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Harsh Continent

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Of all the things that John Sheppard didn't expect to find in Antarctica, football games and a selection of wine were near the top of the list.

True, the football comes from two Armed Forces Network channels he's watched on a dozen airbases around the world, but he never thought McMurdo would receive them. The wine comes from New Zealand and none of it costs more than $15 a bottle, but it's still a wine selection, merlot and pinot noir and sauvignon blanc and others, nonchalantly for sale at the bottom of the world.

The beer selection impresses him more. He can buy Guinness in the station store, for christ's sake.

Sheppard thinks he'll have to invent some things when he leaves here, because people want to hear Antarctic stories about penguins and towering icebergs. They don't want to hear about being torn between the Sam Adams and the Bass Ale for your Friday night six-pack.

He hasn't seen a single penguin since he arrived.

.

The flying here is like nothing he's done before, though.

Distance screws up his perceptions at first, badly. An island can be twelve miles away and look almost close enough to touch. Mountains that seem like foothills are really thirty miles off, ten thousand feet high.

When the conditions are right, illusions stretch and flip everything on the horizon into funky shimmering shapes above the sea ice, and he'll never stop thinking that's cool.

There are a maximum of twelve other aircraft in his airspace at any given time, but frequently he's the only one up. The helo controller's voice is pure drawling Alabama and it's impossible to imagine the guy sounding tense. The only manmade flight hazards are immediately around town. Once he's away, Sheppard doesn't have to worry about anything except the winds, the weather, and the unbelievable scenery all around him.

When he tells people why he likes Antarctica, he leaves out the part about never having to watch for anyone on the ground trying to kill him.

.

Town is a sprawling collection of more than a hundred buildings, which he also didn't expect. He wanders almost obsessively during his free time.

Most places aren't off-limits, not exactly, but everyone has work to do. The civilians make up half the population and they work more than fifty hours per week. He learns quickly that they aren't receptive to being interrupted by stupid questions from an Air Force flyboy, even one wearing his most charming smile.

There are plenty of things to explore without disturbing people's work. He finds the library, and the greenhouse, and an empty hot tub in a shack beside the firehouse. Upstairs from one of the gyms, he finds a room with colorful protrusions all over the walls and ceiling, and he can't figure out what the hell it's supposed to be until he steps outside to look at the door, where a crooked sign says 'bouldering cave' and he grins, because that's just weird.

Sheppard knows that he probably would've found everything sooner with a station map and a few questions, but exploring is a lot more fun.

.

The executive officer job is easy, all things considered. The paperwork isn't crippling, he has two captains and three lieutenants who don't bother him much, and he logs way more flying hours than he dared to hope for. This is the best assignment he's had since Hickam in Hawaii -- a comparison that many people on station would probably want to punch him for making.

Lt. Colonel Frazier briefs him on the location of the mysterious top secret base on his third day.

Sheppard is good at reading his commanders even if he isn't always great at following their orders. It's very obvious that Frazier himself isn't cleared to know what is actually happening at that base, and it's driving the man crazy, but he certainly won't admit it to his newbie XO. Instead he spends a long time impressing upon Sheppard that he is never, ever to mention the base's existence to any person not on the cleared list.

After ten excruciating minutes, Sheppard has to stomp hard on the urge to recite: Sir, the first rule of Top Secret Base is you do not talk about Top Secret Base! The second rule of Top Secret Base is--

He manages to control himself, just barely, maintaining his grave and attentive major face until Frazier winds down and dismisses him.

His first flight there is the next day, and it's disorienting to head somewhere without mentioning it to the controller. Disorienting, in the way that you damn well hope Search & Rescue will be able to find your ass if you go down.

.

On his third weekend he discovers a lounge in one of the newer dorms. It's rigged out with top-of-the-line stereo equipment and a projection TV that makes his jaw drop, and a bunch of people are relaxing in armchairs and couches. Nobody talks to him when he sits down but that's okay, that's absolutely fine, because they're watching football on the best system he's seen anywhere in town.

He goes back on the next Sunday, and the next, and then he starts going to watch the occasional movie during the week. He likes hanging out there. The residents tend to come in half-awake, wearing pajama pants and sandals, and they don't talk much and they smoke a lot, but it's still comfortable. Nobody in the building is military. He can relax rather than coping with airmen trying to evade or suck up to their XO. He sits by a window that stays cracked to counter the overly enthusiastic heating system, and he can see Mount Discovery whenever he looks outside.

People talk to him a little, eventually. After a month or so, he can usually expect an absentminded, "Hey, John," from someone when he takes a seat.

Everyone knows what everyone else does here, so they know he's a pilot and therefore an officer, but they don't even pretend to care. Sheppard likes that too. He's never lived in a place where your job and your rank mattered so little to other people. Which, come to think of it, is probably why the rest of his squadron and the fixed-wing squadron stay in their own lounges so much, even if they won't admit it. Being military doesn't score you any points with the civilians down here.

He learns something about that, one night when he gets up to leave, mumbling, "Early day tomorrow," and one of the electricians glances over and asks, "Going somewhere secret?" and he stops and stares, poleaxed, and she tips him a smile that isn't friendly at all, saying, "We kind of noticed when they eliminated a third of our jobs to make room for more uniforms."

Sheppard has no idea how to respond to that, so he just nods. He can feel the rest of the people in the lounge listening.

He doesn't mention it to his commander, and he isn't really sure why.

.

The initial departure and final approach legs are always the same, on headings to look like a trip to the Dry Valleys. He doesn't veer off until he hits the continent's edge, far from unauthorized eyes back at McMurdo. This feels a little more ridiculous each time he does it.

The top secret base (or Tyler, as Sheppard starts calling it in his head) is a hundred and twenty-nine miles away, tucked into a valley in the Transantarctics, and it makes him blink the first time he sees it. If South Pole Station wasn't eight hundred miles away and unlikely to walk around the continent by itself, he'd think he was there.

When he sets down to find a whole company of Marines guarding Tyler, it's pretty obvious that he's not.

.

Nobody says anything directly, but Sheppard can sense some quiet surprise that he never reported the not-very-cryptic hint about what they know. He doesn't wonder much about why he didn't. Maybe he gets enough satisfaction from knowing that Colonel Frazier would have a fucking heart attack if he found out.

And maybe it wouldn't matter if he did report it, because the McMurdo civilians are very, very good at playing the dumb blue-collar worker card when necessary.

He learns that too, when some of them casually invite him to the New Zealand research station next door, a place that he'd thought was off-limits for recreation. "It's not," one of the Supply guys tells him mildly. "The Kiwis just got tired of drunk Air Force fights every Thursday night. They don't advertise it, but they still invite some of us over."

The Scott Base bar, unlike its windowless American counterparts over the hill, has a view. The atmosphere is livelier and more talkative than back in the lounge, and he enjoys it, but his favorite thing is sitting near the window and looking out. He can see the dark dots of Weddell seals lying with their pups, and the whaleback curve of White Island, and the ice shelf stretching blank and smooth out to the far horizon.

.

Sheppard knows civilian helo pilots in the States. Most of them did their time flying taxi service for oil companies when they were younger. He's heard them bitch about it, the monotonous back-and-forth to the platforms ferrying employees and equipment, and after two months of flying to the top secret base, he understands a little bit about how they felt.

Almost everything for the place, supplies and passengers both, comes off the Christchurch planes and goes straight out. The permanent sea ice runway is called Pegasus, seven miles out from town, and Sheppard could probably fly the Pegasus-Tyler loop with his eyes closed by now.

It's hard to feel sorry for himself when he talks to the Marines, though. Those poor bastards aren't even allowed to go to McMurdo. The amenities for a top secret base apparently don't include any bars, because by his second week of taxi service, some of them are offering him double price for whatever liquor he brings out from the store.

Sometimes he realizes that he should be more curious about what they're doing in there, but mostly he just doesn't care.

.

It was still getting dark at night when he arrived in August. The sun came up and stayed up in October, and he can tell the time by its position on the horizon above him.

All of his flights aren't taxi service. A few days after Christmas, he takes some biologists on a flyover to the Adélie colonies at Cape Adare and sees his first penguin -- his first many thousands of penguins, milling and breeding on the rocks below.

In January, two emperor penguins appear out by the runway. They stand in the same area for almost a week and Sheppard walks out to look at them whenever his aircraft is being loaded. They stare right back at him, totally unafraid.

.

Sheppard doesn't know what a rogue drone is. He doesn't need to know. The instant he hears the Marine controller's first words, speaking fast with that bright sharp tone he hasn't heard for eleven months and sixteen days, he hears the only thing that he needs to hear. Intermission is over and he's going to be dead almost immediately if he doesn't do the right things.

He gets through the next few minutes by yanking up as much cold concentration as possible, that old kind that makes the world narrow and go sharper in the places that matter, and also by ignoring most of the suggestions from the general in the other seat.

His voice only cracks for a second when he raps out, "I can't see it."

When they land and shut down, when he sees that thing still arrowing toward them, he fumbles for the door release and dives to the ground with no grace at all.

He gets through the next few hours with the relaxed cockiness that he mastered in flight school, a projection that's second nature by now. He can handle all the stuff with alien DNA and interplanetary doorways and a very intense woman offering him a trip to another galaxy and a one-star general making unsubtle threats about his career, because most of his brain is still clicking to the fact that he isn't a pattern of blood and meat sprayed across the landscape. He's still alive, again, and nobody died today because of him.

.

He gives General O'Neill a yes during the descent into town, but what he thinks is: I'll make up my fucking mind when I feel like it. Sir.

After his flight paperwork is done, Sheppard goes to the cardio gym and breaks the heavy bag right out of the ceiling, hurting his left wrist and scaring the shit out of everyone in the building.

The docs at Medical bind his wrist and lecture him, and he ignores them. They give him regular Tylenol rather than codeine-based because of his flying status. He tosses the pills into a skua bin for someone else to take, and his wrist hurts like a sonofabitch for two days and he doesn't care, because the pain feels like something he's been waiting for, like something he needed for a long time without ever knowing that he did.

.

The Heavy Shop party is the Saturday before he leaves.

Sheppard flies three turnarounds that day to extract the last of the Pegasus-bound scientists from SGC Antarctic, formerly known as Tyler. He's tired. He doesn't really feel like going to a party, but several of the carpenters insist that if he doesn't see a bunch of grown adults standing around a huge garage between pools of motor oil, getting extremely drunk and then urinating outdoors in minus thirty windchill, his Ice experience will be forever incomplete.

It's hard to argue with that, so he goes up to the party.

He has more fun than he expected. They play very loud rock CDs for the first hour until the cobbled-together McMurdo bands take the stage, and then the bands play very loud, very bad metal for another four hours, but the beers are only two dollars and most of the community seems to have made it up the hill. Sheppard wanders amiably through the crowd, stopping to talk when people call his name. The Christchurch flight manifests are posted on the public server so everyone knows that he's leaving on Monday. Conversation with members of his squadron is brief and professionally friendly; with the civilians it's longer, and he surprises himself by hugging some of them. It feels like he's been here for longer than five months.

He's standing nearby when Dr. Rodney McKay gets ejected from the mosh pit.

It's most likely a mercy ejection, because McKay so clearly doesn't know what he's doing that half of the partygoers had been watching him in mild fascination, waiting to see if someone would give him a broken rib the next time he threw his arms over his head and jumped in a circle.

When McKay regains his balance and looks like he's ready to dive back in, Sheppard takes the two steps necessary to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Not the best idea there, professor."

McKay spins around, his eyes narrowed in surprise, and Sheppard braces for an angry reaction; he's taxied this guy back and forth at least a dozen times and McKay's default setting seems to be irritation, if his nonstop harassment of other scientists is anything to go on.

He's a little taken aback when McKay's face lights up, practically beaming, and the guy slaps both hands against his shoulders. "Hey! Major! Elizabeth's major, right? Major--"

"--Sheppard," he supplies cautiously, wondering if McKay might be on something. You could get herbal ecstasy from New Zealand if you talked to the right people around town.

"Yes, right, Sheppard, I knew that. Elizabeth said they cleared you, General O'Neill did, you're on board? That's great! Fucking fabulous great! We'll be in Pegasus by--"

"McKay," Sheppard interrupts sharply.

"What? Oh, please, these people have a runway called Pegasus, they're not smart enough to know what I mean," McKay says with a dismissive wave at the entire garage, and Sheppard might be offended on their behalf if he hadn't seen McKay direct the same cheerful scorn toward his own colleagues.

He grins a little. "Fine. Where's the rest of your group?"

McKay shrugs extravagantly and starts to twitch on his feet again, glancing back at the dance floor. "Them? Sipping wine, or off trying to fuck a penguin, I don't know. Boring assholes. We finally get permission for our power source and they want to have a glass of wine, I ought to have them all killed! See you later, Major."

"Hey, McKay--" Sheppard starts, reaching to stop him, but then he doesn't. Because he isn't looking at a drunken or herbal-popping scientist; he can see that now. He's looking at a guy who is so cranked up about this insane galaxy-travelling alien-technology business that he's ready to explode, and Sheppard suddenly doesn't have the heart to stop him.

"What?" McKay says, bright with impatience.

"Don't put your arms over your head," he advises instead. "Safer for moshing."

"What -- oh, right!"

McKay does a lot better this time, bouncing and slamming, and Sheppard grins again as he vanishes joyfully into the middle of the pit, keeping his arms down.

.

He intends to visit the lounge on Sunday, say a few more goodbyes and watch one more rebroadcast NFL game. That plan changes while he's eating brunch in the galley, when Rodney McKay thumps down at his table with four cups of coffee and a frighteningly large amount of food stacked on a tray.

"Major, good morning, I was looking for you," he announces. "Listen, I have some equipment that can't be trusted to the cargo people, and these weaseling bureaucrats said that I can't sign out a vehicle unless I've taken the driver safety briefing -- which, I tell you, is utterly ridiculous, because I only need to drive halfway across the station and they wouldn't even listen to me, you'd think I wanted to go joyriding to the goddamn South Pole -- anyway, you've been here for a while and you must have attended their stupid briefing, so I thought you could borrow a van and meet us at the Crary loading dock in an hour."

Sheppard finally remembers to swallow the bite of waffle he took before McKay sat down. "Why, sure," he agrees in his most sincere voice. "I'd love to cancel my plans and be your personal chauffeur, Dr. McKay. Nothing would give me greater pleasure."

"Good, good," McKay says briskly, because irony is apparently wasted on him in the morning, and then he starts inhaling his food so fast that Sheppard doesn't know whether to laugh or be impressed, or maybe look around for a firefighter in case McKay chokes to death and needs to be resuscitated.

.

The view from the MCC parking lot is one of the better ones in town. It's elevated enough to see Black Island and Mount Discovery and the Royal Society mountain range in a single vast sweep of beauty, with less power lines and utility poles to ruin the effect.

Sheppard, leaning against a dusty red van, finds himself neglecting the view in favor of watching McKay alienate the entire Cargo department, two other scientists, a press-ganged collection of graduate students from the Crary Lab, and some poor guy who's only trying to check his mail when Rodney barks at him to stop fucking around and get back to work.

That isn't when he decides to go to the Pegasus Galaxy, but it's when he starts considering the idea.

.

The next day, at the same moment that the C-141's wheels leave the runway, John realizes he forgot to go back the lounge. He isn't sitting near one of the tiny porthole windows so he doesn't get a final view either, but as the big plane makes its slow northern turn and keeps rising, taking him away from the Ice, he thinks that both of those things are probably okay.


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