1. Out of the Mask by Marcus S Lazarus
2. John Sheppard's First Night Out by Marcus S Lazarus
3. Awaken in Prison by Marcus S Lazarus
4. The First Feeding by Marcus S Lazarus
5. Breaking Out with the Wraith by Marcus S Lazarus
6. The Digital Ark by Marcus S Lazarus
7. The New Hero of Pegasus by Marcus S Lazarus
8. The Phantom, the 'Hero' and Kolya by Marcus S Lazarus
9. Exploding Tumours by Marcus S Lazarus
10. Under Pressure by Marcus S Lazarus
11. Death Underwater? by Marcus S Lazarus
12. The Phantom Who Came to the Party by Marcus S Lazarus
13. First Strike by Marcus S Lazarus
14. Assault on Atlantis by Marcus S Lazarus
15. Atlantis in Space by Marcus S Lazarus
16. Confrontation on Asuras by Marcus S Lazarus
17. The Confession of the Phantom by Marcus S Lazarus
18. Darkening Dreams by Marcus S Lazarus
19. The Unscarred Doppelganger by Marcus S Lazarus
20. Phantoms of the Mind by Marcus S Lazarus
"Damnit…" John muttered, shaking his head in frustration as he opened his eyes. "Chloroform… who the hell does that to people any more?"
As he turned his head and realised that he was sitting in a cell, he cursed in frustration at his situation, only to realise that things were even worse when he felt the breeze against his damaged skin.
Whatever had happened to him, his current captors had removed his disguise, which meant that he was now extremely vulnerable and dealing with people who probably saw him as a feral beast who'd tear them apart at the slightest provocation…
"Hello?" he called out as he walked over to the cell door, not holding out much hope of a response but stuck for any alternatives. "Anyone there?"
"You're wasting your breath," a voice said. Glancing in the direction of the voice, John saw a small barred window in the wall, leading to a heavily-shadowed room that was almost certainly another cell.
"Didn't know I had company here," John noted, walking over to the cell.
"There is no escape," the voice said.
"There's no intended escape; that's not the same thing," John corrected, looking through the window to try and see his cellmate. "I know I probably look like something that should be in a stronger cage, but I'm not… y'know, a Wraithspawn…"
"I know," the voice said.
"You do?" John said in surprise. "How?"
"You were unconscious for too long and were too calm upon awakening," the voice replied. "A Wraithspawn would have awoken earlier and attempted to escape by breaking down the doors."
"Ah," John said, deciding to chalk that discovery up as a win and take it from there. "Good to know that someone has some sense here…"
"You doubt our captors will know the difference?" the voice asked.
"Let's just say they already have more reasons to dislike me than even they know of; the face probably just makes it easier for them to hate me," John elaborated, straining his eyes to see something in the gloom; he'd grown too used to the additional vision features of his mask. "How long have you been down here?"
"Many years," the voice said solemnly, accompanied by a clanking sound that made John think of chains.
"How many years?" he asked. "Five? Ten?"
"It no longer matters," the prisoner said solemnly.
"That long, huh?" John noted, trying not to feel too apprehensive at the thought that this prison was that good; it wasn't like many places in the galaxy had Atlantis's resources, after all. "What did you do to get here?"
"I merely allowed myself to be captured alive," the voice replied.
"Same here," John said, turning his attention back to the cell around him; with only his new dress uniform, he lacked most of the weapons he was used to packing in enemy territory, but at least he had some external options this time around. "Look, I'm sure that my people are looking for me; when they find me, we can-"
He was interrupted when a door opened and guards walked in, one of them walking up to his cell door and aiming a gun through it while another one opened the cell.
"Don't move," the man said, in a loud, clear voice that John would have normally associated with someone trying to tame a dangerous animal. "Stay still. Do nothing."
Under other circumstances, John might have made a joke, but with the guard clearly operating on a hair trigger and a large gun pointing at him, all he could do was raise his arms and wait as the other guard walked into the room, attaching handcuffs to his wrists as he was made to place them behind his back.
As he was marched out of the cell, he wondered if he should be more or less concerned about the fact that these people obviously thought he was some deranged animal rather than a self-trained soldier; he might be able to outsmart them if they were underestimating him, but it also meant that they would be keeping a really careful eye on him…
Returned to Atlantis and back in her usual attire, Elizabeth wasn't sure if she should consider the current situation good or bad. Ronon and Teyla had reached the Stargate just in time to see people in what looked like Genii uniforms carry an unconscious form that was most likely John through the Stargate, but the gate had shut down before the two of them could get close enough to confirm that assessment or see what chevrons had been dialled, which meant that they were restricted to randomly checking the last fifty addresses dialled by that Stargate in no particular order.
Making contact with the Genii to discuss this turn of events had been awkward, but at least Ladon Radim appeared to be being honest when he claimed to have had no idea that anyone was trying to capture any member of the Atlantis expedition; they had too few useful allies in Pegasus to start doubting them now. She had calmed Ronan down when he had attempted to threaten Ladon to find out what he knew- Ronan might be uncomfortable about John's face, but he took his role in Atlantis seriously enough- but Ladon had only been able to tell them that the codes they'd given to the Genii had been stolen a while back without providing any definite suspects. Elizabeth had accepted the argument that he had come here with no ulterior intentions, putting himself completely in their hands despite the risks, but she had been forced to quickly talk Ronan down before he did anything they couldn't take back later. She had just been talking with Ladon in her office when the sound of the Stargate dialling was followed by an unscheduled offworld activation alert, prompting the two of them to hurry into the control room.
"Identification code?" she asked as she looked urgently at McKay, hoping against hope that John had made an escape on his own.
"None, but we're receiving an analogue video signal," McKay replied.
"Bring it up," Elizabeth said.
As the image of Commander Acastus Kolya appeared on the wallscreen, Elizabeth fought down the urge to shudder; the last time that man had been in Atlantis, he'd pushed John into acts of brutality that still made her shiver when she thought about them, and that was before she considered what he'd almost done to her. The order to establish the video link he was looking for was issued almost automatically as Teyla clarified Kolya's identity for Ronon; the timing of events was too great for this to be a coincidence.
"This is Doctor Weir," she said, resisting the urge to vent her rage.
"Good," Kolya said with his usual sickening arrogance. "I wanted to be sure that you were there to see this."
That cryptic comment was explained as he stepped aside to reveal John trapped in a chair behind him, a white scarf tied over his mouth and his damaged face clearly visible.
"What have you done to him?" McKay asked.
"Nothing… which is less than I should do, considering what he is," Kolya said, now glaring at the screen. "Does your blasphemy know no bounds, Doctor Weir? To have a false Phantom is one thing, but to give positions of authority to Wraithspawn-"
"You didn't call us to criticise our methods, Commander," Elizabeth interjected, even as she privately noted that at least Kolya didn't know that he could potentially kill two birds with one stone right now; he clearly didn't know that John was the 'false' Phantom he was talking about, so at least he had no reason to inflict a more personal revenge on him. "What do you want?"
"I wish to make a trade," Kolya replied.
"Before we continue this conversation another second, I want to speak with John Sheppard," Elizabeth interjected.
"Be my guest," Kolya said, stepping back and removing the scarf from John's face with a mocking grin.
"Give him nothing," John said firmly, staring at the camera in his usual firm manner.
"That's all you have to say?" Kolya said, smirking at John as he indicated for his guards to put the gag back on before turning his attention back to the screen. "Then again, I suppose I could expect nothing more from a Wraithspawn…"
"What are your terms, Kolya?" Elizabeth asked; she didn't want to discuss what John appeared to be any more than she had to.
"I have heard the familiar voices of yourself and Doctor McKay, but there is one person I know is there who has yet to speak," Kolya said, standing in front of John once again. "Ladon Radim is with you, is he not?"
"Why would Ladon be here?" Elizabeth asked.
"Well, to preserve his precious alliance with you, Doctor, so that the Genii might remain in the favour of Atlantis," Kolya replied casually. "My sources have already confirmed this, so there's no point in denying the fact. Turn him over to me, and your pet Wraithspawn will be released immediately."
"What makes you so sure we want him back?" Ronon asked. Elizabeth shot a frustrated glare over at Ronon, but she didn't dare to say anything; right now, she was fairly sure that Kolya wasn't receiving a return image from their end, but he would hear anything she had to say.
"He might be a Wraithspawn, but you have already shown that you are willing to make… unconventional decisions," Kolya said; judging by the sneer on his face, he still believed that they had used a fake Phantom to avert his takeover of Atlantis during their first encounter. "I dislike repeating myself, but I will do so; in exchange for this man, I wish to receive Ladon Radim."
"I'll need time to consider your offer," Elizabeth said, keeping her tone cold while looking over at Ladon to try and assure him that she wasn't genuinely thinking about taking the deal…
"Allow me to help expedite your decision," Kolya said, turning around to move the camera towards a door at the back of the room. For a moment, Elizabeth wondered what was going on, but when two guards appeared dragging a very unkempt-looking Wraith, with a shackle around its feeding hand hand and moving far more slowly than a healthy creature should, she couldn't restrain a gasp of horror.
"You-you've never even met John before!" McKay protested. "Why are you doing this? He doesn't deserve that!"
"Let's be clear, Doctor McKay; no-one deserves this," Kolya said coldly.
"Don't do this," Elizabeth said, as the guards removed the shackle on the Wraith's right hand.
"Don't do it."
"The choice is yours, Doctor Weir," Kolya said. "Do we have an arrangement?"
Elizabeth could only stare in silence as Kolya had the Wraith's hand placed against John's chest and began to feed, John throwing back his head in a manner that made his pain clear.
As much as it killed her to do this, John had spent years placing Atlantis ahead of himself; no matter how much she wanted to save him, she couldn't give any sign of weakness to men like Kolya in case they came back to try and get more through the same method.
Tightening her grip on the console in front of her, Elizabeth fought not to scream in rage as the Wraith was driven back from John with a cattle prod, hints of grey at his temples, pain on his face and a bleeding wound on the front of his chest…
"You just crossed a line, Kolya," she said, glaring coldly at the Genii commander.
"We've found that a minimum of three hours between feeding sessions is crucial to ensure the body has sufficient time to recover from the trauma," Kolya said; right now, Elizabeth wished that the screen was two-way so that she could make her contempt clear. "That's the time you have to decide. Three hours."
As the transmission came to an end, Elizabeth checked her watch, already planning how long they would have to find where Kolya was before John was subjected to that treatment again.
Things were bad enough when the Genii and that Wraith thought that they were just dealing with another member of Atlantis; how would any of them react to the discovery that they were dealing with the Phantom of Atlantis who'd defeated Kolya's attempt to take the city?
As he regained consciousness in his cell, John cursed his bad fortune.
He'd spent years managing to avoid being captured by the Wraith when he was engaging in battle with them in full Phantom regalia, working on his own with no hope of back-up, assistance, or treatment if things went wrong, and here he was, barely a month into his new role in Atlantis, and he'd been captured by a git and fed to a Wraith?
He didn't think that Atlantis had weakened his edge or anything like that, and he wouldn't trade his ability to talk freely with Elizabeth for anything, but this whole situation was so frustrating…
"They called you John Sheppard?" his fellow prisoner said from the next cell.
"Yeah," John said briefly. "That's my name. Pleased to meet you."
"You're in pain," the voice noted.
"Well, I just got fed on by a Wraith, what do you think?" John countered; at least now he didn't have to worry about maintaining the Phantom's appearance of strength in the face of adversity.
"I would not know," the other man said.
"Hopefully, you'll never have to find out," John said, groaning as he tried to straighten out; he felt like his bones had become suddenly stiff, most likely because of how much he'd aged since that thing fed from him. "I didn't think anything could hurt that much."
"You're still alive," the voice said.
"For the moment, but who knows how many years that thing took from my life?" John noted; the aging aspect of the Wraith feeding was one thing he was trying not to think about, but he had to at least acknowledge that he'd be slower than before once he got out of this. "I'll tell you this; if Kolya's men hadn't have pulled that damned thing off, I'd be dust in a suit."
"Do you blame the Wraith or the master?" the Wraith asked.
"Master?" John repeated, looking at the door between their cells in sudden suspicion.
Now that the voice had brought it up, he had given the issue of the Wraith feeding some thought over time; if nothing else, the Wraith mostly seemed to feed just because they needed to eat rather than out of any kind of sadistic desire to see humans die, even if a few took more pleasure in it than others. He knew that some Hives had formed a sort of alliance with various worlds; even if the humans were always the underdog in those relationships, planets such as Olesia showed that the Wraith could be open to negotiation if the right deal was offered, so they weren't just animals.
"I guess…" he said, still turning over his response as he gave it, "it would depend… on what the Wraith felt about it…"
"For the Wraith, hunger burns like a fire inside," the voice in the other cell said solemnly, shifting position slightly to reveal long, unkempt hair. "If you found yourself burning alive, would you settle for just one drop of water… or would you take more?"
"Good point," John said, deciding to avoid saying anything that might inspire more conflict; even if he disagreed with the decision to feed on humans, if he was right about the identity of his cellmate, the last thing he wanted was to provoke the guy…
Whatever John might feel about the Wraith normally, Kolya was the real problem right now; when he heard that kind of description of the hunger, and thought about what the person in the other cell must have gone through, the Wraith was basically just another victim, even if it was being used to torture him.
"So," he said, looking grimly at the creature in the next cell, "your hunger aside… no hard feelings, right?"
"I do what I must to survive," the Wraith said grimly, emerging from the shadows of his cell to reveal that his theory was correct. "I took barely more than a few years from you, and even the strength I gained from that is already fading."
"Yeah, we're both being tortured here, I get that; what matters is what we're going to do about it," John said, looking firmly at the creature he had fought for so many years.
"What we are going to do about it?" the Wraith repeated, looking at John in an almost quizzical manner.
"I've got people coming to look for me, but I'd rather not wait around any more than I have to," John clarified, as he looked at the creature. "We can spend our time complaining about the fact that we're both going through a lot of crap right now, or we can get out; I don't know about you, but I know what I want to try."
"There is no escape-" the Wraith began.
"Because you only had one man when you were trying to get out," John clarified. "Right now, there's two of us; has to be better odds, right?"
He couldn't believe that he was even attempting this, but even if Michael had stabbed him in the back, right now, the Wraith had no reason to see him as anything more than another victim of their captors; that had to count for something…
As John was forced back into the interrogation chair, he cursed his inability to get through to his fellow prisoner in time to stop this; once he'd started talking about escape, the Wraith had just retreated back into a corner of his cell and sat there in silence.
Still, he supposed that he should be grateful he wasn't going to have to deal with Kolya giving him the apparently-traditional 'villain rant' of pop culture; it might have been different if he'd known that John was the Phantom, but Kolya wasn't going to waste time explaining himself to a Wraithspawn. He'd enjoyed that kind of monologue in the films he'd seen once he was made an official part of life in Atlantis again- one reason he'd liked the Die Hard series was the fact that all four films gave the villain the chance to explain why they were doing this beyond them being jerks- but when you were dealing with that situation in real life and about to be tortured by someone who'd nearly killed the woman he… CARED STRONGLY ABOUT… he wasn't that interested in hearing why Kolya wanted Ladon dead.
In end, Kolya's plan came down to the fact that the git didn't have the military strength necessary to mount an effective assault on Atlantis or the Genii right now, so all he had was this twisted attempt at blackmail; the fact that it hurt John was just inconvenient.
As Kolya started to address the camera again, John tried to distract himself by thinking of some of the films he'd seen since returning to Atlantis- the X-Men movies had been interesting, but he had serious doubts about that new Superman film that had just come out that year- but when the Wraith walked up beside him and its hand was jammed against his chest once again, John couldn't stop himself from yelling through his gag as he felt another decade or so being taken from him before the Wraith was pulled away.
God… he was going to be reduced to a desk role his first week on the job at this rate…
Aside from vaguely registering that Elizabeth was still rejecting Kolya's offer, John only came back to himself when he was thrown back into his cell. Dragging his way to the wall next to the Wraith's cell, John slumped against the wall and waited for his fellow prisoner to speak.
"You still believe that your friends will come?" the Wraith's strange voice said.
"Yeah, I do," John said, gritting his teeth as he stood up to face the cell window himself. "But that doesn't mean that I want to be stuck here until they pull it off."
"And what would you have us do?" the Wraith asked. "No-one has ever left this place alive."
"First time for everything," John said, looking firmly at the Wraith. "Seriously, though, if you've been stuck down here for this long, what have you got to lose? You know the layout of this place, right?"
"Well enough to know what we would be up against if we attempted to escape-" the Wraith began.
"Which is what I'm counting on," John said firmly. "I'm probably not going to be around for you to snack on for much longer, and they're not exactly going to let you go any time soon; at least this way we can actually do something about that."
The Wraith simply stared at him for a few moments before it sighed.
"You truly believe we can achieve this?" he asked.
"Our odds couldn't exactly get much worse unless you feed on me again," John pointed out. "We bust out now, I'm in decent shape and you're still reasonably fed; if we wait too long, I'm… well, nothing changes for you, but I'm certainly not going to be at my best."
The Wraith simply stared at him for a few moments, before it nodded with a grim smile.
"Like you say, we have a common goal," the creature said at last. "What is your plan?"
As escape plans went, John could have come up with something more sophisticated, but when his opponents currently believed that he was nothing more than a feral animal, he didn't feel the need to overly complicate things at his end either. The next time the guards came to lead him and his current associate out, John waited until he was outside his cell before he hurled himself backwards, slamming both guards against the bars of his cell and leaving them winded before forcing one to the ground. As the Wraith knocked one of his guard down and started to strangle the second, John punched his own second guard in the throat before turning to the first one as he got back to his feet, slamming the guard's head into the bars of his cell before he could react.
Looking over at the Wraith, John noted with grim satisfaction that the Wraith was feeding on the second guard after managing to get that sheath thing off his hand, but the guard he'd attacked first was back on his feet and firing his pistol at the Wraith's back. Grabbing a knife from the belt of his own fallen foe, John hurled it at the guard, striking him in the back and sending him to the ground. As the Wraith finished feeding, John gave his own foe one last blow to the head to make sure he stayed down before taking the other man's weapon. As the Wraith finished feeding, John tossed his current 'partner' the keys to the shackles on his wrists before taking the guard's radio and other weapons.
With the immediate problem dealt with, John nodded at his new partner to lead the way as the two left the cell-block and progressed along the corridor, heading away from the room where John had been tortured just a short while ago. After a few moments' walking, they were approaching another door with three guards in front of it, prompting John to halt behind a pillar as he took a moment to consider his options. Glancing back at the Wraith- and halting his new ally's examination of the gun he'd taken from another guard- John held up a hand in a 'wait' gesture before activating the radio he'd taken earlier, creating a burst of static from the radios on the guards up ahead. As they looked down, the distraction was just long enough for John to charge forward and stab the man with the knife he'd taken earlier, as his Wraith ally grabbed another guard and broke his neck.
The third guard turned his gun on the Wraith, clearly concluding that it was the superior threat, but John swiftly spun around, using his latest victim as a shield, and fired a couple of quick shots at the other man. The first one just grazed the other man's ear- John's reflexes had been more affected by the feedings than he'd guessed- but the second bullet struck him in the head, putting the guard down and leaving them with a free path to the door. Retrieving his knife, John waited for a moment as the Wraith confirmed that it hadn't sustained any serious wounds before they continued up the base's interior stairs.
After a few moments of frantic ascent, the Wraith opened a metal hatch above them and emerged into the middle of a forest, the world around them dark but the starry sky clear and brilliant above them.
"OK," John said, taking a moment to appreciate the view above them, "we're out; how far to the Stargate?"
"It will be guarded," the Wraith said grimly.
"We've got guns," John noted, indicating the weapons in question; they weren't his usual choice of armament, but when their opponents wouldn't have anything more advanced, he could make it work…
"They will be waiting for us," the Wraith continued, sitting on the edge of the hatch with obvious fatigue.
"You OK?" John said, concerned despite his trained instincts.
"I will be fine… if I feed," the Wraith said, looking at him with a sudden edge to his expression that John didn't like.
"Don't," John said, turning the gun on his fellow escapee. "We both know that we need each other right now; we're not going to get out of this if we turn on each other. The Genii are the problem, not us; once we get to the Stargate, we go our separate ways, and that's it. Deal?"
The Wraith simply glared at him for a moment before he got back to his feet, his expression grim but clearly willing to accept John's argument as they began to walk.
"What is the matter with your face?" the Wraith asked curiously.
"My face?" John said, looking at the Wraith in surprise before he tried to fall back on the usual assumption. "I'd think that if anyone would recognise-"
"You are not what they call 'Wraithspawn'," the Wraith said, chuckling slightly as he looked at John. "I would have sensed trace elements of the enzyme in your blood if that was the case; what is there merely suggests brief past exposure to the enzyme, rather than the lifetime that would be expected if you had been contaminated in the womb."
"Ah," John said, contemplating the best response for a moment before deciding to give the Wraith at least some of the truth. "There was an accident… a long time ago."
"Ah," the Wraith said, looking at him in silent contemplation for a moment before he spoke again. "It must have been a… unique accident."
"To say the least," John said, his silence as they continued walking making it clear that he considered the issue closed. Despite the Wraith's injuries, they made reasonable progress, but it didn't take long for John to draw to a halt as he realised something.
"You don't know where we're going, do you?" he said, turning to look at the Wraith in frustration.
"It has been many years since I was brought here…" the Wraith said, even as he sat down on the ground, wheezing as though short of breath.
"Great," John groaned, slumping down on the ground beside his 'partner'. "Our best chance when we get to the damn gate is to take out the guards in a crossfire, and we don't even know where to go…"
"It was not my intention to deceive you, John Sheppard," the Wraith said grimly, as he lay on his back to rest.
John was saved from replying when he heard something coming towards them from the direction they'd been running from.
"Crap," John groaned, as he realised what must have happened. "Not that late… he didn't need much time to deploy guards… damnit!"
"Indeed," the Wraith said, looking grimly at him. "There are only four of them, but that is too much for us to confront in this state… unless drastic measures are taken…"
John was about to ask what the Wraith was talking about when he felt the creature's hand slam against his chest once again, followed by the agonising sensation of life being taken from him before he could do more than yell in protest. John tried to protest, but he soon lost the strength to do much more than lie there and groan in agonised exhaustion, feeling as though he'd suddenly become a hundred. He vaguely heard the Wraith roaring as he threw the attacking Genii around, followed by the agonised scream of two guards being fed from, but he could barely focus on anything more than his next breath… it was so hard to focus…
As the Wraith appeared above him, John simply glared up at the creature that had stabbed him in the back in the most dramatic manner imaginable.
"Finish it," he said grimly.
He might be about to die, but he was not going to give that Wraith the satisfaction of begging (Even if the bastard wouldn't know who he was really killing)…
"As I told you before, John Sheppard," the Wraith said, "there are many things about Wraith you do not know."
As the hand slammed back onto John's chest, John winced as he felt another biting pain in his chest, felt some part of the Wraith digging into him all over again…
Hold on a minute… he was actually feeling stronger now…
As the Wraith took his hand away, John practically shot to his feet, feeling far more alert and prepared than he had any right to feel when he'd been a physical centarian just a few seconds ago. Glancing down at himself, he was amazed to see that his whole body had returned to its original physical age, his muscles back to their peak and his hands strong and firm.
"How the Hell…?" he said, looking at the Wraith incredulously. "You can… give life?"
"The Gift of Life is reserved only for our most devout worshippers," the Wraith explained solemnly. "And… our brothers."
"Huh," John said, looking down at himself once again before he looked back at the Wraith. "I guess there are things we don't know…"
"You have taken steps to give me back my life; I merely repay the debt," the Wraith said.
Stuck for a suitable response to that news, John turned his attention to the easier-to-understand issue of the fallen Genii, soon noting that one was still slowly breathing despite looking as old as he'd felt earlier. "You left one alive, huh?"
"I felt that he would be a useful source of information," the Wraith clarified.
"Good call," John said, nodding in agreement before he walked over to crouch down beside the last living Genii soldier. "OK then, pal, we've got a lot to do you already know you're not getting out of this, so do us all a favour and tell us where the Stargate is and how long it'll take; we'll make it quick."
"Straight on… that way… half an hour…" the man said, pointing out weakly with his shaking hand.
"Good," John said, nodding in acknowledgement before he stepped back to let his new partner finish the job; it wasn't exactly pleasant, but John had little sympathy for the people who'd sat back and let him get tortured like that. Picking up their opponents' fallen guns for extra ammunition, John handed a couple of them to the Wraith before they began to hurry in the indicated direction.
After a prolonged period of walking- which was actually shorter than half an hour, based on John's guess; most likely the Genii they'd interrogated wasn't as fit as they were- they had reached the edge of the open area that contained the Stargate. With a lake to the right of the Stargate and six guards gathered around it, it didn't take long to confirm that their options for taking the gate were limited, but both knew that they wouldn't get a better shot.
Exchanging glances with the Wraith, John indicated for him to head to the right while he went to the left. As they moved around the clearing, taking care to hide behind the trees, it didn't take long for John to confirm that none of the soldiers seemed to be that interested in their surroundings; most likely they either hadn't heard about his escape or assumed that he'd take longer to get here.
Once he'd taken up position behind some trees a short distance from the Stargate- he was never going to be able to dial the 'gate before someone saw him, but he was in a safe enough position right now- he quickly studied the trees on the other side, his gaze soon falling on the pale face of his Wraith ally; the Genii wouldn't see it as none of them were looking, but he was in a good position.
Holding up his hand and hoping that the Wraith could see his fingers from this distance, John lowered his fingers one at a time until his fist was closed, at which point he ran from cover and fired at the nearest guard. The weapon wasn't as precise as his usual gun, but the bullet still struck his target in the left side of his chest, knocking the Genii guard down for the count. As John turned to aim at the next guard, taking up position behind the Stargate to use it as a shield, the Wraith dived into action, taking out two guards and charging up to a third, plunging a hand against his target's chest. With John's second target eliminated, before the guard could do more than shoot at the Stargate, John charged out from behind the Stargate and fired at the last guard before he could decide which enemy to go after first.
"Well," John said, shrugging as he looked at the Wraith as it finished feeding. "That went well."
"Quite," the Wraith said, looking grimly at John. "What now?"
"We get out of here," John said, nodding at his ally before he turned towards the DHD, quickly dialling it.
"We agreed-" the Wraith began.
"And I'm not going back on it; I just thought it might be a better idea to get somewhere else before we see about going home," John said, just as he entered the last symbol and activated the Stargate. "After all, do you want to stay on this planet any longer than you have to?"
Looking at the active wormhole, the Wraith nodded grimly as he walked up to the gate, John right beside as they stepped through the event horizon to emerge on another world, this one located in a ruined desert city.
"Just a random address I found a while back," John said, as the Wraith looked curiously at him. "There's nobody here and it's fairly off the beaten track; it seemed like a decent choice."
"Agreed," the Wraith said, taking in the area before he looked back at John. "I will depart first."
"Of course," John said, grateful that the Wraith brought it up; he could probably find a Wraith-controlled world easily enough, but by leaving first, he ensured that he wouldn't see John's home address.
"The next time we meet…" the Wraith said, with a new edge to his tone.
"All bets are off," John nodded in understanding.
Still, as the Wraith entered the chevrons for his own address… for the first time in memory, John hoped that he wouldn't see that Wraith again.
He wasn't foolish enough to think that he could trust the Wraith completely, but he could be reasonably sure that he could trust the guy to stick to any deals they might make if they met again in the future, and he didn't want to have to kill what might be the first Wraith he felt he could trust unless he had to.
As the Wraith walked through the Stargate and the wormhole shut down, John pulled out his stolen Genii radio- from what McKay's analysis had determined, they operated on similar enough frequencies to Atlantis's communications that they should be able to talk to each other if you knew what frequency to use- and quickly entered the address.
The sooner he was back on Atlantis, the sooner he could put Kolya out of his mind until he had the chance to take that bastard out the next time they met…
Staring anxiously at the Stargate from her office, Elizabeth wasn't sure if the uncertainty was worse than witnessing the actual torture. As long as she could see that John was alive, she had hope that she could get him out, but if she didn't know what kind of state he was in…
She was just relieved that Ladon had agreed to be moved to another room after the deadline for Kolya's last contact had come and gone; he was close enough to the control room that they could still collect him if they needed his input, but until they knew what was up with John, she wasn't going to let her only potential bargaining chip out of the city.
The idea that she could see anyone as a bargaining chip disturbed her on some level, but she pushed it aside; John was important to the expedition, and that was what she had to focus on.
"Has there been any news?" Teyla asked, walking in to look at her, the rest of the Atlantis senior staff gathered in the control room as they anxiously waited for the next call.
"Nothing," Elizabeth said, shaking her head in frustration. "We're far beyond the scheduled check-in time, and Kolya's showing no sign of getting back in touch; we can't keep Ladon contained forever…"
The sound of the Stargate activating prompted her to get to her feet and hurry back to the control room, Teyla close behind her as the wormhole engaged.
"Hello?" a voice said from the radio in the control room before Elizabeth could say anything. "Is anyone there?"
"John?!" Elizabeth said, staring at the radio incredulously. "How-?"
"I broke out of my cell with the aid of that Wraith that was feeding on me earlier," John said, sounding almost worryingly healthy for a man who'd been fed on by a Wraith twice. "I got to the Stargate, grabbed a Genii radio to send this message and dialled out to a neutral planet, but I'd appreciate you letting the shield down so I can come home."
"Of course," Elizabeth said, turning around to look firmly at McKay. "Let him in."
"But-" McKay began.
"It's John," Elizabeth said resolutely. "Let him in."
With nothing else to say to that statement, McKay reached over to lower the shield.
"It's down," Elizabeth said, hurrying down from the control room as the shield lowered, waiting anxiously for whatever kind of shape John would be in when he returned; if he could make an escape, he couldn't be that badly off, but-
When he walked through the Stargate, looking no older than he had the last time he'd set foot in the city, Elizabeth was relieved that she wasn't the only person to gasp in shock; even with John's hands covering the more damaged parts of his face to avoid shocking anyone, it was clear that he showed no sign of the physical aging he'd been subjected to.
"What the Hell?" McKay said, looking at him incredulously from the control room. "How- you were- I mean, you look younger than you did before you left!"
"Turns out Wraith don't just take life; they can also give it," John explained with a slight chuckle that was only partially muffled by his hand. "We had to take out a few guards on the way to the Stargate, and my old cellmate took the opportunity to feed on some of them and give me back the years I'd lost."
"Seriously?" Lorne said, looking at the disfigured man in surprise. "He just… did that?"
"He referred to it as him 'repaying the debt' of me giving him back his life," John said. "Of course, I'd have preferred it if he'd consulted me before using me as a battery pack for the last round- he needed my energy to give him the strength to fight off this guard team we ran into- but when the alternative was to be dead or recaptured, I'll take what I can get…"
Elizabeth didn't care about the finer details right now; all that mattered was that John was back, he was away from Kolya, he was safe in Atlantis, safe with her-
She froze, overwhelmed by the intensity of the feelings she'd only just acknowledged.
The idea of losing John Sheppard had scared her.
The revelation that she loved him was terrifying.
If she hadn't been in public, Elizabeth would have screamed in frustration and then broken down sobbing.
She'd known that she had an attraction to John for some time- her 'hallucination' while under the influence of Oberoth's nanites had proved that- but the idea that she loved him…
Even if he was technically outside of the standard command structure, he could never see her that way; she represented the peace he'd been striving for since he'd come to Pegasus, the representation of the promise he'd made to his only real mentor and guide…
God, he'd met her when she looked like she was in her eighties; even if that hadn't technically been her, it was still weird.
Resolving not to think about it any more, Elizabeth made a brief comment welcoming John back before she turned around and headed back for her office, making brief comments about needing to start arrangements to send Ladon back to his people with her full apologies for recent events; hopefully the Genii would all understand that she'd just been anxious about the absence of an important member of her staff…
John was just settling into his new role on Atlantis, and now she had to make it all complicated by realising that she was in love with him?
She hadn't been expecting this…
Ever since John had come back to Atlantis after his period as Kolya's prisoner, Elizabeth had dreaded the moment that she would have to send him out into danger.
It was irrational to be terrified for the safety of a man who'd survived by himself for over two decades when he was being hunted by virtually an entire galaxy, but she couldn't help it; it was just…
Every time she tried not to think about it, she just kept coming back to the original problem; even if John respected her as a leader and friend, she obviously wasn't his type.
She'd never dared to confess it to anyone, of course- even with doctor/patient confidentiality, something like this just felt too personal to admit even to Doctor Heightmeyer- and she wasn't even entirely sure how she felt about this herself…
All she knew was that, during those brief few hours when she hadn't known what had happened to him as he remained in Kolya's custody, Elizabeth had never been more terrified… and even after she'd acknowledged why she was so scared, she couldn't afford to share it with anyone. For all of John's reassurances to her that she meant a great deal to him, not only was she far from a suitable partner for a man who regularly risked his life for the galaxy against a race of vampiric aliens, but he'd met her- even if it wasn't her, from a certain point of view- when she was an old woman in her physical eighties; how could he ever see her as someone to be… intimate with?
She respected him as a colleague and valued him as a friend, but she was starting to want so much more from him than he could ever be expected to share with her…
Right now, however, she had more immediate concerns in the form of the unusual moon complex that John's team had just discovered. The technology as a whole might be primitive, but she had to admire the spirit that had driven a planet's population to attempt something like that, even if their exact motives were still a mystery, to say nothing of their latest discovery.
"You reported that there were no life signs," she said, as John revealed that they'd discovered someone in the lunar base. "How did he get there?"
"We don't know yet," John replied grimly over the radio. "There was some kind of energy spike right when his life signs popped up, but we're still working on what that meant…"
"Actually, I just solved that," McKay's voice interjected. "I recognised the initial energy signature as very similar- virtually identical- to Wraith beaming technology, so I ran a further search, and it looks like he was automatically reintegrated when life support systems started up."
"Beaming technology?" Elizabeth repeated. "A minute ago you said the station was antiquated?"
"Other than that particular upgrade, anyway," John explained.
"And the artificial gravity," McKay added.
"That's artificial gravity?" John asked. "I thought it was just a very dense moon-"
"Getting back to the beaming technology?" Elizabeth asked.
"Well," McKay continued, "I'd need to take a closer look but I am pretty sure that that device is modified Wraith technology, probably from a crashed Dart. If you think about it, it's actually a brilliant fusion of-"
"And what do you intend to do with this person we've now assumed responsibility for?" Elizabeth interjected.
"Oh… I dunno," McKay noted. "I didn't think that far ahead."
"Obviously not," Elizabeth said (She was aware that she was possibly venting her frustration about the situation with John against McKay, but she was in no mood to try and calm down when she had something to vent about). "You need to keep in mind that if one person beamed out of nowhere-"
"There may be others where he came from," John finished for her. "I was thinking the same thing."
She heard Teyla say something off to the side, but was saved from asking what had just happened when John spoke again. "Alright, we'll find out in a minute. Our boy's waking up. Call you in one hour."
"One hour it is," Elizabeth said, before John terminated the radio link, leaving her to smile hopefully at this news.
If what she'd heard was accurate, she hoped that the best-case scenario for the situation described would turn out to be correct; after John's last bit of difficulty offworld, it could do him some good if he managed to save someone once again.
Listening to the story told by their new associate- who'd introduced himself as Herick- John wasn't sure if he should admire this planet's former population or pity their desperation.
As far as methods of escaping the Wraith went, deliberately destroying your entire planet in the hope that you could rebuild after it had recovered was a very extreme way of doing things, but it had the luxury of being something that nobody would have thought of before. While Herick's explanation that he'd been expecting defeat at least explained why he hadn't shown much of a reaction to McKay's talk about what had happened to his planet, the revelation that there were others in storage had been more of a surprise, particularly when even McKay was apparently impressed at their ability to use Wraith beaming technology as a storage system.
John wasn't sure that he'd go as far as these people had done to save their lives by destroying their planet, but he had to admire the goal and determination even if he doubted their methods. Unfortunately, Herick had been shocked to learn that there was only one shuttle stored in the facility rather than the two he'd been expecting to find, leaving him and Ronon to follow their new associate to the pattern storage room when he tried to reactivate the system.
"They were to launch within hours of us," Herick said, as he frantically tapped away at a panel on the device. "Jamus gave me his word."
"Maybe the Wraith got to 'em before they could get to it," Ronon noted
"No," Herick said firmly as he tapped away at a set of controls. "They were ready; I spoke to the pilot myself. They were just hours behind us."
"What are you doing?" John asked the other man, as McKay called to report another power-spike.
"Getting answers," Herick said, before he pressed a button, causing the device to generate a beam similar to a Wraith transporter beam that deposited an older man in the room, wearing a blue version of Herick's suit. John and Ronon quickly pulled out their weapons, but they didn't even have the time to do anything before Herick charged forward to grab the other man, yelling something about how 'they' should have been there he awoke before John pulled them apart.
"All right," he said, glaring at the two men, trying to channel the authority he normally saved for his appearances as the Phantom. "Let's take it easy and give this guy a chance to breath, OK?"
"I… I don't understand…" the new arrival said, looking between the three men in confusion.
"Where is the second storage device?" Herick said, indicating the empty cradle beside the original device. "You assured me that my family would be on the second storage device, Jamus; where is it?"
"They waited too long to launch the second shuttle," the old man who was apparently Jamus replied. "Herick, I'm sorry."
"I worked every day of my life to complete this place with the promise that when it was done, my wife and son would be among the ones saved," Herick said, glaring at the old man. "You made me that promise, when you stored my pattern in the device."
"Shortly after you were stored in the device, word came from the planet that the last group had not yet made it to the second shuttle," the other man explained with genuine regret. "With the launch of the first just hours before, the secret was out. There were riots on the street. Much of our leadership was in that last group."
"You delayed the launch," Herick said, as Jamus got up to pace. "How long did you wait?"
"A day, but in that day the Wraith came, Herick, through the Portal," Jamus explained. "We knew it was the beginning; we knew it was an advance scout. It had happened far too many times in our history. We knew."
"Why didn't you order them to launch?" Herick asked, as he leaned over the device.
"Because the second shuttle would have led the Wraith straight here," Jamus said, firmly only able to stare apologetically at the other man's obvious grief and horror. "It was the only way; you must understand that."
"Sounds to me like you did it to save yourself," Ronon put in grimly.
"No; to preserve those already in stasis," Jamus said, indicating the storage box beside Herick, before walking up to focus his attention on his colleague. "If the Wraith had followed the second shuttle, if they'd discovered what we had done, they would have blasted this moon from the sky. It was the hardest decision I have ever made, but if I had not made it, your life's work would have meant nothing."
"Another life sign just appeared on the shuttle's H.U.D.," McKay called out as he walked into the room, smiling as he noticed the new arrival before he offered him a handshake. "Oh, hi, Doctor Rodney McKay; I was the one who powered up your station."
"My people are… grateful for your assistance," Jamus said, after McKay lowered his hand once he realised that he didn't know what the other man wanted to do about it.
"We don't need them," Herick said.
"We do have a ship," John noted, his suspicions about the other man growing with that comment; considering that the guy was only even out of storage because they'd arrived, he thought that made it clear that these people did need them.
"One that- no offence- is better than that shuttle you've got there," McKay added with a satisfied smile. "We can get you back down to the planet and restoring your civilisation in no time."
"Does your ship have an internal power supply attuned to the storage device?" Herick asked, prompting the Canadian scientist's smile to falter.
"Herick wishes to finish the task that will complete his life's work," Jamus put in, walking up to Herick. "And when you have flown our people back to the surface, then the new era we have dreamed of will begin, free of the Wraith for all time."
"For all time," Herick said solemnly, as the other man gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "Forgive me; I must prepare the shuttle for launch."
"Of course," the other man said.
"Look, if you want a hand with the control room, I could, um…" McKay began, only to be ignored by Jamus as Herick walked away without looking back.
"We'll… leave you all to it," John said, nodding briefly at the other man as he left the storage back with McKay and Ronon, turning to address them both once they were in the outer corridor. "OK, McKay, see what you do about making sure that shuttle's in working condition; I'm going to keep an eye on Herick."
"You think he's going to kill that guy?" Ronon asked, indicated the room they'd just left.
"Either that, or he'll kill himself," John answered grimly. "And given the limited options for doing that up here, I'd like to make sure he doesn't do anything stupid…"
After quickly confirming to Jamus that they were sticking around until everyone was back on their planet, John walked briskly after Herick, finally finding the man as he was confronting Teyla in a corridor at the end of a series of open pressure hatches.
"…not caused by the Wraith?" Herick said, glaring at the Athosian woman in exasperation.
"Still, if there is anything we can-" Teyla began.
"You've done enough," Herick said grimly.
"I do not understand," Teyla said uncertainly.
"If you had never come, if I had never awoken, my last thoughts would have been of hope for the future, and the love I have for my family," Herick said coldly. "I never would have to feel what I feel now. Gather your team and leave this place."
"We'll get to that later," John said, stepping out from his corner to look resolutely at the other man. "Right now, I'm just going to make sure you don't do anything stupid."
"I have lost everything-" Herick began as he turned to glare at John.
"And I lost almost the same thing, which is almost worse because there are several reasons why I can't get it back even though my old life's still there; you've at least got a chance to rebuild a new life without dealing with old ghosts," John said grimly. "I can appreciate that you're grieving right now, but I have seen a lot of people in your position make serious mistakes, and I'm not going to trust you to leave my sight until your people are safe."
"You have no right to judge-!" Herick began, before John sighed and slammed his fist into Jamus's face, striking him with such force that the other man was sent flying for a few feet before he fell to the ground in a heap.
"Was that necessary?" Teyla asked, looking at him in a critical manner.
"Believe me, when you've seen as many Wraith-devastated worlds as I have, you learn to recognise when you're dealing with the kind of guy who just wants the pain to end even if he'll end up taking everyone else with him," John noted grimly, glancing down at the unconscious man on the floor before he looked back at the Athosian woman. "Help me get him somewhere secure and then we can see about dealing with all this."
Despite the still-present tension between them both, John was grateful when Teyla went along with his request. Their working relationship was still tainted by her knowledge of his true face, but she was at least willing to work with him with relative ease, where Ronon always seemed to be looking for a reason not to trust him.
Once Herick was confined in a cupboard area until they could get him on a more effective 'suicide watch', John had called in another team from Atlantis to assist them in getting Jamus and the rest of his people back down to the planet. A quick scan with the puddle jumper had confirmed that the planet's ecology had already started to recover following the devastating bombardment that had originally rendered it uninhabitable, and the now-activated shuttle had sufficient fuel for a return flight, so all that they really needed to do was find a suitable landing-site and make their plans accordingly.
The storage device had been confirmed to be fully functional and ready for them to activate, but John agreed with Jamus that it would be best to do it once the shuttle had been brought back to the surface, as they couldn't control who'd be released from the device in any particular order and didn't want to risk having to deal with any children or anyone else who wouldn't be much help in the current situation. Herick had been apparently assigned to be the pilot for at least one shuttle for the return to the planet, but considering the man's mental state, John had volunteered to pilot it himself while Herick was put back into the storage device and the rest of John's team returned to the puddle jumper.
It had taken a few moments to adjust to a ship that didn't just obey his every command, but thanks to the training he'd received in piloting the F-302s, it was relatively simple to get a handle on the relevant controls for the shuttle. Once the jumper had launched from the lunar base, John had disconnected the shuttle's docking clamps and taken the ship back towards the planet, aiming for the location that Jamus and McKay had earlier identified as the most lively-looking area on the surface. The actual landing had been a bit close when the ship's landing-gear didn't work at first, but it landed in a reasonably intact condition, leaving the Atlantis team free to activate the storage device and release its 'passengers' back onto their world.
The flight itself might have been a bit bumpy, but once they got down, everything had gone fairly smoothly as far as John could see; everyone seemed to be fairly enthusiastic about the chance to rebuild their world, they were all grateful to be reunited with their families, and he'd even seen Herick smile slightly as he took in his 'rejuvenated' world once they'd reached the surface.
"Funny, isn't it?" McKay mused, as the team stood by the puddle jumper to watch Jamus brief the first wave of survivors from the storage device on what had taken place.
"What is?" John asked.
"How simpler things are with you in charge," McKay clarified. "I mean, if Colonel Sumner had been here… well, to be blunt, we'd probably have missed Herick's mental state, he could have done something drastic like open the airlock, and then we'd have had some actual trouble with this situation instead of a smooth ride…"
"Things just worked out," John shrugged, wondering what they were going to do with Herick in the long term before dismissing that as someone else's problem; he seemed to be past the worst of his initial grief, and Atlantis couldn't exactly afford to become the psychiatric hospital for all of Pegasus. "Like I told Teyla, I've been around long enough to know how people react when they've lost families to the Wraith; you learn to anticipate who's going to take it badly."
"There have been times where you failed?" Teyla said, looking at him in surprise. "We have always heard tales of the Phantom's successes-"
"Because there generally aren't any survivors left to talk about the occasions when I blew it," John noted, his expression grim as he looked at the Athosian woman. "I didn't become a legend overnight, Teyla; even after I started wearing the mask, it took a while before I got things right."
The tension in John's shoulders was enough to discourage even Ronon from asking for further information, despite his curiosity at this hint John had just provided about his past.
"Well," McKay said, shrugging as he looked at the rest of his team, "we gave a civilisation a chance to start again; not a bad day, right?"
Lying on his bed after returning to Atlantis, the man once known solely as the Phantom stared uncertainly around his room.
Of all the changes he'd experienced since returning to Atlantis from Earth, having his own quarters was simultaneously strange and a refreshing return to normality. He might have spent almost three years hiding around the city's air ducts to escape being caught by the expedition's security forces, but he'd spent longer than that living in Atlantis on his own.
The only strange bit was having specific quarters assigned to him; since he'd spent so much time exploring the city on his own when he'd arrived, he'd developed a tendency to just crash in the first room he found when he got tired, and now he had his own specific place?
He'd kept the various possessions he'd picked up from his old room in case he felt the urge to decorate later, but as it was he just didn't feel a real drive to do much; he had the box they'd been transported in waiting in a corner for when he was ready, he had a wardrobe for his clothes, he had a few books he was browsing through to catch up on what he'd missed out during his time away from Earth…
A knock on his door cut his thoughts short, but when he let out a brief acknowledgement, he soon sat up when the person on the other side walked in with her usual warm smile.
"Hi," Elizabeth said, studying the surroundings with a slightly sad smile. "Still working on decorating, I see?"
"I got used to moving around a lot when I slept here on my own," John clarified as he looked back at her; he appreciated her concern, but he felt obligated to assure her that all was well. "Giving myself time to get comfortable before I do anything like that; you know how it is."
"Of course," Elizabeth smiled at him in understanding before she looked more curiously at him. "I read your report about your last mission, and… well, you didn't approve of what they did, do you?"
If anyone else had asked him that question, John wouldn't have answered it, but when he had spent so long keeping so many secrets from Elizabeth- and was still keeping at least one from her- he tried to make up for it being honest now.
"No," he said, looking grimly at her. "I get why they did it, but I don't agree with the method; they may have picked their best and brightest to survive for the future, but they still basically allowed their entire civilisation to blow themselves up so that the Wraith wouldn't realise some of them got out before the bombs fell."
"Jamus said that they used their nuclear bombs on the Wraith ships-"
"And he also stated that only a small percentage of the population knew about the evacuation plan," John interjected. "I can admire the whole 'needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few' philosophy, but not only is this the other way around, but the many didn't even have a choice in the matter. Desperation can only excuse so many atrocities before it won't cut it any more; I've made choices to save some people and leave others behind, but that's not the same as making the decision to kill most of your population so that some of them can survive."
Elizabeth said nothing as she walked over to sit beside John on his bed, before reaching up to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"For what it's worth," she said, smiling slightly at him, "I agree with you that what they did was terrible, but… well, considering everything they accomplished with relatively limited resources, they could be useful allies in future, and we can't judge all of them for the decisions that their leaders made in the past."
"Hey, believe me, I've no intention of tarring the whole population with the same brush; I'm just saying why I don't agree with what they did to their planet," John explained.
"Good," Elizabeth said. "Major Lorne's dropping off some additional supplies; I thought it best that you get some rest after all that."
"Thanks," John said, nodding gratefully at her.
Whatever else had happened on that planet, McKay was right about one thing; their actions had saved an entire civilisation.
John just wished they'd been able to save the people from themselves…
Walking through the village where their mysterious 'hero' was apparently located, John allowed himself a few moments of idle speculation as he wondered how a world like this could have produced the hero they were apparently here to meet. It wasn't that the place didn't seem like a pleasant enough environment- even if the clothes reminded him of the Genii's usual 'disguise' before they revealed their true natures to anyone- but it just didn't seem like the kind of place that could create someone like the stories they'd heard about…
Still, after the rest of his team had spent so much time talking about their own personal heroes, ranging from McKay's admiration of Batman to Ronon's admiration of his original unit commander, John was relieved when one of the villagers came up to talk to them before anyone tried to ask him for details; he wasn't sure how he could answer that question honestly without revealing a couple of secrets he wasn't willing to share…
"Good day, travellers," one of the villagers said, smiling warmly at them after they had walked through some rather appealing gardens around the buildings.
"Good day to you," Teyla replied.
"This is your first visit to our village?"
"Several of my people have said that you are good and fair traders," Teyla said.
"We are," the man replied with a warm smile.
"My fellow Athosians also speak of a great hero who protects this town."
"Rumour has it he's a warrior with some impressive kills to his credit, including the Wraith," Ronon added.
"That is true," the man smiled.
"Then, uh, there's a good chance he's one of my people," Ronon added with a grin, prompting John to look at him in frustration.
"Can you take us to him?" Teyla asked, deciding to avoid that particular question.
"Of course; this way," the man said, indicating another small street. As the team followed him to the town square, John wondered what they were about to find, but when he heard the sound of someone laughing in a familiar manner, he started to harbour his doubts about this 'hero'…
"Here he is," the man said. "Our champion protector, Lucius Lavin."
The second he saw that overweight prick sitting on the edge of the table in one corner of the square, John had to remind himself that attacking the man, while satisfying to him, wouldn't do anything to endear them to the local villagers.
"Well!" Lucius said as he grinned at the four of them before his gaze focused on John. "Would you look who it is… and you are?"
"You've got to be kidding me!" Ronon said in exasperation.
"Colonel John Sheppard," John said, as Lucius looked inquiringly at him; his title might be a provisional rank at best, but he'd been given special dispensation to use it when dealing with alien worlds.
He might have to tolerate this git's presence if he was going to learn what was really going on here, but he was going to need to really concentrate to make sure that he didn't give into temptation and stab this bastard on principle…
Listening to Lucius telling his stories to the enthralled townspeople, John wondered how this bastard managed to get people to be so interested in his mountain of crap. His current story about escaping a burning building with various women and children while fending off an Iratus bug attack in the process was so outrageous it reminded John of a bad action movie, but it was mainly an opportunity to keep the man occupied while Doctor Beckett took a quick blood sample to test.
Quite frankly, John wished that they could have just resorted to the simpler option of knocking the berk out; the man's ego had apparently quickly recovered from the humiliation of the Phantom trapping him in Atlantis's cell during their last meeting, and he was as chipper as ever. Even when John pointed out a hole in his story of leading people out through a blocked entrance, Lucius simply backtracked and claimed that he had 'bravely' cleared a path through the fire while passing over how he achieved it.
If it wasn't for the fact that it wouldn't get him anything but a moment's satisfaction, John would have revealed his identity as the Phantom just to make the prick shut up…
"So," John said, as Lucius waved the villagers away with talk about the story of how he was 'almost seduced by an Ancient', "you have some very… familiar stories…"
"I admit, I took some… inspiration from some of the mission reports I perused while I was on Atlantis," Lucius said, shrugging awkwardly before he looked more curiously at John. "And I never met you while I was there…"
"Colonel Sumner decided to return to Earth a couple of months ago; I was… appointed as his replacement," John said briefly; he wasn't about to tell this man anything about his past as the Phantom even if their last encounter hadn't been particularly tense. "That said, I did read the reports about what they've dealt with before I joined them, including the one about that herb you used last time…"
"Oh, you're not gonna find any of that in my system," Lucius said with a reassuring grin. "I learned my lesson about that while I was on your city."
"So these people simply… adore you for who you are?" Teyla asked cynically.
"Exactly!" Lucius grinned. "Ain't it great?"
"I doubt it," John said, glaring sceptically at the former baker. "Your reputation doesn't exactly do you credit…"
"You worry too much," Lucius smiled. "In all modesty, these people love me, pure and true."
"Lucius, after everything I've read about you, I'd want to double-check if you told me that rain was wet," John informed the baker bluntly.
"I saved them!" Lucius protested. "I drove away this bunch of ruffians a couple of months ago, and ever since, I've been the town hero; they give me gifts, the women are throwing themselves at me… it's like the old days, except better, because now they're not drugged."
"Hang on, hang on; you beat them up?" McKay interjected sceptically.
"Yes!" Lucius said firmly. "Me! I did!"
"How'd you manage that?" Ronon asked.
"It's not so hard… when you're invincible," Lucius grinned.
"Really," John said, slipping one hand under his flak jacket as a possible explanation came to him. "Let me test that…"
Before anyone could ask what he was doing, John reached over and slapped Lucius on the back of the head, grinning as Lucius yelped in pain before looking at him in shock.
"What?" Lucius asked, staring at him in shock. "How- I've-"
"You're using one of these, right?" John said, opening his jacket just enough to reveal the Ancient shield device he always carried with him when he was going off-world; he might not wear it full-time to ensure that he could keep it charged up for when it really mattered, but whether he was acting as John Sheppard or the Phantom, something like this could always be useful. "Unfortunately for you, so am I, and as anyone with any sense or experience knows, when two of these shields come into close proximity, so long as they're still on factory settings, they basically recognise the other shield as 'self' and allow it to pass through their barrier."
"Huh," Ronon said, looking at Lucius with a thoughtful smile. "Well, at least that explains the 'hero' bit."
"How did you even turn that thing on?" McKay asked sceptically. "The last time I checked, you didn't have the Ancient gene, and Jo- the Phantom left you stuck in that cell before we could give you the gene therapy…"
"Well, I found it as one of various gifts I'd received in the past, and was able to find someone else with the gene to get them to turn it on for me…" Lucius explained, shrugging with a casual smile. "What can I say? I perused a lot of mission reports while I was visiting."
"Right," John said, looking sceptically at Lucius for a moment before he sighed and turned around, leaving the rest of his team to hurry after him as promptly as they could despite the unexpectedness of the decision.
"Are you sure this is-?" Teyla began.
"The man's clearly just playing on the tech rather than the drug to get people to like him this time around; we've got bigger things to worry about than some moron who thinks he's got a good scam going," John said firmly, taking a brief glance around to make sure that they were alone before he continued speaking. "Besides, after what that git did to you all last time we saw him, if I didn't leave now, I'd rip his balls off and make him eat them."
"Ah," McKay said, his face paling slightly as he looked at John. "Thank you for that… vivid mental image."
"You would do that to him for being annoying?" Teyla asked critically.
"I would do that to him for turning… some of the strongest people I know into pathetic sycophants hanging on his every word because he couldn't accept that he was just a pathetic git," John clarified, only just remembering to control his response; he might have an official position now, but that just made his position more precarious in some ways, particularly when it came to Elizabeth. "The fact that he's annoying while he's doing it just makes it easier; the man has nothing more to offer than his ability to be a git."
"And the fact that he has an Ancient shield device-" McKay began.
"Means nothing because I doubt he's kept everything he got as a gift on the last world if he's had to leave his old one, he's almost certainly used up most of its power by now if at least half the stories we've heard are anything to go by, and if you really want to study one I've got a couple in storage that I'd be willing to let you have a look at if you asked," John said, shaking his head as he glanced over at McKay. "Like I said, let's just get out of here before he pushes me further."
"Quite…" Teyla said, looking at John with a slightly apprehensive glance before she shrugged uncertainly. "At least we can confirm that he is not brainwashing anyone this time."
John decided to leave that whole topic alone; Lucius might not be actually using mind-altering substances now, but lying to people wasn't that much of an improvement, however he looked at it…
They were only a comparatively short distance from the town when the sound of yells and gunfire were heard from the village; even at this distance, the sound of weapons being fired was fairly distinctive. Taking a quick glance at his team, John had soon turned around and was leading them back to the village, weapons drawn in case of any trouble. A few additional gunshots were heard as they hurried towards the town, but when John noticed some people running away from the town, dressed as though they were stereotypical bad guys in an old Western, he quickly changed his mind.
"OK," he said, holding out a hand to halt his team as he indicated the departing men. "McKay, Teyla, get into the village and see what you can find out regarding what just happened; Dex, follow me and see if we can find out where those guys are going."
Nodding in agreement at the division of labour, the team quickly split into their assigned responsibilities, Teyla and McKay heading into the village while the two soldiers turned their attention to the escaping men.
John didn't know what was going on here, but something about those guys rang a bell…
After returning to the village, John had to wonder if dealing with the villagers' hostility for trying to 'expose' Lucius wouldn't have been worth the risk. When he got down to it, his speculation about what the mercenaries might do if provoked was really nothing more than guesswork, and if these people were stupid enough to believe everything Lucius had to say to them, they almost deserved to get shot…
He knew that he wasn't going to do anything like that, but he was allowed to 'fantasise' about what he might do to this prick after everything he'd done during his last visit to Atlantis. McKay and Teyla hadn't been entirely happy about the plan either, but Teyla was at least willing to acknowledge that the village had to be protected regardless of their feelings towards Lucius, even if McKay was annoyed that they were going to this much effort for the former baker after what he'd done to them.
When he heard the sound of men charging into the village, he was almost grateful for this further evidence that his theory had been correct; at least he wouldn't have to put up with any more of Lucius's stories (Which were starting to become both repetitive and formulaic; the man always seemed to 'forget' something that they had to ask him about).
"What-?" Lucius began, halting his current story as he looked sharply over at one window as the sound of gunfire filled the streets outside.
"Wait a minute…" McKay said, looking at John with a new sense of apprehension as someone started yelling from the street, the villagers in the room heading out amid Lucius's platitudes that he'd be with them soon. "Am I getting paranoid, or was that-?"
"Don't," John said, his eyes narrowing as he heard the same voice that McKay was about to name.
He'd forgiven the Wraith that this bastard had used against him for his crimes, but the thought that he was on the same planet as Kolya again was not inspiring thoughts of forgiveness.
Right now, John wasn't sure if he wanted to gut Kolya for nearly killing Elizabeth during that long-ago siege of Atlantis or for what he'd done to him during their last meeting, but either way, the bastard was going down…
"No," a voice suddenly interjected; John only realised when he looked down that Teyla had grabbed him by the wrist and was looking at him in a very firm manner.
"'No'?" John repeated, looking at the Athosian woman incredulously. "Do you know what that bastard-?"
"I am fully aware of what he has done to us in the past, just as I am aware that we are not… prepared to make a stand at this time," Teyla said, looking pointedly at John despite the glance at Lucius showing that she was remembering to keep his identity secret. "If you attempt to go out and confront the Genii, we are all aware that Kolya and his men are prepared and willing to burn down this town out of spite if we deprive them of a direct fight, and we are not equipped for the kind of confrontation you are used to."
"She's right," McKay said, shooting an anxious glance at Lucius for a moment before he focused on John. "I mean, you did great in Atlantis, but we just don't have the home-field advantage here; you don't know where to go like you would there…"
As much as John hated to admit that he couldn't do anything, he had to admit that his team had a point; there were too many innocent people at risk here for them to just go in and start shooting at the enemy, and he didn't have the home field advantage like he had the last time he'd fought them during the invasion…
Glancing over at Lucius, John was only partly surprised to see the other man walking towards the door; Lucius might be an idiot and a coward, but he did have an ego that wouldn't have been helped by that force-field.
"And where are you going?" he asked, walking over to slam an arm over the door before Lucius could walk through it.
"To deal with the attackers, of course," Lucius grinned. "After all, I'm the hero-"
"You're the idiot," John said firmly. "You think that just because you read a few files you know anything about the Genii?"
"I read everything in the files-" Lucius began.
"Firstly, you couldn't have read all of them, and secondly, if you go out there and they can't hurt you, they'll burn down the town around you out of spite," McKay said firmly.
"They're petty like that," John confirmed before Lucius could say anything himself. "If we go out there without a plan, people are going to get hurt."
"Killing all of them isn't a plan?" Ronon asked.
"We will not endanger these townspeople by engaging in a fight in unfamiliar territory," Teyla said firmly. "If we can hide away until they have completed their search and failed to find us, then they will simply move on."
"Call it… strategic concealment?" McKay suggested awkwardly, as John turned to look at him. "I mean, I get that you don't like that plan-"
"I spent two years hiding in what should be my home because I had to," John said, staring at McKay for a moment before he sighed. "But… so long as it's only a short-term option… I can work with that."
"Well, if you need to hide, I do have just the place," Lucius said, walking over to a nearby grandfather clock and adjusting the hands to reveal a secret room behind a hidden door just to the side. "See, I like to entertain-"
"Don't," John said, not wanting to think about what Lucius might have used this room for as he walked into it, the rest of his team behind him before he turned back to Lucius. "Just go out there, tell them we've moved on, and agree to anything if it gets them to leave without hurting anyone; this is not a good time to be a hero, understood?"
"Of course," Lucius smiled, before he closed the door behind them, leaving John to sigh as he glanced over at the others.
"He's going to do something stupid," he said firmly.
"What makes you so sure?" Ronon asked. "He's dumb and arrogant, but he's also a coward-"
"Who hasn't encountered a problem that shield couldn't solve for him since he started using it," John noted, shrugging off his flak jacket to remove a small pouch he'd hidden underneath. "In other words, unless the guy's more competent than we think, he's going to do something arrogant and stupid that will put himself and possibly everyone else in this village in danger, so I believe we're going to need this."
With that said, he unfolded the pouch to reveal that it was the cloak he commonly wore as the Phantom, along with his own Ancient shield device and a flattened piece of metal.
"What's-?" McKay began, before John placed a couple of fingers on the metallic object and it suddenly sprang upwards into the shape of the Phantom's mask. "You made a collapsible version of that thing?"
"I realise that we want to establish distinct situations where John Sheppard or the Phantom are needed, but I also realised that it was always possible that one might turn into the other, so I thought it best to be prepared," John explained, as he reached up and tore off the strips of make-up concealing his injuries; he'd worry about reapplying them later. "Considering the numbers we're up against and Kolya's history with me in the mask, I think we can all agree that this is one of those times; this is just metal, since I couldn't incorporate all my additional extras and still make it easily portable, but it should be enough for our current purposes."
"I thought we agreed that going out to confront him directly is a bad decision?" Teyla said in a very pointed manner.
"It's a bad idea for us to go out there," John corrected her, as he rolled down his BDU sleeves. "Your argument about the tactical situation not favouring a standard ground confrontation is accurate, but that's only if we go out as we are and give the Genii new enemies to kill; if the Phantom goes out on his own, Kolya's own pride will demand that he faces me directly after I stopped his attempt to take Atlantis."
"Sounds like a plan," Ronon confirmed, nodding at John in approval as he shrugged on the cloak and checked his clothing; so long as he kept moving and removed the mission patches, nobody should be able to look closely enough to see that he wasn't quite wearing his usual outfit, and he still had his gun in a holster anyway. "What about us?"
"Stay hidden and help me keep things contained," John clarified grimly as he placed the mask on. "These people might not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but they don't deserve to suffer for Lucius's mistakes."
"We are meant to be a team-" Teyla began.
"And we still are," John said, nodding warmly at her as he made sure that his cloak and mask were secure. "Just trust that I know what I'm doing right now…"
As he crawled along the village rooftops, John wasn't sure what was more surreal; doing something like this after almost three years of sneaking around Atlantis, or doing this kind of thing in daylight as opposed to his usual preference for the darkness. His costume was a bit more basic than his usual attire, and he felt somewhat limited without his usual sword, but he had his gun and his training; with the aid of the rest of the team, that would have to be enough.
Besides, as much as he'd enjoyed his training back on Earth, it was good to remind himself that he hadn't lost his touch for fighting solo as well…
Reaching the area where he could hear the Genii soldiers talking, John wasn't surprised to see that Lucius's hair was wet as though he had been dunked in the nearby bucket of water; he knew from experience that the shield couldn't retain its own air supply, even if it would prevent toxic gases getting at the wearer. With Kolya facing Lucius while one of the mercenaries John and Ronon had spotted earlier stood beside him, it wasn't hard for John to work out what must have gone down.
"…already guarding the gate," Kolya was saying as he glared at Lucius. "I'll ask you once more; where are they?"
"I don't know," Lucius protested. "I don't!"
John hated to admit it, but on some level, he had to give Lucius credit for not selling them out straight away. The man was probably smart enough to realise that he was screwed either way, but he could have spared himself the torture if he'd just talked…
"KOLYA!" he called down to the Genii leader, standing up to his full height as Kolya and his men spun to look at him.
"You," Kolya spat, eyes narrowing as he glared at John.
"Me," John replied, smirking as he looked at the man who was rapidly becoming the Phantom's first real human adversary. "I understand you're looking for the Atlantis expedition?"
"I'll take what I can get," Kolya growled, before he raised his gun and aimed it at John. "Fire!"
As the Genii opened fire on John, he couldn't help but smile as his Ancient shield device casually absorbed and deflected all of the bullets being unleashed against it, each blast dissipating against the shield until his opponents had run out of ammunition.
"My turn," John replied, drawing his energy pistol and firing a quick series of blasts at the nearest Genii before he turned and ran along the rooftops, smiling as Kolya yelled for the men to follow him. At that distance, with Genii so close together, his gun didn't have the power to effective stun every one of his adversaries before they could draw another weapon, but by provoking them into going after him, he had a chance to turn this situation against them. Pausing as he ran only long enough to fire off another shot or two at his pursuers to keep them enraged, he kept on leaping from rooftop to rooftop until he finally came to the town's central square, leaping into the air and hitting the ground with a role that worked with the shield to help limit any damage he might have sustained in the impact.
As soon as he was back on the ground, John turned around to completely face Kolya and his men as they charged into the square. While Kolya and a few of his men were leading the charge, John noted that a few of the soldiers were clearly lagging behind the rest; Kolya might have talked about how he 'had' to be a fake Phantom if he was working with the expedition over natives of this galaxy, but clearly he hadn't been able to sell everyone on that idea.
"All this for me?" John asked, deciding to go with straightforward confidence and hope for the best; he was used to being in control of a situation, and he'd certainly dealt with these kind of numbers in the past, but unlike then he now had to worry about other people and didn't have the advantage of darkness.
"You deserve every moment of the pain that we shall inflict upon you for your sins," Kolya practically spat as he glared at the man in the mask. "You proclaim yourself to be our hero while acting against us-"
"If you think the Phantom is 'yours', Commander, you're even more demented than I believed you were," John said, staring grimly at his first true human adversary. "In all my life in this role, I have never claimed to be anything other than what I am; I defend the Pegasus Galaxy from those who would threaten it… and your efforts to take the power of Atlantis for your own ends will benefit nobody but the Genii. The expedition might not be from this galaxy, but I have more faith in their ability to use its technology than I have in yours; the fact that you don't agree with my view doesn't make me wrong."
"You-!" Kolya began, reaching to his side to draw his pistol, only for John to draw his energy weapon and shoot before the Genii leader could do more than touch the weapon. The blast not only shattered Kolya's gun, but also virtually disintegrated his hand, leaving him flying on the ground screaming in pain as he clutched at his cauterised stump.
"Ask yourselves this," John said, turning his attention to the Genii soldiers assembled around him as they took a moment to stare at their leader in shock. "Do you really think that you can draw your weapons before I do the same thing to any of you? And can you be sure which one of you I'll target if I do decide to shoot?"
"And can you be sure what we'll do?" a voice called out from the roof behind John. Under other circumstances, John would have cursed McKay's attempts to sound macho, particularly when he had such an obvious tremor in his voice, but under the current circumstances he'd take what he could get if there was any chance to limit the amount of people he'd have to kill to end this.
"Exactly," the masked man said, deciding to follow up on McKay's unrequested addition to the conversation. "You've lost the upper hand, your leader's incapacitated and has literally lost his hand, and if you start a fight, we have the high ground and at least some of you won't live past the next few minutes; if you all surrender, we'll put in a good word for you back with the Genii."
After a few moments, the stand-off concluded when one of the Genii dropped his weapons, with the rest of the team following his example.
"Good call," John said, nodding at them in approval before he walked over to crouch down beside the crippled Genii leader. "I suppose it's too much to hope that this has taught you a lesson or two about trying to tangle with me?"
"I will… find you…" Kolya spat, eyes narrowed as he glared at John despite the pain he must have been feeling from where his hand used to be.
"I'm sure you will," John replied, nodding briefly at his foe's stubbornness before his eyes narrowed. "But just remember; I only spared your life this time because I'm trying to be better than you. Keep pushing me, and the next time we fight, I may target something more vital to keeping you alive than a limb."
Maybe he'd regret not just killing this guy when he had a chance later on, but considering that Kolya was going straight back to the Genii after Atlantis had made the necessary arrangements, he felt that this was the best way to show their still-tentative new allies that they were trying to respect the Genii's right to deal with prisoners in their own way.
As for Lucius…
John smiled at the thought as the rest of the Atlantis team gathered around the disarmed Genii and prepared to lead them to whatever location the village had to offer that might serve as a jail for the next couple of days.
Considering that the guy hadn't just given in and given them up the second Kolya started torturing him, John was going to give Lucius some time to make an impression on the locals without relying on his shield device or similar systems before he tried to make the guy leave.
On the other hand, if he had any reason to believe that the guy was abusing his role as the hero again, he was going to come down on the bastard like a ton of bricks; just because he was trying to be less 'lethal' now that he was an official member of the expedition didn't mean that he had to give everyone a chance.
With that decision made, John turned around and headed back for Lucius's house; if he could change back before any of the villagers had the chance to see his face, he should be able to stop anyone else from learning that the Phantom had been here in the first place. After that, all that was left for him to do was give Lucius one last stern warning before he moved on to get these Genii prisoners back to their people, and this mission should be another success.
AN: So, what do you think of this particular twist regarding Kolya?
Trust me on this; John's decision here is going to have very interesting long-term consequences…
An hour or so later, having 'cancelled' her original plan with Teyla, Elizabeth had changed into a slightly more casual top and gone down to the mess hall, uninterrupted apart from a brief conversation with Carson Beckett about his own planned day off for a fishing trip, all the while hoping that she wouldn't run into John at an awkward moment; this situation felt strange enough without her being faced with the reason it felt strange.
Branton had been right that this didn't have to be a date, and it wasn't as though she could ever have an actual relationship with John… but that didn't mean that she felt entirely 'right' about this. As much as she knew a relationship with John beyond friendship was an impossibility, it was still hard to completely ignore the desire for something more regardless of how impractical it was…
Shaking that thought off as she settled down for lunch, she had to admit that she enjoyed the casual conversation; after so long focusing on matters of business and the complications faced in running this city, it was actually a relief to have a chance to discuss more personal matters. The conversation about their favourite films had been slightly unusual- she'd never seriously thought about When Harry Met Sally as a 'remake' of anything, and she just felt that Annie Hall took excessive pleasure in making things complicated- but even if she disagreed with the idea that men and women couldn't just be friends, she wasn't going to turn down a chance to have a good meal somewhere more appealing than the mess-hall.
She was almost disappointed that she'd never thought about some of the city's exterior areas as a location for a picnic; she supposed she'd grown so used to thinking of the outside as just somewhere for her to talk with John that she found it 'odd' to think about using it for more conventional purposes.
"It really is beautiful here, isn't it?" Elizabeth said, staring out at the open ocean.
"Yeah," Branton said, as Elizabeth took a last sip of her bottled water. "All done?"
"All done," Elizabeth confirmed with a brief glance at her bottle.
"I guess lunch is over," Branton said.
"I guess it is," Elizabeth said, as she put the bottle down.
"Should have brought dessert," Branton mused. "Would've lasted longer."
"I really should get back anyway," Elizabeth said, lost for a better way to get out of this suddenly awkward moment
"What are you doing tomorrow?" Branton asked.
"Mike…" Elizabeth began.
"Look," Branton said, leaning in to talk to her in a lower voice, "I like you, and I'm extremely charming; I'd like to see you spin those into negatives."
The problem was that the only negative Elizabeth could immediately come up with was a very simple one that she couldn't express; no matter how charming he was, Mike Branton would never be John Sheppard.
"Mike," she said, looking firmly at him to limit the possibility of him misunderstanding what she was about to say, "this has been an… interesting time, but-"
"Oh, don't say 'but'; I hate 'buts'," Branton said, rolling his eyes in frustration.
"This might be cliché, but it's not you; it's me," Elizabeth said, deciding that she might as well be reasonably honest with him even if she couldn't share everything. "It's just… to be completely blunt, I'm still dealing with how I feel about someone else, and it wouldn't be worth your time to get caught up in my mess."
"And what if I think your 'mess' would be worth it?" Branton asked. "Life needs a little interrupting every now and then-"
"You can't just 'interrupt' how I feel and expect things to work out," Elizabeth countered, shaking her head in frustration. "I shouldn't have done this; I thought-"
The sound of her radio gave her a welcome opportunity to withdraw from this conversation before it could get any more personal; whatever anyone else had to tell her, it couldn't be more uncomfortable than this meal had just become.
Hurrying up to the main tower, John had no idea what he expected to find or what he'd actually do when he got there, but in a strange way, it had to be easier than whatever was waiting for him back in the training room.
He'd hoped that he could reassuring Ronon Dex's remaining concerns about his appearance by training with him, but no matter how much control he demonstrated, it seemed as though Ronon was still waiting for him to slip up and demonstrate the trademark Wraithspawn psychopathic 'urges'. He could take a degree of comfort in the fact that Ronon had felt comfortable enough to tell him that he'd been married back on Sateda, but that still left a long way for him to go before the other man felt comfortable treating him as anything other than a colleague.
He appreciated that his face would never make it easy for him to make friends with Pegasus natives when their default response to seeing something like him was to run away before it tore them to bits, but Ronon and Teyla had known him as the Phantom; couldn't they just accept that he wouldn't snap just because they could see what was under the mask now?
As he arrived at the site of the explosion, John tried not to wince at the scale of the damage before him; even after everything he'd done as the Phantom, it still hurt to see Atlantis sustain this kind of damage. He briefly registered Beckett and his team taking Teyla away with a large piece of shrapnel sticking out of her side, but as much as he tried to consider the Athosian a friend, he only had one priority right now…
"What the Hell happened here?" he said, looking urgently at Doctor Radek Zelenka as the Czech scientist removed a breathing mask from his face while studying a warped wall that must have been at least close to the source of the explosion.
"There was an explosion," Zelenka said grimly.
"That's obvious; the question is how?" John asked urgently. "Atlantis doesn't just blow up after thousands of years!"
"I'm still working on that," Zelenka explained. "I wasn't allowed on the scene until the emergency crews cleared the floor; what took you so long?"
"Transporters are down and there were a lot of stairs to climb," John said, indicating his own more casual attire in the process; he still wore the mask for comfort's sake, and kept a couple of small items in his pockets in case of emergencies, but now that he didn't need to hide all the time he'd stopped carrying some of his equipment around Atlantis, simply wearing the usual black BDUs of the rest of the Earth expedition. "Do we have anything on what caused the blast… and what are the casualty figures?"
"Three dead and a dozen wounded," Zelenka explained. "McKay called earlier to say that he thought he'd found something in his lab, but he wouldn't share the specifics. The good news is, though, the structure is intact, so there's no danger of the tower falling down. There is, however, something very odd."
"Specifically?" John asked.
"According to our eyewitness reports, this was caused when Doctor Hewston just… blew up."
His blood ran cold at the thought.
He'd read a few notes about some of the Ancients' more questionable projects, but he'd really hoped that they'd destroyed that thing after the disastrous results of the original experiment…
"No trace of explosive residue, right?"
"Well… no, actually," Zelenka said, looking at John in surprise. "Do you-?"
"I have an idea," John confirmed grimly. "Looks like Hewston stumbled across something I really thought the Ancients would have destroyed earlier…"
He trailed off as a horrible thought occurred to him; he didn't know how long that device took to create the tumours, but he was fairly sure that Atlantis protocols wouldn't allow scientists to go around examining unexplored laboratories on their own…
"Explosive tumours?" Elizabeth repeated, wondering if she'd jinxed herself when she'd wished for something to distract her from the awkwardness of lunch as she looked at John, who'd clearly gone all-out to reach her office after his initial investigation of the explosion.
"From what I found in the city's archives, it was one of the Ancients' less successful anti-Wraith weapons," John explained grimly. "It basically operates by generating a unique form of irradiated particles that have been genetically programmed to enter the humanoid system and gather behind the lungs, collecting various trace elements from the body to create an explosive compound that manifests as a tumour and explodes."
"But they never used it?" Elizabeth asked uncertainly.
"Couldn't work out how to make the irradiated particles only form in the Wraith," John confirmed. "I thought they'd at least destroyed the prototype after the initial experiments, but they must have moved it to one of the outer labs I never got around to investigating…"
"You can't blame yourself, John," Elizabeth said, looking at him with that same casual smile that somehow always made John feel better. "You had a whole city to yourself and a lot of things to deal with; nobody expects you to have catalogued everything in it."
For a moment, as John exchanged a grateful smile with Elizabeth, he could almost imagine that everything was normal…
"Elizabeth, are you there?" McKay's voice suddenly said over the radio.
"Rodney," Elizabeth sighed as she activated her own radio in response, "if this is about the explosion, John already told me about the possible source-"
"He knew about the tumours?"
"You know about the tumours?" John interjected, grabbing the radio from Elizabeth.
"You're there?" McKay asked in surprise.
"I was just telling Elizabeth what I'd found in the archives; do you know if anyone was with Doctor Hewston when she might have been exposed to the device?" John asked urgently.
"I was… just about to ask Elizabeth to start organising a search for Doctor Watson, actually," McKay admitted, tone clearly uncomfortable at the developing situation. "He was with Doctor Hewston when they found some kind of machine that generated irradiated particles last night, but it didn't seem that serious at the time…"
"Damnit…" John groaned, shaking his head in exasperation.
"Let me try this," McKay said, with a moment's pause being followed by another call. "Doctor Watson, Doctor James Watson; report your whereabouts immediately."
"Citywide broadcast?" John said, looking at Elizabeth in surprise.
"The advantage of being in an official position," Elizabeth smiled at him. "You can delegate that kind of authority-"
"He's in the infirmary!" McKay yelled anxiously over the radio, interrupting their conversation. "I'm trying to call Carson-"
"On it!" John confirmed, charging out of the office and heading for the infirmary as fast as he could. "Get an ordinance disposal team down there; I'll see what I can do!"
Watching John run from the office, Elizabeth privately cursed this fresh reminder of what had attracted her interest in John in the first place; he always dived into action if it would give him a chance to save others, regardless of the risk to himself.
Unfortunately, that was the main reason she knew it wasn't worth pursuing a relationship; could he ever show that kind of… commitment to a single person?
Even as he ran from Elizabeth's office, John acknowledged that he didn't really know how long he had until the second tumour exploded, but at least he knew where he had to be if he was going to do anything; he might not have his old array of gadgets, but he could at least move fairly quickly when he didn't have to worry about being caught.
After a few moments of rapid running through the corridors, he finally reached the infirmary level just in time to see various infirmary staff hurrying out of the room in question.
"What's going on?" he asked, grabbing the arm of a nurse he recognised as one of Carson's most regular assistant nurses.
"Doctor Beckett ordered us out of the infirmary while he's trying to extract that… explosive tumour thing!" the nurse said, looking anxiously at John. "Can you-?"
"I'll do what I can," John nodded, hurrying up to the locked infirmary, waving a hand over the control panel, only to find no response.
"Damnit…" he groaned, slumping against the door. He might have installed various security codes in the city to help him access most locations in an emergency, but as part of his new official role in Atlantis, he'd been forced to give certain members of the senior staff the ability to override those codes in cases where they had a more specialised view of the situation.
He wanted to respect his new colleagues' rights, but this kind of thing was a clear example of why he'd preferred acting on his own…
"This is Doctor Beckett," Doctor Beckett's voice said over the radio. "I've extracted the tumour, and I'm opening up the O.R. level."
"Great," John said, smiling in relief as he heard one of the side doors open in the infirmary through the main door. "Just hold on, and the disposal team should be there soon."
"OK…" Doctor Beckett said, before sounding frustrated at the other end of the radio connection. "Damnit; I'll meet them halfway."
"Hold on!" John began, heading for the main door once again, relieved when it opened after the initial lockdown.
"What-?" Doctor Beckett said, turning to look at him in surprise. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd understand-"
"I get that I can't do anything right now; I just thought I'd make sure that you had a good chance of getting out yourself," John said, reaching into his pocket and tossing his shield device to the doctor. "It's been configured for your use; wear it."
"Wear it?" Carson repeated, looking at it in surprise. "But-"
"Even if you can get this tumour to the disposal team in time, there's no way to be sure how explosive this thing is going to be," John said grimly. "I can't stop it exploding, and I think I know you well enough to know that you're not going to abandon this if you have a chance to save someone, but I can make sure that you've got enough of a chance of surviving that blast."
"…Thanks," Beckett said, clipping the device to his chest before he turned back to the small box he'd been carrying earlier. "You'd better move; I have to focus right now."
"Right," John nodded, moving back towards the door. "Good luck."
"Always appreciated," Beckett said as he picked up a scalpel just as John left the room.
"You're leaving him?" McKay said incredulously over John's earpiece. "If that thing goes off-"
"I can't contribute anything to getting that tumour to safety, and I think we all know Doctor Beckett well enough to know that he's not going to leave a patient if there's still a chance to save him, and Elizabeth and I don't have the authority to countermand his orders in a medical situation," John explained solemnly. "I've done what I can to help him."
"How?" McKay protested. "We don't know how long that thing has until it explodes; Hewston was contaminated at the same time and she exploded before him-!"
"We have to have faith," John said firmly. "There's nothing else we can do about it right now."
There was nothing that anyone could say to that statement, so John simply stood outside the infirmary in silence, waiting for a few moments for any sign of the disposal team or Doctor Beckett finishing the operation. This might be a risk, but as he'd said earlier, he had to have some faith that the rest of the expedition knew what they were doing, or he wasn't going to get anywhere continuing some variation of his 'lone wolf' crusade which had only managed to take him so far before the expedition arrived to help him…
"We just made the hand-off-" Doctor Beckett's voice said over the radio, before a loud explosion filled the transmission, followed by a sudden silence.
"Doctor Beckett!" Elizabeth's voice yelled over the radio.
"Carson!" McKay called out anxiously. "Carson, are you there?"
"Fine…" the Scottish doctor replied, his voice sounding shaken but otherwise unhurt. "Took a few knocks… but the shield device… stopped the worst of it…"
"That's… good to know," John said, even as he already knew that the disposal ordinance team probably wouldn't have been so lucky.
He'd done his best to limit the death toll, but he wasn't a god; there were times when all you could do was save one life and hope for the best.
"All systems are online and functioning at full capacity," McKay said a couple of hours later, laptops connected up to the various consoles in the station's main control room. It hadn't taken long for them to identify the station's central control area- it might be limited compared to Atlantis's, but it was also the only place here with any kind of computer in abundance- but Elizabeth was still cautious about what they might discover in this area.
"You mean we're generating power already?" Elizabeth asked sharply.
"Well… no," McKay replied. "No, but we probably could if we wanted to."
"No, slow down," Elizabeth said, holding up a warning hand. "The Ancients abandoned this project for a reason; let's try to find out what that reason might be before we start drilling into the planet's crust."
"Yes, well, fair enough," McKay said.
"Quite," John noted, from his own position beside Elizabeth. "The last thing we want is some kind of real-world Inferno project."
"Inferno?" Elizabeth asked.
"I had a couple of cousins in Britain who were big fans of Doctor Who," John smiled slightly. "One of their favourites was this storyline where the Doctor witnessed this attempt to tap geothermal energy that released some kind of strange gas that mutated everyone it was exposed to into… well, some kind of wolf-man thing is the best I can come up with."
"You do get that was only a kid's show, right?" McKay asked.
"With some interesting ideas; no reason to ignore the possibility because of the source," John countered, before he turned back to study the controls. "As Elizabeth said, there has to be some reason the Ancients decided not to take this project any further…"
"Ronon Dex," Ronon's voice suddenly announced over the radio. "Everyone back to the Control Room; we might have a problem."
It might be a potentially dangerous turn of events, but John sincerely hoped that whatever Ronon had discovered would explain what had prompted the Ancients to abandon this station in the first place…
"We did a complete life signs scan; it's the first thing we did when we stepped aboard this station," McKay said, looking tetchily at the Athosian woman who had apparently just detected a Wraith presence in the area. "Look, I promise you, there is nobody here but us."
"I know, Rodney, but I am sensing it even closer now," Teyla said, moving her head around in that manner he'd come to recognise as her trying to 're-tune' her 'gift'.
"Well… maybe it's the pressure," McKay said dismissively. "It's been known to do things to the mind."
"Check again," John said firmly, in a tone that wouldn't allow McKay to disagree. Swallowing slightly in apprehension at the stare John shot in his direction, McKay nevertheless turned around and activated the life-signs scanner once again.
"There," he said, turning back to John once the scanner had been triggered to show only the twelve people currently in the central control room. "All life signs accounted for; are you happy now?"
"Wraith don't show up on life-signs detectors if they're hibernating," Elizabeth noted.
"I know what I am sensing," Teyla affirmed apprehensively.
"There is no Wraith here!" McKay protested. "I'm telling you-!"
"Nothing here…" John said, holding out one hand as a terrible thought came to him.
"What?" Elizabeth asked, looking back at him.
"We know that the Wraith and the Ancients fought their last battle on this planet, right?" John said, looking between the rest of the assembled team. "And we know that Wraith can live a long time… so isn't it possible that a Wraith ship crashed here and at least one of its crew managed to survive until we woke them up by passing by?"
"You mean… like on that planet on the outer reaches of this system?" McKay asked, looking at him with a new curiosity. "You know, I've been meaning to ask since you started working with us officially; did you kill that thing?"
"Stumbled across it when I was scoping out the solar system and was a lot more paranoid than I am now," John replied with a brief shrug. "That thing was hungry and tired when I went to that planet, and I'd kept my jumper's defences up; knocked him off-balance with a drone, cut his hands off before he could get over the disorientation and try to feed, and after that he was almost easy to take down."
"What are the odds of that being the case here?" Elizabeth asked, looking at John with a more commanding presence at the thought of a potential crisis.
"Depends on what survived the crash," John said. "The Wraith on that planet was just a standard warrior who lucked out on being woken up first and ate the rest of the crew to keep himself going, but anything that made it this close to Atlantis was more likely to be crewed by the elite…"
"In other words, if you're right, we'd be dealing with something more powerful and more dangerous than the standard Wraith no matter what survived the crash," McKay sighed. "Well, that's all we needed…"
"I can determine the truth easily enough," Teyla put in. "If I can reach out with my mind and establish a link…"
"Couldn't that be dangerous?" Elizabeth asked.
"If there is no Wraith, then there will be no mind for me to link with, and therefore no risk," Teyla explained rapidly. "But if there is a Wraith nearby…"
"We need to know," Elizabeth nodded in grim understanding, before she turned to look at John. "Is there somewhere we could go for Teyla to establish a link in private?"
"Should be a few crew quarters down here," John indicated a nearby corridor. "This place was only ever intended to be a drilling platform; they wouldn't have wanted to make it difficult for the crew to get back to work if something came up."
"Fair point," Elizabeth nodded, before joining Teyla, Ronon and John as they headed towards the indicated corridor. A few moments later, Teyla was sitting on a bench in the middle of the room, her legs crossed and her hands held out palm-up as she prepared for what she was about to attempt.
"You ready?" John asked, looking anxiously at the Athosian woman despite the mask that concealed most of his features.
"I only require brief contact to determine if I am right or not," Teyla said, looking at John with a brief smile, her usual uncertainty about him forgotten. "I will be fine."
"Remember, just link up long enough to determine what we're dealing with should be enough," John said.
"And we'll all be right here to bring you out of it if things go wrong," Elizabeth added.
As Teyla closed her eyes, John exchanged a brief glance with Ronon, the two displaying their weapons to each other to confirm that their energy pistols were already set to stun in case of a worst-case scenario. Their focus soon returned to Teyla as she took a deep breath and concentrated, her hands moving to her knees as she reached out with her mind…
"Teyla?" Elizabeth asked, looking anxiously at the other woman as she finally opened her eyes.
"I-I was mistaken," Teyla said, looking slightly bewildered. "There's nothing there."
"Good to know," John said, even as he noted that down as something to be concerned about; even if he didn't want to have to face any Wraith that had survived this long, he doubted that Teyla's powers were something that could be 'tricked' by pressure like she was currently claiming…
"Well," Elizabeth shrugged as she stood up, "if there's nothing for us to worry about, we have a lot of exploring to do."
"'We'?" John repeated.
"Until Rodney delivers the preliminary status report, I'm all yours," Elizabeth smiled. "Put me to work, Colonel."
"Although, let's make up some time," John said, taking a moment to think about his best decision right now before making his mind up; regardless of his concerns about Teyla's senses, if there was a Wraith out there, it couldn't do anything to them when they were inside the locked drilling station. "Ronon, you and Teyla search that way, Elizabeth joins me in checking out the other side; we rendezvous back here in an hour or if we find anything interesting."
As Elizabeth followed him out of the room and down another corridor, John was already trying to figure out what would be his best plan for the current arrangement. Obviously, he wasn't going to bring up her 'date' no matter how much the experience had hurt him- if she wanted to go out with someone else, he didn't have any real right to object or feel hurt by it- but on the other hand, he didn't have any real evidence for his concerns about what might have happened…
"Is something wrong/" Elizabeth asked, after a few moments of silence.
"Just… Teyla," John said, lost for anything better to say as he looked at Elizabeth; after everything he'd shared with her when he was 'officially' Atlantis's 'most wanted', it seemed ungrateful not to tell her at least some of the truth now. "I get what she said, but I just can't share the idea that her gift to sense the Wraith doesn't really work in a manner that could let it be 'tricked'…
"You think she was lying?"
"I think there might be something else going on here…" John said, shaking his head as he looked around the corridor they were walking through. "I just don't know what; even if a Wraith crashed, it couldn't have gained access to this place while the whole facility was on lockdown…"
Further conversation ended when the lights in the corridor suddenly went off, prompting John to pull out his Ancient shield device and clip it to his chest.
"What-?" Elizabeth began, before the device began to glow with a low light.
"One of the alternative functions I discovered for this thing; on a low level, it can just serve as a kind of flashlight without needing to create a full shield," John explained. "Takes up less power and it's a useful little extra."
"Nice," Elizabeth nodded in approval, before she turned to activate her radio. "Rodney, what's going on?"
"What do you mean, what's going on?" McKay replied.
"We just lost lights in our section," Elizabeth explained.
"What?" McKay replied, followed by a brief pause before he continued, most likely checking something at his end. "Huh, you're right…"
"Can you clarify how that happened?" John put in.
"No idea; we've just lost power to some forty percent of the station, including sensors," McKay explained. "Zelenka, what are you doing?"
"What do you mean, what am I doing?" the Czech scientist asked as he joined the conference message.
"Have you lost power where you are?"
"No; have you?"
"No," McKay replied.
"Well, we have, and I want to know what's going on," John said. "Ancient tech of this quality doesn't just shut down after centuries of dormancy; we need to work out what happened here."
"It's probably just a few operating glitches; I'll get the power back soon…" McKay said in frustration.
"Ronon, Teyla?" Elizabeth asked, turning her attention to a different channel. "Report your position."
The lack of response was enough for John to know that things were going increasingly wrong; the only question now was whether it was something he could stop before it got any worse…
"McKay," he said, turning his radio back to the Canadian scientist, "we've lost contact with Ronon and Teyla; you have their position?"
"No, internal sensors are out…" McKay said, pausing for a moment before he continued. "However, I have determined where the power went down; it's an auxiliary control area in search grid six, near where Teyla and Ronon were searching."
"Right," John said, taking a moment to consider his options before making his decision; whatever was up right now, Teyla and Ronon almost certainly needed help, and he'd have time to determine if any of his worst-case scenarios were actually happening before even the worst of them became an issue…
Staring at the Wraith Queen currently bound before her on the table of what seemed to be the station's equivalent of an infirmary, Elizabeth shuddered inwardly, both at the thought of what this 'woman' was capable of and what they had to do to prevent that. As much as she accepted that negotiating with the Wraith at present was a virtually pointless task, considering how much they enjoyed what they were and the various lessons learned from last year's aborted 'alliance' with Michael's hive, the concept of keeping prisoners like this still made her uncomfortable, particularly when they were having to resort to such extreme measures as repeated drugs to keep her contained.
She appreciated what the Wraith were capable of and acknowledged John's point that the Wraith would have just eaten the rest of the Geneva Convention if they'd been granted the chance to participate, but that didn't make it easier to countenance this kind of treatment…
"Welcome back," she said, controlling her reaction as the Queen regained consciousness and began to strain against her bonds; she trusted John's experience, but it still wasn't comfortable being this close to a Queen. "I trust you're comfortable?"
"That groggy sensation you're feeling are the sedatives we're pumping you full of," John put in firmly. "Just a precaution. As for the other precautions…"
Elizabeth gave John and Ronon a chance to demonstrate their weapons before she walked up to stand directly over the Queen. "Now then, you're going to tell us everything we want to know."
"In exchange for…?" the Queen asked.
"This is not a negotiation," Elizabeth said firmly.
"I disagree," the Queen said, grinning the usual sadistic grin of her kind.
"On what grounds?" John asked. "I'm fairly sure your ship's out there and you've been waiting down here ever since you were one of the unlucky ones during the Wraith's last attempt to blow up Atlantis, and you'd have come over here with the rest of your crew if you had any, so what we want to know is what you actually thought you were going to accomplish over here?"
"You are all going to die," the Queen said, ignoring John's argument as she continued to stare confidently at her 'interrogators'.
"We're at that stage already?" John said, shaking his head as he looked at the Queen. "You people have so little imagination…"
As the Queen defiantly turned her head away from them, Elizabeth didn't need her long experience with John to know that he was more unnerved by that last comment than he wanted to let on right now. Even if he genuinely wanted to believe that this Queen was just falling back on typical Wraith arrogance, they couldn't take the chance that it was something more…
"And we missed this earlier because?" John asked, looking pointedly at McKay after the scientist had revealed the results of his latest scans of the station's surroundings.
"Well, it's emitting very low EM results; add in the fact that it's partly buried in silt, and it's actually not that surprising that we missed it earlier," McKay explained, shaking his head in frustration as he studied the Wraith cruiser the science team had just discovered during the Queen's interrogation. "Still, if we'd just been paying more attention…"
"Nobody could have guessed that something could still be out there after all this time, McKay," John looked reassuringly at the scientist. "Like I said, even I didn't suspect anything until it was too late; we can't go kicking ourselves because of hindsight."
"So what now?" Elizabeth asked. "All that talk about our imminent death may or may not be an empty threat, but we have to find some way to be sure…"
"I can find that information," Teyla put in.
"Are you sure?" John asked. "That already went against you earlier…"
"She is heavily sedated, and this time I know exactly what I am dealing with," Teyla said firmly. "We have to know."
"OK," John said, nodding in thought. "I'll head out to see if I can find anything in the cruiser, while you get ready to see what you can get out of her if we need to get into her head."
"You sure that's safe?" Ronon asked.
"Hey, if I can knock her down, you can keep her down," John smiled at the Satedean warrior, trying to conceal his inner doubts. "Like I said during the interrogation, she'd have brought more warriors along if she had anyone else to do her dirty work; whatever's in that ship, I'm sure I've handled worse.
Maybe the Queen was just showing the typical Wraith arrogance, but when dealing with someone who'd managed to survive this long, John wanted to make sure they were covering all the angles, which included entering potentially hostile territory by himself to limit the risk.
As he cautiously moved the jumper towards the crashed Hive ship, John was grateful once again for the Wraith's typical arrogance; while the larger ships needed Wraith DNA to actually pilot them, most of the minor control systems were easy for anyone to use as the Wraith never expected anyone to try and break in to them. Setting the jumper down as close to the Wraith cruiser as he dared, John took a few moments to program the jumper's shield to extend from its rear hatch to the nearest entrance to the cruiser before he left the ship. It was fairly deep at this point, but after the time it had spent being protected by the station's own shield, the shield should still be good for an hour or so before he had to return to the drilling platform. Walking through the small ship, it didn't take long for him to reach the main control him, his eyes narrowing as he studied the Wraith's twisted equivalent of a command console.
His experience with the Ancient language might still be relatively amateur, but he'd learned enough to be sure that what he was looking at was extremely bad news.
"Damnit…" he muttered, before he activated his radio. "Everyone, I'm at the Wraith ship, and we have a problem; before she left, the Queen activated a self-destruct program set to go off in a couple of hours."
"A couple of hours?" McKay repeated. "Why leave us so much time?"
"She probably wanted to give herself enough time to get into the base and find a way out while underestimating our ability to hold her off; the 'why' of it doesn't matter right now," John said, his attention focused on the console. "What's important is that we need to shut this thing off before it blows up; if I remember the Ancients' records of this area, we're currently over a particularly thin part of the planet's crust, right?"
"Which means that something the size of a Wraith cruiser blowing up in this area would release all that thermal energy to such an expansive degree that even Atlantis could be destroyed," McKay finished, his tone clearly expressing his terror at the thought. "Oh, that's really not good…"
"Can't we just turn the self-destruct off?" Ronon asked.
"With two hours to go and Wraith technology notoriously picky, I wouldn't like to try it unless I knew I had the right code," John said, staring grimly at the computer. "I just don't know enough about Wraith technology to know what would happen if I entered the wrong code; for all I know, the second I get it wrong I'd end the countdown and set it off now…"
"I can find the code," Teyla's voice cut in.
"Teyla?" Elizabeth said anxiously. "You already-"
"I was caught off-guard last time," Teyla said grimly. "As we have already discussed, I now know what I am up against, and I know what I am looking for; I appreciate that you are concerned, but that will not happen again."
"And I'm here if things do turn ugly," Ronon put in.
"Do it," John said after a brief hesitation, his guilt over what he was asking Teyla to risk only slightly appeased when Elizabeth gave the same order.
For the next few moments, all that John could do was stand anxiously over the control panel, listening to the silent radio connection for the next sign that anything was going to happen, wondering if he had enough time to try his luck if Teyla's current gambit failed…
When Teyla's voice came back over the radio to pass him the code, John grinned in relief as he tapped the necessary control panels, waiting for a few moments before the display for the self-destruct fell silent.
"It's done," he said, turning the radio back on with satisfaction. "Feel free to put her down."
"With pleasure," Ronon said, followed by the sound of his energy pistol discharging. "She's headless."
"Good," John said, looking grimly around the Wraith cruiser.
He was proud that he and his allies had managed to outmanoeuvre such an ancient Wraith Queen, but that didn't mean he was completely comfortable at the thought of staying in this ship any longer than he had to.
As far as he was concerned, the only thing they needed to focus on now was testing whether that geothermal drilling platform would be worth all the effort it had taken to get down here in the first place.
AN: A bit easier than canon, but with John's greater experience of the Wraith, it was easier for him to work out where the Queen came from and what she was after.
Coming up next is a more original chapter, as John considers recent events on a personal and galactic level while reflecting on his grimmer past as the Phantom
It had never been a position he'd aspired to, but the more time he spent on the Orion, the more Colonel Dixon found himself enjoying the role. Once the Ancient gene therapy had been introduced to the SGC after they regained contact with Atlantis, all SG teams had been given priority in case they encountered any more Ancient technology, and while Dixon knew he wasn't up there with General O'Neill or John Sheppard in terms of the degree of control he had, he wasn't exactly a slouch either.
Getting the assignment to take the Orion had been a surprise, but Dixon had appreciated the reasons given for the decision quickly enough; they needed someone experienced with the kind of things that were out in the wider galaxy, without too many preconceptions about spaceship combat considering the unique nature of the ship. Once the finer details had been straightened out, he'd managed to convince most of the original Taranian crew to stay on board, and a few members of the Atlantis expedition had actually made a permanent transfer to the Orion, and he was proud to say that they'd all come together well, incorporating their contrasting experiences with the ship to create a very efficient system.
It was a bit difficult for him to find the time to make it all work while also spending time with his wife and kids, but he was looking into getting permission for his wife to be read into the program to let him talk with her more often when he was 'on duty'. He'd helped out SG-1 enough times over the years to have earned some favours from General O'Neill, and there was precedent for letting spouses know about the Stargate in exceptional circumstances, but it was still taking time for the fine details to get straightened out.
Still, for the moment, as he sat in one of the smaller buildings overlooking the pier that had become Orion's unofficial 'dock' when it was at Atlantis, watching as his crew chatted with the Atlantis expedition, Dixon found it easy to forget about his own troubles in favour of appreciating why so many people had become so attached to this city since its discovery. The commute out to Atlantis in particular and Pegasus in general might be a long way, no matter what resources they acquired to improve their ability to travel via wormhole or upgrade their hyperdrives, but it was unquestionably worth it to take in all the sights at the other end.
The one thing none of the Earth members of the crew were happy about was the decision to maintain the illusion that John Sheppard and the Phantom were separate people, but even if Dixon wanted to believe that Norina and some of the Taranians would understand, he privately had to admit that it was best to keep something that big under wraps for the moment. With the Genii's response as an example of the most extreme possible results, Captain Alyssa Satterfield's tactical analysis had led her to express her concerns about how the Taranians might react at even a hint that the Phantom had helped them repair the Orion just for the expedition, rather than acting in his public role as the hero of the Pegasus Galaxy, so it had been concluded that it was easier to keep the secret.
Dixon wanted to believe that a few of the Taranians could be trusted with that knowledge, but it was better to wait and be sure than screw up and ruin their future relationships with some of their best allies.
That question aside, relations with the Taranians were progressing well, as they assisted the crew in understanding the ship while the SGC provided the Taranians' colony with support. A few geologists and biologists from the SGC had even moved to the planet to better study how the formations and life-forms they were familiar with from Earth had adapted to conditions in Pegasus since the Ancients came here. Relationships had been awkward at first, but Dixon was pleased at how few of the Taranian crew had asked to leave Orion for the colony. Most of them took their leave with their families, naturally, but for the most part, they were all settling comfortably into their new routines as part of the crew, offering some suggestions for where Orion might go on their next survey mission based on what they'd translated from the ship's database. They had taken to trying to search Atlantis's database using some of the access codes salvaged from the Orion's old control crystals, but the codes only made it easier to refine their search parameters rather than making it easier for them to find everything. Most of the technology and resources that had been left in Atlantis had been identified by the man formerly known as the Phantom since he first arrived in the city, but Doctor Weir had confirmed that he'd only searched a certain area of the city around the central tower before concluding that he knew enough.
Actually, Dixon was surprised at how easily he'd accepted the idea of the Phantom's existence. Even before General O'Neill had spoken in his defence, he'd been intrigued at the very idea of Atlantis having its own masked vigilante, and the discovery that the Phantom had started out when he was a teenager from Earth with no prior knowledge of the Stargate program or the Ancients just made it all more impressive.
OK, so the Phantom had a leg-up from Elizabeth Weir through that bizarre time-travel paradox thing he'd heard so much about, but that didn't mean he hadn't come a long way however you looked at it.
Maybe I'm just a bigger Batman fan than I thought, Dixon mused, as he picked up another drink from the makeshift bar that had been established in this area, but that guy really makes you admire him.
"Colonel Dixon?" Norina asked, his new chief scientist walking up to him with a smile, wearing her new outfit of loose trousers and a long coat as opposed to her original floor-length dress. "Is everything well?"
"It's fine; just taking in the group," Dixon said, nodding reassuringly at Norina as he indicated the gathering around them. "I was just… you know, I'm not sure I've ever told you or your people how much we appreciate your willingness to adapt whatever plans you had for the Orion once we showed up."
"On the contrary, we're the ones who should be thanking you, colonel," Norina smiled back at him. "The Phantom helped us get the Orion back into working condition, but your own expedition has given us all we need to ensure that it can make a true difference in this galaxy, and we are proud to assist in that goal in any way we can."
"No hard feelings about not owning the ship in full?"
"We may have repaired it, but we always knew that we weren't experienced enough at conflict on this kind of scale to use it against the Wraith to make a real impact," Norina said dismissively. "Believe me, we're all grateful for your decision to take charge on that issue."
"So long as you always remember that your input is just as valued as anyone else's," Dixon countered.
"Always a good thing to keep in mind," a voice said from a nearby corridor.
"Pard-?" Dixon began, his eyes widening as he turned to look at the corridor and realised that the Phantom was standing there, positioned just to the side of the door so that he couldn't be seen by the rest of the room even as Dixon and Norina could see him clearly.
"Phantom?" Norina said, her voice low but excited as she looked at him. "You're here?"
"Always have been," the masked man smiled, as Dixon and Norina walked over to join him in the corridor. "I just… prefer to take a back seat for the moment now that people are starting to step up on their own."
"Really?" Dixon asked, confused about what John Sheppard was doing showing up to something like this in his Phantom outfit rather than his military uniform. "So… why are you even here?"
"Well," the masked man chuckled slightly, "let's just say it's… been a while since I went anywhere to do more than kill Wraith and keep people safe." He turned to look directly at Norina. "I just thought that, after everything you helped me with in terms of getting the Orion into working order, your people deserved to know that I can't guarantee I'll be around a lot, but you should know that I'm still here; you just… don't need me around on a regular basis."
"We owe you a great deal-"
"And I appreciate that, but my main reason for helping you was always to help you; you don't need to think of yourselves as owing me anything," John said reassuringly. "All I ask is that you continue doing what you can to help the people of Atlantis and the rest of this galaxy deal with the Wraith; I'll still be there to help out when I'm really needed, but I think this galaxy's reaching a point where I'm not needed full-time."
Norina looked uncertainly at the masked man for a moment, but finally smiled and nodded at him in understanding.
"Well… it's not like we didn't manage without you before…"
"And you're not losing me now; I'm just not stepping in as much as I used to," John said, smiling back at her before he turned to Dixon. "Keep it up with the Orion, Colonel Dixon; I expect great things from her."
"I'll do what I can," Dixon nodded in response, smiling slightly as the Phantom turned and vanished back into the darkened corridor behind him.
Nobody had ever been able to work out how the man did that, but these days it was just a neat trick and a useful edge if they had another incident like that time with the Genii and the storm; Dixon, for one, wasn't going to complain about Atlantis's military leader knowing things about the city that nobody else did.
He just hoped things reached the point where Norina and a few others could be told the truth about John's real history sooner rather than later…
When he checked in on Elizabeth in her office a couple of hours later, she looked so frustrated that John briefly thought about leaving her until she'd cooled down, but reminded himself of all the times she'd managed to get him to open up when he hadn't realised he needed to; if she could do it for him, he could do it for her.
"What's up?" he asked, looking curiously at her as he walked into the office.
"Just…" Elizabeth began, before sighing in frustration. "Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like you're just here because people needed someone to sign everything?"
"I tried to tell Colonel Ellis that using nuclear weapons would be an ineffectual first strike, but as far as he was concerned, the IOA don't think that we can waste time with pointless negotiations and that's that. I mean, he actually told me that I don't have the authority to tell him to stand down and basically stated that my input doesn't matter-!"
"It does to me," John noted, cursing himself as soon as the words were past his lips.
"I mean…" he said, shrugging uncomfortably as Elizabeth looked at him, "I get that some people back on Earth think you might not be the best choice for this role now that they know there's a war here, but seriously, you think I didn't get a few critics when I was… well, 'applying' for this job? You're never going to please everybody, but that doesn't mean you should doubt yourself?"
"I spoke to General O'Neill and Mr Woolsey, but they both stand by the IOA's decision even when I'm the one out here assessing the situation directly; every time there's a major problem, it seems like the military just wants to step in and assuming control…"
"If that was the case, I think we can both agree I wouldn't be here."
"I said it when the siege began, and I'll say it again; you are the only leader of Atlantis I would ever obey without question," John said firmly. "If people back on Earth don't think you should be here, I doubt they'd have let you pull all the strings needed to let me take over the military contingent here, to say nothing of everything you must have gone through to make my role here official."
"Well… General O'Neill and Mr Woolsey helped-"
"After you made the original suggestion; they might have been overruled by the naysayers back on Earth this time around, but you can't start doubting yourself because some people think you aren't doing the job they'd want you to do," John said firmly. "You have the faith of the right people, and that's all that should matter to you."
"Thanks," Elizabeth said, smiling gratefully at him before her smile faltered. "For what it's worth, McKay's confirmed that the weapons platform is viable and ready to be deployed."
"Doesn't mean you're happy about it, right?"
"I understand that we could probably never negotiate with machines that have been nurturing their grudge against the Ancients and us for millennia, but that doesn't change the fact that I feel that deploying nukes instead of a specific anti-Replicator weapon is a mistake."
"How about McKay?" John asked. "If he says the platform isn't ready-?"
"He's already confirmed that it is," Elizabeth cut in. "Zelenka thought about trying to say the platform wasn't ready, or maybe even make sure of it, but McKay just didn't feel comfortable going that far even if he disagrees with the situation."
"Ah," John shrugged. "That must be why Ellis requested Lorne head up to the Apollo earlier."
"Lorne?" Elizabeth noted in surprise.
"Something about wanting a trained professional there to provide an experienced perspective on the whole thing," John said. "Personally, I think they just didn't want me up there because I made my stance clear."
"If you don't like a plan, I don't like a plan; Colonel Ellis might not be able to kick me out of Atlantis, but he could make sure I wasn't in a position to show that," John clarified.
"Right," Elizabeth smiled, grateful for John's show of solidarity.
It might not change the minds of anyone back on Earth, but knowing that John Sheppard had that kind of faith in her leadership despite their contrasting styles and experiences…
Elizabeth couldn't place why that made her feel so much better, but it did.
"We're in trouble," McKay reported, as Ellis joined John and Elizabeth in Elizabeth's office once he'd been beamed through the shield.
"And it took you five minutes to work that out?" John asked.
"Look, the satellite is basically just a stripped-down ship," McKay explained. "There's a hyperdrive engine, a shield, and navigational systems. There's a small power source that was designed to take it to its intended target and power the shield until the Gate can be dialled. But once a wormhole has been established to whoever's on the dialling side, it fires a beam into their Stargate and it comes out on our side, allowing them to fire on us and to power the satellite."
"Clever," John noted.
"Yes; as long as they can keep the beam powered from home, the weapon remains operational. Oh, and one fun added side bonus is that because their Stargate is in such close proximity to our planet, we can't dial our Stargate. We're stuck."
"But can't we… hold on…" John began, pausing mid-sentence as one of the SG-1 mission reports he'd read back on Earth came to him. "Didn't Anubis once try something similar to this on Earth's Stargate? I read a file where he found some Ancient weapon that sent a massive amount of energy into the 'gate so that it couldn't shut down until it blew up and took everything else with it?"
"Are you saying that bypassed the whole 'thirty-eight minute' rule I heard about how long we can maintain a wormhole?" Ellis asked. "I thought that wasn't possible?"
"Oh, it's possible, believe me; I was in the SGC when Anubis mounted that attack and I couldn't figure out any way of stopping it," McKay confirmed grimly. "We had to dump the Stargate in space and make some complicated deal with Russia to get back our original Stargate… God, they were annoying…"
"How do you get the power for something like that?" John asked. "Last I checked, it takes a lot of energy to run the Stargate normally, and I think if the Ancients left that kind of thing lying around we'd have seen it before…"
"Considering that you'd need either a black hole or an unlimited number of ZedPMs to do something like this, we can safely assume this is new," McKay said grimly.
"Well, at least that confirms it's the Replicators," John noted. "Who else could do that and build a Stargate?"
"Hopefully," McKay noted. "It's either that or we've just discovered another super-powerful enemy, so here's hoping it's just them."
"If this is anything like a normal Stargate, could we contact the dialling planet?" Elizabeth asked.
"Well…" McKay paused in thought for a moment. "I'd need to boost the signal considerably to get through the interference, but, uh, yes."
"See what you can do," Elizabeth nodded at the scientist.
"You want to talk to them?" Ellis asked, looking incredulously at Elizabeth as McKay left the room. "It's a waste of energy-"
"And trying to destroy a shield we have no idea how to destroy isn't?" John interjected firmly. "You can keep running your tests if you like, but we've already established that our available weaponry can't do anything to that shield, so apart from sitting around and twiddling our thumbs until we come up with a better plan, talking is all we've got right now, so we might as well use it."
"Precisely," Elizabeth nodded gratefully at him before fixing Ellis with a firm stare. "And before you get started on a massive debate about who's right or who's wrong in this situation, at the end of the day I'm responsible for the well-being of this city, and you don't have the authority to tell me to stand down, so with all due respect, I think I'll place my call."
Ellis clearly didn't like that turn of events, but as Elizabeth walked out to the control room, all the colonel could do was look at John in frustration while John shrugged nonchalantly back at him.
It might be a petty act, but considering that this man had basically been asking around to find out if John and Elizabeth were considered bad leaders by their people, John felt entitled to enjoy the notion that the man had misread the situation that badly.
As he returned to the control room to wait for further developments, occasionally checking the power controls to be sure that the shield was still holding against the barrage that it was being subjected to, John was relieved when McKay reported a response to his transmission through the orbiting Stargate. As Elizabeth waited in front of the communication screen, John moved to join her, but Elizabeth was clearly startled at the sight of the old man who responded to the transmission.
"Oberoth?" she said, John taking a moment to recognise the name as the 'leader' of the Replicators when they'd assumed they were just another Ancient city.
"Doctor Weir," the apparent old man responded.
"I must say, I'm surprised to see you," Elizabeth said, quickly collecting herself.
"Each of us exists within the collective and can be replicated many times," Oberoth replied.
"Ah," John noted, before privately dismissing it; in this situation, it might actually be enjoyable to have more than one chance to kick that arrogant bastard's ass.
"You need to disable your weapon immediately," Elizabeth responded, bringing the conversation directly to the topic at hand.
"That is not possible."
"We had no choice but to attack you," Elizabeth said, returning to her diplomatic roots. "You're building warships. They need to be neutralised."
"And now, so do you."
"That assault was just the tip of the spear," Elizabeth continued. "We were hoping it would bring you to your senses. If you don't stop this aggression, we will be forced to launch an all-out attack."
"Really?" Oberoth asked. "Why have you waited?"
"Because we were hoping that we could talk to you people and work out something that we'd all find agreeable rather than just blow you all up," John noted.
"The annihilation of your people is not our goal," Elizabeth continued, shooting John a look that he wasn't sure how to interpret. "Ideally, we would like a peace to exist between us, but we will not stand idly by while you build ships and weapons that can be used to destroy us."
"Interesting," Oberoth said in his usual cool tone. "We feel the same way about you."
John wished that he had some way to wipe that condescending grin off the old man/Replicator's face, but considering that Atlantis and Earth had been planning to attack the Arusan homeworld anyway, he didn't exactly have a moral high ground to stand on.
"Perhaps I should remind you every time we've met in battle, our side has been clearly victorious," Elizabeth countered.
"Elizabeth," McKay cut in, "they're attempting to upload a virus on the comm bandwidth. I've been able to stop it for now but I'm not-"
"Shut it down," Elizabeth said, nodding at McKay to terminate the video link as the screen shifted to static. "Well, that went well."
"So," John asked, before McKay could voice his own frustration, "assuming that they can keep that beam going regardless of usual time limits, how long have we got until it penetrates the shield?"
"With our current ZPMs, assuming constant pressure… I'd give it a week at most," McKay said grimly.
"OK," John said, looking around the control room. "First priority is be ready to try the simple option in case this thing does shut down at the thirty-eight-minute mark; after that, I need options, like… shut this thing down at the source?"
"The Apollo isn't in any state to get into a battle right now-"
"I need options, not objections, Colonel," John said, turning to glare at Ellis. "We're in this mess because your superiors decided to start firing rather than wait; find me something we can actually do about this mess."
"Oh, now we're responsible for this?" Ellis countered, walking over to stand in front of John, the man once known as the Phantom suddenly wondering if Ellis would be this bold if he'd taken his make-up off to reveal his true face. "You know, you might have managed to pull some strings to get this job-"
"I got this 'job' because General O'Neill and the SGC agreed with the decision to trust my experience over my lack of official qualifications, Colonel," John countered. "If you have a problem with my decisions, put them to the IOA when you get back to Earth, but right now this is my outpost, my responsibility, and my enemy to beat, so stop trying to convince our team to turn on us and let me work out how the hell we're going to survive this mess, comprende?"
Maybe it wasn't professional, but that was the advantage of his position existing technically outside the conventional chain of command; he might not have an official rank, but in Atlantis, it had been made clear to the SGC that his word would be law, which meant that he had full authority to tell Ellis to get out of his face while he focused on saving the city he'd come to call home.
Looking at the anxious expression on Elizabeth's face, he just hoped that she wasn't going to start doubting her own role in the city if this kept up; the IOA might want her to act as a scapegoat for some of their worse decisions out here, and they may not have faith in her role as anything more than an administrator, but John would make it clear to anyone who would listen that he trusted Elizabeth above anyone else, and would cite these events as proof that her opinion had value in a crisis.
He just had to be careful he didn't let that out of the bag…
A few hours later, staring up at the red beam now coming down at Atlantis through several tons of water, John wondered if he should feel nostalgic at the moment.
He might not have always felt comfortable living alone in Atlantis when he'd arrived, but there had been something cool about the concept of living in a sunken city created by an ancient civilisation. He'd taken to watching the fish on a few occasions when he'd known that particular shoals were passing by the tower- it had reached a point where sometimes he could only be sure what time of year it was on the planet based on what was swimming near Atlantis- but at the moment he didn't have anything to distract him from the bigger problem, the beam churning the water between the surface and the shield to such an extent that he doubted anything was going to pass the city now.
Submerging the city to use the water as additional protection had seemed like a good idea at the time, but even with all three ZPMs powering the submersion system to make it as efficient as possible, and as much as the residents had tried to appreciate the moment, it didn't change the fact that they were in trouble. Even with everything they'd done, going underwater had only brought them another couple of days at most, and John didn't want to run out these ZPMs any more than he had to; he might have a secret surplus, but those things didn't grow on trees.
John had been working on a little plan of his own, but he couldn't see how it would work unless they could take the beam out of the picture; right now, the city was the Asurans' priority, and he doubted that it would be easy to make them stop that beam even if he could convince them to go after another target.
So far, however, all he'd managed to do was make a weak joke comparing his recon team to the Fantastic Four that Teyla and Ronon didn't get, and he was running out of patience; no matter how much time they had, he hated being stuck in one place when there was a threat to stop.
"John?" Elizabeth asked, as she walked out to join him on the balcony. "Are you all right?"
"Well as you'd expect," John shrugged, looking back at her with a brief smile. "Just feeling stuck, I suppose."
"Feels like the old days?"
"Worse," John mused, indicating the marine landscape before them. "Back when I was here on my own, it was kind of cool to see some of the fish swimming around- I even worked out the best towers to watch some of the more regular migrations- but now we've got nothing to look at thanks to that beam stirring up the water, I can't work out what to do about this, and I don't even have the option of gating somewhere more interesting to think."
"That… must be frustrating," Elizabeth noted, looking thoughtfully at him. "I mean, I knew Atlantis was your home before we came here, but I guess I never really thought about how you spent your time… when you weren't killing Wraith, anyway."
"It had its ups and downs," John noted. "You can only exercise and train so often before you start feeling like you're just wearing yourself out when you can't actually compare your results to anything else. Managed to trade for some paper and pen equivalents to try writing and drawing at times, but… well, the results were poor."
"Just like my reputation back on Earth?"
"You're still here-"
"And I'm starting to wonder if I'll be here much longer, given how far the IOA went over my head with the attack that started this mess in the first place."
"…You don't think that's my fault?"
"Excuse me?" Elizabeth looked at him in surprise.
"The IOA jumping over you like that, I mean," John clarified. "It's just… well, you pulled a lot of strings to get me an official role here, and that can't have made some of the IOA very happy; could I-?"
"Don't," Elizabeth cut in, looking firmly at him. "You earned your role on this expedition with every drop of blood and sweat you've given to keep this galaxy as safe as one man could; you may not have been an official part of this expedition at the beginning, but I will never regret making sure that you were allowed to stay here."
"…Thanks," John finally nodded, not trusting himself to say any more as he looked out at the sea once again.
God, I wish I could kiss her right now…
"We have something!" McKay's voice suddenly yelled over the radio, cutting John's thoughts off before they could become any grimmer.
Sitting in her office as they prepared for their next step, Elizabeth had to admit that she was feeling good about their chances. She'd issued orders to the rest of the city to prepare for the activation of the city's stardrive, and everyone was moving anything that could be spared into the central tower to minimise the strain on their energy reserves while in-flight; McKay was confident that they would have sufficient power, but Elizabeth felt that it didn't hurt to be prepared. She'd even had a fairly civil conversation with Colonel Ellis before he'd returned to the Apollo with other non-essential personnel, during which he'd actually apologised on his own accord about his earlier attitude towards her, claiming that he was just used to being the one calling the shots.
She wasn't sure if she completely accepted that, but at least it seemed like nobody here was secretly planning to kick her out of Atlantis any more. She might have some doubts about her role, but if John had been watching her for three years by now, she liked to think that he would have established if she was doing a good job or not, given his own experience with Pegasus.
Glancing at her watch, she noted that John should be settling into position in the control chair to start the flight right now, which meant that it was time for her to return to the control room rather than just go over the papers in her office. Walking into the control room, she noted her staff doing over various pre-flight checks as they finalised the coding commands necessary to start Atlantis's stardrive. According to McKay, approximately thirty percent of their total power requirements for this flight would be needed just to get them off the ocean, but even with the satellite beam striking their shields, three ZPMs should be enough to get them out of the atmosphere, at which point John would knock the satellite off-target long enough for them to trigger the hyperdrive and get away.
It was the most complex bit of flying anyone had ever done in Earth's current history, but it was the best plan they had right now, and she had faith that John could pull it off.
"Are we ready?" she looked over at McKay as he stood over one of the primary consoles.
"Well…" McKay began before he trailed off and shrugged helplessly. "Here goes nothing."
It wasn't the most encouraging thing he could have said, but Elizabeth could see his train of thought well enough; this plan still had its risks, but they didn't have anything better they could try.
His mind fixed on the current goal, McKay activated some controls, and Elizabeth heard the sound from their first day in the city, as the failsafe mechanism activated and released the city to float back to the surface. She wondered if John was aware of the finer details of the city from his position in the control chair, or if he just knew that they were moving, but the question became academic as they breached the surface and the red beam illuminated the shield directly once again.
"We're on the surface," McKay called into his radio. "Fire up the stardrive!"
As soon as the command was issued, the city shook, and Elizabeth thought she saw water boiling at the edges of the pier out of the nearest window before it ascended up from the sea, accompanied by the same strange jolt in her stomach Elizabeth always felt when the plane she was in took off.
"That's it!" McKay grinned, his eyes wide as he looked up from the console with a broad grin. "We're flying!"
Even the red glow of the city shield couldn't mar this moment for Elizabeth, as she walked over to take in the nearest window with a satisfied smile.
This wasn't something she'd ever planned to do with her life, but the thought of commanding a flying city was still a concept that appealed to a childish part of her; the fact that they were about to evade a dangerous enemy just gave it a more practical reason…
"We're leaving the atmosphere!" she called out, activating her radio as she spoke to let John know what was happening.
"On it!" John replied, before she saw two drones leave the city and head towards the source of the beam that was still striking the shield. As the drones struck, the beam temporarily shifted position to aim away from the city, but Elizabeth could see it already turning back around towards them…
Then there was a sudden jolting sensation as the stars around them accelerated away, and the city was in the blue 'tunnel' of hyperspace, flying away from the planet that had been Atlantis's home for the last few thousand years towards its next destination.
We did it, Elizabeth thought, grinning at the sound of cheers behind her. We beat the Replicators… we're safe…
"Elizabeth?" John's voice cut in over the radio.
"Yes?" Elizabeth asked, quickly tapping her radio in response.
"The hyperdrive can pretty much run on automatic at this point, so can we get everyone together right now?" her military leader asked. "I have something I'd like to run by you all."
"OK," Lorne looked curiously at the man once known as the Phantom as the Atlantis senior staff gathered in the conference room once again, "we're on our way, so what's this meeting about?"
"Quite frankly," John said firmly, "now that we're en route, I have another idea I'd like to run by you."
"Pardon?" McKay looked sharply at John. "You had another idea-?"
"For dealing with the Replicators, but it would only work once we'd dealt with the satellite issue, and that was still a big 'maybe'," John clarified. "You know that hyperspace-capable jumper I used to intercept those Wraith hives during our last meeting with Michael?"
"Yeah… how did you make something like that anyway?"
"I found an old lab somewhere in the city that had been working on the project and used the notes put it together in my spare time," John explained. "It's not capable of intergalactic travel on its own- I had to latch onto the signature of the hives' engines and follow that to get the right boost this time around- but if we're in hyperspace along the route we planned, if we just drop out at a certain point, the jumper should be enough to get me to Asuras-"
"Asuras?" McKay and Elizabeth yelled simultaneously.
"You want to go to Asuras?" McKay said, looking at John as though he'd gone insane. "In a jumper? What are you going to do, try a kamikaze assault with a nuke?"
"I was thinking that it might be possible to access the Asuran mainframe and reactivate their original programming to eliminate the Wraith," John corrected the scientist, enjoying the brief stunned looks he received at that statement before he continued. "I didn't see any point in suggesting it as a solution when we were still under attack as the Asurans would probably prefer to finish the old job before getting on with the new one, but now that they don't know where we are, wouldn't the Asurans go for the easier target rather than waste time finding us?"
"That…" McKay began, before he paused and nodded thoughtfully. "Actually, that might work; if we can access the central data core and reactivate the command code to attack the Wraith, they would probably revert to their default programming…"
"I thought you were against attacking the Asurans?" Elizabeth asked.
"I was against attacking them when we couldn't wipe them out completely with one stroke," John clarified. "What I'm proposing is a surgical strike that should allow us to turn our newer adversary against our more long-term threat until we can finish the anti-Replicator weapons."
"That's… it could actually work," Satterfield noted. "I mean, it wouldn't work against the old Replicators because we never had access to their central node, but if the Asgard could use Reese to lure in the other Replicators back in the day, we could probably do something similar here."
"I could hide the attack code with a bunch of spam data and they might just think I was attempting to disrupt them with a virus," McKay nodded thoughtfully. "Ask them to find the final digit of pi, prove that P equals NP, things like that…"
He paused for a moment, lost in thought, before he shook his head. "No, it wouldn't work; if we're going to get in and out without being detected, we'll need access to the Replicators' nanite network in the first place."
"Ah," John said awkwardly. "Just cloaking the ship and getting in close isn't an option, then?"
"It would get us into the city, don't get me wrong, but as soon as we do anything to disrupt their systems, they'd know about it and intercept us, unless we had some way of diverting their attention away from us that we can access apart from via the central core."
"And we don't have that…" John groaned, lowering his head in frustration. "Damnit, I really thought I had something there…"
"And you do," McKay said, suddenly looking awkwardly at John. "We do have a means of accessing the nanite network…"
"We do?" John asked in surprise. "What is it?"
"Excuse me?" John said, his tone shifting from hopeful to cold as he glared at the Canadian scientist.
"She still has the deactivated nanites that Niam tried to infect her with before we shut them down," McKay clarified, indicating the city's leader. "They're dormant right now, but if I can work out a program to reactivate them in a semi-dormant state so that they don't try and rewrite her body into one of them, we should be able to use her to distract the Replicators long enough for us to find where the central core is and reactivate the attack code-"
"Hey, this was your idea-"
"And I will repeat myself; no," John said firmly. "I am not taking Elizabeth into the heart of Replicator territory-"
"You don't have to; I'm going."
"Excuse me?" John looked sharply at her. "Elizabeth, this isn't some diplomatic mission-"
"And it's not like I've never been in danger before, John," Elizabeth noted grimly. "I was here when the Wraith attacked us at the end of the first year and when the Asurans tried to take over the city a few months ago; it's not my regular role, but I can do it."
"All I need you to do is basically provide an access port to the mainframe so that I can keep track of where the other Asurans are, and I can add a kill-switch that would allow me to shut them back down if any of them try to take control of you in return," McKay smiled. "We get in, get the code, and get back out; maybe we can even get a new ZedPM or two if the opportunity arises."
"I have my reserves-"
"And we can't always rely on those; it can't hurt to have one or two available if we need a boost on short notice," McKay added. "Look, I get that this probably isn't the way you wanted to put this plan into action, but it's the best way we've got right now, so can we just get to the Asurans and take it from there?"
Staring at the Canadian scientist in frustration for a moment, John finally sighed and glanced over at Elizabeth.
"If you're sure?" he said.
"I'm sure," Elizabeth nodded.
"Right," John said, standing up from the table. "Let's go before I change my mind."
AN 2: And there you have it; my variation on how the Phantom of Atlantis saves Doctor Elizabeth Weir from her canonical fate (And for anyone wondering how he managed to hurt Oberoth by kicking him, I have an explanation for it; I just didn't want to give it away right now).
For those who prefer the personal developments, John will be saying those three little words you've been wanting him to tell Elizabeth in the next chapter or so, but I think you can appreciate that I didn't want to make this chapter too much longer when a moment like that deserves full attention
Once they returned to the city, things had gone by comparatively quickly; their power supplies were still good, but with the situation with the Asurans in a state of potential limbo it was better to get the city back to a planet as soon as possible. The city's existing ZPMs had still had more than enough power to keep up the ship's engines, so John had just gone back to the control chair and piloted the city directly for the nearest suitable planet. Based on scans taken by the Apollo, they'd changed from their original destination to go to a different world from the one they were originally aiming for, in case Oberoth had managed to access anything from Elizabeth's mind about their first planned destination. The landing had been a little shaky, considering John's relative inexperience with actually piloting Atlantis as a ship and the need to keep track of the angle and speed to limit friction on something this size, but John liked to think he had pulled it off smoothly enough, touching down in a suitable part of its vast ocean, even if McKay had criticised the whole procedure after the fact.
With the SGC updated via Stargate on the current situation, and the long-range scanners suggesting that the Asurans were already turning on the Wraith, it seemed that the mission to Asuras had been a success in more ways than one, which meant that the only thing John had to worry about now was the reason he was waiting on the balcony like this. The planet apparently had five moons as opposed to the single moon from the last one, but the two he could see from here were still impressive; the Orion had been assigned to conduct a more detailed assessment of the planet from orbit once it arrived at the new world.
In the end, the mission had been a close call, but looking around the ocean spread out before his usual balcony, the view changed even as the primary location felt the same, John felt that the effort had been worth it. They'd managed to outmanoeuvre a high-stakes plan from an exceptionally dangerous adversary, turn the Asurans into a potential asset against their bigger and more long-term enemy, and even gained a new ZPM out of the deal. They had made arrangements to send the new ZPM back to Earth to give the SGC a chance to maintain regular access with Atlantis outside the necessity for the Inter-Galactic Bridge, and now-Colonel Samantha Carter had expressed her pride at their efforts in turning the tables on the Asurans.
On a personal note, it had been nice to see one of his old instructors from SG-1 was doing well, considering that Sam Carter was now a full colonel rather than just a lieutenant colonel (although he did have to wonder why people didn't come up with a more distinctive title for that kind of rank) but right now, John had to face far more personal matters than congratulating an acquaintanceâ€¦
"Where else would I be?" John smiled awkwardly back at Elizabeth as she walked onto the balcony, suddenly wishing that his mask showed more of his face than it did; with something like this, he felt increasingly aware of just how limited his mask was in terms of his ability to express himself, just when he really wanted to make his feelings clear. "And you're here-"
"Because you saved my life by taking a stupid risk," Elizabeth cut him off, glaring firmly at him. "Argue that it worked all you want, John, but what you did on Asuras was foolish to the point of being reckless; what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking about saving your life-"
"While putting your own on the line; putting aside the fact that just creating the chance that we would both get captured was stupid, Atlantis needs you more than it needs me, John!" Elizabeth countered, stepping forward to glare at him directly.
"Atlantis needs a leader who knows how things work here-"
"This expedition needs your expertise in this galaxy; we would be in serious trouble if you hadn't done so much work for us!"
"And I'm only here because you accept me for what I am; can you honestly say anybody else from Earth would be as willing as you are to let a guy with no official qualifications-"
"And you have SG-1 and General O'Neill willing to vouch for you with any replacement; it's hardly a good reason to put yourself at risk! You've saved this city so many times, you're the reason we even have the Orion in Earth's fleet, and you think you can put all that at risk just for me?"
"It wasn't a risk; I had a clear plan-"
"Relying on something you'd never even tested before then, from what you've told us; why did you do something so stupid-?"
"BECAUSE I LOVE YOU!"
As soon as she heard those words, Elizabeth froze, her eyes widening as she stared incredulously at the man before her, only vaguely registering that he was looking back at her with an equally stunned gaze, unable to believe what he'd just said.
Damnitâ€¦ I just wanted to make it clear I respected her; why did I have to say that?
After a moment's silence, John swallowed slightly and stepped forward, reaching out to take one of her hands in his as he stared at her; if he was going to make a clean break of this, he had to get it all out there before he lost his nerve.
"Atlantis could last without both of us," he said, his voice suddenly lower as he looked at her, expressing a tenderness and uncertainty that Elizabeth didn't think she'd ever seen in him before. "But I... I couldn't last without you."
Stunned into silence, Elizabeth could only look back at her military commander, unable to think of a clear reply.
She'd been aware of a certainâ€¦ interestâ€¦ in John ever since she'd met him during the Genii invasion, but she'd tried to put that aside as just a childish crush since those first days after they'd begun to develop their unconventional working relationship; the idea that he actually had real feelings for herâ€¦
John broke the silence with a sigh.
"I know... look, I don't expect anything from you because of this," he said at last, only the slightest gleam in his eyes underneath his mask indicating how much this was hurting him to say. "I know you can't... care for me... the way I do for you, but that's... that's fine; I've known that since the Genii invasion, and I've... grown used to it. It's just... even if it means you hate me, I couldn't let you go like thatâ€¦"
He sighed again. "Look, if this means you... don't feel comfortable around me any more, I can deal with that; I'll... back off, and-"
"How long?" Elizabeth asked.
"Huh?" John said, caught off-guard by her question.
"How long have you... felt that way about me?" she repeated, not sure how she felt about what she was asking but wanting to know the truth anyway.
"Since..." John began, pausing for a moment as though trying to find the right words, before he spoke again. "Since I met you, really."
"What?" Elizabeth asked, her mind latching on to an inconsistency in that phrase. "But... you said you knew I couldn't feel that way about you since the Genii invasion; we only met then-"
"I don't think you understood me, Elizabeth," John interjected, a slight smile on his face that belied the pain in his eyes. "I said that I've felt that way since I met you..."
His voice trailed off, leaving Elizabeth to stare at him in confusion for a moment before her eyes widened.
"Hold on; you mean... when you met the other me?" she said, looking at him incredulously. "But... but she wasâ€¦ you were fifteen!"
"Tell me about it..." John said, shaking his head slightly at the memory. "I only thought of her as a friend at first- maybe a mentor, really-, but then there was this woman I met when I was stuck behind that temporal dilation field, and even when she expressed an interest in me, I realised that I couldn't even kiss her without feeling like I wasâ€¦ betraying your memoryâ€¦ she was nice enough, but she didn't have your strengthâ€¦"
He sighed wistfully, turning around to look out at the sea beyond the balcony. "Add in the fact that I couldn't exactlyâ€¦ do anything with anyone else over here without disrupting the image of a mysterious guardian, and I spent the next few years focusing more on building up my rep until you came hereâ€¦"
"Johnâ€¦" Elizabeth said.
"I get it," John said, stepping back from the balcony and holding up his hands defensively. "I'm the guy who's spent years training to kill life-draining monsters with my bare hands, you respect me as a military leader but there's no way you could love a monster-"
"John, you're not-"
"You wouldn't say that, but you'd be thinking something on those lines," John said, looking more ashamed than she'd ever seen him. "I've known since the Genii that I'mâ€¦ look, I'm a monster, and I accept that, but if you can justâ€¦ we can still work together-"
Refusing to keep him hanging any longer, Elizabeth reached up, practically yanked off John's mask, and pulled his face down, her lips meeting his in an impulsive kiss. It was sloppy at first, John's lips frozen underneath her in shock, but then his mouth opened and she felt his tongue meet hers, wrapping her arms around him to deepen the kiss. For a moment, Elizabeth simply revelled in the feeling before her, as something she had never seriously thought about suddenly became the thing she'd always wanted without realising it, but then the moment ended as John pulled back, his twisted face now marred by confusion rather than its 'simple' disfigured state.
"Whyâ€¦?" John asked, looking at her in a daze.
"Because," Elizabeth looked solemnly at him, holding up the mask to make her point clear, "if that was our first kiss, I didn't want this to be there when I remembered it."
"First?" John repeated, his initial daze replaced by incredulity as he looked at her. "You meanâ€¦ you-?"
"I mean," Elizabeth said, reaching over to take his hand, a slight smile on her face as she looked at him, "that, if you're interested in taking this furtherâ€¦ and you think you can remain professional when we're dealing with a crisis rather than doing something that stupid when you know it's me or Atlantisâ€¦"
She smiled. "Well, I think we can give this a shot."
John could only smile incredulously as he pulled Elizabeth back towards him for another kiss, each movement of his mouth against hers only leaving Elizabeth wondering how she had earned this kind of affection from the most dedicated and fascinating man she had ever known.
She knew that this wasn't going to be easy, but after John had spent years trying to live up to the last words of her other self to protect a galaxy that would have lashed out at him the second he so much as took off his mask, if the only thing he'd never expected but always wanted was the chance to be with her, the only thing she was worried about right now was if she would live up to the image he'd formed of her.
"Teyla had a nightmare about Jo- the Phantom helping the Wraith kill her father?" Elizabeth asked, looking inquiringly at Doctor Heightmeyer as they sat in Elizabeth's office the following day.
"Trust me, under normal circumstances, I'd be keeping this between us, butâ€¦" the psychiatrist shrugged. "We all know that things with John aren't exactly normal."
"Because of his status as the Phantom?"
"And the way his face disrupted that 'ideal' for Teyla and Ronon, even if Ronon wouldn't admit he ever had anything like that," Heightmeyer nodded. "Consciously they might have come to accept that John isn't going to snap and rip them apart just because he feels like it, but it's possible that there's stillâ€¦ well, some residual issues that have been stirred up by recent events and a lifetime of belief."
"You think this was stirred up by the relocation? They both went through a far more significant upheaval when they joined us in the first place-"
"Which doesn't mean there couldn't be something there. Last time they legitimately didn't know what they were getting into; this time around, an argument could be made that they're more thrown by having what they've become familiar with be so changed."
"Possible, I suppose," Elizabeth nodded, even as she looked uncertainly at the psychiatrist. "Soâ€¦ what do we do about this?"
"I'm not sure if there's anything to do," Heightmeyer shrugged. "Teyla's admitted that she's actually having trouble even sleeping because of this dream, but she's also confirmed that she knows it isn't actually the Phantom in the dream, so there's no way to be sure what we're dealing with. Doctor Beckett's taken a look at Teyla and confirmed that the only problem is a lack of sleep, but from what he told me, that's just the symptom rather than the cause; aside from prescribing her some sleep medication, there's really nothing else he can do."
"Wellâ€¦ I suppose all I can do is hope it gets better soon," Elizabeth said, looking apologetically at her expedition's psychiatrist. "That'sâ€¦ thanks for bringing this to my attention."
"You're welcome," Heightmeyer nodded, smiling slightly at her. "For what it's worth, I believe that John's adapting well to his new role; he justâ€¦ needs some time to get used to answering to other people."
"He's getting there, certainly," Elizabeth nodded, thankful that she wasn't the only person who could see that John was doing his best in an unusual situation.
She just wanted him to feel like he had somewhere to belong once again after everything he'd done for the city. He'd already spent over two years hiding here because the unconventional nature of his arrival meant that he was worried the more inflexible members of the expedition would have treated him as undeserving simply because he wasn't officially qualified. Teyla's nightmare was a concern, but John could hardly be held responsible for what someone else's subconscious thought of him, and he was doing everything he could to overcome those fears.
There has to be some way I can make this easier for him; it's just a question of whatâ€¦
Sitting in the conference room, John refused to allow himself to consider his doubts; they were in a dangerous situation, but they had to be able to do something to stop this thing before it went any further.
After they'd retrieved an active crystal from the planet, taking care not to make direct contact with it, it hadn't taken long for the science department to confirm that they were dealing with some kind of energy-based life form that could travel through conductive material, even if they could only track the creature that was already in the city rather than giving them any ideas on how to capture it. There was still no clear evidence if the creature would be conscious and aware when the current 'host' wasn't dreaming, but for the moment they were going to assume that they had a chance to catch it off-guard until they knew otherwise.
They'd worked out that the creature was using the power conduits to travel through the city, rather than somebody just touching the previous host, but while they'd been able to identify its current 'host' as McKay and relocate him to a specially insulated room, aside from making sure he stayed awake until they had a plan to purge it from him, their ideas were limited. Elizabeth had tentatively suggested that an attempt be made to reason with the creature, but they all knew that there was no real chance that was going to work with something like this.
"From what we've seen of thisâ€¦ thingâ€¦ I'm not sure talking to it would work," Beckett said. "Considering what we've seen of some of the really twisted cases back on Earth, if this thing's anything like a human psychopath, it'd probably prefer dying in one last hurrah than just walking out."
"Which would mean that it would kill Doctor McKay," John noted solemnly.
"Couldn't we use its desire for survival against it?" Doctor Keller asked.
"That depends on whether it will actually die in a contained environment like the one we've placed it in," Elizabeth noted. "And obviously, considering the risk to Doctor McKay, I'd rather not test that."
"We could give it a chance to leave and go home," Teyla suggested.
"Back into the crystal?"
"Why not?" John shrugged.
"It's certainly possible to talk people through waking dreams with the right level of hypnosis," Elizabeth noted. "Maybe we can induce a level of waking dream where McKay can talk to it himselfâ€¦"
"You want McKay to ask this thing to leave?" Ronon said.
"Good point," John sighed. "All due deference to the man, but he isn't the best qualified to deal with something scary."
"A creature that can theoretically manipulate his subconscious to induce his fears?" Lorne said. "Add in the fact that he'd be facing it on his ownâ€¦"
"Maybe he doesn't have to," Elizabeth noted, looking over at the major and John with a thoughtful smile. "Did you take part in the VR training program back on Earth?"
After McKay had fallen asleep, John didn't know exactly how long it took him to get to the point where he had actually established a connection with the Canadian scientist. There were a few moments when he was just lying alongside the other man, McKay twisting uncomfortably in the VR chair while John couldn't do anything more than lie and wait, but then he felt something surge along his brain, everything went dark…
He had no way to measure how long it actually took him to get to that point, but he soon found himself squatting in the rear of a small rowing boat, McKay sitting in the middle of the boat apparently trying to row through a large ocean in the pouring rain, Atlantis only just visible in the distance.
"… for the encouragement!" McKay yelled at a figure sitting at the other end of the boat. It only took John a moment to confirm that the other figure in the boat must be the creature using his appearance, albeit with a normal face and wearing a black Atlantis uniform rather than his 'civilian' outfit.
In a strange way, it was almost unnerving to see what he might have looked like if that teleportation accident had never happened; twenty years of living with his face might not have helped him accept what he looked like, but it still felt strange on some deeper level to think about what his life would have been like if this had never happened…
"…wanna help you?" the doppelganger said, glaring at McKay.
"Because I thought you-!" McKay began.
"That's not me, McKay!" John yelled. Turning around in the boat, the Canadian scientist jumped when he saw John sitting there, and a quick examination of his face revealed that John wasn't wearing his mask in this illusion, even if the exposed bone didn't feel quite as tender as it had when he'd gone outside without the mask before the expedition came.
"Seriously," John continued, glaring at McKay while indicating his doppelganger with one hand even as he found it hard to take the other away from his face, "how could you think he was me?"
"Well…" McKay protested awkwardly as he waved a hand at John's face. "I thought you'd look… well, normal; we're basically looking at your own view of yourself-!"
"I haven't seen myself as 'normal' since I was stuck in another galaxy when I was fifteen years old, McKay," John pointed out.
"You're pathetic," the other John said, still talking to McKay in a manner that made it unclear if he was just ignoring John or really didn't know he was there. "You might as well jump in."
"Don't be afraid," John said, as McKay looked uncertainly between the two.
"Oh, I have to get back," McKay said, starting to row once again. "I have to get back; that's my only chance."
"You're going to die out here," the alien double said cockily.
"Shut up!" John glared at the other him, quickly moving into position to take the other oar of McKay's boat. "We have to get out of this; just row!"
It was a simplistic solution to the current problem, but in a world where dream-logic was a genuine thing, this was the best option he had to offer right now.
"You know," he mused after a few moments, trying not to voice any doubts about his double's current silence, "this really isn't as strange as you'd led us to believe."
"Oh yeah?" McKay indicated over his shoulder. "What about that?"
Glancing in the indicated direction, John raised a critical eyebrow at the sight of a clown of all things sitting on the end of the boat; he'd had issues with clowns as a child, but after so long being the one who scared a race of alien monsters while wearing a mask, there wasn't much that could scare him these days.
Outside of the thing that's putting us in this mess in the first place…
"You can paddle all you want," the double called to him mockingly. "You're not going anywhere."
"He's right!" McKay looked desperately at John. "I'm gonna die out here!"
"He wants us to be afraid," John said. "Don't listen to him; he can't really hurt you."
"That's where you're wrong," the double said, vanishing from the boat. John didn't need two decades of life alone in Atlantis to realise that wasn't a good thing, but even he hadn't expected their boat to suddenly be surrounded by two large jaws with massive sharp teeth, which swiftly closed on their small boat…
The next few moments after that were more of a blur for John than anything else. He recalled waking up to see McKay being shocked with a defibrillator, Beckett and Keller each fighting to restart his heart with every method available…
And it didn't work, his mind kept telling him, as he strode grimly through Atlantis, not even aware if he had put his mask back on. I took that risk, and McKay still ended up dead…
"This is all your fault," Teyla's voice suddenly cut in, glaring coldly at him.
"If you hadn't touched that crystal, McKay would still be alive," Ronon added.
"So much for the legend of the Phantom," Beckett cut in, a cold expression on the doctor's face that he had never pictured before.
"You failed, John," Elizabeth said coldly.
Just as John was trying to react to these developments, he found himself staring past Elizabeth at the other version of himself standing by a corner, looking at him with a cold glare.
"You son of a bitch!" he roared, charging towards the other John with a roar, knocking them both through the wall behind the man before John had even registered what they'd just done. As he landed on the floor of the gateroom, John quickly rolled off the entity and took stock of his surroundings as he scrambled to his feet, the active Stargate behind them but the room as a whole the same cool blue it had been back when he lived alone in the city under the sea.
"Quit this," he said, finding himself back in the Phantom garb as he drew his sword, shifting into a combat stance as he glared at his enemy. "You know I'm not afraid of you."
"Oh yes you are," the other John smiled, still wearing his Atlantis BDUs even as he drew his own blade. "I'm the only two things you are afraid of; your fear of failure, and the fear of what you are."
"The fear that I'm the Phantom?" John countered, praying that he still had some kind of advantage over this thing…
"The fear that you're nothing but the Phantom," his double countered coldly. "And the fact that you wouldn't have it any other way."
"NO!" John yelled, charging towards his doppelganger, only for the alien to evade the first couple of punches before striking him in the face with a powerful blow. Lost for better options, John traded blows with his enemy for a few moments, but his other self soon gained the upper hand with an elbow to the throat, following the attack up with a kick to the stomach. Temporarily winded, John fought to get his breath back, but even as the alien gave him a moment to get back to his feet, it swiftly moved to deliver a roundhouse kick to John's dead. Only John's experience fighting Wraith gave him the edge he needed to deflect the creature's kick and knock him off-balance, sending the enemy to the ground.
Roaring in rage, John kicked out at the creature's side, aiming for whatever his enemy had instead of ribs, only for his enemy to roll with the blow and spring to his feet with the kind of speed John wasn't used to seeing from anything that locked like a normal human. Ducking under his enemy's latest punch, John managed to grad its arm and spin the creature around to face him, only for the other him to deflect his next punch and slam his fist into John's face. Stunned once again, John couldn't regain his concentration before the alien grabbed him and hurled him across the room, slamming into the wall with such force that he could feel the metal dent behind him.
"The line between you and the Wraith?" the doppelganger mused mockingly, stepping back as John fell to the floor. "There isn't one; you might not 'eat' your victims, but you certainly do everything else to the people you've decided aren't worth saving."
"I'm not a monster-" John spat, fighting through the disorientation of that last blow.
"Because one woman's fallen for your act?" his doppelganger countered, grinning mockingly at him as he hauled John to his feet with the cloak. "You keep on taking people apart because you don't like them; how long do you think it's going to be before she realises what you really are?"
John didn't even have time to counter that statement before the alien picked him up and threw him to the top of the control room stairs. Crashing down at the top, John struggled onto his back, registering his enemy coming up the stairs as he sat up. John only just got back to his feet when the alien punched him across the face again, staggering backwards once again.
John had no idea if anything he was doing here actually made a difference to anything that the rest of the team might be attempting outside this mental environment, but at least he felt like he was doing something at the moment, even if his other self was basically kicking his ass. When another punch sent John flying to the edge of the control room, slamming into the wall with the kind of force he hadn't felt since he became fast enough to avoid Wraith, John forced himself to focus long enough to evade the next blow, but even a punch that damaged the wall of the city wasn't enough to make this psychopath stop. As every subsequent punch made it harder and harder for John to maintain his focus even as he staggered back, his enemy finally struck out with a kick so powerful that it sent John flying through the railing behind him, landing on the floor of the gateroom below.
Damn… John thought to himself, rolling over and wishing that he had the time to cry in frustration. I'm just feeding this thing right now…
"Get up and fight," the entity said, as it landed on the floor beside him after an uncomfortably graceful jump.
"No…" John countered, carefully getting to his feet as he looked at the creature. "That's what you want… I fight you… I affirm the fear…"
"Nice deduction," the doppelganger smiled at him. "That said, it doesn't do you any good; either you provoke me by fighting me, or you power me up by affirming your fear of me."
"But… I don't… fear you…" John countered, fighting down the urge to give in to the terror.
"You really need to face the truth," John's double said firmly. "It's your fault so many people have suffered because of me, it's your fault so many people died because you were scared of screwing up the timeline back on Earth, and it's definitely your fault McKay is dead."
"I'm not dead!" McKay suddenly yelled. Stepping back from John, the entity turned around, giving John a chance to get back to his feet and watch as his other self slammed McKay against the wall.
"You can't win," his darker self said, looking mockingly at McKay as the Canadian grimaced in pain.
"Yes we can," McKay countered with a smirk. "You're vulnerable to electric shock. That's why I'm still alive; you left before you could finish the job!"
The doppelganger was prevented from responding to that statement when electricity suddenly surged through him, leaving the evil John screaming as he stumbled backwards. John had no idea if this next attempt would do anything, but he seized the opportunity to draw his sword from his back and thrust it through his doppelganger's heart, trying not to acknowledge how profoundly disturbing this was as he watched his other self fall to his knees, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.
"I'm not the monster," John said, carefully getting to his feet before yanking the sword out of his counterpart's chest, following it up by spinning the sword to cut off the entity's 'head', adjusting his body mid-motion to kick the severed head through the active Stargate in practically the same moment.
"OK," McKay said, glancing between the Stargate and the headless corpse on the floor. "I can't decide if that was really cool or really disturbing."
"Think of it as both," John said, wiping the sword on his cloak out of habit, even if such a feat was obviously pointless when he wasn't actually in the real world right now. "I get that doing something like that was probably more symbolic than anything else, but it… I like to be thorough."
"On every level," McKay noted, glancing over John's shoulder and smiling slightly. "And there's what I'd expect when I'm in your mind."
Turning around to see what had prompted that comment, John was taken aback to see Elizabeth Weir standing at the top of the stairs leading from the gate to the rest of the room, wearing an elegant red dress with her hair in the loose shoulder-length style that John was rapidly coming to consider his favourite look.
"John," she said, looking at him with a warm smile.
"Hi," John said, nodding at the woman with an awkward smile, wishing with everything he had that McKay wasn't watching this. "Well… bye."
It might be stupid to feel embarrassed about anything when you were talking about a scenario that was only taking place in your mind, but before the imaginary Elizabeth could take more than a couple of steps in his direction, John had turned around and-
He was sitting up in the lab, looking anxiously around himself, only relaxing when he saw McKay sitting up on the other bed and the now-glowing crystal between them, the rest of the city's senior staff gathered around the two of them.
"You all right?" Beckett asked, looking uncertainly at the man with the twisted face.
"As good as anyone can be when he had to cut off his own head," John mused.
"What?" Keller looked at him incredulously.
"Whole thing with me taking out the other me in some fight that I get was basically symbolic of my strength of will trumping its strength of will," John clarified with a shrug, doing his best to underplay the psychological impact of what he'd just been through. "Even by our standards, this has been a very weird day."
"But," Elizabeth put in, indicating the crystal with a smile, "the important thing is that you did what you always do as the Phantom; you stopped it."
"Yeah…" John reflected, carefully getting to his feet as he stood up off the bed. "Like you said… it's what I do."
"And what I did doesn't count for anything?" McKay cut in, looking at John in an indignant manner that seemed exaggerated even by the scientist's usual standards.
"Maybe we should get this creature out of the city before we begin to congratulate ourselves?" Teyla asked.
"Good call," John nodded, his gaze now fixed on the crystal that had forced him to confront so many dark parts of himself. "The sooner we get this thing out of Atlantis, the happier I'll be…"
And then the sooner I can stop thinking about everything it had to say to me…