The Welcome Wagon's Greasy Wheel

by Domenika Marzione

Almost three weeks on the Daedalus, which was shockingly like most cruises he'd taken except that there were airmen instead of sailors and no going topside, and they were finally there.

Everyone was antsy; three weeks with no sunlight and no fresh air was bad enough, but there were always enough reminders that you weren't part of a carrier group, that you were instead on a fucking spaceship going to another galaxy, and this wasn't like anything they'd done before. And that had been before the ship had gotten hijacked by some alien virus and they'd nearly been toast before they even got to Atlantis to fight the space vampires. (Colonel Sheppard had bailed their asses out, apparently, although AJ, like pretty much everyone else, had been asleep in his rack for almost all of the middle-of-the-night drama.)

AJ had spent the weeks in transit doing what the rest of the marines had done to kill time -- work out, jerk off, tussle with his fellow marines (the airmen did not want to participate), and go through the surprisingly long list of required reading. Nobody usually expected marines to read a lot of shit and their commanders seemed to realize that, even if the SGC folks hadn't. Either Lieutenant Patchok or Major Lorne had read almost everything to them more than once, going through each document in meetings of various sizes to make sure that everyone grokked what the important stuff was. Most of what they were being told, however, would remain beyond their comprehension until they actually encountered it. Transporters, stargates, aliens, and days that were not twenty-four hours -- being told all of this while sitting in a spaceship didn't make it any more real.

But now was the time of reckoning. They were being transported down to the city by platoon; with Alpha Company existing only on paper, Bravo Company was leading off and they were already in the city, presumably meeting their commander for the first time. Charlie Company, of which AJ was in the first platoon, was up next. Their commander, Captain Polito, was moving around both to make sure everyone was ready ("Sergeant Gallitan, where is your seabag?") as well as to make himself a harder target for the dirty glares of the Daedalus's crew. (The scavenger hunt had been a good cure for boredom and Colonel Sheppard had approved, although Colonel Caldwell had not.)

"First Platoon, move out!"

Most of their personal gear was stowed in one of the holds and would be transported into the city later, but they were all still carrying backpacks and seabags and they barely fit on the platform. Lieutenant Patchok and Gunny Haumann counted heads and, since everyone was too fucking scared to leave a body part behind, they were crammed together like a mosh pit. A noise, a light, and then they were out in the sunlight and AJ could smell sea air and hear waves crashing and these were all happy sounds to any marine's ears and then--


--"Reletti?!" His eyes refocused and he was looking up at Ortilla and he could hear and understand Ortilla's words and yet they weren't as loud as the noises in his head. Another shake -- Ortilla was fucking huge -- "Reletti!!"

If he focused on the people around him, the noise in his head dulled a little. It was like trying to pretend that you weren't drunk when you were in fact completely shitfaced.

"I'm here," he muttered, even though he'd probably lose if he had to argue the point. "I'm here."

He took a deep breath and Ortilla cocked an eyebrow, not letting him go. "Que pasa, hombre?"

"It's like a fucking news ticker in my brain," he replied, not knowing how else to explain it. "I'll be fine in a second."

"Bullshit," Gunny Haumann growled, appearing from behind Ortilla. "This is what we get for not having fucking Corpsmen. Rourke, stop standing there gawping like a fucking goldfish -- go get that marine with the radio and find out where the hell the medics are. Gustafson! If Spelcher's gonna hurl, aim him toward the water."

AJ closed his eyes, letting the rush of information and noise and static and something else he couldn't identify but felt like mine wash over him. It was easier to bend and go with the flow than to hold it at bay. Ortilla shook him again and he opened his eyes.

"I'm okay," he said, meeting Ortilla's concerned look. "I'm not going anywhere."

He hoped.

"Yeah you are," Lieutenant Patchok told him. "You and Spelcher are going to the infirmary."

The infirmary was crowded, cluttered, and chaotic. It matched perfectly with what was going on in his head. All of the new doctors and hundreds of pounds of medical supplies that had come aboard the Daedalus had not yet been absorbed, instead they were piled up and standing around and that was before a dozen marines had come barreling in demanding at the top of their lungs for someone to care for their stricken brethren.

As one of the stricken brethren, AJ just wanted a place to lie down.

The noise in his head was getting quieter, as if maybe whatever was sending it understood that it was too much. But if it wasn't too much anymore, it was still a lot. It felt like a cross between the gas chamber during field training and that night he'd spent two hours treading water in the Pacific because he'd been the only one to notice that Morgan had fallen off the Zodiac and hit his head. He felt like comfort was just out of reach but also like he was one ill-timed inhale away from not being able to breathe at all.

"Sergeant Reletti?"

He turned to see a doctor watching him. "Sir?"

"Well, at least you answer to your name," the doctor sighed, flicking on a penlights. The light was very bright when it hit his eyes and AJ pulled away on reflex, only to have his chin held gently-but-firmly in place. "Do you know where you are?"

The doctor had an accent, but not one that was hard to understand.

"Atlantis's infirmary, sir."

In his head, he could hear information on the room, only not because he couldn't understand it all. It wasn't speech, but instead impressions and hints and images that maybe if he focused on them more he'd see what was so important that someone had to drill into his brain to tell him. I don't care, he told the not-quite-voice in his head.

"What don't you care about, Sergeant?"

Or maybe he was speaking out loud. "Just trying to turn off the radio in my head, sir."

The doctor nodded, as if this was something that happened all the time in Atlantis. Maybe it did. AJ didn't want to consider the possibility that he might be like this for his entire time here. The doctor continued his exam, unbothered by the fact that his patient was hearing things.

Snapping fingers and AJ thought maybe he'd been drifting again, but the doctor was trying to get someone else's attention. "You," he gestured at a woman standing nearby. "Which one are you?"

"Clayton," she replied warily.

"Mazel tov, Doctor Clayton," the doctor replied. "Welcome to Atlantis. Please keep an eye on Sergeant Reletti. Keep him talking -- to you -- and if he needs to vomit, there's a bedpan behind you."

He left them then, going across the room to where there was already a commotion building.

The noise in AJ's head kept him from being able to follow what was going on around him and so while he knew that he'd be able to catch more of the fuss across the room under normal circumstances, right now he couldn't parse out more than that there were raised voices and that those voices belonged to some of the really important people in Atlantis. The noise wasn't noise like a jackhammer was noise, but it was closer to sound than any other sense and it screwed with his ability to take in his surroundings, like invisible baffles. He'd been trained so long to know when to trust his senses and when not to, to absorb and interpret what he took in, and this was turning all of that upside down and that more than anything distressed him. The discomfort would be endured.

Doctor Clayton appeared next to where AJ was sitting sideways on a bed.

"I'm good for now, ma'am," he told her when she offered the bedpan in his direction.

"I'm relieved," she said with a smile. She was pretty when she smiled, apart from the fact that the marines as a whole had already come to the conclusion that beauty was relative in the Stargate Program, the way it was in every place where women made up significantly less than half of the population. "Not exactly the warm welcome you'd imagined, is it?"

Across the room, the commotion was building in pitch and AJ could make out the odd word now if he tried very hard and stopped paying so close attention to Doctor Clayton.

"They're arguing about why you guys are sick," Clayton told him and AJ wondered if he'd said something aloud again.

"It's the Ancient thing, isn't it, ma'am?" Because why else would it be him and Spelcher instead of Forbes, the only marine who'd gotten space-sick? Spelcher, meanwhile, was currently curled into the fetal position on the bed next to him. AJ could only see his back, but he didn't look too good. On the other side of Spelcher was Beauregard, called Booger by everyone including officers, a giant Alabamian from Bravo's second platoon whom everyone used as proof positive that the Ancients had not been breeding for either intelligence or grace. "It's only the ones with the gene."

"Well, yes," Clayton agreed. "But why the marines and not the scientists who have the gene."

AJ looked around and there weren't a lot of blue shirts around, just the yellow that made every doctor look either nauseated or jaundiced and the digie cammies of marines. "Hunh."

"This is your first time with anything Ancient, right?" Clayton asked.

"Pardon me?" AJ asked with some alarm. He'd only half-heard and the half he did hear probably didn't mean the same thing in context. Which didn't stop him from blushing a little.

"I'm not impugning your virtue, Sergeant," Clayton laughed.

"Nothing virtuous about most marines, ma'am," AJ replied, embarrassed nonetheless.

"So I've heard," Clayton agreed with a wink. "But I was referring to you interfacing with Ancient technology."

"Oh," he said, looking down to keep from either grinning or blushing further. "In that case, yes, ma'am."

"That's why you're having trouble," she explained, making a vague gesture toward his head that he could see out of the corner of his eye. "The scientists and doctors with the gene all have had prior exposure, so coming to Atlantis wasn't as big of a shock to their systems."

AJ turned to her. "Did they know this would happen because we didn't?"

"That is what they're arguing about," Clayton said with a shrug. "Apparently Doctor McKay knew, or at least he suspected. Colonel Sheppard is pretty pissed at him and Doctor Beckett and Doctor Safir are furious."

"Hunh." The jury was still out on Sheppard as far as the marines went. When you saw him, he was the embodiment of every stereotype there was about pansy-assed Air Force officers. And yet he'd spent the entire time on the Daedalus getting them out of trouble with the crew and then fighting off the Wraith virus. And the three marines who'd come back to Earth injured and were returning to Atlantis all swore he was the best non-marine commander they'd ever have. "So that's what they're yelling about."

She looked at him thoughtfully. "You can't hear them?"

AJ shook his head slowly. "Not really, ma'am. I can make out bits and pieces, but it's like I've got headphones on. Except they're not on the outside."

"But you can hear me?" Her casual pose was gone. She reached past him and into the cabinet next to the bed, pulling out an otoscope.

AJ exhaled slowly, frustrated with his inability to explain anything -- with his inability to understand anything. "I don't think it's my hearing, ma'am. It's not that I can't hear. It's that it's hard to pay attention over what else is going on in my head."

"Humor me," she said and he did, ducking down a little and turning his head so that she could look in his ears. "Nothing there."

"Hell, he's a marine, I'd have been surprised if you'd found anything."

AJ looked up to see Colonel Sheppard grinning at him. "How're you doing, Sergeant?"

"Been better, sir," AJ replied, sitting up straight and nearly knocking Clayton over in the process as she stepped back suddenly. He reached out to grab her, but his equilibrium was still off and she ended up grabbing on to his arm instead. "Sorry, ma'am."

"I'll forgive you," Clayton replied. She stepped back and he thought it was to keep out of his range, but it was instead to give him and Sheppard some pretense at privacy as she started organizing the medical kit she'd taken out.

"Listen," Sheppard began, "We're moving all of the marines here back up to the Daedalus so that they can get their brains back and get acclimated to the Ancient technology like they should have been. You seem to be in the best shape of the bunch, so Doctor Safir over there says I can give you the option of staying down here or going up with them."

Doctor Safir was apparently the doctor from before. He was not looking at them, instead giving directions to a couple of marines across the room. From what AJ had seen, he was in charge of the putting-away.

AJ turned back to Sheppard, afraid of spacing out again. He wanted the noise in his head to stop, but he didn't want the stigma of needing respite. Even if the other marines with the gene didn't get sent home -- nothing was a faster career killer than a note on your psych profile and the entire battalion had seen them all go catatonic -- they'd still wind up having to prove themselves all over again. So would he, even if he walked out of the infirmary right now. But it wouldn't be as bad. "I'd like to stay here if I can, sir. Less to catch up on."

Sheppard gave him a look that made it very clear that he didn't think that falling behind was what AJ was worried about. "It's your call, Sergeant. But I want you to try something for me before you decide."

"Of course, sir." He didn't miss the way his decision had been made temporary, but if Sheppard had really wanted him to go, then he wouldn't have given him the choice.

"Here," Sheppard said, holding out a small box. It looked like it was made of multicolored glass and felt very cold in AJ's hand as he accepted it. "Turn this on and off a few times for me."

"Sir?" AJ looked up at the colonel, then back down at the box, which was drawing his attention almost like a whisper.

"I know it's probably hard to hear over all of the noise," Sheppard said, "But try to focus on it instead of Atlantis."

AJ stared at the box for a long couple of seconds, then closed his eyes because it was almost like he could see it better if he wasn't looking at it. So this is what Ancient technology is like when it's not trying to drive me crazy. It was still whispering -- the same not-really-noise as what he had been not-really-hearing since he'd arrived in Atlantis -- but it was clearer now. He didn't know how to turn it on or off, there was no switch that he could flip. At least not one with his fingers. On?

"There you go," Sheppard said encouragingly. AJ opened his eyes when he felt the heat in his palm. Hunh. The box was now glowing a muted creamsicle orange. "Now turn it off again."

Off?, he thought at it, but nothing happened. Off!

The orange glow went out suddenly, chastened.

"Good work, sergeant," Sheppard said. "Doctor Safir will probably let you go sooner than later since he's bitching about the clutter, but practice with that until he does turf you."

"Aye aye, sir," AJ replied. "And thank you sir."

Sheppard nodded and was about to say something, but then he put his hand to his ear to listen to his radio and ended up walking away instead.

AJ returned his attention to the glass box, which wasn't whispering quite so loud anymore. But he called to it once again, getting it to warm to an orange glow before turning it off again. Off was much harder, but the little box obeyed, if truculently. He'd graduated from "on/off" to "wax on/wax off" in a Pat Morita voice when he felt someone watching him and looked up.

"How are you doing, Sergeant?" Doctor Safir asked him.

AJ was about to speak, but then he paused and looked around. He could hear the clatter of one of the marine orderlies dropping a metal tray, the voices of a conversation between Doctor Clayton and some other doctor a few feet away, the squeaky wheel of a handcart moving through the infirmary. The noise wasn't gone, but it was much diminished. It was like a radio on in another room instead of headphones he couldn't take off or turn down. "A lot better, sir."

He tried not to smile giddily. He tried not to smile at all. But the relief was almost palpable and he didn't know why he hadn't noticed it when it had happened.

Safir looked at him critically, as if he could see the truth written across his forehead. "Good," he said with a nod. He held out a handful of tiny foil packets. Naproxen capsules. "Here. Take these according to the directions and get out of here. One of the orderlies will tell you how to get to the barracks."

AJ slid off of the bed, steadier than he thought he'd be if not his usual self, and put the packets into his pocket. "Thank you, sir."

There were a couple of marines by the door and he'd ask them where his platoon had gone off to. Hopefully, they'd taken his gear with them. This wasn't the sort of place where you wanted to lose your luggage and he didn't want to be wearing someone else's drawers until they got resupply from Earth.

Safir gave him a vague 'get lost' wave and turned to go, then turned back. "Sergeant."

"Yes, sir?"

"Sheppard will be too distracted and his new minion doesn't know anything yet, so the news will be slow getting back to the barracks," Safir began. "Tell your captain that the other marines have been taken to the Daedalus."

AJ gave him a tight smile. It was a considerate gesture, even if he'd have at least told Lieutenant Patchok on his own anyway. "Aye aye, sir."

Getting to the barracks was easy; the marine he asked for directions took him all the way there. Finding his platoon and his quarters was a little harder because the noise in his head swelled a little louder in the new building. But once the orderly left him, he did his wax on/wax off with the glass box a few times and things quieted down enough for him to hunt down Charlie Company.

feed me on LJ?

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30 July, 2006