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Is it enough to have some love

Small enough to slip inside a book

Small enough to cover with your hand

Because everyone around you wants to look

 

Is it enough to have some love

Small enough to fit inside the cracks

The pieces don't fit together so good

With all the breaking and all the gluing back

 

And I am still not getting what I want

I want to touch the back of your right arm

I wish you could remind me who I was

Because every day I'm a little further off

 

But you are, my love, the astronaut

Flying in the face of science

I will gladly stay an afterthought

Just bring back some nice reminders

 

And is it getting harder to pretend

That life goes on without you in the wake?

And can you see the means without the end

In the random frantic action that we take?

And is it getting easy not to care

Despite the many rings around your name

It isn't funny and it isn't fair

You've traveled all this way and it's the same

 

But you are, my love, the astronaut

Flying in the face of science

I will gladly stay an afterthought

Just bring back some nice reminders

 

I would tell them anything to see you split the evening

But as you see I do not have an awful lot to tell

Everybody's sick for something that they can find fascinating

Everyone but you and even you aren't feeling well

 

Yes you are, my love, the astronaut

Crashing in the name of science

Just my luck they found your upper half

It's a very nice reminder

It's a very nice reminder

And you may be acquainted with the night

But I have seen the darkness in the day

And you must know it is a terrifying sight

Because you and I are living the same way

 

[Amanda Palmer, ‘Astronaut (A Short Story of Nearly Nothing)’]

Chapter Text

The day was unseasonably warm. The clear sky was the color of pale azure and a light breeze was jostling the still bare tree branches. The conditions could not have been better for landing, and it was indeed very smooth, even for a Boeing. The plane was only halfway full and the passengers filed out in an orderly fashion, sent off on their way with the flight attendants’ smiles and polite goodbyes. It was pleasant to feel the cool wind on the face after the stuffiness of the aircraft.

Alice Boyd adjusted the strap of the bag on her shoulder and descended the steps onto the tarmac, the jetway sitting unused to the left. She followed the other passengers through the nearby glass door into the airport’s building, but while most of them turned to get their registered luggage, Alice walked forward, straight to the exit. She carried all of her essentials in the one carry-on. She stepped through a gate into the arrivals area and began scanning the small crowd in front of her. It wasn’t long before she noticed him.

“Jake!”

“Allie!” Her brother waved to her from few paces away, his face split in a huge grin. They looked nothing alike: Jacob was tall and muscular, with broad shoulders and bulky frame; Alice was small and slim, and looked as if a stronger wind could blow her away. Her eyes were bright green, while Jake had pale gray ones with specks of light blue. About the only thing they shared in common was red hair, although Alice’s was long and coppery orange, while her brother’s military buzz cut was deeper auburn. He was wearing a utility uniform, with its camouflage pattern contrasting with everyday clothes of everyone else in the building, including Alice; she had a light blue blouse and dark jeans on, with a short black leather jacket.

Jake enveloped her in his signature bear hug and then gestured for her to give him the bag. Alice shook her head and they began walking towards the exit to the parking lot.

“Aren’t cammies prohibited for wear outside the base for you leathernecks?” She inquired curiously.

“Official business, sis. I’m your assigned escort to the base.” Jake shot her a bright grin.

“Uh-huh. More like my assigned driver.” They were at his car. Alice put her bag in the back seat and got in on the front passenger side. Jake was already turning the key in the ignition.

“Belt,” he reminded her unnecessarily, as she was already fastening hers. She rolled her eyes as the car started and turned right towards the main road. “So, how’s mom?”

“Good. She’s happy to finally be home. Ohio wasn’t bad, but it took some time to get used to the weather there.”

“I bet. When was the last time mom left California?”

“Before dad’s death, I think.”

“She didn’t really like it at the base in Dayton, did she?”

“She never said anything, but yeah, at first it was difficult. You know, all the new experiences all at once, plus it reminded her of dad. But she got used to it.”

“Yeah, it helped that she made friends there.” Jake had been a frequent visitor at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where Alice and their mother spent the last three years. Eileen Boyd was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia coupled with depression. She had been diagnosed when she was Jake’s current age; Alice had been but a small child then. Their mother was mostly fine when they were growing up, but everything changed when their father died. Alice was fourteen at a time, Jake seventeen. Eric Boyd had been a Navy pilot; he crashed his fighter into the deck of a carrier during a storm on the open sea.  After that, life became just a little too difficult for his widow; she held on as long as her children were home, but not a year later Jake enlisted to the Marine Corps and Alice went to college as an early entrant. Soon thereafter, Eileen was admitted to an inpatient treatment center where she resided until she was released three years ago. At the time, Alice made the decision to put her career on hold and was granted authorization to get a degree at the Air Force Institute of Technology. She brought her mother with, to help her reintegrate into society. Eileen would need to stay on her meds and keep regular visits with her doctors, but she was now well enough to lead a completely self-sufficient and independent life. So after Alice got her diploma, they both traveled to L.A., where their family house still stood. Alice got a couple weeks of leave to help mother put her affairs in order at home and get her settled in before she was called up to Colorado Springs to talk about her next assignment.

“Have I told you?” Alice wondered aloud as they left the last of the city residential buildings behind them and turned onto the road leading up to the Cheyenne Mountain. “About the offer that big studio made mom?”

“To draw concept art for their upcoming superhero movie?” Jake smiled, speeding to overtake a slow-moving truck in front of them. Alice frowned; double solid line was dividing the single lanes in either direction. “She told me herself. She sounded pretty excited about it.”

“As well she should be. It’s a big deal. It’s her first real contract since she’s got back in the game. I’m really glad it’s coming to her now. I was a little worried to be leaving her alone, but she is better when she works on a project.”

“She’ll be alright. If nobody else, Aunt Helen and Aunt Moira are going to take care of her.”

“Our old neighbors welcomed her, too. The Starrs made a homecoming barbecue in her honor.” Alice snickered.

“Only in L.A.,” Jake agreed with the sentiment. It was still February; it had been quite cold in Ohio when they were leaving, but in SoCal the mean temperature was around sixty degrees. Not much more than here; but that was quite unusual for Colorado.

For a moment, they were silent. Alice looked out the window; they were now pretty high above the valley, the city sprawled at their feet. The road was meandering, turning this way and that as they climbed uphill. They passed the sign that advised that all public traffic had to turn right towards Broadmoor, one of the more remote areas of the city, located at the foot of the mountains. They continued straight after another board told them that access was restricted for official government business only. What little traffic they’ve seen now disappeared completely; they were alone on the road.

A minute later they pulled up at the security checkpoint. Jake showed his access card to the guard who looked him in the face intensively.

“I’ve been coming to work in here for over four years,” Jake complained. “Still he acts like I’m some newbie.”

“It’s his job,” Alice reminded, handing in her own Common Access Card. The security waved them in and Jake zigzagged with ease around the cones and sped up the driveway. It took them a couple minutes to arrive at the parking lot in front of the proper entrance. Jake pulled up in a spot between two nicer cars. They both got out and Alice opened the back door to grab her bag, but the marine was faster; he snatched it right from under her hands. She puffed, but let it go. They both walked towards another security station where a van stood ready to take them inside. Another guardsman checked their credentials again and got onto the van with them. They were quickly enveloped in the dark shade of the tunnel and pulled up next to the first set of steel and concrete composite doors to the main building under the mountain. The airman followed them inside and left them only at the final hand-scan checkpoint, before they entered the elevator and began moving down beyond the NORAD and SGC administration areas on levels 1 to 4, all the way to level 11, where they had to switch to a second elevator that took them to level 25.

Alice had been in the Stargate Command only once before and she had been pretty out of it, having sustained a serious injury. She unconsciously rubbed her left shoulder; it had since healed nearly entirely, but at the time she had been convinced she would lose much of its motor function. It turned out not to be that bad; in the end, the permanent damage was less than five percent. She now always knew when a change of weather was coming, but other than that, she regained full use of the arm.

Jake led her to a locker room, where she could change into a uniform. He waited outside while she put on the light blue shirt, the midnight blue slacks and jacket, and a tie tab. Then she adjusted all her ribbons; she had eight to date: Air Force Training Ribbon, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, USAF Basic Military Training Honor Graduate Ribbon, National Defense Medal, Air and Space Campaign Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Air Force Combat Medal and a Purple Heart. Above them she fastened her pilot wings, since she still technically was a pilot, although she hasn’t flown anything in three years. On the right side of the jacket she put a shining name tag. She brushed her hair and pinned it in a neat bun above her neck. She then checked herself in the mirror and satisfied that she looked proper enough, she exited the locker room and handed her bag to Jake. Now that she was in uniform, it would look wrong if she were carrying it around while escorted by an enlisted subordinate.

“Where now?” She asked as he led the way. “I don’t even know whom I am supposed to be talking to.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Jake admitted. “But I am to take you to the briefing room.” He looked at his watch. “We’re right on time.” They had to take the elevator again, down two more floors. Alice privately thought it was kind of a drag; the elevators were not very fast. Not to mention it was pretty depressing inside this mountain, only gray walls and artificial light all around, with no windows and no natural air. What if someone was claustrophobic? They wouldn’t be able to work in this base, for sure. Alice didn’t have any phobias – unless one counted social ineptitude – but she didn’t think she’d enjoy working here much, either.

It wasn’t until they walked into the briefing room, which had full view of the Stargate, when Alice remembered that in a way, this base had the best window on Earth. She smiled to herself at this thought.

Jake put her bag on the floor next to the table and gestured around broadly.

“So this is where we talk before and after every mission,” he said proudly. Alice snickered. Jake had wanted to join an SG unit ever since he was assigned to the base, but for the first three years he had been stonewalled, remaining the enlisted leader of the on-base squad of marines supporting the Air Force Security Forces. It wasn’t until a little less than a year ago that his request was finally granted and he became a member of SG-5, a marine combat unit that went through the Gate mostly as support for other teams.

“Nice view,” Alice remarked, gesturing to the window through which the Stargate could be seen. “The stairs lead down to the control room?” She remembered seeing the room lined with computers through the reinforced glass when she came through the Gate from Tegalus, three years ago, after the spaceship she had served on, the Prometheus, was destroyed over the planet.

“Yep. And that door right there leads to the CO’s office. He’s not in, as you can see.” The galaxy map on the wall of the briefing room was made of see-through glass which had the base commander’s office on the other side, so indeed one could see clearly that it was, at the moment, empty. “Most people have their offices on level 25 or above,” Jake continued, pointing his finger upwards.

“Do you have an office?” Alice wondered. Office was something she associated more with officers, nomen omen, but perhaps any member of an SG unit had its own?

“Not really. I have desk in a shared working area on 25, though,” Jake admitted. “Team leaders all have their private offices, some other people too. For example Doctor Jackson has one on level 18, although his is more of a lab, really.”

“So Doctor Jackson is still in the SG-1? I heard about Colonel Carter.”

“Yep, Colonel Mitchell, Doctor Jackson, Teal’c and Vala continue to kick ass out there!”

Alice shook her head. That Vala Mal Doraan would become so trusted and central to Earth’s efforts against the Ori as to become a permanent member of SG-1 was still beyond her. She had met her twice in the year-and-a-half Alice spent as a space-fighter pilot aboard the Prometheus, and formed a rather negative opinion of Vala. And then the woman went and saved them all at her own peril. To have misjudged someone so blatantly was still a record for Alice.

“Well, I think it’s time I leave you alone, sis,” Jake announced, checking his watch. Alice did the same. It was exactly half past noon.

“Alright, thanks for the tour, Staff Sergeant, now go back to your duties!” She quipped. Jake grinned, stood at attention and saluted. Alice returned the salute, smiling too.

“Aye, aye, ma’am!” He turned and walked out of the room, leaving Alice alone. She wandered towards the window to look at the Stargate. It was still now but she remembered well how it looked like when activated; the shimmering blueish surface of the event horizon rippling like water under a breeze.

Alice more felt than heard someone enter the room. He spoke before she had the chance to turn around.

“Enjoying the view?”

Alice faced him and automatically stood at attention upon seeing two silver stars on his epaulets. He was in his mid-sixties, his hair was more gray than dark and he had impressive eyebrows which gave him a strict appearance. He walked inside the room.

“At ease, Captain.” He approached the coffee pot sitting on a small table in front of the galaxy map. “Want some?” He lifted the pot, sloshing the liquid inside.

“Yes, thank you, sir.” Alice had already had one coffee in the morning, before she set off for Colorado, but she felt she could use another burst of energy. The general poured two cups and handed one to Alice. She thanked him again and waited until he sat down to take a seat herself.

“My name is Major General Hank Landry,” he announced unnecessarily, as Alice had already guessed it.

“It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” she said, quite honestly.

“Your brother is in one of my SG units. He’s a good kid.” The general was watching her like a hawk; she felt uncomfortable under his stare.

“Yes, sir.” She didn’t know what else to say so she kept silent.

“Colonel Carter told me your research into smart-learning computers was vital to deciphering and understanding some of the top tech we’ve inherited from the Asgard,” he continued, sipping at his coffee, his eyes never leaving her face.

“I’m not sure what you mean, sir. Inherited from the Asgard?” She frowned. Asgard technology was all over the BC-304s, the Earth-made battlecruisers, but those were gifts given to them as thanks for helping the Asgard in their fight against the Replicators.

“You don’t know about that?” The impressive pair of eyebrows on general’s face went up. “How the Asgard decided to give us all their knowledge before they destroyed their entire civilization?”

Alice didn’t reply, too shocked to speak. The Asgard destroyed their civilization? Why? How? What the fuck has been happening since I left?

Landry continued to stare at her until Alice could gather her wits.

“I didn’t have the need-to-know for SG reports while at AFIT, sir,” she explained meekly. “I had some limited clearance for scientific data flowing from both SGC and the Groom Lake facility, but that was about all. I mean I know what happened to the Ori, although without any details,” she amended. “But not much beyond that.”

“Well, you’re gonna have some reading to do, then.” The general put away his cup, already emptied. Alice was only a few sips into hers.

“Does that mean I’m going back to flying for the Stargate Program, sir?” No matter how shocking was the other news, her new assignment was the most important information for her at the moment.

“That will depend on you.” He checked his watch. “Where is this woman?”

It was Alice’s turn to raise her eyebrows. What woman? The commander stood up – prompting Alice to jump to her feet as well – and walked to a phone on the wall.

“General Landry here, get me Doctor Lam… Carolyn, you were supposed to meet me in the briefing room. What? Is he gonna be okay? Then transfer him to another doctor, we have enough of them there, don’t we? And come on.”

He replaced the receiver and turned around.

“Sit down, Captain.” He returned to his own seat, too. “I need Doctor Lam here, I can’t explain it to you as well as she can.”

Explain what? What was going on? She was confused.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“You wouldn’t. I haven’t told you anything yet.” He picked up his empty cup and looked into it as if he was hoping there’d be some coffee left.

“Would you like me to…?” Alice offered, half-rising, but he waved her down.

“Don’t bother. I drink too much coffee anyway.” He put the cup back on the table. “So before we start talking about your future assignment, Captain, let me fill you in on the latest happenings.” He paused for a moment, considering. “The Ori have been defeated. Goa’uld are no more. We got rid of the Replicators. The Jaffa Nation spans many worlds and although it will take them more time to make it work properly, they are our allies and friends. About the only bigger issue in the Milky Way remains the Lucian Alliance, the haphazard band of smugglers and mercenaries that take advantage of the power vacuum left by the Goa’uld and the Ori. However, we have vastly superior weapons and shields on our ships, and they are not a threat to us.”

Alice nodded. The bit about the Lucian Alliance was new to her, but otherwise she had known all of this.

“At the same time, in Pegasus, the situation continues to decline. The Wraith are fighting with each other, while the population of humans dwindles; some fall prey to the Wraith, others die of the effects of the Hoffan drug. The Wraith are desperate to find new sources to feed upon.” He looked in the same searching way into Alice’s face again. She dropped her gaze to avoid his stare. “A little over a month ago, the Wraith found a way to reach Earth.”

“What?!” Alice looked up in alarm. This couldn’t be true. After the Goa’uld, the Replicators, the Ori, would they have to contend with the Wraith now too?

“It was only one hive ship, and we were able to destroy it,” Landry continued calmly. “But the Wraith won’t stop until they either get here, or they’re dead.”

Alice took a deep breath. It wasn’t so bad. Was it?

“If one ship made it here, why others won’t follow immediately, sir?” She asked, because she couldn’t stand not knowing.

“Their hive ships don’t have the capability for inter-galactic travel. The one was modified with a ZPM, that’s how it was able to reach us.” He was silent for a moment. “They got the Ancient Control Chair. We’ve moved it from Antarctica to Area 51. They sent Wraith Darts on a suicide mission and succeeded in destroying it.”

“What about the base personnel?” Alice had lived in the Groom Lake base for over a year and a half, it had been her Permanent Duty Station when not deployed aboard the Prometheus. She knew many people there.

“There were some fatalities,” Landry acknowledged. “But the Chair was in a remote area and only those working directly with it were caught in the blast. Twenty-six people in total.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” But she felt relieved to know that most had survived.

“There is one more interesting twist in that story.” Landry’s lips formed a smile, but it was not a happy nor amused one. “The Atlantis followed the hive to try and stop them.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“The city is a ship, too. It can fly. It came here after the hive. It’s currently parked at the pacific coast in San Francisco.”

“Atlantis is here?” Alice felt that if they were cartoon characters, her jaw would have dropped to the floor just now.

“Cloaked, of course. Been here for over a month. There were some problems, it needed a lot of repairs. Those are still not finished, but we expect they should be over within a month or two. After that, we intend to send it back to the Pegasus galaxy, to continue the fight with the Wraith.”

A horrible suspicion began forming in Alice’s mind. They wouldn’t send her there, would they? She was a damn fighter pilot! She had been hoping she’d be assigned to the Odyssey or some other BC-304. Maybe even the George Hammond, Colonel Carter’s new ship which was about to launch for the first time. But not Atlantis. How was she supposed to keep an eye on her mother if she was three million light years away? It was different than deployments on a battlecruiser; a ship had to dock every now and again, or at least stay on Earth’s orbit for a while.

“Ah, Doctor Lam, finally!” Landry stood up again, and Alice rose as well. She turned around to see a woman in a white lab coat, with civilian clothing underneath. “Captain, this is Doctor Carolyn Lam, the SGC’s Chief Medical Officer. Carolyn, this is Captain Alice Boyd. I believe you two have met.”

Alice looked at him in surprise. She had excellent memory, yet she couldn’t remember ever seeing that face, although she did know of her position at the Stargate Command.

“I wouldn’t call it that,” the doctor said entering the room and holding out her hand. “You were unconscious on my operating table at the time.”

Alice shook her hand and smiled. “Oh, so you are the one I have to thank for my arm.” She nodded to her left.

“I mostly assisted, doctor Pau was leading the surgery,” Lam admitted. Alice nodded. Doctor Pau had been her primary physician for the injury.

“Let’s sit,” Landry interrupted and gestured to the table. They took their seats. “Doctor Lam, will you please explain to Captain Boyd about the ATA gene.”

Lam nodded. “Captain, do you know what the Ancient Technology Activation gene is?”

“I presume it’s the gene that allows certain people to access and use Ancient technology,” Alice replied, trying to keep her voice polite, but it seemed that her worst fears were about to turn true.

“That’s right. The body of a person possessing the gene produces certain enzymes and proteins that interact with the cells in the individual’s organism, including the nervous system and brain, which permits to operate the Ancient systems by touch and thought.” She flipped open a file folder she was carrying; Alice hadn’t noticed it previously. “Doctor Beckett of the Atlantis expedition has developed a gene therapy to implant it in those who aren’t born with it. It is, unfortunately, only successful in about 47% of the cases, and even those are not always permanent, and their ability to operate Ancient technology is limited.”

Alice didn’t move, anticipating already what was coming next.

“About two years ago we’ve began scanning all Stargate personnel’s DNA samples on record for the presence of the gene. As you were no longer part of the Program, yours wasn’t checked. However, your brother’s was and it turned out that he possesses the gene naturally.”

Alice blinked quickly. She wasn’t sure now where Lam was going with this.

“Do you know what an allele is, Captain?”

“Of course, a variant of a given gene.”

“The ATA gene is in itself a very simple one, and it is passed along the line according to the Mandelian inheritance model. That means that there are exactly two alleles of the gene, and each allele is in dominant or recessive relationship to another. There is no co-dominance.”

Alice nodded. It meant that the phenotype of one allele would mask the contribution of another.

“Do you mean to say that the dominant allele is what allows for the operation of the Ancient technology?” Alice asked. Her curiosity was piqued now.

“No, not exactly. The very existence of the gene in one’s DNA is enough for the ability to operate the Ancient technology to manifest itself. However, we believe that the dominant allele indicates the strength of that ability in an individual.”

“I see.”

“It is a little more complex than that, it appears that difference in strength exists even between people with the same relationships of the alleles, but as a rule those with recessive alleles are always less capable in operating the Ancient technology.”

“We currently know of only three people in the Program that have this ability as a dominant trait,” General Landry put in, betraying that he understood much more than he claimed to. “That is Doctor Beckett himself, Lieutenant General O’Neill and Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard.”

Alice frowned. There were hundreds of people working for the Stargate Program now. Was it really that rare?

“And my brother…?”

“Has two recessive alleles,” Doctor Lam finished. “So he’s able to operate the Ancient technology, but nowhere near the efficiency of Colonel Sheppard, for example.”

“He refused to join the Atlantis expedition,” Landry added. Alice looked at him in disbelief. Her brother, always so ready for action, and he refused? That was unlike him. “He preferred to stay on Earth.”

There was something weird in the way Landry said that, but Alice couldn’t figure out what, or what it meant. She filed it under consider later and moved on to the more immediate problem.

“But you didn’t check my DNA, did you?”

“Not at the time. But we’ve been scanning the DNA of most of the Air Force personnel on record. It takes time to do so, and we get a few positive results every once in a while, but not everyone is fit to go off-world. With your imminent return to the Program, we bumped you to the top of the queue.” Lam handed over the folder she had previously opened. Alice looked at the single sheet inside.

“Two dominant alleles,” she said aloud. So there was it. She had been doomed by her own genes. This meant that both her parents had to have one dominant and one recessive allele, to allow for this combination: her brother with two recessives, and herself with two dominants. She suddenly remembered something. “My grandmother’s maiden name was Sheppard.”

This visibly surprised the two others.

“You’re related to John Sheppard?” Landry’s eyes bore into her face like drills again.

“I don’t know. All I know is that my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Erin Sheppard. As far as I know she was an only child, but it’s possible her father, my great-grandfather, had siblings. I would have to ask my mother.”

“It would make sense,” Doctor Lam noted. “Being related to someone with a strong gene makes the probability of your own gene manifesting strongly go up, too.”

Alice silently cursed herself. She should’ve kept quiet about it. Although, to be fair, she didn’t think it changed the situation much.

“Well, ma’am, it’s a rather common name. It’s probably irrelevant.”

“The point is,” General Landry interjected. “The Atlantis expedition sure could use someone with your ability.”

“But we don’t know yet if I have that ability.” Alice felt it was a desperate attempt, but she had to try. “I mean… we haven’t checked that, sir.”

“We will.” The CO nodded curtly. “But from what Carolyn tells me, it’s all but guaranteed that you will be able to operate the Ancient technology better than most of the others.”

Alice didn’t reply, but looked away, towards the window, through which the dark shape of the Stargate loomed, suddenly much less appealing than before. But I’m a pilot. I want to fly fighters. That’s what you’ve trained me for. And from what you’ve told me, now it would actually make a difference. I bet we would see a lot of action against that Lucian Alliance.

“So here’s the deal, Captain. The City of Atlantis is going back to Pegasus within the next month or two, depending on how the repairs go. The Homeworld Command would like you to go with them.” Landry paused; Alice was still looking at the window. “However, the Atlantis expedition is a volunteer-only assignment. Your brother has refused. You have that possibility too. If you do, we will find a place for you somewhere else.”

Alice sighed and shifted her gaze towards the CO. His mouth was a straight line, and his eyes were focused on her again.

“Before you decide, you should know what you could be getting yourself into. I will make all the reports available to you right away. You have two days to read them and reach a decision.”

“Yes, sir.” Alice nodded solemnly. “May I ask in what capacity would I be going there, sir, should I agree?”

“I didn’t say?” General Landry allowed himself a small smile. “A Jumper pilot, of course.”

Alice blinked very fast. She knew, vaguely, what Puddle Jumpers were, and they may have not been classic fighters, but at least she’d be flying again.

Landry watched her for a moment longer.

“Alright, that’s all for now, Captain. You’ll be assigned a guest quarter on the base while you familiarize yourself with the reports from Atlantis. Airman, show the captain the way.” He gestured at the Security Forces guy standing guard at the entrance to the room. Then the general stood up and said to Alice: “Dismissed.”

Alice jumped to her feet, picked up her bag and walked out, preceded by the airman. She handed him the bag to carry and he led her along the corridor to the elevator and up to the level 14. Most of the personnel of the SGC had their quarters on levels 12, 13, 14 and 15, while senior staff and SG units had theirs on level 25. VIP rooms were also located there, however standard guest rooms were situated on level 14. That’s where the airman brought her. He put her bag on a table inside the room and left her alone, closing the door as he exited. Alice looked around.

The room was small and gray. The walls of concrete were bare; there was a double bed with two nightstands on one side, and a desk with a chair on the other. A small flatscreen fixed above a dresser, a single armchair and a slim, tall closet complemented the furniture. Alice sighed. It was far from perfect, but at least she only had to be there for two days. Jake was spending most of his time in such conditions. True, he also had an apartment in town, but she knew he usually only went back there for the weekends. Somehow it looked much worse to her than her old cabin on the Prometheus; maybe because they did have windows, even though they only showed the blackness of space.

Alice unpacked her bag, hung up her spare uniforms in the closet and left her laptop on the desk. She then removed her jacket, making sure she got all the ribbons, pins and badges off of it first. Another set was on the shirt underneath – the name tag and the pilot wings, and on the epaulets she had the two silver bars of a captain. With that done, she had successfully changed from the Service Dress Uniform to the Blue Service Uniform. She was ready to go explore the base.

After two hours of walking here and there, she had arrived at one conclusion: it was huge. Countless people worked there day and night; not only SG teams or scientists, but medical personnel, technicians, Security Forces, aides, cooks, stewards, maintenance people and even accountants and other paper-pushers, who were mostly staying on the top levels 1 through 4. There were huge storage areas, housing everything from foodstuffs to weapons and ammunition, and underground lakes – tanks full of water and diesel – in case power from the outside world were to be cut. One level held an enormous computer mainframe, another – an assortment of MALPs, UAVs and FREDs. Thankfully, at some point, Alice arrived at level 22, where the main kitchen and the mess were located. It was there that Alice spotted her brother again and let out a sigh of relief. Here comes the cavalry.

Jake was sitting at a table with two other people, one of them already known to Alice, so she approached them without her usual awkwardness.

“Hey, Jake, look,” Robert Dawson said, nodding towards Alice. She had met him three years prior, when they spent a week at Boyds’ house during Christmas break. Jake had presented him as his friend, but Alice guessed that there was more between them. To this date, however, Jake never confirmed her theory.

“Allie, come sit with us!” Jake exclaimed as he turned around to see. “Luis, this is my sister, Captain Alice Boyd. Allie, this is my team-mate, Corporal Luis Garcia. And you remember Robert, of course.”

Alice waved at the young corporal to keep his seat. “Of course. Nice to see you again, Robert.”

“Likewise, ma’am.” He didn’t forget they were both in uniforms and on the base now.

“So, Jake, how does it work here? Who do I have to beat up to get some food?”

Jake grinned at her. “I’d love to see you beating up any of the boys on steward duty, doll.”

Alice rolled her eyes at him and strutted towards the side of the room where heated containers full of different foods stood manned by uniformed stewards. Jake followed her to help her get her bearings. Five minutes later they were back at the table, Alice with a full tray; Jake had been adding items to it all the way.

“Haven’t you had enough?” She sighed, exasperated, when he snatched half of it towards his own plate as they sat down.

“Never, sis!” He answered, his mouth already chewing something. Alice shook her head and dug in, too; she was hungry, having eaten for the last time before departing for the airport in Los Angeles.

“Not bad,” she said, meaning the food. “And it’s free, too?”

“Oh yeah. Everything here is free,” Robert answered because Jake couldn’t talk at the moment. “Has to be. It’s already a pretty difficult place to live at, would suck if you had to pay for food or gym time and stuff.”

“You’re still with SG-15, Sergeant?”

“Yes, ma’am. Wouldn’t change this assignment for the world.” Alice caught a brief exchange of looks between him and Jake and suddenly knew why Jake refused to join the Atlantis expedition. Wow. It’s that serious. It made her sad that her brother still hadn’t chosen to say anything to her, but as always, she held her tongue on the subject.

“What about you, Allie? What did they tell you?” Jake managed to swallow a big mouthful and could speak again.

“Oh, well… They want me to go to Pegasus with Atlantis.”

Jake nodded shrewdly. “I thought it might be that. I figured if I had the gene, you’d have it too. What did you say?”

“Nothing yet. I’ve been pretty out of the loop recently so they want me to go through the Atlantis mission reports first, before I make any decision. General Landry told me about the hive that reached Earth and everything… that was pretty shocking.”

“Yeah, sorry, sis. I couldn’t tell you.” Jake sounded guilty.

“You weren’t allowed to.” Alice shrugged. “I understand.”

“But what are you going to do?” Her brother could be persistent when he wanted to.

Alice sighed. “I don’t know yet. I don’t want to go.”

“Then don’t go.”

“It’s not that easy.” She shook her head and put the fork down. She lost her appetite. “I can’t just refuse and expect good treatment on the next assignment.”

“What’s that bullshit?” Jake frowned. “You mad or what? They can’t manipulate you to go. Plus, it’d be pretty stupid on their part not to use your big brain and nimble fingers.”

“Euh, Jake, you make it sound dirty,” Alice complained while Dawson and Garcia laughed out loud.

“What else are big brothers for?” Jake said lightly and grinned at her. It did succeed at lifting her spirits a bit. But she knew it wouldn’t be an easy decision. She had a lot of thinking to do.

 

*

 

Two days were not enough to read all the available material from the Atlantis expedition, even for a speed-reader such as Alice. She was planted firmly on her bed or armchair for most of the time, scanning report after report on the tablet she was issued by the base Information Security lead. Jake came by a few times to talk, but on the second day he went on a scheduled mission through the Stargate and Alice was left to her own devices.

Aside from Robert Dawson, Doctor Lam and General Landry himself, there was no one on the base she knew. The SG-1 was off-world, and so was SG-3, whom Alice had met on one occasion few years ago, aboard the Prometheus. Colonel Carter had her own command now and her ship, George Hammond, was being outfitted for duty. Alice felt a bit isolated so she only emerged from her guest room for mealtimes. Therefore, she had a lot of time to think about her situation.

Now that she was more or less aware of what had been happening in Pegasus in the five years the Atlantis expedition had spent there, she came to appreciate their need for people with strong ATA gene. The scope of what they were up against was enormous, and the city of the Ancients still held innumerable mysteries that the Earthlings were not yet able to discover or understand. The wealth of data continuously flowing from the place was nothing compared to what else they could still find there. It was a paradise for scientists, if a dangerous one. The list of fatalities was depressingly long.

Alice made a point of checking the specifications of Puddle Jumpers, since that was supposed to be her main duty, should she agree. She learned that there were actually three designs of these small short-distance ships; each slightly different, but all piloted by a combination of manual operation and thought control. The one constant was that they required the ATA gene to use. But the more Alice was reading, the more she realized being a Jumper pilot was not all about flying. She ascertained that most pilots went on missions alongside their teams. That scared her more than anything else. Alice had taken part in one ground mission before; she had to land a Death Glider in the middle of a Goa’uld’s palace complex, enter it, find an imprisoned Tok’ra, and escape with her. It had been her first – and only, thankfully – time that she had to fire a gun to kill. It was very different than shooting an enemy fighter out of the sky; four years later, she still sometimes woke up in sweat, having just relieved the mission in a dream. She couldn’t do that again. She could not go through the same hell of an aftermath.

But what really were her options? She could refuse. If she did, what would happen to her? Alice knew that she was too valuable an asset to just throw her away; she had been an excellent pilot, and a great engineer too. Apart from that, the research she had done in the past three years brought real-life benefits to the Program. It would make the most sense to attach her again to an F-302 squadron aboard one of the Daedalus-class battlecruisers. That was what she had been expecting before the conversation with Landry.

And yet she couldn’t refuse. There was no denying that the prospect scared her. She was terrified of ground combat, of having to kill again, of the monsters that literally sucked the life out of you. She was anxious about the expectations – what if she did not operate the Ancient technology half as good as they thought she would? But neither could she deny that the idea held a certain captivating promise, too. She still remembered the thirst with which she drank all the scientific data that had been made available to her when she was still serving on the Prometheus. How much new information would she gain just by being in the great city of the Ancients, the Gate-builders? How much would she learn just by working along some of the best minds on Earth, the scientists of the Atlantis expedition?

She could be useful. She knew she had some special abilities; she had excellent memory and could read very fast with near-perfect comprehension. She managed to do all of her Master’s Degree courses and thesis and her Doctoral courses, research and dissertation within three years; that was a year and a half less than the program assumed. She was very focused and driven, which enabled her career to progress so far as it has, until now. At twenty-six years old she had six years of seniority in the Air Force; and now also a PhD to her name. She might be socially awkward, but she was ambitious. And if she was really being honest with herself, she didn’t see as much possibility for personal or professional growth as a fighter pilot on some ship, as in Atlantis. Granted, there was much bigger chance of ending up dead if she went to the Pegasus; but was that something that should stop her?

Alice sat on the bed in her guest quarter, the tablet laying forgotten on the cover next to her, and twirled her father’s dog tag in her fingers. She always wore it with her own tags, as a good luck charm and a reminder of her beloved dad. What would he say?  Would he want to see his daughter go risk her life so far away? Would he want her to abandon her newly-independent mother? Would he want her to take up the challenge?

Alice smiled to herself. There was a time when that simple word, challenge, could change her mind in an instant. She never backed out of a challenge. But she was older now, and she understood that not all challenges were worth taking up. Her reluctance to go wasn’t at odds with her desire to prove herself now. She’s already done that, to some extent at least. No, it was not about a challenge; it was about duty.

They needed her. If they were right about the strength of her abilities to control the Ancient technology, and how very few people had comparable capabilities, she was uniquely positioned to bring a significant contribution to the mission. Add to that her flying prowess and her scientific and engineering knowledge, and it was hardly a surprise that they wanted her in Atlantis. She could make a difference. If she could carry the responsibility.

Her musings were interrupted by a knock on the door. She jerked, surprised. She had quite forgotten where she was for a moment, and she wasn’t expecting visitors. Jake might have come back, but he wouldn’t knock; he’d barge in, as he usually did, without warning.

“Come in!”

The door opened, admitting an airman who stood at attention and inclined his head. There was no saluting indoors, but he was still giving his proper respect to an officer. Alice nodded back.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but you are required in the briefing room on level 27.”

“Am I?” Alice checked her watch automatically; she still had over an hour before her scheduled meeting with General Landry. “Who’s requiring me?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. A colonel.” That was surprising. Not that the airman didn’t notice the name tag; it wasn’t hard to miss from a few paces away. But that some colonel would want to speak to her was unusual. Maybe Carter was back? Alice really couldn’t think of anyone else of this rank who’d have any reason to talk to her.

She scrambled off her bed, checked herself in the mirror – she was wearing her blues – and walked out after the airman. It took them five minutes to reach the briefing room, at the entrance of which the airman stopped and stood back. Alice entered apprehensively.

It was not Colonel Carter. It was someone she did not recognize: a tall man in blues with a mess of unruly dark hair, too long to be considered within regulations. He was exactly Jake’s height, but while the marine was bulky and broad-shouldered, the unknown officer was rather slim, although he was obviously in very good shape, too. He had a lieutenant colonel’s insignia on his shirt and a name tag that, from the entrance to the room, Alice could not read. His necktie was loosened and the top button of the collar undone. He was standing at the window overlooking the Stargate.

Alice made a few steps inside the room and stood at attention, raising her right hand to her head. “Captain Boyd reporting as ordered, sir!” In an unfamiliar situation, she fell back on military protocol. Salute was mandatory when reporting in.

The lieutenant colonel shot her an appraising look and quickly saluted back.

“At ease, Captain. I’m not one for decorum.” He nodded towards the table. “Sit down. I’m John Sheppard.”

Ah, that explains a lot, Alice thought as they both took seats opposite each other. She gazed at him with interest. It was obvious from the way he looked and behaved that he truly wasn’t bothered much by regulations or protocol. He was fidgeting, as if vaguely uncomfortable in the Blue Service Uniform.

“Are you here to try to persuade me to come to Atlantis, sir?” Alice asked, emboldened by the informal atmosphere the man was practically exuding with all of his appearance.

“No, I’m here to see if you should,” he replied, cocking his head slightly to the side and observing her reactions. She couldn’t help but raise her eyebrows. “I get to review all military transfers to Atlantis.”

It made sense. She knew Sheppard was the base’s military commander. As long as he was on Earth, he could just as well interview the candidates in person.

“Alright, sir. Review away.” She smiled and saw his lips twitch as well.

“You’re a little young to be a captain,” he said somewhat provocatively and Alice understood he was still measuring her responses.

“Yes, sir.” She thought about leaving it at that, but decided against it. Why antagonize the guy? “I graduated high school early. Everything else kind of followed that.”

“Yes, so I’ve read.” He tapped his fingers on the table and Alice noticed there was a personnel folder laying there; her own, presumably. Alice raised her eyebrows again and he suddenly completely changed his demeanor. He leaned forward comfortably and smiled. “Listen, I don’t want you to feel stressed or anything. I just want to get to know you a little, kapish?”

Alice snickered. That didn’t take long. He was exactly the kind of person she imagined reading his reports.

“I understand, sir. Just so you know, though, I haven’t made my decision yet.”

“No? I didn’t peg you for an impulsive kinda gal.” He pointed at the glass galaxy map with his thumb. “I thought you were supposed to give the man your answer right about now.”

“Yes, sir.” Alice sighed. “And I wish I could have made the decision earlier, but it’s not that easy.”

“Why?”

Alice deliberated for a moment. Should she be totally honest with this man?

“Well, sir, from what I gathered from the mission reports I’ve been reading in the past two days, a Jumper pilot does more than just flies the team to wherever they’re supposed to go.”

“That depends on the kind of mission, and the abilities of the pilot,” he amended seriously. “Some are literally only ferrying people hither and tither. You won’t find their names mentioned too often in mission reports, though.” He paused. “Is that something you’d like to do?”

Alice considered her answer carefully and decided to tell the truth.

“I’m not sure, sir. More than anything, I want to contribute something valuable. If that is to be flying a bus, so be it. But frankly I think it would be a loss of potential.”

“Oh?” It was his time to raise his eyebrows.

“I’m a fighter pilot, sir. A good one. I haven’t flown in a while, but it’s not something you forget.”

He nodded understandingly. “I agree. Your service record is impeccable in that regard. But let me get this straight: you’re only considering two possibilities here? Either be a bus driver on Atlantis or go back to 302s?”

Alice looked away for a moment. So she was right. They would let her back in the saddle in her space-fighter should she refuse to go to Atlantis. Did that change anything? She didn’t think so. Oh, for fuck’s sake, just make a damn decision, Boyd. How hard can it be? And yet she was still unsure.

“I don’t really see any other options, sir.” She shifted her eyes to him.

“How about come to Atlantis and join a Reconnaissance Team?” He offered with an air of bewilderment that made her hide a snicker again. It was so obvious to him.

“I’m a pilot, sir, not a ground trooper.”

“But you went on a mission once.” He tapped his finger on the cover of her personnel file again. “To release that Tok’ra.”

“Yes, sir, but it was more of a stealth mission.”

“And yet you shot a few Jaffa.”

“I had to.” She looked at her hands, joined on the table, prayer-style. “I don’t want to do that ever again.”

“But you’re an excellent marksman.” He sounded astonished now, as if being able to shoot straight was equivalent to being able to kill without hesitation.

“It’s irrelevant,” she persisted, looking up. “And I can’t fight for the love of me, sir. If I were to face one of those Wraiths, I’d be dead faster than you can say discombobulate.

He sniggered. “Trust me, Boyd, if they get near enough that you have to use close combat techniques, you’re damn lucky if you get out of it alive, I don’t care what sort of training you’ve had. Unless you’re Ronon,” he added as an afterthought. “Or Teyla.”

Alice smiled complaisantly, but she knew it wasn’t true. How many times Sheppard himself has gone punch for punch with a Wraith and survived to tell the tale?

“So you’ve just gotten your PhD, haven’t you?” The lieutenant colonel suddenly changed tack. Alice nodded. “McKay told me he referenced some of your research in his recent work on Atlantis.”

“He did?” Alice was astounded. Doctor McKay was an absolute expert on Ancient technology, and a very smart guy on the whole. Probably only Colonel Carter could put him to shame. Alice would love to see that; unfortunately, the days of Colonel Carter’s command on Atlantis were over. She had been replaced by Richard Woolsey, a bureaucrat and although the latest reports painted him in a more flattering way, Alice was still rather cautious about him.

“Well, no, that is a lie. I’m sure he’d use your research profusely, but he’d never officially reference it, lest you got any part of the credit.”

“Ah.” Alice chuckled. That was also evident from the reports: Doctor McKay’s oversized ambition. Some people would call it ego. Alice wondered briefly if being as brilliant as he was excused this kind of behavior, but there was no time now to ponder it.

“You see, more even than people with a gene, we need smart people.” Sheppard’s tone was serious now. “People who can think on their feet and use the situation to their advantage. People who aren’t afraid of challenges but who will not take unnecessary risks. People who will care about their colleagues and about the people we go there to protect. People other people can rely on.”

“I don’t know if I am that person,” Alice said in a low voice, looking down.

“I don’t know either. But don’t you want to find out?” There was a moment of silence. “If you decide it’s not for you later on, you can always request for a reassignment. We’ve never denied one yet.”

Alice shook her head. That was out of the question for her. When she was committing to something, she was really committing to it. See it through, was something her father often said when she came home complaining about an uninteresting class or being tired after a workout session with Jake. She was no quitter.

“So you are here to convince me to go to Atlantis, sir,” she noted with a small smile.

“A little of both.” He grinned at her, showing teeth. Alice decided that, as far as first impressions went, she liked the guy. She had already come to respect and admire him for the things he’s done while on Atlantis, but this was different; liking someone was personal.

“May I ask you something, sir?” Alice decided to put all cards on the table.

“Sure, fire away.”

“What’s the name of your father?”

He looked at her, caught completely off-guard. It was clear General Landry didn’t tell him about Alice’s uncertain hypothesis.

“Why?”

She smiled nervously. It was somewhat of an uncharted territory. “Well, sir, I’ve just been wondering… my grandmother’s maiden name was Sheppard. I know it’s not exactly an uncommon last name, but given the fact that we both have the dominant ATA gene, I thought maybe...” She suspended the sentence, unsure how to proceed.

“You think we’re related?” There was disbelief now in his voice.

“It’s not completely out of the question.”

He frowned, thinking for a moment. Alice already decided he wouldn’t reply, when he spoke.

“Patrick,” he said.

“I’m sorry, sir?”

“My father’s name was Patrick Sheppard.”

Alice expired loudly. She hadn’t expected to be right about it. It seemed like too much of a coincidence.

“The utilities mogul?”

“Yeah, he was.”

“Well.” Alice wasn’t sure what to say, but she had to say something. “Hi, then.” She waved her hand and smiled anxiously. “I’m your third cousin, once removed.”

He shook his head. “Really?”

“It seems so, sir.” She felt this needed some more explanation, so she ploughed through: “I hadn’t really thought about my grandmother sharing the same name as you until Doctor Lam told me about the basics of inheritance of the ATA phenotype. But I only remembered that her maiden name was Sheppard, nothing more, so I called my mother that evening and she told me we were indeed related to the Sheppards. She said she even received an invitation to Patrick Sheppard’s funeral but she ignored it. They weren’t on the best of terms.” She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” he acknowledged. “I wasn’t on the best of terms with him either, to tell the truth. But anyway, wow. What a coincidence.”

Alice nodded. “My brother is in the Program, too,” she informed him. “He’s a marine, currently assigned to SG-5.”

“Does he have the gene?” Sheppard was still wide-eyed, as if he were blown away by the news. Alice found it a bit over-the-top, but maybe he simply never knew he had any family on that side of his genealogical tree?

“Yes, sir. Recessive. But he doesn’t want to go to Atlantis.”

“Why not?”

“You would have to ask him, sir.” Alice was not about to say anything that could reflect poorly on her brother, and the DADT was still alive and kicking.

“Hm. What about you? Made up your mind yet?” The older officer tugged at his necktie to loosen it even more.

Alice shrugged noncommittally. Every reason for going was still valid; but the same was true of every reason against it. She felt she was closer to the decision, but still hesitated to say one way or another.

“Have it your way.” Sheppard waved his hand dismissively. Then he looked around. “Is there coffee to be had in this place?”

“Yes, sir.” Alice raised and walked to the coffee pot. It was empty so she had to brew it first. At least it would be fresh. They didn’t talk for a while. Alice wandered away from the table to look through the window, a mug of steaming coffee in her hand. She was still there when an alarm, the likes of which she already heard in the base on two occasions, went off and the words Unscheduled off-world activation boomed from the speakers. Alice felt herself glued to the spot as she watched the Stargate tremble and spin, the symbols glowing. The flowery sheets of metal closed like shutters on a camera lens and a peculiar sound came from it as the wall behind the Gate shimmered bluishly. The Security Forces in the Gate Room took up defensive positions before an order to stand down was issued and the iris was opened to admit four people in Stargate Command standard uniforms. They were quickly lost from sight, but Alice wasn’t watching them anyway; she was still staring at the Stargate. A short moment after the last person stepped through, the event horizon broke at the very middle and dissipated entirely, the symbols on the outer ring fading as well.

“That’s quite a sight, ain’t it?” Sheppard asked from right behind her, and she nearly jumped at the unexpectedness of his proximity.

“Yes, sir. It’s fascinating, how it works. Twelve years our people have been going through and yet we still don’t completely understand how it works. Not enough to replicate it, anyway.”

“Do you think we ever will?” Sheppard went back to sit at the table and Alice followed him.

“I have no doubt about that, sir. We’re a pretty resourceful race.”

“True… but so are the Wraith and they have never been able to build their own Stargate either. Thank god,” he added.

“Yes, sir, but… we’re the direct descendants of the Alterans. Maybe not in our lifetime, but I strongly believe our civilization can reach their level of advancement eventually.”

“Very optimistic of you.”

“Unless we all get our lives sucked out before.”

He laughed. “That’s more like it.”

Alice smiled. Sheppard was sitting opposite her, facing the doorway, so it was in his reaction that she saw someone must have entered; the lieutenant colonel grabbed his necktie and pulled it up, without fastening that top button of his collar, though. He stood up and so did Alice, turning around to see General Landry enter the room. He was wearing a leather flying jacket and a grumpy expression on his face. This did not bode well. Landry strutted first towards the coffee pot. Finding it full of steaming brew must have lifted his spirits because when he sat down at the table he looked slightly less put out.

“I thought I came early,” he said to Sheppard. “And yet here I find you two, already consorting together!”

“I wanted a word with the captain before she gives you her final decision, General,” the lieutenant colonel replied, unfazed. “And we’ve discovered we’re actually related!”

“So your hunch panned out?” The general shifted his searching gaze to Alice. As on the previous occasion, she felt uncomfortable.

“Yes, sir. Colonel Sheppard is my third cousin, once removed. Our families didn’t keep in contact, though.”

Landry nodded dismissively; apparently it wasn’t of much interest to him.

“So, Boyd, have you read all the files?”

“Yes, sir. Well, not all of them, there’s too many. But enough,” she answered. Truth be told, they didn’t really help all that much in reaching a decision; it was still a battle between what she wanted and what she felt was her duty.

“And what do you think of the goings-on in the Pegasus?” Landry pushed. Alice wasn’t sure what he meant to accomplish by questioning her so; he didn’t look remotely concerned with her answer. Even so, she had to say something.

“Well, sir, it’s an incredibly complex situation. I think the Atlantis expedition did the best they could, under the circumstances. Some of their exploits were truly incredible.” It was odd saying that sitting opposite the man who partook in most of these exploits.

“Do you think you could contribute to the mission?”

That was a tricky question. Alice took a deep breath. This is it. If she said yes now, it would be difficult to refuse joining the Atlantis expedition without sounding like she didn’t care. If she said no, she was setting herself up as useless. It’s time, Boyd. Make the damn decision.

In the end, it came down to what she thought she could live with. She knew herself well enough to realize that if she refused, she would feel disappointed in herself, like she was a coward. Agreeing would mean danger and fear, and living far away from home for god knew how long. But ultimately, she believed with all her heart in the words of one of her heroines: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.

Seconds ticked by as she deliberated, her eyes focused unseeingly on a spot over the general’s shoulder. Then she blinked, looked at him and nodded.

“Yes, sir. I do think so.”

He understood what she meant by it, but asked anyway.

“So are you prepared to join the Atlantis expedition when they go back to the Pegasus?”

A quick breath. “Yes, sir.” She could see from the corner of her eyes Sheppard pumping his fist in the air.

That was it. She agreed. No way out now. She was going to another galaxy. Three million light years away.

“Good.” Landry’s remark was accentuated by the clack of his cup being put on the table with some force. “That’s settled, then. Sheppard, I suggest you take Boyd to Atlantis tomorrow, just to make sure she actually can use that technology. We’ll have the papers ready before the end of the month. After that, she’s all yours.”

“Thanks, General.” Sheppard rose as the SGC’s CO stood up. Alice jumped to her feet as well. The general nodded to them both and marched away, down the spiral staircase towards the Stargate control room.

Sheppard turned to Alice.

“Now, honestly. Was I the one who convinced you?” He looked doubtful, but amused.

Alice snickered. “No, sir. It was a combination of things, but mostly I just feel like it’s my duty to help the best I can.”

“You know it can be fun, too, right?”

Alice made an indefinite gesture – half nod and half shrug. She didn’t think it would be much fun for her, at least at the beginning.

He tilted his head. “Fair enough,” he commented on her silent response. “Well, I guess then we have a field trip tomorrow, huh? How’s eleven?”

“Fine by me, sir.” Anytime would be fine for her; he was her commanding officer from now on, even though not officially yet, not until the paperwork went through. At any rate he was ranking, so she had to follow his orders whether she wanted or not.

“Alright. I’ll meet you on level 1. We’ll catch a ride from Peterson.”

“Yes, sir.” There were currently no battlecruisers on Earth’s orbit; the Odyssey was on a mission, the Sun Tzu and the Apollo were severely damaged in the fight against the super-hive, and so was the Daedalus. The George Hammond on the other hand was not yet completed and hasn’t taken flight. They would have to travel the normal way.

“Alright. See ya!” Sheppard waved to her curtly and walked out of the room. Alice stayed put; she wanted to avoid that awkward moment when two people who have just said goodbye were walking in the same direction. Besides, she needed a moment to herself.

Three million light years. Life-sucking monsters. Ground operations. Ancient tech. Working with some of the best minds in two galaxies. Being away from mom just as she was getting stable and independent again. And who knew what other dangers and challenges awaited her in this new assignment? Her heart was fluttering with fear and she couldn’t stop it no matter how many slow, deep breaths she was taking.

Everything was about to change.

Chapter Text

Alice wasn’t sure if she was supposed to leave the base that night, but decided that since she didn’t get any orders to the contrary, she might as well stay. She still had more than a hundred individual mission reports from Atlantis to read so she went back to her guest quarter and stayed there until dinnertime. There was still no sign of Jake, and she ate alone at a table, content to observe the others. The culture of a given base was always best seen in the chow hall; especially in places where officers mingled with enlisted and civilian personnel. At Groom Lake, each of the three groups kept to themselves; civilian scientists flocked to one side of the room, officers to another, and the enlisted occupied the space in between. On the Prometheus, people working together tended to eat and spend free time together; 302 pilots especially kept apart from the others, sometimes joined only by their deck crews. Here, however, it seemed that there was little order. The tables were small, usually for four to six people, but Alice saw enlisted, officers and civilians sitting together. The rules and the overall atmosphere seemed more relaxed than on the other bases where she served at. Alice knew that people often took after their commanders; Landry didn’t look like a particularly easygoing boss, but maybe he improved on closer acquaintance.

She finished reading all the available reports that night and was left with nothing in particular to do the next morning, so she decided to go to the base gym. They actually had several facilities; Alice had thought they’d be separated for officers and enlisted airmen, but upon entering she noted the presence of both groups; and a few civilians at that.

She was halfway through her workout when she heard the familiar voice; Jake was calling her name. She turned off the treadmill, took out the earphones and turned to see her brother, smiling at her. He had a band-aid on his forehead, but otherwise looked okay.

“Hey, sis!” He hugged her for greeting, but stepped off quickly, making a face. Alice laughed; her shirt was drenched in sweat.

“What happened?” She pointed at the band-aid; she was breathing quickly and heavily.

“Oh, nothing.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Had a run-in with a Jaffa working for the Lucian Alliance.”

Alice raised her eyebrows. “The Jaffa are working for the Lucian Alliance now?”

“Some of them do.” He shrugged. “Not everyone is happy with the tretonin, sis, and a large number of Jaffa continue to use symbiotes. With the Goa’uld population at the all-time low, getting new symbiotes is not that easy. It became one of the favorite trade goods of the Lucian Alliance.” He was uncharacteristically serious. “We suspect they have a queen or maybe several, hidden somewhere, that supply them with new symbiotes, although why any Goa’uld would do so knowing that their offspring would be killed the moment it matured enough to be removed from the Jaffa pouch is beyond us.”

“Interesting. You think those queens are complicit, or rather forced into complying?”

Jake shook his head. “We don’t know. The Alliance keeps this secret pretty well, we’ve been unable to infiltrate them so far.” He paused for a moment. “Their numbers are growing. The galaxy is in chaos, you know. Half the time we’re now fighting the same people we’ve been liberating a few years ago.”

“That’s crazy.”

“That’s the reality come knocking to them. Suddenly there’s no one to give them orders, and they’ve been under the boot for so long, they don’t know how to behave when they’re free.”

“It’s still better to be free.”

“Sure, sis. Speaking of which, what are you doing now? Except for stinking up the place.”

Alice rolled her eyes. Everyone in the gym was equally sweaty, but Jake loved to have some fun at her expense.

“I’ve got time until ten-thirty-ish,” she replied. “Let me finish my routine, shower and I can join you for breakfast at...” She checked her watch. “Seven-thirty?”

“Sounds good. I’ll jot down my report in the meantime. Before I go, though, you’ve gotta tell me.”

She knew without asking what he meant. “Yeah.”

“You did? Really?” He looked incredulous. “I was sure you’d refuse.”

Alice shrugged. “We’ll talk about it later.”

“If you say so.” He marked a salute, grinned and turned to go. Alice shook her head, put her earphones in and stepped back onto the treadmill.

Forty minutes later, showered and wearing her blues, she walked into the mess hall and noticed Jake already sitting at a table. He was alone this time. Alice went to fill her tray with food first, taking judicious amounts in anticipation of her brother stealing from her, as he usually did. As soon as she sat down, he demanded an account of her conversation with Landry and Sheppard.

“Really? We’re related to him?” He was no less surprised at the news than she had been to be right about it. “How come we’ve never met him before?”

“We barely ever see our second cousins, let alone third.” Alice shrugged. “From what mom said, our great-grandfather had some kind of a row with his brother, and they never kept in contact. Mom says grandma Erin once tried to mend some fences, but at that time Patrick Sheppard was already a big fish and somehow it never worked out.”

“I bet Uncle Alastar would flip if he knew he is a second cousin to this kind of money,” Jake chuckled.

“Who knows he didn’t know?” Alice wondered. “He did call his eldest son Patrick.”

“Nah, I doubt that. More likely it was an olive branch to the Irish part of the family.”

Alice chuckled. “Which part of our family isn’t Irish?”

Jake grinned. “I think dad’s mother was, what, Swedish?”

“Norwegian, I think. And the Sheppards aren’t Irish either.”

“It’s a miracle we’re not named Kevin and Kaitlyn,” Jake quipped. Alice rolled her eyes.

“But Alastar named his second son Lee,” she noted.

“Yeah, I don’t think he noticed the Confederates lost.”

Alice had to laugh at that one. Their Uncle Alastar was a Congressman now, but even for a Republican he had some odd and rather extremist views on certain things, especially for a representative from California.

“Hey, Boyd!” An unfamiliar voice called from the entrance to the mess hall and both Jake and Alice turned automatically. It was a marine major that Alice had never seen before. “Have you seen Garcia?”

Jake shook his head. “He was still at the infirmary when I left there, sir.”

“He owes me a report, the little scumbag.” The major grabbed coffee from a pot near the door and walked towards them. “And who might you be? Haven’t seen you on the base before.”

Alice wasn’t sure if she shouldn’t at least stand up; it was generally required of lower-grade service members when a senior officer entered the room or approached them. She half-rose before the major waved her down and took a seat next to them. Jake hasn’t moved.

“Captain Alice Boyd, sir,” she said. “I’m Jacob’s sister.”

“Oh so you’re the brainiac he keeps mumbling about?” The major smiled kindly at her and Alice instinctively knew he was made of the same fabric as her brother; maybe a little rough around the edges, but with a good heart.

“Yes, sir, I’m afraid I am. But don’t believe everything he tells you, he’s a lying liar.”

“Wouldn’t that be an honest person, then?” Jake fired back. Alice rolled her eyes again. “This is my team leader, sis, Major Oleg Petruchenko.”

“So what, Captain, are you now posted to our humble base?” The major pressed, sipping at his coffee.

“Oh, no, sir. I’ve been called here to get my assignment, but I’m leaving for Atlantis today.” Alice wondered what she’d be doing during the month or two that the repairs on Atlantis were to take, but it seemed unlikely she’d be back in Cheyenne Mountain any time soon.

“Ah, Atlantis,” Petruchenko said musingly. “Thought about it. Noped on it when heard about the life-sucking monsters.”

“He has three little kids,” Jake explained on his behalf. “Didn’t want to be separated for so long.”

“Thought about it. Would avoid all the nagging,” the major joked. “But the wife might go crazy in the meantime, and I’d rather not have that. Would have to take care of the little brats myself then.”

“He loves his kids,” Jake added with a grin. Alice’s returning smile was almost as wide.

“Yeah, I got that.”

“Alright, kids, you do what you do, and I’m going hunting for Garcia.” Petruchenko left his empty cup on their table and ambled away.

“You have yourself a nice team, there, it seems,” Alice commented. Jake nodded and stole a yogurt from her tray.

“Yeah. Our fourth is a kid named Tony Veneto, a lance corporal. So we have a pretty diverse bunch, a Russian, an Italian, a Latino and an Irish.” He grinned.

“So you have four Americans,” Alice summed up with her eyebrows raised.

“Bottom line, we’re pretty good at the job.” Alice heard the characteristic timbre of pride in Jake’s voice. The man was a decorated war hero, he didn’t have anything to prove to anyone; he’s already done that more than once. But it was still a point of pride to be serving here and defending their planet. It wasn’t an easy job. It required plenty of sacrifices, and often brought an early end to one’s life. This was a reality Jake and his teammates had to confront every time they stepped through that Gate. And something their close ones had to accept. Alice found it easier to risk her own life than admit the possibility of losing Jake.

Her brother’s thoughts must have run along similar lines, because his eyes were contemplative when he looked at her.

“You know, sis, when you told me you were joining the Air Force, I was mad at you.”

“I remember.” Alice nodded. He never said it then, but she felt it; he was possibly the only man in the world she could read without problems. “I always assumed you thought I should have stuck with science career.” And then, after a moment, she added: “I thought you didn’t believe I’d make it.”

“Well, I didn’t,” he acknowledged seriously. “You were just my little sister. A cute and nerdy pup.”

Alice frowned. She knew people usually dismissed her because of her small size and quiet demeanor. But to have her own brother say it, even after years have passed, was sort of hurtful.

“I mean, I knew you were going places,” he rushed to clarify. “But I thought you were wasting your potential on the Air Force. I didn’t believe they’d let you become a pilot, let alone a fighter jockey. I was convinced you’d do better in academia.”

“I did wonder about it myself,” Alice admitted. It had been a difficult decision, not made any easier by the fact that going into service meant less time to spare for her ill mother. But Alice knew she wanted to fly since the day dad took her up in a borrowed Cessna for the first time. It was a secret she carried for the longest time, only ever telling her dad; and dad, the wonderful, understanding, supportive man that he was, encouraged her and told her she could do whatever she wanted. After he died, Alice was left not only grieving, but unsure of what to do. If it wasn’t for the way he had died… crashing his fighter like that. And then her mother started spinning out of control, and Alice’s decision kept becoming harder and harder. In the end, it was the memory of her father, telling her to follow her heart, that tipped the scale. How would her life look like if she had chosen the other way? She’d probably get her PhD straight after her Bachelor of Science degree. She’d get a teaching position in a college. Or maybe she’d work somewhere in a research lab, playing catch-up to the incredible advancements that came from the military, never knowing that this knowledge and technology were brought to them from outer space.

“My point is, I misjudged you, Allie.” Jake’s voice pulled her out of the reverie. “You’ve beaten all the odds, exceeded all the expectations. You’ve flown a fighter in space, for heaven’s sake.” He snorted, shaking his head in disbelief. “And now you’re going to another galaxy to help protect the people there from life-sucking monsters. My fearless little sister.” He sighed. “You have to promise me you’ll be careful.”

“I’ll try not to get killed my first week,” Alice joked, because the tone of the conversation became too somber for her taste. “If you promise me the same thing.”

Jake grinned at her. “Always, sis.”

 

*

 

Alice and Jake said goodbye at ten-thirty and the young captain went back to her guest quarter to pack her few possessions and then made her way up, towards the surface. She arrived at the internal door to the compound five minutes early, but found Sheppard already waiting. He was wearing an all-black outfit that must have been a uniform – it had Velcro patches on the shoulders – but was far from any proper Air Force uniform Alice has ever seen. Nowhere on it was Sheppard’s name or rank mentioned; in fact, the only badges or insignia were the two Velcro patches: an American flag on the left arm and the logo of Atlantis on the right. Alice suddenly felt over-dressed in her Blue Service Uniform.

“Good morning, sir,” Alice greeted him, straightening up for a moment and inclining her head in lieu of a salute.

“Hello, Captain. Ready to go?”

“Yes, sir.” Alice had her bag with her, but noted that Sheppard traveled with no baggage at all.

He led the way through the double door and towards the van they had to take to get outside.

“Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, what exactly should I expect for the next few weeks? Assuming that today’s test goes well,” Alice asked when they took their seats.

“You know, Boyd, I think we’d like to keep you even if it doesn’t.” Sheppard shot her a sly smile. “We need smart people more than anything else.”

Alice shook her head, smiling amiably but disbelievingly. “I think there’s plenty of people smarter than me and better qualified for this detail, sir. I was under the impression this ATA gene thing was the most important part.”

“Well, yeah, but I think you’re underestimating yourself. At least that’s what a friend of mine told me.”

Alice’s eyebrow went up askance.

“I think you know her.”

“Colonel Carter?” Alice guessed. It was the only person she knew that she could suspect of having so much confidence in Alice’s abilities.

“Yep, the very same. I made a little trip to Groom Lake yesterday to have a chat with her. Her ship’s coming in nicely, another month and it’ll be up.” Sheppard opened the door and got out of the van; they arrived at the parking lot outside. There was an airman waiting for them who would drive them to Peterson in a passenger car.

“And how is Colonel Carter? I haven’t spoken to her in three years, unless you count e-mails.” Alice continued as they pulled out onto the road downhill. “She has helped me a lot in my dissertation.”

“She didn’t call it help,” Sheppard remarked. “She said your research was very valuable in the understanding of some key components of the Asgard computer core on the Odyssey. They’ve used loads of what they’ve learned there on the Hammond, too.”

Alice smiled and told herself not to get too excited about the praise. “Thank you, sir, but it was more of a team effort.” It wasn’t exactly true; Alice was fed data by Carter and some others scientists from the SGC and the Groom Lake facility, and exchanged plenty of e-mails with them, bouncing ideas back and forth, but she came to her conclusions on her own. 

“She told me you’d say that, too.”

Alice didn’t reply but looked out the window of the car. Carter had insisted that she’d been too modest; but Alice didn’t think so. She knew her abilities, but she also knew her shortcomings. Alice has come far in the six and a half years since she’s entered the service, but she was still relatively young and she spent nearly half of that time at AFIT. Despite her involvement in a few minor missions back when she served on the Prometheus, her service record was rather slim. When she was first chosen to the 302 program, she’d met captains who’d had many hours of flight in combat; Alice had lots of practice hours, but only one real flying mission to her name. And her new assignment didn’t promise many more of those. Would flying a Puddle Jumper even count? She thought it might in a technical sense be considered the same as a fighter, but she didn’t know how she’d feel about it. She was ambitious, and wanted recognition just as much as anyone, but she also knew there were more important things, like duty and responsibility towards people and values she was sworn to protect.

“You didn’t reply to my original question, sir,” Alice pointed out after a moment of silence. They were in the town now, skirting its edges for the most part.

“What was the question?”

“What should I expect in the next few weeks?”

“Ah, that. Well, as you know the city has been pretty banged up in the fight with the super-hive and later during reentry.” Sheppard frowned, as if he was remembering something unpleasant. Alice knew what he did to stop the hive, and how he got out in the nick of time. Much like SG-1, he seemed to have a knack for that – at least judging by the Atlantis reports she’d read. “And since we’re here, we have the opportunity to make more repairs than we could in the Pegasus. Resources, you know.”

Alice nodded. It made sense that here they could do more than they would be able to in the other galaxy, especially now that the Earth didn’t have the ZPM again to allow two-way Gate travel, at least until the Odyssey came back from wherever it went. Alice wondered if they’d take the power source from the ship to use on the Earth Gate, or maybe take one of the Atlantis’ ZPMs even? The Ancient Chair was no more; their most powerful weapon gone, the battlecruisers were again the planet’s first line of defense. Alice thought back to when the Prometheus was their best and only ship. How they had set off for the Pegasus galaxy, only to be thwarted by Vala Mal Doraan. Well, the Earth now had four BC-304s, albeit some of them damaged, and a fifth about to take flight for the first time. And the City of the Ancients, with its own armament of drones. Alice wondered if it was such a smart thing to let Atlantis go back to Pegasus. But what was the alternative? They couldn’t just make it stay here, could they? Why not? She thought. Knowing the IOA, they’d love to have it close, to control it directly. But the Milky Way was now relatively safe; at least, safer than it’s ever been since they’ve begun traveling through the Stargate. But Pegasus was a real swarm of problems. And, even from the IOA’s perspective, it was surely better to have Atlantis there, fighting away from home, than waiting for the Wraith to find yet another way to cross the vastness between the two galaxies. Right?

“Most of our people are hard at work on Atlantis,” Sheppard continued after a short pause. “But we do have a small complement of new people who will be supplementing our existing crew. Most of ‘em are civilians, science geeks and such, but I’m getting a few guys for our military contingent, too. Since we’re not going anywhere for a while still, I think I’ll get Teyla and Ronon to give ya’ll newbies some training. Most of the people joining up are transfers from SGC or Groom Lake, but there are some completely new folks too.”

Alice frowned. Training in what exactly?

“The Pegasus is a bit different than our good ol’ Milky Way,” Sheppard explained, noticing her expression. “The Wraith have their own tactics and weak spots. I wanna be sure that everyone knows what they’re doing, even the civilians. And if I don’t allow Ronon to do something soon, he’ll go ballistic. The guy doesn’t do waiting all that well.”

Alice snickered. That was pretty evident from what she’s read about him.

“After that, I’ll let you play with a Puddle Jumper. As long as you keep it cloaked and don’t crash into the commercial traffic over San Francisco, you should be fine to practice a bit. Although it is pretty intuitive, to be fair.”

Alice nodded thoughtfully. She had been wondering about that. Sheppard was technically a helicopter pilot, and it was never all that easy to switch from one type of aircraft to another; especially from rotary to fixed-wing. Yet he was able to fly the Jumper practically within minutes of getting aboard, that first day when they had reached Atlantis, after it had risen from the bottom of the ocean. It seemed likely that, since it operated by thought control, the Puddle Jumper would be somewhat easier to control than a human-made fighter. But Alice suspected that Sheppard must be unique in his ability; he was just a damn good pilot. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to fly other types of aircraft so easily; and she’s read reports of him driving a 302 and even a Wraith Dart.

“Other than that, you’ll get your orientation in the City and, well, we’re counting on your help with some of the repairs, too,” Sheppard continued. “Most of the damage was done to the control systems, power relays and the hyperdrive.”

Alice didn’t get the chance to comment on that – even if she had anything to say about that – because at that moment they’ve arrived at the Peterson Air Force Base and had to produce their Common Access Cards to be admitted onto the premises. The car didn’t turn towards the parking lot, however; instead, it drove straight onto the tarmac and parked next to an aircraft hangar at the end of the airstrip. Alice got out and looked around; on the other side of the airfield, a commercial jet was just taking off, another one taxiing towards the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport building. Their driver saluted to both officers and drove off right away. Sheppard led them towards the entrance to the hangar. There was another security check there, but Alice didn’t really understand why because as they entered, it became evident that the place was empty; huge as it was, there was nothing inside. How would they get to San Francisco?

Sheppard walked purposefully towards one end of the hangar, Alice following him closely in silence. She was beginning to guess what she was about to see; and surely, as the colonel took a small device out of his pocket, something large and decidedly odd appeared right in front of them. Alice took a step back, more in awe than surprise.

The Puddle Jumper was bulkier than her 302 had been, cylindrical in shape, but much smaller; it just looked bigger because the fighter was sleek and bird-like, while the Ancient ship was rather less visually appealing, at least to Alice’s tastes. Its parallelly angled front and end gave it a bit more aerodynamic shape, but it was still rather awkward-looking to Alice’s eye. She supposed the design was intended to assure comfort for the passengers. Having read the technical specifications, she knew the ship was just as fast and maneuverable as her 302, or maybe even more so, hard as it was to accept for her. It also had many more features, starting from the cloak and ending on acute sensors that only their battlecruisers’ could outstrip.

“Whaddya think?” Sheppard asked as they came closer and the bulkhead door began opening outwards. “Pretty sleek, ain’t it?”

Alice cocked her head, looking inside, but kept silent. She knew she was prejudiced, but she couldn’t help but dislike the little ship. She had grown very fond of the 302 and wasn’t prepared to allow herself to fall in love with another machine just yet.

Sheppard led her inside the Jumper. It had two benches for passengers at the rear, with four more seats in the forward section, two of which were intended for the pilot and co-pilot. Sheppard took the left one and Alice, after a short moment of hesitation, sat down on his right.

“So this is the control panel, and here we have the DHD. The HUD appears here right in front of us when initialized,” the lieutenant colonel explained, pointing his finger. “Why don’t you try and put your hand on the panel?”

Alice arched an eyebrow. So here it was. The ship could only be operated by a person with the ATA gene, and so this would be Alice’s test. She hadn’t expected it to come so early. She thought she’d at least get to Atlantis first, but Sheppard was right; there was no sense in waiting. Alice extended her right arm and touched the panel gingerly. Instantly, its many controls and buttons lit up like a Christmas tree. Alice snatched her hand away reflexively, but the light did not fade.

“Well, then. Looks like you’re stuck with us.” Sheppard smiled to her unevenly and put his own hand on the panel in front of him. The Jumper trembled slightly and within seconds, they were lifting up into the air and turning around, towards the hangar door. It was already opening for them. “See that dial over there? When it lights up in blue, it indicates that the cloak is engaged. Red means there’s a problem.”

As Alice watched, the dial flickered on. So just like that, they were cloaked? She had to admit it was pretty cool. She’d known stealth aircraft before, of course, but the Puddle Jumper didn’t only disappear from the radars or other sensors; it was now also invisible to the naked eye.

The ship slithered through the opening, still not wide enough for any normal fighter jet, and in no time at all they began ascending towards the stratosphere, leaving the shrinking airport below them. Alice noted that Sheppard didn’t communicate with the tower at all. She guessed the presence of the alien ship was kept secret; after all its very existence was thoroughly classified. On the other hand, she knew the base housed a few F-302s which were also of alien design, and much harder to hide, so someone must have known.

“You wanna take her for a try?” The lieutenant colonel offered once they reached fifty thousand feet; way above anything the commercial airlines were normally capable of.

“I don’t know what to do,” Alice said, a bit nervously. She understood flying a fighter; she knew the way it operated, the resistance on the stick, the feel of the throttle, the readings on the displays. Here, there was something akin to a throttle and stick on the pilot’s side, and Alice knew it was used in conjunction with thought-control to fly the ship, but it was hardly what she was used to in the 302.

“It’s easy. This one controls speed, forward is zero, backward is max,” Sheppard explained, showing her the slider. “This one is for direction. It’s not very precise, you need to adjust it with your mind.”

Doesn’t sound complicated at all, Alice thought sarcastically, but she supposed she would have to try it sooner or later, and she couldn’t help but wonder how it worked. She had had a chance to fly an aircraft controlled largely by the power of one’s mind before; the Goa’uld Death Gliders used such technology, no doubt cannibalized from the Ancients themselves. Alice had taken part in a mission to rescue a stranded Tok’ra once where she had to pilot a Glider to get to her objective. She wondered if flying a Puddle Jumper was anything like that.

Sheppard stood up and gestured for her to take the pilot’s seat. Alice moved over and put her hands on the throttle and stick. Instantly, she felt a weird sort of resistance on her skin, as if a little pulsating electrical field was touching her. Her mind connected with the machine; it was a very curious sensation. It had often seemed like she could nearly feel her 302; but here, in the Jumper, she actually did. It was difficult to describe, even to herself; as if her body became extended to envelop the ship. But at the same time, it wasn’t a corporeal thing. She couldn’t tell if the drive pods were out or not, or if the hull was intact. That’s what the Heads-Up Display was for. And yet she was able to somehow fix the position of the Jumper in space, and could feel every little change of direction or speed, even as she sat motionless in her seat, secure thanks to the inertial dampeners. It was very different than the Death Glider; there, she had to vocalize her thoughts in order to control the Goa’uld fighter, whereas here it was more of a case of becoming one with the ship. Even her subconscious mind was somehow connected, and she had barely time to think before the ship was already performing whatever she wanted it to do.

She began slow, using the stick and her newfound direct link with the Jumper to sway it delicately this way and that. It came easily and with a growing, though unwelcome, feeling of wonderment she increased the speed and steered the spacecraft sideways and around, into a tight loop. The ship performed the maneuver beautifully, without a slightest problem, and inside, they didn’t feel a thing; with the 302, sudden changes of speed or direction always had an impact on the driver, albeit mitigated by the human-alien hybrid’s own inertial dampeners, but here there was nothing.

“That’s good!” Sheppard encouraged her, patting her shoulder. “Now call up the HUD!”

It appeared before them as a spectral, see-through layer seemingly even before Alice thought of it. It was very different from a Heads-Up Display in the 302. It was huge, covering nearly the entire front window; Alice had expected all the data to be written in Ancient. Thankfully, she had some understanding of the language now, at least as far as it pertained to technology and science, although by no means it was good enough to just go and translate a solid block of text; she could read all the letters, though, and numbers, and that was the most important part because it allowed her to read code and different technical data. However, it turned out to be unnecessary; the words and numbers on the HUD were all in English. The Ancient computer was translating in real time. It was very impressive.

The HUD was showing a sensor map where little pulsating lights represented aircraft; they were already far behind Colorado Springs, and there weren’t many planes around. Alice focused on the dot closest to them, which looked like it would cross their path, and the picture suddenly changed, growing closer, until Alice could tell the exact shape of the craft; its heading, altitude and speed were displayed next to it. They would pass it well above, so it was nothing to worry about. No sooner Alice decided that, and the HUD refocused on the general map. Barely she had the time to finish the thought – she wanted to see the course towards San Francisco – and the picture changed again, showing three-dimensional topographical representation of the area, with a curved line sliding across the terrain from their position to the Golden City, over Utah and Nevada – although none of those labels appeared, which made sense, because they were human names, and not Ancient.

“Wow,” Alice breathed. “This is cool.”

“I know, right?” Sheppard was grinning, she could hear it in his voice, even though could not see as he was standing behind her. “You wanna take us all the way to San Fran?”

“I don’t know if I can land this thing.”

“Sure you can.” The lieutenant colonel slithered onto the second seat. “You’re a natural!”

Alice arched her eyebrow and shot him a questioning look.

“Few people have taken to flying this beauty as quickly and easily as you,” Sheppard explained. “McKay’s been doing it for five years and he still can’t fly a straight line worth a damn.”

Alice snickered. She felt weirdly elated. It wasn’t about the compliment; it was the flying. She did not expect to like it, but she had to admit that it was a completely different experience. The machine was fused with her brain, and it was exhilarating. She reminded herself that she hasn’t flown anything – except commercial jets, as a passenger – for three years. It felt good to be back in the saddle, even if it was so unlike her usual ride. And it saved her time on training. Had she been going back to F-302s, she’d have to spend at least a few weeks practicing to get back in flying shape – first on simulator, then in a real thing. But a Puddle Jumper was not a fighter jet, it wasn’t regulated by normal rules, and so she could skip the boring part. Of course, she’d need training in the Ancient spaceship as well, but this was something completely new to her and so it was much easier to rationalize the need.

Alice threw a sidelong glance at Sheppard and decided to check just how laid-back he was. The HUD flickered off and she pulled at the throttle – it was counter-intuitive for her to be pulling instead of pushing, as with fighters – and pushed the stick, the spacecraft reading her will directly from her mind and performing a perfect barrel-roll at the velocity exceeding the speed of sound by the factor of ten. Frankly, it was a blur; they were back into flying level with the cloud cover below them in no time at all. They didn’t feel anything inside, either, but Alice couldn’t help but hold her breath. The F-302 could never reach anything more than Mach 6 inside the atmosphere. And what they’ve just done was not even remotely close to what this baby was capable of. Alice had read the specifications; the Puddle Jumper could attain nearly two and a half percent of speed of light. It was unfathomable – it translated into over twenty-one thousand and five hundred times the speed of sound, or Mach 21,500. On the other hand, the Prometheus could fly at fifty-nine percent of speed of light, and the newer Daedalus-class ships were even faster – and that was only on sublight engines. The Puddle Jumper couldn’t enter hyperspace, or at least it wasn’t designed to, although Alice knew that Doctor McKay has successfully completed a prototype hyperspace window generator for the little ship, albeit an experimental one.

“Having fun, are we?” Sheppard commented with a great big grin on his face, unfazed, and Alice couldn’t help but smile back enthusiastically.

“I’m warming up to this thing pretty quick,” she acknowledged. At that moment the HUD activated on its own, showing her that they were already above San Francisco. The trip didn’t take more than ten minutes. “Whoa, that was quick.”

“It’s slower inside the atmosphere than in space,” Sheppard conceded. “But even so, we haven’t even made a tenth of what it can do. We could reach the Sun in something like five hours.”

“Five hours and forty minutes, I think,” Alice agreed, making the calculation in her head and reducing the speed and lowering the spacecraft at the same time. The distance from the Earth to the Sun was one Astronomical Unit, nearly hundred and fifty million kilometers. At the speed of roughly two and a half percent that of light, or almost twenty-seven million kilometers per hour, a spaceship would travel that distance for five hours and thirty-seven minutes.

Sheppard didn’t reply and Alice focused on bringing the Jumper down safely. They breached the cloud cover already and were dropping from the sky quickly, so Alice pushed on the throttle harder, mentally also slamming the brakes. Soon enough she could see the bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge fastening the two patches of land together. She barely had the time to wonder where Atlantis was when the Heads-Up Display flickered into life, pinpointing the city and showing her the exact heading, altitude and speed she’d need to make a perfect approach.

She finally saw it as they passed through the cloak: the glistening towers rising into the air, the star-shaped base floating on the waters of the bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Alice knew that the city-ship was big, but she hadn’t expected it to be so beautiful; the elegant, slender shape soaring into the sky, it looked alien and familiar in equal measures. Alice thought of the people who built it; the Alterans, known as Lanteans at the time they lived in Pegasus, the first, more advanced incarnation of humans, a great race who nevertheless failed to survive. Those who fled from the Ori and the Wraith and eventually succumbed to a plague that wiped them out. But not all of them; some have ascended to a higher plane of existence, and others, like some anonymous distant ancestor of both Alice and Colonel Sheppard, have mingled with the humans of Earth, their own second iteration. Wasn’t it fitting that they’d now find and reap the benefits of Lantean legacy? But technology was not the only thing they’d inherited; the Wraith were still out there, just waiting for a chance to get to the Milky Way, to Earth, and suck them all dry until there was nothing left. There was no doubt that this was a formidable enemy, albeit less advanced than some they’d already faced – really nothing compared to the Ori, for example – but one that proved to be notoriously difficult to defeat and eradicate. All their advancements and technology were for nothing; just like the Lanteans before them, they were getting crushed by sheer numbers. And so it was even more important now than ever before for everyone to do their absolute best, to defend their planet, their galaxy from those monsters, to fix what they’ve broken and save their human cousins from Pegasus as well.

Was Alice going to be of any help? She knew there were things she could contribute – the flying, apparently, but also her scientific and engineering knowledge and experience, if nothing else – but would it matter? Would she actually make a difference, or would she be a footnote, a name on the list of people who just happened to find themselves on Atlantis? She didn’t know, but as she lowered the ship into the Jumper Bay, located at the very top of the city’s Central Tower, she made an unyielding resolution to prove worthy of the great history of this place, of being the scion of the Ancients, of taking their place in this corner of the universe.

“Now, steady,” Sheppard warned, breaking her away from the introspection. There was no need to be wary, however: she found that landing was in no way more difficult than flying itself. The ship was still sensing her intentions before she had a chance to properly formulate them in her mind, and compensating automatically for any errors she could make. It touched down delicately, resting on the landing dock without a sound nor tremor. “Nice job!” The older pilot praised.

Alice smiled happily to herself. This wasn’t just much easier than she’d imagined; it felt natural. And, by extension, it felt good. It felt right. Like she was born to do it. And, of course, in a way she was.

“That went well,” she commented as the HUD flickered off and the various lights on the control panel faded away. “I can’t believe I’m saying it without irony.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Sheppard opined, standing up and leading the way out of the ship.

“I am,” Alice admitted. “I didn’t think it would be so easy.”

The ranking officer stopped outside the Jumper and turned to face her.

“But see, it’s really not. Not for most people, anyway,” he clarified. “Most of our pilots don’t have the gene naturally, they’ve had been given Beckett’s inoculation. Those who do have it, well, it’s rather weaker in them. Beckett himself has it strong, but he is not a pilot and flying a Jumper comes rather hard to him. You and I, we’re the only two who have both the experience and the ability to fly this thing.”

“Does it really work like that, though?” Alice wondered. “I mean, does it really matter if your ATA alleles are dominant or recessive?” She shrugged. “Shouldn’t the very presence of the gene be enough?”

“We’re not sure.” Sheppard started in the direction of what was apparently the exit to the Jumper Bay, a door that closed by sliding two sides into the middle position. Alice shuddered slightly. It reminded her of the destruction of the Prometheus, where she barely escaped being cut in half by such a door. “Beckett and McKay have theorized that the dominant allele is what strengthens the ability to control the Ancient tech, but it doesn’t explain certain curious oddities, such as the fact that General O’Neill, for example, has the dominant gene and he’s a damned good pilot, and yet he is much less proficient in flying a Jumper than some others.”

That was odd. After all, O’Neill was the one who had the entire knowledge repository of the Ancients downloaded into his brain – twice. He should be excelling at anything related to the Lantean technology.

“You think there’s a mental component?” Alice asked as they were descending the stairs.

“Yeah, like some people paint, and others are better at math,” he confirmed. “Seems like you and I just have a natural predisposition for operating Ancient tech.”

Alice smiled at his simplification, but didn’t comment. Biology was never her area of interest, and she deferred to the expertise of others. Surely, Doctor Beckett knew what he was talking about. He was, after all, the one who discovered the ATA gene and invented the gene therapy.

The next flight of stairs led them into the Stargate Operations. Alice paused for a moment to take in the sight.

It was bigger than what she’d imagined. The control room hung above the lower level, where the Stargate itself was located. Several futuristic-looking consoles dotted the area, with a couple of people sitting in front of the monitors, focusing on them so much they didn’t yet notice Sheppard and Alice’s entrance. On their left, there was a short gangway leading to a glassed room; someone was sitting inside, just visible through the window. On the right, there was a balcony and stairs leading down to the Gateroom, and all the way across was a walled-off circular area that Alice suspected might be a briefing room of some sort. Everything looked alien, but elegant, and Alice was impressed with the overall design. It was certainly an improvement over the drab, gray insides of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. And here, there were windows; through the dark blue-tinted glass, she could see city’s towers reaching up to the sky.

“So what do you think?” Sheppard asked, waving his hand around in an all-encompassing gesture.

“It’s nothing short of amazing,” Alice answered, awed. “The Ancients didn’t lack a sense of style, did they?”

He sniggered. “No, they did not.” He watched her as she approached one of the consoles and leaned over it curiously. A technician who sat nearby looked up and noticed her for the first time. He was wearing a sort of charcoal black uniform with wide green stripes on the sleeves and shoulders, and had a patch with a flag on the left arm: black, red and yellow, denoting Germany.

“Hello,” he said hesitantly, throwing her a suspicious look. She straightened up at once and smiled timidly back.

“Hi.”

“You’ll have time to make the acquaintance of everyone,” Sheppard clapped her on the shoulder and she turned towards him. “Let’s go meet the boss.” That, she knew, would be Mr. Woolsey, the former American representative to the International Oversight Advisory, now the commander of the Atlantis expedition. Alice hadn’t had a chance to meet him when she was deployed with the Prometheus, but she’d read up on him and he seemed like a typical bureaucrat, more concerned with the rules than human lives. Alice was a firm believer that the rules were established to serve the people, and not the other way around. Still, the latest reports painted a rather more favorable picture of the man, so maybe there was hope for him after all.

Sheppard led the way through the gangway to the glassed office on their left, knocked perfunctorily, and entered without invitation. Alice followed him more gingerly.

“Mr. Woolsey, this is Captain Alice Boyd, our newest acquisition,” the lieutenant colonel announced as the man sitting at the desk looked up at their entrance.

He was of average height and build, his head balding, with only a thin remainder of dark hair on his temples. He had a pair of glasses on and was wearing what seemed to be the standard Atlantis uniform: charcoal black, but with deep red stripes instead of the green ones the technicians outside had; except his was pristine, not a crease on it, almost angular. To Alice, he looked like a lawyer, but his eyes were surprisingly kind when he stood up and offered her his hand, which she shook, inclining her head respectfully.

“Hello, Captain,” he greeted her mildly. “Welcome to Atlantis.”

“Thank you, sir,” she replied with a small smile. “It’s an honor to be here.”

“You’ll be interested to hear that she piloted our Jumper all the way here, and landed it perfectly on the first try,” Sheppard informed him casually, taking a seat in front of the man’s desk. Woolsey waved to Alice to get the other one and sat down himself.

“Really?” His eyes bored into Alice’s as if he were trying to get to the other side of her skull. “So our hopes turned to be true, for once?”

Alice smiled nervously. “Yes, sir, insofar as my ATA gene is concerned, at least.”

“She doesn’t think she belongs in here,” Sheppard explained in a theatrical whisper.

“And why is that, Captain?”

Alice began to feel a bit uncomfortable under his steady gaze.

“I’m a fighter pilot, sir. That’s what I’m trained for.”

“Well, you’re here to pilot a Jumper. From what I understand, it isn’t terribly different.”

It was very different, Alice now knew, but she didn’t think correcting him on this point was worthwhile. It wouldn’t be fair to expect someone who’s never flown anything to grasp such subtleties.

“Yes, sir, but that’s not all there is to do here, isn’t there?”

“No, it’s not,” he conceded and changed gears smoothly. “I understand that you are also a scientist?”

“More of an engineer, sir. But a good one,” she admitted, thinking of her PhD dissertation, which generated some interest not only within the tight Stargate community, but also in the wider scientific world.

“Then you’ll fit right in here,” Woolsey assured her. “One thing we always seem to have in excess is technological problems or mysteries to discover.”

“Yes, sir. But isn’t the city thoroughly searched and studied by now?” Alice wondered. After all, it’s been five years since the first Earthlings stepped through the Atlantis Gate.

“Well, yes and no. We’ve explored the entire city, that is true, but there are many labs and projects left over by Lanteans that we haven’t gotten to study yet. It takes time, you see, and it’s not the safest thing in the world to go poking around unknown Ancient tech...”

“Nooo, why wouldn’t that be perfectly safe,” Sheppard put in ironically, and then added more seriously: “We have had slightly different priorities too. The war with the Wraith and the Asurans, the fallout of the Hoffan drug dissemination, these things kind of pulled us away from exploring our fair city, and the Pegasus galaxy.”

Alice nodded. This had been evident from the reports she’s read, too. As much as Sheppard’s own unit, for example, went out looking for new allies and technologies in the first couple of years, they limited those activities somewhat in the last while, instead opting for more direct approach in the continuous war. Oh, sure, they still went on reconnaissance missions from time to time, but much less frequently than previously.

“Indeed,” Woolsey agreed. “So you see, Captain, we are quite desperate to get new resources that will help us in this ongoing struggle. You’re just one of these resources.”

Alice raised an eyebrow, but decided not to voice her doubts at that.

“Alright, I’m sure there will be more occasions to talk later, but for now I have work to do,” the commander said, effectively ending the meeting. Sheppard and Alice stood.

“Thank you, sir.” Alice nodded to him before heading out, Sheppard only waving his hand in an indeterminate gesture.

“So what do you think of our fair commander?” Sheppard asked as they crossed the gangway.

“He seems nice,” Alice responded thoughtfully. “Is it normal for him to meet all his new people like that?”

“Eventually,” Sheppard allowed. “You have to remember, most of the new people we’re getting now are transfers from the SGC or Area 51, so he knows them, more or less. Hey, Schneider,” he called to the technician who had previously greeted Alice. “What’s up with that?” He pointed to a console on their right; the German was leaning over it, tapping the keys furiously.

“Don’t know, it just froze on me. We’ve been trying to alter the code of one of the sub-processes to allow for a more precise pin-pointing of the leaky power relays, and it was working fine all morning, I have no idea why it just decided to stop…”

“Have you tried turning it off and on again?” Alice asked half-jokingly and approached the screen, her curiosity getting the better of her.

The technician looked at her as if she suddenly grew another head.

“It’s Ancient technology,” he said. His accent was nearly imperceptible. “I don’t think a simple reboot is gonna solve the problem.”

Alice shrugged nonchalantly, but cringed inwardly. “A computer is a computer, I don’t care who built it, and code can sometimes get jumbled up if it arrives at an unpredicted loop or a missing error statement.” She looked into the monitor and was happy to realize she could actually decipher some of the text frozen on the screen. “Especially if you guys tried to mess with it.”

“Just do it,” Sheppard told the German and the man went down on his knees – to find a reboot button, Alice thought – grumbling to himself in his language. The console flickered off and then lit up again. The strings of words were no longer still on the display; they were running through the screen like droplets, from the top towards bottom.

Schneider hmphed and started pushing buttons, bringing up a sandbox to check out the code, Alice guessed.

“Good catch,” Sheppard told her and she smiled at him. It was such an easy thing, but sometimes people got stuck in their own heads and couldn’t see the obvious answers. God knew it happened to her enough times so as to become seriously annoying when she was working on her research.

He led her towards the staircase again and they descended another flight of stairs. Sheppard stopped on the landing to point at the door, but he didn’t go through it.

“This is where the Atlantis Infirmary is,” he explained. “It has three levels, this one is General Infirmary, below we have the Operating Level and below that there’s the Recovery Ward. Our current CMO is Doctor Jennifer Keller, but she isn’t in the city today, so you’ll meet her some other day.”

“What about Doctor Beckett?” Alice inquired curiously.  She knew he was a clone, albeit with all memories and emotions of the real one; he was officially dead, though, so he wouldn’t be able to go visit his family. Alice presumed they might have given him a new identity, but surely his expertise would be invaluable for Atlantis?

“He wants to go back to Pegasus and continue his work on the effects of the Hoffan drug.” Sheppard started off down the stairs again. “He feels responsible.”

Alice didn’t reply. She knew that it wasn’t Doctor Beckett’s fault, but there was no denying that if it hadn’t been for him, the drug – she thought it should have been called the Hoffan poison – would not have been finished for a long time. He meant well, but all the best intentions couldn’t erase the atrocious consequences.

They were down three flights of stairs before Sheppard stopped again.

“This level has some living quarters and labs,” he explained. “My own room is here, as is Teyla’s and Ronon’s, but Woolsey and McKay opted for bigger quarters outside the Central Tower. Typical,” he finished with a grin. They went down the stairs again and Alice began to wonder why they were walking at all, instead of using the Atlantis transporters; she’s read about them in the reports, and they supposedly could take you almost anywhere in the city. She didn’t ask, though.

Once they were at the base of the tower (“That’s where the ZPMs are,” Sheppard told her), the lieutenant colonel led them through a door and along a corridor.

“We’ll have to climb a bit now,” Sheppard warned her as they came to the end of the passage and started up the stairs. “Some additional exercise, eh?”

“Sir, why don’t we take a transporter? I believe they are quite numerous in the city?” Alice finally asked after a few minutes, her breath getting slightly rugged.

“Not working,” Sheppard explained, his respiration equally quickened. “It was one of the things damaged during the battle with the super-hive and the atmospheric re-entry… McKay is working on it but they have to first plug the holes in the power relays, lest we drain too much of the ZPMs.”

They didn’t speak after that, instead concentrating on their breathing as they hiked higher and higher, finally coming to a stop on the last landing, at what must have been the very top of that tower. Sheppard led the way through another corridor and they finally entered a circular room, empty but for a large chair in the very center. Alice had never seen it before, of course, but she knew instantly what it was.

“There’s something we call Chair Interface Aptitude,” Sheppard breathed, leaning forward and putting his hands on his thighs. It had not been an easy climb, and they kept a good pace; Alice was feeling in her muscles the three years she’s spent at the AFIT. It wasn’t that she didn’t work out at all, but she let herself slip a little with the intensity there, first because of her injury, and then because she was so busy taking care of her mom and working on her research. Should’ve gone back to it sooner, you stupid fuck, she told herself off angrily, as she approached the control chair. Here it was: the single most complex piece of technology they’ve ever encountered. From here, one could operate the Ancient drones, the most powerful weapons they knew of, as well as fly this entire city. “That’s a rating we assign to people based on how easily they can handle the Chair.”

“You’re the highest-ranked in Atlantis?” Alice asked, although she knew the answer.

“Yeah, and Doctor Beckett is second, to his everlasting chagrin. Wanna try it out?”

It was tempting, Alice couldn’t deny that; but at the same time, intimidating. If she did something wrong, the consequences might be enormous. But having experienced the way the neural interface worked on the Puddle Jumper, she was reasonably sure she wouldn’t break anything just by trying it. Right?

“Go on,” he encouraged her and Alice nodded, squared her shoulders and took the two steps towards the Chair. As soon as she sat down, the back lowered behind her, while the leg-rest went up, forcing her into a semi-horizontal position. Her hands lay on the gel-filled pads on each side, and once again she suddenly had that exhilarating feeling of connectivity. She was one with the ship, she could feel its powerful engines, now asleep but ready to go at her command, the drones just waiting to be let out, the shield – now turned into a cloak – vibrating in the air over them, the power conduits leading from the ZPMs at the base of the Central Tower to every corner of the city… Holy fuck, was the only thing she could think at the moment.

“Good!” She heard Sheppard’s voice through the layer of wonderment she was immersed in. “Let’s see how you do with some simple commands… show me the Milky Way!”

She heard him, but the holographic image flickered to life above her seemingly before she had the chance to think it. It was as if her consciousness couldn’t quite catch up with her brain. Thousands of stars illuminated the room like sparks from a fire. It was beautiful.

“And Pegasus?”

The silvery flickers moved quickly and rearranged themselves to mirror the star maps of the dwarf galaxy Alice had studied a long time ago, just after they had established regular contact with Atlantis thanks to the Daedalus.

“How about you show me Lantea?”

The starry dots disappeared, giving way to a holographic display of a single star system, with a planet covered nearly entirely in water, which grew bigger and closer, revealing one small greenish-brown continent on its surface.

“I kinda miss that planet,” Sheppard noted and she heard a smile in his voice. “Okay, I think it’s enough for today.”

The holograph flickered off and the Chair began righting itself before Alice could properly think to turn it off. The neural interface was truly the most amazing thing she’s ever experienced. A bit overwhelming, but spellbinding.

“Well, I think Doctor Beckett will be pleased. He never did like his second spot in the CIA ranking.” Sheppard grinned at her as Alice stood up. “You’re definitely better than him, maybe even better than I am.”

She arched her eyebrow incredulously.

“I don’t mind,” he assured her. “It’s nice to know we have another person who can use the Chair effectively when needed. With Beckett gone most of the time, I had often found myself stretched a little thin,” he admitted.

Alice nodded understandingly. In case of an emergency, the base’s military commander shouldn’t be occupied with shooting the guns or holding the rudder, which was what essentially sitting in the Chair came down to during an attack on the city.

“Alright, let’s get back to the Central Tower!” Sheppard ushered her through the door and they began their descent the same way they came. “Tell me, Boyd, how soon can you get here full-time?”

Alice was surprised by the question. Formally, she would be under Sheppard’s command as soon as the paperwork went through – probably within a week – but since she had been so ordered by General Landry, she was already reporting to the Atlantis ranking officer. She would do whatever he ordered.

Sheppard noticed her confusion – or at least the silence made him look around at her, so he explained: “I presume you don’t want to stay on Atlantis with the one bag you have on you. So, how soon can you collect your stuff and move here?”

It was still an odd question in Alice’s opinion, but she decided it must have been the city’s more relaxed military atmosphere that she hasn’t yet picked up on. But she supposed she could make use of it, if it was being offered. She considered her options. It was at least a six hours drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, probably seven or even eight, depending on the traffic. If she started now, she could get home by nine in the evening. She’d spend the night at the house, then pack in the morning – it wouldn’t take long, she didn’t have all that many things she wanted to bring with her – and drive back up to the Golden City.

“If I go immediately, with a little luck I should be back by six pm tomorrow,” she answered carefully. That would give her enough of a time buffer to even say goodbye to her family and friends in the morning. It wasn’t likely that she’d see them very soon. Or maybe she would? Would they get a chance for some vacation – or a pass – before they flew off to Pegasus? She didn’t know, but she supposed it was better to err on the side of caution.

She saw Sheppard’s head bob up and down as they continued down the stairwell.

“Fine by me. Take your time. We’re still waiting for a few guys before we start you off on a training with Ronon and Teyla.”

Alice wondered what such a training would cover. She had bad feelings about it; from what she’s read in the reports, both Pegasus natives were known especially for their close-combat prowess, and that didn’t bode well for her. She’s never been good at that, and the three years of pursuing her diploma at the Air Force Institute of Technology certainly didn’t help her to grow this particular set of skills. She shook her head; obsessing about it would not change anything, and there were more pressing matters at the moment.

“Sir, when do you think the city will be able to fly to the Pegasus?” She asked as they finally reached the base of the tower and proceeded along a corridor to the other one.

“Not sure. McKay says they should have everything done within a month, tops, but McKay is only dependable when his life is at stake. We’re not there yet, though when my patience runs out...” Sheppard grinned. “Generally speaking, the earlier the better.”

Alice wondered what was the rush, but she didn’t pursue the topic. Instead, she decided to clarify something much more immediate.

“Sir, how do you get to the land from Atlantis?” They couldn’t use Jumpers to ferry everyone and everything, could they? Alice suspected some equipment or parts and replacements must have been too large for a Jumper anyway; she remembered seeing a normal, Earth-made crane on one of the extended arms of the city as they approached earlier that day.

“There’s a Coast Guard boat helping us out with such things. Two actually, one’s moored to the West Pier, the other one is at the Coast Guard Station Golden Gate, so that our people can go either way. Gotta pamper the civilians.” He shrugged. “And the Navy is keeping watch too, so that no stray cruiser can peep under the cloak.”

Alice frowned. A lot of people who would normally not know about Atlantis must have been informed just to allow the expedition members to come and go as they pleased. Then again, she supposed it was hard enough on the people to be so far away constantly, and it stood to reason that the one time they actually were on Earth they would be permitted to go out and enjoy it.

“I swear, I will never complain about the transporters being too far away ever again!” Sheppard mumbled as they began the climb back up the Central Tower. They went in silence, conserving their breaths. Again, Sheppard imposed a quick pace that didn’t quite defeat them, but was enough to feel it in their legs and lungs. By the time they reached Stargate Operations, they were both nearly gasping for air.

“That was fun,” Alice commented, making a mental note to step up her daily workout.

Sheppard didn’t reply but turned around the staircase into the room proper, where he brightened at the sight of a couple of men standing around the consoles, both of whom, although not armed, had military written all over them.

“Lorne!” The lieutenant colonel exclaimed and one of the servicemen turned around to look at him. He was of average build and height, a few inches smaller than Sheppard (but still considerably taller than Alice). He was wearing the standard charcoal uniform, but with black stripes. He had an American flag on his shoulder, too. Even if Sheppard hadn’t mention his name, Alice would have guessed who it was: Major Evan Lorne, the military second-in-command on Atlantis.

“Colonel,” he greeted him and then his eyes rested on Alice. She supposed she looked like a peacock among crows here, what with her Blue Service Uniform.

“This is Captain Alice Boyd, she’s joining our merry bunch,” Sheppard presented her and Alice came to attention, because she didn’t know what else to do. She realized that the rules were much more relaxed here but the compulsion instilled in her since the first days of her Officer Training School was too strong. Thankfully, Lorne smiled rather kindly at her, although she thought she saw a shadow of derision in his eyes; but she might have been mistaken. It wasn’t like she was good at reading people.

“Welcome to Atlantis, Captain.” The major said and she thought she must have seen something that didn’t exist because his voice was perfectly nice.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Captain, Major Lorne will escort you to the West Pier so you can take your leave with the help of our friendly coasties.”

“I will?” Lorne repeated somewhat disconsolately.

“I believe I just said so.” Sheppard’s tone was insistent. “And I hope that the transporters will be fixed by your return tomorrow.” He didn’t sound very hopeful, though; more desperate, and Alice quite agreed with the sentiment.

“Yes, sir.”

“Alright, then, let’s go, Captain.” Lorne waved her towards the stairs – which she had just climbed with Sheppard. Oh, for fuck’s sake. She understood he only led her all the way up in order to find a scapegoat who would show her the way to the Coast Guard’s boat.

It was going to be a long walk.

 

*

 

Alice was back on Atlantis just a little after five the next day; the traffic had been light. Someone from the Coast Guard must have signaled ahead of her coming because an airman was waiting for her at the West Pier to help her with her stuff. It really wasn’t necessary – she only had one large suitcase, a smaller duffel bag, and a ukulele case. Nevertheless, since the transporters were apparently still out of order, it was a good thing to not have to drag it through the entire city by herself.

The airman deposited her in a corridor in a tower just North of the central spire, outside a door that he said led to her assigned quarters. Alice entered it hesitantly, throwing curious looks around. It was a rather spacious room – almost the size of the apartment she’d occupied with her mom at the Wright-Patterson base. Granted, for a two-bedroom place it had been tiny, but it accommodated two people, and the Atlantis quarter was for herself only. The room was irregular in shape, with walls of muted grayish-green color, and soft lamp light. Tall, wide windows overlooked the city’s western side, now streaked with reddish rays of the setting sun, with the Point Bonita Lighthouse already blinking in the distance. She would have light in the evenings, which suited Alice very well; she was an early riser only by discipline, and liked to sleep in when she could.

The room was furnished in a rather ascetic way, but it wasn’t devoid of certain coziness. The bed was large and, on closer inspection, turned out to be very comfortable. It was placed in an alcove that opened up to a larger living area with a table, dresser, closet, and a desk. There was another sort of niche, half-hidden behind a partial wall, where a chaise longue stood facing the window, which stretched from the floor to the ceiling and opened up like a double-door onto a small balcony. Alice instantly fell in love with the spot. How nice would it be to just lie there with a good book as the sun was setting on the horizon! Alice didn’t bring any physical books – it was counter-productive, as she read them too quickly, and they were heavy and bulky – but she had an e-reader, a device she came to appreciate immensely in the past few months. With a few clicks she could have any book she wanted – that was converted to the appropriate format, of course – and the offer of available e-books was ever growing. Procuring new books would be hampered when Atlantis came back to Pegasus, but certainly not impossible. They had ZPMs, which meant they’d be doing regular radio check-ins with the SGC on Earth, during which private mail of the expedition members would also be transferred both ways, so Alice could always ask Jake to send her new releases.

Alice decided to leave unpacking for later and went exploring the city instead. It became evident almost immediately that it was easier said than done; the corridors all looked the same to her, and there were no people around to point her the correct way, and eventually she managed to make it to the Central Tower only because she could look out the window and identify her relative position based on the view on the horizon. Water meant West, Golder Gate Bridge indicated East.

In contrast to the previous day, there was a small crowd in the control room now. Alice didn’t know any of them, but most of them were wearing the Atlantis standard uniforms, some with green stripes, others with blue. Alice thought they must have denoted departments – black was apparently military, red probably indicated command, since Woolsey was wearing it, and green and blue must have meant two sorts of scientists. Alice was still wearing her service blues. She stood out, but none of the men gathered around the control consoles noticed her as she leaned on the staircase’s railing, listening in on their conversation. They were in the midst of a heated debate, although only three of them seemed to be engaged, the rest just looking on.

“I am telling you, it is not possible!” Said a short man with bushy hair, wearing a blue long-sleeved undershirt without a jacket. He had a pair of glasses on and a shadow of a beard.

“You just don’t want to come up there again!” Another man answered in a raised voice. He was a good three or four inches taller than his colleague, and wore the blue-striped uniform. He had a Canadian flag on his shoulder so Alice guessed this must have been the famed Doctor Rodney McKay. Her suspicion was confirmed a few seconds later.

“Oh of course, because it is my fault!” The shorter man threw his hands up in exasperation. “I can’t shrink myself, Rodney! I don’t fit in there!

“You got there last time just fine!” Doctor McKay accused. “This is extremely delicate work, we can’t get it done with a robot, you know it as well as I do!”

“None of us has ever been so deep inside!” His interlocutor gestured widely.

“The Ancients must have had a way to go in there in case something broke,” a third man, this one wearing green stripes, but also Canadian, put in reasonably. “A remote probe of some sort maybe, or maybe the  conduit opens up in some way...”

“If it does, we haven’t found how.” McKay shook his head. “And there’s no time to look now. Need I remind you that every moment we waste arguing about it, we drain power from the ZPMs?”

“We are aware, Rodney! Do you have any other suggestions?” The shortest of them asked cuttingly.

“Yes, how about you gear up and get down there?”

Do prdele! How many times do I have to tell you? I don’t fit in there!”

“Maybe we could ask Teyla,” the green-striped man interjected calmly again. “I believe she is the shortest of all the Atlantis personnel.”

“Great idea,” McKay sniped sarcastically. “And when did she get a degree in engineering, huh? Because I don’t remember her being able to...”

“We can guide her via headset,” the short man cut him off. “It’s better than any of the ideas we’ve heard so far.”

“Excuse me?” Alice approached them, catching them unawares, so enthralled they were in their discussion. She didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, but understood enough. “Sorry to interrupt. I’m not sure what this is about, but I think I can help you.”

All of them – seven people in total – looked at her for a moment silently; she smiled nervously back at them.

“And who are you?” Doctor McKay asked somewhat sourly.

“Captain Alice Boyd. I’ve just been reassigned here. I gather that you need to get to some place cramped enough that no one can get in?”

“Yes,” the short man responded; he was over three inches taller than Alice, and she was also much slimmer. He gave her an appraising look and turned to Doctor McKay. “She may just be able to climb in there.”

“Yes, yes, but it’s the same problem as with Teyla, isn’t it?” McKay countered. “This is delicate work on a vital system, very easy to screw up! And how do you expect us to guide her when we don’t know what is wrong?”

“I’m sorry,” Alice put in again, a bit apprehensive. “I presume the problem is with the city’s power relays. Colonel Sheppard mentioned it to me yesterday,” she added, seeing questioning looks all around. “It fits.” She shrugged lightly. “I haven’t had a lot of experience with Ancient technology, but it sounds like there’s not a lot of other options. I have a PhD in Computer Engineering, and a BS in Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics. I’ve previously worked on the Prometheus and the Daedalus so I have some idea about alien technology too, albeit not specifically Lantean.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s...” McKay began, but his colleague cut him off decidedly:

“That is perfect. We will appreciate your help, Captain.” He then extended his arm and shook hands with Alice.  “I’m Doctor Radek Zelenka, and this Grumpy McGrump over here is Doctor Rodney McKay.”

“It’s an honor to meet you both,” Alice said turning to McKay and offering her hand as well, which he gingerly took. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I read all the Atlantis mission reports.”

“All of them?” McKay looked flustered.

“Yes, sir. The work you’ve done is really amazing,” she assured him. He brightened instantly.

“Yes, I’m sure it is.”

“Yes, yes, yes, can we go and do the thing?” Zelenka rolled his eyes.

Alice nodded. “Please, lead the way, Doctor.”

“I’ll monitor the power flow from here. Chuck, that console over there? The rest of you… don’t just stand there, get busy!” McKay sat down and immediately called up some diagnostic on his laptop, which was linked to the Ancient equipment. Alice followed Zelenka down the stairs.

“We’ve put a big strain on the city,” the scientist explained as they walked, accompanied by two men with green stripes on their jackets, carrying toolboxes. “We had to use an experimental wormhole drive to get here in time to help with the super-hive.”

“Yes, I’ve read about it. The drive burned out, though, didn’t it?”

“It did. But we may be able to repair the regular hyperdrive. We hope,” he added uncertainly. “Anyway the drive first and later the stress of super-hive firing on the shield and our atmospheric reentry have punched a lot of holes in the power conduits. We’ve managed to plug all of them except this one. For the most part, the conduits are easily accessible for maintenance, but there are a few places where it’s impossible to get at them from outside, we needed to isolate them and climb inside to effect the repairs.” He paused and Alice thought she saw him roll his eyes again. “That means I had to climb inside. But this one last conduit is too small even for me to fit in. I seriously hope you will be able to do it.”

“I think your colleague was right,” Alice commented. They were still descending the stairs and she wondered if they were going to another tower. “I think the Ancients must have had a better way to access such places.”

“Possibly,” he acknowledged. “But we are yet to find it. And this conduit is important, it leads from the ZPMs directly to the stardrive. We can’t begin the repairs until we plug this hole.”

“Atlantis has been here over a month. How come the ZPMs haven’t been depleted yet if they’re leaking power all the time?” Alice asked curiously. Everything about the city was of vital interest to her, now that she decided to link her fate to it.

“We managed to repair the conduits used by the cloak before anything else. All the other systems were turned off at first, but we had to maintain the cloak because, well, we can’t let Atlantis be seen, can we?” They’ve arrived finally on the ground level and Zelenka led them through a door and along a corridor, a different one than that Alice and Sheppard took the day before to get to the Chair room. “We’ve been turning on different systems as the repairs progressed. The problem is, the same conduit that supplies power to the stardrive is also used to keep the city afloat in one place, so we don’t drift into the Golden Gate Bridge by accident. It doesn’t take a lot of power, and the leak is relatively small, but it’s more or less constant. We’ve only found it today,” he added defensively. “Identifying the holes has been a problem, but we’re relatively sure this is the last one.”

They arrived at another staircase and went down again. Alice thought they must have been below the water level now.

“So once the leak is stopped, what’s the next step?”

“The transporters.” Zelenka was already breathing heavily, even though they were only descending. Well, he was a civilian, so he didn’t need the kind of physical form the servicemen had to maintain. Plus, he was something like fifteen years older than Alice.

“Good idea,” she agreed with a small chuckle. Climbing all the way up would be a pain even for her.

“Then we have to repair the hyperdrive and a few minor systems and we’re good to go,” Zelenka finished. “We still have enough power in the three ZPMs to make the ride home in something like ten days.” Alice noted his use of the word home. For him, home was in Pegasus. Alice wondered if it was just an unconscious slip of the tongue, or a purposeful indication of his preference? Either way, it told her a lot about the man’s dedication to the expedition.

They finally reached the very bottom of the staircase and went alongside a corridor, then another, and finally found themselves in a large hallway; it was completely empty and poorly lit, with low ceiling and massive pipe-like bulges sticking up from the floor.

“Here we are.” Zelenka gestured broadly towards the conduits lining the room. “Kyle, Yong, can you isolate the conduit, please?” The two men who accompanied them went forward and began opening the power relay’s control circuits. “This will take a few minutes, we need to make sure there’s no more power coming in or out before you go in.”

Alice nodded and for a moment they both looked on without speaking.

“So, Doctor.” Alice broke the silence. “The uniforms, blue is scientist, and green is…?”

“Technician,” he replied, smiling. “I remember I was confused at first, too. Black is military, red is command and yellow is medical,” he added.

Alice smiled back. She was beginning to like the man. He seemed nice and welcoming.

“So, Captain, you said you were just reassigned to Atlantis. In what capacity?” He asked curiously, looking down at her. Alice thought it must have been unusual for him.

“A Jumper pilot. I have the ATA gene and used to fly fighters,” she explained. “I’m sure that won’t be all I’ll be doing, though. Colonel Sheppard hasn’t been very forthcoming on the subject yet.”

“You said you have a degree in Computer Engineering?” Zelenka frowned. “You think Colonel Sheppard will let you work with one of our science teams when you’re not flying?”

“I don’t know, Doctor. I certainly hope so.” Alice looked up, to the ceiling; it hung so low she could nearly touch it if she stood on her toes and stretched her hand. “Before I went to get my PhD, I was an F-302 pilot, stationed aboard the Prometheus. My secondary duty was in the engine room. I think my squadron leader gave me that assignment because I kept sneaking in there after hours instead of getting the mandatory crew rest.” She chuckled.

Zelenka didn’t have a chance to reply because the two technicians approached them at that moment.

“It is done, the conduit is separate,” one of them said in a thickly accented voice. His shoulder patch identified him as a Korean. “You can begin.”

“Let’s do it, then. We need to hurry,” Zelenka cautioned. “Without power going through this relay, we are drifting on water. I don’t want us to hit anything.”

“That would be bad,” Alice agreed, snickering. The technicians have already opened the conduit at the base, where it linked with the wall of the room. Alice looked in; it was big enough at the base, but narrowed down the line. It looked dirty, too, and Alice regretted not changing into a utility uniform. Her blues would be ruined after this trip. Oh well, I’ll probably get one of these fancy charcoal uniforms anyway, she thought and squatted down next to the opening in the conduit’s base.

“You’re gonna need this, Captain,” the other of the technicians, an American Zelenka called Kyle, handed her a flashlight and a small tablet with a cord attached that had two endings, one that could be clipped onto a crystal, or could act as a multimeter pointer, and the other with a sort of mini-scanner.

“First thing to do is to assess the damage,” Zelenka instructed. “It will not be a literal hole, you have to check the wires manually.”

Alice nodded. Would it be easy to find the leak? She doubted it. She took a deep breath and got down on all fours, thanking her stars that she was at least wearing slacks and not a skirt. Nevertheless, she felt awkward going into the tube, aware that three men were now observing her bottom as she crawled deeper inside. She chased that thoughts away, turned the flashlight on and began examining the circuits with the scanner, looking at the readings on the tablet; they created an intricate pattern, thickest on the bottom, but also present on the sides and the top of the tube. The actual power was relayed through these cables; the duct Alice was now squirming through must have been built only in order to give access to the circuits – except it was too narrow for a normal-size person. Again, Alice thought that the Ancients must have had a better way to repair those places. Perhaps they did have some sort of a robot that was now long lost.

The further she went, the narrower was the passage; already she was on her belly, dragging herself along with her hands and knees. It reminded her of the exercises during the assault course at the Officer Training School. She hated it then, too. It was slow going, because she didn’t want to miss anything, so it took her almost twenty minutes to get halfway through the conduit – she could see it bend down some ten yards ahead. If the leak was somewhere in the downward piping, she wouldn’t be able to go there; there was just no way. Thankfully, she noticed it just a moment later; it was over her head, she nearly missed it. It was too narrow now to turn on her back so she looked at the copper (or at least, copper-like) wires at an awkward angle. They looked normal, but the readings were definitely anomalous. Now came the harder part. With the multimeter pointer ending, she began methodically checking each wire; there were dozens of them. Each produced a slightly different result she could see on the tablet (it was awkward working on the ceiling and looking at the screen at the same time), and the problem was identifying which ones were abnormal. McKay was quite right: it was delicate work and if Alice hadn’t known as much about alien technology as she did, she’d have probably missed it.

“Found it!” She called to the men waiting outside some ten minutes later, hoping that she identified the faulty wire correctly. She made a mental note of the exact spot, and began backing out of the tube. She could go much quicker now that she wasn’t looking for anything anymore, but it still took her full five minutes to make the thirteen yards back to the base of the conduit. She emerged from it gasping for air – it was very stuffy inside, and crawling backwards was even worse than forward.

“It’s just one wire, maybe two inches long,” she said, taking quick, shallow breaths, as she stood up and stretched. “I’m not certain what it’s made of, but they all look identical and I’m pretty sure I can repair it if we have a replacement.”

“Do you have the readings?” Zelenka asked and Alice handed the tablet over to him. He examined the results carefully and then squatted down next to one of the technicians’ toolboxes. Alice leaned over to look; it was full of different cables. Of course; they were fixing the leaks for a month now, obviously they had all they needed. A minute later Zelenka stood up with a silver string in his hand. “This one should work. And here the clamps, too.”

Alice took them into one hand, along with the flashlight, grabbed the tablet into the other and, sighing, dropped down onto her hands and knees again.

Fifteen minutes later the wire was attached securely with clamps, bypassing the faulty part, and Alice was checking its readings on the tablet. It looked okay to her, but they wouldn’t be sure until they checked the power flow. Careful not to leave anything behind, Alice began backing out of the tube again. It was her fourth time going the length of it and she was feeling it in her muscles in arms and legs. She sincerely hoped that it would now work properly; she didn’t know if she had it in her to go back there the fifth time.

As soon as Alice was clear of it, the technicians closed the base of the conduit and went back to the controls to bring the relay online again. Zelenka patted her shoulder.

“Good job!” He said enthusiastically, and Alice snickered. No doubt his enthusiasm had something to do with the fact that he wasn’t the one crawling into a pipe this time; Alice understood perfectly why he was resentful towards McKay when the head scientist belittled Zelenka’s work in plugging the holes.

Alice was able to calm her fluttering heart and began breathing normally before the technicians were done. Zelenka touched his ear – Alice hadn’t noticed before that he had a headset – to inform the control room of their success.

“How’s the power flow, Rodney?” He asked and then listened to the reply. “Good, then we can move on to the other… yes, Rodney. Right. We’re coming back.” He shook his head in exasperation. “Good work, everyone,” he told them. “Let’s head back to Stargate Operations.”  

They went at a leisurely pace, but even so they had to pause a couple of times so that Zelenka could catch his breath. The two technicians looked only marginally better. Alice didn’t mind the stops; her muscles were screaming at her after all the crawling and she sorely regretted letting herself slip with the physical training while at AFIT. Nevertheless, she made it to the control room in a better condition than her civilian companions. The earlier crowd of people was gone; only McKay and the technician he had called Chuck were hovering over the consoles.

“Ah, you’re here, finally!” McKay said as they appeared at the top of the stairs. “What took you so long?”

Zelenka rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything. Alice thought that was very patient of him. Or maybe he just couldn’t catch his breath yet.

“Anyway, it seems that we are done with the holes! I’ve been steadily increasing the power inputs in different areas of the city and I detect no more leaks.” McKay tapped on the keyboard of his laptop. “See? Perfectly even.”

Zelenka approached him and peered into his screen. “Yes, looks good, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are still dozens of systems we couldn’t yet check...”

“Way ahead of you, Radek. Look.” The head scientist jabbed his finger into the monitor.

“Full system diagnostic?” Zelenka looked up to compare the readings on the Ancient console. “That will take a while.”

“Of course it will take a while, what did you think? I figure tomorrow morning we should get the results, so we can check how to prioritize the rest of the repairs.”

“Transporters first,” Zelenka insisted and McKay waved his hand.

“Yes, yes, we can do that. That’s gonna be easy.”

Zelenka didn’t reply – at least not coherently, just grumbling to himself.

“Oh, here you are!” A new voice – familiar by now – spoke from behind them. Alice turned to face Colonel Sheppard. “I’ve been looking for you. Where have you been?” He raised his eyebrows, glancing at her uniform. Alice suddenly became painfully aware that her shirt and slacks were all dirty from crawling through a filthy tube.

As usual when she was embarrassed or unsure what to do, Alice fell back on protocol. She straightened up to attention and inclined her head towards the ranking officer.

“I’ve arrived about an hour and a half ago, sir,” she answered. “I made my way here and, well, I found that I could help Doctors McKay and Zelenka with something.”

“Oh?”

Alice smiled uneasily and explained shortly the nature of the problem and how she was uniquely suited – because of her size – to effect the needed repairs.

“I guess being tiny has some big upsides, then, huh?” Sheppard quipped. “I’m glad you’re making yourself useful already! But I think you can take the rest of the day off. I think you’ve had enough of Rodney for one day, haven’t you?”

“Oh, that is just...” McKay mumbled but Alice didn’t hear the rest of what he wanted to say, because Sheppard continued in a raised voice:

“Anyhow, I need you to visit the procurement officer to get the proper uniform and suchlike. Tomorrow you can explore the city, if you’d like. Just stay within the Inner City and don’t touch anything that you don’t recognize, okay? All the transfers should be completed within the next two days, so you’ll start your orientation on Monday. That shouldn’t take more than three or four days.” He paused for a moment. “I’ll tell Ronon to go easy on you all.”

Alice nodded with a nervous smile. Sheppard still didn’t explain what exactly this orientation, or training, was supposed to include. But she guessed if civilians were going to go through it also, it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Alice hoped so.

Chapter Text

Alice spent the next two days exploring the Inner City. The transporters were still out of order, so she had to walk everywhere, but she supposed that was even better – that way she had to learn her way through, instead of just zapping from one place to another. She went about quite alone, but kept meeting new people all over the city: around various living quarters, in the mess (there were a few of those in different towers), in the infirmary, in various labs. On day two she discovered Atlantis’ very own gym with standard Earth equipment such as treadmills, exercise bikes, ellipticals, weight benches and other trainers. Nearby there was also a close-combat room with an assortment of kendo sticks, blunt knives, nunchaku and suchlike. This room Alice vacated at once, though she told herself that she would have to get back there soon enough. Hand-to-hand was not her strength, and that was precisely why she needed more training. She did tarry a bit on the city’s firing range, watching two military guys try to out-shoot each other. She thought she could easily best either of them. She was an expert marksman.

By the end of the second day, Alice had a fair idea of what was where in the city, and had seen or met at least half of its occupants. She talked to a few; mostly the scientists in their labs, who were happy enough to tell her a bit about themselves and the work they were doing on Atlantis. They were organized into departments, Alice learned, each with a different department head, but all were under the Science and Research Division, headed by Doctor Rodney McKay. Doctor Zelenka was his second-in-command and also headed his own department. The scientists seemed to be the biggest group, and also the most diverse. There were more men than women, and Americans constituted the biggest individual nationality represented, but most people were not American. Alice saw flags of at least two dozen countries, and there were probably more than that. In contrast, most of the military contingent seemed to be from the United States. She thought she’d seen one or two Russians and a Brit, but that was all. She wondered if the IOA was happy about that. If she had to guess, she’d say not very happy. But the US was still the most influential over all matters connected to the Stargate Program, and it extended to the Atlantis expedition as well.

On Monday morning, just after breakfast, Alice went to report to the Stargate Operations. A number of people were standing around in small groups on the lower level – the Gate Room – talking excitedly. A clear division ran between them, with the civilians occupying the western half of the room, and the military the eastern one. All of them were already wearing the Atlantis standard-issue uniforms, so it was easy to pick out the scientists, technicians and medical personnel from the group on the left. Alice had her own new uniform on, too, hers with black stripes on the shoulders denoting military, and so she joined the seven men standing on the right. She was glad she didn’t have the time to speak to anyone, though; it was weird not being able to tell at least the rank of her fellow servicemen, as none had any insignia, including herself.

“Alright, kids, gather ‘round!” Sheppard’s voice shepherded them closer together. There was about twenty of them in total. “Hi. My name’s Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. Welcome to Atlantis! Most of you have already had some time to explore our fair city, but I figure you might want to get to know what we are up against a bit better. I’ve asked Teyla and Ronon to give you your orientation. Listen to them, what they say may one day save your life.”

He waved towards the two people who accompanied him. They couldn’t be much more different from each other; Ronon was towering over everybody else, while Teyla was only an inch or two taller than Alice – although Alice was slimmer and definitely in a worse shape physically; Teyla was wearing a short no-sleeves top, her prominent arm muscles on perfect display. Ronon had no sleeves, either. In fact, on second glance, Alice had to admit that the first impression was rather misleading; they had much more in common. Yeah, they were different sizes, but they had the same toughness in them, and the same serenity. Why did I think of that word? Alice wondered.

It was Teyla who spoke first.

“As Colonel Sheppard said, some of you have already been exploring the city, but we would like to give you a tour anyway.” She smiled encouragingly at them; she had a warm voice and a kind, thoughtful disposition that made her instantly likable. “Tomorrow, you will receive a briefing about the Wraith and other threats that have emerged in the Pegasus, and after that we will show you some techniques on how best to fight the Wraith. That’s more for the military contingent,” she acknowledged, and Alice frowned. She didn’t like that. “But we think it’ll do you good if the civilian personnel has some idea about it too. You never know when it might come in handy.”

Heads were nodding all around them; everybody knew how serious was the threat.

As Teyla said, they spent that first day walking around the city (the transporters were still not working), learning about different areas and their purposes, as well as security and safety procedures pertaining to each. Teyla spoke for the most part, Ronon keeping silent a lot. He reminded Alice of Teal’c, although the latter seemed somehow more mature. She didn’t know why she thought that, but it was how she felt. Maybe it was simply because Ronon was younger. Or maybe he was more rough around the edges and that is where the perception came from? Alice didn’t know.

She didn’t speak much during that day. She had found most of the places Teyla and Ronon showed them on her own before, and so the whole thing was somewhat tedious for her. She trailed behind the entire group, and although she listened carefully, she had to watch herself not to drift away, distracted by her own musings.

The second day turned out to be much more interesting. They were gathered in a conference room – not the one in Stargate Operations, but a bigger one in another tower. Ronon spoke more now; he told them all about the Wraith’s weak spots and their battle tactics, while Teyla covered their social behavior and long-term strategies. Alice, having read all of Atlantis mission reports, already knew most of it, too, but it was good to have it more structured. She even asked a few questions, mostly about the Wraith technology, surprising her fellow newbies. They had already determined her to be a silent type.

The last day was the one she feared the most. Teyla and Ronon began by a demonstration of some of the hand-to-hand techniques that best worked when faced with a Wraith. Alice remembered her days at the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center in Spring Mountains, where the prospective 302 pilots had gone through a rigorous close-combat training, which focused on how to fight the Jaffa or the Goa’uld in a way that best protected the humans from the threat of the symbiote finding its way to their spine. This was not much different; the dangerous part was the Wraith’s right hand, which was where its feeding organ was located. You needed to be constantly aware of it, because once the creature started draining you out of your life force, you pretty much lost all the possibility to fight back.

Once the demonstration was over, the group split into two and each person got a one-on-one session with either Teyla or Ronon. Intimidated by his size, Alice inched away from Ronon and joined the line waiting for Teyla. Short as she was, the Athosian woman was an excellent fighter, which had been evident from the moment she and Ronon had begun sparring; everyone had expected him to win easily, but she wouldn’t let him come close enough to use his size and range to his advantage.

Alice was the last one in the line. She was also the only military person to have chosen Teyla as her opponent; the rest of them tried their hand with Ronon, each failing, of course. The purpose was not to win against the Pegasus natives, however, but to learn some of the techniques they were trying to teach them.

Teyla began each sparring session by inclining her head, which Alice mimicked respectfully, stepping onto the mat, her new black-striped jacket left at the edge of it. Teyla gestured for Alice to come at her; the captain thought back to her hand-to-hand training back at the Marine Corps installation and went for a punch – and then found herself on the floor, with Teyla’s right hand on her shoulder, unsure how it even happened. Teyla helped her up and showed her, slowly, what she had done; Alice followed her indications and then found herself on the floor again. As much as she tried to imitate the Athosian’s moves, she could not get it perfectly enough for it to matter.

“You think too much, Captain,” Teyla told her as Alice lay down on the ground for the fourth time in a row. Alice wondered how did she know her rank? Alice didn’t introduce herself. But then again, she was the only female member of the military in this new complement, so it wasn’t that hard to identify her. “You have to stop thinking about what you’re gonna do, and just do it.”

“That’s easy to say,” Alice mumbled, getting up. How the hell was she supposed to turn off her brain?

“What do you do if someone shoots at you?” Teyla asked, not unkindly. Alice raised her eyebrows.

“Duck?” As if it was possible to move quickly enough to avoid a bullet!

Teyla smiled. “Yes. You wouldn’t wait to think, you’d just act. This is the same. Don’t overthink it. Let your instinct guide you.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have that instinct,” Alice sighed. “I’m a pilot and an engineer. I’ve never been good at this.”

Teyla shook her head. “Just try.”

Alice inhaled deeply and prepared herself. Okay. Don’t think. Don’t think. Do not…

Five seconds later she was on the ground again, laughing at herself, embarrassed.

“It was better,” Teyla assured her, offering her a hand. Alice took it and got up again. “But you need to work on it.”

“I’m starting to get that,” Alice agreed. Teyla gestured again for Alice to attack her and the lesson continued for ten more minutes, by which time Alice’s back was hurting from the repeated hard landing – it was good that there was a mat at all, but it was still unpleasant. She didn’t manage to block any of Teyla’s attacks, and none of her own reached the expert fighter either. With everyone looking on, it was truly embarrassing. Thankfully, eventually Teyla let her go, and at the same time Ronon was finishing up with his last victim – his throws looked much more forceful and Alice was silently relieved that she chose to do this with Teyla. Humiliation she could take, broken back would be a bigger problem. None of them was injured, though, albeit they were all sore and bruised at the end of their sessions. Ronon and Teyla released them after that, assuring them that they all did well, which was a blatant lie, but at least they were kind about it.

Alice, still hot and sweaty after her failed attempts to fight Teyla, tied her jacket around her waist and decided to go directly to the range and shoot some, to recuperate some of her dignity. When she got there, she found a few men already shooting; three of them were new, like her, and apparently had the same idea. Alice picked up a P90 – the standard submachine gun used by the SGC and, apparently, the Atlantis military detail as well. The range featured standard human-shaped targets and earmuffs on each station to protect against the noise. Alice put hers over her ears, checked the range to her target, inserted the magazine into the rifle and moved the safety to A – fully automatic fire. She then took up a position, inhaled, lifted the gun to see the sights and squeezed the trigger lightly. The gun spit exactly one bullet, which found its way into the middle of the target’s head. Alice then pulled the trigger fully to the rear and the rifle sputtered with the automatic fire that cut the target’s bottom part and left only the head hanging from the clamp. Satisfied, Alice put down the weapon, clicked on the safety and then hit the button that would bring the target to her.

“Nice shot,” she heard from behind her, removed the earmuffs and turned around. A man she did not recognize stood before her: tall and muscular, he wasn’t exactly the size of Ronon – not even that of her own brother – but nevertheless towered above her imposingly. He had dark brown hair, like Sheppard’s a little too long for normal military regulations, and bright hazel eyes set deeply in a handsome face. He was wearing the charcoal black uniform and a tactical vest and had a G36 assault rifle with a spent magazine in his hands.

“Thank you,” Alice replied, raising her voice to be heard above the noise, unsure whether to add sir at the end or not. Why didn’t they have rank insignia?!

“You are the new joiner, Capitaine Boyd, not?” He asked. He spoke with a thick accent, French, Alice thought; a quick look at the flag on his left arm confirmed her guess. She briefly thought about answering him in his own language, but quickly abandoned the idea. She hadn’t spoken French in something like seven years, and even then she had been very poor at it.

“Yes, sir,” she confirmed. She didn’t really mean to attach the sir there, but it slipped through anyway.

“I am Commandant Mathieu Perrault,” he introduced himself and Alice translated in her head: commandant was OF-3 according to the NATO codes, so the same as the American major. It was good that she used the sir after all. “You are always that good with a gun?”

Alice smiled proudly. “Yes, sir.” This sounded too much like empty bragging, so she added: “I qualified as an expert marksman during my Air Force training, sir. That was an M16, but I can get around with pretty much anything that shoots, including AAMs.” Which meant air-to-air missiles.

“Yes, I ‘ave heard you were a pilot. You flew a 302, not?” He pronounced it tree-zeh-roh-too. Alice arched an eyebrow. He heard? Was every new joiner that extensively talked about?

“Yes, sir. I’m supposed to drive a Puddle Jumper here.”

“I know.” He nodded. “How was your orientation?”

Alice shrugged. “It was okay, I guess. I’d read all of the Atlantis mission reports before coming here, so there wasn’t much new information, but there’s always something to learn.”

Now that she thought back to the mission reports, she remembered reading a few penned by Commandant Perrault. He got to Atlantis a few months before its travel to Milky Way and commanded his own Atlantis Reconnaissance Team. They were an exploration unit, she thought, and didn’t he lose some men a few weeks before the whole super-hive shebang? She would have to check that to be sure.

“That is a good attitude,” he praised her presently. “And how was the hand-to-hand?” It sounded like end-to-end in his mouth. He skipped as many h as he pronounced.

Something in the way he said it told Alice that he’d already heard, or at least suspected, how it went. She shook her head.

“I’ve never been good at it, I’m afraid, sir,” she admitted. “I’m gonna have to step it up with the training. I’ve spent the last three years at the Air Force Institute of Technology. Mostly sat at my desk all day,” she added as a way of explanation.

Perrault nodded knowingly. “I ‘eard about it too. Alright, carry on, Capitaine,” he finished quite unexpectedly and moved on towards the range’s armory to deposit his G36. Alice raised her eyebrows, then shrugged and went back to her target practice. It relaxed her; as much as she hated the idea of using lethal force on another sentient being, the very act of shooting had a calming effect on her. She felt as if with every bullet, a little bit of the negative emotions she’d carried went out of her, like an ejected cartridge casing from the gun. Whether it was sadness, anxiety, anger, or embarrassment – she always felt better after leaving the range. This time was no different.

 

*

 

The next morning Alice got up early. The horizon behind her window was still dark except for the lighthouse, blinking in the distance in regular intervals. She would have preferred to sleep in, but, true to her word, she decided to start with a more intensive training right away. She made her way to the gym before six am and was surprised to find it completely empty. She expected at least the military personnel to begin their routines early, but she was already halfway through her cardio when another person entered and quietly began their own exercise. The gym filled up slowly after that. Alice didn’t talk to anyone, focused as she was on her extended routine and the music coming from her earphones. She wondered if it was possible at all to jog through the city instead of the usual run on the treadmill. Sheppard told her to stay within the Inner City, but even that was quite extensive, so why not? She decided to try it the next day. It was more pleasant than a treadmill, and she could continue to explore the place while running, or at least learn its structure by heart.

After the gym routine was done, Alice entered the close-combat room where she received her schooling the previous day. It was empty. Alice walked along the side, touching all the sticks and wooden swords and blunt knives and other martial arts paraphernalia as she went. It was useless to try to train hand-to-hand without a partner. She would have to find one. But who would agree? She was so bad at it that she posed no challenge to anyone, and you usually didn’t choose sparring partners to show off how easily you beat them. Not if you were serious about it, anyway.

Alice put that question on hold for now. She had to get back to shape first in general anyway. She left the room and headed back to her own quarter to take a much-needed shower and half an hour later walked into the mess hall in the Central Tower. She guessed that was where she’d be most likely to meet Sheppard in the morning. The room was already crowded as Alice came in. She scanned it quickly, but didn’t see Sheppard nor Lorne. She did recognize a few faces from her wandering about, and she decided it was high time to start making acquaintances, so she picked up a tray and some food and with squared shoulders headed towards a table where only two people sat. Alice knew one of them from their orientation – his name was Doctor Nunes, a Brazilian physicist whose work she had referenced in her senior thesis back at CalTech. He had worked at the Groom Lake facility when she was assigned to the Prometheus. The other one Alice recognized from sight only, she must have seen him somewhere in the city already.

“Hi,” she said, approaching them. “Mind if I join you?” All tables were more or less occupied so her request wasn’t odd at all.

“Please.” Nunes waved at her to sit. Alice did so and smiled at both of them.

“I’m Captain Alice Boyd,” she introduced herself.

“I’m Doctor Luiz Nunes and this is Doctor José da Souza.” His companion had a patch with a Portugal flag on his shoulder and Alice figured it was to be expected that people would come together with others who spoke their own language – even if the version of Portuguese spoken in Brazil was much different.

“Pleased to meet you,” Alice said politely. “I know some of your work, Doctor,” she added to Nunes. “Referenced it in my senior thesis at CalTech.”

“Oh really? What did you write about?” Every scientist liked to have their ego stroked, and it was a good way to establish friendly relations.

“Measuring systems by superpositioning quantum states,” Alice replied. “But I’m more involved with engineering these days. Just got my PhD in Computer Engineering a month ago.”

“Why aren’t you wearing the blue jacket, then?” da Souza asked, eyeing her uniform. Alice smiled.

“I do science on the side,” she joked. “I’m here to fly a Jumper.”

“That’s a waste,” Nunes noted. “Don’t they have enough of pilots?”

“Apparently not.” Alice shrugged. “And what is your area of expertise, sir?” She turned to da Souza. He brightened at the possibility to talk about himself.

“I am an anthropologist,” he announced with an air of superiority. Alice hid a smirk. Everyone thought their field was the most important and fascinating one. “I go to planets we visit to learn about their inhabitants. There’s much in the Ancient database that is sadly out of date, or straight missing, so…”

“Yada yada,” a new voice interrupted them and Sheppard appeared from beyond Alice’s field of vision and clamored his tray onto their table. “You don’t mind if we butt in? Everywhere else is taken.”

Alice looked around and saw that he was quite correct. This wasn’t the only operating mess in the city, but apparently – the most popular one. The colonel had two other people in tow – Ronon sat down right next to him, opposite of Alice, and Teyla took a seat on her right.

Alice had a hard time keeping her face straight. The two scientists were so visibly bummed about the Atlantis First Team’s appearance that it was nearly comical.

“We were finishing anyway,” Nunes uttered gruffly and the two of them stood up. “Captain, come visit me in my lab some time. It’s in the Eastern Inner Tower,” he added.

“I will, thank you, Doctor,” Alice promised and smiled, watching them go.

“You will? Really?” Sheppard asked incredulously.

Alice shrugged. “Why not? Might as well see what he is working on.”

“I think you have too much free time on your hands,” the older officer opined and started at his scrambled eggs.

We have too much free time on our hands,” Ronon countered dismally, sticking his fork into a sausage with such force that the gravy splashed all over his plate. “When are we going back?”

“I have already told you, McKay and Zelenka are still working on the hyperdrive. We cannot go anywhere without that, now, can we?”

Ronon didn’t reply, but speared another sausage with his fork angrily.

“What about the IOA, John?” Teyla asked. Her demeanor was calm – serene – but Alice though she heard an echo of worry in her voice, too. She reminded herself that Teyla’s son, Torren John, was with his father three million light years away. No wonder she was anxious to go back.

“They’re still dragging their feet,” Sheppard admitted. “Last I’ve heard they were consulting with their respective governments.”

“What does that mean?”

“My money is on that they don’t want to make any decisions at all. They’re going to allow so much time to pass that someone else is gonna make that decision for them.”

“Who has the authority to do that?” Alice asked, unwittingly pulled into the conversation.

“The individual government heads.” Sheppard opened a can of soda with a loud tsss and the foam rose up and spilled onto his scrambled eggs. “Damn it.” Alice handed him a paper napkin so that he could wipe his hands. “Thanks. Anyway, as I was saying, the IOA is supposed to be an independent agency, but every representative is nominated by and reports to their government, so ultimately what they say matters the most.”

“And do you think they will be willing to let us go back to Pegasus now that the Earth’s Chair is destroyed?” Teyla persisted.

“I have no idea. It’s generally very hard to guess what countries such as Russia or China will do. They’re pretty unpredictable.”

Alice frowned. Something just occurred to her.

“I don’t think they’ll be too keen for Atlantis to stay here,” she declared after a moment of thought. “At least, not here here.”

“Well, that cleared it,” Sheppard mocked. “What do you mean, here here?”

“Well, I mean here in the San Francisco Bay. Those are our waters, aren’t they? That means that Atlantis is, by naval law, under American jurisdiction. After all, it is a ship.”

Sheppard looked at her for a moment in disbelief.

“Of course, it is only a formality, but I bet such a thing carries a lot of weight to bureaucracies such as China or Russia,” Alice added defensively.

“You’re right.” The commanding officer shook his head incredulously. “I can’t believe I haven’t thought of that before. I don’t think anyone has.”

Alice huffed. “I’m sure that’s not true. Trust me, any politician would jump to that conclusion straight away. I know a couple, I know how they think,” she explained. “Anyway, I see two fundamental questions that should determine whether the IOA allows us to leave or not: first, whether the other governments decide to try to push the IOA to move Atlantis into the international waters, and second, what is our own President going to do about it.”

“That’s an interesting question. He’s been in the office for, what, a month? Hardly any time at all to come to terms with the tsunami of information the Stargate Program has supplied him with.”

“Yeah, and not to forget he is facing a hostile Congress.” Alice nodded.

“Hostile?” Ronon repeated questioningly. Alice wondered if he understood the entire conversation. She didn’t think Earth’s politics would have been of much interest to him.

“She means that the guys deciding our laws are from a different political party than the guy who’s supposed to be in charge,” Sheppard explained. Alice chuckled. That was some way of putting it.

“I don’t understand,” Teyla admitted. Alice remembered that she was her people’s leader. She probably knew more about politics than any of them.

“Our government is divided into three parts,” Alice clarified Sheppard’s rather simplistic explanation. “It’s called separation of powers. The legislative powers are given to the Congress, the five hundred and thirty-five representatives elected by the people of this country. They are the ones who create laws, regulate taxes and spending, and can declare war. The second branch is executive, that’s the office of the President. He is also elected by the people, although not directly. He is our head of state and commander-in-chief, he can sign treaties, and he also signs bills into laws, or can veto them, but that can be overridden by a two-thirds majority in the Congress. The third branch is judiciary, the courts that explain and apply the laws.”

“I see,” Teyla acknowledged. “So your Congress is of a different political affiliation than your President now?”

“Yes. This is never easy on the President and this one hasn’t had a lot of time to get settled in yet. He’s a bit of an enigma to us. We don’t know how he views the Stargate Program and what he might do with this atlantean conundrum. I hope he will do the right thing.”

“You voted for him,” Sheppard accused her with a mocking smile.

“Yeah, I did.” Alice nodded with a smirk. “Been a Democrat all my life, Colonel.”

“But we knew Hayes! He was a good guy. Predictable.”

“Maybe so. He had a poor taste in running mates, though. Fellows only looked good when compared with Kinsey.” Alice wondered if they were allowed to vote on Atlantis. It seemed like such a small thing compared to everything that was going on out there, but soldiers on deployments all over the world were always able to vote in their bases, right?

“I can’t argue with that,” the older officer conceded.

“I’m bored,” Ronon interjected and Alice couldn’t help a smile. Here went that discussion. “I’m leaving.” He immediately rose and walked away with his tray, now empty.

“Such perfect manners,” Sheppard commented sarcastically.

“He is very impatient to go back,” Teyla defended her fellow teammate. “Like we all.”

“Yes, well, it is pointless to speculate now. Once the hyperdrive is online again, then we can start worrying about the IOA and the President,” Sheppard said.

Teyla cocked her head to the side and gave him a significant look. “If you say so, John.” Then she stood up as well. “I must go, too. I promised Doctor Keller I would help her in the infirmary today.”

“Help her with what? There’s nobody’s hurt.”

“I believe she has received a delivery of new drugs yesterday and would like to catalog them all.” Teyla picked up her tray – also empty – and turned to go. “Have a good day, John, Captain.”

“Thank you, ma’am, likewise,” Alice replied. She looked down at her own food, still mostly untouched.

“Yeah, you’ve gotta work on that.” Sheppard pointed to her tray. “I’ll ask Lorne to give you some lessons in a Jumper today. At the rate I’ve seen you learn, you’ll be an expert pilot by tomorrow.”

Alice arched an eyebrow. It was true that flying a Jumper was much easier than she’d expected, but Sheppard was surely exaggerating.

“I doubt that, sir, but I’ll appreciate the opportunity to try.”

“Good. I’ll see you later.” Sheppard stood and walked off with his tray, where only his soda-drenched scrambled eggs remained. How did they manage to eat everything so fast? Alice was right there, how did she not even see that? Was she that engaged in the conversation that not only did she forget to eat herself, but didn’t even notice others doing so? She shook her head and dug into her omelet. She needed strength after the morning’s intense workout.

 

*

 

Sheppard was not exaggerating, not by much, anyway. Maybe Alice was not an expert Jumper pilot by the end of the day, but Lorne had run out of tricks to show her. She was sure there was actually plenty of more things to be discovered about the craft, but she had all the basics down by the time they landed back in the Jumper bay on top of the Central Tower. Flying, maneuvers, sensors, HUD… about the only thing she couldn’t do was shoot the drones, the incredibly powerful Ancient weapon that each of the small ships carried a load of. That however wouldn’t do in the busy airspace over San Francisco. Someone might have seen and wondered at it. At least the cloak had let them frolic around to their hearts’ desire.

Lorne was not a bad companion. He was a smooth talker, filling the silence nicely, but not presumptuous. He willingly shared all his knowledge not only about the Puddle Jumper, but also Atlantis and their mission. He needed very little encouragement to offer some insight into his own life, too; it turned out he originally came from the San Francisco Bay area, so as they flew over it, he kept pointing out landmarks and encouraging Alice to see them, if she had some free time. But at the same time, he wasn’t too talkative; he didn’t mind short periods of silence caused by Alice’s natural reticence. He also had a sense of humor, which Alice appreciated more even than his general niceness.

It was nearly three in the afternoon when they finally touched down in the Jumper Bay, having spent almost five hours in the air. Alice didn’t feel tired at all; after a sortie that long in a 302, she’d be stiff and slick from sweat, but the Ancient ship provided so much comfort for the pilot that she could well spend even the entire day flying it and not feel much more than a general weariness associated with sitting down for a long time. Lorne invited her to grab a late lunch with him, to which she agreed, hungry after all the flying. She never forgot that he was outranking her and kept calling him sir respectfully, but she could already see that he’d be a good buddy – maybe not a best friend material, but that one steady, dependable person you knew you could always count on. Except from time to time she thought she saw a flash of something much less cordial in his eyes – something like mockery, like inside he was laughing at her. It was always too quick to pinpoint, and nothing in his behavior suggested anything ominous. Alice didn’t know what to make of it; if it only had happened once, she’d have dismissed it, but she’s seen that spark of something darker a few times during the day. It was very odd.

After lunch, Lorne left for his other duties, and Alice decided to check with Zelenka on the progress of the repairs. She didn’t want to ask McKay – the man intimidated her, both because of his brilliance and because of his rather unpleasant demeanor. But Zelenka looked harmless and was McKay’s second-in-command, so probably was just as good a source of information as the head scientist himself. Plus, Alice already had a sort of rapport with him after the whole plugging-the-leaky-holes thing on her first day.

She found him in his lab, some five levels below the Stargate Operations. It was completely silent inside as she entered, despite four different people sitting at various laptops across the room. They were all gazing intently into their screens, so still that she could nearly hear their breaths. Zelenka was sitting closest to the door and nearly jumped to his feet as Alice approached him.

Jejda!” He exclaimed, clutching at his chest. “I thought you were Rodney.”

Alice couldn’t help but laugh. “And why does Doctor McKay scare you so, Doctor?”

He waved his hand, mumbling something in Czech, but otherwise didn’t reply.

“I came to see how the repairs are going,” Alice said, leaning over Zelenka’s desk. “I noticed the transporters are working again. I’m sure the whole expedition welcomed it with as much joy as I have.”

“Yes, we finally managed that. It wasn’t as easy as Rodney had predicted,” the scientist admitted. “We’re trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with the hyperdrive. We’re not sure why it failed in the first place, although Rodney has a theory.” He looked annoyed. “He thinks it isn’t in the engines itself, but in the transmitters between the Chair and the drive.”

“You don’t agree?”

“I think we wouldn’t have made it all the way to the Milky Way before dropping out of the hyperspace if the problem was in the transmitters.” Zelenka shook his head. “Yet here we are, going over the data for the third time. It checks out, there’s nothing missing!” He waved his hands in exasperation.

“What if it’s a false-positive reading?” Alice asked, peeking curiously into the Czech’s monitor.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, sometimes a hardware fault can be masked by software’s efficiency,” she explained. “Something like this happened when I was on the Prometheus. The engine was fine, so were our computers, but a small transmitter translating signals from our human-Goa’uld hybrid controls to the Asgard hyperdrive malfunctioned. We didn’t see anything wrong except a small irregularity in the drive’s performance.”

Zelenka looked pensive. “So you’re saying that if it is the transmitters, we will not find the fault by checking the inputs, we have to check the outputs?”

“Maybe. But it also could be a hidden defect in the engine. Bottom line, unless we go down there and physically check the stardrive and the transmitters, we may never find the fault. You said it yourself, you’ve gone over it three times and came up empty.” Alice shrugged. “These systems are smart, but not smart enough to know what is wrong if their own sensors are lying to them. That is an oversimplification,” she admitted. “But I think it may be worth checking out. It could be something as simple as a short-circuit. Or something else entirely, but if we can’t find it in the software...”

“We should look for it in the hardware,” Zelenka agreed. “Good thinking, Captain. Will you help us?”

Alice nodded, smiling. “With pleasure.”

Zelenka radioed McKay, argued with him for a moment and then gathered the rest of his team – the other three sitting with him in the lab and a few others – and they made towards the stardrive. This time, the hike down was much easier; they could use the transporter which left them with only three more levels to descend before they entered the large chamber lined with the conduits linking the ZPMs to the engines and to the Chair. One more narrow and short stairwell led to the wide open space with low ceiling, where the powerful stardrive’s engines rose from the floor like an intricate lace of coils and pipes, dotted with bulging cylinders and drums of what looked like stainless steel, but actually, Alice knew, was an alloy of naquadah, carbon and an element they haven’t encountered anywhere else in three galaxies, as of yet, except in the Ancient tech, which suggested that it had been produced artificially. They got to work immediately, each of them armed with a tablet linked to the same sort of mini-scanner Alice had used to detect the energy leak. They crawled through the maze of conduits and cables, moving slowly in grids, methodically covering more and more ground. It was hot down there, the room too low and too stuffy for the city’s air conditioning to work efficiently. A few hours later, when they were climbing back the stairs wearily, Alice was sweaty and overheated, and it seemed that all her hair was standing up and nearly sparkling with static energy given off by the huge engines. They had found nothing, but they only covered about a third of the room; Zelenka called it for the day when one of his guys commented grimly that they were missing dinner, and it was supposed to be his favorite roast beef that night. Alice didn’t join them as they turned as one towards the closest mess. She went to her own room to take a shower first, and as she finally arrived half an hour later in the main chow hall she found it completely empty. She was already halfway through her meal when someone came up to her and sat down, noisily putting the tray on the table. Alice looked up from her e-reader, surprised.

“Hi,” Doctor McKay said somewhat warily. “You don’t mind…?” He made an awkward gesture encompassing the two of them. “It’s a bit creepy here when there’s no one around.”

Alice smiled pleasantly. “Of course not, Doctor.” She wanted to add that she found it surprising to hear that a man of his experience was afraid to be alone anywhere in the city, much less in the brightly lit central tower, but then thought better of it. For a moment they ate in silence.

“So you had Zelenka and his team crawling through the stardrive today,” the scientist spoke up after a minute. “You’re not gonna find anything that way, you know!”

“Maybe not,” Alice agreed mildly. “But I figure it’s better to try a new approach than repeating the one that has failed to yield any results for the past few days.”

“It didn’t fail, it’s just that we haven’t found anything yet!” McKay exclaimed in outrage. “But we will, you will see, we will, you just wait!”

Alice just shrugged in reply. She didn’t mean to antagonize him. His theory about the transmitters was just as good as any. The problem was that he was so convinced he was right he wouldn’t even consider any other possibility, and that was perilous. Alice supposed if someone was a genius like him who rarely ever made mistakes, accepting another approach must have come hard to him. Still, as a scientist, he should be more flexible, she thought.

They didn’t speak for another long moment, McKay shooting her furtive glances she didn’t understand. What was his problem with her? Was it that she was young? Or that she contradicted him?

“I read your PhD dissertation.” McKay finally broke the silence after a couple of minutes of mute chewing. Alice arched her eyebrows.

“Oh?”

“Yes. It was… nice. But you missed a few important points.”

“Such as?” It wasn’t irony, she was genuinely curious to know his opinion.

“The information processing models you’ve developed are too limited. They won’t allow for true cognitive learning, and in turn, for creation of autonomous outputs.”

Alice nodded solemnly. “I had to limit them for the purpose of the dissertation,” she explained. “They were based on classified data and so I couldn’t use them in a public paper like that. I have sent the expanded version to our guys at Groom Lake, though, I’m sure they’d be happy to share it with you, Doctor.”

“Oh.” He looked somewhat dumbstruck. “Oh, no, not necessary. I know them. I was just pointing out something lacking in your dissertation.”

Alice’s returning smile was rather tight-lipped. “Thank you, Doctor.” She didn’t mention that she’s read all his papers, too, both the official and the classified ones. Most of them were still way above her level of understanding, especially those relating to astrophysics, so it was hard poking holes in them. Besides, you mustn’t feed the beast, she thought to herself. By and large, Rodney McKay didn’t seem to need his ego stroked any further.

“So… so how do you like Atlantis?” The scientist asked less than half a minute later, grappling for something to say. Alice sighed. He was clearly a talker, and seemed to find silence awkward. A complete opposite of herself.

“It’s certainly an impressive piece of technology,” she answered levelly. “I’m quite looking forward to discovering its secrets.”

“You don’t sound very enthusiastic.”

“I am excited to be here,” she assured him, but didn’t add: and terrified out of my mind. That would be oversharing.

“Uh-huh.” He didn’t seem convinced. Alice smiled to him, a bit more genuinely this time, and stood up; she was done with her food.

“It was nice talking to you, Doctor, but I need to get going. It’s an early morning for me tomorrow.”

“You’re gonna continue with Zelenka and his team?”

“Yes, sir. I’m confident we can finish our physical search tomorrow.”

“You won’t find anything.” McKay was stubborn.

“Perhaps not,” she agreed. “We’re still gonna check, though. Goodnight, Doctor.”

He didn’t respond and Alice took her tray to the conveyor and walked out of the mess.

 

*

 

Alice spent the better part of the next day in the stuffy stardrive room with Zelenka and his team,  joined by a few technicians. By five in the afternoon, she was sitting on a conduit bulging out of the floor, draining the last drops of water from the bottle she’d brought with her after lunch. Her hair, initially pinned in a neat bun, was poking out every which way, except for a few dank locks right by her skin, stuck to her face. Her uniform was drenched in sweat and her breathing was fast and shallow. This had been hard work. By now, she had lost the hope that they’d find anything; they’d combed through nearly the entire place and found not a pip out of the ordinary on their energy scanners. Doctor McKay had been right. It wasn’t the engines. Unless…

She stood up suddenly and walked towards Zelenka, who was bent over one of the many cylinders. Her legs felt kind of rubbery and again she cursed herself for not stepping up her training routine in the months preceding her return to the Stargate program.

“Doctor, how sure are we that we plugged all the holes?” She asked from a few paces away. Zelenka straightened up with an audible crick in his back.

“We did a full diagnostic,” he answered with a frown. “If there were any more leaks, the system would have detected it.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Alice told herself not to get overexcited. She might have been wrong. But she didn’t think she was. “Tell me, the transmitters, they run through the ship in the same conduits as the energy from the ZPM does, right?” She waited for him to nod. “And the Chair is an extension of the main controls, right?”

“Not exactly, the Chair contains its own control console,” Zelenka contradicted.

“But it’s connected to the main controls,” Alice pressed. The Czech nodded again, his frown deepening. “But the only way to operate the stardrive is the Chair. Which means that at least part of the software is exclusively housed in the Chair’s operating system. So in order to make a diagnostic of those systems, the console in, say, Stargate Operations must connect and run it through the Chair.”

“Correct.”

“So if there was a leak somewhere in the engines or the transmitters, the only way to detect it would be through the Chair. Except the transmitters might have been damaged at the same time as the energy conduits were, they run through the same piping. The Chair would mask the damage because it depends on these transmitters for sensory information about the stardrive, too, and your own diagnostic couldn’t see it because it’s routed through the Chair.”

“So you’re saying that the transmitters are damaged, which means we can’t find the leak in the conduit, which in turn hides the real damage to the stardrive because there is not enough energy going through?”

“It’s possible.” Alice gestured around them. “It fits. The leak must be someplace directly connected to the hyperdrive, because sublight engines work just fine. The inputs are flowing in, so we can maneuver them, but I bet if you would try to tamper with the sublights and then looked at the outputs, you would not detect the anomaly unless you checked at the source.”

Zelenka didn’t say anything for a minute, the frown still very pronounced on his forehead, thinking deeply. Alice waited patiently. Finally, he double-tapped his earpiece and told his team to continue the sweep of the stardrive.

“Just to be sure,” he told Alice before getting on the radio again to ask McKay where he was. He then led Alice up a few levels to a nondescript corridor where McKay and a few other scientists were gathered around an exposed part of the wall with a halfway open conduit running through it.

“What did you find, Rodney?” Zelenka asked as they approached, Alice half a step behind him, unwilling to attract others’ attention.

“That I was right!” The head scientist replied in a condescending tone. “The transmitters are the source of the problem. I was just about to finish the repairs.”

“Well, actually, Captain Boyd had a rather interesting idea here.” The Czech gestured towards Alice and she smiled dubiously.

“Doesn’t matter. We’ve found the fault.” McKay pointed to the exposed conduit, where a couple wires were already cut and bypassed. “I was right.”

“Actually, sir, I think you were both right,” Alice ventured hesitantly. “I’m pretty sure we’re dealing here with three separate problems which together present as false-positive results on the monitoring equipment at the control consoles.” She repeated her theory concerning the transmitters, the conduits and a likely hardware fault in the engine itself. “The same transmitters operate the hyperdrive and the sublight engines, so if they were down all the way, the sublights wouldn’t be working either,” she concluded. “So obviously they must be accepting inputs from the Chair but nothing the other way around. Except that still doesn’t explain the hyperdrive. It must be damaged as well, otherwise it would be working the same way the sublights are.”

“That… that...” Alice observed McKay struggle for a moment to find a hole in the theory, but he had to give in to logic eventually. “That actually makes sense,” he admitted somewhat sourly, but then brightened. “Still, I was right about the fault in transmitters.”

Zelenka shook his head, looking at Alice with meaningfully raised eyebrows. She hid a snicker.

“Let’s repair these then, if you’re right we’ll be able to find the remaining energy leak in the hyperdrive conduits once it’s done and...” He paused as their earpieces came to life with a second of static, followed by Colonel Sheppard’s voice.

“Captain Boyd, come in.”

Alice raised her eyebrows and briefly wondered if she was in trouble for not informing her CO about what she was up to the entire day. She dismissed it, though; she did tell Lorne that she was going to check in with the science team, and anyway it wasn’t like there was anything else to do for her.

“This is Boyd,” she said, touching the radio earpiece and looking down to avoid McKay’s and Zelenka’s curious glances.

“Come up to Stargate Operations, Boyd, will ya?” Sheppard ordered in a neutral tone.

“Yes, sir, right away.” Alice looked up and smiled to the scientists. “Seems that I have to go. Good luck with the thing.” She gestured broadly at the exposed conduit and towards the floor, a few levels beneath which was the stardrive.

“Come back when you can, I’m sure whatever Sheppard wants to do with you is nothing of importance,” McKay professed sourly and then added: “Good job, Captain.”

That last remark shocked Alice. McKay was praising her, even though she technically pointed out a fault in his logic? That didn’t seem like him. Alice had already decided that he was a pompous little man, perhaps brilliant, but too full of himself for his own good. But maybe there was more to him than that? She thought back to how totally she had misjudged Vala Mal Doraan and decided to give McKay another chance. He couldn’t be that bad, could he?

 

*

 

Getting up all the way to Stargate Operations took all of five minutes, thanks to the transporters. Alice would have preferred to take a shower first – she was all sweaty and stinky after the entire day in the hot, stuffy stardrive room – but when your CO said come, you did well not to dawdle.

Alice stopped near the control consoles, manned by a technician she’s already met before. Sheppard was nowhere to be seen.

“Hey, Chuck,” Alice greeted the man and he looked up and smiled to her. “Have you seen Colonel Sheppard?”

“Yeah, he’s over in the conference room with that French guy and two others.”

“Thanks.” French guy? Did he mean Commandant Perrault, the man she’s met at the gun range? She had no idea how many French people were on Atlantis. No point speculating, she thought and headed for the conference room. The turning doors were closed initially, but they began to open as soon as she approached, revealing a circular area behind them, with a large mahogany table in the middle. Four men were sitting around it. Alice entered, stood at attention and saluted towards Sheppard.

“Reporting as ordered,” she said, keeping the position until the commanding officer returned the salute offhandedly. She relaxed her stance and he shook his head.

“You’ve gotta stop doing that, Captain, we’re not so big on procedure here,” he told her, but not unkindly. Then he gestured for her to take a seat next to him. As she did so, she sneaked a look at the other three men.

Two of them were in the charcoal-and-black uniforms of the military; the third one was wearing the standard-issue pants and a dark blue t-shirt, but he didn’t have his jacket and so it was impossible to tell his department affiliation.

One of the servicemen was indeed Commandant Perrault. He towered over his military colleague, and although both were seated, making it difficult to pinpoint their exact heights, Alice thought the other man might be around five feet and eight inches, plus-minus an inch or two. He too had brown hair, trimmed to a buzz cut, but his eyes were nearly black, not bright hazel like Perrault’s. He had a shadow of a beard on his chin, and his oval face and olive skin gave him a vaguely Mediterranean look. He had a white flag with a red cross on his arm patch, though, denoting England. The third man was of a more average build, not as athletic as his companions, but still in good physical shape. He had long black hair gathered in a ponytail over his neck, and his eyes were beady and black, too. His dark skin was severely discolored in some places: patches of pale white blossomed here and there on his arms and throat, and there was one long blemish on his face going from the inner corner of his left eye, over his nose, and all the way to the bottom tip of his right ear. Vitiligo, Alice thought instantly. A skin condition of mostly unknown origins, incurable but not dangerous in and of itself, although it was often triggered or accompanied by an autoimmune disease. He was the only one of the three to greet her with a friendly smile; the other two’s careful eyes sized her up and down with cool reserve.

“Captain, this is Commandant Mathieu Perrault, he leads the Forth Atlantis Reconnaissance Team,” Sheppard began the presentation, not knowing that they’d met already. His pronunciation of the French rank and name made Alice want to chuckle, but she restrained herself. “That is Sergeant Basil Karim” - he pointed to the Englishman in the military uniform - “and the last of the merry bunch is Doctor William Cooper.” The civilian nodded amicably. “They are your new unit.”

Alice blinked very fast. She hadn’t expected that… yet somehow she wasn’t surprised. The way Perrault approached her at the shooting range made her wonder. He had probably already known then that Alice would be assigned to his command, or at least suspected.

“Oh.” Alice wasn’t sure how to respond; she had never been in anything smaller than a squadron. “Um… yes, sir.” Even to her own ears it sounded like a question.

“Perrault has been on Atlantis for… how long has it been?” Sheppard turned to the Frenchman. “Six months?”

“Five, unless you count the time that we’ve been sitting on our collective butts ‘ere,” Perrault complained and gave her a tight-lipped little smile.

“Doctor Cooper has been with us for over a year, but he joined the Fourth Team only when Perrault took over,” Sheppard continued. “Sergeant Karim has just been assigned to Atlantis too, just like you.”

Alice nodded. She vaguely remembered him from the orientation. He had come very close to besting Ronon at the hand-to-hand.

“Fourth Reconnaissance Team is an exploratory unit.” Sheppard resumed after a brief pause. “With the situation in the Pegasus as it currently is, my own team has to focus on other things, and so do teams two and three. So it falls on you guys to go out and discover new planets and people. We’ve seen a lot in the past five years but there’s much more there that we haven’t gotten to yet.”

Alice nodded thoughtfully. The Ancient Database held information about more than a thousand worlds with Stargates; the Atlantis expedition visited less than a third. So that was going to be their mission?  To go and explore? And she, Alice, was supposed to join them. Not only fly the Jumper whenever they needed one, but actually go in with them each time they stepped through the Gate. She suppressed a shiver. This was exactly the thing she was afraid of.

And why? She knew she was capable of handling herself in difficult situations, she has proven as much already. And it wasn’t only because she knew she’d miss flying – as much fun as piloting a Jumper was, she had a feeling she wouldn’t be up all that often. She was afraid for her life, that was part of it; she had her brush with death already, and she never wanted to feel like that ever again. But another big part of it was that she was scared to screw up. She had been trained to fly a fighter and it was complicated enough, but this? She thought of a thousand things she could mess up. Ending up dead was just one of the bad-case scenarios; there were some that were worse than that. She’s read enough of the atlantean reports to know that one mistake, one false step could lead to suffering and death for hundreds of people at a time, to disasters of such proportions that just thinking about the possibility made her heart rate quicken. What if she did something that would put Atlantis in danger? Or, worse still, the Earth? The Wraith have gotten as far once already, who’s to say they wouldn’t try – and succeed – again?

She’s never been trained for this. Perrault and Karim, they looked like tough guys, guys who were used to facing the oncoming storm with cool serenity, guys who could shoulder that kind of responsibility. But they weren’t like that because of an innate talent; they were trained for this. For months they trained, and had years of combat experience to top it off. Alice had seen it with Jake; she had seen him change, the kid with a guitar and an endless supply of jokes up his sleeve, morphing into the confident, fearless soldier he was now. But Alice didn’t have that. She might have been smart, she might have been an excellent pilot, a great engineer and even a decent scientist, but she was no soldier. And yet here she was, nodding calmly along as her new commanding officer molded her fears into reality.

“Zelenka told me that you were helping them with the repairs,” Sheppard remarked after another brief pause, and his voice sounded in Alice’s ears as if it were coming from a distance. She had to put a lot of effort to will herself out of the reverie and into the present. “I think it’s safe to say he’d like to keep you in his team whenever Perrault can spare you. But you should be aware that your primary duty is to your team and not the science geeks.”

“Yes, sir.” Alice’s reply was more of a sigh than an actual utterance.

“Alright, then. I’ll leave y’all to get acquainted.” Sheppard stood up, nodded to them and left the room, the turning panel-doors closing after him with a slight hiss. Alice turned her eyes to the three men sitting opposite her.

“Well, Capitaine, welcome to the team.” Perrault extended his hand over the table and Alice shook it soberly.

“Thank you, sir.” She wondered if she should add it’s a pleasure, but figured it would be a bad start to the relationship to lie. No, she felt no pleasure; it was more of a hollow feeling, a bit like before jumping into a pool from the tallest springboard.

“It’s great to finally meet you, Captain!” Doctor Cooper exclaimed with real enthusiasm, taking her hand next and shaking it vigorously. “I’ve heard a lot about you! Is it true that your CIA rating is second only to Sheppard’s? And that you two are related?”

“Uh, yes, I’m afraid so.” She couldn’t help but smile a bit. Cooper came across as an uncommonly radiant person. “I mean… I’ve never met Colonel Sheppard before being informed of my assignment to Atlantis, it’s a distant relation and our families didn’t keep in touch.”

The last to shake her hand was Sergeant Karim, who gave her an appraising look and a curt nod in lieu of a vocal greeting. Alice reciprocated with the same. Next to Cooper, Karim seemed rather somber. Alice wondered if it was him, or maybe it was more of a cultural thing; she hadn’t met many Brits before, but she knew they were supposed to be much more reserved than their American cousins. And Cooper was definitely an American; his Boston accent was unmistakable.

“You should know, Capitaine, I was the one to request you to my team,” Perrault said nonchalantly. “It became clear to me very soon after coming ‘ere that an exploration team needed someone with a background in science. Your ability to fly a Jumper was an added bonus.”

“I don’t really have any scientific field experience, sir,” Alice protested feebly. It was a done deal, so what did it matter, really? Yet she didn’t want them to expect too much from her, lest she let them down.

“Nobody has when they first come here.” Perrault nodded gravely. “But I read your file, Capitaine, and I saw that you were a rapid learner. And I have to say, the SGC was rather glad to have at least one American in the unit ‘oo wasn’t a civilian.” He smiled again with the same tight-lipped smile she has already seen on him.

“I’m not that kind of scientist,” Copper interjected, grinning to her brightly. “I’d be more likely to electrocute myself than change a light bulb.”

Alice couldn’t help but snicker. “And what is it that you do, Doctor?”

“Please, call me Will, everybody does,” he prompted. “I’m an anthropologist, with specialization in ethnography. I’ve worked under Doctor Jackson for a while before coming here.”

“So you’re our PR guy,” Alice quipped and got a chuckle out of Cooper and another one of those narrow smiles of Perrault’s. Karim only continued to look at her steadily, making her a bit uncomfortable.

“I guess I am!” Will agreed happily. “Me and Matt are usually the ones to go and talk to the people while the rest checks out the perimeter.”

Alice nodded. Made sense for the unit commander to accompany him, but it meant that she and Karim were the rest and therefore they would be the ones most likely to stumble across any dangers. Still, she supposed it was good that she wouldn’t be expected to make friends with the indigenous people. It wasn’t her strong suit.

“Don’t worry, Capitaine, we’ll start slowly,” Perrault assured her, maybe seeing her insecurity. She had always been an open book to everyone, so it didn’t surprise her. “We will ‘ave to work out a common dynamic. Each member of this team has his own strengths and weaknesses. The first few weeks will be about learning those to be able to work together efficiently.”

“Yeah, Matt, any idea when we’re moving off this rock and back to Pegasus?” Cooper asked eagerly, looking at Perrault sideways.

“I think that’s a question more for Boyd. You were with the science team all day, not?” The commandant raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“Yes, sir, but I’m afraid it’s too early to tell. We’re still looking for what is wrong. It may be a few days or a few weeks.”

“Well, let’s ‘ope for the first.” Perrault shrugged casually. Alice wondered why the two of them were so eager to go back. Were they really that engaged in the fight? Or was it fascination with the unknown? Both, or neither? She didn’t know. “Until then, I think you can continue ‘elping the science team. The sooner we can go, the better.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And one more thing.” Perrault paused for a moment, his eyes flitting to Karim for a second and then back to Alice. “I’d like you to start some ‘and-to-’and training. I’ve seen you shoot so I’m not worried about that, but by your own words you are not good at close-combat. Sergent Karim will help you with that.”

Alice and the Brit nodded at the same moment. “Yes, sir.” It was what Alice wanted to do anyway; now at least she had a sparring partner, although she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. Karim proved to be very proficient at hand-to-hand when facing Ronon during their orientation, so Alice supposed he could actually teach her a lot, but wouldn’t he mind dealing with someone as bad as her? Not to mention that he wasn’t the friendliest of people. She was yet to hear his voice, if nothing else.

“Alright.” Perrault looked at his watch. “It’s almost time for dinner, so I’ll let you go now. Karim, stay ‘ere with me for a moment, I want to ‘ave a word.”

The Brit raised his eyebrows, but otherwise didn’t really react. Alice felt his eyes on herself as she got up and left the room with Cooper in tow.

“You coming to the mess, Captain?” The ethnographer asked as the paneled door closed behind them.

She turned around and smiled at him. “Alice, please.”

He replied with another bright grin. It made the long white blemish on his face curve up over his cheek. “Alright, Alice. So? Dinner?”

She thought for a moment. She still needed a shower, but she didn’t think it was so bad, so she could probably grab a bite to eat first. “Sure, why not.”

The Central Tower’s mess hall was only four levels below, but Cooper steered them towards the transporter anyway, so it took all of five minutes to get there. It was still pretty early and the room wasn’t all that crowded. They each filled up their trays and found an unoccupied table.

“So, Alice, how do you find the city?” Cooper asked curiously, opening a can of soda and nearly spilling it. Alice snickered, remembering Sheppard’s coke-covered scrambled eggs the other day.

“It’s amazing,” she replied predictably. “I’ve never seen anything quite like that. It didn’t look so when we were approaching in a Jumper, but it’s huge. I’ve been exploring ever since I got here, but I didn’t even scrape the surface.”

“I’ve been here for fourteen months and I haven’t seen everything yet,” Cooper agreed. “Granted, I never really had much of a reason to go outside the Inner City, but still.”

“Colonel Sheppard mentioned that you only joined the Fourth Reconnaissance Team when Commandant Perrault took over. What were you doing before that?” Alice had wondered about that. Had he been a part of a different unit previously?

“Nothing much! I wasn’t going off-world, anyway. I did my research here on Atlantis, working mostly with the Ancient Database and other teams’ reports.” He paused to chew and swallow a particularly big forkful of salad. “Not as glamorous as I was expecting, that was. So when a position in the team opened, I volunteered.”

Alice arched an eyebrow. He was a civilian, which meant he must have had even less training or experience than she had, and yet he volunteered, and he wanted to go out there. It made her feel embarrassed. She wanted to ask him if he wasn’t afraid, but that would say too much of her own fear.

“That’s rather remarkable,” she commented as nonchalantly as she could instead. “Especially for a civilian.”

He shrugged. “We’ve got lots of civilians here, and to be fair it’s not always safe in the city, either.”

“Right.” Alice nodded thoughtfully, remembering all the reports of the attacks on Atlantis. “Not to mention the leader of the expedition is a civilian, too.”

“Right, Woolsey. He’s not as bad as we expected him to be,” Cooper acknowledged. “Although it was tough to switch from Colonel Carter to him, at first. Completely different styles of leadership.”

“I bet.” Alice smiled. “I hear that Colonel Carter has command of her own BC-304 now. The George Hammond?

“Yeah, that’s what they say! Nice of them to honor General Hammond that way.”

“Did you know him?”

Will shook his head. “No, but Doctor Jackson always spoke very highly of him.”

“Right, you said you worked under Doctor Jackson. That must have been pretty nice. He’s a fascinating guy.”

“Yeah, he is. You know him?”

“A little.” Alice smiled to her memories. “We’ve met on a few occasions when I was a 302 driver on the Prometheus.”

Cooper nodded seriously. “I heard you were aboard when it was destroyed.”

“Yeah.” Alice looked away for a moment. It was still an unpleasant memory, both for the feeling of loss for the people that died that day, and for her own personal ordeal that she faced when a shot from the Ori satellite pierced through the ship’s hull. “Anyway… what were you doing for Jackson?”

“Oh, this and that. I was part of a larger team of anthropologists of various specializations, we were trying to make a first comprehensive description of different peoples the SGC has met during all their travels in the Milky Way.”

“Wow, sounds ambitious.”

“It was, overly so. I’m afraid it’s not been finished until this day.” Cooper winked at her, grinning. “I’m lucky that they let me go.”

“How long were you there?”

“About two years. I was invited to join that study group at the beginning of ‘06.” He chuckled. “I didn’t believe them at first, when they came to tell me. I thought it was a prank by some of my students.”

“You were a teacher?” Alice found herself unusually curious about the man. It was probably his radiant personality that drew her to him.

“Yeah, at Tufts, my alma mater. But I spent a few years abroad in between getting my degree and starting to teach. They plucked me from there to SGC after only two years anyway.”

Alice smiled. “Sounds impressive. You must be good.”

“I’ve got some game.” He made an affected gesture and Alice laughed. He was very easy to like. “Sheppard said you were pretty good, too.”

“He talked about me?” Alice supposed it was normal that they’d be briefed about a new addition to the team, but it always surprised her when people mentioned her to other people.

“Yeah, sure. We were both there, Matt and I, when Sheppard came to talk about complementing the team. Matt already knew who he wanted, but he had many questions anyway.”

“When was that?”

“Something like two weeks ago.”

“Two weeks ago I didn’t even know I was coming here, and they couldn’t have known either because I had to make a decision.” Alice shook her head. “So it couldn’t have been that far back.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it was Thursday the nineteenth.” Cooper gave her another bright grin. “Whoever sent over the files apparently didn’t have any doubts what your choice would be.”

Alice rolled her eyes. She knew she was transparent to everyone around her, but that was ridiculous.

“Sheppard and I hadn’t met until twenty-fifth,” she countered with a touch of annoyance in her voice. “So how could he have answered any questions beyond what was in my personnel file before that?”

“I don’t know, but he did. If he didn’t know you, he must have talked to someone who did.”

Alice nodded thoughtfully. Sheppard did tell her that he spoke with Colonel Carter, but she was under the impression that he’d talked to her after meeting Alice. Either way, she found it odd that he’d go to such lengths.

“So what did he say about me?” She couldn’t deny being curious.

Cooper chuckled. “You wouldn’t be insecure, now, would you?”

“Who, me?” Alice replied innocently, which made him laugh, but inside she was agreeing wholeheartedly. “You don’t need to tell me, I’m just being nosy right now.”

“Well, if that shall allay your doubts, I can tell you that he spoke rather highly of you. He said you were dependable and a team player. That carries a lot of weight with Matt.”

“And what sort of a person is he?” Alice asked eagerly. He would be her direct supervisor. She had never reported to anyone who wasn’t Air Force, let alone not even American military. It was going to be decidedly bizarre.

“He’s a good guy,” Will replied earnestly. “He listens, and that is something that cannot be overestimated.  He even has a bit of a sense of humor, although he is rarely ha-ha funny.”

“I don’t think I have seen him show his teeth when he smiles yet,” Alice mused. “But that’s a European thing, I think. I remember it shocked me how little people smiled in France. Went there for a semester during college,” she added, seeing Cooper’s raised eyebrows.

“So you actually speak French?”

“Not much,” she admitted. “I might understand a lot, but I would have a problem making a proper sentence myself. It’s been a long time, and I’ve never been good with languages to begin with.”

“Still, this has potential.” Will smirked slyly and winked at her. Alice frowned.

“Potential for what?”

“For pranks, of course!” He exclaimed as if it was totally obvious. Alice couldn’t help but snicker, but shook her head.

“He’s a superior officer, country affiliation notwithstanding.  There will be no pranks from me.” Besides, it made her think back to her 302 training and a certain Vasquez. It’s been a long time, but she wouldn’t be caught acting like him if her life depended on it.

“Oh, you’re no fun.” But Cooper didn’t look too crestfallen. “At any rate, I’m sure you’ll get along okay with Matt. The only really bad thing about that guy is his accent.”

Alice smiled. “Speaking of which, have you talked to Sergeant Karim yet? Does he speak at all?”

Will laughed. “Yeah, he does. He’s not very forthcoming, is he?”

“I’ve never thought I’d meet someone more taciturn than myself,” Alice confessed.

“So I take it this convo of ours just now is you being talkative?”

“You have no idea,” she assured him. She believed – or hoped – that she’s become a little better about talking to people and all that in the past three years, but she normally still preferred to keep her thoughts to herself.

“I feel honored.” Cooper stood up and bowed, sticking his left arm out, his right hand on his chest. Then he sat back down. “Anyway, I don’t know about that Karim guy. He’s definitely qualified. He came here straight from the British SAS, d’you know?”

Alice shook her head. “I’m not surprised. There aren’t that many servicemen from outside the U.S. here, I suppose their respective countries chose the best of the best. Which is kinda depressing when you compare them to me,” she added as an afterthought.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Cooper waved his hand as if he was swatting at a bee. “Everybody here is super-qualified. That includes you.”

“Doesn’t feel that way,” she mumbled, but decided that they weren’t yet acquainted well enough to show off just how insecure she was. “Do you know which troop Karim was in?”

“Same as Matt.” Cooper shrugged casually, but his eyes sparkled with mirth. “The two of them are equally nuts.” He noted Alice’s arched eyebrow and finished with an air of insouciance: “They’re both parachutists. Matt was in French special forces.” He paused for a moment, thinking hard. “He told me once what his unit’s name was, but there’s no way I’m gonna remember that, much less repeat.”

Alice puffed. It figured that she’d be matched with elite commandos. On one side, that was good – they surely knew what they were doing. On the other, the contrast between them and herself would just be that much more pronounced. She didn’t say anything, though. She’s revealed enough about herself for one evening, she reckoned.

“So you see, we’re in good hands,” Will continued after a second. “With their military prowess, your flying and technical expertise, and my general je ne sais quoi, we’ll be unbeatable.” He affected a ridiculously sanguine tone. Alice snorted, shaking her head. He was impossible.

“Yeah, well, I’ll reserve my judgment for after I’ve seen us in action,” she commented and then put down the bottle of water she’d just finished. “Time to go. Thanks for the company.”

She stood up and Cooper followed in her wake. “Yeah, likewise. Going for the transporter?”

“Yeah.” Alice put the tray on the conveyor. “My quarter is in the North Inner Tower.”

“Huh, mine’s the other way, South.” They walked out of the mess hall together and stopped in front of the transport door. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Goodnight, Will.” Alice stepped in first and as the door closed behind her, she heard his reply: ‘night, Alice.

 

*

 

Alice was up later than usual the next morning; even though she had been tired from the entire day’s work, she couldn’t sleep at night. It was a Saturday, so she could afford to sleep in, too. Still, by seven am she was in her PT clothes, jogging through the Inner City’s empty corridors. She was just descending a flight of stairs when she literally run into another jogger; a woman maybe two inches taller than Alice, with long light brown hair and pretty hazel eyes. Alice bumped into her and rebounded, landing on the floor. The woman only swayed, stopped on the spot and looked around at Alice.

“Ouch!” She rubbed her right arm and stepped closer, extending her hand to help Alice up. “You all right?”

Alice laughed at herself, embarrassed, getting up. She proceeded to remove the headphones from her ears and shook her head. “Yeah, I’ll live. Sorry, I didn’t see you there. My mind was wandering.”

“No worries.” The woman smiled at her and extended her arm again, this time to shake hands. “I’m Amelia Banks.”

“Alice Boyd.”

“Oh, yeah, Chuck told me about you. You’re joining the Fourth, aren’t you?”

Alice arched an eyebrow. “News travels fast, I see.”

Amelia laughed. “We’re a small and tight-knit community.” She checked her watch. “How far are you running?”

Alice looked at her own watch; it had a distance meter. “Another mile, more or less.”

“Oh, me too. Run together the rest of the way?”

“Sure, why not?”

Alice stashed the earphones into her pocket and both women started off in the same direction, matching their paces.

“So, Alice – can I call you Alice? - thanks, so are you in the Air Force, Alice?” Amelia asked as soon as they caught up to a decent speed. Alice noted that the woman had a very good breath control.

“Yeah. I used to be a fighter pilot, flew F-302s before putting that on hold to get my PhD,” Alice replied. She didn’t mention that it was only part of why she put her flying career on hold; Amelia didn’t need to know about Alice’s mom. “I literally just got the diploma a month ago.”

“Congratulations. You’re back fast, though. And there are no 302s on Atlantis.” They came to an intersection and Amelia steered them to the left. “So I presume you got the shot and will fly Jumpers here?”

“Not exactly. I mean, you’re right about the Jumpers part, but I didn’t get the shot, I have the gene.” Alice smiled as Amelia turned her head to look at her. Alice decided she didn’t want to go into specifics right now. She didn’t have the wind for explaining. “What about you? What do you do on Atlantis?”

“I’m a technician. Mostly work in the Stargate Operations.”

“Cool. How long have you been here?”

“A little over a year. I can’t believe it’s been that long, though. It feels like only yesterday I was getting beamed down from the Daedalus for the first time, scared out of my mind.”

So she wasn’t the only one who had misgivings about being here. Amelia was a civilian – or so Alice presumed – so she must have agreed to coming. Well, Alice agreed as well, but it was different… she wasn’t sure how, but it was. Alice was military; it was her duty to do the hard stuff, even if it made her uncomfortable or involved danger. Yes, this assignment was voluntary, but that duty was still implied.

“Why’d you come if you were so scared?” Alice asked before she could think better of it.

“Are you kidding me? And lose the opportunity to do this?” Amelia waved her hand around. “This is the best thing that ever happened to me. Sure, I was scared, I still am, a lot of the time, but for the first time in my life I am doing something truly meaningful.”

Alice nodded thoughtfully. For a moment they run in silence. Alice was mulling over Amelia’s words. For the first time in my life I am doing something truly meaningful, she’d said. So maybe she didn’t have the same kind of sense of duty as Alice did, but it didn’t mean that she didn’t have a sense of calling or purpose. Yes, working here was truly meaningful. Every single person of this expedition had a vital job to do, and they all contributed to the success or failure of the mission. Unlike her stint on the Prometheus, Alice’s presence here might make a real difference – just like everybody else’s might. Right now Atlantis was stuck on Earth doing not much of anything at all, but once they were back in Pegasus, they’d once again be the doorway between the two galaxies. They had a duty to the people of Pegasus to help them fight the evil (that the atlanteans awoke in the first place, so it was even more important), they had a duty to the people of Earth to protect them from it, they had a duty to all humanity to ensure its continued survival. And there was more: they had a duty to those who had fallen in the fight, like Spinner had, to honor their sacrifice; and to those who were not even born yet, to ensure they had a future. They had a duty to explore, to discover, to learn and eventually, to share the knowledge. Alice knew she was a bit overly dramatic in her musings, but it all rang true, and she wasn’t sure if the two adjectives were contradictory.

Then Alice’s alarm went off, signifying the end of her run; she kept up with Amelia, though, until the technician’s watch buzzed too, and they both slowed down to a walk.

“Well, that was fun,” Amelia commented as they headed down the corridor towards the nearest transporter. “You have a good pace, Alice, I don’t usually run that fast.”

“Thanks.” Alice smiled. It was nice to hear that she wasn’t a complete zero when it came to PT. Even if it was a civilian speaking. “You coming to the gym?”

“Nah, I’m headed for a shower. You still not done?”

“I do the run every day and get some more elaborate routine three times a week,” Alice explained, forgiving herself for the little white lie. She hadn’t done that at the AFIT; it was only after coming here that she went back to her old drill, and that’s only been a few days.

“Alright, then, after you.” They’ve reached a transporter and Amelia ushered Alice before her. “See you around.”

“Yeah, see you. Thanks for the chat.” Alice turned around and touched the right spot on the map. A second later she stepped out in a totally different area of the city and looked both ways along the corridor to get her bearings. Then she turned left and walked towards the gym, but as she was approaching one of the exercise machines, someone’s unfamiliar voice stopped her.

“Hey, Captain!” Alice turned around and stood face to face with Sergeant Karim. He was wearing loose trousers and a sleeveless shirt, drenched in sweat. He was breathing heavily, and his face and exposed arms were glistening under the harsh light.

“Oh, hello, Sergeant,” Alice greeted him cautiously, not sure what to expect. It was the first time he spoke to her.

“I was wondering if I could find you here in the morning.” He nodded in approval. He spoke with a perfect posh British accent, like something straight out of BBC – or Buckingham Palace. “Perrault asked me to help you out with your training.” His pronunciation of the commandant’s name was flawless, down to the close-mid back rounded o at the end.

“Yeah, I remember.” Alice wondered what else Perrault asked of him; he had stayed behind because the team leader wanted a word.

“Would you like to start today, ma’am?” He was perfectly civil, but still Alice hadn’t seen him smile, and his careful demeanor and taxing gaze made her slightly uncomfortable.

“Yeah, sure, why not. I still have the second part of my routine to go through, though.”

He nodded again and waited for her to continue, just looking at her in his unsettling way.

“How about we meet after breakfast? At ten, perhaps?” Alice felt anxiety in her voice. Gosh, this man actually intimidated her. What is it about him?

“I’ll see if the training room is available at that time, ma’am. I will let you know if it isn’t.”

“Alright, so if I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume it is.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

It was for Alice to nod this time and she watched as he turned around and left the gym. A shiver went down her spine, and she realized that she was actually, truly rattled by the encounter. That realization shocked her, because it was a perfectly innocuous exchange. Karim was polite and to the point, but it was his calm and unsmiling manner and the way he pierced her with his blackish eyes, like he could see into her soul, that made her uneasy. She shook her head, trying to shake off the feeling, but it stayed with her as she resumed her training routine.

 

*

 

Karim didn’t contact her so she assumed that the training room must have been free, and she reached it at precisely ten am. All this morning, as she trained, showered and then ate light breakfast, she felt a mounting dread and had a sense of impending doom. Part of it was the expectation of the hand-to-hand training, and she was sure she would be awful; but part of it was Karim. Even the prospect of seeing him again made her slightly nervous.

He was already there when she entered the room, standing with his back to the door, looking out the window. He turned around when he heard her and nodded a greeting.

“Alright, here we are. Where do we start?” Alice asked nervously, stepping onto the mat on the floor.

“You already had some close-quarters combat training, didn’t you, ma’am?” Karim asked, gazing at her steadily in the way that made her very self-conscious.

“Yes, but that was a long time ago.”

He nodded. “Still, you have the basics. I’ve watched you spar with Teyla Emmagan. Your technique is not bad, ma’am, but do you remember what Teyla told you?”

“That I think too much.”

“That’s right. You need to let your instincts take over.”

“How do I do that?” Alice felt a twinge of annoyance. “I can’t shut my brain out.”

He didn’t reply for a moment, but instead took a step onto the mat, coming closer, and Alice felt an irrational urge to flee, so strong that it made her shrink back a little. He noticed and raised his eyebrows.

“Are you afraid of me, ma’am?” He inquired, surprising Alice once again. It was a rather blunt question, one that she would never ask of another person, let alone a superior officer.

“No.” She cringed inwardly, hearing the lack of conviction in her own voice. And again, Karim reacted in a way that she did not expect: his lips curved upwards in a short, tight smile, but a smile nonetheless. In Alice’s eyes, it gave him a touch of humanity he had been lacking. She was still anxious about him, but it was a tiny bit better.

“Good.” It was clear on his face that he knew she wasn’t telling the whole truth. “Do you play any instruments, ma’am?”

Alice blinked very fast. What did that have to do with anything? “Yes, a guitar.” She also played a ukulele, but she decided it wasn’t a good time to go into details.

“Do you remember, when you were just beginning to learn how to play, how keeping and changing chords required all your conscious effort?” He carried on as Alice nodded uncertainly. “You had to think about every move, think about what was next, how to put your fingers on the string to get the sound. Wasn’t it like that?”

“Yeah, sure.” Alice thought she knew now where he was going with this.

“And now, when you play, do you have to think about it, or does it come naturally?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “Practice is what makes the difference between a beginner and a pro. That’s just as true with an instrument as with combat.”

“But I’m a pilot and an engineer, I’ve never been trained for close-combat.” She shook her head. “Aside from a few short stints a long time ago.”

He nodded seriously. “But that is the point, ma’am. You cannot say that you’re bad at something unless you’ve already put it the work to become better at it.”

Well, that was logical. Still, Alice never needed much practice to shoot straight, for example… although that wasn’t quite true if you counted the times when she went to the range with her father, all these years ago. And yeah, so she was a quick learner with a lot of things, but that didn’t necessarily mean everything had to come easy, right? She has never been good with languages, despite her superior memory, and yet after four months in France, practicing day and night, she was able to pass all her exams at the Ecole polytechnique, wasn’t she? So maybe Karim was right. Maybe all she needed was practice. She didn’t believe she’d ever be particularly good at it – but if she could get up to a point where she’d be able to defend herself if need arose… that would be quite enough, right?

“So that is what we are going to do, ma’am,” Karim continued after a brief pause, his piercing gaze seemingly reaching to the very bottom of her soul. “Practice. Three or four times a week, if other duties allow. Is that alright, ma’am?”

Alice nodded solemnly. “Yes, Sergeant. That is perfect.” She could fit it in her PT schedule: run every day, three times a week go to the gym for a more extensive training routine, and on other days get the hand-to-hand training with Karim.

“Alright. Let’s start with something simple...” Karim made a wide gestures, inviting her to come closer –  the mid-range combat – and they began their first training session.

 

*

 

For someone more used to bare necessities of military bases, the showers on Atlantis were quite a novelty: the water was not coming from a single showerhead, but rather fell from the ceiling like warm rain. At the same time, perfumed mist rose up from the floor, enveloping the body, relaxing muscles, soaking the skin in a vaguely oily, moisturizing substance. Alice loved taking showers on Atlantis. It felt like being in a sauna while it rained. She always had to remind herself not to stay too long. Getting out was as pleasant, though: the whole bathroom was filled with warm air, which concentrated on the spot right next to the shower door (which was hidden in a niche inside the wall), quickly drying the skin and hair – even as long as Alice’s. She still used a towel, more out of habit than need, and proceeded to combing her hair and putting it up in her usual neat bun above her neck, although she already ascertained that on Atlantis, things like personal grooming regulations were not really given much thought by anyone, including the commanding officer, whose own dark mess of hair was too long for the Air Force regs. Woolsey might care, but he was a civilian.

Half an hour later, dressed and feeling refreshed, Alice left her room and decided to check in with McKay and Zelenka. She did say she would come back when she could. While walking towards the nearest transporter, she thought about the sparring session with Karim. He turned out to be a very good teacher: patient and calm, he had an eye for detail, allowing him to correct even minuscule faults in Alice’s pose and technique, but most of all, he encouraged her in a way that actually made her want to come back and try again, and do better. His tone continued to be serious, his face unsmiling, and his accent impeccable in its Britishness, but his remarks were so logical and down-to-earth and to-the-point that she found them impossible not to accept. At the end of their session, as they agreed on a training schedule, Alice felt a little more confident around him, and although his piercing gaze still made her a tad uncomfortable, she no longer was intimidated.

She found McKay in his lab, Zelenka standing next to him with his arms crossed and an expression of mild frustration on his face which he seemed to adopt quite often when around his colleague. McKay was sitting in front of his laptop and the two of them were studying something on the screen.

“Oh, look who decided to grace us with her presence,” McKay exclaimed when Alice entered. She smirked.

“Good morning, Doctor McKay, Doctor Zelenka.” Alice nodded to each in greeting.

“What did Sheppard want with you yesterday?” McKay asked in a disinterested tone, but Alice had a feeling it was masking a real curiosity.

“He wanted me to meet my new unit.” She walked closer to them to look at the screen of McKay’s laptop. She couldn’t immediately tell what is showed, though. A chart of some sort and a string of numbers. “I’ve been assigned to Fourth Reconnaissance Team. Colonel Sheppard told me I can report to you when I’m not otherwise occupied, Doctor,” she added to Zelenka. He brightened immediately.

“Perfect! That’s real good news, Captain,” he enthused. “I’ve been saying to Mr. Woolsey that we’re short on staff.”

“Well, sir, my primary duty is still to Commandant Perrault, but whenever I’m free, I’m at your disposal.”

“Here!” McKay interrupted and jabbed his finger to the monitor. “See the spike? That’s the last one.”

“Are you sure?” Zelenka leaned in closer to look at the chart. “If we’re wrong...”

“Of course I’m sure! I’m not wrong,” McKay insisted.

“Alright Rodney, if you say so. I’ll report to Mr. Woolsey…”

“No, I’ll do it.” McKay clapped his laptop closed, grabbed it and put it under his arm. “I’ll see you after lunch.”

“Okay, Rodney.” Zelenka sighed and shook his head at his friend and then turned to Alice. “You were right, Captain. Once we fixed the transmitters, we’ve detected another leak. We’ve plugged it and a new diagnostic showed us the damage to the engines.”

“Is it bad? Can we repair it?”

“Yes, but we need to replace a few parts. That’s what we’ve just been doing, looking at the energy outputs to see if we didn’t miss any other equipment faults.” Zelenka waved in the direction of the table where the laptop had been. “Of course we don’t have those parts, we need to manufacture them first. Thankfully, they are not much different from what we’ve seen in Goa’uld and Asgard designs, so we’re relatively sure we can do it.”

“Who can manufacture such things? The subcontractors who do the BC-304 parts?” Alice wondered.

“That’s the thinking, yeah. Of course they don’t know what exactly they’re making, we’ve spread it around among several companies so that no one contractor can figure out what is it that we’re doing… We’re trying to avoid another Colson Industries-like fiasco.”

Alice nodded. She had just joined the Program and was stuck in McMurdo base when it was going on, but she knew about the trouble Alec Colson caused when he grew an Asgard clone form DNA material his company received for sequencing, and then proceeded to show the clone to the entire world on live television, calling for all governments to unveil the conspiracy. Of course, it was a conspiracy – the biggest secret ever held, and Alice presumed that it still didn’t get out only because it sounded so damn crazy when you came right down to it. There would come a day when it would be no longer possible to contain the rumors and the story would break. What would come then? Global economic and political crisis, marshal laws imposed to pacify the rioting societies? Or would the people accept it and move on? Alice thought the former was more probable, but who knew?  Maybe they’d get lucky. Alice figured one way to ensure a more favorable outcome was to neutralize the galactic threats, just so people could feel safe even though there was this whole universe teeming with life they had no idea about.

“Anyway we estimate it will take three to four weeks to manufacture all we need to get the hyperdrive back up and running again,” Zelenka continued. “And in the meantime, we can focus on a hundred or more other things that need fixing. Non-vital stuff, of course, but some of it we’ve been putting off for months. Now that we have the resources, we might as well get onto it.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Alice agreed. “Where do we start?”

“Come on.” Zelenka gestured for her to follow him and he started walking towards the door. “Let’s officially present you to the rest of the team first, and then we’ll make a plan for the next few weeks.”

He led her to an almost identical lab at the end of the corridor, connected by an open door to a larger area with a few desks, occupied by the people Alice has already met the previous day as they were combing through the stardrive room in search for faults. There was six of them: two women and four men.

“Hey everyone,” Zelenka said as soon as they entered the room. It was very quiet and his voice carried. Everybody looked up from their laptops. Zelenka pointed at Alice, standing next to him and feeling inadequate again. All these people were proper scientists, each of them brilliant and very experienced in their area of expertise. Sure, Alice had some successes in her own field recently, but she was still very new at this, and she continued to think of herself as an engineer rather than scientist. “This is Captain Alice Boyd, PhD in Computer Engineering.” He made a little pause. “She has just joined the Fourth Recon Team as their pilot and scientific adviser, and she will be working with us on the off days.” He turned slightly towards Alice, but still facing the room. “Doctor Alison Porter is in the same situation, she is a member of Major Teldy’s team.” He pointed to a small (but still an inch taller than Alice) woman with shoulder-length brown hair who sat at the closest desk. She smiled to Alice and half-raised a hand in greeting. Alice smiled back. “Then we have permanent members of the team, Doctor Vaclav Kryl,” - a man in his late forties with graying blond hair and very bright blue eyes nodded to Alice - “Doctor Nikolai Gagarin, no relation,” - a thirty-something man with an impressive black beard raised his hand to her in greeting - “Doctor Angela Bryce,” - a woman with long dark hair pulled in a ponytail smiled at Alice - “Doctor Henry Donaldson” - a man with a receding hairline stared at her, sizing her up and down - “and Doctor Pham Tuan.” The last of the scientists was a short man with thick black hair and a Vietnamese shoulder patch.

Alice smiled and waved narrowly to the entire group. They were all looking at her curiously and she was already feeling uncomfortable with the attention. Thankfully, Zelenka came to the rescue:

“Alright, everyone, we think we identified all the faulty parts of the hyperdrive, so while the replacements are being manufactured, we need to take care of all the smaller issues so that when we get back to Pegasus, the city is nice and shiny again.” He walked up to a flatscreen at the end of the room, turned it on and displayed a list of what Alice guessed were those smaller issues to be fixed. His team gathered around, and Alice stepped closer as well to see better. Zelenka began describing each of the problems and the team listened carefully, asking questions here and there. Alice didn’t speak, only part of her brain paying attention to Zelenka, the other part wondering how working with these people would look like, and if she was going to fit in. They were all smarter than her, and if not that, then surely they were more experienced and that was just as important, if not more. But then again, what Karim had said that morning echoed in her mind: practice is what makes the difference between a beginner and a pro. So she would do her best to get better and maybe someday she’d finally find a way to fit in.

Chapter Text

The mess hall was nearly empty, the lunch period almost over. Alice sat at a table next to an open window, looking out, her mind wandering. It was warm for late March, low seventies and the sun was shining through the clouds. She could see the reddish glare of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, a few small boats floating on the bay behind like dust specks dancing on water. It was a familiar view now.

It was a Friday, exactly a month since Alice had come to Atlantis. The intervening three weeks had been filled with work; as a new member of Zelenka’s team, she had been enlisted to help out with the string of minor repairs they were carrying out while awaiting the manufacture of parts needed for the hyperdrive. Some of these were very simple, but time-consuming; others required a lot of thinking and trial and error. Nothing vital to the life of the ship, but of invaluable worth to Alice, because it allowed her to dive into Ancient technology without fear that she’d mess up something important. And indeed, it provided her the opportunity to familiarize herself with the City’s systems. They were designed in a way that made them decidedly alien – but also natural, at least to Alice. Perhaps it was the neural link, but it was almost instinctual: she knew where to look for answers, how to interpret results, seemingly without effort. Still, the very complexity of the system’s architecture made understanding it very challenging. Alice was glad for it, because other than that and the continued hand-to-hand training with Sergeant Karim, she didn’t really have much to do.

Karim was still his reserved, cautious self; he never sought her out outside of their sparring sessions, and it was a mystery to Alice what he did when he wasn’t practicing with her. She hadn’t seen him smile, either, since that fateful first training. Cooper, on the other hand, came by the lab often, inviting her for lunch or dinner, or even just to chat for a moment. His bright personality was the best antidote for Karim’s somber presence. Even Perrault joined them at the table a few times; the Brit, however, remained elusive.

Her new team were not the only ones Alice kept in contact with, though. She met up with Amelia Banks every other day for a morning run, talked to Zelenka and his team every day, and struck up a particularly close acquaintance with Doctor Alison Porter. From time to time she’d see and chat with Sheppard or Teyla, and even McKay, although when that last one wasn’t trying to ignore her, he was telling her with his demeanor that he didn’t really like her. Or maybe it was only his charming self, Alice wasn’t sure.

She was still lost in thought when someone approached her table and a timid female voice interrupted her musings:

“Hi. Can I join you? I don’t want to sit alone.”

Alice looked up to see a short (but still an inch or so taller than herself) woman with long blond hair, pretty hazel eyes, and a friendly smile. She had the standard jacket with yellow stripes and the U.S. flag on her arm patch.

“Sure, please.” Alice gestured for her to take a seat and smiled back.

“Thanks.” Her tray clattered when she put it down. “I don’t think we’ve met yet? I’m Jennifer Keller.”

“I’m Alice Boyd.” They shook hands over the table. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Doctor. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“I hope nothing bad… and please, call me Jennifer.” Her smile was uncertain and nervous, and Alice felt an immediate affinity towards the Atlantis’ Chief Medical Officer.

“Nothing but good things,” she assured her, although that wasn’t exactly true; she’d heard a rumor that Keller was dating McKay, which seemed a little odd to her, not least because Keller must have been a good decade younger. In fact she looked only a couple years older than Alice herself, certainly not even thirty yet. Still, Alice supposed she should not judge, remembering her own brief but oh-so-fateful relationship with a man who was old enough to be her father.

“I heard about you too,” the physician confessed good-naturedly. “Rodney mentioned you were very helpful with whatever you guys did with the hyperdrive.”

“He did?” Alice raised her eyebrows askance.

Jennifer snickered. “One learns how to read between the lines with Rodney,” she admitted. “But Will Cooper told me you were assigned to his team now?”

Alice wasn’t surprised about that. Aside from being a very positive person, Cooper was also a blabbermouth. “That’s right. But I’m also an associate member of Doctor Zelenka’s team, I’ve spent much more time helping to fix the remaining technical issues on Atlantis than doing anything with the Fourth.”

“I guess that makes sense, seeing as we’re still stuck here.” Keller nodded understandingly. “Rodney says we’re almost ready to go back, though. Another few days.”

“That’s the hope,” Alice agreed. “You seem very eager to get back to Pegasus. Bored here?” She ventured to ask.

“Yeah, not much to do now. It seems almost criminal to sit on our butts here when we could be doing so much back in Pegasus.” She paused for a moment. “Doctor Beckett is especially irked at having to be stuck here. I think the only person who wants to go back more than him is Todd.”

Alice frowned. “The Wraith we have in custody?”

“We don’t allow him to feed, of course… he’s very weak, I don’t know if he’ll make it back if it takes much longer.”

“Surely that wouldn’t be such a bad thing?” But Alice wasn’t certain herself. From all she’s read about that particular Wraith, he did come through for them in several tight spots. So maybe he wasn’t a friend, but even a reluctant and temporary ally was better than nothing.

“It’s complicated.” Jennifer took a sip of water. She wasn’t really eating, more like playing with her food.

“Yeah,” Alice acquiesced and for a moment they kept silent, Alice lost in thought again, wondering about the Wraith. They couldn’t trust him, he’d betrayed them in the past, and came to them only after he’s been betrayed in turn… still, he proved to be very useful at times. Without him, they wouldn’t have the full complement of ZPMs.

“Any plans for the weekend, Captain?” Keller picked up the conversation, changing the topic. “Or are you staying in the city?”

“Please, call me Alice.” They exchanged smiles again. “And yeah, actually. It’ll be the first time I’m gonna leave the city since I came here a month ago. Going to a concert tomorrow.”

“A concert? Nice.” Jennifer nodded approval. “Anyone I might have heard of?”

“Depends, do you like punk rock?” Alice smirked.

“Yeah, Sex Pistols are my favorite band ever.” The doctor smiled roguishly.

Alice arched an eyebrow. “You don’t look like a Pistols kinda girl.”

“Don’t let the appearances fool you, I’m a rebel.” She raised both her hands in a devil’s horn gesture.

Alice laughed out loud. “A Kiss fan too, huh?”

“One has to have an outlet, and medical profession is kinda stressful.” Jennifer shrugged, but she was still smiling. “So, what’s the act you’re going to see? Now I’m really curious.”

“Ever heard of a band called Dead Man’s Eyes?”

“Did I hear about them? I love them!” Keller waved her hands excitedly. “Their new album was the first thing I bought when we got back to Earth! They’re playing in San Francisco?”

Alice grinned. Her heart always swelled with pride whenever she met someone who was a fan of the band. “Yeah, tomorrow, at the Fillmore.”

“Aw, shucks, I wish I knew about it before, I’d have gone!” Jennifer looked crestfallen.

“Why can’t you go now?” Alice guessed that maybe the CMO had a shift at the infirmary or something like that, although she did mention that there wasn’t much to do.

“Are you kidding me?” Keller shook her head. “I’m sure all the tickets are sold out. That last album was Billboard number one for, like, three weeks, do you know how rare it is for an alternative act like Dead Man’s Eyes to even get to number one?”

Alice snickered again. “Oh, trust me, tickets won’t be a problem if you come with me.”

Keller raised her eyebrows questioningly.

“I know the band,” Alice explained with another bright grin.

“Shut the front door.” Keller’s eyes were wide. “Really?”

“Yeah, we grew up together, I went to school with all of them. Well, except for Jeff, he joined after my brother dropped off the band.”

“Your brother was in the band?”

“Back when it was five of them in Aaron’s basement, yeah.” Alice smiled to her memories. “I always knew they were going places, but frankly I’ve never expected them to get quite so big. Like you said, it’s… unusual for an act like them.”

“Yeah, to be honest their last album was a little more pop than the previous ones,” Keller acquiesced. “But I still really like it. But you were serious?”

“That I can get us in? Sure.” Alice shrugged. “Aaron is my best friend, I have free entrance to all of their gigs. I’ll be happy for the company though.”

“Great! Thank you so much.”

“No problem.” Alice checked her watch. “The concert starts at eight, so we should probably move from here around five thirty-ish, is that alright?”

“Sure. It takes half an hour just to get to the land.”

Alice nodded. “Okay, then it’s settled. I’m afraid I should be going now, I’ve already wasted enough time looking at the vista.” She waved at the window. “And I want to finish my last assignment before tomorrow.”

“Sure. Thanks for the nice chat, and I’ll see you tomorrow!” Jennifer said with enthusiasm and Alice chuckled to herself. Keller was really an endearing, adorable creature. She could see why McKay would fall for her, even though she was still unsure why Keller fell for McKay.

 

*

 

They arrived at the venue a little early, but spent the next twenty minutes trying to find a place to park their rental car. When they finally reached the building, the door was already open and the long line waiting outside was moving in. Jennifer looked at it uncertainly, but Alice strutted straight towards the entrance and caught the guard’s attention by waving at him from outside of the roped-off area in front of the entrance.

“Hi, I’m Alice Boyd, I should be on the door list,” she told the burly, black-clad guy who approached them. He had a clipboard; he looked her name up and nodded. “This is Jennifer, she’s with me.” Alice pointed at the doctor. The guard held up the rope for them to slide under and allowed them in; the crowding fans waiting their turn to get in looked at them curiously, some unkindly, others just wonderingly. Just inside, another guard stopped them and searched their bags, then ushered them in. Alice steered them towards the bar.

“Is the beer free too?” Jennifer asked jokingly as they stood waiting for a free bartender.

“Not for us, I’m afraid.” Alice grinned. “Although the band usually gets free alcohol from the venue.”

“Lucky ones.”

“What can I get you ladies?” Someone finally spotted them – they were both rather shorter than the surrounding crowd, so it wasn’t that easy.

“Two beers,” Jennifer said, taking out her wallet. “You got us in so I’m buying,” she said when Alice reached into her own purse.

“Thanks.” They took their glasses and walked towards the stage, meandering between the crowd.

“I didn’t think they allowed minors in,” Jennifer noted as they reached the front row, already taken up by what looked like a line of sixteen-to-eighteen year old girls.

“They probably have fake IDs,” Alice acknowledged. “Aaron says there’s no fool-proof way to stop them.”

“Do you actually keep in contact with the band often?” Keller asked curiously, sipping on her beer.

“The band, not that often. Aaron, every day.” Alice smiled into her glass. “If we don’t call, we exchange e-mails. I wasn’t kidding when I said he was my best friend. I talk to him more than to my own brother.”

“Really? Why is that?” Keller threw her a short but pointed glance. “You’re not… you know… in love with him, are you?”

Alice laughed. “No, Aaron’s like a second brother to me. I was three when we met. He and Jake went to school together. But Aaron’s always there, while Jake is sometimes… unreachable.”

“Why’s that?”

“He’s a Marine. He works at the Cheyenne Mountain base.”

“Oooh, so you mean he’s one of us?”

Alice nodded. “Remind me to tell you the story how I found out about that later, it’s gonna make you laugh.” She chuckled. “That was some shock.” She paused for a moment. “How about you, have any siblings?”

“Nah, I’m an only child.” Keller shook her head. “Daddy’s little girl, you know. My mother died when I was little,” she added, but without bitterness. “So there was only the two of us.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Alice said softly. “I lost my dad when I was fourteen. He was a pilot in the Navy.”

“Ah, so that’s why you do what you do.” Keller smiled at her. Alice replied with the same.

“Yeah, dad was the one who took me up in a training plane for the first time, I was ten, I think. I wanted to be a pilot ever since.” She sighed deeply. Flying a Jumper was fun, but it wasn’t the same. Not to mention that it would be only a small part of her job from now on. She wondered if she’d regret the decision to accept the assignment to Atlantis. It was too early to tell yet, but she had her doubts.

Someone brushed by her and she rocked on her feet, nearly spilling her beer.

“Hey, watch it!” She exclaimed in a raised voice, turning to see who it had been, but they’d already melted into the growing crowd. But then someone else stepped closer to her and a familiar voice spoke her name; a voice that she hadn’t heard in years.

“Alice Boyd?”

She pivoted leftwards on her heel and looked at the owner of the voice: a very tall man with short dark hair, brown eyes and very long lashes, casting shadows on his pale cheeks. Pedro Espinoza. Alice’s former squadron commander and her first sexual partner. The last man she was expecting to see, although if she had thought about it, she’d conclude that it wasn’t that weird; she knew he had been the Dead Man’s Eye’s fan. They even went to a show together.

“Co… Colonel,” Alice stuttered. She hadn’t really spoken to the man since that fateful day when she had informed him that his wife knew of their illicit tryst. “What are you doing here?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Came in for the show. Just as you did, I assume. It’s been a while.”

“Yes, sir.” Alice didn’t know what to say or how to act. Awkward didn’t even begin to describe how she felt.

“Alice?” Keller turned away from the stage and was looking from the young captain to her ex-lover and back again with large, curious eyes.

“Right. Colonel, this is my coworker Doctor Jennifer Keller.” Her voice shook a little but she ploughed through it. “Jennifer, this is Colonel Pedro Espinoza, the squadron commander aboard the Daedalus.” She lowered her voice progressively to little above a whisper when saying the name of the ship. “He used to be my CO when I was in training,” she added louder.

“Nice to meet you, Colonel.” Jennifer said and shook his outstretched hand.

“Likewise, Doctor. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“You did?” Keller looked slightly put off by this. “Oh.”

“We all read the reports from the city with zealous avidity.” He smiled at her kindly and Alice felt a shiver go down her spine. He used to smile like that at her. But that had been before.

“Oh, right, of course…”

Espinoza shifted his penetrating eyes from Keller towards Alice.

“And how have you been… Captain?” He raised his eyebrows askance and Alice nodded. They hadn’t seen each other in something like four years, but it was quite obvious she’d have achieved the higher rank by now.  “I lost you from my sight after what happened to the 303.”

Alice found it a little disconcerting that he ever had her in his sight, but decided to let it slip. “I went to AFIT to get a PhD,” she explained. Her voice was more confident now. “I’ve just got back to the Program last month.”

“And you’re working with Doctor Keller now?” His eyes flicked to the physician and back to Alice in a second. “Doing what exactly?”

“Not much, for now. I’m part of a science team, helping out in some minor repairs.” Alice shrugged but felt uncomfortable under the man’s steady stare. “We’re not doing much of anything right now. Hopefully we’ll be leaving on deployment soon enough, though.” Not that she was looking forward to beginning her work as a member of the Fourth Atlantis Reconnaissance Team, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Interesting.” He smiled in that special way again which made Alice feel like nothing had changed, like they were back in Groom Lake, back when the Prometheus was still making its rounds around the Milky Way, and the Daedalus was only a shell lying in dry dock. “We’ll be seeing more of each other then. We run supply missions for the city often enough, not to mention other things.”

That was something she hadn’t considered before, but he was right, of course. Any time a 304 would come to Atlantis, once they’re in Pegasus, its crew would have a few days of rest in the city. I could catch up with Archer, Alice thought, but of course that also meant having Espinoza around. The city is huge. I could avoid him easily enough, couldn’t I? The fact that Espinoza and Keller hadn’t met yet at that point was a good sign.

Thankfully at that moment the lights – already dimmed as they had walked in – flickered off, random music playing from the speakers cut off, and Alice and Jennifer could turn around towards the stage to watch the show begin. Alice couldn’t shake off the feeling of being observed, though, and she didn’t enjoy the concert as much as she’d like to because of it, even though she once looked around and saw that Espinoza must have drifted away because he was nowhere to be seen. She hoped he wouldn’t come back before they had a chance to get away at the end of the gig. She had no intention of going through more awkwardness if she could avoid it.

 

*

 

Alice grabbed Jennifer’s hand and pulled her towards a passage leading backstage, guarded by a couple guards immediately after the show’s end. She was hoping Espinoza wouldn’t linger, and it seemed she was right; they made a clean getaway, even got to the roped-off area before most of the band’s teenage fans had the chance to cut them off. Alice took her phone out and texted Aaron: We’re right outside.

“What now?” Jennifer asked as they stood in the middle of the throng trying to get backstage.

“Now we go meet my friends.” Alice grinned at her, but her eyes scanned the crowed to make sure her ex-commander wasn’t there. “Aaron will send someone to get us in.”

Keller nodded and then looked at Alice for a moment, pensive. The young captain hardly noticed; she was caught in between standing on her toes to look above people’s heads to locate Espinoza – or rather make sure he wasn’t there – and trying to make herself scarce so that he wouldn’t notice her in case he was there.

“So what’s the story with this guy?” Keller asked with raised eyebrows. Alice glanced at her, startled, and tried to shrug it off. The doctor wouldn’t have it. “Oh, come on, I can tell a racy backstory when I see it. Spill the beans!”

“It’s nothing,” Alice mumbled, but Keller continued to drill her with her eyes, so she sighed and continued: “We were close once. It didn’t end well. That’s all.” She didn’t particularly want to describe the affair, or the way it went up in flames.

“Aha, sure.” Keller remained unconvinced, but it was clear that Alice wouldn’t say anything more so she gave up. Alice hoped it would be for good.

At that moment she sensed someone looking at them, but it wasn’t from the crowd, but from the roped-off area. Alice turned around and saw a scrawny guy with black hair, plus a few gray strings. She recognized him immediately: it was Donald, the band’s agent. He saw she was looking at him and nodded, patted one of the guards and said something to him, pointing at Alice and Jennifer. The women slithered between the crowding fans and got under the rope, held up by the guard.

“Hello, Alice.” The agent waved for them to follow him through a corridor and up the stairs, all lined with hundreds of posters of shows that took place in the historic venue. He led them to a smallish dressing room, made visually larger thanks to mirrors plastered to the walls. A couple black leather-bound sofas, a chair and a few low dressers were all the furniture in the room. The band was all there: the burly Zachary Newman sat in the only chair with a glass of beer held religiously in both his hands, as if he was scared he might drop it otherwise; Jeffrey Sharp stood in the corner, his considerable length curbed as he leaned on the wall, the window next to him half-opened so that the light breeze was blowing on his sweaty face; Ian Lee and Curtis Taylor sat on the bigger couch, sprawled over it with arms extended to the sides, but Curt still managed to keep his beer bottle in one hand; and finally, Aaron sat on the loveseat, next to a woman Alice didn’t know but recognized from description instantly. Aaron was the one who saw them enter first, and jumped up to greet them immediately. His dark brown hair was all damp and escaping from the ponytail he wore low on the neck, his t-shirt equally sweaty and his face still red with exertion. Dead Man’s Eyes never spared any energy on their gigs.

“Allie!” Aaron hugged her enthusiastically and Alice reciprocated heartily. “So good to see you!”

“It’s not like you just saw me a month ago,” she scoffed sarcastically; she had visited him the morning she set off for Atlantis for good. Aaron shrugged.

“It’s always good to see you,” he said nonchalantly, and then gave her a mock bow, to which she responded with an eye-roll. Then the rest of the band came up one by one to greet her with hugs and light-hearted tease. Finally she unwrapped herself from Zach’s bear-hug – he had given his glass of beer to Aaron to hold to be able to do it, and she noticed that his hands shook slightly. She wasn’t surprised; Zach was their drummer and he had left it all on the stage that night.

“Guys,” Alice said and pointed to Jennifer, who had been standing timidly next to her. “Meet my friend Jennifer Keller. We work together.”

“Déjà vu?” Aaron commented with his eyebrows raised, and Alice knew immediately what he meant; that fateful concert in Las Vegas, where she brought Espinoza backstage to meet the band.

“Hi.” Keller waved to them uncertainly and they all greeted her with an almost-unison hiya, and smiles all around – some of them, Alice noted, appraising the pretty blond woman quite openly. Especially Ian’s eyes were wandering, and Alice reminded herself that the man was recently single. She shook a finger at him.

“Ian, don’t even try. She’s taken,” she stage-whispered, Ian chuckled and Keller blushed. Alice was glad that for once it wasn’t her that felt awkward, although she realized it was pretty mean of her.

“I’ll behave,” Ian assured her and added immediately: “Come, sit down with us, Jennifer.” He patted the place on the couch between him and Curt. Jennifer looked apprehensively at Alice but Alice just smiled at her and so the doctor went to sit as bidden. “Are you in the Air Force like Allie, then?” Ian asked curiously.

At the same time, Aaron went to the little bar and pulled two beer bottles, offering one to Alice and the other to Keller.

“Thank you,” Keller acknowledged and then replied to Ian’s question: “No, I’m a civilian, but we work in the same place.”

“Which is where?” Aaron put in eagerly. Alice rolled her eyes again; he was always dissatisfied with Alice’s vague rebukes whenever he tried to find out what exactly she did; although his curiosity has been quite satisfied for the past three years, of course, because he knew very well she had been at the Wright-Patterson base in Dayton, Ohio; he even visited her there a few times. Still, now she was going to go away farther than ever, and even if she were allowed to tell him, he wouldn’t believe her. Oh, I’m going to another galaxy. In a ship, which is also a city. It’s floating on the Bay right now, but you can’t see it because it’s cloaked. Yeah, right.

“Around,” Alice cut off the subject before Keller had a chance to say anything. “Jennifer is a doctor. Chief Medical Officer, actually.”

“Aren’t you a little young for such a title?” Ian asked, throwing her another appraising look. Keller blushed again.

“Yes, I am. I don’t know why they keep me around...” She shifted her gaze to Alice as if asking for help.

The captain smiled encouragingly to her. She knew that feeling all too well: that conviction that she was too young, too inexperienced, too stupid to be where she was at; that knowledge that she was only pretending and, sooner or later, someone must find her out and expose her for the fraud she was. It was called Impostor Syndrome, Alice knew, and many people suffered from it, especially the high-achieving ones, but knowing so didn’t make it any easier.

“I do,” Alice assured her. Keller’s expression was unconvinced and Alice thought she knew why. “I may be new, Doctor, but it’s like Espinoza said: we all read the reports zealously.”

“Espinoza?”Aaron picked the name up and Alice cursed herself inwardly for mentioning it. Of course he would pick it up. She had told him all about the man.

“He came to your show. We’ve met him just before it started.” Alice tried to make her voice sound calm and disinterested, but Aaron’s searching look told her she failed. The only way out was to change the subject. “Aaron, aren’t you gonna introduce me to your girlfriend?” She pointed to the woman who was still sitting on the loveseat, observing them with a little smile playing on her lips. She was a few inches taller than Alice, with flawless olive skin, curly black hair and deep blue eyes. She was wearing leather pants, which emphasized her perfect skinny legs, and a halter top showing just the right amount of cleavage. He said she was gorgeous, Alice thought, and he wasn’t kidding. She suddenly felt inadequate in her jeans and t-shirt, her hair pinned up in a haphazard bun, a few strands escaped and hanging on the sides of her face.

Aaron slapped a hand on his forehead. “Right, of course. Sorry. Allie, my girlfriend, Sarah Baum, Sarah – my best friend, Alice Boyd.”

Sarah got up from her seat and shook Alice’s outstretched hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Alice. Aaron spoke voluminously about you.”

“Pleasure is all mine. And so he did about you.” Alice smiled and got a warm smile in return.

“Come, sit with me, let’s talk.” Sarah pulled her towards the loveseat. Aaron half-sat on the armrest next to his girlfriend and reached for his unfinished glass of beer. On the couch, Jennifer was completely engaged in a conversation with Ian and Curtis, Zach putting in his three cents from time to time, and Jeff continued to chill in the corner, preferring the breeze from the window to talking, apparently. Alice didn’t blame him. It was stuffy in the room.

“So Aaron tells me you just got a PhD,” Sarah prompted, sitting with her legs crossed and her hands joined in her lap. “He wasn’t able to explain what it was about, though.” Her tone was slightly mocking.

“It’s complicated!” Aaron defended himself. “Tell her!”

“Not that complicated.” Alice was merciless. “It was about cognitive machine learning. Basically I was trying to develop information processing models that would allow machines to learn new things independently from their software.”

“Like an AI?”

“There’s still quite a big leap from machine learning to a true AI,” Alice acknowledged. “In scholarly sense, machine learning is a branch of Artificial Intelligence.”

“That’s a little scary, isn’t it?” Sarah mused. “To think that one day there will be robots that will be able to think just like us?”

Alice smiled, but didn’t correct her. Even the human-form Replicators – the most advanced form of AI they knew – weren’t capable of thinking just like humans. Close, but not quite.

“You know what I find scarier still?” Alice asked with a wink to Aaron. “Human programming.”

“I beg your pardon?

“Well, when you think about it, humans are machines, too. Built of organic matter rather than metal or alloys, but still, we are a combination of cells requiring energy input to produce an output. Why would it not be possible to manipulate us in a way you program a machine to suit your needs?”

Sarah gaped at her for a moment with a horrified expression.

“I’m kidding.” Alice took pity on her. “We’re nowhere near anything like that.” But they were closer than anyone could imagine just ten years ago, and the knowledge which came through the Gate had a big part in it.

 “That’s a terrible idea.” Sarah shook her head. “I don’t ever want to think about it again.”

Alice found it a little overdramatic, but decided to accommodate the woman.

“Sorry. I didn’t come here to weird you out.”

“Yeah, why are you here, Allie?” Aaron asked, happy to change the subject, Alice suspected.

“Well, I came to see the band?” It wasn’t supposed to be a question, but her surprise registered that way.

“No, yes, I mean, why here in San Francisco? I didn’t think there were any bases around?” He wondered.

“Ah, okay.” Alice understood his question now, but she couldn’t very well answer truthfully, could she? “Well, there’s the Travis Air Force Base some sixty miles northeast.” She paused for a moment, thinking. “I’m here only temporarily. Will be moving on in a few days, hopefully.”

“Moving where?” It was Sarah who asked this time, and so Alice felt she had to reply with something more than her usual eye roll.

“On deployment.” This didn’t seem to satisfy the woman. Alice sighed. “Sorry, I can’t say anything more.”

“It’s a secret?”

“Most of my work is highly classified. That’s nothing out of the ordinary.” Alice shrugged nonchalantly, but she hoped that Sarah would let it go now.

“So you’re not gonna be calling Aaron as much anymore?” This time it was for Sarah to act cool, but Alice heard the strain in her voice.

“No.” She smiled and threw Aaron a significant look. He winked back. “I won’t be calling at all, I’ll be able to send e-mails or video messages though.” Alice cocked her head to the side. “You’re not jealous of the time Aaron spends talking to me, are you?”

Sarah shook her head emphatically, but it was clear she was slightly distressed now. “Of course not.”

“Because you shouldn’t be.” Alice used her authoritative voice to make it more final. “I’ve met Aaron when I was three years old. He treats me like a little sister, but that’s it. We’re just good friends.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sarah nodded, but she sounded relieved.

“You mean it, though? You won’t be able to talk anymore?” Aaron asked with a bit of a frown on his face. “Like, at all?”

“Not when I’m deployed. And it seems I’ll be deployed for a long time now.” Alice smiled wistfully. “But I’ll be able to write semi-regularly, hopefully.”

Semi­-regularly?”

Alice shrugged. “That’s the job.”

“I hate your job.”

“I kinda like it.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. “I know.”

“So, Sarah, Aaron told me you’re going away for a while too?” Alice changed the subject.

“Oh, yes, we’re going on a tour to promote my newest movie in Europe,” she sounded excited. Alice tried to remember what was the movie; Aaron mentioned it a few times, but the title escaped her mind. She did know that Sarah had a rather small supporting role, but it was nice to see how proud she was of it. “I’ve never been to Europe. It’s going to be fabulous!”

“It’s not as glamorous as advertised, sweetheart,” Aaron told her. She playfully swatted at him.

“Don’t spoil my fun!”

“I would never!” He bent to kiss her lightly on the lips and Alice shifter her gaze away, partially embarrassed, and partially happy to see Aaron so in love. She hoped this one would last. He didn’t have much luck with relationships so far.

Neither did she, Alice mused. Her first was a complete mistake, then there were a few meaningless though pleasing one-night stands, and then Peter, a fellow PhD student at AFIT, who turned out to be a supreme jerk. And now, on Atlantis, the chances of finding someone both decent, interested in her and himself interesting were rather low. Although, she reminded herself, looking at Jennifer, pressed between Ian and Curt, and laughing at their silly jokes, not completely non-existent. Sure, Jennifer’s boyfriend wasn’t the nicest person around, but he was the smartest. And they met in the city. So maybe it wasn’t completely out of the question.

 

*

 

The newly-manufactured replacement parts for the hyperdrive arrived finally the next Monday and both McKay and Zelenka dedicated all their time to installing them properly; they did it themselves, without the help of their science teams. Since all the minor repairs they were doing for the past three weeks were already finished, Alice found herself idle again, unsure what to do.

“It starts that way,” Will Cooper told her when they met up for lunch. “But soon enough you’ll have seven open projects at once, trust me. They just have a way of creeping up on you.”

“I guess work never really ends around here, huh?” That suited Alice just fine. She often found herself bored when she had nothing work-related to do.

“You got that right, sister.” Cooper grinned. “But it’s important to find time to relax, too. Worry not, I’ll make sure you spend enough time on meaningless activities such as movies and games, you can trust me on that.”

Alice shook her head, amused. “I’m not one for movies or games much.”

“So I’ve noticed. I’ll just have to convince you. I need a new Mario Kart partner.”

Alice chuckled, but didn’t reply. For a moment they ate in silence, but Alice had already discovered that silence was not a natural state for Will and he was bound to break it sooner rather than later.

“Oh look, if it isn’t our military commander!” Cooper exclaimed, pointing somewhere behind Alice. She turned to look over her shoulder and, indeed, Colonel Sheppard was approaching them with a tray in his hand. Teyla was with him. Alice half-rose before she remembered the rules here were so lax.

“Boyd, sit yo’ ass down, for goodness’ sake,” Sheppard ordered her with an air of amused exasperation.

“Sorry, sir, old habits.” She smiled embarrassedly. The two sat down at their table.

“Hello, William, Alice,” Teyla greeted them pleasantly.

“Hi Teyla, how’s it going?” Cooper threw her one of his bright grins. She smiled back.

“Very well, thank you.”

“We’ve just come back from Washington,” Sheppard announced, opening a can of coke carefully. “The IOA made their decision.”

“Oooh, and are they going to let us go finally?” Cooper asked eagerly.

“We managed to make them see reason. We’re going back to Pegasus as soon as the ship is fully outfitted.”

Will pumped the air with his fist. “Well done!”

“I am much relieved,” Teyla admitted. “For a while it seemed they would try to ground us here. As fascinating as I find your planet, I am anxious to get back home.”

“Did the Daedalus bring any news about your people?” Alice asked timidly. What she really meant was do you know what’s happening to your partner and son, but it was too forward for her.

“Yes, they were well enough when it left Pegasus.” Teyla smiled to Alice and the captain understood that she was answering both questions.

“Good.” Alice smiled back.

“I used your argument,” Sheppard mentioned nonchalantly, waving his fork towards Alice. “The one about Atlantis being on American territorial waters?” He paused for a moment to swallow another bite. “I’m pretty sure it was what pushed China over on the issue.”

“Really?” Alice raised her eyebrows. “Well, I’m glad.”

“That Coolidge guy was no use to us,” Sheppard continued. “I think he wanted Atlantis to stay here himself, but was ordered to take our position by the President.”

“Did you meet the new President?” Cooper demanded greedily.  Alice snickered.

“Nah, it’s just our speculation.” Sheppard shrugged. “But General O’Neill said he’s a tough cookie. For a guy who’s never worn a uniform, he’s got a pretty good feel as to whom to trust inside Pentagon.”

“That is important,” Alice agreed. “Pentagon’s internal politics is like its own soap opera.”

“Yeah, you’d know something about that, wouldn’t you?” The colonel smirked. “I hear your uncle is gonna make general.”

Alice raised her eyebrows and lifted her hands in a gesture of surprise. “How on Earth do you know that, sir? I’ve just found out myself like a week ago.”

“I hear things,” he answered mysteriously and then stuffed his mouth with a forkful of French fries.

Alice rolled her eyes, but decided to let it go. It was like she had expected: after her mother’s brother, Alastar Kelly, was elected to Congress, he made sure to reward his supporters and pulled some strings. One of them led her father’s brother, Simon Boyd, to a nice sinecure in Pentagon, to which he was just about to add a pair of general’s stars. His son, Alice’s cousin Tobey, who was currently a junior at CalTech and member of the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, had called her about a week ago to inform her of the development and extend an invitation to a formal ceremony on behalf of his father. It was going to be this coming Friday, but Alice wasn’t sure if they weren’t going to be halfway to Pegasus at the time already.

“Anyway, if everything goes right, we will be outta here on Monday or Tuesday.” Sheppard unknowingly corrected Alice’s supposition. “Woolsey agreed to give almost all of our people time off Thursday through Sunday so they can have some time with their families before we fly away again.”

They?” Cooper picked up on the usage of the word . “You don’t plan to visit yours?”

The colonel just shrugged.

So she would be free to go to Uncle Simon’s promotion ceremony. She supposed that was as good an occasion as any to say goodbye to her family. Everyone would be there: her mom and brother (assuming there was no emergency at the SGC), Simon’s family, Alastar and his wife (maybe they’d even take their boys?). Of course it’d be no family gathering; plenty of Simon’s service colleagues and friends would attend, and a good number of Washington civilian elites probably, too. Still, Alice supposed it would be in good form for her to go. After all, Uncle Simon made an appearance at her promotion ceremony when she made captain two years ago.

“Well, I’m, for one, glad at the opportunity,” Will professed, leaning away from the table in his chair, and stretched lazily. “My boy will be six next month, I’ll take him somewhere special now in lieu of being there at his birthday party.”

Alice looked up at him, taken aback. “I didn’t know you had a kid!”

“Yeah, I do.” The anthropologist shrugged offhandedly, but the smile on his lips was warm. “Me and his mama don’t see eye to eye anymore, if you know what I mean.”

Alice nodded and refrained from asking if they were divorced or never married. That would be prying. She did know there was no wedding band on his finger. He wore a Tufts signet ring, but that was all.

“So he lives with his mother?” Teyla inquired.

“Yeah, back in Boston. That’s a city on the East Coast,” he added for Teyla’s benefit. “I visit whenever I can and write to him every day. I’d be dead before I gave up on this kid. He’s smart like his papa.” He grinned brightly. “Thankfully he takes his looks from his mama.”

“What’s his name?” Alice asked, rolling her eyes. Cooper often made self-deprecating jokes about his appearance, even though he was a rather handsome man, his vitiligo notwithstanding. For the most part, Alice didn’t even see the discoloration anymore; it was just one feature of his face, like her freckles whenever she spent too much time in the sun. But it bugged him, and even his light-hearted and positive attitude couldn’t completely erase the discomfort.

“Roy.”

“That’s pretty.”

“We weren’t together long,” Cooper confessed when the two of them excused themselves from the table, having finished eating, and were walking down towards the transporter. “She was a nurse working for Doctors Without Borders down in the Congo, the big one. I was doing research in the same area. We just clicked, but then she came home and I stayed – well, traveled to other places, actually. Then she called to say she was pregnant…” His voice became colder. “She wanted me to come back, leave my research unfinished. I said no. We fought. Eventually we worked out a compromise, but it’s only for Roy’s benefit, we don’t actually talk much anymore, and if at all, always about practical stuff, like when I’m supposed to pick Roy up or bring him back, things like that.”

“Are you sad that it didn’t work out between you?” Alice asked delicately. They were now standing in front of the transporter, neither willing to break the conversation at that moment.

Will didn’t reply right away, his eyes wandering around, not seeing anything really.

“No. It’s not ideal for Roy, but we lead the lives we want. That’s important.”

Alice nodded. “What are you telling Roy when you’re away?”

“I make up stories of all the places I supposedly visit. Often they’re inspired by what is really going on.” He grinned. “Roy loves them.” Then his smile waned a little. “I suppose it will not be enough for him for much longer. I dread the moment when I’m gonna have to fall back on the good ol’ that’s classified.”

“It’s never easy, not even with adults,” Alice agreed. “And our cover stories are so weak and ridiculous… they might work for someone we see once in a blue moon, but you can’t really pull it off with your closest family or friends.” She was thinking of Aaron, always insisting she tell him where she was going or what she was doing, and her mother, who accepted the I can’t say excuse, but only very reluctantly.

“Yeah, at least you can be honest with your brother. He’s in SGC, right?”

Alice smiled. “That’s right. That does make it a little easier. Although our mom is now furious with both of us because we have this common secret that she can’t know.”

Cooper laughed and then waved his hand over the door lock.

“I gotta go. See you around, Alice.” He entered the transporter.

“See you.” Alice nodded and waited for the door to close. Then she opened it again to find the little room behind empty again, and touched the city map herself to get to her destination - Zelenka’s lab. She didn’t have anything specific to do, so she was spending the time continuing the research she’d done for her PhD. At least it occupied her mind. She hated idleness.

 

*

 

Alice stood in the corner of the room with a glass of soda in her hand, silently observing the crowd. Her mother and brother were gone somewhere for the moment, and no one was bothering with her. That was a good thing. Most of the people in the room were colonels and generals, or even worse – politicians. Alice had no desire to speak to any of them. Unfortunately, some of them were her relations, so completely avoiding them for the entire evening was out of the question.

She had driven from San Francisco to Los Angeles on Thursday, spent the night at the family house, and then boarded a plane towards Washington on Friday early morning, with her mother in tow. Mom hated flying, but she forced herself to go for her brother-in-law’s sake. Having her daughter beside her made it a bit easier, too. They checked into a hotel, where they were later joined by Jake, and finally made their way to the Pentagon, where the promotion ceremony for Simon Boyd was held. The official part took place in a large auditorium, and that finished, the crowd moved to a smaller room for a more informal reception. For Alice, however, it was still plenty formal. It made her realize that she had begun already getting used to the lax atmosphere on Atlantis.

“Allie!”

She turned around and beheld a young man of medium height, brown eyes, short dark hair and a bushy brow. He was wearing a Service Dress Uniform with two white stripes on his epaulettes. She smiled to him.

“Cadet Boyd, you clean up nicely,” she told him. Her cousin grinned in response.

“You don’t look so bad yourself, Captain,” he stressed the last word.

Alice chuckled. “Yes, Tobey, I noticed. Congratulations.” The two stripes were of equal thickness, which meant the boy was now bearing the rank of Cadet Captain.

“Thanks.” He looked around. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Oh, yes, terribly,” she replied with thick sarcasm. “But the ceremony was really pretty.”

“Except I thought the speeches would never end.” Tobey rolled his eyes. “Especially dad’s own. He’s just so fond of the sound of his own voice…”

Alice snickered, but decided it wouldn’t be prudent to speak ill of the just-promoted general. “And where is Jodie?”

“Making sweet eyes to the younger officers, I bet,” he replied without hesitation. “I swear to you, that girl has no ambition at all. At all.

“At least she’s enjoying herself more than you and I are,” Alice noted with a raised eyebrow. “By the way, how’s it going with that girlfriend of yours, huh?”

He became instantly embarrassed. “Oh, you know… uh…” He shrugged. “Going well, I guess.”

“Uh-huh. What’s her name, anyway?”

“Samantha.”

Alice smiled. “I know a Samantha. That’s a great name.”

“You finished embarrassing the boy, Allie?” A new voice asked from behind her. She turned around to face a large man – not overly tall, but stocky, with a small beer-belly as well – with auburn hair and green-grey eyes. He was wearing an elegant three-piece suit and had a small, wispy woman with blond hair and bright eyes on his arm.

“I’m just trying to be sociable, Uncle,” she replied, hugging Aunt Moira and shaking hands with Uncle Alastar. “You know it’s not my forte.”

“So you keep saying, but I know there’s more in you.” Alastar winked to her. Alice shook her head, but didn’t reply. “You are, after all, the pride of the family.”

At this, Alice rolled her eyes, but still didn’t say anything. She knew Alastar was baiting her.

“And Tobey, how is your training going? What specialty did you apply for?”

“Space Operations,” Tobey replied, smiling to Alice. She was the one to advise him so.

“Not a rated position, after all, huh?”

“Nah, I wouldn’t be good at it. I’ll be a helluva engineer, though.” He wasn’t kidding. His grades were almost as good as Alice’s had been. He was really committed to his dream of becoming an astronaut, and Alice encouraged him and pushed him in directions that could, one day, lead him towards the Stargate Program. NASA was fine, but the real thing happened once you stepped through the Gate – or rode a 304.

“How about you, Allie? Now that you have your diploma, what’s next for you?”

“I’m going on deployment next week.” Alice kept her voice casual. “I’m still a pilot, although I continue to tinker with stuff, too.” It wasn’t a lie; she was supposed to be a Jumper pilot, after all, and her work with Zelenka’s team might be called tinkering, right?

“Going on deployment where?” Alastar pressed.

“Misawa Air Base in Japan,” Alice lied. It was her official cover story, though nobody close to her really believed it.

“Uh-huh.” The uncle sounded unconvinced. “So why won’t you be able to call?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your mother told me you wouldn’t be able to call from there.”

Alice shook her head. “There’s a sixteen hours difference between L.A. and Japan. I don’t want mom to stay awake god knows how early or late just to talk to me.”

“Uh-huh.” She knew he still wasn’t persuaded, but there was nothing else to do about it. The cover story was weak, but what else was there to say?

“Congressman!” Someone spoke to Alastar and he turned away from Alice and Tobey, with Moira pivoting on her heel, still attached to his shoulder.

“You know, one day I’m gonna get to the bottom of what it is that you actually do,” Tobey told her in a low voice.

“I hope so.” Alice smiled at him. “It’s pretty incredible.”

“Tobey! Allie! Come here for a second!” The freshly promoted Brigadier General Boyd called to them across the room. Alice and Tobey exchanged an apprehensive look and approached him, meandering between groups of people standing around with drinks in their hands and engaged in polite conversations. “I want a photo with all the kids,” Simon explained. Jake and Jodie were already there; Alastar’s children, Patrick and Lee, were not in attendance at all, being too young.

“You do know we’re all adults, right, Uncle?” Jake asked with his eyebrows raised, but Simon just waved him into a line. They’d always be kids to their parents, Alice supposed.

They crowded around Simon; he stood back with Jake, both of them tall enough to tower above the others, and Alice found herself in front of them with Jodie on one side and Tobey on the other. Jodie was the only one who wore a civilian attire; a black cocktail dress which made her look like a superstar. They all smiled as the professional photographer took his pictures. Finally it was over and they could break into a more relaxed semi-circle.

“Where’s your mother?” Simon asked Jake and Alice.

“Sitting over there, talking to Aunt Helen.” Jake waved his hand in the general direction of the end of the room, where the only couches stood. “No doubt gossiping happily away.”

Alice smiled and was about to say something, but fell silent. She cocked her head to one side and listened carefully, trying to mute the human babble filling the room. Had she just heard…?

“What is it, Alice?” Jake asked. Alice raised her hand in a quieting gesture.

“Did you hear that?”

Jake listened for a moment, then shook his head. “Hear what?”

“Sounded like gunfire.”

“Gunfire, here? In the Pentagon?” Uncle Simon’s voice was a mixture of disbelief and mockery.

Alice frowned. “You’re right, it was probably nothing.” But it was something. If not gunfire, then something else. “Excuse me, I need to use a ladies’ room,” she said to the others.

“I’ll go with you,” Tobey offered and then blushed when she looked at him with an arched eyebrow. “I mean, to the men’s room. It’s bound to be in the same area.”

“Uh-huh.” Alice turned and walked out of the room into a bland corridor. Tobey followed, but neither of them turned towards the restrooms when they reached the doors.

“So you really think…” Tobey started, but then they bounded a corner and he fell silent. Alice was down on her knees within a few seconds.

The man was a marine guard, his black coat and white gloves didn’t leave any shred of doubt. His service weapon lay next to him and there were bullet holes in the opposite wall. In the middle of his chest was a blackened wound. There wasn’t much blood, but Alice had seen a wound like that before. She reached out to touch the side of his neck. There was no pulse.

“Tobey,” she said in a low voice. “Go back and fetch my brother.”

“Is he… is he dead?” The boy asked with difficulty.

“Yes. Go back and tell Jake to come here. Now. Just Jake.”

“No, we need to tell someone… I’ll tell dad, he’ll know what to do…” He sounded small and very young.

Alice stood up and turned to him, her face an unfamiliar mask.

“Cadet, you will do what I told you to. This is not a negotiation.”

Tobey’s eyes widened a little, but then he remembered himself.

“Yes, ma’am.” He pivoted around on his heel and immediately broke into a run. Alice went back to the dead marine, looking at the wound closer. It looked exactly like the scorched injury she once saw on a Tok’ra named Aat, when they were fighting their way through a Jaffa guard. But it was impossible. A Jaffa, here? Can’t be. Except I don’t know any other weapon that would leave such a wound. Alice shook her head. Why did nobody come yet? Was it possible that nobody except her heard the gunshots? Sure, it was late, but there were people working in this building at all times of day and night.

Alice reached for the marine’s gun. It was a Beretta M9; if the guy had had a rifle, it was now gone. The slide was pushed all the way back, indicating that the pistol was empty. Would the marine have a spare magazine? Alice silently apologized for the intrusion and plunged her hand in his pocket, first one and then the other, where she did find a spare clip. She released the spent mag from the gun and slipped in the new one. Then she pulled the slide and released it, heard the satisfying click of the round being chambered, and engaged the safety. The she heard footsteps behind her, stood up straight and turned around.

Jake was frowning as he appeared around the corner, Tobey trailing in behind him. The boy looked even younger next to his bulky cousin, but there was an expression of determination on his face. Alice was reminded once again that he was only four years younger than her. She had just joined the Stargate Program when she was his age.

Jake stopped next to Alice and squatted down to look at the marine. He, too, checked his pulse.

“It’s an interesting injury, don’t you think? I’ve seen one just like that before,” Alice said in a low voice.

“Yeah, me too. Many times.” Jake stood up and walked over to the wall where the bullets the marine shot in self-defense lodged in the soft plaster.

“Know of anything else that makes such wounds?” Alice asked.

Jake looked around at her seriously. “Kull.”

Alice nodded. She hadn’t thought about it, but yes, Kull warriors also used this kind of high energy weapon.

“Any idea how they got into the Pentagon?”

Jake shook his head. “Can you think why they chose to come here of all places?”

“Well, it is the headquarters of the Homeworld Command,” Alice remarked musingly. “Any idea in which part of the building it is?”

“What’s Homeworld Command?” Tobey interrupted, but they both ignored him.

“Not a clue,” Jake admitted. “But I know who knows. And he’s back there, among the guests.”

It took a second. “Oh! You mean the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.” She paused to think. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for anyone to leave that room for now.”

“Agreed. But what do we do now? We can’t go against a Kull warrior with that.” He pointed to the Beretta in her hand. “Might be enough for a Jaffa, but not that thing.”

“How many of them are still around?” Alice wondered.

“Not many. But the armor goes for a nice large sum on the open market.”

Alice frowned. She remembered Vala Mal Doraan, assaulting the Prometheus dressed as a Kull warrior. Even without the Anubis’ creature inside, the plating was strong enough to withstand most weapons, much less a nine millimeter.

“We’d need a Kull disruptor,” she asserted.

“What’s a Kull?” Tobey was wide-eyed again and looking from Alice to Jake and back again.

“Yeah, that’d be nice, I’ll just go into the armory here and get one,” Jake spat with irony, again ignoring their cousin.

“Ha, ha, very funny.” Alice rolled her eyes. “We can ask the Daedalus, you knucklehead.”

Jake was taken aback. “That’s right. It’s in the orbit. Good thinking, sis. But…”

“What’s going on here?” The new voice made the three of them turn around in unison. Uncle Simon was standing at the cross of this corridor and the one leading back to the room where the reception was still ongoing. His eyes were flickering between the dead marine, and his niece, nephew and son.

Alice and Jake exchanged worried looks.

“Please go back, Uncle,” Alice said without real hope. “We’ll deal with it.”

“I will go nowhere until you three explain to me what’s going on!” He was getting red on the face.

“Don’t ask me, I know nothing,” Tobey mumbled and took a step to his right, getting out of the way.

At that moment they all heard something very clearly: a scream, distant but piercing, coming from the opposite direction to the one the marine must have been facing when he started shooting.

Alice felt an urge to scream herself. Why was it happening to her, now, here? But there was nothing to it. She was the officer, it was her call. Simon didn’t count, since he didn’t know anything about the situation. She looked at her brother.

“Stay here. Call the SGC, get me some backup. And keep them safe.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am.” This time, there was not one iota of amusement in Jake’s voice.

Alice started walking purposefully towards the end of the corridor, where the scream came from, but Simon grabbed her by the arm as she was passing him.

“Where do you think you’re going? Stay where you are!”

Alice looked up at him and something in her face made him let go of her.

“Stay here, General, please,” she said tiredly. “Jacob will keep you safe.” But could he? She was taking the gun with her, and sure, Jake was a great hand-to-hand fighter, and might even get an upper hand with a Jaffa, but a Kull warrior…? No way.

There was no time to think about it, though. She was already walking away, with quick, careful steps. Before she turned around the corner on the far end, she flicked the safety off on the gun.

She walked in total silence. The noise of the party had faded behind her, and the scream didn’t repeat. She arrived at a staircase and listened for any sounds. She didn’t know if she should go up or down, or continue straight, but after about half a minute of concentrated listening, she thought she heard a faint clap, as if some door was being slammed somewhere beneath. She started down the stairs, marveling at how quiet it was. Where were all the people?

Then she was on the lower floor and on her right a door opened and a man in an Army green uniform with the insignia of a Lieutenant Colonel walked out. He froze when he saw Alice, slinking through the corridor with the Beretta in her hand. She put a finger on her mouth.

“Go back, sir. Not safe,” she whispered to him. He took one look at her face, nodded, and quietly backed into the room, closing the door behind him almost without a sound.

Another scream, this one much closer, pierced the air and Alice picked up the pace. She bounded another corner and then came to an open door in the middle of the corridor. She stood on its side, listening again. She could hear someone speaking; deep tones of a male voice. But the scream she’d heard was decidedly female. She still couldn’t recognize words, though. She looked into the room carefully, the Beretta raised in her hand, but it was empty; just an outer office of some sort, with two desks facing each other and a pair of doors, one of which were open. Alice crept slowly and carefully towards it, the low heels of her shoes clinking faintly, against all her attempts to keep quiet. There was a larger room behind the entrance, but it was, too, empty, with another door at the other side. She could now make out words.

“You will tell me where it is or he dies.” The deep tones of a man.

“I don’t know, I swear I don’t know what you’re talking about, please, please, let us go…” The half-broken high-pitched voice of a woman, heavily saturated by sobs.

“Where is the device!” Another man exclaimed, this one a higher tenor. “We can do this all day!” There was a weird metallic sound, and then a discharge and small explosion. The woman screamed again.

So at least two. Not Kull warriors, these always operated alone. But that didn’t mean they didn’t use the technology. Alice was no expert, but it didn’t sound like a staff weapon to her. For a second she was back in the generator room of Ahmose’s palace, fighting for her life, the Jaffa shooting at her as she danced around with a zat… a zat would be very helpful right about now.

She gripped the Beretta tighter and made her way through the larger room to the open door. She looked around the frame quickly, just for a second, to see what was the tactical situation.

A woman and two men sat on the ground in front of a large mahogany desk, not unlike the one in Atlantis’ conference room. Two bodies lay next to them, deep scorched wounds clearly visible on their chest, just like the unfortunate marine upstairs. In front of them, two men stood, their profiles visible from the door; they weren’t Jaffa, but weren’t Kull warriors, either. Alice saw black plating covering their bodies, but not entirely; there were places where the armor didn’t reach. And their heads were uncovered, too.

“She told you she doesn’t know!” Another male voice came from the room, shaking heavily. “None of us know what you’re talking about!”

“Do not lie to us!” The higher-pitched of the two assailants spat. “We know the device is somewhere in this building! We have it tagged!”

“You will be next. Tell or die.” This was the one with the deeper voice. The only reply was the woman’s sobbing.

“Do it, Isla, do it!” The other egged his companion on. He sounded unhinged. There was no more time.

Alice swung around the doorframe, the gun raised and ready to fire, and took aim. They noticed her, but she pulled the trigger before the man closest to her even started turning. The bullet drove into his skull, and with a little gargle he fell down. His companion was already raising his hand and pointing it at Alice, and she knew he meant to kill. She dove to the floor, twisting as she fell, facing him, raising the pistol again. He shot and a small locker behind her exploded in a rain of splinters. She didn’t even notice as some of them pinched the side of her face. She was squeezing the trigger again, and the bullet flew true. It lodged in the man’s shoulder, between two black plates of Kull armor. The force of it drove him backwards and to the ground, but he didn’t lose consciousness. His shooting arm was now useless, but he tried to scramble on his feet nevertheless. Before he could, Alice was standing over him, the Beretta pointed into his face.

“Just give me a reason,” she said grimly. The man froze, his eyes wide and his face screwed, as he looked up the barrel of her gun.  “You guys okay?” She asked, half-turning her head towards the three cowering next to the table, her gaze never leaving the man on the floor.

At first the woman’s frantic sobbing was the only response, but then one of the men – the one who was targeted to be next – got up from the floor and walked the few steps toward her. She noted the green uniform and a single silver bar on his shoulder; and he had a shallow cut on his temple, oozing blood – face injuries always bled a lot.

“We’re alright, ma’am, but Colonel Peters and Mr. Jameson are gone,” he said. His voice shook only a little.

Alice nodded gravely. “Check the other one for me, Lieutenant. Make sure he’s dead.” Then she faced the guy on the ground again. “Who are you?”

“Like I’m gon’ tell you,” he replied, his voice even more high-pitched than before, and shaking nervously. “Nah-uh, lady.”

Alice sized him up and down with her eyes, the mismatched armor not quite covering only about half of his body. “Your name matters to me little. As to your affiliation, I can guess. I’m curious, though. What is it that’s so valuable to the Lucian Alliance that mercs like you risked coming to Earth?”

The man started when she said Lucian Alliance. “I ain’t talking to yo’, lady,” he refused, but his face was all contorted with pain.

“You were looking for a device. I heard you. What device?”

“I ain’t…” He began, but Alice lost her patience and turned from him, the Beretta not moving an inch away from his face, though.

“Lieutenant. What is it that they wanted?” She asked. The soldier had checked the other mercenary’s pulse and shaken his head; he was now standing there, looking at the other man, a civilian, who was trying to calm the woman down. She was still hysterical, clearly in shock.

“I honestly don’t know,” the lieutenant shook his head again. “They kept asking where is the device?, but damn if I know what kind of device they meant.”

Communication device, I think they said,” the other man added from the floor, his hands wrapped around his sobbing colleague.

Long-range communication device, Alice thought. Like the one we found in Glastonbury Tor. It had been destroyed when Doctor Jackson made contact with the Ori for the first time, but I think they found another in Pegasus. But why would it be here, in the Pentagon? We have it tagged, one of them said. Tagged how? If it was the one brought by the Atlantis expedition, there was no way it could have been even touched by anyone from the Lucian Alliance, was there? Bu then, how…?

“You know what it is,” the Army guy said with wonder in his voice.

Alice nodded. “I can guess.” She looked back at the mercenary. He was very pale now, a puddle of blood getting bigger on the floor beneath him; soon it would join in with the significantly bigger pool seeping from the bullet hole in the other merc’s head. Alice felt weak and very, very tired; it wasn’t just the adrenaline leaving her body, nor the horrific sight. She knew she’d have to deal with the aftermath. She’d been there before, and though it got better, it never really went away.

She opened her mouth to say something else, but suddenly the room was full of rifles and men in cammies, shouting for everybody to freeze. Alice raised her hands and took a step back. One of the marines – a master sergeant – looked around, saw that his men had everyone in their sights, and stepped towards Alice.

“Master Sergeant Garza. I believe you called the cavalry, ma’am.” He smiled to her, waving to a marine aiming at Alice to lower his weapon.

“I did indeed.” Alice nodded, dropping her hands and engaging the safety on her Beretta. “You’re late, though.”

“I can see that.” Garza’s eyes flickered to the two armor-clad figures laying on the floor. “Good job, ma’am.”

“You saved our lives,” the civilian interrupted. He was up now, with the woman still entangled in his arms, but not so hysterical anymore. “Thank you.”

Alice nodded. Garza was gesturing to his not-quite-a-squad to stop pointing at the victims and focus on the two mercenaries.

“From what I can tell, they were after a long-range communication device,” Alice told him. “I didn’t know there was one in here.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that, ma’am,” Garza admitted. “We have an SG unit coming to do a proper investigation. Our job is to secure the area.”

“There is one marine dead upstairs,” Alice added softly. “Sorry.”

Garza thanked her with a slight bow.

“I better get back there, try to do some damage control,” she sighed. “There’s a general there who’s not in on the secret and will be one giant pain on the ass to convince to stay quiet.” She paused, thinking. “I’m reasonably sure these two were the only ones, but you better make the sweep of the place.”

Garza nodded and waved at his men. They left quickly and quietly like ghosts, only two staying behind, one with his rifle still pointed on the mercenary – the living one. The other one was pulling a pair of zip cuffs from his tactical vest.

Alice handed the Beretta to the master sergeant. “It belonged to the marine upstairs.”

He took it carefully and checked if the safety was on. Alice almost smiled. There was nobody who was more crazy about gun safety than professional soldiers.

“I gotta get back there. You’ve got this?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alice nodded, looked around to smile to the Army lieutenant and the two civilians (the woman had finally stopped sobbing, and her gaze was clearing), and left the room. When she had been creeping through the corridors before, it had seemed like it took her several good minutes, but now she got to the staircase in thirty seconds, climbed it, and less than a minute later she was at the crossing of the corridors, where still the body of the unlucky marine lay. There was no sign of Jake, Tobey or Uncle Simon, though. Alice raised her eyebrows and walked up to the room where the party was now in full swing. She slipped through the door and looked around.

Uncle Simon was standing nearby, flanked by Alastar and some people Alice didn’t know. Jake was leaning against the wall just right of the door, his eyes on Simon, his face unsmiling. Tobey was nowhere to be seen.

Alice approached her brother.

“And?” He asked tensely, his eyes still focused on Simon.

“The situation is under control,” Alice replied under her breath. “There were two, mercs in Kull armor, but not complete. It was easy.” She was troubled to find that there was no instant backlash inside her; it had been easy. Too easy, perhaps. It didn’t yet hit her that she just killed another human being. “Maybe part of Lucian Alliance, but I rather think they were operating alone, perhaps hoping to sell to the Alliance.”

“What they were after?” Jake’s eyes were serious and searching as he looked into her face. She smiled wanly.

“My best guess is an Ancient long-range communication device, though why would it be here of all places…”

“They found a pair a few months back,” Jake explained. Alice was surprised for a moment and then reminded herself that he was a member of an SG unit now, so he knew very well what was happening. “They didn’t work, but the geniuses from Groom Lake repaired them somehow. They still barely work,” he added with a hint of his usual mocking humor. “But they sent one to the Icarus Base, because they can’t dial in without risking the whole place blowing up.” That made sense; Alice had read about the Icarus project, which was aimed at unlocking the Stargate’s ninth chevron. The core of P4X-351, where the base was located, was made of Naquadria, and so Stargate couldn’t receive incoming wormholes, as it could make the planet core dangerously unstable.

“And they put the other one in the Pentagon,” Alice guessed. “So the base can keep in touch directly with the Homeworld Command.”

“Yes.”

Alice nodded thoughtfully.

“Who came?” Jake asked after a moment of silence.

“The marine unit from the Daedalus.” They had patches with the ship’s emblem. “I don’t think there’s any more bad guys, but I told them to sweep the place just the same.”

“How did they get here? The mercs, I mean.”

Alice had thought about that. “They must have a cloaked ship somewhere, maybe on the roof, or maybe on the courtyard. A small one, Tel’tak or maybe Al’kesh.”

“Now, that would be awesome, imagine you’re some colonel or general, just taking a stroll on the courtyard, and suddenly you knock your head on nothing!” Jake snickered. Now that it seemed that the situation really was under control, his sense of humor was coming back.

Alice rolled her eyes. “How did you manage to convince Simon to get back inside?”

“I told him it would look suspicious if he’d miss much more of his own party. He’s sensitive to how he looks to others.”

Alice couldn’t disagree. “Still, I bet it wasn’t easy.”

“Tobey helped,” Jake acknowledged. “The kid has potential, I tell you.”

Alice nodded and then grimaced. “I’m afraid the worst is still ahead,” she said, pointing with her eyes. Jake turned around a little, and an identical grimace appeared on his face. Simon Boyd was walking towards them, still flanked by Alastar. Alice squared her shoulders, wondering how the hell was she supposed to get out of this. If he wanted, Simon could even press charges; she did disobey a direct order. She didn’t think he would… but still. Oh, aye, he’s pissed. And why was he dragging Alastar with him?

“You have some explaining to do, young lady!” Simon seethed as they reached Alice and Jake. Alice felt her lips tighten. She thought she hadn’t been called young lady since graduating high school. Not to mention that they were both in uniforms… but she couldn’t bring that up, now, could she? Not if she wanted to keep out of a court-martial. “You better start talking, or I swear to god it’s gonna end up badly for you!”

Alice sighed. “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t.”

The briefness of the remark astonished and agitated Simon even more. He didn’t raise his voice, but spoke in a low hiss that was like what a snake would sound if it could form words.

“I am done covering for you! You’ll tell me what it is all about right now! I do not suffer fools easily, remember!”

Nor did she, but could she really blame him? He walked on them converging on a dead marine, Alice with a Beretta in her hand, and their cryptic words and decidedly irregular behavior only provoking more questions.

“I don’t need you to cover for me, sir, I did what needed to be done.” Alice couldn’t leave the cold bitterness completely out of her voice. To her own ears, it sounded nearly like contempt.

“What is it exactly that you did when you walked off?” Alastar put in, revealing that Simon has already confided in him. Curse you and your wicked political ties! Alice screamed at them inwardly.

“I am not at liberty to say.”

“Bullshit!” Simon spat. “I am a fucking general, you will tell me!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but these orders come from way up the chain of command.” She knew it was vague, but she couldn’t very well tell him it was a presidential directive, right? The directive established Homeworld Command, its structure and ways of working; it was also, in itself, highly classified.

“Are you saying there’s a secret inside the military that you’re part of but Simon is not?” Alastar’s voice was calm and reasoned, but Alice could feel the underlying outrage. “That the Congress is unaware of either?”

“I didn’t say anything like that,” Alice denied, but it was, of course, true. Well, she thought, some members of the Congress do know. It’s just you that’s been left out, Uncle dearest. “All I’m saying is that I am not at liberty to discuss these events.” She looked to Jake, who stood silently by, ignored by their two uncles. He was only a lowly Staff Sergeant, an enlisted person, not to be bothered with. At least when they had an option to descend on an officer, like vultures overlooking a rabbit when bigger prey was in their sights. If Alice wasn’t there, it would be Jake having to justify his silence, and it would be even harder for him. Or maybe not? He seemed to deal with Uncle Simon quite well; but Simon always took issue with Alice being who she was. He didn’t think a girl deserved her position in the service. Just now, she didn’t only disobey his order; she also went alone into what must have been combat (she wondered briefly if they heard the gunshots), leaving three men behind. It stood in stark contrast to what Simon – and Alastar as well – thought to be the right order of things.

“Well, Captain,” – Simon accentuated the word so that it sounded mocking – “now I am ordering you to tell us everything you know.” When he saw Alice’s stern expression, he added haughtily: “I am a damn brigadier general, who is going to contradict me?”

“I am!” A bright, amused voice joined the conversation, surprising all four of them. They all turned towards the door; a few paces away stood a man in an Air Force Service Dress Uniform. He was over six feet tall, had short, grey hair, and dark brown eyes. His smile could only be described as mischievous, like it was all a good joke. Alice only saw him from a distance before, but she recognized him at once. She and Jake both snapped to attention at the same time.

Alice could see Uncle Simon’s gaze slipping from the man’s face to his epaulettes, each with three stars on them. His own – and pinned on only two hours prior – only had one on each.

“I am Lieutenant General O’Neill,” the Stargate Program legend said, stressing the word lieutenant. Alice couldn’t help but snicker, but she kept her to-attention stance. “You must be Simon Boyd. They told me about you. Congratulations on your promotion.” His words seemed kind enough, but there was an unmistakable undertone of derision in them.

“Thank you… sir,” Uncle Simon answered, visibly put off. He opened his mouth, but O’Neill didn’t let him finish.

“Let it go.” His voice now carried an undeniable force of command. “Don’t ask about it, don’t talk about it, don’t even think about it. Just forget anything weird ever happened. It’s a party, right? Go and have fun.”

Simon’s lips were pressed so tightly they formed one thin line, but he nodded.

“And if it comes to you to go above my head…” O’Neill added with sparks in his eyes. “Why don’t you just go to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and ask him about me. He’s here, after all.” The lieutenant general nodded towards the other side of the room, where a circle of general and field officers surrounded the Chief of Staff.

“Yes, sir.” Alice could see on her uncle’s face that he was going to do just that.

“What about me? You can’t order me around!” Alastar spat with unmitigated indignation now.

“Oh, if wishing made it so!” O’Neill quipped, and Alice and Jake exchanged amused looks. “I can only assure you that none of the Boyds in uniform is going to tell you squat. I advise you better forget about it, too.”

Alastar’s eyes were promising something entirely opposite. Alice knew that gleam, and she knew he wouldn’t rest until he found out. Would he be able to? Now, that was the real question. How well was this secret protected? Alice had a feeling that, although he definitely rescued her from trouble, O’Neill might have done no favors to the Program by stepping in. With only vague idea about what happened – they had nothing to go on except for the dead marine and some screams in the distance – and assuming Alice and Jake would continue their silence on the subject, Alastar and Simon didn’t stand much chance of figuring it out. But now they had at least this lead: O’Neill. Alice and Jake were nobodies, but O’Neill was a three-star general, not to mention that he’d been with the Program from the very beginning. And people talked. Even when it was all a huge secret… people talked. And O’Neill was such a good object; all the things he’s done and accomplished made for one hell of a story.

“I respectfully decline,” Alastar said loftily and walked away, with his head high and his cheeks red. Simon followed him without another word, but he did nod to O’Neill before turning away. They both headed directly towards the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

“Wish you well, boys,” O’Neill called after them, but quietly, so only Alice and Jake heard. “They’re not gonna be very happy with the answers the Chief is gonna give ‘em. Neither will he be with their questions,” he mused and then looked at the siblings, both still standing at attention. “Relax, guys. At ease.”

They did as bade and both smiled at him.

“It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” Alice declared, while her brother nodded agreement.

“Thanks.” He looked vaguely surprised at that. “I know who you two are, too. You’re SG-5, Major Petruchenko’s team, aren’t ya?” He turned to Jake.

“Yes, sir.” Jake’s voice was calm but his eyes sparkled with mirth. Alice wondered what it was that amused him so.

“And you, Captain. You’re Sheppard’s shiny new toy.”

Alice raised her eyebrows. Toy?

“He says you might be as good as himself when it comes to the Ancient tech,” O’Neill elaborated. “Isn’t that so?”

Alice didn’t reply right away, thinking for a moment. She had been on Atlantis long enough to notice that it wasn’t just empty words; she really did operate the Ancient devices with more ease and better efficiency than the others. It was almost as if she was becoming one with the technology, at times.

“Yes, sir, I believe it is.” She shrugged. “Seems I won the genetic lottery.”

O’Neill looked at her with a peculiar expression, half-amused and half-pensive.

“You did a good thing today,” he said more seriously. “Three people are alive because of you.”

Alice nodded acknowledgment, but added: “I only wish I got there sooner.” And that she didn’t shoot the first mercenary in the head. She could have aimed for an arm, or a leg. There were enough places not covered by the Kull warrior to just disable him. He didn’t have to die.

“You did everything right,” O’Neill contradicted, and Alice wondered briefly if he saw some of her true feelings on her face.

“Sir, the captain said they were after the long-range communication device. It’s one of the pair the SG-1 found back in December?” Jake put in.

O’Neill eyed him curiously. “You call your sister captain?”

“No, I call her midget,” Jake replied without missing a beat. The general sniggered.

“I like you, Sergeant. You’re good people.” He clapped a hand on the SNCO’s shoulder, amused.

Alice rolled her eyes. “Ha, ha, very funny, Jacob.” She decided to remind them of the original question. “I heard one of the mercenaries say that they have the device tagged. Do you know what they were talking about, sir?”

O’Neill shook his head. “No clue. I’ll leave that to the eggheads in Area 51. But they got pretty damn close. Another two floors down and they’d be at the Homeworld Command.”

Alice nodded thoughtfully. So they were in the correct place but not the correct level. Maybe the device was emitting some sort of energy? If so, they could have tracked it from the orbit.

“We’ll know more once we debrief the one you clipped in the shoulder,” O’Neill continued. “He’s in surgery now. But I’m gonna have this thing shipped off back to Groom Lake. We’ll replace it with one of ours.”

“One of ours, sir?”

“They managed to retro-engineer the technology,” he explained, shrugging. “So we’ll getting our very own transmitters. For now we only have two prototypes but if they hold, we’ll install one in all our ships and bases, including Atlantis.”

Alice exchanged a look with Jake. If there was such a device both in Atlantis and SGC, perhaps they could communicate in person from time to time – although the visiting party would have to ride someone else’s body, of course. Still, it beat the hell outta e-mails sent in daily scheduled data exchanges using the Gate.

“It works on quantum entanglement, doesn’t it?” Alice asked curiously, before she could stop herself. O’Neill’s blank stare told her this was the wrong person for such a question. “Ah… nevermind, sir. I’ll read up on it.”

“Or you could ask Carter. She’s down in the Command,” he said.

Alice smiled. “I think I strained my uncle’s patience enough for one evening, sir. He keeps looking at us like a hawk.” Which was true; Alice didn’t know how his conversation with the Chief of Staff went, but Simon was now standing with Alastar and some other men, turned so that he could observe Alice, Jake and O’Neill. “If I were to disappear again, I think that would end with a family row at the very least.” Already it was promising to be a problem. They were all scheduled to have a family dinner the next day; Alice could guess it wouldn’t go without a hitch.

O’Neill and Alice were both facing the right side of the room, and so it was Jake who alerted them of someone’s approach from behind.

“Mom,” he said in a greeting, and surely enough Eileen Boyd appeared at Alice’s side. She looked very smart in her grey cocktail dress, falling nearly to her ankles. Her expression was calm enough, Alice noted, although her eyes were darting from place to place, betraying her nervousness about being in such a big crowd. Alice smiled to her encouragingly. O’Neill was looking at the three redheads before him, his face expressionless.

“Mom, this is Lieutenant General Jack O’Neill.” Normally Alice would add the occupation when doing an introduction, but she couldn’t very well say head of the Homeworld Command, could she? “Sir, this is our mother, Eileen Boyd.”

“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” O’Neill said courteously.

“Likewise, general.” Eileen smiled a bit anxiously. “Are you Simon’s friend?”

“No, I’m not. Just passing by,” he replied innocently. “Time for me to go, anyway. I’ll see you around, Captain, Sergeant.” He nodded to both of them, and then added to their mother: “You can be proud of your kids.”

“I always am,” she confirmed, taken aback. O’Neill turned on his heel and walked out of the room – they were still standing right by the door – before Alice or Jake could react.

“That was odd. If he wasn’t here for Simon, why was he here?” Eileen asked shrewdly, her gaze piercing as she sized her two children up and down.  “What’s wrong?”

Alice silently cursed her mother’s wicked intuition. The woman always knew when there was something going on, always. “Nothing’s wrong, mom.” Alice shrugged nonchalantly, but she saw she didn’t fool her. “He is sort of my superior, way up high in the chain of command. I’ve met him before.” She had never spoken to him, but that wasn’t that much of a stretch, was it?

“Uh-huh.” Eileen’s expression spoke clearly about how much she believed her daughter.

“Anyway, I gotta talk to Tobey,” Alice said hurriedly, before mom could pursue the subject further. “I’ll find you later.” She threw Jake a significant look and pivoted away from the two of them. Jake would be alright. He was always better at keeping his cards close to his chest. Besides, mom wouldn’t badger him about an Air Force general; she didn’t have any reason to think O’Neill had been there for him, too.

Besides, Alice did have to find Tobey. She had an idea that the boy was smart enough to keep his mouth shut even without her saying so, but she needed to make sure he understood how important it was.

For a moment Alice wandered around the room, slipping between the groups of talking people, until finally she spotted her cousin at the back, by the refreshment table.

“Hi.” Alice poured herself a glass of soda and stood by Tobey, both looking at the crowd. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine,” he answered, and Alice thought that he really was; there was no tremor in his voice, nor did his face lose any color. “I’m just confused as fuck.”

Alice nodded understandingly. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything.”

He shrugged. “I get it, okay? I’m not an ass like dad.”

“I know you’re not.” Alice paused for a moment. “Jake said you helped him to convince Uncle Simon to get back inside.”

“Yeah, just one more nail to my coffin.” He rolled his eyes, and Alice smirked. It was a habit he picked up from her.

“He knows you know nothing. He won’t badger you about it,” Alice assured him. He will continue to badger me, though, she thought. He may have to do it less openly, but he won’t give up so easily, orders or no orders. She wished she had come up with some sort of a cover story. But what kind of a cover story could you have for there’s a dead body in the corridor?

Tobey shrugged again.

“I know you know this, but I’ve gotta say anyway.” Alice turned to face him now. “You can’t talk about any of this. To anyone, okay? Not even if someone orders you to. Especially not the things you heard in the corridor. Names me and Jake said. Just... forget about them.” She paused, looking at him searchingly. He wore a slightly exasperated, but serious expression. Satisfied, she finished: “This is coming from the highest levels. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone appeared in your hotel tomorrow with an NDA.”

This got his attention. “NDA? What’s that?”

“Non-Disclosure Agreement. Legally you’re still a civilian, so you might need to sign it.”

“This sucks, you know,” he informed her with a sigh. Then, after a moment’s silence: “I’ve never seen a dead body before.”

Alice nodded. “It’s never easy.”

“At least… the woman, the one whose scream we’d heard… at least tell me if she’s okay?” Tobey lifted his gaze to meet Alice’s eye. She nodded, her face serious, but didn’t say anything. Tobey sighed again. “Okay. Good. At least there’s that.”

Alice smiled and put her hand on his shoulder. “Finish college, get your commission, work hard, and maybe one day you’ll find out. All of it.”

He huffed. “Yeah. Maybe. One day.”

Alice let her hand drop to her side and turned again to look at the room full of people. Only two others were aware of the Stargate Program: Jake and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. And the rest? She wondered when it would become known to the general public. She didn’t doubt that someday it would all come out, but how long could they continue to keep it a secret? It has been twelve years since the beginning of the regular operation of Stargate. And but for a trick of Asgard technology on live TV, it could have ended when Alec Colson came out with his information. Who would be next? Alice had a feeling that unless they started to seriously think about how to share it with the public, they might be in deep trouble when it finally breaks on its own. Milky Way might be a whole lot safer now than when O’Neill was stepping through the Gate for the first time, but the idea of space full of aliens was bound to cause panic all the same. Not to mention all the knowledge that came with it; Alice thought that only one information could result in a new bout of horrible religious wars: that they were not the first iteration of humans to inhabit the galaxy. No, some people would not like that at all. They wouldn’t like it one bit.

Chapter Text

Alice tried to dodge Karim’s right hand and instead got hit square in the chest with his left. The force of the blow knocked her down to the ground, and it was a good thing they practiced on a mat, because her head thudded on the floor, for a moment blurring her vision.

“What’s wrong, ma’am?” Karim asked, leaning over her and offering a hand to help her up. She accepted and got onto her feet, swaying a little. “You’ve made some progress over the past few weeks but it’s like we’re back to the very beginning again today.”

Alice shook her head to get rid of the little buzzing sound in her ear. “I haven’t slept very well tonight.” Actually, she hadn’t slept well in the past three nights. When she was finally able to fall asleep in the wee hours of the morning, she woke up from nightmares not long after. That was, she knew, her mind punishing her for killing another human being. That it had been necessary was of no importance. She kept seeing his face when she closed her eyes, his pupils wide with surprise, a nine millimeter hole in his forehead, blood seeping on the floor, creating a puddle…

“No, there’s more. Something’s bothering you.” Karim’s voice reached her as if from a distance. She focused her eyes on him, willing herself to stop. You’re a fucking sissy, Boyd. Pull yourself together, she commanded herself. The Brit’s intense gaze was piercing her again, and she felt exposed and vulnerable.

“I’m fine,” she replied, somewhat more coldly than she meant to. Karim didn’t look put off, however. He just raised his eyebrows and continued to regard her in that uncomfortable way. “I’m just tired, that’s all.” Great, now she felt defensive as well. What was it about this guy?

“I’m sorry for being so blunt, ma’am, but that is a load of crap.” He was still very calm, and his perfect posh accent didn’t waver, which only added to the effect his words made. Alice started.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s about what happened in the Pentagon, isn’t it?”

Alice frowned. “You heard.” It wasn’t a question, but he nodded affirmatively. “It’s nothing.” She turned her eyes away from his face.

“I beg to differ, ma’am.” He stepped a bit closer to her, and she had to restrain the urge to step back. “I know the feeling. It never goes entirely away.”

She looked up to meet his gaze. “I know.”

He nodded again, and his usually severe features somehow softened. It wasn’t a smile, but maybe a prelude to one.

“You have to take it and let it make you a better soldier,” he said, and his voice was also warmer. Just a shade, but Alice was so attuned to him by now that it was quite obvious to her. “You can’t let it tear you down.”

“I know.” Alice’s own voice was small and it trembled a bit. So much for pulling it together, you fucking crybaby, she scolded herself. But she was looking into Karim’s eyes, and for the first time there was a thin thread of connection between them. Something more real than her embarrassment and his calm seriousness.

“There are going to be more tough decisions,” he continued. “You have to know, in your heart, that you’re the best you can be, so that when the time comes, you don’t hesitate. That’s the job.”

Alice couldn’t stand his gaze anymore. She looked away.

“It was easier when I was behind the stick of my fighter,” she mumbled. “I didn’t see their faces.”

“It’s no different, ma’am. It’s just training.”

Alice puffed and shook her head, but still couldn’t look at him directly. She fixed her stare somewhere below his right shoulder. “Not everything is about training, Sergeant.”

“In this job it is.” He paused for a moment, and then added: “Training and the ability to deal with the unexpected. You already have that second part, ma’am.”

Alice smiled, but it wasn’t a happy nor amused smile. “That is questionable.”

“You dealt with that situation pretty well, if I may say so.”

“Yeah, well, I wish…” She stopped herself. Was she really about to reveal her true colors to this guy? She didn’t even know him. They met for a sparring three times a week, and they only ever talked about that. He was not a friend.

But he was nodding, and then finished the sentence for her: “You wish you didn’t have to kill the mercenary.” When she didn’t react in any way, he added: “That is not a bad thing, ma’am.”

That had her raising her head to meet his eyes again.

“I’ve seen men for whom the job became the way of life. They didn’t see human beings anymore, just targets,” he explained, his deep voice again a tad cooler, back to his usual serene tone. “It’s a balance thing. You can’t let it weaken you, but you can’t let it dehumanize you either.”

“Doesn’t sound that easy.”

“It’s not an easy career that we’ve chosen, ma’am.” And this time he actually smiled—just a slight lift of the corners of his mouth, but Alice decided it counted. She replied with a cautious little smile of her own. “You’ll be alright.”

Alice didn’t answer, but somehow she did feel a teeny tiny bit better. It always surprised her that actually sharing her burdens made it easier to bear them.

“I think we’re done for today.” Karim gestured towards the mat on which they stood. “If you’re okay with that, ma’am.”

“Yeah, I think that’s for the best,” Alice agreed. “Thank you.” She didn’t know if he understood that she wasn’t only throwing a customary thanks at the end of the training, but was actually expressing gratitude for the talk as well. He just nodded and left the room without looking back. Alice felt a sudden urge to laugh out loud. Here she was, a damn captain, taking advice from a sergeant. But then again, he was a few years older—he looked to be around 30. He’d have been in the Army for longer, too. Alice thought that British sergeant was equivalent to US Marine Corps’ staff sergeant, which meant that Karim must be in the service for about the same time as Jake - roughly 12 years, maybe a little more for the Brit. His chevrons might be pointing downwards (if they were wearing any insignia on Atlantis, which they weren’t), but he was just as seasoned a veteran as Jake. She remembered something one of her early teachers in the Officer Training School said once: listen to your sergeants, they’re older and have more experience than you pukes.

Still musing about how odd the conversation with Karim had been (he smiled! And he was nice!), Alice reached her apartment in the North Inner Tower. Half an hour later, showered and wearing the standard Atlantis uniform, she headed to a canteen for breakfast. She was surprised to see the room nearly full; usually in the morning it took some time for people to start arriving. It was only seven-thirty, what they were all doing up so early? And then it hit her: it was today that they were supposed to leave. Atlantis was coming home.

She took a seat next to a pair of Chinese scientists, twittering to each other in their melodic language, and was in the middle of her meal when her radio buzzed and Sheppard’s voice told her to come to the Stargate Operations. Alice sighed, replied that she was on her way, and got to her feet. At the exit from the mess, she bumped into a man in a yellow-striped uniform of the medical branch. She recognized him instantly—she’d seen him around in the past few weeks, although hadn’t spoken to him yet.

“I’m sorry, Doctor. Please.” She gestured to him to pass before her.

“Oh, thank you, love.” They both turned in the direction of the transporter. He seemed lost in thought, so Alice refrained from talking to him, and again allowed him to precede her when they got to the transporter. That turned out to be sort of useless—as she stepped off the smallish room, she saw him again ahead of her. He was also headed for the Stargate Operations. Alice followed.

Sheppard was leaning back on the railing with hands in his pockets, flanked by Richard Woolsey, who looked impeccable in the red-striped uniform as always, but seemed nervous. The doctor joined them, with Alice on his heels.

“Hey, Doc,” Sheppard greeted him and then turned to Alice: “Captain, have you met Doctor Beckett before?”

Alice smiled somewhat shyly. “Only from sight. I didn’t creep after you, Doctor, I was summoned,” she explained sheepishly.

He chuckled. “I would never think that! But it’s nice to formally meet you, Captain…?” His voice trailed at the end, forming a question.

“Alice Boyd.” They shook hands.

“Well, I believe you all must guess why I asked you here,” Woolsey interrupted the pleasantries, clasping his palms together in a nervous gesture. “You three have the highest CIA index of all our people.”

“You do?” Beckett turned to Alice with surprise. “I didn’t know that.”

Alice shrugged innocently. “It’s just genetics.”

“I’d love to take a look at your genes, love. I’ve poked around Colonel Sheppard’s long enough already…”

“That sounds almost dirty,” Sheppard mused and Alice snickered. “But you’ll have to wait to play, Doc.” He nodded towards Woolsey, who looked mildly irritated at having been interrupted.

“Today we are leaving for Pegasus,” he continued. “The last time it took us nearly twelve hours to come as far as the edge of the Milky Way.”

“The last time we broke the hyperdrive,” Beckett interjected. “Is it wise to go so fast?”

Alice suppressed a smile.

“Doctor McKay assures me that they have fixed all the problems and nothing should happen even if we go full on,” Woolsey replied with a sour expression on his face. “But nevertheless, I’d like to take some precautions. We will go on forty percent power, which means the trip should take significantly longer.”

“About thirty hours,” Alice put in, calculating quickly in her head.

Woolsey nodded. “Yes. So you see, one person is not enough to fly the city for all that time. Even two is a stretch.”

Alice frowned. “Sir? Is the pilot required to sit in the Chair for all this time? I thought that once the jump to hyperspace is executed, the city pretty much flies itself.”

“True, but as Doctor Beckett pointed out, the last time we tried to fly the city, we broke the hyperdrive. I want a pilot in the chair at all times to monitor the situation and react at the first sign of trouble.” Which told Alice that he didn’t quite believe in McKay’s assurances. Well, Alice guessed it was better safe than sorry—except that meant they’d be stuck in a Chair for ten hours at a time, each of them. That’s gonna be fun, she thought sourly.

“I will go first, take us up,” Sheppard announced in an offhanded way. “Then Beckett, and finally Boyd.”

Alice looked up at him in alarm. She understood why they wanted her in the Chair—if they were right (and it seemed that they were) about her ability to control the Ancient tech, it made sense. But she was still a newbie, she should receive the easiest part—the middle one, not the landing. Sheppard  met her gaze and something in his eyes told her to keep her mouth shut.

“We launch in two hours, so get ready. It’s the last chance to make a call, or watch a little TV,” he chuckled. “Whatever floats your boat. Just make sure you’re well and rested in about, oh, twelve hours or so, Doc.”

“Of course.” Beckett nodded.

“Alright then,” Woolsey said, a bit awkwardly. “Good luck. I’ll see you, Colonel, in two hours.”

“Yeah, I’ll swing by before heading for the Chair Room,” Sheppard agreed.

Woolsey nodded to the three of them and turned around to go to his office. Beckett smiled at Sheppard and Alice and walked away towards the transporter. Sheppard took the stairs. Alice stood alone for a moment, thinking hard, and then ran up after him.

“Sir!” She called behind him and saw that he halted at the next landing, looking over the railing. “May I ask you something?”

“Sure thing, Capt’n.”

She joined him at the landing and raised her head to look up at him. She was used to having to do that; she wasn’t the smallest person she’s ever met, but on average, most people were taller. Sheppard towered over her at six feet and two inches.

“Sir, why do you want me to go last?” She asked, a bit apprehensively. It wasn’t every day that she questioned her CO’s orders.

But Sheppard smiled broadly. “What, you scared?”

Alice shrugged, but it must have been obvious on her face, because he laughed.

“Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.” He paused for a second, and then added more seriously: “Once we’re there, Beckett is gonna be gone for most of the time, and I need to know you can handle the Chair.”

“Do you think it’s wise to check that in such a way, sir? What if I crash-land us?” She didn’t think she would—she still remembered how natural it felt to use the Chair—but she was anxious that she’d screw up nonetheless.

“You won’t,” he replied simply, as if it was totally obvious. “Beckett was able to land the city on Earth after it got a serious beating from the Super-Hive, and you’re better than him.”

Alice didn’t feel that was necessarily that reassuring, but there was no more to say. “Yes, sir.”

“Listen, Boyd, you’ve gotta stop worrying so much. You’ll do fine.”

She understood he didn’t mean only the city-flying, but her entire assignment. She nodded, unconvinced.

“Okay, then. Go away now, but make sure you have your radio nearby at all times.”

“Yes, sir.” Alice turned around and descended the stairs back to the Control Room. The conversation with Sheppard did nothing to allay her fears, quite the opposite: now she was even more nervous about messing up. But she figured she just had to do her best and hope it would be enough.

 

*

 

Alice stood on the balcony in her room, watching the blue and purple rays of brilliance shining above the city like northern lights. They had been in hyperspace for almost the entire day now, and it was almost time for her to head to the Chair Room. Not quite yet, however. She still had a few minutes to look at the wonder which was the colors they were flying through, visible from beyond the city’s shield. It was somewhat disconcerting to think that nothing but a thin layer of a force field was separating them from the nothingness of the hyperspace, especially that it brought back bad memories of the Prometheus’ destruction, where an exposure to the void through a tear in the hull almost cost Alice her life. At the same time, however, she couldn’t quite pry her eyes away from the view. It was not only fascinating—it was simply beautiful, just like the real aurora australis which she’d seen back in McMurdo. It was weird to think that it had been nearly five years since the days of her F-302 training in Antarctica. True, three of those years were spent at the Air Force Institute of Technology, so it wasn’t like she was involved in the Stargate Program all this time… although, she had to admit, she did have quite a lot of exchanges between herself and Groom Lake, or even Carter—even when the colonel was on Atlantis, she always found time to reply to e-mails from the grad student in Ohio. Still, she didn’t feel that those years counted towards actual Stargate experience.

Alice had taken Sheppard’s advice and called her family and friends—well, one friend, Aaron—to say goodbye. They all knew she was going, although none but Jake had any idea just how far—the official cover story dictated that she was being deployed to the Misawa Air Base in Japan. Alice even made the effort to be nice and civil towards both her uncles, who hadn’t forgiven her for the unfortunate events of Simon’s promotion reception, but at least decided not to blow it out of proportions and continue to act like a family.

“You know, we’ll be in Tokyo in a few months,” Aaron told her on the phone, sounding at once hopeful and mistrustful. He didn’t quite believe she was going to Japan—and he was, of course, absolutely right. “We’re embarking on a world tour soon.”

“I’ll be nowhere near Tokyo, though.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie.

“We’ll be in Kyoto, too?”

“Misawa is even farther from Kyoto than Tokyo, completely opposite direction.”

“Where is it?”

“In the northern part of Honshu.”

“Honshu, that’s the main island, right?”

“Yep. It would be actually closer from Sapporo, on Hokkaido, for example, than from Tokyo.”

“Well, we might make a stop there too… nothing’s written in stone yet.” Now he sounded more than hopeful. Alice laughed.

“Sorry, Aaron. I doubt I’ll have the time even if you do go there. I know Japan looks small on the map, but it’s still hours of driving.” She felt bad about shooting down his ideas so definitively, though, so she added: “But drop me an e-mail when you know the details, and we’ll see. Just don’t get your hopes up.”

Thankfully, he accepted that without further question, although Alice was still not sure if he truly believed her cover story. She was happy to finally call Jake, who of course knew about everything, and to whom she didn’t need to lie or squirm around trying to find diplomatic answers. He wished her—and the entire expedition—good luck and told her to take care of herself. She told him the same. They were both worrying about each other’s safety, but neither would admit just how much. Alice knew that Jake was a pro, but she had once almost lost him already, and he had been on Earth then; now his job was so much more dangerous. The wound he had sustained back in Iraq was a bad one—it took over a year to properly heal. Her own was a paper cut in comparison, although it also put her out of commission for a few months and left a jagged ugly scar on her left shoulder. She sometimes joked that if she was ever to marry, wearing a strapless gown was now out of the question. The truth was, of course, that anything shoulder-revealing was now more-or-less out of the question, unless she wanted to attract some curious stares.

Alice looked at her wrist watch, sighed and stepped back into her room, the balcony door closing automatically behind her. It was time.

It took her less than ten minutes to make her way to the Chair Room—thanks to the transporters, of course. The Chair was all aglow, tipped back so that the person sitting in it was in half-lying position. Beckett’s eyes were tightly shut, his hands outstretched and touching the gel-filled pads on either side. McKay was standing next to him, reading something on his tablet.

“Good morning, Doctors,” Alice said upon entering, wondering if it was a morning. It was difficult to say when one was in space.

“Ah, Boyd, good, you’re here.” McKay looked up at her from over his tablet. “You ready?”

“Not really,” she sighed. “I’ve never flown a city.”

“Oh, c’mon, it can’t be that hard if Beckett’s doing it.” McKay shrugged. “Carson, you can drop us out.”

“Thank God!” The medical doctor mumbled and screwed up his face even harder. Alice felt it clearly when they dropped out of the hyperspace; the odd shift, although nothing really changed. She remembered it well from her time on the Prometheus.

Beckett remained unmoving for just a moment longer, then opened his eyes and the Chair straightened and its lights dimmed. He stood up and stretched, audible cricks coming from his spine.

“Aaah, it’s good to move about finally,” he said, stepping away from the platform. “Ten hours in the same position is not good for one’s health. Especially an old git like me!” He chuckled. Alice decided that she liked him. It was hard not to like someone who called everyone love and laughed at himself.

“At least it’s a horizontal position,” Alice mused, smiling to him. “It would be much worse sitting all the time.” She remembered her endurance tests during her initial pilot training. You couldn’t be up in the air in an F-16 for half as long without refueling, but four hours piloting a fighter jet was enough to get you all sweaty and stiff. Actual training sorties never lasted that long—usually less than two hours.

“You got that right, love.” Beckett returned the smile and then made a welcoming gesture. “On you go!”

Alice nodded, stepped onto the platform and sat down in the Chair. It lit up instantly and she lowered herself into the half-lying position and put her palms on the pads. Immediately, her mind was filled with the feeling of connectivity, merging with the city, linking her brain with the software in some weirdly natural way.

“Power flow looks good,” she heard McKay say. “You can bring us back into hyperspace, Boyd.”

“Good luck, Captain,” Beckett added.

Alice took a deep breath, closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. As with the Jumper, the city seemed to know what she wanted to do even before she had a chance to properly formulate the thought in her head. Immediately, she somehow felt the huge hyperdrive engines start on, the intake of power nearly visible beneath her closed eyelids, like the light shadows you sometimes saw after staring into the sun for too long. Her mind was full of stars, and although she couldn’t describe it in words, she somehow knew their relative position in space, and could calculate the data needed for the hyperspace jump. She understood it wasn’t really her doing the math—even her brain wasn’t good enough for calculations of such magnitude—but by this point she was one with the ship and it was hard to distinguish between her own thought and the programming. They were still in the middle of nowhere, in the great void between the two galaxies, although by now closer to Pegasus than Milky Way. Alice had a feeling that the city couldn’t exactly tell where they were—it just knew where they were supposed to drop out of the hyperspace, and how far they drifted since. It’s only been a couple minutes, so it wasn’t far, but a correction to the calculations had to be made nevertheless. It only took a few microseconds, and then Alice felt something strange—like a tug on her mind, although that description didn’t really illustrate it all that well, but it was the closest she could get to characterizing it. The next moment, the same shift came and she knew they were back in the hyperspace.

 

*

 

Doctor Beckett had been right; ten hours in the Chair was no joke. By the time Alice dropped them out of the hyperspace over their new home planet, she was all stiff, her stomach rumbled with hunger and she badly needed to pee. Despite being extremely uncomfortable, however, Alice couldn’t say that she was sorry to have spent all that time in the Chair. It gave her time to get familiar with the technology and explore the possibilities. Only a small part of her mind was occupied with monitoring the flight; the vast majority of it was concentrated on tracing the power lines, testing junctures, checking out various consoles spread over the city. It was all inter-connected and Alice could feel it, like extensions of her own body. It was like flexing her muscles and hearing her own blood pump through her veins. Her mind also felt strangely spacious, as if Atlantis’ powerful random-access memory storage actually expanded her ability to gain and process information. It was almost disconcerting how easily and thoroughly she was joined with the machine. Was it just the ATA gene that enabled it? She wondered if the experience felt the same to Sheppard or Beckett. She would have to ask.

Reaching the planet they designated M2A-373, Alice pulled all her concentration back to the city-ship. Sheppard and McKay had both come to the room a few minutes before, and were talking quietly to each other—or rather quarrelling about something—but Alice didn’t pay any attention to them. She dropped the city out of the hyperspace at the precisely right moment, and instantly knew they made it to the correct place. There was a planet beneath them alright—she could almost see it, the way the ship’s sensors flashed all over as soon as it detected it. Then an actual visualization of the planet appeared beneath her closed eyelids, allowing her to look at the globe and pick the spot where to put Atlantis down.

The planet was small—only 50 million square miles, ten times smaller than Earth and closer to the size of Mars. But it certainly looked like Earth—there were only three large continents, but they covered approximately thirty percent of the planet’s surface, with the remaining seventy occupied by large oceans. That ratio was almost exactly the same as Earth’s, and even the shape of the landmasses was reminiscent of Eurasia, Africa and Australia. Smaller archipelagos dotted much of their coasts, but the waters in between were agreeably free of any islands, and thus ideal for a floating city, and that is where Alice intended to land it.  Before she did, however, she decided to do a quick scan of the surface, just to be sure. A few seconds later, she was glad she did.

M2A-373 was teeming with life. The lands were mostly covered in ancient forests, the kind that didn’t really exist on Earth anymore except in small pockets here and there; some mountains protruded from the ground in a few places and a large desert lay in the middle of one of the continents. Overall, however, the landscape was mostly monotonous: just trees stretching from coast to coast. In their shade, a multitude of animals thrived, their life signs faint but still visible under Alice’s eyes. It made her dizzy, there were so many of them, so she shut them off, and when she did so, she could clearly see groups of clustered blue dots spread mostly over the coast of one of the landmasses, with a few less numerous ones deeper into the continent.

Alice opened her eyes and commanded the Chair to straighten up; it complied seemingly even before she finished the thought.

“Captain?” Sheppard was right there, looking at her with his eyebrows raised. “Something wrong?”

“I’d say so, sir.” Despite the urgency, she took the opportunity to stretch, without getting up from the Chair, hearing a satisfying crack from her neck and spine. “I thought this planet was supposed to be uninhabited.”

“It is,” McKay confirmed, furiously checking something on his tablet. “Here, I have it somewhere… right there, the Ancient database said it was suitable for life but no human population…”

“Well, something’s down there,” Alice insisted. “It’s not a big population, even by Pegasus’ standards, but it’s there. I’d say around five thousand people, all told.”

“Impossible!” McKay protested, but feebly. He touched his radio. “Zelenka! Do a full scan of the surface of the planet!”

“Why?” Came the response.

“Just do it! Send the results over to my tablet.”

Alice frowned. McKay didn’t believe her; it wasn’t all that surprising, but she couldn’t help but feel stung.

“Uh-oh.” Zelenka’s voice came on the radio again after less than a minute. “You’re not gonna like it, Rodney…”

“How is that possible?” McKay jabbed his finger into the screen with a vengeance.

“Is there a Gate down there?” Sheppard asked, directing the question to Alice. She shook her head.

“I haven’t seen one, sir. It would’ve come out in my scan.”

“That’s weird, isn’t it?” The colonel was frowning now, too. “That means that someone must have ferried them here by ship.”

“It’s not that strange, I think.” Alice shrugged. “After all, we came here to hide away from the Wraith. Why wouldn’t some other society decide to do the same?”

“Question is, do the Wraith know they’re here? Do they come here to feed?”

“I think we should ask them,” Alice suggested. “We can stay here in orbit and send a Jumper down to investigate.”

Sheppard nodded. “Alright, I’ll go update Woolsey. Grab your gear, Rodney. You too, Captain. I want the Fourth on this with us.”

This surprised Alice. She thought he’d rather take the Second Team—the one headed by Major Lorne—as backup. But then again, leaving his second-in-command behind wasn’t a bad idea, just in case something went horribly wrong and a rescue was needed. Alice deeply hoped it wouldn’t.

“Yes, sir.”

 

*

 

Fifteen minutes later Alice entered the Control Room, wearing all her gear: a tactical vest with pouches filled with spare ammo, individual first aid kit, binoculars, flashlight, water and emergency rations, Ka-Bar knife—not a standard issue, but an old present from her brother—and a multitude of other odds and ends; a holster tied low on her hip with a 9mm Beretta held inside; and a P90 fastened to the front webbing of the vest. Though the body armor was made of a very light substance designed  by Earth scientists a few years before to prevent high-energy-related injuries—such as from Goa’uld Staff weapons—the entire setup was still rather heavy. Alice was not used to carrying so much weight, and certainly not for prolonged periods of time. Sure, fighter pilots had to wear survival vests and carry first aid kits, as well as a helmet, oxygen mask and a parachute; they also had Berettas always on them, even in-flight. But there was a difference between getting the gear in your locker room, walking the few dozen yards to your machine, and then just sitting on your butt for a few hours, after which you could put it all back; and actually carrying all the stuff with you on a mission through god knew what kind of terrain and for how long. Alice was glad of her more intense exercise routine in the past few weeks; she was already a little bit stronger than when she first arrived on Atlantis.

Almost everybody was already there; only Sheppard and McKay were missing, and Alice spied them inside Woolsey’s office. It was odd to see Teyla in the charcoal-black uniform, but Ronon was dressed in his own brown outfit and coat, with nothing but his gun on his hip and a short sword sticking out from behind his shoulder. Or maybe it only looked short compared to his considerable height. Perrault, Karim and Cooper were all equipped same as Alice—except Cooper didn’t have a P90.

“Hey, Alice, what’s with the stop?” The anthropologist asked as soon as she joined them by the consoles. “Shouldn’t we be already chillin’ on the ocean blue?” He was smiling, but there was real curiosity on his face.

“There are people down there.” Alice didn’t see the point in beating about the bush. “A whole lot of them. Our sensors picked them up.”

“So we’re going down to meet the neighbors?” Cooper raised an eyebrow.

“So to speak.” Alice couldn’t help smiling a bit. “Colonel Sheppard wants us to go check it out.”

“I thought there wasn’t supposed to be any people on this planet,” Ronon said, looking at Alice questioningly.

“That’s right, according to the Ancient database it should be uninhabited.” Alice nodded. “But that information is ten thousand years old. It’s entirely possible that someone decided to seek shelter on this planet by ship. It’s outside of the Gate network, which is precisely why it was chosen for Atlantis’ new home.”

“Do we know anything about them?” Teyla asked warily.

“Just their location and number, which is around five thousand. But we can guess other things,” Alice added after a small pause.

“Like what?” Perrault pressed. Alice had already begun feeling uncomfortable with everybody’s attention focused on her, but she figured it was her responsibility to share what she deduced with the group.

“Well, we know that the Wraith have been culling people like mad in the past five years, with little regard to the sustainability of the population.”

Cooper nodded and interjected: “Yes, as far as we can guess, previously they’ve always taken care not to go beyond a certain point, keeping the population levels high enough for them to reestablish themselves in the periods of the Wraith’s hibernation.”

“But that is no longer the case, because we woke them all up at once,” Teyla put in.

“Exactly. So while five thousand people might not sound like a lot—especially to us Earthlings—it is much more than the Wraith have been leaving alive of late. So we can presume that they hadn’t been fed upon anytime recently. We also know that there is no Gate down there, which means they must have come on ships. That suggests a certain level of development that is rare in this galaxy. Again, the Wraith cull the societies that get close enough to posing any kind of threat to them.”

“So you say because they weren’t culled, and they came by ships, they might be on our level of technology?” Perrault’s eyes gleamed with excitement, but his face was his usual serene mask.

“Or even farther.” Alice shrugged. “Or maybe I’m completely wrong and they’re way behind. We will know when we get there, but the signs are good.”

At that moment the door to Woolsey’s office opened and both remaining members of the First Recon Team walked up to the group clustered by the control consoles, with the city’s commander on their heels.

“Alright, people,” Sheppard said, making a come with me gesture. “Let’s get to the Jumper bay. Each team will take one Jumper, we cloak and go down to where the people are. We’ll do an initial fly-by and then land some distance away and walk up to them. Perrault, you guys will stay airborne and watch our six.”

“Yes, sir,” the commandant nodded for the entire Fourth and they all headed up the stairs.

“Good luck,” Woolsey called after them.

Five minutes later they split and Perrault, Karim, Cooper and Alice entered their Jumper. Alice took the pilot’s seat, with Perrault on her right and the other two sitting behind them.

“You know how to drive this thing, right?” Cooper asked with feigned worry in his voice. Alice huffed in pretend outrage.

“I just flew an entire city, you really think I can’t handle a tiny thing like this?” She asked, looking around to see him wink at her. She snickered, turned back to face the front window of the ship and put a hand on the console, which lit up instantly. Sheppard’s Jumper was already rising into the air, towards an opening roof of the bay, so Alice lifted them up from the platform and followed the CO.

It was the first time she had the chance to fly the Jumper outside the atmosphere. She had experience flying F-302s in space and knew that it was quite different—there was no air friction nor gravity working on the craft, which meant that accelerating and braking felt very peculiar. It was similar in the Jumper, except even more obvious because of the neural link. Not to mention that she could finally put pedal to the metal—mentally, of course—and didn’t have to worry about a sonic boom or hull integrity. She was a little concerned about entering the atmosphere, but that was what the Jumper was made for. Although she knew the outside of the little ship must have heated up, inside they didn’t feel a thing. They flew over bright blue waters of the ocean, with the sun behind them, already halfway down towards the horizon. Then they saw the thin line of the coast, which appeared to grow in their eyes as they approached it.

“Let’s cloak,” came the command over the ship’s communication system, and the Jumper complied even before Alice could truly think it. The little light on the console lit up, indicating they were invisible both to radar and to the naked eye.

Alice brought up the HUD. A three-dimensional map of the terrain flickered on, showing the life signs they’d detected.

“There is a big cluster just up ahead, about thirty klicks up the coast,” she said aloud, knowing the ship would transmit her voice to the other Jumper.

“I see it,” Sheppard answered and swerved left. They couldn’t see them anymore, of course, but the Jumper’s position was indicated on their map and so it was really easy to follow. “Let’s check it out.”

They slowed down and dived towards the ground at the same moment, leveling up at about ten feet above the treetops. Thirty seconds later the forest gave way to a large clearing beneath them, and they saw buildings.

Huts would be a more appropriate word; they were all made of wood, small and huddled together, with two larger structures in the middle. One was low and long, but it was the other one that attracted attention: it had a short spire, atop which sat a cross.

“Is that a church?” Alice asked, taken aback.

“Impossible,” Cooper answered, but uncertainly. “The people of Pegasus have a wide range of beliefs, mostly connected to the cult of Ancients—Ancestors, as they call them—but we haven’t come across any symbolism that would be reminiscent of Earth’s religions, not even once.”

“I think we just have,” Perrault contradicted, pointing to the spire. “If that’s not a Christian cross, then I am an ‘orse.” It actually took Alice a second to understand what he meant by that and she felt an urge to laugh, but repressed it.

“A cross is not only a Christian symbol,” Cooper protested. “It’s a simple design, and has been used by many cultures on Earth way before Christianity. Versions of it were central to some beliefs, such as the Egyptian ankh or Celtic sun cross…”

“But not in the Pegasus,” Perrault cut him off. “It ‘asn’t been seen ‘ere.”

A pointed silence followed that dictum. Alice was temporarily more interested in looking at the settlement. There were some people around, but not very many. She supposed they were all working on procuring food or suchlike. Alice had little practical knowledge about the countryside.

“We’re gonna land on the far edge of the clearing,” Sheppard informed them through the radio. “You guys tag along for the approach, once we give you all clear you can go explore around, but don’t go away too far.”

“Yes, sir, we’ll stay in range,” Perrault acknowledged, though Alice wondered in range of what. A drone shot? She hadn’t done that yet, but she guessed she could fire one if she had to.

She followed Sheppard’s Jumper and stayed above it, watching it land on their HUD’s 3D map. Then she shifted her gaze to the point where, she thought, the ship was supposed to be and was rewarded with the sight of Sheppard appearing out of thin air, with McKay, Teyla and Ronon on his heels. The colonel waved towards the sky—a little to the left of where they were—and then led his team towards the town. Alice kept pace with them all the way to the first low wooden cabin, which looked empty at the moment. It was difficult to see the dark figures in the shady streets between the buildings, but Alice did see them meet someone two dozen yards further. Five minutes later, Sheppard’s voice came on the radio.

“Alright, Fourth, we’re all clear.”

“Roger that,” Perrault answered and then nodded to Alice. “We can snoop around.”

Alice smiled to him and pulled them up higher. “What would you like to see, sir?”

I’d like to see what they live off, here,” Cooper interrupted. “This land doesn’t seem like a particularly rich farming ground.”

Alice pointed to the map. “There are three small clusters of people around the clearing, here on the shore, up Northeast, and here farther East. We could see what they’re doing there and still be able to make it back within a minute if need be.”

“Fine.”

With the team leader’s blessing, Alice steered them first towards the ocean, flying at a leisurely pace that allowed them to look around.

“It’s very pretty here,” she noted. “Makes me think of the coast of Washington. The state, I mean.”

“I’ve never been there,” Cooper admitted. “But I hear it’s beautiful.”

“This is better, it’s not touched by civilization,” Perrault commented. “Look there.” He pointed towards their right, where a number of long, sturdy-looking boats rested on the rocky beach, a group of people sitting nearby, mending fishing nets and cleaning the afternoon catches. There weren’t more than twenty of them, mostly men, with a few women and a couple of older kids.

“So fishing, makes sense.” Cooper was breathing down Alice’s shoulder, leaning forward, with his hands on the backrest of her seat. “How much do you want to bet that the other two will be a small farming field and a grazing clearing for sheep or cows or something similar?”

Nobody was willing to bet against that, and they were right, because Will’s guess turned out to be correct, except it wasn’t sheep nor cattle, but an unknown animal the size of a goat, with antlers like an antelope and a thick pelage of dark brown.

“There are probably some hunters in the village, too, but that is more than enough to feed the population right there,” Cooper opined as they hung above the grazing field, looking at the peculiar animal shepherded by a dozen people or so. Alice noted there were dogs watching over the herd, too. “They probably trade with other towns up and down the coast.”

“What is that?” Karim asked suddenly from his seat behind Perrault, speaking for the first time since they set off on the mission. “That dome, over there?” He pointed to the South of the clearing.

“That hill?” Perrault looked around at the sergeant, raising his eyebrows.

“It’s not a hill, sir. It shines like metal.”

“He’s right,” Alice confirmed, seeing the sun reflecting off some polished surface. Then something else caught her attention. “Sir, I’m picking up energy signature from that direction.”

“Energy signature? Like, from machines?”

“Yes, sir.” Alice frowned. “It looks familiar.” She steered them that way without being told.

“Familiar how?”

She didn’t reply for a moment, unsure if her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her.

“It… it looks Asgard, sir.”

She felt all their eyes on her, the unspoken disbelief making her instantly defensive.

“I’ve worked on the Daedalus construction, I’ve come to know the Asgard energy signatures pretty well.”

“Let’s get a closer look,” Perrault ordered, and fifteen seconds later they were above the structure. It was half-buried in the ground and obscured with overgrowth, but it was hard to mistake the shape.

Putain,” the commander breathed. “It’s a ship. Asgard ship!”

“It’s huge,” Cooper stated the obvious. The hull stretched all the way from the coast, its nose actually hung over some rocks on the shore, to nearly a mile inland.

“Is that how these people got here?” Alice asked, though she knew no one had any answers to give. “Did the Asgard bring them here?”

As expected, nobody replied. They all just sat there for a long moment, looking at the husk below.

“Colonel.” Perrault touched his radio. “We found something interesting.”

 

*

 

They landed nearly a mile away from the ship; it had been difficult to find even a small clearing in the forest, and Perrault didn’t want to park too close to the wreck, just as a precaution. They were following a compass—nobody knew if the magnetic poles of this planet were the same as Earth’s, but it was better than nothing. Alice had collected the life signs and energy detector from the Jumper, but it was useless at first, as it only had a range of a hundred meters.

It was slow going. The undergrowth was thick and every so often they stumbled upon a fallen tree and had to detour to go around it. The trees were daunting; they looked like standard American sycamores, but towered over them like giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, which Alice had visited several times, back when her dad was still alive, so she had some comparison, even though she knew little about botany. In between these behemoths, shrubs the size of one-story buildings extended their branches towards the scarce sun rays filtering through the thick foliage above. Still lower, long, sharp-bladed grass covered the ground, interrupted only by the multitude of rocks and boulders, themselves almost entirely overgrown by moss. Alice had never seen a forest such as this; it was almost too alive, every inch of space taken by the plant life. And not only that; they heard the rustling leaves and snapping branches as animals fled before them, alarmed by the unknown sounds and smells. Alice could swear she saw one of the goat-like antelope (or antelope-like goat? Who knew?) blur between the trunks, and a few minutes later they all heard the low, distant roar of some great cat.

They didn’t talk; Karim took point, Alice following him closely with Cooper on her heels; Perrault closed the procession a few paces back. Alice was impressed with Karim’s orientation; he barely even looked at the compass. He was walking quickly, but cautiously, choosing his footing in an expert way that made little sound. Alice felt like an elephant stomping around on porcelain next to him. Even Cooper, she felt, avoided the snapping branches and rustling leaves better than her. Not to mention that as they finally stood at the edge of the clearing that was all fallen trees and overgrowth, covering the sides of the hull of the Asgard ship and steadily creeping up, she was drenched in sweat and inwardly swearing at all the gear she was carrying around. Karim and Perrault were both breathing quite normally, their faces clean, and Cooper looked only a little worse for wear.

Alice took out the life signs detector from a pocket and looked for the energy signature they’d seen in the Jumper. It was there, alright; faint, but still present.

“Can you tell what happened?” Perrault asked, looking at the detector over her shoulder.

“No, sir. Nothing beyond the obvious; they crashed into the planet surface, but why and how come the ship stayed in one piece?” She shook her head. “With such forces, it should have been torn apart on the approach. Unless they had the shielding on, but if yes, why did they crash? I will need to inspect closer, sir.”

“You mean go inside?” Will asked, alarmed. “Is that safe?”

“The hull looks remarkably intact,” Alice said, trying to sound braver than she felt. “I’m pretty sure it won’t fall over my head. Even so, sir, it would be best if I went in alone to check the structural integrity,” she told Perrault. He raised his eyebrows at her. “You can follow me when I confirm it’s safe.”

He thought for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. But first sign of problem, you get out of there, okay?”

“Yes, sir.” Alice smiled, as much to encourage him as herself, and turned towards the wreck. She wasn’t familiar with Asgard ships beyond what she’s read in technical reports from people who’ve been aboard one—such as Colonel Carter—but she didn’t think it would be very hard to find her way around; it would be enough to follow the energy signal. She guessed it would lead her to the engine or maybe some secondary power generator. First, however, she needed to find a way to enter the ship. This turned out to be harder than she thought; not only most of the sides of the hull were overgrown by shrubs and moss, but it seemed that there were no entrances. Finally, after half an hour of searching, Alice found something that resembled an emergency hatch. There was a panel that would open it, but it didn’t work. Yet there was some residual energy inside, because when she was touching the glossy buttons, the graph on the energy detector spiked slightly. It just wasn’t enough to open the door. Alice frowned and got out her service kit. The panel didn’t have any screws to unscrew, but Alice used a flat-ended screwdriver and a small hammer to pry it away from the wall and expose a mess of dials and small crystals. Alice smiled. Every advanced race in the universe seemed to use crystal technology, which was a good thing, because once you understood the principle, you could work with different systems, albeit it took much time to truly comprehend it. Alice took out one of the small crystals, replaced it with another one and used the one in her hand to bridge two others. The graph on the detector spiked again, this time more violently, but the hatch remained shut; frowning, Alice turned one of the dials, then replaced another crystal, and bridged them together once more; this time there was a satisfying click and a puff of air as the door depressurized and swung slightly ajar. Alice pulled it completely open, looked around at the rest of her team, standing some paces away, nodded to them, and slipped inside the ship.

It was dark. She brought out a flashlight, suddenly happy that she did carry all her gear. How else would she be able to get in here if she didn’t have her kit?

“Be careful, Boyd,” the radio crackled with Perrault’s voice in her ear. “We don’t know if it’s empty.”

“Yes, sir.” Alice nodded, though obviously he couldn’t see it, and moved the flashlight to her left hand, picking up the P90 with her right and putting the life signs detector into a pocket. Then she looked around to get her bearings.

She was inside a pressure chamber. There was another door to get through in order to get into the ship proper, and she had to repeat everything she did to the outer panel to get it open. Finally, she stepped into the corridor. It was dark and dank, the smell of mold permeating the air. The walls were curved, nearly cylindrical, with arches every few steps, and vertical tubes hanging in between. Alice guessed they were lamps, now black as everything else. She inspected a few of the arches closely, but there were no cracks or anything that suggested the ship might be structurally damaged. It was not enough, though, Alice decided; even if in this place everything looked okay, it might not be a few paces away. Without lifting her finger from the trigger of the P90, she mounted the flashlight on its top with her left hand and then brought out the life signs detector again. It showed that the source of the energy was coming from the left, at the rear of the ship. Alice started that way.

Only the sound of her footsteps and her own breathing disturbed the complete silence. The light of her torch brought out strange, slick shapes out of darkness. The air was damp, stuffy and still. Alice felt as if she was walking through some ancient tomb, and her skin crawled a little, even though it appeared the place was completely empty. Where were the Asgards that flew the ship all the way here? Were they the ones of Othala, those who had committed mass suicide, leaving their legacy to the Earthlings? Or were they those of Pegasus, who had once kidnapped Doctor Jackson and Doctor McKay? Regardless of their origins, were they the ones who brought humans to this planet? And why?

Alice finally arrived at the end of the long corridor, where there was an open door. Alice entered into the room, reading the graph that suggested the source of the energy was somewhere close. Here, she found a couple consoles with some stones on them, but both were dark and didn’t respond to her moving the stones around. Nevertheless, it was something. Alice didn’t want to go much further all alone if she didn’t need to, and she thought Perrault might get impatient soon, too. She sat down on the floor next to one of the consoles, popped open the panel at the back, and shone some light on the inside. The configuration was completely unfamiliar to her, but she thought she could identify the master control crystal, and if she could link her computer into that, she might be able to get some readings. She put the life signs detector aside and took out the tablet from yet another pocket. She then connected it with what she thought was the master control crystal and clicked the power button. It came on within seconds, and she brought out a diagnostic tool.

Two minutes later, she tapped her earphone to radio Perrault.

“Sir, you can come in. It should be safe,” she informed him. “Just turn left and go all the way to the end of the corridor.”

“On our way,” came the response.

It took them another two minutes to get to her. They found her still on the ground, leaning over her tablet and frowning to herself.

“This is a creepy place,” Cooper said as they entered the room, each with a flashlight, brightening up the room. “You alright, Alice?”

“Huh?” Alice looked up at them, her gaze unfocused for a second. “Oh, yes. This is interesting, sir.” She waved towards the console. “This is just an auxiliary console, but it’s interconnected with the mainframe so I’ve been able to get some data out of it.”

“It still has power?” Perrault was surprised.

“Not a whole lot of it, but yes, some is still there. It’s leaking, though.” She paused. “I’m pretty sure their power generators are shielded, or we’d already be dead.”

“That’s a cheery thought,” Will muttered.

“Is it safe to stay here?” Perrault asked.

Alice nodded. “Yes. As long as we don’t try to pry open the generators, we should be alright. Another year, and there’s not gonna be any power left, anyway.”

“Were you able to determine what ‘appened?”

She frowned again. “Not exactly, sir. It seems that the ship’s log has been either damaged or erased.”

“Erased?”

“Or damaged, yes.” Alice shrugged. “I can tell you what caused it to crash.”

“Do tell,” Cooper said eagerly. Perrault rolled his eyes and made a go on gesture. Karim was standing at the entrance, looking out, keeping watch—for what, Alice didn’t know, but she guessed it was second nature to him.

“Sabotage.” The word got their attention—even the sergeant looked around at her. “Someone had tampered with the systems from the inside. That’s why they still had the shield as they came down, but didn’t have the navigation or steering to decelerate in time. The shield failed as they crashed, but only after it took most of the shock. This is why the ship’s hull is still mostly intact. There are some tears in the lower sections, but that’s pretty much it.”

“And the power generators?”

Alice nodded again. “Sabotaged as well. In fact…” She hesitated.

“What?”

“It doesn’t make any sense, sir,” she professed, shaking her head. “The way it’s been damaged? I could fix it, let alone an Asgard.”

“Can you fix it now?

“No, sir, it’s too late now. When I said that the power was leaking, I actually meant the beta decay. Asgard technology is based on neutronium, sir, which is basically a very dense matter composed solely of neutrons. The Asgard were able to harness the energy produced as the neutronium gas expands, although we still don’t quite understand how. Under normal circumstances, it takes thousands of years for a free neutron to decay into a proton, but the machinery the Asgard have constructed is capable of accelerating that thousand-fold. That is what the saboteur, whoever they were, messed with. The negatively charged down quarks were converted into positively charged up quarks by emission of a W boson. W bosons then decay into electrons and electron antineutrinos. So there is no more neutronium, see, just random subatomic particles, and it’s impossible to go back.”

Perrault looked at her for a long moment before speaking. “I didn’t understand any of what you just said, so next time just tell me no, can’t fix it, and that will be enough. Otherwise it’s a waste of a perfectly good explanation.”

Alice smirked. “Yes, sir.”

“So what’s the dangerous part?” Cooper put in, shining the flashlight into Alice’s face so she had to squint. “Oh, sorry.” He moved it aside.

“Radiation is the dangerous part. Under normal circumstances, exposure to neutrons itself can be hazardous, although fast neutron therapy is used in cancer treatment for example. You can imagine what incredibly dense matter composed of neutrons can do, however, and beta decay itself is a form of radioactive decay, it emits harmful ionizing radiation, and with volumes and condensation such as here, exposure to it would kill instantly.”

“I suggest we don’t go anywhere near the generators, then. Who’s with me?” Will threw his hands up, but his quip was universally un-acknowledged.

“Is there a way to determine who was the saboteur?” Perrault asked, pronouncing the word as in French.

“No, sir. Like I said, the log is damaged or erased, it’s impossible to tell.”

“Don’t they have a black box?” Karim asked, looking over his shoulder at Alice, still planted at the entrance.

Alice shook her head. “I don’t know. If they do, it won’t be accessible through the normal consoles. I don’t know where to look,” she admitted. “I could use Doctor McKay’s expertise there.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’s going to want to take a look at it himself anyway,” Perrault grumbled. “Alright, then, if there’s no more to be learned ‘ere now, we should get back and give a report.”

“Yes, sir.” Alice nodded and began unclipping her tablet from the console. She put it back to her pocket, grabbed the life signs detector, and got up from the floor. With Karim on point again, they moved back along the corridor to the hatch and got out of the ship, blinking and squinting their eyes against the sunlight. The sun was now hung low over the horizon, which they could see through the gap in the trees created by the ship’s hull, stretching all the way to the ocean side. As they got back into the forest, the air grew colder and the shadows deepened, making it progressively darker. It took them less time to get back to their Jumper, because they were retracing their steps. Alice didn’t understand how Karim could know the path so well after going this way only once, but he did. Alice felt alien and uncomfortable in the forest; he seemed to thrive in this environment. This was what he was made for. She was just a city girl, but she had a feeling she would have to get used to the great outdoors.

 

*

 

They touched down on the other side of the clearing from where Sheppard’s Jumper was parked. It was already dark as they entered the town, Perrault and Cooper walking abreast with Alice and Karim following them two or three steps behind. More people were around now; Alice even thought she recognized some they’d seen at the beach, on the field and among the antelope herd. They all sat outside their huts and cabins, some on wooden logs, others directly on the ground. Alice felt their watchful eyes on them as they passed by, their faces anxious and worried. Alice guessed if she lived in Pegasus her entire life, she’d be mistrustful of strangers too.

Actually, she was mistrustful of strangers anyway.

They reached one of the central buildings, a long wooden hall;  Alice understood it was some kind of a gathering place, probably used to hold town meetings and celebrations. It was right across from the church—there was no doubt in her now that was what it was—and had a pair of huge doors that made her think of medieval castles. In one wing, there was a smaller entrance carved out that opened independently, and beside it was where Ronon was waiting for them, leaning against the wall.

“We’re inside,” he told them and wrenched the small door open.

Inside, there was only one big room, empty save for a stage on one end, and an impressive fireplace on the other. It was lit, the fire throwing orange shadows on the walls, windows open high up to let out the smoke. Sheppard, Teyla and McKay sat on wooden benches around a big table, decorated with food; mostly forest fruit, but Alice didn’t recognize any of the wide variety of berries.

Three other people sat at a table: locals, two men and a woman. The men were tall and muscular, middle-aged, and the woman was older, her white hair falling in waves on her shoulders. They were wearing clothes of a thick brown thread, which Alice guessed were made of the antelope-like animal’s fur.

“These are the friends I was telling you about,” Sheppard said to the locals, waving at the Fourth Recon Team to join them at the table. “This is Perrault, Boyd, Cooper and Karim. Guys, this is Hlava, Doren and Earah.”

The woman, Hlava, inclined her head towards each of them in a prolonged greeting, and after a second the two men did the same. Perrault and Karim nodded curtly to them, and Cooper looked at Alice significantly and they both replicated the drawn-out bow of the locals. Then they took their seats.

“They were out exploring the area.” Sheppard gestured to Karim, who sat closest to him. “They found the ship you came here on.”

“That is not possible, for it is half a day’s journey from here,” Earah protested.

“We have ways of moving much faster,” Teyla told him in a calming manner. “Things we inherited from the Ancestors.”

“So you are Ancestral worshippers, too?” Doren asked in a low voice, as if he was afraid someone would overhear him otherwise; however, they were quite alone in the hall.

“Doren!” Hlava’s tone was chastising. “We have cast aside the belief in supernatural origins of the Ancestors,” she explained to the newcomers. “We now believe that they were an advanced race of humans who came before us but went extinct following some terrible cataclysm.”

Sheppard and McKay exchanged looks, raising their eyebrows.

“What did you find on the ship?” Earah inquired after a brief moment of silence. “None of our people have been there for some time.”

“It’s getting quite overgrown by the forest,” Cooper answered casually. “A few more years and it will look like an actual hill.”

“What is wrong with your face?” asked one of the locals, looking at the anthropologist curiously.

“Doren!” Hlava castigated him again.

“I am sorry.” Doren inclined his head again. “Mother Hlava often tells me I should think more before I speak.”

“It’s alright,” Cooper assured him in a chipper tone that didn’t fool Alice. “We call it vitiligo, it’s a skin disease. It’s not harmful or infectious.”

“So you got here on the ship?” Alice changed the subject, as much to get back on track as to relieve Will.

“Yes. Our own world was attacked by the Wraith. Your leader here tells me you know of this terrible enemy.” Hlava looked at Sheppard seriously.

“Yeah, we’ve met them a couple times.” He nodded, smiling mischievously, and Alice understood why; indeed, they did meet them. In fact, they had one of them in custody in their flying city.

“How did you get on the ship? Who flew it?” Alice pressed.

Hlava didn’t reply for a long moment, and then sighed. “We do not know nor understand much of what happened. The ship appeared in our skies one day, mere hours before an attack of the Wraith. We were transported aboard by means of a beam of light. We crashed on this planet and made it our home.”

Alice was looking at the woman in a scrutinizing manner, and even she saw Hlava’s reluctance to go into details. She was very careful not to say anything about the ship’s original crew. Alice shifted her gaze towards Sheppard. He nodded infinitesimally—urging her to go on, she thought.

“And you didn’t see anyone else on the ship? Any… non-humans?”

Now all three of the locals frowned, surprised. “Non-humans? What do you mean?”

This, in turn, confused the Atlantians. If not the Asgard, who was flying the ship?

“It’s getting late,” Hlava said before Alice could voice the question each of them was asking themselves. “We must go back to our families. It is not safe outside at night. We would be happy to continue our talks tomorrow, but we should warn you that we rise early to attend to our duties and won’t be free to meet until the noon meal.”

“Of course,” Sheppard agreed at once. “We would not interfere in your schedule. We will come back tomorrow.”

“You can stay in the town.” Hlava shook her head. “I do not know what devices do you possess that allow you to make half a day’s journey in mere minutes, but we would not have you walk through the darkness to reach them. You can stay in Earah’s and Doren’s homes.”

The two men bowed low.

“That is very nice of you,” Sheppard assured her. “But we will be alright. Our… devices… are not that far and we can take care of ourselves.” He patted the P90 hanging from the webbing on the front of his tactical vest.

“As you wish.”

“You don’t mind if we stay here for just a moment longer, do you?” The colonel unleashed the power of his brightest smile on Hlava. “Our colleagues did not have yet the chance to try this great meal.” He gestured to the food on the table.

“Not at all. You may stay as long as you wish. Have a pleasant night.” Hlava inclined her head again, followed by her companions, and the three of them turned around and left the hall.

“They’re lying,” McKay said in a low voice as soon as the door closed behind their hosts.

“No kidding,” Sheppard frowned.

“It’s more like they’re not saying everything,” Alice corrected. “And who can blame them? They don’t know us. We’re cautious, too.”

Teyla nodded to her. “Captain Boyd is right. We just need to gain their trust.”

“We don’t really have time for that. We can’t leave Atlantis just hanging there on the orbit forever,” McKay protested.

“Not forever, just long enough to see what they aren’t telling us.” Ronon took a bunch of what looked like gooseberry, but was of much darker green, and put it into his mouth. “We’re not in a hurry.”

“We’re in a bit of a hurry,” Teyla amended. “We can’t leave Todd in our cell forever. He’s already very weak.”

“Yeah, but I still don’t know if we should just let him go.” Sheppard shrugged. “I’m more concerned with getting in touch with our people on New Athos.” He looked at Teyla while saying this and she nodded gravely. Alice again was reminded that her own baby was out there. Our people, Alice thought. He considers them to be our people. He was a good guy.

“Still, we shouldn’t land Atlantis here until we know all the circumstances of the Asgard ship’s crash,” Perrault interjected. “Too many unknowns.”

“Yeah.” Sheppard turned to Alice. “I’m gonna want you to go back there with McKay in the morning. Maybe the two of you can find something you missed.”

Alice nodded, but she was not really focusing on him at that moment. Instead, she had her head cocked to one side, listening hard to something outside the wooden walls of the hall. Someone—a young girl’s voice—was there, singing loudly. The sound grew closer, as if the person was walking towards them.

“What?” It was Karim who asked her, looking at her with his eyebrows raised. Man, was he perceptive.

“Do you hear that?” She asked. “The song?”

“Yeah. Someone is singing, so?” Sheppard shrugged.

“The melody doesn’t sound familiar?”

The girl was so close now they could almost hear the words; almost, but not really.

“Familiar how?”

Alice shook her head. The singer now passed the building and her voice begun growing fainter.

“Listen.” And Alice began to sing along, quietly, to the slightly slower than usual rhythm established by the girl:

There’s a starman waiting in the sky

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds

There’s a starman waiting in the sky

He’s told us not to blow it

‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile

He told me

Let the children lose it

Let the children use it

Let all the children boogie

All of them were looking at her in disbelief now.

“That’s it. That’s the song.” Cooper’s eyes were wide with surprise. “And I know it, too. I’ve heard it before.”

“It’s David Bowie,” Alice said. “How does a girl born and raised in the Pegasus galaxy know David Bowie?”

“Who’s David Bowie?” Ronon asked.

“He’s a singer from Earth, quite popular,” Sheppard answered.

“He’s a little more than that,” Alice contradicted, but decided to let it go. “But let me get back to my question: how can a Pegasus native know David Bowie?”

“Let’s ask her,” Cooper suggested, and Sheppard nodded assent. They all stood up at once and trotted to the door. The girl was already far away, but thankfully still on the main street, with no one else around, so they caught up to her in a moment. She stopped singing as she heard them approach, and turned around to look at the eight of them with a frightened expression.

“Hey there,” Sheppard greeted her in a soothing voice.

“You’re the outsiders,” the girl stated, looking at them and taking a step back.

“Yeah, we were meeting with your leaders before. Hlava and two others. I’m Sheppard.”

“I’m Jayin,” the girl replied. She was maybe seventeen years old, and very pretty; her thick, sleek hair went down in waves all the way to her waist. “I should go home.”

“Sure, sure… just one question, though.” Sheppard smiled to her warmly. “What was that you were singing before?”

Jayin shrugged. “Just a song someone taught me.”

“Who was that?”

“Father Lawrence,” she replied, and her eyes flickered up to look at the church spire. “He knows many songs.”

“Of course. Well, thank you, Jayin. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Sheppard bowed low to her and she blushed red-hot, turned around and walked away at a brisk pace.

“Oh, stop it. She’s not even legal!” McKay told him in an annoyed tone. The colonel ignored him.

Father Lawrence. Sound pretty Earthish, doesn’t it?”

“Earthish? That’s not a word!” McKay huffed, but he was again ignored.

“Well, there’s a Mother Hlava, maybe that’s the male equivalent?” Cooper suggested, but without conviction.

“Yeah, maybe.” Sheppard didn’t sound any more certain. “Alright, let’s get back to Atlantis. We’ll brief Woolsey and come back tomorrow morning to poke around the ship some more, and then at noon we’ll ask that the Father join us in our talks.”

They all nodded and without further ado, split into two groups, Sheppard’s continuing up the street the way Jayin went, and Perrault’s team doubling back to the other side of the town, where they left the Jumper.

 

*

 

It was about an hour till noon; they had been hard at work for four already. On Earth that would mean they begun at around seven in the morning, but this planet’s day was longer and therefore noon wasn’t exactly twelve hours from midnight; more like thirteen and twenty minutes. Alice thought of all the times in college when she had wished that a day could have more than twenty four hours and found it incredibly bizarre that it did here. It was one thing to be in space aboard a ship which still used the twenty-four hour clock, and another completely to be on a planet where you could actually observe the slower passage of sun on the skies.

Doctor McKay was working on the bridge—or at least the place which most likely was the bridge. Alice, on the other hand, spent that entire time in the engine room, and the two of them talked over the radio, comparing results and firing up theories. And theories was all they had; if there had been a black box, they didn’t find it.

“We could ask our people on the Odyssey to look for information in the Asgard core,” McKay told Sheppard when they finally climbed out of the ship and stood at the edge of the clearing, making a report. “But that would require recalling it from whatever super-secret mission it is on so….”

“Yeah, fat chance of that,” Sheppard agreed. “Still, you did find something new, didn’t you?”

“As much as it pains me to say it, not really. I mean, Boyd was right: it’s obvious parts of the ship were sabotaged, but it’s almost insulting how badly it was done. No way an Asgard wasn’t able to fix it in no time.”

Alice nodded. “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Asgard driving this ship.”

“No?” Sheppard raised his eyebrows. “Who, then?”

“That is unclear, sir, but it’s almost as if someone jerry-rigged the controls together.” She shook her head. “Some of the systems appear to have been untouched, even though they could help in flying the thing.”

“Clearly whoever that was, they didn’t really understand the technology,” McKay confirmed. “But they did their best. The computer log is fried—as in, literally the crystal burned out—but there are indications that they had been in hyperspace, and so someone had to make that jump happen.”

“And no idea who that might have been?” Perrault put in hopefully.

“No, sir, although I do have a theory,” Alice said cautiously. “The people we’ve met in that town don’t appear to be technologically advanced enough to have piloted the ship, but I’ve read reports about some natives of the Pegasus who are both tech savvy enough to put it together, and have a history of appropriating alien vessels for their uses.”

“The Travelers,” Sheppard guessed at once.

“Yes, sir. The Asgard technology does not require any special genes to operate, so they’d be perfectly capable of using it, but it’s also incredibly complex, and therefore it would make sense that they would not entirely comprehend it.”

“But where could the Travelers find an Asgard ship?”

“Ah.” McKay looked uncomfortable. “That is the interesting part.”

“Interesting how?”

“I’m pretty sure this is not a Pegasus Asgard ship. I had a chance to observe their technology when they, you know, with me and Jackson.” He waved his hand in a whatever gesture. “This looks like genuine Ida Asgard. And this ship is old. Difficult to say with this level of tech, but I’d say thousands of years old.”

Sheppard shook his head. “How the hell…?”

“It’s a real shame that the logs were unavailable,” Teyla said. “We might have found at least the ship’s name.”

“I think I can answer that question.” A new voice joined the conversation; one with a thick Southern American accent. They turned around to peer at the edge of the forest, where Karim stood watch. His stance was relaxed, but he had a finger on the trigger of his P90 nevertheless. Next to him stood a middle-aged man going on elderly, with short hair that was either very light blond or gray—almost white. He had a long cloak of the same brown thread that the people in town had worn; it was open at the neck, revealing a high black collar with a white square notch in the middle.

“Father Lawrence, I assume,” Sheppard said without real surprise. The man nodded and walked the rest of the way to rejoin their group; six of them were standing there, outside the hatch they used to enter the ship, with Ronon and Karim posted at some distance apart, keeping watch.

“Yes.” He nodded. “The ship’s name is the Billiskner.”

“Impossible.” McKay threw his hands up in an impatient gesture. “The Billiskner was destroyed something like ten years ago.”

“Is that so?” The clergyman raised his eyebrows and then turned to Sheppard and changed the subject. “You have good men, Colonel. That one heard me coming from half a mile out, I’m pretty sure.” He motioned towards Karim, who was looking at him steadily with his finger still on the trigger. Ronon was standing a hundred yards away in the other direction, and although he was relaxed, too, there was something watchful about him as well.

“Yeah, he’s a good one,” Sheppard agreed, but his tone was cautious. “You know who I am?”

“I spoke to Hlava in the morning. She told me all about you.” The father bowed to them in the manner of his townsfolk. “I am Peter Lawrence, the shepherd of Our Lady of Mercy.” He paused for a moment. “Previously I had been a parish priest in Austin, Texas.”

This announcement silenced the group for a good thirty seconds. They stared at him in disbelief, their faces all masks of shock.

“From your expressions I see that you know where that is. I was right, then. Despite your presence here of all places, you are Earthlings.”

“How the hell…?” Sheppard didn’t finish the question, but Lawrence understood anyway.

“That is a long tale. I came here because I think it will be better if we talk alone for the time being. There are those who would not trust you even after seeing your weapons, which are clearly from Earth.” He smiled, nodding towards the P90 in Sheppard’s hands. “But first, will you tell me something?”

“What?”

“Is the Earth still there? Is it safe?” He looked serene but there were intense undertones to his question.

“Yes.” Sheppard shrugged. “Last we heard, anyways.”

“That is good. That’s good news.” Lawrence looked around and then gestured towards the edge of the forest. “Let’s sit there.”

There were some fallen trees, half-swallowed by shrubs and moss. They sat on the trunks; only McKay stayed standing.

“Are you crazy? I am not going to sit on that! Who knows what kind of germs are crawling all over!” He protested, when Sheppard patted a place next to him. The colonel shrugged and looked at Lawrence expectantly. The father, however, was gazing up towards the sky and didn’t say anything for a good minute. Alice wondered if he was gathering his thoughts or praying. Then he sighed and shifted his gaze to them. He took time to look each of them in the eye—Alice found it quite uncomfortable—and then focused on Teyla.

“You are not from Earth.”

“No. I come from a planet called Athos, which is no more. My people had to flee the Wraith and now found a home on New Athos,” Teyla said with dignity.

The father inclined his head and then made a sign of the cross in the air before him. He looked around on all of them again and nodded.

“I had been a priest for over thirty years,” he began. “But I never really believed in Evil. Don’t get me wrong, I knew there were bad people out there, but I never thought there were monsters.  Not only aliens, but beings hell-bent on destroying us; or sentient creatures who literally feed on humans. If you had told me that back in ‘05, I would have laughed you out of my church. I am a much humbler person now.” He smiled wistfully. “I cannot really tell you much about how it all started; none of the survivors can. We weren’t there. What we managed to piece together is this: the Stargate was discovered on a dig in Giza in the twenties. It lay in some warehouse gathering dust until mid-nineties, when we were finally able to make it work. By we I mean the military,” he clarified. “They went through to explore the galaxy, but kept the existence of the Gate secret on Earth. That was until September 2005.” He paused for a moment, looking to the sky again. “That was when it began. At first it was just a few people in the Air Force and the Marine Corps, but it spread very quickly.”

“The Prior Plague,” Alice breathed, enthralled by the story. Father Lawrence looked at her with his eyes wide open.

“Yes.” There was clearly something he wanted to ask, but in the end he didn’t. He stayed silent for a moment and then picked up his story: “We didn’t know what it was, only that it was very fast and very lethal. It wasn’t long before the governments around the world lost control over the panicking population, and the riots over food and water were almost as deadly as the virus itself.”

All of them exchanged puzzled looks. That was not what happened in their world. Nobody interrupted, though.

“In America, a martial law was imposed. Tanks rolled onto the streets in an attempt to keep some illusion of peace. By this point communication with the rest of the world was pretty much halted so we didn’t really know what was going on elsewhere.” He paused for a moment again, this time looking down on his hands linked together on his lap. “I am not proud of myself. I should have been out there, helping my flock. Instead, I fled to my church and locked the gates. I had enough food and water to last a month, maybe more. That cowardice is what saved my life. It is also what I will never stop repenting.”

“You did what you had to do to survive,” Copper tried to console him. “It would have served no one for you to get sick and die, too.”

“It would have served God,” the father contradicted, but let it go. “I could hear the sound of weapons, the screams of the dying, the moans of the suffering. I could hear the thunder of canons, even as I locked myself in the basement of my church. And then I couldn’t hear anything. I was still too much of a coward to go out, though. I intended to stay inside as long as my rations allowed me. It is hard to tell exactly how long it took. More than a month but less than two. Then I came out.” The next pause was long and deliberate. “I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say, I fled right back into my church, knelt and prayed for God to strike me where I stood. He didn’t. I spent that night looking at my thirty-eight and pondering if I was more scared of eternal damnation or dying out there.”

“Damnation?” Teyla repeated, surprised.

“Christians believe that suicide is a mortal sin,” Cooper explained. “One that sends you straight into hell.”

“I’ve never thought I was afraid of death,” Father Lawrence picked up his story. “But dying like that… in pain, completely alone, my body putrefying on the streets among all the others… I couldn’t face it. Better to go quickly, in my church. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. In the end, I was too scared of God’s wrath, and I put my life into his merciful hands. God works in mysterious ways. Through that ordeal, my faith was strengthened. In the end, I was right to leave the gun untouched that night. In the morning, a flash of white light scooped me up and suddenly I was aboard the Billiskner. I was looking through the window onto Earth. It looked peaceful, serene. I remember thinking it was an odd thing to see in Heaven, but of course it wasn’t that.

“There were actually two ships. The other one was ours, it was called the Daedalus. It had gone and fetched the Billiskner from our allies. They were tied up in their own war, I believe, and that one old ship was all they could spare.”

“Do you know who they were warring with?” McKay asked in a faint voice.

“Some mechanical creatures, I forget the name.”

“The Replicators?”

“Yes, that’s it.” Lawrence nodded. “They were losing, which is why they couldn’t come to our rescue. Unfortunately, the Billiskner wasn’t enough.” He paused again. “See, some people, like me, survived the plague. A number significant enough that there was barely enough room on the two ships.”

“It’s actually not about the room, but life support system and its efficacy...” McKay began, but fell silent seeing Sheppard’s stern gaze.

“Perhaps, I do not understand technology,” Father Lawrence allowed graciously. “But the ship had sensors that picked up human life signs on the planet. They brought them aboard one at a time, where medical professionals ensured they were free of the plague.” He paused for a moment. “A little over twelve hundred people, that was all that remained from seven billion.”

Nobody said anything; they were all completely enrapt in the story. That it was all true—albeit perhaps not in their reality—was all the more horrifying.

“The aliens who sent us the plague—the Ori—they had ships superior to those we had. They chased us and followed everywhere we went. It was like they could track us through hyperspace.”

Sheppard and McKay exchanged significant looks. Alice knew what they thought about; the Asgard core that had been installed on the Odyssey could also be tracked by the Ori.

“They destroyed the Daedalus, and we were at an end of our rope. But we had an advantage: we had a genius aboard.”

McKay raised his eyebrows and actually sat down on the log, next to Sheppard, forgetting about the germs.

“Doctor Samantha Carter was the one who thought of a way to escape the Ori.”

They all smiled hearing the familiar name, except for McKay, who grimaced, but didn’t say anything, perhaps halted by another severe look from Sheppard.

“Don’t ask me what she did, for I did not understand it. I only know that somehow she moved our entire ship from one reality to another. This one.” He looked around at them. “I see that none of you are surprised.”

“We’ve had some previous experiences with alternative realities,” was all Sheppard said and then motioned the Father to go on with the story.

Lawrence shook his head disbelievingly, and again looked for a moment as if he was going to ask a question, but in the end, he just went back to his story: “Our Earth was gone for good, and we couldn’t outrun the Ori. We thought we would be free of them in another reality. But as soon as we emerged in this version of the Milky Way, we’ve detected them in the vicinity with the ship’s sensors. We didn’t know if they came through after us, or if they were natives of this particular reality, but that single hop was all the ship was capable of, so we couldn’t try again. We were stuck here.

“We couldn’t risk heading for Earth. There was no saying if it fared any better than ours, although the presence of the Ori was a rather bad omen, if they weren’t ours. But if there was a chance that they somehow avoided them so far, we couldn’t just barge in and risk bringing the bad guys with us. It was Doctor Carter who suggested we flee to another galaxy.”

“You didn’t find Atlantis?” McKay asked eagerly, which earned him another stern look from Sheppard.

“Atlantis?” The clergyman thought for a moment. “It sounds familiar, I mean beside the mythical thing. What is it?” Then he took in Sheppard’s expression and nodded understandingly. “Alright, let me finish my tale first.

“We came here, to the Pegasus, and the Ori did not follow. Either they were yours and didn’t find us, or ours but lost our trail. Either way, we were free of them. We were going to look for a planet that could sustain life and make a colony there. Twelve hundred people is nothing compared to seven billion, but it’s enough to set up a viable society that hopefully wouldn’t die off. We found a perfect planet very quickly, Doctor Carter and the others were quite surprised. What was even more astonishing was that there was life on it already. People, and no less than twenty thousand of them.

“Again, I see from your faces that this does not surprise you either, but it was a true shock for us, especially those of us who didn’t spend the last eight years or so traveling the galaxy and meeting alien races. We landed the ship, and went to meet them. They agreed to let us stay, a thousand and two hundred refugees. They became more than our hosts; they were our guides in this new reality. They showed us their Stargate and told us they sometimes traveled to trade with other people on different worlds. This galaxy has hundreds of worlds, hundreds of peoples!” He shook his head. “Our hosts, they are called the Lacronans, they were rather shy of strangers. It took us months to get their trust. We were more advanced than them, technologically speaking, and we could help in some things. They didn’t always want to change their ways, though. It kept us safe from the Wraith for hundreds of years, they’d say and we’d nod and continue to not understand. Oh, they told us all about the Wraith, but we didn’t truly believe them. Seeing is believing, though.

“They came one night about four months after we’d landed on Lacrona. Before we could even start to think about fighting back, half of our people were gone, including Doctor Carter. Just disappeared in a beam of white light from their aircraft, it looked like tiny fighters. Someone organized the defense, but we were terribly outnumbered and outgunned. Their technology… I’ve never seen anything like it.” He looked up at the sky and kept quiet for a moment. “Eventually we decided to evacuate, and made for the ship. We took as many Lacronans as we could, now they becoming refugees as well. The problem was, of course, that Carter and every other member of our group that had any idea about the technology of this ship was gone.” Lawrence nodded towards the derelict spacecraft half-buried in the ground. “It took us three hours to get it up. By that time, there were less than two hundred of us and maybe half a dozen thousand of Lacronans. I think the Billiskner was more powerful than the Wraith Hive, but we didn’t know how to fire its weapons, and so we ran. We went into the hyperspace and ran away.”

There was a longer pause this time. The father closed his eyes, as if he was relieving it. Alice supposed he was.

“We made it into this star system. We didn’t drop out of the hyperspace of our own volition, however; we were sabotaged. It turned out that a few Wraiths had made their way onto our ship before we got it off the ground, and were now wreaking havoc in the few systems we could operate. We found this planet… with breathable atmosphere and abundant wildlife. It was like a gift from Heaven. Except we couldn’t fly there; the controls were unresponsive for the main engines. In the end, it didn’t matter. We were on a collision course with the planet anyway. We tried to beam our people down, but that technology didn’t work either. The only thing we had were the shields. So we braced for impact and went in. You can see the results.” He waved towards the wreck. “The shields held for the entry and absorbed most of the shockwave. Most, but not all.” He paused again for a moment. “There were about a thousand people on the lower deck. We couldn’t even recover their bodies. The Lacronans don’t come here, they believe the place is hunted by the souls of those poor bastards.”

“And so you were forced to make your colony ‘ere,” Perrault summed it up.

“Yeah. Most of the Lacronans decided to explore the place further, but a couple hundred of them made a village right here. You were there. We found that this gazebo thingy gives goat-like milk, tender meat, and strong, thick thread for clothing. There are fish in the sea and by some fluke some farmer brought grain from Lacrona, just a sackful, but from one field, we were able to make more and spread it around. There are some local edible plants, too, although we are understandably careful to eat it.”

“So there’s five thousand of Lacronans and two hundred of Earthlings here?” Cooper asked pensively.

Lawrence shook his head. “There were fifty of our people on the lower decks.”

“I’m sorry.”

The father didn’t reply for a moment, but just bowed his head low, looking at his feet.

“Most of our people have gone farther with the Lacronans. There are only five of us here in the village. I am the oldest. The others were scared, you see. They saw just as well as I did that you must be Earthlings, but we have been through a lot. They didn’t want to come forward until we determine your true intentions. But I am a man of God, and my way is to trust and be open. This has been my tale. I would hear yours, if you are willing to tell.”

Chapter Text

Father Lawrence was looking at Sheppard expectantly, but the Atlantis’ military commander was silent for the moment. Alice was thinking about what she’d just heard. It was a chilling thought to realize how close they had gotten to near complete annihilation themselves. If they didn’t find the cure for the plague, this could well be their own story—with the exception of the Asgard part of it. Would the Asgard help them had they not found a way to beat the Ori? Alice thought they would. They did leave all of their legacy to them, the humans of Earth; even if they couldn’t help to win against the Ori, they had not been tied up by the Replicators at that point—not in this reality—and so could probably spare more spacecraft, and quicker—maybe quickly enough to save more people. Still, there was one version of Earth where seven billion people were reduced to twelve hundred in a matter of months…

That didn’t sound right, though.

“The Prior Plague couldn’t have killed all of them,” she said aloud, surprising everyone, including herself. With all of their eyes trailed on her, she had to continue. “It’s mathematically and geographically impossible. There are more people in places that are completely isolated, where the Plague couldn’t have been brought. Deep in the Amazon, in certain parts of Africa, Himalaya, Tibet...”

Lawrence shook his head. “I don’t know. There were twelve hundred of us crammed onto the Billiskner and the Daedalus. All the survivors they could find.”

Alice exchanged a dubious look with Cooper.

“What?” The father was visibly anxious now.

“I’m sorry,” Alice said softly. “I don’t think they told you the truth.”

“What do you mean?” Now the clergyman looked alarmed.

“It is more likely that whoever was making decisions back then, had to pick and choose whom to save and whom to leave behind,” Alice explained in a sympathetic tone. “It’s the old moral dilemma, only reversed. They had to sacrifice many to save a few; otherwise, all would be lost.”

“But there was still plenty of room on the ship!” Lawrence protested.

“I told you, it’s not about room,” McKay cut in, but without his usual snark. “The life support system can sustain a very precise population, anything more and everyone would suffocate and die.”

“You said it yourself,” Cooper added, “the Earth was gone. The Ori would kill or convert whoever was left after the Plague has run its course. You had to flee, and saving a few hundred people was better than saving none.”

Lawrence didn’t reply, but looked down on his hands linked together on his lap. For a long while, nobody said anything.

“I guess I always knew,” he sighed eventually. “I just didn’t want to face the truth. But then”—he raised his head—“we took over six thousand people aboard as we fled from the Wraith, and we didn’t suffocate.”

“You would have if you spent there a bit more time,” Alice explained in a soft voice. “The Asgard systems are extremely efficient, even on a ship this old, so it allowed you to survive for the little while it took for you to jump to the other star system and crash into the planet. But it wouldn’t extend beyond a few more hours.”

“Who are the other survivors here? Who is your leader?” Sheppard asked.

“There is none,” the father replied simply. “We had followed Doctor Carter and the military command at first, but they all perished during the attack of the Wraith. What is left is a hodge-podge of young and old, former city-dwellers and countrymen, people of all races, many nationalities, and various professions.” He paused for a moment. “We are now one with the Lacronans. We live among them, we work together, we make families. The four others who live in our village, they all married Lacronans, one of them even has a baby boy already.” He looked serenely into Sheppard’s eyes. “We found home here. I can’t speak for the others, but as for me, this is where I belong.”

“What do you preach now?” Cooper’s eyes were glistening with avid interest.

“What I’ve always preached. That there is a God and he loves us all.”

Will wanted to pursue the subject further, but Perrault put his hand on the anthropologist’s shoulder and so he fell silent again.

Sheppard exchanged looks with McKay and Teyla. Some unspoken agreement flowed between them, Alice saw, their team being so close that they could communicate without speaking.

“Well, you can guess that our story is somewhat different than yours,” Sheppard allowed. “Here, the Earth is still there, safe and sound, although it’s been close a couple of times.”

“You knew of the Prior Plague, though.” Lawrence turned to Alice. “How did you avoid it?”

“We didn’t.” Alice shook her head. “It struck us, too, something like three thousand people died all told. It spread incredibly quickly, but we managed to get a cure.”

“How?”

“We had help. An Ancient named Orlin, and a Jaffa turned Prior who had a change of heart. And a lot of hard work by our own genius, Colonel Samantha Carter.”

Lawrence started, hearing the name. “Colonel? Your Carter is military?”

“Yes, indeed. She had been the leader of our Pegasus expedition for a year last year,” Sheppard added.

“What is this expedition? How come there are people in the Pegasus?”

“You know about the Ancients, right?”

Lawrence nodded. “The Lacronans call them the Ancestors.”

“Yeah, that’s because they have been the ones to create life in both our galaxies.” Sheppard shrugged. “They fled the Ori into Milky Way and made their civilization there first. At some point they constructed a ship, which was also a city, and flew it here, to the Pegasus.”

“A ship that was also a city?” The clergyman repeated dubiously.

“Yep. It floats on the water and can fly through space, but it’s a city alright.”

“Wait, present tense?”

“Oh, yeah.” Sheppard smiled a bit mischievously. “It’s grand.”

“The point is that the Ancients seeded life in this galaxy as they had done previously in the Milky Way,” McKay picked up the story in an annoyed tone. “But they were all full of themselves and snotty and created their own enemy who drove them away.”

“There is no conclusive evidence that the Ancestors were the ones who did create the Wraith,” Teyla corrected. “But it does seem rather likely.”

“The Ancients fled through the Stargate on Atlantis back to Earth...” Sheppard continued, but Lawrence interrupted him:

“Atlantis? The lost city?”

“That’s where the myth is from.” The colonel nodded. “Anyway, the city was left underwater for ten thousand years. In that time, the Wraith wakened periodically and culled the population of the galaxy; always leaving enough to be viable, though. Until we came and kinda messed that up.”

“We found the eight chevron...” McKay begun, but Sheppard cut him off:

“We came through the Stargate from Earth, but the city was underwater and the shield was failing. We could not dial Earth again—no power—but we did manage to dial another Gate in the Pegasus. We arrived on Athos. Got attacked by Wraith, and, well, long story short, we awakened them ahead of schedule. We’ve been fighting them ever since.”

“That is...” Lawrence’s words failed him. “What about the Earth and the Ori?”

“Oh, we beat them.” Sheppard frowned and asked the rest of them: “How did we beat them?”

“Merlin’s weapon and the Ark of Truth,” Alice replied.

“Excuse me, did you say Merlin?” The father’s eyebrows went all the way up.

“Yes. Merlin was an Ancient.” Alice smiled. “Despite how ridiculous that sounds. It’s a long story, but in the end we managed to obtain a weapon he had devised that could destroy ascended beings. We sent it to the Ori galaxy, but of course it still left several ships full of zealous Ori followers and Priors to deal with.”

“And how did you deal with it?”

“Another Ancient device, called Ark of Truth.” Alice smirked. “It worked as advertised. It was enough for someone to look into it, and it showed them the truth, they had to believe it. We used it on Priors and their followers to make them realize not only that their gods were lying to them all that time, but also that they were now dead.”

“We’re friends now,” Sheppard added with a big grin. “That’s us, making friends wherever we go.”

“Should I remind you of the Genii?” McKay puffed.

“Hey, we’re allies now!”

“Better a reluctant ally than an enemy, but I’d hesitate to call them friends,” Teyla put in.

“Anyway.” Alice felt they were digressing too much. “The Milky Way is more or less safe now. There are still some remaining pockets of Goa’uld or warring Jaffa, and there’s a new crime syndicate called Lucian Alliance that tries to fill the vacuum left behind by the System Lords, but those aren’t threats of the magnitude we’d seen earlier.”

“The Wraith are a problem, though.” Sheppard was serious now. “One fraction managed to get to Earth recently. We were able to fend them off and we’re reasonably sure they didn’t transmit the coordinates to any other Hive, but it took us flying Atlantis all the way to Milky Way to get rid of them.”

“That is where we are coming from,” Teyla explained. “We chose this planet for Atlantis’ new home because it was supposed to be uninhabited.”

“Well it was until something like three years ago.” Lawrence nodded pensively. “But I can see why you would like to check us out before landing. Am I correct to assume that your ship is in the orbit?”

“Yes. We…” Sheppard begun, but then fell silent; they all (save the father, of course) heard Sergeant Karim’s quiet voice in their ears.

“I have movement here, a bigger party this time.”

Sheppard raised his eyebrows and looked at Lawrence.

“Expecting someone?”

The clergyman shook his head. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if others wanted to come and talk to you same as I did, even though they don’t trust you.”

“Let’s see.” The colonel stood up and the rest of them followed, the Earthlings and Teyla casually putting their palms over the triggers of their P90s or on the butts of their Berettas. It took at least five minutes for the group of newcomers to appear between the trees; Karim must have had super-human hearing to have noticed them so early. Four men and three women, all dressed in the same drab garments made of the local wool, but six of them were armed; half with long, curved knives, and the other three—with Earth-made sidearms, looking very out of place. The seventh person was Hlava, the village elder the Atlantians had met the day before.

“Father!” She exclaimed as they were still some distance away. “God bless, you are safe, we were so afraid for you!”

Alice shot a furtive look at Lawrence and saw his face harden into a mask, hiding whatever emotions he might feel. He didn’t reply right away, but waited for the party to come near them and then gave them a long, respectful bow, which Hlava reciprocated, followed after a moment by the others. Doren and Earah were there, both clutching knives and shooting vigilant glances around—but not at the Atlantians, standing in a casual semi-circle, now joined also by Ronon. Karim stayed put but Alice saw he was turned towards them now, watching like a hawk, his finger on the trigger. Alice was quite certain that he could fire before any of the Lacronans could even lift their hand. Still, it was curious that the newcomers should be ignoring the armed people in front of them and look about for… what? Animals? Or something worse? Then she suddenly understood and gasped involuntarily. Her eyes were wide like saucers when she looked at Perrault and saw his eyebrows climb up his forehead in a silent question.

“Wraith,” she mouthed to him. His face constricted into a frown.

“I wanted to talk to these people myself,” Lawrence explained calmly, but there was a certain strain in his voice that Alice didn’t hear before. “I didn’t realize I’d be missed so quickly. I apologize for worrying you.” And he inclined his head again.

Hlava threw a cautious look at the Atlantians.

“You can speak, Mother. They know everything now,” the priest encouraged her, but before she could say anything, one of the people accompanying her—a man, wielding a pistol—spoke with barely hidden fury:

“You told them?” He advanced on Lawrence, shaking his armed hand. “After we talked, and pleaded, for hours yesterday, you went and disregarded the agreement!”

“It was your agreement, not mine, Chester,” Lawrence replied coolly, unimpressed with the weapon brandished before his face. “I never said I would comply with it.”

“You fucking idiot!” Chester yelled, but before he could do anything more, Hlava put her restraining hand on his shoulder, and he shivered, half-turned to look at her, and then stepped back with a vague grumble.

“Hey, girls and boys, let’s relax,” Sheppard said, stepping up from the semi-circle to stand next to Lawrence. “We’re all friends here.”

“It’s true.” The father nodded gravely. “They are from Earth. This universe’s Earth is still alive and well.”

“What are they doing here?” Another man holding a sidearm asked, looking at Sheppard suspiciously.

“Like us, they came here to hide before the Wraith,” Lawrence replied placidly. “But if you mean here as in the Pegasus… they came to explore it.” He paused for a moment. “We used to be explorers, too.”

“Our exploring brought doom on us,” Chester reminded him cuttingly. He seemed calmer now, but Hlava’s hand was still on his shoulder. “They cannot stay here. They would bring the Wraith with them.”

“I think we don’t need to bring them ‘ere,” Perrault interjected, stepping up to stand at the other side of Lawrence. “They’re already here.”

Sheppard shot him a surprised look, but Perrault was gazing at Hlava, his face smooth, not showing any emotion.

For a moment, the only sound was that of the distant waves beating on the shore and the wind rustling in the treetops. Then, slowly, Hlava nodded.

“That is why we were so afraid for the Father,” she admitted. “They came with us on the ship, from our planet. They were the ones who sabotaged the ship into crashing.”

Sheppard and Perrault both nodded at the exact same moment and despite the gravity of the situation, Alice had to strain not to smile.

“They fled into the forest afterwards,” Hlava continued. “They have been harassing us ever since. They never attack large groups, but going out alone or in small company is dangerous.” She paused for a moment. “We have just lost one of our own tonight.”

Lawrence started badly. “Who?”

“Jayin.”

Alice froze in surprise. She knew the name.

“The girl who sang David Bowie?” She asked, though of course she knew the answer. The pretty young thing they’d encountered the day before… She had been walking home, in the middle of the village. Could it be that the Wraith were there, so close? “Teyla, did you sense anything last night?”

The Athosian shook her head. “No, I’m quite sure there wasn’t any Wraith in the vicinity.” But her voice was doubtful, too.

“We are very sorry for your loss,” Sheppard said to Hlava and she bowed in response. Then he added deliberately: “We could help you with this problem.”

“We have guns, we can protect ourselves!” Chester brandished his pistol again.

Sheppard looked at him coolly. “You have to put between ten and twenty nine-millimeter bullets into a well-fed Wraith to stop him coming. Sure, you can do this with a Beretta, but you’d better be fast.”

“It doesn’t seem that you can protect yourselves very well, or Jayin wouldn’t be dead, now, would she?” McKay added tactlessly.

“How do you propose to find them?” Chester continued in his aggressive tone.

“We have our ways.” Sheppard threw a quick glance at Teyla. “Listen, guys. If you don’t want our help, that’s fine. We’ll go our own way. But I think we could all benefit from an alliance.”

Hlava looked at Lawrence for a moment, the two of them communicating without words; then shifted her eyes towards the colonel and bowed low.

“If you are able to free us of the Wraith harassing our villages,” she said, “we will be forever in your debt.”

Sheppard smiled and nodded. “Great! We shall see to it, then. You people better get back to your village. We’ll give you a lift. Boyd, will you drive these fine people back, please?”

“Yes, sir.” Alice turned to the group. “Will you follow me, please?”

“Where are we going? You have a ship parked here somewhere?” Chester asked as soon as they began walking towards the edge of the clearing.

“Yes, sir.” Alice guessed politeness could work to appease the man a bit. He was definitely the most nervous of all of them.

“Where?”

Alice didn’t respond. They were on the level with Karim, standing a hundred paces to their right now. He acknowledged them with a slight nod of his head and turned around to look at the forest again. Alice took out the remote from one of her pockets and a second later where there had been nothing, a Jumper appeared out of thin air. A choir of aahs sounded from behind her as she opened the rear door.

“We call it a Puddle Jumper,” Alice explained, gesturing for them to follow her in. “It’s something we inherited from the Ancients.”

“Inherited?” Hlava asked dubiously. “They were our Ancestors.”

“Ours too.” Alice smiled to her. “The Jumper is only one of the pieces of technology we are using that came from the Ancients. It is built so that it can easily fit inside a Stargate and has a powerful weapons system.”

“What if the Wraith were to get it?” Chester asked skittishly. “They don’t need another advantage.”

“The Wraith would be unable to operate it.” Alice sat down in the pilot seat. “The Jumper can only be operated by a person who has a certain gene.” She put her hands on the console and it lit up. She heard a gasp from somewhere behind her—whose, she couldn’t say. “It’s very rare among humans, and non-existent in any other species, as far as we know.” She turned around to look at the eight of them, Hlava and Lawrence sitting in the front compartment, the rest in the rear. “It’s literally the legacy of the Ancients. After they fled from this galaxy, they went back to the Milky Way and mingled among humans there. Those of us who have the gene are descendants of those Ancients.”

Hlava nodded, a bit nervously, and Alice turned around to bring the Jumper up. The passengers in the back were quiet; they looked around with wonder in their eyes, even those who came from the alternative Earth. This was a novelty for all of them, and Alice knew that they must have been thinking of the last time they were on a ship. That one had been much, much bigger, and of a completely different design, but it wasn’t that big of a stretch. They came here crashing down in a spaceship; no wonder they were apprehensive to go up again.

 

*

 

Ten minutes later Alice was over the downed Asgard ship, her own little Jumper like a fly against the huge body of the wreck. On Sheppard’s orders, she turned the cloak off, and hung in the air for a while, visible to all that could lift their heads and look above the tree line. Then she went down slowly, landing in the exact same spot she had embarked from. Once firmly on the ground, she exited the craft, leaving the cloak off, and walked briskly to the edge of the forest, where the rest of her team was waiting.

“Do we know how many of them there are?” Cooper was saying as she joined them.

“No, but it can’t be too many.” Perrault shook his head.

“My best guess would be six or seven,” Alice contributed. “That’s based on the number of victims. I asked Hlava for an estimate. They get news from the other villages,” she added. “Although if they hibernate, it may be more than that.” She turned around to see her Jumper, looking abandoned and lonely at the edge of the clearing. “What’s the plan, sir?”

“Sheppard wants to attract them to us,” Perrault explained. “A trap, you see.”

“That’s what your little dance was for,” Cooper added. “We’re the bait.”

“So I figured.” Alice smiled, but she didn’t feel very confident. She didn’t want to show just how anxious she was, though, so she didn’t ask the question that was on her mind: what if there’s more of them than we predicted? Instead, she pulled the life signs and energy detector from her pocket and looked at it, frowning. There were four dots clustered in the middle; she knew that was herself and her team. Four more were moving slowly at an angle towards the edge of the screen, away from the shipwreck.

“How far can it see?” Will asked, looking over her shoulder.

“A hundred meters. There’s nobody around, except for the First Team, sir,” she reported to Perrault.

“Good, keep throwing an eye on it,” the commandant ordered and Alice smirked at the half-borrowed expression. Sometimes, if not for his French accent, it was almost possible to forget he was a foreigner, so good was his English; and then he said something that was a marvelous mix of the two languages or even a direct translation of the French word or expression that didn’t make any sense in English.

“Listen, guys, not for nothing, but it is a big forest,” Cooper carped, waving around them. “If this little trick ain’t gonna work… how are we gonna find the Wraith?”

“They’ll find us, don’t worry,” Perrault assured him.

“We could always use Atlantis’ sensors,” Alice suggested. “They won’t tell us which dot is human and which is Wraith, but we could isolate those that seem suspicious and check. You heard the Lacronans, they don’t go anywhere unless in a large party.”

“Good idea.” Perrault praised and touched his earpiece to relay this to Sheppard.

“How long do you think it should take them to come here if they are coming?” Cooper asked Alice while the commandant spoke on the radio. Karim was standing a few paces off and to Alice looked like a wild cat about to pounce. He was looking around vigilantly, his head cocked just a little to the side (to hear better, Alice assumed), his finger on the trigger ceaselessly, not saying anything at all. Still, Alice felt his eyes lingering on herself a few times, and felt nervous because of it. Did he sense how apprehensive she was? It often seemed to her as if his deep black eyes peered right into her soul, baring all that she’d rather remain hidden. Even here and now, as they waited for terrible life-sucking aliens to appear, he made her feel uncomfortable.

“No idea. I guess it depends on where they are,” Alice replied, willing herself to break out of the uneasy mood her teammate’s eyes had cast her into. “Although we know that at least one of them was near the village in the night. It’s a half-day journey, according to the Lacronans, but that’s for humans. For a Wraith? Two or three hours, maybe?”

“That assuming they weren’t already on their way here.” Karim surprised them by speaking for the first time since the morning.  “If they were watching the village, they must have seen Hlava’s party leave and may have followed.”

“They might have even seen us there yesterday,” Perrault put in, having completed his radio exchange. “Zelenka is going to check Atlantis’ sensors,” he informed them. “Something on the detector?”

“No, sir.” The only change was that Sheppard’s team had disappeared from the screen, having walked out of its range.

Perrault nodded and for a moment they all stood there silently. But Cooper wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t try to fill in every moment with talk.

“This was quite a twist, now, wasn’t it?” He shook his head incredulously. “Not only to find humans here on this planet, but people from an alternative Earth! I wonder that they should adapt so easily to the life among the Lacronans... and so deeply as to believe themselves belonging with them!”

He continued to chatter away. Alice wondered if any of them would like to come back to Earth, now that they knew that in this reality it was all safe and sound. They would never be able to go back to their old lives; some of them may not even exist in this version of the universe. But those who do—they couldn’t very well swoop in and talk to their equivalents or their families here. That would create quite a bit of panic. By the way, Alice thought, her eyes stuck to the life signs detector, but unseeing for the moment, how come they are not experiencing the entropic cascade failure? Her own reality and that of Father Lawrence did seem quite close, but there were very important differences—suffice to mention the Replicators, which were destroyed in one universe and alive and still warring with the Asgard in the other. Still, it must have been close enough. She thought of alternative universes that might be far, far different from her own. Somewhere, there was an Alice who did not enter the Air Force and went for a career in science instead. Somewhere, there was an Alice whose father was not dead. And somewhere, she mused, muting Cooper’s cascade of words to a low hum, there was a universe where none of it were true, where Alice Boyd was a conjecture in someone’s fancy, maybe a book character or a TV show hero. You’re hardly a hero, sweetpea, she scorned herself and felt an urge to laugh that she restrained with an effort. It wouldn’t do to laugh in the middle of Will’s tirade, although by now she wasn’t quite sure what he was prattling about. She lifted her head and caught Karim’s eyes piercing her for just a second, and thought she saw a shadow of amusement on his face—but he smoothly shifted his gaze and continued to look around warily, and Alice was left none the wiser. Sure, it was not a smile, but she could have sworn his eyes twinkled with mirth. That was ridiculous, though. Eyes were expressive, but not enough to see emotion in them without a change of facial expression to go along—right?

It was Zelenka’s voice in her earpiece that brought her out of the reverie.

“We can see them on the city’s sensors,” he said. “At least we think it’s them. Your little trap worked—they are converging on the clearing. There’s six of them, and they’re coming from the north and east, but they’re evenly spaced, something like six or seven hundred meters between them. They’re still a way out—at least three kilometers.”

“Good thinking with the sensors, Perrault,” Sheppard replied over the radio and the Frenchman smiled and nodded at Alice, acknowledging the compliment should have gone to her.

“There is one problem, though,” Zelenka added apprehensively. “We can’t see you on the sensors.”

“What do you mean you can’t see us?” It was McKay who entered the conversation, his voice annoyed.

“I mean your life signs don’t register. No life signs register anywhere around the Asgard ship, not even animals’. It must be emitting some sort of energy field that is disrupting our sensors.”

“What range?”

“Around two kilometers from the ship’s core.”

“Alright,” Sheppard sighed into his earpiece. “Let’s break up into four teams of two. We’ll take the three on the east, you guys go get the ones coming from the north. We’ll then comb the woods around the ship for any stragglers.”

“Yes, sir,” Perrault answered and then turned to his team. “This is our first mission all together. Should be easy, but be vigilant. Me and Cooper will take the one most westerly, Karim and Boyd, you’ll go after the one most easterly. Once we get rid of these two, we’ll converge on the middle one.”

“Yes, sir,” Alice and Karim said in unison. Cooper laughed at that, and then made an about-face to follow Perrault out of the clearing and into the forest.

“You lead,” Alice told Karim and he nodded and started towards the tree line. He set a brisk pace and Alice knew that she would be winded by the time they reached the vicinity of the Wraith. She didn’t want to say anything, though. Her pride would not suffer a blow like this, if she had to ask to go slower.

Karim moved like a ghost through the woods, almost never disturbing any leaves or bushes, his feet never stepping on a branch. Once again, Alice felt like a bull in a china store, her uniform and vest snatching on every shrub they passed, her heavy boots snapping  every stick on her way. She tried to walk in Karim’s exact path and imitate his movements, but it helped but a little. She was just not made for such a thing.

She kept glancing on the portable life signs detector she took out of the Jumper—which was working perfectly, so it was curious that Atlantis’ sensors should not—but it was the sergeant who first noticed movement somewhere ahead of them. He stopped abruptly, his fist lifted in the gesture meaning halt. Alice did, peering around him but although she had an excellent eyesight, she could not see anything for a long while, until, a good two minutes later, she did notice something moving between the trees, far away still. It could be the goat-like antelope, or the wild cat they had heard the day before… or a Wraith. She corrected her grip of the P90 in her right hand, still clutching the detector in her left.

Karim looked around at her, straightening two of his fingers and moving his hand in the go left  and around gesture, but his eyebrows were raised and Alice understood that he was waiting for her confirmation. She was the officer, though she felt like a child at an adults’ table. She nodded assent, he turned around and continued straight on slightly bent legs, his finger never leaving the trigger. Alice moved slower now, trying to make the least sound possible, and—in her own opinion—still failing. She went at a curved angle left of Karim, and the vegetation was so thick that she quickly lost him from view. She still saw movement out of the corner of her eye and knew it was him, but it was so slight that it could have been made by a deer—or an antelope.

Now walking alone, with her senses sharpened by adrenaline, Alice was acutely aware of the heavy, oppressive character of these unsettlingly huge and living woods. Every tiny movement of a leaf rustled by a whiff of wind seemed like a gale, every creak of a branch under her foot like a thunder. The rays of sunshine breaking through the thick foliage looked like columns of light among deep shadows of the giant trees. Alice felt small and insignificant. The forest’s creepy aura was getting on her nerves, even as she kept repeating to herself not to be silly.

A couple of minutes passed until a new dot appeared on the life signs detector, slightly left of Karim’s path. It seemed that the Brit knew it, too, because he was angling slowly in that direction. Alice was farther west, so they were flanking the approaching enemy. A movement caught her eye some fifty yards away and for the first time in her life, Alice beheld a Wraith.

She had seen them on photos previously, of course, but still the physique of the alien made her shiver. The greenish-blue tint of his skin gleamed sickly, as if it were a plastic mask reflecting off the light. The slit on his cheek made it look as if he had a gill, and indeed something about his mucky face vaguely reminded Alice of fish. White, messy hair fell in a slight wave onto his shoulders, contrasting with the black outfit he was wearing. He moved cautiously, half-crouched, his yellow eyes with vertical pupils opened wide.

Alice froze in place. If she could see him, could he see her? She thought he hadn’t yet, but the smallest movement could potentially catch his attention. Very slowly, she put the life signs detector into a pocket of her vest, and then lifted her P90, equally carefully. The gun had 200 meters of effective range, and the Wraith was much closer than that. There was no way she could miss him. So why wasn’t she shooting? Pull that trigger, you fucking idiot! She yelled at herself internally. But something still prevented her. It wasn’t fear; with the adrenaline pumping through her body, all fear seemed to have washed away. So what was it?

It’s not human! She screamed to herself silently as seconds ticked by, and yet she still wasn’t shooting. It’s not like killing a person! But wasn’t it? The Wraith were intelligent. They exhibited real emotions, they formed societies, maybe even had a culture? They feed on humans, you stupid fuck. It’s us or them. Pull that motherfucking trigger!

But it was too late. The Wraith had moved out of the line of sight, hidden now behind a clump of bushes as tall as a person. Alice dropped the gun and exhaled. Fuck!

It was so quiet that the staccato of the weapon discharge from her right made her jump. She heard an inhuman, wailing cry of pain, more gunshots, and then—silence.

She walked around the intruding bush slowly, with the P90 pointing downwards. What was wrong with her? Why on Earth didn’t she shoot? It was a Wraith, an alien, for goodness’ sake, and not only one who hated humanity and sought to dominate them as the Goa’uld had; no, this time it was more vital, more visceral than that. The Wraith had to feed on humans to survive. They killed people to live, it was that simple. There was no reason to beat about the bush: either they would destroy them, or be destroyed. This time she was lucky to have Karim as backup, but she could never hesitate ever again.

He was standing over the body of the alien, his gun also pointed down, but his finger still on the trigger. Alice cleared her throat.

“Good job,” she said, trying for neutral tone but failing. Her words came out choked and trembling.

Karim threw her one of his signature penetrating glances, but only nodded and said nothing. For a moment Alice couldn’t lift her eyes from the corpse—there was no blood, and it was laying face-down, so with the white hair spread around it looked very human. Then she caught sight of its right hand, which was twisted up so that the inside of the palm was visible, with the oval shape of the feeding organ clearly standing out against the pallid, nearly translucent skin. This was what they used to sap life force out of human beings. It could be the very same thing that ended the life of young, pretty Jayin who had sung David Bowie just last night. Starman was supposed to be about hope for the future, and faith that whatever awaited in the dark of space, it would prove to be more of a saving grace, and not a threat. Reality was somewhat different. But it didn’t need to be. The Wraith were the last of their great enemies. If they could get rid of them, Earth would be safe—or at least, safer than it’s ever been since they had opened the Stargate all these years ago.

When Alice looked up, there was a new steel shine in her emerald eyes. She met Karim’s, and for the first time, didn’t look away but held his gaze for what seemed like an eternity, but was indeed only a couple of seconds before Karim nodded slightly, blinked and shifted his eyes away.

“Let’s go,” Alice ordered, her voice steady and calm now. “We should head west, see if we can track down the middle one.”

Karim nodded again, turned around and started walking in his eerily quiet step. Alice lingered over the body for just a few more seconds, now viewing it with silent fury. She had always wanted to do well, and ever since her first glimpse of Atlantis, she felt determined to prove worthy of the Ancient legacy that rested on the city’s new inhabitants’ shoulders, but she now found a new, deeper motivation, and it was a sinister one. She had been angry before, of course, but this was different. This cold hatred was not something that could be easily lifted or cured, she felt; it would fester and rot in her until it was satisfied—but how, she did not know. She wondered vaguely if this was how the others felt, and if this was the reason they were so eager to go back here to Pegasus. She doubted they would tell, and she didn’t intend to speak about it to anyone either, but it made her feel like she finally belonged.

She looked up and saw that Karim was already a good twenty yards ahead, but he stopped and turned around to look at her. She started walking towards him, making three times as much noise as he did, but froze after only a few paces. She didn’t know if she saw the movement, or maybe it was pure instinct, but suddenly she was sure there was something behind the sergeant. She started lifting her gun, her finger moving the selector to A—fully automatic fire. Karim’s eyes flickered to her hands, then back to her face and he began turning around when a shadow leaped from the oversized shrub behind him and tackled the Brit to the ground. The fight that ensued was so quick and violent that Alice could barely follow it with her eyes. Karim immediately threw his P90 away, the gun too ineffective at such a close range to do him any good. He was on his back, the Wraith pinning him to the ground with his knees and left hand, but Karim had his right in both of his and keeping it firmly away from his chest. Not even a second of the quiet struggle passed before he bucked and threw the larger assailant off of him with one big effort. He got to his feet and suddenly he had his Beretta in hand, but the Wraith jumped onto him again, putting his long, sharp nails to good use, scratching at the Brit’s arm, drawing blood. They were again locked in a close fight, each trying to dodge the other’s right hand—Karim to avoid being fed upon, and the Wraith to avoid a bullet. The sergeant got off a shot, but it went high. The Wraith twisted his arm and knocked the gun out of his hand. Now unarmed, Karim went for it with a vengeance, throwing punches so quickly that the Wraith could barely parry them, but parry he did. The whole thing lasted maybe five or seven seconds before Alice could get the Wraith in her sights for long enough to pull the trigger.  The shot rang off loudly in her ears. The bullet found its mark. The Wraith threw his arms up convulsively, taking a step back, exposing himself from behind Karim. There was a hole in his face right between the eyes. That surely had to kill him—but Alice aimed again and put three more bullets into his head, just to be on the safe side. He fell down on the ground with a loud thump.

For a moment no other sound could be heard, no rustle of leaves in the treetops, no snap of branches under hoof or paw, only Alice’s and Karim’s quick, shallow breaths. The Brit still had his back to her, looking down at his fallen enemy. Then he turned around slowly to face Alice. She lowered her gun and their eyes met again, his nearly black ones boring into her bright green.

“Nice shot,” he said gravely, his voice infuriatingly calm. Was he never thrown or upset or just plain surprised?

Alice shook her head. “Very close range. T’would be hard to miss.” Of course it wasn’t entirely true; to hit a fast-moving target required some skill, especially when there was a risk to hit an ally. But Alice had earned her Expert Marksmanship ribbon fair and square, and so her own standards were much higher than normal.

“Nevertheless. Thank you.” He was still staring at her in his penetrating way, but this time it didn’t make her uncomfortable. Her heart was still beating very hard, but hear breath was already slowing. She knew what would come next: exhaustion and the feeling of emptiness, which always followed great bursts of adrenaline. For now, there was a sense of achievement and satisfaction of a job well done. She was even with Karim. She wasn’t going to tell him, of course—but she had felt that she should have gotten that first Wraith herself, too. That he had to do it was on her—and now that she got the other one, they were square. No loose ends, and no debt to pay.

This time it was her turn to break eye-contact. She looked down on his right arm; his jacket’s sleeve was in tatters, and soaking up blood.

“You’re injured,” she pointed out and walked the fifteen yards towards him while he picked up his Beretta and the P90 he had discarded. “Let me look at it.”

He shook his head. “It’s just a scratch.”

“Could be infected,” she cautioned. “We don’t know what’s on that creature’s nails.”

He yielded and let her look at his arm. She took out a knife and cut off the sleeve above his bicep. Three deep gashes went down from just below his shoulder to the elbow, oozing blood. Alice examined them closely, touching and twisting Karim’s arm a little, to see inside the wounds. It didn’t look like a mere scratch, but she thought—or more hoped, really—that nothing vital was cut. Before she lifted her hand from his arm, she noted how firm were his muscles. He wasn’t tall or bulky like Jake, but there was not an ounce of weakness in him, too. Hard as steel. And equally cold, she thought, stepping back and pulling the first-aid kit from her vest. Running around with all this equipment was a pain, but she admitted it did come in handy.  She’d never complain about it again.

The radio in her ear came on, just a faint echo of static announcing that someone was on their frequency.

“Boyd, report,” the voice of Commandant Perrault came in with a slight distortion.

Alice touched her earpiece with her unoccupied hand. “This is Boyd, sir. We’ve found our Wraith and then stumbled upon another. Possibly he heard the shots and came towards us. Both are neutralized.”

“Good, we got ours as well. Let’s fall back to the Jumper and we’ll see how to proceed from there.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alice touched the earpiece again to turn off the mike and focused on getting Karim the first aid he needed. He didn’t even flinch as she applied the disinfectant judiciously over the open wounds and then wrapped them in bandages tightly. The man was a machine.

“Thanks,” he said as she stepped back again, her hands now red with his blood. He offered her a napkin from his vest pocket and she wiped them on it. She smiled to him—an automatic response, she often employed smiles instead of words; but to her surprise Karim—the unpredictable man that he was—replied with a small and tight-lipped smile of his own. She was so bewildered that it took her a few seconds to realize she was staring rudely at him. She shifted her gaze away, trying to suppress a smirk.

“Let’s move out.”

 

*

 

Sheppard and his team were already waiting on the clearing when Alice and Karim came, with Perrault and Cooper only two minutes behind them. All six Wraith that had been pinpointed by Atlantis’ sensors had been taken out, but there was still quite a lot of ground to cover around the Asgard ship that couldn’t be seen on the sensors. Sheppard took his team back to Atlantis to talk to Woolsey; the Fourth Recon Team stayed on the ground and was joined half an hour later by three more teams: two Marine units and one led by Lorne. The latter was technically the same rank as Perrault—albeit in two different armies—but he took command immediately and Perrault fell in line without a word. It wasn’t just a matter of seniority, Alice knew; Lorne was not only on Atlantis much longer than Perrault, but he also served as Sheppard’s second-in-command.

They combed through the woods in twos, Alice again walking with Karim, who refused to be sent to the infirmary. They didn’t find any more Wraith, but it was almost twilight when they finally gathered on the clearing next to the shipwreck again. It had been a long day—quite literally on this planet. Alice felt tired and empty—exactly as she had predicted. Yet there still was the sense of achievement and satisfaction. She thought it would go away, but it didn’t. She wasn’t sure if she wasn’t imagining things, but she caught Karim looking at her with new respect in his penetrating black eyes. Or maybe she was just projecting her own feelings onto him. She was quite proud of that shot, and for the first time an idea that she actually could do this job, here in Pegasus, sneaked into her mind. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. This day certainly wasn’t wasted. In fact, she discovered with surprise, she almost had fun… but that wasn’t the right word. She felt engaged and capable—even walking through the forest and making a ton of noise couldn’t spoil it.

“Alright, guys, good work. Let’s go back to Atlantis and see what’s next,” Lorne was saying. Alice was looking absently behind him. There was something eating at her, some nagging thought, a feeling that they weren’t quite done. Then her eyes fell on the Asgard wreck—and she knew. She turned to Perrault and said to him quietly:

“Sir, we forgot one place.”

He frowned and looked at her questioningly. “What place?”

“We weren’t here all the time. What if the Wraith went into the ship to hide out? If we leave now, they’re just gonna start over.”

Perrault’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and he nodded. “Good thinking.” And then, to Lorne: “Major, we ‘ave missed one place.” And he pointed towards the downed ship.

Lorne frowned, looked around at the massive hulk behind him, and then caught on.

“You’re right. Parks, Pena, check it out inside. Is it safe?” He asked as an afterthought.

Perrault looked at Alice significantly and she nodded. “Yes, sir. We’ve examined it pretty thoroughly in the morning with Doctor McKay.”

“Alright. Go,” he ordered the two Marine teams. They quickly disappeared inside the ship. “We’re gonna get back to Atlantis,” Lorne told Perrault after a few moments. “No sense for both our teams standing here uselessly. Report when they get back.”

“Yes, sir.” Perrault nodded. Lorne waved at his team and walked away towards the place where he left his Jumper. After a moment, Perrault began a quiet conversation with Karim—so quiet in fact that Alice couldn’t say about what, but noted without surprise that it was mostly Perrault who was doing all the talking—and Cooper soon enough started prattling at her, unable to keep silent for too long. Alice let him, only half-listening.

The day was utterly spent, and it was completely dark by the time the Marine units reported back. Alice was looking up, towards the sky, where three moons were visible across the firmament. Sprinkled in between them were stars. As comforting as it was to see that they looked exactly like at home, they formed constellations that were completely alien to her. In the light of day it was almost possible to believe they were back on Earth, but at night everything was twice as eerie and three times as unfamiliar. She almost shivered at the thought of going through that giant, creepy forest when it was so dark, with only moonlight for a guide.

It was the sudden silence on Cooper’s part that alerted her to the change. She looked down in time to see the first Marine scrambling out of the entrance to the ship. The rest followed him and he went straight to Perrault. Alice thought his name was Pena.

“You were right, sir,” he announced as soon as he was close enough to talk. “We found two more Wraith hiding on the lower deck of the ship. Dispensed with,” he added matter-of-factly.

Perrault looked around at Alice. “Good call, Capitaine.”

Alice smiled and nodded.

“Alright, let’s get back home,” Perrault commanded. “You guys are riding with us this time.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alice led the group towards their Jumper—still visible, as she never engaged back the cloak after setting the trap. They took their seats—Alice in the pilot’s place, Perrault on her right, and Karim and Cooper behind them, with the Marines crowded in the rear compartment. Alice lifted the ship from the ground swiftly and directed it upwards at the right angle to make a perfect exit out of the atmosphere and continue on towards Atlantis.

“You’re really good with this thing,” Cooper complimented her. “It looks like the easiest thing in the world when you do it.”

“It feels that way, too,” Alice acknowledged. “The neural interface makes an incredible difference. I loved my 302, but this is a whole new level of flying.” She paused for a moment. “It almost feels like I’m becoming one with the Jumper as we fly.” She realized she slipped the we there and became flustered for a moment, but it appeared that Cooper didn’t notice.

“Well, that’s why you’re here,” he agreed.

“That’s not the only reason,” Perrault interjected, but didn’t elaborate, only smiled his thin, European smile. Alice raised her eyebrows slightly, but didn’t ask and instead focused on bringing down the small ship safely into the Jumper Bay.

 

*

 

Atlantis was still drifting in the planet’s orbit the next morning when Alice came to the Central Tower’s canteen, hunting as much for food as information. Perrault had gone to talk to Sheppard after they had arrived at the city last night, but Alice hadn’t seen him since, and she was in the dark as to what they were going to do now.  Would they find a different planet? Land on M2A-373 to co-habit it along with the Lacronans and the other Earthlings? Relocate them? All options seemed probable to Alice; it would certainly be convenient to touch down here, the planet was a perfect match for them. But wherever Atlantis went, there was always a higher risk of Wraith eventually finding them out, and when they did, the inhabitants of the planet would be a target too. They could always evacuate them to the city—it was big enough that even five thousand people wouldn’t crowd it too much—but that would require time, and in the event of a Wraith attack, time was a precious commodity.

And what about these poor refugees from another reality? Would some of them want to go back to Earth? And even if they did—would the SGC and IOA agree? Alice had a feeling that while the former could be persuaded, the bureaucrats of the latter would be loath to accept such guests.

“What are you thinking about?” Cooper’s voice jerked Alice out of her musings. The anthropologist put a tray on the table and sat opposite Alice. “Your face was all screwed up.”

Alice smiled leniently. “I was wondering if I would want to go back to Earth if it weren’t mine.” She saw a confused look on Will’s face, so she explained: “If I were in Lawrence’s shoes and were offered a chance to go to an alternative Earth.”

“Ah. Well, that’s an interesting philosophical question. Did you come to any conclusions?”

She shook her head. “Somehow I cannot fathom not being able to see my family or friends because they wouldn’t be mine… on the other hand, how creepy it would be if I did meet them and they turned out to be completely different people from those I know and love.”

 “I had a nightmare like that once. I came home to Boston to see my kid and the moment I did I was sure that it wasn’t him. He looked like Roy, but somehow I was convinced it was an impostor. I woke up screaming and drenched in sweat.”

“There is a psychiatric disorder whose main symptom is what you’ve just described,” Alice told him. “It’s called Capgras syndrome. There’s also something called prosopagnosia, the inability to consciously recognize faces, including your own. It’s usually acquired through a brain damage, although it could also be developmental, meaning that a person never properly learned how to recognize familiar faces.”

Cooper arched his eyebrows. “You sound very knowledgeable on the subject. I didn’t know psychology was your thing, too.”

Alice smiled feebly, wondering if she dared to elaborate. But, after all, he did tell her about the situation with his son, right? And it wasn’t like it was that big of a deal.

“My mom has paranoid schizophrenia,” she said in an instinctively lowered voice. It came out haltingly, almost as if she stuttered. “I’ve studied the area extensively, and Capgras delusions are often associated with schizophrenia.”

Will looked at her with sympathy in his little black beady eyes. “I’m sorry. How is she?”

“She’s okay now.” Alice brightened up a little. At least it was a story with a happy ending—so far, at least. She violently hoped it would only be better from now on. “She spent nearly seven years in an inpatient treatment center, but she was released three years ago and lived with me until I was reassigned here. She’s completely independent now.” She still needed daily medication and frequent therapy, but it was still such a big leap that Alice couldn’t help but feel proud. “She went back to our family home in LA. She’s a graphic artist.”

“That’s awesome.” Will’s eyes sparkled with genuine pleasure. “So was that a factor in your going for the PhD instead of moving to another 304 after the Prometheus was destroyed?”

Alice nodded. “Her doctors said it would be best if she were released into a relative’s care.”

“No one else was available?”

Alice shrugged. “She’s my mom. I wanted to do it.”

“Of course. Sorry.”

She smiled. “It was a real confluence of circumstances. I got injured in that last mission aboard the Prometheus and needed a few months of rest. The ship was gone. And my mom was ready to begin her life anew.” She paused for a moment. “And I really liked going back to academia for a while, although it was a very different experience than my undergrad education!”

“Remind me where did you go?”

“CalTech.”

“Right. At least both were technical schools, so it couldn’t’ve been that different?”

“You’d be surprised.” Alice grinned. “Plus, I was an early entrant at CalTech. You don’t really get that standard college experience when you’re fifteen in your freshman year.”

“Now, that I can believe!” He laughed. “I hardly remember anything from my freshman year, I was drunk or stoned most of the time.” He noticed Alice’s raised eyebrows and a look of disapproval and giggled. “Don’t be so stuck-up, Alice. I learned my lesson. I nearly flunked that year. I had this professor, a great guy. He caught me once when I was high as a kite. Next day when I sobered up he sat me down and had a chat with me. Told me he’d let it slip this time but he’d be watching me. And so he did. I somehow managed to get enough credits not to fail. Next year I vowed to do better and I did. I think I came out alright!”

Alice smirked. “Yeah, not half-bad.” Then she looked up and felt her eyebrows go even higher. Karim was walking towards them with a tray of his own.

“Good morning,” he said in his perfect posh accent. “May I join you?”

“Sure, Basil, sit down!” Cooper scooter over a bit to make more place for the Brit and for a moment Alice was consternated; she had forgotten that Karim’s first name was Basil. The sergeant took a seat and opened a bottle of water to pour it into a cup. It was the first time Alice had seen him doing anything except training or shooting or following orders. It was weird to watch him eat; she was half-convinced he was a machine and didn’t need to eat or sleep, though she knew how silly it was.

“We were just talking about our college experiences,” Will told Karim. The Brit looked at him with polite interest, but it was very difficult to say whether it was genuine or not. “I went to Tufts, both undergrad and grad school. Alice went to CalTech before she joined the Air Force and of course you know she’s just gotten her PhD from their Institute of Technology in Ohio. What about you?”

“I enlisted in the Army straight after taking my A Levels,” Karim replied curtly and then fell silent, as if that exhausted the topic. But it was not enough to discourage Cooper from digging deeper.

“You didn’t want to go to college?” He pressed. “Or, sorry, in Britain it’s just university, right?”

“It wasn’t really an option for me,” was all the sergeant said on the subject. Alice looked at both of them and bit her lip to stop herself from giggling. It was so obvious that both were annoyed with the other; Cooper for Karim’s reticence, and Karim for Cooper’s inquisitiveness.

She saw Will take a breath to pursue the matter further and decided to step in to spare both of them.

“Have any of you heard anything from Commandant Perrault since yesterday?” She asked with a slightly raised voice, calling their attention to herself. Will looked at her with a frown, while Karim’s expression was impenetrable as usual. She noted that their eyes were only a shade off of each other; Cooper’s looked pitch black, while the Brit’s had a note of deep, dark brown in them.

“I haven’t seen him yet,” the anthropologist replied, a faint echo of displeasure in his voice.

Karim shook his head slowly. “No.” Alice thought it would be all that he’d say, but he surprised her again: “But I heard that Sheppard and his team went down to talk to the Lacronans again today.”

Heard from whom? Alice wondered. Were there people on the base Karim talked to? Was he only so reluctant towards his own team? Not all the team, though, she thought, remembering as the day before he spoke to Perrault while they were waiting for the marines to sweep the Asgard ship. True, it was mostly Perrault talking, but it was still a conversation, not a monologue. So maybe Karim simply didn’t like Cooper and her? She could see why; Will was a civilian, and a blabbermouth at that. And herself? She wasn’t as tight-lipped as Karim himself, but much more so than most of Americans. Maybe he resented her outranking him when he was clearly the superior soldier? But he didn’t seem to resent her for anything. He just seemed taciturn and reclusive. He even spoke kindly to her on a few occasions, when they began the hand-to-hand training, and then after what happened in the Pentagon, and even just yesterday after they had dealt with that second Wraith… in his own, quiet way, to be sure, but she didn’t detect any hostility. On the other hand, she was so bad at reading people—maybe she just didn’t see the signs?

“Did he, now? Any idea why?” Will asked eagerly, already having forgotten the moment of irritation.

Alice waited two seconds to see if Karim would respond, but he didn’t. She decided it was up to her to carry on the conversation. “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” She shrugged. “There are only three ways this can go down from now. One, we can try to find another planet to land Atlantis on. Two, we can relocate the Lacronans, with or without Lawrence’s people“—it was easier to call them that than say things like alternative Earthlings each time—“and three, we can co-habit the planet with them, but that’s risky.”

“Why?”

“Because Atlantis is a constant target for the Wraith. This planet is out of the way and doesn’t have a Gate, so normally it wouldn’t get on their radar, but if we’re here…” She shrugged again.

“Still, it would be cool to have neighbors,” Cooper fantasized. “I mean, we could exchange technology for food.”

Alice cocked her head. “Is that needed?” She wondered, putting down her fork and knife and reaching for the water bottle. “I thought we were going to move one of our ZPMs to Earth once we land, so that two-way travel would be possible. Then we could get supplies directly from home, not even waiting for the BC-304s except for the biggest cargo.”

“That would be great. This galaxy is so piss-poor it’s almost criminal to be taking their crop, even when the exchange is more than fair,” Cooper agreed.

Alice took the last swallow of water and put the bottle on the tray. “I don’t know about fair,” she said. “Is it a fair exchange when one side gives away something that’s literally vital to their survival, and the other provides something that doesn’t diminish when it’s shared? I mean we’re not any worse off for giving out agricultural pointers or simple technologies, are we?”

Cooper grinned happily. “Spoken like a true anthropologist, Alice! I’m proud!” And he pretended to wipe off an imaginary tear.

Alice rolled her eyes and stood up. “I’m gonna go up to the lab and work on something interesting, for a change. Thanks for the company,” she added less confidently, her eyes flickering from Will to Karim for a second. He nodded in reply, but otherwise just continued his meal quietly. Alice wondered if they would ever find a common language—especially Karim with Cooper. It was quite a revelation to her to realize she of all people got along with the Brit better than the buoyant, chirpy ethnologist. Nine out of ten people would have preferred Will’s company—it just so happened that Karim was that tenth person, apparently. Oh, sure, it looked like he actually got on best with Perrault—but it was still surprising to Alice that she would be his second choice within the team. But then again, temperamentally, the two of them were much closer to each other than either of them was to Cooper. Even Alice found Will’s constant jabbering burdensome sometimes.

 

*

 

A few hours later, Alice was standing in front of a whiteboard, which was covered half-way through with scribbled equations, a marker in her hand. Her mouth was moving soundlessly as she made calculations, lost for the world. It was, therefore, with a violent jerk that she was brought back to the land of the living. Someone was talking to her—she could hear a voice in her ear, but there was no one around—and then her mind caught on and she realized she still had the radio earpiece in.

“Boyd, are you hearing me?” Sheppard repeated. How long was he trying to make contact with her?

Flustered, she touched the radio and replied in a voice dry from not using it all forenoon: “Yes, sir, sorry, I’m here.”

“Good, I need you to land Atlantis now,” the commander ordered in a clipped tone that betrayed frustration, though whether directed at her or someone else, Alice couldn’t tell. “In the place where we originally planned. Can you do that?”

Could she? Doesn’t matter what you think, silly, she told herself. He wasn’t really asking. “Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”

“Alright, keep me posted.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alice touched the earpiece again, turning off the mike, and then sighed profoundly. She had been on the verge of getting the solution to her theoretical problem, and now it was gone from her mind again. Not to mention that Sheppard wanted her to land Atlantis. She had been nervous about that before, and the anxiety didn’t really go away. She capped the marker and put it back onto the ledge of the whiteboard. With another deep sigh, she headed for the Chair Room. Zelenka was already inside, waiting for her, with a tablet in his hands. He looked up from it as she entered and sent her a smile.

“Ready, Captain?”

Not really, she thought. “Sure,” she answered aloud, trying to convince herself as much as him.

“Everything looks good,” he assured her as she sat down. “ZPMs are in green, engine performance is at 100%. It should be a cakewalk.”

“Right.” Alice turned the mike back on. “Sir, I’m in position.”

“Alright, bring it down.”

“Yes, sir.” She closed her eyes as the Chair leaned away, bringing up her feet. She took a deep breath and allowed her mind to fuse with the city again. Yes, there was the engine… she could feel its slight vibrations at the back of her head… and the power was flowing freely through their veins… they began moving through space with a purpose now, closing down on the planet… the pressure of the atmosphere felt like water when she went really deep… and now she could feel her shield fluctuating just so, to compensate for the incredible strain the entry was putting on it… she adjusted her course, she couldn’t go down so steeply… now it was perfect… she would be landing exactly when she had planned… the water was close now, she could feel it in the breeze through her sensors… she slowed down gently… she turned… just a few more miles… slower… yards away… and stop... the water went up around the shield, raining down on it little droplets… it was calming down… now only lapping at her feet peacefully… she opened her eyes.

For a second or two she was confused as to where she was; what sort of strange vision was this? And then she snapped out of it and realized with sudden fright just how closely she had merged with the city. It was like she had become the city. She had really felt all that as if it was happening to her body.

“Good job, Captain!” Zelenka was saying loudly as the Chair righted itself and Alice shot out from it with gusto. She stepped back a little, reeled, straightened, and finally got a grasp on herself. She exhaled a long held breath, looked up at the Czech and tried to smile, but felt it was more of a grimace. Nevertheless, Zelenka appeared unconcerned with her strange behavior—he was already checking something on his tablet. Alice swallowed and remembered that she was supposed to keep Sheppard posted.

“Sir, we have landed. All systems are alright.” Zelenka was nodding over his tablet and she took it as a good sign. Her heart was calming down, too. It was such an odd experience. She had been in that Chair for hours as they flew towards the planet, and nothing like this had happened. Why now? What was it?

Am I going nuts? She thought with dismay. Maybe this whole neural interface thing was somehow messing with her head. Was it possible that it was supposed to work like that? Was it because of her strong ATA gene? Or was it a symptom of something worse, something deeper? Mom was only three years older when she was diagnosed. But she couldn’t think about it. She wouldn’t. She made a huge mental effort to cast away these thoughts and focus on the present.

“Good job,” Sheppard echoed Zelenka’s earlier remark.

“Thank you, sir,” Alice replied and touched the radio to turn off the mike again. The she smiled a bit more confidently at the Czech. “I guess we’re done here, Doctor. If you don’t mind, I would like to look at that new world of ours.”

“Good idea, Captain!” He agreed, pushed a button to put his tablet to sleep and headed out the room. Alice lingered for a second, looking at the Chair and wondering again about the strange experience she’d just had in it, and then followed suit. He waited for her at the transporter, so they arrived in the Stargate Operations at the same time and both walked towards the balcony that opened onto the western side of the city—or at least what Alice hoped was the western side, assuming she did her job right and properly aligned the landing ship.

“Wow,” Alice breathed to herself as they reached the balustrade. She had grown used to the view when Atlantis had been staying in the San Francisco Bay—but this was something else. They were, truly, in the middle of the ocean; nothing but endless blue waves in all directions, the water merging into one with the sky at the horizon. The sunshine was warm on her cheek and the light breeze smelled of salt. Suddenly she was overwhelmed by a memory—her dad once took them on a friend’s yacht—he was in the Navy so he had some idea about sailing, even though he was an aviator. Alice must have been four or five at the most. She remembered the day more with feelings than images: the warmth of the sun, the salty smell of the air, the bluish brightness of the ocean. And pure, unadulterated happiness.

“You okay, Captain?”

Alice jolted when Zelenka put his hand on her arm, suddenly ripped away from the memory. Then she smiled at him apologetically. “Sorry, Doctor. My mind was wandering. It’s truly beautiful.”

He looked at the horizon and nodded. “It is. This is your first time seeing Atlantis in its rightful place, isn’t it?”

Alice nodded pensively, but didn’t reply and after a moment Zelenka left her alone on the balcony. She was still standing on it fifteen minutes later when a speck of dust appeared on the horizon, quickly growing into what turned out to be an approaching Jumper. It flew over her head and she knew it was landing in the Bay above. She stood in place for five more minutes and then stepped back into the Stargate Operations, curiosity taking the better of her.

She timed it very well, indeed; she was walking past the consoles of the Control Room when the Jumper party descended the stairs. It wasn’t just Sheppard and his team, she noted: Woolsey was with them, too. None of them looked too happy, but the colonel brightened up a bit when he saw her.

“Oi, Boyd, good landing. I told’ya there was nothing to be concerned about!”

“Thank you, sir,” she repeated and inclined her head. Then decided to be bold and ventured further: “May I ask how did your talks with the Lacronans go?”

He waved his hand dismissively, but Alice thought that his smile was a bit less genuine as he responded: “Not as pitch-perfect as we’d expected, but we’re good.”

“Let me guess, you’ve offered them relocation and they said no?” Alice felt very brazen pursuing the topic.

“Yeah. Looks like we’re gonna have neighbors, at least for a while.” He shrugged.

“They are a rather cautious people,” Teyla put in. “Not easy to trust outsiders.”

“I just don’t understand, they have no problems with the other Earthlings, why are they so obstinate about us?” McKay asked in an annoyed tone.

“They had years to get along with them,” Woolsey said with mild irritation betrayed by an infinitesimal shake of the voice. “They just don’t get it that they are us, in essence.”

“No, they’re not. I don’t trust them either,” Ronon disagreed with finality.

“Point is, between staying with them on the planet, or looking for a new place, staying wins by a very narrow margin.” Sheppard sounded grim. “I just hope the assclowns at the IOA will see it the same way… no offense,” he added towards Woolsey.

“None taken. Let me worry about the assclowns. Mr. McKay, would you be so kind as to calibrate the Gate now and get me a connection to the SGC?”

The head scientist grumbled something under his breath, but got to work quite briskly.

“Colonel?” Alice moved out of McKay’s way as he sat down at one of the consoles, unceremoniously shooing away the technician who sat there—Alice didn’t know that one yet. Sheppard looked at her questioningly. “Why didn’t we connect as soon as we came here, or at least yesterday after we got rid of the Wraith? I’m pretty sure we could operate the Gate when in planet’s orbit just as well as on the surface, the point of origin would be the same.”

“Because McKay is a lazy-ass,” Sheppard grinned. “He didn’t want to calibrate it only to have to do it again in the event we had to move to another planet.”

“I heard that!” The scientist huffed from behind the console.

Sheppard ignored him. “We have two 304s spread between here and the Earth, they relayed our status updates to the Homeworld Command, so they wouldn’t be worried about us.”

Alice nodded understandingly. It was actually more efficient to have the ships relay the information than to establish a connection if it were to be broken and had to be set up anew in a new place.

“So, Captain, since I have you here… how would you like to make a trip back to Earth once we get the Gate operational?”

Alice arched her eyebrows. “Sir?”

“I need someone to take one of our ZPMs and install them on the other side. Once that’s done, coming back will be as easy as walking through the Gate again.”

“Wouldn’t that be more suited for Dr. McKay, sir?” Or, really, anyone else?

“I want him here now, there’s things my team needs to do. Check up on the Athosians, reach some kind of a deal with Todd, the like.” Sheppard shrugged nonchalantly. “Plus I need someone to make a proper report to Landry and you were on the ground with us.”

“Yes, sir,” Alice replied—not really having any other option. It always surprised her how much Sheppard asked and not ordered. It was deceptive—it created an illusion that she could refuse. Except he was her commanding officer and refusal was really out of the question. “I’ll need a few moments with Doctor McKay or Doctor Zelenka, though, sir. I don’t want to make any mistakes.”

“That’s fine. You can talk to Zelenka, let McKay finish the calibration, we’ll send the initial report and then you’ll go.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Alice nodded and turned to go back to the lab—where she expected to find the Czech scientist. She wasn’t really concerned about messing up with the ZPM—despite how complex the technology was, it was surprisingly user-friendly, and during the month they had spent on the Earth waiting for the hyperdrive parts, Alice had learned its interface and operation quite well. She was more apprehensive about providing the report to Landry—she didn’t really feel like the man liked her very much, and he was much stricter than Sheppard or even Woolsey. On the other hand, maybe she would have an opportunity to see Jake —even for just a moment. The thought cheered her up. It hasn’t even been five days since they parted but it was always nice to see family if there was a chance—especially that she figured there wouldn’t be another opportunity for quite some time. Although, maybe with the two-way Gate…? But no, she was quite sure who goes through and when would be strictly regulated and restricted to official business. It was therefore all the more agreeable that she could—perhaps—marry work and pleasure in this way.

Chapter Text

The event horizon was shimmering with delicate, bluish light, its fluctuations looking almost like ripples on water. Alice took a deep breath. She didn’t have much experience traveling by Stargate; in fact, she’d only been through once, and she had been injured and on painkillers at the time, so it didn’t really count. This was supposed to be her first real trip in a wormhole—and not just any wormhole, but crossing the incomprehensible distance between two galaxies. She knew that there wouldn’t be any difference to how it felt, but nonetheless she found the idea a little daunting.

“I’ll see you back here in a few hours,” Sheppard said, perhaps trying to subtly make her move along. She smiled, nodded and, with a case containing one of their precious ZPMs in one hand and a GDO strapped to the other, she descended the steps leading from the Control Room down towards the Gate. She could feel her heart beating hard in her chest as she approached the stone ring—although it was actually made of Naquadah. She knew everything there was to know about the wormhole theory—everything they managed to discover from the Ancient databases and other sources, as well as formulate themselves—but it still made her feel small and insignificant as she walked up to the twenty feet tall circle of silver and blue. Just before she went through she closed her eyes, even though she knew it didn’t make any difference. When she opened them less than a second later, she was already stepping on the ramp in the Gateroom in SGC, under Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, three billion light years away from where she’d just been. For a moment, that blew her mind, until she shook her head, looked around and walked down towards the end of the ramp, where General Landry was already waiting—and he wasn’t alone.

Alice moved the case she was holding from the right to her left hand, stood before the base’s commander at attention, clicking her heels and saluting.

“Sir, Captain Boyd reporting as ordered.”

Landry rendered the salute back. “Captain.” He nodded. “How are things in the Pegasus?”

“Unexpected, sir.”

“So I’ve been informed. Can’t wait to hear the full report. But first things first. That the ZPM?” He pointed to the case.

“Yes, sir.”

“Nice!” The man standing next to Landry exclaimed and clasped his hands together in a gesture of satisfaction. “It’s good to see you again, Alice.”

“Likewise, Doctor Jackson.” Alice shot him a beaming smile. The man looked exactly like he did when she saw him the last time—which was over three years before. Not even a gray hair on his head.

“Congrats on making captain!” He beamed back.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” interrupted the third person present (aside from the security team). “Can we see it?”

Alice shifted her eyes toward the woman and smiled to her—perhaps not as brightly as to Doctor Jackson, but warmly enough, she thought. Vala Mal Doraan was standing right next to the archeologist, grabbing his shoulder in excitement, her dark eyes staring greedily at the case. Alice had met her before, too—and at the time, didn’t really have a high opinion of the alien. A lot had happened since then, though, and Alice was aware of Vala’s contribution to defeating the Ori. She had to revise her attitude towards the woman and was trying to be extra nice.

“No,” Landry decreed. “Captain, Doctor Lee should be ready with the preparations, let’s install it and test the connection with Atlantis. We debrief in one hour.” He then turned around and marched out of the Gateroom.

“Oh, just a peek,” Vala pleaded. “I won’t touch it, I promise.”

“No,” Jackson echoed Landry’s tone, rolling his eyes. “You can watch when they install it. Come, Alice, let me show you the way.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” Alice followed them out, although she knew herself where to go; she had learned the layout of the base pretty well on her last visit, when she was receiving her assignment.

“So how have you been, Captain?” He asked as they waited for the elevator. “Sam told me about your PhD. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir. It was a great opportunity to study some of the scientific discoveries brought through the Stargate in-depth.” They walked in and Jackson punched the button. “And now I can actually try to see how it works in practice on Atlantis.”

 “Yes, I heard about that too. How are you liking Atlantis?”

“It’s amazing, but a little daunting,” Alice acknowledged truthfully. “Particularly when considering what we’re up against. The Wraith may not be as advanced and technologically superior as the Ori had been, but they’ve proven to be notoriously difficult to eradicate.”

“Uhh, they give me the creeps.” Vala shuddered dramatically.

“They are pretty gruesome,” Jackson agreed. “But remember, Alice, when we started all this the Goa’uld seemed invincible, too.”

Alice nodded thoughtfully. He was right, of course—he of all people would know, he was there from the very beginning. The Goa’uld were an undefeated power in the Milky Way galaxy for thousands of years—and yet they met their end less than ten years since Jackson and O’Neill stepped through the Stargate for the first time. The Replicators—who had tied the Asgard up in an incessant war for god knew how long—were finally destroyed by a joint effort of humans of Earth, Tok’ra and a Goa’uld Baal, however improbable that might have seemed at the time. The Ori were defeated by turning Ancients’ technology against them—and a little help from the ascended Alterans themselves. The Wraith were like roaches—you killed one nest, but five new sprang up in the meantime. Perhaps Atlantians had no chance against them—perhaps they would be forced to retreat the same as the Ancients had been ten thousand years before. They’ve been fighting for nearly five years already, but the war was far from over. And now that the situation in the Milky Way was more or less stable, they could finally focus their resources on Pegasus.

“I kinda miss the golden bastards,” Vala mused as the elevator stopped and the door opened before them. “They added spice to the life.”

“Really? You really would want them back?” Jackson looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and slight mockery.

“No, not really.” She shook her head. They were walking towards the second elevator that they had to take in order to reach Level 8, where the base’s main power plant was located. “But I am so booored, Daniel, nothing is ever happening in this galaxy anymore!”

“We should be thankful for that,” Jackson admonished. “At least we finally have time to establish proper relations with many worlds, and to actually work on some of the discoveries we’ve made over the years that we never got to study in-depth. Like the Icarus Base and the mysteries of the ninth chevron.”

“That sounds spellbinding,” Alice noted. “I heard that you had recruited Doctor Nicolas Rush to work on it. He once gave a guest lecture on quantum cryptography in my department when I was in college. It was quite fascinating. He was a very—intense person, I think is the best word.”

Jackson chuckled. “You got that right.” The second elevator finally arrived and they stepped in. “Rush has been working on the ninth chevron for over a year now. It’s going rather slowly.”

Alice nodded understandingly. “I’ve read some of the materials. It’s an incredibly complex problem. But I am sure that sooner or later you will find the solution.”

“Right. Although Rush is quite desperate by now—someone suggested that we put the Ancient mathematical proof that is at the bottom of the problem in a video game to see if some anonymous geek out there can’t solve it, and Rush is actually contemplating doing it.”

“That’s... ingenious,” Alice admitted in an awed tone. “And it could work. Most of my CalTech peers spent as much time playing video games as studying.”

The elevator stopped again; they reached Level 8. The entrance to the power generation plant was only a few paces away. Inside they found a short man in a white lab coat; bald on top, there was hair on the sides and at the back of his head. He was busy checking something near the main electrical breaker.

“Bill!” Jackson called to him, entering the PIN code on the electric lock at the gate, and then made the presentation. “This is Captain Alice Boyd of Atlantis. Alice, this is Doctor Bill Lee, one of our best scientists in the base.” He said it in a rather doubtful tone, but Alice had read enough mission reports to know that, while Doctor Lee might not have been the man of the likes of Carter or McKay, he was pretty brilliant, at times, and did a lot of good work at the SGC. She didn’t hesitate to shake his hand and reciprocate his nervous smile.

“Pleasure, Captain. Here, I’ve prepared the receptacle for the ZPM, it should be easy enough to install!” He moved away to show her a somewhat crude contraption that, she thought, would nonetheless fulfill its purpose pretty well.

“You don’t mind if I double-check?” She asked as a precaution, pulling out a tablet from her pocket.

“Not at all, please do.”

Alice leaned over the apparatus and used a multimeter pointer attached to the tablet to check all the connections. It took a few minutes and she could hear Vala’s impatient huffs behind her.

“Hurry up, I wanna see!” She eventually whispered theatrically.

“What for, you’ve seen a ZPM more than once!” Jackson protested in equally soft voice.

“Yes, but it’s so pretty and I’m so booored!” She complained beseechingly. Alice could very well imagine Jackson’s eyeroll at that, even though he stood behind her so she couldn’t see him.

“Done,” she announced two minutes later. “All seems well.” She then lifted the case and opened it, revealing the cluster of crystals that was the Zero Point Module.

“Shiny!” Vala exclaimed delightedly.

Alice pulled the ZPM carefully out of the case and slowly lowered it into the container Lee’d built for it, until she heard a little click! and the top of the power source disappeared behind the Naquadah-made wall of the cylinder. Lee put the cap on it and they both turned to the main breaker.

“Looks okay to me,” Lee opined. “You think we can turn it on?”

Alice didn’t respond for another few seconds, running through the setup with her eyes and re-doing calculations in her head. Then she nodded.

“Alright, let me call it in.” Lee walked to the phone on the wall and picked it up. “Lee to General Landry. Yes, General, we’re ready to turn it on. I recommend to shut down all non-essential systems, just to be sure... no, we’ve checked. It’s just a precaution. Yes.” He looked at Alice, but didn’t say anything; she guessed he was waiting for the confirmation of the successful shut-down.

“So just out of curiosity, what would happen if we switch it on and it turns out you’ve wired it wrong?” Vala asked nonchalantly.

Alice gave her a tight-lipped smile. “Best case scenario, we fry the base power grid.”

“And worst case scenario?”

“The ZPM explodes and half of Colorado disappears in a puff of smoke?” Alice smirked, seeing Vala’s alarmed expression. “That eventuality has less than point three percent probability, though.”

“Oh. Good. I was worried there for a moment.”

“Alright, Captain, we have a go. Light it up,” Lee requested, still holding the phone to his ear.

Alice nodded and pulled the lever of the breaker to kill the main power. The lights went off for a moment, but it took only a few seconds for the backup generator to kick in. The captain then nodded again, this time to herself, and flicked the switch on the container’s side, which immediately glowed pale yellow. Then, with an involuntary intake of breath, she pushed the lever on the main breaker back up. The lights flickered for a couple of seconds, the switch changed colors from yellow to green, and they heard a buzz of machinery starting up around them.

“We didn’t explode, woohoo!” Vala made a little happy dance in place, waving her hands and nearly striking Jackson in the face.

Alice was reading the power flow on the tablet. “Looks good, Doctor,” she told Lee and he relayed it to the general waiting on the line. A moment later he replaced the phone.

“They’re booting up the systems now, but I think it’s safe to assume that everything’s alright,” he concluded. “Let’s go to the Control Room and see if we can dial Pegasus!”

Alice, Jackson and Vala followed Lee into one elevator, then the other, and then along the corridor to the Control Room, where all computers seemed online and working properly. Landry was standing beside a short man with a balding head and round glasses. Alice knew him from when she served on the Prometheus and he came along General Hammond to try and get to Atlantis—the mission which ended with Vala hijacking the ship. His nametag told her he had been promoted to Chief Master Sergeant in the meantime.

“Looks like we’re all good. Walter?” Landry said as soon as the four of them entered the room.

“Yes, sir, all systems are go,” the sergeant replied in a perfectly polite, patient tone that betrayed both mild irritation and full professionalism.

“Shall we dial Atlantis, then?” Vala made for the chair in front of the dialing computer, but Jackson held her back gently, tutting at her disapprovingly.

“Yes. Walter,” Landry ordered, but the sergeant was already in his chair, inputting the coordinates. Lee sat down next to him, checking the status of the Gate and the power grid on a computer to the side. Alice leaned over his shoulder, more out of curiosity than anything else. Not only the Earth’s Gate was much older than the Pegasus’ one, but the SGC didn’t have a proper DHD—only what they put together themselves to make it work. It meant that the dialing computer was less efficient than the console controlling the Stargate on Atlantis, but also didn’t have the same protective protocols. Alice would have loved to study it closer, if only to compare it then to the dialing device in the Ancient city.

“Chevron seven engaged,” Harriman announced as the glyph on the Stargate visible through the window glowed. “Chevron eight… locked.” The kawoosh—the unstable vortex created when activating the Gate—burst from the middle of the ring, seemed to halt in place for half a second and then pulled back, leaving the event horizon rippling like waves on water again.

Walter opened a radio channel. “This is Stargate Command, come in Atlantis, how are you hearing us?”

“Loud and clear, SGC,” came the familiar voice of Amelia Banks. Alice smiled. “Good to have you a step through the Gate away again.”

“Likewise, Atlantis. The ZPM is online. We are good.” Harriman looked at Landry, who nodded. “Thanks for the confirmation, SGC out.” He pushed a button on the console and the Gate deactivated immediately.

“Good work,” Landry shot at Lee and Alice and then turned around and disappeared on the staircase which led to the Briefing Room and his own office.

“Ugh, and now nothing’s gonna happen again for gods know how long...” Vala grumbled, but nobody paid much attention to her. Alice was checking her watch. She had twenty minutes before she had to report to Landry for a debriefing.

“Wonder if my brother is in the base?” She said aloud. “Sergeant, do you know if SG-5 is here?” She figured the man was essentially a doorman so he would know. She was not wrong.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, they are off-world at the moment.” He really looked genuinely sorry. “They aren’t scheduled to come back until tomorrow at oh-eight hundred.”

Alice shook her head. “No matter.” She then smiled impishly. She was, at the moment, the highest-ranking officer in the room, wasn’t she? “I’ll just take a look at the dialing software’s source code in the meantime.” As she was saying it, she sat down in the same chair Doctor Lee had just vacated.

“Uh...” Walter didn’t look too happy with that, but he was in no position to stop her—and Lee was already out of the room.

Jackson came to his rescue. “You sure it’s a good idea?” He leaned over her shoulder to look at the monitor. Alice was entering commands to display the code.

“It’s read-only,” she assured him, not moving her eyes off the screen. “I just want a peek. One of the things we repaired on Atlantis in the month before we got the hyperdrive working again was the dialing console’s secondary power intake. I think there’s a way to make it slightly more energy-efficient, but any interference into the code necessitates extreme caution. Most protocols are there for a reason, cutting or changing them may be dangerous to the system.”

“But our dialing computer is made from scratch and it’s working, so you wanna see if there is something you can replicate on Atlantis?” Jackson guessed.

“Yes, sir. That’s the idea.” She paused to enter a search command. “I’ve never worked with the Stargate before, except for that power intake on Atlantis. But that may be an advantage—I don’t have any presuppositions.”

“Just remember that our shortcuts and original protocols caused problems for us in the past,” Jackson cautioned.

Alice pried her eyes off the screen to look at him and smiled. “I just want to see the solutions, not necessarily copy them. But maybe there is something that would be worth incorporating there.” She looked back to the string of code and frowned. “Or maybe the other way around.”

“What’d you find?”

“I’m not sure yet. Give me a few minutes.”

Jackson fell silent docilely. After a few moments, however, he asked sharply: “What are you doing?”

Alice jerked slightly and looked over her shoulder, but the archaeologist wasn’t talking to her; Vala was sitting on a console with a pen in her hand, looking altogether too innocent.

“Nothing!”

“Give me that!”

“Oh, you’re no fun at all, Daniel!” She complained, but surrendered the pen and Alice realized it was, in fact, a small screwdriver and she had been trying to pry open the console on which she was sitting. Shaking her head and more confused about the woman than ever, Alice went back to investigating the source code. A few more minutes passed with the low-level human hum behind her as the technicians went about their duties, and Vala and Jackson continued to bicker light-heartedly in low voices.

“Sergeant, do you have some pen and paper?” Alice asked eventually. Walter handed her a notebook and an elegant, expensive-looking fountain pen. “Thank you.” She quickly jotted down a short explanation and then painstakingly replicated a dozen lines of code, underlining places where she added something from herself. The she handed it back to Harriman. “Give it to Doctor Lee when you see him next. He should find it interesting.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alice looked at her watch again; quite on time. She rose and turned to Jackson. “Are you going to join us for debriefing, Doctor?”

“Yes!” Vala exclaimed enthusiastically.

Jackson rolled his eyes. “Why not.”

Alice suppressed a smirk. “Let’s go then.” And she headed towards the stairs.

Landry was in his office, but he immediately came out when he saw the three of them enter the Briefing Room. He didn’t react to having Jackson and Vala there, instead he simply flicked the switch on the coffee machine and sat at the head of the table. He waved at them to join him.

Alice took a seat, vividly reminded of the first time she had been there, only six weeks before, debating whether to accept an assignment on Atlantis or not. She didn’t want it then. Now she couldn’t really imagine not being there—the wealth of knowledge she had gained in such a short time would be enough to thoroughly bind her to the expedition, but there was so much more now: flying the Jumper and sitting in the Control Chair, the way her mind seemed to merge with the Ancient tech; the sense of wonder it gave her to be there; the camaraderie–though not yet friendship–she struck with several members of the expedition—Will Cooper, Jennifer Keller, Alison Porter, Amelia Banks, even Zelenka; the determined ambition to prove worthy of the Ancient legacy; and the burning desire to quash the Wraith. She marveled at how quickly it all happened.

“Now, let us hear about everything that happened since you made it to M2A-373. The reports relayed by the Daedalus and the Apollo were rather pithy,” Landry ordered.

Alice nodded and began the story. It was also rather succinct—it wasn’t her way to waste words, but she tried not to omit anything of importance. She shortened Father Lawrence’s tale considerably, and yet all three of her listeners seemed equally captivated as she had been when the priest was telling it; there was something remarkably primal about learning how things might have been—or had been, actually. Somewhere, there was an Earth where none of them were alive anymore. Alice wondered where her alternative self was when the Prior Plague hit. Aboard the Prometheus, too? Was she even in the program? Alice remembered that in Lawrence’s reality, Carter had been a civilian. So she probably wouldn’t get involved in recruitment to the F-302 squadrons. Which meant she wouldn’t have visited Alice’s base to convince her to join. If not for Carter, would Alice agree to jump off the cliff with her eyes closed? Because that was what accepting a volunteer-only assignment without knowing what it involved was paramount to. Alice doubted if she would have joined if Carter hadn’t been there to encourage and intrigue her. But who knows? Maybe in that other reality, Alice was not even in the Air Force. Maybe there was no Alice there.

Vala and Jackson listened attentively, sometimes asking questions. Landry allowed it with good grace, though he himself spoke little. In all, it took Alice only twenty minutes to relate everything that happened—that she was aware of, anyway, although Sheppard filled her in on the details of the negotiations with the Lacronans before she left. She still had some coffee in her cup (that Jackson had brought them all when it was ready) when she finished.

“I’m not sure if I like the idea of these Lacronans staying on the planet with Atlantis,” Landry opined after a minute of thoughtful silence.

“Well, we can’t really force them out,” Jackson objected. “They said they wanted to stay. So there are really only two choices.”

“Why don’t you just fly away to another planet?” Vala inquired blithely. “There must be hundreds of suitable options in Pegasus!”

“Not really.” Alice shook her head. “Although it’s relatively easy to find a planet with a large body of water that’s needed to land Atlantis, most of them are inhabited. It made little sense for the Ancients to include planets without Gates in their database, and Gates usually mean human population. Sure, there are plenty of empty planets, too, but very few of them could accommodate Atlantis, and M2A-373 is special in the way that it never had a Gate, so there’s a high possibility that the Wraith might now know about it—and if they do, there’s no reason for them to go there, unless they specifically find out that it’s where Atlantis is.”

“Alright, one choice, then,” Jackson summed up. “Though I can see how that can be problematic, too. You can’t guarantee that the Wraith won’t find you at some point, and then these people will be in trouble.”

Alice nodded agreement, but didn’t see the point in adding anything aloud. That was the core of the problem. Atlantis had a shield, and with two full ZPMs, they could always fly away and escape into the hyperspace. But there would be precious little time to evacuate all five thousand Lacronans…

“As I understand, normal Hive ships are rather slow and can be detected on Atlantis’ long range sensors well in advance,” the general stated mildly.

“Yes, sir, that is what we are counting on, but the Wraith have proven to be very resourceful and adaptive in the past.” Alice paused for a moment, thinking of the Super-Hive. “Still, the odds are better with us staying on the M2A-373 instead of taking a chance on one of the other options we’ve looked at.” She realized she slipped into the all-encompassing we and hid a smile. Wasn’t that the real proof that she belonged with Atlantis? She already felt like part of the team.

Landry nodded and then stood up, prompting Alice to jump to her feet, too.

“Alright, Captain, I will make sure to present this to the IOA in the way that they should agree with this decision,” he professed. “You are dismissed. You can go back to Atlantis immediately.”

“Yes, sir, thank you.” Alice stood for a moment longer, waiting for Landry to make it to his office and then turned to descend the stairs again.

“I wish I could go with you and talk with Father Lawrence, or any of the survivors from the alternative reality,” Jackson told her, getting up from his seat and following her to the Control Room, with Vala on his heels. “It would be really fascinating to see how similar and different the events have unfolded there.”

“They don’t really know much about anything that happened prior to the Plague,” Alice reminded him. “None of the original Stargate crew survived the Wraith attack. But you are welcome to come anytime you want, Doctor. We’re only a step away now.”

“Ah, but unfortunately General Landry will not authorize taking that step without a real good reason. Alas! Can’t just use the Gate for a whim.”

“I think you’ve earned the right to be a little whimsical, Doctor.” Alice grinned at him, stopping next to Walter Harriman.

Jackson chuckled. “Now, if only the good general saw it this way!”

Still smiling, Alice shifted her gaze to Harriman. “Sergeant, I’m ready to go back. Dial Pegasus, please.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Walter confirmed and began entering the eight-chevron address on the computer.

“Thank you for the company, Doctor. Vala.” Alice inclined her head towards each in turn.

“Pleasure, Alice. Good luck,” Jackson replied and Vala waved goodbye cheerfully. Shaking her head just slightly, Alice headed towards the staircase again, then to the Gateroom, up the ramp, and, without a backward glance, she stepped through the event horizon.

 

*

 

Alice brought the gun up, aligned the crosshairs and almost immediately pulled the trigger—but lightly so. The sound of the single shot drowned in the deafening cacophony that filled the range. The recoil shook the gun in her hand, but she held on tight and less than a second later another shell ejected to the side, and then another. She exerted a little more force and pulled the trigger all the way back; a short burst of bullets rained on her target, piercing it exactly where she wanted them. Satisfied, Alice dropped the P90 to the side, engaging the safety without thinking, and pushed a button that brought the paper silhouette closer. There were two holes on each side of the torso, one below, between the two, and a ripped line curving upwards beneath, creating a smiley face in the middle of a human shape.

Alice nodded to herself, removed the paper silhouette from the rack and, leaving the headphones on a hook on the side wall, she turned around to return the gun back to the armory; instead, she stopped mid-stride.

“Sergeant,” she said, surprised. “I didn’t see you there.”

“No, ma’am, I didn’t want to interrupt you,” Karim replied in his usual cool voice. “You are an excellent shot.”

“Thank you, but that wasn’t much of a range.” Alice waved her hand—the one that wasn’t holding the P90—dismissively. “I can do better.”

“I’m sure you can, ma’am. In fact, I can attest to that.” He shocked Alice with actually smiling—not a full American smile, but a tight-lipped European one—but a smile nonetheless. Alice was so dumbfounded that it was gone from his face before she managed to reciprocate. She still did it, though, late as it was.

“Well, you know, sidearms, rifles, Air-to-Air Missiles. It’s all the same,” she joked cautiously. Karim didn’t laugh—but she was sure she saw one corner of his mouth twitch. Was there an actual person beneath the cold, distant persona he projected every day? Alice knew that, logically, he had to have an internal life as rich as her own; for sure he had preferences—like favorite movies or books or food—and hobbies, friends he thought about, family he missed, decisions he struggled with, memories he regretted, past joys he remembered fondly; and yet, it was hard to see that through the layer of ice and stone that was his usual outward behavior. Alice wasn’t a sharer herself, but not even she was able to maintain a perfect wall between her emotions and the rest of the world. In fact, she mused, she was rather crappy at that—she was an open book, for anyone to read, most of the time.

“I don’t doubt that you are as proficient with the AAMs as with that P90.” Karim nodded.

For a moment they just stood there awkwardly, Alice trying to think about something else to say. She was drawing a blank—not one useful thing came to her. What is that big brain of yours good for if you can’t even think of a conversation starter?! She chided herself, feeling panic edging closer, as usual when a social interaction was going awry.

Karim saved the situation. “Do you practice often, ma’am?” The words were uttered in an offhanded way, but his piercing eyes were once again scanning her as if trying to pry open her skull and see directly into her soul. She always found it uncomfortable and unsettling. Well, almost always, she thought remembering the moment in the forest after she had shot the Wraith.

“Two to three times a week.” She looked behind her shoulder at the range shortly. “Though today is extra.”

“Why is that so?”

Alice shrugged, wondering why she even said that. It wasn’t exactly her style to share something so personal—and yet she felt the urge to tell the truth. Maybe it was because of what had happened in the forest—that moment of connection they’d had. It had disappeared afterwards, but somehow Alice wasn’t able to look at Karim just the same way as before. His cool, distant attitude was no longer exactly deterring—more like intriguing. He was a mystery, an unknown quantity. Cooper was an open book—even for a people-reader as inept as her—and Perrault was more or less a straight-shooter, for a Frenchman. But Karim was a secret, a question, and she always had to know the answer to every question.

“Shooting calms me down,” she admitted.

“Why do you need to calm down today?”

Alice broke off the eye contact, shying away from his intense gaze. “It’s nothing.”

“Clearly it’s something, ma’am.” Why was he so pushy all of a sudden? This was unlike him. But she knew already that it wasn’t exactly true. He pushed her the same way when she was doing poorly during their hand-to-hand training, after the incident in the Pentagon. It was obvious then that she was going through something—but now? Could he really see how distraught she was? Was she really that easy to read?

Alice didn’t lift her eyes, bit her lip before she realized what she was doing, and stopped. She shrugged again. “It’s just… the anniversary of my dad’s death is in two days,” she confessed eventually, trying to sound casual. She wasn’t certain if she succeeded. “Thirteen years ago today, he crashed his fighter into a Navy carrier. He died two days later, never waking up from coma.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am.” A pause. “I lost a brother to the service six years ago this past March.”

Now Alice looked up. Karim’s expression was still his normal cool distance, but something around the eyes made him look just slightly softer than usual.

“I’m sorry, too.” For a moment neither said anything. Then Alice looked around, suddenly surprised that they were still standing in the middle of the shooting range, the sound of automatic fire filling the room. For a moment, it had been like they were transported to some far-away land where only the two of them existed—completely unaware of their surroundings. Alice lifted the gun halfway up to bring his attention to it. “I better return this.” She then hesitated. “You wanna grab a lunch, Sergeant?”

He blinked quickly twice, as if surprised, though outwardly nothing changed. “Yes, ma’am, thank you.”

Alice smiled uncertainly and then turned to put the P90 away in the armory. What was she doing? She didn’t even like the guy, nearly every conversation they’d ever had was uncomfortable and awkward, why would she volunteer to spend more time with him? It wasn’t that bad when Cooper or Perrault were there, but to be alone with Karim? What will they talk about, for goodness’ sake?

At first—nothing, at least on their way to the cafeteria. But the silence wasn’t as awkward as she’d feared; they didn’t have any eye contact while walking along a corridor, and Alice found it was his piercing gaze that accounted for a lot of the uneasiness his presence generated. This theory was immediately proved true when they filled their trays and sat down at a table, opposite each other, and Karim’s steady, disquieting stare fell on her again. She asked a question out of self-defense.

“Was your brother also in the British Army?”

Karim nodded curtly. For a moment Alice thought he’d leave it at that, but then he replied, somewhat reluctantly: “We were both in the Paras. I got selected for SAS, he didn’t. Next thing I know, they’re being sent to Iraq, and my brother’s armoured car stumbles upon an IED.” He was still maintaining eye contact with her, but she thought his detached coolness faltered a little. Again, it wasn’t as much a change in expression, but rather a suggestion of a softening around the eyes and mouth—as if some muscles relaxed that were normally kept too tense.

“My brother was caught in an IED blast in Iraq, too.” Alice poured water into a plastic cup, if only to have an excuse to look away from his penetrating eyes. “He was lucky. He survived.”

“I heard he’s in the Program.”

Alice welcomed the remark as a way to steer clear of the more somber subject—even though she had been the one to begin it. “Yes, he’s in the SG-5. It’s nice to have one family member who knows all about all this.” She made an all-encompassing gesture. “I didn’t expect it would be so hard to keep the secret. I don’t like lying to my family or friends.”

“Nothing about this job is easy, ma’am,” Karim agreed.

Alice looked down on her pasta—still mostly untouched—and tried to think of something else to say. Before she could start panicking again, however, someone appeared at her side.

“Hi, Alice, I’ve found you finally! I’ve been looking for you all over!” Said Doctor Jennifer Keller. “May I sit with you?”

“Of course,” Alice replied with so much relief that she became instantly embarrassed. Did Karim notice? She didn’t want him to feel like she didn’t like him, even if it was more-or-less true. It’s not that I dislike him, she thought defensively. It’s that I don’t really like him. He intrigued and confused her, but there was still a big leap between that and liking someone.

“Hello, Sergeant, how is your arm?” Keller asked as she took a seat next to Alice. “These Wraith wounds have a tendency to fester, I’m afraid.”

Karim flexed his shoulder, throwing a cursory glance at it. “It’s just a scratch. I’ll be fine, ma’am.”

She smiled half-heartedly. “You and I have a different definition of a scratch, I think.”

The Brit didn’t bother to respond with anything other than his usual steady stare. Keller shook her head and put a forkful of pasta in her mouth.

Alice waited until she swallowed before posing her question. “Why were you looking for me?”

“I want to visit the mainland, see if there’s any medical assistance needed, and I need a pilot to get me there,” Keller explained. “Colonel Sheppard and his team are off-world so I thought I’d ask you.”

Alice nodded earnestly. “I’d be happy to. We haven’t been on any missions yet since we landed here. I’ll just need to clear the use of a Jumper.”

“Already done!” Jennifer sounded enthused. “I’ll grab my equipment and we can go straight after the lunch?”

“Sounds good.”

“Mind if I tag along, ma’am?” Karim surprised her again with the request. Alice raised her eyebrows questioningly, looking at him, and for the first time since she’d known him, he looked just a tad uncomfortable. Again, his silence was so long she was already thinking he wouldn’t respond when he spoke: “I am going a little stir crazy in the city.”

Alice nodded understandingly. Even she was a little bit restless, and she had things to do—she spent most of her time in the lab. Karim, when not engaged with the team, was supposed to be a part of the Atlantis security forces, but that was, for the most part, uneventful. It had been five days since they’d landed on M2A-373, and so far the only team that got to go off-world was Sheppard’s. They finally decided to let Todd the Wraith go—they deposited him on an uninhabited planet, unconscious, so that he couldn’t see the return address on the DHD; they also visited New Athos and Teyla brought her son back to the city, alongside his dad—Kanaan was his name. Alice hadn’t talked to him, but she’d seen him around a few times already, usually walking around with little Torren John in his arms. The boy wasn’t yet a year old, but had a good pair of lungs on him—it was very odd, indeed, to hear a baby crying here of all places. Alice was thinking of Atlantis more like a military base than a real city, and although there were residential parts to bigger bases on Earth, where children were living with their parents and even had schools on the premises, it was still bizarre to see an infant among all the wonders of the Ancients—and the considerable number of guns the Earthlings had brought with them.

“Sure, Sergeant. You can come,” Alice allowed. Karim nodded in thanks, but he remained silent for the rest of the meal while Alice chatted with Jennifer casually. Keller was easy to like and to talk to. Quite the opposite from the Brit, with whom every conversation seemed forced and required much effort. It wasn’t hard to imagine whose company she preferred.

 

*

 

They landed at the edge of the clearing again, though Alice didn’t cloak the Jumper this time—it was no longer necessary to hide. Besides, they were coming in for a humanitarian mission, so to speak—secrecy was not advised, in fact the more people came to get a check-up, the better.

Hlava and Lawrence both met them at the entrance to the village—prompting Alice to try to suppress a smirk. Here they were, the Mother and the Father. Cooper had told her that the Lacronan society was a sort of matriarchy—led by a woman supported by a mixed-gender council. Their role was to advise, however, while the Mother’s word was always final. To that came Father Lawrence, who did not compete with Hlava for power or influence, but became more of a spiritual leader. Like a shaman, Will explained, because aside from his preaching, Lawrence was also one of the only people around who had some rudimentary medical skills—gained in years of experience in caring for the sick and homeless at his parish.

“I can’t tell you how glad I am to have a real doctor come and help,” he told them frankly after the greetings and presentation were finished and they were walking towards the central square of the village. “Not to mention access to medical equipment and actual, industry-strength medicine.”

“You have taken good care of us, Father,” Hlava protested affably. “I’m sure no one could have done better.”

“That is very generous of you, Mother, and I guess under the circumstances I did my best, but that is not much.” He shook his head. “We’ve been here for three years—by Earth’s count, at least. There have been at least half a dozen deaths that could’ve been prevented if we had a real doctor, or real medicine.”

“I’m sure you did everything in your power, Father,” Keller reassured him. “It couldn’t have been easy.”

They arrived at the center of the village. Alice noted that it seemed like there were much more people around today than the last time she’d been here. They were standing in little clusters outside of their wooden houses or staring at them from across the central square.

“What’s the situation at the other settlements?” Alice asked. She knew they were keeping in contact, though not how often. Still, it was a good bet that Hlava would have some information about the general status of the rest of her people.

“About the same as here,” the Mother replied graciously. “They were glad to learn that the Wraith threat is no more. But they are facing the same problems we do. The winters on this planet are pretty harsh, and we still do not have enough grain to feed all of us. If not for the gazebo, we wouldn’t have survived till now.”

“Gazebo?” Alice replied, raising her eyebrows.

Lawrence laughed. “That’s my fault. I said they reminded me of gazelles, except when you say gazelle you think graceful and airy, and those things are much sturdier and durable than that, so I joked they are more like gazebos. Of course none of the Lacronans have ever heard of a gazebo before, and my lousy joke was wasted, but the name stuck.”

Alice smirked. She would have to repeat this story to Cooper—he would love it.

“Alright, shall we get to it, then?” Jennifer asked. “Father, where do you think we should start?”

Lawrence thought for a moment, and then nodded towards the north–eastern corner of the square. “Chester’s wife is pregnant with their first. She is feeling worse every day and I’m afraid for both her health and that of the baby.”

Keller nodded. “Let’s go then. Sergeant?” Karim was helping her carry bags with medical equipment.

“I think I’ll just go look around the village, if that’s okay with you, Mother?” Alice decided impulsively. She didn’t particularly want to be present at somebody’s medical exam, especially a pregnant woman. It wasn’t her field, and besides—she was a bit squeamish. It wasn’t that she was hemophobic—she could look at blood and all manner of other things, such as broken limbs or open wounds, and still keep a clear head; that didn’t mean that she liked it, though.

“Of course,” Hlava agreed after a short hesitation. “I will ask Doren to keep you company.”

Which translated, for Alice, to: we don’t trust you yet. She supposed it was fair. Lawrence and his people might see them as their own folk, but to the Lacronans, they were strangers. It would take time for them to really become allies and friends. Helping their sick was surely a good first step, though.

“Of course, Mother. I’d be glad for his company,” Alice replied. She remembered that Doren was the more impulsive of the men they’d med that first day. Maybe it would be easier to get some information out of him.

Hlava made an imperious come to me gesture, aiming it at the group of people standing only a few paces away. Doren said something to the rest and then approached somewhat reluctantly. Alice had to lift up her head to look at his face; he was nearly as tall as Jake, and equally muscular. He had thin, curly red hair, gathered in a ponytail on the nape of his neck, and short red beard. His features were completely different, and his eyes were pure blue instead of pale gray, but he kinda looked like Jake—only some fifteen years older.

“Doren will show you around and answer your questions,” Hlava said with finality. Alice noted an exchange of looks between her assigned chaperon and the Mother—probably cautioning him not to divulge too much. Although what could these people possibly be still hiding was a mystery to Alice. But, then again, the surprises they’d already had proved that nothing was impossible.

“Thank you.” Alice smiled to Doren, and then turned to Keller, who was still dilly-dallying on the side, listening to their conversation. “Radio me if you need anything, Jennifer. Sergeant…” She didn’t have to complete the sentence; Karim would know not to leave the doctor alone—after all, this was still an alien planet. He nodded curtly and the four of them started towards Chester’s house. Alice was glad she wouldn’t have to deal with Chester—he was the guy from Earth who had been furious at Lawrence for spilling the beans about their origin. Not the most stable person.

“What would you like to see?” Doren asked, his voice quite warm for a man who’d just been dragged into doing something he had no wish to do.

“I’m not sure. I’ve seen the Gathering Hall, how about we start with the church? Of course if that’s allowed,” Alice backtracked; she didn’t want to appear too pushy.

“No, Father Lawrence keeps it open at all times. He says the Lord’s house should never be closed for those who seek him.”

They crossed the square, followed by many curious stares, and Doren pulled the double-door, admitting them into the church—small by Earth’s standards, although here it was the second-biggest building. Made entirely out of wood, it seemed rather spartan: no ornaments, no religious art, not even pews; only the altar, a crude box that Alice supposed served as a tabernacle, and a simple, big cross hung on the back wall.

“Not a lot of things here,” Alice noted, looking around. The woodwork looked new, too; the houses they passed on their way had water-stains from rain and snow, but all this looked pristine.

“Not yet,” Doren agreed. “We just finished building it a few weeks ago. We focused on living accommodations first.”

“Understandable. Looks like good work, though. Sturdy. With proper care, it should hold for many years,” she praised.

Doren nodded. “One of the Earthlings who lives in our village was a construction worker, or so he says. He designed all of our buildings. They keep warm enough in winter but don’t get too hot in summer.”

“What about the other villages? How often do you hear from them?”

“Not that often. We can only travel on foot, and until recently it was very dangerous to go alone, so we only sent out parties when we had something to trade. It should be easier now, thanks to you.” He inclined his head. “It is two days’ travel to the next village. We never go farther than that; but there is communication from that village to the next, and so on.”

“How many settlements there are?” Alice’s rough estimate based on what she’d seen on the Chair’s sensors was that there was around five thousand people all told, and they were spread in at least a dozen clusters.

“Fifteen bigger villages and some smaller habitats. Some people live practically alone out there.” He shook his head as if it was beyond his comprehension. “But most of us recognize that there is strength in numbers. Ours is the biggest village, we have nearly four hundred people—“ He stopped abruptly, as if he realized he said too much. Alice just nodded and smiled, but her mind was churning.

“And how are they doing? The other villages, I mean. In terms of housing and provisions.”

“About the same as we do,” Doren replied, echoing Hlava’s earlier remarks. “The Earthlings… your people I guess—“ he sounded doubtful “—they were very helpful. They’re very clever with their construction and farming tricks. And we were lucky, too. We crashed just as the spring was starting on the planet. We had time enough to build some shelter and find sources of food before the first winter came, and it was very harsh. We never used to have such winters back home.” There was sadness in his voice now—and longing. He’s homesick, Alice thought and felt a strange tug on her insides herself. But she had been in Pegasus for a week; she had no excuse to feel nostalgic yet.

“We’ll help you this winter,” she said impulsively. “I don’t know much about Father Lawrence’s people, and I’m sure they did everything in their power, but we have real engineers and, most importantly, resources.”

Doren nodded genially. “Your leaders promised us as much. They said it was the least they could do. But they didn’t invite your own people back to your planet…”

“Ah, yes, well, that’s a tough subject,” Alice conceded, turning around to leave the church. There was nothing to see there, really. “They come from an alternative version of our planet.”

“So what?”

“So imagine if you suddenly met yourself.” Alice shook her head. “It’s too dangerous.”

“If you say so.” He didn’t look convinced. “What now?”

Alice wasn’t sure. She wasn’t really the type to mingle, ask questions, or invite herself to someone’s home; for that, they needed Cooper. But she could do something productive.

“I was thinking we could go up and map out all the settlements,” she suggested, and then explained in more detail, seeing the Lacronan’s blank expression: “We’ll fly in my ship over the villages to construct a map of the land and pinpoint the exact placement of the population.”

“You can do that?”

“Sure, why not? I’m the pilot. Come on.” She waved at him to follow her and they started towards the edge of the village. Alice tapped her radio. “Jennifer, I’m taking the Jumper up for a little cartography trip. You guys alright?”

“We’re fine,” came the doctor’s reply. “There’s a lot to do. I’m thinking we’ll need to come back with more personnel.”

“For sure, but we need to think about the other settlements as well,” Alice cautioned. “This is the biggest one, but there’s four and a half thousand people out there who may need medical assistance as well.”

“Oh boy,” Jennifer sighed. “Well, let me concentrate on the cases in front of me right now, and I’ll talk to Woolsey about how most efficiently deal with that problem later.”

“Sure. Boyd out.”

“How does it work?” Doren asked eagerly, pointing at her ear.

“The radio?” Alice removed the headset and showed the Lacronan. He took it in his hands and looked closely. “It has a tiny antenna inside—“ She stopped herself, seeing Doren’s raised eyebrows, and tried again: “The microphone picks up speech and transforms it into electrical energy that flows through a metal component called an antenna. The agitated electrons in the current produce an invisible electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves. These waves are caught by the antenna in another radio and translated back into sound.”

He shook his head and returned the earpiece to her. “I don’t understand.”

Alice sighed. How to explain something like this to someone who’s never even heard the term electricity, much less radiation or electron? The Lacronans were a pre-industrial society, circa sixteen century on Earth, maybe even earlier.

“Remind me later to tell you about electricity,” she said. “For now, all you need to know is that it is a communication device that allows us to talk to each other across great distances. This one is not powerful enough to reach Atlantis, but it’s more than enough to keep us in contact with Doctor Keller and Sergeant Karim as we fly around. Aside from that, the Jumper has a much more powerful communication system that can reach Atlantis.” She paused. “Radios are actually very easy to build, if you have the right components. I’m sure we could install one in each village in no time. Then you could talk to each other directly. And if we could get a transmitter in the city, or maybe a satellite above, we could extend that range so that Atlantis could talk to you, too.”

They just passed the last wooden hut and were now walking towards the Jumper, parked at the edge of the clearing, just a few hundred paces away. Doren had flown with Alice once already—he had been in the party that had come to find Lawrence at the Asgard wreckage. This time, however, Alice invited him to sit in the front seat, next to the pilot. He looked at the console wide-eyed and jerked a little when it lit up upon Alice’s touch.

“On your home planet, was there nothing inherited from the Ancients?” Alice asked as they lifted up in the air. She engaged the HUD and mentally instructed it to record the terrain and life signs—the Jumper did not see animals, as the Chair had, so it would show only humans.

“No. Some of our trading partners had, but I’ve never seen anything like this.” He waved around. “It’s amazing.”

“Yes, it is,” Alice agreed. They were flying northward, along the coast, at a leisurely pace that nonetheless had them swallowing miles in seconds; already they were coming upon the next village. It was indeed smaller than Doren’s, and didn’t seem to have any unique buildings such as the Gathering Hall or the church; just a cluster of huts on a clearing. A little further east they had a small field, but Alice didn’t see any grazing clearings, though. She asked Doren about it.

“They’re mostly a fishing village,” he explained, pointing west, at the ocean. “They trade their fish for meat, skins and wool that we produce. There isn’t enough grain on any of our fields to trade yet, so each village maintains their own while we barter for other things. Our gazebo herd is big enough for the two settlements, they supplement our catches with their fish—they have a good spot, a headland that creates a little bay.”

Alice nodded and for a moment they were silent, until they got to the next little village, even smaller than the previous one.

“I don’t know much about it,” Doren allowed. “I just know most of our thread and fabric comes from them. I don’t think they have any herds of their own, though, it’s all from trade.”

They flew over the settlement and were now over territory Doren had no knowledge of, aside from hearsay. Village after village passed beneath them, some almost as big as Doren’s, some consisting merely of a few huts huddled together between trees. The Lacronan’s count turned out to be correct; counting without his own, there were fifteen settlements of two hundred people or more, and at least a dozen smaller ones. There were a few solitary buildings where a single family could live, too, but in general people seemed to adhere to the rule Doren had mentioned—that there was strength in numbers. Most of the villages were positioned along the coast, only four of the fifteen were located deeper in the forest.

“Why did all your people go north?” Alice wondered as they were already on their way back, making a large arc to see the last of the inland settlements. “Wouldn’t it make sense to go south where the weather could be milder?”

Doren shrugged. “We didn’t know how bad the winters would get here. The first few weeks after crashing here we spent on the clearing near the ship, afraid to go anywhere. It was the Earthlings who first wandered further, exploring. This is not a very safe planet, even without the Wraith; the weather is only one danger. There are poisonous plants and wild animals, insects that bite and leave you paralyzed, trees that fall on you without any warning… but it was still better to move than stay there and die. There were simply too many of us to survive in one place, there wasn’t enough game around. So we began moving, and north seemed just as good direction as any.”

Alice didn’t reply, thinking about how scary it must have been to find themselves suddenly in an unfamiliar place, with no resources at all, and no idea what to do. And yet—they survived. The sheer determination and ingenuity it must have taken—it was truly impressive.

“Those dots are humans?” Doren asked after a little while, gesturing to the life signs sparkling on the three-dimensional map shown on the HUD. “That’s a weird pattern…”

There were about two dozen dots spread in a straight line, in the middle of the forest; the real-life distance between them must have been no more than ten yards. They were moving slowly away from the last of the villages—the one deeper inland. Alice took one look at the situation to know what it meant.

“They’re looking for something,” she said and zoomed in on the map. “Or rather someone, look there.” She pointed to the top of the visible terrain, where at least five miles out, there was one faint solitary dot.

“They’re going the wrong way,” he noted, his voice worried. “Look, their path will take them left of there.” He sketched it in the air with his hand.

Alice nodded. “Let’s see if we can help.” She corrected their flight with a delicate move of the stick and a neural signal. Then she jumped slightly in surprise, as she felt a hand on her shoulder. She threw a glance at Doren; he looked serene.

“Thank you,” he said keenly. Alice smiled and shifted her gaze back to the front window. They were already almost upon the little dot.

“The forest is too thick,” Alice grumbled. “Can’t see, and there’s nowhere to land, either. Look for a clearing or a hill.” But it took them a while before Alice spied a small elevation of the terrain, free of trees and bigger bushes. “Not a lot of space, but it’ll have to do.”

“How far it is?”

“About two and a half miles north–east.” Alice began lowering the Jumper, and at the same time touched her earpiece to turn on the mike. “Karim, it’s Boyd, over.”

The reply came only a few seconds later. “Yes, Captain.”

“How’s the situation on your end?”

“Everything is under control, ma’am. We’ve moved to another patient, but Doctor Keller says this will take some time.”

“Good. I’m landing the Jumper and we’ll be walking in the forest for a while, we’ll need at least two hours and possibly more.”

“Yes, ma’am.” If Karim was surprised by the news, there was no sign of it in his voice. “Doctor Keller mentioned she doesn’t want to leave until it’s absolutely necessary.”

Alice chuckled. “Which probably means nightfall. Alright. Boyd, out.” She switched off the mike.

They were merely yards above the landing zone now; Alice focused on bringing them down safely. There was literally only so much space to allow the Jumper to fit between the trees, and they actually flattened some smaller shrubbery with the weight of the ship. It settled on the ground harder than usual, and at a slight angle, but Alice was quasi-sure it would stay put. Before heading out, she collected the portable life signs detector and paused in the rear compartment to complete her gear. They had been supposed to only stay among the Lacronans, and so she hadn’t thought she needed to log about all of the usual paraphernalia; however, they were all in the Jumper and Alice now put some of them back into her tactical vest, leaving out the heaviest things—like the service kit and most of the spare ammo. She then fastened the P90 to the front webbing on her chest and finally moved out of the craft.

Doren, who was waiting outside, looked at the gun and raised his eyebrows.

“You said it yourself, this is not a safe planet.” Alice shrugged, closing the rear hatch of the Jumper and engaging the cloak. “I’d rather not encounter any wild animals, but if we do, I wanna be prepared to defend us.”

Doren nodded placidly. “Shall we go?”

“Follow me,” Alice ordered and took point as they entered the forest. Despite the fact that it was only three hours after noon and the sun was still high on the sky, they were immediately swathed in deep shadow. Here and there some ray of sunshine permeated the thick canopy above them and stood among the greenery like a column of light. The woods were as daunting as that first time Alice had walked them, but she felt more confident now. She had a compass in her left hand—the needle pointed about three degrees east of the exact north, but having that information, it was easy to calculate and keep the correct direction. Once they’d approach the general area where they’d seen the dot on the Jumper’s sensors, she’d use the life signs detector to scan the terrain for the missing person. Alice was perversely happy to note that Doren made even more noise when walking through the undergrowth than her. She was no Karim, but at least she wasn’t the very worst.

They kept a good pace, although the forest was not easy to traverse: there were plenty of bushes taking up all available space in between the giant trees, so finding a path across required diligent scanning of their surroundings. They didn’t talk much on the way, but soon Alice was forced to make a stop. She heard Doren’s breathing behind her becoming more and more ragged, and finally took pity on the man.

“Here, drink some water.” She passed him a bottle she had prudently taken from the Jumper.

“Thank you.” He sounded winded. He sat down on a particularly big tree root and took a couple swallows. Then he gave the bottle back to Alice who put it back in its place on her vest without drinking. “I’m not as young as I used to be,” he confessed with a steadying hand on his chest.

Alice smiled. “We’ve made good time, though. I estimate we’ve covered about three quarters of a mile in the twenty minutes that we’ve been on the move. With the undergrowth as thick as here, that’s really not a bad pace.”

“I’ll be ready in just a minute,” he promised, taking deep breaths.

Alice nodded and gave him a moment to quiet down his heartbeat before asking: “Why would someone be so far out in the forest, alone?”

He shook his head. “That’s not normal. Maybe they’ve heard that the Wraith are no more and decided to explore? Or maybe they went after a lost gazebo?”

“Maybe.” Alice was not convinced. “Although in such case, why would there be a search party out?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “What do you think?”

Alice looked towards the north–east; ten yards was all that she could really see, everything farther out was obscured by the thickets. “I’m concerned it might be a lost child. That’s the only logical reason why they’d be out in force, looking.”

Doren nodded gravely and stood up. “Then we better go.”

Alice took point again. The forest was alive with animal sounds: soft padding of paws, breaking of branches under hooves, cooing and chirping of birds, rustle of leaves. From time to time, Alice caught movement out of the corner of her eye; each time, she froze for a second, before ascertaining that it had been a flutter of wings or a fleeing rabbit—or at least something rabbit-sized. Twice she had seen the indigenous antelope—or maybe deer would be more accurate, since it lived in the woods and not a savannah—that the Lacronans called gazebo, grazing on the tall grass. It only looked up at them as it heard them coming, but didn’t flee; clearly it was not used to humans. Alice was thankful that they didn’t hear the wild cat’s roar, like when they had first landed on the planet and made their way to the Asgard ship.

They made two more short stops to allow Doren to rest a bit before they finally entered the general area where the dot had appeared on the Jumper’s HUD map; at least, according to Alice’s calculations. But she was quite confident of those; she may not have had the best sense of direction, but counting and all manners of estimations were her thing. She pulled out the life signs detector from the vest’s pocket and looked at the little screen.

“What is that?” Doren asked, his breathing heavy again; Alice had stopped for a moment to study the situation.

“A life signs detector. It shows where humans are. Here—“ she pointed to the two dots in the middle “—this is us. But I don’t see anyone else yet.”

“Should we shout? Maybe they can hear us,” the Lacronan proposed, but Alice shook her head.

“No use. The range of the detector is one hundred meters, and normally a voice carries to about two hundred in still air, but with all this growth here, it would be dampened enough so as to become ineffective.”

“If you say so.” He sounded dubious.

Alice looked at the compass and started walking again, slowly now, leading them on a slightly more easterly direction. I could use Karim right about now, she thought to herself. While she was quite sure that they covered almost exactly two miles from the landing zone, she wasn’t absolutely confident that they kept on track. There was a lot of going around and meandering between the trees and thickets. It was conceivable that they could have ended up too far from their mark to find it—but just as she was starting to lose hope, twenty minutes later, a blue dot appeared on the edge of the detector’s screen.

“Got them!” Alice proclaimed, thrilled. “Straight north from here, just a hundred meters. We’ll be there in no time.”

They both picked up the pace, weaving between the greenery. The dot appeared to stay in the same place, unmoving, but it was there alright.

“Just behind this shrub,” Alice said in a low voice five minutes later. They bounded around it.

The girl couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Her strawberry blond hair was spilling on the red-green moss that covered a large boulder. The rest of her body was nearly entirely obscured by the tall grass, but her hands were spread around as if she fell. She wasn’t moving.

Alice made the two steps that separated her from the child and dropped to her knees, Doren doing the same on the other side.

“Hey, little girl, can you hear me?” Alice asked, but rather hopelessly. She just realized that the moss was green; the red was blood that was seeping from the girl’s head.

“Is she alive?” Doren asked nervously, taking the child’s hand into both of his. “I can feel the heartbeat,” he added almost immediately, relief audible in his voice.

Alice was leaning over the girl’s head. She tried to lift it delicately, but the clotted blood plastered the knotted hair to the moss-covered rock. It pulled at the wound and the girl moaned quietly, without opening her eyes.

“It doesn’t look good,” Alice declared in a weak voice, but her mind was already cranked up to one hundred percent, and she felt a sort of calm coolness sweeping down her body. She knew it was adrenaline—but a different kind than the hot surge that overcame her in battle. For a moment she flashed back to her childhood, that fateful day when Aaron broke his hand nastily, and both her brother and the older boy present froze in panic; she had taken charge of the situation then, and it had been the same cold determination that she felt now. She extricated her first-aid kit from a pocket and took out the knife from its sheath.

“She must have left her village and got lost in the forest,” Doren said, observing as Alice opened the kit and took out a pair of nitrile gloves, a gauze and some bandages.

“She must have lost her balance and fell, hitting her head on the rock,” Alice added. She put on the gloves, removed the plastic packaging from the gauze and bandages, and then took the knife.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Doren sounded dubious again.

“I had first-aid training,” Alice replied, which wasn’t really the answer to his question, but he accepted it nonetheless. “Take her head and lift it just slightly. I need to cut her hair away, it’s all clotted over with the moss.”

He nodded and did as bidden. The girl didn’t moan this time, but there was a momentary tenseness on her pale face. Alice leaned over again, grabbed the child’s hair right by the skin, and with one quick movement of the razor-sharp knife she cut it off. The tug was substantive enough to elicit a groan again.

“Get her up, I need to dress the wound,” Alice ordered and waited until Doren lifted the girl’s upper torso into half-sitting position, supporting her head with one hand, the other wrapped around her back.

Now Alice could inspect the wound closer. “Fuck,” she breathed. “The skull is fractured,” she said louder. “That is not a good sign.” Without applying any pressure, she put the gauze over the wound and then quickly wrapped it in bandage. “Keep her steady,” she cautioned and quickly removed the gloves, threw everything back into the soft packaging of the first-aid kit, and put it back in her pocket. She then hesitated for a moment, but eventually she unfastened her vest, gun and all, and put it aside. She looked at the Lacronan with the unconscious ten-year-old in his arms. “You’re going to take my vest, it’s at least forty pounds lighter than the girl, I didn’t take the full gear. I’ll carry her.”

“No, I’ll do it!” He protested, cradling the girl a little closer.

Alice shook her head. “You were winded coming here without ballast. We need to make good time. I don’t like the way her skull looked under that wound. If there’s any pressure on her brain, it might swell and cause irreversible damage.” She paused for a moment. “Do you know how to shoot a gun?”

Doren looked unsure. “Chester once showed me, but it was a long time ago.”

Alice lifted the P90 so that he could see. “It’s easy. Here is the safety, push it to A for fully automatic fire. That’s the scope, look into it to aim. Align the crosshairs in the middle of where you want to shoot and pull the trigger all the way.”

Doren looked doubtful, but he nodded.

“Let’s hope you won’t have to use it.” Alice put down the weapon and squatted closer to Doren, who was still holding onto the girl. The ten-year-old looked to be about twelve inches shorter than Alice herself, and turned out to be about thirty pounds lighter, too. Alice easily lifted the child onto her shoulders, using the fireman’s carry. Doren looked at it with wide eyes.

“You sure you can hold her?” He asked skeptically. Alice didn’t blame him; he was nearly her brother’s size, she looked positively tiny next to him; but he also had a large belly and she really thought they would go quicker with her carrying the girl.

“Yes. With this technique I could carry you if I needed too.”

He actually chuckled at that, although Alice was absolutely serious; they were taught the fireman’s lift during basic training, and it wouldn’t be her first time carrying a 6’2” man, although admittedly she’d need frequent breaks.

“Let’s go,” she urged him, turning around and starting to walk away. He scooped up her vest, put it around him—though he couldn’t fasten it, being several sizes too large—and with her P90 in his hand, he followed her through the forest.

Even though the girl was relatively light—she weighed about as much as all of Alice’s gear plus a rucksack with a tent, sleeping bag and other survival items—it was slow going. Alice had to control the direction and move cautiously to ensure the girl’s head or limbs didn’t catch on any branches. Doren was breathing hard behind her, not only already tired from their previous quick-paced walk, but also carrying a thirty pounds vest on him. Despite their urgency, Alice had to call a break three times, as much for his sake, as her own. Each time she put the girl down delicately, made sure her head rested on the side and not directly on the wound. Each time, they only stopped for a maximum of five minutes; but it still took them over two hours to reach the Jumper, while it had been only an hour the other way.

Alice deposited the child on the side couch in the rear compartment of the ship.

“Keep her steady, make sure she doesn’t roll over on the floor,” she told Doren as he removed the vest and put it away. He nodded silently and sat down, with his hands outstretched and holding the girl.

Alice went forward and took her pilot seat. Then she switched on the mike.

“Jennifer, how are things there?” She asked over the radio while turning on the console and HUD to see how far they were.

“It’s going quite well,” came the doctor’s reply. “We’re almost done with the most urgent cases. We’re just walking towards the last patient’s house.”

“Good. I need you to grab your equipment and meet us at the north–western edge of the village.” Alice lifted the Jumper in the air. It took off without a hitch—Alice had been worried after that imperfect landing. “We have a ten-year-old with a head injury, she’s unconscious and the skull looks punctured or fractured.”

“What? Where did you find an injured child?!”

“Doesn’t matter, just be there as soon as possible, please.”

“We’re on our way.”

Alice put the pedal to the metal—metaphorically speaking, of course—as much as she could inside the atmosphere. It took them only seven minutes to arrive at Doren’s village. Alice landed right at the edge of it—instead of near the tree line, as she had previously. Keller was already walking towards them as the rear hatch opened, and a few seconds later herself and Karim, accompanied by Hlava and Lawrence, entered the Jumper. The doctor didn’t ask questions, she simply got to work immediately, checking the child’s vitals first, and then undoing Alice’s dressing, already soaked through with blood.

“What happened?” Lawrence asked, frowning. “Who is that?”

“No idea.” Alice shrugged. “We found her in the woods.” And she related all that’s happened, from them noticing the search party to bringing the girl to the Jumper, while Keller worked. When she finished, she saw a new kind of respect in Hlava’s eyes.

“That was very kind of you,” the Mother said, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears. “I didn’t think you would go to such lengths to save one child.”

Alice shook her head. “We don’t leave people behind.”

“Even when they’re not your people?” Lawrence pushed, the frown still dominating his old and weathered face.

Alice raised her eyebrows. “She’s human, isn’t she? Besides, it’s sort of our fault that she was in this position. It was us who woke the Wraith, and if we hadn’t, they wouldn’t have raided Lacrona, and she wouldn’t be here to get lost in the forest.”

You weren’t there, ma’am,” Karim reminded her in a low voice.

“Doesn’t matter. I’m part of the expedition now, it’s as much my responsibility as anyone’s.” She jumped as someone put a hand on her shoulder—Doren again.

“You were one of those who got rid of the Wraith harassing us, and now you saved that little girl,” he said. “You are a credit to your people.”

Alice blinked quickly. Suddenly she felt uncomfortable with everyone staring at her. “Uh, thanks. Jennifer, how is she?” She quickly changed subject.

“She’ll live. I scanned her head and it looks like there’s no swelling. I’d like to do a full CT scan, though, and for that we’ll need to take her to Atlantis. If it confirms that there’s no damage to the brain, we will be able to return her home and she should heal on her own.”

“Alright, let’s do that then,” Alice agreed, and the spoke to Hlava, Lawrence and Doren: “We will take the girl to Atlantis and keep her overnight. I’ll come back later today to let her village know that she’s safe.”

“Thank you.” Hlava bowed low, and both Lawrence and Doren copied her a second later.

“Can I come with?” Doren asked, looking at the girl with worry and warmth mixed in equal measure.

Alice hesitated. Bringing a ten-year-old who needed medical attention was one thing, but she didn’t have authorization to allow anyone else from the Lacronans in the city.

Lawrence picked up on her reluctance, and interrupted: “What for? She will be in the doctors’ hands. Let them work. I’m sure Captain Boyd will let us know the girl’s status as soon as it’s possible.”

“Of course I will,” Alice assured them, relieved, and threw a thankful smile at Lawrence. “We have to come back tomorrow anyway, Doctor Keller mentioned one more priority patient.” She looked around at Jennifer, who was now administering an IV drop to the child. “But for now, we should go. We will see you tomorrow.”

“We shall be waiting.” Hlava inclined her head again. “Thank you all for your help, both with our sick and this girl.”

Alice smiled again and waited for them to leave the Jumper before she closed the rear hatch and took her seat at the helm. As they were ascending into the air, a splendid sight came into view: the horizon on the west bathed in red and orange, as the sun was beginning to set.