Actions

Work Header

The Stargate Protocols

Chapter Text

“‘C’mon, Wile E. Coyote?” Major General Jonathan O’Neill protested, keeping one eye on the road and the other on his guide of fourteen hours. “You couldn’t have come up with a more badass name for your spirit animal? I mean, that poor sucker gets outsmarted by a rabbit. Regularly.”

“Gimme a break,” Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo said, laughing happily at his sentinel’s indignation. “It was 3:30 in the morning, I was drunk off my ass and literally under the table, and this massive coyote crawls under there with me and starts licking my face. So I did what any self-respecting drunk frat boy would do: I screamed like an eight-year-old girl and started yelling for someone to get Bugs Bunny, because Wiley was trying to eat me. My frat brothers never let me hear the end of it.”

Tony was sprawled in the passenger seat of Jack’s car, relaxed and content, as they headed across town from the D.C. S&G Center towards the Pentagon.

If Jack had had his way, he would have kidnapped his guide last night and be in Minnesota by now, allowing their shiny new second level accord— which was only supposed to be a first level accord, but had somehow deepened to the second level when they weren’t looking— to settle in peace and privacy. They might not be ready to bond yet, but the accord was causing Jack to have some serious territorial impulses, and it would be nice to have Tony all tucked up and safe in the cabin with nobody to challenge their new connection except the bears and the squirrels (it was a well-known fact that the only fish up there were the ones in Jack’s imagination).

However, it was not to be. Jack had been able to play hooky for the morning, but there were a couple vital things he had to sign off on, and there was a weekly briefing scheduled for  this afternoon. He would have loved nothing better than to blow it off, but if he did that, then he would start getting panicked calls from the DoD, the JCS, the DoS, and the White House, which would actually be more distracting than just dealing with the briefing.

The good news was— thanks to the brand spanking new Union IDs in their wallets, which made them legally one person in two bodies and so automatically granted each of them the other’s security clearance— Tony was coming with him. Of course, Tony would have to sign a crapload of NDAs before he got to see anything cool— neither Jack, nor anyone else at Homeworld was about to entrust the security of the program to what really amounted to a legal fiction— but as soon as he’d done that, Jack could take him anywhere he pleased.

He was really looking forward to seeing the looks everyone’s faces when Tony waltzed into the conference room this afternoon like he owned the place.

“So, because you drank too much at a frat party when you were a sophomore in college, your spirit animal is stuck with the name of an incompetent cartoon character?” Jack clarified.

“Yup,” Tony replied, unrepentant. “So, now you’ve heard how Wiley got his name. Your turn. How did that lazy lion of yours end up as ‘Massoud’?”

“Well, don’t laugh— ” Jack said.

“Hah!” Tony interjected. “After the shit you just gave me about Wiley? Dream on!”

“— But Massoud is named after an Afghani military leader.”

Tony’s jaw dropped.

“Afghani?” he said stupidly. “Like, they guys we’ve been fighting with for, oh, say, ever?”

“Thought that was the Russians,” Jack said, grinning.

“Smartass,” Tony said.  “Okay, this I gotta hear.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jack could see Tony settling back into his seat, his vivid green eyes bright with anticipation.

“So, back in the late 80s and early 90s,” Jack said, “I was on a Special Ops team running deep covert operations. Now, the main show in town back then was the Gulf War, but there were also quite a few side attractions, so a lot of our work had fuck-all to do with the Gulf. Afghanistan was one of the big things on our radar, what with our old pals the Soviets occupying it and all, and one of the things I remember is, every now and again, we’d get intel on this insurgent leader in Northern Afghanistan, name of Ahmed Shah Massoud, who didn’t seem like them there any more than we did. His nickname was ‘the Lion of Panshir’ because he and his people held the Panshir Valley against Soviet forces during the Soviet-Afghan War. When the Soviets finally left, he became the Afghani Minister of Defense.”

Jack took the turn that led to the secure parking area for Homeworld Command.

“So,” he continued, “1996: I’m on a super- super black ops mission, helping a different group of, um, insurgents in another desert that’s… hell and gone from Afghanistan. But when this big old lion shows up right in the middle of it, the first thing that comes into my head is the Lion of Panshir, because the situation we were in, we could really some of that guy’s mojo. So, when I figured out that he was actually my spirit animal, I said what the hell and named him Massoud, because hey, it couldn’t hurt, right? And whaddaya know, the insurgents won, we didn’t all die, and the U.S. didn’t get blown to smithereens. Which, believe it or not, was a possibility for a minute there. And the two probably aren’t connected, but I’ve still got a soft spot for that guy. After the Taliban took over, he ended up going insurgent again, eventually ended up as the head of the Northern Alliance. He got assassinated right after 9/11.”

“Okay” Tony said, “You win. Your spirit animal naming story is way cooler than mine. Also, I’m not sure whether I’m curious or terrified that a super-black black ops mission could have ended up with the U.S. being blown to kingdom come.”

“Welcome to my world,” Jack said, pulling into his dedicated parking spot.

Lt. Colonel Paul Davis, bless his inkstained little heart, had called ahead to security to tell them that the general had his new guide with him, so their entrance into the Pentagon was smooth and painless. Tony clipped the temporary ID that Paul had sent down to his belt and smiled genially at the security guards.

“This is kinda wild,” Tony said as he followed Jack. “Usually when I’m here, I’m either interrogating or arresting someone. Although there was that one case with the hacker and the Navy Captain’s daughter—” he broke off as they entered Homeworld Headquarters and then stopped dead, staring at the glowing black and white representation of Earth on the wall and at the words “Homeworld Command,” which were written across it in a tastefully understated bold font. “Okay,” he said, “This is… not what I was expecting.”

They were intercepted immediately by Paul, who already had two folders under his arm.

“General,” Paul said, nodding, “Congratulations. Guide DiNozzo, welcome. I’m Lt. Colonel Paul Davis, Deputy Head of Homeworld Command. If you’ll come this way, please, I’ll set you up in the conference room.”

“The conference room?” Jack asked, grabbing a still stunned Tony and steering him after Paul. “What’s wrong with my office?”

“Well General, until Guide DiNozzo signs the NDAs, your office is a security breach,” Paul said. “Also, it’s hard enough to get your undivided attention on your paperwork on the best of days. If Guide DiNozzo is in the room with you, there’s no telling what you might sign off on.”

“Jack,” Tony said in a preternaturally calm voice, “What the hell are you guys up to here?”

“Hang on just a minute, and I’ll tell ya,” Jack said, directing Tony deftly into the conference room and pushing him into a chair. “After you’ve signed a few hundred forms, that is.”

Paul proceeded to give Tony the usual speech— national security, binding confidentiality agreements, nameless but sinister consequences should he ever breathe a word of what he was about to hear go anyone. Jack tuned it out, content to simply enjoy being in the presence of his guide. When Paul handed Tony the stack of forms— all helpfully marked with fluorescent yellow sticky tabs where Tony needed to sign or initial—  and the pen, Tony gave Jack a pleading look.

“I’m your guide, right?” he said plaintively. “So you wouldn’t let me sign away, like, any vital organs or the rights to my soul or anything?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jack said. “I signed all that stuff, and I’m fine. Granted, I haven’t checked lately to see if I still have all my kidneys and stuff…”

“You do, sir,” Paul assured him. “You had a physical last month. I have it on file.”

“There ya go,” Jack said.

Tony gave him a long, dubious look, but he began to sign pages.

Ten minutes later, when he had initialed and signed next to the last sticky tabs, Paul took away the forms and set the other file in front of Tony.

“So,” Jack said, clapping his hands together, “As you’ve no doubt figured out, this is Homeworld Command. I’m the head of the program, and Paul is my deputy— basically I yell at people while he actually runs things. Our mission goal is the protection of Earth and her allies.”

Tony blinked slowly at him, and Jack could smell a very familiar combination of scents coming off of him. Jack called it “Brainmelt #9,” and it usually appeared right before some poor soul started screaming for the guys with the straightjackets and the tranquilizers.

“Earth. And. Her. Allies,” Tony said slowly, enunciating with care.

“Yup,” Jack said cheerfully. “Now, what you’ve got there,” he pointed to the folder, “Is a standard briefing packet on the Stargate Program.”

With evident misgivings, Tony reached out and twitched open the folder. He stared at the first page, which was actually a glossy 8.5” x 11” photograph of a huge metal ring filled with what looked like glowing blue water.

“That,” said Jack, “Is the stargate. It was discovered by some archaeology types in Egypt back in the 30s…”

Tony didn’t say a word through the entire introductory speech. Nor did he say a word when Paul asked if he minded if he borrowed the general while he read through the briefing packet. When Jack and Paul left the conference room, Tony didn’t even look up, already immersed in the contents of the folder. The last whiff of his scent that Jack got before the door closed was pure shock, with no underlayers at all.

“Do you think he’s alright?” Jack asked Paul anxiously as the two of them headed towards his office.

“I took the liberty of pulling up Special Agent DiNozzo’s file this morning after you called, sir,” Paul said. “From what I read, he seems like a very resilient and adaptable individual. I believe he will adjust much better than most of the people we have to read into the program. Also, may I just say sir how relieved I am that we are finally getting a trained investigator?”

“Wait, what?” Jack said as they entered his office and Paul shut the door. “Hang on. Getting an investigator? Where did you get that idea?”

“Well, I’m assuming that you’ll be bringing him into the program?” Paul said.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Jack said, throwing himself into his chair. “We haven’t got that far yet. We only just met! And he’s already got a job, one that I gather he’s quite fond of. Besides he’s only just being read in right now, so he doesn’t even know what kind of job we’d be offering him. Hell, I don’t even know what kind of job we’d be offering him.”

“I can enlighten you, sir,” Paul said, settling into parade rest in front of Jack’s desk.

“You can?” Jack said. “Okay, well, good. But Tony needs decide whether he even wants a new job before we start clearing him out an office.”

He was keeping half an ear on Tony even as they talked— these territorial instincts were going to drive him crazy at this rate— but so far, all he was hearing was the occasional swish! of the pages in the briefing packet and the slow, steady beat of his guide’s heart.

Paul’s expression had taken on a curious, set quality and his scent pile had shifted to his ‘my boss is an idiot, but I am an officer in the United States Air Force, and I will respect the chain of command even if it kills me’ aroma.

It was a scent he wore a lot.

“Then may I suggest,” he said, “That you use all the means at your disposal to persuade Guide DiNozzo to make the appropriate decision? I am sure that you have many ways available to you to convince him that our need is greater than that of NCIS.”

“Colonel,” Jack said slowly, suddenly distracted from listening to Tony by a nasty suspicion, “Are you trying to pimp me out?”

“General,” Paul said calmly, “I would sell my own grandmother if it meant having in-house investigative capabilities. I have absolutely no problem offering your ass up for the cause. Sir.”

Jack’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped a little.

“Jesus Christ!” he said. “I can’t believe you just said that!”

“I’m perfectly serious, sir,” Paul said stoically.

“Fer cryin’ out loud,” Jack exclaimed. “Do we really need an investigator that bad?”

“Sir, do you know how many incidents occur each week that are directly connected to the Stargate Program, its objectives, its resources, or its personnel and warrant investigation?”

Jack blinked.

“Uh— no?” he said.

“Neither do I,” Paul said stiffly.

Jack sat up. A statistic that Paul did not know was a statistic that Jack wasn’t sure he wanted to meet.

“Okay, you definitely have my attention,” he said. “Go on.”

“Three weeks ago, the FBI was called in to investigate a series of missing persons in Chicago,” Paul said. “There was no connection between the victims, no forensic evidence to speak of, and the FBI could not come up with a profile of the perpetrator, despite having some of the best profilers in the country working the case.”

Jack leaned forward a little, awaiting the punchline with a sick sort of anticipation.

“It was an alien device, sir,” Paul said. “It was reported missing from Area 51 four months ago. We still don’t know how it went missing, how it got to Chicago, or even how the victims came in contact with it. We don’t even know what the device does, so we don’t actually know what happened to all those people. We only managed to recover it because the description of a potential crime scene generated by one of the agents tripped one of our alerts in the FBI’s system.”

Jack remembered this case now— as in, he remembered Paul telling him that the FBI had found a missing whatzit, but there had been civilian casualties, and Jack needed to sign off on cleanup measures. But SG-11 had run into an interplanetary clusterfuck offworld that day and the president had been having one of his fits of do-good-ery that always seemed to end up in Jack having to talk him out of something stupid and he hadn’t had time or attention to spare for missing whatzits.

Apparently, he should have made the time.

“Our scientists are trying to figure out what it is,” Paul continued, “But in order to figure out the rest, we will have to liaise with, at minimum, the FBI, the Secret Service, AFOSI, and ICE.”

“ICE?” Jack broke in desperately. “Why the dickens is ICE involved?”

Paul looked pained.

“Don’t ask, sir,” he said. “The problem—

“Oh, because everything up ‘til now has just been a feature ,” Jack interjected, feeling much aggrieved.

“—the problem,” Paul continued doggedly, “Is that only the Secret Service has any significant number of agents read into the program— they have a division that’s responsible for enforcing NDAs and the like.” He held up the folder containing Tony’s non-disclosure agreements for emphasis. “Of the rest, only the FBI has been briefed, and then only the bare minimum at the very top level.”

“Right,” Jack said weakly, slumping back in his chair.

“So,” Paul concluded, “In order to investigate this incident, I am going to have to come up with multiple— possibly very elaborate— cover stories, generate massive amounts of false documentation, brief and prep possible witnesses… In short, I will spend the next several weeks essentially writing fiction. I do not like writing fiction, sir. I don’t even particularly like reading fiction. I would rather be doing something useful, like running this program.”

Jack scrubbed his hands vigorously over his face.

“I know I’m going to regret asking this, but what about the NID?” he said with distaste. “Isn’t this supposed to be their kind of thing?”

Despite the extensive housecleaning that had eradicated the rogue element of the organization, there was no love lost between Jack and the NID.

“You would think so, sir, but no,” Paul said with a grimace. “In fact, it seems that most of the… problems that we run into on a regular basis fall outside of the NID’s mandate.”

“Of course,” Jack groused. “God forbid they should actually be useful or anything.”

“Sir, my point is, this is just one incident, and we only know about it because an FBI profiler happens to have a photographic memory and a talent for explicatory writing,” Paul said. “Things like this come across my desk almost weekly. Not only does that take my attention away from my actual job, it indicates there are almost certainly many more such incidents that we aren’t aware of because we don’t have the right people looking for them.”

“Okay,” Jack said, holding up his hand, “Clearly we need an investigator— realistically, a lot of investigators. Why don’t we have them?”

Paul hesitated.

“Sir,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “Like any program, we have finite resources. However, unlike most programs, our limiting factor is not our budget, but our personnel. There are only so many people read into the program, and each of them has massive demands on their time. Simply put, sir, this issue has been top priority since Homeworld Command was created, but there have always been multiple much higher priority issues that have to be dealt with first.”

“Okay, so Tony showing up is kinda like a sign from the gods, only without the whole snake thing,” Jack said. “But c’mon, Colonel, he’s one guy. What you’re describing, we really need a whole team here.”

“Then he can hire a team,” Paul said, sounding unconcerned. “As I said, sir, our budget is not the problem.”

Jack hated to burst Paul’s bubble, he really did, but it had to be done.

“I think he’s pretty attached to the team he already has,” he said as delicately as he could. “And I pretty much promised his boss and our pride’s alphas that I wouldn’t pressure him about the whole job issue.”

Paul frowned.

“Sir?” he said.

Jack blew out a breath. He really hated trying to explain pride stuff, it wasn’t his area of expertise and ninety percent of it was too mystical for him anyways.

“Guides don’t always get treated… well,” he said awkwardly. “On paper, we’re equals and everything, but… well, a lot of people think that a guide should do what their sentinel tells them to do. The members of Tony’s— tribe— have made it very clear to me that I had better not be one of those people.”

“I see,” Paul said, frowning. “Well, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to hire Agent DiNozzo’s team as well. In fact, it might even be easier. We could get the president to sign an executive order…”

“Whoa!” Jack yelped. “Hang on! What?”

“You said that Agent DiNozzo likes his current team,” Paul said, looking puzzled. “I read up on NCIS’s Major Case Response Team when I pulled Agent DiNozzo’s file, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to make an argument for appropriating it. As I said, it might even be easier.”

Jack rubbed his temples.

“You want to commandeer an entire investigative team,” he said, making sure he had it straight.

“Yes sir,” Paul replied.

“You want to commandeer the premier investigative team of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.”

“Yes sir.”

“Paul,” Jack whined, “You’re talking about stealing SecNav’s pride and joy. Davenport loves that team. Rabb says he's been rubbing their solve rate in all the other agencies’ faces for years.”

“Well then, he should be very proud when the president personally requests them for a— ah— new task force,” Paul said, undeterred. “I’ll put together a proposal, shall I?”

“Jesus,” Jack said, putting his face in his hands. “Fine. Whatever. But we do nothing until I talk to Tony, understood?”

“I understand, sir,” Paul said. “Now, about this mission to P2X-885…”

They’d made it through ten reports and a… something that Jack didn’t know what the fuck to call it when the rhythmic sound of pages being picked up and laid in the conference room down stopped. Jack froze, head cocked, listening. For a moment, the only sound was Tony’s heartbeat. Then, his guide began to laugh, and the laughter had a hysterical edge to it that had Jack on his feet in an instant.

“Sorry,” he told Paul, “Tony’s done. Gotta go!”

With that, he practically sprinted out of the room.

He found Tony sitting at the conference table with the contents of the briefing folder spread out in front of him, still laughing helplessly. Now that he could use sight and smell as well as hearing to gauge his guide’s state of mind, Jack could tell that Tony was, among many other things, scared, excited, disbelieving, and angry.

His guide looked up as Jack came into the room, his green eyes almost hectically bright.

“‘A different group of insurgents’?” he said between hysterical giggles. "'Hell and gone from Afghanistan’? Jack, you awakened on a different planet! Jesus fucking Christ!”

And then he was off again, laughing so hard that he was gasping for breath.

“Wow,” Jack said, unnerved, “I’ve seen a lot of reactions to this briefing, but I gotta say, this is new.”

“There are aliens among us!” Tony panted. “And you’ve spent the last ten years boldly going where no man had gone before! Fuck! Fuck!”

He choked on his own breath and dropped his head onto his arm.

“O-kay,” Jack said, moving over to Tony and putting one careful hand on the bare skin at the back of his neck. “Take a breath there, Tiger. Breathing’s good.”

Tony shuddered under his touch and relaxed, gulping in air desperately.

“You okay there, buddy?” Jack asked after a minute.

“Yeah,” Tony said in a calmer voice that was still hoarse from laughing too hard. “Just… got a little loopy there. But— damn, Jack, aliens? Honest to God, ‘the truth is out there’ aliens?”

Jack pulled one of the chairs over and sat down beside Tony. His guide was still resting his head on his arms, but he turned it so that he could look at the sentinel. Jack put his hand back on Tony’s neck, burying his fingertips in the short hair at the base of Tony’s skull and rubbing gently.

“Yup,” he said, “Real, honest-to-God aliens. Also, a crapload of humans that got yanked off of Earth and plunked down any old where around the galaxy. Which, weirdly, almost always seems to look like either Canada or Arizona.”

‘My folks came to U.S. as immigrants— aliens—’” Tony mumbled, “‘And became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood, and became an alien.’”

“Um… what now?” Jack asked cautiously.

“Leonard Nemoy,” Tony said. “You know, from Star Trek. He was making a really pointed joke about ‘aliens’ versus ‘aliens’… And, oh God, can you imagine the immigration issues for someone who comes from another planet?”

“Don’t have to,” Jack said laconically.

“Oh, right,” Tony said, letting out another breathless laugh. “The guy with the gold thing on his forehead— Teal-ac.”

“Teal’c,” Jack corrected. “And yup, good old T caused our commanding officer quite a few headaches when we brought him back through the gate. George was a forgiving sort, though, so I don’t think he held a grudge.”

Tony snorted helplessly.

“Oh God,” he said. “But seriously, Jack, you awakened on another planet fighting an alien who was pretending to be an Egyptian god. What the fuck?!”

Jack’s face slid into its favorite ‘what-can-ya-do’ expression.

“Yup,” he said. “Ten years in black ops, including a pretty nasty stretch as a POW in Iraq, and not a thing. But the minute I stepped through the damned gate, everything started going technicolor.”

“I don’t— I can’t even—” Tony said weakly.

“Hey,” Jack said, squeezing the back of Tony’s neck. “It’s okay. It’s like going to the dentist, it only hurts for a minute. And then maybe for another week or so.”

Tony took a deep breath and seemed to get ahold of himself. He sat up and looked at the papers spread across the table.

“It’s just, this is a serious ‘what-the-fuck,’” he said. “Jack, what the hell is your guys’ plan when this all goes public? Because this is fucking terrifying, man.”

“Which is why we don’t have any plans on taking the program public any time soon,” Jack said. “All the egg-heads who do sociall-y people stuff agree that the world isn’t ready for this.”

“Well, no, of course not,” Tony said. “Groupthink, lowest common denominator— it’ll be a madhouse. But you have to know it’s gonna come out, and probably not in a pretty way. I mean, that whole thing in Antarctica…” he waved weakly at one of the stacks of paper in front of him, which appeared, going by the top sheet, to be the information on the Goa’uld, “ Independence Day, Bill Pullman and Will Smith… it’s just shit luck that that guy— Anubis— didn’t park those ships smack over the White House or something.”

“Oh, believe me, we know,” Jack said grimly. “We were all set to declare martial law if the general public got a good look at Anubis’s fleet. It was going to be a total shitshow.”

“So what are you doing to make the program more… viewer-friendly when that shit finally does end up hitting the fan?” Tony asked. “‘Cause right now, Jack, I gotta tell ya, this,” he waved at the papers again, “Is not ready for Prime Time.”

Jack frowned.

“What?” he said. “I’m lost. Viewer-friendly? Prime-time?”

“Well,” Tony said, and Jack sensed an abrupt shift in his mood as he pushed away his shock and the associated terror and turned his attention to a tangible problem, “Let’s say some alien with a beef against us, like Anubis, manages to actually land a fleet on the planet and send out ground troops. Or, maybe not. Maybe one of those guys,” he waved at another stack of papers with the IOA logo, “Has a temper tantrum because he didn’t get the alien toy he wanted and his country decides to go public out of spite. Whatever, the program’s cover has been blown and the American people are clustered around their televisions looking for answers. What are they going to see?”

“Well,” Jack said, “I think we have some sort of emergency press release that we keep current in case things go to hell, and I know the White House always has a statement for the president ready to go. There’s video,” he grimaced, remembering how Janet had been the only person who had really been willing to talk to that reporter, and how her funeral had ended up being part of the footage the film crew had taken, “Video of the SGC and its personnel showing what we do and how we handle offworld threats. And there’s a protocols in place— like I said, if Anubis had brought the battle to the surface, we were ready to declare martial law, but there’s less drastic protocols as well, depending on the scenario.”

“Yeah, obviously you have contingency plans,” Tony said, shaking his head. “But I’m talking about, everything has gone to hell, those plans have been put in action, you, the president, and whoever else go on TV to explain what’s going on: what kind of show will people be watching? Because they’re gonna be looking for something like Star Trek or Men in Black, but right now, they’re not gonna get it. Depending how honest you are, they’re gonna either be watching The X-Files or Doctor Who. And you might think that Doctor Who would be a great choice, since it’s a pretty funny show and the Doctor almost always wins, but it’s actually about a universe that kinda seems to want us dead, or at least doesn’t care very much if we make it or not, and an Earth that is, for the most part, too primitive and too caught up in its own petty bickering to defend itself.”

“That sounds about right,” Jack said.

“People don’t want to hear that, Jack,” Tony said, shaking his head. “They want to hear that the universe is an exciting place populated mostly by funny, friendly aliens, with a few species that are dangerous, but nothing we can’t handle. They want to hear that Earth is being looked after by brave, heroic, and ideally good-looking people who know exactly what they’re doing. Failing that, they want to at least know that, if they meet an alien in the street, we have a system in place to deal with it that doesn’t involve making the alien, them, and their entire family disappear.”

Tony looked meaningfully at a stack of papers that seemed to deal with the NID. Jack winced.

“It’s not like we’re gonna air all our dirty laundry on national TV,” he felt compelled to protest, even though, after the conversation he’d just had with Paul, Tony’s comment was scarily on-point. “We certainly aren’t going to tell anyone about the Trust or the rogue NID.”

“Jack,” Tony said impatiently, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t tell them about the rogue NID. What matters is, if they don’t have any information, that’s what they’re going to assume that we do, because all they’re going to have to go on is what they’ve seen on television and in the National Enquirer. The super-secret government conspiracy to keep aliens secret is a staple of our popular culture. Now, there’s a lot of material there, so there’s a lot of options in terms of what the conspiracy looks like. There’s the friendly kind of government conspiracy where Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones run around being handsome and funny while saving the world and just happen to wipe people’s memories while they’re doing it, and there’s the really shitty kind where the Cigarette Smoking Man lurks in dark corners facilitating massive cover-ups that involve unethical experimentation, kidnapping, and murder. Unfortunately, the NID has been doing all of those things in real life, so even if you don’t say anything about them, there have to be a lot of people out there with stories that will confirm that we’ve got something pretty much like the Syndicate dealing with extraterrestrial incidents on Earth.”

Jack held up a hand.

“Hold up,” he said. “Rough estimate: how many major problems like this do you identify?”

Tony frowned.

“Uh, I dunno, Jack,” he said. “Maybe five? But, I mean, I’ve only just found out about any of this, so I haven’t really had time to…”

“Hang on,” Jack said brusquely.

He got up and left the conference room, heading directly for Paul’s office, where he could hear his deputy busily typing away. He stuck his head in without knocking.

“Hey, Paul,” he said, “When do the minions get here for the weekly briefing?”

“They should be here by 3:15, General,” Paul said. “The Deputy Secretary of Defense is running late.”

“Thanks,” Jack said.

He looked at his watch, then turned around and went back to the conference room.

“Can you put together a briefing on the program’s public relations vulnerabilities in the next twenty-six minutes?” he asked.

Tony frowned, puzzled.

“Jack, what are you talking about?” he asked.

“A bunch of underlings are going to be here at 3:15 for the weekly update on what’s going on in our little corner of the galaxy,” Jack said. “I need you to tell them what you’re seeing here. Like you were telling me, only in shorter sentences. And with easier words. And maybe pictures. Bobby is a pretty smart cookie, but Joe isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and the Kenny is a complete moron.”

“Uh…”