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Return to Pegasus, Part II, CH I

<<< Back to Return to Pegasus, Part II, Prologue

 

In the Atlantis control room, Teyla Emmagan, Ronon Dex and Richard Woolsey could only look back and forth between the monitors showing the progress of Alpha and Beta Flights’ approach to the Wraith hive ships, and watch McKay and Zelenka as they continued their frantic work to restore power and get the city’s drone launchers back online, as well as the wormhole drive.

“Reading power losses all throughout the drive systems,” Sergeant Chuck Campbell announced from his station. “Also reading some fluctuating temperature levels.”

“Temperature levels?” McKay looked up and strode to Chuck’s station, where he checked the readout. “What the hell?” He reached over and pulled up another window on the monitor. “Oh, this is not good. There was a series of power surges that shorted out the main conduits.”

“Can you reroute the power?” Woolsey asked.

“It will take time,” Zelenka reported as he read the readout on the console. “Several direct power conduits from the ZPM hub have overheated due to the accelerated rate of energy drain demanded by the wormhole drive. Safety systems shut it down before they could explode. That is why we had so much trouble staying in wormhole space and why we cannot now operate the control chair or fire drones.”

A beeping from a different display drew McKay’s attention before he could respond. He hit a couple of keys, and a readout appeared on the monitor. “Oh, you have got to be kidding!”

“What else, Doctor?” Woolsey asked.

McKay’s fingers danced across the keyboard as he continued to assess the damage. “The power surges also shorted out the power flow control relays up here in the control room. I’m gonna need to get down to the Zed-PM hub and reroute power manually from there,” McKay stated shortly, then pointed at Zelenka. “Keep an eye on those power levels and open up the thermal gradient coils along the central shaft. I’ve got an idea.”

“Secondary containment flux lines?” Zelenka asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Yeah. It’s gonna be real messy, but I think it’s our best shot in the unknown but obviously very limited amount of time we have.” McKay grabbed his tablet computer and headed for the main staircase from the control room down to the gate room and the lower levels. Ronon stepped away from the windows where he’d been standing with Teyla and fell into step alongside McKay.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Rodney groused.

“Coming with you.” Ronon exchanged a significant look with Woolsey. “Just in case.” Woolsey nodded in grim agreement.

“Just in case.”

McKay’s face scrunched in annoyance. “Right.” The pair swiftly trotted across the gate room floor to the nearest transporter.

 

--/--

 

When the installation of a squadron of Earth-made F-302 fighters on Atlantis a few years earlier had proved to be too much of a logistical headache, it had been proposed to create a squadron of puddle jumpers. The plan had been put on the back burner due to various distractions, not the least of which was the expedition being ousted from Atlantis by the Ancients from the Tria. It wasn’t until after Atlantis had left Lantea in the wake of the Asuran Replicator attack and the use of a group of jumpers working in concert to clear a path for the city to fly through an asteroid field, that the idea of a jumper squadron once again took center stage. With support from Colonel Carter during her year as the expedition’s director, Sheppard and Lorne formed two flights of jumpers, designated Alpha and Beta, with both Air Force and Marine pilots with the ATA gene training together in how to use the jumpers to their best advantage in aerial and space combat.

Practice was one thing, but reality was an entirely different animal. John would have preferred if three flights were going up against the hive ships instead of having to split two flights between the three targets. In fact, Atlantis actually did have enough jumpers to fill a third flight, but the plans for the still-on-paper Gamma Flight had been grounded along with the rest of the city’s jumpers when Atlantis had returned to Earth. While he, Lorne, and the others had all been able to get flight time on Earth to maintain their ratings on the F-302, it had been some time since any of them had been able to get behind the controls of a jumper, and John hoped that the lack of recent flight time could be made up for in other areas.

The key to the success of the attack plan was the trusty little ships’ cloaking shields. Though the jumpers’ drone weapons would be detected at launch, the fact that the jumpers could get right up to the hive ships without being detected would make it nearly impossible for the hive ships to evade the incoming fire in time. Plus, their proximity would have the added advantage of preventing any escort ships from arbitrarily firing in the direction the attack had come from in an attempt to hit the attackers, for fear of hitting the hive ships and making the damage the jumpers inflicted even worse. Naturally, the risk of a jumper getting caught in the explosion of a detonating drone was severe, but the risk to Atlantis if they didn’t get the Wraith to back off was greater still.

These thoughts and more spun through John’s mind as he flew Jumper One at the apex of Alpha Flight’s diamond formation. On the HUD, he could see both flights as they approached the three hive ships, the jumpers’ positions shifting to stay out of the way of the incoming fire. John winced as the volleys of weapons fire shot past them at Atlantis, and he willed Jumper One faster. The sooner they could take out the hive ships, the more time McKay and Zelenka would have to pull another miracle out of thin air.

All too soon, yet not soon enough for John’s liking, Alpha and Beta Flights reached the prearranged distance to the targets. The jumpers split into their assigned pairs and began their first attack run, flying in a pattern that to an observer watching from a distance might look something like reeds being woven into a basket. The jumpers closed quickly, swooping and spiraling around the hive ships, still undetected. The two jumper pairs assigned to target engines shot ahead to reach the rear of the hive ships, and John kept an eye on the rest of the jumpers’ progress on the HUD as he readied himself to send the command to Jumper One’s weapon system.

A little further... Nudge the port engine pod just a bit to turn the jumper so that he could start his run to the second hive ship once he’d fired on the first... Everyone else was coming into their positions... Just a few more seconds... There!

“Gotcha,” he muttered, then made the mental reach for the drone weapon launchers. The launchers responded with a swiftness that one might consider eager, ready to do battle with their creators’ dread enemy.

To the Wraith, it must have seemed as though weapons fire had started coming at them from out of nowhere, from all directions. Drone weapons ripped through the hive ships’ organic hulls, blowing apart engines and weapons arrays. Secondary explosions ricocheted through power lines and hibernation pods, crippling even more systems. Just as John had hoped, firing at such close range had caught the Wraith completely by surprise, and they had in turn stopped firing on Atlantis to focus on this new threat. Now was the time to gain as much traction as they could before the Wraith were able to regroup. Even as the first volleys were hitting their marks, the jumpers were already zooming away and off to their next targets.

John briefly tuned out the radio chatter of the other pilots reporting their shots good as he fired his next round at a second hive ship, and watched in satisfaction as its engines flickered and died as well, streaming sparks and smoke behind it. So far, so good.

The jumpers had formed up once again, preparing for their next attack run, when a proximity alarm flashed across each of the Jumpers’ HUDs.

“Um, sir...” Lorne began.

“Yeah, I see it,” John snarled as a swarm of darts started boiling out of the hive ships, intent on finding their invisible prey. He toggled his radio to the group channel. “All jumpers, proceed to secondary targets and fire at will. I repeat, fire at will.”

 

--/--

 

Teyla turned away from the windows and back toward the control room. “Mister Woolsey, I believe the jumpers have started their attack.”

Woolsey looked up from where he’d been watching over Zelenka’s console, and quickly walked to the window to stand beside Teyla. Together, they could see tiny bursts of light beginning to blossom near the engines and weapons arrays of the hive ships. “It won’t be long now,” he muttered, then toggled on his radio. “Doctor McKay, the jumpers have engaged the hive ships. I hope you’re ready down there.”

“Already?” McKay’s voice yelped over the radio, “Sheppard’s fast.”

“Rodney, of course they’re fast, even if the jumpers do look like tin cigars,” Zelenka admonished. “Aerodynamics are not a factor in deep space.”

“I know that, genius,” McKay snapped. “Now how are those power levels?”

“Still holding.”

“Good.” Several levels below the control room, in the chamber that housed Atlantis’s ZPM hub, Rodney, along with Miko Kusanagi and a couple of other techs that McKay still refused to call by name, had pulled panels off the sides of the hub, as well as several along the walls. Patch cables snaked between the open access ports, and Kusanagi was quickly resetting several crystals in a control box she’d opened up in the floor next to the ZPM hub. Ronon kept his gaze flashing between the chaos inside the hub room and the eerie quiet of the corridor outside.

Finally, Miko looked up to where Rodney had balanced two laptops on the ZPM hub. “Doctor McKay, I’ve finished repositioning the crystals.”

He looked down at Miko, saw that yes, the crystals were repositioned exactly as he’d instructed, and snapped his fingers at her. “Chair room, now, make sure Carson doesn’t blow us up.” She jumped up and ran for the chair room as quickly as she could go. Rodney sighed as he tapped his radio. “Radek, we’re ready.”

Ronon tensed slightly in anticipation. If anything was going to happen, if anyone was going to try something to stop them, surely it would happen now.

“Thermal gradient coils open,” Radek reported over the radio. A series of lights winked on within several of the access ports, and the patch cables began glowing as the power started to flow. “Secondary containment flux lines maintaining normal output even with increased power demand.”

Rodney looked back and forth between the two laptops he had set up to monitor the hub. “Power flow is steady. Kusanagi, are you there yet?”

The radio crackled. “Yes, Doctor, I’m here.”

“Carson, you’d better be sitting in that chair.”

Beckett’s long-suffering sigh was unmistakable. “Yes, Rodney, I’m here,” he drawled. “Not much elsewhere I could go, is there?”

“No, not really,” Rodney sighed.

 

--/--

 

The good news was, the hive ships had stopped firing on Atlantis, and their own advance on the city had been significantly slowed once the jumpers had taken out the Wraith engines. Now the three lead hives were adrift, just as Atlantis was, and unable to use any weapons.

The bad news was, the Wraith still had the darts. There had been some close calls already as Alpha and Beta Flights attempted to complete their mission even as the darts continued flying a defensive swarm pattern around the crippled hive ships. There were far more darts than jumpers, and it was getting harder to get in close to target critical systems without risking a collision with either a dart or the hive ships themselves. Sheppard was afraid it was only a matter of time before the darts started firing indiscriminately to further screen out the intruders. He expanded the view on the HUD to get a look at the entire Wraith fleet, and swore.

“Lorne, two more hives just broke off from the main group and are moving to intercept. ETA two minutes. Looks like—“

All of a sudden, his worst fears were realized. A dart was tracking dangerously close to Jumper Seven, and sure enough, it managed to clip one of its wings on the jumper’s underbelly. The dart went careening out of control and smashed into two other darts, which in turn started drawing attention from others. Jumper Seven’s cloak actually flickered off briefly at the contact, then reengaged while jerking to the right in a wide curve.

“Davis, come in!”

The radio crackled, then Davis’s strained voice came through, punctuated by bursts of static that Sheppard surmised were circuits aboard Jumper Seven sparking out. “—per Seven, I’m okay—“ *pop* “—steer, controls are really sluggish. Can’t—“ *crackle* “—out of spin!”

“Hang on, Lieutenant,” Lorne’s voice came over the radio, “I’ve got an idea.”

“Major,” John said, with a hint of warning in his voice.

“Not leaving my wingman, sir.”

The noise that came out of John’s throat was half laugh, half snort. “I was going to say, watch yourself,” he drawled.

“Yessir.”

On the HUD, John could see Jumper Seven’s spin flattening out, becoming a widening spiral. If Davis stayed on that trajectory, he’d slam right into the lead hive ship in another minute. Jumper Three, with Lorne piloting, sped toward the stricken Jumper Seven even as the rest of Alpha and Beta Flights finished hitting the final designated targets and reported in to Sheppard, who directed Addams to take the other jumpers back to the staging point and out of harm’s way. All of a sudden, Jumper Three’s position seemed to pop right into the side of Jumper Seven, which itself popped out of its spin, flipped in the other direction once, then began to drift. Jumper Three then came up behind Jumper Seven and seemed to tap the rear, pushing it forward, away from the swarming darts and toward Atlantis’s position.

John couldn’t quite believe what he’d just seen. “Uh, Major? What the hell was that?”

“Just a little bit of bumper jumpers, sir. Like bumper cars, only different. I punched up the shield strength to give Jumper Seven a little push.” Lorne’s voice was utterly unrepentant.

“’Bumper jumpers’?” John spluttered, trying not to laugh as he brought Jumper One in alongside to escort Jumpers Three and Seven back to the staging area to join the others. “Major, we’re going to have to have a little chat later about naming things. Of course, that’s assuming McKay doesn’t kill you first for scratching the paint.”

“Yessir.” Lorne didn’t even bother to hide the amusement in his voice.

“Davis?” John asked, “How’re you doing?”

“Pretty good, sir.“ The radio popped a little again. “Got control back enough to steer straight.“ *hiss* “...think Doctor McKay’s going to blow a fuse about the radio.”

Sheppard and Lorne both laughed. “All right, let’s get back to the staging point. And Lorne?”

“Yes, Colonel?”

“Don’t ever do that again. You go and get yourself killed, and then I’ll have to train a new XO. Do you have any idea how tedious that is? I’m gonna have enough trouble with General O’Neill when he finds out we broke Atlantis.” John’s voice was only slightly whiny, a clear sign that he was joking. At least, after a fashion.

A noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort was heard over the radio before Lorne drolly replied, “I’ll try to remember that, sir.”

Then Woolsey’s voice came over the radio. “Alpha and Beta Flights, this is Atlantis. Doctors McKay and Zelenka have completed their repairs. Return to base immediately.”

“Lucky break,” Lorne muttered. “I wasn’t sure we’d have enough drones left to take on those other two hives.”

“You and me both,” John said, then hit his own radio. “Atlantis, this is Sheppard. McKay and Zelenka had better be damn sure they’ve got it fixed, because we’ve got another two hives coming.”

“We’re sure, Sheppard!” McKay yelled before Woolsey could respond. “Get back here!”

John toggled the radio to broadcast to all jumpers. “Okay, kids, you heard the man. Let’s go home.” There was a chorus of acknowledgements as the jumpers quickly turned and began heading back to Atlantis as fast as they could, John keeping a nervous eye on the HUD.

Sure enough, the other shoe dropped. The two hives that had been moving to the three damaged hives changed course and increased speed, making straight for Atlantis and releasing their own darts to fly ahead in a surgical strike of their own.

“Atlantis—“

“We see them, Colonel,” Woolsey’s voice was a little strained. “How far out are you?”

John looked at the distance reading on his HUD. “Forty-five seconds.”

The jumpers had made it past Atlantis’s shields when the two hive ships began firing, and over the radio, John could hear McKay yelling about how the Wraith just couldn’t give them a break for once. He tuned out the sound, focusing on the darts that were still closing in. Already, the access hatch at the top of the city’s central tower was opening and the first jumpers were lining up to lower themselves into the jumper bay. “Lorne,” John instructed, “make sure everyone gets inside.” He then brought Jumper One up and over the city, holding in a position well above the central tower but still within the shield, where he could watch the remaining jumpers reentering the city as the Wraith continued to approach. This was going to be very, very close.

Four more jumpers. Then three, then two, and finally Lorne was maneuvering Jumper Three down into the jumper bay. John began lowering Jumper One towards the access hatch. The darts were perhaps a minute away from reaching the city, and if they tried the same trick that had been tried during the Wraith siege of Atlantis five years earlier— He shook his head as Jumper One dropped below the edge of the access shaft, cutting off his view.

In the control room, everyone was stiff with tension as they watched the jumpers’ progress and the Wraith pursuit. Finally, Sheppard’s voice could be heard over the radio. “Control room, Alpha and Beta Flights are in and secure!”

In the ZPM hub room, McKay didn’t wait for a second opinion. “Go, Carson!” he cried.

In the chair room, Beckett tensed, reaching out with his mind to the stardrive, sending energy from the ZPMs through conduits into all the various buffers, coils, regulators, and all manner of advanced technological systems that Carson didn’t even begin to understand but knew would get Atlantis and those on board out of danger if only they’d simply work—

At his station, Chuck grimaced at the readout he was watching. “Sensors reading the darts are increasing speed,” he announced.

“Suicide run,” Radek muttered darkly. “They’re going to try to take out our shields.”

The stardrive emitters on the underside of Atlantis’s piers flared to life, the transmuted energy flowing out and enveloping the city in an invisible bubble that propelled the city forward as a brilliant point of light appeared in front of the city, signaling the opening of a hyperspace jump window. Atlantis shot through the fold into hyperspace, the window closing behind it just as the Darts reached the spot. An unlucky few actually got caught in the turbulence of the closing window and were instantly destroyed while their fellows swerved wildly out of the way to avoid the same fate.

For a long moment, everyone in the control room held their breath as Zelenka monitored various readouts.

“Stardrive is operating in normal parameters,” Zelenka reported.

“Uh huh,” McKay nodded absently as he continued to read the laptops down in the hub room. “Zed-PM power output levels are steady. Power reroute patch is... holding.” He sighed in relief.

Chuck watched the sensor display as it updated and smiled. “Reading no sign of pursuit into hyperspace. I think we lost ‘em.”

Woolsey finally smiled. “Well done, everyone.” A brief round of celebratory whoops and cheers erupted as everyone let off a little steam before getting back to work.

Sheppard strolled down the stairs from the jumper bay, followed by Lorne. Both wore identical expressions of delight.

“Well, that was fun,” John drawled. “Almost made it look like we planned to stop and hit ‘em all along.” Lorne simply rolled his eyes in amusement.

“Oh, hah hah hah,” McKay grumbled over the radio.

Woolsey nodded to them. “Colonel, Major. Well done, that was some extraordinary flying out there. Please pass on our compliments and gratitude to the rest of Alpha and Beta Flights.”

Sheppard and Lorne grinned. “Will do,” John answered. “So, how’s it coming?”

“We’re in hyperspace and getting away from the Wraith, aren’t we?” McKay shot back.

“And? How long until we reach M2K-701?”

Zelenka tapped a few keys. “Five hours.”

“Five hours? Rodney, I thought you said we were nearly there!”

McKay gave a long-suffering sigh, the sound rendered even more tinny by the radios. “By wormhole drive, yeah, we were just minutes away. You all know perfectly well that the hyperdrive isn’t that fast.”

“Will the remaining ZPMs hold that long?” Teyla’s concern was mirrored in everyone else’s thoughts.

“Oh, we’ll have enough to get there, no problem,” Rodney announced. “What worries me is what will happen when we get there. The shields are going to be maxed out during atmospheric entry, and that’ll put a big drain on whatever power is left in the Zed-PMs.”

“So you’re saying that once we land, we may not have any power left?” Woolsey was appalled.

“That is a distinct possibility,” Rodney answered.

“Wonderful,” John muttered. “Home Sweet Home.”

 

--/--

 

Mercifully to John’s mind, the post-op debriefing for Alpha and Beta Flights had ended up taking less time than he had anticipated. Of course, it helped that the mission had gone off with only the one hitch, even with McKay howling injury over Lorne’s ‘bumper jumper’ maneuver. Following the debriefing, there had been a brief discussion between Sheppard, Woolsey and McKay regarding how to handle the city’s landing once they did reach M2K-701. Carson was still in the chair, but it was decided that when Atlantis dropped out of hyperspace for the final approach, Sheppard would take the Chair so that there would be a fresh—or at least, fresher—pilot to guide the landing.

Once all the meetings and discussions were finished, they still had a little over three hours to go until Atlantis arrived at M2K-701. John took the opportunity to grab a turkey sandwich down in the dining hall, then catch a quick nap. The way this trip had already unfolded, and the Pegasus Galaxy’s irritating habit of throwing a wrench into the works whenever anything was going well, it seemed prudent to at least get a little rest before the next round of fresh hell was unleashed. In spite of waking up groggy and disheveled, his heart racing as though he’d had one hell of a dream, he actually had managed to get some rest.

With a little under an hour to go until they were scheduled to drop out of hyperspace, John decided to make his way up to the control room. Just to keep an eye on things, he told himself. He’d passed by the gym on the way up, to see Teyla quite handily handing Ronon’s butt to him with her bantos rods, as Kanaan and little Torren watched from the sidelines, laughing and cheering Teyla’s victory. John grinned and turned away, unseen. Some things never changed.

As he walked up the main staircase to the control room, John was still rolling his eyes at McKay’s acerbic comment about taking bets on whether John would be any better at landing the city this time, when a shadow on the balcony side of the mezzanine window caught his eye. Almost involuntarily, his feet changed direction. He set his jaw and told himself, as he did every time he stood before this door, that it was only a balcony. Some days, it was almost easy to remember that fact, but not completely. Squaring his shoulders, he walked forward, the door opening automatically as he approached.

Mayel Serrana stood at the railing, looking out into the eerie blue swirls of hyperspace streaking past as the city flew on to its destination. The strange light seemed to brighten her normally dark eyes, and darken her auburn curls so they looked almost black. Her pensive expression took John by surprise, after the past weeks of seeing her excitement about returning to Pegasus and her enthusiasm in helping the expedition prepare for the journey. She turned slightly at his approach, her features shifting into something more pleasant as she nodded acknowledgement of his presence.

“Are you all right?” John asked mildly.

“Do you ever get used to this?” At his quizzical look, she huffed quietly and wrapped her arms around herself. “The light. It’s so… so unnatural. So cold.”

“Ah. Well, you’d probably have to ask McKay about why it looks the way it does. And he’ll probably bore you to tears with a rambling explanation involving astrophysics, voodoo, PowerBars, and why Canada is supposedly the best country on Earth.” Mayel wrinkled her nose in obvious confusion at the unfamiliar terms, and John mentally kicked himself.

“So,” he said, trying to casually change the subject, “Looking forward to going home?”

“Very much so.”

If that was true, then why did she look so uncomfortable now? He wondered if it was bad memories of what had happened on the Coria. He had to admit, if their positions were reversed, he wouldn’t want to talk about it either. He didn’t doubt that there would be questions from the Coalition, even though they had to have known how risky the venture had been.

He looked over at her as she turned toward him.

“You know—“

“I was wondering—“

They stopped speaking just as quickly as they had started, but the awkward silence hung in the air for only a moment before they started to laugh.

“Go ahead, Colonel.”

“No, ladies first. Please,” John added.

She blinked. “Why?”

Now he blinked. “Because... that’s just how we do it on Earth. I suppose the Genii don’t believe in chivalry.” At her even more confused look, he rolled his eyes. “You know, men hold the door open for a woman, take off their jacket and lay it over a puddle in the street so that a woman can walk across without getting her shoes muddy, always treat women with courtesy, that sort of thing.”

She shook her head. “You people are strange. Genii women are perfectly capable of doing things for themselves.” Before he could respond, she went back to the subject that had been troubling her. “You said earlier...” Mayel shifted a little, tilting her head slightly. “While Atlantis was still on Earth, you told me that I might be surprised, when I said that I wouldn’t expect you to understand what it meant to me, for Ladon to put his faith in me. For anyone to put their faith in someone so much that they would sacrifice anything to repay that debt. Is that how you came to Atlantis?”

Now it was John’s face that turned pensive. “Yeah.” He looked away from her, out at the expanse of hyperspace. “Yeah, it was.”

She seemed to mull over his reaction, then turned the conversation to something a little safer.

“Why not return Atlantis to Lantea? The Wraith know you have not been there in years... Surely they would think it a waste of time to go searching for you there.”

He snorted. “You asking that question just demonstrated why we can’t. Even if the Wraith think we’re somewhere else, people are expecting us to go to Lantea, so it’s absolutely the last place we should go.” His voice grew pensive. “No matter how much we might want to go back.”

Mayel tilted her head toward him, regarding him thoughtfully. “Do you have regrets?”

“Everyone has regrets,” he said cautiously.

“But do you?”

He looked over at her, and while the expression on his face was a carefully closed mask, his eyes told her all she wanted to know.

Just then, his radio crackled, with Chuck’s voice speaking over the channel, “Colonel Sheppard, please report to the chair room.”

John glanced down at his watch while he toggled his radio. “Acknowledged, on my way.” He looked at Mayel. “We’re here.”

 

--/--

 

After walking Mayel back to the control room to join Woolsey and the others, Sheppard took the transporter down to the level of the chair room. He kept his stride swift, but not hurried, as he prepared himself to take control of Atlantis. While the ease with which he could use any Ancient-created technology was instinctive, flying a puddle jumper and flying the massive city-ship of Atlantis were two very different things. Both were part of that great symphony, but the city’s unique tones were far more complex and mercurial. For the past several hours, there had been a strange shiver, like a note being played off-key, that he knew sprang from the damage to the power systems. Despite that, the city had held up and done its very best. And so would he.

He stepped into the chair room as the floor underneath his feet shuddered with the exit to normal space. Was it his imagination, or had that shudder felt a little stronger than it should have been? McKay would no doubt already be grinding his teeth.

The chair was just rotating back into an upright position, and both Sheppard and Kusanagi stepped forward as Beckett climbed out of the chair. Carson stood still for a moment, almost as though he was trying to make certain of his balance before stepping away from the chair, and John reached out to take him by the arm.

“Carson, how’re we doing?”

“Oh, it’s been a wee bit rough around the edges, Colonel. Atlantis isn’t flying quite as smooth as normal.”

“Great. More good news.” John grimaced. He’d had a feeling that would be the case, but, well, there was nothing to be done about it now. Carson shot John a wry grin and let Kusanagi lead him over to a small bench to one side, where he sat down and took a long swig out of a bottle of water. John sat down in the chair, laying his hands on the control pads at the ends of the armrests, hearing and feeling the chair come to life as he did so. A blue glow from the chair’s back teased at the corner of his eyes as the chair tilted back and slowly started to rotate. John closed his eyes.

“Sheppard? Are you there yet?” McKay sounded rather antsy.

“I’m here, Rodney.”

“Okay, let’s see if you can land the city better this time.”

John’s eyes were closed, but he still rolled them anyway. “Give it a rest, Rodney. How are we doing on power?”

“The second Zed-PM was fully drained an hour after we escaped from the Wraith armada. We’ve got about sixty percent left in number three. The patch on the power reroute is still holding, but I really don’t want to spend any more time trying to land than we have to.”

“All right, then.” John took a breath and reached out with his mind to the city’s stardrive. “Here we go.”

He focused first on the sub-light engines, firing them in a controlled pattern to adjust the city’s angle as it entered a descending orbit over the planet. The massive city-ship rotated on its axis, bringing the underside around to face towards the planet, while the tops of the towers and spires reached away from the planet and towards the stars. A moment passed, then two, as John kept the city’s flight path steady and monitored the sensor readings of the preferred landing zone in 701’s southern ocean. Everything looked clear, no unstable weather patterns that would complicate the landing. Hopefully, the landing itself would be as picture-perfect as the weather. The city shuddered as it encountered the increasing resistance of the planet’s atmosphere.

“Shields are holding.” McKay’s voice reported over the radio. “Zed-PM power output now at fifty-eight percent.” The city’s vibration increased, seeming to come in slow, rocking waves that grew bigger each time. “I’m strengthening the shields.”

John tensed, fingers pressing into the gel-filled touchpads. In response, the sub-lights flared again briefly, leveling out the city’s angle to reduce the drag on the edge leading into the descent as much as was possible. The vibration increased momentarily, then settled back to a steady tremble. The jumpers may have looked more like fat tin cigars, but by comparison, their design was still more aerodynamic than Atlantis. He was beginning to see what Carson had meant by rough; the chair’s controls were a little sluggish this time out. With his years of training as a pilot, John knew he could compensate for that, but only so much.

“Rodney,” John grated out, “how’s the power?”

“Down to forty-one percent and dropping steadily,” McKay told him. “Is there any way you can hurry this up?”

“If we try to speed it up too much, we could end up eating further into the power reserves,” Zelenka’s voice cautioned.

“And besides which, the idea is to slow down, not speed up,” John told them both. “Keep your shirt on, McKay. We’ll get there when we get there.”

Another sudden jolt rattled the city, and John was dimly aware of Carson grabbing the side of the bench he was sitting on to keep from sliding off. Kusanagi, however, had sat directly on the floor as they began their descent, and didn’t seem to be all that concerned by the shaking as she monitored the power levels flowing to the chair. She absently reached out and steadied Carson, then resumed working.

John grinned slightly, but the bulk of his attention remained on Atlantis’s descent. They were now nearly two-thirds of the way down, and while the city-ship’s angle of descent remained steady, the resistance against the shields and the vibration it caused was increasing again. He didn’t even bother to ask McKay about the power levels this time, but accessed the ZPM throughput routines himself.

Twenty-nine percent power left and dropping like a two-ton boulder.

“Sheppard!”

“I know, Rodney.”

“We’re starting to get temperature alarms from the leading edge of the city!”

“I can see that.”

“Zed-PM power level down to twenty-five percent!”

The vibration increased again, and John could hear over the radio exclamations from some of the technicians up in the control room as they started to be shaken from their seats. A whistling, whining sound grew in volume, the sound of air rushing past at incredible speed as Atlantis continued to descend.

Fifteen thousand feet... Ten thousand...

“Power at eighteen percent!”

John reached out to tap the engines just a bit, this time to pull the leading edge of the city up just a trifle. Again, the move was meant to slow their speed, but also to keep the city from nosing straight into the water on impact.

“I am reading fluctuations in the secondary relays,” Zelenka reported nervously. “I do not think our patch to the power systems will hold for much longer.”

Six thousand feet…

Through the city’s sensors, John could feel the dampness of clouds as Atlantis sliced through them on its way down. It wasn’t nearly enough to cool the inferno raging on the underside of the city from the heat of atmospheric entry.

“Ten percent!”

One thousand feet... the sea was rushing up to meet them...

There was a tremendous jolt and a crashing roar that seemed to drown out any other sound. The lights snapped out all at once, the chair abruptly stopped spinning, and the faint smell of singed insulation wafted through the air in the chair room.

“Control room, this is Sheppard.”

A long moment passed.

“We’re here, Colonel,” came Woolsey’s reply.

“Speak for yourself,” Mayel’s voice muttered tartly over the channel. “I would have thought, being such a gifted pilot, that Sheppard would be better at landing than this. Or is that normal for him?”

John rolled his eyes. “First McKay, then you. How about you try landing this thing and see how you like it?” Silence from both met his question, and he grinned in triumph. “Now, how is everybody?”

“A bit shaken up, looks like a few bumps and bruises, but everyone can walk on their own two feet,” Woolsey reported.

“Good to hear that,” Carson chimed in as he got up, then helped Kusanagi to her feet. “I’d better go check in with the infirmary. Jennifer will probably need the extra pair of hands.”

“Thanks, Doc,” John told him, and Kusanagi nodded her thanks as Beckett headed out, his penlight in hand to guide his way.

John pulled his mind back from the city, which was at once both more quiet than usual and singing a rather discordant key. McKay was not going to be happy about all the repairs he’d have to ride herd on. The chair tilted back into an upright position as the lights slowly cycled back on, and Kusanagi walked over and held out a hand to John as he stood up.

“Well, we’re alive,” John announced. “I guess we can call that a good landing.” He absently wondered what Nancy might have thought of all this, had she been there. Then he shook his head and headed out of the chair room in search of the nearest transporter.

 

>>> To be continued in Return to Pegasus, Part II, CH II

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