President Bartlet closes the folder in front of him and stares hard across the table, waiting. Admiral Fitzwallace returns his look, silent and unflinching. Ten seconds pass on the clock, then twenty; an instant in the cosmic grand scheme, but in this room, it feels more like an hour.
Probably is, in White House Time.
Eventually, the President decides the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is, in fact, not going to speak again. Fitzwallace has spent a considerable amount of time – White House or otherwise – explaining the information in the file underneath Bartlet's folded hands, photos and text and all, and it appears he's neither going to take it back nor elaborate any further. He's just going to sit there, the whole day if necessary, and not talk.
Bartlet wonders what Fitzwallace is waiting for, exactly.
"Okay," Bartlet says. "This is some kind of …" he pauses and waves a hand "… thing, right? A joke, an initiation ritual, a way to mess with the new guy?"
Fitzwallace leans forward, folding his arms on the table. "You mean hazing, Mr. President."
"Yes," Bartlet says. "Exactly. You're having some fun with me."
Fitzwallace gives him a look that's not too hard to interpret. "In here?" he asks, a little gesture with his finger taking in the phones, screens, and other impedimenta of the White House situation room. "I've found it's best not to give the Commander in Chief any reason to doubt me when I tell him it's time to start dropping bombs on people's heads."
"The guy before me left me a note on my desk. It said, among other bits of trivia, that the middle drawer of the Resolute desk sticks when it's humid. And that he's pretty sure the secret tunnel out of the White House doesn't exist."
"He also mentioned that I should believe what Fitzwallace tells me. I haven't decided if that's a point in your favor, by the way."
Fitzwallace shrugs, unaffected by Bartlet's gibe. "For what it's worth, I assumed you'd want to visit the facility, meet the folks involved. Reassure yourself I wasn't pulling your leg."
"And you're not going to take that as a personal insult?"
"Hardly." The admiral snorts a half-laugh, his serious façade finally cracking. "Had pretty much the same reaction myself, sir, when I took this job."
"Not to mention, it's the most important military installation you command. It's not a bad idea to drop in and say hi every now and then."
Bartlet glaces up at the screens at the front of the room, at a map of Colorado, one of New Mexico, and a logo for a Pentagon department he hadn't known existed half an hour ago. "And you couldn't have told me all this before I took the oath of office?"
"Biggest secret on the planet, sir. Not to mention that the old guy thought he might not get to retire if we didn't lock you in first."
"I'm still going to look for that secret tunnel," Bartlet says.
Fitzwallace nods. "Yes, sir."
"All right." The President leans back in his chair. "Space aliens?"
"To be honest, most of them are so primitive they don't even know what space is."
"And yet, the planet's nearly been conquered –" Bartlet reopens the file and flips through the pages. "How many times was it?"
"I'm not certain that count's current, Mr. President."
"A lot, though."
"Remind me, why are we funding NASA?"
Fitzwallace laughs. "You'll have to take that up with Congress, Mr. President."
"Yeah, 'cause that's the biggest beef I'll have with Congress this year." Bartlet sighs, and tosses the folder back on the table.
"It's a lot to take in, sir," Fitzwallace says.
Bartlet waves him off. "Nah, it's not that. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's definitely a lot to take in. But that's not what I'm thinking about right now."
The admiral raises an eyebrow. "What is?"
"I am absolutely going to kill Leo. He talked me into this, you know."
Toby scribbles a few lines onto his pad of paper, then a few more. He reads them, and then he reads them again. He shakes his head and lets out a long sigh before he crosses out every single word he's written.
"Wow," Josh says from the other side of the table.
Toby ignores him and chews on the end of his pen.
Josh flips a page, the rustling of paper loud in the otherwise-empty room. "Wow," he says again. His chair creaks, and Toby doesn't have to glance over to see it in his mind's eye – Josh, restless and fidgety, the folder he's holding bouncing around, the Top Secret label emblazoned on its cover waving here and there.
Toby grunts, tears off the top sheet of paper, and starts over one more time.
Josh flips another page. "I mean, seriously," he says, his voice starting a little crescendo. "Wow."
"Josh." Toby finally looks up at him. "Don't you have, you know, work to do?"
"Well." Josh cocks his head to the side and drums his fingers on the file in front of him. "Let's see. This morning, I spent several hours locked in a room with half the Senate appropriations committee – and can I just say they were a tiny bit smug? Their little 'I knew something you didn't know' act is already getting kind of old." He rolls his eyes. "Later today, I have to go sit with Counsel and try to figure out if we've been conducting an illegal war on some planets I didn't know existed a couple of days ago. So that'll be fun. And in a few short weeks I'll probably be dealing with a Congress that thinks the most important thing in the universe is to make English the planetary language of Tatooine. Trust me, Toby, I've got work to do."
"But right now," Toby insists. "Don't you have work to do right now, this very second, that would take you far away from here?"
Josh leans back in his chair and links his hands behind his head. "Not really, no."
Toby glares at him. "Fine. Can you not work more quietly, then?"
"Yeah." Josh leans forward and picks up the file again. "Sure. No problem."
Toby writes five more sentences and crosses them all out again.
"Josh." Toby throws his pen down onto the table. "For the love of little green men, spit it out and get it over with."
Josh looks from Toby to the pages in front of him and back again. "It's just – have you read these files?" He sounds excited.
"Frontwards, backwards, and quite possibly upside down. Why?"
"Toby, these SGC guys are like superheroes."
Toby barely resists the urge to bury his head in his hands. "Oh, please, no."
"Like Superman, I'm telling you." Josh is way past excited now. "And Wonder Woman. Can't forget Wonder Woman."
No, let's not forget Wonder Woman. "Maybe I missed something, but I'm pretty sure they can't fly without aid of alien technology. And that crap Wonder Woman wears is definitely not the regulation Air Force uniform."
"Bah," Josh says. "You're a killjoy, Toby. I'm serious. Superheroes. Rock stars. They're quite possibly – and you gotta know I don't say this lightly – they're quite possibly better than the Mets."
"Well, okay. Not the Mets. But some other team. You know, that I don't like so much."
Toby pinches the bridge of his nose. "Superheroes."
"Wow?" he suggests.
"Yeah." Josh nods. "Wow."
"Okay, that's it." With great care and precision, Toby sets his notepad down on the table. "You may be at a loss for gainful employment at the moment, but let me remind you what I'm doing right now. I'm sitting here, in this dark, depressing basement room, trying desperately to come up with a media strategy for telling the American people we've been lying to them about aliens – of all things – for, I don't know, a couple decades or something? When last week … " He pauses, as if just realizing he's shouting, and rests his hand on his forehead. Then he runs his hand back over the top of his head, takes deep breath, and continues in a softer voice. "Last week, we were tripping over our feet just trying to spin health care for homeless children. The potential for public panic is …" he holds his hands out in front of him, wide open, "it's staggering. Astronomical, and I'm neither making a pun nor overspeaking the case. So. You'll excuse me," and his voice starts to rise again, "if I don't have time," he thumps the table, "to talk about comic books!" He ends on a shout again.
Josh blinks. "Yeah." He looks down at the file, then up at Toby again. "Yeah, you're right. I mean … yeah, of course."
"Just … go away from me now."
"Okay." He rests his elbows on the table and his head on his hands.
Josh closes the file and pushes away from the table, heading slowly across the room. He pulls open the door, and takes one step out into the hall. Then he pauses.
After a long moment, he turns and sticks his head back in. "Hey, Toby."
Toby looks up. "Yeah?"
Josh holds the file out in front of himself, waving it in Toby's direction. "Like the Green Lantern, my friend. I'm telling you."
Toby shoots him an evil look. "Go. Away. Now."
Josh grins. "You got it."
Dr. Jackson's started talking with his hands again. They're only a few questions into the prep session, but the archeologist-slash-savior-of-Earth is oh-for-three in the brevity stakes, and Carol can see that C.J.'s patience is fading fast.
Anybody can see that C.J.'s patience is fading fast. Except, apparently, Dr. Jackson.
"Blah blah blah," he says, or that's what it sounds like to Carol anyway. He leans forward onto the podium and waves his hands around some more. C.J. makes a small sound of frustration and takes a deep breath to interrupt.
But the other guy in the room gets there first.
"You know the entire room's fallen asleep already by now, right?" General O'Neill asks from his chair at the very back of the room.
Dr. Jackson stops, his hands frozen mid-gesture. "What?"
"They're reporters, Daniel," the general continues. "When they finally wake up, they'll just invent stuff. It's what they do. You can't bore them into submission like those people on P3 …." His brow furrows for a moment, then he waves a hand and soldiers on. "Oh, you know. The ones with the pink sheep."
Dr. Jackson blinks. "P3X-022."
"Yes. That's the one." The general pauses. "You understand it's bizarre that you know that, right?"
"Yes, Jack. Also, the sheep weren't pink."
"Yes, they were."
"No. They weren't."
"Yes. They were."
Dr. Jackson's memory isn't the only thing that's bizarre in this room today. Then again, Carol's threshold for bizarre's a bit different than it was a few weeks ago. A debate over the color of alien sheep probably shouldn't register anymore.
"They really weren't pink." Dr. Jackson insists.
"Fine." O'Neill ends the debate, slapping a hand down onto his knee. "Mauve. Puce. The point is –"
"Oh. My. God." C.J. covers her face with both hands. "It's like some cosmic joke," she says through her fingers. "I'm surrounded by men who don't know how to shut up."
"I've been trying to get him to do that for years," O'Neill says.
C.J. drops her hands and glares at him. "And you. You're the smartass in the bunch, right?"
The general blinks at her.
"Because obviously," she continues, "the smartasses I already had weren't enough." She pauses for a moment, her hands on her hips; then she points her finger at Dr. Jackson. "You," she says firmly. "And you," she moves on to the general. "Stay right there. I'm going to go sit where it's quiet for five minutes. And when I'm done, I'm going to go talk to a few people about what a bad idea this press conference is." She swings her finger back to Dr. Jackson. "You, my friend, need a format someone can edit."
"I need editing?" he asks, his eyebrows arching up toward his hairline.
C.J. rolls her eyes. "Yes. Now, I'm told you've saved my ass several times, all unbeknownst to me, and on behalf of myself and the other six billion people scattered around our teeny tiny planet, thank you for that. But yes, Dr. Jackson. You need editing. Lots and lots of editing." She looks from Dr. Jackson to the general and back again. "Okay?"
The general rumbles a little, shifting in his chair. "Can we at least get something to eat while we wait?" he asks. "Maybe some cake? There must be cake around here somewhere. All these hyperactive politicians, there must be cake around somewhere."
"Fine." CJ turns to Carol. "You can feed them," she says, "but no sugar for General Smartass over there. None." She sends a warning glare in his direction and strides out the door.
"Can she do that?" O'Neill asks Carol.
"Maybe not." Carol shrugs. "But honestly, most people find it's best not to argue with her."
"I command a fleet of spaceships, but I can't have cake."
"Not today, apparently."
"Okay." The general leans back in his chair and taps his fingers on his knee. "It's a good thing I like her style."
They've had the reporters sequestered in the White House for the last two days.
At least, that's what Donna Moss had told her in the White House lobby. "Good morning, Colonel Carter. We've penned a bunch of journalists up like lions, and then we didn't feed them. Now if you could just walk this way, we'd like you to go talk to them. Be careful of the teeth, I hear they're sharp."
Okay, maybe Donna hadn't used those exact words. There might be a tiny bit of Sam's own interpretation thrown in. Still, it's true that the reporters, their technicians, and the Stargate story have all been locked in, cut off from the rest of the world until the President says go. Which, Sam's been told, happens sometime tomorrow night. So she's pretty sure there are lions looking for food somewhere.
"I think they strip-searched everyone for phones on the way in," Donna added with a conspiratory cheerfulness as she escorted Sam down the hall. "Wish I'd been there to see that."
Sam wasn't sure whether it was meant as a joke, an attempt to make her feel better, but there wasn't time to ask. On the heels of her remark, Donna ushered Sam through a door and into the Mural Room. After that, there wasn't time for much of anything before a crew of people got Sam where she's sitting now, under the lights and in front of the cameras and across from a benign-looking woman named Megan. Young, serious, and the kind of television anchor Sam assumes is popular with the mom-and-grandmom set.
Or she'd seemed serious, right up until a few seconds ago ago.
The first few minutes of background chit-chat were relatively painless, and Sam had started to think she'd get through this without too much difficulty. Predictably, that's when the situation went to hell.
"It all sounds really …" Megan-the-reporter had started, then paused, seeming to search for the right word. "Romantic," she'd finished at last.
Sam had raised her eyebrows in surprise. Given the cameras pointed in her direction, she's grateful that was her only reaction.
"Well," she says now, temporizing, "I'm not sure –"
"Alien sunsets," the other woman prompts. "Starry night skies. The man you ended up marrying. It's like a science fiction movie. Boy meets girl, they save the planet, fall in love along the way."
"Except it's not science fiction anymore," Sam says, deciding that Have you actually met Jack O'Neill isn't the most politic response in an interview that will be watched by pretty much everyone she knows.
Not to mention pretty much everyone she doesn't.
"No," the journalist says. "No, it's not." She tips her head to the side, clearly undaunted, studying Sam as she considers her next approach.
Journalists, Sam's now convinced, are worse than any enemy the multiverse ever had to offer. Especially when they've been left with nothing to do for a good long while.
"Okay, you guys." Sam recognizes the press secretary's voice from somewhere behind the lights and cameras. "Let's take a break."
The reporter turns to stare in her direction, clearly displeased. "We've barely gotten started," she protests, but C.J.'s moved in, her hand on the reporter's shoulder.
"Just – let me grab you for a minute," C.J. says, urging her up.
Megan attempts to glare her down, but that doesn't seem to work with C.J. Cregg – a fact for which Sam's profoundly grateful at this particular moment.
"All right. Fine," the reporter says, rising from her seat. "But only for a minute."
It's a reprieve, but only a temporary one. Sam's glancing around at the lights, not sure what she's supposed to do, when Donna appears as if by magic behind her.
"Come on," she says, guiding Sam to a chair away from the lights and pressing a bottle of water into her hand.
Donna nods. Then she winces a little and waves a powder puff in Sam's direction. "I'm sorry," she says. "The lights, you know. They want me to …."
"No, it's fine," Sam says.
"You doing okay?" Donna asks as she pats the powder on Sam's cheeks and nose.
Sam decides being powdered is an adequate excuse for not talking, so she settles for a sound that she hopes comes across as "Fine, thanks." It must have landed more towards noncommittal, though, or possibly as far as "Are you kidding?" because Donna pulls back and gives her a long, searching look.
"You're doing great," she says.
Sam raises an eyebrow.
"You are, really. And it won't take that long." Donna cocks her head. "Lots of people hate being on camera," she offers.
Sam shakes her head. "It's not that, so much as ..."
"What?" Donna prompts.
"Well…" Sam trails off, then starts in again, her words coming out in a rush. "Their perception of the universe has been upended, and what they care about is my love life?"
"Ah. That." Donna deposits the powder puff on a tray. "Just wait."
"They'll get over it?" Sam asks, hopeful.
"Oh, yeah. And once they do, all they'll care about is your hair and your shoes."
Sam blinks at her, startled; then she laughs, which she assumes was Donna's intention. But when the initial shock of amusement has passed, Sam glances down at the simple blue pumps that go with her uniform, and unconsciously lifts a hand to her hair. "Really?" she asks.
"Sadly, yes. And oh," Donna says. "You caught a – may I?" she points at Sam's carefully regulation up-do, the tip of her finger aimed somewhere above Sam's ear. "You pulled a little bit loose."
Donna gently tucks the wayward strand back into a pin and pats at the top once or twice. "There. You'll be fine."
"Colonel Carter," the press secretary calls from the other side of the room. Sam's sure she flinched at the sound.
She'd rather have aliens any day of the week.
She pushes up from the chair and gives the hem of her coat a tug to be sure it's straight. "All right?" she asks.
Sam searches around for her bravado. It must be somewhere, right? "You're sure? I don't need better shoes?" she quips, Jack O'Neill style, and Donna laughs.
"Right now they only care about your love life, remember?" she says.
Sam rolls her eyes. "Yes. Thanks for reminding me."
Sam glances over to the wash of bright lights. Megan's getting settled back into her chair, still talking quietly to C.J. Cregg. "Okay. Back I go."
Donna reaches out and puts a hand on Sam's arm. "Really," she says with a nod. "You'll be fine."
"Right," Sam says. She squares her shoulders and starts toward Megan and the literal hot seat. Then she pauses mid-step and turns to throw a smile back over her shoulder. "Thanks, Donna."
Donna smiles back. "Anytime."
Abbey looks up from her book when the bedroom door opens.
"I got you a birthday present," Jed announces. He drops a large manila envelope on the coffee table in front of her, then drops himself in the sofa on the other side. He's wearing the grown-up version of that half-hopeful, half-cocky little smile she'd wanted to wipe off his face way back when he asked her for a second date.
Though it was worth noting that she'd said yes, despite the aggravating grin.
"A birthday present? That's nice, dear." Abbey sets her book on the arm of her chair and ignores the envelope in front of her. "Except it's not my birthday."
He shrugs. "Early birthday, then."
"Three months early. Your scheduler's a little bit confused, Jed."
"Considering that I usually have two or three meetings scheduled on top of each other when we're not in the middle of a national crisis, I'd say my scheduler's a little bit confusing. But in this case, neither my scheduler nor I had a say in the timing."
Abbey cocks her head and raises and eyebrow, but she still doesn't move for the envelope.
"Oh, just open the damn thing, Abbey."
"All right, all right." She leans forward and snatches the envelope off the table. "Keep your pants on, Mr. President."
"Yeah, 'cause that's what I like to hear in my own bedroom."
"Ha ha." Abbey opens the envelope and pulls out the contents. She flips through a few pages, stopping along the way to stare down at a few x-rays. "What is this?" she asks, turning back to the first page to start over again.
"Well, I'm told it's an alien."
"Very funny, Jed," she says. Except that's exactly what it said, right there on the top sheet she hadn't bothered to read the first time. She flips back to the first x-ray and holds it closer to the lap beside her. "Some sort of image manipulation?"
"Oh, here we go."
She turns several more pages, scans line after line of patient histories, physical exams, and laboratory reports. "This is pretty detailed for a practical joke. Who did this for you?"
"An air force doctor, if you have to know. Chief medical officer of a base in Colorado that sends people to other planets via a process I needed a physicist to explain to me. You can meet her if you want. The doctor, I mean, not the physicist, though she was interesting, too. Anyway, I thought it might be fun."
Abbey looks up at her husband, who's staring up toward the ceiling, remotely examining some detail of the light fixture or the crown molding. He looks tired and preoccupied. Even more tired and preoccupied than usual, a state which generally accompanies military intervention or rioting in the streets. "You're serious," she says, her brow furrowing.
He meets her eyes and nods, once, almost imperceptibly. "You don't believe me, watch my national address tomorrow."
"You have an address tomorrow?"
"So my scheduler tells me."
"Huh," she says, glancing back down at the papers in her lap.
Jed grumbles. " Aliens, Abbey. A little more enthusiasm, please?"
"Give a girl a minute to catch up, will you? The movie I've been living in just switched genres." She stands up, straightening the papers in her hands, and moves to sit next to him on the couch. She picks up one of the pictures from the pile in her lap and studies it closely. "This is a very fine birthday present," she says.
"I thought so, too."
"How long have you known about this?"
He sighs. "Since the day I took office."
Abbey laughs. "Well, that must have been a bit of a shock."
"You have no idea."
"I'm going to need you to tell me about this now."
"Yeah." He shifts closer and lifts the papers from her lap, turning back to the beginning. "Here we go."