The debriefing after the weekend survival
course began very smoothly. Maxine and Theo refrained from rubbing Beck and
Kern's noses in their ignominious defeat, while the latter were thankful for
small mercies. It was merely recorded that the two doctors' combined
performances in each of the disciplines were above average over all.
This did not mean that Beck and Kern placed the rest of the
team in the category of life-long friends and bosom buddies. Not by a long
shot. But at least weapons were sheathed for the time being.
There was a little saber-rattling when General Bradfield moved
on to the subject of their first mission, however.
"When will your P.A.T.T.s be available for use, Dr.
"Pats?" Captain Beck asked, looking mystified.
"Personal All-Terrain Transports. Four-wheeled buggies
that'll carry our gear and any samples we collect, and thus extend the range of
our exploration," Theo explained. Turning to Bradfield, he continued.
"We have two nearly ready for use, and another two should be ready by the
end of the week."
"Don't tell me. You four get them and we're left on
foot," Beck grumbled.
Theo gave an exasperated sigh. "There will be six
by the end of the following week, and none of them will be going anywhere until
I've replaced the conventional motors with naquadah cells. I'll have to do that
myself because the rest of the modifications have been contracted out. Frankly,
I'm surprised that the S.G.C. managed to find six ATVs so easily..."
"Oh." Beck sat back, still looking grumpy.
Theo figured that he was miffed because all this had been going
on behind his back - and by The Civilians. Of course, if he hadn't been
so keen on keeping himself aloof from contamination by the gorks, he might not
have been left out of the loop. Then again...
"I figured it would take a while," Bradfield said,
passing round stills of their destination, "so I've settled on a reconn.
mission to P5R-772. The AVCOP results indicate that it's an Earth-like world as
regards the atmosphere and climate. It appears to be high summer at the moment.
We've seen nothing overtly threatening in the vicinity of the gate, though it
is lightly screened at a distance by tall grasses and what are probably hedges.
In the immediate vicinity of the 'Gate, the land is dry and dusty with little
vegetation. There's similar wildlife to what you might find here, so although
we haven't seen any as yet, there will likely be predators too. As you see,
there's a paved road some ten feet wide leading away from the 'Gate. It looks
in good repair which suggests that it could be used on a fairly regular basis.
"The ASP footage shows that the road goes to a small town
three miles to the north of the 'Gate. It seems to be an agrarian civilization,
which is good. The anthropological department assessed its socio-technological
development at something similar to mid to late seventeenth century Earth,
based on the buildings. They may - probably do, in fact - have gunpowder and
weapons that use it."
"Yeah?" Beck growled. "Well they won't be as
good as ours."
Maxine rolled her eyes. "Let's make sure it won't be
necessary to test that hypothesis."
"Quite," J agreed. "Or we're not likely to get a
very good trade deal."
Beck leaned forward, disbelief writ large across his face.
"Trade? We don't trade! We take what we want. If they don't
like it, we shoot a few to encourage the others."
"Hell's teeth!" J exclaimed. "Has this
organization learnt nothing from the loss of Major McLeroy? Or from the
- the disastrous attempt to clear up the mess he created?"
"The answer would seem to be in the negative," Luc
Lt. Kern wisely kept stumm. So did Bradfield.
Captain Beck, on the other hand, plowed on regardless. "We
don't have enough for our own people," he protested, "so we can't
possibly afford to give stuff away!"
"We wouldn't be giving it away," Maxine
pointed out. "That's the idea of trade. It's a fair exchange. In
any case, we don't need to trade in goods per se. If we can show our trading
partners how to grow food more productively, for instance, or how to
make better machines for harvesting it not twenty-second century methods
or equipment, just the next step along the way - then it's a win-win situation.
More for them and more for us. Can't you see that?"
"It's a lot easier just to take what we need as we need
it," Beck continued doggedly.
"That attitude is what got us in this situation in the
first place," Maxine snapped.
"Leave it, Dr. Pepperday," J interjected with a
meaningful stare. He sensed a politically incorrect rant brewing and it
wouldn't do to reveal too much of their hand too soon. If they hadn't already?
Fortunately Maxine took the hint and dropped the subject.
Bradfield watched the exchanges with interest. Mitchell seemed
well able to control his team, without a heavy hand from himself. He preferred
his people to work things out by themselves without his intervention. He
"There's a range of foothills some fifteen miles to the
north-west with mountains beyond. The ASP detected naquadah and a number of
other useful minerals, though that investigation will probably have to wait for
"Maybe, if the minerals are no use to them and we can put
together a useful trading treaty, they'll let us have mineral rights for
free," Maxine suggested. "They might even mine what we want for
"Why bother. The slaves can do that." Beck sneered.
Maxine opened her mouth but J caught her eye before she said
anything. She shut her mouth with a snap and a sharp intake of breath. She dug
her nails into her palms, green eyes sparking. That look could have
Bradfield figured he'd better intervene this time while Beck
still had the use of his testicles. "I think that what Captain Beck really
means is that some worlds use criminals for heavy labor, like we do with chains
gangs in our penitentiaries. Isn't that so, Captain Beck."
"Er, yeah. Absolutely!" Beck concurred, subliminally
picking up on Bradfield's train of thought and remembering that Dr. Pepperday
had an idiosyncratic method of dealing with people who crossed her.
The mission was scheduled for two days hence, the first
Thursday in June, embarking at 0800. The day before, Maxine was called to
Washington PX, the fourth Alpha Site. Only Maxine.
Puzzled, and more than a little disconcerted, she would be
going through the Stargate for the first time On her own. She had no idea
why so she could do nothing to prepare for the visit. Sure, she was prepared
for the effects of 'Gate travel. Ash had filled them all in long ago, and J and
Luc had been through the 'Gate many times and backed up everything Ash had
Theo, J and Luc were down in the 'Gate Room to see her off, it
was true telling her she'd been fine. There was nothing to worry about.
Really. On a logical level, she knew this was true. So why did she feel like
someone had just pulled the rug out from beneath her feet, leaving her falling.
Like Alice down the rabbit hole, she thought irrationally.
It just felt so wrong to be going without the team; that was
the idea of being part of a team, wasn't it? You did things together. More
especially it felt wrong to be leaving her cousin behind. She'd been his
support through the bad times at home; now she needed his support.
Well, not needed exactly. It was just that, all her life, she'd
never been alone - never without family or friends within easy reach - her
safety net. Now, she was going to be light years away - cut adrift from all
that support network which was always there - just in case she needed it. Not
having it was a scary feeling.
She walked slowly, reluctantly, up the ramp. 'Be careful
what you wish for' echoed round her brain. She was almost too... paranoid?
...to appreciate the beauty of it all. She put out her hand to touch the
surface. It felt cold, like liquid ice. She pulled her hand back. There was a
sense of the structure sucking at it, then it came free with a slight watery
She took a deep breath, turned to give a small wave to the
other three, turned her back on them and stepped through the event horizon.
"I hope she'll be okay," Theo muttered.
"Sure she'll be okay," Luc reassured him.
"Nothing to it."
"Yeah, I know. Sorta. Thing is, I've never seen that look
on her face before. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was... well,
Luc regarded him closely. "You know her better than any of
us," he conceded.
J had been silent, motionless, thoughtful. "I can
understand her concern. None of us have been to the Alph er, Washington
PX," he said, rolling his eyes. "Even Ash doesn't have much
information about it. So why has she been called and none of the rest of
"Oh. It could be they want something decoding. Or
something," Theo suggested without much certainty.
"So why not send it to Ma-Esther here?"
They hung around in the 'Gate Room for a few minutes in case
she reappeared, but when another team, mission equipt, came in, they headed for
Maxine arrived, minutes later, shivering and nauseous. She gave
herself a moment, then walked down the ramp on the other side. The Stargate was
in an airy but functional hall, a building that said we don't have anything
particularly valuable here, but what we do have, we're willing and able to
defend if necessary. The latter sentiment was underlined by the squad of
SFs pointing their SMGs towards the 'Gate. Towards her...
"Dr Pepperday. From the SGC," she said in a small
voice, raising her hand in what she hoped was a friendly gesture. "Someone
wanted to see me?"
Someone from the clerical section made his way through the men
circling the ramp.
"Dr. Pepperday? I'm Staff Sergeant Gayle. I'll be looking
after you during your visit."
"Thank you. Do you know why I've been - well,
"I'm sorry, we work on a need-to-know basis here and that
is something I don't need to know," the young man responded. "I am to
act as your driver and protector while you're in Washington PX."
"Protector? I thought this was a safe world?"
"Er, yes. It is. This is just protocol."
"Oh, right," Maxine grinned. "Protocol, I
Sergeant Gayle led her through what was obviously a substantial
building - on the same scale as the ONS building, and with similar labyrinthine
corridors. And colored tape on the floor. Home from home?
Maxine wasn't sure what she expected by way of transport, but a
pony and trap wasn't it! It was a pleasant twenty minute drive and the
landscape could have been lifted out of the most attractive parts of Virginia.
So could her destination...
The trap came to a halt at the eastern entrance of a
whitewashed mansion which was clearly copied from the White House in D.C. It
had probably been built using slave labor, she thought in disgust, with more to
come if it were to be a perfect duplicate. There were two wings yet to be
A groom stood by the entrance awaiting their arrival. Sergeant
Gayle handed over the reins and helped Maxine to climb down. He escorted her
halfway along the broad central hallway, opened a door on the left-hand side
and ushered her into a large oval reception room. It was not, she presumed,
'The Oval Office.' That hadn't been built yet.
"Please take a seat, Dr. Pepperday," Gayle said,
pulling a chair out from a small table, and added, "Someone will be with
you shortly." Then he went, leaving Maxine at leisure to take a look at
Outside, was view over a wide expanse of lawn surrounded by
mature trees. The room itself spoke stylish luxury, with an oval thick pile
carpet in blue with gold colored swirls covering most of the wooden parquet
floor. The perfectly smooth walls were a paler shade of blue with gilt-framed
oil paintings between white pilasters. The ceiling had a fine stucco decoration
around the central crystal chandelier. Maxine was not impressed by the opulence
- not favorably anyway.
A few minutes later, a girl came in carrying a silver tray with
a dainty china cup and saucer, matching coffee pot, creamer, sugar bowl and
plate of cookies. She put the tray on the table beside Maxine and curtseyed.
"Thank you," Maxine responded automatically.
"You arre mosst... velcome," the girl said frowning
slightly with the effort of speaking the four words. English was obviously not
her first language.
"Where do you come from?"
"Th-th-the ki-chen," the girl said, looking like faun
addressing a tigress. Her eyes flitted back and forth between Maxine and the
door as if trying to decide whether to make a run for it.
Maxine took pity on her. "You are a good girl," she
said slowly with a smile and a nod to let her know she could go.
The girl bobbed another curtsey. "Th-thank you,
Ma'am," she whispered and fled.
Being waited on in this way was quite a novelty and set off a
flurry of conflicting thoughts. While it was an interesting experience, it was
also unsettling. The girl looked to be twelve years old at the most, and
clearly nearer to afraid than nervous. Much nearer.
It occurred to her that the girl had been wearing a long dress,
like a maidservant of long ago. It then registered that she herself was not
wearing the 'wimmin's clothing' prescribed for special events at the ONS, and
that maybe she should be. It had never crossed her mind to change when she was
called to the Al to Washington PX. Too surprised most likely. Well, too
late to worry about it now, and it probably wasn't a capital offence...
Some ten minutes later, a different door opened, and President
Warren himself walked in. Maxine stood up smartly. She'd seen him a number of
times in the deeper reaches of the ONS. Occasionally, they'd passed in a
corridor and then he'd paid as much attention to her as he would to a piece of
furniture, walking straight past her without noticing she was there.
Now he was walking towards her, extending a hand to shake hers
and wearing a friendly smile that could best be described as charming. The
change in his demeanor was well, not scary exactly, more - unnerving. She
wondered if she was wearing the same look of panic as the maidservant and took
a breath to steady herself.
"Dr. Pepperday, pleased to meet you," he smiled. A
whiff of fragrance - after-shave, Maxine supposed - drifted around her as his
hand enveloped hers. It was not a strong scent, but seemed to have a faint
undertone of something that was neither familiar nor unpleasant. It tickled the
back of her nose.
"Thank you, sir," she said, taking a half step
backwards in case it made her sneeze.
"I expect you're wondering why I sent for you," he
He cut straight to the chase. "I'd like you to relocate to
Washington PX. That way, you'll be available as a cryptographer when you're not
away on missions." He took in her shocked expression and chuckled.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I haven't made myself clear. I appreciate that you have a
life and family back on Earth and I'm not asking you to live here permanently,
just during normal working hours. I've allocated you an office in the Arlington
Building. That's the main building that houses the 'Gate."
"Thank you, sir."
"Any questions Dr. Pepperday?"
"Not a question as such, but I'll need to have my
computer moved from the ONS building in the Springs, sir. It has a lot of
cryptology programs on it that I've compiled over the years."
"Of course, Doctor. No problem."
"Thank you, sir. I'll clear out my old office this
afternoon and reassign the less sensitive tasks to other officers in my
"Excellent," Warren smiled. "Finally, I'd like
to congratulate you on your wilderness survival challenge."
Maxine felt herself making like the faun again. She hung her
head. "I - er - I'm afraid I didn't play entirely fair, sir," she
"I knew I'd like you," President Warren said,
approval in his voice. She kept her head bowed for a few seconds more until she
could force her face into an appreciative expression. She tried to imagine it
was Aunt Claire standing before her in the hopes that her totally disingenuous
smile might reach her eyes - enough convince Warren that her delight was
"Thank you, sir," she beamed - then wondered if she
might have overdone it. Paranoia can do that to a person...
Sergeant Gayle, who must have been waiting outside the room,
entered moments after President Warren left. He drove her back to the Arlington
Building, where he escorted her to her new office.
This was an order of magnitude above her Big Broom Closet in
the Office of National Security. She'd kept the BBC and declined the offer of a
better room. She liked being tucked away and hopefully off the radar of the
higher ranks. It seemed she hadn't kept quite such a low profile as she'd
This new billet was not so much an office, more a suite of
rooms. One door off the office itself led to a personal bathroom with shower.
The other led to a small bed-sitting room with a bookcase and table with coffee
maker as well as the bed and plump upholstered chair. Presumably this was in
case she needed to pull an all-nighter.
Or was it her thirty pieces of silver? Well, ten pieces
"Oh, nearly forgot," Sergeant Gayle said. He handed
her a map of the Arlington Building which she unfolded and oriented. "This
will help you to find your way around," he explained, rather unnecessarily
Maxine thought. "To get to the 'Gate, just "
"Follow the green route."
"Er, yes," Gayle said, sounding surprised.
"It's not true what they say, you know," she grinned.
"Women can read maps. Our sense of direction may not be too
good, but maps? Not a problem."
On her return, she requisitioned a staff car and drove over to
the ONS to set about clearing the BBC. When she walked in, Ash was already
there, bending over her computer. He stood up and said in a very polite voice,
"Ah, Dr. Pepperday..."
She gave him a suspicious look, but before she could say
anything, he put a finger to his lips and shook his head, continuing, "I'm
sorry but I have instructions to transfer your machine to Washington PX."
"That's correct," she said, playing along. "Room
423. But could you hold your horses, please. There's a lot of projects and
confidential information on that machine that I need to reassign. It'll take me
at least a couple of hours." She looked at her watch. "Actually, as
it's just gone midday, I suggest you go for lunch now, Mr. Kirkwood, and come
back at, oh, 1430. I should be done then."
"Oh. On second thoughts, everyone else will be at lunch
too. Would you mind if I come with?"
"Not at all, Dr. Pepperday. We can discuss how you'd like
me to set it up when I get there."
With that, they both left the BBC and Maxine locked her door.
Once they were outside the barricades and on their way to the Sunny Side Up,
Maxine asked, "Okay, so what was all that about? Dr. Pepperday
"I think someone's put a bug in your machine."
Maxine shuddered. Her first thought went to cockroaches. The
kitchen at her Denver home had once had an infestation when she was little and
she never wanted to experience that again. Ever!
Then rationality reasserted itself. "Someone's tampered
with my programming?" That was nearly as bad.
"No. I mean someone's put a surveillance device inside the
housing. There aren't that many still around. They tend to get found
eventually, and the finder usually crushes them underfoot. Or drops them in
their drink. So they're only used very sparingly."
"Why me? And what makes you think there's one in my
"Taking the second question first, there are a number of
computers I service on a regular basis that I regard as... sensitive, I guess.
I do my own personal checks whenever I'm called in to do something to any of
them. Yours is one of them, obviously. There's never been anything amiss with
yours - other than the usual computer glitches - until today."
He stopped talking for a few moments and led her across the
"Don't look round but I think we might be being followed.
There's a guy who works in surveillance about twenty yards behind us."
"And they call me paranoid!"
"Well he might just be going out for lunch like us, but I
like to avoid Josiah Fischer if at all possible."
"Yep. And he's just crossed the road. I think we'd better
stick to safe subjects until we get to the Sunny Side Up."
They found a corner table so as to be able to see all the
customers in 90o but the paranoia only mounted when Fischer
entered the café. So not good. He affected not to recognize, or even
notice, either of them, but Ash at least was not fooled. It occurred to him
that maybe it was not Maxine but himself that Fischer was interested in, which
was freakin' scary.
When they ordered a second coffee, Fischer did likewise. This
couldn't be coincidental - could it? Nor could it be coincidental that he left
the café soon enough to be only five yards or so behind them. Naturally,
they stuck to work or non-sensitive subjects.
Maxine, picking up on Ash's nervousness, worked out why. She
couldn't be the obvious instigator though, so, "Hold my hand," she
murmured. Ash did.
When they were half-way back to the ONS, Maxine stopped
suddenly and turned a horrified look on her companion. "Oh shit!" she
exclaimed, looking at her hands. "I've left my purse in the café!
We'll have to go back for it. I've my apartment keys and
everything in it! I was so caught up in my move to You Know Where, I
wasn't concentrating. Damn it!"
Their change in direction was too sudden for Fischer to do
anything else but carry on and walk past them as the couple turned and started
running back to the Sunny Side Up. Back in the café, Maxine went to
their table and retrieved her purse.
"You really did leave your purse," Ash said
"Well, it had to look genuine," she muttered.
"Bit of a risk though, what with your keys and everything
in You'd taken them out, hadn't you?"
"No. I never keep anything valuable in my purse in case
someone snatches it."
"Ah. Good idea."
"I'm full of 'em. Now you go and linger by the door while
I buy a couple of donuts to take out."
While Maxine bought donuts, Ash scanned the street and failed
to spot Fischer, or anyone else on his avoidance list.
"He may reappear from one of the stores along the
way," Ash suggested, "So I'll be as quick as I can. When I arrived
and checked over your machine, there was scratch beside one of the screws as if
a screwdriver had slipped and made a slight gouge into the metal housing. It
wasn't there last time I looked, so it's very recent."
"I see," Maxine said, "so did you find a
"No. You came in before I had time to look."
"Hence you had to shut me up before I said anything
"So now we're going to go remove the bug?"
"No way, Maxine! That would be a dead give-away."
"How would they know if it's going off-world?"
"Ya know, for a smart woman, you can be a bit dense
sometimes." Ash grinned as Maxine rose to the bait but continued.
"Someone somewhere will be listening in to that little bug, and a
permanent silence means that either the bug is malfunctioning, or
someone's removed it - probably the latter - and they'll have a pretty good
idea who that someone is."
Maxine was appalled by her lack of thought. "Oh Ash, I'm
sorry, and you're quite right, I can be very dumb at times. So what do you
propose to do?"
"First, see if there really is a bug, which I'm pretty
certain there will be, and then leave it as is. You haven't been bugged before,
so I'm thinking that the aim is to place the bug in your new office. Who by or
why, I have no idea, but the point of leaving it is that you know about
it - and you'll also warn anyone that you want to protect - so that nothing
incriminating will be said by the people who matter. Moreover, if and when we
find out who's behind it, we can feed them false information."
It turned out that Ash was right about the bug. It gave Maxine
a queasy feeling. As he'd carefully and quietly removed the housing to look
inside, Maxine talked, loudly, about her new office - how wonderful it was! -
listed her requirements for it, and generally clattered about. Once the housing
was back on, she asked Mr. Kirkwood to come back once she'd reassigned the
various projects. She would page him.
After Ash had left, she wondered about the bug's purpose. Who
was it aimed at catching? Her? Ash? Aunt Claire? Her father? What had triggered
its presence in her computer? Why now? Well, presumably her move off-world.
She was doing quite a lot of sensitive work now. She wasn't top
of the heap, but a good way up it. It galled her that she must have landed a
lot of good people in deep, deep shit over the years but, following Aunt
Claire's reasoning, if not her then someone else who couldn't care less
who got thrown to the wolves. She was still trying to fudge names where she
could - decoding Smitt as Smith or Jonah as John. She was still passing on
local names to her cousins Zak and Dom Ward too, for whatever good that did.
Maybe it was a warning to her that her misrepresentations had
been spotted. No, that didn't chime right. That idea only worked if she knew
about the bug. So why not just arrest her and make an example of her? No one
was irreplaceable - not even her.
On the other hand, if they thought she was a security risk,
maybe they were planning to use her. Maybe they thought that when friends came
to her office, she'd let slip names or other secrets that she'd concealed...?
Things like Theo and Ash's relationship? That sent a shiver down her spine.
Well, that wasn't going to happen so long as they were all careful. So what
then? Would they think they'd misjudged her? Or take more aggressive measures?
So many imponderables. Her paranoia level was heading for the stratosphere and
Get a grip, Maxine, she told herself sternly. Focus,
or you're no use to anyone. This is all surmise and anyway, maybe they'd put
the bug in the wrong computer.
With her mind thus preoccupied, it took somewhat longer than
she anticipated to sort out and reassign parts of her workload.
As she was sorting through the files, she had an unexpected
visitor. When she responded to knock on her door, she found the Grey Grue
standing there. Not that she still thought of Rachel King that way any more.
They would never become close friends, but were at least on friendly terms.
"I wonder if I could have a word with you Dr.
Pepperday?" she said in clipped urgent tones. She was an intense person at
the best of times, and now she seemed more tense than ever. Or paranoid? Maxine
could identify with that!
With that darned bug in mind, she said, "Sure,"
stepping out of her office and closing the door as she spoke. "Go
ahead," she smiled.
"First, I'd like to wish you well in your - er - your new
posting. We I'll miss you."
Rachel looked up and down the corridor and waited for a couple
of people to pass by and turn the corner. Only when there was no one in sight
did she continue. What she said next, and in a rapid mumble, nearly took
Maxine's breath away.
"I wonder if you could keep an eye out for my... for my
father. His name is Major Toby King. If he's still alive. He was listed as MIA
forty-five years ago. He served under Col. Jonathan Pepperday. You
understand...?" she concluded with a searching look.
Maxine nodded dumbly.
"He'll be seventy-five now. You'll look out for him?"
Maxine smiled and nodded, but didn't say anything because she
had no idea how far the bug could hear.
"Thank you so much," Rachel murmured, then whisked
herself away without a backward glance. Maxine watched her go, stunned.
Ash, who had his own vehicle, and Maxine drove back to the SGC
separately, but they went to the Arlington Building together, Maxine ostensibly
to oversee the placement and settings of her machine. By the time they
returned, she was beginning to feel quite a veteran at wormhole travel. Ash
offered her a ride home, but she declined. She wanted to see if she could track
down Theo, J and Luc first, she said, and would catch the shift bus back to the
With that aim in mind, Maxine headed for the commissary as a
first port of call. She was only partly in luck. Luc, on his own, was tucking
into some sort of stew. Maxine collected something similar and equally
anonymous, plus and a mug of tepid brown liquid and joined him.
Theo, she was told, had gone back to the Springs on the
previous shift bus in order to get an early night before his first trip through
the Stargate. J was somewhere around, picking the brains of such other SG
teams' COs as he felt he could trust.
"That just leaves me," Luc grinned. "So, how did
you get on at the er, Washington PX?"
Maxine gave him the salient features.
"Wow! You actually met the President?"
"Yeah," Maxine drawled.
"You sound a little underwhelmed." Luc gave her a
"It was weird. He's passed me in the corridors of the ONS
a number of times like I wasn't even there. So having him actually treat me
with charm and friendliness, as if it was a genuine pleasure to make my
acquaintance... Well, it kinda creeped me out a little. He was dressed up like
he was meeting a foreign delegation, wearing expensive smelling aftershave
"Maxine, if he was trying something on, I'll be your
protector," Luc said with surprising vehemence.
He'd become very fond of her over the years. Maxine was like
another lady friend from over eight years ago now. While most women appreciated
an experienced Latin lover, these two had laughed and teased him - kindly -
when he'd made a pass at them; not a serious pass, but one he would've followed
up on if they'd been willing. The bottom line, he'd found out, was that they'd
both liked him for himself.
The first one he'd loved with all his heart, but it had ended
in the worst possible way. His relationships with women had taken him from Via
Cavalcanti to his personal Via Dolorosa. He would never love again. It was too
painful. But though romance was out of the question, he would give his life to
protect Maxine. Not that he would've said so in her hearing!
"It wasn't like that," Maxine was saying. "There
was nothing salacious in his manner. He was very business-like. And even if he
did ever try it on with me, I want you to promise me you won't get in the way,
okay? Because if anyone stood between Warren and something he wants, I have no
doubt he would have that person removed. Probably permanently."
Luc gave a half-hearted nod, thinking that Warren wasn't the
only one capable of removing whoever got in the way if necessary.
"Promise me, Luc," Maxine urged.
"Okay, I promise," he said holding his crossed
fingers under the table and out of her sight.
"Thing is, if he's so friendly and affable, why was the
maid so scared? Because she was - shit scared. I don't think it was anything to
do with me - and wipe that grin off your face, Captain Lucarelli! Seriously,
I'd love to have a private conversation with her, and find out what's going on.
And talking of what's going on, Ash found a surveillance device in my computer,
so watch what you say in my new office. Theo and J need to be warned too,
especially Theo I think. So pass the message on. Better they hear it several
times than not at all because we all think someone else has told them."
The following morning at 0800, SG-24 gathered in the 'Gate
Room. The AVCOP had shown no new activity around the 'Gate, save for a few
rabbit-like creatures, so they had a green light to go. General Bradfield came
down to see them off and wish them well.
"Okay, folks, shipping out," J said, wrapping a
comradely arm across Captain Beck's shoulder and guiding him up the ramp.
Maxine took Theo's hand and followed them, leaving Lt. Kern to tag along with
On the other side, the height of the sun suggested that it was
mid-morning. J posted Beck and Kern at the 'Gate. Beck was inclined to demur.
"What? Is this insubordination already, Captain?" J
"No sir. It's just we were told our job was to guard the
civilians," Beck replied.
"Not by me," J pointed out. "Your job - a very
important job - is to watch our backs. If anyone - or anything - comes through
that 'Gate, I want to know about it PDQ. And if anything like that does
happen, you are not to engage them. Is that clear?"
Beck mumbled something inaudible.
"I said, is that clear?" came the voice of authority,
quiet and deep.
"Sir, yes sir," Beck and Kern both snapped back
"Good. Now I'll tell you why. Any in-comers may, or may
not, pose a threat. If they do, I want to know what sort of threat, so you lie
low, observe, and keep me informed. If you challenge them, you advise them of
our presence - you're giving information to a potential enemy. That loses us an
advantage. And if you get yourselves killed, then you might just as well have
stayed back in the SGC for all the use you'll have been. I don't want any more
buggered-up missions like the last one I was on, thank you very much. Next, if
they don't pose a threat and you attack them, then you're converting a
possible ally into a definite enemy."
Beck just had to open his mouth... "But if they don't have
the fire power to pose a threat, what use are they as allies?"
J stepped into his personal space and tapped Beck's skull with
his knuckle. "Knock, knock, anybody there?" he asked with heavy
sarcasm. "Unarmed civilians may not pose an obvious threat - though
you of all people should know that appearances can be deceptive - but they have
families and friends. Now, do you want to be faced with a bunch of 'primitives'
hell-bent on revenge - Tyogyan-style? Or would you rather they liked us enough
to fight with us if need be? Finally, as to why I picked you for this
necessary position, I seem to remember that when we were discussing the
commissioning of the PATTs, you, Captain Beck, gave a strong impression that
you were averse to taking a hike. So you get your wish. Find yourselves
somewhere to hide and feel free to put your feet up and have a rest. Just stay
"Yes, sir," Beck said without further comment.
J really hoped Beck had taken on board what he'd said.
Kern too. Yes, his preference was to have them off his team, but he didn't want
them to screw up badly enough to put their removal beyond discussion. Maybe, if
they performed as they should, he could make something useful out of them yet.
He wasn't going to hold his breath on that one though. For now, he'd settle for
an absence of fuck-ups.
The remaining four set off at a smart pace along the paved
roadway. Once beyond what they now realized was a protective barrier of
hedging, they had to stop and wait as a sizeable dust devil crossed their path.
It cleared a wide track, shifting sandy soil off the road and off the dried-up
land along the roadside. After it had passed, they continued on their way.
Luc, bringing up the rear, had only taken a couple of steps
when the sun's bright light reflected on something metallic in the compacted
earth a little to the right of the road.
"Wait up," he called and went to check out the
anomalous item. Most of it was buried, but it looked very familiar. Watched by
the others, he dug out a short piece of ball chain - the same length and style
as the shorter dog tag chain.
"Shit, I thought this world hadn't been visited
before," J said. "Look around, folks, see if there's anything
It didn't take long to retrieve two dog tags, each wedged
between the buff-colored paving slabs at either edge of the road.
The other read:
"Looks like you thought wrong," Theo commented.
"They seem to have been left deliberately, judging by where they
"But why?" Luc asked, "and when?"
"Good questions," J murmured thoughtfully, turning
the two tags over in his hand. "Norwood and Szymanski? The names don't
ring any bells... Maxine?"
Maxine was looking serious. "I seem to remember Aunt
Claire mentioning a Dr. Norwood," she said slowly. "But I could be
"Knowing you, I doubt it," Theo said, "which
means those dog tags could have belonged to people who went MIA back in
"Which means some of them survived," J said,
"for a while at least. I wonder what message they were trying to
"And why they both left them here?" Maxine
mused. "If they are survivors of the old Alpha site, then they've been
here undisturbed for forty-five years..."
"Not necessarily," Luc said. "They may have been
living here happily for several decades, then decided to move on."
"Or were forced to move on," Theo suggested. "I
mean, it's a strange thing to do unless that's your only chance."
"Maybe it's a warning," Maxine said.
"Good points," J agreed. "I'm thinking maybe
there's more to this mission than we realize, and we'd better be doubly alert.
Oh, and let's keep this between ourselves." He turned his back in the
direction of the 'Gate in case Beck or Kern were watching before tucking the
dog tags into a pocket in his utility vest.
"Okay, let's go."