AN 2: Events in this chapter prompted me to realise an omission I'd made earlier, so I went back and made some changes to 'What's in a Name?' to clarify what happened to the Orion when the Ancients came back; I apologise for any confusion this may have caused.
Among other things, she was glad to be able to talk to someone about how things were going negotiating with the Ancients in Atlantis; Carson's visit might have been a surprise, considering her initial lack of response to his attempts to call her, but when presented with the chance for this dinner, she'd welcomed the chance despite her initial reluctance.
Talking with Rodney and Carson had been awkward at first, given how long it had been since they'd seen each other- and virtually never in a social environment-, but after a while they'd fallen into a reasonably comfortable pattern, talking about their lives since returning to Earth as much as they could without risking being overheard. McKay had expressed his frustration at his new role in Area 51- apparently he actually resented working with people who treated him with excessive respect; she recalled a McKay who would have welcomed that kind of treatment-, and Carson had shared what he could about life at the SGC.
Carson had mentioned that there'd been a bit of an uproar a couple of weeks back about a confrontation between Helia and the Phantom, but after the Ancients had confirmed that Atlantis had no direct contact with the Phantom beyond him simply occasionally showing up to help them out, Helia had simply informed them that she would be resorting to additional security measures to try and capture him and left it at that. Woolsey was apparently concerned that the Phantom's actions had jeopardised the Ancients' thoughts on letting the expedition eventually return to Atlantis, but he was the only one voicing that opinion; Helia had even left them a message confirming that she understood that the Phantom was a rogue element…
That news was the only thing that left Elizabeth feeling glad that she was no longer directly affiliated with Atlantis; she wasn't obliged to tell the 'new' commander everything she knew about its primary guardian.
As Rodney and Carson fell into a talk about their current roles, Elizabeth took a sip of her wine and reflected on her private frustrations; the two men in front of her could move on, but even if she could find a job she appreciated half as much as she'd appreciated her time on Atlantis…
She allowed herself a brief, private sigh of frustration while she was sure the other two weren't looking.
Even if she could move on from Atlantis, she couldn't 'move on' from the masked man who'd informed her that she gave him something to live for in a galaxy that had given him nothing but things to die for.
She may not understand why John Sheppard felt that strongly about her, but how could she abandon the man who'd done so much for them, and then told her that it was all for her? She may not understand what she'd done to deserve such loyalty, but that didn't mean that she could just abandon it.
She would have believed that John deserved better even if she hadn't read about his past; the knowledge that he'd had such an apparently tense relationship with his family back on Earth just made it more personally important to her to ensure that he knew she hadn't abandoned him.
She wished that she could just find a simple solution to a simple problem for once; things seemed to be becoming increasingly complicated, and she was no closer to finding a solution for any of the problems in front of her than she had been when she arrived on Earth. Atlantis's fate had been taken totally out of her hands, which also put a neat hold on her ability to talk with John about her revelation, and she certainly wasn't about to tell Helia a thing about him.
She'd thought about visiting John's family for more information- his mother had died a while ago, but he still had a living father and a younger brother-, but had dismissed it; without any evidence and only a theory that the John Sheppard she had discovered was 'their' John Sheppard- to say nothing of how classified the true explanation was and her own ideas about how he'd ended up in Pegasus being nothing but theories rather than definite facts-, she wouldn't be able to do anything other than create an awkward situation.
"Elizabeth?" Carson's voice said, breaking Elizabeth's train of thought as she turned to face him, the Scottish doctor looking anxiously at her. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Elizabeth said, smiling back at him. "It's just… it's getting late, and I've been catching up on my sleep."
"Oh," McKay said, apparently taken aback at that statement.
"Thank you," Elizabeth said, reaching out to put a hand on Carson's arm. "I appreciate you getting me out."
"It was nothing," Carson said, smiling back at her, only for the warm mood to be broken as Elizabeth and McKay's cellphones suddenly all started ringing, the former Atlantis staff exchanging grim glances as they pulled out their phones and answered them.
Elizabeth only needed to hear General Landry's voice on the other end to know that things had just become very bad…
The race back to the SGC to respond to Landry's query had gone by so quickly Elizabeth wasn't sure she'd ever be able to remember the actual journey; after hearing that a crisis had emerged on Atlantis, the only thing that mattered to her was getting to the briefing room, where she, Carson and Rodney had just enough time to exchange greetings with the already-present Sumner before General Landry walked in.
"We got this data burst about twenty minutes ago," Landry said as he walked across the room, grimly activating a screen on the briefing room wall. As Elizabeth watched, the screen displayed a poor-quality recording from Atlantis's control room, filled with static, sent by General O'Neill, Woolsey's barely-visible form standing behind him with what looked like a gun in his hands.
"Atlantis is under attack from Replicators," the General's voice said; it was slightly tainted by the static of the recording, but the words were still fairly clear. "Somehow they figured out how to override their programming. The Ancients were taken off guard and have lost most of the city already. Request immediate evacuation!"
"They're coming!" Woolsey yelled after firing his gun at something off-screen, turning back to General O'Neill just as the recording stopped, turning the attention of the city's former senior staff back to Landry.
"They never made it to the gate," Landry confirmed, giving the four people before him a moment to process that news before he continued speaking. "I was informed they had a law written into their base code that made it impossible for them to harm the Ancients. How the hell did this happen?"
"It is… remotely possible…" McKay said, looking awkwardly at Landry after receiving a hard stare from Sumner, "that in trying to rewrite Niam's base code, I… uh, we, may have opened the door for them to make other changes."
"You did this?" Landry said.
"At the time we thought it was the only possible way to save the city," Elizabeth said, looking firmly at Landry; the consequences were shocking, but they had also completely unpredictable at the time they'd taken action.
"We can assign blame later," Sumner said firmly. "Right now, our priority is determining how to respond to this problem; Daedalus and Orion are already en route, but we need to identify the best way to get a nuke through the city's shield-"
"Hold on; you're planning to nuke Atlantis?" Rodney said, looking indignantly over at Sumner, clearly unable to believe what he was hearing.
"It's the gateway to Earth," Landry said, his tone firm.
"And we have an iris!" Rodney protested, indicating the Stargate visible from the briefing room.
"Yes, we do," Landry said, "but thanks to your Intergalactic Gate Bridge, all they have to do is rewrite your macro and they can come out anywhere in the Milky Way."
"Yeah, but those macros are very complicated," Rodney tried to protest.
"They are very complicated, Doctor McKay," Landry countered. "They just rewrote their own damned base code! I think they can handle it."
"Why are we even talking about this?" Elizabeth asked, looking firmly at Landry; he might have made a valid point, but she had a few points of her own that she wanted to make in this situation. "General Landry, even if the Ancients are lost to us, General O'Neill and Mr Woolsey may still be alive, to say nothing of what Atlantis has to offer in itself; if we could be provided with a marine contingent and Colonel Carter's new Anti-Replicator weapons-"
"I'm sorry, Doctor Weir," Landry interrupted. "I appreciate your continued interest in what Atlantis has to offer us, but I have standing orders. They happen to be General O'Neill's standing orders. The Daedalus will be there in a little under four days. Now, how do I get a nuke past their shield?"
As Sumner began to voice his own personal theories about the most appropriate location to target, Elizabeth glanced over at the other two doctors sitting around the table right now, and was relieved to see them looking at her with what she could best describe as apprehensive certainty.
They didn't know how they were going to pull it off in specific terms, but the three of them were all already prepared to find some way back to Atlantis, regardless of what rules they had to defy to do it.
It was almost surprising how quickly they were all agreed that Sumner wouldn't be informed about this- not only was nobody even reaching over to attract his attention, she was fairly sure that McKay was trying to make sure that the colonel wasn't even looking at them-, but it was clear that all three of them understood the reasoning behind that decision; Sumner was too bound by the rules to go along with something this big.
There had to be something that they could do; Elizabeth was not going to let John die because they'd made a mistake that put the city he had protected for so long in the line of fire with him still in it…
Crouching in the maintenance tunnel as he heard the sounds of fighting being waged around him, John wondered what was more disturbing; how little he really minded the fact that the Ancients were dying, or how fundamentally stupid their military tactics seemed to be.
He could just about accept the fact that they hadn't had much in the way of anti-Asuran weaponry because they would have assumed that the Asurans would just stop once they were ordered, but they didn't seem to have taken any steps whatsoever to shoulder up Atlantis's defences (He hated to admit it, but he was selfishly grateful that Orion had been in the Milky Way when the Ancients showed up; the ship might have been useful in this fight, but he doubted that it would have delayed the Asurans for long given its limited drone supply and some parts still not operating at their best). Not only were the Asurans able to bypass Atlantis's shield with frustrating ease- probably something about their ship being Ancient technology as well-, but they were practically steamrolling over the city; the Ancients had managed to launch some drones at the attacking Asuran ship, but all that had accomplished was halting the aerial bombardment in favour of a more direct assault.
As it was, the Asuran ship they'd sent had been forced to land due to engine damage, but the ship's crew had come through undamaged, marching through the city and killing the Ancients with an efficiency that fit their machine-like natures; they were just breaking necks or punching through chests of any Ancient they came across in a cool, methodical manner.
In some ways, the swiftness of their attack made it easier for John to make a decision on what to do next; he might have been tempted to at least try to save the Ancients out of human decency, but with the Asurans so focused on eliminating the Ancients, it made his choice easy.
There was no way to protect the Ancients- now that the Asurans knew that the 'parents' who'd abandoned them had returned, they weren't going to stop until they'd annihilated all of them-, but Richard Woolsey and General Jack O'Neill might just be able to slip under the radar long enough to get to safety, particularly since they wouldn't match what the Asurans were looking for; O'Neill might have the ATA gene, but John had learned over the years that there were still enough subtle differences between Ancients and ATA-positive humans to make a difference when running a scan for Ancient life-signs compared to human ones.
In other words, right now his main priority was to track down the only two Tau'ri left on Atlantis and get them somewhere safe until they could come up with a better plan of attack; Woolsey might be a bit of a jerk, but he'd made the right call when it counted more than once, and O'Neill definitely didn't deserve whatever the Asurans would do to him.
Checking his pockets to ensure that he had everything he might need, John took a deep breath and began to crawl through the tunnels; all he could do right now was hope that the Asurans were as ignorant of the fine details of Atlantis's construction as the Ancients had been, and that the people he was looking for were still alive…
Elizabeth couldn't believe that she was doing this; after years of working with the system, she was defying virtually every oath she'd taken and attempting to rescue a potentially lost city with a group of five people, over half of whom weren't trained soldiers?
The only thing more shocking than that was how easy it had been to make such a decision in the first place. She might be willing to take orders, but she'd learned after arriving in Atlantis that sometimes you had to go against what people wanted you to do in favour of what you needed to do.
On the brighter side, they at least had some kind of plan for getting back to Atlantis, but the finer details still needed some work. The Anti-Replicator weapons, colloquially known as ARGs, were at least simple enough to use- according to McKay all you had to do was point, fire, and the Replicators would collapse-, and McKay had assured them that he had a means of getting them through Atlantis's shield when they were ready to head back to the city, but even with Carson willing to pilot the gateship, that had still left them with the issue of getting access to the ship without the SGC closing the Iris until McKay had some up with his plan.
Elizabeth still couldn't believe that she'd had to flirt with Doctor Lee to give McKay time to add a keycard to the authorised list; it wasn't that he was a bad person, but something about it just felt… wrong…
Still, none of that mattered now; what mattered was that they'd put together everything they needed for their unofficial mission, and they were now sitting in the gateship, ready to take action. She felt awkward dressed in the black BDUs they'd picked up for this mission, but her usual attire would have hardly been suitable for this kind of mission, and it was only a one-off anyway.
On the bright side, getting to the gateship had been straightforward enough, and Carson seemed relatively comfortable in the pilot's seat despite his obvious apprehension, leaving them with nothing more to do than let McKay dial the Stargate and let them leave.
"We're ready!" McKay said, hurrying into the gateship's rear hatch.
"Let's go," Elizabeth said, nodding firmly at Carson as the hatch closed behind them.
"OK, they'll be able to get through my hack pretty quickly," McKay said.
"We don't need much time," Carson said, despite his apprehensive expression suggesting that he wasn't as confident as he was trying to present. "We're going down now."
As the gateship lowered into position before the Stargate, Elizabeth briefly heard Landry's voice ordering them to stand down, but she ignored it; she had more important things to deal with right now.
As they dived through the Stargate, Elizabeth smiled in relief as she felt the rarely-experienced but long-missed thrill of travelling through the wormhole.
I'm coming, John… she thought.
She didn't care what the consequences of this action would be for her long-term career; after John had saved them all so many times, it would just feel wrong if she didn't at least try to save him in return.
"My turtles!" Carson yelled, after they had been sitting at Midway Station for a few as McKay worked on his console.
"What?" Elizabeth asked, looking at him in surprise; of everything her former chief doctor could have said, that certainly hadn't been on the list.
"I just bought some wee baby turtles and no-one knows to feed them," Carson explained.
"Well," Elizabeth said, stuck for anything else to say to such an out-of-the-blue comment, "turtles are pretty hardy. I'm sure they'll be fine."
"I figured I'm back for good so I might as well get a pet," Carson explained, apparently feeling a need to explain now that he had brought the matter up. "I'm allergic to cats and, well, I'm at work too long to be fair to a dog, so I went with turtles. I've probably killed them."
"They'll be fine," Elizabeth said, stuck for anything else that she could say to that statement before she looked at the gateship's other resident. "How are you coming along, Rodney?"
"Oh, trust me, I am going as fast as I can!" McKay said, looking at her in frustration.
"Poor little buggers," Carson said, evidently still lost in thought over the turtles.
Elizabeth was spared from having to think of an appropriate response to that statement- she sympathised with Carson's plight as a pet-owner herself, but this wasn't the time to think about that- when the gateship's HUD activated, displaying a grid pattern with some numbers that Elizabeth thought she understood…
"The Milky Way gate just activated," Carson said, looking apprehensively at her and John before Colonel Sumner's face appeared on the screen.
"Doctor Weir," the colonel said, his expression grim as he looked at them, "I'm fully aware that you, Doctor McKay, and Doctor Beckett are in that gateship, and I'm also aware of what you're trying to do. I would like to commend you for your courage, but the fact is that what you're attempting is foolish at best; Atlantis is lost and we have our orders to ensure Earth's protection. I respect what you have accomplished during that mission, but the mission is over; if you don't come back to the SGC now-"
Remembering some of her past experience at travelling in gateships, Elizabeth hit the button to terminate the connection, no longer interested in hearing what Sumner had to say.
"Well," Rodney said, looking up from his work to exchange glances with the other two, "I think it's probably safe to assume he won't be interested in coming back."
"We defied orders and went against everything he believes we need to survive out here; I don't think Colonel Sumner will be willing to work with us again any time soon," Elizabeth said grimly.
It was slightly sad to know that such a long-term relationship had just been ended, but it was still just a professional relationship rather than a friendship; none of them had ever really connected with Sumner on anything more than a professional level, and that was unlikely to have changed at any point in the future. He had been a good ally in their time in Atlantis, but even as the science teams and their remaining Athosian full-time team members had come to see Atlantis as a home, Sumner had all but forced the military to maintain a professional distance from the rest of the population, treating Atlantis as a place of work rather than a home.
Elizabeth had kept him on because she had no legitimate reason to fire him, but she wasn't going to object if he decided to leave even after they'd recovered Atlantis (And they would take the city back; the alternatives were unthinkable).
Losing Sumner would be an inconvenience, of course, but if all went well, maybe Elizabeth would be able to use General O'Neill's backing to nominate her own preferred candidate for the head of Atlantis's military…
Her speculation ended as McKay's console let out a more positive-sounding beep.
"OK, I've got it," the Canadian physicist said, looking up at them with a slight smile.
"Last chance to change our minds?" Carson asked, looking over at the other two before he nodded in grim understanding at the lack of response. "Let's go, then."
As they dived through the wormhole that would take them back to the Pegasus Galaxy, Elizabeth couldn't stop herself from grinning at the thought of what was waiting for her at the other end, the grin remaining on her face even as the ship emerged in a forest-covered world.
"We're here!" Carson said, looking back at them with a smile.
"We're sure about that?" Elizabeth asked, looking over at Rodney; she didn't have any real doubt that her chief scientist would have chosen the right address, but she had to be sure.
"I reconfigured the macro to take us to the Athosians' new homeworld; if Teyla and Ronon aren't here, someone's bound to know where they are instead," Rodney said as he got up from his seat. "Let's just… go and find them, huh?"
Elizabeth honestly couldn't blame Rodney for wanting to keep moving; they were committed to their current course of action, but if they stopped to think about what they'd done for too long they might just end up panicking about the odds against them and be in even more trouble…