It wasn't often that the Atlantis Expedition leader was able to greet newcomers in person; but with both the current tensions of the Genii coup and a missing off-world team beyond her immediate control, she relished this too rare chance for happy responsibilities. As was each of the two hundred odd Earthlings already on Lantea, the new civilian arrivals were some of the best people in their fields, handpicked by her, with IOA approval. She would be supervising their work and getting to know them all in the coming months. And for all the advances and victories sure to come, there undoubtedly remained great risk in the Pegasus Galaxy, known and yet to be known. Through it all, they were her people; and so for all those reasons, she looked forward to connecting face-to-face with this new group of cares and colleagues.
She smiled with genuine anticipation as the duty communications technician passed along word from the Daedalus that the cohort was ready to beam down. Exiting her office almost before finishing her "thank you," she quickly joined one of the logistics specialists on the bottom step of the Gateroom's grand staircase. "Good afternoon, Sergeant Gonzales."
"Buenas tardes, Dr Weir. Fourteen greenies today," confirmed the airman, looking up from his clipboard.
"We were all 'green' once, Sergeant," he was reminded, as the familiar tone and flash of the Asgard transport technology played before them. "I'm sure they'll be fine."
On the previously empty platform, fourteen grey- and khaki-clad figures appeared, blinking and looking about as the visible energy around them dissipated. A stubbled, red-haired man with glasses in the back of the group immediately doubled over and vomited into a flight sickness bag he'd apparently prepared for exactly that possibility.
The sergeant shot Weir a smug look, as the recovering man mumbled apologies while most of the party tried not to look too disgusted or even aware, likely for the benefit of their new boss.
A young woman wearing a ponytail and medical colors glanced nervously back at him, apparently not sure whether to assist or to allow him his recovering dignity.
Noting, but not focusing on the increasingly less green man, Weir gave her now standard speech: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Atlantis. I'm Dr Elizabeth Weir, the Expedition director; and I'm very glad to have you join us, adding your impressive research, technical and other skills to our efforts to better understand the Pegasus Galaxy, and by extension, our own. I know you've had an extensive orientation to our mission, protocols and personnel during your time on the Daedalus; but I also know that actually being here, in an alien city, on another planet, in another galaxy, can be very overwhelming in its own way."
Many of the civilians continued to gaze around them as if to prove her point.
"It's an amazing universe; and we're glad you can join us in this corner of it. To continue your introduction, Sergeant Gonzales here will be taking you on a brief tour while your gear is being delivered with the other cargo. He'll show you to your quarters; we'll give you a little time to settle in and then I hope you'll join us for our traditional transition dinner in the Dining Hall this evening."
She stepped down onto the platform to emphasize her connection to them; and Gonzales took his cue to head toward one of the side corridors. "I look forward to working with each of you. Welcome again." Stepping up to the wide-eyed woman closest to her, Weir put out her hand and smiled all the more brightly, "Dr. Keller, isn't it? I know Dr Beckett is looking forward to having another set of able hands in the Infirmary. Welcome."
"This place is amazing." The woman alternated between smiling politely and gaping silently, before finally taking Weir's cue to step aside and follow the Sergeant.
Turning to the next person, Weir continued the personal introductions, correctly naming and noting some particular knowledge of the work or home of each. They quickly formed a single file line leading to her, and then heading off to the side corridor where Gonzales was waiting.
Finally, the last new member stepped forward, with a slight hesitation and flushed cheeks that complemented and stood out all the more against his wavy auburn hair and short beard.
"Dr Royce?" she asked, the unspoken question 'are you alright?' clear in her tone and expression.
"Dr Weir, please call me 'Max,'" the man responded affably, and with more confidence than might be expected from someone whose first act in a new job was to lose his lunch in front of the new boss. "I suppose my sensitive stomach continues to precede me," he smiled warmly and put his hand out, making a point to show that it was clean and that the offending bag was tucked behind him. "I am very sorry; seems tazers aren't the only 'energized experiences' I react badly to."
"Budapest," she laughed, as he broached the incident that she hadn't intended to bring up, at least not so quickly in their professional reunion. "I can still remember trying to decide whether to help you or clean off the Secretary General. Did the Embassy security ever apologize for tazing you by mistake?"
"Not exactly. But the story did make the rounds at State; and I'm sure I got a number of other assignments out of sheer morbid curiosity."
"Well, I assure you that your professional skills, not your party tricks, are what got you the invitation here. In fact, I hope we can keep the...," she searched for the best term.
"Technicolor yawns?" he offered tongue-in-cheek.
"...to a minimum," Weir nodded with a smile.
With another slight blush behind his spectacles, Royce reassured, "While I'm still apologizing to the Chief of the Daedalus for her decking, the good news is that it seems I am getting somewhat desensitized through repeated exposure."
She smiled warmly at his positive spin. "Well, it's good to know that if you get tazed again while you're here, you may not need the baggie; though it's also good to see you're prepared, just in case. We'll see what we can do to squeeze in some practice beams to get you past it; and I expect we'll need to get you started on Puddle Jumper and Gate travel, as I imagine our new sociolinguist will probably not want to get ill every time he leaves the City for field work."
"I'm looking forward to it," he smiled eagerly. "The work, that is."
In the background, they could hear Sgt. Gonzales calling the new arrivals down the corridor, telling them about the Gate and Control Rooms, and that in a moment they'd be stepping outside to see the scope of the city.
"I should catch up," he gestured in the direction of the tour.
Weir nodded as he stepped away, "It's good to see you again, Max; and I'm glad you decided to join us."
"Thanks for the opportunity." He nodded appreciatively, adjusted his backpack, and jogged down the hall.
Thinking ahead, Weir called after him, "You do have more of those bags on you? For the City transporters...?"
He turned back, reddened again sheepishly and patted a cargo pocket on his pants. Shrugging 'what-can-you-do?', he headed off again, leaving Weir to return to other messy issues she wished would clean up after themselves as nicely.
The next morning, Royce was up early to say the Shema, the Jewish morning recitation to greet the day, and to see the dawn on the new world. On the flight in, he had scoured the City's diagrams for a good spot, and now stood on the edge of the east most pier, with nothing but ocean between him and the sunrise on this new life. He'd walked all the way across the City, both as his pre-run warm-up and rather than starting the day with a nauseating transporter hop. After making his mitzvah and breathing in the strangely soothing sea breeze, he turned on his mp3 player and started his morning jog along the outdoor circuit he'd also memorized en route.
As he ran along open piers and among the towers, he made a mental note to inquire about the safety of swimming in the lagoons; the water looked great, but who knew what currents and creatures lurked. The Bay he'd spent almost half his life alongside was similarly beautiful but also dangerous.
With only a few wrong turns and double-backs along the way, he eventually wound back to his point of origin, and started the loop again toward completing his five miles before breakfast, his first shift with live Pegasus languages, and hopefully a few spare moments to track down his unfinished business.
With the senior leadership preoccupied with some off-world crisis, the regular orientation schedule for the new arrivals had been postponed. So like the rest of her cohort, Jennifer Keller, M.D., had been tasked to the base Quartermaster to assist with resupply efforts—both to help that process, and to give them extra chances to learn the layout of the City and to meet other personnel. They'd spend the day unloading, unpacking, sorting and delivering incoming supplies; exchanging them for outgoing waste, recycling and samples; and gathering, consolidating, packaging and otherwise preparing all outgoing materials for return to Earth aboard the Daedalus. As a doctor, Keller had focused largely on medical and biological materials; and so she was in the Infirmary when the bodies from planet-177 arrived just before lunch. She recognized one name instantly, and thought immediately of someone else who'd want to know...
She found him in the dining hall; and not surprisingly he was laughing loudly with a group of soldiers, these new friends wearing German patches. She approached the table hesitantly, clasping her hands in front of her and smiling shyly as a much-anticipated punch line was clearly delivered.
"...die zwei auf dem großen Boot!" laughed Royce, leaning back and seeing the new doctor as the soldiers guffawed and slapped the table. Wiping his own eyes, he smiled broadly and switched languages to include her. "Doctor Keller, hello. Care to join us?"
"Uh, Guten Tag," she attempted, waving meekly to the crowd. "No; thank you. Max, can I talk to you for a moment?"
"Sure," he nodded, catching the clear concern in her demeanor. "Meine Herren," he nodded to his tablemates and picked up his tray.
Stepping out of the Dining Hall, Royce joined Keller who stopped anxiously by one of the decorative bubblers across the hallway.
"Jenn, are you okay?" he asked softly, following her nervous glances around the corridor.
She looked down, up and all around before finally taking a breath, looking him in the eye and blurting in a rapid stream, "I've been in and out of the Infirmary all morning, working resupply, and when I was just there... Well, I thought you'd want to know. Dr Beckett just received three... three bodies from off-world. They're doing a full battery of tests to make sure, of course. And even though we haven't known each other long, I still thought you might prefer to hear it from someone... from a friend, that is..."
"Breathe," he said slowly but firmly, taking her gently and reassuringly by the shoulders.
She inhaled and exhaled, before resuming at a slightly slower pace. "Max, it's the team led by the friend you mentioned on the Daedalus, Major Lorne. He... It appears that he was killed."
He stared at her like she was speaking incomprehensible gibberish—which up until that moment, she would have confidently wagered him to be fluent in.
Switching from friend to professional mode, she put her hand gently on his arm. "I'm so sorry, Max; I know you were looking forward to..."
"I want to see him," he stated firmly and calmly, despite the shudder that ran through him before he dropped his arms to his side.
She could see the tension in his shoulders and face, even as what little color he normally had drained away. Denial, the need for direct proof of the loss—she recognized too well the early stages of grief.
"Of course," she assured, stroking his arm in as much a show of comfort as their young friendship likely allowed. "We should go now; the alpha shift team will likely start on autopsies soon."
He remained standing perfectly still, nodding agreement, until she took his arm and steered them toward the nearest, nausea-free stairwell.
Leading Royce deep into the Infirmary labs, Keller grabbed two surgical masks and handed one to him. "There was a fire; it's pretty bad."
He ignored her offer, and stared blankly at three cloth-draped gurneys ahead of them.
Donning her own mask, she led him to the nearest form, and stepped around to the opposite side. His gaze was still locked at the head-end of the covered shape; and he continued to worry-rub the pendant around his neck. Empathizing with his urge to see for himself, she still cautioned him against the harsh reality, "Max, are you sure?"
"Please," he whispered through clenched teeth.
Gently, respectfully, she pulled back the blanket, revealing the charred figure and releasing a pulse of smoky scent.
Royce took in a long, haggard breath before dropping his head and letting out an equally long sigh. She saw his shoulders sag, as the wall between first and second stages of grief gave way.
Out of response habit as scripted as the grief, she repeated, "I'm sorry. I'm sure-"
"It's not him," Royce interrupted, the first hint of emotion in his voice.
Still firmly in Stage One, she corrected her assessment. Gently, as physician and friend, she explained, "Max, fires can cause significant changes..."
"That isn't Evan," he insisted, looking up at her with watery eyes, flushed cheeks and absolute confidence in his voice. But it seemed more in relief than denial. "I don't care what the uniform or dog tags say; check the dental or DNA—whatever you have to. You'll find this person isn't Evan Lorne."
He turned and walked briskly past Dr Beckett, who was himself rushing across the room.
Reaching the exam table, the Head of Medicine found, "Ah, Dr Keller. Good timing; I could use your help taking a second tissue sample from each body. The first round of genetic tests didn't match our missing team."
"What?" she asked, looking past him toward the long-gone linguist.
He repeated himself as he slipped on a pair of gloves. "I don't think these are our people; but I need to re-run the tests to be absolutely sure."
She considered excusing herself to go after the prescient doubter, but decided that having a firm answer would do him much more good than just a friendly face.
Less than half an hour later Keller stepped out of the Infirmary and turned toward the transporter. A movement in the opposite direction caught her eye; and she turned to find Royce perched on a bench just opposite the medical bay doors.
"You're still here? I was just coming to find you." She joined him, sharing, "You were right; they aren't our people. Dr Beckett is informing Dr Weir right now."
He was clearly less emotional than when he'd abruptly walked out; but he was still tense and still playing with his choker out of nervous energy.
"That's good news, right?" she stated, nudging him with her shoulder.
"Not for the families of whoever is in there," he reminded her, standing up and pacing slightly.
"And, that means that Vee— Major Lorne and his team are still out there somewhere, and whoever did that—" pointing toward the morgue lab, "is willing to go to great lengths to keep us from knowing where or how they actually are!"
Behind him, Keller saw Dr Weir and the two Pegasus Galaxy members of the military commander's team hurry into the Infirmary. She nodded Royce toward the doors closing behind them, and tried to reassure him. "I'll bet Dr Weir and Colonel Sheppard are doing everything that can be done to find them. At least we now know they're out there to be found. Right?" She tried to add a little hopeful cheer into her supposition.
Seeing her bright eyes and upbeat eyebrows, he finally dropped his hands from his hips, and weakly conceded the point. "I'm sure you're right. And he is scrappy..."
"There you go!" she encouraged, hopping up and shaking him a little, as he forced a smile to match hers.
"But," his face dropped again.
He glanced back at the Infirmary, and thought aloud, "Well, no matter who they are, the people in there deserve some send off, some last respects. We should get the chaplain."
"I wasn't surprised to find there'd be no rabbi; but a military detachment this size surely has some kind of chaplain; no?"
Her face gave him the unwanted answer.
He threw his hands up in exaggerated exasperation, and turned toward the tower's main stairwell.
"Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"To get my tallis—my prayer shawl. Someone should say a few words for the dead," he volunteered as she stared after him with a mix of surprise, disbelief and admiration. Beginning the climb to his quarters, he again clutched the metal pendant, adding, "And for those who still need to come home."
"Ba'adan mibinamet,"(1) Royce called after the group of students who'd kept him answering questions on the brief walk from the classroom to his Defense Language Institute office. He set down his bag, brimming with new translation drills that would be his evening's occupation, and snatched up the secured courier receipt from his desk as he did. "Good," he thought as he filed the confidential form in the fortified cabinet in the corner, "Dr Jackson should be pleased with the quick turnaround of the latest batch. That archaic Egyptian hasn't been spoken in eons; but it's his hurry to get the translations back so quickly..."
He thumbed on his teaching-quieted cellphone and glanced at the clock. He had just enough time to swing by the house for a quick bite to eat on the way to his next class at MIIS.(2)
As he thought about what lunch possibilities the fridge held, the phone buzzed with notice of three new voicemails. Checking the log, Max stopped in his tracks on seeing the unsettling sequence of caller IDs: NEL, Natalie, Natalie. All more than an hour old, NEL's was on one of the dummy trunk line numbers that came up from the Colorado Springs base; no point in trying to dial back. The two calls from Natalie were back to back, and only minutes after the first.
He tapped in his passcode as he closed the door. Lunch would wait.
As the network announced the first message, he could sense the tension even before he heard the familiar voice, "Hey Prime, it's me. Damn, I was hoping to catch you between classes, but... Um, I've got a new assignment. A... situation's come up; and we're shipping out in under an hour. This one is really important, and it's also really far away. And, it's really high risk. I don't know when or... when I'll be back. Back in touch. I'm sorry."
The steady commotion in the background peaked, as the sound of a large rumbling something passed by. The voice continued, even more hurried and flustered, "I'm going to try to catch Nats too; please help her be strong." With a deep breath, the voice dropped to just above a whisper, "You know I'd like to say more, but... I'm not free to talk. I'll miss you... all while I'm gone. Max, I... I... so, so verily-"
Max's own breathing caught as the caller's did, both wishing there was more that could be said.
The caller swallowed audibly and promised, "I'll send word as soon as I can." Another pause finally delivered one last, "Verily."
"To delete this message...," a different, overly happy voice broke in.
Max listened to the message several times, before blowing his nose and dialing Natalie, not needing to hear her messages to know why she had called. He wasn't hungry now anyway.