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Blast Radius

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Spencer Griffith has already died once, according to SGC legend.  It's the kind of award that holds real merit, although he walked away from the experience with fewer scars than he'd brought.  There's nothing for him to show for it but another batch of oak leaves on his Purple Heart and smooth, unblemished skin.

He didn't truly die, but he doesn't tell them that. At least, he doesn't think he did, but he can't remember the last minute or two before being lowered into the sarcophagus.  He remembers burning, remembers his skin sliding from his face, remembers going blind because the last man he was sent to kill got fucking clever and went for the acid, but not light, not peace—just panic and disbelief.  He's not asking for a personal visitation from Jesus Christ Himself, but he'd like to think he would have felt something, if he'd really died and been brought back to life. Instead it's a little easier to think he just came close to it, and let everyone else think what they will.

Nobody asks for specifics, after all. Nobody's that stupid.

*

When he comes back to Cheyenne Mountain for his second tour he's ready for it this time. None of two years ago, running on adrenaline and bravado and confidence and fear. It feels like that's all been scoured out of him, moved past for better things, like a pair of broken-in boots. He doesn't fumble his way through a page of hieratic and the dark places in his mind don't curl in on themselves in fright when he goes toe to toe with a goa'uld.

They did six months ago.  They did before he almost died on the early cusp of summer, on the op the books say went right.  He wouldn't have noticed the differences, then and now, except he's had six months' respite: four months in a golden summer and glorious fall of DC, sat down in General O'Neill's Pentagon pit of clever girls and boys expected to churn out miracles before they broke for lunch, and then two months in the petulantly dank Pacific Northwest in a panel van lined with computers, feeding information and orders into his operatives' ears while his brother oversaw tactics from the ground.

And after the events that had landed him in the sarcophagus the first time, he'd felt a real retributive joy in sinking his teeth into Ba'al's sticky fingers before he and Skipper went home to North Carolina for Christmas.  It was Ba'al's laboratory he'd lost his face in.  That alien gets to live on Earth—gets to be the fucking dark horse entry onto the Forbes 500, if he wants—but if he puts one toe past the line Spencer nearly died to draw, then he is going to goddamn pay for it.

Christmas was its own kind of interesting.  His family was the same loud, fiercely loving, occasionally overwhelming mass of humanity that turned Aunt Sassy’s rambling ten-bedroom house on Black Mountain into a circus tent.  Christmas was the season of the flying hug for everyone back from deployment and counting the hours until their flight touched off again.  It meant so many relatives to buy Christmas presents for they employed a rotating lottery to keep things sane and well-distributed.  It involved, predictably, not talking to his father any more than he had to so as to maintain their mutual fiction that the ugly fight they’d had last summer didn’t exist, and spending an afternoon in the woodshop telling his uncle everything.  He’d had to coax his cousin Matt’s girlfriend out of hiding with the lure of turkey sandwiches and the assurance that the whole family did like her, they just had a Southern way of showing it.

There had been six babies, eight toddlers, and twenty-two children under the age of ten.  He wasn’t blood-related to even half of them, but that didn’t keep them from all being family.

Most of the Christmas presents he finally gets around to unpacking in this apartment full of cardboard boxes are little housewares to round out life’s comforts, since it’s general knowledge that he’s staying put for a while in Colorado: Cam says their adoptive aunt Sam says General O’Neill says he’s reassigning Spencer and Skipper together to wink-nudge-don’t-ask in Colorado Springs, but for ease of conversation, we’ll say “NORAD”.

(It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, as an intelligence man, when Elizabeth’s boyfriend Paul, a Marine and relative jackass, overheard this and asked casually, “Deep-space radar telemetry?”  The SGC’s cover is cracking, badly.  People like Paul without security clearances started to notice years ago just how many  combat-experienced servicemen and women who came out of such an innocuous posting with haunted expressions.  Thankfully Skipper had shot back, “Nah, we look after Santa the whole rest of the year,” and the moment had passed.)

He has to shake his head and smiled over great-aunt Sophia’s pillow shams.  “In case you have… company, in your bedrooms,” she’d faltered, embarrassed by her concession to modernity.  They were such an awkward tangle, her and Spence and Skip; she was too shy to teach strange children, but she’d seen her great-nephews through nearly a decade of piano lessons.  Some years, they were the her only audience.  She would never, never stop despairing that they weren’t the gentlemen she hoped, but she'd also written him during the fight with his father and said she’d heard some terrible things, but knew that he’d been raised right and should remember he had his family to rely on, and that blood was thicker than water.

Family.  God help them all.

*

They space his field assignments out with tedium.  Sure, there are the months when he's undercover in enemy territory and his tactical decisions will decide the fate of the Galaxy, and that's always fun, but they're balanced by a lot of quiet.  The better ones involve him running an op when someone else is on the ground, or mean sometimes he gets sent for training and comes back speaking three new Jaffa dialects and knowing how to hotwire an al'kesh in case he needs to hijack a spaceship, but if he wants to be promoted he's got to look at the bigger picture.  Which means tedium.

Most days of the week his once and future CO, Major Maricelli, sits with him every morning for a brief and leaves a little work on his desk—the minutiae of the SGC's intelligence operations are agonizing.  They control thousands of informants on hundreds of planets; about half those informants are further connected to further networks of espionage or crime.  These are handled by about a company of field agents—one of which, they tell him, Spencer at least theoretically doubles as—who report back up the chain to supervisors and analysts, which is the job he's tackling now.  The buck stops at Colonel Ross for the uniforms, and CIA Deputy Director Johnson for the suits.  He's at just the right place in the hierarchy to bottleneck the flow of information, since Maricelli is making him deal with the day-to-day requests for supply and support, which he can refuse as he chooses; it's his analyses of field reports that get collated into the briefs the people who set long-term strategy.

That, or he gets slotted into operations middle management, which is just where rubber meets the road.

It stopped being SGC policy years ago to invite alien dignitaries back to Earth.  Earth's Gate address is, by now, the kind of secret anyone in the galaxy can buy if they know the right people, though the IDC market has withered, choked out by countless fakes.  Gate teams almost always come through the Alpha or Charlie sites now before rerouting to Earth, and reaching either of those without a GDO means Gating to a planet whose address you can't buy for love nor money and navigating a small fortress that will keep you securely held and dials out for you, to tell Alpha or Charlie that someone's lost and wants to come home.

This bothers some of the planets they deal with, especially ones that have strong ideas about what being neighbors means, but letting aliens run over to Earth for a cup of sugar's on nobody's to-do list.  Part of how they make up for it is making Charlie as homelike as possible, full of fields of test crops and semi-permanent military housing; it's the same thing they do to Atlantis, to make it seem that this is home—the word "colony" dances in the margins of their treaties.  On red-letter days Charlie pulls out everyone in dress uniform and parade formation.  Spencer doesn't mercilessly mock the Gate officers who haven't worn their Class As in years, but Skipper does it for him: at the Pentagon it was generally known that if General O'Neill had to wear the damned things, so did everyone under him.  You could always kind of tell the man only put up with them in the vain hope that someday, he'd find an excuse to strangle someone with his tie.

Of course, Skipper's in Gate Greens, since his company is under orders to be the animals in the dog-and-pony show.  His gloating is shameless and Spencer has already smacked his head once, before they even Gate out.  Today they are ritually sealing a bargain with the five leading nations of P9R-331 through 334, who have managed to wrangle leadership of a third of Camulus's late domain.  There are more than two thousand people on base, and Earth's contingent is slightly outnumbered by the Ganama'as, E'eska, At, Selta'ac and Padri delegations. 

Skipper gets to spend three tedious hours standing to one side of the valley where everyone has gathered to see the ritual supper and treaty-signing; Earth has managed to balance out the nations' leaders, heirs, immediate siblings and scribes with IOA delegates, generals, congressmen, senators, and the Prime Minister of Russia.  His unit will be called on later in the day to drill, then compete in games of "strength and cunning" with a Padri army unit of tretonin-powered humans. 

Spencer gets assigned to event security.

Event security, here, means his command center receives video and audio pickup from the southern part of temporary housing for their offworld guests, who are camping in a meadow.  He walked the ground both before and after they moved in.  The pipes and cables that supply water and light to the area (which their guests think are absolutely delightful) also carry fiber optics back to HQ, giving them stable surveillance of the area.  They also have agents on the ground, whose information streams straight back.  Most of his people do nothing more than watch those pickups for anything interesting, though three are dedicated to liaise with other rooms that monitor different areas, and the overarching base security command.

By the end of the third hour of the ceremony, where they have all watched a few dogs wander through the deserted encampment, he's about to suggest someone break out a deck of cards.  But if he does, these people don't know him like his last team and won't roll their eyes and go back to work.  They're not gonna.  They're all heading separate ways tomorrow.  And his hands twitch a little, because he can suddenly see his last CO in a field command—not an officer except in all the ways that mattered—shuffling a battered deck, endlessly, as a way of making mental noise.  Keeping his hands busy.  There's a trick to coding ciphers that needs nothing more than a deck of cards, but takes far more effort to decrypt without knowing that sequence.  Two hundred and seventy-five encrypted characters brought him into that mission, and the last time he saw those cards before they blew the whole thing sky-high he'd marveled for just a second.  On such fragile things are empires broken.

To the yoke, if nothing else.

He files three incident reports that night.  One rowdy contest threatened to spill over into the west quadrant, and a shouting match started before the MPs got there.  One fight ended in fifteen seconds, before anyone else could come close.  Towards the end of the night they spotted someone on the monitors who turned out to be drunk and passed out; people on the ground got her turned on her side and covered with a blanket.

"Honor and glory," Skipper says the next day, when they're both changing into civilian clothes before riding the elevator to the surface.  He still smells a little of smoke.  "That's our life."

"I got another papercut," Spencer says with a grimace.

*

Ann schedules all her six-month checkups the week after New Year's, before classes start.  Her extraction was actually sometime in April, but the SCG hadn't moved her back to Earth until June and her doctors count the months by the first date in her chart, not her own personal calendar.

Not that she knows the day they took the snake out of her head.  The Tok'ra don't use any measure of time that makes sense to her, so it took some numb, mindless stretch of bites of food and sleep and tears (somewhere between three days and a week) before someone from Earth came and got her, and took her back to the Alpha Site.  That was April 26, 2008.

In the time that elapsed between November 19, 2003 and then, Ann has seen the destruction of seven planetary governments and system lords, because her body caused them.  Athena's daughter-parasite wasn't allowed to return to Earth like the other goa'uld who infiltrated the Trust; instead she took up the weapons of an ashrak and set out to prove her worthiness as an assassin.  Ann has visited—that she knows, was paying attention for, that she wrote down or drew out during debriefing and did her best to forget—more than twenty planets. 

Most of her college classmates graduated in those years and moved on, seeking after-degrees in education or graphic design and selling their art in coffee shops. The last two Harry Potter books came out.  Seven of the sixteen Trust operatives she betrayed to the SGC died in a raid on their safehouse in 2004; she saw four more die at her own hands when Athena ceased to have use for them.  Anubis perished in a battle over the Earth's atmosphere that killed most of the 6,000-some personnel aboard the USS Nimitz and about half of the F-302 wing sent against him, and yet somehow did not shatter the Stargate program's secrecy.   She lost seventy-three pounds: apparently when you're a goa'uld, discovering exciting things your first host does, like "eating" and "pooping", are pretty traumatic, so you cut down on them as much as is physically possible.

She did not celebrate any birthdays from ages 20 through 24, and still forgets how old she is.  Over the 2007-08 fiscal year Earth acquired one full-time resident System Lord, which the SGC didn't tell her.  Ba'al did, when she was still a snake, and she didn't read newspapers for a month after she saw him smiling out at her from one.

Her hair's grown out from the close crop she got last summer, when she chose to rid herself of years of lank and brittle growth.  These days it hangs in dark buoyant waves around her face, which has filled out again. The Tok'ra kept her from going into cardiac arrest or organ failure at first, and the SGC's nutritionists have helped her get her weight back.  Her eyes no longer look enormous, haunted, dark; they haven't really changed color, but she sees them as a warmer brown, now that her skin has lost its waxy pallor.  Her muscles are filling her skin now.  She has, more or less, figured out how to make them move without snake to prompt them, and how much weight she can lift; she's remembered how to paint and to laugh, to hug, to run, to ski, to shoot a rifle, and to have sex.  She doesn't even mind the stretchmarks.

She knows when a flashback's coming on, most of the time, and can make herself sit and shiver until it's done.  She's stopped hitting people who touch her when she can't see them.  She sold a painting last month.

She wants to strangle the first doctor this week to pronounce her "recovered", as a warning to the rest of them.  It's really not that simple.

*

She can laugh over it, in that awkward breaking-the-ice way over greetings as she shucks her coat.  "It's a good thing you're not actually a veteran," he says wryly, sitting in his black leather office chair.  "Very few of them get treatment this nice."

"I hope few of them have the same reason as me," she returns, settling into the sofa next to the magazine-rack.  He only smiles again, lips closed.  If you tortured this man, she thinks, he could give you the name of every prior goa'uld host the SGC maintained contact with.  He has an unmarked research grant in millions of dollars, for a longitudinal study of people affected by offworld technology or organisms.

She doesn't work for the Trust anymore.  She should really stop doing this kind of information collection.  She's been telling herself that for months.

"According to your MRI," he says, flipping through the manila folder on his desk, "your body has absorbed the last vestigial fragments the symbiote left in your system."

"Parasite," she corrects.

He favors her with an infinitely patient look over the top of his glasses.  "The goa'uld," he counters, pronouncing it all in one syllable.  Goold.  When she nods, he continues.  "Your naquadah levels came out at forty-five micrograms.  Which, not bad."

"In what sense?" she prompts.  On one hand, a count above ten or fifteen is necessary for manipulating goa'uld technology; on the other, this is heavy-metal poisoning they're talking about here.  "Is that 'impressive' not-bad or a 'it could be worse' not-bad?"

He smiles.  "It means enough to be useful for years yet down the road, but not enough to impact your health too much.  Your kidneys and liver are looking pretty healthy—if you run into trouble with those, it'll be when you're in your forties, unless you bother them too much.  Try not to lean too heavily on anti-inflammatories.  The rest of the risks...  As you can imagine, you've got more of a tendency to conduct galvanic electricity.  I can't say 'Don't get struck by lightning', though.  I guess I can tell you not to find your true calling as an electrician."

"No risk of that," she says firmly.

Dr. Russ flips the page.  "A great deal of the damage to your cranial nerve seems to be patched up, especially since your treatment in November, and your PT says you've got bilateral strength back up to 80% in your left arm.  That sounds pretty healthy to me.  You're still seeing Dr. Meyer?"

She blinks at the abrupt switch.  "I'm seeing her once a month now."

"She recommends that you stay on the Ativan..."  He scribbles something on the paper.  "Any other concerns?"

When am I going to feel normal again?  "No, I don't think so."

"Now, will you be trying to meet the application benchmarks for the Program?"

Do I want to join a Gate team with the SGC?  "Ah... No.  That's not in my plans."

"I don't want you to think that your prior history disqualifies you.  You've got many talents that could be quite useful, you know."

"I start classes next week," she says desperately.  "I seriously just... don't want to.  Not until I'm good and tired of normal life.  Maybe next decade."

"All right then."  That gets an entire line of cursive at the bottom of the sheet, with some emphatic stroke of punctuation to end it.  Then he flips the folder shut.  "I think that's everything."

"Then... Thank you."  They both rise, and she slides her coat under her elbow.

He offers her a strong, dry hand to shake.  "See you in six months."

*

She recognizes the cashier at Whole Foods five minutes before it's actually her turn in line, but walks slowly forward to her doom because she refuses to pick everything up and move to the next line five tills down.  That's ridiculous and cowardly. He's probably a college student, picking up shifts after class.  Why, she thinks, couldn't she meet him on campus?

She is someone on campus.  She's Ann fucking Marsters on campus.  She was previously admin assistant regnant of the Fine Arts department.  People know her.  People like her, God knows why.  She matters.

Here, she's a reusable bag, a head of lettuce and a bag of grapes, a pack of hamburger buns and a pair of chicken breasts, and then—she can see him look up and get it—oh yeah, she's that girl he fucked last autumn, in what she knew at the time to be a pathetically desperate incident that did not merit her a lot of self-respect.

But there was a snake crawling under my skin, and I forgot it until morning.

He smiles.  It's a knowing smile, but not a smirk; it's a direct connection.  Hey, my hometown girl, I remember you.

There's no response she can bring to mind that will let her come out of this on top.  Flip, dismissive, or disdainful reveals (as is painfully obvious to her) a grain of insecurity at the bottom.  It's probably so long with the goa'uld that makes her see ploys for dominance as signs of insecurity in power.  Simpering or pathetically nice—please don't hurt me.  They're both discarded instantly, because there's only one way to play this.

Which is why a smile jumps to her lips.  It feels dazzling on her face, so wide and happy.  This smile is self-assured and utterly confident, and she does feel a bubble in her chest that's joy at—something, she's not sure what.  "Hey," she says warmly.  "Brad, right?  It's been forever."

She actually never knew what his name was.

"Uh, no," he says, with that awkward polite smile.  "Steve.  How're you doing."

"Oh, just great," she assures him, tapping her check card on the counter, as he packs up the last of her groceries.  His eyes are down on the job because he's just had a chance to rethink.  I maybe do not want her to be my hometown girl.  This is awkward.  "I had a really great Christmas, you know.  It's such a great season, right?"

"Right," he agrees, a little desperately.  "That's sixteen twenty-seven, please."

She holds up the card.  "Debit."

"I hope you have a good day," he says thinly, after she's punched in her PIN and he's handed over her receipt.

"Oh, you too."  Joyfully, she loads the bag up onto her shoulder.  "Bye, now."

*

She still does social rounds with her mother, partly out of guilt.  She still can't explain where she was when she was "dead" for the last five years; she'd very nearly disappeared without a trace.  It still galls her that she'd made up her mind to change sides, she'd left a packet of information about the Trust and its people with a Gate officer—one of her black sketchbooks left on Dave Dixon's coffee table after babysitting his kids one evening—and the next day the Trust had scooped her up and made her disappear.  If they'd only waited, maybe a few hours more…

All she can tell her mother is that she was "involved in espionage" related to Air Force technology, got kidnapped, was rescued, and spent time in hiding in an American military installation before coming home.  When Yvonne asks her why she got involved in the first place, she can only shrug and say, "I was a teenager.  Someone told me the Air Force was doing something bad, and using Dad's old friends to do it.  It turned out I couldn't say no."

So she makes her apologies by meeting her mother more or less weekly, whether Yvonne comes into the Springs for coffee or Ann drives out to Cripple Creek for dinner.  She even consented to a two-week trip over the winter holidays, to visit friends in Berlin and family in Mainz.  Eventually she's going to put her foot down about being micromanaged, but her guilt about being dead for five years (for all her mother knew, at least) is still pretty strong.

She comes along when Yvonne wants to show pictures of their Christmas trip in Germany to old friends of the family, but escapes outdoors in short order with the daughter of the house.  Ann and Kelsey Carnadine are the same age, just off by a month; Ann lived with Kelsey's family the two years she was in college, but underage, while Kelsey was in high school.  The Carnadine farm is hardly fifteen minutes out of the Springs, an easy drive, while Cripple Creek is an hour away up in the mountains.  Living with friends was Ann's teenage concession to her mother's worry.  She'd originally wanted to make early admission to a college out East, or in Europe; the University of Colorado Springs kept her closer to home.

Of course, once she'd left UCS to spend a year in Berlin at the Universität der Künste the Trust had picked her up and sent her home to spy, so maybe Yvonne had been on to something after all.

Kelsey was one of the first friends to call her when she got back to Earth last summer, and the only one who hasn't asked a dozen little probing questions about where she'd been.  "I'm curious," she says now and again when the topic comes up, "but if you could tell me and you wanted me to know, you'd do it."

No, instead she'd just grafted Ann back into life, even when Ann was too weak from the goa'uld to walk six blocks.  She'd sit Ann in a kitchen chair and make her peel apples while she cooked, or perch her on a feed bin in the barn while she roached her beloved horses' manes, and carefully not cater to her friend's delicate state.  She did celebrate when Ann felt well enough to ride, because to Kelsey horsemanship and health are synonymous, but otherwise lets Ann decide what parts of her recovery deserve attention.

So as they walk the path of packed snow from house to barn, Kelsey supplies the talk.  Her city-job's in commercial real estate at a law firm, which is always full of stories wonderful and weird, though she seems to like the work.  Ann never thought her friend would go to law school when they grew up together; thought Kelsey would be like her brother and want nothing more than the farm.  There just isn't money in the kind of farming Kelsey cares about, though, so she'd picked a legal career to fund her equestrian habit.  Small world: Alec Coulson just landed a few million dollars in military contracts that require Coulson Aviation to have a Colorado Springs base of operations, and Kelsey just got handed the Coulson Aviation account to seal the land deal.  Then the Air Force gets their planes, CA gets their money, and Kelsey gets to spend fifty thousand dollars on a mare with impeccable bloodlines.

It works for Kelsey.  She does work she's good at but doesn't deeply care about and lives her dream on the weekends.  It's a split Ann's glad she'd never had to make with her art.  She'd gone into university at sixteen already knowing she could make five digits off a single painting.  Sure, the market value of her work's dropped considerably, but she has been out of the game for a while.

"What're you doing for your birthday?" Kelsey asks, as they reach the paddock next to the barn.  One of the horses comes over to nose them hopefully and let them stroke his fuzzy winter coat.

"I don't know?  It's the Saturday before classes start, so I didn't want to plan something huge."

"Kevin reminded me," Kelsey says, paying more attention to the horse than Ann, "that we missed your twenty-first."

Ann winces.  "I missed yours too."

"Well, he recommended that we take you out and get you drunk to make up for it.  Go out to one of the town bars, Murphy's or Hank's or the Royal Tavern."  Ann looks over at her sidelong for a minute.  "Listen, I know you've been to your fancypants wine tastings and gallery openings where everyone gets smashed on Stoli.  I am offering to take you to a real, genuine dive, bad music and sticky tables, whisky and beer.  An American tradition.  Who's done that for you, huh?"

"All right, no one," Ann smiles.  She doesn't mind Kevin weaselling in; his girlfriend took all his friends in the breakup, and he's leaning just a bit on Kelsey to get back on his feet socially.  "You'd better be prepared.  This is five years of birthday we're making up for.  I'm holding you responsible in advance for the consequences."

"Knew that," Kelsey says and climbs down from the fence.  "It'll be great.  You'll see."