Summary: all is not as it seems.
The following morning, Maxine took a detour to the Carter Physics Lab on her way to WPX.
"Oh good. Glad I found you here," she began. "Have you made any progress with that crown we brought back with us from Noucincu?"
"No, I'm afraid I haven't. Why?" Dr. Feynman asked.
"Well, I've heard that someone wants it and he isn't likely to be too scrupulous about how he gets it."
"Yes. So it might be a good idea to find a safer place for it - one not known to anyone else."
"I think so, which is why I wanted to warn you. The guy's name is Kyros, which sounds Greek, but other than that, and the fact that he's likely to use guile first and brute force if that doesn't work, I don't know any more about him."
"Okay, thanks for the heads up."
Maxine beat a strategic retreat then, before Dr. Feynman thought to ask her how she'd come by this information, and more to the point, how her informant knew about that bizarre crown.
The next day, the current six members of SG-24 convened for a briefing on their next mission to P6L-208.
"As this is a new team with a more open agenda, I've decided to try something different," General Bradfield said. "The President agrees that finding new worlds should have a higher priority than it does at present. Therefore, I have been looking at some of the 'Wildcard Worlds' that may be suitable for exploration."
"'Wildcard Worlds,' sir?" Major Mitchell asked.
"Yes, Major. Back in the day, the S.G.C. ran all the missions by computers, so I'm told. As you probably know, most of those machines were written off in the Great Disaster, so it was fortunate that they found a working D.H.D. in storage on Level 28. Anyway, they'd found a number of worlds by random computer dialing. Since the S.G.C. was reopened, some of the records of those 'hits' have been found. Few, if any of them, had been visited, though probes were sent to some of them, including P6L-208. This one's interesting in that, although there's been no sign of advanced life in the vicinity of the 'Gate, the atmosphere contains pollutants normally found in technologically advanced societies. Hence it's worth a look. Also, as settlements may be some distance away, it's suitable for using the PATTs."
Everyone looked at Bachmann, who scowled down at the information file in front of him. At that moment, a clerical officer entered after a brisk tap on the door.
"Message for Dr. Pepperday," she said with a smile.
Maxine took it from her and noted the look of malicious pleasure replacing Bachmann's frown. Having a very good idea about what the message would be, she managed to give an "Oh!" of pleasant surprise, and was satisfied by seeing the scowl revisit his face.
More satisfying was the thought that, by going second, there was the possibility of correcting whatever slanders Bachmann has made about his teammates, specifically J. The briefing drew to a close shortly after and Maxine took herself off to WPX.
Staff Sergeant Andrew Gayle was already waiting for her.
"I'm glad it's you this time," she smiled.
"And not Sergeant Quinney?" He grinned in a way that suggested she was missing something. Picking up on her mystification he went on, "The stills from the security footage are selling like hot cakes."
Maxine's jaw dropped. "Oh god. I'd definitely better watch my back then!"
At the end of a pleasant drive, Costin was waiting to take charge of the pony and trap. Maxine was happy to tell him that his daughter Ellika had settled in well at the S.G.C., and had been taken to the hearts of the women in Linguistics.
Sergeant Gayle then escorted her to the oval reception room with its plush blue and gold carpet. She wondered what planet it had been plundered from, as it didn't look Persulian in style. A few moments later, refreshments arrived. This time they were brought in by a severe-looking middle-aged woman who could have doubled for the female half of the American Gothic painting.
"Thank you," Maxine said with a friendly smile.
"It's a little of my own home-made lemon drizzle cake," the woman said, then emitted a noise somewhere between a snort and a snigger, and clapped a hand over her mouth. "Sorry m'm," she said after a moment. There was a definite twinkle in her eye that hadn't been there before.
"Don't tell me, let me guess - Sergeant Quinney?"
At that, the woman produced another snort-snigger, and smartly took herself back to the kitchen or wherever, clearly fighting off a fit of the giggles. The cake was delicious, and Maxine, savoring every mouthful, hadn't quite finished when President Warren walked in.
Observing her conveying the final morsel to her mouth, he said with an amused smile, "Ah, Doctor Pepperday with a fork in her hand. Am I safe?"
"Oh dear, I'm not going to live that down, am I?" she said ruefully.
"You might. Sergeant Quinney certainly won't! But that's not what I invited you here for. I was wondering how your mission to Persulis went?"
"It went as successfully as could have been expected under the circumstances. There was no sign of the rebellion we'd been told of, merely a few people grumbling as people are wont to do in any society, and we left with an improved relationship with the satrap and his people."
"Oh?" Warren sounded impressed. "And how is Jahandar?"
"Ah," Maxine replied, seeing shoals ahead. This could be a serious challenge for her bullshitting talents. "I'm afraid he's dead, sir."
"What?" Warren frowned. "I thought you said there was no rebellion?"
"There wasn't, sir. He was killed in a battle with incoming hostiles, which is all in our reports."
"Oh. Perhaps, if the whole team had been there, Jahandar might have survived?"
"I doubt it, sir. Captain Bachmann was posted on guard duty near the 'Gate for the express purpose of notifying us of just such an event. Had he not been there, we would have known nothing about the hostiles until it was too late, and we could have lost another world."
"I see." Warren appeared to think it over. "But surely Lt. Kern would have been a better choice to guard the 'Gate?"
"Not really, sir. Several circumstances led to the choice of Captain Bachmann. He's the oldest member of the team by some way, and as such, the best placed to assess any incoming threats, which he did very well. Also, he's not noted for his diplomatic abilities if Tyogya is anything to go by. Our mission was to defuse a possible rebellion, not stir up trouble where there was none. Finally, he refused to use one of the vehicles that Dr. Hunter built."
"Ah yes, these vehicles. Could you not keep up with Captain Bachmann's pace? Surely if you were all as fit as Captain Bachmann, they would not be necessary?"
"They have nothing to do with our levels of fitness, and everything to do with efficiency."
Maxine explained the benefits of their carrying capacity, and their speed - much faster that the President had been led to believe - along with concomitant freshness on arrival. "So it was a case of Captain Bachmann not being able to keep up with the rest of us, not the other way around."
"And what of my personal orders that Captain Bachmann as 2IC was to accompany Major Mitchell on the mission?"
Maxine opened her eyes wide at that, and blurted out. "Goodness, you mean that was true then? Erm - I'm sorry, I guess it must've been. We all thought he'd just made it up on the spur of the moment to avoid following Major Mitchell's order."
"And why would you think that?"
"Well, he was acting out in the 'Gate Room before we set off, like he didn't want to be an active part of the mission. Perhaps his age...? Then he neglected to mention having been given special orders from you until immediately afterhe'd been given an order he patently didn't like, plus he had nothing in writing, nor had anyone else said anything about it beforehand. What else was Major Mitchell to think?"
"Could he not have checked the facts before setting off for Persulis?"
"Major Mitchell dialed WPX himself and offered to let Captain Bachmann come to you for written orders but the captain decided against it, and followed Major Mitchell's order instead. Had it not been true - and had Major Mitchell believed, with no supporting evidence, that it was- he would've looked a very weak leader, easily duped. It would also have set a very bad precedent for discipline at the S.G.C. if the story circulated. Anyone who wanted to dodge an unwelcome duty would just have to say he had special orders from yourself. Either a lot of time would be wasted checking with you personally about who's telling the truth and who isn't, or people would simply get away with it."
"You know, I don't like being lied to, Doctor Pepperday," Warren said with a deeper frown.
Oh-oh, Maxine thought. Looks like trouble. Well best form of defence is attack.
Looking him in the eye, a frown to match his on her own face, she said, "I don't like being lied to either, Mr. President. Even less do I like being lied about. Now I've no idea what's been said against me, though I can guess by whom..."
"Then tell me what happened to the horses and the weapons. Have you kept them too, as you like collecting slaves?"
Maxine's face wore a look of fury that surprised Warren, and he leaned away from her just a tad. Maybe she would come out of this okay.
"No! None of us has kept anything, as we put in our reports. The horses weren't in any way ours, and in any case a fair number of them had been damaged, either by weapon fire or by being kicked by other horses in their panic. Most of them will recover with care, so we made a gift of them to the Persulians to use for pulling plows. It was a gesture of friendship from the Tau'ri - a gesture that cost us nothing and which gained us their goodwill. We sent the hostiles back home with a message that if they come back to Persulis, they'll get a worse reception. So we left their weapons with the new satrap, just in case they do come back when we're not there, so they at least look like they could fight back."
"But suppose they use them against our people?"
"Why would they do that, sir?" Maxine managed a tone that was just scathing enough not to cross the line into actual rudeness. "We've just rescued them from hostiles, so we're their friends - their allies - and we have better weapons anyway."
After that, there seemed little left to say. Warren thanked her for coming and said he looked forward to their next meeting. Maxine thanked him primly for his hospitality and they went their separate ways.
At 0800 the following morning, SG-24 was gathered in the 'Gate Room prior to their departure for P6L-208. The six PATTs had been brought out in readiness. This time, Bachmann was not ranting about the insult to his dignity in being expected to use one. If anything he looked smug. And expectant.
A little-used smile managed to crawl across his face as General Bradfield came down the spiral staircase holding a white envelope in his hand. This he handed over to Major Mitchell, who noted the Presidential seal with misgiving. Bachmann was almost gloating as J broke the red wax and opened the envelope.
As he read the contents, he had great difficulty in keeping a straight face. He beckoned an SF and instructed him to empty the trunk of the PATT assigned to Captain Bachmann and return the contents and his SMG to their owner.
The smug smile fled, replaced by a look of incredulity.
"I'm sorry Captain," J said, trying to sound sincere, "but the President has instructed me personally to post you, in view of your age and experience, as our guardian of the 'Gate on the other side."
Bachmann was dumbstruck, an unusual experience for him. He sent a dagger-look at Maxine, who was clearly the architect of this reversal of fortunes. She returned an innocent smile, and her constant companion, Paranoia, added another name to her list of potential back-stabbers.
The 'Gate was in the center of a hundred-foot-diameter circle of short, rabbit-cropped grass. There was longer, straggly grass growing through the stonework of the plinth on which the 'Gate stood, suggesting that it hadn't been used for a long time - decades, maybe longer. Beyond the clearing, P6L-208 was a lush green world with tall trees of types similar to those commonly found in temperate latitudes, and with patchy undergrowth, dense in places. On Earth, it would be early summer, and possibly so here, too.
Bachmann was standing beside Theo. "Good luck with your precious PATTs," he sneered.
"Come on, Bachmann, I'll give you a hand moving the AVCOP into those bushes," J said before Maxine could practise her dim mok on the captain. Then the remaining five members set off across the greensward and into the trees.
While the woodland was not impenetrable, the going was not easy. There were pathways between the trees made by herbivorous mammals, perhaps deer, but they were not generously wide. This meant that the intrepid explorers were repeatedly thwacked in the face by the bushes that filled in the gaps between the trees. Their speed wasn't much more than walking pace either.
Good thing Bachmann wasn't with them, or they would never have heard the end of it. It wasn't all hard going though. The trees were becoming more spread out the further they went from the 'Gate. There were wider tracks in places, some with ruts that had been made by wheeled vehicles.
The woodland was dotted with clearings too. Not all were natural as there were tree stumps around the periphery which had clearly been cut down. The bigger clearings had the remains of fire-pits in the middle.
"It doesn't really suggest an advanced technological society though, does it?" J asked Maxine when they stopped for a break and to consider their options. They'd parked along a narrow track leading into a fair sized clearing.
"Oh, I don't know. There are a number of places on Earth you could put a 'Gate so that anyone coming through wouldn't think there was advanced life there."
"I guess. Thing is, those places are pretty remote from habitation, so how far do we have to travel to find them? And supposing there's - I don't know - a ravine or a major river ahead of us?"
"That's it, Major," Luc said, "Just keep up that positive attitude!"
"Shh!" Theo hissed from the end of the line nearest to the clearing. Then he signed 'p.e.o.p.l.e.'
The rest moved up quietly nearer to the edge of the 'bush line.' Maxine thought fancifully that if Grandfather Daniel had been with them, he would already have barged out of the undergrowth to greet them. Maxine wasn't Daniel! She preferred to know what she was up against before coming out of hiding...
There were three people approaching the clearing. They were clearly confident that they were alone, chatting and laughing among themselves, completely oblivious of the watchers. The leader, a young woman, was wearing deep green robes with a hood and a wimple rather like a mediaeval nun. The other two were men in homespun clothing. They were pulling a small cart between them. Its cargo was obviously heavy.
Maxine was already pulling a leaf green robe out of the trunk of her PATT and putting it on.
"What d'you think you're doing?" J growled in her ear.
"That would be my job. I'm going to creep round and see if I can hear what language they're speaking and maybe introduce myself."
"Oh, come on, there are only three of them."
"That we know of."
"I can handle it. I don't need a nursemaid," Maxine scowled.
Knowing which battles could be won and which couldn't, J gave up. He merely murmured with a significant glance at Lt. Kern, whose mind was clearly elsewhere, "Insubordination, Doctor?"
"Just following in Grandfather Daniel's footsteps," Maxine grinned, then slipped silently away along a narrow path.
The three travelers seemed to be taking a break too. She managed to creep to a convenient distance for listening and made herself comfortable behind a shrubby corkscrew hazel.
At first, she thought she was the butt of some sort of cosmic joke; they were speaking English! On the plus side, it made intelligence gathering so much easier.
"Your grace, is it wise to linger in so open a place? If Count Orthon has news of our mission, he will undoubtedly try to get his hands on the gold."
"You worry too much, Taff," the lady smiled. "Have no fear. Vanya-Fey, our beloved goddess, is watching over us, I am certain."
"But we are still far from the site of her temple in Paradise Bottom," said the other man looking round nervously.
Maxine was so absorbed in the strange conversation, that she failed to notice that she herself was no longer alone. Until two pairs of hands grasped an arm each and yanked her to her feet. They dragged her into the clearing and shoved her down at the lady's feet.
"It seems we have caught ourselves one of Count Orthon's spies, your grace," said one of the two big men. Both were wearing dark blue tabards over chain-mail. There was a picture of a flower embroidered in silvery thread on their tabards.
"I am not a spy!" Maxine protested. "I am a stranger here, scouting for my people who wish to find suitable trading partners."
"A likely tale!" said the other man.
"It is true nevertheless."
There was a sudden sound of a horse's hoofs from the track that the three travelers had come from. A small piebald horse skidded to a halt in the clearing and its rider hastily dismounted.
"High Priestess Albinia, I, the apprentice Morgil, bring tidings from the Archmage, Dalfang."
"Indeed? Then speak your message speedily, Morgil," the high priestess said.
"While scrying for another purpose, the archmage has discovered a plot to steal the gold destined for the building of the new temple to Vanya-Fey. Count Orthon has despatched a group of Nighthawks to ambush you before you ever reach Paradise Bottom. The archmage has sent his other apprentice, Yewan, to King Torin-Ulfric in the hopes that he may be able to spare some of the Black Dragon Knights to ride to your rescue."
"Oh dear," said the high priestess, wringing her hands. "I never thought Orthon would get wind of our mission. Sir Bennegard, Sir Wayland, what do you advise?"
"There is a small fort some two miles north of here in Linden Lea where we can hold out until the Dragon Knights come to our relief," said Sir Bennegard. "Morgil here can take tidings of our whereabouts to the king."
"Meanwhile," said Sir Wayland, "we will discover more of Count Orthon's dastardly plot and the whereabouts of his Nighthawks from this spy here..."