminous dial of his watch. “That’ll be Brigga Tan Dal with the trade goods. Right on time.”

They watched as Brigga stepped through the ‘gate, followed by six of his people pulling wooden carts. The team on duty began to scan as the ‘gate powered down and the workers unloaded the casks and barrels. The harsh lights now illuminating the area dulled the wash of stars above them to a soft glow.

“How’d the trading go?” Sheppard asked as Brigga strolled to where they sat.

“Oh, fair enough, fair enough,” Brigga said complacently, tucking his hands into his voluminous sleeves and hunching down into his coat. “As usual those Genii thieves wanted too much for their inferior grain. They think way too much of themselves, for a bunch of backward farmers.”

Ronon and Sheppard exchanged glances, but didn’t correct the trader’s impression. For some reason it suited the Genii to play their cards close to their chests, and the team who had first traded with them had reported their suspicions to the council but left the Genii none the wiser that their secret underground life wasn’t so much a secret to people with the right scanners.

The workers loaded the scanned goods onto jumpers to be transported to Atlantis after the mandatory 26 hour quarantine had passed, and signalled to Brigga that they were heading in out of the cold.

“Well,” Brigga said, slapping his thighs as he stood to join his workers. “I need a hot meal and a warm blanket. When do you leave for Sateda?”

John checked his watch. “It’ll be sunrise on Sateda in an hour, so we better get our team mobilised now. Night,” he nodded as the big trader bustled away, then turned back to his friend. “You know, Ronon, you don’t have to go on this mission, right? We can handle it without you.”

“No, you can’t.”

“It’s your homeworld. I’ll understand if you want to sit this one out.”

“You need weapons,” Ronon said bluntly. “You have people willing to fight by your side and you can’t arm them. Even if scavengers have picked Sateda clean, I know of at least one arms cache we were holding in reserve for a second wave. Which never got used. There were medical supplies stored too, there may be stuff there Beckett can use. You need me to find all that.”

“I just don’t want you to…”

“I’m fine,” Ronon said firmly. “And maybe it’s time I put some ghosts to rest.”

Sheppard looked at him searchingly. “Well, if it gets to be too much, just say the word.”

“It won’t. Now can we go inside and get McKay away from the heater?”

“Yeah, good luck with that.”

888

John piloted the jumper along a low mountain ridge, eyes darting from the HUD to the ground below. The Wraith had left a few booby traps in the Satedan capital, planted near weapons and bodies, as well as two trackers similar to the one they’d found in Teyla’s necklace in Year One. His job was to make sure there weren’t any more nasty surprises even this far away from the city.

“What makes you think there might be survivors out here?” Rodney said, eyes on his tablet.

“Rumours,” Ronon said. “People fleeing to the mountains. People who had evacuation plans in place, shelters set up in the caverns.”

Rodney looked up. “Caverns? The Life Signs Detector might not be able to pick up signals if the caverns are deep enough.”

“Presumably the Wraith wouldn’t either,” Sheppard pointed out. “Which makes them a perfect bug-out in case of attack.”

“There,” Ronon pointed to where the low ridges suddenly ascended into a huge, mountainous range, its uppermost peaks covered in snow.

“Oh that’s impressive,” Rodney said.

Sergeant Baker leaned over and peered down. “Maybe we should have brought more men,” he said, surveying the terrain with the eyes of an experienced soldier.

“If we need more we can send for the rest of the jumpers,” Sheppard said. “I’ll land in the meadow about a mile away.”

“Oh, goody,” Rodney said under his breath, and Sheppard smirked at him. “You need the exercise.”

“Look who’s talking,” Rodney smirked back, and poked his own soft belly before pointing at John’s.

John narrowed his eyes and playfully sneered back, resisting the urge to feel his stomach. Maybe he had been slacking off lately. Running the city took a lot of energy, but not the kind that burnt off calories. And one of their new allies had this kind of burnt caramel pudding thing they made with these pods that was packed with calories as well as wicked good flavour.

“You should work out with me,” Ronon said as the jumper landed lightly and the marines started checking their gear. Once again proving the big man didn’t say much, but he didn’t miss much either.

888

The walk through the late afternoon Satedan sunshine was pleasant after a day spent scavenging a dead and destroyed city. Even Ronon seemed more relaxed, although he never gave much of anything away. John could all too easily imagine walking through the ‘gate back to his own homeworld and finding it a burnt out husk of itself, and how devastating that would be. Ronon however had been stoic and silent most of the day, although John hadn’t really expected anything else from the big Satedan as he guided them to the cache of weapons and medical supplies.

But now John could almost see the horrors of the day sliding off those wide shoulders as he turned his face up to the red gold of the sunset, half closing his eyes in pleasure at the scent of the trees and low shrubs dotting the rough path.

“Sir,” Baker nodded at the ground and now Sheppard could see that it was a path, and one trodden recently. Shoe and boot prints showed in the dust, grass was flattened into wheel ruts.

“Remember we’re looking for refugees,” Sheppard reminded them quietly. “And ones who probably aren’t going to be too welcoming of strangers.”

“They already know we’re here,” Ronon said, not breaking his easy stride. “They’ve been watching us since we left the jumpers. I wouldn’t expect any less from my people,” he said. He flicked a glance at the soldiers flanking him. “Keep your weapons down,” he advised. “Let me do the talking.”

They left the light tree cover and Ronon stopped on the edge of a clearing, waiting as the others followed suit.

“He’s right,” Rodney murmured, eyes on his LSD. “At least a dozen, all around us. And some in there too.” He nodded at the yawning tear in the mountain that disappeared into blackness after a few metres.

“Satedans!” Ronon suddenly bellowed, making them all jump. “We’re not the Wraith, and we’re not scavengers. I am Specialist Ronon Dex, Fifth Company, under Taskmaster Tammernan. I am a Satedan.”

“Then you’re also a Wraith worshipper,” a voice called from the cliff above the high cave entrance. “Or a coward who fled. That’s the only way you’re still alive.”

Ronon grimaced and raised his arms. “I’m no coward,” he boomed. “And I fought with my company until I was the last man standing. The Wraith took me, but I didn’t worship them. They made me a Runner, and that’s what I stayed until I met these allies.”

“What allies?” Another voice called from the right. “We don’t recognise these people.”

“They’re from the City of the Ancestors,” Ronin said proudly. “They’re my allies, and they can be yours too.”

There was a long pause, but Ronon didn’t move, so the rest of them followed his lead after a nod from Sheppard and stood still as the shadows lengthened and the sun began to set.

Suddenly there was a rustle in a tree a few metres to their left and a young man dropped down to the grass below. He raised his hands just a little as everyone except for Ronon and Rodney turned weapons on him. “Then let’s talk,” he said simply.

888

“Forty five,” Baker reported quietly, as Ronon and a group of four Satedans sat in a circle around a low fire at the back of the cavern. “Half of them kids. They’re living on the edge here, sir, and these caves aren’t ideal for anyone, let alone small children.”

“They’ve survived seven years,” John said.

“Not all of them,” Baker said grimly. “I was talking to a young widow with two little boys. There were twice as many when they left the city, but some have gotten sick and died, while others went scavenging for supplies in the city and never came back. Her man among them.”

Sheppard nodded and Baker ducked back through the entrance to another string of caves. A dozen Satedans sat around other fires, warming their hands and glancing worriedly over at the group with Ronon.

No one older than himself, John noted, figuring the very old would be the first to go in these rough conditions. And Baker was right, a lot of kids, looking like refugee children always did, big anxious eyes, clinging to their parents or hanging back behind other adults. It twisted John’s heart and hardened his resolve. He stood, dusting off his BDU pants, and approached the small group.

“May I?” he asked Ronon and the young man who had dropped from the tree. They were the ones doing the most talking. Ronon nodded, indicating the teenager.

“This is Hamma. His father brought him and his sister here when he was just a boy.”

Hamma looked about fifteen, with the lean, rangy look of a young man still filling out and maturing into his height.

“My father was no coward,” the young man said. “He was a Taskmaster himself once. But he lost an arm in battle, so he couldn’t fight any more.” He trailed away, glancing at Ronon.

“When they knew the Wraith were coming Hamma’s father and a few others volunteered to make the long journey here.” Ronon patted the young man on the shoulder. “He couldn’t fight, but he still saved lives,” he reassured the young man.

Hamma shrugged. “I wanted to stay and fight myself, as boys do. But my sister was just a baby, and it was my job to look after her after our mother died.”

“They had some hard winters,” Ronon said, as Hamma once more trailed away. “Hamma lost his father and his little sister.”

“Many died,” Hamma said bleakly.

“But many are still alive because of you and your father.” Ronon squeezed his shoulder. “Be proud of that.”

“I’m sorry for your losses,” John said, nodding at the other men and women sitting around the fire. Across the cavern Sergeant Baker was leading a young woman towards a fire. She was small and thin, her head barely reaching his broad shoulder. But her hands clutched tightly at his muscular forearm, starkly pale against his own dark skin. A boy walked by her side, holding her hand, and another was perched on the big sergeant’s hip, one skinny arm around Baker’s neck. The sight struck John as everything he’d loved about serving his country. Reaching out a hand to those who needed help, who had been driven to the brink by war and suffering. Being in a position to do something positive to lift such people out of hopelessness and desperation.

A pride for his men filled him, and for a moment an almost unbearable sense of loss over his own service, his own world. Would any of them ever see their homeworld again?

“Ronon has found a home on Atlantis,” John said, suddenly absolutely sure of what he had to do. “And a purpose helping us in the fight against the Wraith. I’d like to offer your people the same chance. To make a home on Atlantis.”

Hamma looked up, surprise turning to hope on his lean young face.

The older woman leaned forward “You can do this?”

“Many here are children,” another man said. “They cannot fight.”

“Everyone on Atlantis contributes, one way or another,” Sheppard assured him.”We have children from Athos, from Dagan, and other worlds as well. They learn from us, apprentice with us, sometimes they even show us a thing or two.”

“They’re the future that we fight for,” Ronon said gruffly. “I thought I might be the last Satedan alive. Finding you is a gift. If you won’t come with us then I’ll stay here to protect you. But it’s a better life on Atlantis. A better future.”

And John could read the answer in the dazed hope on their faces, bathed in the warm glow of the firelight.

888

“Thank you,”Ronon murmured, as the other jumpers circled and landed in the meadow. The Satedan refugees were grouped at the edge of the tree line, their small bundles of possessions at their feet. Sheppard watched Sergeant Baker exchange a few words with the small woman, who was now smiling, her youngest on her hip. The older boy was gazing up at Baker with admiration on his grubby face, and from the shy smile Baker shot at the woman, and the gentle way he ruffled the boy’s hair, he was pretty happy himself.

“I think we’re getting the better end of the deal. If those kids grow up to be half the warrior you are, I know we won’t ever regret taking them in.”

“More mouths to feed.”

“Foods not the problem. And that weapons cache has taken care of the biggest issue we had. But…”

“What?”

“I’ve been thinking about the council. About the way we’re running things. The fact is, with the Athosians, the Daganians, the kids from Keras’s world. Well, the original expedition is outnumbered ten to one. More now.”

“So? Everyone from Earth were people from all over your world, right? Those patches they wear are symbols for different countries. They all get on, we all get on. We’re all fighting for a common goal – to survive. What’s the problem?”

“In a way that is the problem. We were divided,”John said.”Even the military was marines, airforce, army. The scientists from all nations. And we’re still dividing ourselves. The Athosians, the Daganians, the expedition. Wouldn’t we be better if we were all one thing? If we were all Lanteans?”

Ronon pondered his words, watching as the last remnants of his own world boarded the jumpers that would take them to their new home.

He shook his head thoughtfully. “I see your point, and I agree. We need to be united, it’s a worthy goal. But we can’t do that by forgetting who we were, and where we came from. I will always be a Satedan. I want these children to know that they’re Satedan, to grow up proud that their people fought the Wraith until their last breath.”

John nodded, seeing what Ronon was getting at, remembering his own grief for his world. “So we need a way to keep who we were, even as we join together to become something new.”

“A coalition,”Ronon said. “Who are proud of where they came from, but also proud to call Atlantis home.”

A coalition,” John repeated.

888

Year Three

“Wow,” John said as he circled the jumper around the massive cavern.

“Told you so,” Rodney muttered, pressing away at his tablet screen.

“There must be the remains of what? A dozen ships here?”

“Eleven big ones,” Rodney replied, finally looking up from his screen. “Dozens of smaller vessels, including jumpers. Land on that rise, it’s flat and stable.”

John tore his gaze away from the graveyard of Ancient ships and equipment they’d found in the cavernous hollow of the giant moon orbiting Lantea. Every square metre was crammed with the broken bodies of Aurora class ships, as well as smaller vessels. The jumper lights played over the shattered remains, shadows looming as the bones of the old ships lay like skeletons on the reddish rock of the moon’s interior. One or two of the ships seemed startlingly intact from one angle, until a pass by in the jumper revealed gaping wounds and torn bulkheads.

John landed the jumper lightly on a ridge, facing the huge bowl of the cavern, leaving the lights on to play over the field of broken Ancient toys.

“Why?”

“I assume for recycling,” Rodney shrugged. “Certainly the right harvesters could break down raw material we can use for drones and repairs to the City.”

“Is there a chance anything is salvageable?”

“Well I’ve got good news and bad news about that.”

John turned his head to stare at him. “Is the bad news that none of those ships will fly again?”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “No, that’s the obvious news. Look at that mess, nothing in there is ever going to fly again.”

John’s shoulders slumped. “Bummer. Wait, if that’s not the bad news, what is?”

“At current staffing and manpower levels it’s going to take me at least three years.”

John frowned. “What is?”

Rodney waggled his eyebrows and grinned, while John started putting together pieces in his head.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Rodney smirked. “With what we can cannibalise from that mess down there, I’m going to build you a new ship.”

For a moment John was lost for words. He settled for grabbing Rodney’s sturdy shoulders and kissing him right on the mouth.

“Okay, okay,” Rodney huffed, his cheeks reddening as he shoved John away. “Save the enthusiastic thanks for later.”

John clasped his hands together. “Rodney you’re going to build me a ship?” he said blissfully.

“I am,” Rodney said smugly. “Not anything close to an Aurora class, obviously,” he added. “She’ll be small, but fast and powerful. Even capable of interstellar travel.”

“Oh you are so going to get my enthusiastic thanks tonight,” John promised.

Rodney flushed even deeper and shifted a little in his seat. “Want to see the plans?” he said hastily, flipping the tablet screen.

“You have plans already?” John said, reverently accepting the tablet and running an eye over the blue printed schematics.

“Radek and I have been doodling plans for years. Check out that shape.”

“She’s beautiful,” John said, already in love. He flipped through screens and then paused. “What’s this? The Aidan Ford?” He looked up at Rodney. “You named her?”

“Well, I’m designing her,” Rodney said defiantly. “I think I should get to name her.” Then he looked at John, his gaze uncertain. “Is that okay?”

John cleared his throat, then reached out and gripped the back of Rodney’s neck gently. “It’s perfect.”

888

 

Year Six - The Daedalus

General Jack O’Neill spread the contents of a well worn folder out on the mess room table. Crew meals were staggered and right now it was between shifts, so the area was quiet, just a few stragglers sipping coffee and flicking through screens on tablets.

To his right the wide window flickered with strange lights and patterns, as the Daedalus flew sturdily on through hyperspace, day seventeen of her eighteen day journey. But O’Neill had grown bored with that light show by day two, and now was absorbed in brooding for the hundredth time over the contents of the well worn folder.

O’Neill knew he was an anachronism, and the bane of every personal assistant he’d had, both in the Mountain and DC, with his insistence on reading from actual paper as much as possible. Mostly it was stubbornness, but sometimes he really did need to see everything spread out in front of him, and it was hard to do that on a laptop screen, or these flat tablet things that were growing more and more popular at the SGC.

In this case he was looking down at the personnel files of every scientist, civilian and military asset who had walked through the ‘gate and onto Atlantis. That he had sent to Atlantis.

That was now known as the Lost Expedition to Atlantis.

Nearly six years later and not a word, O’Neill thought as he brooded on the pages. Repeated attempts to dial Atlantis once the SGC could spare the power had been unsuccessful. Pretty much everyone had written the expedition off years ago. But not him. Because he was the one who had authorised the expedition, he was the one who had signed off on every volunteer. He’d sent them to another freaking galaxy, and even though every single one of them had known they might not ever get back to Earth, it still preyed on his mind, especially now retirement was just around the corner.

The Ori was wiped out. The Milky Way was as settled as it was ever going to be. Word was that the program would soon be declassified, that actual Earth colonies were going to be set up on empty, fertile worlds. Sixty million refugees and displaced persons world wide, and maybe some of them would get a chance at real homes, even whole worlds of their own again.

It was a bright, hopeful future after a pretty bleak twenty years, and one they’d fought for at great cost, but Jack found he couldn’t just settle back into smug retirement and get fat and lazy without at least trying to get an answer to the six year old question.

Just what the hell had happened to the Atlantis expedition?

He’d called in every favour he had, he’d begged, browbeat, charmed, and finally played on his Big Damn Hero status to get this mission okayed. One shot, one round trip on the Daedalus, one chance to set his mind at rest and bring closure to this whole episode.

“General.” Colonel Caldwell nodded at the empty seat opposite. “May I?”

“Of course.” O’Neill shuffled the pages into a pile and slid them back in his folder.

“You must know that file inside and out by now,” Caldwell observed, sipping at his steaming coffee.

“Some nights I see it in my dreams,” Jack said wryly. “Do you know Sumner?”

Caldwell shook his head. “By reputation only. I have to say, I was surprised to hear he’d taken a military command on a civilian run expedition.” Caldwell grimaced. “I heard he wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly.”

“Dr Weir is no fool,” Jack said. “But I know what you mean. Sumner is a military man to his boots, and the thought of him wrangling a bunch of civilian scientists and answering to a civilian…”

“Especially a female civilian,” Caldwell murmured.

Jack shrugged. “I have a feeling that was the idea, actually. The IOA insisted on a civilian leader, the SGC wanted a a military operation. They clearly intended for Sumner to muscle the ‘little lady’ aside and take over as soon as he could.” Jack smirked. “He didn’t know Dr Weir that well. I have the feeling she came as a shock to him once he realised she wasn’t gonna be shoved aside so easily.”

“If they even lasted long enough to come to loggerheads,” Caldwell said, and shrugged. “Who the hell really knows what they found on the other side? The MALP showed one room, atmosphere, no hostiles in immediate sight. And on the strength of that 200 people stroll through the ‘gate on a one way mission? Always struck me as reckless.”

“That’s one word for it. But we had one shot at dialling in, one window that might not even last the full 38 minutes. We knew it was a crap shoot, but hell, hasn’t the entire Stargate Program been a giant crap shoot? None of us ever really knew what we’d find on the other side of that wormhole.”

“None of you were usually stepping through to another galaxy,” Caldwell returned, and then held up a hand as his ear piece lit up. “What’s that? How far out? And how far are we from Atlantis?” He stood, nodding even though the person on the other end of the comm obviously couldn’t see him. “Understood, we’re on our way.”

“What’s going on?”

“A vessel has just decloaked ahead of us. Apparently we’re being hailed.”

888

The ship was long and blocky, looking like something out of a Star Wars movie with its massive hull and bulkheads. It shone with a dull, dark, metallic gleam, lit along both sides with sharp blue lights. As O’Neill and Caldwell hurried onto the bridge a masculine voice could be heard over the speakers.

“Unknown vessel, this is Argan Tan Lycos, Prefect of Atlantis Coalition ship, the Pride of Taranis. You are entering Atlantean airspace. Please identify yourself.”

“Open a channel,” Caldwell ordered, settling his rangy form into his chair. O’Neill stayed standing at his right side, gazing at the enormous ship. “This is Stephen Caldwell, Captain of Earth ship the USS Daedalus. Did you say you were from Atlantis?”

There was silence for long moments and Caldwell exchanged a glance with O’Neill. Finally the channel crackled. “Earth?” Suddenly the voice sounded younger, certainly there was a restrained excitement. “You’re from Earth?”

“Yes, we are,” Caldwell returned. “We’re looking for an expedition of our people who came here six years ago. Their last known position was Atlantis.”

“Holy heck,” the voice said, and O’Neill blinked in surprise as Caldwell raised a brow. “I mean,” the voice said hastily. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Colonel Caldwell. You have no idea how happy some folks are going to be to see you.”

“That’s good to hear, Prefect,” Caldwell said dryly. “Can I assume you know of our friends?”

“If you wouldn’t mind waiting, sir, I will patch you through directly to Atlantis via sub space relay. It’s early morning there, so it might be a few minutes. Please hold.”

And the line went dead.

“Holy heck?” O’Neill said. “That’s got to have come from one of our people.”

“I didn’t recognise the name.”

O’Neill shook his head. “Definitely not one of ours. And Prefect? What’s that?”

“A better question, what the holy heck is the Atlantis Coalition?” Caldwell murmured.

888

John Sheppard, Legate of the Atlantis Coalition Armed Forces, paused to catch his breath, leaning over with his hands on his knees and panting. “I’m too old for this shit,” he wheezed.

“You say that every morning,” his second in command, Tribune Ronon Dex said, looking unimpressed.

“It gets truer every morning,” Sheppard said, pulling a flask from his waistband and gulping down some water. He splashed some on his hand and rubbed his face, then used his wristband to wipe the damp and sweat away. “Maybe I should switch to swimming. Laps are a lot easier on the knees.”

“We’ll swim afterwards,” Ronon said, and loped off.

“I meant instead of, not afterwards,” Sheppard whined, and then brightened as his comms pinged. “Tell me I’m desperately needed somewhere,” he said hopefully into the mike.

“Sir,” Chuck’s voice trembled with excitement. “Prefect Tan Lycos is reporting contact with the USS Daedalus. From Earth, sir.”

Sheppard froze and the expression on his face had Ronon jogging back to him, hand automatically going to his waist where his holster usually sat.

“Contact Dr McKay, Praetor Emmagan and Praetor Tan Lycos and let them know the situation. I’ll be in the control room in five.”

Ronon studied his face. “Trouble?” he asked flatly.

Sheppard shook his head. “I don’t know.”

888

Ten minutes passed before the Daedalus was hailed and the channel once again opened. “This is the Daedalus,” Caldwell said tersely. The wait had seemed eons long as he and O’Neill had speculated about the scraps of information they now had.

“Greeting, Daedalus,” a cheery voice said. “This is Sheppard, Legate of the Atlantis Coalition Armed Forces. Welcome to the Pegasus Galaxy, Colonel Caldwell, is it?”

“Sheppard? Would that be Major John Sheppard?”

“Formerly, yeah,” was the cheerful reply. “Now Legate. What brings you so far from home, Colonel?”

“I should think that’s obvious, Major,” Caldwell said bluntly. “We’re looking for the Atlantis expedition. And it seems we’ve found you.”

“What’s left of us, yeah,” Sheppard said, voice a little less upbeat. “Here’s the thing, Colonel.” He stressed the rank. “I don’t know you, or your vessel. How do I know you’re who you say you are?”

“How about me, Sheppard,” O’Neill interjected. “You know me? General Jack O’Neill, the guy who recruited you to the expedition?”

There was a beat of silence. “Recruited?” Sheppard repeated. “If you consider telling me I had the span of a half hour flight to decide to walk through a stargate to another galaxy on a suicide mission recruiting.”

“I do,” O’Neill said insouciantly, shrugging when Caldwell stared at him. “So now we all know who we are, how about telling your friend in the big ship to back off and let us proceed to Atlantis?”

“Oh, you mean the Pride of Taranis? She’s here for your protection at this point. Even in Coalition space there are some pretty scary guys around, in bigger ships than ours.”

“We’d love to hear all about them,” O’Neill said, as Caldwell seemed to be letting him take the lead.

“Well, I guess since you’ve come all this way,” Sheppard said casually. “The least we can do is give you a cup of tea and a chat. At your current speed you’re about eight hours out. The Pride will escort you to Lantea. I assume you have Asgard beaming technology?”

“We do,” Caldwell said shortly.

“Awesome. We’ll send you the coordinates of a site we use on the mainland, it’s nice, you’ll like it. Great for meetings, weddings, bar mitzvahs and so forth. It’s on the beach, so bring your swimsuits.”

“Wait, what about the city?” Caldwell interrupted.

“Well, we’ll see how the meeting with the Imperium goes,” Sheppard said mysteriously. “See you in a few hours. Don’t forget your sunscreen. Sheppard out.”

Silence filled the bridge as the crew exchanged glances and Caldwell and O’Neill absorbed the short exchange.

“Well,” O’Neill said at last. “How about that sunscreen?”

888

Sheppard leaned back in his seat. “McKay? The Daedalus?”

“She was in construction when we left,” McKay said, eyes on his datapad. “About eight months from completion.” He turned his pad and showed the screen to the gathered praetors. “The Daedalus is the first BC-304 produced by Earth and the second generation of interstellar capital ships developed by the United States military. If they kept to the specs I had access to pre expedition, she’s armed with 32 railguns, Mark VIII and IX tactical warheads, and a bay of F-302 fighter-interceptors. As the angry Colonel confirmed she also possesses Asgard beaming technology and shields.”

“Is she a match for the Pride?”

“Do you think it will come to that?” Teyla asked calmly.

“Well we all hope not,” Sheppard returned. “But it’s my job to be prepared, and we have no idea what’s been going on in the SGC or on Earth during the last six years. When we left the Lucian Alliance was stirring up all sorts of trouble, what’s that situation? And then there’s the Trust, which we were told has infiltrated high positions in the SGC, the IOA and the government itself.”

“The Pride has several advantages over a BC-304,” Rodney said. “Mainly in power distribution, allowing us extremely powerful shields. We also have drones which would be particularly effective against the Daedalus shields.”

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that,” Lycus said solemnly. “If we can make allies of your homeworld, Sheppard, it would greatly boost the power of the Coalition.”

“The trouble with being Earth’s ally,” McKay said sourly, powering down his datapad screen with a quick flick. “Is that it comes with a lot of strings attached.”

888

The beam in point was at the centre of a cove in the shape of a crescent moon, maybe two klicks wide. A grassy clearing with pathways leading down to the beach was dotted with benches and in the centre was a circle laid out around a huge unlit campfire, surrounded by seats and wooden arm chairs. It was rustic, but also ruthlessly tidy and organised.

A half a dozen large round tents that appeared to be a mixture of a pale sturdy canvas and stretched animal skins were laced up tight against the gentle sea breeze. But one tent had its sides rolled and tied up, allowing the cool, salt scented air to waft through, stirring small shell and bone wind chimes that tinkled faintly.

The shelter was about ten square meters around, with a long central table and wooden chairs pulled up neatly along its length. Bright, colourful fabrics were draped on the seats and a tightly woven carpet of pale gold dried grass covered the floor.

“This is nice,” O’Neill observed brightly.

On their comms Lieutenant Hardy on the Daedalus quietly informed them a small craft was approaching from the shielded city, and O’Neill, Caldwell and the six armed SF’s all narrowed their eyes and gazed out to sea at the small, rectangular craft that sped towards them.

“It’s a gateship,” O’Neill observed. “Sweet little craft. Some of them travel in time you know.”

“I’ll follow your lead, General,” Caldwell murmured as the ship lightly touched down and its drive pods retracted. “Hardy is waiting our signal to beam us up if needed, including anyone else we might need to extract.”

“Let’s leave the kidnapping plans until we know exactly what’s going on, shall we?” O’Neill muttered back, then he raised his voice as the back of the gateship lowered. “Howdy, folks! You weren’t kidding about your little holiday camp here. It’s charming.”

Sheppard stepped out first, not looking that different from the laconic young pilot O’Neill had dodged death with back in Antartica six years before. A few more lines around his eyes maybe, but still lean and fit looking. He was wearing black BDUs, significant only by the complete lack of insignia or patches designating name or rank. He wore a side arm in a holster on his hip, clipped around one lean thigh.

Next off the ship was a tall, lithe man with golden skin and long dark hair. His brown locks were decorated with one plait over his right ear, woven with metallic rings and blue beads. He was dressed in neat black leathers, boots laced to the knee and a light leather jacket. He was also armed for bear, with a gun on each hip, a knife hilt protruding from each boot, and what looked like the hilt of a sword over his shoulder.

Dr McKay stepped off next, again only a little changed from the sarcastic shouty man Jack remembered with little fondness. Oddly he too wore black BDUs, although unlike Sheppard his boots were neatly laced.

Finally two people alighted, one a tall grey haired man perhaps Jack’s own age, and one a gorgeous golden skinned beauty in a floaty green dress, one hand curved over a protruding belly in the habit of heavily pregnant women.

Jack wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this.

“General, Colonel,” Sheppard greeted, his lack of a salute obvious. “Welcome to Lantea. Myself and Dr Rodney McKay you know, may I introduce you to the Praetors of the Atlantis Coalition Imperium? This is Praetor Teyla Emmagan, and Praetor Artine Tan Lycos. And this,” he nodded at the guy with the sword. “Is my second in the Atlantis Coalition Armed Forces, Tribune Ronan Dex.”

“Praetor Emmagan, Praetor Tan Lycos, Tribune Dex,” O’Neill and Caldwell murmured, simply nodding as no hands seemed to be presented to kiss or curtesy over. “It’s a pleasure to be here. Uh, thanks for the escort.” He smiled at the grey haired man. “Praetor Tan Lycos?” he said politely. “Any relation to the Prefect Tan Lycos onboard your ship? We figured that was the equivalent of a captain, right?”

“That’s right,” Lycos said, returning the smile with a gracious nod. “My son.”

“You must be very proud.”

“The Pride of Taranis is the flagship of the Coalition fleet,” Lycos said agreeably. “But your own vessel also looks impressive, General. Was the journey from your home world long?”

“Seemed like forever,” Jack said smoothly. He rubbed his hands together. “Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in the field,” he admitted. “And we came here as a rescue mission, so not really prepared for, you know, diplomacy.”

“Are you not usually chosen for diplomatic missions, General O’Neill?” Emmagan said with a gentle smile. God, she was beautiful, Jack thought. Almond eyes, smooth skin, that amazing shade of russet hair.

“No, ma’am, I’m not. In fact I’m possibly the last person anyone would ever send on a diplomatic mission,” he said honestly and with complete sincerity. “But I’m aces when it comes to rescue missions, right, Colonel?”

Colonel Caldwell nodded stiffly. “If you say so, General.”

“Please,” Praetor Lycos said, gesturing towards the rustic shelter. “Be comfortable.”

Praetor Emmagan turned, taking Lycos’ arm, then paused and glanced back at the two representatives from Earth. “Before we begin, please be aware that Atlantis is monitoring the area. Any attempt to transport any of our people will result in the Pride of Taranis firing on your ship, disabling her and seizing her as Coalition property.”

O’Neill stared into her beautiful green brown eyes and saw the cool confidence and utter steel of a general heading an army. He had no doubt this tiny woman with her floaty green pregnancy dress was the most dangerous person in this group of highly trained and heavily armed military men.

He nodded, giving her one of his practiced ‘don’t shoot me I’m just a harmless nice guy’ smiles. “Understood, Praetor.”

Praetor Emmagan maintained control as they were seated around the wooden table, taking her place at its head. The Daedalus marines ranged around the edges of the shelter, looking alert, and Ronon Dex chose to stand ominously behind the Praetor’s chair. Teyla linked her hands together on the table top and looked at O’Neill’s and Caldwell’s faces in turn.

“There is much to discuss,” she began quietly. “Much I’m sure the Earth officers wish to ask about the former Atlantis expedition. But if I may I’d like to start with a short history of my galaxy.”

O’Neill and Caldwell both nodded. “Of course, Praetor.”

“Long ago the people we call the Ancestors, who are known as the Ancients among your people, came to this galaxy. Here they seeded human life, much as they did on your home world and beyond. For millions of years they were the ascendant race, perhaps not always as benevolent as some of our legends would have us believe, but certainly their technological advantage and wisdom saw them live long and peaceful lives.”

The Praetor studied her hands clasped together in front of her for a moment, and then continued. “At some point the Ancestors must have grown tired of even their long lives, and so they sought ascension. A means by which a human soul can choose to ascend to a higher plane rather than die.”

“We know of ascension,” O’Neill murmured.

Teyla nodded her head. “Yes. Sadly the Ancestors were still mortal, and so they still made mistakes. One of them would have deadly and long lasting consequences. Ancient scientists mixed the DNA of a human and an insect like creature called Iratus. The result was a near immortal sentient creature that feeds on human life force. We call this species the Wraith.”

Both Caldwell and O’Neill sat up straighter. “Ma’am,” Caldwell said. “Did you say feeds on human life force?”

Teyla nodded again. “I did.”

“Like… eating people?” O’Neill said incredulously.

“They drain the life force, leaving only a withered husk,” Teyla clarified. “But yes, they can be said to consume people.”

“Well Jesus,” O’Neill said. “Tell me these buggers aren’t still around?”

“They’re the race the Ancients fled from 10,000 years ago,” Sheppard said. “The race the Ancients left behind to prey on humanity for the last ten millennia. They’re still very much around.”

“I have a hard drive full of compressed data on the Wraith for you,” McKay interjected, and with a start O’Neill realised it was the first time the man had spoken. Far from the verbose blowhard he remembered from the SGC and Antartica. “Everything we know about their physiology, their technology, weapons, ships, tactics, hierarchy. Hundreds of mission reports.”

“Do they pose a threat to Earth?” Caldwell asked tersely.

“Right now they lack the ability to travel between galaxies,” McKay returned. “But if they could overcome that obstacle and find the location of Earth, yes, they’re not just a threat to Earth but the entire Milky Way galaxy. With a feeding ground that large they could be unstoppable in a generation.”

“Feeding ground,” O’Neill repeated, looking sick. “Is that what happened to Sumner and Weir? The Wraith?”

Teyla sat back and after a glance from her Sheppard took over the story. “Colonel Sumner, yes. I’m sorry to report he didn’t make it through his first day in Pegasus. When we arrived we realised Atlantis was below several hundred feet of water and her shields were failing. The Colonel, myself, Lieutenant Ford and a squad of marines scouted a planet we could fall back to if the city didn’t rise. We… we set off a trap there, one set for anyone with the Ancient gene.”

“The Wraith came,” Teyla finished simply.

O’Neill drew a deep breath, absorbing this. “And Dr Weir?”

“Dr Weir barely made it through her first week, before she was killed by a Trust terrorist.”

“A Trust terrorist?” O’Neill repeated, casting a glance at Caldwell, whose face was now frozen in stern lines. “One of the expedition was Trust?”

“Yes,” Sheppard said sombrely. “But Dr Weir was killed by a device that had been smuggled into her personal luggage while it was still at the SGC.”

“That’s impossible,” O’Neill said automatically, aware that Caldwell was still frozen beside him. Hardly surprising that the man reacted badly to news the Trust had infiltrated Atlantis, when he himself had briefly and unwillingly played host to a goa’uld Trust Agent.

“The box she opened was still sealed with SGC seals. It contained a highly pressurised canister of weaponised anthrax. Enough to kill every member of the expedition.”

“Unfortunately for the terrorists they couldn’t know that Atlantis, once powered by our Mark IV generators, was still functional enough to detect the danger, seal the room, shut down ventilation and thoroughly decontaminate the area. It saved all our lives. Well, all but Dr Weir,” Rodney said.

There was silence as O’Neill and Caldwell absorbed all of this. “Okay,” The Colonel finally said. “I can see how that’s a pretty disastrous beginning to the expedition.”

“That’s one way to put it,” McKay muttered.

“But you are telling us you’ve known about the threat of these Wraith for nearly six years, and didn’t think to at least send a word of warning to Earth?”

“How?” McKay said sarcastically. “We tried carrier pigeon but its wings got really tired before it made it to the outer rim.”

And there was the annoying jerk O’Neill remembered so well.

“You clearly have enough power to run shields that our sensors can’t even penetrate,” Caldwell shot back hotly. “You could have opened a wormhole.”

“Oh a wormhole,” McKay drawled. “Hear that, Sheppard. Colonel “oh what a big ship I’ve got” Caldwell suggested we open a wormhole. Why didn’t we think of that?” he sneered.

“Dr McKay,” Praetor Emmagan said sharply even as O’Neill grabbed Caldwell’s muscular arm and forced him back into his chair.

“Enough,” O’Neill said, staring McKay down, then turned his gaze on Caldwell. “That’s enough. Jeez,” he said into the sudden silence. “What happened to following my lead?” he muttered reproachfully to the stiff figure next to him. “Okay, now clearly the expedition couldn’t dial Earth, am I right?” he said to Sheppard. He continued on without waiting for a reply. “I’m guessing it has something to do with the Trust terrorist mentioned earlier. Now let’s all remember we’re friends here, and listen to what Legate Sheppard has to tell us, shall we?”

Caldwell nodded stiffly and McKay slunk backwards in his chair. “Great. Sheppard?” O’Neill invited.

Praetor Emmagan leaned forward, smiling. “It seems you’re somewhat of a diplomat after all, General O’Neill,” she smiled.

“Oh, that’s diplomacy?” Jack said innocently. What d’you know? I’ve been doing it all along.”

“Yes, General,” Sheppard said. “That’s what happened. In the first year of the expedition we found a ZPM. Well, not found exactly. It was kind of a sacred relic on a world one of our teams visited. They negotiated a deal, and in return for letting thirty or so of their scholars onto Atlantis to study the Ancient database, the Daganians allowed us to use their Potentia. That’s what they call the ZPM.”

“Sweet deal,” O’Neill noted. “Not exactly by the book. Giving a bunch of strangers access to Atlantis’ database.”

“There is no book for Pegasus,” Sheppard said wryly. “We tried writing one but we gave up by Chapter Two. Anyway, we needed the ZPM to run our shields, and we didn’t want to waste a lot of much needed power dialling Earth, so Rodney’s team prepared a data burst. A massive amount of information compressed into a file and sent through the gate in a few seconds.”

“The information you spoke of earlier. About the Wraith.”

“About everything,” McKay said a little sulkily. “We’ve been adding to it ever since.”

“And the punchline?” O’Neill looked searchingly at Sheppard.

“The control crystal was gone. Just… gone. We couldn’t dial another galaxy, and another galaxy couldn’t dial us.”

Which explained the inability of the SGC to get a lock the last few years.

“Before he killed himself, the terrorist who had stolen and destroyed the control crystal told us he was a member of the Trust. Told us that the Trust had infiltrated the highest levels of the SGC, the IOA, even the Pentagon.”

O’Neill blew out a breath. “So, that explains that. You don’t trust us because…”

“We don’t know you,” Sheppard agreed. “We don’t know the political situation on Earth, we don’t know who to trust.” Sheppard leaned forward earnestly. “We have more than 3000 souls on Atlantis, man, woman and child, looking to us to keep them safe. Many more times that spread throughout the galaxy in the Coalition. I will not risk their lives out of nostalgia for a homeworld we long ago put behind us.”

“Do you speak for all 200 members of the expedition?” Caldwell said coldly.

“157,” McKay said. He wasn’t sneering now, or sarcastic, or even angry. His face was blank, his voice expressionless. “There are only 157 members of the expedition left. And yes, right now Legate Sheppard speaks for all of us, because we long ago put our lives in his hands.”

“That’s Major Sheppard,” Caldwell hissed.

“His rank is Legatus Legionis ,” Ronon Dex growled, and although he didn’t raise his voice, Caldwell and Rodney were both silenced. “He earned that rank and the respect that goes with it. You’ll show him that respect or get on your ship and fly back to where you came from.”

O’Neill looked at Caldwell for long moments. “You’re not very good at this, are you?” he finally said in exasperation.

“Sorry, General,” Caldwell muttered.

“I think we should all take a break,” Praetor Emmagan said firmly. “Tribune Dex, would you mind bringing the cooler from the jumper? I think a nice glass of yutta would be welcome on this warm day.”

“Praetor,” Dex growled, eyes still fixed challengingly on Caldwell even as he nodded assent.

“Dr McKay, perhaps you could get the case and the hard drive?”

McKay’s mouth turned down. “If I must,” he muttered.

“You must,” the Praetor agreed. Emmagan glanced at him with a small smile, and Jack’s respect for her rose. She was willing to sit back and let the experts speak, but it was plain the real power here still lay with her, as both the well armed giant and the pain in the ass McKay hurried to do her bidding.

Jack cast an eye on the other Praetor, the one whose son was captain of the warship that had greeted them. He received an amiable nod in return, but Jack figured there was a pretty shrewd operator behind that genial quiet. There’d have to be, to share leadership of this mysterious Coalition with Emmagan.

“Legate Sheppard,” she continued. “Perhaps you would show the General the pleasant view from the ridge. Colonel Caldwell will wait here with us, and I will tell him a little something about my own people, the Athosians, and Praetor Lycos will speak of his former world, Taranis.”

“Of course, Praetor,” Sheppard murmured.

888

They strolled to the ridge after O’Neill used the Eyebrow of Doom on Caldwell to get him to behave, and instructed the marines to stay with the Colonel.

“Yutta?” O’Neill asked, just to break the ice.

“Fruit drink, served cold,” Sheppard said. “The fruit grows in the tropics on the other side of the planet.” He pointed vaguely out to sea and O’Neill stopped and gazed in the direction he was gesturing, taking in the stretch of unbelievably blue sea, the picture postcard half moon bay, the dim shape of a moon barely visible in the late afternoon sky.

“It’s beautiful here.”

“There are fish the size of whales out there,” Sheppard said, taking in a deep breath of the fresh sea air. “And these leathery birds that will chase you for miles if you wander near the dunes where they lay their eggs. And don’t get me started on the tropical storms and sun spots. But yeah, it’s not a bad world to be stranded on.”

“Are you stranded?” O’Neill asked, turning to face him. “Because it looks to me like my rescue mission is gonna be a bust if no one wants to be rescued.”

“We had to… adapt,” Sheppard said slowly. “At some point we had to stop being an expedition waiting for a rescue that might never come, and start to build a life.”

“And your old life? Your old career?”

“I resigned my commission years ago,” Sheppard shrugged. “At least in my head. I didn’t actually write it down, because, where would I send it?”

“And do you think it will be that easy? Not just for you but for the rest of the military?”

“There is no more military,” Sheppard interrupted. “If we reach an alliance and some of the expedition choose to go back to their homeworld, I won’t stop them. But they’re not Earth military any more because I disbanded the military when the Coalition was formed. I disbanded it and told every one of the men and women who served under me that they could choose how they wanted to contribute to the Coalition. Most of them joined the Armed Forces. A few chose other paths.”

Sheppard shrugged and looked at him ruefully. “It’s been six years, General. Nearly four since the Coalition was formed. Pretty much everyone left from the expedition is married, or raising kids, or both – there are always orphaned kids in Pegasus. We have lives, homes, families. Hell, we have schools and art and culture now, if you can believe that. Little bits from all the worlds out there who are part of the Coalition, or whose refugees found their way onto Atlantis. Including those of us from Earth. That’s how it is in this galaxy, because sometimes the Wraith come and wipe out your world, and you have to move on, you have to find a new place. You carry bits of your homeworld with you and you never, ever forget them, they’re a part of you. But at some point they become the past and you have to commit yourself 100% to the new life. You have to.”

O’Neill studied the determination on Sheppard’s face, meeting the keen, open gaze and reading his sincere belief in his words. Then he glanced back at the shelter, saw McKay at the foot of the rise, with his hand shading his eyes, peering up at them

“And that’s the message I’m taking back to the SGC, is it? The expedition became a colony, and that colony has declared its independence from the old country?”

“If you wouldn’t mind, General,” Sheppard said, tilting one shoulder in a half shrug.

“Well,” O’Neill said, slowly. “Well.” His mind raced with new information, clamoured with questions, suppressed his own burning curiosity to have all of the answers right now. “Well,” he finally said, clapping his hands together briskly. “Okay then. We deal with what we’ve got. How sure are you that the surviving members of the expedition don’t want to go home?”

“I’m sure a lot of them would like to go back to Earth,” Sheppard said. “Some might even like to stay there. But most won’t. To visit, to see family, maybe grab some supplies. But not stay.”

“Then why not ask them now?” O’Neill asked, striving to be reasonable. Sheppard’s self assurance was a little disconcerting. “They’d be welcome to return with us on the Daedalus.”

“Because I don’t trust the SGC to let them come back,” Sheppard said bluntly. “I don’t trust the SGC not to interrogate them and use everything they learn from them to try and take Atlantis. And I won’t send a single person to Earth until I do.”

“John,” O’Neill sighed. “You know they’re not going to let Atlantis go that easily, don’t you?”

“They don’t have it to let go of,”John said.”They never did. Atlantis belongs to Pegasus, and the people who live on her. And only a fraction of them were from Earth. Even if you found a way to force every single expedition member back to Earth, you still wouldn’t have Atlantis. It’s out of your reach now.”

888

“I just want it on the record, again, than I am not in favour of this,” McKay was saying as O’Neill and Sheppard strolled back.

“Duly noted, Rodney,” Praetor Emmagan said. “Again. Now, the case, please.”

“Ooh, presents?” Jack drawled as the metallic case was laid on the table and McKay flipped the buckles. “And we didn’t bring you anything.”

“We’ll get to that, General,” Teyla said as the lid sprung back and a ZPM was revealed, nestled snugly in a shaped foam base.

“It’s 100% full,” McKay said sourly. “And apparently we’re trusting you not to turn around and use it against us.”

“I’m sure you can find a good use for it on Earth, General,” Praetor Emmagan said.

O’Neill blinked at the compact little device. Crystal. Thingy. “I’m sure we can,” he said, taken aback. “So, not to be impolite, but, what’s the catch?”

“No catch. Just a request. Take the information Rodney has provided. Take the ZPM. Take our well wishes and hopes for an alliance between Earth and the Atlantis Coalition. Take them, and go home.”

Jack sighed. “But we just got here.”

“Feel free to use these facilities if your people want some recreation time before your long journey home,” Teyla said, gesturing to the cove. “We assure you that our own people will stay away and leave you to your privacy. But then, yes, go home. Study the information we have given you. And when you come back, bring a diplomatic team authorised to make an alliance on behalf of your world.”

Jack brightened. “We’re invited back?”

“Of course.” The Praetor stood and everyone stood with her. “The Atlantis Coalition wants to establish a long and mutually beneficial alliance with Earth. We foresee a time when your own scholars and scientists can visit the City and help us unravel all her mysteries. Perhaps even military forces and ships to help us in our fight against the Wraith. But we need you to stress to your superior officers and those who make the decisions that we are not a helpless group of refugees and aliens hiding in an Ancient city. The Coalition are a powerful force in this galaxy, and any threats made against us will be met with deadly force.”

She touched her ear piece and suddenly around them more of the gateships shimmered into visibility, floating silently in the sky. One, five, ten, a dozen of them ringing the shelter, facing the gathered group, their windscreens opaque and gleaming in the evening sun.

Around him the marines shifted uneasily, lifting their P-90’s although not aiming them. O’Neill shook his head. “Stand down,” he said calmly, meeting Emmagan’s fearless eyes. “Message received,” he said with a nod.

The Praetor nodded back, touched her ear piece again and the gateships turned as one and flew back towards Atlantis, only the low hum from their drive pods breaking the silence.

888

Year Six - Earth

“General O’Neill.” Woolsey cleared his throat and consulted his notes. “In your report you state that Dr McKay voiced some objection to Praetor Emmagan giving you a ZPM.”

“Yes,” O’Neill confirmed.

“You write that he objected on the grounds that the SGC might use the ZPM to attack Atlantis.”

“Or words to that effect,” O’Neill agreed. “He was not happy.”

“And yet at no point did Dr McKay mention Atlantis’s own power requirements?” Woolsey queried, tilting his head.

“No, he did not,” Jack confirmed.

“Did that strike you as odd at the time? After all, Sheppard’s and Weir’s reports make it clear that Atlantis was suffering serious power generation problems due to the lack of charged ZPM’s on the city.”

Jack resisted shrugging and rolling his eyes. “I assumed they either found a way to recharge ZPM’s, or discovered a cache of them.”

“But you didn’t ask?”

“No.”

Woolsey took off his reading glasses and laid them on the legal pad in front of him with precise movements. “May I ask why?”

“Mr Woolsey,” Jack said patiently. “Perhaps my reports didn’t make clear the somewhat precarious position the Daedalus found herself in. First of all we were met by what we now know is an Ancient ship, a ship easily four times our size and with unknown weapons and shields. What we do know about it is it has a cloaking device capable of rendering it undetectable to our sensors until it was practically within spitting distance.”

“I did,” Woolsey began, but Jack spoke over the top of him.

“Then we were meeting an unknown number of potentially hostile aliens in a location of their choice, without even being invited to see their shielded city or meet with anyone from the Atlantis Expedition besides Sheppard and McKay. The latter of whom was openly hostile to myself and Colonel Caldwell. Although to be fair Colonel Caldwell wasn’t being very… diplomatic at the time,” Jack added.

Woolsey stared at him. “Are you saying you felt threatened by Sheppard and McKay?”

“I’m saying we walked into a situation blind where we didn’t know all the players, and it could have ended very differently. I know I mentioned the twelve cloaked gateships that had apparently been watching and presumably listening to us without our knowledge.”

Woolsey confined himself to only nod this time.

“Just one of them could have obliterated us and left the Daedalus without a captain. They had twelve, and that’s just the ones they let us see.” Jack looked at the blank faces of the IOC representatives gathered around the table and sighed. “What I’m saying is that when the nice lady offered me a ZPM and an invitation to return to negotiate a treaty, I thought it the better part of valour to leave before they changed their minds and added the Daedalus to their ship collection.”

“You saw other Atlantean ships?” Coolidge said sharply.

“No, but Praetor Lycos made sure to use the word ‘fleet’ when I congratulated him on his son being Captain of the Pride of Taranis. Just another gentle diplomatic hint from the Atlantis Coalition. At least that’s the way I read it.”

“You don’t think he let something slip by mistake?”

“No, Mr Coolidge, I do not. They may have had only a few hours to prepare for the arrival of the Daedalus, but that whole meeting went down like a well choreographed dance. They told us and showed us as much as they wanted us to know, I have no doubt about that. Lycos might have been hard to read, but Emmagan was pure steel.”

“The pregnant alien woman,” Coolidge sneered, and Jack wondered which of those the latest IOC addition despised more. He didn’t bother to remind the IOC that some of the most vicious and ruthless enemies Earth had ever faced had been alien women, and he also didn’t think it would add anything to the meeting to mention that his own wife had packed a pretty mean left hook when pregnant.

“Leaving that aside for a moment,” the French IOC representative said into the silence. “You had eighteen days on the Daedalus to study the data McKay supplied. Do you think it’s accurate information?”

Jack frowned a little. “Which part?” he asked. “The mission reports seemed pretty standard, having written hundreds myself I certainly didn’t notice anything off about them. The information about the Wraith is backed up by more video and images than I ever wanted to see on life sucking aliens. I’m still having nightmares about that.”

“Specifically I’m speaking of the deaths of Sumner and Weir,” Bertrand said in his perfect English. “Obviously we’re reliant on reports that could easily have been doctored or faked wholesale,” he said pompously. “But in the case of Weir’s supposed murder, I’ve spoken to my own country’s Special Forces, and experts tell me there’s no way a delivery system for anthrax could have been created in the manner Sheppard’s reports described. And no details about that delivery system were included in the reports.”

Probably with good reason, Jack thought, studying the fair, flushed face of the French representative. Speaking for himself and his country he was just as glad the schematics of such a weapon hadn’t been handed to China, Russia, or any of their other ‘allies’.

“As you say, Mr Bertrand,” Jack said. “We’re either going to take the Atlantis reports on face value or dismiss them out of hand. There’s no way of knowing the truth until we can get onto the city and start interviewing the survivors of the mission. If anything major has been falsified I think we’ll be able to tell pretty quickly.”

Woolsey lifted a brow. “You wish to be included on the diplomatic mission?”

“Not on the diplomacy side,” Jack assured him hastily. “But I think I have a rapport with Sheppard, or at least have some stuff in common with him. Air Force Officer to Air Force Officer,” he clarified at Woolsey’s sceptical look. “I’m pretty sure he’ll expect me to come back and nose around. I thought maybe Colonel Carter could be included to speak to the science division, and maybe Dr Jackson to commune with the other geeks.”

And, Jack thought, I want to be there to make sure the SGC don’t send another hardass like Caldwell, who would spend so much time sneering at what he considered traitors that he wouldn’t actually listen to what the self imposed exiles were saying. Jack found he really wanted to talk to someone other than Sheppard and McKay. The last thing he wanted was to drive away anyone who might want to come home.

888

O’Neill accepted the tray of coffee from a corpsman with a thank you, then pushed open the door to his office with his hip. Carter was at his desk, bent over her tablet and scrolling furiously. Daniel was sitting on his small sofa, printed pages in his hands, brow furrowed.

“How’s it going, campers?” Jack carolled, handing out the coffee cups. Carter lifted her head and smiled. “Thank you, sir,” she said taking the cup and sipping the steaming brew.

Daniel ignored the coffee and turned a dazed face to him. “Oh my god, Jack. Jack, oh my god. Oh my god, Jack.”

“Yeah, it’s something all right,” Jack agreed, well versed in Jacksonese after all these years. He sprawled out in the only chair left, and spun gently in a circle. “The entire base is pretty much reacting the same way.”

“What Sheppard pulled off,” Daniel said, spotting his coffee and seizing it. “Was nothing short of a miracle.”

“Tell that to the brass who want to try him for treason in absentia,” Jack said sourly.

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Well of course they do,” he huffed. “Typical military mindset. This guy loses his CO and the leader of the expedition in week one, is left cut off from Earth with no supplies, no back up, for six years. And when the SGC finally gets around to looking for them, he’s not only held Atlantis, he’s played a major part in forming a coalition of planets to fight the enemy the Ancients fled from. The military should be pinning a medal on this guy, and instead they want to lynch him.”

“Not all of them,” O’Neill murmured. “But even the ones who don’t want him arrested aren’t too thrilled.”

“You can see their point,” Carter inserted. “They wanted Atlantis, and instead they’re faced with having to negotiate with aliens to even be allowed to see it.”

“Except in this scenario – as in so many others – we’re the aliens,” Daniel pointed out. “Atlantis is in their galaxy, and just because we opened the front door and strolled in doesn’t make it ours.”

“Still, look at this Imperium,” Carter said, pressing a link on her tablet. “The two leaders are both Pegasus natives, Shepard’s 2IC is a Pegasus native. The Ancient warship is captained by a Pegasus native. Forging alliances to survive is one thing, but handing key positions to non expedition members? He had to know how that would go down with the SGC.”

“Well, duh,” Jackson said, shaking his head in exasperation. “That’s actually his master stroke in all this.”

O’Neil exchanged a confused glance with Carter. “Say what?”

Daniel heaved out a patient sigh. “Okay, so put yourself in Sheppard’s place. He had two choices. Turn Atlantis into a military base. Watch his supplies and people dwindle away as he tried to hold it for Earth, waiting for a rescue that might never come. Hell, when the expedition left we were still mopping up after the System Lords and the Replicator war. Far as Sheppard knew Earth could have been wiped out. Right?”

O’Neill nodded. “Right.”

“So instead of maintaining a military command, he started planning for a colony. First he formed a council. Spreading around the responsibility, maintaining control but letting the experts in their fields do what they did best. And smartest of all, he put the two key members of his first allies, the Athosians, on that council. Gave them a stake in keeping the city afloat. Gave their galaxy the first glimpse at a chance of defeating the enemy that has literally been feeding off them for ten thousand years.”

“And that’s the bit the SGC and the IOA take exception to,” Jack pointed out. “Especially since six years later those allies are running things.”

“And that’s the genius part,” Daniel said. “At very little expense to Earth in weapons, manpower and cold hard cash, Sheppard has secured Atlantis, opened up dialogue for an alliance – and most brilliant of all – ensured that Atlantis not only stays in Pegasus, but that it stays in the hands of the people of Pegasus. Get it? By stepping back and letting Pegasus natives take key positions, he has removed any chance Earth had of forcing the issue. He’s tied their hands.”

“And that’s supposed to endear him to the SGC?”

Daniel frowned. “No. I doubt he gives a damn what the SGC or the IOA think of him. It’s obvious where his allegiance lies now. But he still has family here on Earth, right? Most of the surviving expedition members probably do. Not to be cynical here, but how long will it be before certain pressures are brought to bear? Veiled threats against family and friends if Atlantis doesn’t come to heel? Or promises that family members will be reunited if Earth is given control. By doing what he’s done Sheppard can honestly say that such threats and promises are useless. He’s not the one making the decisions in Pegasus.”

“Huh,” Carter said, obviously absorbing this. “You sure you’re not over thinking this? I didn’t read anything in Sheppard’s file to suggest he was so… Machiavellian.”

“Did you read anything in his file to suggest he’d do any of the things he’s done in the last six years? Sheppard has achieved something brilliant. And just part of that brilliance is his ability to surround himself with other brilliant people as advisors.”

“That I have to agree with,” Carter said, once more studying her tablet screen. “Some of the advances McKay and Zelenka have made are nothing short of staggering. This thing with the human form replicators? Creating a weapon that actually binds their nanites together rather than separate them as our ARG’s do? I mean, they wiped out an entire planet of hostile replicators with a handful of allies and ships. This is an enemy that had the Asgard on their knees.”

“Presumably that’s when they got enough ZPM’s to start giving full ones away?” Daniel asked her, and she nodded.

“I’m guessing they deployed a few teams to retrieve ZPM’s as the replicators were being destroyed. They don’t spell it out – probably don’t want to give away just how much spare power they have – but it’s what I would have done.”

“Replicators.” Jack shuddered. “Man eating aliens and replicators. Frankly I say let the people of Pegasus keep their galaxy. An alliance sounds just fine to me.”

“I better be one of the first Earth scholars invited to the city,” Daniel said forcefully, but Jack ignored him.

“You know,” he mused, stroking his chin in his best evil villain impression. “You make some good points. At very little expense to the IOA or the SGC, you said. That’s something I can sell to the pencil pushers. We have a chance to benefit from the wonders of Atlantis, we have a full ZPM to power our Chair for decades, and all without having to commit a single asset or spend a cent in six years.”

Carter snorted. “It might let them save a little face,” she said cynically. “If they don’t feel like they have to swing their dicks around about Sheppard, maybe they can start thinking with their big brains and see the benefit.” She smirked at Jack and Daniel as they stared at her in horror. “Hey, I’m a full bird now, I can say dick.”

“No you can’t,” Jack said, still staring. “And that’s an order.”

Carter just smirked some more and went back to her tablet.

888

“Dr Jackson,” Woolsey began, sounding as pompous as ever. “We’ve had military experts assessing the situation in Pegasus, all making interesting points. But I feel it would help us to get an experienced civilian point of view. The consensus from the military seems to be that, if he’d survived, Colonel Sumner would not have made the choices that Major Sheppard did. What the outcome of his choices would have been we can only speculate.”

“Educated speculation, at least,” Daniel murmured.

Mr Woolsey looked up from his note book. “Would you like to expand on that observation?”

“Well, as you point out, I’m a civilian. I have however worked with the military for many years now, and while I value the military highly for their bravery and sacrifice, the fact remains that in first contact situations a military mindset isn’t always the best option. After all, their job is to be suspicious, to look after their own group before any outsiders. I think we can safely speculate that an average military officer, in the situation the Atlantis expedition found itself in, wouldn’t have been so quick to trust aliens from day one.”

“Yes, that is one of the points made to us. In fact, even Dr Weir in her reports expressed concern that Major Sheppard unilaterally decided to accept two hundred Athosian refugees and bring them to the city when the entire expedition was still in danger.”

“Yes,” Daniel agreed. “I read the reports she wrote before her death. The ones, may I point out, that Sheppard willingly supplied in the data Atlantis provided.”

Woolsey nodded to show he’d taken the point.

“I recall Dr Weir did state in a later entry that she understood why Major Sheppard made the choice he did once she was in possession of the facts,” Daniel continued.

“And yet she didn’t seem to warm up to these Athosians? At least not before her untimely death. She seemed concerned not just from a practical point of view, but from a security angle. There was even some concern that the Wraith took Sumner because of something the Athosians did.”

“Sadly Elizabeth didn’t live long enough to learn of the Wraith tracking device that Major Sheppard states his gene activated. Nor did she see the contribution the Athosians made as ‘gate team members. Their knowledge of ‘gate addresses, trade, local produce, customs. I think it’s fair to say that even the ZPM the expedition traded for on Dagan was a result of the Athosians intimate knowledge of that planet.”

Woolsey flipped through pages in his large book. “Yes, the unorthodox decision to allow thirty Daganian scholars to study the Ancient database. Would you say that was the start of this ‘Atlantis Coalition’ we’re now faced with?”

Daniel frowned thoughtfully. “I’d say it was the second step,” he said slowly. “The first being the alliance with the Athosians, obviously. And shortly after allying with Dagan the expedition discovered their access to Earth had been sabotaged, so they must have realised that allies were more important than ever. But in my opinion it was their alliance with Taranis that was the true beginning of the Atlantis Coalition.”

Woolsey scribbled notes, nodding for Daniel to continue.

“The Taranians were losing their world to a super volcano,” Daniel said, spreading his hands. “They wanted refuge in Atlantis, and they bought a warship to the party. Sheppard would have been nuts to turn them down. But there were more than two thousand Taranians, outnumbering everyone else living in the city at that time. Of course they expected their own representatives on the council, which later seems to have become the Imperium.”

“Yes, perhaps you can shed some light on these new titles? It’s been a long time since I took Latin, but these seem to be ranks and titles straight out of Ancient Rome.”

“We know the Ancients language is an earlier derivation of Latin,”Daniel said, sliding easily into lecture mode. “I can only speculate that when the representatives of the various allies now living on Atlantis decided to form their Coalition, that they chose Ancient ranks rather than preference the ranks of any of the Coalition members.”

“Thus distancing themselves even further from Earth,” Woolsey said sourly.

“Thus confirming their commitment to this new entity,” Daniel corrected.

888

Year Six – Pegasus

 

“Welcome back to the Pegasus Galaxy, General O’Neill,” Sheppard said.

Jack blinked away the momentary blindness causing by the Asgard beaming technology. He always opened his damned eyes too soon.

“It’s good to be back, Legate Sheppard,” he said politely. “May I introduce you to Mr Woolsey, Mr Coolidge and Ms Shen of the IOA?”

Sheppard glanced at the hand Woolsey extended for only a split second before he exchanged a cordial handshake with each of the IOC representatives in turn.

Jack continued. “And this is my former team, Colonel Samantha Carter, and Dr Daniel Jackson.”

“The famous SG1,” Sheppard said with the first genuine smile Jack had ever seen on his face. “Some of the SGC alumni tell campfire stories of your adventures to the kids.” His amber eyes twinkled, the lines around his eyes deepening charmingly. “I’m not sure the kids believe most of them actually.”

“I’m not sure I do either,” Daniel said. “And I was there. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Legate Sheppard.” Neither of his team extended their hands and Jack nodded approvingly. It had been in his report that the Lanteans didn’t seem comfortable with shaking hands. Either the IOC hadn’t bothered reading it, or they were starting as they meant to go on, and blundering right over the Lantean sensibilities.

“I hope we’ll be welcome in the City of the Ancients, Legate Sheppard,” Woolsey said.

“Of course,” Sheppard murmured. “As soon as you’ve cleared our routine medcheck. But forgive me, I should have said right away. Praetor Emmagan sends her apologies for not greeting you personally. She’s still on bed rest after the birth of her daughter.”

“Mazel Tov,” Jack said with a grin. “I hope all went well?”

“Mother and baby doing fine,” Sheppard confirmed. “Please, proceed to the jumper, the standard medcheck takes only a few minutes and then we’ll be on our way to Atlantis.”

“Is this necessary?” Shen said, a bit nervously, glancing towards the open back of the gateship. “Obviously we were all thoroughly checked before we left Earth.”

“Just routine I’m afraid,” Sheppard said smoothly. “No one enters the City directly, not even via the stargate. Standard operating procedure in Pegasus.” He nodded at the man in a lab coat at the back of the jumper. “I don’t know if any of you met Dr Beckett before we left Earth?”

“Hello, hello,” Carson Beckett said jovially, his soft Scottish burr still noticeable even after six years away from home. “I think I remember all these good folks. General.” He nodded at O’Neill.

Since the last time they’d spoken was just after Beckett had nearly blown him out of the sky in a rogue drone, Jack contented himself with a raised brow. Beckett flushed a little, then laughed self deprecatingly under his breath.

“Now don’t you worry, dear lady,” he said smoothly to the nervous Chinese IOC representative. “We don’t even have to take a blood sample these days. Just a quick scan by some Ancient equipment, and we’ll be on our way.”

O’Neill watched as Carter volunteered to go first, glancing around the large clearing they’d been instructed to beam to. There was another one of those ubiquitous tents, a cleared area of hard packed pale dirt, and two parked ‘gate ships.

Two they could see anyway, Jack thought.

After the short scan – peppered by questions from Sam as Beckett worked, the representatives settled down and consented to their own scans.

“Jumper?” O’Neill murmured to Sheppard.

“Puddle jumpers,” Sheppard said with a sideways smile. “Rodney wanted to call them ‘gate ships, but I figured that name was a bit too grand for those little beauties.”

Jack actually wished he’d thought of it himself, but he contented himself with a nod. “So, no beach this time? I even bought my sunscreen.”

“You’re welcome to visit the rec area, of course,” Sheppard said smoothly. “Right now it’s in use though, there’s one of the Athosians three day piss-ups, I mean, holidays.” Sheppard smirked as O’Neill chuckled.

“So no one comes and goes directly from Atlantis?” Jack asked curiously. “I don’t remember reading that in your reports.”

Sheppard shrugged easily. “Must have forgotten to put it in.”

“Must get a bit old though,” Jack probed. “Every little milk run going via an alpha site.”

“Not as old as bringing back some plague or invading force,” Sheppard said, a hint of darkness drifting over his attractive face. Then he shook it off and grinned at O’Neill again. “It’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you,” he said earnestly, then nodded towards the open jumper and the doctor. “I think it’s your turn.”

888

The jumper ride was smooth and exhilarating, as Sheppard raced across the surface of the placid blue ocean. Beckett flew the other jumper about a hundred meters to their right, following the same trajectory. The land dwindled into nothingness behind them, and ahead was nothing but endless water. “It’s about twenty minutes,” Sheppard called back. “Relax, the inertial dampeners mean a smooth ride and the weather is gorgeous. Blue skies all the way.”

Woolsey and his fellow IOA representatives sat primly in the back with Merriweather and Drake, while Carter and Daniel had chosen to ride with Beckett, Sam still thrilled with the Ancient medical tech, and Daniel no doubt hoping to unearth a few interesting facts from the garrulous doctor.

“Want a turn flying?” Sheppard asked Jack, and Jack had to restrain himself from grinning ear to ear. “Sure,” he said casually.

888

Sheppard took over again as they approached the city, and now the IOA and military diplomats crowded into the cockpit, gazing with open mouths at the
huge, graceful city, resting on the surface of the ocean like a metallic snowflake. Jack glanced at Sheppard as they approached the shield that domed the city, but the jumper slid right through it, as did the neighbouring jumper a moment later. Jack could see Carter and Daniel seated behind Beckett and his assistant, their own gazes fixed firmly on the staggering sight laid out before them.

“How big is it?” Woolsey said, eyes wide behind his thick framed glasses.

“Roughly the size of Manhattan,” Sheppard said slowing their speed and looping gracefully around a towering edifice. “24 square miles. We’re barely using a tenth of it right now, and that’s including the Athosians, who prefer the outdoors to city living.” He nodded and they followed his gaze downwards.

Jack noted the familiar pale domed tent-like structures secured to one of the wide outdoor areas. Colourful flags fluttered in the breeze, and children paused in their play to wave up at the ships as they flew overhead.

“Are those greenhouses?” Coolidge asked, nodding at the massive glass buildings abutting the Athosian dwellings.

“And animal pens,” Sheppard confirmed. “Food isn’t really an issue with an entire empty world filled with flora and fauna. But we grow a few favourites and some medicinal plants right here. Sorry to cut the tour short, but I’ll be happy to take any of you up again as time permits.” He tapped his headset. “Carson, take her in, we’ll follow.” He tapped again. “Bates, please make sure our guests all have escorts to their quarters.”

“When will the negotiations commence?” Woolsey said, obviously trying to focus on his job, even as his eyes followed Beckett’s jumper as panels opened atop the largest spire and the jumper gracefully descended into a bay.

“In the morning,” Sheppard said. “Today is to let you find your feet, explore, make new friends. And tomorrow is for business.”

888

Sheppard disappeared as soon as they landed, leaving the military diplomats and the IOC members to be escorted by various personnel. O’Neill studied their faces but only recognised former Sergeant Bates from the expedition. The rest were strangers to him.

“General, Mr Woolsey,” Bates greeted them all by name, nodding and exchanging handshakes with the IOA members with a raised brow. “Welcome to Atlantis. I have assigned each of you a guide while you’re on the City, they will show you your quarters, familiarise you with the various controls for doors, ablutions etc. And of course make sure you don’t get lost.”

O’Neill glanced at the metallic brace strapped with leather buckles that held Bates’s leg from just above his right knee to just below it, but forebore mentioning it for the moment.

“Sergeant Bates,” he said instead, with a smile. “It’s good to see you.”

“It’s Optio Bates now,” Bates said, returning the smile without guile. “But just Bates will do. I’ll be your personal guide, General, if that’s okay.”

Jack waited until everyone had been introduced to their various guides and dispersed from the jumper bay, before nodding at Bates leg. “Looks like you ran into some trouble?”

Bates nodded and led the way down the stairs, only a slight hitch in his stride hampering him.

“Wraith attack on the City at the end of Year One,” he said soberly. “Luckily we’d had the first ZPM a few months by then, so we had drones and shields at full capacity. Even so wraith soldiers made it onto the base. We lost some good people.”

“I read the report,” Jack said, taking in what was obviously the control room, graced as it was by the Stargate below. “That’s when you lost Lieutenant Ford? Sheppard wrote a moving letter detailing his extreme heroism.”

“Sheppard took it hard. We all did. Ford was a great guy.” He gestured around him. “As you can see this is our ‘gateroom. Note the differences between Milky Way ‘gates and Pegasus ‘gates?”

Jack took in everything, nodding as Bates ran him through the differences, and even demonstrated their super fast dialling sequence and groovy shield.

“Sheppard was telling me on the trip here that the extensive use of the Alpha site was your idea,” Jack said. “In the very first council meeting, wasn’t it?”

“I had some ideas,” Bates admitted. “And Sheppard ran with it. The best thing about the Legate, actually, is his willingness to listen to everyone, and to give new ideas a chance. After a lifetime in the military, that wasn’t exactly something I was used to…” Bates trailed off, smiling wryly.

Jack smirked. “I hear you. But it’s paid off? The Alpha site idea?”

“Couple of years back there was this guy, charmed the pants off of SGA3. Not literally, but it was a pretty close thing. Turned out he was dosing himself with this stuff that exuded pheromones, or some shit like that. He was using it to roofie women and make himself kind of a king back in his village.”

“Creepy,” Jack observed.

“You have no idea. Anyway, SGA3 brings him through the ‘gate in a jumper and declare they don’t need a quarantine period, they just want to go straight through to Atlantis. Can you imagine if he’d managed to ‘gate directly back here? The power of Atlantis in the hands of that sociopathic rapist?”

“Dodged a bullet there,” Jack agreed. “So how come he didn’t he just infect the guards at the alpha site?”

“Well they could see straight away that the team was acting squirrelly, so they stunned them, separated them from Lucius and put them all in quarantine. Turns out the effects wear off after a few hours.”

“Stunned them?”

“Yeah, we have a stun first and ask questions later policy here in Pegasus.”

Jack stared at him. “I like that policy.”

Bates grinned. “I’m thinking we should get it translated into Ancient and put it on our badges. The Atlantis Armed Forces motto.”

Jack nodded at Bate’s plain black BDU’s. “You don’t have any badges.”

Bates followed Jack’s gaze and looked down at his plain uniform. “Yeah, we haven’t actually gotten around to getting badges yet,” he admitted. “We should probably do that.”

“Maybe some pips or something,” Jack suggested.

888

Carter turned down the offer of a short rest in her VIP quarters, not wanting to waste a moment of her time on Atlantis. The young woman in her neat black jacket and pants smiled and nodded her understanding as Carter drifted towards the floor to ceiling windows.

“I’ve scheduled a reminder about the banquet tonight,” she said, touching the screen of a tablet. “And added the route from the VIP area where your delegation is housed to the map.” She tapped the screen a few more times before handing it over.

Sam tore her gaze away from the stunning view to take the tablet, admiring the lightweight device in its sturdy rubber case. “Is this Lantean design?” she asked in fascination, turning the device in her hands.

“With some modern embellishments,” the young woman said. “I’ve opened up the map, the designated areas are all clearly marked, you should have no trouble negotiating your way around.”

“This is amazing,” Sam said, touching the screens, admiring the crisp clear graphics and the speed. She blinked and then looked up at her guide. “I’m sorry,” she said, smiling and shrugging. “I was so caught up when Legate Sheppard introduced us, I’ve forgotten your name. Um, Nilda, was it?”

The young woman smiled again and nodded. “Nilly is fine,” she said easily. “I’m City Security under Optio Bates. Well, I’m training to be security,” she admitted. “I have a background in science as well, but that was more a family thing, I much prefer security work. Actually I really want to be on a ‘gate team,” she confided, and then blushed. “Sorry, I’m chattering.”

“No, it’s okay,” Sam assured her, charmed by the shy smile and easy friendliness. “What did you mean, a family thing?”

Nilly bit her lip uncertainly, but after looking into Carter’s face for a moment she seemed reassured and hurried into speech. “I’m from Taranis, originally,” she said. “You know Taranis?”

Sam nodded. “One of the founders of the Atlantis Coalition.”

Nilly nodded proudly. “Yes, we came here as refugees, but now we’re a part of the Coalition.” She tilted her head. “And that’s what I meant by family. On Taranis it’s expected that children follow in the footsteps of the parents, generation after generation. My family have always been involved in science and technology, and I never really thought to do anything else. But here in Atlantis there are no such expectations. People do the work and training for which they are best suited, and they get to choose for themselves. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Carter couldn’t help but grin back at the wide, happy smile on Nilly’s face. If Sheppard had thought to disarm her with this guileless young guide, he was certainly succeeding.

“Wonderful,” Sam agreed. “And you want to be on a ‘gate team?”

“Oh, yes,” Nilly said fervently, one hand lifting to lay over her heart and then pressed to her mouth and then forehead in what looked like a ritualistic gesture. Sam made a mental note to mention it to Daniel when she had the chance.

“What I’d really like right now, Nilly,” Sam said. “Is to talk to some of the scientists from the expedition. The Earthlings?”

“Earthers,” Nilly corrected. “Well, you’re cleared for the science sections marked on your map in blue.” She nodded at the tablet. “I’m sure you’ll find the ones not out in the field there.”

Sam glanced back down at the tablet. “And it’s okay for me to just roam around and talk to anyone I want?”

“Of course,” Nilly said, seeming surprised by the question. “Any areas of the City still unexplored or structurally unsound are closed off and clearly marked. They’re also locked out of the transporter for safety’s sake. If you need anything just press the red button and someone will find you.”

888

It couldn’t be that easy, Sam thought, as she followed the tablet map to the transporter and gingerly touched the screen. Surely Atlantis Security had eyes on her right now, tracking her every move. Surreptitiously she glanced around the small transporter, looking for surveillance. The doors opened onto a busy corridor, where people in various modes of dress bustled along, some carrying equipment or pushing trolleys, some walking slowly, eyes fixed on their tablets, some in groups by large windows, leaning and chatting like workers around a water cooler in any workplace on Earth.

“Major Carter!”

Sam’s attention was caught by a short woman with upswept hair and big round glasses trotting towards her.

“Dr Kusanagi!” she greeted with real pleasure, her paranoia slipping away.

“Major Carter,” Dr Kusanagi said again, catching her outstretched hand and squeezing it enthusiastically. “I didn’t know you were part of the diplomatic team from Earth. How good it is to see you.”

“And you too, Doctor,” Sam said honestly, a little amazed at the greeting from a scientist she remembered as being painfully shy and reticent. “It’s Colonel now, actually,” Carter said, pointing a thumb proudly at her rank and insignia. “And I’m not actually part of the diplomatic team, I just kind of tagged along with General O’Neill to see Atlantis.”

“Ah, one of the perks of being a big SGC hero,” Dr Kusanagi said, eyes twinkling behind her glasses. “But please, call me Miko. It’s so good to see an old familiar face.”

“Not so old I hope,” Sam joked, then grimaced, remembering that even such a joking reproach would have once had Dr Kusanagi scuttling away.

But obviously a women who had volunteered for a one way mission to another galaxy was made of sterner stuff, or was simply no longer worried about letting that strength show.

“Ah, we’re none of us as young as we used to be,” Miko said, chuckling. “Come, come. Dr McKay will be very happy to see you, I think.”

“That’s one word for it,” Sam said dubiously, but allowed herself to be dragged away.

888

McKay wasn’t actually in the labs, but within an hour a dozen ex patriot Earthers were, sitting around benches, sipping a kind of chocolaty coffee-like drink, and showing Carter discovery after discovery. She enviously studied the schematics of a starship made from salvaged Ancient parts in a kind of geek heaven, shaking her head at the beautiful complexity of McKay and Zelenka’s designs.

“Radek, I’m so jealous of you right now,” Sam finally said, lifting her eyes from the seductive screens. “I could burst into tears.”

Zelenka tried to look modest, but his wide grin gave him away. “Ah, well. Once we got past the terror and worries about starvation,” he said, taking off his glasses and polishing them on his lab coat. “We could get down to work.”

“A hundred lifetimes wouldn’t be enough,” Dr Singh said.

“We have all written papers to send back to Earth,” Dr Bui-Nguyen said. “In hopes the Stargate Program would have been declassified by now.”

“So many marvels that would help Earth, and all humanity,” Dr Lamb said in his soft voice. “Advances that would make all our losses and sacrifices worthwhile.”

Everyone looked sober and sad at that.

Sam nodded, remembering the list of scientists who had perished in Year One, many killed by the City itself in one way or another. “I’m sorry for your losses,” she said softly. “But your colleagues would be proud of the work you’ve done, even in such circumstances.”

“Ah, well,” Radek said, shrugging. “We don’t have so much to complain about any more. Still terror and monsters, but at least the food is good.”

The scientists laughed as if at some private joke, and Dr Lamb clapped his hands together gently. “Time we all went back to work,” he said softly, and the scientists nodded and started to drift away.

“See you tonight at dinner?” Radek said. “We will talk more, yes?”

“Looking forward to it,” Sam promised. Finally there was just her and Miko at the bench, and Sam reached out and picked up a photo frame she’d caught a glimpse of earlier. Miko was pictured with a tiny swaddled baby high in her arms. Behind her with his arms wrapped around them both was a big fair haired man with a dazed smile on his face.

“My husband, Daffyd Tan Delos, and our daughter, Megumi.”

“Congratulations,” Sam said sincerely. “Daffyd?” she said, trying to curl her tongue around the gentle twist at the end of the name.

Miko nodded, taking the picture and smiling at it before placing it carefully back on the bench. “He’s from Taranis, and now he works in City maintenance. Actually he pretty much runs City maintenance at this point.” Miko raised her eyebrows. “He loves plumbing,” she said, her tone a little mystified. “I’ll introduce you tonight, but please don’t mention pipes. You will live to regret it.”

Sam chuckled. “And Megumi? How old is she now?”

“Nearly two,” Miko said proudly, then ducked her head a little, for the first time reminding Sam of the shy young woman she’d known at Area 51. “And looking forward to a baby brother or sister.” She laid a hand on her stomach, highlighting the gentle swell of her belly hidden by the white lab coat.

“Congratulations again,” Sam said. “Atlantis is enjoying quite a population boom, it seems. Praetor Emmagan just gave birth I understand?”

“Children are the future,” Miko said. “And so valued in this galaxy. You remember Dr Heightmeyer?”

“Kate? Yes, I knew her well at Area 51.”

“She is a new mother also, and her man is from a world where the mothers carry them everywhere in a sling, so Kate has adopted the same habit. Miles is six months old now, but still she carries him everywhere on her back. It’s a joyful sight to see, families all living and working together in such harmony.”

“Is it harmony?” Sam asked curiously. “So many people from so many different worlds and cultures. All living together in a shielded city in a galaxy filled with space vampire monsters?”

“Well when you put it like that,” Miko said, then shrugged, and smiled. “That’s Earther thinking, Sam, at least that’s what anyone who’s lived here long enough will tell you. Most of us got over that kind of thinking a long time ago. In Pegasus life doesn’t stop being lived just because there are monsters out there. If it did humanity would have died out millennia ago.”

“But still,” Sam said.

“Of course it’s not all harmony,” Miko said. “We’re all still human. And half the old expedition are scientists, and you know how scientists get along together.”

“Like tom cats in a sack,” Sam said.

“Exactly.” Miko’s eyes twinkled behind her glasses. “But there’s something about having to work together for the greater good that brings out the best in most people. Not all people mind you. Do you recall Dr Kavanaugh?”

Sam wrinkled her nose and Miko giggled behind her hand. “Yes, exactly.”

888

“Sergeant Baker,” Jack called, and the tall, muscular man turned and surveyed him for a moment, squinting in the sun’s reflection off the water. Then he was smiling broadly.

“General O’Neill,” he said, with real pleasure, snapping off a perfect salute. He looked at his own hand and grinned again. “Force of habit,” he said ruefully. “It’s not Sergeant any more, I’m Atlantis Security now.”

“So they tell me,” O’Neill said, clapping the man on one broad shoulder. “But to me you’ll always be the Sergeant Baker who saved my life on P3X-382,” he said, turning as Baker turned, surveying the crowd on the beach and paddling in the low surf. “What a shit show that was.”

Baker grimaced. “I never thought I’d see anything as bad as the Goa’uld,” he confessed. “I even remember thinking when I volunteered for this mission, hell, at least things can’t get any worse.”

“That’s fatal,” O’Neill said, shaking his head.

“So how goes the diplomacy?”

O’Neill snorted. “I left it to the pencil pushers. Everything seemed to be going well enough. A lot of polite sneering from the IOA, a lot of raised eyebrows from Emmagan. Lycos just sitting there smiling.”

Baker shook his head. “Don’t let that smile fool you. The man has an edge like a razor blade. Not for nothing is he co-Praetor on the Imperium and his son Prefect of the Pride of Taranis.”

“Yeah, I figured.” O’Neill paused as two boys ran past, trading a bright ball between them, kicking up sand with their bare feet. “My job is to talk to you guys,” he finally said, slanting a glance at the big man by his side. There was a bit more grey in the close cropped hair, a few more lines by his eyes, but Sergeant Baker was still solidly built, his muscles shown off by the ragged cut offs he was wearing. “Sound you out about coming home.”

Baker sighed, his big chest rising and falling, then with a gesture he invited O’Neill to take a seat on the bench. He waited until the General was seated before joining him. “Yeah, I figured,” he said.

“I thought I’d start with you, since I know you better than any of the others. Most of them were just kids when they volunteered, and although I’ve studied their jackets until I know them off by heart, I didn’t really know them before. Not like I knew you.”

Baker nodded, eyes crinkled against the sun. Further down the beach someone was barbecuing something, the delicious smell of roasting meat wafted towards them on the breeze. Kids shouted, parents with babies on their laps sat in the shallows, chatting and laughing. It could have been a day at the beach anywhere on Earth.

“You like this place?” Baker said, gesturing around the cove and camp. O’Neill followed his gaze, even though he remembered the place well from their first contact with Lantea, months before. Today the sides of more tents were rolled up, and people sat and snoozed in the shade, some with drinks, some reading from tablets. The big circular fire pit was stacked with logs, and O’Neill figured they were gearing up for a night of campfire songs. What did a bunch of aliens from a dozen different planets sing about anyway, he wondered idly.

“It’s awesome,” O’Neill said honestly. “Life might be hard out here, but you guys sure know how to treat yourselves.”

Baker nodded. “Life is hard. But it’s also good. And rich. And precious. It was an honour and a privilege to serve at the SGC, sir. Every single day. But for me it was also a lifeline, a reason to stay in the service. At the SGC we knew who were the enemy and who were the good guys. Before that, I’d started to question some of the wars I fought. I did my duty,” Baker said solemnly. “But I was starting to ask the kind of questions a soldier isn’t supposed to ask if he wants to stay a soldier.”

O’Neill nodded. “Yeah,” he said.

“Then suddenly the IOA was part of the SGC, and it was all politics and pissing contests again, and I thought maybe it was time to walk away, although it broke my heart to think of it. The Atlantis expedition was another lifeline, another reason to stay and serve my country. To stay in the service I loved, even if I didn’t always agree with the orders I was given.”

“And now?” Jack asked softly.

“Now,” Baker murmured. He pointed down the beach at the two boys who had run by with the ball a few minutes earlier, now sitting and piling wet sand into mounds the way kids have done ever since there were first kids and they first sat in wet sand. “Those are my boys,” he said proudly.

O’Neill studied the pair with their matching glossy brown hair and sun pinkened skin, estimating their ages to be about ten and twelve.

“Their mother is down the beach somewhere, probably cooking something on the barbecue. That woman does love to feed a man.” Baker grinned ruefully, slapping his flat belly. “And that there’s my youngest.” He pointed at a little girl, a few metres away. She was maybe two or three, with coffee coloured skin, a bright pink sarong wrapped around her chubby body, two straight plaits of black hair sticking out the side of her dimpled face. She was playing with another toddler, a little boy. Together they danced dolls over the sand, chatting away in some toddler language that they both seemed to understand perfectly.

“What’s her name?”

“Ellen, after my mother,” Baker said. At her name the little girl looked up and smiled, showing perfect white baby teeth.

“So,” O’Neill said, rubbing the back of his neck. “That’s a no on going home?”

“This is home,” Baker said, pretty much as Jack expected.

“And the others. Do they all feel the same way?”

Baker grunted. “Can’t speak for them all, but one thing to keep in mind. Even those kids, as you call them, had their reasons to volunteer for a one way mission to another galaxy. Maybe they were running away from something, maybe looking for something. Maybe they wanted to serve but didn’t necessarily fit in with all the rules and regs back on Earth, if you see what I mean.”

“I do.”

“Even the ones who haven’t built the kind of home I have, they’ve found family out here. Acceptance. A purpose.”

“What about if the alliance between the Coalition and Earth goes through?”

“We all hope and pray it does,” Baker said, standing and stretching. “We still love our homeworld, General, even if we’ve chosen to make our lives in Pegasus.”

Down the beach a young man in a billowing white shirt strolled, waving and calling out to Baker. “Hey, how’s it going?”

“Daddy!” The little boy playing with Ellen yelled exuberantly, flinging himself to his feet and racing down the beach. The young man swung him up into his arms and kissed a sun flushed cheek.

“Jerome,” the man said as Ellen trotted to Baker and held out sandy hands to be picked up. “Thanks for minding him.”

“No problem,” Baker said, swinging his daughter up into his arms and propping her on his hip. “Kanaan, this is General O’Neill. General, this is Kanaan and his son, Torren John. You know their mother, Praetor Emmagan.”

“Oh, hey, pleased to meet you,” Jack said, extending his hand, then remembering too late that people didn’t do that in this galaxy. Probably something to do with the alien monsters that fed on people with their hands.

But Kanaan had obviously been hanging around Earthers for a while, he laughed and shook Jack’s hand enthusiastically. “Pleased to meet you too,” he said. “Teyla is very impressed with you, and your diplomatic skills.”

“Me too her,” Jack said, accepting the gentle mockery. “Congratulations on your newest addition. A girl I understand.”

“Baby,” Ellen said, her arms around her daddy’s neck. “Torren has a baby sister. I want a baby sister too,” she pouted.

“We’ll see what your mom has to say about that,” Baker said, kissing her cheek. He plopped her back down on her feet and patted her butt. “Go get your dolls, it’s nearly time to eat.”

“Me too, me too,” Torren John said, kicking his feet, and racing after Ellen when his father deposited him back on the sand.

“Are you staying for the feast?” Kanaan asked.

Jack sniffed the fragrant air again, then shrugged. “Why not?”

888

The meeting wrapped up on time and Praetor Emmagan nodded serenely before gathering up her daughter’s carry cot and strolling away, followed by her retinue of guards and staff. Woolsey remained sitting as the rest of the IOA walked out, heads together in quiet discussion. Woolsey closed his legal pad and laid it in his briefcase with various other folders and bound books.

“Legate Sheppard, if you wouldn’t mind staying a moment,” he requested quietly, and John sank back down in his seat, aware the moment he’d been waiting for in a week of negotiations had finally come.

The Atlantis Council had spent the first day listening politely to Earth’s requests, relayed sincerely and succinctly by Woolsey. The second day they relayed their own terms, just as sincerely and far more bluntly.

No, the Atlantis Coalition would not cede control to Earth. No, it would not allow SGC military personnel onto Atlantis at this time. No, it would not summarily order all the expedition members back to Earth.

Once both sides had made themselves clear, and the obviously unreasonable demands had been dismissed, they had spent the rest of the week productively, hammering out the details of the treaty between Earth and the Atlantis Coalition.

Altogether John was as happy with the guarantees for his people’s safety as he could be, although he was honest enough to admit to himself he didn’t really want to see anyone return to Earth until the SGC and IOA had been given the chance to prove themselves.

He was also honest enough to admit, with some gratitude, that it wasn’t up to him. Those involved would be fully informed, and the decisions about who would come and go would be in their hands.

All week though he’d known that Woolsey had one more card to play. That he would wait until the negotiations were all but over before laying it on the table.

John had a sinking suspicion that time had come. He glanced over at General O’Neill, noting the poker face he was wearing.

“Legate Sheppard,” Woolsey began quietly. “You haven’t had much to say during these negotiations. I feel I would be remiss in my brief if I didn’t give you one last opportunity to put your home world first, and at least allow the IOA a stronger position from which to further negotiate concessions.”

“I was quiet, Mr Woolsey, because I don’t have that much to contribute. Praetor Emmagan asked me to be here because I’m from Earth, but when it comes to political decisions, that’s all out of my hands.”

“A very deliberate choice you made, I’m sure,” Woolsey said tightly.

“You’d be right,” Sheppard admitted, and shrugged when Woolsey glared at him. “I’m not a politician, and I never aspired to be one. I’m a pilot, who ended up in charge of a bunch of soldiers in another galaxy, and honestly sometimes I’m not even sure how that happened. I wonder if I’m going to wake up back in Antartica and find this whole thing was some crazy dream.”

“Been there,” O’Neill said wryly, and smirked as Woolsey turned his glare on him. “Come on, Richard. We’ve been through this. Be happy with what you have. You did good, the Atlantis Coalition is willing to be our ally and share their technology with us. This is a win.”

“I hardly think Earth losing the greatest military asset in two galaxies can be considered a win, General,” Woolsey said tightly.

“Earth didn’t lose Atlantis, Mr Woolsey, because Earth never had Atlantis,” John said. “Oh, maybe if you’d come in Year One the City would have been ours to hand you. If you’d come in Year Two, you’d have at least had a foot in the door. But without the Coalition, if you’d come in Year Three you’d have found a graveyard. It’s not an exaggeration to say we wouldn’t have survived without our allies, their manpower, their skills, their ships, their weapons. You finally came in Year Six, and it was too late. Atlantis isn’t ours to give you.”

“Even if the SGC accepts that, you’re still an officer in the US Air Force,” Woolsey pointed out in reasonable tones. “Your people are marines, army. They’re scientists from Earth. You have a duty to your planet to be loyal. To do what has to be done to secure Atlantis for Earth.”

“And how exactly would Earth have me do that?”

“You’re in charge of the Armed Forces. Order your forces to stand down while we bring in SGC troops to replace them.”

“Replace them,” Sheppard repeated. “And what happens to them? The forces being replaced?”

“They’ll be free to return to their own worlds, of course.”

“Did you even read the reports we sent? This is their world now. They don’t have anywhere to go back to.”

“They can apply for refugee status,” Woolsey said. “It’s my understanding that there are plenty of habitable worlds in this galaxy they can be resettled on, and we would be glad to help them to do so, at least short term. If Colonel Sumner had been in charge, or if Dr Weir had lived, that’s exactly what would have happened in the first place.”

“I have no doubt about that,” Sheppard said evenly. “We’d have thrown them back out there to the mercy of the Wraith. We’d have used them and discarded them when we were finished with them.”

“Earth is not in a position to support an entire galaxy of refugees,” Woolsey said patiently.

“Then it’s just as well they’re not asking Earth to support them, isn’t it? You speak of loyalty? What sort of loyalty does that show the men and women who have fought by my side for years to secure this city? To build a Coalition to fight the Wraith?”

“That is not Earth’s concern,” Woolsey said firmly.

Sheppard stared at him, noting with interest that Woolsey couldn’t quite meet his eyes. Perhaps the IOA representative wasn’t as confident with his demands as he was trying to sound. The thought allowed John to cool his own hot temper. He took a breath. “All right. Say I was willing and able to get my forces to stand down and peacefully cede their weapons and duties to you. Say they even accepted your generous offer to give them a few tents and some supplies before packing them off through the ‘gate. What would you get out of it?”

Woolsey blinked. “Atlantis, of course.”

“Atlantis. Of course. And what would you do with Atlantis?”

Woolsey laid his pen down on his book. “That’s not my concern.”

“But you can hazard a guess, right? Atlantis is a flying city after all. Would someone, say General O’Neill, fly her to the Milky Way?”

“I really couldn’t say. Although there’s no doubt Earth could use a few more ships to defend her. The war with the Ori was costly, and our defences were badly damaged.”

“Ships? You’re not talking about the Coalition fleet, are you?”

“We’re aware the Ancient warship that escorted us here isn’t the only ship in your fleet.”

“It’s not my fleet,” Sheppard said. “It’s the Coalition’s fleet. And even if I gave you Atlantis, and you banished everyone currently living here, the Coalition would go on. They’d base themselves elsewhere, and take their fleet with them.”

“Surely as leader of the Armed Forces,” Woolsey began.

“And the ZPM’s powering the fleet and the City are all Coalition property, they’d take them too. You’d have a hard time flying Atlantis without them.”

“These are all issues that can be dealt with,” Woolsey snapped. “You’re being deliberately obtuse.”

“You mean I’m wilfully ignoring the inference of your suggestions,”Sheppard clarified. “Since I can admit that you might actually have a case for demanding I secure Atlantis for Earth. Not much of a case, but a point could be made that the Coalition wouldn’t exist if Earth hadn’t sent the expedition here in the first place.”

“Exactly,” Woolsey said in satisfaction.

“But there’s no justification for asking me to steal property that belongs to the Atlantis Coalition,” Sheppard continued relentlessly. “Ships that Coalition members provided for the fleet’s use. ZPM’s secured by Coalition Forces using that fleet. Work that Coalition scientists and colonists have done building and repairing and reopening the City. Actions paid for in lives and blood.”

Sheppard pushed away from the table and stood. “No, Mr Woolsey. Earth will have to be happy with what they have, they’ll get nothing more from me. And while we’re laying all our cards down on the table, hear this.” He pinned the older man with a hard glance, letting six years of struggle and loss and killing enemies and burying friends show on his face for the first time. “If the IOA or the SGC break a single one of the agreements made here, if one of my people come to any harm because of them, if they try and stab the Atlantis Coalition in the back? I will personally make it my business that Earth doesn’t see one more ZPM. One ship. One more piece of technology. I will shut Atlantis down, and if I have to, I will fly her somewhere Earth will never find her. Good day, Mr Woolsey.”

888

Jack lifted a brow as Sheppard strode out of the room. “That went well.”

Woolsey closed his briefcase and clicked the locks into place. “I had to try,” he said wearily. “I have my orders, General, just as you have yours.”

Jack thought about the children running on the beach. The parents with babies on their hips, cheering on the impromptu races. Smoky meat on sticks and voices raised in song, a campfire set alight to cheers and laughter.

All those people, refugees and allies, brought together because Sheppard had had the guts and the sense to build something on the ruins of a failed expedition.

Jack thought of Woolsey’s casual dismissal of those people. The easy way he spoke of packing them back through the stargate to fend for themselves, to live in constant fear of monsters ripping their homes and lives apart to feed on them.

What would Sumner or Weir have done if they’d been in Sheppard’s place? Would they have had the courage to dare and try, not only to survive this galaxy, but to create the basis of a strong future for it? A real hope after generations of hopelessness?

Jack had to admit he doubted they would have. A by-the-book marine or a civilian trained in diplomacy without any real experience to back it up. What exactly would have been left of the expedition or Atlantis when Jack finally managed to scrape together a rescue mission to come find them?

“My orders were to speak to the survivors of the original expedition and assess the situation. I’ve followed my orders, Richard.”

“I’m reasonably sure there was more to your orders than that, General,” Woolsey said stiffly.

“Ah, well,” Jack grimaced and shrugged. “The only good thing about being a General is being able to selectively hear certain orders. I’m going to report that the Atlantis Coalition will make excellent allies, and that we leave Pegasus and all the really shitty stuff that comes along with it, to them.”

888

“So, how do you like your quarters?” Sheppard asked casually.

Jack slanted him a sideways glance. “They’re fine,” he said, frowning a little at the non sequitur. John had invited him to stroll down to the outdoor city on the East pier that stretched into the distance, dotted with hundreds of tents and colourful stalls. The sea air was sharp with salt and a light breeze played over his skin, refreshing after the long, stuffy, Treaty Signing Ceremony. “Nice views.”

“Yeah, the corner apartments are the best,” Sheppard continued. He lifted a hand to return a wave at a group of people industriously mending fishing nets, then stuck it back into his pocket. “Notice it has a couple of spare rooms?”

“Did you bring me out here to discuss housing options?” Jack drawled.

Sheppard stopped at an ornate stone bench and sat down with a sigh, absently rubbing one knee. “I miss active duty sometimes,” he murmured. “But my knees sure don’t.”

Jack laughed ruefully and joined him on the bench. “Yeah, I get that.”

“And in a way I did bring you out here to discuss your quarters,” John said, twisting a little on the bench to face him. “Because it’s important you understand the offer I’m making and all it entails.”

“Offer?” Jack repeated, mind racing. Was Shepard going to try to bribe him? With what? For what? While Earth and its safety was always going to be Jack’s priority, he couldn’t have made it clearer that he wholeheartedly supported the treaty with the Atlantis Coalition.

“We need a liaison,” Sheppard said. “Someone whose loyalty lies with Earth, but who will live here, in Atlantis. A voice we can trust to be impartial.”

Jack tilted his head and surveyed Shepard’s serious face. “You mean a hostage?”

The serious mask melted into a crack of laughter. “Seriously?” John cackled, and Jack couldn’t help but laugh along at that crazy braying chuckle. “No offence, General, but I have no doubt there are some folks on the IOC and at the Pentagon who would be glad to see you a prisoner in another galaxy.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” Jack muttered. “Accurate, but harsh.”

“We wouldn’t be making this offer if we thought you were a friend of the IOC, believe me.”

“We?” Jack said, seeing Emmagan and Lycos’s hands behind this.

“The Coalition, of course,” John confirmed. “They asked me to speak to you about it before sending the request back to the President with Woolsey. Look,” Sheppard continued, face serious again. “The treaty is a done deal, I never doubted that it would be. Earth needs what we can give them too much for it not to be. Not to mention they prefer us to fight the Wraith here rather than land yet another enemy on Earth’s doorstep. But you and I both know that won’t be the end of it. They will always be pushing for more power in Atlantis, and they won’t care about getting their hands dirty to get it.”

“And you expect me to keep them clean?” Jack asked incredulously.

“We hope you will be a buffer. You know those folks, better than anyone not from Earth, better than someone like me, hopeless at politics.”

“You seem to do just fine,” Jack murmured. But he was turning the proposition over in his mind. “And what would I do with myself all day?”

Sheppard spread his hands at the view of the city spread out before them. Beyond the colourful tents and cheerful bustle of life on the East pier was the rest of Atlantis. Towers gleamed in the sunlight, puddle jumpers and other small craft zoomed around on various tasks. Beyond that the smooth sea, dotted with fishing boats and passenger craft, travellers waving at each other as the boats sailed or sped past.

“Live,” he said simply. “Study. Fish. Work. Join a club.”

Jack”s brows rose. “A club?”

“Halling and Heightmeyer have started the Grandparent Club,” Sheppard said with a sly smirk. “You might enjoy that.”

“Excuse me?” Jack said, not having to feign indignation.

“Orphans don’t just lose parents,” John said with a shrug. “They lose their communities. Their aunties and uncles and grandparents to spoil them. Not everyone wants to adopt kids, but plenty want to play big brother or sister now and then, or be an honorary grandparent.”

Jack stared at him, surprised into silence.

“You could make a difference here, sir,” John said, standing up with a small groan. He stretched his shoulders and sighed. “You’ve fought so many wars, so many battles. Wouldn’t it be nice to rest, make a home, and do two galaxies a real service while you did?” He patted Jack on his shoulder.

“I’ll see you in the morning before you go,” John said, before loping away.

Jack stared out at the horizon as above his head a bright yellow kite snapped gaily in the breeze. For once he couldn’t think of a smart ass thing to say. He’d come a long way since that first step through the stargate. What a long way he’d come. But he’d never dreamt he could end his days on a floating city in another galaxy, playing liaison between his homeworld and a coalition of alien planets.

“I wonder what the fishing’s like?” he murmured, standing and gazing out at the ocean for a moment longer. “Honorary grandpa?” He chuckled, then wandered back up the pier, lost in dreams of a corner apartment and a spare room for friends.

888

Year Six – Atlantis

“Thank god that’s over,” Rodney muttered, fiddling with a hard drive attached to a wide screen monitor.

“Do you think O’Neill will take up the offer?” Teyla said, kicking off her shoes and sinking back onto the soft sofa with a sigh. Kanaan lifted his arm and she snuggled in, laying her head on his shoulder.

“If the IOA let him,” Rodney said, straightening with a hand against his lower back. He handed John a mug of ale and sank down next to him. John patted Rodney’s knee in thanks and left his hand there, dropping a wink as Rodney blushed a little and smiled into his eyes.

“O’Neill is an old warrior,” Ronon said from his seat by the window. His wife was stretched out, still wearing her nurses uniform, her head in his lap, snoring softly. Ronon casually ran gentle fingers through her hair. “He plays the fool when it suits him, but he’s steel all the way to his core. He’ll be back if it suits him.”

“The General will make a great liaison and a great ally,” Teyla said sleepily. “And I believe Woolsey was sincere in his dealings. But…”

“But don’t trust Earth,” Rodney said bluntly. “I told you that right from the beginning. They make the Genii look like honest, straightforward saints.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” John said, squeezing Rodney’s knee. “But we’ll be cautious in all our dealings until they prove they can be trusted.”

“Once they see how advantageous the alliance can be,” Kanaan said in his quiet way. “Surely they‘ll give up any idea of trying to take Atlantis away from us?”

Rodney snorted. “Ah to be so young and trusting again,” he said cynically.

“Anyway,” John said firmly. “Let’s get this show on the road. We have six seasons of Doctor Who to catch up on.”

“I’m still mad Christopher Eccleston left,” Ronon muttered as John lowered the lights and Rodney thumbed the hand control.

“Ah well. All things change,” Teyla said. “Let’s wait and see how it turns out.”

The End