by Domenika Marzione

"Anything we need to discuss before the kiddies show up?"

Lorne looked at his watch. The staff meeting was scheduled for a half-hour from now, so Sheppard was here either to reread the material under discussion or wanted to go off and do something that would probably take forty minutes. "Only unless you want to talk about whether we are letting Nagley and Cardejo loose upon the galaxy."

The two new lieutenants had been kept on fairly short leashes so far -- milk runs (actual milk runs, not the sort of milk runs that turned into hostage situations) and internal security, but not escorting civilian missions or serving as the quick reaction force in the ready rooms. But it had been a month already and both Polito (Nagley) and Hanzis (Cardejo) had agreed that it was past time to get both platoons back in the regular rotation. Lorne was inclined to agree with them and thought Sheppard did, too.

Sheppard shrugged against the doorway he was leaning against. He wasn't carrying his laptop, which meant that he was going to disappear until the meeting. "If Polito and Hanzis are fine with it, then I'm fine with it. Maybe Nagley's a little less..." he trailed off, making a vague gesture with his hand that Lorne understood completely because he'd wondered the same thing, " in the field."

"We hope," Lorne answered with a grin. Nagley was a good guy and Polito seemed to think he'd work out. He had Paik's old platoon and those guys were probably used to a commander who was a little on the flaky side, except Nagley didn't have the excuse of being a moonlighting jet fighter pilot.

"I'll be back," Sheppard said, pointing over his shoulder and then pushing off the doorway and heading off.

Lorne went back to his notes, then took one final read-through of the mission plan he'd written up for his team's next sojourn before submitting it. (The paperwork was purely for posterity and the SGC; Sheppard never read them, instead showing up at Lorne's office, asking a few questions, and then granting permission with an exhortation to bring back everyone he left with.)

Suarez hadn't missed any time with the graze wound, but there'd been a gap since the last adventure -- mostly because Charlie Company was virtually shorthanded with Nagley's platoon unable to perform certain duties and the other two were compensating. But with things returning to normal, there was no time like the present to get out and see the sights. Lorne wasn't the only member of the team to be getting a little antsy to escape the city for a while, although he suspected Yoni was just feeling a little persecuted because (according to Beckett) Clayton was becoming good friends with Keller and that meant one more doctor unintimidated by Yoni's bark and growl. Carson thought it was prime entertainment, or at least some much-needed comeuppance for Yoni, but for Lorne it meant pointed questions about when they were next taking the (devil) dogs for a walk.

With ten minutes to go, the marines started filing in. Hanzis, because he was always the earliest, then Polito because he was closest and First Sergeant Backman had probably punted him out of his own office, then Radner with Kagan tagging along because it was Kagan's turn to be Logistics Officer. Sheppard returned just after everyone got through giving the notoriously-bad-with-paperwork Kagan the business about irony and getting all of his stuff ready for the databurst -- and had a look about him that made Lorne think that he'd gone off to nap for half an hour. Which wasn't anything to criticize and something Lorne had done in the middle of the day once or twice (or more).

The meeting itself was mercifully brief -- not short, but at least briskly efficient. There'd been a rash of frontier spirit down in the Science Division the previous week and the marines had hauled half a dozen civilians back in from parts of the city that they weren't supposed to be in alone. Sheppard promised to speak to McKay about it, along with some newly created 'rule' about not letting the marines do their patrols through the hallways by the ATA labs if it was during business hours. ("It means they're either building something or testing something they know we're gonna stop, sir," Hanzis reported with a sigh. "I'd rather find out what it is before they blow up half the city.")

Kagan ended up following Lorne back to his office because he needed some hard copies of old reports that nobody could find on the server (Lorne took the opportunity to be smug in front of everyone before agreeing to retrieve them).

"You going to have everything done by Thursday?" Lorne asked, flipping through the files in the cabinet. Murphy's Law dictated that they would be on the bottom.

"Yes, sir," Kagan replied, a disembodied voice from somewhere above. "Gunny Nicholls won't let me screw this up. Made me do all of the spreadsheets and then write a nice letter to my brother."

Lorne found the file and stood up carefully. "You need to be reminded to write a letter home?"

Kagan wasn't spacey like Nagley, but he was certainly a little offbeat. "No, sir," he replied with a grin, accepting the file Lorne held out. "Little showoff got into Harvard early and Gunny said that that deserved more than a 'nice job, dipshit' email. Especially since he's going ROTC. He has to do it at MIT 'cause Harvard doesn't like military, but I've still got four years to convince him to join the Corps."

Lorne smiled in return. "Instead of the Air Force?"

Kagan looked aghast for all of half a second, which Lorne interpreted as equivalent to a confession, and then shook his head. "I'll be a captain by the time he's commissioned, sir," Kagan said instead. "I want to improve my chances of being able to order him around and him not being able to run to Mom and complain."

Lorne shook his head in amusement, then thought of something. "Colleges are announcing who gets in now?"

It had been too long since Lorne had done his own eager rain dances around the mailbox for him to remember. But if it was, it would explain the mood swings of one particular sergeant. ("I think there was some sort of Freaky Friday thing that went on back on Earth, sir," Suarez confided. "We didn't get Reletti back. We got one of his sisters in his body and he's back in Arizona trying to figure out how to put a bra on instead of taking it off.")

"Depends, sir," Kagan answered. "If you're applying early, then yeah. Most of it happens in the spring, though."

A few minutes later, Kagan took the file and swore to return it intact and Lorne went back to his desk to work and wonder where Reletti had been accepted that he'd gone from despondent to giddy in the space of a day.

"This year, Sergeant!" Lorne called over his shoulder. "I'd like to get out and back before the next Wraith visit."

A muffled reply, since Suarez undoubtedly had his head deep into one of the bins.

"Want me to get him, sir?" Ortilla asked with maybe a little too much eagerness.

"Give him another minute," Lorne replied. "I'd rather leave five minutes late than listen to him bitch all afternoon."

Missions that involved puddle jumpers had special requirements and one of them was Lorne making sure that all unnecessary irritants were avoided. The ride would be enough like a minivan full of elementary schoolers as it was.

Suarez appeared, adjusting the velcro on one his vest pockets. "Sorry, sir," he said and Lorne might have believed him if they hadn't been reliving this scenario every mission for the last two years.

"You want some flying practice, Sergeant?" Lorne asked as they made their way to the jumper bay.

"No!" Ortilla and Suarez chorused in unison. Reletti flipped them the bird, but said he'd rather wait for the return trip if that was all right. Lorne said it was, figuring he'd get someone to help Reletti with his landings some after when his teammates wouldn't be around to give him shit the entire time.

"Does the database have anything on this place, sir?" Ortilla asked as he sat in the co-pilot's seat. Two years and they all had their 'spots' -- nobody even commented about Reletti's sitting in the rear compartment anymore (when he wasn't flying, in which case it was Suarez's spot).

Ortilla knew the answer was no, but he had maybe too much faith in Lorne's ability to pull something out of nothing.

"Not even sure the place is habitated," Lorne replied, feeling the jumper's momentary confusion before Reletti did whatever he did to tell the jumper not to pay attention to him and instead focus on Lorne. Snowball was a bit of a snob that way. "It was ten thousand years ago, but...."

But ten thousand years was a long time and they'd all gotten used to how out of date the database was. M4D-058 had a space gate and it probably hadn't seen human footsteps in millennia.

"Flight, this is Jumper Two," Lorne said into his radio. "Our trays are up and our seat backs are in the upright position."

Once they had clearance from Doctor Zigmanis, Lorne let Snowball take them down through the bay floor and into a hover as Ortilla dialed the gate. In the control room, Lorne could see an annoyed Doctor Yee glaring at the jumper, a tiny, angry form next to the lanky Lieutenant Osgeny.

"What did you do now, Doc?" Suarez asked cheerfully, watching Yee watch them as the jumper turned slowly toward the stargate.

Yoni, who had probably not even looked up from the tablet he was reading, made a dismissive sound. "Nothing that wasn't deserved."

(Yoni always brought his own entertainment on jumper trips; always something to read and, if the ride was going to be longer than an hour, his iPod. While Lorne encouraged the marines to take their iPods on long trips, too, he still felt slightly abandoned by Yoni's withdrawal from the world on even the shorter trips.)

"As long as there isn't an armed guard to take you down to the brig on our return," Lorne sighed, accelerating into the wormhole.

Nobody got a chance to comment. Once they were through the gate, something else distracted them completely.

"Are those satellites, sir?" Ortilla asked, surprised.

"Apparently," Lorne replied, bringing the jumper to a near-standstill. There were maybe a half-dozen small satellites at a distance from the planet that Lorne knew from Milky Way experience was close enough to be for anything from cell phones to weapons.

"A planet with space capabilities would certainly be a change," Yoni said. Out of the corner of his eye, Lorne could see him stowing his tablet. "On the other hand, if we haven't encountered them yet, there may be a good reason why."

"Not every advanced civilization is out to get us, Doc," Reletti said from the bulkhead doorway. This was an old argument and neither Yoni nor Reletti had agreed to disagree.

"That's 'cuz you don't remember us having to drag your sorry ass around Thador," Suarez retorted.

"What 'we', Kemosabe?" Ortilla asked. "I seem to remember you walking point while Ronon and I shlepped him around."

Yoni grinned, presumably at the proper use of Yiddish rather than at the memories of that hellish fortnight.

"Well, let's take a closer look," Lorne said, urging the jumper forward and toward the planet. He pulled up the display to make sure the shield was working properly -- if those satellites were defensive -- but since it was in Ancient, only Reletti knew what he'd done.

The satellites weren't weapons -- or if they were, they didn't recognize the jumper as hostile. Lorne figured it was the former and switched the shield off and the cloak on; most people automatically assumed a flying ship was Wraith and Lorne didn't want to make any bad first impressions.

There were life signs on the other side of the planet and Lorne followed them, aware that the bickering and usual jumper ride amusements had fallen away and that his team was back in a more professional mode.

"The fuck?" Ortilla half-exclaimed as they came upon where the life signs should be.

"Maybe it's another place that's got the satellites," Reletti suggested as they passed over thatch huts and the sorts of simple villages that were the standard for Pegasus.

"Or it could be like that place where they kidnapped Colonel Sheppard to make ATA-enhanced babies," Yoni put in and everyone else laughed. "All of the wealth in one place."

"Or it could be like Thador and it's just bullshit while they hide the real city," Suarez said.

"Can you stop dwelling on that for a second, dude?" Reletti asked plaintively.

Lorne followed the river for a while, then took the jumper in for a landing about half a kilometer from the nearest of the group of villages. They put on their gear as the ramp dropped and nobody joked at the extra preparations made.

Reletti walked point -- close enough to be able to fall back, not like his Greta Garbo routine from the last mission -- and Suarez was tail-end charlie and the rest of them kept their eyes open because Thador was on all of their minds no matter how much they wished to forget it.

"Holy fuck!" Reletti's whispered voice came over the radio. "Sir, you're not going to believe this."

Lorne looked at Ortilla, then at Yoni. "What is it, Sergeant?"

"I think we've walked in to Doctor McKay's fantasy," Reletti replied.

Confused and concerned, Lorne moved up to where Reletti had found a hiding spot behind a low wall, the others crowding in behind him except for Ortilla, who was too big to completely obscure himself and stood by a large tree instead.

What he saw wasn't what he expected -- McKay's fantasy would have been ZPMs growing on trees or a village made up entirely of Ancient technology. This wasn't any of that -- it was just what it looked like from the air: another primitive world.

"The flags, sir," Reletti said quietly, gesturing toward the buildings. "The one with the red stripes."

Lorne followed Reletti's finger. "Holy fuck," he murmured.

The flag had a portrait of McKay on it. All of them did. And it wasn't just some strong resemblance -- it was McKay.

"If he's got a twin who is a local despot," Yoni said from Lorne's other side, "We will never hear the end of it and I will go back to Earth to avoid it."

"You and me both." Lorne shook his head, unable to look away. A blonde woman walked by carrying a rolled-up scroll of vellum or maybe parchment. They held their breaths and stayed still as she passed unaware.

"Reletti," he began, turning to the sergeant. "Go back to the jumper and dial Atlantis. I think we're going to want to send some video footage home."

A slightly wicked grin and a muttered "aye aye, sir" and he was off.

"Suarez, you are playing videographer," Lorne continued. "Get up here and start filming."

Suarez pulled his video camera out of his vest as he shuffled forward on his knees. Behind them, Ortilla kept watch, one hand on his rifle.

"Maybe he's a figurehead," Yoni murmured. "An inbred idiot, like the Habsburgs after they married their cousins too many times. That would be worth staying for."

"Or an evil twin," Suarez suggested, fiddling with the settings.

"No goatee," Ortilla said.

It took only a couple of minutes before Reletti could be heard over the radio talking to Atlantis and telling them that Lorne wanted to send video to Doctor McKay.

note: Thador comes from Entaillen

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19 May, 2007