Disappearing Act

by Domenika Marzione

One

"You lost him?" John cocked an eyebrow, trying desperately to ignore the irony that he finally understood how Lorne felt just when Lorne wasn't there to share the feeling. "How did you pull that off?"

Lorne's team -- Safir and the three marines -- gave him various looks ranging from abashed to that particular kind of confused that came with He Was Right There and Then He Wasn't and It Wasn't the Wraith Scoopy Beam. Which was sadly an easily-recognized look in Pegasus.

"Well?" he prompted, making eye contact with Safir because Yoni was probably in charge of this comedy troupe with Lorne missing.

Safir shrugged. "We passed through some sort of transporter, but Lorne never emerged from the other side," he replied. "We looked on both sides of the... tunnel but he wasn't there and he wasn't reachable by radio."

Elizabeth came down the stairs and stopped by his side. "Transporter?"

"It wasn't like ours, ma'am," Staff Sergeant Ortilla explained, looking the most embarrassed. Ortilla took his responsibilities very seriously. "It was invisible. One minute we're in a forest, the next step we're on the mountain range we'd seen through binoculars."

"Like Seven League Boots, ma'am," Reletti added with a frown. "Took us a bit of time to realize what the f--heck had happened."

John tilted his head in thought. "Did Lorne go through first? Could he have gotten transported somewhere else on the planet?"

The marines looked aghast and not because the thought hadn't crossed their minds.

"Even if we had seen it coming, we wouldn't have sent the Major through first, sir," Reletti finally said. "That's our job."

John pointedly ignored Safir's smug and knowing grin.

"I was walking point, sir," Suarez said. "I went through first and then came right back."

Unlike certain time distortion fields.

"The Major was with us when we stepped through," Ortilla added, embarrassment back-burnered in favor of the situation report. "He wasn't when we got to the other side."

"Could it have been something to do with the ATA gene?" Elizabeth asked. "A filter, of sorts, to weed out Ancients?"

That was an unpleasant thought.

Reletti shook his head. "I went through just fine, ma'am."

John looked over at Elizabeth. "I'll take my team, some marines, and a couple of engineers to do a search-and-rescue and see if we can't figure out what the device is and where it took Lorne."

He looked up at the control room. Lieutenant Kagan, newly arrived in Atlantis, was doing his best to not look like he was straining to hear every word. There'd been a collective shuffling of the assignments last week to accomodate Kagan's arrival and the fact that he wasn't quite familiar enough with Pegasus to take ready-room shifts, so Sheppard knew that Murray was on ready-room duty. Murray was a trouble magnet when it came to his own missions, but he was a white cloud when it came to ready-room shifts -- nobody's missions went off profile when his platoon was on duty. Well, almost nobody's. Lorne's team was in its own chaos trajectory, as was his own. He'd leave Murray here and take someone else.

"I'll talk to Rodney," Elizabeth agreed with a nod.

"Sir?" Ortilla began, concerned.

"Don't worry, Staff Sergeant," John assured him. "You guys are coming, too."


Two

It took them the better part of an hour to get through the gate. The marines had been ready inside fifteen minutes -- Eriksson's platoon had been practicing urban warfare tactics in a remote part of the city (a new, more remote part of the city after Patchok's men had accidentally staged an armed assault on a group of social scientists the previous month; Elizabeth was still soothing ruffled feathers over that one) and had pretty much only needed to stop at the armory for more ammunition and then to refill their canteens.

But the scientists, as usual, had been the teenaged girls of the mission, fussing about what to wear and what to bring and John had had to resort to threatening Rodney with having Eriksson's marines carry the engineers through the gate with only what was on their person if they didn't hurry up. Rodney was still ostentatiously not talking to him for that, walking at the head of the science pack with Zelenka and a mousy brunette instead of hanging out with him; Rodney had no trouble punting Life Sciences people out of Atlantis before they had deemed themselves ready, but the engineers always got special treatment. Which was why most of Eriksson's marines were carrying scientific equipment as well as their own gear. John had let that one go because if the engineers had been required to carry their own gear, none of them would have made it past the first kilometer.

Ronon and Teyla were with Lorne's four and John let them be; the marines were still looking a little embarrassed -- they'd lost their team leader -- and Safir was best kept far from Rodney's crew of fretting engineers. Plus, the odds were decent that Ronon and Teyla would be able to get some more information out of Ortilla's team, who were always annoyingly quiet and well behaved when he was there and Lorne wasn't.

The walk was long, but not unpleasant. At least not after he tuned out the griping, which had pretty much ceased after Ronon had growled at one of the engineers who wasn't Zelenka or the mousy brunette. The weather was pleasant, the terrain was even, and it felt good to walk around outside after a week of being trapped in the city. He hadn't forgotten that Lorne was missing, far from it, but the urgency wasn't edged with panic. They'd tried their radios and life signs detectors, but had gotten no more of a response than Lorne's team had. Nevertheless, the disappearance hadn't been violent and there had been no hint that the Wraith had anything to do with it. And so he had every confidence that Rodney's minions would figure out what the transporting device was, then they'd find Lorne, and then they'd get home.

"This is it, sir," Reletti called out as they ascended a short hill. Lorne's team was out in front as they were the ones who knew where they were going. "The teleporter thing is between those two rocks."

Everyone halted. John moved past the marines serving as pack animals and came up to where his team and Lorne's were waiting. The area where Reletti was pointing was about ten meters ahead, down the hill and back on to the flat plains. The path from the stargate was clear enough to follow, but it wasn't very distinct in the way that well-used ones were. That said, the way down the hill was obvious and would have led them directly past the two boulders on either side of the path.

He followed Reletti and Ronon down the hill, Ortilla following with Suarez, Safir, and Teyla, and they approached the transporter field carefully. Ronon picked up a large pebble that was on the trail and threw it through the space. It landed on the other side.

"You sure this is the place, Sergeant?" John asked, trying to keep the skepticism out of his voice.

"Yes, sir," Reletti replied. "We tried that, too. It'll take whatever you're carrying, but it won't take it without you."

"We'd have thrown a woodland creature through as a test if we could have found one," Safir said. "But Bambi and Thumper were not to hand."

John made a face and Safir shrugged. Ortilla sighed quietly behind him and Suarez grinned. "Well, let's get the scientists over here and then we'll get a guinea pig."

He turned to gesture for the marines and scientists to join them. Eriksson had been supervising the engineer migration and he herded Rodney and his minions down the hill, all the while with the slightly strained, polite smile of someone who is day-dreaming of large caliber weapons.

"I'll go, sir," Suarez volunteered. "I went before."

"So did I," Reletti added, looking over at Safir for support.

"We all did," Yoni said, throwing in an expression that was both warning and plea. "And I think the Colonel is well aware that we would like to be an integral part of whatever is done to find Major Lorne."

Ronon rumbled something that might have been agreement (or might have been a burp; he was too far away to tell) and Teyla was giving him that look.

John, feeling a little ganged-up upon, did not roll his eyes, although he really (really) wanted to. "If I were going to sideline you guys, I'd have left you back in Atlantis. We'll discuss who is going through the transporter after we figure out what the transporter is."

"Sir?" Ortilla began, gesturing toward the empty space between the rocks, "we went through fine before and the Major--"

"Major Lorne is probably right where you left him, wherever that is," John cut him off, not unkindly. "And that was someplace you couldn't find. You might have gone there and back again without a problem, but the last time I went through a force field that worked okay on the test run, I got stuck doing yoga and eating buckwheat for six months, so we're going to take this one a bit slower."

A flash of guilt from Teyla and Ronon and John pretended that he didn't see it.

"If it will encourage a command performance at a later date, by all means," Safir retorted, gesturing grandly at the transporter field. "Anything to that end."

"Thank you, Doctor," John replied sarcastically, then turned back to look at the approaching crowd. "McKay? You wanna get set up here?"

The marines took that as a cue to put their extra baggage down, which in turn was the cue for Zelenka and the other scientists to start fussing and exhorting caution. The equipment was in hard plastic cases wrapped around form-fitting foam, so John wasn't feeling very sympathetic. Rodney appeared out of the mild chaos, eyes on his PDA as walked, expecting the sea of humanity to part before him without his needing to look up. It did.

"Hunh," he exclaimed as he approached, still not looking up. Next to John, Ronon poised to catch Rodney if he tripped and started to fall. "The readings are almost identical to the transporters back in Atlantis. Which makes sense as they are both short-range matter displacement devices."

"Except that this one did not transport all of its cargo to its intended destination," Teyla pointed out, stepping forward to avoid two marines carrying the largest of the cases.

"We don't know that," Zelenka said, his laptop already open and balanced on one forearm. Behind him, the mousy brunette was giving directions as to where boxes should be put down by the marines and then opened up by the engineers. For all of Rodney's micromanaging ways, he was very good about delegating the annoying scutwork. "Major Lorne may have been deposited exactly where he was supposed to be. Just not in the form he was supposed to be."

John watched the marines' eyes go wide and swallowed his frustration. "Can we not jump straightaway to the worst case scenario?"

"What other form could he have taken, sir?" Ortilla asked. "And why didn't we see it, whatever it was?"

John was tempted to mention pink bunnies, but Rodney would have stormed off in a sulk and they didn't have that kind of time to wait for him to be mollified.

"We've never yet had a problem with rematerialization with the Atlantis transporters," Rodney answered, kneeling down slowly next to one of the boulders, eyes still on the PDA. So he didn't see John resist the urge to kick at him. Was this what he had been like when John had been stuck on the other side of the time dilation field? "But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen."

"So you're saying, sir, that Major Lorne could be here as what, mist?" Suarez asked, looking around with concern, as if he might have been walking through or breathing in Lorne. Teyla reached out, hand touching Suarez's arm briefly as if for comfort. Only Teyla could get away with that when it came to marines. Suarez stilled and smiled wanly at her.

"The stargate on Earth has had malfunctions that have led to problems with rematerialization," Rodney pointed out from next to the boulder. "All it would have taken was one little scratch in a control crystal to cause something like that here. The casing may keep the hardware hidden from view, but there's no saying how well it has shielded it from the elements for the last ten thousand years plus."

Reletti and Ortilla were giving each other nervous looks. John wished Teyla had something in her bag of tricks that could ease their concerns as well. Or that Rodney or Zelenka would tell everyone that Lorne hadn't been vaporized and was currently watching them as a cloud. Because he could tell them, but it would mean much more coming from someone in the science division.

"Could it be that fragile?" John asked. "I don't think the Ancients would have put something out here if it were delicate."

"As if the Ancients had much in the way of long-term thinking." Rodney finally looked up as he stood. "Unfortunately, our knowledge of Ancient dematerialization methods isn't much further along than the Asgard's or the Wraith's."

Zelenka tilted his head thoughtfully. "Was there any sort of event when you crossed the threshold with Major Lorne? Energy surge? Lightning strike?"

Lorne's marines looked at each other and at Safir. "There was nothing," Safir said. "And if there had been, why did it only take Lorne? He wasn't the first through, he wasn't the last, and he wasn't the only gene carrier."

"He was your team leader," Ronon said. He'd gotten so quiet -- even by Ronon standards -- that John had almost forgotten he was there. "If they were going to take one of you, that's who they'd take."

It wasn't exactly an uplifting sort of thing to say, but the marines seemed to be relaxed by the idea. Probably because if it was simply a matter of Lorne being a prisoner somewhere, then that was something they could handle -- or at least be a part of. Rescues and assaults they knew what to do with. But to be at the whim of technology -- Earth-based or Ancient or some other race -- put them much closer to helpless than they'd like, reliant on the scientists they didn't fully trust.

"We're not going to start disassembling the device," Rodney said, snapping his fingers and gesturing at the mousy brunette, who in turn summoned a swarm of engineers to ferry bits of equipment over to where he was standing. "At least not yet. If you're going to go through, go through once we're set up to take readings."

John nodded. "Lieutenant?"

Eriksson, who had already set up a defensive perimeter, dutifully trotted over. "Sir?"

"We're ready to go through the transporter. You're leaving a squad behind for babysitting?"

Eriksson nodded. "Yes, sir. Second squad was last in points in the morning exercises."

John grinned. "We're going to go through, then do a search on the other side. We're supposed to wind up on those mountains over there--" he gestured and Eriksson followed his outstretched arm to the snow-capped peaks in the distance, "so I hope your men brought snivel gear."

"Marines don't get cold, sir." It was a jocular answer because Eriksson's men had brought no such comforts. Neither had John's team or Lorne's. John didn't know how thin the air was or how cold it would be, so the search might have to be shortened. Now that they knew the terrain, they could come back with a puddle jumper and do a more thorough search from the sky. Or at least with warmer coats and some gloves.

"I'll be sure to remind them of that on the other side," John replied, then turned back to his team and Lorne's as Eriksson went back to his men to organize them. "Everyone ready? McKay?"

Rodney turned, a sort of fake surprise on his face because they both knew why he was being called out by name. "You want me to come?"

"You're part of the team, aren't you?"

"Well, yes," Rodney spluttered. "But someone has to supervise all of this work and I do very poorly in extreme temperatures and--"

"And Canada is covered in snow," John finished for him. "Get your stuff. Doctor Zelenka can live without the shining beacon of your presence for a couple of hours."

Zelenka, hunched over a pair of opened crates behind Ortilla, muttered something in Czech that John was sure was not-very-nice agreement.

Rodney gave his best put-upon sigh and went over to retrieve his backpack.

Five minutes later, they were ready. John was completely unsurprised when Eriksson positioned himself and one of his squads closest to the transporter so that they'd go first.

"Once more unto the breach," Safir announced as they stepped through.


Three

"No, I'm saying that unless there's a way to go back in time and measure the ambient energy, then I don't know," Rodney said heatedly. "Believe me, I'm not fond of having to confess ignorance. But better that than you assuming that I'm holding out crucial information until I get a better offer."

Elizabeth held her hands up in surrender and supplication. "Nobody's accusing you of any such thing, Rodney."

Rodney glared at John and the marine officers sitting to his right. John had brought Polito because he was the Battalion operations officer and would be doing most of the mission planning with him and then Radner because he was going to be Lorne while Lorne was missing, at least as far as keeping Little Tripoli functioning smoothly. He himself would have to take back most of the tasks Lorne had taken from him and it was all already worked out because this wasn't the first time Lorne had gone missing, just the first time he'd done it without his team with him.

"C'mon, McKay," John sighed. Rodney had spent how long working with and around the military and still sometimes managed to completely misread anyone in uniform. It had been a simple question, albeit one that could have been put a little better. "Nobody thinks you're holding out."

"We're not scientists, Rodney," Elizabeth went on in her most placating voice, the one pitched perfectly so that you didn't realize that you were being catered to, the one that sounded earnest and genuine and really meant that Elizabeth thought you were going to flip over a table. "We simply can't appreciate the limits to what you can and can't do with the information you have. You've done so much with so little in the past."

"Well, this time I can't," Rodney replied a little petulantly but without the earlier snappishness. John never knew what to think of the competing solitudes of Rodney's impenetrable ego and his incurable insecurity. That much self-love and self-doubt together should have combusted messily long ago. "The transporter is a two-node matter dematerialization device that works enough like the transporters within the city to confirm that it's Ancient in design, but not enough to run a diagnostic and expect to get a useful result. It has no directional capabilities -- it isn't meant to deposit anything or anyone anywhere except those two hubs. How it failed to deliver Major Lorne is still a mystery."

They'd been there for more than a half-hour already, mostly listening to Rodney and Zelenka explain why none of the tens of thousands of SG team missions could produce a relevant precedent from which they could work. Normally it was comforting that no matter how weird stuff got in Atlantis, there was always an analogous example back at the SGC that made them (him) look less like complete idiots and more like partial idiots who had simply tried to re-invent the wheel. It was shitty timing and worse luck that now was the time when they broke the mold. But John wasn't completely without hope, not when the Science Division had standard protocols for what to do when someone was out of phase with this reality and hovering around like a ghost.

To his immediate right, Polito suddenly sat up straight and raised his hand to his ear, the usual sign of someone getting a message via headset. Everyone turned to watch even though Matt pushed his seat back to stand and walk to the corner of the room so as not to be a disruption.

"My apologies," he said as he returned to his seat. "Lieutenant Paik reports no additional life signs on the planet and nothing able to sustain life within the distance limit Doctor McKay provided."

After two hours of trekking around in the not-too-Arctic mountains had gotten them nothing, they'd sent Paik and a jumper back to the planet to do a search from upper atmo and then poke around the solar system to see if there was any planet, moon, meteorite, or space junk within the distance Zelenka and the engineers had said that the transporter could have sent Lorne if it had gone spontaneously wacky.

"What about the rest?" John asked, not wanting to elaborate on the possibility that Lorne had been spaced or dropped somewhere else where he couldn't survive. Paik was looking in space, but Zelenka had made it very clear that the planet's core was just as likely as a moon -- in instead of out.

Polito sighed. "That'll take a longer time, sir," he replied with a frown. "It's pretty much going to have to be an eyeball search."

John leaned forward to look past him on to Radner. "How many assets can we allocate to the search?"

"Whatever we need, sir," Radner replied, not looking up from the laptop before him. "The entire battalion's on alert and we've only got a few units outside of the city, all but one available for recall if necessary."

It was the answer John expected, but he still had to ask. Life in Atlantis couldn't stop because Lorne was missing, not any more than it could when he himself did. They had long-planned missions to execute and more to develop, worlds expecting visits and agreements to live up to.

"We should go back to the planet," Zelenka said, looking up from his own laptop. "There are more tests we can run on the device."

Polito looked at John, who nodded.

"You can have an escort when you're ready to leave, sir," Polito said, opening his laptop and hitting a key to kill the screen saver (a slide show of comic book covers; John would get distracted by them whenever he sat next to Matt in meetings). Windows for the battalion calendar and the local version of Notepad were open. "Just give me a time estimate for when you'd like to leave."

Zelenka shrugged. "An hour?"

Polito typed something into the battalion calendar, highlighted it, looked over at Radner, who nodded, and then hit a few more keys. "Lieutenant Salker's platoon will be waiting in the gate room at 1730."

The rest of the meeting was mostly platitudes and entirely meaningless and John was relieved when it broke up. He packed up his pen and paper (an unintentional homage to the missing Lorne; John never took notes, but if he had to, he still wrote faster than he typed) slowly in case Elizabeth wanted to speak to him. But she didn't flag him down, instead focusing her attention on Rodney, so he left with Radner and Polito and headed toward the transporters.

"How's Ortilla's team doing?" John asked as they exited the stairwell and entered the hallway that ran between the medical suites. Ortilla, Suarez, and Reletti had been released to their platoon upon everyone's return to Atlantis, more for a lack of anything better to do with them than to pretend that everything was normal.

Polito, their company commander, gave a grim shrug. "Rudy's keeping an eye on them, sir," he replied. "If anyone's used to this shit, it's First Platoon."

Far too many of the men in the Battalion had lost a friend or colleague in combat, but Rudy Patchok had watched almost a quarter of his platoon disappear in one day back in the summer. All but one had been returned to him then and Ortilla's team hadn't been lost permanently yet, but Matt was right -- they were probably most familiar with the bizarre twists that Pegasus could give to the missing status. (Lorne was officially listed as simply Missing because there was no indication that he'd been captured or that there'd been any hostile activity by any other party.)

"I'm going to go check in with Doctor Safir," John said as they approached the open doors to the suites. "Let him know what's going on."

Which was basically more of the same, but Yoni deserved to know.

The two captains continued on to the transporter and John turned in to the suite where Safir's lab was located. The medical division didn't have the same kind of frenetic vibe that slammed in to you the moment you stepped into Science's domains. The doctors could get high-strung and pissy, but that was more a reflection on their individual personalities than anything imposed from above. Beckett simply didn't rule his minions by fear the way Rodney did. Granted, the scientists seemed to like it. Or at least they'd gotten used to it.

The Epidemiology Lab was buried in a back corner, officially because it was safer in terms of emergency isolation and venting, but unofficially because it kept Yoni out of sight and thus mostly out of trouble. The people he passed -- a couple of doctors he recognized, a few visiting scholars he didn't -- all seemed to know why he was there and more than one confirmed that Yoni was in his lab. Yoni himself was hunched over a large, old-fashioned microscope, taking notes with one hand and moving the slide with the other.

"What do you want?" he asked as John stepped into the room.

"Nice to see you, too, Doc," John drawled, leaning against the counter nearest the door.

Safir turned around, not bothering to look apologetic, but at least dropping the annoyance. "Is there news?"

John shrugged. "For very small values of 'news'," he replied. "All we've done so far is rule out that Lorne's nowhere else on the planet."

"Nowhere or nowhere alive?"

It hadn't been his intent to pussyfoot around Safir -- Yoni was best dealt with directly when getting bad news.

"Nowhere alive," he admitted. Yoni nodded once. "Lieutenant Paik did a sweep in the jumper. He's not on the planet and there's no other viable environment within range of the transporter."

Yoni inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled just as slowly. "So is this still a search or is it a recovery?"

"It's a search and it'll stay a search until we find a body," John replied firmly, pushing off of the counter. He had no intention of declaring Lorne dead, no more than he had of any of the marines captured by the Wraith. "Just because we can't see him doesn't mean he isn't there. Or that we won't find him somewhere else."

When they'd thought that the bodies in the morgue were Lorne and his team, Yoni had been unsettling to be around, radiating pain and guilt and grief and channeling it all into anger that bludgeoned anyone foolish enough to get in his way. He'd been sure that Lorne and the marines were alive elsewhere and even being proven right with the negative identifications of the charred corpses hadn't done anything to shift him down a gear. John didn't expect a repeat performance here, but he was a little surprised by the calmness. At least on the outside -- Yoni pretended to hate everyone and most of it wasn't pretending, but everyone knew that he genuinely liked Lorne.

"Zelenka's going out to the planet again," John said. "I'll let you know if they've found something."

That got him another nod. "Thank you."

"You'll talk to the marines?" John didn't begin to understand how Lorne's team worked command-wise. From what he knew of the Earth-based SG teams, civilian scientists were treated as little better than the embedded reporters in Afghanistan and Iraq -- along for the ride, in no position to make demands, please try not to get them killed -- and that was largely how the Atlantis Battalion treated the scientists they escorted around Pegasus. That's how he and Ford had treated Rodney. But Yoni was not quite a civilian scientist and Lorne's team was much closer to a traditional military unit than his own and John suspected that even if Yoni didn't consider himself in charge of the team in Lorne's absence, the marines did.

"I'm sure they'll hear about anything before I will," Yoni replied without bitterness. "I'm also sure they'll show up here once they're off-duty, so...."

So they'd be okay, Yoni was telling him.

John nodded and gestured over his left shoulder at the open door. "I'll catch you later, then."


Four

"What've we got?"

Matt Polito looked up, then moved to stand up before John waved him back down. "Patrol schedule for M5J-331 for the next week, sir."

Squinting against the morning sunlight streaming in from the wall of windows, John entered the office and sat down. Polito's office did not have chairs as comfortable as Lorne's office did. Perhaps because the only people Polito had sitting in his office were marines, which was also the reason John never said anything about it. He fancied himself an accessible commander, but there was no reason to be giving the marines that sort of invitation to take a pot-shot at the Air Force. They were always going on about their marksmanship, so he tried to present a more difficult target. "How's it looking?"

They'd settled on sending a foot patrol through daily, at least for the first couple of weeks, but they hadn't decided how often they would send a puddle jumper through.

"We're still wrangling out jumper usage," Polito answered, gesturing in the general direction of the central spire and the jumper bay. "The flight-hours-to-maintenance ratio's nothing like a helicopter, but keeping another jumper prepped still means more engineering crew and more equipment and no matter how much we offer to do, it's still a drain on Engineering's resources on top of everything they're dedicating to the transporter angle."

John cocked an eyebrow. "So Science isn't playing ball?"

He couldn't imagine Rodney or Zelenka being exceptionally difficult about this. Difficult, yes, because they always were whenever anyone wanted them to do anything that took their subordinates away from their primary research. But outright refusal....

"They haven't said 'no' yet," Polito allowed. "We're trying to avoid explicitly threatening, but we've had to resort to implicitly comminating a little."

Only Polito comminated. John did no such thing, nor did Lorne or the other two captains. Maybe one or two of the lieutenants, but only because they did crossword puzzles.

"Do you want me to do anything?" Because it would be easy and maybe a little enjoyable. This was Lorne they were looking for.

Polito shook his head. "They'll wise up sooner than later," he said. "They don't have a prayer of getting an off-world trip approved otherwise."

"I'll leave you to it, then." John grinned a little. "Who's up first?"

"Patchok's already out there, sir. Went through the gate an hour ago."

Completely unsurprising that the platoon with Lorne's marines went first. Matt was their company commander and he took care of his men.

"They take a doctor with them?" John asked, because where Lorne's pet marines went, Lorne's pet epidemiologist couldn't be that far behind. Also, because it made practical sense.

"Safir's going to alternate with Doctor Clayton and then Fletcher," Polito said, a wry smile indicating that he understood the question for what it was. "Doctor Beckett offered us full use of anyone in Medical, but there aren't that many doctors who we can take on an extended hike. Doctor Clayton volunteered and she can probably handle a ruck, but we figured the two of them and a Corpsman will suffice."

Nancy Clayton went cliff-diving on the mainland; she could handle the marines.

"Engineering's going to send a team out tomorrow," Polito went on. "They think they'll have the virtual model of the transporter done by then and want to check it against the original."

Rodney had been burbling excitedly about the virtual model at the morning command staff meeting, about possibly being able to replicate the device from the parts they've found in Atlantis over the years, about how many uses it could have. Starting, say, with instantaneous travel to and from the mainland. John liked the idea of not needing regular jumper runs to get the RDRs back and forth and, even more interestingly, getting the marines to and fro en masse, an activity that was impossible without the aid of the Daedalus. But uses for a brand new toy were less important than finding Lorne, so John had joined Elizabeth in keeping Rodney and Zelenka from going off on too many tangents during their presentation.

"So we're about as set with this as we can get," John said, not really making it a question.

"I suppose," Polito answered ruefully. "Seems like we're doing nothing, though."

John grunted agreement. It frustrated him -- all of them -- to be so helpless, so useless. They could pore over the ground for clues, scan the planet from space, make virtual models of the transporter... and it was starting to look like it wouldn't make a difference. John had sat mutely by as Elizabeth had summoned one of the nerds from Social Sciences (which felt like calling in a medium) and explained that they needed research from the Ancient database on topics like kidnapping, mysterious disappearances, and transporter accidents. Zelenka had already told them that he didn't think that the transporter had malfunctioned and the fact that the rest of Lorne's team was unharmed seemed to back him up, but nobody had proof of anything, so if the Social Sciences people could come up with something, they'd be fools to ignore it.

"What else do we have on the schedule?" John asked, because Atlantis still had plenty to work on even if the battalion XO hadn't slept in his bed last night. Lorne usually was the one to ask Polito, who handled the day-to-day mission planning and operating, and John only ever got brought in when there was something of note or anything that would involve major negotiating with Rodney and would wind up needing Elizabeth to referee.

"Nothing fancy, sir," Polito replied, tapping at his laptop. "Usual array of trade runs, training exercises, two humanitarian missions, and the mortar platoon's going to M75-G42 this afternoon to blow shit up."

John made a mental note to stay out of the gate room; the control room scientists tended to get skittish at the parade of heavy weaponry through the stargate, even broken down and boxed as it was, and the marines on guard duty got longing looks and started asking when the next test fire of the rail guns would be.

He was about to be a little smug about how Elizabeth had canceled the scheduled meeting that afternoon (because Lorne had always gone instead of him and Rodney and Zelenka were preoccupied), but then his earpiece chirped to life.

"Sirs?!" Lieutenant Salker's voice was practically vibrato with excitement. "Lieutenant Patchok's just checked in. They've found the Major."


Five

John stood next to Polito and in front of Elizabeth, peripherally aware of Lieutenant Salker's attempts to keep the gate room under control -- or at least the scientists in the control room and the marines on post. Inessential personnel had been cleared out of the way and Nurse Reilly and one of the marine orderlies were off to the side with Doctor Metzinger and a gurney.

Patchok's platoon came through the wormhole in teams, red-cheeked from both the cold and the run (they'd found Lorne in the snow-covered mountains) and looks of grim satisfaction on their faces. Gunny Haumann herded the men off of the platform ("Don't stand there like a goddamned deer, Gallitan!") so that the stretcher could come through unimpeded. Reletti was carrying the front end, but Sergeant Rourke, who was closer in height to Reletti than either Suarez or Ortilla, was bringing up the rear. Ortilla and Suarez were right behind and even the rest of their squad was giving them a little room.

Lorne looked pale, but apart from being unconscious, seemed no worse for wear. He was swaddled in blankets, one set under the stretcher straps and one over, and that made transferring him to the rolling gurney a little more complicated. Safir and Nurse Reilly coordinated the shift with brisk, efficient motions and brusque orders for everyone ("Yes, that includes you, Colonel") to stay the hell out of the way. The orderly and Reilly started off with the gurney and Safir followed without either a backward glance or a word to Elizabeth, who had watched the arrival with silent concern.

"Lieutenant?" Polito prompted and Patchok walked over. "Want to fill us in, Rudy?"

Patchok nodded. "Ortilla's squad found him lying in on the ground a couple of meters away from the transporter field, sir. They were able to rouse him, but he wasn't ever more than groggy and then he passed out again."

"Did he know where he was or what had happened to him, Lieutenant?" Elizabeth asked.

"Not that we could tell, ma'am," Patchok replied with a frown. "Frankly, I'm not sure if he knew who he was, let alone where or why."

That didn't sound good.

"What did the doctor have to say?" John asked. He didn't know (or care) much about the various specializations and projects over in Medical, but he knew that Yoni was the one who always ended up with the trauma cases and the crisis triage and John had learned to trust his barometer.

"Doctor Safir said that there wasn't any severely wrong, sir, but he was anxious to get him back right away." Patchok gave a little shrug, which John chose to interpret as Patchok having been given a quick summary and a quicker dismissal by Yoni. "While we were waiting for the Doc to finish, we did a search of the area. Didn't find so much as a footprint. With your permission, sir, I'd like to take the marines back out to do a more thorough look-see."

John had ordered Patchok's entire platoon back as soon as they'd found Lorne; with no intel on who or what may have taken Lorne or why he'd been returned, there'd been no reason to take chances.

"While I'm relieved that Major Lorne is back safe with us," Elizabeth answered, "I'm not sure we should be heading straight back to a planet where one of our own was kidnapped. At least not without first seeing if Major Lorne can shed some light on his experiences."

"Yes, ma'am."

John saw Patchok sneak a hopeful glance toward Polito. John wasn't against sending a recon team back out, but not until they had a clearer idea of how scrambled Lorne's brain (and the rest of him) was.

"Good work today, Lieutenant," Polito told him instead. "Now go take care of your marines. Ortilla's team is visibly pining for the infirmary."

They all looked over to where Ortilla, Reletti, and Suarez were standing together, practically radiating nervous worry.

"Yes, sir," Patchok replied, a fond smile on his face as he looked away from his men. He made his obeisance and turned to leave.

"Lieutenant?" John called after him.

"Sir?"

"Thank you."

Patchok nodded. "Marines leave no man behind, sir."

"Not even Air Force," Polito added, intentionally breaking the moment. John gave him a sidelong glance and Polito looked back blandly.

Patchok took his marines toward the armory and, as the door swished closed behind them, the gate room fell into something close to silence.

"Well," Elizabeth began, clapping her hands together and rubbing them as if they were cold. "Shall we go follow Lorne's team down to the infirmary?"

John nodded and took a step toward the doorway. Polito stayed where he was, though, and John turned. "You coming, Matt?"

Polito shook his head. "I'll wait until there's visiting hours, sir. It's going to be crowded enough down there and Doctor Safir's very unpleasant when there are too many spectators."

Behind him, Elizabeth chuckled. "The better part of valor is discretion, Captain."

"In the which better part I have saved my life, ma'am," Polito replied, which obviously meant something to Elizabeth because she laughed.

The infirmary was crowded, but mostly because there'd apparently been some sort of hood leak in the Chemistry lab. John led Elizabeth past the coughing chemists and off to the side room where he knew Safir would have set up shop. There was one advantage to being a frequent casualty -- you knew your way around.

When they got there, Lorne's marines were standing almost pressed up against the wall outside of the small room. They had gotten rid of their rifles and tac vests, but still looked vaguely menacing and definitely out of place in the white and antiseptic infirmary suite.

"Safir tossed you three, too?" John asked Ortilla, surprised. It wasn't something he'd have thought Yoni would do.

"Just for the physical exam, sir," Ortilla replied, subtly elbowing Reletti, who in turn elbowed Suarez with a little more vigor, all so that Suarez would go get Elizabeth a stool to sit on while they waited. Elizabeth bit her lip to keep from smiling and accepted the seat with grace.

"You found him in the snow?" Elizabeth asked as the silence of waiting grew.

"Yes, ma'am," Reletti replied with an angry frown. "Naked as a jaybird. The Doc said that he didn't see any frostbite, but the Major wasn't too coherent when we got him to talk."

A brain-rattling wasn't the worst thing that could have happened, but it wasn't near the top, either.

"I'm sure he'll be all right in the end," Elizabeth assured. He could tell that she meant it, too, which gave him a little more hope. He didn't want to have to break in a new XO, after all.

It was another couple of minutes before Reilly emerged, a large wad of blankets in his hands. The door was left open and Ortilla, the closest one to it, poked his head in gingerly.

"Oh, stop hovering," Safir growled from inside. "Just make sure Reletti doesn't knock anything over."

"I--" Reletti started to protest, then stopped when both Suarez and Ortilla looked at him.

The marines waited for him and Elizabeth to go in first, even though John had tried to wave them in ahead. They came around the bed, giving Yoni plenty of room on the side where he was inserting the needle for the intravenous line. Dressed now in scrubs, Lorne looked smaller than usual in the large bed. But he also had some more color to his skin, so on the whole, John was relieved. Cold-related injuries in Antarctica hadn't been as common as the movies would have you believe, but the steady stream of new arrivals meant that there were enough to justify constant safety lectures complete with graphic photos.

Not wanting to dwell on ulcers from chilblains, he looked over at the marines, who were watching Lorne with unguarded concern and matching critical expressions as they did their own visual exam. He'd been on the receiving end of that look, far too often for everyone's tastes, but had never stopped being humbled by it and grateful for it. Nobody understood Lorne's choice of voluntarily spending prolonged periods of time with Yoni Safir, but he'd done well with the marines.

"What's the word, Doctor Safir?" Elizabeth prompted quietly as Yoni stripped off his latex gloves.

"Physically, he's fine," he replied with a small shrug. "Or at least he will be. He wasn't out there without his gatkes long enough to develop anything but the most mild hypothermia. His body temperature was never low enough for me to attribute the confusion to it and he's not displaying any other symptoms that would be commensurate."

"Head injury?" John asked, looking back at Lorne.

"Nothing I could tell from palpation," Yoni said, moving out of the way so that the returned Reilly could attach a new bag to the IV pole. "But the Major has a hard head. We'll run tests and see what the pictures tell us."

They'd had a neurologist since the original expedition; Laurentian was a crappy primary care physician, but he was apparently brilliant when the problem was between your ears. He wasn't having much luck on the How to Prevent Wraith Mindreading front, but he'd done some work on the repeated effects of Wraith stunners. John had been a frequent test subject, usually in exchange for Laurentian leaving Teyla's hivemind-capable brain alone.

"Is he in a coma, Doc?" Suarez asked.

"No, Sergeant," Safir replied with surprising gentleness. "He's just sleeping."

The marines visibly relaxed.

Next to him, Elizabeth brushed some hair out of her eyes. It was a nervous gesture on her part, but he didn't think anyone else recognized it as such. "Is there a chance that this is more than a concussion?"

That was the million dollar question.

Safir sighed. "We're in a galaxy where the bad life-sucking vampires are telepathic," he said. "Of course it's possible. But it could also be as simple as a drug introduced into his system. We'll know more when the blood work comes back."

They stayed for a few moments more, then Elizabeth gently tapped his elbow and they made their exit, leaving Lorne to his team's care.

"Do we start worrying about compromised security yet?" she asked as they left the medical suite (the chemists had been dispatched). "Lorne is arguably the most important source of information in terms of city defense...."

John didn't bother to pretend to be offended. Lorne was the hub of the system, the point through which all information flowed. It had been a royal pain in the ass to change all of the codes and keys back when it had been his brain being invaded by the Wraith (they'd thankfully been able to skip that process with Thalan), but John would be the first to admit that there were plenty of aspects of the day-to-day workings of the Battalion that were out of his purview. Not so with Lorne.

"Let's see what his story is before we go resetting all of our passwords," he replied, gesturing for her to precede him into the stairwell. "Until then, I'll get some extra patrols set up, we'll turn a few more long-distance sensors on, and we'll ask for secondary verification from everyone coming in through the gate."

It was the best compromise between being cautious and unnecessarily freaking out all of Atlantis. The marines could understand that just because they were amping up security, it didn't necessarily mean that a threat was imminent. The civilians -- who would all know anyway after the first shift of scientists in the control room got off duty -- would be more inclined to think a second siege was about to begin.

"Okay."

He followed Elizabeth to the control room, both pausing as they reached the catwalk that led to her office.

"Are you going to have anything to say about this for the databurst?" she asked.

John made a face. "I was sort of hoping to hold off long enough so that Lorne can write his own report."

That got him one elegantly arched eyebrow.

"I'll try to write up a quick brief before tomorrow," he amended.

"Thank you."


six

"Hey, Doc."

Nancy Clayton looked up from the laptop she was working at and smiled. "Colonel," she said by way of reply. "Here to see Major Lorne or did you do something to yourself again?"

Clayton spent entirely too much time with Safir.

"I figured I was in the neighborhood, might as well drop in and see the guy," John said with a shrug. "Do I need to take a number?"

She shook her head no. "I don't think there's anyone in there now."

"Has it been busy?" He knew Elizabeth had been by earlier in the morning; he'd been tied up in Little Tripoli pretty much since the end of PT.

"Busy enough," she answered. "His marines were in early this morning. They're kind of cute all nervous and worried like they are."

He really couldn't imagine any of the marines as 'cute.' "Does this mean that they don't have reason to be worried?"

Clayton shrugged. "Physically, he's fine. His brain's in one piece, his blood work is normal, and he's got no lingering effects from the exposure to the elements. Mentally... I know you got the amnesia lecture from Carson. As uncomfortable and frustrating as it might be, we're just going to have to wait it out."

Lorne had woken up yesterday evening rested, healthy, calm, and completely without a clue about who he was or where. He had no memories of either his disappearance or what had happened before he'd been found by the marines. They'd told him his name and certain other facts, but other than that, they'd had to keep things limited.

"Is it any better than yesterday?"

Nancy smiled. "Actually, yeah. Apart from still showing no signs of anterograde amnesia, he asked a few questions this morning. All of which were about the military and I had no answers. And, truth be told, I didn't even know if his questions made any sense. But now you're here, so presumably you can tell."

He smiled back. "Presumably. Any instructions regarding patient interaction?"

They'd gotten a long lecture from Beckett last night.

"Don't upset him, don't be overly familiar, don't look disappointed when he doesn't remember, yadda, yadda, yadda," she replied with a dismissive handwave. "If he asks a question, answer it. Same as before."

One of the marine orderlies came up with a tablet computer and Clayton accepted it, looking down. "You go talk to Major Lorne and I'll go tend to the psychosomatic symptoms of our hypochondriacal chemists."

Atlantis had purged the gas from the leak in Chemistry before anyone could have gotten sick. Which didn't keep some of the chemists from becoming convinced that they'd been poisoned. Rodney had refused to close the lab temporarily, so the chemists were taking sick time and Rodney was threatening to punt them all back to Earth through the wormhole they were opening for the databurst this afternoon. Elizabeth would probably end up having to mediate; he was simply hoping that he didn't have to send marines down to break up a mutiny. He had visions of Rodney and Zelenka body-surfing a crowd of protesting scientists as they tried to escape. Or, more realistically considering the average member of the Science Division, a scene from Shaun of the Dead with some Ancient device filling in for a cricket bat.

He left Clayton with a wave, which she didn't see, and went through the infirmary toward the room where Lorne was being kept. He stopped along the way to check on the two marines who were inpatients -- Colley had fractured an ankle off-world and Gleason was recovering from pneumonia. Both of them asked him to wish Lorne well.

Lorne was sitting up when he entered, dressed in PT clothes. He had a tall glass of juice with a straw on the tray next to where he was playing solitaire with a deck of cards the marines must have left them with him. He looked up when John entered and gave him a crooked smile. "Good morning, sir."

It was a very odd feeling to be here with a Lorne who wasn't quite Lorne. Even sitting propped up in a hospital bed, the body language was off, the words sounded wrong, and yet this was the genuine article. He wondered, not for the first time, how he must have looked to others when Thalan was in control.

"How are you feeling?"

Lorne shrugged. "I feel fine, sir. I just don't remember anything. Well, nothing useful." He looked down at the solitaire game. "Unless this was a big part of my day."

John grinned. Lorne actually did like to play solitaire (and always with cards, never with the computer), but he hadn't exactly had time enough to make it a hobby. "Not so much, no."

He looked around for a stool because there was nowhere to lean. He found one on the other side of the bed.

"They're going to let me out this afternoon," Lorne said once he'd sat. "Maybe. Depending on how some consultation goes."

Beckett and Safir were going to talk to the SGC doctors when the wormhole to Earth was opened up. "They have a theory about what happened to you and why you lost your memories. They want to get some more information before they proceed."

Lorne made an expressive face to show what he thought of that proposition.

"If they're right, though, your memories should come back pretty quickly," John added. He wasn't sure what to think about the notion that Lorne might have been ascended -- it certainly made sense in terms of how he had disappeared while dematerialized and then reappeared without so much as a footprint next to him, but the rest of it didn't make a whole lot of sense. Starting with how it had happened without Lorne knowing about it. They didn't do a whole lot of talking about their feelings with each other, but Lorne had been pretty clear about how disturbing the idea of having nothing to look forward to but Ascension was to him. Of course, he'd also gotten to laugh because it probably would have been Sergeant Reletti instead of him and boy, wouldn't that have been entertaining. Speaking of....

"Your marines stopped by, I heard."

Lorne grimaced. "Yeah. It was... awkward," he sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "I'm obviously someone important to them, but I don't remember why and they're not at liberty to say and I kept feeling like I'd let them down."

Out of respect for their status as Lorne's teammates, Ortilla, Suarez, and Reletti had been kept in the loop as much as possible considering the chasm in the grand hierarchy of the city between the Atlantis command and where they stood as enlisted marines. John was a big fan of respecting the reality of a situation instead of going by what was supposed to happen, but even so, it wasn't always an option.

"I don't think that's possible," John assured Lorne. "They think you're the coolest Air Force officer ever."

That got him a small smile.

"They were pretty horrified when they lost you -- or when they thought that they lost you," John went on, unsure of what he was and wasn't supposed to be telling Lorne. But everyone had said that the odds of Lorne remembering his disappearance were slim and that the memories closest to the incident would be slower to come back -- if they came back at all. "They found you again, but I'm not sure they think that makes up for it."

The smile turned a little wry. "They were looking contrite," Lorne said. "I sort of got the impression that they're used to needing to."

"They've given you a few headaches," John agreed, hoping that this fell under 'answering questions'. "But you seem to think they're worth the trouble."

Lorne nodded thoughtfully, like John had maybe confirmed something. "And Doctor Safir?"

John laughed and raised his hands in helplessness. "You're on your own there. Nobody's figured that one out."

He stayed for another fifteen minutes, treading water between prompting and not pushing, before Laurentian showed up to do more tests and John had to get back to the business of running Atlantis's military. He promised Lorne that he'd stop by later and left, waving again to Clayton, who did see him this time and returned it.

The day, like the last three, was an uninspired mix of the mundane and the anything-but. Getting everything ready for the databurst took him and the captains through lunch, then came the conference call with General Landry, Doctor Jackson, Doctor Lam, and Colonel Carter where Elizabeth, Carson, Yoni, Zelenka (because he was the head of Engineering and Rodney was still fighting with the chemists) and Steve Bourbais from Social Sciences discussed Ascension. John would have preferred to be anywhere but there, but he allegedly had experience with the process (saying that he'd spent six months trying to avoid it didn't convince anyone) and Lorne was his responsibility.

Everyone seemed to think Lorne had been ascended, Jackson being proof that they could take you and then leave you, but there was some discussion about whether Lorne would have had a choice in the matter and whether either his disappearance or reappearance was voluntary. And there was the fact that Lorne's brain had gotten scrambled and what he could have learned or done that would make such a step necessary... unless it was an accident. In which case they were all screwed because nobody knew how to undo that.

They didn't want to risk draining too much power from the ZPM, so the conversation had to be kept short, with a promise to dial back in 24 hours so that the folks back on Earth could have time to collect the relevant materials and formulate a plan. After the wormhole closed, John slouched further down in his seat.

"That was entertaining," he muttered, rubbing at his eyes with the base of his hands.

"Actually, it was," Bourbais said earnestly. John looked over his shoulder at him and Bourbais lost some of his perky enthusiasm. "Doctor Jackson probably knows more about Ascension than any other human in either galaxy. I greatly look forward to what he prepares for us for tomorrow."

"I'm sure it will be of great use," Elizabeth said before John could reply. She stood and smiled at the group crowded into her office. They'd mounted a camera on her plasma monitor so they could get a modicum of privacy from the control room. "I thank you all for your participation. We'll do our own homework so the SGC doesn't think we're ill-prepared and we'll assemble back here tomorrow."

It was a dismissal, so John pushed himself up and out of his chair.

"Colonel, a moment?" Elizabeth called after him as he turned to leave. He turned back and waited for everyone else to file past. He could hear the stargate activating again because the long phone home had kept Lieutenant Gillick's platoon waiting off-world; their scheduled arrival time had been during one of Jackson's mini-lectures on the nature of ascension.

"What's up?"

"What are you going to do about General Landry's suggestion?" Elizabeth asked, sitting down again. She gestured for John to do the same, which meant that she actually wanted to talk about this. He sighed inwardly and complied.

"As long as it's a suggestion," he drawled, "I'm free to ignore it. It's not a new one."

The folks back on Earth thought that there weren't enough senior officers in Atlantis, thought that the lack of a proper headquarters and headquarters company and the dearth of staff officers was a problem. John thought it wasn't a bug, it was a feature. He'd been ignoring all suggestions to import some more officers for more than a year and would continue to do so until he had no alternative -- until they made it an order.

"It will get harder to ignore with each time you or Major Lorne are incapacitated," Elizabeth pointed out. She had the kindly look on her face that John knew was her 'breaking it to you gently' look and he resented it. "If we have to send Major Lorne back to Earth...."

John sat up straight. "We're not sending him back to Earth, not unless he wants to go," he retorted. "It's been two days since he's gotten back and he's already making improvements. And even if he doesn't make it all the way back, I'm not replacing him with five guys."

Elizabeth was about to say something else when his radio chirped to life. Hers must have as well as she stopped talking.

"Doctor Weir, Colonel Sheppard?" It was Beckett. "I think you'd like to come down here."

John stood up.

"What is it, Carson?" Elizabeth asked, rising as well.

"Major Lorne's had a bit of a breakthrough."

John looked at Elizabeth and she looked back, expression as surprised as he felt.

"We'll be right there."


seven

When they entered the infirmary suite, the nurse on duty wryly pointed over her shoulder with her thumb toward Lorne's room. There were no voices carrying and, thankfully, no sounds of anything being thrown, but John could tell as they passed by that everyone was trying to figure out what was going on. He exchanged looks with Elizabeth as he waved his hand over the crystals for the door.

Lorne was sitting on the side of the bed fairly radiating annoyance and glaring at Beckett, but the irate look was undercut somewhat by his dangling feet clad in regulation bright blue hospital booties. But while Lorne looked like a very pissed off elf, John nonetheless kept himself at least partially between him and Elizabeth because it wasn't like they'd never been through this sort of thing before and there were some mistakes that couldn't be excused a second time.

"Sir, Ma'am," Lorne said by way of greeting, not looking away from where he had Carson pinned on the other side of the room.

"What's going on?" John asked.

"I remember, sir," Lorne replied before Beckett could.

"You remember what, Major?" Elizabeth seemed to understand John's caution as she kept her distance, staying where she was instead of drawing close the way she normally would have. Phoebus's lessons lingered for her, too.

"I know what's on the planet," Lorne replied. "And I know how to get there."

"That's not remembering, Major," Beckett cut in, an edge of frustration lining his ever-present patience. "That's new information you didn't have when you arrived on M5J-331."

John looked over at Safir, who was standing about halfway between Lorne and Beckett, arms folded across his chest in a position that could easily be mistaken for casual but was anything but. Yoni was loyal to Lorne, in as much as such a term could be applicable, but he clearly believed that a physical confrontation was possible. Which didn't raise John's confidence any.

"What's on M5J-331?" John asked. Lorne's and Beckett's heads turned to him in sync.

"Something we can use to fight the Wraith, sir," Lorne answered. John cocked an eyebrow because that wasn't a terribly helpful answer and, judging by the frown, Lorne seemed to realize that. "I don't know what it is, but I know what's it's for. And that we're meant to take it."

Elizabeth sat down on a nearby stool. It was a minor gesture, but it changed the dynamics of the confrontation substantially and John didn't doubt for a minute that it had been intentional on her part. "You do realize, Major, that in light of past events here--"

"I know it sounds sketchy, ma'am," Lorne cut her off, making an apologetic face. "And I know it looks bad after the whole body snatching thing with you and Colonel Sheppard and the Goa'uld in Colonel Caldwell. I really wish that I could explain more. I wish that I understood more. But I know that us finding this whatever-it-is will help us and I know that whatever happened to me is tied into us finding it."

John looked over at Elizabeth, whose expression was one of polite skepticism.

"Can we cycle back to the part where you got your memories back and how that fits in to this... whatever this is?" John asked. "Because I think we skimmed past that part."

"So did we," Safir added sourly. He hadn't moved, but his posture had relaxed slightly. Still ready to respond, just not anticipating needing to.

Lorne sighed and shifted on the bed. "My brain's unscrambled, sir. I know that I'm the XO in Atlantis, that I used to be the XO of SG-11 and before that I flew KC-135s. I have an off-world team comprised of three marines and Doctor Safir and none of the lieutenants want to go on missions with us. I don't like ketchup. The bullet wound in my arm is from the Genii on Malthusa. What else do you want to know?"

"How about why you know these things now when you didn't this morning?" Carson suggested. "You were very frustrated with your progress when I came to see you at lunch."

The cynical part of John, the one that had been trapped in his own body by an alien, tasered a superior officer similarly possessed, and stunned his boss for the same reason... that part of him was mindful that none of what Lorne had presented was that hard to discover, certainly if it was more than just Lorne in his head. The rest of him wanted to believe, even though Lorne had been frustrated and a little scared that he wouldn't remember.

"I took a nap around 1500," Lorne said a little sheepishly. "I had a dream, most of which I don't remember. But the part that I do was memories. Stuff that I know happened to me. Stupid Butterbar Tricks. A broken nozzle that had us pouring jet fuel over Kosovo. Svarog's Jaffa throwing me in prison. And when I woke up, I remembered the rest."

"All of it?" Yoni asked, eyebrow raised.

"Most of it," Lorne allowed. "I'm still fuzzy in spots. And before you ask, no, I don't remember what happened between Suarez re-appearing and waking up here."

There was quiet then for a moment and John looked over at Elizabeth, who looked back at him. He could tell that she wanted to believe, too, but... But. Ten years of regular alien abductions and possessions and the Stargate Program doctors had a checklist of what to look for, but this was Pegasus and there was always a new twist on the old problem. Even if Lorne was Lorne, even if this was just the wacky way memories came back after Ascension -- Jackson had told them that memories returned in large blocks as well as short flashes -- then why had whoever ascended Lorne given him this knowledge? Compulsion, really. Most of the Ancients they'd met had been nice enough -- Chaya, the crew of the Aurora -- but past performance was no indication of future benevolence and there was going to have to be a first time when the Ancients were up to no good.

"Doctor Beckett," Elizabeth began, "Is Major Lorne physically healthy?"

"Yes," Carson answered a little reluctantly. "He's a sensible man and knows not to overdo it, so I'd be willing to release him. However, I'm not sure I'd clear him for duty considering the memory lapses."

Lorne's hopeful expression, plus the booties, made him look six. John looked away because laughing would be very inappropriate at this juncture.

"Then I think we can grant you your freedom," Elizabeth announced. "With the understanding that you are not yet reinstated in your position and should plan your time accordingly."

She looked meaningfully over at John, who nodded. He'd pass the word that Lorne wasn't supposed to be near the gate room or the armory.

"Thank you ma'am," Lorne said feelingly, then turned to Safir. "Do I get my uniform back, Doc, or am I walking home like this?" He held up a bootie-clad foot.

"Perhaps you should," Safir replied. "But we've already gotten you clothes, so it will have to wait for your next stay."

"Thanks, Yoni," Lorne said dryly, sounding exactly as he always had.

"A moment, Doctor Weir, Colonel?" Carson asked, gesturing toward the door.

"Of course," Elizabeth said, standing. John waved to Lorne, then followed.

Beckett led them across the way, into an alcove the nurses used as a staging area.

"What is it, Carson?" Elizabeth prompted.

Carson sighed. "I know we just went through all of this with Doctor Jackson and the case histories on Ascension say that this is all possible, but..." he trailed off, biting his lip. "This is not normal. His memories should not be returning like this."

Elizabeth smiled. "I know. It's very disconcerting to me, too and, in light of all of our recent experiences, it's good that we're cautious. But we can't reject Major Lorne's story just because it sounds fantastical. We know that there are Ancients both here and in our home galaxy and it's not out of the realm of possibility that one may be trying to help us. We know that they have very strict rules on interfering with humanity and that a few have tried to break those rules and been punished for doing so."

"This could be another end-run?" John asked. He'd had a hard time following some of Jackson's explanations of the Ancient equivalent of the Prime Directive (as Rodney was wont to call it, mostly because he resented being in the Ancient equivalent of an ant farm), especially anything involving Oma's mission.

"It would stand to reason," Elizabeth replied with a tiny shrug. "Find a worthy candidate and give them just enough of a hint to send them in the right direction but not enough to understand or to identify the source of information...."

"Or find an unwitting dupe who can get you somewhere you can't go on your own," John pointed out.

Elizabeth nodded in wry acknowledgment. "But we didn't wind up in this galaxy by erring on the side of caution." Which was true enough and they'd done all right so far. She turned to Carson. "Is Lorne well enough to travel to wherever he wants to go?"

Beckett made a face. "Aye," he agreed. "But his physical condition was never in doubt."

"He's not going alone," Elizabeth assured him, turning to John. "Can you organize an expedition? As many marines as you can justify sending along?"

"Sure." A platoon would be enough to forestall an ambush and was a regular-enough escort that Lorne couldn't complain. Plus his team and Lorne's team; it would be a small army, but they've gone on wilder goose chases with more.

"Then barring nothing unusual in Major Lorne's behavior and after we review the new data from Earth, I think we should try following this through."

Carson looked unhappy, but nodded. Elizabeth patted him on the shoulder and looked up at John. "Check in with me later, please?"

"Will do," he agreed, then watched her leave. Beckett let himself be flagged down by the duty nurse and John was left in the alcove alone. He radioed the Polito and told him the conditions of Lorne's release. The marines would feel awkward arresting their XO if he wandered into an area where he wasn't supposed to, but they'd gotten remarkably good at overcoming that hesitation -- they'd certainly gotten over their reluctance to shoot him.

Lorne was tying his boots when John returned to Lorne's room; Safir was entering notes on the laptop on the counter.

"You're good to go?" John asked, gesturing with his chin toward Safir.

"He's reporting in twice a day," Yoni answered, not turning around. "He's going straight to the infirmary if he starts getting headaches, feeling dizzy, hearing voices, or speaking in tongues."

Lorne sighed. "I've been on Snake Alert before, Doc," he said. John cocked an eyebrow and Lorne grimaced. "If you see someone's eyes glowing and they suddenly start talking like Barry White, go to the nearest phone and call the SFs."

The longer he was with the program, the more the SGC sounded more and more like the place everyone wanted to visit and nobody wanted to stay.

"The Three Stooges are going to want to see you," Yoni said, finally turning around. "They're not going to go to your quarters, so give me a time and a place where they can conveniently bump into you completely by accident and verify with their own eyes that your head doesn't spin around and you aren't vomiting pea soup."

John had no way of knowing for sure, but he would have bet that one of the marines really had made an Exorcist reference.

Lorne, inured to the ways of his team, merely looked thoughtful, then looked at his watch. "Am I allowed in the gym?"

John shrugged. "Knock yourself out. Just stay away from the range."

"I'll be on the blue path by 1800," Lorne told Yoni, who nodded and then left them.

"You up for that kind of run?" John asked. Because the blue path was twenty-five klicks and didn't have many drop-out points.

"I've been lying around doing nothing but sleeping, eating, and playing solitaire for two days," Lorne replied with an expression that John recognized from his own mirror. "I guess I'm free to leave," he said, looking around.

"Let's blow this popsicle stand," John suggested.

They walked the gauntlet of patients, Sergeants Gleason and Colley both greeting Lorne with a smile, and Lorne seemed to grow an inch once they crossed the threshold into the hallway.

"Am I really off the leash, sir?" Lorne asked once they were on the way to the transporter. "I'll understand if I'm not, but I'd rather just know."

John met his gaze. "Do you think you need a watchdog?"

He meant it seriously and Lorne took it as such. "I don't think so, sir," he replied after a moment. "I'm still a little fuzzy about the last couple of days and some other stuff, but it doesn't feel like anything more than that. But that's the thing -- I don't know for sure."

The SGC might have a checklist for alien possessions, but John still went mostly by the seat of his pants. And the fact that Lorne wasn't sure counted more in his favor than if he'd been positive that he was fine. Sort of a corollary off of 'only crazy people think they're sane', maybe. Or maybe it was just that two separate incidents of alien possession in as many months and he was pretty sure that that didn't come in threes. It was his job to not be an optimist, to doubt everything, but this was Lorne.

John shrugged. "You've earned the benefit of the doubt. If we're wrong, we'll clean it up later."

"Thank you, sir," Lorne said. "And I hope it doesn't come to that."

"Me, too."


eight

"Be safe, Colonel."

John grinned at Elizabeth. "I've got two dozen marines and two off-world teams," he told her, tilting his head toward the stargate platform below where they were all waiting. "We'll be fine."

Famous last words, she didn't say out loud, but it was clear on her face.

"Dial it up, Lieutenant," he told Osgeny as he walked through the control room to the stairs. The marines drew themselves up a little as he approached and everyone got out of the way of the back blast as the stargate engaged. Lorne was looking a little nervous, but not in a bad way, and his team was hovering a little closer than usual. His own team was looking more blase -- Rodney was pretending to be irritated, Teyla was serene, and Ronon was watching Lorne and fondling the hilt of his gun.

"Ready?" John asked Kagan as he stopped in pretty much the only open place on the floor, between Ronon and the newest O-2 in Atlantis.

"Yes, sir," Kagan replied, smiling weakly. Kagan had been off-world before, if not for anything combat-related, so John knew it wasn't the prospect of wormholes that was bugging him and Ronon had pretty much grown out of intimidating people because he could, so that left one guess.

"It doesn't happen nearly as often as they say it does," John said in a conspiratorial whisper. Kagan's eyes widened for a moment, confirming John's suspicions, and then the bland standing-next-to-my-CO look returned.

Kagan was spared having to pretend that the other lieutenants hadn't been telling him all about their various misadventures with the senior off-world teams by the back blast of the wormhole opening and the rustling of a platoon of marines adjusting their rucks and rifles.

"Move out," Kagan ordered his marines, who started filing through the stargate to set up a perimeter on the other side. John understood why they were doing it this way, but after two years of running headfirst into trouble, it felt odd to be throwing others into possible danger first. However unoccupied the planet had looked before, bringing Lorne back into what could be an ambush meant allowing the marines to do their thing. And so while John's team was along to keep an eye on Lorne, Kagan's marines were there to keep an eye on all of them.

"All clear," came the report from the other side of the event horizon.

John took one last look up at Elizabeth, standing on the catwalk between her office and the control room, and gestured for his team and Lorne's to head through the wormhole.

Kagan was waiting with his gunnery sergeant and three marines by the DHD, but started to approach once the wormhole closed.

"Where are we going, Major?" John asked, still looking around. M5J-331 looked the same as it had the previous time, which was the usual pleasantly green and foresty Pegasus default.

"The mountain, sir," Lorne replied. He still looked a little nervous, but mostly curious and wary. John understood a little -- less Thalan and more Blue Period, when the residual urges and emotions and near-total lack of control had him constantly wondering who the hell he was and whether his mind would ever be his own again. (Quick answer: not always.)

The hike to the transporter was uneventful. Birds sang, Rodney bitched about his allergies until Safir offered to cure them through methods best described as medieval, Ronon and Teyla discussed wild animals they'd caught and roasted as children, and the marines halted them twice before they realized that it was just Near Deer and not a threat.

They had dressed for the mountain this time, which was fortunate because it was much colder than the last time John had been up. The area immediately around the transporter was relatively flat and clear of rocks, but it got craggy and steep very quickly on all sides but one. There was a narrow path leading down, almost a rough staircase. Of course, that wasn't the direction they'd be going in.

All eyes were on Lorne as he looked around, orienting himself according to what he saw with his eyes and then what he might have remembered from his pit stop with the Ancients. He was acutely aware of the attention, John could tell, but doing his best to ignore it. Meanwhile, Kagan used hand signals to direct his marines to look around and be prepared to defend. The mountain did not rise smoothly to a peak; instead there were jagged outcroppings and car-sized boulders that were perfect for hiding behind; if there was going to be an ambush, this would be a great place. The sun on the snow was blinding from certain angles and there was no way to get anywhere fast except by rolling downhill. Especially once they were away from the transporter interface, they were perfect targets -- the mountain was one giant kill box. Nodding to Ronon and Staff Sergeant Ortilla, John kept one hand on his rifle. Rodney, wise to the ways of running for his life, put away his PDA and put on his gloves.

Lorne approached him, crunching quietly on the snow, and John bowed his head to listen.

"Behind the the transporter, sir," he said. "There should be a path. We just can't see it from here."

John cocked an eyebrow. "Are you sure?" Because the only way to the other side of the transporter was around and not through and the way around was going to be hard-going even without the threat of ambush.

"No," Lorne replied sourly and with a little frustration at himself. "But that's the way that feels least wrong."

John nodded. "Good enough." He looked up, knowing that Kagan would be watching, and signaled to the lieutenant which way to go. Kagan nodded in turn and passed the instructions along to his marines, who began to make their way toward the transporter. There was no way to get past it without having to cross uneven ground -- the plateau ended with the stones concealing the Ancient tech that generated the transporter field. One team went to the right, climbing the snowy incline high enough to circumvent the generator field, and the other went around on the left, balancing so that they didn't stumble and roll downhill.

Leaving Lorne to the watchful eye of his own team, John gestured with his chin for Teyla to start after the marines and for Rodney to follow. Ronon kept close to Rodney without John having to say anything -- they both knew that keeping Rodney upright would require Ronon's strength. John went last, nodding to the three marines left guarding the transporter as he passed them by. The squad of marines that would follow waited impatiently.

Teyla had the lower ground to the left, leaving Lorne's team to hug the mountain and try to follow in the path that Kagan's marines had forged. Reletti led, then Safir, Lorne, Ortilla, and Suarez bringing up the rear. They were moving faster than his team was, so John watched and waited and dodged the occasional chunk of rock that rolled down from an unstable foothold as he made his own way behind Ronon. The marines behind him were gaining; the ones behind Lorne's team were doing a better job of not tailgating.

"Sir, there seems to be a path about two hundred meters ahead," Kagan's voice came over the radio.

Despite coming to a part that had proven far less sturdy than it looked when the marines had traversed it, John spared a look up at Lorne, who looked back with a crooked half-smile of relief.

"Wait there when you get to it, Lieutenant," John replied.

"Aye aye, sir."

The first rule of getting from here to there by foot in unknown territory with unknown enemy activity was to stay off of the roads. But John wasn't sure that they'd be able to get far enough away from the roads to make the extra effort worthwhile. He'd seen places like this in Afghanistan, passes through the Hindu Kush that were obvious ambush points because they were the only route between two place or between one place and the rest of the world. They were easy to watch, both from the ground and from the air, and even easier to pick off anyone trying to use the ratlines -- for both sides. Some of Kagan's marines had undoubtedly been on the ground for some of those missions, but actually being the fish in the barrel was a new experience for John.

Kagan and the squad he was moving with were waiting at the start of a narrow path when they got there. At least what was probably a narrow path; there was only snow there now, virgin except for where Lorne and his team were carefully moving ahead. They hadn't gotten very far, but a trio of Kagan's marines were following behind at a respectful distance to keep track of them.

"Major?" At this stage, John was more worried for Lorne than of him -- if there were someone else in Lorne's head, they probably wouldn't be a threat until they'd gotten whatever it was they needed Lorne to get for them.

"Just looking for landmarks, sir," Lorne replied after a long enough pause that John was ready to try again.

"Do you know what you're looking for?" John asked, looking around. They were maybe a fifth around the mountain, the sun glare less of a problem but the temperature that much colder for it.

"No, but I'll know it when I see it," Lorne answered. "I hope."

Next to him, Rodney stamped his feet to keep warm. He tried rubbing his forearms, too, but the straps of his backpack restricted his range of motion enough that it looked more like jazzercize. Especially with the ear-warmer that looked like a headband.

"If I get frostbite...." Rodney began warningly.

John lifted up his sunglasses to meet Rodney's eyes. "Then Safir will volunteer to amputate," he finished pleasantly. Rodney was bitching out of habit and out of fear and John was inclined to let him continue to distract himself so long as it didn't start bothering other people. "It's not cold enough. But there's always trench foot. Did you tie your boots too tightly again?"

Rodney gave him a look that was both annoyed and concerned all at once, like he wasn't sure if John was being serious.

"Relax, McKay," John assured. "Trench foot takes hours. If we're still here tomorrow, then you can check for gangrene."

"I hate you," Rodney snarled without real vitriol, then stomped carefully over to where Teyla and Ronon were a few feet away. The marines standing nearby were biting their lips not to laugh and John shrugged for their benefit, as if it wasn't his fault the esteemed Doctor McKay couldn't take his practical advice.

"Okay, this is where we're supposed to be," Lorne announced over the radio. "There's a fork in the road about half a klick ahead of where we are. We take the road leading down."

Without seeing a thing, John was sure that this was not the easier path.

"Stay there," he instructed. "We'll catch up to you."

"Yes, sir."

Kagan had heard the conversation, so he looked over at John, who nodded, before starting his marines off in Lorne's direction. They stuck to the road because the snow was deeper here and there was some ice and while John was sure that Safir had packed supplies for any fall-related accidents, he really didn't want to have to worry about stretchering a guy back to the transporter. They caught up to Lorne's team, or at least most of Lorne's team. Reletti and Suarez were missing, presumably scouting ahead.

He'd been correct, of course. The fork in the road was a textbook example of reverse psychology. Or simply Murphy's Law as applied to Infantry. The path to the right was wider and flatter and gently elevated. And heading straight for the sunlight. The one on the left was even narrower than the one they were on now, lumpy and uneven even under the snow, and was completely shaded by the neighboring peak.

"Gentlemen?" Lorne prompted through his radio.

The two teams and Kagan were all operating on the same frequency; it had seemed silly to work out a command net and two team channels when they were all going to be together.

"It's rough sledding, sir," Reletti answered after a moment. "Not bad enough to rope down, but someone's going to arrive on their ass, that's for sure."

"And that someone's going to be me," Rodney muttered.

"Can you get back up?" John asked. Because gravity only helped one way.

"Working on it, sir," Reletti said, voice slightly strained. There was the sound of a quiet 'fuck', then impact, then the unmistakable sound of an earpiece hitting the ground. Next to Lorne, Safir, who had been leaning against an outcropping, stood up straight.

"Suarez, what's going on?" Lorne asked, taking a step toward the path.

"He just tripped, sir," Suarez answered. "Fell on his face and lost his earpiece. He's fine."

Lorne sighed loudly in relief and Safir leaned back against the rock. Ortilla was standing at the foot of the path looking down and John couldn't see his reaction.

It was another fifteen minutes before the two sergeants appeared. Reletti looked no worse for wear except for a cut on his chin and a giant wet spot that ran from his chin to his knees. He presented himself to Ortilla, but tried to avoid inspection by Yoni, who was apparently wise to the ways of the sergeant and trapped him with help from Suarez and Ortilla.

"There's a cave there, sirs," Reletti said after Yoni had finished with him. He reached up to touch his repaired chin gingerly with his thumb. "About three hundred meters down. The entrance is pretty overgrown and hidden. I didn't go in."

Lorne looked at John, who shrugged. "Well, let's get the ropes set up so we can get out again."

Kagan's marines were carrying spikes and extra lengths of heavy-duty rope and it took them only a few minutes to get started, descending as they worked. Lorne's team followed and then John's. Rodney held on to the rope as he stepped carefully, so the only wipeouts were Sergeant Wiebler and Teyla, the former of whom took much ribbing until Teyla slipped, at which point the trail was reclassified as a serious hazard.

The cave was indeed hidden; the first team of marines went right past it before being called back by the rest of their squad. Ortilla's team ended up going in first because Reletti was the only one not Lorne or John or Rodney who had the ATA gene. They didn't trip any booby traps, but they didn't find anything either.

John followed Ronon, who in turn was following Safir. Lorne turned around to look at him. "There, sir," he said, pointing the light from his rifle at one of the cave walls.

"Where?" John asked, because it was just a wall. Behind him, the marines filed in and bustled around to make space. The cave really wasn't built to fit thirty-plus comfortably and the marines were keeping a respectful distance.

"That's the transporter to wherever we're supposed to be going," Lorne replied, pointing with his free hand.

"Are you sure, Major?" Teyla asked carefully.

"As much as I can be," Lorne said with a shrug. He aimed his light up near the cave ceiling and it flashed off of a blue crystal. "I think that's what I'm supposed to be looking for."

John sighed and looked around. Because he'd learned that lesson once already and even if his team wasn't as protective of him as Lorne's was of him, he doubted that the marines would let him go first.

"Right. So who's volunteering to walk into a wall?"


nine

"Well this is different," John announced to no one in particular as he looked around, blinking at the bright sunshine. The wall had been a transporter. Sergeant Wiebler paid for his wet ass by being volunteered to be the guinea pig and soon everyone was through, deposited from dark cave into warm meadow with a step.

"No it isn't," Rodney said, gloves already off and PDA out. "It's like the Pegasus version of Groundhog Day."

Teyla and Ronon were looking at John to see if this was a cultural reference worth getting an explanation for, so John shrugged. "It's a movie where a guy gets stuck reliving the same day over and over again until he learns a lesson."

Teyla nodded slowly. "And what lesson are we hear to learn, Doctor McKay?"

"Don't let Colonel Sheppard near any ascended women," Rodney replied, not looking up from the PDA. "Well that's weird." And then he wandered off, somehow avoiding walking into Staff Sergeant Ortilla and leaving John to frown at Ronon's and Teyla's amused smiles.

"I'm going to go check on Lorne," John told them, escaping before his dignity took another hit.

Lorne was standing with Kagan and Reletti and wearing the same slightly befuddled and frustrated look he'd pretty much been wearing since they'd brought him back to Atlantis. John felt a little bad about the strategic withdrawal to the side of the one guy guaranteed to feel more embarrassed than he did, but that's what inferior officers were for, after all.

"Before you ask, sir, I don't know where we are," Lorne said as John approached.

Wherever they were, it wasn't close to where they'd been. The radios had worked between the stargate and the mountain, but they weren't working now. The mountains weren't visible, not even in the distance, and the sun was in an altogether different part of the sky.

"Wasn't going to ask," John replied, which wasn't precisely true. "But 'where should we be going?' seems like a more important question."

Lorne pulled out his PDA, which John tended to forget that Lorne carried because he so rarely used it. John didn't use his very often because he was usually with Rodney and Rodney always had his out, but he suspected Lorne just didn't want to use his.

"There's a village," Lorne said, pointing in the direction he'd been facing. "I think we're supposed to go there."

Lorne's discomfort was genuine and that plus the inherent trust John had for him made it hard to remember that Lorne was still an unknown variable at this point. That John had to plan not only for what they found, but also for what Lorne might do (willingly or not) when they found it. He'd played down the possession angle when he'd written up his brief for the databurst -- he didn't want Lorne getting recalled for examination by the SGC, never to return since just because they couldn't find anything didn't mean nothing was there -- but that was politics and this was reality.

"So we'll go there," John agreed, turning to Kagan. "Lieutenant, remind your men of the ROE before we set out."

The Rules of Engagement were necessarily a bit ad hoc in Pegasus, where the standard seemed to be that they'd either be overwhelmed or stuck facing slingshots and and pointy sticks. Sometimes, for variety, they'd be overwhelmed by slingshots and pointy sticks. Nevertheless, the senior officers had set up a guide for what to do in a range of situations and while it mostly boiled down to not firing first and being gracious (but not forgiving) in the face of disproportionate capabilities, there was a little more latitude for common sense than was found in the ROE handed down on Earth. That didn't mean that the marines weren't reminded of what was and wasn't acceptable before each possible engagement.

Kagan ayeaye-ed and left and Reletti took the opportunity to wander over to Safir and the rest of his team.

"I hate not being able to trust my own instincts," Lorne said once they were alone. "I know things that there's no possible way for me to know and I have no idea what I'm dragging everyone into."

John shrugged. It was a debate the Atlantis command had had before this mission had been initiated, so while it hadn't been resolved to anyone's comfort, it had at least been resolved. They knew this wasn't a sure thing, wasn't necessarily even a safe thing or a wise thing. But, as Rodney had so adroitly pointed out, since when had safety and wisdom and surety been their guiding principles?

"We've acted on single-source intel from more dubious single sources," he replied. Which was true and not necessarily the greatest reassurance because the last time had led them directly into Ford's trap, but that wasn't really the point. "I can't say that I don't wish we had a clearer picture of what we're getting into than what you may have picked up when you were floating around on a higher plane of existence, but we work with what we've got."

Lorne looked up, a little grateful and a little more rueful. "Yeah."

"Do you remember any of it yet?" John asked, mostly out of curiosity. In the near distance, he could see Rodney approaching on a direct line to them, still not looking up. A trio of Kagan's marines were not-quite-hovering, which meant that they were probably necessary because if Rodney had noticed them, he would have told them to go away and the fact that he hadn't meant that he wasn't paying any attention to his surroundings and that wasn't bright under the circumstances.

"I still don't remember anything from that day," Lorne replied with a frown. "Among other things."

"I thought you remembered up to Suarez finding the transporter," John said, turning from Rodney's approach back to Lorne. Who in turn looked a little sheepish. A lot sheepish.

"I kind of maybe fudged that part a little, sir," Lorne said and John cocked his eyebrow, mostly at the sudden reappearance of the honorific, which was never a good sign. "I picked up enough of the story from listening to everyone else talk."

"And you lied about it why?" John was perfectly aware that, despite appearances, Lorne could be less than a paragon of truth and full disclosure, usually for pragmatic reasons and never for personal gain and more than occasionally for John's own good. But he'd never caught Lorne doing it for anything important like this. And it threw him, although he tried to play it cool.

"I didn't know -- I don't know -- what happened, but I knew that this was important," Lorne sighed. "I wasn't thinking about how many people I'd put at risk or what sort of danger I was inviting. I just... I just knew that we had to do this. And now I'm wondering whether that was my own foolishness or if McKay and Beckett are correct and I'm not in my right mind."

"Hell of a time for a confession, Major," John said, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. The problem wasn't with the lying -- okay, he wasn't exactly thrilled about that, but he'd done the same and wasn't interested in casting stones -- but with the fact that Lorne's mental integrity was not quite what they'd thought it was when they'd weighed the pros and cons and risks and possible rewards. And that made everything more dangerous.

"Major, you may not be crazy after all," Rodney called out from a few meters away. "We're under a shield."

"Oh?" John asked mildly.

"I've been taking readings," Rodney went on, gesturing grandly at the horizon with his free hand. "We're definitely under a shield and it's definitely Ancient in design. It's almost identical to the one on the planet where we had to bust you out of that commune."

John and Lorne exchanged worried looks.

"So we're in another time dilation field?" John asked, feeling nausea rising.

"Can we get out?" Lorne asked, looking ashen. Because it hadn't been that long since he'd gotten stuck for a month with his team and Gillick.

"Probably," Rodney replied, pointing to Lorne and then looking at John, "and I have no idea. You didn't know that you were in a time dilation field, remember? I could go on about relativity and it would be a waste on the both of you, so there's really no point in thinking about it. Because otherwise we might start getting worried about what if the dilation field worked the other way and time is progressing much faster outside than it is here and we get home to find Sam Carter is winning nobel prizes for research we're too far behind to understand."

John fought off the grin that was a necessary consequence of this proof that Rodney had spent the entire time wandering around coming up with worst-case scenarios. Because if Rodney had to come up with his own doomsdays, then that meant that there weren't any real ones imminently approaching.

"So how does this prove I'm not crazy?" Lorne asked.

"What?" Rodney looked at him, having completely forgotten what he'd said earlier. "Oh. Just that this wacky scavenger hunt we're on is looking less wacky scavenger hunt now that we've found something useful and Ancient-y and you're not dragging us through the ass end of the galaxy for nothing. It doesn't mean you're not possessed by some other malevolent alien consciousness or we won't have to shoot you later."

"McKay!" John yelped. Because that wasn't something to joke about, even if Rodney didn't know anything about the conversation he'd just missed. It was something John let him get away with (too often) with regards to himself, but it was a step too far with anyone else.

"Sorry," Rodney muttered, looking abashed for about a second and a half. Lorne nodded, still looking a little wan.

John looked around. "Sergeant Reletti, come here, please."

Reletti trotted over. "Sir?"

"Go back through the transporter and make sure your watch has the same time as Bonnerman's and O'Conner's do."

"Aye aye, sir," Reletti replied, not even blinking at the strange order. He did spare a quick look of concern for Lorne, but then ran off toward the tree where the transporter window was.

If Reletti could get back and forth and the watches were still synchronized, then that would solve at least one problem before it started.

"Hunh," Rodney mused, surprised. "I hadn't thought of doing that."

"Too busy resenting Zelenka for running your division?"

The nasty look Rodney shot him meant that that was exactly what Rodney had been pondering. "He's too soft for the job," Rodney said instead.

By the time Reletti got back to confirm that it was still 1425 on either side of the transporter (and that O'Conner and Bonnerman were not pleased that they were freezing their asses off while everyone else thawed), the traveling party was pretty much ready to go. Kagan's marines were again bracketing the two off-world teams and John ignored Ronon's growls of annoyance at the set-up. Lorne's confession had renewed his sense of obligation to be prepared for the worst.

They walked at a brisk clip, mindful of the lengthening day -- the path up from the cave would be treacherous after dark, ropes or no ropes. The marines had picked up on his own concerns and there was an increased sense of purpose; it felt more like a dismounted patrol and less like a saunter through untamed nature.

The meadow stretched as far as the horizon and John was a little worried that they'd be walking that far, but after a couple of kilometers the lay of the land began to slowly change and soon they found themselves at the edge of a plateau, past which the ground fell away slowly but steadily and there was a giant bowl below. A bowl dotted by villages, at least half a dozen, all a couple of kilometers apart and all bigger than the usual six-huts-and-a-granary they so often encountered. There could be more villages over the horizon; it was impossible to tell. There were fenced-off pastures and neatly planted rows of crops and John thought it looked like the part of the western movie where the wagon train gets to the top of the ridge and sees beautiful California waiting below. Because it sure as hell didn't look like any part of Pegasus.

"Wow," Staff Sergeant Staumitz murmured near to John. Staumitz was one of the original expedition's marines and he'd done a fair bit of traveling that first year.

"Teyla?" John called over. "You ever see a set-up like this?"

She shook her head slowly, not looking away from the scene below. "I have seen many worlds where there are separate communities, but none with so many."

"The Wraith don't know about this place," Ronon said from behind John and he barely kept himself from jumping. He hated when Ronon snuck up on him like that. "It's not how you build when you're expecting to get culled."

Ronon was right; the entire civilization was out in the open, not hidden in trees or close to anything that could hide its denizens from the Wraith.

"I hope that whatever we have been sent to find, it will not deprive these people of such a wondrous gift," Teyla said quietly. John didn't miss the reference to their (admittedly very wrong) actions on M7G-677 and grimaced.

"Me, too," Lorne agreed emphatically.

The walk down to the first village was relatively brief and very tense. Being in open ground disturbed them all, but going toward an unknown population protected by superior technology made them all even more wary.

There were people waiting for them as they approached, villagers with clothes that wouldn't have looked out of place on Little House on the Prairie or Bonanza. One older man was holding a pitchfork, but he was leaning on it and the rest seemed unarmed and mostly curious and a little pleased. Eager, even.

"Greetings," the man with the pitchfork said with a smile. "We have been expecting you."

"You have?" John didn't bother to hide his surprise. Granted the Genii had looked kind of like this, too -- not so much with the eager, though -- but this wasn't the sort of ambush he'd been worried about. He looked over at Lorne, who had gone pale as a sheet again and was staring at the man with the pitchfork. "Major?"

"I know you," Lorne said accusingly, shaking his head slowly as if he didn't quite believe what was happening. Or he didn't understand it. Which was par for the course all considering. "You were.... when I was.... I remember you."

John looked over at Teyla, who looked back with concern, and Yoni, who was watching Lorne. Lorne's marines were already somewhere between looming and hovering. "What do you remember?"

"I was fishing," Lorne replied, looking at John but very obviously not seeing him. "It was a lake I'd go to with my grandfather when I was a kid. I haven't been there in twenty years. But I was there, on the dock, and I was talking to someone and -- oh, god, what did I tell him?!"

Lorne looked panicked and John understood why -- he'd been interrogated and he didn't remember what he'd been asked or what he'd said. John wished he could tell him that it wasn't his fault and have it mean anything. But Lorne already knew that and it didn't matter right now.

"You told him enough that he sent you to us," Pitchfork Man said soothingly, like he was trying not to spook a horse. Which, in a sense, was exactly what he was doing. Lorne turned to him almost desperately. "He brought you to me in my dream. We met in my dream."

"That's not possible," Rodney said from somewhere behind John.

"The major got ascended, sir," Lieutenant Kagan pointed out. "Why is that any more impossible?"

"Ascension is essentially the transfer of quantifiable energy from one form to another," Rodney retorted, sounding annoyed but not at Kagan. Or at least not only at Kagan and instead mostly at how reality was running contrary to how he understood the laws of the universe to work. Again. "Running into other people's dreams of fishing holes is Psychic Friends Network kind of voodoo."

"Maybe this gentleman got ascended, too," Kagan persisted. John was starting to like Kagan -- very few of the lieutenants, even the ones who'd been around the longest, argued with Rodney.

"I know not of what you call 'ascension,'" Pitchfork Man said with a slight smile. "But I do know that the Ancestors work in ways we cannot fathom."

Rodney's disgusted sigh was cut off abruptly. John didn't need to turn around to know it had been Teyla.

"You must have many questions and you have traveled very far," Pitchfork Man said with a smile. "Why don't we set down to a meal and proper introductions and see if we can't unravel this mystery?"

John was all for introductions and pretty in favor of meals, but a couple of spoiled suppers with the Genii had left their marks and so it was with caution that he agreed. The introductions were a little unwieldy -- two teams plus Kagan against a half-dozen of the Noeem -- and then they followed Pitchfork Man (Marick) into the village. The marines were cautious but friendly, waving and smiling back at the children who appeared to watch the parade all while keeping one hand on their rifles and most of their attention on what was beyond the groups of onlookers. They'd been through this before on Earth.

For his part, John was a little relieved. The Noeem could in fact be like the Genii, hiding advanced technology and malevolent intent behind rustic unsophistication, but at least John knew that his crew could fight their way out of that if necessary. On the other hand, Lorne's adventure was looking more and more like what General Landry had described as "just another advanced civilization looking for a useful human." Doctor Jackson had made it very clear that the Ancients were among the most frustrating for the way their policy of non-involvement never really stopped them from meddling when they wanted to and yet they could still be so unhelpful. Taking all of that into consideration with his own more recent experiences, while Lorne seemed to be having no great time -- he still looked like he'd eaten bad potato salad -- John was nonetheless tentatively willing to jettison the whole possessed-by-evil-aliens theory. Or maybe he was still just a little giddy that it wasn't him this time.

Marick guided them to the village center, conveniently already lined with long tables and wooden benches. There didn't seem to be any real order to the seating, just a semi-circle around the open commons. There'd been a wedding a few days earlier, Marick said, and they had left the set-up once they'd realized that there would be visitors coming from further than the village on the other side of the valley.

"You put a lot of stock in visions?" John asked as they sat at one of the tables, wincing because it came out a little ruder than he'd have liked.

Marick, thankfully, was unoffended. Instead, he shrugged as he sat across from John. "When they are so vivid and so far beyond what my own imagination could construct on its own, I would be foolish not to give them some credence."

The tables were very long and both teams plus Kagan, Marick and two more Noeem fit comfortably at one; Kagan's marines were ushered to two more tables and promptly set upon by the children. Lorne's marines looked on longingly, as did Ronon. As did John, frankly, but the downside of getting to run around the galaxy with an off-world team was that you had to sit at the grown-ups' table.

"At least you remember," Lorne muttered, looking around as if he could spot something he recognized.

"I remember also that you knew that you would not," Marick replied with a sympathetic grimace. "Arvas could not let you bring what you had learned directly back to your people. 'The others would not permit it,' he said."

...aaaaand that was pretty much straight out of the Doctor Daniel Jackson Handbook of Meddlesome Ancients.

"Arvas?" Teyla prompted while everyone else was busy exchanging knowing looks.

"That was his name," Lorne said, sounding surprised that he'd forgotten it. "He... We spoke about--"

"Atlantis," Marick finished for him and everyone stopped and turned because nobody had mentioned that name and there was nothing with the insignia from which to glean it. "But your true home is much farther. That is what I saw in my dream. A place called Klamath?"

John looked over at Lorne.

"Klamath Falls, Oregon," Lorne explained absently, still looking at Marick with dumbstruck awe. "My grandparents had a place near there. I used to watch the fighter jets out of Kingsley Field. It's why I went Air Force."

"Okay," Rodney said in a high voice. "That's officially freaky."

Across from Rodney, Kagan looked smug and that drew Rodney's eye -- and ire. "Don't get used to the feeling, Lieutenant. You probably won't experience it again in your lifetime."

Kagan had the good sense to drop his eyes. The only thing worse than Rodney being angry was Rodney being wrong.

Marick, meanwhile, smiled with the knowledge that he'd just scored points.

"What did I say about Atlantis?" Lorne asked, concern clear. What did I say about Earth? left unspoken.

"I'm afraid that I don't know," Marick replied with a small shrug. "I was not there for your conversation with Arvas. You were presented to me as a defender of Atlantis, the home of the Ancestors, and vouchsafed by Arvas as one worthy to be given what the Noeem have been entrusted to keep."

If everyone hadn't already been paying attention, they would be now.

"We get presents," Safir mused from further down the table as the silence stretched. "How nice."

"Depends on the gift, Doc," John said, then turned back to Lorne. "Any of this coming back to you yet?"

Lorne had moved from greenish to pale to blushing, which John was taking as a healthy progression, but he shook his head no. "It's all really fuzzy, sir. It's all there, just... out of reach. Like watching television with no sound on."

"Don't worry about it," John assured, not entirely meaning it. His time with Chaya still unnerved him when he thought about it for more than a second, mostly because he didn't remember all of it. "For the time being, that we know we're here for a reason and someone knows what that reason is will be enough. You can't be the star of the entire show."

Lorne gave a weak smile, like he knew that he was being petted and appreciated it anyway.

"Have the Noeem been... caretakers for very long?" Teyla asked, leaning forward slightly as young men and women brought delicate-looking wooden cups and pitchers of water that they poured for everyone. The pretty girl who filled John's glass smiled brightly at him and he smiled back and he was pretty sure he could feel Rodney glaring at him.

"The Burden of the Ancestors has been ours to bear for almost as long back as our history goes," Marick replied. "We were a much smaller people, of course, when the last of the Ancestors came to ask this task of the Noeem."

John looked over at Teyla, who looked back with equal surprise. Two years spent schmoozing in this galaxy and they'd only met one people who could trace their history back to the time before the Ancients bugged out for Earth. Allina had been all enthusiastic about their arrival, too. He really hoped that this wasn't Dagan all over again.

"You've been guarding this treasure for ten thousand years?" Rodney asked, skepticism written all across his face.

"Well, it has been closer to thirteen thousand years," the Noeem next to Kagan replied. John thought her name might be Arat, but he wasn't about to test it. "If we are to count by our planet's cycle of seasons."

John grinned at the smug rejoinder, mostly because it kept Rodney from being able to say anything else.

"And the Wraith never came?" Ronon was at the end of the table, across from Ortilla so that the two big (and silent) men didn't turn into obstacles to everyone else's conversation.

"The Wraith?" Arat repeated, surprised. "They exist still? They are in our histories, but...."

"They exist," John assured her when nobody else had quite overcome their shock. Was this what Teyla had felt like when they'd first shown up on Athos, blissful in their ignorance? It had only been two years and yet it felt like he'd known about the Wraith his entire life, that he'd been fighting them forever. "And they're very much a threat. In fact, that's kind of why we're here. We're trying to defeat them and we're always looking around for anyone's who's got anything that can help us."

Marick gestured discreetly for the youngsters flitting around to leave. He didn't look surprised, John realized. He knew the Wraith were out there. From Lorne or Arvas or someone else? Was that how he'd known of Atlantis, too? But that wouldn't explain knowing about a fishing hole in Oregon.

"They have devoured many worlds," Teyla said, tilting her head in Ronon's direction, "and sent many more into exile."

"I am very sorry for my words," Arat said feelingly, bowing her head. "We have lived for so long in peace from without that fact has passed into legend. Forgive me."

Teyla reached across the table to touch her hands. "There is nothing to forgive. You did not know."

Arat smiled in gratitude.

John wanted to get back to whatever the Noeem had to give them -- and whether it was something they could or would want to take away -- but Marick spoke first.

"You were chosen, Major, because among your people are the children of the Ancestors and because you have both the strength to fight the Wraith and the compassion to help others who do not have your strength."

It was a nice sentiment, one John liked to think was true even if he wasn't too thrilled with the emphasis on the 'children of the Ancestors' thing. Because that had been a selling point for Allina, too.

"Yay for being the good guys," Lorne said without enthusiasm. It earned him a wry expression from Marick.

"I'm sorry," Lorne apologized. "I'm turning out to be far less worthy in person, aren't I?"

Marick shook his head. "To persist even when powers greater than yourself are working against you? If anything, you have proven yourself even more so."

It wasn't exactly an accurate read of the situation -- or, more precisely, of the situation as John knew it -- but it was favorable to them and to Lorne and it seemed to ease Lorne's mind a little, so it was all good in the end.

"We will eat and then we shall take you to the place where the Ancestors' Burden rests," Marick announced. With a slap on the table, the young men and women reappeared, bringing plates and cutlery and it was suddenly very busy.

"Why do you call it a 'burden'?" John asked amidst the flurry of arms and dishes. That was twice that the word had been used and that didn't make it sound promising. It wouldn't be the first time Ancient toys had turned out more trouble than they were worth.

"It is an unfortunate name that has long outlived its accuracy," Marick assured, taking a sip of water. "According to our histories, it is nothing more than a large, heavy box. At the time it was given to our forebears, we were nomadic peoples living as children -- barely civilized, barely able to tend to our own survival. It was why we were chosen, we believe. The Burden was just that -- something heavy and important and beyond our understanding that we were nonetheless charged with protecting."

John nodded in understanding and not a little relief. And then he made a private vow to kick Rodney if he referenced The Gods Must Be Crazy in front of anyone to whom they'd have to explain the movie. "The last place the Wraith would look?"

"We were not part of the grand society that flourished under the guidance of the Ancestors," Arat agreed, gesturing to two of the young men handling the heaviest trays. "The Wraith had not found our people yet and so the Ancestors, in return for our forebears' keeping of the Burden, assured that the Wraith never would. So many years of peaceful prosperity has made this history seem more myth than fact, but your very presence makes it all very real."

A giant platter of something that looked suspiciously like Near Deer was put down in front of John. He looked over at Lorne, who had the determined look of someone who was going to eat because it was polite, not because he actually wanted to.

"So you don't even know about the shield," Rodney said, sniffing at his water. The water here did taste a little weird, kind of flowery, but John didn't think that there was any citrus in it. "Do you ever use the transporters?"

The confused looks on Arat's and Marick's faces was answer enough.

"Our people have not left this valley since the time of the Ancestors," Marick answered finally. "We have not had any visitors, either."

"Well, considering how hard it is to get here," John said, "It's not really that much of a surprise."

"Don't even know where were are," Ronon rumbled from the end of the table, where he and Lorne's marines seemed to have their own massive tray of meat and vegetables. Suarez looked like he was saying grace. Closer to John, Kagan was shifting in his seat so that he could check that his marines were getting fed. Judging by the happy racket coming from the other tables, they were.

"We have to be on the same planet," Rodney pointed out, following Marick's and Arat's lead and loading his plate with meat. "The range of the transporter isn't enough to get us anywhere else."

John wasn't a big fan of Near Deer - on some planets it was very good, but on most planets it was either gamey or stringy or both -- so he took more sparingly and instead snagged a few extra vegetables. Lorne took enough to make his plate look occupied.

There was an unofficial suspension of the Ancients' Greatest Jedi Mind Tricks show during the meal, burdens and Ancients forgotten in favor of explanations by the Noeem of their culture and by everyone else of life in Pegasus on the other side of the transporter. As Marick and Arat spoke, John thought it sounded like the Noeem had developed like an isolated Earth population might have -- without fear of the Wraith, they had simply grown and flourished as conditions had allowed. The villages were separate entities, self-governing and with the usual sort of complaints and reputations that any Earth townsfolk would think about the municipality next door. ("You must think us very strange to be fighting over such petty matters as water usage and road repair when you must fight a greater menace," Arat had said. Kagan had assured her that it was completely familiar to them.) For their part, John was pleased that their stories kept away from dwelling on the omnipresent, occasionally suffocating presence of the Wraith. The Noeem naturally wanted to know what the Wraith were like and they described them, but Ronon largely kept out of the conversation and Teyla steered discussion to the common features of cultures that developed near an active stargate. Lorne mostly moved the food around on his plate, taking bites for appearance's sake and when he noticed Safir or his marines watching him.

After the meal, Marick encouraged them to leave the tables and walk. Kagan's marines (with their comet trail of children, all now wielding ballpoint pens and candy and other non-essential and non-threatening items out of the marines' packs) followed behind as they left the commons and sauntered toward the edge of town.

"Is the Burden held in commonality with all of the people of your world?" Teyla asked as they passed by a well. Marick and Lorne were ahead of them, talking quietly to each other. Safir was closest to them, walking with another Noeem and having a conversation that apparently engrossed them both.

"Aruto is the oldest settlement in the valley," Arat answered proudly. "The Burden was brought here by the Ancestors and has stayed here ever since. In fact, the Ancestors built a home for it and we could not move it even if we desired to. And so it is our responsibility and ours alone."

John looked around while the others talked. The town was an interesting mix of quasi-urban and rustic; stone masonry and some peach-colored material that felt like concrete under his fingers. The windows had clear glass and there were cobblestone streets, although he didn't see any wagons or buggies or any other sort of vehicle.

"There will be no opposition to your taking the Burden," Arat went on. "The other villages will perhaps be pleased -- it has occasionally been a source of... enmity, shall we say."

The town seemed either curiously incurious about the first foreigners on their soil in eons or they'd been told to stay inside. John caught the occasional face peering out of a window or standing in a doorway, but that was it.

"What do you make of the lack of spectators, Staff Sergeant?" John asked Ortilla, who was walking a little behind him, next to Ronon.

Ortilla made a face. "They're letting the kids play with us, sir," he answered, gesturing behind him where Reletti was distributing the contents of a roll of Life Savers to a cloud of youngsters, none of whom came up to his waist. "That's usually a good sign. It's when they keep the kids close that you know that they know that something's about to happen."

He nodded thanks and fell into step with Rodney, who was watching his PDA instead of the ground in front of him. "Anything interesting?"

Rodney shook his head. "They're not the Genii, that's pretty obvious. The ambient energy from the shield would be very good cover to hide from someone not as brilliant as I am, but they're not."

"Or they're better at hiding than you think," John suggested, mostly to get the death glare Rodney shot him.

"It's fascinating," Rodney went on once he was done boring invisible holes into John's forehead. "The sort of science -- or lack thereof -- that gets produced by a completely isolated culture. Statistically, as a people they should be cranking out someone every couple of generations who is capable of advancing their technical knowledge, so unless they've bred out scientific aptitude, this is it." He waved his arm around. "This is what a single culture can accomplish in ten thousand years with no outside influences."

John looked around again. Everyone seemed comfortable and protected from the elements and safe. "It's really not so bad."

Rodney snorted. "It's depressing as hell. Ten thousand years without the Wraith wiping out their best and brightest every few years and they are just getting around to gas lamps? Even considering for limited resources, their rate of progress is appalling."

"That's probably what the Ancients and the Asgard and the others think about us," John replied. He'd seen plenty of places on Earth that had been left behind by the swift march of progress; he had a different scale than Rodney did. Afghanistan had been the worst -- a decade of civil war and a ruling group that wanted to return to the Middle Ages had only helped -- but he'd seen more places without indoor plumbing than with during his time in the service. It was the nature of his job, just as Rodney's was to put him in the most advanced settings, but he'd have liked to think that it gave him some perspective.

"Yes, well," Rodney said dismissively. "I'm more curious about this 'Burden' and what the Ancients think it can do for us."

"I'm wondering about that, too," John agreed.

They were at the edge of the town now. Marick and Lorne were standing in front of a squat building that looked not at all out of place with the rest of Aruto's skyline, such as it was.

"It is in here," Marick announced when they'd all gathered around the entrance. "Be careful of your heads, gentlemen. I'm afraid you are a bit taller than the average Noeem."

Before following Marick in, John found Kagan.

"I'll set up a perimeter, sir," Kagan said before John could speak. He was looking up, to see if there were any buildings with rooftops low enough to be suitable for providing overwatch.

"Keep your marines on the ground," John told him. "The Noeem haven't given us any reason to doubt their intentions yet and we don't want to offend them by getting ready for an assault. If the shit hits the fan, then we'll be in radio contact and we'll have hostages."

After finishing with Kagan, he rejoined the group inside. The peach concrete structure had been built around a smaller one that was most definitely Ancient in design. Torchlight kept the place illuminated, so the effect was a little eerie but not completely unpleasant. Even with Ronon stalking around looking like the building had offended him somehow.

"How's your head?" he asked Lorne, who had been replaced by Teyla as Marick's conversation partner. Even by torchlight, he looked a lot better. More relaxed, if not necessarily his usual laid-back self. Or at least he was faking it better.

Lorne rolled his eyes. "I'm not sure whether this is better or worse than the alien possession thing, sir."

John had read Lorne's file, but he knew that what was in the official report was usually not within a stone's throw of the real story. You didn't get used to people fucking with your head. You didn't get used to being used. You didn't ever get comfortable with the undeniable proof that you were someone else's pawn in a game you didn't understand. It was bad enough on Earth when it was just generals sitting on their asses in Tampa sending down orders for missions half a world away. It was another order of magnitude bad when it was aliens who didn't have to worry about the fallout if they made you crazy or dead or both.

"Colonel?" Teyla called over. "Could you come here, please?"

John walked over, Lorne following. Marick was holding a torch near what looked like control crystals for a door.

"And this, Major, is why we have never guarded the Burden," Marick said with a wry smile. "Only the Ancestors can access what rests inside these walls."

John exchanged matching looks with Lorne. They were a little surprised, but not shocked. The Ancients had genetically coded almost everything of importance.

"I guess I'll play light switch," John said to Lorne. "Unless you want to do it."

Lorne shook his head no. "I can't initialize the big stuff," he replied with a shrug. "Reletti can, so that's usually his job."

Now that he was paying attention, John could feel the Ancient technology reaching out. It was a strong pull -- not overwhelming, nothing he couldn't resist without too much effort, but it was hungry and definitely eager to be activated.

He hadn't realized that he'd walked over close enough to touch the wall -- the pull was maybe a little stronger than he thought -- but the connection came with a snap that he could have sworn he heard outside of his head instead of in his mind. But he looked around and everyone else was waiting expectantly, so maybe not.

Reletti, Lorne, and Rodney turned to the Ancient building a half-second before everyone else did, feeling the activation before the first light flickered on. While everyone from Atlantis was more or less used to the spectacle, Arat and Marick were pretty much drop-jawed. John watched them, aware that his own genetics forever prevented him from being a witness instead of a participant and that that participation, involuntary most of the time, had jaded him a little.

"This is..." Marick trailed off, for once less than sure of where he stood. Next to him, Teyla beamed in shared enjoyment. "Wondrous."

Arat stood, one hand over her mouth, transfixed by what she saw. What she saw was the Ancient equivalent of a large storage shed, but John didn't want to ruin the moment for them. Their people had been wondering about this thing for ten thousand years; it must be like their version of the moon landing or something else of that magnitude.

Rodney pushed past everyone to get close. His PDA was out and he had a gleam in his eye. "Well, let's get on with this," he exhorted, gesturing with his hand toward the still-closed door.

John smiled because as anxious as Rodney was to see what was inside, he still wanted John to send someone else in first to look around.

"Well?" John turned to Lorne. "You got us here. You wanna take the lead?"

Rodney made a noise of protest, which John ignored, and Lorne looked over his shoulder at his team, which had migrated to just behind him. "Sure."

Reletti went over to the doorway and waved his hand over the crystals. "Open Sesame?"

John chuckled. Lorne sighed.

The doors opened with a stuttering pause and Reletti flicked on the light on his rifle. Safir entered with him and Ortilla followed Lorne and Suarez brought up the rear.

Ronon appeared at John's right shoulder, looking a little annoyed that they weren't going in first. "Patience, Grasshopper," John told him.

The Ancient building was a little bigger than a storage shed -- more like a bungalow. John didn't think there'd be a basement, but he wouldn't put it past the Ancients to have another transporter in there somewhere. He was about to try out his radio when he heard the click of it activating.

"Yo, Reletti, find a light switch," Suarez's voice came through. "Or think 'on' or whatever you do."

A minute later, there was a dull click that John knew everyone else could hear and then the darkness that had engulfed Lorne's team the moment they stepped through the doors dissipated.

"Woah."

"Well?" Rodney snapped when nothing more than Reletti's monosyllabic reaction came forth.

"Untwist your panties, McKay," Safir replied. "It's safe to come in."

John turned to Marick. "Would you like to see what you've been hiding all these years?"

"Very much so," he replied.

Teyla gestured for Marick to precede her as John waved Ronon ahead. Rodney was already at the door, Arat deftly getting out of his way at the last second.

John looked over his shoulder at Kagan, who nodded, and followed everyone else in. What was inside had pretty much been aptly described by Reletti. It was a short corridor to one large room, but the one room was illustrated in floor-to-ceiling Ancient writing. It was a little like being in an Egyptian pyramid (or a Goa'uld temple, he supposed), but the weird script wasn't painted on to the walls. The walls themselves were monitors of some sort, projecting the writing.

"This is what the city of the Ancestors is like?" Arat asked in a reverential whisper.

"It is not exactly like this," Teyla replied. "But it is similar in style and in wonderment."

Rodney was pulling out his camera. "We're going to need pictures of this," he said. "My Ancient's not good enough to get through this at any speed." He turned to Ortilla. "Start in that corner ---" he gestured at the opposite end "-- and I'll start on this one. Go all the way around because duplication can't hurt."

"Aye aye, sir," Ortilla replied, pulling out his own camera.

Marick approached the wall carefully, hand outstretched to touch it gingerly. "I was content in our isolation, never knowing what was beyond our skies, but this.... If this is what we have exchanged for our safety...."

"Not quite," Lorne replied. "The rest of the galaxy isn't like this. You've actually got it a lot better than most of the places we've visited. And I'm not sure you could put a price tag on being free of the Wraith."

John was sure Elizabeth would approve some sort of cultural exchange with the Noeem, but he didn't want to say anything yet.

"Sirs?" Reletti called over. "Do you hear something?"

He made a gesture by his head to indicate that it wasn't something audible, but instead something from the Ancient technology.

John closed his eyes to 'listen'. The building itself was still very loud, still going through whatever processes it went through to initialize. But now that he was paying attention, there was something else, something very quiet.

"I think it's coming from over there, sir," Reletti said when John opened his eyes again, gesturing toward one of the walls. John, Lorne, and Marick followed Reletti over to where he'd been pointing.

"Careful," Lorne warned as Reletti reached out, fingers skimming over the surface. He crouched down to reach lower, fingers pausing at a spot about a foot off of the ground.

It was always a little weird to feel someone else engaging Ancient technology; toys seems to gravitate to him first. But Reletti had found what he was looking for and initialized it. There was a muffled thump and Reletti hopped back as the wall itself seemed to separate, stumbling into Safir, who had been watching from an angle.

"A secret compartment?" Lorne asked, mostly to himself. Reletti crouched back down, this time with his flashlight, and took a look.

"Don't stick your face in first," Safir sighed with annoyance.

Reletti handed the flashlight to Safir and knelt to reach into the compartment, repositioning for leverage when whatever he was pulling out proved heavy. Finally he got it free and stepped back, revealing a small chest.

"That's what we're here for," Lorne said, realization on his face. "This is what Arvas wanted me to find."

John gave his XO a look. "That's great. What is it?"

"Something to help save Atlantis," Lorne replied, kneeling down and running his fingers over the top, like he was feeling for a seam. He tilted his head as though he were listening; John recognized the gesture. "A hand, Sergeant?"

Reletti dropped to one knee and his brow furrowed in concentration. "Whatever's in here, sir, they really want to make sure we want it," he bit out between clenched teeth. "There."

He stood up again, stepping back for everyone else to see as Lorne opened the lid of the chest. Inside the chest, nestled carefully in the Ancient equivalent of packing foam, were rows of control crystals.

"McKay!" John called out without turning from the sight. "I think you might want to get over here."


ten

"Is Life Savers one word or two?" John asked, not looking up from his laptop.

They were in Lorne's office, John at the conference table and Lorne at his desk, cranking out their share of the half-dozen reports that would be required for this adventure. John had shown up officially because it was easier to corroborate stories with both of them in the same room and it had the benefit of both of them being easily located, which was still important on some days. Also, Lorne's office had the preferred seating for getting stuck on your ass typing all morning. Unofficially, he was there because Lorne wasn't quite there. Lorne hadn't said anything, but John didn't think that meant that he didn't realize.

"Two," Lorne replied. "I think. There's a space."

John grunted acknowledgment, backspacing and correcting. "I think I should be more worried than I am that my spell check can handle Goa'uld and atoniek and not names of candy."

The word processors had come with already-customized dictionaries. Most of the time it was useful because while the Atlantis expedition's nominalism tended toward the pragmatic, the SGC had a distressing habit of adopting foreign words instead of coming up with an English expression and not all of the galaxy's languages transliterated well.

Lorne chuffed a laugh. "You only have to start worrying when you don't need to spell check words like zat'ni'katel, sir."

John was pretty sure every SG team officer could spell that in at least three languages.

He was still staring at his screen trying to come up with a more profound 'lesson learned' statement than 'don't let your XO get kidnapped by mind-altering aliens' when his email pinged. He looked at the little clock in the corner of the screen and knew without checking what it was: Rodney wanting to postpone the command staff meeting. Good luck with that, buddy, John thought to himself, switching programs.

Elizabeth hadn't been kidding when she'd told John to expect a request for a marine escort to pry McKay out of the labs. John didn't know if Rodney had even slept since they'd gotten back yesterday. They'd sent him back early with the chest of crystals and Teyla (Rodney to get started on trying to figure out what they were for and Teyla to actually update Elizabeth, since Rodney was perfectly capable of going back to Atlantis and straight to his work without stopping to tell anyone that Lorne hadn't either self-destructed or gone evil) and nobody had seen him since. And now he wanted to skip the meeting -- not just skip it himself, but keep Zelenka, too, and anyone else who could be considered useful to the project that had swallowed the Science Division whole. And taken Social Sciences with it.

"The explosion you hear in about ninety seconds will be Doctor Weir's reaction to finding out that McKay wants to send Doctor Gorshuk to the CSM," John announced, scanning the email. Gorshuk was the head of the Zoology group, a pleasant Doctor Dolittle type, but the Noeem's horses and oxen weren't exactly relevant to the matter at hand.

Lorne was still chuckling when a distant boom was heard, at which point he and John looked at each other with surprise. Because John thought he had been speaking metaphorically.

Lorne hit the button on the phone on his desk. "Control?"

"Working on it, sir," Lieutenant Gillick's voice came through the speaker phone a moment later. "But sensors say it came from E-3."

John and Lorne exchanged knowing looks. E-3 was the part of the city that had been most heavily damaged by the Wraith siege. It was all but unusable and they'd evacuated as much equipment and artifacts as possible because it crumbled a little more on every windy day.

"Keep us informed," Lorne sighed.

The actual metaphorical explosion from Elizabeth's office was far quieter. If Rodney bludgeoned people into submission with words, Elizabeth worked far more delicately and, John thought, lethally in her efficiency. Haiku to Rodney's Joyce.

John was still reading Rodney's grudging concession email when Lorne's phone beeped. "Sir? It was a secondary explosion from a controlled demo by Lieutenant Cadman's EOD team."

"Thank you, Aaron," Lorne replied.

"What did we tell Cadman about blowing up the city?" John asked. "I'm pretty sure it was 'don't.'"

Not enough time had passed to make that joke in front of Cadman -- or most of the rest of the city. They were probably going to lose her even before the sabotage of the stargate, but the lingering effects of that day assured that she was going to turn her upcoming TDY into a PCS at the first opportunity.

"I'm sure Hanzis'll tell her the same thing," Lorne agreed.

John had worked his way up to the point in the narrative where he had to decide whether (how) to gloss over Lorne lying to everyone about how intact his memories were when they decided to break for lunch. Because the meeting would no doubt go on for hours and there was no point in both your ass getting numb and your stomach growling.

The meeting started ten minutes late, which was pretty much on time because not even setting all of the clocks in Science ahead fifteen minutes had cured their habitual tardiness. Rodney appeared with his laptop in one hand, a large mug of coffee in the other, a similarly armed Zelenka trailing behind, and the sort of wide-awake zombie look that confirmed John's suspicions about him not going to sleep.

They started with the usual rigmarole, including formally welcoming Lorne back to his duties because the IOA liked to see that sort of stuff in its reports, and then spent five minutes on everything else going on in Atlantis before getting on to the main event.

"This is going to take months," Rodney warned as he typed in the commands that got the ceiling-mounted projector whirring as it warmed up. "Possibly years. Especially if I have to keep getting interrupted."

Elizabeth was all patience, perhaps still buoyed by her victory in getting Rodney to show up. "Rome wasn't built in a day," she replied. "Why don't we start with what we do have."

A theatrical sigh from Rodney. "We've only run tests on about ten percent of the cache," he began. "The identification process alone could take weeks and we might never be able to fully complete that task, either because of the damage within the city or the lack of sufficient power to initialize the corresponding device."

"Or the fact that the device is not in Atlantis itself," Zelenka added, ignoring Rodney's glare for interrupting his spiel.

"Or that," Rodney went on. "Additionally, we have to take extreme caution. The Ancients were perverse sons of bitches, but it's probably safe to say that whatever purpose these crystals have, it's not benign. We don't want to further damage the city or unnecessarily drain the ZPM."

John could easily count off half a dozen times Engineering had accidentally shorted out part of the city, but thought better of saying so aloud. Safir, however, had no such qualms and Elizabeth intervened quickly before it could degenerate. Carson had been working on the politely glazed expression he got whenever Rodney got too involved in technical details, but now put on his Yoni Babysitting look of worn determination. John would laugh, but he was perfectly aware that Lorne had his own put-upon look.

"So far, we have identified what we believe to be secondary subroutines for the control chair," Rodney continued at Elizabeth's behest.

"Yeah?" John asked mostly because everyone expected him to and partially because it was almost necessarily something they could use to defend the city. He had a love-hate affair with the control chair. Now that he was in a city that was more or less permanently communicating with him, the control chair didn't freak him out as much. It was still weirdly invasive, far more so than anything else in Atlantis, and so while he respected its power, he was never eager to experiment with it. Thankfully, it was such a power drain that he was never asked to.

"Don't get all excited," Rodney told him. "We don't have the power to do more than get information to run models."

"We think they might be bridges to the central control network," Zelenka said before anyone could ask for speculation.

"So we could, what, open and close doors from the chair?" John asked, sitting up.

Zelenka looked straight at him. "The chair might be able to be used to control every aspect of Atlantis. Including flight, were we capable of powering it, and most certainly life support and power distribution."

John looked over at Elizabeth, who was looking back at him with barely muted surprise. That would certainly prove interesting if they ever had to defend the city again, either from without or from within.

"And now you see why we have to be so careful," Rodney said a little smugly and looking directly at Safir. "We could have hit the mother lode right at the start, but if we didn't, if this is just the beginning, then...."

"Then this could be what we've been hoping to find," Elizabeth finished.

The list of things in Atlantis that didn't work for more reasons than just power requirements was legion; there were entire areas of the city that they couldn't do a damned thing with even with the ZPM. It had made sense for the Ancients to have sabotaged the city so that the bad guys couldn't use it. But they'd always assumed that it was a reversible kind of sabotage, that it was just a matter of finding the missing pieces and not having them be lost forever or broken. But two years into poring over the database -- and the fact that they had access to the Ancient database at all was a serious chink in the sabotage theory -- and they'd come up with no clues. Not until Lorne got beamed up to a metaphysical fishing hole in Oregon.

"And once Social Sciences starts actually producing something besides excuses," Rodney picked up, "then we might know for sure."

"It's encrypted," Elizabeth bristled and Rodney almost visibly shrunk back a little. She was always protective of Social Sciences, but in this case it was because she'd been helping with the translation of what was on the walls. "Once the entire text is transcribed, it has to be decoded."

"And you'll have the full cooperation of everyone who doesn't need to take off their shoes to count to twenty," Rodney assured, still sounding like he was backtracking. Which he was. John kind of enjoyed it.

Sadly, that was one of the high points of the rest of the meeting. With so little actual facts to go along with a whole lot of wishful thinking and speculation, there was just a lot of shooting down of theories and trial balloons before Elizabeth finally switched the topic over to what were the possible futures of Atlantis-Noeem relations.

"We tried our best to explain the advantages and disadvantages of joining the rest of the galaxy," Lorne reported. Which, as much as John liked to oversimplify to Wraith-or-no-Wraith, was not such an easy or obvious decision. "They still have a lot of talking among themselves to do. Anything the village of Aruto does necessarily impacts the rest of the Noeem, so...." he trailed off with a shrug.

"We sent Lieutenant Paik off with a jumper full of scientists to see why we didn't spot the Noeem -- or their shield -- earlier," John continued. Paik was probably still on the range recovering. "Whatever that shield does to keep them off of our radar, it also disguises the topography so that we couldn't even find a region on the planet that matched what we saw on the ground."

"So for as long as they're under the shield, they'll remain safe from the Wraith?" Elizabeth asked.

"Probably," Rodney hedged. "While any idiot could stumble into the first transporter--"

Yoni and Lorne both shifted meaningfully in their seats, and John sighed and wondered, not for the first time, how Rodney had survived working for the Air Force this long without being pummeled in a dark corner. Because it was one thing to be thoughtless around doughy, heliophobic geeks, but it was another to speak without thinking around people who were both legally armed and had daily PT sessions. John would have to defend him, of course, but there were moments when he thought that he might let the other party get a swing or two in first before he stepped in.

"The second transporter is effectively invisible, in addition to being extremely difficult to get to," Rodney went on quickly, realizing that he was on too-thin ice already. "On the other hand, it's not that hard to track someone to both transporters and, once within the shield, it's easy enough to find the population center."

John had helped Lorne explain that to Marick -- the idea of leading trouble straight to your door wasn't that hard to get, but Marick really had no idea of how bad that trouble could be. One Wraith or one Genii -- or some other bad guys they had somehow managed not to stumble into yet -- would be all it would take to end the Noeem's peace forever. The Genii might be under new management, but John didn't doubt for a second that they would kill for a shielded place to live and build their nukes.

"In the meanwhile," Lorne began, his voice a little cold still, "We've tried to get a sense of what we could offer them as a gift for what they've given us."

"Technologically, we could probably help them out a little without throwing the natural course of their development off by too much," Rodney volunteered, still in defensive mode. "They've apparently got some sort of institutionalized learning, so we could drop a few concepts in here and there, a sort of intellectual booster shot."

Elizabeth nodded slowly. She was always very careful about these sorts of gifts, citing numerous cases in the SGC histories of advanced societies doing more harm than good this way.

"Whether or not they choose to join the outside world," John picked up, "We'll set up some way for them to communicate with us in case of an emergency. It's the least we can do for them. If they want to start using the stargate, we'll teach them how to defend it and themselves."

Foreign internal defense was not really something the Marines traditionally focused on, but without any Army Special Forces running around, they'd make do. As they had before. The task of teaching the Afghans and Iraqis how to build and train their own police and army units had usually fallen on whoever was around, including marines. John thought that Hanzis might have had some experience there.

"I took some samples and did a few histories," Yoni said, leaning back in his seat again. He, like Lorne, came to the meetings with a pad and a pen, although while John knew that Lorne was taking notes on what was actually happening, he'd long held the suspicion that Safir was really writing imprecations or letters home or whatever else he did to amuse himself because nobody at the table could read Hebrew and he'd rather be anywhere else. "And I extended the usual hygiene-and-immunizations offer. They're advanced enough to be keeping their water and waste separate, but their isolation has meant that the sort of diseases that the Wraith have bred out of the gene pool -- muscular dystrophies, for instance -- are present in higher numbers than we've seen elsewhere in the galaxy. They'll need a more comprehensive immunization package for the same reason, especially if they decide to start traveling."

This part was familiar; they had to address the same issues with every planet they encountered and it always boiled down to not being able to save everyone and the handing out of fish versus the teaching of the art of fishing and it was never easy. John let Lorne do most of the wrangling -- not because it meant that he could space out (well, not just because), but instead because Lorne knew their own capabilities as well as he did and, frankly, was more of a pragmatist than he was. John always wanted to do more, give more, than they could reasonably afford and Lorne was the one who had to point out that they had other responsibilities, too. He wondered if it would be different this time, if Lorne's connection to Marick would tempt him to pull easier on the reins. It was too early to tell -- Lorne was still being very closed-mouthed about the whole ascension thing and no decisions could be made until the Noeem made up their own minds.

When the meeting finally (finally) broke up, Lorne went to talk to Safir and Rodney and Zelenka fled back to their labs. Carson went back to the medical suites and that left John and Elizabeth. He followed her, more out of habit than of anything in particular to say.

"How's Lorne?" Elizabeth asked as they entered her office.

John shrugged. "If he's not mostly back to normal, he's faking it well enough," he replied. And it was true. By the time they'd returned to Atlantis, Lorne had seemed almost himself again, if maybe more tired than usual. Today, there had been very few moments when it had been obvious that there were still memory gaps and most of those were missable if you didn't know him well. "You'll have to talk to Heightmeyer for the educated opinion."

Elizabeth nodded in a way that made John think that she already had. "His memories have returned?"

"As far as I can tell," John said as casually as possible. It was a lie, but a white one as far as he was concerned. Lorne could do his job, his memories were coming back, and there was no need to have Elizabeth start worrying about the integrity of Lorne's cranial contents. And, besides, John figured Safir must know and he doubted that Yoni would be letting Lorne do anything if he thought that there was a problem. "He's not volunteering information about getting ascended, but can you blame him?"

"No," Elizabeth agreed. "What do you think the Noeem will do?"

John accepted the change of subject. "Not a clue," he admitted. "I think the people in the village we went to will want to get out and explore, but I don't know how everyone else will feel."

"Or how the citizens of Aruto will act if the Noeem decide to remain isolated," Elizabeth finished. "In some ways, this is a sort of microcosm of Earth and their introduction to the stargate and the world beyond. There are significant differences, of course, but as benevolent as we wish we were, we also bring the threat of a very real and dangerous enemy with us."

More than one.

John was about to say something that would get him out the door, but he was saved the effort by the appearance of Teyla. "Good afternoon, Colonel. Elizabeth, may I speak to you for a moment?"

He pointed toward the door. "I'll let myself out."

Elizabeth and Teyla acknowledged his departure with a nod and a smile and he left, heading into the control room and scaring Lieutenant Patchok by sneaking up on him unnoticed and offering advice on his Tetris strategy. The lieutenants had yet to realize that he genuinely didn't care, so there was a bit of flustered sitreportage by Patchok and John made things worse by nodding and smiling and taking it all in without berating him for playing a game on (a very boring) duty. Having fulfilled his daily quota of confounding his subordinates, he went back to Lorne's office to finish his report because this wasn't the week to welsh out and expect Lorne to finish it for him.

Lorne was already back, poring over a printed-out copy of Kagan's report of the adventure. "We should have found a way to get Kagan into Charlie Company," he said as John booted up his computer. "Lots of Scrabble words in here."

John grinned. Polito would probably have gotten a kick out of Kagan, but Radner was the one whose lieutenant had gone home.

They worked in companionable silence for the rest of the afternoon, occasionally consulting the other on details, until John's watch beeped.

"Crap," he muttered, realizing what the alarm was set for. He'd meant to postpone the off-world teams meeting. Lorne usually ran those.

"It won't be that bad," Lorne assured him, standing up and rolling his neck. "Murray hasn't been outside of Atlantis all week, so the highlights will be my disappearing act and the usual crap Gillick gets about the girls on Ipetia."

John saved his file and powered down the laptop. "Are you up to it?"

"What, listening to everyone rag on Gillick?" Lorne asked blandly. "As long as it doesn't inspire Reletti and Suarez to tease Yoni about Abet. Because one of these days he's going to do something back and it's going to leave a mark."

John looked up at him because they both knew that that was not what he was asking.

Lorne nodded, acknowledging the real question. "I'll be fine, sir."

feed me on LJ?


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21 October, 2006