Jack O'Neill made a disbelieving face as he returned the salute. Over and above the engines of the cooling-down C-130, the drone of mechanical lifters moving into place at the cargo door, and the regular noise of McMurdo's air strip, there was the shrill howl of wind.
"Started getting windy out?" he called out over the noise. "What's all this?"
"It's actually a pretty nice day out for this time of year, Sir," the Airman replied with a slight shrug. He didn't seem to notice that he was shouting, too. "Wind usually picks up for the few hours before sunset, though. We've already grounded the choppers, so you'll have to wait until tomorrow for us to get you where you need to go."
O'Neill nodded. He'd expected as much and, truth be told, he wasn't all that disappointed. It had been almost thirty hours of travel to get here from Colorado Springs, the last several in the uncomfy expanses of a C-130. (The NY ANG's 109th Airlift Wing had offered him a lift to Antarctica and the Air Force, mindful of expense and logistics, had not turned them down.) A couple of hours of downtime before getting dragged through the Ancient base by a Daniel wired by caffeine and curiosity... not a bad plan.
Airman -- Jack looked over to see the nameplate -- Airman First Class Fliegel gestured toward a building at the far end of the runway and Jack started walking that way. Fliegel followed behind close enough to shout out explanations and point out what they were walking past. A half-hour later, Fliegel was driving him to one of the civilian dormitories ("They're nicer than the ones for the military, Sir.") and explaining that he'd be retrieved at 0630 the following morning to be returned to Williams Field and flown to his next destination.
McMurdo was not what he'd expected, which was something along the lines of a Chilly Willy cartoon with an airplane hangar made out of an igloo and white the only color on the ground. It looked like Alaska after a thaw, really. There was very little snow on the ground and an almost monochromatic palette of drab -- muddy streets, dirty trucks, prefab metal buildings, and muddy brown mountains on the other side from the sea. It was bigger than some of the towns he'd lived in, but without the Dairy Queen or movie theater, although he was sure McMurdo had those, too.
The dormitory was brown pre-fab and looked very much like a barracks from a 1940's war movie. The only thing even remotely remarkable about it was what rose up in the distance behind it.
"Observation Hill, Sir," Fliegel explained as he got out of the truck. "Nice climb on a sunny day."
"I'll take your word on it," he replied, shouldering his bag and adjusting his cap before stepping out of the truck's cab.
The dormitory was basic, but not uncomfortable. It was still regular business hours as far as the local population was concerned and there were only a handful of other residents around. The kitchen hours were posted on a whiteboard by the door and the woman at the front desk handed him keys after he signed in.
"I'll see you tomorrow at 0630, Sir," Fliegel said, departing with perfect (and to Jack's mind overly formal) protocol.
"You military?" The matron-type asked rhetorically as she led him toward his room. Jack was dressed in civilian cold-weather gear, having changed out of his BDUs two flights ago. "They coulda put you up closer to Williams."
"I don't mind," Jack replied as he followed her into the room. It was like the rest of the place -- spare, spartan, but not uncomfortable. "It'll be nice not getting saluted for a little while. For me and for them."
The woman grunted noncommittally. "Kitchen'll be open until nine and you'll be out before breakfast tomorrow. I'll leave a note about you checking out so early."
She left without waiting for a reply and Jack found himself saying thank-you to a closing door. "Right," he muttered.
The following morning, A1C Fliegel was early. Fortunately, Jack had anticipated this and was walking to the front desk at 0625. He'd eaten a hot meal the previous night and then slept like the dead and was reasonably sure that he'd be able to at least fake attentiveness once Weir's dog-and-pony show got underway. Intellectually, he understood why he had to be the one to traverse the globe and listen to the various voices sing about the Wonders of the Ancients (the Antarctica Remix). But intellect didn't cover jetlag, a sore back, and the fact that he could barely pay attention to these sorts of things when they took place in Colorado. Not to mention some not-quite-resolved issues with the Ancients and Antarctica.
Fliegel brought him to the Williams Field DFAC and explained that he had a scheduled takeoff time of 0730 from the helipad and someone would make sure he got there. And then he saluted again and Jack thought fondly of his little corner of NORAD where the Airmen weren't quite so efficient. He'd spent most of his career far away from Regular Air Force and the spit-and-polish that went with it and there were times when he wondered if he'd ever thrilled to the privilege of rank.
The feeling was reinforced by the fourth time an enlisted man's eyes opened wide in surprise at his name plate and he nearly barked out for the man to rest easy, this wasn't an inspection.
It was no surprise that, once he was done with breakfast, Fliegel found him to take him to the helipad.
The pilot was already in the helicopter, door open, doing his pre-flight check when they drove up.
"Major Sheppard?" the Airman called out, hopping out of the truck. "Major Sheppard!"
No response from Sheppard, who didn't seem to notice them in the early morning sun glare.
Fliegel knocked on the windshield with his gloved fist and Sheppard looked over, then gestured with his arm toward the other side of the helicopter. Jack walked around the nose of the chopper and opened up the door, idly noticing that it didn't have skis the way the rest of the helicopters he'd seen down here did.
"Major Sheppard," Fliegel began, saluting, "this is General O'Neill. You're taking him to Whiskey-Five."
Jack got in and Sheppard half-turned to him, knocking off a sloppy salute that seemed more casual than irreverent.
"I know that, Airman Fliegel," Sheppard replied, sounding a bit smug. Or maybe he was just as tired of Fliegel's efficiency as Jack was. With his flight helmet half-on and aviator glasses, it was hard to tell.
"Have a good trip, General," Fliegel said as he stepped back, saluted, and waited for Sheppard to close his door before turning back to the truck.
Jack put his seatbelt on and then his headset, getting himself and his bag settled as Sheppard finished his preparations.
"It's a half-hour flight on a good day, Sir," Sheppard's voice came over the headset. "Base Meteorology says it's a pretty good day, so figure thirty-five to forty minutes."
"You don't trust the weather report?" Jack asked. "Don't they just have to choose 'cold and snow' or 'cold and no snow'?"
"They flip a coin once you're talking about inland," Sheppard replied easily, flipping switches that set the rotor above them into motion. "And none of them know where Whiskey-Five is, so it's an approximation on top of a wild guess."
"You know where Whiskey-Five is, right?"
Sheppard smiled. "Yes, Sir. And Whiskies One through Four, too." More flipping of switches and the helicopter finally felt like it was serious about working. Sheppard adjusted the mouthpiece attached to his helmet. "Good morning, Williams Tower, this is Puffin One. We are ready to go when you're ready to let us."
"Puffin One, this is Williams Tower. You have permission to depart. Make sure you call ahead to let Whiskey-Five know you're coming and we'll see you tonight. Fighting Irish All the Way!"
"Williams Tower, you are going to be sadly disappointed." Another switch flicked. "Puffin One disappearing off the radar."
"You are dark, Puffin. Good flying."
Jack listened to the exchange with vague amusement that went beyond the flightless-bird-as-call-sign. It made sense that this was an unofficial flight; the Ancient base was classified, even though it was a quasi-civilian, multi-national program and its red tape had red tape.
"You're the one they send to all the places down here that don't really exist," Jack said, not making it a question. They cleared Observation Hill and the ground went from mud to ice almost immediately.
"Yes, Sir," Sheppard answered. "It's better for everyone's OpSec if there's only one pilot."
Jack had never been wild about riding in helicopters. Especially small ones that were meant for civilian transport. It was a completely irrational dislike; he'd jumped out of enough perfectly good aircraft over the years to not be afraid, but something about the closeness and the size and the fact that he was up in the cockpit of a vehicle that he had no idea how to fly... he looked out the window instead.
There wasn't much to see. Snow, mountains, snow covered mountains. Sun glare off of snow covered mountains. Repeat. He wondered what direction they were flying in. They weren't at the South Pole, but they were close enough that he suspected every direction to be some version of "north."
"Whiskey-Five, this is Puffin One," Sheppard spoke into his microphone with the same good-natured tone he'd used with the tower back at Williams. "We are inbound from McMurdo with an ETA of twenty minutes. How's the weather by you?"
"Good morning, Puffin One," an accented female voice replied after a pause. "You are expected and the weather is clear and cold with winds out of the northwest at 13 knots."
"Excellent," Sheppard said, drawing out the word. "We may be early, then."
"We'll leave the front door open," the voice responded. "Whiskey-Five out."
Five more minutes of snow covered mountains that felt like twenty and Jack was ready to make small talk. The silence wasn't uncomfortable, but he was getting bored and the alternative was to doze and he didn't think he'd be able to do so without needing to be woken up upon arrival.
"Ever been to Eielson?" Eielson was in Alaska, south of Fairbanks and in the middle of nowhere. He'd been stationed there for a while, one of his and Sarah's least-favorite posts not so much because of the weather but instead because of the isolation from family and and friends and civilization. It had been almost twenty years ago, but it felt more recent. The snow was much the same, at least.
"Last year," Sheppard replied. "They send you to Arctic Survival School before they let you fly anything down here."
"What'd you think?" So Sheppard hadn't been down there that long, apparently. On the other hand, a post like this must be like Okinawa -- the didn't expect anyone to stay too long.
"Of Alaska or survival school?" Sheppard took the helicopter into a gentle bank to the right and Jack had to squint against the sun even with his polarized shades.
"I taught that course for a year," Jack replied, thinking not-too-fondly of his winter spent teaching pilots how to keep themselves alive in the snow. With too-rare exception, they were all arrogant pains in the ass who couldn't believe there was anything they could be taught by someone who spent their time in aircraft not driving. "I know what you think about it."
"You might be surprised, Sir," Sheppard said, then was quiet a moment. "Alaska was very... peaceful."
There was something about the way Sheppard emphasized the last word that made Jack look over. The choice of word itself was enough -- especially with the majority of USAF rotor pilots deployed somewhere in the Middle East fighting the War on Terror. There was a story here and he wasn't sure if it was going to end up being funny or not. But when Sheppard failed to elaborate and the silence stretched on, Jack took it to be the latter. He, too, had many stories that couldn't or shouldn't be told to anyone who didn't really need to know and bored senior officers didn't necessarily qualify as needing to know.
Before the quiet could shift from comfortable to awkward, Jack spoke again. "What did you fly before you were driving jetlagged generals around the ice? You strike me as a Pave Hawk kind of guy."
"Pave Hawk, Pave Low, Apache, Black Hawk, Cobra, Osprey..." Sheppard trailed off.
"That's a lot of training for the Antarctic," Jack said after a moment of frank surprise. It was nothing short of a polite way of saying that someone as skilled as Sheppard -- that was a lot of non-Air Force equipment he'd listed -- had no reason to be outside an active theater of operation. Or, rather, he had a very good reason.
"It was the one continent I'd never set foot on," Sheppard explained mildly, as if he didn't know precisely what was going through Jack's head. It was a pat answer and probably worked on all of the other curious passengers.
The Air Force could be perverse, but it didn't waste millions training pilots to fly almost anything with a rotor -- they'd let him into the cockpit of an Osprey, for pity's sake -- and then dump them at the end of the Earth so they could chauffeur visiting scientists and brass. Jack's best guess was that Sheppard had been a Special Ops pilot and those boys didn't end up in places like this. Ever. Sheppard must have screwed up badly somewhere along the line and his earlier reticence suddenly seemed loaded with meaning.
"It's one of my least favorite continents," Jack said with feeling, accepting the topic change for what it was. It was never a good idea to upset the pilot and, no matter how curious he was -- and he was, most definitely -- it ultimately wasn't his business.
"I kinda like it here," Sheppard admitted.
"You like it here?" Considering that this couldn't have been anything other than a punishment assignment, probably a choice between exile or discharge and Sheppard must have some record (or someone with a lot of medals on his chest willing to save his ass) to even have gotten the choice, it was an odd thing to say. Especially if it were true.
"Yes, Sir." Sheppard said, something in his tone making Jack wonder how true it was and why. "Be there in about 10 minutes, Sir."
And then topic was closed.
By the time they landed at the base McMurdo called Whiskey Five, Jack was sure of a couple of things.
Firstly, someone had a lot of explaining to do about the runaway drone. Secret bases weren't very secret if advanced alien projectile weaponry was being pumped out of them and there'd better have been some damage control already started because there's no way McMurdo hadn't seen that drone on its radar and the Americans weren't the only ones on this iceberg.
Secondly, he'd be willing to bet his Bobby Hull-autographed puck on Major Sheppard having a few citations for fancy footwork in the air. Considering what they had been up against, the flying had been perfect -- especially with his own not-very-helpful suggestions open to interpretation as orders by someone less sure of his own abilities.
Once inside the front doors and through security, four Marines were waiting on the other side of the room to escort them not down to the guts of the outpost, but instead to the room designated as the Head of Facility Security's office. Sheppard had been inside the base before -- "They let me use the DFAC and the head," he'd explained -- but obviously never anywhere else. He looked around with thinly veiled curiosity as they walked.
A couple of fleece-clad scientist types and were waiting along with LTC Brogansky, who had once been the leader of SG-14 but had been replaced after a bum knee made field missions more pain than they were worth. Jack hadn't realized that Brogansky hadn't retired. Pleasantries were exchanged and Jack was told that this would be but a minute because he'd doubtless have to go through the story again downstairs.
Initially, the scientists focused their questions on Jack and while Sheppard seemed content enough to let them, Jack wasn't. He told them to talk to the guy who was flying. Sheppard had been slouching in his chair in a way that, coupled with his not-even-close-to-regulation haircut, made him look like someone the Air Force had given up on... or who had given up on the Air Force. But once the questions shifted to him, he sat up straight and his relaxed expression became serious and Jack could see the officer Sheppard still was. He gave precise descriptions of angle, trajectory, and approximate speed of the drone as well as its physical appearance. He looked straight over LTC Brogansky's left shoulder and rattled off the sequence of his actions, using some helicopter jargon and no editorializing.
The scientists took their notes, ask Sheppard if he'd ever been asked to give a blood sample while at the base (he looked at them as if they'd asked if he'd recently taken drugs) and, after a nod between Jack and Brogansky that transmitted the fact that Jack was taking Sheppard downstairs, the Marines lead the pair to the cage elevator.
"Ready to go down the rabbit hole?" Jack asked Sheppard, who quirked an eyebrow in response. "Let's just say Alice hasn't got anything on what's at the other end of this ride."
"I live for excitement, Sir," Sheppard replied in a perfect deadpan.
"Yeah, that's what I said once, too," Jack muttered as he got in the elevator.
A half-hour later, after leaving Sheppard to cool his heels in the research area by the elevator shaft, a cup of coffee, a danish and a lot of profuse apologizing on Dr. Beckett's part, Jack could tack on one more surity to his list: Daniel was going to have to be ordered back to Colorado for a bit because he was getting entirely too immersed in the Antarctic project and if they didn't start weaning him off it now, he'd never leave it voluntarily.
Overall, the briefing wasn't nearly as bad as anticipated. Weir was practically glowing with satisfaction and Daniel was making like it was Christmas morning and McKay wasn't doing anything that made Jack think Carter would have shot him by now. Jack let most of the happy burbling roll over him like a wave, smiling vaguely and nodding when one of them seemed to need confirmation and asking the occasional question that sparked a ten minute digression that he then tuned out.
The drone had surprised them all, Weir admitted, because it hadn't been in the chair's room-sized cartridge. It hadn't even been attached to any network, Ancient or otherwise. Never mind that none of the gene possessors had previously shown any aptitude -- or lack thereof -- to fire a drone that was connected to the system. Jack may have been able to do it, but Dr. Beckett could usually just barely get the chair activated and he was the most consistent performer. McKay prattled on for a bit about the possibilities of remotely controlling Ancient defenses until Weir cut him off and then Daniel dropped the big bomb that Jack had been waiting for since he'd shown up and Daniel hadn't even asked how he was apart from "not blown up".
Once Daniel said "we can go there" and "there" meant "Atlantis", Jack knew that Daniel was going to have to come back to Colorado right away. Because the next obvious step was Daniel assuming he'd get to be on the expedition and then Jack telling him he couldn't and this was quickly escalating from Jack taking Daniel's new favorite toy away to Jack taking Daniel from his life's work and he'd already broken Daniel's heart like that too many times. It would be best to do it quickly because Daniel was impervious to arguments like "one way trip" and "needed on Earth" and Weir would be best learning how to work without him sooner than later.
Jack hadn't even agreed that the mission was a go, but that was quickly becoming academic. McKay had a litany of arguments for why the ZPM was potentially inessential to defending the outpost and why the outpost in turn was helpful but not necessary to a defense of either the Stargate or Earth itself. Jack knew how SGC politics worked, especially with the current administration, and he knew that ultimately Weir would get what she wanted and she probably knew it, too. His estimation of her rose a notch or two that she didn't throw it in his face.
And then the briefing got put on pause when Dr. Beckett, apparently recovered from his acute embarrassment, came running in, breathlessly telling them that they had to see something. Something turned out to be Sheppard, looking far more overwhelmed than he had at any point when he'd been dodging the drone, in the control chair. The active control chair.
"I told you not to touch anything," Jack sighed, knowing that this only complicated his day because he had known why the scientists had asked Sheppard if he'd ever given a blood sample: to see if he'd ever been screened for the Ancient gene.
"I just sat down!" Sheppard had progressed from overwhelmed to bewildered. Whether that was an improvement or not remained to be seen.
"Major, think about where we are in the solar system," McKay ordered and the room immediately lit up with a display that Jack recognized at once. He looked over at Daniel, who looked back and shrugged a "who knew?" and then looked up himself.
John Sheppard's service record just got itself elevated from curiosity to the afternoon's reading.
"No, Sir, there haven't been any problems," Jack explained, waving to Daniel with the hand not holding the phone. Daniel, nose in a book, didn't see him. "We told McMurdo that if anyone asks, it was a malfunctioning weather balloon."
Jack reached over for the blue eraser shaped like a hippopotamus and threw it at Daniel, hitting him in the side of the head and bouncing off of the book. Daniel looked up crossly and Jack gestured that he wanted the notepad next to the computer. Daniel handed it over, frowning, then went back to his translation.
"Yes, Sir," Jack agreed. "Dr. Weir assures me that it won't happen again..."
Daniel was sitting next to a laptop plugged into a digital camera. The camera had been used to take dozens of photos of the displays brought up by Sheppard as he'd sat in the control chair. Weir and Daniel had been falling over each other trying to read the text until someone had provided them with cameras. Weir was in her office now poring over her own set of photos; the two of them had disappeared as soon as they'd built up a stock of texts to work on, leaving an underling with another camera and charged with taking more pictures.
Jack, transfixed by the displays in no small part because he wasn't the one generating them this time, had eventually returned to the briefing room to actually try to read what had been prepared for him and Sheppard had been left with McKay to work on the chair. Eventually, the phone call Jack had been dreading to make could be put off no longer and he'd found Daniel, who'd pointed him at the phone and then forgotten he was there. Apart from the icy walls, it felt just like home in that regard.
After assuring his bosses that nothing had come of the rogue drone besides the discovery of another person with the ATA gene and no, he hadn't known that Dr. Weir had already requested clearance to read that fellow's service record, Jack hung up and rubbed at his ear.
"What do you know about Sheppard?" Jack asked, sitting down across from Daniel.
Daniel looked up and tilted his head. "Not much, really. The outpost's taxi driver." Daniel looked down at the laptop screen again.
"I didn't even recognize him without his helmet and sunglasses on," Daniel replied, not looking up. "We don't get out much here, Jack."
"Yeah, I kinda got that," Jack muttered. Sighing, he got up. If Weir had requested Sheppard's service jacket, then that meant that she was considering him for the expedition. And that meant that if there was something on his record that would prove problematic as far as SGC went, Jack would have to be prepared to either ignore it or explain why he couldn't.
But first, lunch.
"What?" Testy, as if the pleasure of seeing Jack for the first time in two months had already long worn off. Probably had, but that was part of the fun.
"It's time to eat." Jack said with authority. He may be out of his league with all of the tech stuff and the Ancient texts, but he did have a working understanding of how one Dr. Jackson could completely forget necessities like food and water if sufficiently distracted. "That'll wait until later."
"But it's..." Daniel looked at his watch. It was half past two. "... a lot later than I thought. Huh."
"Let's go," Jack said, gesturing toward the doorway grandly. "What do you people eat out here, anyway? Penguin? Dried seal?"
"Pizza is popular," Daniel replied, writing down one last sentence before putting down his pencil and rising. "Oh. You're making a joke."
"Not if there really was penguin or dried seal," Jack assured him. Daniel nodded, then looked at him suspiciously.
There was a small crowd around the room with the control chair. "Wait a second," he said to Daniel, who followed behind as Jack pushed through. "They put him back in the hot seat?" he asked nobody in particular as he emerged in front of the spectators.
Sheppard was indeed in the chair, his expression at once vacant and intense, as if he were concentrating on something a great distance away, and his fingers were tensed on (in?) the gel nodes in the armrests. The air above him was full of colored displays, some astronomical models and some clearly defense schematics.
"Back at it?" Jack asked him, mildly surprised but not really shocked. "I wasn't too eager to ride this thing when it was my turn."
"Back?" Sheppard's voice was tired and strained. The kaleidoscope flickered for a moment as Sheppard looked over for a second. "Never left."
"Major!" McKay's voice snapped out like a whip from a corner of the room.
"Sorry," Sheppard sighed, closing his eyes and furrowing his brow in concentration.
"Oh, for pity's sake," Jack grumbled. "Does nobody here remember that they're human beings?"
He reached out for Sheppard's wrist. The light show above him darkened with the contact. "Get up. Now. That's an order."
McKay stormed over, face already contorting in anger. He stopped when he saw who had interrupted his research, mouth frozen before any words could escape. For a genius, McKay wasn't stupid enough to commit the same mistake twice. Siberia was a far longer flight from here.
"The Air Force has limits for how long pilots can be in the air without a break," Jack told the scientist, not bothering to hide his annoyance. "And it's not until they run out of gas and crash."
"But..." McKay began, then cut himself off.
"I know firsthand what this thing does to you," Jack said, gesturing to the still-active chair. "I know this is a big moment for your research and all that, but if you fry his brain, it won't do anyone any good. He's done for the day."
"But..." McKay began again, this time without the attitude. Humbled, almost, as if he were facing the possibility that someone really could deny him something. Which Jack could and would. "If all we have is today, then..."
"Trust me," Jack told him wryly, thinking of Weir's request to the President. Even if Sheppard were not mission-eligible, he'd still be around to guinea pig. "You'll get another crack at him."
"Great," Sheppard muttered from the chair. The chair was inactive now and Sheppard moved it into its upright position. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his face with clumsy hands.
"How do you feel?" Daniel asked from behind Jack.
"Like I've been flying by instrument all night," Sheppard replied through his hands, leaning forward so that his forearms were resting on his thighs. "Please tell me there's food," he said to the floor.
"We're just going for lunch," Jack said, patting his shoulder. "Lead the way, Daniel."
Sheppard stood with a grunt, pushing off his knees with his hands. Jack watched him carefully, remembering with all of his senses how... invasive it felt to have the Ancient technology in his head. Not even counting the downloading. It wasn't painful, quite the opposite once you got used to it, but it was uncomfortable until that point to feel it and see it and hear it in your mind. Jack had already had years of weird alien experiences and mental mindfucks before he'd encountered the Ancients. Sheppard hadn't.
Which is why when Sheppard pitched forward like a drunk who'd been ejected off a barstool, Jack and Daniel were both already reaching for him, Jack catching enough of his arm and shoulder to keep him from crashing to his knees with all of his weight and Daniel making sure he didn't end up on all fours.
Sheppard's feet were tangled up in each other behind him, awkwardly angled because of the chair's platform, and he muttered a quiet "fuck" under his breath. "I'm good," he said after a moment, eyes still closed and weaving ever so slightly.
"Sure you are," Jack agreed cheerfully. "Sit down -- not in the chair."
Daniel and Jack helped Sheppard pull his feet out from behind him as he sat down awkwardly on the platform steps, McKay watching from behind them like an anxious homeowner supervising the piano movers. A blond man in a sweatshirt with "Jokerit" printed on it handed Jack a water bottle and gestured with his chin toward Sheppard, who was again sitting with his hands over his face, knees drawn in and body curled in on itself.
"Here," Jack said, holding out the water bottle. Sheppard's right arm extended and he took the bottle without looking up.
"Excuse me," a woman's brassy voice could be heard over the murmuring crowd, which had seemingly grown since Sheppard had stopped with the lights and pretty pictures. "Out of the way, you bloody tourists!"
Jack had always liked Australians.
The woman appeared through the hastily parted crowd, a tiny slip of a thing who seemed much too small for her voice. She was carrying a small bag and wore a stethoscope and sneakers and knelt in front of Sheppard, one hand gently on his knee.
"Major Sheppard?" She asked, her voice gentle. "My name is Phoebe Barrett. I'm the chief quack in this base. D'you mind if I get a look at you? Make sure Dr. McKay didn't turn your lovely brain to so much porridge?"
Sheppard looked up, eyes glassy and not quite focused, and smiled apologetically. "I think the Air Force did that years ago," he said as Dr. Barrett began her examination.
"Yeah, he'll be fine," Jack announced to no one in particular.
There were still crowds by the entrances to the room and Jack made shooing motions. "Don't you people have work to do? Go! Show's over."
They dispersed quickly and, once they were gone, Jack slapped Daniel lightly on the shoulder. "Let's go eat."
"But what about..." Daniel trailed off gesturing toward Sheppard.
"I think he's going to end up with room service," Jack answered, starting to walk in the direction they'd originally come from.
"Does this mean you're staying over tonight?" Daniel asked as he caught up.
"Probably," Jack answered, watching the Marine posted to the elevator push the call button. "We'll get to have a sleepover. Popcorn, movies, braiding each other's hair... It'll be like old days."
Daniel gave him one of those 'how do three-year-olds get to be generals?' looks.
Jack shrugged because he really didn't know the answer to that one, either.
After a lunch that was surprisingly good for mess chow, Jack let Daniel's impatience to get back to work win out and they returned down to the main floor of the facility. McKay and his assistants were still in the chair room, but Sheppard was nowhere to be seen.
"Where's the infirmary in this place?" Jack asked as they made their way back to Daniel's makeshift office.
"Down that way," Daniel replied, gesturing down the hallway. "Go to the end, make a left. If you hear Dr. Beckett, then you've hit the genetics lab and you've gone too far."
Jack went to the end of the hall, made a left, and saw Dr. Barrett through an open door before he heard Dr. Beckett.
"How's the golden boy?" Jack asked, looking around. Like the rest of the outpost, the infirmary was an odd combination of ice cave and exotic museum.
"Sleeping it off," Barrett replied. "If he wakes up and passes the baseline neurological tests, we'll call him fine and leave off with the additional work. We know from past experience that the effects of prolonged exposure to Ancient technology are usually temporary."
"Me being the past experience," Jack commented drily.
"Yes, well." Barrett shrugged. "I'm not clearing him for another session in the chair until tomorrow -- provided his responses are normal -- and that's going to be on a strict time limit and with a medical doctor present. And he's not getting in that helicopter of his before then."
Jack nodded and thanked Dr. Barrett and retraced his steps to Daniel's workspace. From there, he could get back to the briefing room, which is where he had left all of his own work. Now that he wasn't going anywhere for a while, he might as well get comfortable and read.
First, however, he had some research to do that didn't come from the thick folders of papers and photographs still on the table.
There was a computer in the briefing room that was connected to SGC and, from there, Jack logged in. Sheppard would have required vetting to get as far as the urinals upstairs, so he should already be in the system. However, getting to fly the helicopter to the base required a much lower clearance than getting to ride the elevator, so all that he knew for certain was that Sheppard wasn't considered a security risk.
A half-hour later, Jack knew why John Sheppard was not in the Middle East or anywhere else fighting the war on terrorism. A half-hour after that, Jack also knew that he wasn't going to get in the way if Elizabeth Weir wanted him along.
Most of Sheppard's service record was exactly as Jack had expected. There were a few surprises, professionally as well as personally -- Jack thought he should have recognized the name, but John Sheppard obviously took after his mother in the looks department -- and quite a bit to be read between the lines. But Jack had been reading personnel files for positions in the Stargate program for a decade now and figured that there wasn't a line he couldn't read between and understand perfectly.
The Atlantis expedition was not even into the first stage of planning yet -- actual planning, as opposed to the pie-in-the-sky theoretical stuff Weir had been doing for the past year -- but Jack's inclination was to let Weir take Sheppard if that's what she wanted. Weir was a tough negotiator and a steely opponent and Sheppard would probably get less slack from her than he did from his own superior officers. And who that was depended on who was chosen to head up the military component.
Most SG teams were led by men used to varying degrees of frustrating behavior from subordinates, usually from the civilian scientists but not always. Jack had no doubts that any of the Air Force SG team leaders could keep Sheppard in line; the Marine team leaders tended to be more inflexible, but that was because they led all-Marine combat-oriented squads and didn't have their own versions of Daniel wandering off and disobeying instructions because they had a better idea, weren't subject to military regs, and oh, that looked pretty.
Jack closed the window on Sheppard's file. He'd have a more informed opinion of the man and the situation by the time it mattered. For the time being, that meant getting back to the mission specs and other documents that were suddenly no longer quite as speculative.
Daniel was the one who found him, hours later and most of the way though a notepad. "I don't think I've ever gotten used to your studious look," he said, gesturing toward Jack's organized piles of reports and photos.
"Yeah, well," Jack muttered, closing his eyes and feeling them burn from dryness. He'd spent more time in the last six months reading reports than he had in the last six years. It was an entirely new -- and less satisfying -- kind of fatigue from running missions and writing orders. "You didn't know me during my staff officer days."
"You don't miss it," Daniel said, not really making it a question. He was carrying a small pile of folders and his laptop.
"Not in the slightest," Jack agreed, rolling his neck. There was the distant sound of aggravated shouting from somewhere else in the frozen complex. "What's happening?"
Daniel made a vague gesture with his free hand. "Weir had a bunch of guys out covering over Sheppard's helicopter so that it doesn't turn into a popsicle overnight."
"The Marines are complaining?"
"No, the Marines are probably still outside running laps," Daniel answered, making a face. "McKay and the other scientists he dragged outside with him, however..."
"Right," Jack agreed. "Any word on Sheppard?"
"He's upstairs." Daniel picked up the topmost photographs in the 'to be looked at' pile.. "Weir had him in her office a couple of times. I think she's pitching the project to him."
"No surprise there."
"No," Daniel agreed, putting the photos back down in the wrong pile and then ignoring Jack's grumbling as he pointedly put them back where they belonged. "You okay with that? The whole 'someone else can make the Ancient toys light up like Christmas' thing?"
"It's her project," Jack said as he stood up. "As long as she's sure that it's what she wants."
A curious look from Daniel. "He's that much trouble?"
Jack shrugged. "He's not anyone who would be getting consideration to join the project otherwise," he said, not wanting to get into the same old discussion with Daniel, who had spent the last decade in the employ of the Air Force and still refused to comprehend certain concepts that everyone in a uniform took for granted.
"Can you imagine how many others like you and Sheppard there are out there in the world?" Daniel asked thoughtfully. "People who have such a strong connection to their Ancient ancestors? And we'll never find them except by accident. At least not until we discover some way of unobtrusively testing random strangers."
"There's a thought," Jack snorted. "Here's another: dinner?"
"Right," Daniel said, standing up from where he'd been leaning against the table. "That's what I came in here for."
The next morning was more of the same -- weak coffee from the mess, Weir still giving him the sales pitch even though they both knew he'd sign off on the project and it would go along even if he didn't, and Daniel sounding like he didn't think Jack was going to tell him that he wasn't going to the Pegasus galaxy. He spent the morning getting lectured at by a patient Japanese woman on how to use the laptop computer they were giving him to take back to McMurdo. The paper files were all classified up the ying-yang and bulky as well, so they were loaning him a laptop with advanced encryption tools. Personally, Jack was dubious of his own ability to get to the information, let alone any sort of spy.
Weir waited until he was on his way out to spring the news to him about asking Sheppard to join the mission. He made a pro forma protest about Sheppard's service record, Weir made a pro forma defense, and then asked him to use all of his powers of persuasion to get the major to volunteer. They both knew how important he was, although Jack suspected they believed so for different reasons.
Up until one windy afternoon in Afghanistan, John Sheppard had been exactly the kind of man the Air Force wanted for the stargate program and rarely got. According to his postings and service record, he was able to use his own judgment when op orders went to hell, take the initiative when required, and meet the misison objective without hand-holding or excessive casualties. He was the kind of officer the SGC didn't get as often as they'd like because entry into the program meant trading in the sky for a mission they couldn't be told about until they agreed to it. But this didn't apply to Sheppard and Jack didn't know why he hadn't agreed -- Sheppard had already lost the sky in every meaningful way. Jack had a half-hour flight back to McMurdo to figure out the answer and change it.
"...If I can't get a 'yes' out of you by the time we get to McMurdo, then I don't even want you."
It was a poor strategic move, fixing an absolute time limit like that, even if it was meant rhetorically. Sheppard could use it against him and Jack strongly suspected he would.
"I don't get you, Sheppard," Jack said as the silence started to gain weight and press down and the snow and ice went on unremittingly. "I don't get why you're not jumping on Dr. Weir's offer."
Sheppard said nothing for a long moment, long enough that Jack thought that he might not answer. "I told her that I'd think about it," he said again, tiredly.
"You have been thinking about it," Jack retorted. "You probably stayed up half the night thinking about it. And I'm really failing to see where you're finding a downside."
"To a one-way trip to another galaxy?"
"What exactly does this one hold for you right now, Major?" Jack turned as far as the seatbelt harness allowed. "I read your file."
"I figured you would." His voice sounded flat, deadened without being sullen. It was a voice cultivated to respond to superior officers during a dressing-down and Sheppard had probably been though a lot of them. It was a voice that was pitched so as not to piss anyone off and that, perversely, pissed Jack off more than if Sheppard had showed some fire or resentment.
"Your unit's in Iraq right now and you're out here at the end of the Earth," Jack went on. "You chose this place instead of a posting that might've gotten you back on track to eventually commanding your own squadron. Or at least back into the action instead of running glorified tourist trips that the Air National Guard would happily handle. You're hiding here, Sheppard."
Silence again and Jack took advantage of it to rein his frustration in. He understood Sheppard, more than Sheppard's CO's probably did. They had a surprising number of similiarities for two careers that were slated to have been so very different. But now they were both here, by fate or fluke, and Jack felt the urge to do for Sheppard what George Hammond had done for him. Push him forward when everyone else was content to let him idle in place and destroy himself from within.
"You're not a coward," he said quietly and sincerely. Be it for four days or four years, going MIA proved one's courage beyond almost any other measure available. On that scale, Sheppard had nothing to prove to anyone. "You're an Air Force officer and a damned good one."
A heavy sigh. "The Air Force may disagree with you on that, Sir."
"Your timing for playing cowboy sucks. That's something else entirely." Considering what Sheppard had been doing for the decade before he'd chosen voluntary exile in Antarctica, loose interpretations of orders were not exactly surprising -- were usually expected. Guys like him never integrated well back into Regular Air Force. Jack certainly hadn't. In hindsight, he understood the logic -- field grade officers went where there were openings, which were in turn proportionally fewer and more ill-fitting. But at the same time, they'd promoted Sheppard below the zone as a reward for his courage and then set him up for failure by placing him where the skills that had ensured his success and survival were not only not required, but also not desired. That said, Sheppard had helped things along quite well on his own.
"I think you should go because if you're not going to fight for yourself here, then you might as well start someplace new." Jack looked out the window at the rise and fall of the land moving beneath them. "Someplace that isn't frozen over."
"I like it here," Sheppard protested mildly, as if that were really what he thought Jack was talking about.
"So you said," Jack agreed. "And I still don't believe you."
They rode in silence until it was time for Sheppard to contact the tower at Williams, which he did with his usual aplomb, explaining with ease that they'd hit bad weather inland yesterday and he did not want to know the score of the Notre Dame-USC game, thank you very much.
The landing was gentle and Sheppard went straight into shutdown protocol. Jack worried that he'd have to call him on his time limit, but then Sheppard paused in the middle of his switch-flicking and lever-throwing.
"What happens if I say 'yes'?"
Jack undid his seatbelt harness slowly. "Sometime in the next year, you go to another galaxy."
He didn't say anything about coming home because, frankly, he had his doubts.
"The brass..." Sheppard trailed off.
Jack sighed because he understood. "There isn't anyone in the Air Force with the authority to take you off this mission if you choose to go," he said. He waited a long beat and then added, "And you won't get separated in absentia."
Sheppard turned sharply to look at him.
"I told you that I read your jacket." Jack shrugged. "You want to save your career? Go. You may even get to see Lieutenant Colonel."
"I don't care about the rank," Sheppard replied, a touch of frustration in his voice.
"I know," Jack agreed, squinting to see a familiar form emerge from a familiar truck. "But the people you have to impress do."
They were quiet again as Airman Fliegel walked up to the helicopter.
"If this were just about principles," Jack said before opening the door, "You would have resigned your commission after the hearing and gone off to be a civilian pilot. But you're still here, at the end of the Earth of your own volition, which makes me think that maybe you're not sure that they were wrong when they said that the problem was you and not the rules.
"Way I figure it, you're hanging on for one last chance to reclaim your honor. Congratulations, Major, against all odds, you've got it. I can guarantee that you won't get another chance like this no matter how many years you spend tooling around on the ice. So either take what's being handed to you and make the most of it or get the hell out of the Air Force."
He opened the door then and put himself into the capable and efficient hands of Airman Fliegel, leaving Sheppard to ponder his future.
The rest of what he jokingly referred to as his Antarctic Vacation went by quickly. The public reason for a two-star general visiting McMurdo was to tour the Air Force's and Air National Guard's facilities and hand out a few commendations and promotions, which he did without fuss. Sheppard flew him to the outpost three more times, staying twice to work the control chair and play light switch for the scientists while Jack asked questions and got answers from Weir and McKay. He also had the expected (but still regretted) blow-up with Daniel when it came time to tell him that no, he couldn't go. Daniel wasn't speaking to him when he left for the last time and Jack wasn't surprised. It would be something they'd have to work through after some time had passed and when they were both on the same continent.
Weir saw him off herself, showing up at Williams as he was waiting for the C-130 that would start the two-day journey back to the States. She was at McMurdo after a supply foul-up had left them short of water and someone had made the mistake of suggesting that they just defrost some ice. Her fury at the cavalier attitude of the contractor faded into something closer to glee when she told him that Sheppard had come to her on his last visit and told her that he'd go. "I think we'll be good for each other," she confided to him. "We can use him and he doesn't belong in a place like this." Jack agreed and promised to smooth things over on the military side of things. Weir wasn't the only one who got to talk to the President.
Back at home, Jack has six weeks before a sullen Daniel returned, most of which was spent getting SG-12 in and out of a rather pointless interplanetary war that Baal had started and wrangling with the Pentagon over Sheppard. The latter took far less time because once Jack pointed out that they'd put a man with an Article 15 hearing under his belt in charge of the SGC, their objection to sending one to the Pegasus galaxy was all but eliminated.
"Sir, Dr. Weir on line three." Walter's voice had a note of warning in it and Jack made a face as he picked up the phone. Communication between SGC and Antarctica was frequent but not constant and usually was sparked by one side needing something from the other.
Weir was still annoyed at his forbidding Daniel to go along and the last three phone calls had all been to argue about why other civilians were being stricken from the list of candidates she'd compiled. After the necessary background checks had eliminated some of the candidates and medical histories some more -- nobody who couldn't pass a military physical could go -- Jack had run the new list past Carter, Dr. Lee, Daniel, and Dr. Tamazaki over in engineering. The five of them had in turn divvied it up into sublists of who could be spared, who absolutely couldn't, and who would be no loss to either galaxy if they fell through a wormhole and never came out. Jack's priority was to keep the most essential personnel on Earth to maintain the fight with the Goa'uld (and the Replicators and whatever else came out of the woodwork) and those meetings, more than anything else, helped ease tensions between him and Daniel.
"Dr. Weir," he said cheerfully (he hoped) as he hit the button for line three. "What can I do for you this morning?"
"I need your advice, General." Weir's voice was a little tinny because of the satellite connection, but she sounded reluctant, which in turn probably meant that she was sincere.
"The military element of the expedition hasn't been formed yet," she went on. "You have much more experience than I do in assessing necessary skills and experience for a mission like this one and I'd like your opinion on what I should be looking for."
Jack smirked. Weir was smart enough to know that she needed help and that she couldn't let the decision be taken out of her hands lest it be the first of many decisions that were made on her behalf. He knew that the Pentagon was having serious infighting as to which service got to go to Atlantis and that they'd only stopped fighting each other long enough to unite against the other nations who'd objected to a purely American military presence.
"Do you want names or just a couple of suggestions?"
"The latter more than the former, but if you have someone in mind, I would consider them," Weir replied. "The inter-service rivalries are proving to be much more than a mere annoyance and I'm not sure whether choosing representatives from all would help or hinder the process."
"Take Marines," Jack said, completely unsurprised when Walter showed up in his doorway with piles of what he would bet were personnel files. "Takes as many as you can."
"Really?" Weir sounded almost amused. "I'd have thought that the Air Force would use this opportunity to take back what they lost here in Antarctica."
The files were indeed personnel files. Of the various SG teams and the file of prospective candidates. Walter immediately started sorting them by rank and service.
"My responsibility is to the Stargate Program," he retorted without heat. "The Air Force has my loyalty, but the needs you're looking to fill are best matched by the Marines. What you want are infantry skills more than intellectuals and the Marines have the most experience with force protection."
Walter placed a pile in front of him, a second pile further away, and walked out of the office with the rest.
"I can send you the names of the Marine officers currently assigned to the program and those with clearance to be interviewed," he said, looking at the top few files on the batch closest to him. Pete Ruczinsky, the Marines' liaison between the Corps and the SGC, would be doing cartwheels when he found out that the Marines would get to go to Atlantis. Not that he'd ever think that Jack had anything to do with it.
"I'll take it all under consideration," Weir replied, making it clear by the tone of her voice that she wasn't committing to anything just yet. "I want to--"
"Listen, Dr. Weir. Elizabeth," he broke in. "You're asking my advice and I'm giving it to you. The more people you involve in the decision-making, the harder it's going to be to get what you want when the time comes. Talk to Hammond if you don't trust my motives, but I'm giving you the same advice he will: get some Marines and steer clear of the Pentagon and the White House. It'll be easier to get guys who have already been through the SG screening process, but the choice is yours."
"I appreciate your concern and your candor," she said. "I do. And for the record, Colonel Brogansky suggested the same thing."
Jack couldn't muster up either appreciation or surprise on that score.
"While we're on the topic of personnel," Weir continued, "Would it be possible to get an explanation for why Dr. Tedescu was dropped from the list of candidates? He's a brilliant geneticist and has done some excellent work with Dr. Beckett on the ATA gene."
Jack stopped and pivoted on the ball of one foot. "General," he said, waiting for Hammond to catch up.
"Why does this place look like a Costco?" Hammond asked, waving his arm vaguely behind him. Pallets of food, dry goods, munitions, and batteries lined the corridors. Tanks of water, gasoline, and substances Jack really didn't want to ponder were tucked into corners and doorways.
"It's for the Atlantis expedition," Jack explained.
"I know that," Hammond replied with irritation. The head of Homeworld Security was on one of his periodic site visits, which in turn threw another layer of chaos into a system that was already at the upper limit. Jack had sent as many teams as possible offworld -- Sam and Daniel were not pleased -- and suggested a case of Cheyenne Flu for anyone who wanted to take a sick day to thin out the population a bit more. "But why is it in the hallways? And why in these hallways where all the SG teams and stargate personnel can trip over them?"
Before he could answer, he had to press himself against the wall so that two Marines guiding a handtruck loaded with crates of rifles, magazines, bayonets, and TW-25B lubricant. Once they passed, Jack could see Hammond's annoyed look. It was one he had gotten very familiar with over the years.
"Dr. Weir and Colonel Sumner are staging a series of dry runs for the mobilization," Jack explained once they were able to move toward the elevator again. "We don't know how long we'll have before the battery is too drained to power the gate. They have to get a year's worth of supplies and all their personnel through and we don't know what they'll find on the other side. Getting some practice in seemed like a good idea."
Jack was surprised to learn that Weir had chosen Marine Colonel Marshall Sumner to head up the military element. Sumner had led SG-3 for a couple of years, but had left the Stargate program after 11 September and had spent most of the time since deployed to various points in the Global War on Terrorism. Jack didn't know him well beyond small talk in the locker room and the occasional joint mission and was curious why Sumner would agree to return. They hadn't had much time for casual chit-chat and that seemed the sort of information that could only be volunteered, not requested.
"Are we anticipating trouble on the other side of the event horizon?" Hammond asked as they pressed against the wall for another truck, this one pushed by two short civilians, to pass.
Sumner would lead a smallish platoon of Marines, most of whom had been on protection detail in Antarctica. Jack thought it odd that there was only one other officer along, not counting Sheppard, but had resolved to stay out of the matter so long as nothing really wonky developed. Sumner knew what he was doing and although he made his displeasure with Sheppard's inclusion clear, he didn't turn it into an issue. Which was about all that could be asked for under the circumstances.
"Not really," Jack answered, ignoring the fact that there was no guarantee that they could even establish a connection to the gate address Daniel had come up with. McKay's jury-rigging of the stargate was completely theoretical and, according to Carter, had just as much chance of blowing up the stargate itself as dialing Atlantis. She'd told him that both percentages were fairly low, which is why he hadn't pushed for a delay until someone could say that they were absolutely sure that Cheyenne Mountain wouldn't be a steaming crater when it was over. "But even if it's just setting up a perimeter in an uninhabited area, it's going to be chaotic on the other side. Anything we can do on this end to smooth the process should probably be attempted."
"What are we doing to that effect?"
Jack fought the urge to question the use of the second person plural. "So far? Volunteer some airmen to push pallets up to the stargate and stay the hell out of the way."
Hammond nodded thoughtfully and waited for Jack to push the elevator button. "Dr. Weir is managing?"
"Dr. Weir is micromanaging," he replied. Hammond raised an eyebrow at him. "She's establishing her authority, I think. Sumner'd have the entire expedition marching through the stargate to a cadence if she didn't stop him."
The elevator came and Dr. Beckett exited with a taller man wearing an Israeli patch on his sleeve. For morale reasons, Weir had let expedition members choose their flag patch and Beckett had gone with the St. Andrew's Cross instead of the Union Jack. It meant a few other flags Jack had been unable to recognize, but it seemed a move that had engendered only good feelings. Beckett and the other doctor nodded in greeting and moved past them, continuing their conversation.
"It's a civilian-led mission when all the others have been military," Hammond mused as they entered the elevator. "I understand why we're doing it this way, but I can't say that I go along with it."
Jack could only nod. Anything to be said about it had long since been said, probably at least twice by four different people and contradicted by four more. It was getting to the point where the expedition was being eagerly awaited not for what it meant to the Stargate program, but instead for the fact that once the wormhole was closed, nobody could argue about it anymore.
He had supported Weir's insistence on civilian leadership more out of a lack of alternative suggestions than genuine belief in it being the right thing to do. It was a research mission and the scientists needed to be able to do their thing, but Jack hadn't spent ten years chasing quixotic scientists around the galaxy to not question the setup. Daniel could at least defend himself, but he still had a lousy sense of self-preservation and no judgment when it came to how far he should push. And he was flanked by Teal'c and Carter, both of whom could forcibly drag him back to safety and home. The Marines chosen were all top-notch, but they were outnumbered 3-to-1 by the scientists and didn't have the authority to bully anyone.
Sumner seemed to understand the predicament and involved the Marines in every aspect of mission prep so that they had an early precedent for more than simple protection duties. Even with no concept of what awaited them on the other side, Sumner had assured that once the expedition's base was established, the Marines would be involved as everything from orderlies to lab techs to quartermasters and cooks. On the surface, it made sense to use the Marines as unskilled labor -- everyone on the expedition was doing at least three jobs. But it was also good strategy for keeping the military element from being marginalized. Especially after Antarctica, where the Marines were little more than decoration.
The elevator doors opened and Jack waited for Hammond to exit first. "It's been a while since we've really done this," Hammond said as they started to walk toward Jack's office.
"Sent teams through the gate?" Jack asked, mostly to be difficult. "I punted four of 'em through this morning alone."
"Sent a team through knowing that they'd have a helluva time getting back," Hammond replied, giving him the look that meant that he knew that Jack was baiting him. "It's always a possibility and, the Lord knows, we've lost many good men because of it. But it has always been the worst-case scenario, not the most likely one."
"We've certainly reminded them of the risk often enough," Jack said, catching the familiar silhouette of Walter poking his head out of the records room. One of these years, he was going to surprise Harriman. Just probably not this one. "Can't do much more than that. We've got six teams pretty much dedicated to finding another one of those ZPM thingies."
"And we're talking with the Asgard about an intergalactic hyperdrive," Hammond agreed. "What I wouldn't give to take the Daedalus for a spin once she's outfitted with that."
They stopped in front of Jack's office door. "You are the boss."
"It's a younger man's game," Hammond sighed ruefully. "I had my fun on the Prometheus. Truth be told, as lovely as the Daedalus will be, it'd feel a little disloyal to pine after her."
"Spoken like a pilot," Jack said with a smile. "Are you sure I can't convince you to do some paperwork, just for old time's sake?"
Hammond laughed heartily. "Jack, there are some things about this place that I don't miss at all."
"We there yet?"
"Just waiting on Dr. McKay," Weir replied. She's practically vibrating with anticipation and Jack thought that that excitement was almost enough to counteract the sheer chaos and aggravation that had been the last three days. Because someone should be thrilled and hopeful or else all this monkeying around was a waste of time.
With the help of a dozen airmen and Jack's order for everyone else to stay out of the way on pain of deployment to Korea, the Atlantis team had gotten the mobilization through the stargate down to twenty minutes. Which was a good thing. According to Carter, the prevailing theory was that a wormhole could only be open for thirty-eight minutes and then it would close on its own. It was only a theory, she had emphasized, because nobody had stood around watching a stargate for that long and, besides, that was for wormholes between points in this galaxy. The maximum duration to Atlantis could be half that or it could be doubled because the gate was, in effect, dialing home. Jack sincerely hoped it wasn't half -- at twenty minutes, the mobilization was harried and rushed and involved many sets of flattened toes, crushed hands, three instances of scientists falling off the ramp and one nearly being crushed by falling crates.
Once they got confirmation that the stargate is now drawing power from the ZPM, Weir headed out to the ramp and made a short pep talk, notable both for its brevity and its ability to quell the frenetic activity for its duration. They dialed, they got a stable wormhole on the first try -- Carter wasn't around, but she'd told him it would probably be fine on the first shot or not at all -- and the MALP went through.
"Sensors state there's oxygen, no measurable toxins, and we have viable life support." McKay was crowding the airman on dialing duty, but the kid didn't seem to care. McKay stood up and looked at them. "Looks like we're not getting out of this."
"Dr Weir," Jack said, trying not to think on the fact that this would probably be the last time he saw her face. "You have a go."
She thanked him with a smile and raced down to the ramp. Now that it was out of his hands, Jack could admit that he was a little jealous -- not of the mission, but of the enthusiasm. He'd never been that way going through the stargate. The first few times, he'd been either broken or regretful or too focused on the mission at hand and then, by the time he'd gotten over all of that, he'd simply been too used to the experience to take any joy in the novelty of it. Sam had been like that, though, and Daniel, too. Especially Daniel. Speaking of...
"Jack," Daniel had that tone in his voice and he knew before the words came out. "It's not too late for me to--"
"No." It was a half-hearted attempt as far as Daniel went and he didn't bother getting worked up about it. If Daniel had seriously thought that there'd be a last-minute change of heart -- or if he'd been planning any sort of mad dash through the wormhole before it closed -- he'd have had his bag packed and standing in the corner, waiting for the word to go.
"I... I could just grab my notes--"
Instead, they stood side by side and watched the mobilization progress far smoother than it had any right to go. There were a couple of instances of trolleys crashing into each other at moderate rates of speed, but nothing overturned, nobody got maimed, only a few harsh words were spoken and none in a language that anyone understood. Soon it was down to the last trucks, organized so that they were loaded with relatively inessential items, in case the wormhole died on them.
The quiet was deafening. After a week of constant noise, both machine- and man-made, the gate room felt deserted despite two dozen people still working hard. Jack picked up the magnum of champagne he'd been setting aside and went down to the stargate, Daniel trailing behind.
Weir radioed in that everyone was through and they could close the wormhole and Jack gestured to the airman to wait a moment. He walked up the ramp slowly, feeling now more than ever the loss of not being on an SG team anymore and the probability that he wouldn't be making too many more trips through a wormhole ever again. He stood close to the event horizon, feeling the hum of its energy against his face as he crouched down to roll the bottle through.
Without turning around, he raised his arm and gestured to the control booth. He could hear the stargate disengage a heartbeat before the wormhole vanished. He closed his eyes and tried not to wonder what path lay before the Atlantis expedition and not find any parallels to his days as a PJ, when he sent too many men out for missions that ended unhappily even when they were successful. He tried to instead remember that ten years ago, that had been him stumbling through the stargate, traveling to Abydos in pursuit of the unknown and with no little fear that they'd never come home. He hadn't cared, really, although for far different reasons than he suspected that Elizabeth Weir didn't care.
"Jack?" Daniel was waiting for him at the foot of the ramp. He sounded concerned and Jack made sure a smile was on his face when he turned around to face him. He sort of suspected that Daniel wouldn't be fooled, but it didn't hurt to try.
"I could do with a steak," he said, his boots clanking loudly on the ramp as he came down. "We missed lunch again. You up for a steak? And mashed potatoes. And maybe a beer."
Daniel raised an eyebrow at him, but smiled. "Sam'll kill us for going to Steaksmith's without her."
"Then we won't tell her," Jack replied, clapping Daniel on the shoulder as he passed. "Besides, it's her own fault for not being here."
"Actually, it's your fault," Daniel corrected as he followed Jack out into the corridor. "You're the one who sent her and Teal'c along with SG-8 to that planet with the funny deer people."
"First rule of the military, Daniel," he said over his shoulder. "It's never the senior officer's fault."
Daniel muttered something and then stopped. "Hunh. They left something behind."
Jack stopped. Daniel was standing in front of a small black nylon bag emblazoned with the Atlantis team's insignia. It was the kind of bag that had been issued to the civilians and attachable to the rucksacks they carried.
"I hope it wasn't important," he said as Daniel stooped to pick it up.
Left unspoken was that he also hoped that, important or not, whoever left it behind would soon be able to come back to retrieve it.