More Questions Than Answers - Part 1
Summary: A crown, three kings and a TIGER,
WARNINGS: Strong language -
hello, it's still a military base.
After taking her two protégés for something to eat in the commissary, Maxine had booked herself a room on base for the night. She didn't want them to feel abandoned. They were both looking a little shell-shocked. Probably wondering if they've done the right thing, she thought, looking at the bare, grey concrete walls of the accommodation block on level 15, and thinking back to their previous surroundings.
"Looks a bit bare doesn't it?" she commented.
"It looks like a prison cell," Radu said, peering into the basic room. "Are we prisoners?"
"Then why is that man standing guard."
That was a tough one. She didn't think Radu would buy the idea that he was just there to look after them. The weapons made a lie out of that one.
"Well... Come and see my room here," she said, taking Stefan's hand and glaring at the SF, challenging him to stop her. His face remained rigidly forward, expression like a graven image. Not a twitch. Good.
Her room, a single, was smaller than theirs, only about a third of the size. It contained only a camp bed, locker and a small separate area at one end, curtained off to hide the toilet and handbasin.
"Are you a prisoner too," Stefan asked, big-eyed.
Maxine laughed at that. "No, I'm not a prisoner. This is just somewhere for me to sleep."
Before the brothers went into their room, Maxine stopped and addressed the SF. "If either of these two young men requires anything during the night, you are to fetch me. Is that clear?"
"Ma'am, yes ma'am."
"Good," she smiled, and turned to Stefan. "See, you aren't alone here. We will take care of you."
After breakfast, Maxine introduced Radu and Stefan to the linguistics department. She had a word with Dr. Stiller about the possible necessity of understanding and preferably speaking Romanian in the future, and set up recordings of audio tutorials.
That done, she went down to the Carter Physics Lab on Level 19 to see what Dr. Feynman had found out about King Tobias' crown. She hadn't known David Feynman long, but they'd got on well from their first meeting. Both recognized in each other the scientific mind dedicated to reality and the discovery of truth - and the dangers inherent in that.
They went over to the workbench. Feynman and took the crown out of a locked cupboard and placed it on the bench.
"I would love to be able to give you something, but I confess, this has me stumped - so far anyway," Feynman said, dragging his fingers through his shaggy mane of greying hair. "I've never seen anything like it. It seems in part like an alloy, yet it's not like any alloy I've ever seen before. Nor is it an amalgam. Then again, it seems to be coated, but with something whose properties are beyond my experience. See here."
He reach over for a sharp knife and scraped away a little of the almost black coating inside the plain-looking crown. As he did so, Maxine sneezed, though it didn't seem like he'd scraped any particulates into air. The dark stuff seemed to move like a soft plastic, which it wasn't. Maybe Dr. Feynman's aftershave, she thought, then spotted a scarlet-flowered pelargonium in a pot in one corner. That must be it. Damned allergies. Why now? She'd never been bothered with them before. Late onset? It was nice to see the bright color relieving the starkness of the lab even so.
As Dr. Feynman pushed the dark covering aside, they had a quick view of what looked like silver wires set into the inner metal which appeared to be steel. But before they could get a better look, the dark layer surrounding the scraped area began to act as a fluid which flowed in to cover the scratches. There was no sign that any damage had occurred. Maxine sneezed again.
"Bless you!" Feynman said. "Are you coming down with something?"
"I don't know. Allergies... maybe a summer cold." She thought about it. "I don't feel ill though."
Feynman continued. "There is no way that I've yet found to remove the covering layer for long enough to get more than a quick look at the inside. If I didn't know better, I'd say that someone has found out how to harness dark matter and/or dark energy."
"Well dark matter doesn't actually exist. It can't, can it, or it would say in The Good Book, And God said 'Let there be dark matter, and lo, there was dark matter,'"Feynman said, looking grim - angry even, "and it doesn't say that anywhere, so of course, it doesn't exist, does it. And you never heard me say any of that," he concluded with a wry grin.
Maxine smiled her understanding and promise of confidentiality. "But, if there were such things as dark matter and dark energy, what would they be?"
"Well, from what I know, there was a lot of interest in the subject decades ago, before the book burnings - and the Great Disaster. Scientists - genuine scientists - discovered that the visible part of what's in 'the heavens' was only about four or five per cent of the total contents of the universe. About a quarter was - or is - dark matter and the rest is dark energy. About a hundred years ago in Europe, their nuclear research facility built the LHC to investigate sub-atomic particles, notably the elusive Higgs boson and... Um sorry, I tend to get carried away sometimes. You must be bored stiff."
"No, actually I'm not," Maxine smiled. "I don't claim to understand it, but I've read a little about it in the past. It's interesting. I know a lot of people were against the Large Hadron Collider because they thought it would create a black hole or some things called strangelets - is that right?" Feynman nodded. "And this would destroy the Earth."
"Where did you read about this?"
Maxine bit her lip. "Can you keep a secret?"
"Well of course. Besides, you have a fair amount of blackmail material on me," Feynman grinned.
"I have a couple of Colonel Carter's journals. She was there as a guest at the start up."
"Really?" The physicist was practically salivating.
"Yes really, and I have a lot of her text books too."
"Dr. Pepperday, will you marry me?"
"No need to go that far," she laughed. "I'll lend them to you with pleasure. You'll get far more use out of them than I ever shall. The first free time I get, I'll go and fetch them for you."
"Bless you for an angel! You have no idea how difficult it is trying to be a proper physicist when you're working on a universe that's only six thousand years old!"
Maxine went back to check on her charges, and found them having a great time. They were practically celebrities, and were getting spoilt rotten, by the women in the department especially. Several of them wanted to take Radu and Stefan home and keep them. It was something to think about.
Her next mission was to track down Rachel King for what might be a tricky meeting. She requisitioned a vehicle and drove into the Springs on the pretext of having left something important behind at the ONS.
Rachel responded to her page very quickly. "Please, do come to my office where we can talk," she said.
Maxine wasn't sure that was a good idea for two reasons; one, she needed to speak confidentially and couldn't be certain that Rachel's computer wasn't bugged; two, she couldn't be certain that Rachel wasn't working for security on the side. She didn't think so, but couldn't afford to take unnecessary risks.
"Erm, could I maybe come to your house?" she asked tentatively, aware that the same circumstances could apply there too. It was lunch time though so it was possible to take time out.
Rachel thought a moment then nodded. She only lived ten minutes walk away, so Maxine soon found herself sipping Rachel's coffee and thinking back to her first meeting with the 'Grey Grue' six years ago. Her home totally destroyed that image. It was a riot of vibrant colors which yet managed to harmonize. The word, fiesta, came to mind, and Maxine complimented her on the décor and furnishings.
"Thank you, Dr. Pepperday," she smiled, showing genuine pleasure. She seemed much more relaxed, the tension eased. The feeling of safety in her own home? Did she have some dark secret? She'd certainly been quick enough to accede to Maxine request to go to her house - away from the ONS. Did she know about the computer bugs? By accident or by virtue of her position? Come to that, what was her official position anyway? Maxine didn't really know. Rachel certainly knew about the Stargate. Again, how and why? Maybe her father had let something slip?
"Please, call me Esther," she said.
Rachel looked pleased. "Thank you, and won't you please call me Rachel? Away from work at least."
"Certainly - Rachel," she smiled.
"Um, have you found him?"
Maxine took a deep breath and sighed. "I'm not sure and I don't want to get your hopes up until I'm certain."
Rachel looked disappointed.
"We've only been on one mission so far, but, we might have found a clue. I can't put it any stronger than that right now. What I've come for is to ask you if you have any photographs of your father? I should have asked you before and I'm sorry for that."
"No, it's not your fault. I should have thought of it. How could I expect you to find someone without knowing what he looks looked like. I just - I didn't want to hold you up."
Now that wasn't true, Maxine thought. Rachel had looked like a startled fawn as she'd made her hurried request, then she'd scuttled off much like the WPX maid. There was definitely more to Rachel than met the eye.
While Maxine was drinking her coffee, Rachel went to fetch her photos. There was one small thin album and a shoe-box half full of prints. Not a lot to show for a lifetime.
She looked through them carefully and tried to keep her reactions from showing in her face. She was frankly puzzled. 'King Tobias' and Major Toby King, if not the same person, could have been twins - brothers certainly. Yet the king had denied Rachel's existence. He'd seemed truthful about that at the time, and Rachel gave a strong impression of closeness between father and daughter. Thinking back, Tobias looked quite a bit younger than the seventy-five years Rachel had quoted.
So if the king wasn't Rachel's father, who was he, and where was the genuine article? Had he lost his memory maybe? Damn. It wasn't like they could go merrily back to Noucincu and drag him to the SGC for Rachel's inspection - not with Beck and Kern hanging round. And if he wasn't the right guy... well, she didn't want to upset Rachel. They had to be sure.
Although... Theo had mentioned something he was going to work on that day with a view to going where they wanted once SG-24 was down to four members. For now though, they'd just have to toe the line until they had that flexibility.
Maxine selected three photos of Major King, one with Rachel as a child of about nine taken just before he disappeared, one as a young man before he joined the USAF and had longish black hair, and one in between. Rachel said she was going to make sandwiches for lunch and offered to make some for Maxine too, but Maxine had already decided to return to the SGC. She thanked Rachel for the coffee and left.
In the early evening, the members of the BSC gathered at Ash's pad. They figured he would be interested in hearing about their first mission and it was somewhere where they could talk without having to watch what they said - just in case...
Theo had fetched the proto-type he'd been working on. This cute little gadget was some six inches long and three inches wide and an inch deep. It had a wheel near each corner. These were about 1¾ inches in diameter, so that it didn't matter if it got flipped upside down; it would still work. In front, it had two little camera lenses that swivelled independently and a short aerial, like a tail, sticking out of its rear.
"I call it TIGER or Transgalactic Intelligence-Gathering Exploratory Rover," he grinned. He put it on the floor and, much to everyone's amusement, had it rambling around the apartment using a control unit. This had a small split screen showing the view through each camera lens. The pictures were grainy, and black and white but usable.
"So what's it for?" asked Ash.
"The idea is that once we're down to a team of four and can visit worlds we want to go to, we can send it through the 'Gate to check out what's awaiting us on the other side. Don't want to go blundering into a squad of storm troopers."
"Yees," Ash said slowly, "but if you've got the AVCOP watching the 'Gate for unwanted incomers, won't the techs in the SGC see you leaving planet A and heading for planet B? Or at least, dialing out but not coming home?"
Theo closed his eyes and grimaced. It was one of those smack-head moments. Silence descended for quite a while as five brains thought it through.
Finally, J said, "Remember when they 'killed off' General O'Neill? Didn't Colonel Carter fix the MALP so that it showed a different view? Couldn't you do something similar, Theo?"
Theo thought about it. "It won't be easy. I'd have to tinker about with it off-world without anyone noticing me making the switch."
"But if we did it on an overnight mission?"
"Yes, but what about the audio?" Ash asked, "not to mention the blue light from the event horizon."
"Thank you, Mister Positive," Theo growled at his other half.
"Hey, it's better to find the wrinkles now than later when you try it out, isn't it?"
Theo sighed. "You're right, of course."
"Well at the moment, it's not urgent," J pointed out. "We have to get rid of our other two before we can even begin planning anything seriously."
"It's just annoying that I hadn't even considered such basic snags," Theo said.
"You can't do everything," Ash said gently. "It's your job to do the mechanicky things and mine to watch your backs, remember?"
"I guess," Theo replied with a fond smile. "It's still irritating to have overlooked something so obvious though."
"Actually, we could tackle it from a different angle. Maybe I could tweak the programing so the monitors continue to show the initial pictures from the planet," Ash suggested.
"Hey, somebody might spot you doing that and I don't want you taking such risks."
Ash grinned back. "That's okay. You can worry about me for a change, then you'll know how I feel when you're off on missions."
There was no answer to that one.
Luc suddenly noticed that Maxine had been very quiet during the evening. "Something the matter, babe?" he asked quietly. The endearment usually raised a smile at least, and often a scatter-cushion hurled at his head. This time nothing.
"Come on, let's make coffee," he said, grabbing her hand and towing her into the small kitchen area. "Now spill - and no, I don't mean the coffee," he grinned.
She huffed a slight chuckle. "It's this visit to WPX," she said. "I have a bad feeling about it."
Luc quirked a smile. "You reckon Warren wants to see you again?"
"It might just be something to decode or translate," he pointed out reasonably.
"Then why specify a time? Ten hundred. That sounds like it's already a part of someone's schedule. An assignment wouldn't be that specific."
Luc had to agree that she had a point there. "I know you were creeped out by him when you saw Warren before, but he was okay with you, wasn't he?"
"Well, yes, I guess, but I don't get why the President should take such an interest in me. I'm nobody."
"No you're not. You're one of the biggest assets in the SGC."
Maxine snorted. "Maybe I'm a fair-sized fish in the SGC's little pool, but the President is the biggest fish in a country-sized pool. That makes me feel more like... well, his lunch."
Luc laughed. "Seriously though, what is worrying you?"
"I don't know really. It's just a kind of nebulous feeling. I guess I'm worried that I'll open my mouth and put my foot in it. It's one of my strengths," she said drily.
"I wouldn't say that," Theo said. He'd followed his nose into the kitchen and caught the end of the conversation. "You've never dropped me in it with Marya - or Mom. You've never said anything to endanger Aunt Claire and you've always covered for Ash and me. And you're one of the best bull-shitters I know. Must be your cryptic mind..." he grinned.
Maxine smiled faintly. "Guess I'm not bad at that." She gave a decisive little nod. "If I play it like that, maybe I'll be okay. And thank you! Both of you. I think I can handle it now."
Maxine shipped out to Washington PX at 0900 - didn't want to be late, and an early arrival would look good. Or would it look nervous? No. She had some decryption work she needed to do, so it was reasonable to be there early. Should she have been earlier still? 0800? Shown more willing? Then she gave herself a mental shake. Bull-shitter in Chief. Right! She grinned.
She hadn't bothered about 'wimmin's clothing.' It hadn't mattered last time and the only person she'd seen wearing a frock at WPX had been the maid. She signed in at the other end and, finding no messages awaiting her, went to her office, Room 423 in the Arlington Building, to await Sergeant Gayle, or whoever was on duty. While she waited, she got on with her most urgent assignment. She'd just finished it when Gayle arrived.
He was early too and looked a little surprised to see her already there. It seemed like a good omen. Or had he come to check the bug in her computer? No. He seemed far too innocent to be involved in that sort of thing. But then he would, wouldn't he? Oh, stop it, Maxine! she mentally berated herself.
The weather was pleasant and fine again for the drive. She asked if it was always that way. It didn't hurt to start a little friendly conversation and she might find out something. It wouldn't do to sound like she was pumping him for information but the weather was fairly harmless for openers she supposed.
"We laid it on specially for you," he grinned.
She chuckled. "It's a lovely part of this world," she said, "a real home from home."
"Yes it is," he agreed.
She shut up then. There wasn't much else she could say without sounding nosy and he didn't seem to be the talkative type, his eyes focused between the horse's ears on the road ahead. They drove in silence for some ten minutes or more. Maxine gave the impression that she was simply enjoying the drive in contemplative silence, or so she hoped. Not that there was much to see, what with all the trees in the way. Then she had an idea.
"Could I have a go at driving, do you think? It's something I've never done before."
Gayle grinned. "That would be a no, then."
"Oh please. Everyone has to start somewhere and he seems quite a docile animal," Maxine begged, giving the impression of being an ignorant 'townie.'
"She is, but if you came to grief, I would get the blame for it."
"Oh. Sorry. I didn't think of that. I just thought it's a skill I might need sometime, and I'm less likely to come to grief if I knew what I was doing around horses."
Gayle considered the idea. "Well, if you're serious about it, maybe I could arrange for you to have lessons. We have quite a big stables here."
"Oh wow! Thank you! I'd love that!"
By now, the new White House had come into view, and Gayle concentrated on driving around the graveled carriage approach road. Again, he handed off the reins to the waiting groom, and conducted her to the oval blue room.
A couple of minutes later, the same maid arrived with coffee and cookies.
"Va multsumesc foarte mult," Maxine said and the girl's eyes flew to her face in shock. "Imi pare rau," she said quickly then switched to English and smiled. "I mean you no harm."
"M-may I go now please," the girl asked and Maxine nodded, still smiling. This time the maid didn't run to the door. Quite.
Interesting, Maxine thought. She speaks, or at least understands Romanian.
Maxine poured herself some coffee, reached out for a cookie, and stopped. The paranoia was back again. Supposing these cookies had an added ingredient like the ones in Noucincu. Something to make her talk freely maybe? Surely not? They'd been fine last time.
But that was last time. Was she succumbing to a false sense of security? Was the room bugged? Had her conversation with the maid been overheard? Maybe she was being filmed? If so, what would the watcher(s) make of her hand hovering over the cookie plate? There was only one variety, so she didn't have to decide which sort to take. An idea. She drew a deep breath, snapped her hand into her pants pocket, pulled out a tissue and sneezed into it. Sorted.
That gave her another idea. She picked up a cookie, took a bite, went for the tissue again, sneezed and spat out the cookie into the tissue, then folded the rest into the tissue and put the whole thing back into her pocket. Sorted!
But suppose she sneezed again - for real - when Warren came in, like she nearly had last time? That was the only tissue she had. Suppose she pulled out the whole tissue/cookie mess and scattered the debris all over that lovely carpet... Embarrassing if nothing else!
Oh, for goodness' sake, get a grip, woman! Bull-shitter, right?
She would think of something. Funny, it was always easier to cope with these things when confronted by an actual problem - when one had to act instead of over-thinking all the alternatives that would probably never happen, but just might.
She took a deep breath to calm herself, and before she had time to look for any more potential stumbling blocks, President Warren himself walked in, wreathed in smiles like before.
"I expect you're wondering why I sent for you," he continued, adding with a wider smile, "Again!"
"You have an assignment for me, sir?" she surmised, stepping back after the handshake and fighting off the urge to sneeze.
"Not exactly. I was simply wondering how you'd enjoyed your first mission?"
What the fuck is he up to? she wondered. "Erm, it went well, thank you, sir. We'll get ten per cent of the coming harvest, plus the possibility of mineral rights - maybe more. The details will need to be hammered out officially later, when we collect the grain."
He nodded, and the smile faded a little. "And how do you find Major Mitchell?"
Maxine resisted the urge to give a flip reply and was pleased to note that Warren seemed unaware that SG-24 were all friends from way back. Looking thoughtful, she said, "He's a highly intelligent officer and a good leader."
Warren pursed his lips. "Hm, I feel he could have arranged for more than ten per cent though. Maybe he wasn't being forceful enough - was weak...?"
"Oh, he's definitely forceful," she smiled reminiscently. "He certainly slapped me down hard when I was out of order."
"Would you like me to do something about that?"
"Thank you, sir, but no. I can handle him."
"Yes, I thought you could." Warren's smile was back again and the penny dropped.
He thinks, because I admitted to cheating on the survival weekend, my morals are negotiable. He's setting me up as a mole in the team! And I have to go along with this...
"If I may speak freely, sir?" Warren nodded. "Yes, perhaps Major Mitchell could have demanded more. However, from that mission to P7Z-237 he learnt that, while that approach may be useful - necessary even - if our food stores are at rock bottom, it doesn't work well in the long term. That disaster - well it taught him a bitter lesson. There, we lost one world as a food supply and, at a time when we need more teams to find replacement worlds to supply food, we lost the better part of three teams through death or injury."
Warren nodded again. "Go on, Dr Pepperday."
"From this, Major Mitchell learnt that acting as if the world is the way one would like it to be, instead of as it really is, leads to unacceptable losses. For instance, if we take fifty per cent from two worlds, then those people face a slow death by starvation. That makes rebellion a viable option. Either they drive us out or they get a quick death in battle. For them, it looks like a win-win situation. For us, we lose two worlds and more men, and then we have to find more planets and get things organized in a hurry. But, if we take a tenth from each of ten worlds, the people will grumble, sure - they always do - but ultimately they'll go along with it, and they'll do that year after year after year. We get roughly the same amount of grain and without the continual hassle. Major Mitchell didn't want to be responsible for losing more good men especially as King Tobias claimed to have powerful allies... "
"And does he have powerful allies?"
"Maybe, maybe not. I think that what we really need to do is crank things up a gear - visit more worlds and make trading treaties."
"Trade?" Warren said, eyes opening wide and eyebrows heading skyward, as if she'd just dropped a dead rat in front of him.
"Yes sir. Not necessarily swapping goods for grain, unless we can find something cheap and cheerful. I was thinking more in terms of sending agricultural experts to show them how to increase their yields. Or maybe we could supply them with a small amount of grain that has a naturally higher yield. That means more food for them which in turn means more for us. It keeps the natives happy, we get a good reputation and so more worlds are willing to do business with us, as it were. Right now, I'd say our rep. is around rock bottom."
"Does that matter?"
"I think so sir. Word gets passed around the market places of trading worlds that we're greedy and untrustworthy and thus best avoided if possible. Our men will be subjected to guerilla tactics, which won't make them happy either."
"You sure about that, Doctor?"
"Well, I appreciate that the guys enjoy a good scrap, but minor skirmishes where they're on top by virtue of better weapons is one thing. Getting picked off one by one with primitive weapons and blown up by crude explosives the way the marines were on Tyogya, well, I think they'd have a different view about that."
Warren looked thoughtful. "Hm, you may have a point there. I'll give it some serious thought. Now, is there anything you want or need, Dr. Pepperday?"
"Well, it's more of a suggestion actually. If we want to look like a bona fide trading nation, I think we need to set up a specialized Trade Delegation dedicated to setting up trading treaties - getting everything down in black and white. It would need to be run by someone with good legal and political skills - someone who can organize the small print to work to our advantage."
"You've really thought about this, haven't you?" Warren grinned. Evidently he found her idea of politico-legal chicanery appealing. "Anything else?"
"Well, yes, there is actually. Seeing how things were run in Noucincu, I have a mind to go into slave trading and I would like to keep the two young slave boys I brought back with me. They have the potential to be very useful, not just to me but to the SGC too."
Warren positively beamed. "I can see you're definitely a lady after my own heart! And did Major Mitchell agree to your bringing them back to Earth?"
"Oh, yes sir. In fact, it was his idea."
"Excellent! Certainly, you may keep them."
When Maxine returned to the Arlington Building, she went straight to her office there and showered. Bull-shitting was all very well, but sometimes it left you feeling - well, dirty, grimy, besmirched. Still, she felt she'd done reasonably well under the circumstances.
Next, she finished the next most urgent assignments. She always liked to be on top of her work; it avoided nasty last minute surprises. When she was satisfied with her progress, she returned to the SGC.
It was the tail-end of lunchtime by then, so she went to the commissary and was fortunate enough to see Ash sitting on his own, just finishing his coffee. She waved to him, signalling for him to wait before she collected a snack and a soda and joined him.
"Just the guy I wanted to see," she said.
"So how did it go?" he asked at the same time. They laughed.
"Ahh," she smiled, "I tell all of you about it tonight at your place, okay?"
"Sure. I look forward to it. What did you want me for?"
"I've a little job I'd like you to do for me."
"I don't think it'll be dangerous, but you won't stand out the way I would under the circumstances."
Once they were all settled at Ash's, Maxine began. Wearing her best poker-face she said, "Firstly, the President has okayed it for me to develop a little slave-trading business on the side."
There was a stunned silence. Four pairs of eyes stared at her in horror.
"The President was delighted when I told him it was your idea, J," she continued cheerily.
J jumped to his feet and leaned over her. "What. The. Fuck. are you playing at Maxine?" he demanded, looking like a thunderhead about to drop a swarm of tornados. He thought he knew her - knew her well. Apparently he didn't know her nearly as well as he thought he did.
Maxine bit her lip, but looked less guilt-ridden and more like she was trying to hide a smirk.
J restrained his temper with conspicuous effort. "If that's your attitude, then there is no place for you in my team!" He stood up straight, folded his arms and glowered down at her.
At that, Maxine couldn't hold it in any longer. Doubling up and cackling with unseemly laughter, she chortled, "Well, I just hope Warren is as gullible as you lot!"
"That was so not funny, Maxine," J said.
"I just wanted to know how plausible it was," she said seriously. "I mean, you all know me, yet you went for it, so I think it might work as a cover story."
"A cover story?" J said, still looking cross.
"Yes, and don't look at me like that. If anyone has a right to be annoyed - offended - whatever - it's me. Knowing me for so long, you actually believed I could do something like that... Well, that's hurtful."
Luc put a comradely arm around her shoulder. "We didn't really believe it, babe, not deep down. We know you're an honest person, so when you say something, initially we're gonna believe you. J's just mad because he fell for your bullshit hook, line and sinker."
"And maybe a little of your paranoia's rubbed off on him too," Theo grinned.
"Maybe," J conceded. "When you said you'd told Warren it was my idea..." He shook his head.
"Oh well, that part's true."
Maxine chuckled. "Don't worry, he was delighted. In the beginning, he was inclined to think you weren't forceful enough, so I told him you'd slapped me down hard in the past. Then he asked me if I'd like him to do something about that..." she said with a wide smile.
"No, he didn't," J said. "That's just more bullshit."
"Um no, that's true too."
J looked worried.
"Yep, definitely catching," Theo grinned.
"Well... " J said looking grumpy.
"Okay, that's enough," Ash decided. "I'm gonna make coffee and after that, everything that's said has to be true, right?" Everyone nodded.
Later, coffee mug in hand, Maxine told them the whole story, right up to the shower afterwards. Then she turned to Ash. "So did you find out anything?"
"Yep. You were right. Beck was making regular trips to WPX. They almost always followed a mission. The last one was the Monday after you survival weekend. Nothing since."
"What's that all about?" J asked.
"Well, like I said," Maxine explained, "it suddenly struck me that Warren was grooming me to be a mole in SG-24. Right now, I seem to be his little darling. I don't like it but I figure it may be useful. However it's only going to be useful if he thinks I'm as bent as he is."
"Hence the Maxine's Slave Trading Co. ," Theo said.
"That's right. Afterwards, I wondered if Beck - or Kern - was originally intended to be our mole, given that Warren had imposed the pair of them on us. So I asked Ash to check the log for me. It seems that the post of Warren's pet mole is easily come by and just as easily lost. Which makes me wonder just how many moles Warren has in the Cheyenne Molehill Complex..."
"Ouch!" Theo said, looking worried.
"Ahead of you there, Maxine," Ash smiled. "While I was at it, I checked back through the records."
"Wasn't that taking a bit of a risk?" Theo asked, worried. "It must have taken you quite a while. Didn't anyone ask you what you were doing."
"Have a little faith, Theo. I'm not stupid. They're used to me coming and going every time something wants fixing. They don't usually ask what I'm up to. So while I was working on some spurious problem, I plugged this in." Ash held up a small slender black bar about two inches long.
"What's that?" Luc asked.
"To anybody but you lot, it's a diagnostic aid."
"And for us?"
"It's a memory stick. Used to be very common back in the day. Now, not so much."
"And?" Luc persisted.
"And it copies files from computers. So I've been going over some of the logs here before you arrived. It's looking like every team has its own mole who reports to Warren. Some are no longer active, like Beck. Bachman's another deactivated one, which I'm sure surprises no one."
"Is there a trend in who the moles are?" J asked.
"Well, I don't recognize all the names, but I get the feeling that they're mostly the third or fourth in a team."
"Makes a kind of sense," J said thoughtfully. "They'd be the ones having grudges against the two at the top who have the power, and who aren't giving them the credit they think they deserve. Then, they'd want to stay ahead of those below them. I guess Beck was chosen for SG-24's mole after I picked Luc ahead of him for my 2IC. Warren would think he had cast iron reason to tell all. Then Theo and Maxine took him out like he was the rookie and he got dropped like a hot potato. Maxine got promoted from supposed weak link number six to the middle of the pecking order - the preferred spot for the mole, especially if he doesn't know we're already friends."
"Oh good. We are still friends then?" Maxine looked at J who gave her a cock-eyed smile and nodded. She went on, "What you said about those in the middle makes sense. He was definitely giving me the opportunity to undermine you if I wanted to. Suspect that may become a theme, though at the moment, your approval rating's gone up a little. Hm, wonder how Warren knew about how badly we took Beck out," she said wearing her 'I-have-a-bad-feeling-about-this' look. "Because we didn't give any details other than that we'd won."
"I wouldn't worry about it, babe," Luc said, and ducked the token clip round the ear. "Just the fact that they got taken out by rookies does not look good on their résumés. Trust me."
The following day, SG-24 was called to the briefing room at 0930 by General Bradfield.
The day after the first mission, J had pitched for a follow-up mission to the planet whose details they'd gotten from the traders on Ceresc-tsara. It could well be connected to Ceresc-tsara in some way, and it might be interesting to see if there was some sort of federation that the Tau'ri could become involved in beneficially. Apparently his request had not fallen upon stony ground.
"Following your discovery of a hitherto unknown world," Bradfield began, "the President has gladly acceded to Major Mitchell's request for an exploratory mission there. Yesterday, therefore an AVCOP and an ASP were sent to check out the possibility of such a mission. There is indeed a viable world there, and a very interesting one at that."
Bradfield paused and signaled the AV technician to bring up the footage from the probes. The Stargate's plinth was set in the middle of a wide paved circle and faced a long straight roadway calculated at 22 feet wide and on an easterly bearing. People could be seen traveling along the road, most on foot and some with carts, horses or donkeys.
There were two fluted columns, twenty feet tall, to either side of the road but standing on the edge of the paved circle. Surrounding the 'Gate were ten more such columns, arranged at regular intervals around the margin of the circle. Long, ornately carved blocks of stone were laid across the tops of the columns except the two flanking the road, creating a horseshoe shape. They saw the reason for the gap soon after.
There was a rabbit-cropped grassy area surrounding all this, and beyond that, rhododendrons and deciduous trees, which served as an attractive backdrop to the creamy white columns.
"Looks almost like a Greek temple," Maxine observed.
Bradfield nodded to the technician who speeded up the recording. The AVCOP, parked to the side of the 'Gate showed that it was used very frequently. At fast speed, the 'Gate seemed to be 'kawooshing' practically non-stop. The people coming and going were dressed in many styles of clothing from shabby rags and tatters to silver and gold lamé.
"Looks a busy place," Beck said.
"And very varied," Luc added.
Another nod, and the technician returned the recording to normal speed. The next 'visitor' brought gasps from all the team. A sleek silver space ship shot out of the 'Gate and hurtled between the pillars on either side of the road. It cruised above the road at treetop height then dropped out of site in the distance.
"So not only mediaeval beggars but civilizations probably more advanced than ours," J commented. "We have to go there, General."
"And you shall, but we're not done yet..."
Two guys approached the 'Gate. They were swarthy men with unkempt black hair and beards, and were dressed in brown buckskin breeches and tunics over grey shirts. Initially, they were heading for the DHD, then one spotted the AVCOP. He nudged his companion, and they wandered over to have a look at it.
They spent a couple of minutes inspecting it and tugging at parts of it. The audio feed recorded the technician telling them to leave it alone. This made them step away and look around suspiciously. When nothing happened, one went to the DHD and started dialing while the other returned his attention to the AVCOP. He wrenched a piece of the fairing off it, ignoring the protests of the technician, since there was no one around. Or so he thought.
Half a dozen men ran out from the cover of the shrubbery. They looked a little like SWAT cops. The newcomers wrestled the two men, none too gently, to the ground and handcuffed them somehow. Then one of 'cops' seemed to be reading them their rights.
As the two men were led away back down the road, Bradfield told the techie to pause the recording for a moment, and turned to Maxine with a questioning look.
"The language is Greek - somewhere between ancient and modern," she said. "The leader told the two guys that they'd clearly demonstrated their intention to steal. This infringed the rights of traders not to be robbed and as such, they forfeited their rights to immunity, amnesty and freedom. They're going to be taken to the slave market and sold and the money so raised will be given to the owner of the machine to pay for the repairs."
"A little draconian, isn't it?" Beck asked.
"Well, not if you value your reputation as a safe place to trade," J said, adding by way of building up his image as a hard man, "Zero tolerance. Works for me every time."
It got him an old-fashioned look from Bradfield however. Unsighted by Beck and Kern, he winked at his commander and murmured, "Just following up on your suggestion, sir."
Bradfield looked blank for a moment, then his face registered understanding. Mitchell was learning to pretend.
The next footage came from the ASP. It followed much the same route that the silvery space ship took later on. The technician paused the recording at appropriate places.
At the end of the road, which was about a mile long, two larger fluted columns flanked the road. Across the top was a large triangular pediment. Inside the decorative edging the words, , were carved.
"The Marketplace of the Galaxy," Maxine translated.
Once past what was presumably the gateway to this Agora, the ASP flew on. The road curved away to the left and followed a gentle slope down into a wide shallow valley. On the other side of the meandering river that flowed from west to east along it, was a broad plain. Three bridges crossed the river with about a half mile separating each of them. The valley and the plain beyond were covered in colorful tents and booths with a number of permanent or semi-permanent buildings. It seemed well-ordered on a gridiron plan. This was, presumably, the Agora and must have covered several square miles.
Immediately beyond the northern edge of the Agora, was what appeared to be a parking lot for spaceships. Not all of them could have flown through the 'Gate. This suggested that there could be bigger ships orbiting the planet. It certainly looked like an interesting place to visit - a place they should visit.
"Comments, team?" Bradfield said.
"If we're going on a mission there, we need to think about what sort of things we could take to trade since we won't have any of the local currency, whatever it is," Theo commented.
"We don't trade," Beck pointed out. "What we want, we take." Several pairs of eyes rolled.
"Were you not watching, Beck?" J said curtly. "They don't tolerate thieves. They sell them as slaves."
"They just got careless. I mean, look at the size of that place. It's a labyrinth! They'd never find us," Beck scoffed.
"Well if you screw up, don't expect the rest of us to come running to your rescue. It's not gonna happen, so take that as your one and only warning."
"Whatever happened to our code of never leaving a man behind. Sir?"
"That's right, Captain," J said, eyes fixed on Beck's. "We don't leave a man - or a woman - behind. Thieves - now that's another matter altogether." Beck broke eye contact first.
"On the subject of trading," Bradfield said, "the President has suggested that the SGC sets up an official Trading Delegation."
Maxine bit back a grin; Beck looked stunned. Bradfield seemed a little nonplused too.
"He thinks it would be a good idea to put our dealings on a proper legal footing. Any further questions or comments?"
"Would it be possible for us to go on a... well, a 'window-shopping' expedition... sort of?" Maxine asked.
Bradfield smiled. "That's pretty much what I'd considered for your next mission. We really need to know more about this intergalactic Agora and, as Dr. Hunter suggested, we don't know what we could use to trade with. I'm assuming, with such a varied clientele, that bartering is the usual mode of commerce. Ergo, SG-24, you will be shipping out at 0800 tomorrow."
"Oh, just one more thing, General," Maxine said before Bradfield dismissed them, "Could I take Radu with me, please?"
"If you think he would be useful, then yes. Permission granted."
"Gonna sell the little bastard?" Beck muttered sotto voce as he passed Maxine.
Controlling the itch to slap him, she gave him a sphinx-like smile instead.