He knew that he could never regain his old appearance- and in some ways, he didn't want to; the fact of the Phantom was a face that represented the war he'd survived for so long- but even if putting on the make-up took up a lot of time, it was nice to feel normal again, after so long standing out from the crowd at a glance due to his mask or his face.
Besides, after spending the better part of the last week being tested and debriefed following his brief captivity, as well as undergoing all kinds of tests to confirm that there had been no side-effects from his treatment by the Wraith, it was good to be getting back to his new usual routine. Once he'd been checked out and cleared of any potential medical side-effects, the IOA had tried to use John's capture against him, arguing that it hardly boded well for Atlantis's military structure if their military commander could be abducted that easily, but John had neatly countered their arguments by pointing out that he could hardly be held responsible for being taken by surprise on what was meant to be a diplomatic mission to a peaceful planet. Since nobody could legitimately claim that John should have been prepared for anything without giving the impression that they wanted a brutal soldier rather than a more rounded individual, the IOA had been left with no real other choice than to allow the former Phantom to continue as the expedition's military leader.
Still, the team's current mission had seemed to be a relatively simple one when they'd received the original assignment; they'd found an unusual space station located near the space gate that was the next address listed in the database, with no trace of life signs and relatively minimal power readings. After taking a puddle jumper to the small asteroid-esque moon where the base was located, with a docking bay containing two other antiquated shuttles, John and McKay had donned a couple of spacesuits and set out to explore the base, which had a technology level that McKay compared to Earth in the 1960s if the space program had managed to make greater progress.
John had been uncertain about its potential value, but he had agreed with McKay's decision to explore it in greater depth before giving up the search, resulting in them searching through the various corridors until they finally found a hatch leading to the complex's control room. Once McKay found the controls for the base's power supply, he had turned them back on before John could stop him, the Canadian scientist eagerly anticipating the possibilities of exploring the base and the attached shuttle until he'd detected an apparently familiar energy signature from another part of the complex. John had taken a moment to alert Teyla and Ronon to the possibility of a problem as they remained back in the puddle jumper before hurrying after his associate.
After finding a map of the complex on the facility's computer, they'd managed to track the source of the energy signal, quickly making their way to the location in question. Once they had arrived at the appropriate room, they'd discovered a large device covered with glowing green panels in a large metal cradle, with a second empty cradle beside it, and a man lying on the ground wearing what looked like some sort of boiler suit.
Whatever this place was, there was clearly some kind of mystery here that meant they weren't going to leave here any time soon.
As he removed the last of his suit to make exploration easier, John mused that he might be calling Atlantis a bit earlier than he'd anticipated, but at least this time he'd be giving Elizabeth relatively positive news, as opposed to the dire nature of their last mission…
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…