“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.
Leon walked into his office, closing the door behind him. The lock immediately clicked, suggesting the office had gone into safe mode. Leon expected to see Secretary Davenport behind his desk. Instead a handsome man in his forties was leaning back, his attention on the small tablet computer he was holding. The unusual color and semitransparent body suggested classified and advanced. But then this guy had broken into NCIS without getting noticed, so Leon had already guess that much.
“Can I help you?” Leon didn’t feel in any immediate danger, but he strolled over to his couch where he had a weapon hidden.
The man looked up and smiled, and his face tickled something in the far recesses of Leon’s memory. He didn’t know the man, but he’d seen his photograph somewhere.
“Maybe. McGee trusts you. I trust McGee. The question remains as to whether I can trust you.”
“McGee?” The memory clicked. “You’re Anthony DiNozzo.” Leon had taken DiNozzo off the payroll after Davenport’s last visit. Apparently DiNozzo was not as uninterested in the agency as Davenport had suggested.
DiNozzo’s smile grew wider. “Director Vance. I’m complimented. Is there a reason why you recognize me on sight?”
Leon had been in the game for a long time, and he knew full well that Davenport lied and manipulated more often than he told the truth. So maybe it was time to assume that other rumors were true. “What can I do for you Ambassador DiNozzo?”
DiNozzo leaned forward. “I just thought I’d ask why Agent Gibbs and I have both fallen off the NCIS payroll.”
“You certainly weren’t handing in reports to me,” Leon countered. No doubt they were both involved in activities that had very little to do with investigating and everything to do with the policies of the outgoing administration. Harry Hayes had years to play his games in the universe, so DiNozzo could be Earth’s ambassador to any number of alien populations.
“I actually was until a few days ago,” DiNozzo said. “No doubt they got redacted all to hell and back, but I filed proper paperwork on every drunk marine I busted. How interesting that you never got any of it. You should look into that.” While DiNozzo’s smile never wavered, something cold and dangerous lurked in his gaze. Leon spent his life working with dangerous people, and he would put DiNozzo in that category. How odd. Office scuttlebutt had Gibbs as the dangerous one and DiNozzo the happy-go-lucky playboy who smoothed over his rougher edges. Scuttlebutt was wrong.
“I will.” Leon wasn’t about to assume DiNozzo had altruistic motives, but if someone had dammed up the information flow, he could quietly poke around. “I was informed you no longer required ties to government service in order to maintain your cover.”
“Were you?” Now DiNozzo sounded amused. His humor reminded Leon of Eli David’s. Come to think of it, DiNozzo had worked with Eli’s daughter before that mess with Rivkin. “Who would have told you that?”
Leon knew two things. First, DiNozzo already knew. He wouldn’t look so confident if he didn’t. The man clearly maintained a relationship with McGee so it was possible that McGee had ferreted out the information. If so, Leon had badly underestimated McGee’s political acumen and the size of the man’s balls.
Leon also knew that he stood at a political crossroads.
Up until now, Leon had tap danced between his international contacts and the growing wave of nationalism at home. He had managed to keep both camps happy by persuading each that he was using the other. Davenport was endlessly amused by the idea that Leon was managing Eli David. And Eli’s expectations were growing more strident as he tried to minimize US influence in the Middle East and he expected Leon to help.
The Stargate program had fed the worst instincts of US politicians while simultaneously fostering the fears of other countries. A new version of the Cold War was staring him in the eye, and this time the universe was larger and more dangerous.
Leon leaned back and studied DiNozzo. He wasn’t willing to commit too many eggs to this basket, but DiNozzo had reputation in NCIS as a straight shooter, and his name inspired fear in the more corrupt corners of government. So maybe Leon could hedge his bets. “I follow the chain of command. I’m not at the top of this feeding chain.”
“So, you’re hiding behind ‘orders’?” DiNozzo asked, scorn in his every word.
Leon leaned forward. “My job is to protect this agency—not to cover your ass.”
DiNozzo stood. “Oh, I have people to cover my six, and you’re not one of them. Who covers yours, Director?”
Leon didn’t answer. Five or ten years ago, he could have named a dozen men—powerful men—who would have stood up for Leon, but the higher Leon climbed, the fewer friends he had. He had no idea if that was the relatively isolated nature of NCIS, the machinations of Davenport, or the changing nature of the universe as goa’uld and Lucians and priors joined the threat lists kept by national security agencies.
DiNozzo walked around to the front of the desk and leaned back. “You’re getting used.”
Leon laughed. “That is the most obvious piece of advice I’ve ever been given.”
“Who is it? SecNav? SecDef? Homeworld Security? How high up is the puppet master pulling your strings?”
Leon’s blood pressure rose. He was a damn fine agent and a man who had fought his way to this chair by being better than everyone else who wanted it. He had to give DiNozzo credit for knowing what button to push. “You must have been good in an interrogation room.”
“I still am,” DiNozzo said. “I can’t read you, though. Phillip Davenport, Clayton Jarvis, Errol Coyne, General Kendrick, the Vice President? Who’s pushing the buttons, Leon? The President himself?”
“Leon? Are we on a first name basis?” Leon asked. He kept his face as neutral as possible because he recognized DiNozzo’s technique. He didn’t expect Leon to give him the name of the power player moving against him, but he did expect Leon to flinch. Well Leon could play this game as well as anyone.
“Sure,” DiNozzo said. “Call me Tony. If I’m in a really bad mood or if there are any people-eating aliens around, you can call me Jo.”
Leon frowned. That didn’t make any sense, which meant there was something DiNozzo was either trying to tell Leon or—more likely—he was judging the likelihood that Leon already knew it. “Joe? I didn’t think your middle name was Joseph.”
DiNozzo’s smile got wider—at least that’s what Leon thought at first. In reality he opened his mouth and a fucking lizard came slithering out. Leon reached for his weapon, and when he found it gone, he bolted out of his seat. “This is Jo,” DiNozzo said. “She’s a queen Turi. Imagine a goa’uld devoted to honor, justice and eating bad guys alive before vomiting their remains up on dry land.”
“A goa’uld?” Leon didn’t even try to maintain any aplomb. Parasites that took over a person’s body exempted a man from any rules of politeness.
“She’s not a goa’uld. I said she’s into justice. She’s Turi. She’s more closely related to onac.”
Onac. The symbiotes who had helped defeat the priors. One or two of Leon’s contacts had mentioned them and mentioned the concern that onac could still pose a threat to US security. Unlike goa’uld, they had an ability to keep their egos in check and run long-term undercover missions. When Leon had suggested briefing their people on the possibility, he had been largely ignored. He’d been told larger agencies would handle that, and he should focus his people on protecting Navy personnel and solving crime.
Leon took a deep breath. “Well, Tony,” he said with deliberation. “If you’re concerned about your status as an agent, I’m sure personnel would be happy to discuss the legalities.”
“That would be difficult since I’ve vanished from the list of former agents.”
“What?” Leon didn’t hide his shock, but he also didn’t expect DiNozzo to believe him.
DiNozzo appeared confused for a moment, and then the snake dove back into his mouth. “You didn’t know,” he said softly.
“I would not allow someone to take retirement benefits away from one of my agents. I know you left before I came, but I am not Jenny Shepard and I don’t run personal agendas or illegal activities out of this office.”
DiNozzo’s eyebrows went up. “Okay, I don’t know what that’s about, but remind me to ask you later. I told Gibbs I had a creepy feeling about Good Madam Director. I know what Davenport is holding over your head, Director.”
Leon winced. If DiNozzo had the damn DNA results, there was fuck-all Leon could do to minimize the damage now. “I’m not going to compromise this agency or my people, not even to save my own ass.” Leon had lied to the military and traded identities, but he still felt the same duty and honor that a real Marine would have. And the irony of that was rich considering that the actual Marine Leon had traded identities with had hoped to fool a paternity test.
DiNozzo came over to the couch and sat. “I don’t know why you did it, but I can’t find one instance of you betraying your country or this agency. I’m not planning on using Tyler Owens to blackmail you. I’m asking if someone else has.”
Leon watched the man. No one offered an escape route out of a trap without expecting some sort of payment. With Davenport, Leon knew the price. He overstaffed and understaffed areas to either create holes for Davenport to exploit or to shut down groups that Leon would otherwise consider nuisances. This escape route had a big blank as the price tag. Leon returned to the couch. “What do you plan to do with this information?”
“Do I need a reason to ask why someone might be trying to stab me in the back?”
“Is there a reason why people at the top of the military chain of command would care about an NCIS agent?”
“You’re the one who called me an ambassador.”
Since they were playing nice, Leon decided to see how far he could push for information. “And to which planet do you serve as an ambassador?”
DiNozzo leaned closer. “You should ask me who I represent instead.”
Leon’s stomach knotted. DiNozzo had left the reservation and started serving another power. “Okay, I’ll bite. Who do you represent?” he asked even though he had a good idea. He’d called that snake a Turi queen.
DiNozzo smiled. “The Turi are allied with the Marines on a joint base. I was assigned as the NCIS agent because I’d stumbled into an alien plot way back when McGee was still a wet-behind-the-ears probie. My probie. The base was the easiest place to have me work and keep me from sharing classified secrets.”
“Or prevent your queen from having access to Earth,” Leon countered. That scared him a hell of a lot more than an NCIS agent in possession of classified information.
“Jo came later,” DiNozzo said. “My top guesses for who pushed this button are Phillip Davenport or General Richard Kendrick. Davenport has the most access to you, well, other than his deputy Jarvis, but do any of us actually believe Davenport gives Jarvis any real authority?”
Leon shrugged. DiNozzo was right on that count.
“General Kendrick has a real hate for aliens. The Office of Special Investigation at Homeworld breeds a special sort of asshole. He would have the most reason for targeting me and Gibbs.”
“That would suggest Gibbs has an alien in him as well.” Leon had a harder time believing that. Gibbs had cut a swath through NCIS so wide that some politicians still hadn’t forgiven or forgotten. His miraculous closure rate was the only thing that kept him from being fired for his overbearing attitude. He never would have shared skull space with a snake.
“Well….” DiNozzo let his voice trail off. “He had a queen in him the whole time he worked at NCIS. That explains his short temper, huh?”
Leon could only stare at DiNozzo and wait for the punchline.
“Not kidding,” DiNozzo said. “He has the granddaddy of all the Turi. Samas. The god of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The alien who tried to help humans throw off the evil overseers. The mentor of the hero of Uruk. That Samas.”
Leon made mental notes of those names and would definitely look them up later. “I take it she was old.”
“Samas prefers he. Don’t disrespect the pronouns, Leon. And Samas is five or six thousand years old.”
“No doubt you have many enemies then.” Leon wondered how the first Director of Homeworld, General O’Neill, had handled that. From the stories Leon had heard, that man hated any alien who didn’t bleed red. Hell, he hated most that did and all Russians, too. O’Neill did have a reputation as a man able to juggle a lot of hate.
All humor vanished, and DiNozzo asked, “Who gave you the order to cut us out?”
Leon toyed with refusing, but at this point in his life, he didn’t care if Davenport took him down with that damn Owens file. It would be worth it to wipe the smug smile off the man’s face. Worse, Leon was starting to fear that Davenport’s fanatic attitude toward defending US interests didn’t work when the world had to work together against alien threats. Leon threw his political aspirations to the wind and threw in with someone he barely knew. At least DiNozzo bothered to ask for Leon’s help instead of backing him into a corner.
DiNozzo nodded at him. “Thank you.” He touched his ear. “I’m ready to come up.” In a twinkle straight out of science fiction, DiNozzo vanished and a second later, Leon’s office left safe mode. Leon hated being out of control, but at this point he could only hope that DiNozzo didn’t stab him in the back.
Sorry, a car accident and minor concussion really put me out of commission for a while, and then I had to catch up with grading and my professionally published fiction. I haven't abandoned this, but don't expect fast chapters, either. I'm sorry!!!
Chapter 8: The Black Queen
Tony leaned against the wall and waited. Garcia had left the office, so she should be coming home soon. Hopefully she wasn't going out for drinks with her colleagues. Sometimes Tony felt a niggle of discomfort when he saw how close she was to her coworkers. Tony had certainly never had that on Earth.
Kate had treated him like an immature child who had gotten loose from a parent and was wandering the NCIS bullpen unattended. He loved her, and he still missed her, but she wasn't someone he would've gone out for drinks with.
Vivian would have eviscerated him before having a drink with him. That woman had been so angry and bitter that he was pretty sure she kept the desiccated remains of men who annoyed her in her basement. And then there was his Probie. Of all his coworkers, Tony liked Tim the best, but there was still a wall between them. No amount of joking or teasing could tear down the fact that Tim had never felt like he was one of the team.
Now Tim had his own team. Tony’s contacts said he might even be in line for the directorship in a decade or so. It made Tony suspect that Tim had more of his father’s ambition and political savvy than Tony had seen. Of course Tony had better luck with his non-Earth based partners. He may not have been on SGA-1 for long, but he considered them teammates still. But it was different.
Tony was the queen… or really he preferred king. That put a distance between him and Ronon. Jo sent up an image of herself chasing a Ronon symbiote and sinking her fangs deep into a tail when the thing had the arrogance to flip a tail at her. She had laid a number of eggs using his symbiotes.
“Yeah, yeah. He is kinda awesome,” Tony told her, but in some ways, that made it hard for Tony to consider him a real partner. Everything Ronon did was designed to impress Tony now that Samas wasn’t around. That wasn’t a great basis for partnership.
Rodney and John were lost in each other and Teyla had to juggle the needs of Atlantis’s citizen population and her desire to guide Atlantis toward independence. Dr. Knight and the string of IOC leaders before him had all gone out of their way to separate Teyla from the levers of power, but that had only inspired Teyla to new and creative forms of power. While the IOC wrote rules about computer access, Teyla visited with key personnel and asked about their children. She arranged internships. She taught bantos to a shy Earth girl whose mother worked in computer security and arranged some farm-discipline for a Genii boy who was acting out. She used the same sort of informal power Tony preferred, so he understood just how powerful she had grown.
Dr. Knight didn’t.
That was probably good because Earth would have a fit if they knew how many people owed her, but her work took huge amounts of time. Once a month Tony might have dinner with her, and even then, they were swapping stories and favors as much as reconnecting as teammates.
Maybe that was the nature of growing up. Tony had to admit that maturity was finally catching up to him. And he had no right to feel so isolated because he had Gibbs.
Gibbs knew him. Intimately. They shared a connection that nothing and no one could touch. Hell, Gibbs even understood how hosting a queen isolated him. Jo tended to see the world as competitors and sexless symbiotes swimming around her and vying for attention. But unlike Gibbs, Tony was social by nature, and the idea that his home planet had effectively cut him off broke his heart just a little.
This had been his home. He had grown up here. He had teams he cheered for and good friends he intermittently kept up with. But visiting Ziva had reminded him of the team he didn’t have anymore. Tony hadn’t bothered to visit Tim. The last time he’d seen Tim, the president had been ducking his calls. Tim had stood up for Tony, but he had seen Tony as someone inferior.
An echo of unhappiness resonated. “Don’t worry about me,” Tony whispered to his girl. “Only maybe consider that Miko would understand how difficult it is to be isolated.” Miko didn’t even have a partner who could relate. Abby had taken countless symbiotes and they would return to the waters with unbridled joy and a small sadistic streak as they sang of some researcher Abby had punished for failing to file the correct paperwork. However, she would never understand how a queen saw the world.
And Evan would never even take a symbiote. Tony had worried about that when Jo’s sister had started to demand a host. Miko had been the obvious choice for a queen, but Evan had never shown any interest in hosting. Tony had worried that it might cause problems in their marriage. It wasn’t as if Evan had it easy trying to make a thruple work. After several long talks, Tony decided Evan was fine being married to a queen as long as he didn’t have a Turi in his own head.
But despite the support of her two spouses, Miko was going to be incredibly isolated.
Jo sent up an image of her slicing through the water, shaking her fighting fins.
“She will be here for you when the rest of us are gone,” Tony said. He got back a flash of competitive fury. Jo did not feel the familial love. To be fair, Samas didn’t either, and Gibbs loved family like no one Tony had ever known. If anyone could get a Turi queen to bend, Gibbs could. Hell, Gibbs had made a couple of comments about Tony forgiving his father. As far as Tony was concerned, the “real” Anthony DiNozzo could either live in the state subsidized apartment or get himself sent back to jail. Either worked.
Tony might have gotten over his anger only senior’s last message had included a promise to forgive Tony for being such a questionable son. As a felon, Senior didn’t have much room to criticize others.
Tony tabled his own morbid thoughts when he spotted Penelope getting off the elevator. “There is my beautiful goddess of technology.”
Garcia’s face lit with joy. “Tony! You sweet talker, you.” Without asking for permission, she ran up and threw her arms around him. Her joy and the power of her faith in all that was good and right washed away Tony’s melancholy. All that was left was a genuine need to make the world right and a belief they could. Tony had no idea how she held onto her goodness so firmly given what she saw on a daily basis as the technical specialist for an FBI team that hunted serial killers. Tony had chased a few in his day, mostly on Earth, and those had been the hardest cases. But Garcia pulled back and gave him a thousand watt smile. “What can I help you with today?”
“I wanted to wine and dine my favorite goddess, and maybe get some good gossip on how Derek has been doing recently.” Tony said. “Derek” was their signal. Tony would never ask her about Derek because he didn’t want anyone to know that his friend had come to Tony for help. In fact, in the eleven years since he first met her in that hospital room, he had only made contact twice.
Penelope's eyebrows went up, but she didn't break character for a moment. This is why Tony adored her. The woman had camouflage down to an art, and he wasn't sure her colleagues recognized just how much. He certainly knew Derek underestimated her on a semi regular basis, and that was even knowing her persona as the cyber vigilante “The Black Queen.”
Penelope was not a woman to underestimate, but then Tony found that true of most women in law enforcement. The sexism inherent in the field tended to drive out women who didn't have a significantly higher percentage of kick ass attitude. But in Penelope's case, the attitude had morphed into something that led others to underestimate her ability.
“Is my chocolate God neglecting you now that he has a wife and little Bambino to spoil?” Garcia teased as she unlocked her apartment door.
“Well we’re certainly not playing as much basketball.” Of course that might also be influenced by the fact that Tony now lived in a separate galaxy, but hopefully if anyone had Penelope's apartment bugged, they wouldn't recognize him and pick up on that fact.
“I know he's been super busy lately. If you’re going to stay awhile, I'll fix you some patented Garcia brownies.” She dug through her purse and pulled out the lipstick Tony had brought on his last visit.
“Home cooking sounds glorious. So how has my beautiful Penelope been?”
“Oh, you know, the same. Nothing really truly interesting ever happens to me. A serial killer here, a serial killer there, nothing exciting.” She unscrewed the bottom of the lipstick and plugged her phone into it. That was a new upgrade, but Tony wasn’t surprised she had figured out how to make the two compatible.
“Maybe that team of yours should take you in the field more often.”
“They’re so overprotective,” Garcia said. She winked at Tony. They both knew that Garcia was far from being helpless, although Tony wasn’t sure she would ever be the sort to pull the trigger. Honestly, he didn’t want her to have to. The universe needed her brand of joy. In a lot of ways, she reminded him of Abby, although Abby had a darker streak.
Given her smile, Garcia liked whatever she saw on her phone. She turned on an innocuous looking candle warmer so the bulb threw out long spears of light through the holes in the ceramic. But more importantly, Tony could feel the ancient technology hum. “Clever,” Tony said. She had connected the tamper-warning system to her phone, but she had separated the activator from the privacy module. She was brilliant. “Where did you hide the device?”
“In the brick wall, behind faux brick panel.” She gestured toward the wall in question. “I'm rather proud of the paint job. You would never realize that I dug some of those bricks out to do a little redecorating.”
“No, I wouldn't.” Even with his enhanced eyesight, Tony couldn’t see any sign of a hidden compartment. Of course it helped that she never needed to access the Ancient device because she had separated the activator. And as long as it wasn’t active, even someone with the ATA gene wouldn’t feel the technology.
“Is Derek, okay?” Now that they had privacy, Garcia looked worried.
“As far as I know, he's fine,” Tony assured her. “I’m still trying to keep a certain distance, and as far as I can tell, no one has connected us.” He couldn’t give her any more reassurance than that because they both knew Derek would be in danger if certain people realized he and Tony were buds. As Tony grew more powerful, others worked harder to find a weak point in his defenses. Maybe that was another reason Tony had felt so isolated lately.
“I get so worried about him when…” Garcia didn’t finish, but Tony felt her fear and anger stain the air. Tony understood just how close the two of them were. At one point Tony had thought they were romantically involved, but he had since realized that Penelope's tastes were a little more unconventional when it came to bed partners. Traditionally handsome did not do it for her, but she loved Derek like a brother.
And clearly, he returned the feelings. After all, on Tony's first clandestine visit to earth, he gone to his friend and explained the reality of the universe. If people needed to get off Earth fast, the SGC wouldn’t go out of their way to get to Tony and Gibbs’ family. So Tony had made his own plans. He’d given Derek technology he should not have and asked for his help to quietly look after Abby and Gibbs’ father and all their other loved ones on Earth. And then, ironically, Abby and Jackson Gibbs had both ended up on Atlantis.
Still, if Earth was about to fall, Tony had wanted to make sure that Derek had the ability to call for help and evacuate as many civilians as possible. Tony had never expected that Derek would use that emergency line to call Tony and ask for help to save Garcia’s life. If it weren't for a symbiote who had chosen the Queen’s path, Penelope would've died at the hands of a serial killer cop who had such insecurity that he had to put people's lives in danger just so that he could be part of saving them.
The idea of that Fokker killing Penelope still sent such rage through Tony that he really struggled against the urge to track that bastard down in prison and remove one or two organs. Tony might even make them less important organs, the ones that the idiot could live without, at least for a few hours. The bastard should have died when Agent Jareau put a few bullets in him, but sometimes the universe was not fair. However, taking vengeance on Garcia’s behalf would have definitely drawn attention to her. And since she had chosen to keep her symbiote and keep an eye out for trouble, Tony would not risk her cover.
“So, what do you need?” Garcia asked, all business now.
“What? Can't I come and visit you?”
“Sweetie, you are always welcome to come and visit me. You are just a hunk of burning handsome,” she said, and Tony blushed. “However, I can feel the fury rolling off Jo. So I don't care how many masks you have on, that queen in there is ready to rip somebody's heart out, which means that somebody needs to have their heart ripped out.” Garcia crossed her arms.
Tony knew how to embarrass just as well as Garcia. “Right now Jo desperately wants to bite the tail of your symbiote. She thinks you are the sexiest thing alive since Ronon.”
Penelope laughed. “Oh, honey, you're just going to have to wait your turn. If you came to get my symbiote, the answer is still no.”
“She’ll wait,” Tony said, “Not forever, but Turi are patient. But she is looking forward to some violent sex and a whole brood of Garcia babies.”
“Before my darling boy is going back to the home waters, I'm going to make sure that he earns his right on the scholar’s path and doesn't end up being trapped into the Queen’s path his whole life. He’s got some stories that deserve to get told. So until I get to Atlantis and can scheme, trick, and hack my way through those tests, you are not getting the symbiote back.”
Tony smiled. Penelope was one-of-a-kind. “Most people who find that they have been given a symbiote when they are unconscious are less than thrilled about it.”
She blew him a raspberry. “And how many people have you actually given a symbiote when they were unconscious?”
“Three, but I'm not sure that General Sheppard counts. He's still in denial about it.”
“Well then, first of all I would say that your science is very weak. That sample size is not large enough to draw any meaningful conclusion. Second of all Miss Penelope Garcia does not fit into average in anyone's categories.” She headed for the kitchen. “So, who are we killing? And, I do need to say right now that when I say killing, I do mean metaphorically killing. You know, destroying their credit rating, stealing back any ill-gotten gains, or exposing their illegal activities to board members or spouses. I am fully in favor of any and all of these activities. Your Black Queen is ready, willing, and able to do some bad, bad shit.”
Tony followed her, watching as she put her vintage purse on the chair. The privacy devise covered the whole apartment, but she still pulled the curtains.
“When you find out what's been happening, keep in mind that neither Jo nor I want any literal bloodshed. Metaphoric and financial damage will be just fine with us,” Tony said.
Garcia gave him a concerned look. “Oh dear. What’s wrong? My darling Buddy is already getting uneasy.”
Buddy. Some days Tony figured Penelope had the ability to warp reality wherever she went. Only queens were supposed to be able to develop a personality independent of their host. Even the early Goa’uld were greatly influenced by their first host. And yet, Garcia had somehow managed to find a way to, as she called it, respect her emotional boundaries enough to give her symbiote room to have thoughts of his own. Maybe the problem was that he had given her a symbiote with his own memories. The Tony symbiotes did tend to break rules.
“Someone is trying to erase me and Gibbs from all official records.”
“What?” she practically shouted, her anger flooding the air with symbiote hormones that really made Jo want to sample Garcia’s symbiote. “Why?”
“I'm not sure. The investigator in me can come up with any number of possibilities, but I have no evidence to support any of that conjecture.”
Garcia took a step back and leaned against the counter. “You think they're trying to cut you off from your legal rights as an earth citizen as an Earth citizen, don’t you?”
It was the most logical motive. Tony’s father had illegally raided his trust fund before Tony turned twenty. He had liquidated and moved most of his assets off-world, and most of the enemies Tony and Gibbs had accumulated through the years lacked the resources for this sort of operation. “It's one possibility,” Tony admitted.
Garcia narrowed her eyes. “Those assholes.”
This was what Tony had hoped to avoid. Garcia could slip in and out of Earth computer networks without ever being seen or having the breech lead back to Atlantis; however, he didn’t want her to compromise her position. “Garcia, we don't even know who was involved or why they're involved. They might consider me a threat to national security and be attempting to minimize my access.”
Garcia narrowed her eyes more. “Don't you gaslight me, mister.”
“Garcia,” Tony said with a sigh.
“No, and do not go all queenly either. You might be the queen, but Buddy and I are not going to let our Queen go down without a fight. Come on, pull out the transporter, we are going to the fortress of solitude.”
Tony had expected Jo to get indignant, but all he felt was a distant amusement and general sense of fondness for Garcia and Tony-symbiotes. “I don’t want you to get too involved or compromise your position,” he told her.
“I am involved. This is Buddy’s queen and my friend that they are screwing with, and they are about to discover the horror of pissing off Penolope Garcia. You might be the Turi queen, but I'm the Black Queen, and with a little bit of ancient technology to backup my computer fingers,” she wiggled her fingers in the air, “I am going to make them sorry they ever were born. They are going to be so poor they are going to eat at a soup kitchen. I am going to ruin their credit until they can’t get a Walmart credit card. I am going to make them pay until they cry like babies. Hungry babies. Hungry babies with dirty diapers and diaper rash.” Garcia frowned and some of the righteous indignation faded. “Not that I approve of letting babies have dirty diapers, but for them, I'll make an exception.”
Chapter 9: The Plot Advances
“How’d it go?” Ronon asked as they walked down the ramp. The Traveler captain leaned against the hatch and watched them silently.
“Peachy,” John said as he reached the bottom.
“That bad?” Ronon moved forward to take John’s knapsack from him. John used to fight it when Ronon did that. It made him feel old. And like the sort of asshole who would treat friends like servants. However, Ronon had a symbiote so any scuffling over the bag would lead to John feeling even older as Ronon knocked him to the ground and then helped him up out of the dust.
“Worse,” Rodney said with disgust. “Those assholes were denying people the right to come back and retire on Atlantis. They were using people's families as blackmail to keep them in line. I swear to God, one of these days I am going to find a nuclear weapon that doesn't have fallout and has a short enough radioactive half-life that I can drop it without destroying the rest of the planet, and I'm going to bomb Russia. I am going to bomb them until all that is left are little Russian pebbles.” Rodney shoved his knapsack at Ronon. With an eyeroll, Ronon slung it over his shoulder with John’s bag, showing off just how strong he had grown over the years.
“Rodney, you know that I like lots of my Russian troops, so will you please stop threatening to bomb them to death?” John asked. If the wrong person back on Earth got wind of some of Rodney’s rants, they were going to lock him out of the weapons lab.
“I'm not threatening your troops. Your troops came back with us,” Rodney snapped.
Ronon looked at the ramp as though he expected to see Spetsnaz following. They had picked up seven hundred people and a couple of million dollars’ worth of supplies, so that was too much for the hold of a Traveler ship. “Matter transporter,” John said. “We’ll beam everyone out when the ship gets to Atlantis.”
“I should've planted a bug in the KGB headquarters so I could see the looks on their faces when they realize that everyone, including their little spy, decided to emigrate to Atlantis. Assholes.” Rodney was definitely worked up.
“There is no KGB anymore, Rodney.”
Rodney stopped long enough to glare at John. They’d been lovers for decades, but Rodney had never lost his sarcastic, disapproving edge when he disapproved of something John did or said. At least John never had to wonder what Rodney was thinking. “I don't care what they call it. They should call it the division of soul sucking assholes; it would be more accurate.” Rodney passed Ronon and headed for the Ancient outpost.
“I take it the Russians weren't following the treaty,” Ronon said.
“Slightly,” John admitted as they followed . He glanced over at Rodney and calculated the explosion he would trigger if he told Rodney. Of course, it would be worse if he waited until later. It seemed like Atlantis was not a safe place for explosions lately, so he decided to get all the drama out of the way. “However, America was not doing much better. They banned emigration and have removed Gibbs and Tony from the payroll.”
Rodney whirled around. “First, America is a continent, not a country, but I will assume you mean the United States, and second, what?”
If they were all very lucky, Rodney wouldn’t ruin Teyla’s plan by flying off the handle. “Colonel Teldy wanted to come home, and the Air Force informed her that since she had been stationed in Afghanistan she didn’t qualify to retire on Atlantis. When she kept making noises about wanting to return, they told her that she would have to leave her elderly parents behind. She was not the only one.”
Ronon's face turned thunderous, and Rodney's mouth literally dropped open. Rodney recovered his voice first. “They did not. Oh, tell me who said that because I am going to ruin someone. Ruin them.” Rodney fisted his hands and looked ready to go into battle. And Ronon looked like he was fully prepared to back him up. John had some damn scary friends.
John held his hands up to placate the pair. “Tony and Gibbs stayed behind to handle it. They have every intention of making certain parties regret their life choices,” John assured them.
Ronon threw the two bags to the ground. “I should head back to Earth.”
“They have a plan,” John said. “They wanted us to stick with Teyla’s plan.”
Rodney was already shaking his head. “They are both only marginally incompetent on computers, but even a backwoods planet like Earth is going to notice that they try hacking some asshole who deserves it,” he said.
John sighed. “I'm sure Tony and Gibbs have resources, ones that I don't care to dig into because I really don't want to know what sort of plans they've made. However, I trust them to handle this. We need to get our people home and work the plan. Teyla’s plan,” he reminded them. “Let Tony and Gibbs handle any trouble back home.”
“Without backup?” Ronon's temper did not seem to be improving any.
“They have backup. I'm sure they do. Besides, they kept one of the superlight cruisers. The hyperdrive on those things will outrun anything Earth has.” John walked over and tried to grab his bag, but Ronon jerked it out of John’s hand and then picked up Rodney’s bag again.
“Stop being stubborn,” Ronon said in the most ironic statement John had heard in a while.
“Yes, yes,” Rodney complained. “I designed those hyperdrives based off of Asgard and Ancient technology. However, that does not mean that they can't get themselves into more trouble than they can get themselves out of. We should go back for them.”
“I agree,” Ronon seconded. When those two agreed on anything, John knew he was in trouble, especially when Teyla wasn't here to back him up. It really sucked being the reasonable one in the group. In his youth, John had always gone out of his way to make sure that he was the rogue, the renegade, the one who threw out stupid ideas for other people to shoot down. And now he was the general. Every once in a while that really fucked with his head.
“We are not going to do anything that would endanger Teyla’s plan,” John said firmly. Rodney narrowed his eyes and looked like he was about to argue, but John held up a finger to stop him. “She will kill all three of us as a warning to any other fools who might screw with her plans. So, since I would like for all of my internal organs to remain on the inside, I am going along with her plan and so are you.” John pointed first at Rodney and then Ronon.
They wore matching expressions—unhappy ones—but eventually both looked away. “I don't like this,” Rodney complained softly.
“Take it up with Teyla,” John said. Sure, he could go maverick and take the team back to Earth, but Teyla was right. Unless Earth people were given enough rope to hang themselves, they would see themselves as the victims and break their own necks trying to get revenge. It would destroy any chance of an Atlantis-Earth alliance.
It was really pathetic how self-destructive John's homeworld had become. Maybe they were always that bad and he just hadn't seen it, but he felt like he would've noticed this sort of stupidity, even when he had been young and stupid.
“Now, let’s get on with the plan,” John said as he walked over to the MALP they’d dragged to the outpost. “Are we all set?”
Larrin started down the ramp. “I’m looking forward to getting cast as the villain.”
“You are a villain,” Rodney snapped at her. He never had forgiven Larrin for tying John up. The man knew how to hold onto a grudge.
“I certainly can be,” Larrin said with a little wiggle of her hips that was disturbing in a woman her age. Then again, she was the first generation of Travelers to live into middle age, so she had never seen the horror of someone old enough to be a grandparent trying to use sexual wiles. It turned out that poorly shielded reactors were bad for the health. Who would have thought.
Rodney snorted and turned his back on her.
The MALP screen came on and John was faced with his own image. “How did your trip go?” Aleighta asked using John’s voice.
John snorted. “You’ve already read the reports, so you tell us.”
Aleigheta shrugged and then her image shimmered before she switched back to her normal persona. “Sadly, I did read the report. I am disappointed in Earth’s leaders, but given the rise in nationalism, I am not surprised. I already contacted Nihtay and asked her to ferry our newest citizens to whichever planets they would like. She is preparing a holo-presentation on the various alternatives and what resources we can offer. I am glad to see you encouraged everyone to bring all their supplies with them.”
John nodded. Nihtay was a good choice. She had lived on Atlantis ten thousand years ago before returning with Helia, the Ancient captain who tried and failed to reclaim the city. She had adapted well and ran her own ship hunting rogue Wraith.
“Have her emphasize the Lucian Alliance and Warlord Priors in the Milky Way and the Wraith in Pegasus so people understand the dangers.” John hated that the government still hid so much from people. They told everyone about the Goa’uld because they weren’t a threat and the Ori because they were dead. They didn’t tell people about the Wraith or the pair of ZPMs one of the Wraith groups had stolen from an Earth ship. Todd insisted his people hadn’t done it, so that meant that some group that saw humans as cattle had gotten ahold of an obscene amount of power. Hell, Earth hadn’t even told the general public about the few Priors who had decided to set up their own kingdoms in the Milky Way once they learned they’d been following false gods.
“I’ve relayed your message,” Aleigheta said. “Are you ready to contact Atlantis?”
John nodded. “Activate the remote dialer.”
“Dialing” Aleigheta said with undisguised glee in her voice. John and Nihtay had talked about the fact that Ancients tried to avoid emotions and sucked at them. Flat out, they sucked. So John suspected the emotions were either a recent addition Miko had programmed or some strange byproduct of Aleigheta’s interaction with humans. As an artificial intelligence, she could learn on her own. He just didn’t know why she would have put so much effort into learning to emote.
Walter’s face appeared on the screen. “General Sheppard. Is everything alright?”
“Peachy,” John said as he bent down to look in the camera. Ronon had already gotten rid of their bags, so people in Atlantis would never know they had been off-planet. “We have Travelers here. Stalking us. It’s a little creepy.”
Larrin moved to a spot behind John, probably where the camera could see her. “Aw, Shepherd, you say the sweetest things to a girl, but you might want to consider that I’m stalking the technology and not you.”
John looked over his shoulder. “Well I’m here, so feel free to be elsewhere.”
Walter’s eyes got large. “I’ll get Dr. Knight.”
“Yeah, you do that.” John stood and crossed his arms before shooting a weary look in Larrin’s direction.
She grinned back.
John didn’t have long to wait before Dr. Knight appeared. He tapped on Walter’s shoulder, and Walter surrendered his chair so Dr. Knight could sit in front of the camera. “Mr. Sheppard, report.”
John fought to hide his frustration. “I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Knight,” John said, and when Knight opened his mouth to object to the title, John kept right on talking. “Larrin and her ship showed up this morning, and we thought she would get bored. Instead, she landed.”
“You never bore me,” Larrin said.
“You really need to take the sexual harassment seminar,” John told her. “We offer one on every third tenday.”
“Pass,” Larrin said.
Dr. Knight cleared his throat. “Captain Larrin, can I ask what your interest is in that planet?”
Larrin strolled over. “I suspect the same as yours. There’s an Ancient outpost here, so we thought we would poke around.”
“Our people arrived first,” Knight said.
“Did you?” Larrin asked with exaggerated innocence. “Really? Did you find any weapons? Any caches of heavy metal? Spare parts?”
Rodney came striding out of the facility, an oil smudge on one cheek and dust in his hair. Nice touches. “Yes, yes. This place has been stripped, but you can’t prove that you did the stripping,” Rodney said as he pointed a finger at Larrin. Her eyebrows went up at his phrasing, but Rodney plowed on. “Anyone could have taken the supplies, including the Ancients. If I were an Ancient, I would take all the small hand weapons with me when I evacuated.” Rodney leaned down and looked into the camera. “Tell her to leave.”
“Earthers don’t own the universe,” Larrin said. “We have as much right to this as you. More actually. This is our galaxy. Yours is that way, I think.” Larrin gestured in the general direction of the Milky Way.
“Maybe you two want to go to your corners,” John said.
“General Sheppard, report,” General Helms said as he stepped into the screen.
“General Helms. Nice to see you. I was just talking diplomacy with Dr. Knight.” John did not want Helms involved. The man was tactically brilliant when they had a battle with the hunting Wraith or when a batch of rogue replicators had decided to leave replicator home world and explore the universe. However, he was less than diplomatic and unwilling to listen to civilians. He reminded John of Colonel Ellis, and that was not a compliment.
“I understand a foreign power is threatening your team.”
“I wouldn’t call it threatening,” Larrin said. “We’re just inviting them to move on so we can take our turn. Isn’t that what you Earthers are always saying—share and share alike?”
“That is an Earth facility and you are in violation of the treaty,” Helms said. That had gone from zero to a hundred far too quickly.
“Whoa there,” John said. “There is no treaty violation. Technically, she can park her ship wherever she likes. I was hoping Dr. Knight could negotiate or send Elizabeth to negotiate or talk to Kitsune. This is not the time to pull out fighting words.” John pinned Helms with his best general-glare. If Helms had been a colonel, that probably would have been enough, but General Helms glared back.
“General Sheppard, I am not willing to cede a weapons facility to the Travelers.”
“Why not? I can’t get it working,” Rodney said. “And if I can’t get it to work, none of them can.”
Helms sighed, and Dr. Knight rolled his chair into the general’s hip, pushing him toward the edge of the screen. “General Sheppard,” he said, emphasizing John’s title. Finally. “Is Agent DiNozzo with you?”
“Tony DiNozzo? Why would he be here?” John frowned as he feigned confusion.
“No reason.” Dr. Knight shook his head as though disgusted with himself for asking.
“What is going on?” John asked. After all, Tony had been a teammate, and John was well-known for getting overprotective of his team.
“Nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Then why are you asking about him?” John looked at General Helms. “General, is there something I need to know?”
“I’ll have troops to your position ASAP,” he said before walking off. Given that the Stargate on this planet killed all mechanical and electrical forms of transportation, that would be about eleven hours. If this were an actual emergency, they would be screwed, and Helms didn’t seem too concerned.
“Dr. Knight,” John said, “Tony was a teammate. He’s one of the original expedition, and Gibbs is an absolute terror when something happens to him. What is going on, and does Gibbs know about it?”
“I’m sure he does,” Knight said ambiguously. The ass was trying to hide the fact that both men were gone. They’d left the city before John had.
“I know that you’re new, but trust me, you do not want to hide something from Gibbs—not if it is related to Tony. Even General O’Neill wouldn’t get in the middle, not when it came to those two.”
“I am aware,” Knight said sharply. “And if he would like to de-ascend, I will discuss the matter with him.” Knight reached over and disconnected the video feed.
Aleigheta’s image appeared on screen again. “That was rude,” she said in a disapproving voice.
“Do you expect any better?” Rodney demanded. “I’m going to go disassemble enough equipment that these morons can’t tell we’ve been gone this whole time.”
“Want some help?” Larrin asked.
“Send a couple of engineers, ones that know the difference between a command crystal and petrified snot,” he said.
“Once!” John called after him. “I only did that once, and how was I supposed to know the planet used to have dinosaur-sized mammals who produced snot like that?” Rodney didn’t both responding.
Larrin walked over and leaned on the MALP. “Is there a chance O’Neill might de-ascend and come back to deal with this?”
John snorted. “He hated politics even before he turned into a glowing squid. I can’t see him coming back for this cluster fuck.”
“I hear Jackson has come back several times.” Larrin observed. She always had been one to look for the danger behind every corner.
“True. But those times he left by himself. This time, he’s not alone.” For years, the service members on the city had taken bets on whether he was sleeping with O’Neill or Vala. Most came down on the side of O’Neill. After all, Vala had flirted with everyone. Absolutely everyone. And she took Turi symbiotes and ran around acting like a pirate. She’d been entirely too enthralled with Todd, so much so that even Todd was a little disturbed.
But when a Wraith Queen had kidnapped Jackson, Vala had come roaring back to the city, vacillating between crying and raging. She and O’Neill had closed ranks and killed an entire hive before all three of them locked themselves in their quarters for a week. John had no idea how their three-some worked, but it clearly did. And when Jackson had ascended, his lovers both followed.
John was still a little weirded out that they could both ascend. Either Ancients were lying about how hard it was to achieve ascension or they just really sucked at it. Sucked like they sucked at having emotions. The Ancients had believed that unburdening themselves of any obligations or emotional ties freed them to Ascent, but maybe they had it backward. Maybe Vala and O’Neill had managed because they both threw everything into their love. But now that the three of them had gone to another plane of existence, John couldn’t imagine them returning for anything less than an Armageddon. Hopefully that wouldn’t be any time soon.
“O’Neill won’t want to get involved, Vala is probably off exploring some unexplored corner of the universe, and Jackson will trust us to handle this.”
Larrin studied him for a couple of minutes. “Is that wishful thinking or are you basing that off your own experience with being ascended?”
John headed for the outpost door. “You know I don’t remember being ascended.”
“I know that’s what you always tell us,” Larrin called after him. John didn’t want to get into a debate with the woman, so he ignored her words. He really couldn’t remember anything about any of his lives before the current one. Weirdly, Todd knew more about any pre-John Sheppard lives than John did, and that was a truth he did not want to think about.
Right now John didn’t care about those past lives. He just wanted to back Earth into a corner where its violations of the treaty were so egregious that the most nationalistic politician couldn’t defend them, and then John could finally make sure his city was free.