Eliot should have known it was about to go off the rails when he heard Hardison say, "Nate, we got a problem."
Eliot grimaced in irritation. He was outside the door of the hotel suite that Hardison and Nate were searching. The corridor of the high-end hotel was empty though they knew it wouldn't stay that way for long. Sophie was in the lobby ready to delay their mark when he showed up and Parker was in the elevator foyer, wearing a t-shirt from a horticultural service and pretending to water plants. Eliot said, "What now, Hardison?"
Nate, in the background, sounded distracted. "What?"
Hardison was worried, which was a bad sign. "This is not the right laptop. There's nothing on here about petrochemicals, fracking, oil and gas industry financials... It's all kinds of equations, like for black holes and wormholes."
Eliot swore under his breath. "Are you sure?"
Hardison got snippy. "Of course I'm sure. I can tell astrophysics from geophysics. This is the real Stephen Hawking deal. Nate, come here, I got a bad feeling about this."
Eliot had a bad feeling about it, too. Over the radio, he heard Nate cross the room and the creak as he leaned on the back of Hardison's chair. Nate said, "Yeah, I think we've been played. Nothing's right in here. The clothes in the closet, the documents. Somebody's given this guy a fake identity and I'm betting it's the military."
Sophie's outraged voice broke in. "Played? Why that little-- I knew something was wrong, there was something about his eyes--"
Parker cut in, "Are they after us, or the mark?"
"Wait, the military? Our military?" Eliot asked. The bad feeling became a terrible feeling. Black holes and wormholes, Hardison had said. Wormholes. Hardison had been able to find an online trail confirming what their client had claimed. Not just anybody could fool Hardison, it would take a high-end player, a military-grade operation... And that would only make sense if the target was a military-grade operation...
In the room, Hardison was saying, "What language is that? It's not Greek..."
Nate said, "Huh, no, not Greek. That emblem, that looks military."
"It's like those patches that NASA does for different missions, except I don't recognize that one. Hand me the tablet, I'll do an image search--"
Eliot pushed through the door and strode across the suite to the desk where Hardison sat with Nate leaning over his shoulder. Nate stepped back so Eliot could see. He stared at the screen, at the little emblem at the top of a page of complex equations.
He had expected to see an SGC emblem and stared at the stylized Pegasus without comprehension. Then he realized what he was looking at. "Atlantis." He swore. "We gotta get out of here."
Nate touched his radio. "Parker, Sophie, go. We'll catch up."
Hardison pushed away from the desk, shoving to his feet. "What is it? It can't be some black ops deal, it's got to be NASA-- Oh, this dude is going down if he's tricked us into jacking with NASA-- Nobody jacks with NASA on my watch--"
"I'll tell you later, just go." Eliot grabbed Hardison's arm to shove him toward the door.
Then in the middle of the room, a white light flared like a flash bomb and in it three figures materialized. Nate stared blankly, Hardison gasped, and Eliot swore in horror.
Two men, one woman. One heavyset guy with short brown hair, one smaller, shorter man with a fluffy halo of hair, both in suits. One petite Asian woman in glasses and a neat jacket and skirt. As if continuing a conversation they had been having, the heavyset guy was saying, "I did not come all the way across two galaxies to take you two to the Olive Garden."
The Asian woman protested, "They have chocolate martinis."
"Is not fair, Rodney," the smaller guy said in a Czech accent. "You picked the restaurant last--"
They froze, staring at Eliot, Hardison, and Nate.
Nate must be reeling from the shock, but he managed, "Uh, hello. Wrong room. We're just leaving."
Hardison gasped, "Star Trek!"
Eliot said, "It's not what it looks like." He was caught between dread and an embarrassment so acute it was physically painful. He couldn't believe he had screwed up this badly.
The two men were still gaping. The Asian woman slapped what had to be a base unit in her jacket breast pocket and snapped, "AR-3 to Vengeance of Athos, emergency exit, now!"
The three people vanished in another burst of white light.
Baffled, Nate said, "That was..."
"Star Trek," Hardison repeated reverently. "That was real, that wasn't no special effect, that was the real deal--"
Eliot said, "Run!"
But as the white light filled his vision, he knew it was too late.
Eliot felt his ears pop as a metal-walled room materialized around them. All of them. Parker and Sophie stood a few steps away, Parker in the jeans and t-shirt of her disguise and Sophie in high heels and the kind of suit high-powered women lawyers in DC would wear. She stumbled and Parker steadied her before Nate could reach her. Nate said, "You two all right?"
Parker looked around, taking in the whole room at a glance. She said, "No. What happened?"
It was a big room, the walls rounded at top and bottom, studded with support girders, and the lights set flush with the ceiling. Eliot recognized it and winced.
Sophie stared around, her eyes wide. "It's not real. It's a trick. We've done things almost as convincing."
"Almost. Almost as convincing." Nate pivoted, taking in every detail. "Hardison?"
"Did your ears pop? Because my ears popped." Hardison said. Eliot couldn't tell if Hardison was scared or delighted, and he didn't think Hardison knew either. "The pressure's different. The air's different. This is a controlled, pressurized environment."
Parker said warily, "We're lighter." She bounced on her heels.
Hardison nodded. "Gravity. The gravity's lighter. We beamed up." He reached over and caught Parker's hand, apparently unable to control a grin. "We. Beamed. Up."
Parker's brow furrowed. "Right, but who did it?"
Sophie was aghast. She turned to Parker. "No, it can't be real. It has to be a con!"
"It's NASA," Hardison said. He looked around again, bouncing a little with excitement, still holding Parker's hand. "It's got to be NASA. Or CNSA. Maybe ISRO. Nobody else in space, at least right now."
"That we know of." Nate had zeroed in on Eliot.
Eliot knew he wasn't reacting the way the others were, that his lack of surprise was like an alarm going off for Nate. Eliot set his jaw and answered the unspoken question, "It's not a con. It's real. We're on a ship." It was the hold of a BC304, and not a new one. From the scuffmarks on the deck and the occasional dent in the bulkheads, and the smell of the recirculated air, it was probably the old Daedalus.
Hardison, Parker, and Sophie turned to stare at him. Eliot winced away from the dawning realization in their expressions.
A rumble from the bulkhead made them all flinch. A seal popped as the wall slid open to reveal a smaller room with a control console across the far wall and a viewscreen looking out into space. Eliot didn't recognize the Airmen working at the console or posted at the hatch in the other wall, but he knew the man who was standing there watching them. He felt a sinking sensation that had nothing to do with the change in pressure. Oh, hell, no. This was about as worse as it could get.
Hardison pointed at the viewscreen. "Space," he whispered. "We're really in space."
Eliot stepped forward and stopped when he felt the tingle on his skin that said a forcefield was in place. "General O'Neill--"
O'Neill said, "Mr. Spencer. Fancy meeting me here." He smiled genially, which Eliot knew was a very, very bad sign.
Dr. Jackson walked in from the corridor, carrying a tablet. "Jack, what are you--" He saw them and stopped in surprise. "Oh, hi, Spencer." He frowned at O'Neill. "Jack, what's going on?"
Without looking away, O'Neill said, "Daniel, go take a coffee break, I'm about to be very disappointed in Mr. Spencer."
Eliot said evenly, "General O'Neill, this is not what it looks like." He still didn't want to look at the others. He could feel the horrified astonishment and betrayal hanging in the air.
"You knew Star Trek was real and you didn't tell us!" The words burst out of Hardison as if he couldn't contain them for another instant. "How could you-- How could you do that--" He pointed accusingly at the viewscreen. "Star. Trek. Is. Real!"
Wide-eyed, unable to suppress a grin, Parker whispered, "It's bigger on the inside."
"That's not the right one," Hardison told her, "it's Star Trek--"
Sophie grabbed his arm. "Hardison, hush!"
Nate stepped up beside Eliot. "Excuse me, question, General? How did you get us? Okay, I know how you got us, but how did you get all of us?"
"The radios," Eliot ground out. Besides being potentially life-threatening, this was embarrassing as hell. "General, I swear to you, it's not what it looked like."
O'Neill ignored all the byplay. "Then you might want to explain quick, because there's some very angry people on a very big, very heavily armed starship that are in the process of hacking through our shields so they can talk to you about it in person."
Eliot threw a desperate look at Nate. Nate had no expression except mild curiosity, which meant he was thinking rapidly. Sophie bit her lip, clearly scrambling for a handle on the situation. Hardison looked like he was about to have an out of body experience. Parker mouthed the word "starship." Eliot turned back to O'Neill. "The Atlantis project. They're here?"
"Spencer, you know that. You were just in their hotel room, touching their stuff." O'Neill folded his arms. "I'm still waiting for an explanation, and you know how I get."
Yeah, Eliot knew. He said, "We were tricked. Our client lied to us. We had no intention of going after one of your people or taking any classified material." He added, "General, you know me and you know what I do. This is not what I do."
Hardison added with real sincerity, "We would never jack with NASA or Star Trek."
O'Neill eyed him, and his gaze flicked over Hardison and Parker, to Nate, back to Nate, then to Sophie, then back to Nate. He had obviously made Nate as the one to watch, which wasn't surprising. O'Neill said, "Okay, so say I believe you. Hypothetically. The problem is, Atlantis isn't under the SGC's jurisdiction right now."
Yeah, Eliot had been afraid of that. "I didn't think-- Why is the SGC fighting Atlantis?" He needed to know just what the hell they were getting into. What he had gotten them into. "I thought that got resolved two years ago."
"We're not fighting," Dr. Jackson said. "Exactly. It's complicated. The Trust infiltrated the IOA, things went very wrong, but we've almost got it sorted out. The UN committee is meeting this week, that's why Atlantis sent a ship."
"Atlantis is real, and it has spaceships," Sophie said. She looked helplessly at Nate. Nate said, "Yes, that's what I was wondering."
"We don't have time to tell Mr. Spencer and his new friends all about classified material." O'Neill tapped his radio. "Isn't that right, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir," a woman's voice said over the comm system. "We can't stop them, and they aren't responding to our hail. One minute and counting."
O'Neill turned back to face Eliot and grimaced. "Well, say hi for me. Good luck, and everything."
Desperately, Eliot began, "Sir, we did not know--"
Nate broke in hurriedly, "So, these people who are about to grab us are what, aliens?"
O'Neill waved a hand. "Not really, only about half of them are aliens."
"More like one-third," Dr. Jackson corrected. "I'm sure it'll be fine. If I were you, I'd tell them you're not the Trust. Better lead with that, actually."
"If you get out of it, give us a ring," O'Neill said, as the hold dissolved in a haze of light. "Bye."
"So, Eliot." Nate smiled. It wasn't as bad as O'Neill's genial smile, but it was in the ball park. "Have you got something you'd like to share with the class?"
They were in a copper-walled room with strips of bronze and a blue ceiling, with padded benches. One wall was a window, looking down on some kind of multi-leveled control area, though most of what they could see was a circular ramp, with crystal and liquid columns, and copper embossed pillars. People went up or down the ramp occasionally, mostly in gray and blue or gray and red uniforms, or what could only be described as eclectic combinations of civilian clothes.
They had been beamed to another hold, surrounded by Marines in black and gray uniforms and people in leather and knits like something out of a Mad Max movie. Everybody had been heavily armed. They had been politely searched, relieved of anything that looked like a weapon or a communications device, and brought here. Hardison and Parker had been plastered to the window ever since. They kept waving at people and sometimes the people waved back.
Eliot rubbed at the headache between his eyes and took the plunge. "So yeah, occasionally I've done consultant work for a secret military project called the SGC."
Hardison pried himself off the window to point accusingly at him again. "You knew Star Trek was real and you didn't say anything--"
"Star Trek is not real! This is not Star Trek!" Eliot waved a hand, indicating the whole cosmos. "There is some scary stuff out there, man. These people don't have ships armed like this for the hell of it! There's...stuff out there that you don't want anything to do with."
"Are those people aliens?" Parker demanded, still stuck to the window. "The ones in the leather pants?"
"Yes," Eliot said, resigned. "They're human, but they're not from Earth."
There was a moment of silence while Sophie glared at him and Nate rubbed his eyes. Nate said finally, "SGC?"
Eliot sighed. "Stargate Command."
Hardison shook his head a little, still incredulous. "I can't believe you didn't-- Area 51?"
Eliot looked up at him. "Yeah. But mostly Cheyenne Mountain."
"The Deep Space Telemetry project?" Hardison's brow furrowed. "The people who track Santa Claus?"
"It's easy to track Santa when you have a spaceship," Parker said, still plastered to the glass, her voice muffled.
Nate nodded to himself. "The SGC. That was the general on the other--" He made a flying gesture.
Eliot nodded. "The other ship, right."
"The other spaceship," Sophie said. She shook her head a little, clearly trying to get her brain around it. "So who are these people on this spaceship? The Atlantis project?"
"It's a long story, but years ago the SGC found an alien city in another galaxy and it sent a multinational scientific expedition, with an SGC military contingent to protect them. They got cut off for three years, then they were attacked by an organization called the Trust. It was bad, real bad. There's some scary aliens in Pegasus that go after the human population, and Atlantis ended up with a bunch of civilian refugees living there with the expedition. Kids, old people." Eliot rubbed his face. He had seen some of the DV on his last assignment with the SGC, and it hadn't been pretty. "The Trust tore the base up, killed some civilians and earth military and scientists, tortured the military commander, some of the Marines, and one of the local civilian leaders. They did it while claiming to be from the SGC. O'Neill and a real SGC ship got it straightened out, mostly. But something must have happened again."
Sophie frowned. "Right. Now, this Trust organization, what do they want? Are they aliens?" She grimaced. "I can't believe I just said that."
"No, they're from Earth." Eliot shook his head and pushed to his feet, pacing over to the far wall. "They're terrorists. They don't want Earth to cooperate with any other planets, they just want to steal any technology and bring it back here, no matter who they have to kill." He couldn't tell them about the Ancient gene, or the Asgard, or the Goa'uld, or the Wraith. It was bad enough he had to tell them this much. "Atlantis is all about cooperation between Earth and humans from other planets, so the Trust is all over them."
Nate leaned back against the wall and let out a breath. "Patterson must have been from the Trust."
Sophie looked toward the window, worried. "Yes, obviously he was trying to use us to get to the Atlantis people who were here to meet with the UN. We have to persuade them that this was all a misunderstanding on our part."
"So how much trouble are we in?" Hardison said, shifting uncomfortably. "This is all classified super secret government tech, and we've seen it..."
Parker took her attention off the window long enough to ask, "Federal prison?"
Eliot made an impatient gesture. "Atlantis isn't under any government jurisdiction."
Nate said, "Right, but they're negotiating with the UN. So..."
"So?" Sophie lifted her brows.
"So..." Nate shrugged. "I have no idea."
A sound from the door made everybody tense, then it slid open to reveal a man in the black and gray Atlantean military uniform. There were two more Marines behind him, and two women who must be Athosian regulars, but Eliot noted they were all carrying the Wraith stunners. That was possibly a good sign. He said warily, "Stackhouse. Long time no see." Eliot had done a few gate missions with the Marine sergeant before the Atlantis expedition. They had parted as friends, but right now Stackhouse just looked pissed off.
"Spencer." Stackhouse didn't look thrilled to see him. "The message came from the Daedalus that you were behind this mess and I didn't believe it."
Eliot shook his head, frustrated. "I told General O'Neill, we were tricked. This is not what we do and we sure as hell wouldn't take a job from the Trust."
"Yeah, General O'Neill sent a message." Stackhouse didn't appear convinced. "My commanding officer wants to see whoever's in charge."
Nate stood. "That would be me."
Eliot told him, "Not alone."
Nate gave him a look. "Eliot, everybody here's a little upset with you right now--"
"Including us," Hardison put in.
"--so maybe it would be better if you let me do the talking."
Possibly Nate had a point.