Chapter 1: The Liberators
Teyla awoke to the sound of wind.
She rolled over in the furs and blankets of her bed pile, stretching languidly. The winds of this new world whipped and tore at the flaps of her tent and it was glorious. For too long she'd been trapped in solid walls and a decorative window that didn't open. She never slept to the sound of the wind howling among the towers or the waves that crashed under Atlantis's balconies. The city was silent.
That silence was over.
This world, New Athos, was a gift from the Ancestors. It was the very least those Ancestors could do after abandoning them to the Wraith, after forcing them from their homes on Atlantis and the mainland, after leaving them to fend for themselves with nothing but the tools they could carry. An entire village was left empty and bereft on Lantea's mainland, tools and toys and memories that were thought to be lost forever but now...
Today there were plans to return to the abandoned city. They'd fly to the mainland and the village and finally have a chance to strip it bare. There were children who missed their toys, mothers who lost their veils, families who mourned their lives. The physical things could be found and returned.
Sunlight flickered in her tent, the wind sweeping away canvas and skins to bring her the dawn. She sat up, naked in her bed pile and yawned, stretched, awoke to the quick dapple of soft orange light all around her.
She didn't even start when her tent's main flap was untied and flung open.
“Jesus!” Sheppard shouted. The tent flap was released, hanging half-open in the wind.
Teyla laughed. “Good morning, John,” she called.
“Please put something on,” Sheppard muttered outside.
Teyla grinned as she pulled a dress from her satchel. She slipped it on over her bare skin and left her tent to greet the day.
“Not much better,” Sheppard grumbled.
Teyla gave him a glance that clearly showed how little she cared for his prudishness as she tied the dress's ties. It draped down her front and back in two halves that tied together along the sides. She'd kept it in a storage-tie, the ties loose so the dress could be slipped on easily. However that meant each tie had to be untied and retied to tighten the dress around her form and the wind was not helping to keep her covered while she worked.
“Where is Rodney?” Teyla asked.
Sheppard seemed to forget his discomfort and grinned. “He's still asleep. Wanna wake him up?”
“John,” Teyla warned.
“Teyla, he's sleeping in the barn,” Sheppard whined. “With furry pigs. He's snuggling one of them!”
Teyla rolled her eyes. She finished tying one side of her dress and started on the other. “Wake Ronon up first,” she said. “I am sure his tent is easy enough to find.”
Sheppard pouted and looked for the one collapsed tent in the settlement. He found it, a windblown wreckage of stakes, sticks, and canvas. He made his way over to the pile and lifted the canvas. “Hey, buddy you in there?” he asked.
Underneath the canvas there was another pile, this one of blankets. The pile shifted and then moved. Ronon crawled out like an animal leaving its den and glared at the wreckage.
“You're not good with tents,” Sheppard observed.
Ronon glared at him. “Prefer walls or nothing at all.” At least he slept with pants on. “What's up?”
“Rodney's sleeping in the barn again, I want to get a good look before he wakes up.”
Ronon yawned. “I'd sleep in the barn too if they let me.”
“There are pigs, Ronon. Pigs!”
“They're rursus,” Ronon corrected. “They make good pets. And stew. And pelts. And they're warm. I'd sleep with one.”
Sheppard pouted again. “You're no fun.”
Ronon stretched and made his way over to Teyla. He nodded at her as she got the last few ties on her dress. “Are pigs funny?” Ronon asked.
“I do not know,” Teyla said. “I believe they are the source of Lantean bacon. Why?”
Ronon shrugged. “Sheppard seems to think McKay sleeping in the rursus barn is funny.”
“It is juvenile,” Teyla allowed. “Normally only children and Wanderers sleep in a rursus pile.”
“Maybe that's it.” Ronon saw Sheppard heading into the barn. “We should go make sure he doesn't do anything stupid.”
“Agreed,” Teyla said.
The rursus barn was a three-sided affair, one wall essentially missing as it extended out into the rursus pen. The pen held fallen trees and scrub for scratching, a mud wallow to keep the rursus safe from insects, frayed rope for tugging games, and a large dusty area for running. The barn had an area fenced off for tool storage but the bulk was given over to the rursus. Straw and grasses were brought in for bedding and rooting around in. At the moment most of the rursus were still asleep, collected in a pile on and around a single blanket. That blanket wasn't being slept under, it was slept on, laid over the straw to 'keep the allergens down'.
Sheppard crouched nearby, looking at the blanket's several occupants and snickering to himself.
Teyla and Ronon exchanged an eyeroll and made their way over.
The rursus must have adopted Rodney as one of their own. It explained the three who were shoved against his back and the one against his belly. Rodney must not mind, either, given he was spooned up against that one along his front, his arm draped over it. It was awake, wiggling happily in the warmth and snuffling contentedly.
Rodney gave a loud halting snore. The rursus around him answered with loud snorts of their own and snuggled closer.
“The rursus may believe he is speaking to them,” Teyla observed. She also then observed John slap his hands over his mouth to hold in his own braying laughter. It only somewhat worked in that it didn't sound like laughter, it sounded like snorting. The rursus looked at him and started snuffling and snorting in response.
A human groan sounded from the pile. It faded into snuffling as Rodney held his snuggled rursus closer. The animal rumbled happily and prodded him in the face with its nose.
That finally woke Rodney. He sat up with his snuggled rursus nosing him repeatedly with its snout, snorting and grunting happily. He blinked at the animal, at the pile around him, then at his team watching him. “You're all weird,” he said.
Sheppard finally lost it and he fell over laughing. Ronon watched him, reached down, picked up a rursus, and put it on Sheppard's chest. The laughter went odd as Sheppard tried to get out from underneath a rursus that seemed to enjoy laying on him.
“I will be out with the rest of the village,” Teyla said. “The morning meal will be ready within an hour.” She and Ronon left.
“Maybe it'll be bacon,” Rodney said hopefully.
“Holy fuck, McKay,” Sheppard gasped before shoving the rursus off of him. The creatures weren't that big, not much larger than a medium dog, but they were much heavier and they could feel like dead weight when they wanted to. The rursus snorted its displeasure and wandered off into the pen.
“What?” Rodney asked.
Sheppard gestured wildly. Rodney looked around himself. He was sitting on a blanket over straw in a barn. Most of the rursus were waking up and heading out into the pen. A few stayed behind, laying next to him or on him or arguing over who got to sprawl in his lap and get scratched behind the ears. Rodney gave those ear-scratches freely, running his hands wistfully through their wiry fur. There was no possible way to mistake a rursus for a cat but it was still nice to touch something again, to pet and stroke and scratch and hold something fuzzy. Especially something fuzzy that appreciated it. “You think I could get Elizabeth to let me take one back to Atlantis?” he asked.
“You're naming it 'Hamhock' because that's what it is,” Sheppard warned.
Rodney huffed. The rursus in his lap looked up at him with big watery black eyes and wiggled its decidedly porcine snout. Rodney rubbed behind its large floppy ears and it rumbled.
Rodney sneezed. “Great,” he said. “C'mon guys, I need to get up.”
The rursus all looked up at him then went back to laying on him.
“Ugh,” Rodney groaned. “I mean it, it's morning, go play, I need my meds.”
“Meds?” Sheppard asked.
“Only one person here had the foresight to raid the Daedalus's supply of antihistamines before they left and it wasn't Carson,” Rodney said as he extracted himself from the rursus pile. He ignored various snorts and squeals of protest before they all gave up and let him go. Once free Rodney stretched then sniffed himself. He made a face. “And none of us brought a change of clothes.”
“Yeah well you're the only one who sleeps with the pigs,” Sheppard said, grinning.
“Have you seen Ronon's tent?” Rodney asked. He climbed the short fence to the tool area and rummaged around in his bag for a foil packet full of pills. He popped one and dry-swallowed it. “Anyway we're heading to Atlantis today, we can take time for showers and laundry. How long do you think until the Daedalus gets back?”
“It's been a week,” Sheppard said. “About three weeks there, three weeks back, getting everyone back on board shouldn't take too long.”
Rodney scoffed. “You've never pissed off General O'Neill before.”
“Hey, we saved his life.”
“Yeah, last time I did something for him I got exiled to Siberia,” Rodney said. “Mark my words, we will be here for a long time.”
Sheppard looked out over the settlement of New Athos. The tava fields stretched off to the west, he could see pest bats sitting on the scarecrow he'd set up to stop them. Tents in various stages of collapse all clustered around the fire pit and clearing that might eventually become a town square. Faint blue wisps rose up from the smoke house where strips and cuts of rursus meat hung to cure. Teyla and Elizabeth both wore dresses that did not conceal enough for his tastes as they talked and laughed and worked with the other women of the settlement. Carson was holding an infant, swaying back and forth as the baby cooed. Ronon led a group of men and boys in morning exercises, each of them wielding large sticks like staves.
And in the distance, on a hill overlooking the valley, stood the stargate.
He hoped the Daedalus returned soon. He couldn't wait to rebuild their city.
Chapter 2: Miko Kusanagi
Miko took the first en garde position, the oak and bamboo shiai-yo naginata falling easily to guard her center line while she stood with her side facing her sensei. She kept her head turned, eyes focused on target and sensei as the exercise's warm-ups began.
“Mae! Mae! Ato! Ato!”
Miko followed the steps shouted by her sensei, stepping forward and back against an imaginary target. Her bare feet felt good against the mat, something she hadn't allowed herself in the Atlantis gym. No reason to, not when her weapon and her art were left on Earth. Out of reach.
Left home? Perhaps.
Miko swung the shiai behind her head and brought it down in a straight cut in front of her again and again. She could feel her muscles loosen in the exercise as she relaxed into the movements.
She'd done this since she was a student, a teenaged girl just entering high school. Training with the naginata was expected for her, it was a proper delicate weapon for a proper delicate woman. She kept up with her training even after she left to study mathematics, after she discovered the beauty of the numbers that overlaid the entire world and beyond it.
She turned and pivoted as she changed hands with her shiai overhead on the backswing. Her hands gripped the wooden shaft with delicate precision, finding the warm spots where her grip had been previously. She continued the exercise, the blade of the shiai nearly reaching the mat behind her on the backswing, nearly reaching the mat before her on the downswing.
She'd missed this while working with the SGC. Firearms were the common weapon, easily carried and concealed, requiring no great skill to use. The military personnel were meant to keep her safe, she shouldn't have to defend herself. She wasn't even cleared to carry a gun in the field, she'd never learned. There was no reason when the Wraith shook off gunshots like bee stings.
She'd never gone armed into the Pegasus galaxy. That would change.
Miko stopped as commanded, returning to the chudan position.
It might not change. It might never change. She might never go back to Pegasus, not now that the Ancients had taken back their city. She'd taken her stored-up leave time and returned home, returned to her family in Japan. She found a small apartment of her own and a dojo where she might relearn what the years had taken from her.
It turned out the years had not taken much. The ease with which she wielded her weapon and wore her armor spoke volumes.
She wondered if she would ever return to the SGC. It wasn't the same without Atlantis.
Miko slipped off her sandals at the door to her apartment. She slipped her key into the lock but the door opened as though unlocked. She stood there a moment, wondering why and then she knew.
Miko bowed respectfully. “Hello, Mother,” she said. “You're not at home? Who is taking care of Father?”
“Your father's out with his friends,” her mother said. “The oil's just heating up for tempura. You must be famished!”
Miko allowed her mother to fuss over her. She hadn't been home in so long her mother had that right. “Thank you, Mother, but I should be serving you.”
“Nonsense, I haven't seen you in ages, let me.” Miko's mother pulled vegetables out of a grocery bag and prepared them for the tempura. “One message from you in three years, only one! I know, I know, you're doing important work but your father and I aren't getting any younger. That man you mentioned...”
“Mother!” Miko blushed bright red. “It's not like that. He works hard for the entire team. He doesn't have time for romance.”
Her mother huffed. “Pity,” she said. “You know your father wants to see his first grandson before he dies.”
“Father isn't that old,” Miko said.
Her mother brandished her chopsticks at her. “You're old enough,” she snapped before mixing the tempura batter. Sticks flashed as she stirred for just a few seconds. Then she flicked the batter off of her sticks into the oil to check its temperature, hot enough. Vegetables were dipped in the batter and laid in the hot oil to quickly fry.
“I have my work,” Miko defended. “It's good work. I've done more than I can tell you, Mother, I wish I could. I've seen wonderful things, saved lives, my work has made this world a better place. I haven't had time to start a family.”
“You have time now,” her mother said. “You come home after three years away and the first thing you do is find a dojo to practice. What were you doing out there that you feel you need to pick up your weapon again?” She fished the finished tempura vegetables out of the hot oil with her chopsticks before scooping out the fried bits with a wire mesh scoop. She laid those aside before dipping and frying more vegetables. She dusted the finished tempura with salt.
“I watched men die,” Miko admitted.
“I will not be unarmed again, Mother,” Miko said. “I can defend myself and I shall. I will not watch another man die for me because he doesn't believe I can defend myself.”
Miko's mother hugged her, petting her hair. The hug lasted only a moment but it was enough.
It was the middle of the night when her phone rang. Miko rolled over on her sleeping mat and groped for the buzzing cell phone. “Hai,” she said sleepily.
Miko recognized the voice. She couldn't place it at the moment but it sounded American. She switched to English. “Yes, what is it?” she asked.
“Dr. Kusanagi, this is Colonel Carter.”
Oh. Oh! Miko sat up, suddenly awake. “Colonel, I did not expect... What's wrong?”
There was laughter on the other end of the line. “Nothing's wrong, Doctor,” Carter said. “We were wondering if you're like to return to the project. There's been a... development and we have the opportunity to return the project to its former state.”
“Former... state?” Miko asked. “What about the... local interference?”
“You will be briefed on it when you arrive,” Carter said. “Until then I can't say anything over the phone. You understand.”
“Of course,” Miko said. “When do I have to report?”
“The ship won't be coming back into port for a few weeks yet,” Carter said. “You have time to finish with your current endeavors. I would suggest giving two weeks notice as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” Miko said. She didn't mention the fact that she hadn't found a new job yet. She had enough back-pay from the SGC that she wouldn't have to work for a year. Now she wouldn't have to find a job. But now she'd have to say goodbye to her parents again and...
...and she refused to go unarmed this time. “Colonel Carter, I have a concern. What sort of restrictions will be placed on our belongings this time? Will we be allowed only one personal item?”
“Is it important?” Carter asked.
“Very,” Miko said with all seriousness.
“We'll talk to Colonel Caldwell when he gets back to port,” Carter said. “Until then, just don't go wild.”
“Of course not,” Miko said. “Thank you. Thank you, Colonel.”
“I look forward to seeing you again,” Carter said before handing up.
Miko looked at her phone. The display told her it was nearly 3am but there was no getting back to sleep now. She laid back on her sleeping pallet and squealed with glee.
She was going back!
Miko bowed at the entrance to her father's workshop and office. She rarely came here, never quite sure she wanted to know what her father was up to. After all, if she didn't know she couldn't say anything. What she did know she could twist and obscure without ever truly lying. It was a quality that had helped her while working for the SGC. It would come in useful now.
She found him working with a crate of strawberries. At least, some of them might once have been strawberries. Some of them might have become strawberries. The pot of melted chocolate made more sense as she watched him take an unripe green-white strawberry and paint it with red coloring. From there it got a sprinkle of sugar and then dipped into the chocolate. It went onto a tray with others, all laid out like proper gifting strawberries.
“You don't see any of this,” her father said.
Miko dutifully looked away but couldn't hide the amusement on her face. “Of course not, Father,” she said. “Everyone knows you run a perfectly normal hydroponics outfit.”
Her father smiled as he continued. This next strawberry was small and half-rotten. He delicately shaved off the worse of the offense and dipped the strawberry into a vat of pale pink coating. Miko dipped her finger in and licked it. “At least it's strawberry flavored,” she said.
“Mixed with vanilla,” her father admitted. “It's a lighter flavor. Fewer people notice, or at least fewer people complain.” Once the pink had set he dipped the strawberry again. He repeated the process until the strawberry was properly sized and shaped before dipping it in the chocolate to hide the berry's augments.
Miko watched him dip strawberries, always careful to make sure the little crown of visible berry stayed a fresh, uniform, appetizing red. Beneath the chocolate, though, it could have been anything. But beneath was unimportant. All that mattered was what the customer saw.
“What brings you out here, my daughter?” He picked up another overripe berry and began to prepare it.
Miko took a deep breath. “I need to talk to your business associates,” she said.
Her father put down his knife and his half-readied berry. “Why?” he asked.
“The project is beginning again,” she said. “I got the call last night. I have two weeks before I have to leave, maybe three.”
“You just came back.”
Miko bowed then raised her head. “I know. But I have to go back. I work hard there, good work that benefits many people. I'm needed.”
“Why do you need to talk to...”
Miko looked her father in the eye. “I will not return unarmed.”
That night those same words echoed in her mind and around the tiny restaurant as she knelt across from the man in the crisp suit and tie, the man her father had introduced as 'Mr. Akiyama.' The low table between them contained bowls of noodles, untouched and still steaming. Two men stood next to the doorway while Mr. Akiyama knelt at the head of the chabudai table, Miko's father to his left, a man introduced as 'Mr. Kim' to his right. Miko kept her hands on her thighs and her eyes straight ahead.
Akiyama blinked at her complete lack of fear. “I need more than that,” he said. “So you will not return unarmed. Am I to believe you can't find a weapon elsewhere?”
“The project is accompanied by military backup,” Miko admitted. “But none of them have any concept of a civilized weapon. They would have me use a gun.”
“And why not? A gun is a powerful weapon.”
Miko finally allowed her face to display an expression. It was one of distaste. “I have seen the recovered bodies of those who relied on their guns,” she said. “And I have seen the fighting styles of those who survive encounter with the enemy. I have trained with the naginata for seventeen years. I would use that training.”
“What is this project?” he asked.
Miko's face went expressionless again. “It's... classified.”
Akiyama still did not look impressed. “Then why should I help you?”
Miko took a steadying breath. She wouldn't betray her secrecy. But then, she wouldn't have to. She knew how to twist and obscure.
“We were evacuated before the siege closed in around us,” she said. “Those of us without weapons skills were sent away for our own safety, regardless of our usefulness. I had to sit and wait at the Alpha Site while men died to defend the project. One hundred eighteen were killed, thirty seven injured. Only two recovered, the rest succumbed to their wounds. Our enemy uses horrible weapons meant to subdue and then they maim. I have never watched one kill a man, but I have seen the bodies they leave behind.
“Our enemy enjoys the challenge of a melee fight. Their lieutenants each carry two swords, one for each hand, and they draw at the first sign of defiance. They glorify the hunt and they will distract themselves with it to their detriment. It's difficult to stop such zealousness with a gunshot but a proper blade will always remove a head.”
Akiyama looked slightly disturbed. He glanced to his left. Miko's father looked downright ill, he'd had no idea what his daughter got up to with this 'project'. He glanced to his right. Mr. Kim merely nodded.
“I should have been allowed to stay,” Miko continued. “My boss and his second broke the besieging ships with a nuclear weapon they built in desperation. My expertise could have been used to complete the weapon sooner, before the enemy called in reinforcements and entered the city. Fewer men would have died protecting me if I could have protected myself.”
Akiyama glanced back at one of his guards and the man moved. In an instant Miko felt the light brush of a wire around her neck. It didn't tighten, it was just enough to threaten. She sat up straight and leveled her eyes at the Yakuza sub-boss. Her gaze seemed to dare him to try. She tried not to notice her terrified father.
“You lie,” Akiyama said.
“I do not,” Miko said. “But the project is secret. I can't possibly tell you everything. I shouldn't have even admitted that.”
Mr. Kim spoke for the first time. “And yet, there have been no unaccounted for nuclear explosions in the past few years.”
Miko smirked. “Of course not,” she said.
“At least, not on Earth.”
Miko's smirk dropped and her eyes went wide.
Mr. Kim picked up his own smirk. “So the rumors are true,” he said. “So much of Earth's talent simply disappears. These aren't recluses either. These are disappearing out of universities, out of JAXA, out of world-class facilities. People have seen things in space, our observatories have found moving objects that slow down as they approach Earth. You're involved.”
Miko didn't deny it. She didn't confirm, either. She simply waited.
“This is real?” Akiyama asked.
“If I'm involved, you know my answer is 'I cannot say.'” Miko smiled. “I cannot say.”
Mr. Kim nodded. “This enemy, are they dangerous?”
“They're like oni,” Miko said. “Blue skin, sharp teeth, white hair, yellow eyes. They might be the oni of legend. They certainly... eat like oni. Sometimes their victims survive, but not for long.”
“What have you been doing?” Miko's father whispered.
Miko looked at him. “I work hard, Father. For all of us.”
Akiyama looked at Mr. Kim and received a nod in return. Akiyama nodded and the wire disappeared from Miko's neck as the man returned to guard the door.
“I need to know my investment will be... appropriate,” Akiyama said. “But first, we dine.”
Miko waited until everyone else started eating before picking up her sticks. So the Yakuza already knew Earth had interests off-world. Now they knew she was involved. She glanced at her father and hoped she hadn't just made his life harder.
Miko wished she hadn't eaten. She also wished she'd had a chance to stretch first.
Mr. Akiyama and several more men in suits all knelt against the wall of the gym. Someone had found her a shiai-yo naginata and several shinai swords of various lengths. Now she was standing in the middle of the gym floor as three thugs circled around her. Two held shinai but one seemed to prefer his garrote.
Miko turned a circle, keeping eyes and ears open for her attackers. She fended off the first, blocking his strikes with the bamboo blade of her weapon before swinging the weapon up and knocking him in the jaw.
With that first strike the spar seemed to change character. Suddenly the gathering grew quiet.
She'd drawn blood.
She danced, her feet barely touching the floor as she jumped and weaved and leapt. She blocked strikes from the shinai, bamboo striking bamboo with enough force for the crack to echo. But something was wrong, danger from behind. She ducked and brought her shiai blade up to protect her from the garrote wire. The wire wrapped around her blade and pulled, trying to disarm her but she had leverage. She twisted and pivoted her weapon, striking her attacker in the torso with the blunt end.
Then she moved again, out of the middle of the three thugs. One rushed at her, intent on getting his wire back. She met him in the middle, raising her shiai and bringing it down on his head. She stopped the cut right before it struck, looking him in the eye until he yielded. But there were two more thugs to deal with and they were still armed.
She went after their wrists, swinging the weapon wide to clear space before bringing her blade down. She let those strikes land, disarming them before thrusting the point end of the bamboo blade at their throats. Each blow stopped before striking, paused just long enough to accept the yield.
She bowed to each thug then to Akiyama. “I have accepted their deaths,” she said.
“They are yours,” Akiyama agreed. He thought for a moment then smiled. “We must drink. Accompany us.”
Miko bowed again.
She would share sake with the Yakuza. Then she would hope she never returned to Earth. The Yakuza would hear of her return and she knew she wouldn't be able to get away with something small like counterfeiting wedding fruits like her father. They would demand more from her.
She felt the bite of the needle like fire, like the strike of hammer against steel. The gentle tap tap tap of wood on wood felt like blows against the anvil, as each strike drove the ink into her shoulder. But she couldn't flinch, couldn't show pain. She had to be like the steel, hard yet supple, flexible yet sharp. She had to relax into the pain lest the ink refuse to take.
There would be no returning to the artist if the ink refused to take. No touch-ups, no repairs, only today's ink and then nothing. Already it had been hours of discussion, of drawings, of pain and ink and blood.
But in the pain she could feel the design. She could feel it becoming part of her.
Her own father never took a tattoo. He looked respectable, unmarked, legitimate. She was giving that up in return for the power to defend herself. If ever she had to come back here, to Earth, her marks would give her away, would tell people who she was and what she'd done. She'd killed. That's all they'd know.
They wouldn't know that she'd killed Wraith. That she took this mark to save them all from destruction and worse. But she'd do it without complaint.
She always worked without complaint. That's what this was, proof of her work. Her body would show the marks of her work not as scars or as age but as beauty.
The naginata was a beautiful weapon. It was meant to be wielded beautifully. Her marks only added to that beauty.
A flash of light and everything changed.
Miko grinned as she appeared in the SGC's staging area with her meager yet bulky luggage. Packed in these bags she carried her armor, several kimonos, her uwagi and hakama, and three naginata wrapped in silk. Two were bamboo and oak shiai but one had a traditionally forged blade in a wooden sheath and a black lacquered shaft ending in a steel ishizuki.
Miko stepped around her things and accepted Colonel Carter's hug. She didn't even mind the burn of her new tattoo under her clothes. She'd never mind it, the reminder that she carried the image of Inari's foxes to watch over her.
She was going home. And this time she would not be unarmed.
Chapter 3: David Parrish
David awoke to the sound of screaming.
“MOOOOOOM! We're out of toilet paper!”
David Parrish sat up and looked at the clock. Why were the kids awake at 3am? He grumbled and rolled out of bed, grabbing a pair of pants off the floor. He trudged out into the hallway to the hall closet. He rummaged around until he found a spare roll of toilet paper and followed the shouting to the bathroom door.
The door was thrown open. A little boy, six years old, stood there with his pajama pants and underwear around his ankles. “I'm going to get it my--” The threat ended as David held out the roll to the child. “Oh. Thanks Uncle David.” The bathroom door closed.
David trudged back to bed.
The bed was small yet soft and he missed the small yet hard bed he'd slept in on Atlantis. He stretched, feeling his spine pop, before shucking his pants and leaving them where they fell on the floor. He crawled back into bed and pulled the covers over him.
The shouting began again. “It's okay Mom, Uncle David brought me some.”
“I said UNCA DAVID BROUGHT ME SOME!!!”
David stuck his head under the pillow. Maybe staying at his sister's place wasn't the best idea.
Every morning was the same routine. The sun rose and the thundering began as Delilah's three boys woke up and all ran for the bathroom. The scuffle began when all three of them decided they were first and decided to fight over it. Inevitably all of the fights ended the same way: Tim the eldest would put one of his brothers, either Chris the middle or Will the youngest into a headlock. As Tim was just entering puberty such a headlock came complete with armpit stench and the screaming began. In the scuffle the remaining brother would sneak into the bathroom and begin his day.
Delilah would break up the fight and start pounding on the bathroom door to get the occupant to hurry up so Tim could get his much-needed shower before breakfast.
David would then sit up and contemplate a hotel room. It was now an official part of the morning routine.
David followed that routine this morning as Delilah shouted about the school bus and breakfast and something about the neighbor's dog, who was barking his fool head off at the morning noise.
“Lucky!” David shouted. “Shut up!”
The neighbor's dog heard David shouting his name and dutifully quieted down.
And then his door opened. “Do you know why Will's pajamas are gross this morning?” Delilah asked without preamble.
David didn't even blink. He was wearing boxers, that was enough. “I managed to get him a roll of toilet paper before he wandered the house with his pants down,” he defended.
“I keep telling him, he needs to check before he goes,” she said.
“He's six,” David said. “He's old enough to clean up after himself as punishment.”
Delilah made a face. “I agree,” she said. “Can you make breakfast? I need to get him straightened out.”
“Good luck,” David called as she left to wade back into the scuffle in front of the bathroom door.
A few minutes later David had found clothes and the ingredients for pancakes. He was pouring the second batch onto the griddle when the thundering approached.
David deftly slapped any hands reaching for the first batch of pancakes with the spatula. “Go set the table,” he ordered. “Plates, forks, napkins, syrup, butter. Go!” Hands finally stopped grabbing and left to go gather place settings.
Pancakes were decimated as soon as they were cooked and the table wasn't much better. The carnage finally ended when Delilah shouted about the time and boys fled the table to gather their things and run out the door to catch the school bus.
And then it was finally over. Sort of.
The kitchen table was a disaster. Half-eaten pancakes still sat on plates with napkins thrown all around, some of then shredded into wads and strips. The syrup bottle was on its side, open, syrup leaking out onto the table. A jar of jam stood open, lid missing, jam-sticky spoons sitting directly on the table. Butter was smeared on knives left next to the butter dish. A glass was on its side, its few inches of orange juice all over the table.
David cooked the last batch of pancakes from the last of the batter as he gathered plates and forks and stacked them in the sink. The syrup bottle was righted, the jam lid found under the table. He flipped the last pancakes before collecting the last few dishes and stacking them with the plates.
Fresh pancakes came off the griddle and David turned off the fire. He wiped down the table with a wet cloth, clearing off the worst of the sticky mess. He set up two place settings and brought the platter of pancakes to the table, finally getting a stack for himself.
Soon Delilah came and sat down for breakfast. She took the last of the pancakes, just enough left for a stack of her own. “So...” she said.
David sighed. “I know,” he said. “I need to get a job.”
“You know you can stay here as long as you like,” Delilah said. “The boys love having you here. It's been hard for them since...” She didn't say 'since the divorce'. She didn't have to.
“I know,” David said again.
“But somehow I don't think this is what you want.”
David sighed. “I'm a botanist, Lily,” he said, using his childhood nickname for her. “There isn't a great deal of demand for people like me. Even the project has better things to do. If I stay I'm still on furlough until further notice. If I don't stay I'm fucked since I can't talk about anything I've done for the past three years. I can't even say where I've been.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don't know,” David said.
The phone rang.
Chris picked it up. “Hello?”
“Hello, is Dr. David Parrish there?”
“I think so.” Chris pulled the phone a little away from his face, took a deep breath and shouted. “UNCLE DAVID! PHONE!” He took a second deep breath and shouted again. “PHOOOOOOONE!”
David clamped a hand over Chris's mouth. “Holy Arda,” David snapped. “It's a cordless phone. You don't have to shout!” He took the phone from Chris's hand. “Hello?”
“What's Arda?” Chris asked.
David ignored him in favor of the person on the other end of the line. “Sorry about that,” he said.
“The boy has a set of lungs on him.”
“Colonel Carter!” David realized. “I hadn't expected to hear from you until the...” He glanced down to see Chris watching him and took the phone outside. “Well, for a while yet. What's going on?”
“The situation has changed,” Carter said. “We were wondering if you'd like to return to the project.”
“Yes, Dr. Parrish. There's been a development and we have the opportunity to return the project to its former state and purpose.”
“But what about...” He couldn't say 'the Ancients' over the phone.
“You will be briefed when you arrive.”
“Of course,” David said. Conflicting emotions warred within him. The first two weeks he'd been back he'd done nothing but pace and worry and silently curse the Ancients who stole Atlantis and the Pegasus galaxy from them. But now he'd settled into a routine here and he felt guilty. He didn't know if he could leave again, leave Delilah and her boys, leave Earth to the mercies of the Ori, leave everything he knew behind again for the promise of wonder. He'd seen that wonder. He...
He didn't know.
“I need to think about it,” he said. “Thank you for letting me know.” He hung up even as she started to say something.
He didn't want to hear any more.
Saturday morning began an entirely different routine. Sort of. It still started before sunrise with the stampede to the bathroom and the fight over who went first. However today showers were neglected in favor of quickly taking care of business as the first boy who finished had the all-important job of deciding which cartoons would comprise the Saturday morning. In theory.
The first commercial break always sent the boys into the kitchen to pour themselves bowls of cereal to be taken back out into the living room where they sat on the floor with bowls of cereal in their laps, eating too much sugar and watching too many cartoons.
David would have taken the opportunity to sleep in were it not for the noise. He awoke to the sounds of arguing as the fights over the remote began.
David pulled his pillow over his head and tried to ignore it. Then the shouting changed.
“Uncle David! There's someone at the door!”
David groaned and dragged himself out of bed. He pulled on a pair of pajama pants and a bathrobe and hoped the boys would have at least opened the door.
Tim stood holding the door open while Will and Chris were paused in mid-wrestle over the TV remote. All of them were in pajamas, though David wasn't any better off in that regard. Meanwhile, Major Evan Lorne wore a neat and pressed uniform down to the shiny shoes and very last medal.
“Are you in the Army?” Tim asked.
“Air Force,” David said. “Hello Evan.”
Tim's eyes went wide. “Uncle David, you know him?”
“Your Uncle David is a member of my team,” Lorne said.
“Was,” David said.
“That's why I'm here,” Lorne said. “Colonel Carter said you might not come back.”
“Do you want to come in?” Tim asked. “It's Saturday, so it's just cereal and cartoons until noon. But they're good cartoons. There's a Star Wars cartoon I wanna watch but my little brothers need to be convinced.” Tim looked at Chris and Will and cracked his knuckles.
David cuffed him in the back of the head. “No more headlocks until you've had a shower,” he threatened.
“It's been a while since I had a chance to watch cartoons,” Lorne admitted. “And cereal, you say...”
David sighed again but this time he pulled the door wide open. “Would you like to come in?”
“Well I can't say no to Star Wars.” Lorne smiled at David and followed Tim to the living room where half-eaten bowls of cereal already littered the coffee table.
David already felt guilty. He didn't need this. He needed coffee. He stalked off toward the kitchen to get the coffee maker started all while the sounds of argument in the living room disappeared in favor of three boys peppering Lorne with questions and comments.
“Do you fly planes?”
“Have you shot a gun?”
“Did you really work with Uncle David?”
“I can see my face in your shoes.”
“Do you want some cereal? We have Lucky Charms.”
“Nuh uh, Will ate the last ones.”
“Did too! Mom! Will ate the last of the Lucky Charms!”
“Did not! There's some left.”
David could hear someone pull the bag from the box. “There's just dust left.”
“Yeah, see? There's some left.”
David rolled his eyes as the coffee maker began to fill. He poured two cups as soon as there was enough in the carafe. He knew how Lorne took his coffee, one creamer, vanilla or hazelnut if available, or black. He didn't have any flavored creamers but he could create something with a splash of milk and a few drops of vanilla extract from the baking supplies. He fixed Lorne's coffee and his own, one spoon of dark brown sugar, and carried both mugs to the living room.
The carnage wasn't quiet as total as he'd thought it would be. Evan Lorne still sat on one end of his sister's couch, though the boys had managed to find him a box of Froot Loops. They hadn't found him a bowl so instead he was reaching into the box and eating by hand, much to their delight. Tim sat on the floor with his Star Wars cartoon while Will and Chris both had the other end of the couch, bowls in their laps as they ate and watched Lorne.
“Coffee,” David said.
“Thanks,” Lorne said, taking the mug. “You know, these things don't taste like fruit at all.”
David smiled. “That's why they're spelled wrong.”
Lorne took a sip of his coffee and hummed. “It's good coffee.”
David made a sound and sipped his own sweetened coffee. He leaned against the wall next to the couch.
“You know we need you back,” Lorne said, his eyes on the TV but his focus on David.
“You could get another botanist. It's not like we're rare.”
“I don't want another botanist. I don't want to have to train another botanist.”
“You could get a physicist like McKay. A chemist like Rowan. An engineer like Hedgewick. Someone useful.”
“And you're not useful?”
“I don't feel useful.”
Lorne turned to face his object of focus and finally looked at David. He seemed thinner, paler than he had on Atlantis. A hint of gray threaded through his hair. “What about those high-UV plants we found?” Lorne asked. “Their leaves reflected so much light during the day they were almost white. At night they glowed with patterns that looked painted on, swirls and spirals. You described it as if someone had frozen the Northern Lights.”
David sighed and looked down into his coffee. He did miss it.
“What about that one plant we found that the locals rolled and smoked? They let us try some and we tripped balls that night.”
“Uncle David!” Chris scolded.
Lorne smiled. “He was safe, I was there.”
David snorted. “If by 'there' you mean 'ended up in the fountain with half your clothes missing'. We never did find your left shoe.”
“Details. Oh, what about that giant carnivorous plant that tried to eat you? I had to get the winch to open the thing to let you out.”
“Carnivorous plants don't get that big,” Tim said. The conversation behind him had apparently become more interesting than the cartoons in front of him.
“This one did,” Lorne said. “It had the belly of a pitcher plant and the lid of a flytrap but it was four feet by six feet and mostly buried underground so David didn't even notice it until he'd stepped in and slid right down its throat.” To emphasize his story Lorne took a handful of cereal and tossed them into his mouth with a grand gesture and mild sound effects.
David rolled his eyes. “It was surrounded by 8 foot tall grassy camouflage, you wouldn't have seen it either. Besides, it's my job to find these things.”
“By getting eated by it?” Will asked.
“Better men than me were eaten by worse things out there,” David whispered.
“And better men than you have benefited from your work,” Lorne insisted. “Remember that paper we wrote on the sticker burrs?”
“They are everywhere,” David admitted.
“We're using your theory to track who's been where and when. The... well... the imported religious zealots wear the requisite long robes, you know the type that pick up seeds. Those seeds drop everywhere a Prior's been and grow like weeds. After the first few ambushes people started to find these little five-spined red thistles near... crossroads.”
David looked shocked.
“Every team knows to check for red thistles at the crossroads,” Lorne said. “That way if they're still ordered to go in at least they're not going in blind.”
“They said I've been furloughed,” David whispered.
“Well, yeah, right now fieldwork has been reduced to Dr. Jackson only and that's because no one will tell General O'Neill 'no'. It's not just you, David, it's everyone. There are no scientists in the field unless Jackson orders it.”
David wanted to, he really did.
“Come back to the project,” Lorne said. “McKay will be furious when he hears our 'artsy frilly' paper on sticker burrs was more useful than anything he's cooked up.”
David covered his snort of laughter by draining his mug. “How is everyone doing?” he asked.
“Not sure,” Lorne admitted. “Everyone scattered, real 'four winds' type stuff. We're just starting the process of collecting people to restart the project. O'Neill and Caldwell know what happened but they want to wait 'for the opportune moment' which knowing O'Neill, he's waiting until it'll amuse him the most.”
“I'd like to study those red thistles,” David said. “While we're waiting, of course.”
“Uncle David, does that mean you'll be going away again?” Chris asked.
Lorne saw the disaster emerging from the three boys all focused on them. He reached over and turned the television off. When nobody objected he knew it was serious. “Kids, your Uncle David has the potential to make a big difference out there,” he began. He knew it never worked on kids but he was obligated to try. “He kept us all safe when he found a root that made an antibiotic we used when we were unable to resupply. We brought back some of the plants, grew them, and now we use that antibiotic in the field. And when we couldn't get coffee--”
“You expected me to clone a coffee plant out of hope and distant memory,” David accused.
“The point is, we need him out there.”
“We need him here!” Will exclaimed. “He makes us breakfast and helps us with our homework and makes sure we have toilet paper!”
“Will, I know you're upset but--” David was cut off by Will's angry tears.
“No, you listen to me!” Will screamed. “You're the best dad I've ever had! Real-Dad left! He told me he'd be back, he told me! Then he was gone and he never came back! Now you're leaving and you'll say you'll come back but it's a lie!” He jumped off the couch and ran down the hall, sobbing.
Lorne and David both looked shocked at the boy's outburst.
“He did tell us he'd be back,” Tim said quietly. “I think he did it so Mom wouldn't follow. Clean getaway, you know? I wasn't sure if Will remembered Dad, he was three when Dad left. We didn't know what had happened to him until the papers came in the mail.”
“I'll go talk to him,” David said, leaving his empty mug in Lorne's hands, and followed Will to the middle bedroom. He found Will curled up crying on his bed. “Hey,” he said.
“Go 'way,” Will sniffed. “Like Dad.”
David sat on the edge of Will's bed. “I'm not going to pretend,” he said. “If I go I might never come back. I might not be able to.”
“Why?” Will asked. He wiped his nose on his pajama sleeve.
“The project is far away,” David admitted. “Very far away. Farther than you can get to on a plane. Farther than I can admit to, even to family. No one can tell where it is because if we tell and it comes out wrong then some very angry people might do very bad things.”
“Like terr'ists? But you study plants,” Will protested.
“I do. I study very weird plants. I study plants no one from Earth has ever seen. Some of these are very important plants though we might not know why yet.”
“Like the red... thissle... What's a thissle?”
“It's a flower,” David explained. “A little flower with lots and lots of tiny petals all in a wad like a fat dandelion. But this flower doesn't have nice leaves, it has spines. Lots and lots of prickly spines all over its stem and its leaves and the flower. You don't want to pick a thistle. But they're pretty to look at, and small, real small.”
“Like me, I'm small.”
“But you'll grow. You'll grow and get big like me.”
Will sat up and curled around David. “But I won't have a dad.”
“You'll be okay,” David said. “You have Tim and Chris and your mother. And they have you.”
“But I want a dad.”
“That... is something you'll need to talk to your mother about.”
“About what?” Delilah asked.
David looked up to see his sister in the doorway. “I've decided I'm returning to the project,” he said. “Will's a little upset.”
“Make him stay,” Will pouted. “He's a good dad.”
Delilah sat down on Will's bed, pulled him into her lap. She nodded and David took the opportunity to escape.
David stood in the living room with his single suitcase. He was showered, dressed, it was the middle of the night. He'd told everyone he'd be leaving that night and so they'd thrown him an impromptu goodbye party. It was mostly just an excuse for a spaghetti night. Lorne was still trying to spit-wipe red spots out of his uniform.
“I don't think Sheppard's going to care,” David said.
“Sheppard's not in town,” Lorne said. “Not sure if he's in the field or what. I think O'Neill knows but...”
“That's weird,” David said. “You'd think he'd be first in line to get back on the project. Him and McKay.”
“Yeah. McKay's missing, too. Definitely something going on.”
“Oh hell, I hope we don't have to break in new supervisors.”
“They'd have to kill McKay to keep him off of Atlantis.” Lorne pulled a small device from his pocket. “Daedalus, we're ready.”
There was a flash of light and they were gone.
From behind the couch two wide eyes saw it all. Will stared at the spot where his uncle had been and did the only thing he could think of.
Chapter 4: Erin Stewart
Jaunty music came from the small band of musicians on the balcony, their flutes and castanets barely reaching over the mulling of the crowd and the constant conversation.
Dr. Erin Stewart adjusted her corset, fluffed her skirts, unfolded her fan, checked her pouches, hung her drinking horn on her belt, and handed her ticket to the man at the gate.
“Good morrow, good woman,” he said.
Erin inclined her head, fluttered her fan, and entered.
A broad open field greeted her, filled with costumed and uncostumed faire-goers. Puritans stood on their soapboxes shouting the downfall of the attendees, predicting hell and damnation as the price for the day's revelry and sin. A quartet of fairies dressed in tiny tulle skirts, wire mesh wings, steel toed hiking boots, and brightly dyed flowers all danced in a circle to imaginary music. A plague doctor with broad-brimmed hat, long coats, and bird-like mask stalked through the crowds trailing a line of child peasants with cub-scout uniforms and skulls masks. Tourists with cameras watched wide-eyed and staring as they took picture after picture of costumed actors, costumed customers, and the mocked-up town beyond.
The whorehouse stood first, the madam in her heavy white makeup with bright red cheeks explaining to some annoyed mother in shorts and a fanny pack that this was all a reenactment, no actual whoring took place here, please move along you're ruining the immersion for the other faire-goers.
Beyond were the period displays, the tailor's and the potter's and the weaver's where local artisans used period tools and materials to create their art. The lacemaker weaved thread into various types of lace from her small table outside the weaver's stall. The clack-clack-clack of the loom inside echoed out over the crowd, drawing interested observers who inevitably didn't stay for long. The tailor explained the large iron needles he used, the potter tried to con tourist children into working the foot-pedal of his pottery wheel for him, and through it all the tinker wandered with a gigantic pack filled with random items his character would have picked up.
Erin paused at the tavern. Last winter's windstorm caused the most damage here as the two story tavern was now... not. The floor of the second story was still intact, though, and a cadre of actors all playing drunken men sung from what was once a balcony. The tavern below was actually not, prices were listed in pence, not dollars, and the barkeep was surreptitiously handing out bottles of water to the artisans and actors.
From there the Faire opened into merchant's stalls. Costume rentals, fake flower garlands, wooden swords and shields, harlequin masks, all overpriced to attract the uncostumed, the tourists, the wide-eyed children, and those who had underestimated the pageantry.
Erin wandered in, past the glass blower's demonstration where the artisan was just beginning a piece. Seats were filling up to watch, the allure of glowing orange glass so strange to the modern eye. The electric whine of a lathe sounded from nearby where a goblet was being carved from wood, another crowd gathering to see the female artisan leaning over her work, her bodice working hard to keep her breasts from spilling out.
The sound of hammer on steel was what she listened for. She found the forge and the blacksmith pounding scrap iron, mostly old railroad spikes, into overpriced horseshoes. The coal forged burned behind him as he clamped the iron in tongs, placed it back into the coals, and worked the bellows by hand. Heat rose with the glow and the sparks.
She watched as he finished the horseshoe and quenched it before adding it to the pile. The merchant's stall next door had the blacksmith's creations for sale so she went inside.
Horseshoes, puzzle games, a few decorative pieces, nothing close to what she was looking for. She went back out to the forge and leaned on the hand-forged chain barrier separating him from the rest of Faire. “You do swords?” she asked.
“Sword shops be down at the Trader's Market,” the blacksmith said.
“I'm looking for something a little more... authentic,” Erin said.
The blacksmith gave her a long look. “How authentic?” he asked.
She smiled. “I need something I can use,” she said.
“Come back after closing,” he said. “We can talk then.”
Erin nodded and curtseyed, flicking her fan coquettishly. He tipped his hat to her and she headed off. She had some hours to kill yet and she hadn't even had a beer today.
It was three days before when she'd heard the knock on her door. A woman in a military dress uniform stood on her porch, chest peppered with medals and accolades. Behind stood two men in less severe uniforms, less decorated.
“Can I help you?” Erin asked.
The military woman smiled and she looked utterly strange. Her rank and her experience did not match that gentle smile at all. “Dr. Erin Stewart?”
“I'm Colonel Samantha Carter, United States Air Force. May we come in?”
Erin stepped back and let these people in. She watched warily as the two escorts fanned out into her living room and quickly checked everything, almost without touching it. “Clear.”
Colonel Carter nodded and sat down on the couch as though she lived there. “Dr. Stewart, I'm aware you were just recently let go from Stanford University.”
Erin grumbled. She had been 'let go', or more accurately 'asked to leave'. She'd had an idea, developed it, was ready to publish when she found a colleague had stolen her idea and was accusing her of plagiarism. She'd kept careful notes proving her innocence but politics intervened when she called the Dean certain words to his face because that colleague was allowed to publish her work with his name on it and said Dean wasn't going to lift a finger.
“Dr. Stewart, I represent a project you might find interesting,” Colonel Carter said. “I'm going to warn you up front, there are some hefty non-disclosure agreements involved. You'll need to sign them before I tell you any details.”
“You're offering to disappear me into government research,” Erin realized. She'd heard of this, whispered rumors among the department heads. The head of Physics even claimed he'd once found a candidate, had an offer ready, only to find the candidate missing, their home empty, an invalid forwarding address somewhere in Colorado Springs.
“In a manner of speaking,” Carter allowed. “Until and unless the project is declassified, you will not be permitted to publish outside of extreme circumstances. Internal papers are allowed, independent research is encouraged, and you will be paid handsomely.”
“I just have to disappear,” Erin said. She looked around her home. She was renting the place for much more than it should be worth. Most of the stuff here she could replace or remake or store. She wouldn't miss the University, good riddance to their cutthroat brown-nosing. She hadn't spoken to her mother in two years, not after the fight over grandchildren. Besides, she could come back, right? “Show me the NDA.”
A plague doctor threaded a straw under their mask and sipped from a plastic cup while watching a gaggle of children fighting with wooden swords and shields. One fell down and began crying before running to the doctor with a skinned knee. The plague doctor took a look at the injury and pulled a band-aid and antibiotic cream out of a belt pouch. One bandaged scrape later the child was back in the fray, wooden sword held high.
Hooves thundered in the jousting arena. Dust blew into the stands, picked up by the afternoon winds. Experienced faire-goers had cloth covers over their wooden mugs, their pewter goblets, their plastic cups. The inexperienced looked on in envy while they wrinkled their noses at sandy beer.
The Danse Macabre paraded through the lanes, peasants dressed as skeletons dancing to the tunes of piping flutes.
The maypole ribbons were tied while fairies danced, their wire and tulle wings bouncing behind them. No one could tell if their pointed ears were due to costuming or not.
A Scotsman in his great kilt stood talking to a merchant while a woman with a walking stick lifted the back of his kilt to peek underneath.
The Cat and the Fiddle tavern was a drinking tent near the Rogue's Reef stage. Erin found her friends there, short bearded men who all dressed like Vikings and Scots, though they were often mistaken for fantasy dwarves. She fit right in as she folded her fan and gave up on hiding the short facial hair she'd forgotten to shave away that morning.
Wooden mugs were raised in greeting as she waved and ordered from the bar. She didn't own one of the nice wood mugs most of the others had, she found them too small to hold a proper beer, so she poured the contents of her plastic cup into the large drinking horn she wore on her belt. She raised her drinking horn in greeting and drank.
Ugh, the first beer always tasted faintly of dust. The second and third were much better. Still, she sat down on the bench with her friends, men she knew as 'Eric the Red', 'Godwin the Bald', 'Frank the Orange', and 'Larry the Refined'. Eric and Godwin looked like actual Vikings down to the beards and, in Eric's case bright red hair, while Frank bucked tradition by wearing his orange kilt and doublet and Larry was dressed like a slumming nobleman. They each had wooden mugs and half-empty plastic cups. They drank out of the mugs then poured in their excess like a free refill.
“Didn't know if you'd make it,” Eric said.
“Yeah, heard you got canned,” Frank said.
“Though calling the Dean of Stanford a 'puerile hand puppet with delusions of competency' must have been worth it,” Larry praised.
Erin laughed and raised her horn in salute. “I'll drink to that.”
“So what're you going to do now?” Godwin asked.
“Let me guess, you're moving,” Eric said.
“I am,” Erin admitted.
“You'll be back, right?” Larry asked.
“I... don't know,” Erin admitted. “I've accepted a new position.” Larry grinned. She hit him. “Not that kind of position.”
“Where at?” Eric asked.
Erin paused. She took a breath, mouth open to speak, but instead she drank her beer. She tried again. “I'm disappearing into government research,” she admitted.
“I've heard about that,” Eric said, scratching his thick red beard. “You sure it's legit? A lot of people disappearing into government research nowadays.”
“I was approached by an Air Force Colonel,” Erin said.
“You did look him up, right?” Godwin asked.
“Of course,” Erin said. “Completely redacted career. Black box type stuff. Officially she's assigned to 'deep-space radar telemetry' at NORAD.”
Eric started laughing.
“What?” Erin asked.
“Her cover story is aliens!” Eric crowed.
Erin thought about it and realized he was right. NORAD had no responsibility for tracking natural objects in space. 'Deep-space radar' would therefore be a reference to artificial objects in space. Strategic Command handled all space junk and satellites which meant... She groaned and banged her head against the table. The SGC's cover story was that NORAD was searching for aliens.
“So... searching?” Frank asked. “Found? Or 'no comment'?”
“No comment,” Erin muttered.
“Ooo, that means we get to speculate,” Frank said. “So, boys, what do you think? Area 51? Lake Vostok? Stargate Command? Lost continent of Mu? Lost city of Atlantis?”
Erin looked up at him in shock.
Frank's eyes went wide. “Whoa, no way, I thought it was just crazy youtube stuff. You're telling me that shit's real?”
Erin groaned and let her head fall back on the table. She sat back up, drank the rest of her beer, called for another, then went back to banging her head on the wood as she ignored Frank's conspiracy theory freakout next to her.
Frank's low-level panic continued even as the Faire ended and Erin made her way through the meandering crowds to the blacksmith's forge. Frank the Orange followed her the whole time muttering about aliens, covert-ops shuttle missions, something called Edgeworth Station...
Erin raised her hand in greeting to the blacksmith. He was raking the coals to break up the fire and smothering them with a cast iron pot lid. He nodded in her direction before waving her over with the pot lid.
“You said we could talk after closing?” Erin asked.
“Yes, Ma'am,” the blacksmith said. He racked the last glowing coal and smothered it with the pot lid. Then he raked the dead coals back into the cooling forge for the next day's demonstrations. “The name's Murphy,” he said. “You were looking for some custom work?”
“I am,” Erin agreed. “I need a sword.”
“Plenty over at the Trader's Market,” Murphy said.
“Not what I'm looking for,” Erin said. “I need something I can use. I don't need it to be pretty, I don't need it to be period, I need it to be sharp and I need it to be real.”
“What do you need a sword for?” Frank demanded. “You're disappearing into government research!”
“For protection,” Erin said in a tone that allowed no argument.
“Against what?!” Frank shrieked.
Erin growled before she grabbed Frank by his orange doublet and shoved him against the wooden pillar of the forge's building. “Frank!” she shouted. “Stop it! Deep breaths!”
Frank took deep calming breaths but he didn't stop shaking.
“Your work dangerous?” Murphy asked.
“Only if something goes wrong,” Erin said. “I just want to be prepared in case it does.”
“Makes sense,” Murphy agreed. “I'm contracted to work here until the end of the month, you gonna be able to wait that long?”
Erin winced. She was supposed to report to Cheyenne Mountain in two weeks. “I can't,” she admitted. "I've got two weeks."
Murphy looked at the forge, at the store next door, then smiled. “How do you feel about demonstration pieces?” he asked.
The crowd at the blacksmith's forge was larger over the next weekend of Faire. Perhaps it had something to do about the energy of his work, the enjoyment he exuded with each strike of the hammer. Perhaps it had to do with the materials he used, spring steel clearly from the modern century. Perhaps it was the item he made.
It was not a stack of horseshoes. The merchant's stall next door began to run low on hand-forged horseshoes and puzzle games while the blacksmith attracted customers with his craft.
It was a sword.
A strange short woman with her face hidden by a fan came by every day to check on the blacksmith's progress. She would always grin, an expression without mirth, then disappear. The blacksmith would size her up before going back to work, pounding hot metal into a meter long blade.
Dual-edged, a flattened diamond cross-section. A single fuller ran up the bottom third of the sword, just enough the alter the weight characteristics of the blade, polished and sharpened along both edges. Not particularly decorative, the hilt was wood wrapped with stretched red leather. A simple iron pommel and hand guard graced the hilt.
This was not a sword meant to decorate. This sword was meant to be used.
At the end of the second day the woman came back, fan fluttering to cover her face. She entered the merchant's stall and pulled out a wad of cash, laying out large bills in exchange for the custom sword.
A scabbard of red leather, tipped by an iron chape, hid the sword from view. A single brand burned into the leather was the only decoration, the blacksmith's personal seal.
The woman walked out of the stall with the sword and, using the scabbard to clear a space, drew her weapon. She ran her nails along the edges to get a feel for its sharpness, checked its balance and its form, then resheathed it. She bowed to the blacksmith who bowed back, whistling as he pumped the bellows on his forge, happy even to get back to the drudgery of eternal horseshoes.
A flash of light and everything changed. Erin stood in the SGC's staging area with her two suitcases, a single box, and the one item that wouldn't fit in her luggage. She was grateful she wouldn't be taking a plane ever again, not with the sword strapped to her back.
“Dr. Stewart, welcome to Stargate Command.”
Erin nodded at Colonel Carter. “I hope you don't mind, I brought some stuff,” she said.
“It's expected,” Carter said. She pointed to the sword on Erin's back. “You're not the first one to come through here armed,” she said. “General O'Neill has final word, of course, but I expect it won't be a problem.”
“I hope not,” Erin said. “I had to get this custom made.”
“Really?” Carter said, grinning. “Can I see?”
“Sure,” Erin said, drawing the sword and laying it out in her hands.
Carter lifted the sword and gave a few experimental thrusts and one cut. Erin had to give her credit, the woman looked like she actually appreciated proper craftsmanship. Still, she was glad to have the sword back. She sheathed it.
“If there's a problem, come talk to me,” Carter said. “I'll see what I can do. Until then, General O'Neill is giving a briefing on Atlantis's situation in an hour. You'll want to be there.”
“Wouldn't miss it,” Erin said.