A Bridge Too Far

by Domenika Marzione

There's no shame in asking, they say, because there's nothing wrong with the request, but Chris Suarez still looks both ways before he enters the corridor. Checking for witnesses. Hoping there aren't any.

Captain Radner isn't his company commander, so there's only a limited number of reasons why he'd be going to see him. Radner is the battalion S1, responsible for admin issues, which includes personnel matters, which in turn covers the delicate matter of wanting to go home.

You join the marines, you go where they send you and you don't ask why. This is an all-volunteer service, everyone in uniform is there of their own volition, and the Corps figures that's enough -- you got on the ride, now shut the fuck up. Chris chose to enlist, chose to become infantry, chose to come to Atlantis. There shouldn't be any official channel for him to act on his doubts. It's the nature of Atlantis that there is one, anyway.

He's been here a month and most of the time it's like everything else he's seen in the past decade -- morning PT and lines in the chow hall and training exercises that have little or nothing to do with the task he's been brought here to accomplish. The rest of the time, it's like nothing he's ever imagined and that's what is tripping him up a little.

Chris can hear voices echoing around the pastel-and-gunmetal halls and that could mean that someone's already waiting and part of him wants to come back later, but he's not a coward and so he presses on. Radner's office, like Captain Polito's, has an anteroom and a separate entrance both. The door to Radner's office is closed and there are two marines already waiting in the anteroom and so Chris sits, a nod to them both. They're not from his company and he doesn't know them except by their name tape, and while they could be here for something like payroll or leave or any of a million other reasons, there's a good chance that they are here for the same reason he is and it's not something any of them would like to confirm. So they sit with their yaps shut and wait.

A minute later, Bravo's Top, First Sergeant Wrubelski emerges, still laughing at some joke between himself and the captain. He nods to the three of them and passes out of the office.

"Who's up first?" Radner calls from the inside. The blond guy across from Chris stands up and goes in, the door closing automatically behind him a few seconds later.

With nothing to do but wait, Chris closes his eyes. His platoon's on fucking night shift and everyone else is either asleep or trying to get that way; he's beat from spending the dark hours wandering around the Spire on patrols against ghosts and aliens and nocturnal scientists who get pissy when you tell them that they can't go into uncleared areas. Like all of the other marines, Chris hopes they're a little less ungrateful when he's putting his life on the line to save their whiny asses. It's not a requirement, but it would be a nice benefit.

From the open window near him, he can hear the faint noises of marines at work outside. The building (unofficially called Little Tripoli, much to the annoyance of their Air Force COs) has only been hosting Atlantis's marines for the last couple of months, since the siege, and everyone is still figuring out where to put what and whom and so there's a lot of improvised construction going on. Stupid jokes about expeditionary conditions (Atlantis Expedition -- get it? get it?) are all over the barracks and the work would be going faster if they didn't have civilian engineers all over the place poking around and taking measurements and bitching about their laptop batteries. Or if they didn't have the marines with the ATA genes setting shit off by accident.

Chris doesn't have the Ancient gene, but two guys in his platoon do and he thanks God every day that he's not the third to have an alien in his family tree. Reletti and Spelcher are always causing accidents or getting dragged off by civilians and you don't have to be a mind-reader to see how much the whole thing is freaking them both out. The city talks to them. One second they're fine and the next... they get distracted and their eyes may be open, but you know they're not seeing a fucking thing. It would be less of a problem for Chris if Reletti wasn't in his squad, on his team, and he's had to learn to keep one eye on their surroundings and the other on making sure Reletti's not off listening to pixies or whateverthefuck happens when Atlantis gets chatty. (A task that is harder than it looks; recon or not, Reletti was a flake before they got to Atlantis and the extra weirdness is just icing.)

He's going to have to explain to Radner why he wants to go back to Earth, why he can't seem to adjust to what is essentially just another deployment in a foreign land. And for all of the thinking he'd done, for all of the times he'd told himself to buck up and be a marine and get through this, he doesn't know if he has the words to do so. It's not the danger; Chris's introduction to warfare came in the battle for Nasiriyah and he's spent almost all of the time since either in combat or training for it. He's not afraid of the fight. He's not even sure why fighting aliens is any different from fighting hajis -- not that they've seen any aliens besides Teyla and her people on the mainland. They haven't seen any danger, either. They've spent their first month in Atlantis in Atlantis.

The door opens and the blond marine comes out of Radner's office looking all casual, like maybe it really was a payroll thing. He leaves and the other guy gets up when Radner summons the next marine.

It's pretty fucking obvious why they didn't tell anyone what they were signing up for before they signed up. Chris is in another galaxy, having traveled there on a spaceship and he doesn't quite believe it yet, either. The pitch -- delivered by an Air Force officer to a room half-full of skeptical marines in an out-of-the-way building at MCAS New River -- covered all of the big points (isolated, dangerous deployment to fight an enemy hellbent on destroying their way of life) without getting into specifics and there was no reason to think that this wasn't some way for a JTF to get some more marines. It wasn't until he signed on and received a TDY to fucking NORAD that Chris had realized that something was up.

Another marine, someone Chris recognizes from company exercises as a team leader from Third Platoon, comes in and sits down across from him. They nod and proceed to pretend the other man isn't there.

Chris likes his billet. More than his last few, actually, which was one of the reasons he was willing to sign up. His platoon is a group of good guys, mostly, and it's all kinds of different to be all NCOs with no privates or lance corporals running around acting like privates and lance corporals. Exercises go faster and harder and better when everyone's been doing the same shit for years. And for all that he wonders if (when) Reletti's going to space out on him and Ortilla, it's a far cry from keeping an eye on his squad back in his old unit because Reletti knows what the fuck he's doing better than Chris does. (Not that he'll admit that. Ever.) Lieutenant Patchok's still learning how to handle the fact that his marines were all squad leaders and platoon sergeants back on Earth, but he's quick to admit a fuck-up and quicker to volunteer them for something (anything) that'll get them outside, if not yet out of the city. Chris appreciates a platoon commander who works hard to stave off boredom; his last one was so worried about getting someone (himself) killed that they did nothing because it might involve risk.

It's not the people he has to live with that get to him. It's the people he has to live without. Chris feels the distance from home in a way that he never has before. His parents got a digital camera a few years ago and finally learned how to use their computer, but he's so fucking far away from them that he feels lost. There are no phone calls like he'd been able to do from Iraq, no weekend visits from his folks like he'd gotten when he'd been Stateside, and even though the email comes and goes in the weekly databurst back to Earth, real mail only comes with the Daedalus and that's going to be every couple of months tops. (They've been assured that they can get care packages, but the uncertain dates of the only means of conveying them means that perishables of any kind are on the list of forbidden items, which in turn means no more cookies from Mom, who had finally figured out how to pack them so they'd arrive at his base camp in reasonably good shape.)

He's as worried about what goes back on the Daedalus as what comes in. Like everyone else, he has a death letter. If something should happen -- and they're not getting all kinds of danger and combat pay on the assumption that something won't -- he doesn't want it to take six months for that letter to get home. He doesn't want his parents to have to wait months to bury him. He doesn't even know if the SGC would release his body or if they'd keep it and say that there was nothing to bury just in case there was any way to tell that he didn't die on Earth. He doesn't want his parents wondering what happened to him, how he died or if he suffered, and suspects that all of this would be classified intel and all they'd ever get would be a folded flag. And they deserve more.

His parents are huge Marine Corps supporters. His dad wears the t-shirts, his mom made a quilt to be used by wounded marines at Bethesda and they are involved with half a dozen mailing lists and family support groups. They are so proud of him that he suspects his brother is only half-joking when he tells Chris that their parents are disappointed that he didn't join up as well. But Jason's not like him; he was good in school, wanted to go to college, and always knew what he wanted to do. People who met their family for the first time always used to think that Jason was the older brother and not Chris. Jason graduated high school and went straight to Bowling Green; Chris went from construction job to construction job until he became a marine almost by accident.

He's proud of being a marine, however it happened, and he's glad to serve, but he's not sure he wants to be carrying a rifle for another thirteen years. Ortilla is a lifer, already past the halfway mark and he's the kind of guy who'll stick it out past twenty because the Corps will beg him not to go. Chris isn't sure he wants that. One of his drinking buddies from his corporal days is out now; Eddie married his girlfriend, became a fireman, and has his second kid on the way. He still follows the news, still keeps in touch with some of the guys, still cares about the Marines, but he's happy doing what he's doing and doesn't regret leaving when his contract was done. "I'm getting a head start on the rest of my life," Eddie said when he hung 'em up. Chris thinks about leaving, too, when his enlistment is done, about going home and becoming a cop and being able to see his family whenever he wants, not just when he has a free weekend and money for airfare. Or a way back from another galaxy far, far away.

The door to Radner's office opens and the marine comes out, looking a little rattled and a lot relieved. Chris guesses he got permission to go home.

It's his turn and he goes in and Radner tells him to sit down, asks him his unit, how long he's been waiting in the anteroom, and does everything to try to ease the tension that Chris can feel coursing through him like electricity. Radner tells him that anything he says here is confidential, that he won't tell anyone in Chris's chain of command unless (a) Chris is endangering himself or anyone else, (b) a decision is made, or (c) Chris wants him to. It's the usual shit and Chris has been in the Marines long enough to know that nothing ever really stays confidential forever, but the marines in Bravo like Radner (not as much as Charlie likes Polito, but Captain Polito is the right kind of crazy to inspire that kind of loyalty) and Chris chooses to believe it for now.

"I'm not adapting as well as I should be, sir," Chris finally says when they get down to business. It sounds a little ridiculous now that he's finally said it and he blushes, looking down in embarrassment.

Radner chuckles quietly and Chris looks up, but it's perfectly obvious that Radner's not laughing at him. "Don't be embarrassed, Sergeant. It's precisely what I wanted to say when I got asked how things were going here."

Captain Polito is the senior captain, but Radner's been here longer -- he was here for the siege and nobody forgets that. It is, in fact, one of the reasons why Chris waited so long to come to him. How do you confess that you can't hack it to a guy who hacked through the worst this place has ever seen?

"But 'I'm in over my head' it's not something you can tell a room full of two-stars and civilian oversight bureaucrats," Radner goes on with a small shrug. "So I told them that things were going just fine."

Chris smiles weakly, mostly because he's not sure he isn't being told very gently to suck it up like a real marine.

"Now bullshitting in a VTC to generals sitting a galaxy away is one thing, especially since there wasn't fuck-all anyone could do about anything at the time." Radner sits back a little in his seat. "But none of that's applicable here. I knew what the hell I was getting into, more or less. We asked you boys to show up and then sprung the whole science fiction thing on you and expected you to just be good marines and deal. And, really, you all have, with rare exception. You're not one of those exceptions."

"Sir?" Chris blinks, then realizes what's being said without being said: just like in every other unit, the ones who are turning out fragile are already being weeded out. He's had to help out with the process himself once or twice, kids whose first time in combat proved that they were simply not meant to be in the line of fire, and he knows that the Marines have a process for this. But in a unit where everyone has seen combat, where even the lowest guys used to lead men, it never crossed his mind that the same sort of concerns would be present.

He looks back at Radner and nods slowly, showing that he understands. Or that he thinks he understands.

"It hasn't been easy here for you, I know," Radner says. "And everyone from Colonel Sheppard on down knows that, too. We don't have our facilities the way we need them, we don't have missions, we don't have intel, and we're wasting everyone's time practicing MOUT and amphibious assaults, neither of which will be all that useful once we get out around the galaxy. Everyone here is out of their element, still trying to absorb the reality of the situation, and you've got nothing to do but think too much."

And everyone knows that marines shouldn't be left to think at all, Chris mentally supplies. He's still a little thrown by the openness of the discussion -- he's getting an explanation, which is not usually something that officers bother with when telling marines how things are. But this is Atlantis, they are constantly reminded, and things are different here.

"The facilities are going to take a while," Radner goes on. "But the 'no missions' is going to be ending in short order. Operations outside of the city have pretty much been on hold since the siege and that's already starting to change. Once we're fully active, the marines are going to have all of the work we can handle, both on our own and serving as protection for civilian missions. And once that happens, I think morale will improve by leaps and bounds."

Chris is heartened by the idea that they'll finally be doing something soon, but he's not sure how much that will fix the unease that's been building inside of him for a month.

He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "I think you're right about idle hands and the devil's workshop, sir," he begins, then sighs. "But I also think... I'm maybe a little too far from home."

It's not homesickness. It's not the weird-ass architecture or the flying yule logs that are puddle jumpers or the fact that Reletti talks to the city and the city talks back. He doesn't need to be back in Pecumseh or back in the land of the big PX. He just maybe needs to be on the same planet.

Radner nods. "Our world has gotten so much smaller in the past century," he says. "Forget about the spaceships, but simply traveling our own little planet. Sixty years ago, going to Japan to fight Tojo would have felt like coming out here -- impossibly far away with no easy path back home."

Outside, there's a muted boom, a controlled explosion -- he hopes.

"Our grandfathers took slow boats across the Pacific because they had to," Radner continues after a pause, like he's waiting for either an alarm or an explanation that doesn't come, "and we have to be out here, too. The Wraith aren't that much different from the bad guys we're fighting back home. They're not just going to leave us alone because we lay low and try to be nice to 'em. This doesn't feel like just another front in the war, at least not yet, but it is."

Chris nods. He understands the mission, believes in it as much as he can considering it's about a war with life-sucking aliens and he hasn't even seen them yet. "I'm not afraid of the fight, sir."

"You wouldn't be here if you were, Sergeant," Radner says simply.

There's another explosion, this one a little louder. Radner makes a kind of worried face and Chris grimaces in acknowledgment. They have combat engineers who in theory know how to blow shit up, but everyone's skeptical. Not to the point where they're getting the civilian engineers, though.

"This place feels like another galaxy," Radner says after the shouting outside has died down. "And it probably always will. But it won't always be so far away from home. We may have to wait a bit for weekend liberty back on Earth, but maybe not so much longer for more modest advances like phone calls."

Chris knows what's coming next and braces himself.

"The Daedalus just left, so any decisions don't need to be made until it returns." Radner leans forward, resting his forearms on his desk. "If you are still uncomfortable here when it does, then we'll sit down again and discuss your options. Contrary to popular belief, there's no stop loss order for Atlantis -- if you need out, you'll get it. But I hope that you won't need out when the time comes."

Chris smiles awkwardly. "I kind of hope so, too, sir."

He's not sure about that, but Radner's been patient with him, said things that Chris thinks he needed to hear, and it seems like the thing to say to acknowledge it.

After that, it's just the usual niceties and promises to keep an open mind and Chris leaves, nodding to the three marines waiting in Radner's office when he emerges. He goes back to the barracks and gets a few hours sleep in before it's time to report for duty.

The weeks that follow go, in part, like this:

Gunny Haumann tells them that their turn to face off against Ronon Dex is coming up and they'd better make a less embarrassing show of it than Second Platoon. Ronon Dex is the number one topic of conversation in Little Tripoli -- in Atlantis as a whole -- and Chris is curious to see him in action.

They make a better show of it than Second Platoon, but they still manage to get their asses kicked in bunches by Dex. Ortilla tells Reletti that that makes two aliens he's gotten beaten up by -- Reletti knows escrima and is learning how to stickfight Athosian-style, too. Reletti tells Ortilla that at least he has an excuse for getting body-slammed by a bigger man, but what's Ortilla's since he's one of the few marines bigger than Dex. Chris keeps his mouth shut because they quickly end up insulting each other in Spanish and he can't understand them (okay, he knows 'puto') and he doesn't want them teaming up on him for that. Again.

Ortilla is the only one of their platoon to see Dex's fight with Doctor Safir because the boxing gym is right next to where it happened. Everyone presses him for details, mostly to find out what happened and partly because Ortilla's a great storyteller and if you close your eyes, you can almost see the blood spurting.

Chris ends up meeting both Safir and Dex (for real, as opposed to just acknowledging grunts in the gyms) after his platoon's second mission outside Atlantis goes spectacularly FUBAR.

He, along with the rest of Charlie Company and a few select others, attend the wall ceremony for the missing Forbes. Gallitan and Ramirez are stoics throughout, but Garrotte's quiet tears fall without shame. Lieutenant Patchok looks like he feels responsible, which is both completely wrong and absolutely right for the best reasons.

Ortilla accepts Major Lorne's offer on behalf of Chris and Reletti. Reletti's practically giddy with excitement and Chris wonders if he's just lost his chance at going home.

Charlie Company spends three days doing land nav on a planet without a name or a map but with plenty of swift-running streams. Away from the pixies in Atlantis, Reletti looks more like the displaced recon marine that he is and with his help they are the only squad that doesn't get turned around on the way to their objective during night patrols. Chris is relieved because doing well among their fellow marines (a) makes it look like Major Lorne made the right choice and (b) makes everyone realize that they are still working their asses off and haven't forgotten where their priorities are.

The Daedalus comes back, laden with food, equipment, munitions, and enough mail to keep the platoon assigned to postmaster duties busy for days. It does not bring A for Alpha Company, which Reletti renames G for Godot and then has to explain the reference. Chris tells him to shut up.

When First Platoon's mailroom slot comes, Chris picks up five letters and three boxes. His mother has bought one of those do-it-yourself vacuum sealer things and has sent him cookies anyway. They're still good.

The Daedalus leaves for Earth on a day when Chris is hiding in a tree with his off-world team and Lieutenant Gillick.

VTC : video teleconferencing
MOUT: Military Operations in Urban Territory; close quarters fighting and battle management.
JTF: Joint Task Force
TDY: Temporary Duty

And oh, yeah, Suarez.

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30 July, 2006