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Under His Nose

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 Nominated for the 2016 No Rest For The Wicked Awards

 

Chapter One

John Sheppard stood under the spray from the shower, head tilted forward, as he scrubbed at his hair. He could still smell the stench of the Wraith base everywhere around him and it was triggering bad memories, both from the mission he’d just returned from and from missions on Earth where he’d lost friends and others.

Sumner was dead and John was the ranking officer, but he didn’t want it. John didn’t want the responsibility or the weight of the lives of everyone on this base on his shoulders. But he knew Weir wanted him to take it. And he had stepped forward when Sumner and the Athosians had been taken. It had been instinctive.

John was constitutionally incapable of leaving a man behind. He’d come to terms with that years before, well before the black mark that had sent him to Antarctica. And now, every Marine, every scientist, every Athosian, everyone on this floating city was his to oversee. There was no one else. Not really. Ford was much too young and naive. Bates was too xenophobic.

And how the hell had someone like that been in this program long enough to get on this expedition in the first place , John wondered. The entire makeup of this mission was screwed up from the start. Sumner was the only high ranked officer among the Marines. And to have a civilian in charge. I like Weir, I guess. At least so far. She’s a bit pushy and she was willing to leave our men and new allies in the hands of the enemy, but she’s a diplomat, not a soldier. And diplomats are really more about the Big Picture and the Greater Good than about the real people. Which come to think of it is another reason she shouldn’t have been given command of this mission.

From the reading I’ve crammed in over the last few months, going through the Stargate has always been dangerous, from the very beginning. Why did they think going to another galaxy, where we’d be completely cut off from Earth for who knows how long would be any different? Granted, the Wraith are beyond fucked up and even worse than the snakes in the Milky Way, but someone had to wonder why the “lost city” was lost.

According to Dr. Jackson, the Ancients flew Atlantis here from Earth millions of years ago. Why would they not fly it back when they returned to Earth? They were under siege. We know now. But didn’t Jackson think about that? Didn’t anyone? And add to the legends about Atlantis, a city sunken under the ocean, and you decide to send a large group of scientists with some soldiers under a civilian diplomat ?

What would Weir have done if we had run into some Goa’uld here? We don’t have the backing of the Asgard who saved us back home. And now I have to dance around her and keep us safe from Marilyn Manson space vampires at the same time. Plus whoever and whatever else is out there.

I knew I should have flipped that coin again. Best two out of three or three out of five.

John scrubbed his arms, glad at least this ancient city had working plumbing and evidently unlimited hot water. He wasn’t sure how long he had been in this shower, but he knew most places on Earth would have started running cold by now. The stench of the Wraith base was starting to finally fade.

But there was this spot on his right wrist that just wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t dirt. Or it didn't seem to be. John lifted his wrist to his face and stepped out of the spray so he could see properly. He wiped the excess water from the area and his fingers traced the silvered letters that spanned his inner wrist. M-E-R. That was it. Three letters, fairly large, all capitals, printed but not in an electronic font type of way. More like a young hand. Not sloppy but not neat, either. John couldn’t understand this. What was MER? Did it have something to do with the Ancient tech gene? No one ever told him he would get a tattoo. It was pretty in a weird, how-the-hell-did-this-happen way.

John finished his shower and decided not to reveal his new wrist art to anyone, unless they asked. It was odd and if it was expected, then he would wait until Weir or McKay or Beckett asked him about it. Until then, he’d just keep it covered. He usually wore the leather wristbands his mother had bought him when off duty anyway. And now, here, he was the one in charge and could declare them part of his uniform and no one could object unless or until they made contact with Earth. And by then, surely he would know what it meant. It could have something to do with being on this Ancient city and him having the mutant Ancient gene in such strength. He’d find out eventually. He’d keep an eye on it, see if it changed over time or as he interacted more with the city systems or something. If it spread or hurt or changed color or anything weird, he’d talk to the doc. But until then, being in a floating city that could fly, and preparing to fight space vampires was more than enough for one week.

--

John walked into the large room near the gate room and not far from the room Weir had claimed as her office and took a seat. There was a large sort of oblong table and John supposed it could be called a conference table if one were being generous. He slouched in his chair, his eyes at half mast, seeming to be daydreaming. In reality, John was taking in the entire room, the exits, the alcoves, the shadows, everything in sight. It was learned behavior and John could no more stop it than he could stop breathing. He had learned to observe his surroundings and threat-assess early in life.

Patrick Sheppard hadn’t been physically abusive. Not often, at least. Not before Simone Sheppard had died. After, well, between the increase in Patrick’s drinking and John’s own grief manifesting as rebellion and a smartass attitude, the smacks got more frequent and John’s abilities refined. It all led to John joining the Air Force and eventually making a full break with his family after his divorce.

The only reason it lasted that long was because his father had hoped Nancy would get him to retire and take his place in the company. When John gave up on the farce his marriage to Nancy had become, Patrick Sheppard gave up on his youngest son and never spoke to him again.

And John’s time in the Air Force, especially during his brief three year stint in the shadier sections of the service, made the behavior deeply ingrained and instinctive. As other members of the senior staff entered this conference room, John catalogued them in his mind, all while seemingly nearly asleep.

The first through the door was Doctor Carson Beckett, the gene carrier who had nearly shot John’s helicopter out of the air in Antarctica. John didn’t blame him anymore, not really. He knew Beckett was terrified of his own gene and what it could do when interacting with this ancient tech. But he’d come on the expedition anyway. He put the good of the people he could help ahead of his fear. John approved of the man and hoped they could become friends over time.

The doctor was dressed in the standard uniform of khaki pants and a light shirt zipped halfway down the chest. He wore a standard white lab coat over the rest and was carrying a tablet in his right hand and a mug of something hot in his left hand.

Next into the room was Sergeant Bates. He was dressed in the uniform of the Marines in the Stargate program, gray pants, gray jacket with the US flag on the arm. The jacket was fully zipped and fastened, the arms tight to the wrists, not rolled up like he had seen in Colorado at times. John wondered if he felt the need for formality in this new situation: a new galaxy, a dead commanding officer, a civilian leader of the expedition, a horrific new enemy, and John, a man he didn’t quite understand or respect, in charge of the military.

The soldier sat at attention in the chair next to John and laid the computer he’d brought with him on the table. He nodded to his commanding officer and sat quietly, back straight, head up, a stark contrast to the man at his side.

John still wasn’t sure he was going to get along with the other man but he had no real choice but to give him authority. Bates’ rank and place within Sumner’s coterie made it impossible to shunt him into a dead-end spot and it wasn’t like John could send him back to Earth. Some thought had John deciding to keep him on the city, though. His attitudes toward “aliens” echoed that of the late Sumner and they needed allies here in Pegasus, not more enemies. A fairly xenophobic leader of a gate team would be more likely to gather the latter not the former, especially with the Atlantis expedition technically being the aliens, not the natives they were meeting. And Bates had too much rank and seniority not to be a team lead if he was on a team.

John felt the other Marines would accept Bates as head of city security fairly readily. It was sort of a promotion. John wasn’t sure Bates would see it that way, but technically, he would have more authority than Sumner would have granted him, so there.

Lieutenant Ford entered the room, also in the standard Marine uniform for the expedition. John noted his sleeves were not just tight around the wrist, but his left wrist had a rubber band around the sleeve, holding it close to his arm.

John truly liked the younger man. He found him amusing but incredibly wet behind the ears for his rank. John was going to put him on his own gate team. It would help season him, placate the Marines with a high ranking one of their own on the premier team, and give him someone with a bit of experience with gate travel against his own lack, as well.

Within a minute, the rest of the senior staff entered and took seats. Weir was dressed in the civilian standard uniform minus the jacket. Her red shirt was zipped most of the way and there was an ace bandage wrapped around her right wrist.

John was still on the fence about the diplomat leader of the expedition. He was reserving judgment. She was nice and sweet, he supposed, but she had a stubborn streak wider than the Mississippi, as evidenced by her pushing at him to come on the expedition as a light switch, wanting him for his gene, and pushing him and the military to get her way. Time would tell, John decided.

McKay was in the khaki and blue uniform of the science staff and his jacket was half undone. His hair was sticking up slightly and he didn’t appear to have slept at all. He carried a huge travel mug and two tablet computers. His left wrist was covered in what looked like at least a dozen band-aids.

John found the other scientist amusing. He was abrasive and loud, to be sure.  But his brilliance was unmistakable. And John enjoyed making him stop and reevaluate, like he had when he knew how many gate combinations Ford’s symbols could be. John wasn’t a crazy genius like the Canadian but he was smart enough to test at genius level when he tried, and math came as easy as breathing to him.

John had decided he would get to know the other man and if his first instincts proved correct, he would invite him to be on his gate team. They would need a scientist, and why not the head. They needed to find tech and McKay was more likely to understand it quickly than most of the others he could take. Plus it would show the civilians he wasn’t a hard ass like Sumner, having a civilian scientist on his team rather than a Marine one.

John needed all of the members of the expedition to trust him if he was going to do his job properly and have any real chance of keeping them all alive until they could reestablish contact with Earth. John hated being manipulative but he knew it was necessary.

Doctor Heightmeyer, the shrink for the expedition, was wearing civvies; jeans and a long sleeved white shirt under a light grey lab coat. She had a wide, chunky bracelet on her right wrist, and carried a PDA.

John didn’t really know the woman. He had memorized her stats, education, age, background, but he hadn't seen her professionally and really had no plans to do so. Her appointment was another mistake in his opinion. Or, not her actual appointment , but the fact that she was the only counselor for the expedition and was a civilian. John didn't care how long she had worked with the program, she was a total civilian, pretty and sweet. She had absolutely no weapons or hand to hand training. The closest thing in her file was yoga. They were going to be facing serious battle situations here with horrific deaths (if Sumner’s was a judge) and she would never be able to really connect with the soldiers who would need her expertise. There should have been a military shrink included on the expedition. Or at least, a shrink with a military combat background, even if they were currently civilian.

John couldn’t believe how horribly this expedition had been staffed and supplied. They had treated it like a long camping trip, even though everyone kept emphasizing that it could be a one-way trip. They should have treated the expedition like a colonizing party, not a normal long-term gate team. But when they left Earth, John hadn’t had the seniority or anything to get someone to listen to him. He was only along because Weir wanted his gene and his ability to turn on and manipulate Ancient tech.

Peter Grodin was wearing the light blue uniform shirt and khaki pants and for the first time since they’d formally met in Colorado, the man’s sleeves were not rolled up. He held a cup of what looked like coffee and placed it on the table in front of Weir as he took the seat to her left.

John didn’t know the man well but found him professional and smart. His actions this morning seemed a bit kiss ass but John would reserve judgment. It could be Weir had “ordered” the coffee and he was delivering it.

And just as Weir looked like she was about to start to speak, Teyla Emmagan, the Athosian they had met and rescued, entered the room and slid into a seat next to Ford on John’s right. Her leather outfit was tight and her wrists were both covered in bracers which was no different from the day before.

John truly liked the feisty young woman. He hoped he could convince Weir of her expertise and put her on his gate team. There was precedent, after all. SG-1’d had an alien, Teal’c, on their team from the very beginning. And Teyla would be an excellent guide in this unknown place. Having a native along was better than depending on information over ten thousand years out of date.

Weir looked annoyed at Teyla’s presence but in the end allowed her to remain. As the civilian leader opened her mouth to begin, John slid upward in his seat, his eyes fully open and his slouch much less noticeable.

Weir began the meeting by making a show of welcoming their new friend, a smile so fake on her face John thought it would have been appropriate in Batman. Teyla smiled in return, bowing her head in deference to a powerful ally, her mouth set in a tight smile John felt would fracture her teeth behind her lips if she held it much longer.

After the diplomatic fakery, Weir turned to each member of the senior staff and inquired as to the status of their area. McKay reported the city was stable on the ocean’s surface and the naquadah generators were keeping it there just fine and handling their current power needs without an issue. He explained his scientists were first spending their time exploring the tower which housed the gate. They would spread out from there.

Grodin reported he had set up a schedule for personnel to man the gate room and he wanted to expand the number of people who could use the controls and understood their purpose. Weir agreed.

The shrink told them she was still looking for an appropriate room for her office and would set up hours within a few days. Until then, if anyone needed her services, she would improvise.

John told the others he was in the process of setting up a rotation for security personnel in key areas, as each area was explored. He would place at least two Marines on duty near the generator power room and several in the gate room on the main level in case of incursion. “I’d also like to announce I am appointing Sergeant Bates as Head of Base Security. We’ll work together to keep the base as secure as possible for a city this large with as few personnel as we have. I’m also going to be putting together five gate teams to start with. We need to start meeting more people. I know we only have limited supplies and it isn’t like we can plant crops on the pier out there. We’re in the middle of an ocean on a floating metal city. We need food, we’ll eventually need medical supplies, clothing, and potentially weapons. The sooner we get started, the better on that front. We’ll also keep an eye out for Ancient tech and those ZPM things McKay was so excited about.”

“Very well, John. I agree with his appointment; we’ll discuss the teams and their priorities when we get them set up.”

You agree with his appointment? I’m the fucking head of the military on this base! I don’t want to be but I am! You don’t get to agree! You just get to be informed! Damn it! And who is this fucking we kimosabe? Fuck, fuck, fuck, I hate this already! And since fucking when were we on a first name basis?!? She’s undermining my authority in front of Bates and Ford and the others. She did the same thing to McKay and Beckett. She called them Rodney and Carson. And Grodin was Peter. Fucking fuckity fuck! If this is some kind of boardroom bonding crap, I’m going to toss something out a window. Preferably her.

John nodded his head calmly, his face showing none of his inner anger at the condescension but feeling incredibly close to Sumner suddenly, knowing the other man had understood exactly the shit he would have to put up with under the civilian leader of the expedition. John felt it explained, at least partly, the stick he had up his ass where Weir was concerned. And his attitude about John. He knew John had disobeyed orders in the past and with a civilian as Sumner’s boss, and the lack of contact with higher authorities on Earth, Sumner likely feared John was Weir’s spy. And John himself hadn’t helped with his attitude and snark in the gateroom in Colorado.

“Let me make myself clear, Major. You are not here by my choice.” Sumner had scowled at him.

John had tried to be friendly but Sumner reminded him on some level of Patrick Sheppard and that never turned out well for someone in authority over John. “I'm sure you'll warm up to me once you get to know me, sir.”

Sumner’s scowl had deepened. “As long as you remember who's giving the orders.”

John had smirked and been a smartass, giving a very wrong impression, he was now positive, “That would be Dr. Weir, right?”

Sumner had glared and John was sure that was the moment when the Marine had given up on him.

John tuned back into the meeting as Weir turned her attention from some issue with the database McKay had mentioned and asked the next senior staff member for their report.

Doctor Beckett reported on the discovery of a space that was medical in nature he had claimed as the infirmary. He said they were currently ready to handle minor issues - cuts, sprains, minor burns, even broken bones as long as they weren’t compound fractures that broke the skin. Surgery was not ready yet but he did concede in the event it was needed in an emergency situation before he had a sterile operating room, he would be able to use MASH procedures to do what was necessary.

“I just request you try not to need surgery for some time. We think we’ve identified an appropriate space but it won’t be ready for a few days yet. So, lads and lasses, be careful with yer weapons, no bullet holes until then, ye ken?”

The senior staff chuckled or smiled or scowled as per their disposition and station to the doctor’s quip.

“But, Elizabeth, lass, that wrap isn’t from the infirmary. Did you sprain it? I can examine ye after the meeting and re-wrap it properly. You may need more support if it is a bad sprain. It could even be a minor fracture. You can be the first to officially use the Ancient scanner we found. It acts like a cross between an MRI and an X-Ray machine, we think.”

Weir shook her head at the enthusiastic Scottish doctor. “I’m fine, Carson. Honestly.”

McKay sat forward and reached for her wrist and she pulled it back from the table where she had it lying. “Wait, Elizabeth. You just told Carson it was fine. If it isn’t strained, why do you have it wrapped?”

Weir remained silent and McKay held up his own bandaged wrist. “There’s some kind of funky Ancient contagion, isn't there? You’ve got writing on your wrist, don’t you? I was going to see Carson after the meeting but you’ve got it, too. We’ve been exposed to some Ancient virus and it’s going to kill us or worse, cover us in tattoos.”

John snorted, “Calm down, Hermione . You have interesting priorities. Death is better than tattoos? Wow, McKay, that is not normal.”

McKay glared at him and then looked down at his leather covered wrists. “It got you, too! I thought maybe it was some reaction because we didn’t have the gene but Mister Super Strong Gene Air Force Major got it, too! Is this something you brought back from the wraith ship? Maybe it has nothing to do with the Ancient tech and is something to do with the space vampires? Did you infect us, Major?”

Weir blinked at them. “You have a na- you have writing on your wrist, too? Both of you?”

Doctor Beckett sighed. “I’ll admit to the same. I have what can only be called a first name tattooed in silver on my wrist. All of my nurses and both of the doctors who were on duty this morning have also reported the same thing. I was going to bring it up with Rodney and ask him to search the Ancient database later.”

John sat up straight. Okay, so maybe MER is a name. It’s weird, probably alien, but it could be a name. He turned to face Bates. “Sergeant, I’m not going to ask you to show it, but do you have a new tattoo?” The stern-faced man nodded once and Ford chimed in with a “Me too, sir.”

At that, the other expedition members in the room admitted to the same. Over the last twenty-four hours each of them had noticed the appearance of a silver word on their wrist, some on the left, some on the right. McKay began to freak out about Ancient viruses once more and stopped abruptly when light musical laughter rang out from Teyla.

“Do you people not search for your marked? Have none of you been marked before coming here? Is your galaxy so devoid of love?”

“Love?” asked Weir.

“I have never met a person, other than the Wraith, who was not marked when their bodies became adult. The name of the one person who is your perfect match, the other half to your very self, is revealed. Very few find their matches but those who do are revered and envied. I have not met a matched pair in my lifetime, nor did my father in his. But it is said matched pairs are blessed and have strange powers. Stories tell of a time when pairs were more plentiful, but that was many generations ago, before my father’s father’s father’s father was born. Now, the Wraith have culled so many, it is difficult and dangerous to go on a match hunt to other worlds. Some do but they are few, so you must have great luck to come across your match. Most do not wait.”

McKay spoke up. “Other half of you? Wait, wait, wait! This is some mystical soulmate thing? Some mystical force gives you a tattoo when you reach adulthood? Or do you do it yourselves?”

“No, it simply appears when our bodies become adult.”

“So, there's no crazy ceremony where you drink tea and paint your bodies and inject some radioactive stuff into your veins so they glow and - “

John interrupted. “McKay! She said it just happened. When their bodies become adult. I assume that means when they reach puberty. Besides, none of us have been in any kind of tea ceremony where we got tattoos, symbolically or otherwise. And it isn’t like the Athosians could have done it in our sleep. There are too many of us and not enough of them. Plus, I saw mine before I went to bed last night, so calm down. Maybe you can follow Doctor Beckett’s suggestion and look in the Ancient database for information?”

Weir nodded. “Yes. Good idea. See what you can find out, Rodney. Meanwhile, make sure everyone understands what Teyla says this is. Let’s keep the freakouts to a minimum and the information flow on max, all right?”

Bates spoke up. “We need to make a list of everyone’s tattoos. It’s regulation.”

“I don’t know, Sergeant Bates.” Weir frowned at the man’s words.

“Names are very private things, Doctor Weir.” Teyla said. “Many never bare their wrist to another, even if they bond in marriage. Unless you find the name, it is never shown. It is a very spiritual thing.”

Weir nodded. “I agree with Teyla. If someone wants to reveal their name, it is their choice. The only thing we need to know is if it is on their left wrist or their right wrist. And if they have one or not. Now, we can’t walk around with long sleeves all the time or bandages, like Rodney and I. Suggestions?”

Teyla sat forward. “I had assumed when I saw Major Sheppard’s wristbands they were what your people used to keep the name private. I suggest something like that or like my own band. There are many people who make different kinds of coverings but the bands are the easiest and the least likely to inadvertently show off the name. I am sure several of my people have extras with them. The woman who makes them for my people, Charon, may have her entire stock. She was always ready for cullings and often kept her bag ready to grab. They are highly tradable items and I am sure we can come to an agreement on their worth to you. As payment for our stay here in the city of the Ancestors.”

Weir nodded. “You can take me to see this Charon after the meeting and we shall see.”

John sat back with a sigh. At least he already had bands. As the meeting continued, dealing with random minutiae, the majority of John’s attention turned to the three letters on his wrist. M-E-R. I wonder if that’s a man or a woman? I’ll have to find a way to subtly question Teyla on whether same sex soulmate pairs have ever occurred.