Hitched - Part 1
Another mission for SG-24 ~ and another attempt on J's life?
WARNINGS: The usual military language
Maxine went to her office in the Arlington Building. She felt she was getting a little behind with her decryption work and didn't want to give Warren any more cause for complaint. They were due to visit another Wildcard World in the near future. SG-24 figured the president was waiting for Kern to return to active duty rather than risk another 'failed mission' with a team of five.
On her arrival, she placed the butterfly, dangling from the stand Theo had made from a wire coat-hanger, on her desk next to her computer. Someone had clearly been in her office since she'd been there last, as there was a plate, with a half-eaten sandwich on it, on top of her yellow notepad. It certainly wasn't hers and it gave her a creepy feeling, given she kept her office locked, and didn't usually eat at her desk. She moved the plate onto the paper-storage unit by the door. She would take it back to the commissary later.
When she returned to her desk, she found that the plate had been concealing a torn scrap of paper on which was written in large, childish capitals:
Curious. She wondered idly if the LARP-ers from Tellera had been visiting with their trade delegation, then stuffed the paper in her pocket and got on with her work.
Later that day, Ash was having lunch at the Sunny Side Up, as was his wont. Maybe Theo would join him later, or possibly Maxine. J and Luc usually ate in the commissary, so for now, he was on his own.
He became aware of a tall, dark-haired, handsome man standing beside his booth and looking down at him. He returned a questioning look.
"It's kinda busy here. Is it alright if I share your booth?"
"Sure. I'll be leaving soon anyway," Ash responded.
"Thank you. I'm new to the area. Working for the government." He rolled his eyes.
"Maybe you could give me some info about the town?"
"Not really. I don't get out much."
'Soon' came earlier than Ash had planned, as the guy continued rambling on about this and that and nothing in particular as if they were old friends from way back.
The guy kept coming back every day or two. If there were tables free, he would take one of those - giving Ash a friendly wave if he caught his eye. Usually he came when it was busy, and usually, but not always, joined Ash. He apologized if Ash felt he was crowding him.
"I just like company and I'm trying to find my feet, being new to the area and all. And I don't like eating alone during these troubled times, so I hope you'll take pity on this lonely stranger. But we don't need to be total strangers. My name's Dougal Drake by the way. You?"
"Mr. Kirkwood," Ash responded wearily, wishing one - or more - of his friends would come and rescue him from this importuning stranger.
No, not a stranger any more, unfortunately. Not now that he had a name.
"Would you excuse me, please? I'm due back at the Office of National Security and I need to go to the pharmacy on the way. I have a migraine coming on."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Drake replied with a dazzling smile. "Hope it'll soon clear up."
"Yeah, thanks," Ash said and left.
The next time Ash went to the Sunny Side Up, he made a point of taking a friend with him in the not-too-sanguine hope that if the guy came in, he'd take the hint and leave him alone. It didn't help that the guy was stunningly good-looking. If Ash wasn't already spoken for, and if the guy was gay...
Ash decided against taking Theo, who wasn't always proof against the green-eyed monster - flattering as that was. Come to that, he too was occasionally prey to said monster.
So, he went to round up Maxine for a free lunch. As luck would have it, Drake was already there when they arrived, and as it wasn't busy, Ash could pick a table well away from the annoying man. It was too much to hope that he hadn't seen them come in, but maybe he would have the good manners to stay away?
What was he thinking?!
As soon as Drake clapped eyes on them, he came over to meet Mr. Kirkwood's "charming and beautiful girlfriend".
"I'm afraid you've made a mistake there," Maxine said with a smile that came nowhere near her eyes. "Ash and I are just friends."
"That's not what I heard," the irritating man replied with a sly smile. "Another day perhaps?" Then he was gone.
"Looks like this wasn't a free lunch after all," Maxine quipped.
"It's not funny. That guy really creeps me out, and I don't know why."
"My paranoia rubbing off on you?"
"Maybe. I mean, he seems pleasant and friendly enough... I don't know. Maybe he is just a lonely new guy in a strange town?"
Two days later, Ash found a plain brown envelope in his pigeonhole at the O.N.S. Curious as he was, he took it his office before he opened it. Inside were a number of photographs of the interior of his own apartment. They had clearly been taken during the Kellermann affair.
He recalled that someone had broken in, yet had apparently taken nothing. Now he knew what had been 'taken' as he looked at half a dozen snaps of his unmade bed with Maxine's skimpy nightdress on it and her underwear drying on the rack.
There was also a photocopied report from the office of the 'morality police.' It was an account of the relationship between Mr. Asher Kirkwood and Dr. Esther Maxine Pepperday who were known to be "living together without benefit of clergy."
Clipped to the report was a note saying "Just a heads-up from a friend - D.D."
Maxine was in a briefing for their next mission, to P7Y-329, the Wildcard World. Warren had apparently gotten bored with waiting for Kern's return and had given the go-ahead for a team of five for the following day.
Maxine was suspicious - naturally. Was this another set-up to remove J from the team and replace him with Bachmann?
So, as Maxine - and the rest of the team - were incommunicado, Ash went to the Sunny Side Up alone. As he suspected, Drake was there waiting for him.
He slid into the seat opposite and demanded, "What's going on?"
"I'm sorry, didn't I say? I've just moved to the Colorado branch of the Office of Public Morality. I saw your name and as Dr. Pepperday denied anything beyond friendship, I figured I should give you a heads-up. It's what friends are for after all, isn't it?"
"You work for the 'morality police'?" Ash growled in disgust.
"Yes, I do, and I make no apology for it. I don't agree with what they do. I think people should be free to follow their hearts in whatever manner works for them, and by working where I do, I can warn people such as yourself - good people - before things get out of hand," Drake replied with a warm smile. "I'm sure you would do the same thing in my place?"
Ash gave a non-committal grunt and shrugged.
"I'm also in a position to make this go away," Drake went on.
Drake chuckled. "No flies on you, I can see. As a matter of fact, there is something you could do for me. Before the 'morality police' - and those damn' warriors start their 'interrogation...'"
Then he told Ash what he wanted.
Ash felt that his soi-disant friend was holding a gun to his head.
"I'll think about it," he said, standing up.
"Well don't think too long, my friend. The clock's tickin'." Drake's accompanying smile seemed to have slipped somehow.
Ash returned to the S.G.C. and managed to track Maxine down in the WPX commissary. He grabbed a sandwich and coffee and joined her.
"You look worried, Ash," she said.
"Yeah, I am. Potentially, we're in big trouble - both of us," he replied and passed her the envelope with the photos and the report.
"Where did you get these?" Maxine wanted to know.
"From the guy in the Sunny Side Up. He works for the Office of Public Morality, but says he's really working against them. A bit like we do, I guess. He says he can make it all go away."
"But he wants something in return, and I figure - if he was really my friend - he'd make it go away with no strings attached. Like we would."
"You're right. Let's go somewhere private where we won't be overheard," Maxine suggested. And sneezed. "Damn! Looks like privacy's out." She thought for a moment. "I know where. Let's go."
She took him to her office.
"Here?" Ash asked, pointing to the butterfly.
"Yep!" she replied, heading for the bathroom where she turned the shower on full. Ash followed.
"What do we know about this guy?" she asked in a low voice, thrusting her hands into her pockets.
"Only what he told me, which is a whole lot of not very much."
Maxine, suspicious, asked what his name was. She registered something in her pocket. It was the torn strip of paper.
"Dougal Drake," Ash replied.
Maxine stared at the paper. "Oh. My. God!"
Suddenly it all fell into place. 'Dougal' meant dark - or black - and 'Drake' was an old word for dragon.
"Don't tell me, he wants you to get him the dark crown we brought back from Noucincu?"
Ash, wide-eyed, nodded. "Yes. Why?"
"You remember when we came back from Persulis and Grandfather Daniel visited looking like an old tramp?"
Ash nodded again, looking worried.
"Grandfather warned me that an evil guy called Kyros - your 'friend' Drake, I believe - wants the Crown of Ultimate Power."
"Crown of Ultimate Power?"
"Yeah. Apparently our crown is a very powerful artefact - if you know how to use it."
"Uh-huh? And Kyros?"
"He's a kind of half-ascended human like Anubis. He also wants to get his hands on a book known as the Diabolikon which contains information about how to use the crown. He's too evil to be able to open it himself so, Grandfather said, he'll be looking for someone 'pure of spirit' to open it for him. He meant you, Ash!"
"Me? 'Pure of spirit?'"
Maxine nodded. "For his purposes, you're perfect."
"So you have to be careful. Stay away from"
"The Sunny Side Up. Yeah, I got that!"
"Oh, if only we didn't have a mission tomorrow!"
"Actually, I have a plan," Ash said suddenly. "I think I can make the morality problem go away. Do you trust me?"
"Of course I do, Ash. You should know that by now."
"Just checking," Ash smiled. "Oh, and I need to contact your Dad."
"Okay." She gave him the Denver address and 'phone number and also Aunt Claire's 'phone number, in case he was elsewhere. Claire - or Joel - could always track him down.
On her way home, Maxine popped into the Carter Physics Lab to see if Dr. Feynman was still there. He was.
"Hi, David. You remember I told you there was some guy trying to get his hands on that crown of ours?"
"Well, I have reason to believe he's using the name, Dougal Drake. Have you been approached by him?"
She considered giving Drake's description but figured he could probably change his appearance, so decided against. Hm, he could possibly make himself look like her, which was an unsettling thought. However, he hadn't become that brazen and the crown was safe. For now. Apparently.
"I'm afraid I haven't had time to investigate it any further though," Feyman said apologetically.
As Kern wouldn't be joining them, and as Bachmann would be guarding the 'Gate again, the rest of the team had their zats and a few other potentially useful items already stored in their PATTs.
P7Y-329 was an agrarian world, allegedly, with mixed woodland surrounding the 'Gate. A track some six to eight feet wide meandered between the trees, heading north for the most part, and coming out at the top of a shallow sloping bank. Beyond that, according to the ASP footage, was a broad, cultivated valley.
Luc helped Bachmann push the AVCOP into the trees behind the 'Gate, then the four set off down the track. With a right-angled bend to the west coming up, Maxine said to J, "When we get 'round the bend, can we pull into the trees for a pow-wow, please?"
"Paranoid already, Maxine?" J grinned.
"Not just Maxine," Luc said.
Out of Bachmann's field of view, the four found a convenient clearing a few feet off the track in which to park.
"Right, what's the problem?"
"I think this is another set-up, probably aimed at removing you, J," Maxine began.
"Because? Well, apart from the obvious?"
"This is another Bruxan world, which no one thought to tell us."
J looked interested. "Go on."
"Bachmann's acting out of character - not too much, but just enough to be significant. Think about it. He was co-operative - pleasant even."
"Yeah. Called me 'sir' too. Without any prompting..."
"I just sensed a feeling of... of... I don't know, expectancy. Like he's waiting for something to happen that we don't know about," Maxine said.
"That's called paranoia, Maxine," J said gently.
"Not necessarily," Luc put in. "When I helped him hide the AVCOP, he had it turned with the camera facing away from the 'Gate, and when he thought I wasn't paying attention, he gave it another shove so the lens was obscured by a thick spray of leaves."
J looked thoughtful. "You're right. That does sound suspicious."
"But it might yet play to our advantage," Luc said. "Remember when we got jumped by Eneas and his friends - well, you won't, obviously - but the first thing he did was to shoot up the AVCOP. That saved us a whole lot of explaining."
"Okay, let's make our way on foot through the trees to that next sharp bend and see what's lying in wait. If anything. But stay in cover anyway."
Ten minutes later, they were looking down a long straight track, which led north again, and disappeared into the distance. About a mile away down the track was a sizeable group of men, dressed in green, heading towards them.
"Damn! Looks like Bruxai," J said, pulling a monoscope out of his vest pocket. "Shit! It's Eneas and some of his friends. Looks like they're prisoners."
"How many are there?" Luc asked.
"I think four of them are friendlies, then there are another six or seven."
"Seven sounds about right," Maxine said. "Nashak said there are usually six and a leader."
"Well, we can't ignore this," J began.
"Actually, I have an idea," Theo said cautiously and explained quickly.
"Yeah, sounds like that could well work," J nodded, "and if we use that east-west part of the track, we'll be out of sight of both the Bruxai and Bachmann. Okay, let's go!"