Chapter 6 – Calm
"Sam!" called Pete Shanahan quietly, hanging back at the end of the introductory meeting until she came near. "Surely you could have told me that Cassandra was one of them!"
He noticed interrogative way she raised one eyebrow in response, just like her friend Murray did, but the sharpness to her facial expression warned him that she hadn't liked his question, and he strove to move on as quickly as possible. "Not that it matters, of course." he bumbled. "Does all this mean we're going to get to work together?"
"Yes and no, Pete." she replied evenly. "Yes: we'll be working for the same organisation. Everyone who's come into close contact with our work at the SGC is being called in, as soon as we can get them here." She kept a calm expression when his boyish grin fleetingly appeared at her use of the phrase 'close contact'. "You'll learn more about it when you follow the sergeant over there with that group of people."
"But what did you mean, yes and no?"
"We'll be several hundred light years apart."
His shock was profound – so much so that he barely noticed Cassie walking past with one of the French members of the audience.
"You know, you speak our language very well, Mademoiselle Fraiser." he was saying, to her obvious delight. "Just a little work on the grammar and it will be parfait!"
"You mean the English or the French?" laughed Cassie. "Yeah, the grammar's a real pain in the mik'ta." she agreed, smiling.
Two weeks later, the worst of the storms had died down and communications had been restored to a degree but were still limited. Personal messages over the military network were strictly rationed, and therefore Sam treasured the shortest of e-mails that she had received from Jack on the terminal in her lab. 'Home soon' were the words giving her hopes and expectations sufficient to carry her through arduous days of round-the-clock systems maintenance and repairs carried out hurriedly during intervals in the incessant traffic through the Earth Stargate and the three off-world bases.
And what variety there was leaving Earth! Building materials, nervous new recruits, livestock in crates, livestock on the hoof, filing cabinets ("filing cabinets?", Sam and Sergeant Siler had both said in amazement as the procession of handlers passed by), seeds and fertilisers in bags and semi-bulk containers, field rations, frozen food, water-treatment chemicals, tankers of fuel, trucks, Jeeps, motor cycles and bicycles, light aircraft in broken-down kit form, to be re-assembled on other planets. The least popular job in The Mountain became cleaning up after the herds of cattle had passed out of the large elevators and through the passages to the Gate Room. The makeshift notice attached to the blast doors saying 'Welcome to Shit Creek' was quickly taken down when General Landry let it be known that he was not amused.
There is no such person as a universally capable and adept leader. We all have strengths and weaknesses: nevertheless it is a fact of life that promotion as a result of success or competence in one field often directs people into other roles where their unique background, experience or just plain character bring them into situations they cannot master.
Jack O'Neill knew The Peter Principle of course, and was also enough of a realist to recognise that it applied to him in his present circumstances. Battlefield and tactical expertise counted for little in committee meetings with lifelong staffers and ambitious politicians. Plus, he was in a job where he needed staunch, powerful allies, and those he lacked in numbers sufficient to make a difference. There was only one George Hammond and one Paul Davies to help him through the minefield of Washington politics, and collectively it was nowhere near enough. In a time of crisis – possibly the greatest one that the Earth had ever faced – the concept of different departments pulling together was as alien to the career politicians and bureaucrats as in normal times. There were only opportunities for advancement of one's policies, and hence oneself, against supposedly 'weak' opponents who didn't know the political ropes as well as they did.
All but a few on The Hill had convinced themselves that the global near-disaster was a one-off that was unlikely to repeat itself. 'Back to Business' ran more than one newspaper headline, and with world economies showing the first signs of stabilisation and recovery, a vociferous opponent to the Oversight Committee's budget reduction plans had been the last person they wanted on their doorstep, and Jack definitely lacked the network of establishment allies to resist their calls for his return to a position 'more befitting his military mind and experience'. His reign as Head of Homeworld Security, a title he could never sport in public anyway, was coming to an end.
The man himself was characteristically tight-lipped as ever: the nearest Jack came to offering an explanation or opinion was the epithet "Assholes!" muttered through almost-closed lips and audible only to those nearest to him at the time.
Sam was taken utterly by surprise when a familiar-looking blonde walked into the VIP area. The woman looked nervously around, but with an air of open curiosity, while her bespectacled male companion seemed altogether more uncertain of himself. The two women's eyes met and recognition flowed: the occasion had been when Sam was a Captain not long at the SGC and Sara O'Neill merely separated from her husband, not yet divorced. Sam recalled how she had had to comfort the frightened woman after witnessing the apparition of their dead son in the hospital where an ersatz Jack was decaying back to the crystalline life-form whence he came.
They smiled nervously at each other, and it was Sara who walked forward with an outstretched hand.
"You're Colonel Carter." she said warmly, having taken in Sam's insignia. "Congratulations on your promotions. Two in six years is quite an achievement."
"Thank you, Mrs….. I'm sorry, I don't know how to address you, er, Mrs. O'Neill."
"Oh, I'm Mrs. Sara Carpenter now." she replied. "That's my husband Clark talking with your sergeant and wondering what the heck we're getting into." She looked closely at Sam. "Are you still working with Jack?"
The initial tingling sensation when an Asgard transportation beam drops onto its unsuspecting victim was nothing compared to the surge of electricity coursing through Sam at that moment. Sara read the unspoken question and laughed gently.
"Jack contacted me three days ago to meet the two of us." she continued in a quiet voice. "He couldn't come in the end and sent a young officer who explained that this was highly secret and was something to do with your Stargate. That got my attention right enough, but I didn't agree to come until I got him to update me about what Jack is doing now. All he could tell me was that he's working at The Pentagon. These last few years I think I'm the only confidante he's had. The last time I'd seen him he was devastated about someone he was getting close to becoming engaged to someone else. It was like pulling teeth as usual, but he eventually told me that he felt like seeing out his time in his current job and then disappearing."
"Oh! I….. We…. Jack, I mean The General never….You know." Sam stammered.
Sara looked askance at her and Sam couldn't help avoiding eye contact for a brief moment, but it was enough for the older woman to draw a conclusion, and a remarkably accurate one at that.
Pete Shanahan returned unexpectedly from the Beta Site a few days later with a batch of severely homesick families who felt that the dangers of extinction on Earth were to be preferred to the basic living conditions on their new world. As the newly-appointed Civilian Law Enforcement Officer for the whole planet, he had done a professional job in getting to know the inhabitants of the base and outlying areas. But the numbers of this 'advance party' were still reasonably low, and there was no crime to speak of. He was bored.
He was also determined to meet up with Sam again, to play a real low-key approach this time, but enough to do a better job of appearing on her personal event horizon. That was an expression he'd come to know the true meaning of!
He cleared the SGC medical screening in the early evening by the local clocks, just in time to learn that Sam had left a few minutes previously. He rushed for the elevator and made his way through various check points to the exterior North Portal Gate.
"You just missed her, bud." said the guard nonchalantly. "She went to pick up some VIP at Peterson Field."
"Damn! That's where I was headed too!" Pete lied. He looked crestfallen.
The guard picked up on his expression, and added helpfully, "If you hurry, that bus is taking those people there. She might still be hanging around if you're lucky."
Pete looked across and saw some of the families he had travelled with through the Stargate. "Thanks!" he cried over his shoulder in his sprint to the vehicle. He forced himself to be calm as the bus sedately negotiated the winding road down from the mountain. He knew that Sam relished driving at speed round twisting roads, and hoped that the traffic and poor weather conditions would slow her sufficiently so that he might make his planned rendezvous at the airport. If not, he would have to go to her house and wait for her arrival or knock on her door, where the odds of being invited in were not so good. A supposedly chance contact in a public place was the surer way of getting to speak to her.
He made sure that he was first off the bus when it pulled up in front of the small, brightly-illuminated terminal building, and almost ran into the hall. He sighed with relief when her unmistakable blond hair atop her blue denim jacket and jeans was visible by the arrivals door, and he paused to steady himself to make it seem as though his presence was casual and coincidental, just like he had done a few weeks previously.
But he was still some thirty yards from his target when a tall Air Force officer walked through the door, carrying a briefcase and towing a large wheeled hold-all behind him. He watched in shock and horror as Sam ran forward to throw her arms round the guy's neck, the man's automatic reaction being to let go of his baggage just seconds later to return the embrace. When she stopped kissing him, she pressed her face into his neck while he cradled the back of her head with his left hand, and the pair rocked back and forth for a few moments, holding tightly to each other. They leaned back slightly and exchanged the broadest grins: Sam was clearly ecstatic and there was no mistaking the delight in General O'Neill's face.
Shanahan quickly dived behind a pillar, moving slowly round it to stay out of sight as the oblivious couple collected the bags and walked out of the terminal hall towards the darkness hiding the car park, laughing at some private joke. His situation suddenly struck home: he no longer had a place in her life. To add to that discomfort, he had nowhere to stay. After a forlorn twenty minutes of misery, he dejectedly walked to the taxi rank in the sudden downpour and lifted the phone to call for a cab ride back to the SGC.
Although it was past 3:00 am, Sam was still awake, not able to look away from the sleeping form next to her. Moonlight flooded through the window from time to time, the clouds scudding across the skies in the blustery wind, revealing the outline of Jack's jaw and his short, spiky silver hair sticking out at odd angles. Without thinking, she reached up and gently stroked his head, resulting in his eyes springing open instantly. He looked round and caught the sparkle in her eyes before the moonlight disappeared again.
"Sorry!" she whispered ingenuously.
He sighed. "Fine lover I turn out to be, falling asleep on our first night."
She caressed his head again and he reached up to take her wrist in his fingers, moving her palm to his lips.
"Jack, if you ask me if I'm sure about this one more time, I'll kick you out of bed." she laughed. She moved nearer and rested her head on his shoulder. "You are the love of my life, Jonathan O'Neill. I have never felt so good about anyone or anything."
There was a deep silence and Sam felt him tense up.
"Sam, you know you told me to pick a date last time we were together?"
Her state of tension suddenly matched his.
"Yes?" she squeaked.
He willed himself to carry on. "I was wondering if next week might do. Only if you're sure, of c……."
She extricated her hand from his grasp and moved suddenly to tweak a few hairs from his chest, resulting in a sharp gasp from him.
"Warned ya!" she cried, laughing again. She reached up and turned his head towards hers. "Ask me properly."
He swallowed and did not find it easy to utter the words. "Sam, will you marry me?" finally emerged.
"Only if you're sure, Jack."
"How can you ask me that?"
She took pity as a result of his suddenly worried expression. "Yes, Jack. I'd marry you tomorrow if that's what we could do. But next week will be fine, or whenever."
The cell phone at their bedside rang repeatedly at 04:45 hours until Jack groggily answered it, with Sam looking blearily across at him.
"General O'Neill, Sir. We have a situation here at The Mountain." said the caller.
"How serious?" asked Jack.
"Not sure, Sir. There's around forty busloads of Chinese citizens queuing on the approach road to the North Portal. Their spokesman is asking for you personally. They want access for 'emigration', as they keep putting it. What should we do? General Landry is 'out of the country' talking to their delegation on one of our 'foreign' bases."
Jack sighed. "Hold everything until I get there." he mumbled. "Got that?" He closed the phone and dropped it on the floor.
"What's happening?" asked Sam.
"It's starting. "Jack said as he hauled himself to his feet. "Word's getting around and sun storm or no sun storm, some people want out. The first lot's arrived. How's your Mandarin?"