Summer sunlight flooded the Oval Office, where CJ Cregg was feeling oddly glad that she was nowhere near the press room. It was a hundred and fifteen out there at the least, and the air conditioning in the press room had never been that good. Or maybe it was just the press. And, of course, there were other benefits to being the new chief of staff. Now she was in a position to be chewed out by the President every fifteen minutes instead of every hour.
“Well,” he was saying, “how is it that the members of the most important expedition in human history returned home, and I’m just now finding out about it?”
“Sir, General Hammond just told me,” she protested. “I told you as soon as I knew.”
“I understand that, CJ,” said Bartlet, “but don’t you think you should have known sooner? Was this totally unanticipated?”
“Apparently so, sir,” she replied. “Something to do with a… ZBL.”
“You got one out of three,” he said. “ZPM. I did read the report.”
“Yes, and the scientist who was trying to explain it to me over the phone kept insisting on calling it a Zed-PM.”
“Ah, that would be Dr. Rodney McKay,” said the President, putting on his jacket. “Delightful man, really. Always very willing to tell you exactly how smart he is.”
“Well, he ought to fit in here.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, Mr. President.”
“I heard that, Claudia Jean.” He picked up a folder she had given him when she came in. “So where are they?”
“The Atlantis team,” Bartlet replied, coming around the desk. “Remember, the greatest adventure in human history. We were just talking about them.”
“Yes, sir,” said CJ. “They’re en route from Peterson Air Force Base outside of Colorado Springs, in order to brief General Hammond in person on things.”
“On things?” The President gave her a look of benign amusement. “You were my press secretary for how long, and the best word you can come up with is ‘things’?”
“Well, sir, there was a lot of noise in the office when I took the call, and the scientist who was explaining things to me talks faster than anyone I’ve ever heard.”
“Rodney has an interesting conversation style.”
“He said something that sounded like wreath, but I’m pretty sure that’s not it.”
“Why did they have you on the phone with McKay?” he asked.
“I don’t know, sir,” said CJ. “He was on the phone, and I talked with him.”
“They could have had you talk with Dr. Elizabeth Weir,” Bartlet continued. Recognizing his tone, she sank to one of the sofas. This was going to take a while. “It’s funny. When I met Dr. Weir, I was in my last term in the House, and she was lobbying for some anti-military group.”
“And now she’s in charge of a sizable military force.”
“Exactly. You appreciate the irony, of course.”
“I am extraordinarily appreciative.”
He looked up at her from the file in his hand as he put on his glasses. “You should drop the adverbs, CJ. They make you sound insincere.” He returned his attention to the file and took a seat in his usual armchair. “So Dr. Elizabeth Weir got the attention of the UN ambassador with alarming speed and was swept out of lobbying circles into the den of lions that is the United Nations.”
“You probably shouldn’t describe the UN in such terms when anyone other than me is in the room.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” He closed the file, set it aside, and began perusing the next one. “And then she went on to broker some of the most sensitive deals in modern history. But enough about her. Let’s talk about her right-hand man, Major John Sheppard. And let me tell you, you should find out if this guy is single.”
CJ sighed. “Sir, you’re not setting me up with anyone.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I’ll let Abbey do that.” He turned a page in the file. “I should promote this man.”
“I don’t think you can, sir.”
“Why not? I can draft a turkey into military service.”
“Sir, must you bring that up?”
“As often as possible.” He pushed his glasses up. “Anyway, I think I should promote him.”
“Yes, and the Marine Corps gets a little touchy about people meddling in promotions.”
“He’s in the Air Force, not the Marines.” Bartlet lifted a sheet of paper. “He’s a pilot. It says here that he’s trained to fly Apache, Blackhawk, Cobra, and Osprey classes.”
”Those are helicopters.”
“Seems like it.” He put the page back. “There’s some other stuff here, but I haven’t got a clue about what any of it means.”
“Then there’s the inimitable Rodney McKay, but you’ve already spoken to him. I won’t bore you with details,” said the President. He flipped more pages. “And there’s someone who’s apparently from another galaxy. I haven’t read her file yet.” He stood up and headed toward his desk. “I want to meet with them.”
“Yes, sir, I’m sure you do,” CJ replied, getting to her feet, “but you can’t.”
The President stopped and turned. “Will Australians be terribly offended if I meet with a group of people who work for me?”
“No, sir,” said CJ, “you’re going to Australia. Tonight.”
“Why am I going again?”
CJ knew he was baiting her, but on the slim possibility that he’d actually forgotten about the trip, she explained, “You’re going to the Pacific Rim conference.”
“Well, let’s take them with us. There’s room on the plane, and these people haven’t had a vacation in months. Let’s take them to Sydney.”
“Mr. President, with all due respect,” CJ protested, “that’s a terrible idea.”
“Why?” he asked. “We can bring General Hammond along, they can have their meetings on Air Force One, and I can meet them.”
“There’s another officer accompanying them,” she replied, checking her notes. “Colonel Carter. You’ll have to get permission from General O’Neill to let her come along.”
He pointed at a phone on his desk. “That’s what that’s for.”
CJ tried to come up with another argument against it—she knew there were at least a hundred—but her brain just wasn’t working quickly enough. Before she could try to talk him out of it, he headed toward the door and said, “Make this happen, CJ.”
She shook her head and smiled a little. “Yes, sir, Mr. President.”
Dr. Elizabeth Weir closed her cell phone with a sigh. The call had been a relief, at least at first. The trip from Colorado to DC had been excruciatingly quiet, as neither she nor any of her people had wanted to talk about anything in front of Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter. General O’Neill had sent her along for their meetings, and Elizabeth had a suspicion that she was there to babysit.
She walked back to her seat, next to John Sheppard, who was staring out the window as lights below them grew more frequent. They weren’t that far from Andrews now. “Doctor?” said Carter. “May I ask what the call was?”
“It was General O’Neill,” Elizabeth replied. After sitting for a while, it had been nice to stand up and walk to the back of the passenger area for the call, so now she was reluctant to sit down again. “We’re not going to the hotel tonight. At all, actually.”
Next to Carter, Rodney looked up sharply. “What are we doing?”
“We’ve been asked to accompany President Bartlet on a trip to Sydney.”
“Australia?” Carter asked. “Why?”
“The President is attending and speaking at the Pacific Rim conference, which is being held in Sydney,” said Elizabeth, one arm over the back of her chair. “This was obviously planned before we came back, and since he wants to meet us, he decided to take us and our meetings with him.”
“And how does he intend to do that?” Teyla asked.
“The President’s got a pretty sweet plane,” John replied, still looking out the window. “It’s got a communications center, an apartment, an operating room, offices, you name it. And there’s rumor you can even get M&Ms with the seal of the President.”
Teyla nodded slowly, but didn’t look like she knew what he was talking about.
Elizabeth looked down at John. “When did you become an expert on Air Force One?”
“I hear things.” He glanced up at her. “Take a seat. I haven’t bit you yet.”
“Yet being the operative word?” Still, she slid down into her seat.
Carter didn’t let John answer. “Now might be a good time for you to change into uniform, Major Sheppard,” she said. She’d been none too happy when John had shown up in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, his uniform in a garment bag. Elizabeth wasn’t entirely certain she blamed the colonel, since the woman had been wearing a skirt, heels, and pantyhose for a few hours now.
“Yeah,” said John.
He stood up in front of Elizabeth and retrieved the bag from the compartment above them. He nodded to Sam, and as he walked off, she said, “Don’t forget to shave, Major.”
“Yes, ma’am,” John said dispassionately.
Carter watched until John had left the cabin and turned to Elizabeth. “You have your hands full with that one, don’t you?”
“You’d be surprised,” Elizabeth replied, trying not to answer her at all.
When the motorcade came to a stop and CJ got out of the limo after the President, she glanced around and found Donna already running toward her. “You needed to see me?” Donna asked.
“Yeah,” CJ said. “Why are you wearing a coat? It’s ninety degrees.”
“It’s windy here. Besides, we’re going to Australia.”
“They’re in another hemisphere. It’s winter in Sydney.”
“Yeah. Listen, there’s a group of people who have been added to the passenger manifest.”
Donna nodded. “General George Hammond and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”
“Yeah, but there are five others,” CJ replied. “Dr. Elizabeth Weir—”
“Why does that name sound familiar?”
“Have you been paying attention to politics at all in the last ten years?” Donna didn’t answer. It had taken her two seconds too long to connect the name with international politics. CJ continued, “Dr. Weir has with her two Air Force officers and two civilians. They’re being brought over from another runway. I need you to find them and keep them away from the press before they board.”
“What about after?”
“Yeah, well, that’d take an act of God.” CJ shooed her away. “Sooner rather than later.”
Donna rushed over in the direction of an open gate, where two jeeps were driving in behind the motorcade. When she got there, a tall officer was helping a woman in a pants suit out of the jeep. Donna didn’t think she looked like she needed the help. “Are you Dr. Weir?” she asked, as soon as she’d reached them.
The woman looked up in surprise. “Yes,” she said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Donnatella Moss. I’m senior assistant to Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff. He’s not on this trip, so I’m doing whatever CJ Cregg tells me to do.”
“Sounds like quite an experience,” said the man.
“This is Major John Sheppard,” Weir said. “Don’t worry. He’s always like this.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” Donna replied. She looked past to the other jeep, where two women and a man were getting out. “They’re with you?”
Weir nodded as the three joined her and the major. “All right, let me do this again,” Donna said. “My name is Donna Moss, and CJ Cregg, the White House chief of staff, asked me to escort you over to the plane.”
Dr. Weir glanced at the major. “Well, let’s get moving.”
“Wait.” Donna looked at the third woman in the group, a black woman dressed in tight pants and a sleeveless purple top that didn’t quite cover her stomach. Shrugging her coat off, Donna handed it to her and said, “Here, put this on.”
“Thank you,” she said, “but I am not cold.”
“That’s not the issue,” said Donna. “You’re not dressed appropriately to be seen by the press when you board.”
The tall man nodded to the woman, and she put the coat on. Donna looked back at Dr. Weir. “If you’ll follow me.”
As they neared the press pool, where President Bartlet was answering questions and probably talking about the history of kangaroos, Major Sheppard asked, “So why did we need an escort to the plane? It’s not like we’d miss it.”
“CJ wanted to keep you away from the press as long as possible,” she said. “Dr. Weir, would you mind standing on the other side of Major Sheppard?”
Weir did as she was asked, but also said, “Donna, do you really think the press is going to recognize me? It’s been almost a year since I was near a photographer.”
“CJ used to be the press secretary,” Donna replied. “She doesn’t like to take chances with them.”
They passed the pool and boarded the plane without incident. Once in the plane, Donna suddenly realized that she had no idea what she was supposed to do with them. She took them into the staff cabin, which was definitely off-limits to the press, and asked them to wait there.
CJ turned around and almost hit a reporter with her bag as she heard Donna yelling for her. She quickly extricated herself from the tangle of press boarding the plane and walked away with Donna. “Are they on?” she asked.
“They’re in the staff cabin,” said the assistant. “I didn’t know what else to do with them.”
“Walk with me,” CJ replied. “What happened to your coat?”
“One of them has it. She wasn’t exactly dressed appropriately, and you told me to keep the press from noticing them. CJ, how does someone who’s important enough to be on Air Force One not know better than to wear a shirt that doesn’t cover her stomach while she’s on Air Force One?”
CJ paused at the door. “They found out they were coming on the trip while they were on their way to DC. They thought they were going to have a night in a hotel before their meetings.”
“Okay.” Donna started to walk off, but then spun around abruptly. “Oh, Josh called. Toby’s not coming.”
“Josh called and said Toby’s not coming.”
“Why didn’t Toby call me?” CJ demanded.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger,” said Donna. “Andi’s got the flu, and Toby had to stay and take care of the twins. He talked Sam into stepping in and finishing the speech.”
“Oh, how wonderfully convenient,” CJ replied. “Thank God there’s a former press secretary on board.”
Resisting the urge to mutter, CJ walked off toward the press cabin, where she was greeted with the usual cheerful demeanor of reporters being deprived information. “CJ, why the delay in takeoff?” someone asked the moment she walked in.
“Hey, one thing at a time,” she said. “Good evening, boys and girls, I’m CJ Cregg, and I’ll be your host for the next three minutes, at which point I open the special trap door beneath all your seats and drop you on the runway.”
“Hey, do I know you?” Danny Concannon said from the back.
CJ glared in his direction before continuing. “Congresswoman Wyatt has the flu, so Toby Ziegler has to take care of their twins while she’s ill. As such, I’ll be filling in somewhat, though I suspect that I’ll have Donna deal with you too.”
“We feel loved, CJ,” said Sandy, from the second row.
“Getting back to Carl’s question,” she resumed, “we’re leaving late because there were some last-minute additions to the passenger manifest.”
“What a shock,” said another man.
“Quiet, you. Pinch-hitting for Toby Ziegler tonight will be Samuel Norman Seaborn, who will be finishing up the President’s speech for the conference. We have an Air Force research team coming along for the trip, as President Bartlet is a science buff and likes to sit in on meetings he doesn’t understand because he’s not an astrophysicist.”
“Can you tell us what these meetings are about?” Katie asked.
“To be honest, Katie, I read the memo, and while it had words that I recognized, they didn’t form any meaningful message for me.”
The group laughed, and a newer woman raised her hand. “CJ, is there anyone else?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m informed that the President has also asked Dr. Elizabeth Weir to join us. She’s an expert in international diplomacy, and she’s known this President since he was serving in the House of Representatives. I’m sure they’ll pass the time playing a lot of chess. Danny?”
“Any other ex-girlfriends of mine on the flight?”
CJ smiled. “I don’t know. Any other ex-girlfriends of Danny Concannon on the flight?”
Adrienne Thomas, an older, grey-haired correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, smiled and said, “Well, there is me.”
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was more than I wanted to know,” CJ said, knowing not to take that seriously, but also not wanting to let Danny off the hook. “Hope everyone’s comfortable. We’ll be taking off in a few minutes and landing a very long time after that. Enjoy the flight.”
CJ left the cabin and headed as far away from the press as possible. She should have guessed that as luck would have it, Danny knew Elizabeth Weir pretty well. It was going to be bad enough that an alien was on Air Force One with the White House Press Corps, and she had a feeling that Danny was going to make matters much, much worse before the trip was done.