by Domenika Marzione

It's six months before midyear and his parents are arguing in the study. Again. It has been this way for the last few months, always the same whispered angry words, always at the other end of the house where they think he is. He wonders what their arguments are like when he is not around and they don't have to check their voices.

He doesn't so much listen for the words as for the tones of voices; he knows what they are arguing about, so it's just a matter of who is winning. His mother sounds angrier than his father, which, under the circumstances, is what Ronon wants.

In just over five months he will celebrate his birthday and then three weeks later it will be midyear and he will have to report to the barracks to begin his military service. Or not, depending on who wins the fight his parents have been waging since he turned sixteen and the specter of Sateda's mandatory conscription moved from 'eventually' to 'imminent.' There are very few families wealthy enough to buy their children's way out of serving and the Dex are one of them.

Ronon's textbooks explain that military service is required mostly because the Olgres invaded Sateda hundreds of years ago and Sateda got caught with its pants down. It does not matter that Olgre has not existed in more than one hundred fifty years or that nobody's tried since, not even the Wraith. Everyone except for the lame, sick, or very wealthy serves two years in Sateda's army-without-an-enemy. They are well-equipped (the defense budget is a source of disagreement in every senatorial cycle), well-trained (with nothing to do but practice, they couldn't be otherwise), and well-schooled in which taprooms serve the best ale ("I am not sending my son to the army to learn how to drink!").

Getting out of service by paying the war fine is proof of status and Ronon's mother has her eye toward that; the Dex are still considered new money among Sateda's elite, despite Ronon's great-grandfather having enough standing (or at least enough cash) to marry a daughter of the Ardemi. Three generations later and Ronon has been raised in the same fashion as the children of the oldest families, but the Dex still cling to remnants of their merchant class past and one of those is the continued participation in the defense of Sateda. Ronon's mother would like to change that -- Sateda needs no defenders, she says, at least not with rifle and shield. If his father would like Ronon to protect his world, then send him to university now and let him learn what he needs to take his place among the governing elite.

Ronon's father's positions are less clear to Ronon, since most of them revolve around experiences his father insists must be had to be appreciated. He also says that Ronon is going to spend his adulthood shouldering great responsibilities and he should have two years to get his childhood out of his system before that begins. (A scary thought and a frustrating one; Ronon rather thinks he's quite grown up already.)

The arguments go on, days at a time and then weeks with no mention, until two months before Ronon's birthday.

"Are you going to pay the war fine?" Ronon asks his father one evening. They are sitting on the back porch of their country home, night birds singing just past where the lights interrupt the darkness. It is all anyone talks about these days; Ronon still doesn't know and it's bothering him that he doesn't know when all of his friends can already brag that their exemptions have been bought. Even Sevil, who would be exempted because he's not right in the head. His parents are paying the war fine anyway because doing so perpetuates the myth that Sevil is not slow. (The same denial is the reason Ronon has shared a tutor with him for the last ten years -- Sevil can barely read, so Master gives him children's books to work through while the rest of them work on age-appropriate material.)

An arched eyebrow and Ronon bows his head in apology; the question was impertinent and he knows better.

"Do you want me to?" his father asks.

Ronon doesn't answer right away, surprised by the question as he is. Almost a year's worth of discussions between his parents (and grandparents and uncles and everyone else) and this is the first time anyone has asked him what he wants.

"No," he finally says, meeting his father's gaze with what he hopes is a steady expression. "I want to do this."

He has reasons, carefully (he hopes) thought out over the past months -- sharpened and polished and tempered in case they ever needed to be used to sway his parents. He is prepared to present them now, but he doesn't get the chance.

"Okay," his father says with a nod, then turns to tap his now-cold pipe against the railing to dump the ash on the dirt.

And that's it and Ronon can only blink in surprise because he can't believe that it's that easy.

"Your mother and I made our decision a while ago," his father says after the silence has stretched.

"So asking me what I wanted was just out of curiosity?" Ronon asks, maybe a little sharper than he means to because he's still surprised.

"It has always been my hope that you would grow into the kind of man who is a part of Sateda rather one who sees himself above it," his father says, looking out past the lights to the stars above. Out here, in the country, you can actually see them. "If you had said yes, I would have sent you to the army to learn what I had obviously failed to teach you."

It was a test, Ronon realizes. "So I guess I'm glad that it's a reward and not a punishment," he says.

His father turns to him and smiles. "Me, too."

It's a week in before Ronon considers calling his father and asking if he's really sure that this was supposed to be a reward. Initiation Camp is brutal for everyone, but especially for him because he's the one with DEX stenciled on to the front and back of his training uniform. It seems like there isn't anyone in the Army who doesn't know of his family and harbor some resentment against them. Instead of getting respect for not taking the easy out by getting his parents to pay the war fine, Ronon finds himself having to work twice as hard just to prove that he's good enough to serve. It doesn't help that he's not in as good shape as most of the other conscripts in his unit -- they are mostly from the northern farms while he is from the city and has been driven everywhere his whole life. He's slower and weaker and tires more quickly and everyone calls him soft and pampered and spoiled and he can't argue even if it's not true (he hopes) because he can't catch his breath long enough to spare it on speaking.

He has no friends, no allies, no comforts, no relief. He can't even lie down and quit because his Taskmaster won't let him, pulling him up by the scruff of his shirt when he falls -- and if Kell's not there to do it, then one of his troop members will. The punishment for the failure of one is delivered upon the many. Fueled by fear -- Induction Camp is full of tales of a troop's weak link getting 'tutored' by his comrades -- and shame, too exhausted to even devise a means of escape from this hell, Ronon continues on.

He improves, but so does everyone else and if he is no longer watched by his troopmates out of fear that he will stumble his way into a collective punishment exercise, then he is still always in the second half of the rankings. At least until the instruction moves from the proving grounds to the classroom, where he is so much better than everyone else that the competition is for second place. Ronon is a little dizzy from the sudden elevation and he wants nothing more than to give back to his troopmates what was given to him for the weeks of bad treatment, but he doesn't. He isn't sure if that makes him better than they are or just proves that he's weak.

Kell is no less likely to have them out before dawn doing calisthenics in the rain because someone has failed a written exam than were it a physical test, so Ronon finds himself watching over others instead of being watched. At night, he reviews lessons with his troopmates in the barracks, teaching them how to measure angles and draw maps and making sure everyone can remember the names and deeds of the Five Heroes and which order they came in.

He finishes Induction Camp on the track to become an officer not because his is the best leader or the best warrior in his troop, but because he isn't. He has learned to become acceptable at both, which is why his superior academic skills make him the perfect candidate -- the bookish ones stay in the ranks to become tougher, the tough ones stay because they cannot muster the finesse to handle the bureaucracy of the Army.

Ronon's father is proud of him anyway.

The Wraith have always been out there, but it is not until Ronon is most of the way through university that they find their way back to Sateda for the first time in two hundred years. There is a lot of hand-wringing and dithering before Sateda is fully on a war footing, but it quickly becomes obvious that the time lost before mobilizing would not have made a difference.

The university closes with one day's warning and all veterans are to report to Army Headquarters. Ronon, whose only strenuous exercise is once a month during reserve training, finds himself accepting armor, a rifle, and command of a unit when he should have been trying to stay awake in Interworld Economics.

The battles go well at first -- at least once the gunners learn how to aim the cannons at objects that fly much faster than training drones -- but then inexperience and inferior numbers start to take their toll. Sateda's military is extremely well-trained, but they are well-trained at drills and not at combat ("the difference between fucking your hand and fucking a woman," Kell -- now third in command of the entire Army -- says one night during a command briefing). There are arguments in the Senate about whether to evacuate or stand and fight; Ronon's father and two of his uncles are Senators and he listens to them argue over dinner on the rare nights when he can get home. He knows that he should be surprised when they solicit his opinion, but he isn't.

(He thinks they should evacuate the civilians and let the Army fight the war; defending their home is hard enough without worrying whether they might kill innocents as the debris from the Wraith ships falls from the sky.)

Melena is working at the hospitals; she is still studying to be a doctor, but there have been so many casualties -- and so many doctors recalled to military service -- that they need the half-trained to do what they can. Melena is supposed to become his bride at midyear, the wedding as the high point of Sateda's social calendar because Melena is the only child of the last son of the Vourd family. Ronon loves Melena madly and stupidly and he couldn't care less that she will inherit a quarter of Sateda's steel industry. Or she would have, if there were any industry left that hadn't been destroyed or converted to war purposes.

As the Wraith attack intensifies, more and more Satedans try to flee the destruction. The Wraith are blocking the Ring most of the time, keeping it open so that nobody can leave. There are soldiers guarding the Ring, shooting down ships that come through and trying to dial out when the Ring closes.

There are rumors that soldiers are taking bribes to let people through to safety, that you have to pay to escape. Ronon doesn't believe the rumors at first, but he hears them too often from people he trusts. However, he doesn't believe that Kell is the one behind it all, that he is authorizing the extortion for a cut of the bounty, until he overhears part of a conversation between Kell and his aide. The invasion has brought out the best and the worst of people, but Ronon still feels betrayed.

He loses most of his family at once, a culling ship flying directly over the Dex country estate. His mother and aunts and youngest cousins had been sent out there so that they would not be caught in the crossfire. He finds out four days later, when the sole survivor, his cousin Irala, makes her way back to the city.

His father and uncles are gone when the Senate is bombed into ash.

He is not ashamed to go to Kell and offer what he has to in order to get Melena to safety. If Sateda is not already lost, then it will be soon and while Ronon knows that he wants to come back here to rebuild (and that Melena will insist upon it), he knows that things will get much worse before that is even possible.

Stripped of all pretense of the honorable warrior, Kell drives a hard bargain. He knows that he is in a position to make outrageous demands and he does. Ronon does not miss that Kell will only accept transportable wealth -- coins, jewelry, items of obvious value. But Melena is worth more than any of it and Ronon is the head of his family now and the Dex wealth is his to trade away. But while he is desperate, he isn't stupid -- he won't give Kell a single bauble until Melena is safely off-world. Kell threatens to cancel the deal, but Ronon calls his bluff -- there are very few people left who are able to offer this kind of bribe and Ronon and Kell both know it.

Melena will not go. They argue about it for days, as Sateda crumbles around them. He doesn't tell her about his agreement with Kell until it becomes necessary -- a major offensive has failed and any chance of escape off of Sateda is growing slim. If they are going to go, they have to go now. At least she has to go -- he isn't telling her that he is going to stay behind to do one last thing for Sateda.

His plan, such as it is, is to gather as many of his soldiers as he can to take the Ring from Kell's men, hopefully letting as many people get to safety as possible. The Wraith are thick on the ground and in the sky and they aren't blocking the Ring as often as they had been in the earliest days of the attack. Ronon and his men should be able to lead a few groups to the Ring before they are discovered. He's already discussed it with trustworthy people; they have the support and the weapons. They don't ask for luck, since Sateda has not had any from the start.

Melena is killed before Ronon's eyes and his last words to her are part of an argument that will never get resolved.

Her death makes him reckless -- now he truly has nothing left -- and he puts in motion the rest of his plan without much care for his own safety. He is part of the element that takes out the guards at the Ring; he doesn't hesitate to shoot these men wearing the same uniform he is -- they are not soldiers of Sateda by any measure of the words. He later hears that they get more than sixty people to the Ring, about a third of what they started out with, but the number varies and he never gets a first-hand account to verify and so it could all be wishful thinking. A dream where there is none, light where only darkness lives. The Wraith are everywhere, voracious and bent on revenge for Sateda's lack of submission, and Ronon almost hopes they catch him because he is so very, very tired and there is only one way this could all end.

Except that it doesn't.

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2 August, 2007