They had been tracking the Daedalus for three days now, and it was giving John a bad case of deja vu; the Iapetus had arrived just the same way, on the same flight path, but he wasn't going to mention that. Standing on the gateroom control gallery with Elizabeth, he told her, "I think the place looks great. No bullet holes, no blood, nothing on fire." He thought they were ready. Sort of ready. As ready as they would ever be.
She gave him a rueful smile. "Well, we have been invasion-free for nearly two months."
"Forty-five days, six hours and--" John turned to check the running total Chuck was keeping on the holographic screen. "Twenty-seven minutes." All the departments had been getting ready to make formal presentations to the International Atlantis Committee, which was supposed to be on board. There was also an alternate set of preparations, just in case the committee wasn't on board and the Daedalus' intentions had changed while it had been gone.
"I think we're in good shape, though I am a little worried about the party," Elizabeth admitted. From their current projections, the ship would arrive the day before the event that John thought of as Athosian Summer Holiday Thing. "But the Athosians have been nervous enough about the Daedalus' return. And the date is so important to the religious context."
John shook his head. "Yeah, and putting it off would just look like we were expecting trouble." The event would start with a religious ceremony at dawn in the gateroom, with a party afterward out on the North Pier. The first two years, they had had it at the Mainland settlement, but the village still wasn't livable and the work crews who were putting it back together were just camping out there.
Elizabeth lifted a brow. "Are we expecting trouble?"
John shrugged. "Hey, trouble is our middle name. Also, our first and last names." The expedition members were mostly okay with the Daedalus' return, as far as John could tell. Having Mitchell and Dr. Jackson here had allayed some initial fears, and the new ZPM Jackson had found had gone a long way toward making them feel less vulnerable.
The Athosians, on the other hand, were worried. Some of them still didn't understand why the expedition wanted contact with Earth at all. Athos had never had violent political factions, and while they understood the concept, they had trouble accepting the idea that the Trust and the SGC could come from the same place, and one be an enemy and the other an ally. Their feeling was that if somebody from a planet invaded your city and killed and tortured your people, you should avoid further contact with that planet.
John had to admit that it was a hard philosophy to argue with.
Elizabeth leaned on the railing. "I think most of the expedition anticipates some political brangling, but all but a few pessimists think we'll eventually work it out."
John shrugged. "Sure." He had been in Pegasus too long to be an optimist, and he had a three days left before the ship's arrival to not think about what might happen after a formal reconnection with Earth. There was a lot to be said for denial.
Elizabeth was watching him sharply. "I know you and Bates and the others are worried about reassignments, but the committee is just going to have to understand that things have changed here."
John was saved from answering by the unauthorized activation alarm. It was Stackhouse dialing in to say he was coming in hot with a hundred or so culling refugees, and it was business as usual for the rest of the day.
Three days later, Elizabeth was sitting in her office, dressed in a tank top and shorts for the Athosian Solstice party, tapping her fingers impatiently on her desk. She had been looking forward to this holiday, less for the religious significance and more for the chance to relax and celebrate their continued survival, and she hadn't intended to spend it on the radio, arguing with Jack O'Neill. "I thought I made it clear that we were doing this tomorrow, Jack." The Daedalus had arrived early yesterday, and she had had a conversation then via radio with O'Neill about the holiday and its religious significance to the Athosians, telling him they would wait for the day after for the committee's formal visit. That conversation had gone very well, which should have told her something was wrong. "You've spoken with Daniel and Colonel Mitchell, you know they're fine and that we're abiding by the terms of our agreement--"
"Oh, come on, Liz, that's not it and you know it."
Elizabeth pressed her lips together, deliberately not breaking down and telling him not to call her "Liz." It would be a victory on his part, whether he was angling for it or not. Almost everything Jack O'Neill said and did was tactical, though she thought it was such an ingrained habit with him that he wasn't aware of it most of the time. It was like walking into a room full of strangers with John and watching him smile while his eyes flicked around to pick out who to shoot first if they were attacked; reassuring when he was on your side, and easy to imagine how frightening it would be if he wasn't. She was almost certain Jack was on their side, but she couldn't entirely abandon her own ingrained caution. She said, "I made it clear this is an important holiday for the Athosians, and for everyone here." They had already had their plans disrupted by the new influx of refugees, and this was the last thing they needed.
"Yeah, I know, you're having a party and we're not invited." Jack paused, apparently hoping the transparent bid for an invitation would elicit a response. Elizabeth rolled her eyes and didn't take this bait, either. He continued, "But this tour you've got set up for tomorrow, it's going to look staged--"
Elizabeth began firmly, "It's not staged--"
"Yeah, I know that and you know that, but it's gonna look like it. When we have the hearings, the Trust bastards are going to talk a lot about what they found there. It's crap, but it's going to have an effect on the committee."
"Yes, I'm well aware of that." Elizabeth rubbed her eyes. The Trust, posing as an official NID force sent by the Pentagon, had accused them of deliberately withholding the Ancient technology from Earth in order to build some sort of empire in Pegasus. An empire, she thought, angry all over again. As if they had been out here living in luxury. She remembered the fall when the crops failed for the second time. The gate teams had been out around the clock looking for trading deals while Botany and Biology scrambled to find new food sources on the Mainland and off duty expedition members fished off the piers or went to help the Athosians hunt and scour the woods for nuts and berries. Everything they had here had been paid for in blood and sweat and lives, and it had all been for Earth and the future of humanity in the Milky Way and Pegasus. She realized her fist was clenched and forced herself to relax. "The committee will have our reports and data. They can't accuse us of faking three years' worth of information, first person accounts, and documentary video."
"The thing is, they could." Jack's voice was serious. "It won't stick, but it'll cause trouble and slow things up. Let Nguyen see your people with their hair down. Let him get a look at how things really are."
She tapped her pen on the desk, not answering. Jack had spent three weeks with the committee members in the close confines of the Daedalus, and there must have been some conversations. He was telling her that she had the chance to make Nguyen an ally, not just an impartial observer. And instinct was telling her he was right, whether she liked it or not.
As if he had heard the weakening of her resolve over the radio, he added persuasively, "Just a fifteen minute walk-through. You don't have to invite us to stay for the party. Though you know, that's going to hurt Teal'c's feelings--"
So far, John thought the party was a complete success.
The day was warm and sunny, and the North Pier had turned out to be an excellent location. It had a big square pool in the center, only about four feet deep, with steps leading down into it and a bottom patterned with inlaid crystal in blue, green, and copper. From the city schematic they knew it was mostly ornamental, with a secondary use as a drain during storms. But it also made a fantastic swimming pool.
They had brought chairs and tables and couches outside, and people were eating, lying in the sun on blankets, swimming in the pool, while the kids ran and played and shrieked. Lunch had been a big hit, too. The messhall had cobbled together a barbeque sauce from the supplies left by the Daedalus, and though the roast goat still tasted like roast goat, the sauce did make it more festive.
It was more Coney Island than Club Med, but everybody seemed to like it.
John, wearing gray boxers and a ragged blue t-shirt, was stretched out on his stomach on a padded bench. He hadn't shaved, because he had been up before dawn for the Athosian sunrise ceremony, and then had helped with the party set up.
Mitchell, stretched out on a blanket near John's couch, said, "So, is this pretty much it for the day?"
"Pretty much," John said. Ronon was on duty in the pool, making sure none of the kids drowned, so John didn't have to worry about that. He was looking forward to spending the next six hours unconscious, or at least not moving a whole lot. "After it gets dark, there's usually the traditional getting drunk and humiliating ourselves portion of the evening."
Stretched out on one of the other blankets, Teyla said in amusement, "He means that there will be dancing."
John was just drifting off to sleep when his headset crackled and Elizabeth's voice said, "John, I had a call from General O'Neill--"
He shoved himself up on an elbow, trying to wake up. "Right, how did that go?"
"--he wants to bring Dr. Nguyen down here now for a quick fifteen minute walk-through, and I agreed."
John froze. "What? Now? We're not-- It's--" He looked down at himself, then around. He wasn't the only expedition member using underwear as a bathing suit. It just wasn't an article of clothing most people had thought about while packing for another galaxy. "Elizabeth, I'm not even wearing any pants."
Sounding placating, she said, "Nguyen's worked on UN committees dealing with war refugees and disaster assistance for years, John. He's been in the field under terrible conditions, and he's seen half-naked people before."
"Has he seen half-naked Marines? Because that's what I've got a lot of down here." It was gradually dawning on him how bad this was going to look. The gate teams had all ended up congregating in one area, Marines, Athosians, and scientists, and John had ended up in the middle of a group that included Deona, the twins, and five other Athosian women. Athosians didn't do bathing suits, so they were all in underwear too. He supposed it could look more like he was lying here in the middle of his harem, but he wasn't really sure how.
Mitchell pushed his sunglasses down and said, "What's up?"
John told him, "O'Neill's going to be here any minute now with somebody from the Atlantis committee."
Mitchell snorted. "Man, that's not funny."
"Tell me about it." He tried again, "Elizabeth--"
"John, I've got to go, they're beaming in now. Just don't worry, it'll be all right." She signed off.
Mitchell was sitting up, startled. "You're serious? That was supposed to be tomorrow."
Teyla had rolled over on her blanket to listen, frowning. Aghast, she said, "You mean, they are coming today?"
"No, they're here now, as in right now. Somebody find Bates." John leaned over to the other couch, giving Rodney an imperative shake. "Wake up, we've got company."
"Dammit, what? I'm off duty!" Rodney sat up with a start. He was wearing sunglasses, a white tent-like thing over his nose, and a hat, even though John knew the sunscreen he had on was made in the Ancient Tech lab and was rated SPF Surface-of-the-Sun. "I told you people--"
Leaving it to the others to explain, John was already picking his way hurriedly through the sprawled bodies and furniture, over to where Halling and some of the older Athosians were sitting with the leaders of the new refugees.
The culling on MX5-732 had left the survivors injured and shell-shocked, and Atlantis had been strange and hard for them to adjust to. They had been tentative and a little afraid of all the weapons at first, but Halling and the others had been as reassuring as possible, and they were starting to warm up now.
When John reached the group, Halling, wearing nothing but a little sarong thing wrapped around his hips, was already pushing to his feet. He didn't look happy.
"Dr. Weir has just informed me of their arrival," Halling said, indicating his headset. He frowned at Dr. Jackson, who was working his way towards them, stepping over sleeping people.
"Do you know what this is about?" John asked Jackson. Not that knowing was going to help anything.
"Someone must have let it slip to Jack that there was a party today," Jackson admitted reluctantly. "That...may have been me."
Halling looked incredulous. "That is the only reason?"
"It's probably eighty to eighty-five percent the reason." Jackson shaded his eyes, looking toward the terrace at the base of the Pier tower.
Seran, the leader of the refugees, stepped up to say anxiously, "Something is wrong?"
"No, not really," John said, as Teyla, Rodney, Mitchell, and Bates arrived. Bates, the bastard, had found a pair of pants somewhere. "Just...some people we didn't expect today." The stained glass doors on the terrace were sliding open, meaning the transporter inside the foyer had just activated.
Seran watched him worriedly. "We heard rumors that you have been at war with others of your people, who have weapons of the Ancients, and ships."
"Oh, no, that's not quite--" Jackson began, at the same time John said, "Well, yes, but--"
Teyla jumped in hurriedly, saying, "It is complicated, but all is well now."
Seran didn't look too reassured. John pointed out, "Elizabeth said they were supposed to be out of here in fifteen minutes."
Rodney snorted derisively, folding his arms. "Yes, I'm sure that's what the Goa'uld on Chulak said, too."
Jackson frowned at him. Bates swore in weary annoyance. Mitchell cleared his throat in a way that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. John sighed and rubbed his eyes, saying, "Rodney. Stop comparing us to the Goa'uld."
"It's a metaphor," Rodney snapped.
Then Halling said, startled, "They bring an elder."
John squinted at the terrace. Elizabeth was walking down the steps with General O'Neill, General Hammond, Colonel Carter, and Teal'c. There was also someone with them John didn't recognize, an Asian guy who had to at least be in his seventies, dressed in a Daedalus coverall. Okay, so that's got to be Nguyen.
Suddenly Halling was as flustered as John. "I must gather the others, to make a proper greeting." He hurried off, calling, "Children! Children, put some clothing on!"
John eyed Jackson suspiciously. He wasn't the only one. Rodney, Teyla, Mitchell, and Bates were staring at him, too. John said, "Did you set this up?"
Jackson's brow quirked. "No, I did not. I did mention the respect that Athosians have for older people. I'm also assuming Jack thought it would be better to let Dr. Nguyen have a more informal look at the city before negotiations start."
"Better?" Rodney asked skeptically. "For who?"
Jackson smiled. "Everybody."
The sun was setting over the ocean, and Jack was stretched out on a couch near the pool, pretty satisfied with the day's work. Teal'c was in the water with the kids, Carter was off arguing with McKay and the other scientists, and the party appeared to be revving up again for the evening. The wine the Athosians had broken out packed quite a punch, and it smelled like there was going to be more barbequed goat for dinner.
Daniel had been right, the Athosians had taken the visit by an "elder" as a compliment and a sign of sincere intentions. Even better, Atlantis was currently brimming with native refugees, mostly women and kids, and Nguyen, who had been on UN committees crusading for various humanitarian causes for most of his career, had taken to that like crazy. Earlier, Jack had seen Nguyen sitting at one of the lunch tables with a refugee baby in his lap, talking with a mixed group of expedition members and Athosians. When Hammond and Nguyen had started pulling out pictures of their grandkids, Jack had radioed the diplomatic squad aboard the Daedalus and told them they could take the day off tomorrow.
Nguyen had seen Atlantis as it really was; none of the Trust's bullshit was going to change that.
That just left the Pentagon to worry about.