Custer's Last Stand

by Domenika Marzione

"Gentlemen?" Lorne began, striding over to where Radner, Polito, and Hanzis were crouched around a makeshift map. Behind them, their collection of traumatized indigs -- the latest additions to the mainland's RDR population, provided they survived -- huddled together under blankets. "What've we got?"

The weather was wet, windy, and surprisingly cold for this time of year. The had managed to find a cave to use as a base, but the cool dampness did little to improve the situation. It also probably wouldn't be safe for too much longer; the Wraith would find them sooner or later -- and the later it got, the more likely it would be sooner. There weren't that many places to hide and everyone knew that they were trying to get back to the stargate.

"Paik reported a heavy presence by the stargate, sir," Hanzis reported. The captain of the weapons company grimaced. "He called in a mortar strike to try to thin the herd."

Lorne nodded as he joined the trio at the map, which was really a rough estimate of the terrain sketched out on pieces of notebook paper that had been taped together. But when battalion headquarters was a damp cave, improvisational skills were appreciated. "And?"

"And it seemed to have worked, but we lost contact with his platoon a half-hour ago," Hanzis finished. Lorne looked at Polito, who was now apparently down two platoons. Granted, he'd started down one, but it did mean that they'd probably have to pull Gillick's platoon back a bit to avoid wiping out Charlie Company completely. "Eriksson was tailing him, but it's not his check-in time yet."

Lorne sighed to himself. There had been casualties all around since the start, but this was the second platoon they'd lost wholesale in as many days, not counting the two squads who had disappeared on the first day. Once they figured out how Paik's vanishing had happened, it would become yet another bold-faced topic of discussion in the debrief. The past few days had been illuminating in many ways.

On the personal level, Lorne had come to appreciate that his company commanders knew what the hell they were doing. Which was especially important because their CO for the time being didn't always -- he had learned a lot in his few years with the SGC, but he was still a pilot with a pilot's training and experience. He was grateful not only for their knowledge, but also (especially) for the grace with which they handled the situation -- they didn't flaunt their experience at him, instead making suggestions and answering questions with respect. It didn't hurt that he was willing to go out into the field and wasn't hiding in their relatively well-fortified base -- he'd led a successful rescue mission, even, but they were negotiating through this trial without turning him into a figurehead commander and it spoke well of them.

"How's our plan for tonight looking?" he asked. Knowing from the start that the cave's safety was only valid for a limited duration and lacking any other naturally protected rallying point, they'd decided to plot out what could only be described as a thunder run for the stargate. It had always been meant as a last-ditch effort, a concession of defeat -- it would have a high casualty rate, but it would hopefully get everyone else home. They had been hoping to last until the Daedalus was close enough to rescue them, but that was a hope that was growing dimmer by the hour, especially since they didn't know if the Daedalus would be on time or behind on its schedule.

"It still looks like mass suicide," Polito replied, tapping the stargate on the map, "but it doesn't make us look as dumbfuck stupid as the earlier version did, so I count it as an improvement."

"We've upgraded from Iwo Jima to Marianas Islands," Radner commented sourly.

Overall, the most important realization was that they had to reassess how they handled group action against the Wraith. Engagements with the Wraith had occurred on the platoon level and all of the offworld teams had had their run-ins, but from what they'd seen during this set-to, their efficiency was far lower with larger forces. It was to be expected to a degree because it always was the case, but the disparity was nonetheless disturbing. They'd started with most of three companies and they'd end with the makings of barely two -- one and change if they didn't get a victory or two before their run for the stargate. The post-mortem for this was going to be brutal, unaffected by the fact that none of this was real: the first battalion-wide war games exercise was going to go down as a rout for the bad guys.

Once the hard facts and ugly details were cataloged and categorized, the most lasting realization in terms of intangibles and things that didn't get put in reports of any kind was that Lt. Col. John Sheppard was a lot more than he intimated he was. A battalion of marines shouldn't be risking annihilation at the hands of a small band led by an Air Force rotor pilot.

Lorne had read the reports of Atlantis's first year and he'd heard the murmured stories in Little Tripoli, but even though their offworld teams had joined up a few times, he hadn't seen his CO in action before this. He still hadn't technically seen Sheppard in action, not with his own eyes, but he had certainly seen the evidence. Sheppard was the Indian chief in this game of cowboys and Indians and, despite inferior numbers, the Indians were winning handily. Lorne didn't know how much of this was strategic planning -- ground skills or not, Sheppard was not one for such -- but he did know that Salker's platoon had been entirely wiped out by Sheppard and two sergeants and that Sheppard had done the most damage. And, from what others had said, that had been the case all along -- Sheppard and Ronon, sometimes working as a pair and sometimes alone, were taking out far more marines than anyone had anticipated even with Ronon's known acumen.

"Any word on our treacherous 'allies'?" Lorne asked. Teyla and Halling were playing the local leaders; one friendly and the other to betray the marines to the Wraith. Not knowing in advance, everyone had made the understandable assumption that it would be fierce Teyla who would do them wrong instead of gentle Halling, especially after Teyla 'killed' a marine on first contact. But Halling had proven to be a remarkably good actor and an extremely effective guerrilla leader and they'd been down two squads before they'd realized who was who. As such, Teyla's 'people' were huddled in the cave behind them while Halling's band had been a consistent menace in terms of threats awaiting them beyond their perimeter. Not as bad as Sheppard and his merry men -- especially Ronon -- but far more dangerous than the typical Pegasus native.

"Maguire's out hunting for Halling," Radner replied, gesturing on the map to where Maguire had headed. "Big, quiet guy against big, quiet guy."

When they'd divvied up the battalion into cowboys and Indians, Sheppard had designated only a small force to be Wraith with him. (Lorne still didn't know how Sheppard had managed to get Ronon to agree to play a Wraith; the initial request had been met with ugly refusal.) The rationale at the time was that the marines needed practice fighting Wraith and not being them, but Lorne and the captains had been worried that the Wraith force would be too small. Sheppard had not been smiling when he'd told them not to worry about it and now, in the field, he'd been proven correct.

Among the men, talk of Sheppard's prowess was not infrequent. The carryovers from the first year got a ton of mileage off of their speculation at how Sheppard had defended Atlantis against the Genii (Lorne had seen the full report and thus knew that the marines were off on their casualty count by a factor of ten, but otherwise their estimates were fairly accurate) and almost five days of war games had only raised the volume of the chatter. Longterm, it was probably good for the men -- gave them confidence in their CO and all that bullshit -- but right now, it only served to demoralize an already beaten down group. At times it seemed like there was more talk of getting caught by Sheppard, Ronon, and Patchok's 'Wraith' than of escaping through the 'stargate' (which was really a flipped-over goalpost from their football field). The marines weren't admitting defeat, but Lorne could tell that they would take very seriously any and all changes in training that resulted from this exercise. They were embarrassed.

[With Patchok as the assistant Wraith leader -- 'Wraith Princess' the other lieutenants had been calling him -- Lorne also knew that Suarez, Reletti, and Ortilla were gunning for him. They'd taken down Safir, along as a medic, the day before as he'd been tending to the stunned survivors of an ambush. The cowboys were using fake ammunition, but they'd made the decision for the Indians to use real Wraith stunners set to a lower voltage -- enough to incapacitate, but not enough to risk neural damage.]

"Major Lorne?" his radio chirped. "This is Colonel Caldwell aboard the Daedalus. I've been informed that you and your men could use a hand."

Polito, Radner, and Hanzis looked up, relief and disappointment mixed together on their faces.

"Yes, sir," he replied with a wry frown. "We are in need of one large-scale evac."

It took more than an hour to get everyone collected so that they could be transported up to the Daedalus, during which they lost another dozen men; Sheppard had taken one of the marines' radios and was listening in to their evac instructions. With the last extraction, the exercise was ended -- they'd toyed with the idea of having puddlejumpers serve as Wraith darts and cruisers, but they didn't think Caldwell would react well to having his ship fired upon and, with the Daedalus crew ignorant of the exercise, they didn't want him firing back.

It took another hour for the retrieval of the victorious 'Wraith' along with their most recent casualties (all of whom wore flags with "snack" printed on them, which they angrily ripped off as soon as they rematerialized), during which Lorne was left with Caldwell to explain the rules of the exercise and sum up the unhappy results. Caldwell looked variously surprised and displeased until they were joined by Sheppard, who was filthy (Lorne had been among the marines, all of whom were scrupulously clean even under siege), still camoed up, unshaven, and armed with both his blaster as well as a P-90 he'd picked up as a trophy.

Lorne didn't know if Caldwell had the clearance to have read Sheppard's full record, but whatever he did know showed on his face. Caldwell didn't think much of Sheppard as a CO, a recurring problem which had complications that would last the duration of the Daedalus's port-of-call, but he respected him as a warrior. That was rarely enough to get them through a visit without strain, but right now, it did end the grilling and Lorne was grateful for it as Caldwell left them to talk alone.

"How'd it go?" Sheppard asked as they watched the marines get transported back to Atlantis.

"You were there, sir," Lorne retorted wryly, aware that Sheppard wasn't asking so that he could gloat. "It went badly."

Sheppard nodded thoughtfully, as if he hadn't been one of the most responsible for the rout. "We'll pick it to death, figure out what we can fix, and do better next time."

It was an oversimplification, but there was really nothing else to say. Sheppard clapped him on the shoulder and then went off to console their captains.

Hermiod had announced that he'd get everyone aboard the Daedalus before flipping them back to Atlantis and Lorne had organized it so that the enlisted men went first once that happened. With everyone was in one place, the entire battalion could get bounced back in very quick succession and it took only half an hour until he was back in Little Tripoli.

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27 May, 2006