The sound of gunfire filled the air. Armed soldiers had come through the gate firing, meeting Atlantis' own marines head on. But the battle was brief.
The Atlanteans were heavily outnumbered and not expecting an attack, while the intruders were prepared and ruthless in their assault. As the last short burst of P-90 fire was answered by a single shot, the control room fell into a stunned silence.
Through the wide control room window, Elizabeth could see the dark-uniformed soldiers taking cover, weapons at the ready and movements practised and confident. On the Gateroom floor, four bodies sprawled, their familiar Atlantean uniforms stained with blood. Immediately in front of the gate, one of the intruders also lay unmoving. She hastily searched the room with her eyes, only then did she realise with shock that the sole marine still standing was the man at her side.
Elizabeth was more furious than frightened, her anger making her almost oblivious to the immediate danger. She glared at the armed marine beside her. He hadn't moved during the fight, standing, pistol in hand, next to Chuck at the gate control. A stocky man with short-cropped, dark hair and pale grey eyes. His name-patch read 'Johnson'. Finding her voice, Elizabeth loudly demanded, "What the hell is going on?"
The marine stared silently back, his face impassive.
Elizabeth set her jaw at the man's blank expression and turned her attention back to the Gateroom below, her eyes carefully scanning the intruders. Their uniforms carried no insignia of rank, but she had no difficulty in picking out the leader. A tall, grey-haired man stood slightly apart from the others; he had made no attempt to conceal himself after stepping through the gate, and now he was surveying the Gateroom with the self-assured gaze of a predator.
Behind him the Stargate was still active, and, as Elizabeth watched, another fifteen men came through, loaded down with half a dozen large, wooden crates along with two occupied medical stretchers. The containers were being hastily stacked on the Gateroom floor but the two gurneys, watched over by an armed soldier, were being carried to the far side of the gate where they would be less disturbed.
Still dauntless in her anger, Elizabeth took a step forward.
"Stay where you are!" Johnson's barked order pulled her up short. She'd almost forgotten the marine standing beside her.
"It's all right, Johnson, let her approach." The grey-haired man called out from below as he strode unhurriedly across the Gateroom floor towards the steps.
Up in the control room, Elizabeth took a moment to think. Now that her initial anger was starting to pass, a wave of fear threatened to claim her and she pulled in a deep breath, forcing the panic back. Their position was bad, although she remembered having been in worse, and she needed to regain her composure if she was going to maintain any control over the situation.
Her eyes once more scanned the Gateroom. The tall commanding officer had reached the steps, his men fanning out behind him. From her viewpoint, Elizabeth could see that the soldiers were armed with large, cumbersome looking handguns, but the officer himself had a much smaller pistol holstered at his side.
With a final glance at Johnson, she walked up to the head of the staircase and paused there, waiting for the officer to come to her.
"Dr Weir," The man seemed unaware of her subtle manoeuvring, coming to a halt in front of her with a warm, and apparently genuine, smile on his face. "We've never met, but your reputation as a diplomat and leader goes before you."
Elizabeth stared pointedly at the fallen bodies on the Gateroom floor and spoke with barely concealed disdain. "It seems that you have me at a disadvantage."
The tall officer affected not to notice her tone, responding only to her words. "Then allow me to introduce myself," he held out a hand in greeting, "I am Commander Marek Bartos."
Elizabeth froze, her heart suddenly pounding loudly in her own ears. Even so, she didn't miss the sharp gasps and single muttered Czech curse from behind her.
"And it appears that my reputation also precedes me," A slight frown crossed Bartos' face as he slowly lowered his proffered hand. "Although, despite recent events, you shouldn't believe everything that you have heard about me."
Bartos. Even without the violent arrival, the name alone would have been enough to send a chill along the length of her spine. A cold-blooded murderer was standing less than two feet in front of her, the genial smile returning to his face. She found her jaw tensing in an effort to bite down on blistering words. An outward show of emotion right now would do nothing to help the situation, no matter how much she wanted to wipe the smile from the bastard's face with the back of her hand.
"May I ask why you have invaded my City?" Her voice was ice-cold, but she couldn't disguise her feeling of outrage.
This time Bartos' eyes flashed in anger at her question and the smile fell from his face, "Believe me, Dr Weir, coming to Atlantis was never part of my plan. Unfortunately, I find that I require the use of your Stargate." He nodded curtly to the dark-uniformed man at his shoulder, who stepped smartly forward towards the control room, as Bartos continued in a calmer voice, "If your people stay out of my way, then there is no reason for any more of them to come to harm."
As the last word left his mouth, an angry cry of, "Hey!" from behind her made Elizabeth start in alarm.
"You! Get away from that damn computer!" Johnson's shout ripped through the air and Elizabeth turned to see the reason for the marine's anger.
Dr Zelenka, his head down and his hands frantically flying over the keyboard, was hunched over a workstation. As Elizabeth watched, Johnson grabbed the scientist by his shoulder, spinning him around until they were face to face. Zelenka tried to break away, and the marine took a back-handed swipe at him, the 9mm pistol in his hand striking the scientist's forehead with an audible crack, sending him crashing to the ground.
"Radek!" Elizabeth let out a startled cry. When Bartos didn't stop her, she quickly made her way towards the control room where Chuck had already pushed past the armed marine to kneel at Zelenka's side.
Elizabeth could see that Zelenka was out cold with an ugly gash across his brow, the surrounding skin already turning purple beneath the blood that Chuck was urgently trying to staunch. The Canadian turned a worried face towards her, "He needs medical help."
She looked over to Bartos, shock at the sudden brutality momentarily robbing her of her voice, but the grey-haired man didn't spare her a glance. Stepping past her, he curtly addressed a seated technician, a young woman with olive skin and heavily lidded eyes. "Report," he demanded of the woman, "Tell me what he did."
"He's disabled the gate controls, there's no way of dialling out." The tech sounded remarkably composed, her hands moving confidently as she accessed the gate computer.
"Can you over-ride what he's done?" Bartos snapped, striding over to stand behind the woman.
With a sudden flash of understanding, Elizabeth looked from the young gate tech to Johnson. It was almost impossible to believe that two of her own people were working for Bartos, but there was no other plausible explanation.
"Damn it, Kanwal, don't help him!" Chuck's incredulous voice called across the control room from where he knelt beside Zelenka. The Canadian had obviously not yet realised that the young woman was not actually working on their side.
Even now, Elizabeth was finding that difficult to accept. "Kanwal?" She waited until the seated technician turned to face her before asking, quietly; "You do realise that you are working for a cold-blooded murderer?"
An unreadable expression crossed the woman's face for a second, then she dropped her eyes from Elizabeth's and replied to Bartos' question. "I'm sorry, Sir, but without Dr Zelenka's command code, the gate is locked up tight."
Before Bartos could respond, Dr Weir seized the initiative, "Commander Bartos," Her clear voice filled the control room, "It will only be a matter of time before my people breach the lockdown. We also have a ship on the way. You must know you'll never be able to hold the City."
Bartos turned to Elizabeth, drawing his pistol from its holster as he did so. With a jolt, Elizabeth recognised the gun. It was a standard military 9mm pistol; the gun that Bartos had taken from John; the gun he'd used to murder Rodney.
"I think that you misunderstand your position here, Dr Weir." In a fluid movement, he turned his pistol towards a young, flame-haired tech. The young man leapt to his feet, his eyes wide in terror as Bartos calmly squeezed the trigger. A shot echoed around the control room and the technician dropped instantly, falling lifeless to the ground beside Zelenka.
Re-holstering his gun, Bartos looked down into Elizabeth's shocked face. "You must know that your people are expendable, and my patience is limited."
Shock turned to boiling anger in Elizabeth's chest. She understood her position perfectly; it was her job to bring this killer to justice and ensure that no more of her people suffered at his hands. Her resolve was firm; although how she would achieve this she had no idea.
Movement caught her eye. Kanwal had reached for Zelenka's keyboard and was drawing it towards herself. "Sir," The olive-skinned woman sounded nervous as she ran her hands over the keys, "If you can give me twenty minutes I should be able to write a work-around. I can't promise full gate function, but given half an hour, I can attempt to access the additional control crystal as well."
Elizabeth tried to keep the look of surprise from her face. The additional control crystal? As far as she was aware, that crystal's only function was to allow an eight-chevron lock. It was necessary if you wanted to dial out of the Pegasus Galaxy, but why would Bartos want to do that?
The tall officer pursed his lips for a moment in deliberation and then seemed to come to a decision. "You have half an hour." He nodded brusquely to Kanwal then checked a timepiece on his wrist and continued, "The Daedalus will take a minimum of fifty minutes to arrive; I want to be away from here in thirty."
Thirty minutes. That was how long Elizabeth had before the murderer managed to escape justice again. Glancing around the control room, she took in the expressions on the faces of her people. Most still showed nothing but shock, a few mirrored her own feelings of determination and outrage, yet others looked close to panic. Elizabeth knew that keeping these people safe had to be her first priority. If she saw an opportunity to stop Bartos, she would seize it with both hands, but, with the Daedalus nearly an hour away and Atlantis in lockdown, that would take a miracle.
John looked up from the pilot's console, a tense expression on his face. With himself, Teyla, Ronon and Hermiod in the Hefnd's tiny cockpit, conditions were more than cramped. Teyla sat on the deck, her back pressed against the cockpit's bulkhead and her knees drawn up out of John's way while Ronon filled the doorway to the rear compartment. Hermiod wasn't visible at the moment, but a series of rhythmic clunks told Sheppard exactly where the Asgard was working.
Satisfied that nothing else needed his immediate attention, John turned back to the console in front of him. The Hefnd was even more glorious to fly than she was to look at, but any pleasure that he may have found in piloting the Asgard vessel was dispelled by the prospect of what might be awaiting them when they reached Atlantis. Normally, when he was flying a new ship for the first time, nothing else mattered; vectors and velocities filled his mind until he became totally immersed in the awesome thrill of flight. But now, his thoughts kept turning relentlessly back to what Rodney had told them. Bartos had infiltrated Atlantis and even now could have entered the city with armed soldiers at his back. It was difficult to believe, and, if John hadn't heard it from Rodney's own lips, he doubted that he would have so easily accepted it as true.
Even more unbelievable was that Rodney himself was alive. After five weeks of grieving, it was only now sinking in that Rodney's apparent murder had simply been an act to convince them that the scientist was dead, and that searching for him would be futile. Never leave a man behind... Bartos must have known that John and his team would never have rested if they had thought for one moment that McKay was still alive. A sudden shiver ran through him as he realised just how close he'd come to ending their search. He looked round at Teyla and Ronon and saw their grim expressions; it made him wonder if the same thought had crossed their minds.
A low alien muttering cut through his brooding and John glanced over towards the sound. "How are you getting on, Hermiod?" The Asgard engineer lifted his head from beneath the disassembled teleport system and gave Sheppard an unfathomable look. It hadn't been obvious back aboard the Daedalus, but after the grey alien removed the inspection cover, it had become apparent that it was not just the control crystal that was missing; someone had cannibalised the teleport mechanism for parts.
"I am getting on... productively, Colonel. Several key components have been removed from the teleport system, but it has been done with care. Nothing has been damaged in the process." Sheppard gave a wry smile at the Asgard's reply; Rodney had been a member of his team for long enough for John to recognise the scientist's expert handiwork when he saw it.
"Can you fix it before we get home?"
"I am currently assembling parts from other non-essential equipment, Colonel. Most of the missing components seem to have been incorporated into the hyperdrive engine's control system and it would be inadvisable for me to attempt to retrieve them while we are in flight; however, I am certain that the teleport will be operational before we arrive." John nodded and turned back to the pilot's console, but Hermiod hadn't finished speaking, "Provided you do not require the use of the teleport too often."
Sheppard narrowed his eyes without looking up; this did not sound good. If Bartos had entered Atlantis, John's team might need to move around the city without using the corridors and he'd been counting on the teleport for that. "Define 'too often'."
"I am confident of a safe transfer of your team from the Hefnd to Atlantis. If that does not overload the replacement components, it may be possible to achieve a second transfer; beyond that, I would not anticipate success."
No, not good. John hunched over the low console, his mind racing. They would soon be dropping out of hyperspace and the Hefnd needed his full attention, added to that, he and his team had maybe five minutes to come up with a 'Plan B'.
Not good at all.
Elizabeth's finger tapped surreptitiously on the radio nestled in her left ear.
She dropped her hand back to her side with a growing sense of frustration.
It had been a little over twenty minutes since Bartos and his first dozen soldiers had emerged from the Stargate. Elizabeth had hoped to negotiate with the intruders, but all her diplomatic skills were of no avail when Bartos and his men simply ignored her, refusing to even acknowledge her attempts to draw them into a dialogue.
Searching for any option she might have missed, Elizabeth's eyes scoured her surroundings. A movement in the Gateroom drew her attention and she craned her neck to see. In the area beyond the Stargate, the occupants of the two stretchers were being checked by another one of Bartos' men. Elizabeth watched attentively as he lifted the thick brown blankets that covered them to reveal a heavyset man whose head was swathed in white bandages, and a fair-haired youth, his face deathly pale but showing no visible injuries. On the floor beside the gurneys now lay the corpses of the five Atlanteans and the single dead intruder; their bodies also covered by heavy blankets.
Radek had not been taken to the Gateroom; instead, the injured scientist had been dragged unceremoniously to the far wall where the rest of her people were now kneeling; five of Bartos' men standing guard over them, weapons at the ready.
Elizabeth was the only Atlantean still on her feet. When the others had been herded away, she had refused to kneel. She'd stared Bartos in the eye, anticipating a swift retaliation to her defiance and had been surprised to see instead an expression close to respect on the Commander's face.
But now his look had turned to one of irritation as the woman working on cracking Radek's disabling programme offered a report.
"I'm sorry, Sir, but finding a way around Dr Zelenka's programme is more difficult than I thought." Kanwal's hands moved rapidly over the keyboard as she spoke but her eyes avoided Bartos', instead remaining fixed on her computer screen. "I now have control of basic gate functions so it is possible to dial out, but I will need more time to access the additional crystal."
"Understood," Bartos' voice was calmer than his face indicated, and the young woman appeared to relax slightly, although her eyes still didn't lift from the screen. "You have ten minutes before we leave."
With a brief nod of affirmation, Kanwal seemed to focus even more intently on the computer in front of her, her hands flying as she redoubled her efforts.
Elizabeth realised that the ten minute deadline applied to her too. She had time to make one last effort to turn the tide in her favour and she looked around to see where her best chance lay. Johnson was her closest guard. Bringing all she could remember of his confidential file to mind, she started talking, directing her quiet words at the young man.
"Johnson?" He ignored her, as she'd expected, but she continued to speak in a low voice, hoping for some reaction that she could use. "It's 'Mark', isn't it?" She paused for a moment, but was still met with stony silence. "You were stationed in the SGC for five years, is that right? I know General Hammond has spoken very highly of you. I'm trying to understand why anyone would throw away such an outstanding military career and betray his own people…"
"Dr Weir," Bartos was suddenly at her side, moving as silently as a cat. His voice cut across her words, but his tone was more amused than annoyed. "Please don't waste your breath; Johnson was my man long before he was yours, and his loyalty is without question."
A flicker of pride crossed the young marine's face as Elizabeth latched on to Bartos' words with interest. From Johnson's file, she knew that this was his first assignment off world. He had arrived on the Daedalus in the original wave of reinforcements when Earth finally re-established contact with Atlantis. If Bartos was telling the truth, then Johnson must have been working for him back on Earth.
She filed this piece of information away and turned her full attention to Bartos. Now that the Commander was speaking to her, she finally had a chance to negotiate
First she would see how much information he was willing to supply. "Commander." She waited until he looked her in the eye before continuing, "You must need this gate to leave the Pegasus Galaxy. Where do you intend to go?" Her tone was confident, expecting an answer, and with an easy smile Bartos responded to her question.
"I merely wish to return home, Dr Weir. I had intended to use my ship, but that proved to be impossible. Once we have left Atlantis the lockdown will end and the city will return to your control. Whether your people remain unharmed depends largely on whether they try to oppose me." Now he stared pointedly at Zelenka as the scientist lay, his head propped on a makeshift pillow, by the far wall. The ugly wound on Radek's forehead had finally stopped its sluggish bleeding, leaving the congealed blood to plaster his usually unruly hair to his skull in a dull-red mat.
Elizabeth gave the Commander a tight smile, but she wasn't fooled by his words. She'd mediated enough negotiations to know that he was lying. Whatever his real plans were, he had no intention of allowing anyone the opportunity of following him through the gate, and the most obvious way of preventing that was to leave none of them alive.
Her main aim now was to secure the safety of her people, and, with careful handling of the situation, she knew that was still possible. She was choosing her next words when, without warning, a crackling voice spoke her name. "Elizabeth?" Catching herself before she could react in surprise to the radio in her ear, she dropped her gaze from Bartos' face and listened intently.
"Elizabeth, it's me, John." Her heart began to beat faster, but she made herself move slowly, knowing that Bartos was close enough to notice her every movement. The small radio was hidden beneath her hair and she raised her hand to her head, raking her fingers through her dark curls as if it were simply a habit. As her hand brushed past the radio, she tapped it once with her thumb, activating the microphone. Before she could work out how best to respond, Sheppard's distorted voice spoke again. "Something's jamming your signals but Hermiod's managed to break through. Elizabeth, can you hear me?"
Frustration mounted. She couldn't reply aloud; the control room was silent now apart from the constant tapping of Kanwal's fingers on her keyboard. Bartos would hear even the quietest of answers.
Praying that Sheppard would understand, she coughed gently.
There was a moment's silence. Finally, Sheppard's voice crackled again in her ear.
"Okay, Elizabeth, I'm assuming you have company, but I need to know your situation. Is there any way you can tell me what's going on there?"
Elizabeth took a calming breath before speaking. "Commander Bartos?" She looked up at the grey-haired man, but this time Bartos chose to ignore her, and it was John who spoke again.
"Crap, McKay was right." He seemed to be speaking to himself but Elizabeth felt her heart jolt at Rodney's name; his murderer was standing in front of her and she forced her face to show no change in expression as John's voice continued in her ear, "Okay, Elizabeth, we're above the city now and we'll be with you soon. Can you let me know what we'll be up against?"
This time she was ready with her reply, "Commander," She increased the emotion in her voice, allowing a little of her genuine concern through to add colour to her words. "Your soldiers have shown that they are capable of using lethal force. All I ask is that you remember that we are unarmed civilians."
"Of course, Dr Weir." Bartos inclined his head in reply, "We would all do well to remember that."
But she was listening to another voice. "Okay, Elizabeth. We'll be with you as soon as possible. Hang on, and keep your heads down until we get there." With that, the radio fell silent but Elizabeth was left with the feeling that maybe her much needed miracle had just arrived.