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.
Chapter 5: The Punishment
The mess hall was not a common place for a briefing but it was either here or the gateroom. Here had snacks. And coffee.
General O'Neill meandered through the mess hall, greeting and shaking hands and introducing himself to several dozen scientists. Weird people, all of them. He tended to view scientists as weird. His own Daniel Jackson was no different, kept dying and coming back. Sam Carter was the only exception and sometimes he wasn't entirely sure about her.
Some of these scientists were new, others he recognized. He sized each of them up, listening to their names and their specialties. They'd collected quite a few extra engineers and he could appreciate it, the city needed repair solutions that didn't involve underwater dead-man switches.
The botanist Parrish came in late, stripping off latex gloves as he entered. “General, you're here,” he said. “I need to talk to you about the red thistles.”
“Can it wait?” O'Neill asked.
“Depends,” Parrish said. “Does anyone in the field have a habit of picking flowers?”
O'Neill didn't like where that was going. He didn't like the red thistles at all. “Talk to me after the briefing,” he said.
Parrish nodded. “Wait, briefing? Where? When?”
“Right now,” O'Neill said as he climbed up on a table. “Okay everyone, welcome to the Atlantis project,” he began. “Many of you have been involved before, glad you could make it back. Many of you are new and let me say to you, good fucking luck.”
O'Neill watched as the faces he didn't recognize looked around in shock and apprehension. Those he did, those he knew, were less fazed.
“Normally you'd get this speech right before leaving but the situation's a little different this time. Those of you know know what happened, discuss among yourselves. For everyone else...
“An Ancient warship was found in intergalactic space between Pegasus and the Milky Way. The crew of this ship decided to kick the expedition off of their city. A couple of representatives were allowed to stay behind, me included. This was four months ago. One month ago Replicators invaded and the Ancients were all killed.”
A couple of the all-too familiar scientists in the back raised cups of coffee in salute.
“At least pretend to be sad,” O'Neill said, sighing. “The city was retaken, the Replicators destroyed, and the city is ours again.”
“Is great, when do we go back?”
O'Neill found the voice belonged to the small scientist Zelenka in the back. “We have a few months yet,” O'Neill said. “The city is secure, there's no reason to rush right back. The Daedalus is involved in the fight with the Ori, not all original Atlantis personnel have returned, we can train more people this way. There are decisions that need to be made and now we can make them.”
Zelenka looked suspicious. “How is Atlantis secure?” he asked.
“A small team from the SGC infiltrated the city under Replicator control and they elected to remain.”
Zelenka's eyes narrowed. “Who?” he asked.
“Shouldn't Dr. Weir be here?” Parrish asked.
O'Neill knew the moment the original personnel grew suspicious. He could feel the entire room turn weird. “Dr. Weir, Colonel Sheppard, Dr. Beckett, and Dr. McKay all elected to stay on Atlantis after the Replicators were destroyed.”
“Alone?!” demanded a new voice. A tiny voice belonging to a tiny woman named Kusanagi.
“They're grown-ups,” O'Neill defended. “Mostly. Half of them.”
“You left them there,” Zelenka accused. “You will leave them there for months!”
“Five bucks says they go native,” Parrish said.
“Ten says Sheppard went native the first day,” Kusanagi said. “But McKay will join the Genii before he goes native.”
“Wouldn't joining the Genii count as going native?” Parrish asked.
“The Genii invented the flush toilet.”
“They have friends in Pegasus,” O'Neill said. “I'm sure they can crash on a couch somewhere.”
The soft windy comfort of the Athosian settlement was broken by a voice shouting loud enough to wake the bats.
“Rodney McKay, I can't believe you!”
Rodney winced as the shouting began. He hadn't even had a moment to process the news before Elizabeth turned on him. It was big news.
“You're supposed to keep yourself under control,” she shouted. “You're supposed to be responsible! You're a representative of Earth in this galaxy and this is what you get up to?!”
“Hypocritical much?” Sheppard drawled.
“Oh so the one time,” Rodney began only to be cut off.
“Shut up!” Elizabeth shouted. “I expect this from Sheppard but you!”
“Hey!” Both Sheppard and Rodney protested that one.
It would have continued but Teyla got between Elizabeth and Rodney, pushing them apart with the force of her personality. “Dr. Weir, perhaps you should calm down.”
“Calm down?” Elizabeth demanded. “Calm down?! How?!”
“Elizabeth, dear, I admit I'm a mite disappointed in our Rodney,” Carson said. “But we should nae place all the blame on him.”
“Dr. Weir!” Teyla scolded.
Elizabeth stepped back, still angry. It wasn't really fury that she felt, it was the feeling that she should be furious. She'd trusted this man before her to keep off-world matters professional. It was true, 'professional' meant many wildly different things in this galaxy but that didn't excuse...
“Teyla, he got a woman pregnant,” Elizabeth growled.
“And it is a joyous thing,” Teyla said, nearly growling back.
“Pregnant, eh?” Ronon asked. He slapped Rodney on the back. “Congratulations.”
“I didn't go in trying for this,” Rodney grumbled.
“Still a good thing,” Ronon said. “It means your people can breed.”
“Well of course--” Rodney stopped halfway through that sentence. “Wait, what?”
Ronon shrugged. “None of your females produce children. A lot of people wondered if you even could.” He paused before realizing the four Lanteans were staring at him like he'd grown a second head. “What?”
“Are you... not supposed to produce children?” Halling asked.
Rodney looked around and realized the shouting had drawn most of the settlement. He blushed as his personal business suddenly belonged to an entire village, nay, an entire planet.
He hadn't planned on this. He so rarely got the chance to attempt that he didn't even carry condoms in his off-world gear anymore. Not that it would have mattered much, he'd been completely without tac vest during the Storytelling of The Hobbit on Scrinia and certainly afterward. Throat sore from singing, from reading, from providing Smaug's roaring sound effects, he'd taken advantage of the free beer offered to them. He'd taken such advantage that his memory of the evening was somewhat less than clear. He remembered he was a dragon for part of it, and that was weird, he actually remembered being a dragon. He remembered his feet itching in weird ways. He remembered a soft barmaid with curly blonde hair and really great-smelling tits. She'd been the one to suggest going upstairs.
Then the next morning she'd been the one to wake him up for a second round. Rodney blushed deeper as his memory of the next morning was quite clear. He even remembered her name. Elena.
“Not without careful planning,” Elizabeth said. “And an understanding between the parents. And an agreement that this is what they want.”
“Your people are strange,” Teyla said. “Children are a gift to be treasured, not a task to be planned.”
“They are a responsibility,” Elizabeth insisted. “Rodney is now responsible for that woman and her child until the child is grown.”
“Because he fathered a child?” Ronon asked. “Weird. Why does it have to be him?” He paused again as the Lanteans stared at him with the same look as before. “What?”
“A child has as many or as few parents as that child might choose,” Halling said. “Dr. McKay should not be required to force himself into fatherhood if the child does not wish it.”
“Wait, what? Hey, I'd be a great dad,” Rodney defended. He glared at Sheppard for the snort he tried to hide.
“Then you could do so,” Halling said. “Perhaps you should visit the mother.”
“Aye, that's a good idea,” Carson said.
Elizabeth glared and stalked off.
The tents of the Athosian settlement waved in the nearly constant wind of this world. The settlement's central fire pit crackled merrily in the gusts, the broad clearing keeping the tents safe from errant sparks. Tava fields stretched off in the distance, pest bats fluttering over the vines while children ran underneath beating sticks together for noise. Rursus snuffed in the single permanent structure in the entire settlement.
Elizabeth leaned on the pen's wooden fence and looked down at the strange furry pig-like animals that Teyla insisted had joined the settlement of their own accord. That was another strange thing about this place, their animals. On an Earth farm the animals would be kept secure, they wouldn't have amenities such as toys or room to run around. Factory farmed pigs were rarely even allowed to wallow in mud despite the stereotypes. Yet according to Teyla these animals had seen the barn being built, had moved in, and even allowed the Athosians to slaughter one every few weeks to provide meat for the settlement. Was this behavior the result of some sort of strange Ancient experiment on animals? It couldn't possibly be natural.
A giggle caught her attention. The child who'd brought the day's explosive news was in the rursus pen, in the mud wallow. Rursus were nosing him, prodding him with their snouts while one licked his hair and another laid on his lap demanding ear-scratchings.
“Rodney's going to see the mother.”
Elizabeth glanced over to see Sheppard had snuck up on her and was now also leaning on the fence. Like the rest of them he'd given up on his expedition uniform, instead dressed in soft Athosian linens and leathers. She wasn't much better, not with the skirt that barely stayed decent in the winds or the low-cut top she favored. She'd even abandoned her bras now that it seemed no one cared.
“That's good, I suppose,” she said.
“Carson's going,” Sheppard said. “He wants to make sure the baby's healthy.”
“I just hope he hasn't made some big mistake.”
“I don't think so.”
Elizabeth gave him a sidelong glare. “You would.”
“This entire galaxy's hunted by the Wraith,” Sheppard said. “Nobody says it aloud but they don't have to.”
“That's why I can't believe anyone would bring a child into this place.”
“It's been ten thousand years since the Ancients left, Elizabeth. If no one had children there'd be no people left. Children are treasured because the alternative is losing everything. Life, culture, people, history, all of it.”
“Then why bother?” Elizabeth picked a clod of dried mud off of the fence and tossed it into the rursus pen. A rursus trotted over to look at what she'd thrown then glared at her in indignation. “I don't have any food for you,” she said.
Strange, the rursus seemed offended.
“Because eventually the Wraith will be defeated,” Sheppard said. “People have to believe that. Until then, they survive.”
“There's more to life than survival,” Elizabeth countered.
“There is,” Sheppard agreed. He pointed at the settlement's clearing where the Athosians had begun a strange silent dance with Rodney in the middle. “It's right there where we can see it.”
Elizabeth turned around to look out over the settlement. She watched the dancers as they moved and circled and twirled, all without any sort of music. Teyla was in the middle of directing others to different tasks, the beginnings of what might be a small feast. She felt a tug on her skirt and had to pull it out of the mouth of the hungry rursus.
She wasn't really angry. She just felt like she was supposed to be. But this wasn't Earth, not by a long shot. The Scriniarii were not from Earth. The Athosians were not from Earth. The Genii were not from Earth. Earth might demand she be angry at Rodney's transgression but...
But the Scriniarii might not be.
“This is a bad idea,” Rodney said.
“It was your idea,” Sheppard said.
“That's how I know it's a bad idea,” Rodney insisted.
Sheppard dialed the DHD, pressing the symbols for Scrinia. The gate whooshed into life, the wormhole connecting easily.
“What if she hates me?” Rodney asked, mind falling into familiar patterns. “What if she's married? What if I have to duel her husband? What if I lose?!”
“Lad, if ye lose a duel I'll patch ye up, how's that?”
“Oh,” Rodney said. "Okay."
Sheppard rolled his eyes and led the way through the wormhole.
Scrinia was as they remembered it. Vast open-air amphitheaters broke the pale red stones of the scrublands surrounding the river district. The village was a short few miles along the ridge overlooking the river and the rich wide farmlands along that river. Squat stone and brick buildings greeted them as they followed the main path into the village and its few wooden structures. The tavern was the largest such building.
“Maybe she's not even here,” Sheppard said, trying to be reassuring.
Rodney rolled his eyes and pushed open the door.
The tavern was much less bustling than the last time they were here. To be fair, there were a dozen fewer Lanteans, no Genii lurking in shadowy corners, it was daylight so the drinking crowd had no excuse to be here. Which made it easier for Elena to look up from the table she was wiping down and smile broadly. She rushed over, belly heavy with pregnancy, and threw her arms around Rodney's neck.
Rodney gave Sheppard a glare before awkwardly returning the hug. The whole thing was awkward with the large stomach and that great tits smell was even stronger now than before. Rodney blushed as he tried not to remember how great those tits felt pressed against him with nothing between them.
“You've returned,” Elena said. She snuggled into Rodney's arms. “I so wanted to thank you for this.”
“Um...” Rodney didn't know what to say. He saw so many horrible ways this conversation could go.
“My husband was so happy when he heard I was with child!”
Rodney tensed. He saw Sheppard wince. Only Carson seemed to hide his visceral reaction.
“Your... husband?” Rodney asked.
Elena looked at him oddly. “No, my husband,” she said. “I'm not owned, that's barbaric.”
Rodney watched her lips as she spoke. The gate's translation programs were less than perfect and he saw that she spoke much longer than the simple two-syllable word might imply. He was about to ask when the tavern's doors opened and a booming voice came from right behind him.
“Here he is.”
Rodney felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder.
Elena smiled. “Dread Singer McKay, this is Adrian, my husband.”
Rodney turned around, terror in his eyes as he faced down the large man who grinned widely and grabbed him for a crushing hug.
Sheppard looked confused. Even Carson was losing his veneer of normalcy. Rodney, in the meantime, was dragged off to the bar.
Qui'llam alumno. Those were the words she'd said. 'The man who will raise my children'.
Rodney awoke with the epiphany and promptly wondered why he was in a bed. Warmth like this wasn't abnormal, not for a month now, but an actual bed? He looked around.
He was in a bedroom. The walls were stone and brick with numerous papyrus wall-hangings. The bed itself seemed to be stuffed with reeds or straw, that subtle stab and scratch against his skin was becoming all too familiar.
He went still as he heard a groan and felt an arm drape over him. What? He pulled the covers down and found...
He wasn't alone in the bed. To be fair, it was a large bed, there was plenty of room for three people, even when one was large and another was heavily pregnant. Still, he didn't normally wake up in between two people. Especially with his clothes missing. Elena mumbled in her sleep and rubbed her face against his shoulder before going quiet again while Adrian pulled the covers back over them all.
“It's early,” Adrian said. “Go back to sleep.”
Rodney could agree with that.
“So the girl isn't mad at all and neither is her husband,” Sheppard said.
“Rodney!” Elizabeth scolded. It didn't work, Rodney still had that idiotic grin on his face. If she didn't know any better she'd guess he'd just gotten laid. Again.
The Athosian settlement was still windy but the building and rebuilding seemed to have ceased. Even Ronon had developed a routine for keeping his tent from crashing down on him in the middle of the night. The fire crackled in the clearing, children played in the fields, rursus snorted in the barn, Halling had even begun the clearing of new fields for ruus vines. The wild ruus harvest was already underway but this season's wine would be scarce.
“What is this 'husband' word?” Teyla asked.
“She has a qui'llam alumno,” Rodney said.
Teyla beamed. “Rodney, that is wonderful!”
“A what?” Sheppard asked.
“A man who will... raise her children?” Elizabeth asked, translating the Ancient into English.
“What will you do?” Ronon asked. “Will you be involved?”
Rodney's smile changed, a blush creeping up his face. "I want to be,” he said. "And they said yes."
Ronon slapped him on the back and grinned. Teyla pulled him into a hug. Elizabeth again found herself watching as Rodney was congratulated for what she knew to be a lapse in judgment. She tried to slink away but a hand grabbed at her wrist.
“Stay,” Sheppard said. “It's not that bad. They really were ecstatic.”
Elizabeth sighed and stayed. She sat near the fire, legs curled under her as she perched on a stone. Sheppard sat in the dust next to her and watched the proceedings, the laughing, the hugging, the silent dancing. “Needs music,” he said.
“This won't happen again,” Elizabeth said as she stared into the fire. “We can't afford having some woman thinking Earth is an easy way away from the Wraith.”
“Nobody thinks that,” Sheppard said.
“Earth isn't safe either,” she said.
Sheppard sighed. “I know,” he said. “Believe me, I know.”
Chapter 6: Peter Rowan
A manilla envelope began buzzing.
A manilla envelope in an empty room began buzzing. A hundred other manilla envelopes stayed silent in their boxes on shelves.
A man opened the door to the empty room full of manilla envelopes in boxes on shelves. He looked around, wondering about the noise. But there was nothing. Only the manilla envelopes, a hundred of them, each filled with the personal effects of the jail's prisoners, confiscated at processing, stored in boxes to be forgotten.
The door closed. The room was empty.
The manilla envelope began buzzing.
It stopped and stayed silent.
Detective Randall Smith looked over the shoulder of his partner, Detective Sally Quaid. “Who'd you pick up?” Randall asked.
“Not a damn clue,” Sally admitted.
“No, he's got ID,” Sally said. “It's legit. But his file's all weird. PhD from University of California, Berkeley. Unfinished postdoc at MIT. Left halfway through. There was a drug charge around then, distribution, but charges dropped. And then this guy just disappears. Nothing. No address, no contact info, nothing. Supposedly he's employed by the Air Force, deep space radar telemetry at NORAD.”
“He's a cooker,” Randall said. “Employment's a cover. It's too stupid.”
“I thought so too,” Sally said. “He's more than educated enough to be a cooker. He could supply the entire west coast with the right distribution. But...”
“Quaid, you picked him up trying to--”
“I know why I picked him up,” Sally snapped. “And he feels like a cooker. But there's more to it than that.”
Randall shrugged. “Massachusetts police have anything on him?”
“Nothing they wanted to tell me,” Sally said. “And this is why I don't think he's just a cooker. Some guy with the Air Force called me after I got off the phone. Wanted to verify my perp.”
“That's creepy,” Randall said.
“Don't I know it. Didn't even ask what he was in for, just wanted to make sure it was him.”
An armored black SUV pulled up to the Salt Lake City police headquarters. Two officers got out, both dressed in impeccable uniforms with unmarked medals. One did a visual check of the area while the second came around to the passenger side door and opened it. A blonde woman stepped out, her own uniform adorned with unmarked medals and marked accomplishments so impressive they must have been a novice's attempt at deception. The officer closed the door behind her. She tapped on the glass and the unseen driver within nodded.
The SUV drove off, leaving the three military officers in front of police headquarters. The woman nodded and her escorts, her junior officers, followed her within.
The woman went to the information desk and pulled her identification, flashing her credentials to the clerk. “I'm Colonel Samantha Carter of the United States Air Force, I need to speak with one of your detectives.” She smiled but the expression seemed cold somehow, like a predator surveying her prey.
The clerk nodded. “Of course,” he said. “I'll need to speak to Chief Burbank first.”
Colonel Carter waited patiently while the clerk called up the police chief. She didn't appear to react to the hurried discussion or the clerk's attempts to hide its true intent. She didn't lean in to listen, she didn't even nonchalantly check her fingernails. However it was obvious she'd given some signal as the two escorts each moved to opposite sides of the entryway and seemed to grow more imposing.
“Police Chief Burbank will see you shortly,” the clerk said.
“I'm sure,” Carter said. Then she did something that disturbed the information clerk even more. She leaned on the clerk's chest-high counter, hips cocked as her feet crossed beneath her in a pose that seemed far too calculated to be as off-balance as she looked. “So how's your day been?” she asked.
The clerk paled. She had that smile again and he did not like it.
Detective Quaid was typing up a report when Chief Burbank knocked on her cubicle wall. “Research for you,” he said.
“Person, place, or thing?” Sally asked.
“Colonel Samantha Carter, US Air Force.”
“Gotcha,” she said, pulling up her search programs. She pinged the usual databases, hit up Google, queried the Air Force, and her blood went cold as what she found looked familiar. By the time she looked up a good 20 minutes had passed. “Chief,” she called. “I got your info.”
“I hope so,” Burbank said. “Colonel's been waiting in the foyer.”
“I hope you're kidding me,” Sally said. “Because that Colonel out there, she's got the same bullshit cover story as a perp I've got. Deep space radar telemetry out of NORAD. Few details. Insane commendations and that's just the non-classified stuff. Chief, she turned down NASA.”
“Then I hope she's not here for you.”
Burbank left the detective floor and took the elevator down to the main floor. The elevator opened to the foyer.
Strange, this woman didn't look dangerous, certainly nowhere near disturbing enough for the clerk to be as unnerved as he was. The clerk must be new or something. Then he noticed movement on both sides and the two officers there stepping into view. He turned his attention back to her and the strange smile that turned her blue eyes to ice. He suppressed the urge to shudder and instead faced her down like he would an armed perpetrator. “I'm Chris Burbank, Chief of Police,” he said. “What can I do for you, Colonel Carter?”
Carter's smile faded and her sense of business was a refreshing change. “You have an asset of mine in custody,” she said. “I need to speak with the arresting officer, Detective Sally Quaid.”
“Certainly,” Burbank said and turned to lead her to the elevator.
“And I'll need your office.”
“You can't just burst in here and demand to see my perp,” Sally ranted. She paced in front of her boss's desk but it was not her boss who sat there. It was this strange Air Force Colonel with no public career and only a half-assed cover story that in no way accounted for the medals on her chest.
“Actually, I can,” Carter said.
“On who's authority?!”
Colonel Carter looked her right in the eye and said “The Department of Homeworld Security” with a straight face.
Sally scoffed. “Yeah, right,” she said mockingly. “Did he escape from Area 51?”
“Of course not,” Carter said. “They get weekends off. Your 'perp' has been confined to the base for three years. We're looking to get him back.”
Sally stared in shock. This couldn't be for real. “Are you kidding me?” she demanded. “We catch him in the act of trying to trade military-grade RDX for amphetamines. Do you have any idea how many felonies that is?”
“Arms dealing,” Carter said, ticking off the general offenses on her hands. “Weapons production. Weapons manufacture without a license. Drug charges. Let me guess, fleeing the scene of a crime? Resisting arrest? Destroying evidence?”
“I bet this was a big case for you,” Carter said. She sounded almost sympathetic. “An easy one, too. He's used to making such trades in the open. On-base, when resupply was rare, he was often a major source of RDX explosives for military actions. And beer. He made most of the base's beer. All you had to do was be in the right place at the right time to catch him. And you were. Now I'm here to take that from you.”
“This isn't about me,” Sally snapped. “Do you have any idea what kind of damage an explosive like that could do in the wrong hands?”
“Intimately,” Carter said.
Sally opened her mouth to continue but she saw the look on Carter's face. “Oh...”
“I'd like to speak to him,” Carter said.
Sam Carter sat in the uncomfortable chair of the interrogation room. All of the chairs here were uncomfortable. In most interrogations she'd participated in the interrogator had a comfortable chair or throne or just stood while she either knelt or was bound. Maybe a throne was asking too much but what about a pillow? A comfy couch? Even just some grapes and a plate of sugared dates, this coffee was as stale as every bad police stereotype claimed it to be.
The door opened and a police sergeant entered dragging in a lanky man who squinted in the bright lights. He was shackled at the wrists and ankles. The sergeant tossed the man into the chair opposite Carter.
“Thank you,” Carter said. She waved toward the door. “You may leave.”
“You may leave,” Carter repeated. She fixed him with a level glare. The sergeant retreated and the door closed behind him.
Carter turned her attention to the man handcuffed and squinting uncomfortably. She reached into her uniform and pulled out an eyepatch. He took it and maneuvered it onto his head, sighing with relief as darkness engulfed his altered eye. The pained squinting stopped.
“Peter Rowan,” Carter said with an annoyed sigh. “What am I going to do with you?” She reached into her uniform again and pulled a small object. She held it up and smirked. A dark giggle escaped from her knowing smile as the object glowed dull blood red and...
The lights flickered. The AV feed from the interrogation room went dark. Carter put the device away. Then she fixed her wayward scientist with a glare. “You don't trade explosives for drugs on Earth,” she scolded. “You use money like everyone else!”
“Yeah, I know that now,” Pete said.
“You shouldn't even be carrying explosives,” Carter continued. “If you have to make them you stockpile them then you call us, we'd be glad to take them off your hands.”
“Don't you have legit suppliers?” Pete asked.
“As if we couldn't always use more,” Carter said. “Sometimes it's safer to get our stuff off the record. What the hell are you doing in Utah, anyway? You couldn't go somewhere easier to set up, could you?”
Pete opened his mouth to answer but Carter shushed him. The door opened and the sergeant burst in. He looked around for anything untoward. Carter merely glared at him. “Yes?” she asked.
“I'm sorry, Ma'am, but there's a problem with the equipment in this room. We'll have to set you up in another one.”
“That's quite all right,” Carter said. “I think I've heard all I need.”
Pete looked betrayed. “You're leaving me here?”
“Couple of days,” Carter said. “General O'Neill's working on it. In the meantime it's better than most prisons I've been in. They feed you, the torture's mild, your execution hasn't been scheduled yet, they haven't even thrown you in a gladiatorial pit to fight or fuck for their amusement. Not that I expect you'd lose a fight...”
Pete looked sheepish as the sergeant gaped openly.
“In the meantime, don't get too bored,” Carter warned. “I don't want to hear about you turning ketchup packets into grenades again.”
“Yes, Colonel,” Pete said, sounding properly chastised.
She left and the Sergeant stood at the door, watching Pete with a newfound fear. Pete merely waved as she left then stood up. He held out his cuffed wrists. “Shall we?” he asked.
Detective Quaid threw the file folder onto her desk with a sneer. Papers flew everywhere as the folder opened and spilled its contents. She gave a long-suffering sigh and collected the loose pages.
Suspect custody transferred over to US Air Force, reasons citing 'national security'.
She'd collected a strange suspect in the middle of a deal. She'd watched him trade explosives for drugs. The dealer was a local informant, allowed to work the streets so long as he set certain clientele up for a fall into custody. He'd turned the explosives in without a fuss. The suspect hadn't denied anything, didn't demand a lawyer, instead he demanded a phone call.
That phone call was refused. The 'one phone call' was a myth.
Apparently his handlers found him regardless and now Dr. Peter Rowan was walking out a free man, all charges dropped. The military had accepted responsibility for him and his actions.
Sally knew he was going to disappear again, back behind a bullshit cover story protected by military personnel with careers so classified they barely existed. Returning to something only called 'the project'.
The only consolation was that at least the weird chemist with the suspicious background and the hilariously bad cover story would no longer be in public. No longer on the streets. He'd be somewhere else, disappeared into government research somewhere.
That was enough. For now.
Chapter 7: The Defenseless
David Parrish strapped the mask over his face, pulled on his latex gloves, and entered the lab.
Behind a keycard lock, behind a pair of guards at the door, behind pristine clean benches and clearly labeled vials stood a single fume hood. The switch was on, the hood gently sucking the air out of the hood and the room to be vented to the atmosphere at the surface nearly a kilometer above.
In the fume hood sat a single flower in a pot of soil.
The red thistles were unlike most flowers David had ever seen. Most flowers were a reproductive organ, attracting pollinators to spread genetic material through the field. These were not. There was no reproductive apparatus within the individual florets that made up the red spines of the thistle's flowerhead. The florets didn't produce true nectar, instead they produced something different. He had a second red thistle on the lab bench trapped inside a plastic bag to collect its fragrance chemicals so he could get them identified.
He pulled the red thistle out of the bag and placed it in the fume hood with its companion flower. He sealed the bag and labeled it before tapping his radio. “Control, this is Dr. Parrish in the level 1 hazard lab, level 19,” he said. “Do you have a chemist I can borrow? I need samples analyzed.”
The door to his lab opened and David grinned as he saw the newcomer. “Nevermind, Control, one just walked in. Parrish out.”
“What did I walk in on?” Pete asked.
“I need a mass spec and... you can NMR a gas, right?” David asked.
Peter Rowan accepted the sealed bag. “It's a pure chemical, right?” he asked.
David pointed to the flowers in the fume hood. “It's whatever they exhale,” he said. “Hey, while you're here, I need you to verify something for me.”
“What are they?” Pete asked, leaning down to peer into the fume hood. Two red thistle plants stood innocent and spiny in the middle of the chemical-scarred work surface. They seemed to rustle in the air currents.
“They're red thistles,” David said. “They seem to pop up where Priors tread.”
“Very elven,” Pete said.
David hummed. “I think they might reproduce by cloning,” he said. “They produce a fluid but it's not nectar. I have an extraction already in the chem lab, just waiting on data. I wonder if you might verify something for me...”
Pete sighed and flipped up his eyepatch. The altered eye beneath looked much the same as his other eye though the pupil was a little pale and the scars around the eye spoke of old damage. The difference between the eyes was deeper than the visual. Carson's first few forays into Ancient healing technologies were less than perfect and Pete's eye was one such augmentation.
The world looked haloed in blue-white-purple through his altered eye.
David flipped the lab lights off.
That helped. The halos disappeared and details emerged.
He could still see with his altered eye, he could just see more. An additional cone cell type allowed him to see into the UV spectrum.
The red thistle was completely devoid of any UV pattern. “Nothing,” he said. “Kind of disappointing. Flowers usually look really pretty.”
“They're not attracting pollinators,” David agreed. “They're not attracting insects at all.” He turned the lights back on as Pete flipped his eyepatch down. “Think you could get the chem lab to run some samples for me?”
The gym on level 21 was unusually loud for the late hour. Normally at 0300 hours the gym would be quiet, perhaps a few dedicated or insomniac personnel working out on the machines. Those few were here but they weren't working out. Instead they were watching.
A ring of paper targets were set up around a single woman with long brown hair, large breasts, and a bullwhip.
Paper targets were delicately torn in half, bisected by the force of the whip's fall, one after another in a ring around her. When she'd turned the entire circle she began again, knocking each target off of its mounting. The targets were mounted on anything that would work, on weight racks and a stationary bike, on benches and a leg press, on the wall and a lat machine, secured with pieces of tape.
Her arm was getting tired. She was out of practice. But then she rarely had reason to practice anymore.
Dr. Rebecca Palos had not been given the opportunities many of her colleagues here at the SGC enjoyed. Her parents had made too much money for student loans to be a good idea but not enough to pay for her college. She hadn't been acquired by the CIA like some or given impressive grants like others. She wasn't disadvantaged enough for some scholarships, wasn't the 'right type' for others. She hadn't felt comfortable owing six figures by the time she'd gotten a PhD she hadn't even been sure she could use. There was no way to predict she'd be taken in by a project like this.
But she didn't feel cheated. After all, she didn't get here through pretty grants or CIA handlers. She earned this through her research and her work.
She'd worked her way through college, learning the tools of the professional dominatrix as she collected clients, built networks, paid her way through college. How was she to know the stressed man who paid $200 an hour for the privilege of kneeling at her feet and tongue-bathing her leathers would hear she held a PhD in dynamic multidimensional histograms? Or that he'd find someone interested in her research?
She'd never even told him her real name.
Palos checked her targets. They were all down, all carefully bisected and then bisected again. She curled her bullwhip and began collecting her paper targets. They went to the trash can in the corner near the door as she left.
The observers, the dedicated and the insomniacs, watched her leave.
Teal'c faced down the tiny woman before him. Miko was a scientist, one of the Atlantis Expedition, yet she challenged him to spar. Atlantis was in no danger from the Ori and yet it was the expedition scientists who had chosen weapons for themselves. It was the expedition scientists who dared to face contempt from the military who did not consider scientists capable of defending themselves. It was the expedition scientists who trained with their weapons in the dead of night, amongst themselves.
Who trained with him.
This tiny woman held a practice weapon, as did he. The wooden sword was strange in his hands but he'd been informed that the 'Wraith' the expedition fought preferred to toy with their prey using swords.
White foxes leered from her tattooed shoulder, grinning from beneath the sleeveless tank top she wore. The staff-like weapon she wielded bore a bamboo blade on one end. She bowed in respect to Teal'c before lowering her weapon to her middle in a defensive posture.
“Let us begin,” Teal'c said.
Miko began to move, feet hopping and sliding along the floor as she deftly stayed out of his reach. Her blade reached for him and he grabbed the weapon's shaft. She twisted and a sharp pain blossomed against his head as she hit him with the pommel of her naginata and wrenched her weapon from his grasp.
She stepped back, weapon held defensively. He nodded to her and she began to move again.
He lunged. The bamboo blade impacted with his wrist but he held his weapon. Yet she was gone again. Next a light impact against his left calf.
“You will not fell a Wraith in that way,” Teal'c said.
“I must insult him before I kill,” Miko said. “He will heal from such strikes but he will be distracted by anger. Too distracted to reach for his stunner.”
Miko moved in again to cut his middle but Teal'c blocked her blade with his. Instead she twisted around and brought her blade down at his head.
She didn't strike. Instead she held the bamboo blade where it would have struck, in the center of his head.
“Impressive,” Teal'c allowed.
Miko stepped back, held her naginata up in a rest position, and bowed. She didn't take her eyes off of him so when he lunged she was able to bring the point of her blade to his throat.
“Never take your eyes off of your opponent,” Miko said. “Never assume they have honor.”
“A Wraith would not,” Teal'c said.
Miko inclined her head in agreement. “Were you a Wraith I would be cleaning your blood from my blade.” She brought her naginata back to rest and bowed again. This time she was not attacked and she left the sparring floor to watch as another took her place.
Dr. Palos didn't bow. She merely unrolled her whip and flicked it around Teal'c's neck before he could react.
He took it off of his neck. “You will need a second weapon,” he said. “I do not recommend such a non-lethal weapon in the field.”
Palos nodded thoughtfully. “All right,” she said. Then she flicked the whip again.
Teal'c brought his sword up to defend himself. The whip wrapped around the wooden blade. Palos yanked the blade from his hand and flicked the whip a third time. It wrapped around his neck.
His hands went up to his neck and then he noticed her free hand to his head, fingers curled to mimic the shape of a gun. “We all carry sidearms anyway,” she said. “If your hands are busy you can't defend.”
“Indeed.” Teal'c unwrapped the whip from his neck and felt the faint line of red pain there. The whip may not be lethal but it was still a serious weapon.
Palos stepped off the floor and another took her place. A broad bearded man with a large wood battleaxe stood there.
Teal'c wondered again why the military looked upon the Tau'ri scientists as unable to defend themselves. Perhaps they were less willing to use guns but that didn't prevent the broad variety of weapons he'd seen.
“How's it going?”
David couldn't help but jump at the voice behind him. He knocked over the small pot of dirt, the red thistle rustling as it topped onto its side, dirt scattering over the lab bench. He turned around, pulled down his mask, and grinned. “Evan, I thought you were offworld.”
Major Lorne still wore his mission gear, his patch proclaiming him a member of SG-11. “Mission got scrapped,” he said. “Red thistles at the gate. Which doesn't make sense, it's supposed to be an uninhabited moon, why would Priors take an interest? SG-16 and 18 will check it out in case the Ori are using the moon as a base of operations.”
David hummed and scooped dirt back into the tipped pot, righting it and brushing the thistle spines. The spines rustled under his touch.
“You find anything on the plants?” Lorne asked.
“They don't make seeds,” David said. “They might reproduce by rhizomes but I haven't seen any evidence yet. Haven't gotten them to breed. They have some interesting scent chemicals, possibly neurotoxic. Not much, just enough that... what are you doing?”
Lorne had leaned over the bench while David spoke and sniffed the red thistle. His eyes went wide and he inhaled deeply. “David, you have got to smell this, it's beautiful!”
David scowled and pulled Lorne back. “I just said they might be poisonous,” he scolded.
“You know poisons better than anyone else,” Lorne said. “Will it kill me?”
David sighed. The red thistle rustled. The plant's rustle was beginning to seem strange. Perhaps they were mobile? If only he had extra specimens so he could make slides: roots, spines, petals, stem cross sections, floret bases. “It won't kill you,” David admitted. “But I give no guarantee that you won't trip balls.”
“Have you tested it?” Lorne asked.
“Of course not,” David said. “Landry won't give me a marine to test it on. McKay would have.”
“That's creepy,” Lorne said.
“Or I'd test it on myself,” David admitted. “Not supposed to do that either, O'Neill's orders. If I didn't know any better I'd say they just didn't want to know what it does.”
Lorne nodded. He leaned in close to the red thistle and inhaled again. Its scent was a spicy-sweet that brought to mind the Christmas tamales of his childhood, of trading his entire school lunch for just a bite of his friend's homemade tamales. He could almost taste it, Christmas spices and fruity sweet and pepper hot all merging into one riotous symphony. He shuddered at the memory assaulting him.
“You okay?” David asked.
Lorne sat back, pupils blown wide. “Wow...” He sat on a lab stool, grabbing at the seat as he tried to keep his balance.
“Good wow? Bad wow? How many fingers am I holding up?” David held up three fingers.
Lorne blinked at the hand in front of his face before reaching up and grasping it. He stripped off David's latex glove so he could feel warm skin in his hands. “Your hands are strong,” Lorne said absently.
“Are you stoned?”
“I might be,” Lorne admitted. He squinted up at David. “You're kind of shiny. It's pretty.”
The lab door opened. “I got your data,” Pete said then stopped as he saw Lorne wobbling on the lab stool. “He okay?”
“He smelled the flowers,” David explained, deadpanned.
“Makes sense,” Pete said. He handed David a sheaf of papers but didn't wait to be asked to explain. “Ergoline derivatives,” he said. “They have the ergoline ring skeleton, thankfully one of the constants in the universe, but we can't be sure what each compound does until we isolate and test. We can infer, however, that he's going to be tripping balls at some point.”
“That is a fair assessment,” Lorne said. “And I have no idea what you just said.”
Pete rolled his eye.
“Well, since he exposed himself against my advice, we have an obligation to study the results,” David said, leveling a smile at Lorne.
Lorne tried to lean away but fell off the lab stool. “Ow.”
“It's for his own safety,” Pete agreed as they both descended.
“It's your base,” O'Neill said.
“Oh but I insist,” Landry said.
“I couldn't,” O'Neill said.
“You decided they could stay here while you send the Daedalus gallivanting around the Milky Way, I think you should handle it.”
O'Neill and Landry were both in Landry's office. The door was closed so no one could see the two generals passing a single uncapped beer bottle back and forth between them, neither willing to take a drink. Their words did not match the beer at all, almost as though they were using the beer as a proxy for a different issue.
“One of the new scientists used to be a professional dominatrix,” Landry complained, handing the beer over.
“And I thought you respected people who paid their own way through school,” O'Neill said as he handed it back.
“With honest work,” Landry complained.
“It's hard to get more honest than that,” O'Neill challenged.
Landry sighed and contemplated the beer. He passed it over. “Your scientists drugged one of my majors,” he said.
“You tell them to figure out the red flowers and then you wouldn't give them a marine to test anything on,” O'Neill countered. “I ordered them they couldn't test on themselves. What else were they supposed to do?”
“How about not poisoning Major Lorne?”
“They didn't poison him,” O'Neill said, handing off the beer. “Footage shows he sniffed of his own initiative. Everything after that was within Atlantis parameters.”
“This isn't Atlantis,” Landry scowled. “Either way, I don't think having him wear a sign that says 'I smelled the flowers' is proper military conduct.”
“I'll tell them to use a sticker next time,” O'Neill said. “Little one right here.” He pointed to his right side over his name plate.
Landry kept scowling as he shoved the beer at O'Neill. “They brought weapons,” he said. “Weird ones.”
“And I approve,” O'Neill said. “Some of those scientists have ten, fifteen years experience with those 'weird' weapons.”
“We send military so the scientists don't have to defend themselves.”
“We send military equipped with weapons that the hostiles in Pegasus are immune to,” O'Neill said. “Replicators don't even notice bullets and all the reports talk about the Wraith's regeneration ability.”
“If it takes an entire P-90 clip to put down one drone and you have three drones but only two clips, you're fucked. If you can take a head off at three meters with a spear and you have three drones, soon you will have three heads and no drones. What are you supposed to think if you have that kind of weapons training and you're willing to use it and I tell you you're not allowed because the military is supposed to protect you?”
“That's what the military's for,” Landry grumbled. “Scientists should not be on the front lines. They're non-combatants.”
“Atlantis is a guerrilla warfare situation,” O'Neill countered. “Sometimes it's a siege situation where evacuation of civilians is not an option. There is never an organized front line.” He drank the beer. “We allow personal items on Atlantis. The list of acceptable items is pretty long. I'm sure these various 'weird weapons' could fall under several different acceptable item definitions. 'Art objects', for instance. 'Recreational gear'. 'Sporting equipment'.”
“Some of them have armor!”
“Definitely sporting equipment,” O'Neill agreed as he drank the beer. Responsibility over the situation was symbolically accepted, now all O'Neill had to do was make it seem like he was doing something about the rampant chaos of militant scientists and red thistles.
Chapter 8: Jack O'Neill
Jack O'Neill sat in his unofficial office, really just a far corner of the mess hall. He wasn't alone. Daniel sat across from him, keeping him fixed with a disappointed glare.
O'Neill did his best to ignore that glare, instead choosing to focus on his handiwork around them. Short, broad scientists with facial hair mulled about, discussing their upcoming transfer to Atlantis. Many of them were new to the SGC, recently disappeared into government research from their previous jobs in universities, think tanks, corporations embroiled in the cutting edge research that the SGC relied upon to make the universe make sense. Many of them would not normally have been invited, too high profile, too risky, but too tempting to ignore. A woman who publicly mocked the Dean of Stanford, a man who had to turn down a position at CERN, a Russian cosmonaut, a head researcher at Pfizer, the list was incriminating. Or it would be if it could be traced.
“Sam chose most of them,” O'Neill defended.
Daniel arched an eyebrow.
“Honest, she did.”
“And you had nothing to do with it,” Daniel said disbelievingly.
“I may have given a few suggestions,” O'Neill admitted. “But there's no way I could have known.”
“Of course not,” Daniel said.
O'Neill felt the disappointment coming from his companion in waves. “I know you think it's dangerous,” he began.
“I don't care about that,” Daniel said.
“Sam knows what she's doing. I trust her to be as discrete as she needs to be.”
O'Neill watched Daniel with a new wariness. What was going on then?
“You're taking this Tolkien thing too far,” Daniel said. “Some of the women Sam recruited have facial hair. Most of them are short. None of them would make weight under normal conditions.”
Oh. Ohhh... Now it made sense. “You don't approve.”
“Of course not,” Daniel snapped. “You and Sam stacked the scientists to make it look like the Tolkien books mean more than they do. Don't think I don't know what you're doing.”
O'Neill grinned. “And what am I doing?”
“You're poisoning the religious beliefs of an entire galaxy,” Daniel accused. “You may not think it's serious but if the Genii really believe we're all Tolkienites then the last thing you want to do is give them dwarves.”
“Why not?” O'Neill asked. “Where's the harm? The Wraith keep that galaxy pretty well below the level of intergalactic travel. They're never going to come and check.”
“And who's to say the situation on Atlantis isn't going to change?” Daniel asked.
“If it changes we're probably kicked out again,” O'Neill said, shrugging. “At which point it doesn't matter.”
O'Neill watched as one of Sam's better picks for the Atlantis engineering team walked in with another of the new scientists. They both grabbed trays and joined the lunch line. He grinned and got up, moving silently to listen to them.
“It's not contraband if nobody knows about it,” Dr. Stewart said. “Worst case I leave them here. Besides, I spoke to Dr. Zelenka, he said there are off-world markets but we rarely have anything we're allowed to trade. Gems are universal.”
“Gems are expensive,” Dr. Palos complained.
“Mined gems are expensive,” Stewart said. “Lab grown gems are cheap. Especially laser labs; when something cracks the gem's worthless. The lab might as well sell their discards to recoup costs. There's a lab in Russia connected to a broker in Thailand I can hook you up with.”
“I'm not getting involved,” Palos said. “Besides, you can't bring anything you buy home.”
“So? We can't take most of our stuff their either. Almost everything I own's in storage. We're lucky no one's said anything about our weapons.”
“I tend to encourage weapons entering combat zones,” O'Neill drawled.
The two scientists, engineers if he remembered correctly, jumped and turned toward him. “General, we didn't see you there,” Stewart said. She had a distinct look of defiance on her face.
O'Neill made the effort not to grin. He liked this woman. “Stick to small gems,” he said. “At least at first.”
“Don't want to seem too rich,” Stewart realized. “Someone might question.”
“Exactly,” O'Neill said. He reached over between them to the lunch line and grabbed a saran-wrapped muffin. Then he returned to his unofficial office, the table where Daniel sat with his eyes narrowed. One of Daniel's eyebrows raised as he sat down.
“Makes sense,” O'Neill said. “We have labs that make rubies and emeralds for next to nothing. Why not trade them off-world? Think of how much information you could buy.”
“Destabilize economies,” Daniel grumbled.
“Atlantis already trades away half their medical supplies,” O'Neill countered. “Not for humanitarian reasons, either. For trade. If that hasn't destabilized the galaxy this won't either.” He watched as the two engineers left the mess hall with wrapped sandwiches and cups of coffee. “Besides, the dwarves are known for their gemcrafting.”
Daniel opened O'Neill's own muffin just so he could tear off a piece and throw it at him.
“I told you to stop going easy on them,” O'Neill said.
Teal'c watched with dispassionate annoyance as O'Neill berated him for 'going easy' on the scientists. He had been, yes, but one scientist had objected and invited him to use his full strength and skill while she would respond in kind. The battle between them was glorious, a true test of skill with the unfamiliar twin practice swords. His opponent was a master, trained since childhood in the traditional weapon of her gender and her culture. Both of them expected to come away sore, bruised, peppered with the wounds of wood and leather, until she struck what would have been the killing blow.
She had warned him before hand that even with the practice weapon a strike to the throat could be a killing blow. She warned him so he would take the strike seriously and defend himself.
He couldn't block in time.
Now he was in the infirmary while Dr. Lam talked about 'fractured cricoid cartilage' and 'arytenoid subluxation'. The Goa'uld healing device would be necessary. Until then he was ordered to speak as sparingly as possible.
“I did stop going easy on her,” Teal'c said, his voice hoarse and weak. “In exchange she stopped going easy on me. Dr. Kusanagi is a master of her weapon, I am not a master of the twin swords. I paid for my inexperience.”
O'Neill looked disturbed. “Dr. Kusanagi?” He held his hand up to his shoulder. “Tiny woman, yea tall, keeps bowing when she sees me?”
“Yet you approve,” Teal'c observed.
“Hell yeah,” O'Neill said. “The more Atlantis can take care of itself the less resources we have to divert there. It's really nice to have the Daedalus in this galaxy for once.”
“Perhaps there are other masters of neglected weapons among the scientists of the SGC,” Teal'c said. “If the scientists can defend themselves then perhaps General Landry will rethink the official position on research in the field.”
“I told you not to talk,” Dr. Lam said, wheeling a tray over. It held an uncomfortable-looking plastic tool and a length of tubing. “The Goa'uld healing device causes swelling in some cases so I'm going to intubate you as a precautionary measure to keep your airway open. Vala's on her way with the device. Now then, General, if you please...”
O'Neill took a step back and Dr. Lam pulled the privacy curtain closed around her and her patient. He left before he could hear the uncomfortable click of teeth on laryngoscope.
He almost ran into the tiny woman outside the infirmary. He didn't realize who it was until Dr. Kusanagi bowed to him.
“Um...” he said. This tiny woman put Teal'c in the infirmary, the idea just didn't compute.
“I apologize for injuring your friend,” she said. “He fought well.”
“I expect he did,” O'Neill said.
“I also feel I should apologize for the men,” she said. “Many of them lost a great deal in their wagers.”
That made sense, O'Neill thought. Any betting pool in the SGC would have put Teal'c as the favorite to win with any weapon. Of course he didn't know anything about it...
She bowed again and then left.
O'Neill debated returning to the mess hall, get an idea how the base personnel were reacting to Teal'c's defeat. Instead he was approached by a nerdy-looking botanist in a lab coat, Major Lorne trailing behind him with an idiotic look on his face. Lorne wore a small pin of a red rose over his right breast.
“Doesn't that wear off?” O'Neill asked.
“Oh, it does,” Dr. Parrish said. “We're testing repeat exposures.”
“The flowers smell good,” Lorne said. His voice had a distinct drawl to it, one O'Neill instinctively disliked.
“I've only managed to get a handful of marines involved,” Parrish said. “But one thing we've determined, the red thistles smell different to each person. We believe this is due to the ergoline derivatives in the flower's scent profile.”
“What?” O'Neill asked.
“The flowers have LSD in them,” Lorne said.
“They do not,” Parrish said. “They have a variety of ergoline derivatives, though not all have hallucinogenic properties. Speaking of, General, do you think I could get a clean copy of the MKUltra data? It is entirely relevant.”
O'Neill parsed Parrish's request and came to a realization. “Did you just say the Ori are using chemical mind control?”
“Of course not,” Parrish said with a smirk and a wink. “If they were it would be too dangerous to send anyone through the gate. Then what would we do? How would we defend ourselves?”
O'Neill nodded. “I'll see what I can do about that data,” he said. “In the meantime, talk to Medical about an antidote. We can't have our people tripping balls off-world.”
“Will do,” Parrish said and headed off. Lorne didn't even salute as he followed like a puppy, goofy grin on his face and a strangely graceful lilt to his steps.
O'Neill headed to the elevator and level 25 where he could stop at his quarters for a drink. Somehow he felt he needed one.
O'Neill was back in his unofficial office, two cups of mess hall coffee in front of him. One of them belonged to him. The other belonged to the small man who sat before him as he reviewed a roster.
“I believe we are prepared,” Dr. Zelenka said. “You have given me every engineer I asked and more. Atlantis will be well-staffed. Perhaps, for once, well staffed enough to do all things IOA demands.”
“Unlikely,” O'Neill said. He raised his coffee cup in a mock toast. “That lot will never be satisfied.”
Zelenka nodded and raised his own coffee cup to tap and drink. “Nor will McKay,” he said. “Though he has reason. We leave them there three months and he will be finding his department neglected. These are engineers you send, computer scientists, soft scientists. He will feel his theoretical work abandoned.”
“Our recent breakthrough against the Ori was done by a botanist,” O'Neill said. “One of your botanists. You're lucky you're getting him back, by the way.”
“And we thank you for him,” Zelenka said. “But it has been three months. There is fine line between punishment and abandonment.”
O'Neill opened his mouth to argue.
“It is not first time,” Zelenka said, cutting him off. “It will not be last. Dr. McKay expects your moods. The others may not be so forgiving, they may choose to see these months as abandonment. If they go on too long, of course.”
“Of course,” O'Neill said warily.
“I hear the Daedalus is back in orbit,” Zelenka continued. “We have everyone we need. Earth needs Atlantis to provide research for your defeat of Origin. It is perfect time, no?”
“Perhaps it is,” O'Neill said, still wary. Zelenka's file said something about service in the Soviet military but the details were missing. O'Neill wondered what exactly was hidden in those missing details for this small man to make him nervous with nothing but words. Or maybe it was knowing this man somehow held McKay in check with nothing but those words and the force of his personality. Either way, the time had come. He was looking forward to getting his SGC back, even if he was just going to hand it over to Landry.
It was the principle of the thing.
Caldwell stood looking over the shipping manifest. “A lot of sporting equipment,” he said. “Anything I need to know about?”
O'Neill shrugged. He'd commandeered Landry's office for this. He handed over a stack of sealed orders. “These go to the proper individuals,” he said. “I want you to wait until after the orientation and mandatory presentation.”
Caldwell rolled his eyes.
“This is a serious matter, Colonel,” O'Neill said, his bland expression broken by his amused eyes. “It's of vital importance to keep certain allies in the Pegasus Galaxy in positions of strength. The last thing anyone there needs is a civil war involving nuclear weapons. An open civil war, anyway.”
Caldwell fixed O'Neill with a tired glare. He then straightened up and took the 'sealed orders', just envelopes with names on them. The names were civilian, no ranks listed before and PhDs listed after. “So we're keeping up the charade.”
“We are,” O'Neill said. A smirk finally broke through as Caldwell sighed.
“I'll give the speech,” Caldwell agreed. “Then we'll screen the films. Then I'll hand out the orders.”
“Excellent,” O'Neill said.
Something changed in Caldwell's expression, a touch of insubordination breaking through. “And when in the procedure should I tell them the Ancients from the Tria had pointed ears?”
O'Neill's mirth dropped then bounced back as he realized it must be a joke. “They did not,” he said.
Caldwell merely smirked and left.