Edited: 08/009/2014 - Changed the chapter's ending somewhat.
Chapter 11 - Seeds of Distrust, Part 2
"They say of a sniper's bullet that if you hear it then you're safe, because it will already have passed safely by. It's the one's you don't hear that do it for you."
September 4 2004, 50,000 ft ASL, 70 miles west of Atlantis, Pegasus Galaxy
Harry had a simple solution to the 'how not to lie to Teyla' issue: avoid her as much as possible. It was a pretty flawed solution, he knew, but he really didn't want to open any opportunities for her to ask awkward questions. When it was all over he could explain himself; until then, he had to keep his mouth shut.
McKay worked out how to open the roof hatch, so the next morning Harry and Sheppard planned to take a pair of Jumpers for a joyride – ahem, sorry, 'reconnaissance mission' – with Ford riding shotgun with the Major, thus neatly removing them from the city until shortly before AR-1's mission that afternoon.
At least, that had been the plan.
Unfortunately, they somehow managed not to factor Teyla into that plan, who sort of invited herself along with Harry by dint of being the only member of AR-1 not otherwise employed. McKay claimed he had better things to do.
Even though neither Harry nor indeed any of the senior staff had any genuine doubts about her, they still couldn't tell her. Even Ford didn't know anything was different, although from the speculative look he gave Sheppard when the mission start time was postponed, he might have figured something was afoot. But if Bates got paranoid again, or if anyone else had similar arguments, Sheppard and Weir needed to be able to point to this op as proof of Teyla's innocence. Their plan would confirm that while also (hopefully) revealing the means by which the Wraith were spying on them.
They were up and heading for low orbit before Ford started the conversation on the open net. They were being more relaxed about squad and team level radio discipline in Atlantis itself; now the city sensors were up they knew the Wraith couldn't possibly be in range to detect them, let alone intercept them, and on the squad and scientist nets excessive adherence to voice procedure was difficult to enforce anyway; trying to do so would only cause friction.
"You know, we still haven't called this planet anything."
"I'm sure the Ancients had a name for it," Sheppard replied.
"How about … Atlantica or something like that?"
Two simultaneous groans of despair sounded over the radio: not from Teyla of course, who would never be so rude to a friend … although since Ford wasn't in their Jumper she did share an amused grin with Harry.
"I thought we agreed you weren't going to name anything anymore?" the CO complained.
Harry decided on a slightly more … proactive course of action, opened a new channel alongside the team one. "Zero, Jumper Four for the Officer of the Watch."
"What is it?" Sheppard asked concernedly from the other Jumper, but Harry didn't reply to him directly.
"Jumper Four, Zero, send traffic."
"Lieutenant Morales, this is the Exec. I'm issuing a new company-level SOP. Effective both immediately and retroactively, First Lieutenant Aiden Ford is never, ever allowed to name anything discovered in the Pegasus Galaxy. Ever. Or the Milky Way, Ida or Andromeda Galaxies either, just to be thorough. Over"
"Tag the CO's approval on that," Sheppard added.
"Hey!" Ford protested.
"Zero copies." Morales replied in a too-professional 'stoic marine' tone that meant he was struggling not to laugh at his fellow platoon commander. "New SOP logged, banning Lieutenant Ford from naming anything. I'll pass that on to the other junior officers, gunnery sergeants and squad leaders for immediate distribution sir. Hell, I'll just use the PA system. Zero out."
"Hey, that's -" Ford protested again, but it was too late.
"Your naming-things career is done, lieutenant," Harry told him. "Thank … whatever deities exist that aren't the Goa'uld."
"Second that," Sheppard laughed. "Puddlejumper beats Gateship any day of the week."
"You're starting to sound like a broken record, lieutenant."
"I will have my revenge, sir. Sirs."
"You can try." Harry's eyes narrowed at something appearing on the curved horizon, then checked the sensors. "Is that land?"
"Looks like. Didn't McKay did say something about a landmass on the edge of the city sensor's range? Recon run. You go low, I'll go high. Meet you at angels eighty on the far side … these coordinates."
A beacon blipped into life as Harry's Jumper registered the information sent by Sheppard from the other craft. "Coordinates received, breaking away."
As Harry guided the Ancient ship back down through the atmosphere, Teyla admired the incredible view of the curve of the planet and the jewel-toned landmass they were approaching.
Who wouldn't gape at such a view? The only other trip of this nature she had taken thus far had been when they had been escaping from the Hive, and since the Darts had been shooting at them at the time she hadn't really been taking in the view. Now, she watched with most of her attention but another part of her mind was churning on a different problem.
It had taken her most of the morning to pin it down. Something was wrong with Harry. Something was different; he wasn't meeting her eyes, gave short replies, nor was he smiling.
She knew that Harry was perceived differently by different parts of the expedition; for example, most of the scientists were still slightly terrified of him. To her Athosians, he was their … protector was probably the best word. Well, to the kids like Jinto and Wex he more of a hero out of legend, but even the adults, while more pragmatic, weren't entirely immune from the hero worship. It was partly because of the rescue but more because Harry always had time for any of the tribe who went to him with a problem, and not just because he was the liaison to the Athosians.
The Marines were also now 'on-side' with him as well. The company's officers and NCOs had worked with Harry and Sheppard closely over the past three months, and the lingering mistrust – stemming from their former CO's known dislike of the two Air Force men – had become respect for their obvious skills and hard work. The senior Marines' positive attitude towards their new commanders had influenced their men to think the same; perhaps not with the fervour they might have had for Colonel Sumner, since they weren't one of their own – meaning Marines, because apparently that made a difference, and Harry was from an entirely different tribe … nation as well – but it was enough to be going on with.
Perhaps most importantly in Harry's case, he could teach as well. When she had asked, John had explained why that was more important than it seemed. A good leader was one thing, but a good officer who could teach an array of disciplines as diverse as hand-to-hand combat, long-range marksmanship or demolitions with the same easy confidence in all of them inspired much stronger trust in his subordinates that he knew what he was doing.
Beyond his professional responsibilities, Harry was still an enigma to most of the Expedition's civilian personnel outside of the senior staff. Some of the snippets of information that had filtered down, like the story the Marines had overheard Sheppard telling Sumner that first night on Athos, or the accounts his medal citations which had begun being whispered about just the previous evening had been blown out of proportion by the junior corporals and privates, making it difficult for those who did not interact with him to distinguish between fact and hyperbole. To a generation of young soldiers brought up on a mixture of Hollywood action heroes ranging from John Wayne classics to Jason Bourne, Harry's now rather exaggerated reputation had made him into some kind of black-ops ninja, with a similarly shadowy past.
But he wasn't an enigma to Teyla. Well, she amended, he was less of an enigma. He had a dark side; the occasional flashes of self-hatred hinting at violent, bloody memories of other missions gone bad he hadn't yet told her about made that clear.
But she didn't need to know his history to know the man, and Teyla probably knew him better by now than anyone on the base, except maybe John given how closely the two of them worked together. Behind the bland professional façade he presented to people he didn't know well was a genuinely caring and charming man with a wicked sense of humour, whom both her and the other senior staff had come to know and trust … but with just the two of them in the jumper, there was no reason for him to keep that façade up. So … what was different?
Teyla decided to take the problem head on.
"Harry, is something wrong?"
He flicked a quick glance sideways at her. "What do you mean?"
"Just that you seem different today."
"Just more of Atlantis being Atlantis." Harry groused. "I swear, I'm going to go grey from all the random things this city is producing."
Teyla laughed quietly. At least she'd got a genuine response, and it was true enough. The last few weeks had indeed been a series of small crises for the Exec to deal with, usually as a result of the scientific teams touching something they shouldn't. Nothing too bad had happened, however, except near-heart attacks and unnecessary minor injuries.
"Can't wait until we manage to get the AI up and working." Harry continued. "Maybe she can tell us what stuff is before some idiot activates it to find out instead."
"From what Rodney managed to explain to me, this Tyche will do a lot more than that. Although it only took John about two sentences to say the same thing."
"He gave you a long spiel, did he?"
Teyla studied him for a moment. "You don't particularly like Doctor McKay, do you?"
"Not particularly." Harry admitted. "He's an arrogant pain in the ass. However, he's a very, very smart arrogant pain in the ass who, unlike most scientists on the base, has an extremely advanced sense of self-preservation, and thus touches things less than most of them and will probably save all our lives repeatedly in the next few months alone. He is, probably, the second most intelligent person from Earth, and for that kind of talent I can put up with his ego."
"Second most intelligent?"
Harry smirked. "First is definitely Major … actually, she's now Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter. From what I've heard it irks McKay no end that she's smarter than he is, and the planet-sized crush Carson says he has on her probably doesn't help much."
"Erm … slang for infatuation."
Teyla hid a smile. "Is it returned?"
"Not in the slightest, or so says Carson, the base gossip. I've never met her, but as I understand it she basically fulfils McKay's job on the Earth base's version of AR-1. She was SG-1's engineer and scientist, but unlike McKay, she's also a decorated soldier and pilot who can shoot straight."
"I take it he is still having … difficulties with shooting?"
"You mean, barely able to point a Beretta downrange? Yeah. Stackhouse is despairing of him, and Stackhouse is a good teacher, so it isn't his fault." Harry sighed. "Not McKay's fault either really; basically, he's scared of the pistol, which isn't unreasonable: it is a deadly weapon. But you can't learn to shoot if you're scared of the thing you're trying to shoot, and if McKay's going to be going off world every week he needs to learn how to shoot."
"A real firefight? Learn or die?" Harry shrugged. "It'd be a powerful motivator. And I guarantee he'd be more scared of the Wraith than his weapon."
"Harry." Teyla said reproachfully, and he grinned.
"Okay, so that's probably a little over the top, but I really haven't thought of anything else yet. Stackhouse and I have tried all our usual tricks. Now it's just McKay holding himself back. He'll have to get over it himself."
"I'm sure he's up to the task."
Harry laughed. "Very diplomatically put."
"I was talking with Elizabeth last night. It may have rubbed off, as you say."
"She took my advice then?"
"She wanted to get to know the Athosians better; someone suggested one-on-one interviews, and I told her that was a bad idea. Even the friendliest interview environment can feel hostile. So what did she think of Charin's tuttleroot soup? She made it last night, right? Sergeant Gardiner sent some up for me and the Major when we were working late."
"She enjoyed it, I think. It can be a … acquired taste."
The rest of the survey flight passed without incident, or any more pointed questions. Harry was fairly certain Teyla had been sufficiently diverted from her original line of thought, and he hadn't had to lie to do so. Except by omission.
He just had to hope Teyla wouldn't judge that to be the same.
September 4 2004, 1300 AST (Atlantis Standardised Time), Planet Designation M3X-356, Pegasus Galaxy
On the Earth-type world AR-1 would visit in just over an hour's time, the Stargate activated. It rippled as if something was passing through, but nothing did.
Or at least, nothing appeared to.
The 'Gate was situated in a craggy, wooded U-shaped valley in the foothills of a large mountain range in the planet's northern polar-temperate zone, no doubt carved out by some ancient glacier in a previous ice age. A cluster of fallen stones, the ruins of some long-lost civilisation surrounded it, and more ruins were scattered within a few minutes walking distance.
A few minutes later, in a clearing a mile or so east of the 'Gate, two men apparently jumped out of thin air, immediately running for the treeline and taking cover in the undergrowth. They checked the area around them for threats before moving uphill to the south, and were quickly gone from sight.
An hour later, eight expedition members came through the gate. The MALP had clearly shown the ruins right next to it, and so Sheppard brought AR-2 as well, both for the backup and for the presence of Dr Corrigan, an anthropologist on Stackhouse's team.
Sheppard looked around once before surreptitiously reaching around to the hidden pressel of a second radio mounted in the side pouch of his rucksack that also plugged into the same headset so he could communicate with both Harry and his team independently, on different channels. Somewhere out there was his XO, with a similar setup, and probably looking right at him through a scope. He pressed the transmit button on the second radio twice, without speaking.
A few seconds later it crackled in reply. "Alpha One Actual, this is Storm. No Wraith contact, surface or orbital. Natives are a little shy too; they're observing you from the treeline four hundred metres to your north-west. On the other hand, there's an interesting pile of ruins that I have a clear line of sight to about a mile up the valley from the gate if you feel like a walk. McKay's going to feel right at home; this place looks a lot like Canada. Will check in if the situation changes. Storm, out."
The pair of observers watched patiently as the exploration team made their way slowly up the valley. They were hidden well up the mountainside, wearing ghillie suits matched to the terrain.
The scientists slowed down the team somewhat, but they still made the one-mile hike to the 'interesting pile of ruins' in under half an hour. The watchers kept watching, and listening for any Darts; the plan assumed nothing. The Wraith could come in Darts from somewhere on the planet, or they could come from a ship, or they could come through the gate. With the Jumper observing the orbitals, and their OP in position to see both the 'Gate and much of the surrounding terrain, they had covered all the eventualities they could think of.
Then Teyla and Ford split off from the main group. Yet another thing to keep track of.
An hour and eight minutes after the teams came through the 'Gate, the radio crackled.
"Storm, Oscar One. Wraith cruiser just came out of hyperspace and is launching Darts, over."
"Roger that, Oscar. Numbers, over?"
"Two, no three Darts, say again, three Darts, over."
"Acknowledged, Oscar One. Keep your distance from the cruiser, and call in if any more Darts head for the surface. If it all goes to hell, be prepared to enter the atmosphere to provide fire support."
"Alpha One Actual, Storm. Three bandits coming down from orbit, ETA five minutes, say again ETA five minutes to your pos. Unknown if their intentions are to strafe or land troops, over."
Sheppard answered with a double click. The Darts had seemed a likely way for the Wraith to move troops from orbit to the surface, even though they had not seen or heard any Darts when they had been attacked previously. After all, it was reasonable to assume that if the little needle-shaped fighters could beam people up, presumably they could beam things down too.
And this bit, Sheppard reflected, was the worst part of the plan: he now knew the Wraith were almost on top of them, but couldn't react yet. At the end of this, everyone had to come out squeaky clean – not only did Teyla have to be proven innocent, but Harry, Weir and himself also had to be able to weather any future investigation of their decisions by the military, or worse, the IOA. They had to be able to point to this plan and say they had done everything possible to investigate the possibility and not be blinded by their friendship with the Athosian leader.
So he had to stick to the plan, to clear Teyla of suspicion, which was why he hadn't stopped her from splitting off from the main party to seek out the skittish locals with Ford a few minutes before – he would have let her do so on a 'normal' mission.
Well … as 'normal' as any mission that involves exploring foreign worlds and-or galaxies through an alien device that generates artificial wormholes ever gets, anyway. God, my life is weird now.
Essentially, if Teyla was guilty they were, as the saying went, giving her enough rope to hang herself, by providing the 'possible spy' with an opportunity to 'contact her handlers.' That was how he and Harry had phrased it in the extremely dispassionate mission parameters they'd put together, that would go on the official record.
"Actual, Storm. Visual on Darts landing ground forces one klick east your position. Darts are circling away. Darts not flying with usual sound, appear to be running silent. Will update with enemy count shortly, over."
"Actual, Storm. Wraith ground elements have spread out into extended patrol line running north-south, orientated west. Unsure of exact numbers, but we have observed three apparently distinct units designated as 'squads,' one delivered from each Dart. Each squad has between ten and fifteen soldiers and one unmasked, unarmoured Wraith male, designated 'officers.' Enemy is progressing slowly on foot in your direction, estimate contact in ten minutes. Storm out."
"Actual, Storm. Enemy advance has halted. The centre squad has sent forward four Wraith, designated 'fire team' strength. Remainder are hanging back; appears to be a recce group. Prepare for enemy contact. Storm out."
"CONTACT FRONT!" Sheppard yelled, raising his P-90. Stackhouse and the other two soldiers on AR-2 were in a loose patrol line to his left, with the scientists among the rubble behind them. All of them entered the (well)-trained infantryman's immediate, instinctive reaction to a contact call or gunfire: 'R.T.R.', or 'Return fire, Take cover, Return effective fire.'
In unison they looked up, spotted the four white-haired Wraith soldiers emerging out of the bushes, and raised their weapons to their shoulders. Firing a short burst of suppressive fire towards them, they all 'hard-targeted,' taking a few steps to one side to throw off any already-aimed enemy shots and dropped to one knee, firing a second burst, before dropping prone to make themselves as small a target as possible while also giving the best shooting position. Two of them ended up behind the hard cover of the fallen stone blocks; Stackhouse on his belt buckle in the mid-length grass between the two. The whole process might have taken five or six seconds, at most.
Sheppard himself was caught in open ground in front of the stones, and instead of going belly-down, he fired a burst before turning and sprinting back to the proper cover they provided. The two already behind hard cover – Lieutenant Yamato, a JSDF military scientist with a decent level of combat training and a marine named Corporal Casey – braced their shooting position and fired aimed bursts as he vaulted a fallen pillar and slid into cover beside the corporal.
They continued with the next stage of a reaction to enemy fire: 'Return Effective Fire.' On Earth, this would be a continuing barrage of accurate suppressive fire – if it hits the target, then great, but it was primarily intended more to force the enemy to duck and get their heads down under cover. This would prevent them from firing back accurately, lessening the risk to friendly forces, and prevents the enemy from seeing if they're being flanked.
Except these Wraith apparently didn't understand the concept of 'ducking,' or for that matter 'cover' as they ran out of the undergrowth into the open before levelling their weapons, giving the team a critical one or two seconds to line up more accurate shots.
One went down to Yamato's second burst, and the other three gave his body a brief look of surprise – not that Sheppard could tell through the facemasks, but that was what it looked like. Then they scattered for cover, only to find that the aforementioned cover was behind them – so they couldn't shoot back while going for it – and when they reached it, it turned out shrubs and bushes weren't bulletproof. Stackhouse downed the second, and the other two fell to the combined firepower of all four.
The whole engagement might have taken thirty seconds.
"Ford, Teyla, come in."
"Ford here. Teyla isn't with me, she went to find the natives a minute ago."
"Well, find her and get back here, lieutenant!"
"Stackhouse, Amm-cas!" The ammunition-casualty count was the job of any squad 2i/c or platoon sergeant, keeping track of who needed resupply as well as any injuries that might need evac, and what priority that evac would have; sucking chest wounds, after all, are just a teeny-tiny little bit more critical than sprained ankles, but even sprains can take people out of combat.
"On it, sir. Yamato!"
"Six mags remaining, no injuries!" The Japanese lieutenant shouted back, sliding another magazine into his P-90. He'd reached cover first, and fired the most.
"Same as the el-tee, Staff!"
Stackhouse also somewhat redundantly asked the scientists if they had fired any rounds - he knew perfectly well they weren't supposed too unless as last resort. Maybe he'd been holding out hope for Rodney overcoming his fears through a baptism of fire-fight. As he did so, Sheppard's second radio came alive.
"Alpha One Actual, Storm. The entire Wraith ground force is incoming from the east, estimated platoon strength. You just took out their lead scouts, main group is about three hundred metres behind, and they just started moving again. Got one group hooking around to flank from the south too. If you don't hustle, you may get pinned down and cut off from the 'Gate."
"Rodney, Corrigan, pack your stuff up, we're leaving." Corrigan was already mostly done, slamming the lid shut on his field kit and sliding it into his rucksack. Rodney, as a physicist, had only been assisting, so he only had to put his tablet away.
"Ford, where are you?"
"Just met up with Teyla, we're on our way back to you sir, ETA five minutes."
Harry, listening in, immediately interjected. "Negative. Wraith lead elements are too close. Route to the north is clear."
"Ford, loop round to the north, head back to the 'Gate, link up with us there. The Wraith are to the south and east of us." Stackhouse gave him an odd look; it wasn't like there were any Wraith in sight after all, so how could he possibly know that.
"Copy that, sir."
"Need to know, Staff, but we've got friendly scopes on us. Everyone, we're heading back to the 'Gate, Ford and Teyla will meet us there. Military personnel, pairs fire and manoeuvre. Rodney, Corrigan, just run but stay close, and if we yell to get down, pay attention."
Wraith soldiers emerged from the woods further up slope, several hundred metres away, and began running towards them.
"Contact, three hundred metres, treeline at our twelve o'clock! Fall back to the gate. Hold fire until the range closes." The P-90 was a great little gun: it was compact, lightweight, with high capacity, a high rate of fire and its 5.7 mm rounds had excellent performance against body armour, but the price paid for all that was in range – since it was a short-barrelled SMG, beyond two hundred metres or so you'd need to be Carlos Hathcock to hit the broad side of a barn with one.
Speaking of Carlos Hathcock …
"Storm, weapons free. Cover our retreat."
There are certain weapons in the world that are best described as 'speaking with authority.' The USS Missouri's 16-inch main armament might be a good example, or the GAU-8/A Avenger cannon that the A-10 Thunderbolt was built for.
For obvious reasons, very few man-portable weapons measure up to such competition. The M82A3 Special Application Scoped Rifle is certainly one of them.
"Call them out."
"Target. Sector Green, deep. Wraith officer. Eight hundred twenty yards. Below reference point gap in trees. No wind."
"Hold scope. Fire when ready."
BOOM. Fallen leaves were blasted away from the end of the muzzle brake, swirling around for a second before settling again.
"Hit. Target. Sector Red, near. Wraith officer. Seven hundred sixty yards. Left and down of reference point scree slope. No change to wind."
Click, click, click, as the scope was adjusted for the change in distance. "Target acquired."
"Hold scope. Fire when ready."
It was not, however, Harry who was behind the trigger of the massive one-and-a-half metre long rifle.
Corporal Adelbert Mawhinney had been one of eight Scout Snipers handpicked by Sumner explicitly for their marksmanship skills, even though Sumner himself had put Mawhinney up on charges of insubordination and disobeying orders when commanding him in the invasion of Afghanistan three years before. The charges had later been dropped, with no reason given in the file.
The fact that Marshall Sumner – who had been, to put it mildly, a stickler for the rules – had picked the laconic Georgian (former) troublemaker spoke volumes for his skills - if he was good enough for Sumner to get over his disciplinarian streak, he must have been beyond excellent.
However, the First Sergeant had neglected to mention that small detail until after Harry had come second in a marksmanship competition between the various sniper-qualified personnel on-base, including the eight designated company snipers as well as a couple of the civilians who were amateur benchrest shooters.
By the time he'd actually got on top of the Exec position's minutiae and company admin in mid-August and organised the shooting competition for a few weeks later, the rumours had done the rounds and quite a bit of … 'trade' had been riding on the outcome. Weir had let the gambling go unremarked, partly since she had her own private bet with Shepard on it, but mostly because she saw it as emblematic of the improving level of integration between the military and civilian sides of the expedition. The mixed offworld teams of scientists and marines were quickly creating friendships across the military-civilian divide, and through those nascent connections quite a few of the civilians had gotten in on the betting, and Weir didn't see any real reason to come down hard on something so harmless; it wasn't like anyone had fortunes to lose out here.
It was just as well they didn't. At a thousand yards, shooting .308 M40A3's, Harry's 4.5" ten-round grouping with was damn good shooting for any marksman, and well above average even for most military sniper school graduates … except that Mawhinney had managed a 3.4" group with all his shots in the X-ring, which was only half an inch behind the world record.
The civilians had mostly bet on the XO whose skills they already knew of. Sheppard also now had to take two of Elizabeth's night shifts as senior staff member on call. Saito and Santorini had been disturbingly well-organised about it – almost as if they'd done this before, in Harry's cynical opinion – and cleaned up all manner of winnings, accumulating a wide variety of bartered pieces of equipment and future favours from other departments.
Harry had seen Mawhinney's file a few weeks before, but his Sniper School scores hadn't stood out from any of the other seven sniper-qualified Marines. Apparently the kudos he'd get from showing up the XO had motivated him to bring out his A-game. It wasn't until afterwards that Saito explained Mawhinney's background: growing up learning to stalk and shoot with his father nearly since he could walk in the backwoods of Nowhere, Georgia, had given him the kind of in-born, naturally talented marksmanship other shooters had to practise constantly for, and field craft skills that put his instructors to shame. He'd pretty much only had to show up each day in order to pass Scout Sniper School – this being a course with a 60% drop out rate, illustrating how hard it was – and he'd known it, mouthing off and getting into quite a bit of trouble for his cockiness.
This had led to him getting onto Sumner's shitlist while under the then Lieutenant Colonel's command during the Invasion of Iraq eighteen months before for insubordination and disobeying orders. The details of the resultant non-judicial punishment had been noted in Mawhinney's file, including being demoted from Sergeant back to Corporal. What was not described was how he seemed to have gotten back off of Sumner's list enough to be handpicked for Atlantis. Harry's own opinion of Mawhinney was high – the southerner was obviously a crack shot, but he had displayed none of the troublemaking or insubordinate tendencies his file had indicated. Indeed, he was calm and laconic to the point of terseness rather than cocky, with a dry and often somewhat dark sort of humour not uncommon to snipers.
So Harry was behind the spotter's scope, not the rifle, which worked better anyway, since he had to keep an eye on the wider battle picture and couldn't afford to be blinkered by the tunnel-vision focus on the target that accurate long-distance shooting required.
They had used the Jumper's sensors to choose their position, as well as generate an extremely precise map, landmark-distance table, and a 'cheat-sheet' of the various environmental factors that would influence their shooting, such as data on this planet's slightly different rotation velocity and therefore slightly different Coriolis Effect. Harry was taking care of the wind with his powers, his position behind and to the side of Mawhinney meaning the sniper couldn't see his eyes change colour.
So as well as spotting and calling out targets, he was also doing his best to keep an eye on Teyla and Ford, Sheppard's team, monitoring three radio channels: his link to Sheppard, Shepard's team net, and his own link to the Jumper 'Oscar One' in orbit, which required a full backpack sized radio. He was also keeping an eye out for any Wraith that might be sneaking up on them with an Ancient palmtop life-signs detector set to its maximum radius of five hundred metres.
Across his back was slung a G36C assault rifle with attached ACOG scope and foregrip, but he had traded his full body armour set for a lightweight SCG tac-vest, since his normal rig was too bulky and weighed too much for this kind of mission. It wouldn't stop Wraith stun weapons anyway.
From their position on a bluff up a mountainside to the south-east of the Stargate, Mawhinney and Harry were firing on the Wraith from their enemies' left-rear flank, relatively speaking. Harry called out another officer to target, then with no further enemy leadership in sight they began working down through the nearest squad of rank-and-file Wraith.
To be honest, using the Barrett was overkill; 7.62 NATO could have managed the present distance just fine and, although the exact properties of Wraith body armour were unknown, if the P-90's 5.7mm shots could penetrate it, a high-velocity rifle round almost certainly could as well. However, they hadn't known which direction the Wraith would come from on the ground; if they'd landed their troops to the north, Mawhinney would have had to engage them at a mile or so, which would have been impossible with any smaller calibre.
"Last round in this mag," Mawhinney muttered.
"Make it count. Target, Sector Green, deep. Wraith soldier, eight hundred yards. Running right to left, no wind change."
"Hold scope. Fire when ready."
A longer pause than usual. Harry kept watching the targeted Wraith drone as he joined a fellow soldier in cover. Both were looking around, trying to find whatever or whoever had just annihilated most of their squad. Apparently, the Wraith were unfamiliar with the concept of long-range ground weaponry. Given that their two observed variants of stunner weapons lacked even basic iron sights, that wasn't too improbable. Plus, they had observably lost cohesion when their 'officer' went down, and their forward advance had stalled; they had stopped running to outflank AR-1 and had had the sense to take cover, but without knowing exactly where the threat was, they had done so with their cover oriented in the wrong direction.
The round took a second to reach the target ... rather, the targets. It passed through the first Wraith's head and into his buddy's torso, resulting in a gory combined explosion of red blood .
Harry flicked a glance to Mawhinney, who was already reloading with smug little grin; much the same as he'd sported when he'd out-shot his boss.
"Show-off," Harry replied, having to speak loudly because of their ear defence, "I'll buy you a beer … oh, wait … "
"Dry base." Mawhinney finished, referring to the US Navy's absolute 'no alcohol' policy on ships or deployments, which also applied to the Expedition's Marine garrison. "Damned shame." He racked the M82's charging handle with a loud cha-chunk, and settled back into firing position. "Call 'em, skipper."
"Target. Sector Green –"
"Major Sheppard, this is Ford, we are pinned down under heavy fire!"
"– cancel that, corporal."
Harry tilted the scope to acquire the last place he had seen the pair, then scanned along the route he'd think they'd have taken. The first thing he was a Wraith body, then another, then two more. Ford and Teyla had been busy, it seemed.
Sure enough he found Teyla and Aiden crouched in cover behind a fallen tree as four Wraith, stood almost shoulder to shoulder, kept them pinned down with rapid fire stun blasts and four others worked around their left flank. An un-masked Wraith officer was commanding from the fire support line. That was good; it meant the entire enemy squad was within about thirty yards of a single range point, meaning Mawhinney could fire rapidly without having to adjust the scope settings.
"Target area, Sector Black, deep. Wraith officer, range one thousand one hundred seventy yards. Four mils above reference point rock outcrop. No wind change. Area extends thirty yards in all directions. Watch for friendlies in the zone. " With this, Harry was instructing Mawhinney to take out the officer first before shooting at the other Wraith without any further instructions or commands from the spotter.
The Barrett was explicitly designed to control the .50 BMG cartridge's infamously massive recoil, absorbing it through large springs in the receiver, the muzzle break and the weapon's own not inconsiderable fourteen kilo weight; to put that in perspective, that was a full five times more than Harry's assault rifle. In the hands of an experienced marksman, and with the targets standing close enough together to present an 'area' to aim at rather than a single man-size silhouette, the rate of fire that could be achieved was impressive as hell.
"Hold scope. Fire when ready."
Thirty seconds later, Mawhinney had emptied the ten-round magazine and began reloading again. Harry was starting to hear ringing in his ears despite having high-quality ear defenders on.
To Teyla and Ford, the sound of the Wraith stunners and their thudding impacts against the tree ceased abruptly at the same time as some indefinably visceral, wet-sounding noises came from that direction. A few seconds later, muffled gunshots caught up to their bullets, echoing across the valley much as they had been for the past few minutes.
Both cautiously raised their heads and weapons above the tree trunk. They had no time to see what had happened, because the flanking quartet of Wraith opened up on them. Both of them flinched, ducked, and popped up again to return fire, quickly downing two more.
As they did so, there was a zipp sound from overhead.
Then they were treated to a highly disturbing spectacle, as one of the humanoid Wraith lost his head and shoulders to an invisible force. Three seconds later, the other still looking at his comrade in confusion, suddenly lost about fifteen kilos of his body mass as a 750-grain Hornady A-MAX match-grade boattail delivered eight kilojoules of kinetic energy compressed into an area of half an inch in the centre of his chest.
Contrary to Hollywood's opinion, bullets – not even .50 calibre ones – do not have sufficient energy to send a target of human mass and density flying any noticeable distance. The end result of such a projectile was, nonetheless, supremely unpleasant to witness.
Teyla and Ford stood frozen for a second. Teyla, for all her hatred of the Wraith and her new, ironbound commitment to fight alongside her new allies was still, at heart, a negotiator and a pacifist – albeit a pragmatic one.
Furthermore, although her team had been attacked by the Wraith several times so far, there was a vast psychological difference between fighting retreats - shooting hurriedly at distant, indistinct targets - and watching humanoid beings, even those she hated and feared on an instinctual level being instantaneously disassembled into viscera less than a dozen metres away by an uncomprehendingly violent and completely indiscernible force. She had shot one of the Marine's M40s on the range a few weeks before – the first of the long-range shooting lessons Harry had promised her – but punching holes in paper targets didn't convey the sheer damage the Earth weapons could inflict.
As for Ford ... he was still a young officer, but he'd done his butterbar tour in Afghanistan before catching the someone's eye in the Iraq Invasion and being assigned to Stargate Command. He'd managed about three offworld trips for training at the the Alpha site before being packed off to Antarctica when Sumner had requested him for the Expedition. He'd never had cause to see the effects of an anti-material round's effects on a (near)-human body close up before, but he shook off his shock, grabbed Teyla's shoulder and hauled her up to continue running.
As they did so, he mentally connected some dots, connecting pieces of a puzzle he had been sort-of aware was in play. He'd known the skippers' had been putting a plan together the previous afternoon after that fracas with Bates ... and then that morning missions had been scrubbed or had their timings changed. As AR-1 had departed Atlantis he'd also noticed Sheppard's backpack had the top few inches of a second antenna poking out of the side pouch. But as a junior LT, it clearly wasn't his job to question his superiors when they apparently had things in hand, so he'd just rolled with it, knowing he'd be filled in on the plan when he needed to be.
Clearly, part of that plan had been 'sniper support,' which, despite his urge to vomit at what he'd just seen, was suddenly making him feel a hell of a lot safer.
Mawhinney got through two rounds of the next mag before the Wraith finally reacted. Off in the distance, first one, then two, then all three of the circling Darts rolled up in an Immelman manoeuvre, reversing course and trading speed for altitude. The Formula One-like wailing noise that Harry had previously assumed was from their engines suddenly cut jarringly through the still air, ruining the peaceful ambience of the beautiful mountain valley.
"Sierra One, Oscar One, enemy fast air making tracks for an attack run on your position, time on target two minutes." Harry was already rising to his knees.
"Copy that. We're displacing." Harry replied. They'd done their job; the Wraith advance and pursuit of Sheppard's team had stalled as they tried to figure out what had just surgically removed every single member of their command element, as well as wiping out the left and right-hand flanking squads to a man … to a Wraith … whatever. "Bug out," he ordered Mawhinney. "We've overstayed our welcome."
The two of them had little to pack. Harry had been resting the spotting scope on his rucksack, so he flipped it upright. The zip was already open, and he shoved the optics inside, then the ballistic computer. By the time he'd thrown it on his back and pulled the G36 around in front of him, the corporal had the heavy Barrett slung across his shoulder and was also ready to go.
They headed left through the woods along the bluff for about fifty metres, towards where it stopped being a cliff and became 'merely' an extremely steep hillside. This slope was why they'd picked this spot for the sniper's perch; quick to run away from, but very hard to assault directly or outflank.
The three Darts came in one after another, straight in towards the hillside, the lead aircraft strafing their perch with bolts of blue plasma. It wasn't terribly accurate, but it didn't need to be. If they'd still been there they would have been dead in seconds.
Unfortunately, the second and third Darts realised that they weren't, and quickly re-targeted on the two running soldiers. Geysers of earth and rock blasted up and out from where the plasma bolts hit the ground; hurricanes of splinters burst from exploding tree trunks, many of which toppled. Some of the multi-ton trunks nearly fall on top of them as they ran, shielding themselves as best as they could from the hurricane of destruction.
Mawhinney caught one blast a little too close, the concussion of it sending him staggering. The long barrel of the Barrett, slung behind him, caught a tree trunk, jerking him around and off balance, turning his stumble into a headlong tumble down the last twenty or so metres of the slope. Harry too slipped but, unencumbered by a large weapon, managed to turn it into a barely-controlled slide down the rest of the steep part of the hillside to Mawhinney's side, slowing his descent with one hand.
"Corporal?" Harry reached down, shook the marine's shoulder. The sniper groaned, slightly dazed, shaking his head to clear it. "Get up, corporal. Little fall like that shouldn't hurt a real Marine … unless you Devil Dogs aren't as tough as your Chairforce officers, of course?"
Mawhinney's eyes narrowed in a brief glare, and he wiped blood away from a small cut above his eye, probably from flying splinters, before pushing himself off the leaf litter. Harry grabbed the Marine under the arm and pulled him up. "That's more like it. Let's keep moving."
Now they had – somewhat unconventionally – reached the flatter area of the valley floor, Harry reached for the radio as the corporal took point on the pre-planned route back to the 'Gate and he brought up the rear. "Oscar One, talk to me, what's going on, over?"
"Storm, those three Darts are coming back around. Alpha One's main group is half way back to the gate, about five minutes out. Their two lost lambs will be only a few minutes behind them. The cruiser just engaged its sublight drive and is shifting orbit around from the far side of the planet … and they're launching fighters. Two … three. Confirm three more Darts descending to atmosphere, over."
"Roger, keep up the commentary, Storm out."
"Fancy meeting you here," Sheppard quipped as Harry and Mawhinney slammed into cover amongst the stones at the gate, breathing hard from the run and from dodging the second Dart attack run. The wormhole was active, and McKay and Corrigan were gone.
Harry blinked; used to working on his own, on the rare occasions he linked up with friendly forces in the field they were frequently complete strangers and unlikely to crack jokes. He was nothing if not adaptable, however.
"We've got to stop meeting like this," Harry returned, deadpan, even as he scanned back up the valley through his scope, "I mean next it'll be coffee, then a movie, then long walks on the beach …"
"Stop right there," Sheppard chuckled, peering out at the trees, "don't want to give the jar-heads ideas about us. I don't want to keep up the Brokeback Mountain part of the Air Force's reputation, thank you very much."
"Don't ask, don't tell right? They won't say anything. Will you, lads?" Harry looked round at the soldiers, who were all smirking as they started down their sights at the trees. "Did you send the doctors through?"
"Yep." Sheppard waved at the 'Gate, and Harry saw that a rucksack had been placed half-in, half-out of the event horizon, holding it open. "They weren't going to be any use. I ordered Atla– … Zero to raise the shield again though, so remember to give warning before going through."
Harry nodded, triggering his larger radio, "Oscar One, Storm, we've linked up with Alpha at the 'Gate. Sitrep."
"Wraith forces two hundred fifty metres, say again figures two-five-zero metres due east your position and closing on the 'Gate fast. Teyla and Ford are one-fifty metres to your north; say again figures one-five-zero metres north. The extra three Darts have landed reinforcements, at least as many as the first wave."
"Roger. We're going to hold the chokepoint until they get back, then retreat to Zero. Follow the rest of the plan. Out." Then, calling out to the soldiers around him. "Right in front of us, see the gap in the trees?"
A chorus of "Seen!" came back to him.
"That's the centre of axis, range two hundred. Left-hand arc is that particularly tall tree over there." Harry pointed. "To the left of that cliff you can see through the gap. Seen?"
"Right-hand arc is that boulder off to the right." Harry didn't need to point again as it was only fifty metres away and clearly visible, instead pulling out the Ancient PDA. "Seen?"
Harry placed the white handheld on the rock in front of him and oriented it to the centre of axis. A slightly ragged line of square lifesigns were approaching, right where the Jumper said they would be.
A fire control order is formulated using the acronym GRIT. This stands for 'Group': who will fire, either the entire squad or a specific member of it, like a sniper or gunner; 'Range': for what setting to use on their sights; 'Indication': where and what the target is; and 'Type of Fire': what rate of fire to use, either deliberate (one shot every six seconds), rapid (one shot every two seconds) or a variety of other more specific commands.
"Squad, range two hundred, enemy infantry at the treeline, area left of centre of axis, rapid." Harry deliberately ended the order there, as the final word – the 'fire' command, obviously – was something that was required to be a completely unambiguous instruction; i.e. it meant to start pulling the trigger, and that was not something you wanted mix-ups about. "Mawhinney … just do your thing."
The sniper's smile was positively feral. "Oorah, skipper."
The soldiers repositioned themselves around him, aiming towards the stretch of trees indicated and finding better firing positions if necessary. Harry did the same, settling the ACOG's small red aiming triangle over a promising-looking gap that an enemy might duck through as a path out of the undergrowth.
"Zero, this is Alpha One Actual, team is about to be in contact with the enemy, maintaining defensive perimeter at the gate, just waiting for two people to get back. This will be a hot extract. Confirm defence state, over."
"Actual, Zero. We are at Condition Two."
Condition Two meant they had the shield raised, with the duty squad in position on the Gate Room floor and the HMG mounts manned and ready as well the rapid-reaction team backing them both up from the surrounding balconies. Condition Three would have been without the RRT deployed, for normal 'Gate transfers, and Condition One would have included putting the entire Marine garrison on stand-to to repel a successful breach of the 'Gate Room defences. Condition Zero was a full stand-to in response to Wraith ships in orbit, an order none of the command team ever wanted to have to issue.
Beside Harry, Mawhinney had removed his scope, flipped up the backup iron sights and slid home another full magazine before aiming at the trees.
The first Wraith emerged from the treeline, and paused, looking towards them. A moment later others started emerging.
Six weapons blazed a response, the lighter reports of the P-90s mingling in a continuous chatter of rapid single shots, supplemented by the louder crack of the G36 and irregular thunder of the Barrett. Blue stun blasts began hissing past around them, most going high or splashing short.
Harry had handled one of those stun spear things that had been retrieved for analysis by one of the other teams that encountered the Wraith: and he hadn't been terribly impressed. The one-hit incapacitation effect was the only useful thing about it; apart from that, the energy projectile's velocity was well below subsonic, the weapon itself had no ergonomics beyond a tiny foregrip, was horrifically unbalanced, and had no sights – not even some notches to line up, let alone actually useful iron sights or optics and had to be boresighted to aim. They'd test fired it too; it might, on a good day, be equivalent to a smoothbore Brown Bess musket in terms of accuracy … meaning it would be a pure fluke if it hit anything over sixty yards away.
But when there were many of them and they were fired quickly enough, even the primitive Brown Bess broke previously all-conquering armies … when they had artillery support and those armies stood in neat lines on open battlefields. The Atlantis team were in hard cover, only their heads and weapons showing; at that range, even the massed fire of a platoon or so of Wraith was not of sufficient volume to hit such small targets, and the Atlantis team were able to steadily pick them off. Although it required several centre-of-mass hits to put each Wraith out of action, wounds inflicted to limbs slowed them considerably or prevented them from shooting.
However, the second wave of Darts had landed at least another platoon-strength unit of Wraith – possibly more – and the incoming fire intensified considerably as they arrived. Chain of command had clearly been restored too. Although Harry couldn't see any officers, the Wraith soldiers began to use more logical – also known as sensible – fire-and-manoeuvre tactics, with one of the closer groups of Wraith setting up as a base of fire rather than continuing to prosecute their previous headlong rush. Harry spotted another squad move around the right flank, their white hair and grey armour flickering between the branches before his line of sight was blocked by a thicker stand of trees.
The Wraith's numbers were being whittled away, and they were being kept at sufficient distance to keep their fire ineffective, but not fast enough. If they had to stay here another three to five minutes they'd be flanked and overwhelmed, forced to split their fire in multiple directions.
Harry looked around, trying to spot the Darts that he could still hear – there was no overhead cover on their position, no barrier to the culling beam – but the small craft had disappeared again. For some reason, the Wraith wanted to do this on the ground.
"Teyla, Ford, where are you?" Sheppard yelled into the radio.
"Over here!" Teyla shouted from some ruins some thirty metres off to the left, not bothering with the radio. Harry took a look between shots, seeing Ford and Teyla also laying down fire on the Wraith. It was rough, lumpy ground between them – grass grown over fallen stones – which would slow them down; with no cover and the sheer volume of fire the Wraith were putting out, the risk at least one would connect was high.
"Smoke?" Harry suggested aloud, continuing to fire.
"Smoke." Sheppard confirmed. "Stackhouse, Casey, pop smoke between us and the Lieutenant!"
"On it!" Both marines pulled out the cylindrical M83 smoke grenades, leaving their weapons slung and holding the pin ready to be pulled. "Ready!"
"Cover fire!" The rate of fire increased markedly for about ten seconds, as the grenadiers threw the two grenades as hard as they could out into the no-man's land.
The wind was, unfortunately, blowing towards them, which would reduce the smoke's effectiveness, but it should be enough. It occurred to Harry then that since the Wraith couldn't really be aiming properly, a smoke screen wasn't really going to help much; if they did hit anything by a combination of quantity and sheer dumb luck, whether or not they could actually see the target would probably be immaterial.
"Say when!" Sheppard ordered over the radio.
Ford replied a few seconds later, with a shout. "MOVING!"
The shooters didn't need to be told; again, the rate of fire increased to cover their dash across the open ground.
They took too long.
Fifteen. Harry took a moment between firing to look past Sheppard towards the smoke, which was now blocking their view as much as the Wraith's. The Major was shooting glances in that direction too, before looking at Harry grimly. They both knew that every second they stayed here increased their chances of taking casualties.
Then Teyla appeared out of the smoke, walking backwards, dragging Lieutenant Ford by the strap provided for the purpose on the back of his tactical vest. Harry returned to shooting, not allowing himself to feel relief. There would be time for that later.
A few seconds later, Teyla had pulled Ford into cover behind a pillar and slid into a gap in the middle of their defensive position between Sheppard and Stackhouse. Harry took another quick look to see Teyla staring at him in surprise before returning his eye to the scope.
"Zero, Storm. Sending IDC. Standby." Harry authorized the sending of his Iris Deactivation Code by typing a nine-digit code into the wrist-mounted transmitter that some wag in the early days of the Stargate Program had named the 'Garage Door Opener.' The name had stuck ever since, despite the best efforts of the Air Force bureaucracy.
"Copy Storm. IDC received. Shield is down, you are clear to return," Doctor Grodin responded calmly, before adding a rather unprofessional, "Bloody hell!"
A Wraith stunner blast had just passed through the 'Gate, so Harry assumed that had something to do with it.
Harry slapped Sheppard on the shoulder to get his attention. "Shield's down. I'll get Ford."
"Fall back by pairs!" Sheppard shouted. "Outermost first!"
Casey and Yamato stopped firing and ran half-crouched to the steps up to the gate, passing Harry as he duck-walked over to Lieutenant Ford. By the time he had the LT lifted into a fireman's carry, they had been followed by Mawhinney and Stackhouse, who kicked his rucksack through as well as he stepped into the event horizon. Harry kicked Sheppard's foot as he passed behind the Major to signal him and turned to the 'Gate.
"Gladly. Teyla, move!"
The Major emptied the remainder of his magazine in a rapid volley of shots through the smoke in the general direction of the Wraith fire-support before sprinting for the gate behind Harry and Teyla.
September 4 2004, 1530 AST – Stargate Operations, Control Tower, City of Atlantis, Pegasus Galaxy
As the 'Gate shut down behind them, the defence teams lowered their weapons but stayed in place until Weir gave Lieutenant Hale – the afternoon's duty officer – a nod, and they stood down to depart back to the guardroom. The team members who had already returned before them, including the two doctors, were stood off to one side, out of the line of fire of the M2 mount, with Carson Beckett and a medical team next to them.
At the foot of the steps, however, Bates and one of the security teams remained.
"Staff Bates, the next phase of the plan if you please," Harry called, lowering Ford onto a gurney that had just been rolled in front of him. Sheppard had left a file with Weir just before they left, to be opened once the mission had begun, containing sheets of instructions for a few key people that Doctor Weir would distribute once they had departed.
"Aye, sir. Everyone who was offworld is to turn over all equipment and clothing that they took with them." Bates pointed at a row of boxes, labelled with the names of the ten who had just returned. "Take the box to the changing room and put it all in them. Major Sheppard first, if you please, sir."
Giving Bates a part to play in this plan had been Saito's idea; the last thing they needed was an embittered senior NCO who felt like he was in the doghouse for the rest of their tour here, however long that would turn out to be. Credit where credit was due, Bates was good at his job and was trusted, if not necessarily liked, by the rest of the Marines; alienating him might have had negative repercussions on morale and Harry and Sheppard's standing in the company. So, at the First Sergeant's suggestion, he was being 'rehabilitated' by keeping him on security duties, albeit with more oversight from Harry and Saito, since they weren't letting him get off entirely; he'd be getting a written reprimand and docked half-pay for one month as well.
"Uh … Sheppard?" McKay questioned.
"Do it, Rodney," Sheppard ordered, stepping towards the box with his name. One by one, all the boxes were picked up and returned a few minutes later; spare uniforms had been waiting. A couple of Marines were detailed to watch them to make sure no hypothetical spy tried to hide or disable any incriminating device. Lieutenant Kirsty Crown, one of the female military scientists, did the same for Teyla in the female locker room. She seemed a little embarrassed about it, but Teyla's expression was inscrutable, a marked contrast to her normal open and friendly demeanour. One by one, they trickled up to the conference room and sat down; predictably, having been badgering both the officers the entire time, McKay was the first to blow up when the slat door opened to admit Doctor Weir.
"What the hell is going on? Neither of these two –" this with a wave at Harry and Sheppard, "– are saying anything!"
"Rodney, sit down," Weir said firmly, in a tone that gave Harry a momentary flashback to Professor McGonagall. McKay sat, unsurprisingly. "Thank you."
Weir didn't bother to sit down, instead remaining by the door. "I think the military members of the teams have figured this out by now. Major Sheppard's team have now been attacked six times out of ten offworld missions. Captain Potter has suggested that this is due to some as-yet unknown Wraith technology betraying your position offworld, and we undertook today's action to prove or disprove that theory. This afternoon's mission would seem to have confirmed it. Doctor Zelenka will examine your personal equipment, Rodney, and clear you of suspicion first, then the two of you can clear everyone else that much faster and we can find out whatever is going on."
Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Teyla's head jerk up sharply at the word suspicion, shooting a look at Weir and taking a breath as if she was about to say something.
"Why am I even under suspicion at all?" Rodney said before she could do so.
Teyla visibly stopped herself from continuing with whatever she was about to say, glaring at Harry briefly before relaxing incrementally.
"We're covering our asses," Sheppard said, leaning back in his chair and putting his boots up on the conference table, affecting an air of nonchalance. "When the IOA gets a hold of our reports on this situation, we have to prove we covered all the bases, considered all the options and put no one above suspicion." Teyla relaxed a little bit more.
It sounded self-serving, but Weir, Sheppard and Harry knew that, particularly with Sheppard's near-court martial after the thing in Afghanistan, there would be consequences when – or if – they made contact with Earth. There would be plenty of generals and bureaucrats who, for many reasons, wanted to find fault in their leadership, and every decision they made would be questioned, particularly since neither of the two Air Force officers had been supposed to have command appointments in the first place.
For example, the Marine Corps had expended a lot of political capital to persuade the powers-that-be to make Atlantis' military component an all-Marine effort instead of predominantly Air Force like the SGC. They would undoubtedly have some pointed questions about why the most seniorofficer they sent had become the first casualty, and would certainly want to replace them with another Marine CO/XO command team as soon as was practical.
There would be others too, they all knew: at least the Marines would have a legitimate reason to ask those hard questions, but it was the people like Senator Kinsey that Weir was thinking of when they discussed that reason for the plan – the kind of people who would be seeking control over the expedition for their own personal profit or political ends. The Senator himself had been disgraced by his conduct in Anubis' attack, and had been removed from his position of oversight over the Stargate Project with the formation of the IOA, but there were others of his ilk. None of the Expedition leaders were going to let that happen without a fight, but it might well be an uphill one. The black mark on Sheppard's record from Afghanistan would definitely provide ammunition for both the USMC and for the corrupt bureaucrats, and the fact that Harry was actually younger than most of the platoon commanders wouldn't help either.
"Except for you three, apparently."
"'Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead,'" Harry quoted. "Not literally of course, but the most basic principle of information security, Doctor McKay, is to tell as few people as possible. So the three most senior people whose jobs had some relation to security on the base were in on the plan, yes, because they formulated the plan, but there wasn't any need to tell anyone else who didn't need to know. Such as yourself."
"And you have to keep us all locked up in here like –"
"Prisoners?" Harry interrupted. "Note that both the Major and I are in here with you too. All our kit will be looked at as well. Until then, yes, we will all be confined and under observation until the theory is proven." He glanced around the room. "That theory, as Dr Weir alluded to, is that some piece of technology we were carrying was detected and homed in by the Wraith. I know AR-2 haven't been attacked before, so we know it isn't any of you guys, but in the interest of thoroughness and impartiality you're in here for this too."
Stackhouse nodded, recognising the reasons even if he clearly would rather be doing something else. With nothing else to be said, Weir left too, immediately accosted by Doctor Grodin just outside the door before it slid shut, cutting off the conversation.
With the speeches concluded, and the room's occupants resignedly relaxing, Harry looked at Teyla. She met his eyes for a moment before looking away, her blank expression leaving him none the wiser as to her thoughts.
As it turned out, it took less time than they had anticipated. Bates announced that Zelenka had cleared McKay about forty-five minutes later, and between the two of them it only took another half an hour to find the problem. A few minutes after that, Harry – still in camo paint and muddy combats – Sheppard, Weir, Bates and Saito were standing with McKay and Zelenka in the former's laboratory looking at a graphic of a circular device that seemed familiar.
"It's Teyla's locket," McKay said without preamble, picking up the physical item in question. With its leather thong attached, Harry recognised it immediately.
"She wears that all the time." Harry didn't miss the suppressed smirks from Sheppard, Weir and Saito that indicated their simultaneous thought of 'Oh, so you were paying close attention, were you?' "On base as well as on missions," Harry continued, raising an eyebrow at McKay.
The scientist interpreted the look correctly. "It's been broadcasting intermittent radio signals, but don't worry, it's not powerful enough to have given away our position here. The antenna's only a few centimetres long and it's only got a range of five to ten miles, depending somewhat on atmospheric conditions. My guess is that it links to a more powerful subspace relay transmitter hidden near Stargates which alerts the nearest Wraith ship to investigate; those were the planets we were attacked on. The sensors you had me recalibrate for detecting unauthorized outgoing transmissions would have detected any relay signal from this planet; they are, by the way, now detecting this thing and I've had Grodin jam its frequency just in case. Once we're done here I'll put it in a Faraday Cage and it'll be totally secure, short of smashing it anyway. I'd rather not do that just yet; there are some interesting things about it I want to study more."
"We should be able to verify that relay transmitter theory with the data from the Jumper when it returns," Zelenka put in from where he was fiddling around with a box of wire mesh. The Jumper crew had orders to wait for an hour after the cruiser cleared off before coming back just in case; if it didn't leave quickly enough, they were to wait for a full twelve hours before attempting to contact Atlantis and make a run for the gate. "Hopefully they might have picked it up."
"Something else of importance, though: it has a biometric component," McKay continued, pointing at the central green 'jewel' of the locket on the diagram. "It seems to be repurposed Ancient technology, like their equivalent of a portable fingerprint scanner, just for checking DNA instead."
"What, the ATA gene?" Weir asked. McKay nodded.
"How did they take an Ancient security device intended to prevent the Wraith from using their technology into something they could actually use against the Ancients?" Sheppard asked curiously. "Did they circumvent the ATA lockout?"
"That's kind of the elegant thing about this device; it doesn't circumvent the ATA gene lockout," Rodney said, clearly intrigued by the ingenuity of the device. "It actually uses it. Okay, to explain in small words, imagine this thing on a door – although I'm not sure that would be how it was used, because it's unnecessarily portable for that use, but it's a good enough example. An Ancient touches it, it checks for the presence of the gene and sends a signal to open the door. It's thermoelectric, so it won't run out of power – that's another interesting part of the design, the Seebeck coefficient of the materials is far, far in excess of anything we've been able to manufacture, and the miniaturisation –"
"Rodney." Weir interrupted, pointing at the locket. "Put it in your report. The locket?"
"Right. Well, since it was portable and self-powered, all the Wraith did was design those relay devices with sensors that could detect the signal broadcast from the locket. It also sent a similar but slightly different signal when I touched it compared to the one from before, which would imply it to be capable of identifying different people from their genetics, like sending the newest touch-ee's DNA to be compared against a database."
"For determining if someone has authority to enter an area," Zelenka said, when McKay paused for breath. "It didn't react when I touched it, since the ATA therapy didn't take with me."
"Yes, yes, obviously," McKay said testily. "However, since I'm pretty sure my biometrics aren't in any Ancient Database, even if the Wraith can decrypt the signal and properly interpret the differences in it I don't think it'd give them any useful information. They may have messed with the internals physically but since I've never seen one before and can't find the design in the database, I can't tell if it's been tampered with. That said, I don't think it has: it appears seamless, with no damage or scuffing that would indicate someone cutting it open to get inside. It appears all they did was … well, put some leather straps on it."
"That's … scarily ingenious, actually," Weir commented. "So it detects the ATA gene … because that's what it's intended to do originally anyway?"
"Yes; but that's something we've been debating, because Teyla's been tested – like Radek, she doesn't have the gene."
"But I do," Harry said heavily, leaning back against a workbench. "I touched it."
"When she took me to see the old carvings on Athos. It was lying in the dirt, reflecting the flashlight; I picked it up and … gave it to her. She said it was a present from her father, and she'd lost it when she was a kid."
"How long between that and the Darts arriving on Athos?" Saito asked.
Harry thought about it for a few seconds, before nodding in agreement with the First Sergeant's line of thought. "About an hour. But they came through the Gate that time, in Darts, not from a cruiser in orbit."
"Might have been too far away," Sheppard suggested. "Used the 'Gate as a short cut."
"Doesn't really matter, sir," Harry replied, "although it again raises the question of 'why is it always about an hour every single time' but now we know what's going on, we can use it to our advantage."
"Turn the tables on them?" Weir asked rhetorically. "I like this idea already. How soon can you give me a possible plan of action?"
Sheppard and Harry looked at each other. "There's no urgent time pressure for this," Sheppard replied. "Give us a day to plan and recon potential ambush sites, a day to brief, rehearse and adapt, possibly one more after that if we need to change things, then we'll go. If we go," he added.
As the others dispersed, Sheppard looked at Saito. "Pass the word, Top. Officers and company staff, ten minutes."
"Aye aye, sir."
"And Harry? Get a shower."
"Ouch, boss, that hurts." As Sheppard went the other way down the corridor, Harry added, "Does this mean our coffee date is cancelled?"
September 4 2004, 2300 AST, Level Three Dining Hall, Control Tower, City of Atlantis, Pegasus Galaxy
Although the Expedition had been able to hold their own so far in their fighting retreats, actually ambushing and overcoming a force of mostly unknown capabilities and (depending on how the Wraith deployed and how quickly they reacted to the ambush) possibly a considerable numerical advantage would require some careful planning. Initial contacts over the previous few weeks had been small, with the Atlantis teams only encountering squad-sized forces of eight to twelve individual Wraith; more might have been present but not seen.
But on the previous two occasions – the operation that afternoon that Harry had been on overwatch for, and the one before that – had seen significant increases in Wraith numbers; the only one they had hard data on was the one that afternoon, in which the Wraith had begun the fight with a platoon sized force and escalated that quickly when the battle went wrong for them. That could be countered by deploying more Marines and heavier weapons, but if their ambush went catastrophically wrong they could lose a lot of men, and Atlantis would be left without a significant fraction of its garrison.
It was a dilemma, but not an insurmountable one. They'd spent the past seven hours putting together a variety of 'best-case' and 'worst-case' scenarios based on what they knew and could extrapolate; it was now midnight and Sheppard had ordered them all to clock out, catch some sleep and get back to it at 0700. The Jumper had returned a few hours before; Peter Grodin was working to download the sensor data so they could analyse the Wraith's numbers and tactics in more detail.
Harry hadn't eaten all evening, so he'd gone to the mess to see if they still had anything left in the fridge the cooks used to put out food for anyone working at odd hours. A sudden feeling of déjà vu made him look over towards the windows.
Teyla was sitting there again, as she had been after the incident with the Jumper stuck in the Stargate. She had said very little during their temporary confinement earlier, clearly focused on some internal train of thought, and he hadn't wanted to broach what might become a rather personal conversation in front of others. Nor had had a chance to speak to her once the confinement ended, as his time had been monopolised by the preparations for what would likely turn into an important and unpredictable skirmish with the Wraith in a few days' time. If they took that chance; Harry was not feeling sanguine about their chances of success at the moment.
Hopefully her 'internal train of thought' hadn't been in the vein of 'where to hide the body.'
Teyla heard Harry step up behind her, his boots squeaking slightly on the polished floor. When his hand extended a glass of orange juice over her shoulder, she took it with a slight smile at the deliberate similarity.
"A smile? That's good, I hope," Harry noted wryly as he lowered himself into the next seat over. "Means you're not going to kill me, I hope."
"No." Teyla paused thoughtfully, before amending that to: "Bruise, yes. Kill, no."
"Just so long as I get a chance to defend myself," Harry replied, before becoming more serious. "I'm sorry, Teyla."
"I know." Teyla took a sip of the sharp-flavoured fruit drink she'd come to enjoy here in Atlantis. "I'm not going to lie," Harry winced slightly at that, "that it hurt. There was a moment in the conference room when I thought that … that if you had suspicions of me even after the last three months we have been friends then you must have had them when we first started to become friends. That the memories you have shared with me were made up, calculated to somehow manipulate me, to try to trick me perhaps into admitting some nefarious purpose of my own, to sell you out to the Wraith or some equally terrible plot. But that seemed … wrong. Very wrong. Enough to make me stop and think, to remember that you promised not to lie to me."
Harry just watched her, offering no comment, waiting for her to continue. "And I thought about what you had said to me over the last few days. None of it was a lie. You avoided me so I didn't have any opportunity to ask any awkward questions, and you dodged them when I did corner you … but you didn't break your promise, and went out of your way to avoid doing so. So yes, that feeling of not being trusted even after all this time here … hurt. A lot. But I understand why you did it, why you had to do something. And how your own rules trapped you in that situation. And I think would have done the same thing."
Harry released a breath he hadn't realised he was holding. "You're taking this well."
"I had a long conversation with Elizabeth earlier at dinner, while you were working on whatever you were working on; she explained why she chose to handle it the way she did, and even apologised for how she originally intended to go about the investigation, which she said you recommended against."
"Yeah, it wouldn't have ended well."
"No, it wouldn't. Thank you for putting a stop to that; it might well have completely broken the trust that has been building between our two peoples these last few weeks. I'm not sure what I would have done if that happened."
Harry didn't reply, and they were silent for a few seconds. "So what now?" Teyla asked. "Now you know there are no traitors?"
"Not sure yet. If the conditions are right, we'll try an offensive operation, maybe take some prisoners and try and gather more intelligence."
"And if the conditions are not right?"
"Then we'll have to back away, let this opportunity pass us by," Harry sighed. "We're all so used - the Marines, Sheppard, and myself - to being supported by the full weight of our militaries at home. The American military and my own are crushingly superior in quality and numbers to most all of our enemies, which means we're always thinking offensively, keeping the initiative and deliberately seeking out the enemy forces in order to destroy or capture them. Here, it's the Wraith that are in that position, and I'm very, very leery of trying to push our luck this early, with so little intelligence on the enemy. We'll see."
According to the Stargate Wiki, the Wraith homing device is actually Wraith tech, not Ancient tech, but didn't go into detail on exactly what it was. I decided to take some creative licence with that; I hope the explanation worked well enough. I'd like to point out again that this is an AU. The Wraith were always made out to be dangerous-but-only-by-accident kind of enemy in Atlantis; with a few exceptions, most of the Wraith were pretty dumb, even the Queens. In this story, the Wraith will play to their strengths, but also have significant strategic weaknesses that the Earth forces will be able to exploit
Meta-cookies for figuring out whom 'Adelbert Mawhinney' is named after.