“How are you guys settling in?”
John leaned closer to the camera on their modified cart. The cart had easily handled the eighty miles of rocky and difficult terrain and Zelenka’s liquid shock absorbers had saved the equipment from any heavy bumps. However, the equine-horsish creatures they’d borrowed to pull it were both worn out. John suspected they were too tired to graze.
“Rodney is having geekgasms, so I assume the walk was worth it. Is Zelenka having any luck figuring out why this gate is killing anything mechanical that comes through?” John asked Walter—or he asked the tiny picture of Walter on the monitor mounted to the cart. John would have felt a little guilty about lying to Walter, but he was almost sure Walter knew the whole thing was a set up. Hell, he might even know what it was a setup for. Walter had his ways, mysterious ways that were beyond the understanding of mere humans.
“No, sir. He theorizes it’s an anti-Wraith weapon the Ancients might have been experimenting with, but he can’t figure out the code, and he warned General Helms that trying to deactivate it could shut down the gate permanently.”
“That would be bad. I’m stuck here with Ronon and Rodney. Don’t you fuck with that gate, Walter.” John put on his best threatening face. Walter just grinned. They’d served together on Atlantis for over a decade, so Walter knew when John was just bitching. Besides, John was retired, so technically he wasn’t in Walter’s chain of command and couldn’t threaten him.
“General Helms might have ordered research to continue, only Zelenka warned that the gate could blow up if there was any sort of anti-tampering device embedded. I believe Dr. Knight vetoed that.”
“Good to know,” John said. Dr. Knight might be the new IOC representative, but he was almost decent. He certainly didn’t have any more issues than any other IOC leader sent since Elizabeth had retired during her difficult second pregnancy. Of course John suspected that her resignation had also been timed to screw over the Chinese representative, but he hadn’t quite understood how. He stayed away from politics. And since the U.S. military had given him the choice of transfer or retirement, he could officially ignore any and all politicians because technically John was just one more civilian consultant.
Sure, everyone still called him ‘General,’ and he had to encourage certain individuals to actually follow General Helms’ orders, but as a retiree, he had taken over O’Neill position as the unofficial meddler behind the scenes who would claim ignorance any time the shit started flying.
It was kinda nice.
“Is that Mr. Sheppard checking in?” someone on Walter’s side asked.
John tried to pretend that Dr. Knight’s habit of stripping John of his rank didn’t matter. Knight was used to dealing with civilians, and since he rarely saw John in uniform, he likely didn’t understand the protocol. The graying beard probably didn’t help much, but twenty eight years in the service, he was enjoying being able to get a little scruffy. Since his hair was still mostly black with a few hints of silver, the pure gray beard had been a shock, but John wasn’t insecure about his age, so he didn’t shave.
“Yes, sir,” Walter said. “They’ve reached the facility.”
Dr. Knight’s face appeared over Walter’s shoulder. “Has Dr. McKay determined the feasibility of bringing the place online?” he asked. Considering that they’d only been on site for an hour, that was a uniquely stupid question. Knight was lucky Rodney wasn’t around to hear it.
“Not yet,” John said. “There’s a lot of damage, but we had the computer working for about five minutes, and he’s almost sure there are schematics here.”
“Of what?” Knight certainly looked interested at that bit of news. Unsurprising, really. IOC representatives tended to have very short tenures if they didn’t show results. Elizabeth had held the chair for sixteen years. And once she retired, the IOC had sent Galvani, Lepel, Warming, that short guy with the mustache, Lamarck, Bowler, Sarastro, Peters, Myall, Siegmund, and Overmeyer. The mustache guy had the record for briefest tenure at three days. Lamarck had held out for a whole eight months. At the three month mark, Knight was running out of time to impress someone.
“Rodney thought it might be small weapons production, maybe something like Ronon’s blaster.”
Ronon leaned over and gave the camera a wolfish grin. “Wishful thinking. Sheppard’s had a hard-on for my gun for decades.”
Knight pursed his lips in distaste, and John put an elbow in Ronon’s stomach—not that it did any good. Ronon never changed.
Sure enough, Ronon backed away while stroking his gun affectionately. “You’re never getting her.”
“If I shoot you in the head, I will,” John warned. Then he turned back to the camera. “Surely you can afford to send a few more people. Or one. Just send Zelenka or Quinn.”
Knight stood. “I am sorry, but with the current budget restrictions, I cannot send anyone else. Request that the Travelers or Turi send support personnel.” With that, he disconnected.
John stood up and looked around.
“That was friendly,” Tony said. He was wearing Traveler leathers, which made him look a little like a dashing space pirate. The touch of white in his hair suggested his age, but he didn’t look significantly different from the young NCIS agent who had stumbled into a classified op. Turi did keep their hosts healthy.
Larrin leaned against Tony’s puddlejumper. “How long can you run this ruse?” she asked.
“A long time,” Tony answered before John could point out that he had given up trying to predict human behavior for Lent. “Earth leaders are uncomfortable about how John fits into the power structure, so they’ll be happy he’s temporarily out of the picture.”
“Earthers,” Larrin said in a tone that communicated all her disgust.
Tony shrugged. “Aleigheta, are you ready to run communications?”
An image of John appeared on the computer screen. “I know John Sheppard’s style of speaking quite well,” the city’s AI said in her normal feminine tone.
“That does not sound like me,” John said.
The AI used John’s image to offer up a crooked smile. This time when she spoke, she sounded like John. “Yeah, well, I’ll throw around a few insults, question my ability to survive all these crazy people and then roll my eyes.”
“Okay, she’s got you down,” Tony said.
John would have defended himself, but Rodney came storming past. “Chop, chop. I want to get back here before anyone finds out we’re gone.”
The AI spoke through the computer screen. “Chill, Rodney. They aren’t going to catch us.”
Rodney whirled about, frowned at the computer, and then crossed his arm. “That’s all well and good for you to say, but what happens if I get fired as head of science? Do you have any idea how much damage those morons could do to your systems?”
A version of AI Rodney appeared on the screen next to the AI John. “One day. One day is all they would take to ruin some critical system that it took me months to fix. The general level of intelligence on planet Earth continues to fall if these morons are the best of the best. They aren’t even the best of the mediocre. A random twelve year old off a Traveler ship has more intelligence than these incompetent excuses for professionals.”
Everyone except Rodney laughed. He just sort of spluttered.
“I do love your computer,” Larrin said. “But McKay’s right. Let’s get moving.”
“Eighteen hours to Earth, and if we’re lucky, we can get there, get home, and get back to Atlantis without anyone realizing it,” Tony said.
“I don’t sound like that!” Rodney said. “That doesn’t even sound like a Canadian.” John kindly didn’t point out that Rodney had lost his accent years ago.
“Come on, Hubby,” John said as he pulled on Rodney’s elbow. John shook his head at the time table. He remembered when Earth required a three week journey in one of Earth’s creaky old ships. Those were the days. Well, times changed, and Atlantis needed to as well.
John felt a tingle as the transporter dropped him in the middle of the Lorne household. Evan was there in jeans and a t-shirt, but he shot to his feet, and offered a textbook perfect salute. The man aged so slowly that John would have sworn he had a Turi only he knew better. “General!”
“Oh, stop it,” John said. “Do I look like a general right now?”
Evan grinned. “You look a little like a beach bum. Are you spending a lot of time surfing lately?”
“I surf more than General O’Neill used to fish,” John said. Tony, Rodney, and Teyla would regularly park their asses on a rock and brief him between waves or come to dinner and spill every confidential detail of command meetings. Larrin and Kitsune even tended to brief him on anything that affected Atlantis. It saved John the effort O’Neill had to put into the job.
“It’s good to see you,” Evan said.
John wagged his finger at Evan. “Ah, but you don't see me.”
Evan’s eyes got large. “I don't?” The worry in his voice soothed John’s nerves. It was like recapturing a bit of the past—John made reckless plans and Evan worried and made subtle little comments that all came down to questioning John’s sanity.
“Nope. Because I have it on good authority that a significant number of people are currently seeing me on an isolated planet where Rodney dragged me to check out some equipment.”
John grinned. “Yeah.”
“So is there something I can help you with, sir?” And that was so Evan. He questioned John’s ability to make a sane plane and then volunteered to be front and center.
“Not this time. You get to sit this one out.”
Lorne raised his eyebrows.
“Seriously. I'm good. But how many years did we work together?” John sat on the edge of a side table.
“More than I worked with anyone else in my career.”
“Which is why I'm here. If you want to move back to Atlantis, you might want to think about doing that sometime soon,” John warned. He was not going to kick a hornets’ nest without giving all his people a chance to get inside and take cover first. Evan was his. Miko and Abby were his because they were Rodney’s people. No matter how much time they spent on Earth, they would always have a home on Atlantis, and John wouldn’t let them get shut out. John planned to make a few of these visit to other key people who were stationed on Earth.
Evan’s voice grew sharp. “Soon? How soon?”
“Well we aren't planning an armed insurrection, so the alarm is probably uncalled for.”
Even dropped into his chair. “When you start plotting, I always worry.”
John chuckled. “You'll be happy to know this is more Teyla's plan than mine.”
“Actually, that does make me feel better.” Evan leaned forward and asked in a conspiratorial tone. “What's going on?”
“Several of the IOC countries are refusing to allow their people to retire on Atlantis, and some troops have been recalled when they really didn't want to leave.” John didn’t want to get into the details, but two of the men had filed paperwork to retire on Atlantis, and one had a mother mysteriously killed in a car accident, and the other one’s daughter was kidnapped. Both men returned to Russia immediately, and the message had gone out to the rest of the men. If they invoked their rights under the charter, their families would pay. The American troops who brought families to Atlantis or who requested to do a second tour on the city were overlooked for promotion and generally disrespected.
John wasn’t even going to get into the political games the Americans were playing. Certain types of crimes were certainly brushed aside. Or they would be if Teyla hadn’t decided on a strict policy of disciplining anyone who the military didn’t. She would send Ford out with a list of Earthers under restrictions, and no merchant in the city would deal with them.
When John confronted Dr. Siegmund, the IOC representative at the time, most of the complaints got much quieter. The rank and file worried about John putting himself at risk for them, so rather than demanding a fair solution, they’d stopped complaining. And John hated it. He might be retired, but it was his job to cover for his people. So if Earth was getting weirdly nationalistic and arrogant, John was going to poke a few bears and give his people cover.
“And?” Evan asked suspiciously. He knew something was up.
“And Teyla has decided to make sure the IOC knows that Atlantis doesn't need Earth's help to invite people into the city. Teyla and Aleigheta think that this is going to cause a slow, steady breakdown in the treaty.”
Evan leaned back fast, almost like he’d been hit in the chest. “And if it turns into open conflict?”
“You've met Aleigheta. What do you think will happen if someone picks up arms against the city?” If anything, Evan had a closer relationship to the city than John did. John could talk to the interface now that she had put her programming together, and his gut told him that he had been involved in her original programming, but he’d warned her that talking about that previous life or giving John too much information at all could trigger ascension. It meant Evan and Tony and Miko could interface mentally in a way John couldn’t.
“Yeah, that won't end well, although I would cross her before I'd cross Teyla,” Evan said. Teyla had verbally spanked more than one of the IOC representatives who had tried to fill Lizzy’s shoes.
“Yeah, but the IOC isn't bright enough to know that. So I'm here to offer passage to a few of our people who might be stuck on Earth if relations get tense.”
“And Teyla doesn't want you getting in the middle, so you and Rodney are establishing an alibi by faking a visit to another planet.” Evan always had been good at guessing.
“You know me. If you can’t win a fight, go around the back and hit the other guy over the head.”
“As long as you keep McKay away from the nuclear weapons,” Evan said, but he was shaking his head fondly, so he was probably teasing. Rodney had gotten a little more cranky over the years, but John was almost positive he still wouldn’t bomb the planet.
“If you want to request a transfer to Atlantis, you should do it soon, and if you want to pack up your wives and kids and hitch a ride with us, you are more than welcome.”
Evan shook his head. “I'm scheduled for retirement in sixteen months. I'm going to stick it out here.”
“By then, the relationship between Earth and Atlantis might be a little touchy,” John warned.
“I appreciate the trust you're putting in me here, sir, but the fact is that I don't plan on returning to Atlantis.”
John nearly fell off the end table. He’d always considered Evan one of the core Atlantis people. “And how do Miko and Abby feel about that?” John asked slowly. If Evan was a core part of Atlantis’s old guard, those two were the heart.
After rubbing a hand over his face, Evan leaned closer. “It's Miko's plan. Look, is Tony in on Teyla's scheme?”
That was an odd question. Tony was in charge of all things Traveler and Turi, not Atlantis. “Yeah. He came with us, but he's gone out to make a little noise so people think the Turi are behind pissing off the IOC. They're the safest group because not even those bureaucrats are stupid enough to go up against them.”
Evan snorted. He probably knew how true that was. Tony seemed so affable until someone crossed some line and then he was as terrifying as Gibbs. “And what did Tony say about you coming here?”
“That you were a big boy and if you wanted to come home, you'd find a way.” That had seemed like a strange response considering how close Tony and Abby were, but then Tony could get a little weird. But now Evan had a guilty expression. “And now I'm thinking it's because Tony knows something I don't. Are you Turi?”
“Me? Hell no,” Evan said far too quickly for it to be anything other than the truth. For a man who regularly slept with hosts, he had never made any bones about how he felt about hosting himself. “I fought the goa'uld for too long to be comfortable having a symbiote--even a Turi one. But Miko sneaked her symbiote back to earth with her.”
Today was the day for getting shocked. Ever since the IOC and US military had figured out about the Turi symbiotes, they had been adamant about keeping them off Earth. Sure, Tony and Jo came back on Traveler ships, but even that gave politicians hives, and the Earth treaty forbid all other symbiotes. Anyone found in violation could be arrested for treason and the symbiote destroyed. It was one hell of a risk for Miko to take. “Why would she do that?” John asked, and a half second later it occurred to him that only one thing would have caused her to break the rule. “Does she host a queen?”
Evan gave a sheepish grin. “You got it in one. Spidersilk. She's going to have her own city--one the Travelers found near far edge of the Pegasus galaxy. The city star drive is shot and she's half the size of Atlantis, but her AI is in good shape and the Travelers have been bringing her raw materials to start repairing her structures. Once Miko has established her nest, Tony and Miko will start formal treaty discussions with the Atlantis leadership council.”
John rubbed a hand over his face. Shit. And here John was feeling guilty about leaving Evan out of Teyla plots. John’s baby colonel had grown up and learned to subvert authority and scheme on his own. John was so proud. “So, you're about to become the prince consort.”
Evan blushed. “Something like that.”
“Earth will not be amused,” John warned. Not amused. Yeah, given the current political climate, words like livid and homicidal were probably more accurate.
“I had assumed.”
Evan had always been such a rule follower. John had trouble reconciling Evan’s past with this new version. “How do you feel about it?”
The smile on Evan’s face could only be called besotted. He’d had the same expression when Abby had their first child. “Spidersilk is a beautiful creature,” Evan said with such love. “She is so curious about the world, and she is amazingly arrogant and frustrated by the fact that the SGC is not giving Miko enough credit for her abilities. Miko is right up there with Rodney, and yet they won't make her head of the unit. Her boss can't even understand her math, and Spidersilk is gleeful about getting to tell the jackass where to put his opinions just as soon as my retirement is up.”
“Aren't you afraid the SGC is going to spot the Turi?” After all, Miko was not the sort to call a supervisor stupid. John had no illusions about her being weak in any way shape or form, but she wasn’t confrontational. Maybe John should talk to Tony about providing a little more cover for Jo’s little sister. Yes, the queens were competitive, but Tony could get Jo to bend.
“We’re good,” Evan said. “They usually ignore Miko, and if they don't, Jo and Samas have given her some good ideas about how to hide inside the human body.”
“That sounds vaguely gross.” John grimaced.
Evan wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, I try to avoid asking about it.”
“I can see why. And you're not bothered by having a Turi queen in the middle of your marriage?” Most of the Turi didn’t bring personalities of their own to the host. They would watch and learn and then return to the waters, but the rules were different with queens. Evan had a third wife—one that would outlive all of them. That would bug the shit out of John. Once the door to their apartment closed, John wanted Rodney all to himself. He’d grown downright jealous of anything that took Rodney away for too long.
“Tony and Gibbs have two Turi mixed up in there, and since Samas and Jo are parent and child, that would be far more disturbing,” Evan said.
John leaned over to give Evan a playful punch in the arm. “Yeah, but you have three wives. You kinky, kinky bastard. I hope you’re taking your viagra.”
“My mother is more proud of my sex life than my military career. She thinks her hippy ideals rubbed off somewhere.” Evan huffed. “She doesn’t even know the half of it since the SGC hasn’t declassified the symbiotes.” Evan’s expression turned more serious. “But, General, I did plan to tell you. I know you’d have my back and Spidersilk’s back.”
“Hell yes,” John said. “For example, I would have told her that naming herself after a spider is a non-starter. Really, Lorne, how could you let her?”
“Hey! First, spider silk is strong and she loves the geometric patterns many spiders make. Second, she is Miko’s partner, and Miko loves the stories of Japanese spiders who can change themselves into beautiful women to trap and kill men. And yes, this is my wife, and that should freak me out, but Miko and Spidersilk are definitely two of a pair. And both of them will kill you if you go talking smack about Spidersilk’s name.”
John laughed as he stood. “Yeah, yeah. They’d have to catch me and get then through Rodney, but honestly, congratulate Miko for me, and tell her that I’ll throw her one hell of a new-queen party as soon as she gets her nest and city set up.”
Evan stood and held out his hand. “I’ll do that,” he said as John shook it. “When O’Neill told me about the clusterfuck that had happened when Rodney took the gate hostage and how a major with a questionable history had set up his own little kingdom, I made him promise that if I took the Atlantis posting he would get me back into the SGC and get me my own gate team the following year. I never thought I would find a home on the city. I’m actually a little sorry we’re not coming back to Atlantis.”
“No problem. I’ll bring Rodney by to insult Miko’s math, and you’ll remember why you took the transfer back to Earth.”
Evan quieted. “I never wanted that promotion, but I thought the SGC would give you more time in command if they weren’t worried about the loyalty of the officers around you. If I’d known they were going to push you out, I might have stuck around and annoyed the new guy.”
“No problem,” John said. “I’m still annoying everyone, and it would take a nuclear bomb to move Rodney out of his job. Besides, if Teyla and Aleigheta are right, in six months to a year, the SGC is going to lose their collective mind and violate the treaty agreements, which would leave the Atlantis members of the council free to negotiate any new agreement they want. The SGC is about to find out what happens when you piss off the women of the Pegasus galaxy.”
“It’s not just the women they need to worry about, sir.”
John rolled his eyes. “I don’t have an inferiority complex, Lorne. I’m just pointing out that we have scary women.”
“Of course you don’t,” Evan said in his most disrespectful tone. “Permission to speak freely?
Evan never had lost that edge of formality. “Always. That goes double now that you’re about to get promoted higher than I ever got.”
“I’m not getting another promotion, not in today’s climate, and you are an idiot, no offense.”
“I can’t see why I would take offense to that. Thanks, Lorne.” John was man enough to admit that hurt a little.
Evan crossed his arms. “When we had that quantum mirror project, what did we figure out about Atlantis’ success?”
John hated even thinking about that cursed project. Entirely too many mirrors showed an Atlantis with water bloated and rotting bodies from the first expedition or the city was in pieces at the bottom of the ocean. A featured an Atlantis with broken towers listing badly in the ocean, or worst of all, one that was overrun by the Wraith. Even the ones with some versions of themselves typically had a lot more problems. “That we’re damn lucky, and that if Samas or McKay are missing, Atlantis is pretty much screwed.”
Evan raised his eyebrows and stared at John so long that John started to wonder if he was turning blue again or something. Finally Evan said, “I’m buying you therapy for Christmas.”
“Sir, when McKay is missing, the city is screwed. When Samas is missing, Atlantis lacks resources and half the time goes to war against the Pegasus galaxy. Take Teyla out and the city is generally little more than a listening post struggling to feed a small crew assigned to watch the Wraith.”
“Exactly. They’re all important,” John said. He never denied the significance of the team. “I felt sorry for some of those Sheppards. They got the raw end of the deal.”
“And how many of the cities didn’t have Sheppards to feel sorry for?” Evan asked with a knowing look.
“Um...” John frowned as he realized he couldn’t remember even one.
“Before you sprain your brain, sir, the answer is zero. Every single Atlantis we contacted had a Colonel or a Major Sheppard in charge of the military.”
That wasn’t true. “There was that one where O’Neill was head of the military,” John said. Sometimes Evan did overgeneralize.
Evan sighed. “Yes, and his Sheppard was his XO, the one who actually led the day to day operations. There is no version of Atlantis without you. If there’s no John Sheppard on the city, the city doesn’t survive long enough to be part of the quantum mirror project.”
There had to be a flaw in that logic, but John couldn’t spot it. “I’m... but....” John stopped and grimaced.
“Just take the compliment, sir,” Evan said dryly. “You will always be the best officer I ever served with, and everyone sees that except you... and the superior officers you piss off. But think about what would have happened if you had saved Sumner that day. When he came back to the city, would he have allowed Dr. Weir to remain in command?”
John was offended for Elizabeth. She would not have simply stepped aside and let the military take over. “She was the civilian leader.”
“And with the Wrath awake, he would have invoked the military foothold clause in the charter. He wouldn’t have allowed Weir to continue with her diplomatic mission when there were Wraith worshippers and Genii out there. And speaking of the Genii, do you really think any other commander would have allowed Atlantis to form a truce with them?”
“And most Sheppards didn’t allow it. Did you see the faces the other Sheppards made when we told them we have Genii on the city?” John had gotten over his knee jerk need to make inappropriate faces around Genii, and he always respected Radim in front of his kids, but John still didn’t love the Genii agenda. “The Genii truce was all Samas.”
“Maybe Samas is the one to suggest the alliance, but only you would have approved it, and several of the Sheppards had close alliances with Travelers even though every Sheppard started that relationship by getting kidnapped. Most officers don’t like people who kidnap them.”
John had to admit Evan had him there. He wasn’t thrilled with Larrin’s lack of ethics, but sometimes a man made compromises when allies brought big ass space ships to the alliance.
Evan shook his head fondly. “You have a ridiculous ability to forgive. And then there’s McKay. Sumner never would have allowed him on a field team, much less the premier team. No military officer would have.”
Now John was on firmer ground. “O’Neill took Jackson on his team.”
“I was in the SGC in those early years. The Milky Way gates have a funky translation function, so they needed Jackson. He was the only one who spoke the Egyptian dialects most prevalent in the galaxy, and by the time military linguists had mastered the skill, Jackson had proved himself. But trust me, everyone talked about how much O’Neill loathed having a civilian on his team at first. But you had military engineers on site, and you chose McKay.”
“He was the best man for the job,” John said. He didn’t add that he couldn’t imagine his life without Rodney. And if he hadn’t spent all that time learning to see past the bluster and the façade of arrogance, he would have lost the love of his life.
“Yeah, he was,” Evan admitted. “But Sumner never would have taken him out on the range and taught him to shoot. You gave him the confidence to handle the job. Just like you’re the only military leader who would have ever allowed Samas to take a leadership role or would have given Teyla so much power.”
“You’re underestimating the American military and the need to use the best personnel in the best positions,” John said firmly.
Now Evan sighed and gave John the borderline look of disappointment he had used for years whenever John had procrastinated on his paperwork. “I am proud as hell to be military, but I never would have put Samas on a team or trusted him to negotiate for the city. That’s all you. You hold the city together by trusting the rest of us.”
John tried to protest, but Evan talked over him.
“When I went to the city, I had no combat experience. O’Neill picked me because I was unfailingly loyal and able to work with geeks. My whole career was in engineering, and every commander I ever worked for second guessed me. You were the first to respect my opinions and send me out in command of a team instead of treating me like an overpaid geologist who happened to have a rank.”
John hated the pain he heard in those words. “Evan,” he said softly.
Evan leaned forward. “Whatever plan you have will work, not just because Teyla and Aleigheta are involved, but because you’re taking point. The only reason I ever worried about your plans is because you tended to forget to leave yourself an exit strategy.” Evan stood and snapped out a smart salute.
John felt as though the air had been knocked out of him. He stood and saluted back before he triggered his radio. The transporter scooped him up, and the last thing he saw was Evan smiling at him.
Tony had the ship beam him down in Ziva’s backyard. He’d waited forever until her husband and two kids were gone, and if he waited until the street were clear, he might have died of old age. Given that Jo had protested the decision to let his hair develop a few gray highlights, that would be a long wait. She definitely hated the idea of human mortality, not that she got a choice in the matter.
As Tony walked from the above ground pool to the back porch, he hoped Ziva didn’t invest in any lethal home defense system now that she had kids. He knocked on the French doors and waited. After several minutes, the door unlocked and Ziva rolled back from the door. She made a production out of putting her weapon between her leg and the side of her wheelchair. “Tony.”
“Hey Ziva.” Tony leaned down to give her a kiss on the cheek. He still had trouble believing she had gotten caught in the crossfire between an NCIS quick response unit and a rogue Mossad agent. Tony’s sources whispered that Michael Rivkin had been working under the table for Mossad Director David and had killed US assets, but Tony still didn’t know how Ziva fit into that picture. “My little ninja.”
She snorted. “I am not so much ninja now." She gestured toward the wheelchair.
"Yeah, I heard about it. I'm sorry I couldn't come visit.” Tony had never meant to let life slide by, but there was always some emergency, some potential disaster or some unforgivable stupidity to head off.
“It is fine,” Ziva said as she glided into the living room and gestured toward the couch. “I was in a poor place back then, so I may have been unpleasant if you had visited. Besides, I hear you had other business.”
Tony sat where she’d gestured. “Space.”
“The final frontier,” Ziva added.
“Oh my god.” Tony sat up straighter. “You really have changed.”
She rolled her eyes. “Levi is obsessed with old Star Trek episodes. I am most annoyed, but then Tali was equally obsessed with old Barney shows. I considered killing Tim for introducing my daughter to that monstrosity.” She gave a full body shiver. Tony couldn’t blame her. One of the parents had brought old videos to Atlantis, and there had been a near mutiny.
“Ziva the mother.” Tony couldn’t quite get his mind to wrap around the idea of a quiet, translator Ziva who married a forensic accountant from the white-crime unit of the FBI. If Tony were going to be honest, he had assumed she would die in some crazy mission her father came up with or that she’d blow herself up trying to defuse a bomb. This Ziva… this was a woman he didn’t know, although the weapon tucked into her wheelchair suggested a few things had stayed the same.
“I grew up and stopped trying to be my father's daughter,” Ziva said. “It made marriage possible. But tell me, what are you doing out there in the universe?” She leaned forward. “I still have my sources, and they tell me very strange things--very contradictory things.”
“What sort of things would that be?” Tony was curious about what the intelligence community might assume. It wasn't like the Stargate program had put all their secrets out for the world to see, and Atlantis was still highly classified. Nothing that was purely Pegasus galaxy—from the city to the IA to the Turi or the Wraith—were out there for public consumption.
“Some say you have collaborated with another species, one that might or might not have the same interests as Earth.” She studied him, not even hiding her interest in the subject.
Tony grinned. “Juicy. What else?”
“That Gibbs also is a collaborator, although I cannot see that as being likely.”
“Oh, but if you heard contradictory statements, you heard other stories as well.”
Ziva leaned back and tilted her head in a way that made Tony think she had heard a lot of contradictory stories. “That you are working as the Agent Afloat on a space ship, and have been since you left with Gibbs, and another says you helped capture an enemy that is so classified and frightening that the goa'uld threat was revealed only to cover up this other danger.” From her tone, Tony could tell this was the theory she believed. They hadn’t worked together for very long, but apparently her instincts were good. She was so close, and yet so far.
But it was time for Earth to stop lying to her own people, and Tony knew that Ziva's connections would get solid intel out there to the right people. “The enemy are called Wraith, and I have killed and captured a number of them. I've also helped broker a treaty where we give particular Wraith technologies that allow them to feed without killing, and they agree to stop treating humans like livestock."
Ziva paled. "Livestock?"
Tony nodded, his tone serious. “Twenty thousand years ago, the Ancients had an experiment go wrong. Well-intentioned idiots created a sentient creature that couldn't metabolize its own hormones, so it essentially ate people. Gibbs and I helped fix it.”
For a long time, Ziva stared at him. No doubt she was waiting for some sort of punchline, but Tony had grown out of those sorts of jokes.
Finally she asked, “You solved a cross species biological problem? As I remember, you and Gibbs avoided technology.”
“That was a bit of a cover,” Tony confessed. “Gibbs had an alien symbiote even back when you knew him. That alien helped us find the biological trigger that allowed the Wraith to avoid killing as their only means of surviving. However, most Wraith still kill because they believe humans are inferior and they have the right to. They’re kind of assholes. Actually, even the ones we get along with are assholes, but at least they don’t try to eat us.”
Ziva drew a slow breath. “And Stargate Command tells us nothing of this?”
“The Wraith are in another galaxy,” Tony said. Sure enough, Ziva went utterly still again. No doubt Tony was blowing her mind, but she was still one sharp cookie. As she watched him, he could practically see the gears in her head turning.
“They are... what?”
“I live in the Pegasus galaxy, on a city-ship called Atlantis, and Earth hasn’t told people about the Wraith because humans have better ships than them. Well, we have better star drives. Wraith weapons can kick some ass. But Stargate Command believes they can keep the Wraith out of our galaxy, so there’s no reason to worry people.” And that was the sort of stupidity that made Tony weep for his home planet.
“And you fight them.” Ziva had clearly gone on overload.
Tony grinned. “Yep.”
“That would explain why so few are willing to speak of you. Your name has taken on an almost mythical quality. People whisper it as though afraid you may appear. You have become a boogery man.”
The Zivaism was so classic that Tony laughed. “Boogy man. Boogery is what your children probably are.”
“All children are, but I thought that was why you called someone scary a boogery man. I avoid boogers as best I can.” Again she gave a full body shiver.
“Well, it might have to do with the fact I get a little cranky when the President tries to avoid meetings with me. And then I show up on Earth without warning because I have access to my own ships. Very few planets would choose an alliance with Earth over me, and when someone tries to back out of a treaty, I am very capable of leading a strike team to take what I feel is fair. Several times I've led raids into the middle of Wraith ships. That's kinda exciting.”
Tony was laying it on a little thick, but it was so fun to wind Ziva up. Ever since Abby had moved back to Earth after Evan’s promotion, he’d been missing his old NCIS crew. Messing with Ziva was a small bit of balm considering that Tony didn’t dare go visit Abby and Miko. The last thing they needed was for anyone to take a second look at the family. Jo might be ambiguous about having a competitor-sister, but Tony loved Spidersilk without reservation, and he would not put her at risk.
Ziva shook her head. “You've changed.”
“Not so much. I'm still all about making sure the little guy gets justice.”
“Only your suspects seem to get scarier.”
“The Wraith? Hell yeah, but I can handle them,” Tony said. Most days he could. Sometimes one of the queens would get desperate and a little too creative, and as the human populations started to get larger, the Wraith problem grew proportionally more difficult to control, but the Pegasus galaxy wasn’t the wild west of the expedition’s early days. “I get more annoyed with Earth politics and the IOC.”
“The IOC? The group in charge of the Stargates?”
“See? That's just it,” Tony said with exaggerated frustration. “They're in charge of their Stargate. That means exactly one Stargate. They get to decide who does and doesn't go through their gate, but they try to act like they rule the universe. The universe was out there long before them, and long after they're dead, the universe will keep rolling right along.”
“I see.” From Ziva’s expression, she did see. She knew when she was being used as a backchannel for information certain people didn’t want to become public knowledge, but Tony trusted her to have the contacts to get this out without putting herself in danger. The trick to leaking intel was finding a really smart leakee.
“Long after they're dead, I'll keep rolling right along. Gibbs and I will be kicking for another few hundred years, and they think that they can tell us what to do. Okay, with me, I know I put off a sort of helpless charm that makes people underestimate me.”
“Charm is not the word I would use,” Ziva said dryly.
“Whatever.” Tony shrugged. “My point is that they know Gibbs has chosen to share his head with a creature who is thousands of years old and has seen more than they can dream of, and they still try to treat him like he's an inconvenience.”
“And do you share your head with one of these creatures?” Ziva asked. She was probably afraid of making a wrong inference because Tony was dumping a lot of information.
“Yep. They’re called Turi, a cousin of the Tok’ra and the Onac.”
“Which means a cousin to the Goa’uld,” Ziva pointed out.
It still made no sense to Tony that Tok’ra and Onac were declassified and the Turi weren’t. “That too,” Tony agreed, “only in the Pegasus galaxy, the symbiotes have allied with the Satedans, a technologically advanced race that suffered near-genocide at the hands of the Wraith. The whole civilization was razed, but with the help of symbiotes, they have fought back. Gibbs was the first leader of the Turi with his queen Samas, but Samas is too large to stay inside Gibbs long enough to carry out missions. They can only join for a few hours at a time. So I inherited the leadership when I got Jo, one of the new generation. These symbiotes are actually closer to the Onac.”
She blew out a long breath.
“Creeped out?” Tony guessed.
“A little, yes.” Ziva tilted her head to the side. “I am most disturbed that I cannot tell the difference. You are still just Tony.”
“And I always will be. Now Jo's next host might be a little frustrated to discover Tonyish thoughts bubbling up from time to time, but that's going to be his problem, and whoever Jo chooses as her next host won't be born for a few hundred years yet.” Jo sent up a familiar blast of fury at the thought of Tony dying. She really was predictable, and a second after thinking that, Tony got an echo of her indignation.
“And all of this is classified?” Ziva’s expression turned thoughtful and a little sly. That was Tony’s beloved ninja. She might not be drop-kicking suspects, but she still knew how to kick ass.
“Classified by the IOC and American government,” Tony said. “I’m the chosen leader of the Turi nation—a group of thousands of both survivors of the fall of Sateda and those who have chosen to live under Satedan rules. Many carry symbiotes, many don’t. However, we are a small and sovereign nation that specializes in not taking shit from anyone—not the Wraith, not the Ancients, and sure as hell not the various governments of Earth.”
“You sound almost Israeli,” Ziva said.
Tony was reminded of Chekov’s suggestion that the Turi were almost Russian. Considering how much Tony admired that cagey old bastard, he really hoped this plan worked. “Think of us more as the remains of the Roman empire rising up again.”
“Have you read what happened in the Roman empire?” Ziva said doubtfully.
“The Turi have the technology and people to take what we want from the universe,” Tony said, “but we also live in the shadow of the fall of Sateda and the death of the entire planet. Honor means more than I can even explain to the Turi because we respect the Satedan history.” Ziva’s eyebrows went up. “There’s lots of stuff the government isn’t telling, but they may not be the only source of information out there. People should watch the skies through their own telescopes and not trust all these digital ones the government has helpfully provided,” Tony said. He touched the radio in his ear. “Larrin, do you want to pick me up?”
“I’d pick you up any time,” she said in her sexiest voice. Tony just sighed. Travelers. They were all a little weird. As the transport beam caught him, Tony waved at Ziva. Earth was for Earthers, but Tony didn’t mind giving the locals a little help. Ziva would have to take it from here.
“I hate this plan,” Rodney complained for the five hundredth time as he read the sensor readings. John looked over his shoulder and smiled. After fifteen years of friendship and over a decade of sleeping together, Rodney hadn’t changed one bit. John loved it.
When John didn’t answer, Rodney glanced up and then narrowed his eyes. “Don’t you dare get that amused expression on your face.”
John took a step back and held his hands up surrender. “Absolutely not. I am not amused.”
“You’d better not be,” Rodney said fiercely. “I can’t believe we’re having to rescue our people from Earth. Earth. Petty, arrogant, nationalistic, small-minded bastards have taken over our planet. If you’re amused by that, I’m going to cut your hair when you’re asleep.”
“Trust me, Rodney, this situation does not amuse me. I hate that Earth had turned into Genii lite.” In all his years in the military, John never thought he was going to have to plot against his own people. He was holding onto the fact that America was not the worst of the offenders, but the country certainly wasn’t holding up their end of the bargain when it came to Atlantis. The military personnel assigned to Atlantis often came with thick disciplinary files, and Teyla had forced the removal of a number of people who thought they had a right to harass the civilians and locals. However, that didn’t compare to the targeted assassinations and threats issued against the Russians. John loved his spetsnaz unit and he would be damned if his people were going to be held against their will.
Rodney stood and then poked John in the chest. “You’re grinning like an idiot. Why?”
“Maybe I’m amused by how little you’ve changed. I have mentioned that I hate change, yes? And you are like the anti-change.”
After an epic eye roll and a snort, Rodney dropped into his seat again. “Right. No change here. I’m just sitting on a Traveler ship using Aleigheta’s processing power and my own innate genius at hacking computer systems to undo the security systems of our entire planet, something which technically makes me a traitor. Nothing to look at here, people.” Rodney snorted again. “Sometimes I think I fell in love with an idiot.”
John sat at the computer console next to Rodney. “It’s not like this is new for you.”
“Are you suggesting I’m normally a traitor?” Rodney demanded.
“I don’t know,” John said with an airy affection. “Who was it that locked the military base commander in his bathroom and then held the Earth gate hostage until they agreed to change their policy regarding Atlantis?”
Rodney’s expression softened. He said in a nostalgic voice, “Good memories.”
“Hell, yes,” John agreed. “So don’t tell me that you have never flirted with insubordination and treason in the past. One of the reasons I love you is your absolute willingness to do what you feel is right even if the rest of the universe disagrees.”
“That’s only because I’m right. I keep trying to tell these new IOC people that I am indispensable and brilliant, and they metaphorically pat me on the head and proceed to act like morons. When I have reasonable people to work for, like Elizabeth, I don’t need to lock anyone in a bathroom.”
“Usually,” John agreed. “But do you remember how angry Elizabeth was after you shot Todd in the stomach?” Seeing Rodney pull out a weapon in the middle of the gate room had nearly given John a heart attack. Those days had been so hard for him. Intellectually, John understood why Todd had taken him captive, but emotionally it had fucked him up more than anything since losing Mitch.
But seeing Rodney step right in front of Todd and gut shoot him had been better than roses and therapy and a blow job all rolled into one. That had been the moment that John realized he couldn’t live without Rodney, which is why he found it so damn sad that so many John Sheppards had screwed up their change to win the hearts of their Rodney McKays. The quantum mirror project had been an exercise in masochism in some ways.
Rodney leaned back. “More good times. Besides, she didn’t stay mad after Todd forgave me.”
“He sent you slaves. I’m not sure that’s forgiving you.”
“Hey, Melik, Todd knows how to treat a brother in-law right. If there were any justice in the world, Elizabeth would have let me keep those slaves.”
“Don’t start,” John said sharply. “I’m not Melik and I haven’t been for several thousand years. And even if I had Melik’s memories, I still wouldn’t have his DNA.” John wasn’t in a mood to deal with Rodney’s teasing about Todd’s genetics. It wasn’t his fault that Melik’s brother had been the leader of the fear-of-death brigade and had used his own genetics to create the Wraith. Apparently Laksa thought that if the hybrids had his DNA, it would be easier for him to develop an anti-aging serum to use on himself. Todd’s insistence that Melik had been his brother was more than hyperbole.
John was destined to have shitty brothers in every incarnation. At least Dave had just screwed John out of his portion of the Sheppard estate—he hadn’t created space vampires in a vain attempt to cheat death.
“Did you know that Miko has a Turi?” John asked, more to change the subject than anything.
“Of course she did. She wore that jewelry.” Rodney focused on the computer screen again. “Why did we make it illegal to ask about a person’s Turi status when they all wore dagger jewelry and tattoos and actual dagger daggers anyway? It’s not like it’s a secret who has and who hasn’t shared their skull.”
John swiveled his chair to face Rodney so he could watch the coming facial gymnastics. “I didn’t ask if you knew she had a Turi. I asked if you knew she has a Turi,” John said, emphasizing the verbs. And then he watched the show. Annoyance showed up first, probably because Rodney thought John was just screwing with him. Then confusion. Rodney turned to look at John and slowly his eyes widened in shock. And then the damn broke.
“Here!” he practically screeched. “She brought one to Earth? Is she crazy? Does she have any idea what the SGC will do to a symbiote?” Rodney shot to his feet. “Did you tell Lorne that she’d better get her ass up here before she gets caught? Oh my God. Tony is going to kill her. I know the symbiotes are suicidal and stupid. They hang out with Ronon too much. But if Tony founds out that she endangered one of the Turi, he’s going to get quietly furious.”
“Yeah, not so much,” John said. “I think her symbiote is pretty much going to do whatever she wants.”
Rodney’s eyes grew even larger and he sank back down into the chair. John loved rewiring Rodney’s brain. It was just so much fun to see all the emotions spill out onto his face. Rodney spluttered a little, and then blurted, “A queen? She got a queen?” Slowly he smiled the same bright, unaffected smile he got when Elizabeth named her little girl Meredith. “Good for her. The fact that the Turi have chosen their queens from those who follow the Scholars’ path shows how intelligent they are.”
“Ronon is the crown prince of hosts, and I know he’s not on the Scholars’ path.”
“And he’s not hosting a queen. Miko and her love for mathematics has that honor.” Rodney’s face turned thoughtful. “I wonder what it’s like to hear Miko’s queen sing about higher level math.”
“Are you having symbiote envy?” John’s own brain was getting rewired at that thought.
Rodney did a little more splutter. “This brain is too valuable to allow anyone to burrow into it. No. You are the only one in our little family to carry an alien. Do you ever wonder what your symbiote has to say?”
“No!” John said firmly. He respected the hell out of any symbiote that followed the queen’s path, but he did not want to think about the one that had stabilized his DNA while he’d been infected with iratus cooties. “I spend more time wondering about the symbiotes that jumped into those alternate universe invaders. What would it be like to know you and me and Ronon and then have to take over the brain of our evil twins?”
“They weren’t evil. They were desperate. If our Atlantis were as fucked up as theirs, I might take up piracy, too.” Rodney had most of his attention focused on the computer now. He frowned and inserted a memory card.
John couldn’t argue with him about their dopplegangers. The universe could be a cold place, and the versions without a functional Atlantis with an intact Aleigheta were crueler than their own. Sure, they still had accidents and Alterian toys ended up blowing up from time to time. They’d had the Pegasus flu kill several people a few years back, and Genii civil war had led to the terror bombing of Tower 17. However, they had a functioning city with thousands of citizens and shops and restaurants. They had beautiful gardens and fish farming and a city shield any time a particularly suicidal or desperate hive showed up.
After a long run of typing, Rodney hit the enter key with a flourish and then leaned back to watch the screen. He said, “Miko must have plans for living somewhere other than Atlantis.”
John narrowed his eyes. That was too good of a guess, especially when Jo and Samas shared the waters just fine. Maybe Goa’uld and Onas queens didn’t share breeding grounds, but Turi queens did. “What do you know?” John asked.
“Me? Nothing.” Rodney put on a transparent show of honesty that didn’t come anywhere near the reality of it. When John just glared, Rodney folded like a house of cards. “Okay, so I saw a lot of traffic in Aleigheta’s processors in an area used for subspace communication. I asked her if she had an error she wanted me to help her track down, and she suggested that if I didn’t want to keep secrets from people, I might not want to look in her subprocessors.” Rodney grimaced. “Our girl is not very subtle.”
“Not around us,” John agreed. Thank God she was better at hiding from IOC members. “There’s a second city. It’s smaller, but the AI never got shredded, so the computers in good shape.”
Rodney nodded. “The database lists several cities which were abandoned even before the Wraith just because the Alterians were finished using them. That’s a completely shitty thing to do given that the cities are sentient. I felt guilty about leaving my cat with a neighbor who adored her. What the hell is wrong with Alterians that they could just leave sentient cities behind?”
“No idea, but Lorne, Miko, Abby, and all the little Lornettes are going to head that way once Lorne’s retirement goes through.”
“Travelers?” Rodney guessed.
John nodded. “They’ve been taking raw materials to the city so she can repair herself. I assume the Travelers are getting something out of it.”
“Travelers always do,” Rodney said with disgust. Sometimes John suspected that Rodney had never forgiven Larrin for taking John hostage, and he painted all the Travelers with the same brush. John was just grateful that the Travelers didn’t mind Rodney’s sharp temper. “Now go away. I have to calibrate Earth sensors across several different systems all at once or the second you use the transporter in Russia, you’re going to light up the defense grid. I may hate the paranoid bastards, but at least they have sensors set up. What is the US government thinking, disabling the alert system? Idiots.”
John didn’t answer since it was a rhetorical question. The US government appeared to be pulling itself apart at the seams, with each of the three political parties all taking positions that accused the other two of undermining the American way of life and attempting to institute martial law. Apparently two of the parties had united to accuse the third of using the defense grid to track American citizens, and Congress had shut it down.
Sadly, John wasn’t sure they were wrong. And Russia was worse. They had three and four layers of defense set up, and Rodney said at least two of them were focused inward to track people on the ground. The world was falling apart, or at least John felt like it was.
Elizabeth insisted it was all cyclical and that stupidity was simply at high tide. Some days John clung to that promise and hoped like hell she was right. Without her guidance, John wouldn’t have just cut ties with Earth, he would have burned the damn bridge to the ground. It hurt seeing the mistakes that his home planet was making. People found out about the Lucian Alliance and the Goa’uld and instead of pulling together against a common enemy, everyone seemed to want to grab everything they could, go home, and lock the door.
Since Earth’s enemies were still out there, that didn’t feel safe or logical. However, Elizabeth had assured John it was normal. That didn’t make John feel any better about the human race. However, if this plan worked, Earth would be the one to violate the treaty, which would leave Teyla free to demand new agreements and new freedoms. Atlantis could keep the high ground while still getting out from under the idiocy of the IOC.
And all John had to do was aggravate Earth governments enough to make them stupid without causing open conflict. He had to stay quiet enough that Tony got all the credit and blame for the mission while being visible to the right people. He had to find everyone loyal to Atlantis without accidentally sweeping up anyone who might still have nationalistic attitudes toward Russia or the US or any of the other countries they were here to invade.
And he had to do it all while convincing the IOC he had never left the Pegasus galaxy. John sighed. He really was getting too old for the cloak and dagger routine. However, it was his responsibility to protect his city, and he would do that even if it meant he had to sacrifice his world.
John waited in the shadow, his head tilted down to hide his hat. Rodney said there weren’t any cameras, but John was acutely aware that anyone could be watching. It was weird. Other than the Cyrillic letters on the signs, he could be in any city in Europe. Stone buildings with arched windows and flowers in square planter framed wide streets with cracked and patched pavement where pedestrian rushed down the sidewalks. However, the danger of being in Russian sent shivers down John’s arms until his hair stood on end.
Rodney’s voice came through his comms. “Fifty yards from the north.” John shifted and braced one foot on the stone wall. Rodney then added, “I still think this is stupid. Send Tony if you can’t drop it.” John pressed his lips together. He was trying to avoid having anyone notice him, and Rodney knew it. That made it hard for John to yell at Rodney to shut up.
Some debts had to be paid in person, and this was one of them.
John spotted Chekov and tapped his radio twice. Hopefully Rodney would take the hint and shut up. As much as John loved Rodney, sometimes he still got frustrated at the man’s inability to drop anything. Luckily, this time he gifted John with silence.
When Chekov got closer, John tilted his head up so the bill of his hat didn’t hide is face anymore. Chekov never hesitated or showed any sign of surprise, but he gave a quick hand sign ordering John to hold position. If Chekov was loyal to the new powers that be in Russia, that could be a trap, but John leaned back and tilted his head to hide his face again, trusting the man who had held Atlantis together when Todd had captured John.
Chekov had inherited the job of telling General O’Neill about the Turi symbiotes, and he’d managed that without any symbiote poison getting gated in by angry and prejudiced Earthers. John had no idea how he’d managed it, either. Chekov always waved away John’s inarticulate thanks and suggested that he’d simply appealed to O’Neill’s reasonable side. Considering O’Neill had never been reasonable when it came to symbiotes, John knew that was a lie, but he had no idea if blow jobs or blackmail had been featured in Chekov’s miracle.
“He’s passing you,” Rodney said with a hint of panic. Given that John was the one standing in the middle of Moscow, he already knew that, but sometimes Rodney needed to say the obvious. Chekov reached the wide entry to his apartment building and flashed another sign.
Moving out of the shadows, John followed. Chekov led him around to the side of the building, a spot that Rodney had already identified as a surveillance black spot. Considering how well Russian intelligence had Moscow covered, John didn’t think it was an accident. When John turned the corner, Chekov stood waiting behind a bedraggled looking tree trying to grow between the two tall buildings.
John held up an ancient privacy device, and Chekov nodded. “Get back here so if an FSB agent comes by, they don’t see you.”
“So, they’ll just see you standing in an alley?” John asked.
Chekov held up a cigarette. “My wife tells everyone I am not allowed to smoke inside. Often I come out here, so my presence is easily explained.”
John shook his head. Of course Chekov was still playing the game to win. Stepping forward, John held out his hand. He dare not risk a salute so it was the only form of respect he could offer. “Colonel Chekov.”
“General Sheppard,” Chekov said in the same affectionate tone. “I had not thought to see you here.”
“I’m sure you didn’t.” John put his back to the wall and clicked his radio twice to let Rodney know he felt secure. “And actually, you aren’t seeing me here because I’m still in the Pegasus galaxy.”
“Of course you are.” Chekov chuckled as he lit his cigarette.
John got right to business. “So, has everyone on earth lost their minds or is this political in-fighting a localized affair?”
Chekov sighed. “Alliances are strained.”
“Strained?” John asked incredulously. “I can’t figure out what’s going on from one day to the next. You have political people saying one thing, military another, and they took away my spetsnaz unit.”
Chekov pressed his lips together in a thin line for a moment before he said, “I know.”
“So what is going on? And have you spoken to those men? I get the feeling some of them didn’t want to go, but I haven’t gotten paperwork from any of them requesting to retire on Atlantis, as is their right.”
“You never will get that paperwork,” Chekov said.
John felt the words like a punch to the gut. He’d suspected the politicians were targeting his people, but until this moment, he’d had no proof of it. Chekov’s certainty provided enough evidence for him. “Why?” John asked.
Chekov shrugged and took a drag off his cigarette. “Nationalism and anger are powerful fuel for political campaigns, and now that O’Neill is gone, certain entities feel emboldened.”
“They do know that ascended is not the same as dead, right?” John asked.
“It is close enough. Do you think he will return?”
“He followed Jackson into the great, glowy unknown, so if Daniel comes back, so will O’Neill.” John believed that with all his soul.
“And Jackson does persistently return,” Chekov said, “but people do not think this way.”
“And I’m not going to leave my people behind, not if they’re being held against their will, and the fact that earth is our birth planet doesn’t change that.”
“I imagine it does not. I never could keep you from rushing into danger.” Chekov chuckled. “When I was recalled, I felt relief that I would not have to stand next to Elizabeth when you ran out and got yourself killed. I was more relieved I would not be there to suffer McKay’s wrath again. When the Wraith held you, I suffered two months of ice showers.”
“What?” John was going to kill Rodney. John had never wanted Chekov targeted, not when the man had done everything he could to get John back.
Chekov shrugged. “I still do not know if it was McKay or the city that hated me, but I was not sorry to return home to Russia.”
“Sir,” John said slowly.
“Ah!” Chekov held up a finger. “You have been promoted higher than I ever was. Do not sir me.”
“You and O’Neill were the only two commanding officers I never wanted to kill,” John said. “You will always be a ‘sir’ in my book. And if you want to come back to Atlantis, I can promise you hot showers and a beautiful ocean view.”
Chekov looked thoughtful, so John added, “You can bring any family you want, as many as you want. Screw the restrictions the IOC put on immigration, this is straight from Teyla.”
“Teyla or the ruling council?” Chekov asked.
“Teyla and most of the ruling council.” John didn’t think he needed to add that some of the council were living in blissful ignorance.
Chekov sighed. “I wish it were possible, but if everyone who would speak against the rising stupidity leaves, it only empowers those who are leading my country astray.”
“They aren’t listening to you.” John knew that with absolute certainty because half the shit John saw on the news wouldn’t happen if Chekov had anything to say about it. He was an ethical man who always put his people ahead of himself. Apparently, he had even endured ice showers rather than upset Rodney at a time when Rodney had been falling apart. He wouldn’t condone death and human rights violations and the targeting of civilians. Earth didn’t have enough enemies in space trying to kill them with the Lucian Alliance, the remaining Goa’uld, and the Wraith, so they had to start hating each other. Sometimes John suspected his home planet deserved to get hit by a meteor.
“No. But I continue to say what I must, and I trust that one day someone who is in power will look at a report and remember my words.”
“Or they’ll take you out and shoot you,” John warned. He had always thought O’Neill was an unreasonable ass when it came to Russians, but John was starting to understand the attitude. The problem was, his own people were not much better. Ronon had started offering very pointed presentations about Earth laws requiring service members to refuse illegal orders. General Helms had actually filed a complaint with Teyla.
Chekov grimaced and gave John a small nod. “True.”
“Then come home.”
The look Chekov gave him was almost pitying. “Russia is home. And maybe when you are finished, my fellow countrymen will realize that I am Russian to my core.”
“What do you mean?”
“You will take the soldiers who love Atlantis more than Mother Russia; you will leave me. That will restore my reputation with some people who do still have influence.” Chekov took out his silver cigarette case and offered John one.
“No thank you.”
“No, you will like the one closest to the hinge,” Chekov said. “Open the paper and you will find names printed inside. Double check my work, but I believe I have separated those who would like to go with you from those who would betray you. Lieutenant Colonel Stefanov will pose a difficulty. He has a large family. Very large. He will not go without them because they would suffer if he defected. He is FSB, but I believe and the FSB believes that he chafes under their control. He would want to leave Russia.”
After taking the cigarette Chekov had indicated, John tucked it into a secure, zippered pocket. John had suspected Stefanov was secret police when he’d come to Atlantis near the end of John’s term as commander, but he’d carefully not asked. He understood the stress of being asked to serve two missions and two masters. After years of balancing Atlantis with his Earth commanding officers, John had been relieved to retire, so he’d had more sympathy for Stefanov than Helms had. “They sent him to make sure the Russians were still loyal to Moscow, didn’t they?”
“Yes. And because he knows the consequences to his family if he fails, he is their loyal puppet. But he is also an unhappy puppet.”
“And his family?”
“They are farmers. I am unsure where their loyalties lie. I do not want to see Stefanov left behind because I believe he is in danger, but…” Chekov shrugged.
John got the message. He was in danger, but if the FSB was watching him, he’d be more difficult to reach. And if John was spotted trying to extract people, all the spetsnaz who had ever served on Atlantis were going to vanish. No doubt Rodney would be able to find them eventually, but it would ruin Teyla’s grand plan to force Earth to break the treaty first.
Actually, Earth was already breaking it, but she wanted Earth’s violations to be obvious enough that they had no standing to challenge the Pegasus council members. It was a solid plan except for the part where Teyla planned to force John to take his seat on the council again. John didn’t want to command men in an uprising against Earth. Scratch that. He didn’t want to command them at all. He was done with being the person who sent others into danger. However, he was also the man who knew better than to argue with Teyla or fuck up her plans. “I’ll try and speak to him last.”
“He may ruin your illusion of not being on the planet,” Chekov warned. “But then, you rarely stop because an action is dangerous or ill-advised. You gave me more gray hairs than my own children.”
John grinned. “You know you love me.”
Chekov’s hand darted out to grab John’s forearm. “I am not an emotionally… um… when the poop will not come out… how do you say?”
“Emotionally constipated,” John said. He imagined there was not much call for that phrase when acting as a military liaison.
“Yes, yes. I am not emotionally constipated like most Americans, so I can say I do love you like brother. I will always love you like a brother, and if my country were not in such danger of losing her path, I would be happy to return to Atlantis. As it is, I must tell you to avoid doing anything so dangerous as to give your husband more gray hair.”
John grinned. “That’s okay. He’s lost most of his hair, so we wouldn’t notice.” John had never liked touching much, but he pulled Chekov in and gave him a hug.
Chekov stepped back and dropped his cigarette on the ground before crushing it. “I cannot afford to be here longer. I must go.”
“Take care of yourself,” John said.
“Do not be seen leaving. A man walking past me is not suspicious, but if you follow me out… that will raise an alarm.”
John would be offended at Chekov’s assumption that John would screw up a mission, but he had to admit that their people had a bad habit of letting down their guard on earth. Hell, John had twice been kidnapped on Earth, which was once more than he’d been kidnapped on any other planet. “I’ve got it covered,” John said. He felt bad that he couldn’t brag about Rodney and explain how he had circumvented the Russian warning system on Asgard technology. But there was a distance between them now that hadn’t existed an hour earlier.
John waited until Chekov was gone before he called for Rodney to beam him up. He had failed to retrieve Chekov, but he had other people to rescue.
Tony tipped his head back and smiled as Gibbs rested both hands on Tony’s shoulders. The comfort and love flowed through their skin as Gibbs’ young symbiote emoted directly to Jo. “How’s the list look?” Gibbs asked.
“Looking good. Two service members had turned in paperwork to retire on Atlantis, so they’re just jumping the line a bit. We can argue we’re saving Earth energy by taking them with us.”
“One has a wife whose a nurse and two school-age children. They’re coming. The other had a nasty divorce a couple of years back and his kids won’t speak to him. He thinks a clean break would be best, especially if it means his military retirement can go into education funds for the kids.”
Gibbs grimaced. “Has he talked to his kids? I hate to see a man walk away from family.”
Tony hated that nothing would ever touch the pain Gibbs’ felt at the loss of his first family. Reaching up, he curled his fingers around Gibbs’ hand. “He wants to safe his kids from being in the middle. We talked for a long time, and he’s written letters for them if they ever ask about him.”
Gibbs ducked his head and sat in the next chair. Ancient ships were open and airy with wide spaces between chairs, but the travelers had modified this one significantly. Twice as many chairs meant that more people worked out of the bridge and secondary spaces could be turned into training decks or schools. So when Gibbs sat, their knees bumped together. “With everything we’ve seen, it seems stupid to turn away from family.”
Tony agreed, and that was one reason why he wanted to make sure Jo and Spidersilk kept their alliance. They were both Tony’s girls, both born with his memories, and no matter how long they lived, they would always have that between them.
After clearing his throat, Gibbs asked, “Who else is coming?”
“Well we have one person whose request appears to have been mysteriously lost.”
“Anne Teldy,” Tony said. Since they were touching, Tony felt the wave of fury. Anne was one of theirs. Through her symbiotes, Tony and Gibbs knew her. Loved her. However, Tony suspected it was Anne’s romantic love for Kyli that had caused the American government such heartburn. Gay marriage was legal; that didn’t mean that everyone approved.
“They lost it?” Gibbs’ jaw muscle bulged.
“Her first one,” Tony said. “Her second one was redirected to legal. They said that because she had been stationed in Afghanistan when she retired, they weren’t sure the charter rights applied to her. They asked for time to have legal review it.”
Gibbs’ fury grew, which wasn’t surprising. Anne and Kyli had three beautiful children, and Gibbs was never rational when children were involved. Anne had been away for two years, and she hadn’t been given leave on Atlantis in a year, so the kids were hurting, although they were true Satedan Turi and they accepted it stoically. Worse, Tony wasn’t done yet. “Legal informed her that because Kyli was her immediate family, she would not be able to take her elderly parents. And since Anne is their last surviving child and they’re both elderly, she didn’t want to leave them. She’s filed appeals.”
“Why didn’t she call us?”
“She tried,” Tony said quietly. At this point he really regretted leaving Ronon behind to handle any unexpected emergencies that Aleighta couldn’t. He would enjoy turning Ronon loose on the entire legal department at the Pentagon. “She sent emails to both of us and Elizabeth. I told her none had gone through or we would have stormed the castle.”
Gibbs stared at the readouts for energy usage on the monitor, but Tony could feel the storm of emotions under his still façade. A furious Gibbs was dangerous, and quite frankly the entire planet should be grateful that Samas wasn’t around. Gibbs was bad enough, but when Samas got in there with his utter lack of regard for chain of command and inability to listen to anyone, the combination was deadly. He would have ripped through the entire military and then shot the President in the ass.
Even back before Tony had known about onacs and Stargates, Gibbs had been that way, treating everyone as if they were symbiotes swimming around him and competing for the queen’s attention. Samas was one volatile personality they didn’t need to add to this mess, and there was another.
“Rodney and John have their hands full with Russia. I don’t want to tell them any of this until we’re on our way home.”
Gibbs studied Tony for a time before asking, “Who do you expect to lose his mind?”
“Who do you think?”
“Rodney,” Gibbs said, his lips twisting. “And if he does, Teyla’s plans are done.”
“Yeah, which is why I don’t want him to know. He is so protective of our people that if he knows what America has done, he’ll shred them. It was bad enough when the Russians did it, but Rodney never trusted them.”
“He’ll take this as a bigger betrayal,” Gibbs finished. “Agreed. We don’t tell him. How many more people do you need to check with?”
“Two. Anne has kept up with everyone, so she crossed several names off the list. Apparently not everyone thinks Earth is overrated.”
“Their loss,” Gibbs said, and Tony could practically see him cross those names off his mental roster.
“Espinoza was told that he couldn’t take siblings, and he couldn’t take anyone who didn’t have American citizenship. He wants to go, but most of his family lives in Mexico.”
“Mexico is an IOC country.”
“But not one of the eleven countries signed onto the Antarctic treaty. The American government is claiming that Milky Way is under IOC control but that Atlantis is the fruit of the Antarctic treaty and only those countries have rights.” Tony couldn’t hope to untangle the legal mess of filings and briefs, all under top secret seals so people who had a chance to apply common sense couldn’t see them. “Mexico, Sweden, Serbia, the Philippines and the Czech Republic have filed a lawsuit, but the Americans and Russians are claiming that the IOC can’t rule on an issue governed by the Antarctic treaty. China is neutral, Canada, Japan, and the UK have all come out in favor of the wider IOC position.”
“But America holds the Stargate,” Gibbs said with a hint of growl in his voice.
“Yep,” Tony agreed. “By the way, I told Anne to pack up her parents and anyone else she wants to take, and I plan to offer the entire Espinoza clan passage. I’ll take very cousin, second cousin, in-law and ex-wife.” Tony might not scare people as much as Gibbs, but he knew how to drive a knife home. If Carlos Espinoza wanted to come, Tony would take as many of his people as wanted to come, and the Pentagon could choke on it for all he cared. Hell, maybe he’d stop in and make a deal with the Mexican and Swedish governments. Maybe the Serbians would pay for access to Atlantis that the Turi and Travelers could provide. There could be a deal to be made, and if the American and Russian governments were going to play politics, Tony would happily screw them over.
“Do you think they lost Anne’s application because she’s lesbian?” Tony asked. The truth was that both of them had been off the planet for so long they were probably crap at understanding the politics, but Gibbs still nodded.
Tony rolled his head to the side to watch Gibbs’s reaction. “That might explain why they’re targeting us.” Now fury broke through the poker face.
“Targeting us how?” Gibbs’ voice was low and dangerous.
“Both our stateside bank accounts have been mysteriously closed. I used Rodney’s hack, and our social security numbers are cleared, your retirement money has stopped, my NCIS salary is gone and I’m not listed as ever having been an agent. I don’t think they could get away with erasing you or they would have. Face it, you’ve pissed off too many people to be forgotten.”
Tony wasn’t sure how he felt about having his own government destroy his existence. While it was true that Earth wasn’t home anymore, he thought of Earth the way the thought of Remington Military Academy. His life was better after leaving, but many of the best parts of his life were a direct consequence of what he’d learned in the past. Earth was part of him. And taking his money away was just shitty. As soon as Atlantis broke away from Earth, Tony planned to file a legal challenge and have Rodney track down anyone involved and ruin them.
“They’re moving against us,” Gibbs said.
“Yeah, but I don’t see what they think they’re going to gain. Our lives are on Atlantis.”
“What do we lose if we’re not Americans and not employees of the American government?”
“If we’re not residents or citizens, we have limited access to federal courts.” Gibbs stood and glared at the empty room. “What are they planning?”
“Damned if I know,” Tony said. “But I get the feeling that Teyla is not the only one scheming.” Tony knew his country had a shitty history of manipulating people and screwing over whole groups. He got it. He had been in law enforcement long enough to know that minorities still weren’t treated equally. However, he had always thought of America as constantly improving. He considered each decade as an improvement over the last. He couldn’t say that anymore. Espinoza had been openly discriminated again; Anne had been stonewalled, no pun intended. None of this was fair.
Gibbs’s nose flared, which usually mean he was about to rip into someone; however, there wasn’t anyone around here to rip on. “Sheppard has to know some of this. We can’t let him go forward in Russia without knowing that the problem is wider than one president changing their policy.”
Tony still wanted to keep Rodney away from this clusterfuck. If they wanted Teyla’s plan to work, they couldn’t afford to let Rodney blow anyone up, literally or figuratively. “I’ll tell him about Espinoza and Anne as well as the legal infighting with the Antactica treaty group versus the IOC. The rest… it’s going to make him too angry to focus on the plan.”
“And your sister?” Gibbs asked.
It took a half second for Tony to translate that to Spidersilk as opposed to any infidelity on the part of DiNozzo, senior. He wondered if Gibbs chose to refer to them as sisters to help reign in Jo’s frustration at not being allowed to fight her. They’d fought once in the water. When Samas had first given the young queens the right to challenge for the right to have Tony as a host, she had fought and ripped and tore until all her sisters had to give way.
She had earned Tony as her prize, but she still felt that hot flash of frustration that one who had suffered defeat still got to have Miko as her host. Never again would Miko’s symbiotes return to the breeding waters to sing of their great mathematical accomplishments. Spidersilk had stolen those stories.
But all those feelings fit into a corner of Tony’s brain, so he pushed them aside and focused on his respect for Miko and Spidersilk and his confidence that the cities of Zerzura and Atlantis would be stronger as allies than they were individually. “I’ll visit her,” Tony said. If Earth was about to go to hell, Miko and her family needed to know. After all, if the American government touched a hair on the heads of any of them—Evan, Abby, Miko or any of their children—then Tony really was going to have to kill someone. Several someones.
Jo sent up an image of a huge queen gliding through dark waters, her fighting fins extended and her jaws wide and ready to eat an enemy and vomit him back up on dry land.
For the first time since the height of the Wraith Wars, Tony agreed with her. Some people deserved to be vomited back up. And if General Helms or Dr. Knight were any part of this conspiracy, they’d better pack their bags and get off Atlantis before Tony got back.