A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Ipetia

by Domenika Marzione


Prologue

On a good day, his team failed at 'subtle.' Lorne knew that this was not going to be a good day.

"What are you doing, Sergeant?"

Reletti looked up from where he was wedging supplies into his pack. Extra ammunition, MREs, and chem lights were piled on the table next to the already-bulging pack. "Getting ready, sir?"

Ipetia was a friendly planet—too friendly in Safir's opinion—and they'd be fed, feted, and provided for to the point that they'd feel a little humbled by the generosity. Ipetia was one of their longest-standing trade partners and one of their closest allies; the Ipetians weren't much for advanced technology, but they were skilled traders and farmers and the commercial relationship had broadened to one of true friendship.

Lorne sighed. "We're going to Ipetia for a barbeque, Reletti. Not to the mainland for survival training."

The Ipetians' hospitality made visits to their planet a plum assignment. It also made it rare that one of the offworld teams got to go—he and Sheppard had reluctantly agreed with Dr. Weir that a regular platoon could handle the missions, most of which involved a lot of smiling, eating, and ferrying of goods back and forth. As such, Lieutenant Gillick had become the unofficial envoys to Ipetia and the envy of the battalion's lieutenants.

"It can't hurt to be prepared, sir," Reletti said with a remarkably straight face.

The only reason Lorne's team was going was that the Ipetians wanted to introduce Atlantis to a new trading partner and Dr. Weir couldn't go herself. Sheppard's team was taking her to a different world for more difficult negotiations, so Lorne had found himself invited to a party. And possibly wishing for a babysitter.

"Can you be prepared a little less dramatically?" he asked dryly. If this was Reletti's kit, he was afraid of what Suarez was packing. He knew that the lieutenants joked about getting t-shirts that said "I went offworld with Major Lorne and all I got was..." on the front and the list of misadventures on the back. But it was one thing for the lieutenants to joke and another for his own team to be preparing for the next mishap like it was a scheduled event. "The idea is to give Lieutenant Gillick a hand, not a complex."

"Good luck with that," Yoni Safir offered cheerfully as he entered the prep room. "Gillick is still scarred from the last time—literally. Possibly metaphorically as well, but I didn't ask."

Reletti and Safir shared a knowing look. Lorne was aware that anything he said in response to it would only make things worse. "Where are Suarez and Ortilla?" he asked instead, already sure of the answer.

"Armory," Yoni replied, his expression making it clear that there were no surprises on that account. "Suarez is making love to his 9mm and Ortilla is helping Gillick sharpen his knife."

"That sounds like a euphemism for something," Reletti muttered as he shoved two more chem lights into his pack.

"Reletti, please?"

"Sorry, sir," Reletti answered, not sorry at all.

Lorne figured he knew how Sheppard felt when he was out with his team, surrounded by people who were nominally supposed to listen to him and yet didn't.

"I'll be right back," he announced, intending to go check on the missing half of his team. At the very least, Suarez would need to be pried out of the armory with a crowbar. "Reletti, leave some of that shit behind. You're giving me a complex."

"Aye aye, sir," Reletti replied with a grin.

"I've got room in my pack," Lorne heard Yoni saying as the door swooshed closed behind him.



One

"—how Rodney feels about it. I'm sure he's not going to be happy with the idea, but...." Elizabeth trailed off, a complicated expression completing the thought.

John smirked. He knew that he was expected to be either complicit with or the sole vehicle for whatever argument Elizabeth came up with to convince McKay that allocating manpower from Engineering for the purpose of securing a trade agreement was a good idea and not a waste of brains. If they'd needed chemists or anyone from Life Sciences, Rodney would have happily given over whoever was requested, wouldn't have even asked how long they'd be tasked to the project or when they'd be coming back. But he was very jealous of his engineers' time and actually rather protective of them. Which was kind of funny considering how much time he spent insulting them.

"Excuse me, Dr. Weir," Lieutenant Osgeny said from the doorway. Atlantis's newest lieutenant hadn't quite been broken in and still had that Marine Corps stiffness to him. He waited for Elizabeth to gesture before he crossed the threshold and came up to him. "Colonel Sheppard, Major Lorne's team is more than three hours overdue. Permission to authorize the ready-room officer for an offworld SAR?"

John sat up straight in his chair and looked over at Elizabeth. "Wasn't Lorne going to Ipetia with Gillick?"

She nodded, brow furrowed in worry and confusion. Ipetia was peaceful and harmless and there was no reason Lorne should have gotten delayed three hours without being able to dial in and let them know.

"Who's the ready-room officer?" he asked Osgeny.

"Lieutenant Eriksson, sir," Osgeny replied. "We've already dialed Ipetia and weren't able to reach anyone on their radios."

With a nod to Elizabeth, John stood up. "Permission granted."

Osgeny made obeisance to both him and Elizabeth and left. They could hear his voice, fading as he moved away, as he gave orders to his gateroom team. Osgeny wasn't his predecessor, but he was turning out to be a pleasant surprise.

"Too much fun and games?" Elizabeth asked hopefully. He could tell by her face that she didn't think it likely.

"Lorne would've at least sent Suarez or Reletti to check in," he replied. His best guess was that either the new trading partner Yuenthea and the Ipetians wanted them to meet was up to no good...or the Wraith had come. The Ipetians had been very fortunate in terms of cullings over the past few years, they said, but such luck wouldn't hold out forever. Not with the Wraith turning increasingly rapacious.

"I'm going to go...." he trailed off, gesturing over his shoulder. He wasn't quite sure what he was going to do. He had no intel to give either Osgeny or Eriksson, no helpful advice apart from the obvious. He just wanted to be out there, not sitting in Elizabeth's office, in anyone's office. He hated that he was staying behind, that they had protocols for what to do about missing men and that him running after them wasn't anywhere near the top of the list anymore.

Elizabeth nodded. "Keep me informed," she said understandingly.

"Will do," he agreed. He was sure she had no illusions that he was going to be useful, that he was going to do anything other run out there and stand wistfully and watch someone else go through the stargate. But she knew him well enough to understand that the frustration of being reduced to a spectator was killing him; he needed to move.

The control room was already humming with tension, a low murmur of electricity. Osgeny was standing on the little balcony, oriented so that he could see the control room, the gateroom floor, and Elizabeth's office without moving. Osgeny was mostly watching his men, however. His platoon was a combination of the newest arrivals and the most experienced survivors; it had once been Maguire's. After being decimated on Malthusa, the platoon had been reformed and both its members and new commander were still getting used to each other.

"Talk to me," he said as he joined Osgeny on the balcony.

"There's not much to say, sir," Osgeny replied with a frown. "Major Lorne's team accompanied Lieutenant Gillick to Ipetia yesterday, departure time 1500 Atlantis Standard, for a meet-and-greet with the Subbiluma brokered by Yuenthea of the Ipetians. They were due back at 0700 Atlantis Standard this morning and there's been no communication with them since they left. We dialed Ipetia at 1005 and got no squawk-back and their emergency beacon wasn't broadcasting."

It could be anything, but the odds were that it wasn't good. "Eriksson's been activated?"

"Yes, sir," Osgeny replied.

Almost on cue, the north entrance to the gateroom swooshed open and Eriksson's platoon, dressed for combat, made their way into the room, surrounding the platform. John nodded at Osgeny and made his way toward the stairs, meeting Eriksson at the bottom.

"Should we be expecting anything, sir?" Eriksson asked, adjusting his holster slightly. They both knew that if it had been the Wraith, any immediate danger would have passed.

"Can't tell you anything you don't already know," he replied. They had intel on the people Yuenthea had wanted them to meet, but Eriksson would have read it all as part of the ready-room brief. "You'll probably just end up playing detective."

"That's what I figured," Eriksson said with a frown. "We won't come back empty-handed."

He smiled ruefully. "I'm sure you won't. Be careful and bring back what you're leaving with."

"Will do, sir."

"Dial the gate, Lieutenant," he called up to Osgeny, who passed the command on to the sergeant at the DHD. It took a minute—last week, the DHD had suddenly stopped interfacing with the laptop it had been connected to since their first day in Atlantis. It wasn't dangerous or even much of an inconvenience, but until McKay, Zelenka, and their minions could fix it, using the stargate meant looking up addresses and verifying incoming IDCs on a separate computer further away.

The stargate finally engaged and Eriksson turned and gave orders for his team to move out.

Watching from the foot of the stairs, he waited for the wormhole to close before heading off toward the transporters. There were people to be told and he should probably make sure that Lorne had nothing scheduled that couldn't wait. Atlantis moved on, no matter what. He'd go talk to Polito personally, although he rather suspected that the news was already circulating around Little Tripoli. Matt would have his hands full—Gillick was his lieutenant and Lorne's marines belonged to Patchok, who was also one of his.

"Elizabeth?" he asked into his earpiece as he walked. "I'm heading over to Little Tripoli to talk to Matt Polito. Do you want to tell Carson about Safir or should I do it?"

He stopped and stood still. If he had to go to the medical suites, he'd need to take a different route to the transporters. The news would be all over Little Tripoli, but there would be no reason for anyone in Medical to know.

"I'll do it," she answered after a moment's pause. "What should I tell him?"

He shrugged, even though there was no one to see it. "The truth," he replied, heading toward the transporters again. "That Safir's missing. We don't know anything else yet."

Little Tripoli felt empty—late morning and everyone was either on post, in class, offworld, or sleeping off their third watch duties. The hall where the company commanders had their offices was never crowded anyway, but today he was grateful for the quiet. Polito was talking to one of his men when John got there, so he silently gestured in the direction of Lorne's office and Polito nodded; he'd meet him there when he was done.

Lorne's office was large, but felt cramped because of the conference table that didn't quite fit and the rolling whiteboard he insisted on keeping even though they'd finally set him up with a wall-dominating plasma screen monitor. Lorne was an unrepentant Luddite, so there were also file cabinets—he went through more paper than the rest of the officers combined.

Senior staff were all required to keep their schedules posted to the network, so while Lorne undoubtedly had a paper planner somewhere on his desk, John could do what he usually did when he wanted to find his XO and pull up the calendar program on the laptop. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't anything scheduled between Lorne's anticipated arrival time and the weekly battalion officers meeting later that afternoon. Whether the meeting on Ipetia had gone well or not, Lorne would have been tied up with Elizabeth and the debrief. Tomorrow, however, and the days after would need some rearranging if Lorne wasn't back soon. The alternative—that Lorne wasn't coming back at all—was not to be considered until it became necessary to do so.

With nothing to do but wait for Polito, there was plenty of busywork to fill the time. As much as the administrativa had multiplied along with the number of marines under his command, he could still find the rhythm of bureaucracy he'd hoped he'd lost when Lorne had assumed most of the day-to-day baloney. Ford had never been one to handle paperwork beyond his creatively written AARs; he'd gladly taken the most tedious of the manual labor-intensive tasks, but when it came to typing anything out, Bates had been the only help available and John had ended up doing almost everything himself anyway.

Here and now, though, there was no help. Lorne didn't enjoy the bureaucratic bullshit, but he was good at it and the Atlantis Battalion ran more smoothly than it should considering the erratic rate of expansion and almost complete lack of headquarters staff. With Lorne gone, however, it was his responsibility to make sure that things didn't fall apart. The databurst was in two days, the last one before the Daedalus was supposed to set out from Earth, so it was their last chance to requisition supplies with any chance of getting them in the next four months. He and Lorne had spent three hours on Monday with Hanzis (this month's unhappy victim of the supply officer rotation schedule) assessing their needs in terms of munitions, uniform parts, and the various toys and staples to keep a couple hundred marines clothed and entertained. They'd decided to put the drones after powdered milk this time. It didn't increase the likelihood that the SGC would actually send them any drones, but they could always hope.

A knock on the door jamb and Matt Polito stuck his head in. "Good time?"

"As good as ever," he replied, gesturing for Polito to come in and sit down. He felt a little awkward sitting behind Lorne's desk, so he got up and moved around to the end of the conference table closest to him. Polito sat down in one of the chairs across from Lorne's desk and turned it.

"Eriksson left with his men at 1015," John began without preamble. "There's been no contact from Ipetia and Control didn't get a ping when they dialed in this morning."

Polito frowned and nodded. "Ambush or Wraith?"

"Yuenthea knows we've had trouble with the Genii," he replied, smirking at the understatement. "She wouldn't knowingly put us at risk and the Ipetians have traded with these new folk for generations. Teyla knows who they are."

Teyla had known of the Subbiluma, but the Athosians hadn't interacted with them much—they had been competitors, more or less, as they had traded the same goods. Yuenthea had a sharp eye, however, and they trusted her recommendations—including the one to hold the meeting on Ipetia to avoid having to divulge Atlantis's stargate address.

"And so unless they took or killed everyone, someone would have sent word back by now," Polito finished. "Which puts us back at the Wraith. Who also would have left a few survivors, either by accident or for repopulation. But nobody's sent back a warning and there was no emergency beacon—right?—so we're just wild-guessing until Eriksson gets back."

"Pretty much," John agreed. He was about to say something else when his earpiece chirped. "Go ahead, Control."

Polito waited with interest.

"Sir, we've got an incoming transmission from Lieutenant Eriksson," the communications sergeant announced.

"Patch him through to Major Lorne's speaker phone," he replied, getting up to stand in front of the device. They weren't quite phones in form—Rodney's blood pressure went up ten points every time someone called them that—but they were close enough in function. And they were pretty much the only way to get in contact with senior staff not wearing their headsets unless you wanted to broadcast city-wide.

"Colonel?" Eriksson's voice sounded a little tinny.

He pushed the talk button. "Go ahead, Lieutenant."

"Major Lorne's team never made it to Ipetia, sir," Eriksson said, confusion and concern coloring his voice. "The Ipetians had a party waiting at the stargate all day yesterday and nobody showed. They were pretty anxious when we got here—they didn't know what had happened to us and they had to apologize to the Subbiluma."

John looked over at Polito, who gave him a skeptical look in return. How could Lorne not have gotten to Ipetia? Wormholes didn't change directions midway through. And considering the percentage of stargates that opened into the vacuum of space, the notion of a misdial—either through human error or a flaky DHD—was both possible and terrifying. Because if Lorne had simply wound up on the wrong planet through a dialing mistake, then he would have just gone straight on to Ipetia and then said something when he'd gotten back.

"Lieutenant?" Polito began, leaning forward so that he was closer to the microphone. "Is there a chance that the Ipetians missed Major Lorne's arrival? Got there too late, bathroom break, fell asleep?"

"No, sir," Eriksson replied. "Valarn says that they were here almost since sunrise, which would have been about four hours before Major Lorne's team left Atlantis. We've looked around the stargate and combed the road to the village, but we haven't seen any sign of them."

John sighed. "Find out what else you can, make our apologies to Yuenthea, and come back home," he said.

"Aye aye, sir." There was a click as the connection was cut.

"Problem with the stargate?" Polito asked, leaning back. "Or with the DHD? It's been on the fritz...."

"That's what I'm worried about," he replied. McKay and Zelenka had assured them that whatever was making the DHD refuse to talk to the laptop wasn't going to affect their ability to travel through the stargate. Of course, the obvious counter-argument was that if they actually understood what was causing the problem in the first place (and thus its ramifications), they would have fixed it by now.

He tapped his earpiece. "Elizabeth? Did you catch all that?"

"Yes," she answered. "I don't know what to make of it."

"Me, neither. But we both know someone who will."

"I'll get Rodney up here right away," she agreed.

He tapped his earpiece again, switching channels. "Lieutenant?"

"Sir?" Osgeny replied instantly.

"How many teams are offworld right now, apart from Major Lorne's and Lieutenant Eriksson's?"

Across from him, Polito's eyes went wide with concern as he realized the purpose to the question.

Polito, far more than Radner or Hanzis, sent his platoons offworld to train and encouraged his lieutenants to volunteer for tasks that would take them away from Atlantis. Overall, John thought that it was the most effective way to handle the familiarization process as well as to broaden skill sets. It had worked for him (for better) and Ford (for worse) and sometimes it was hard to remember that Lorne hadn't come over with the initial expedition. But right now, it also meant that Charlie Company could be down two lieutenants and a few dozen marines.

"Two, sir," Osgeny replied after a moment's consultation of the log. "Lieutenant Murray's platoon is on M3F-441 to help the locals build a dam and Lieutenant Patchok's is on M94-G56 doing...I'm not sure what they're doing, sir. It's down as a training exercise."

"Have either of them checked in with Atlantis at any point?"

Neither team would be required to unless they were going to be gone more than eight hours, so it was unsurprising when Osgeny replied in the negative.

"Contact both units," he ordered. "We just want to hear their voices."

"Aye aye, sir."

"Should we keep them where they are?" Polito asked thoughtfully. "If the problem's with the DHD, then there shouldn't be any trouble with them returning, but if it's the stargate...."

John nodded. His team had returned without a problem, but maybe they should at least get someone to look at the DHD and stargate before they brought anyone else through. "Osgeny? Has anybody come into Atlantis since Major Lorne left?"

Another brief silence. "Four teams yesterday, sir, including yours, plus one group of mainlanders."

"Is everyone accounted for?"

"Yes, sir," Osgeny replied. "Apart from Lieutenants Murray and Patchok and their men."

"Well that's one thing working in our favor," he said sourly.

"Sir, should I tell Lieutenant Patchok about Major Lorne's team?"

He looked over at Polito. "You want to break the news to Patchok yourself?"

Polito grimaced, but shook his head no. "Rudy's no fool, sir. He'll know something's up. No point in building suspense."

"Affirmative, Lieutenant," John told the waiting lieutenant. "Also tell Dr. Weir that I'll be up in a minute."

Osgeny confirmed and John turned back to Polito. "You want to come?"

"Would that I could," Polito said, standing. "I've got fifteen hours of paperwork to do in five hours. And if this ends up not resolving right away...."

Then he was going to have extra responsibilities to accept and no more time to dedicate to them. John nodded. "I'll let you know the minute we find anything out."

"Appreciated, sir."


Two

"You were a lousy Boy Scout, weren't you, sir?" Ortilla asked without rancor as he watched Gillick lose a fight with a young tree. He waited until Gillick stood aside, then pulled out his knife and stepped on the bent trunk, cutting away the fibers that wouldn't break.

Gillick looked on, more amused than offended, Lorne thought, which was for the best if they were going to be here for a while. He'd warned Aaron not to interfere in what the marines saw as 'their' job.

For better or for worse, he was used to Ortilla, Suarez, and Reletti treating him alternately like a monarch who shouldn't soil his hands and an idiot child who shouldn't be left unattended. (Yoni, of course, always treated everyone like an idiot child.) The marines had very specific ideas about what an officer should or shouldn't do and little trouble with enforcing it when he tried to take the initiative.

Twenty-three hours into what could be a very long camping trip, Lorne's list of things to do was short and to the sole point of their survival. As such, he forced himself to ignore such fascinating questions as 'Where are we?' and 'What happened?' and 'Why doesn't the DHD work?' in favor of securing sources of food, shelter, and a means of communicating with Atlantis.

The planet seemed to be either uninhabited or inhabited very far from the stargate, so Suarez, Reletti, and Safir were off investigating potable water and edible flora and fauna. They had ten MREs between them, laughable in the sense that they were supposed to have been doing the Pegasus version of going next door for dinner, but it would be wiser not to have to dip too far into their stockpile if they didn't have to.

Ortilla had begged off from foraging ("Sir, I'm from Corona. The nearest grass is by Shea Stadium and everything I know about nature I learned from the Marines. And they taught me to eat bugs.") and was working on a shelter. For all of the marines' not-exactly-paranoid packing, they had only one tent between them and it was currently serving as a cover for their supplies. The weather had been clear since their arrival, but getting together something they could use to keep dry seemed a wise idea. That they might have to build something to keep them warm for a winter was not mentioned.

At least they'd ended up on a temperate planet; getting marooned on a desert planet or some place that looked like Hoth would have just been icing on the cake. There was plenty of greenery and animal life and it looked a lot like the part of the mainland where the Athosians had settled. The planet rotated a little slower on its axis than Atlantis's did; judging from the sun's position, he guesstimated that a day here would be a little less than thirty hours. Which would be nice in terms of circadian rhythms and all that—his first time on a planet with a ten hour rotation cycle had been hellish. That experience aside, long stays on different planets in their native galaxy had given him years of getting used to day lengths varying by planet. But his team had only really had to make the shift once, when they had come from Earth to Atlantis, and he didn't know how they'd taken the change—it really threw some people for a loop.

The marines' industry left him and Gillick to poke uselessly at the DHD—between the two of them, they could explain how the wormholes were formed, but that didn't mean they could effect the process by themselves—and try to help Ortilla. And Ortilla seemed to think (not without justification) that he could do better on his own.

Lorne went over to the DHD and crouched next to its exposed guts. He knew that there were probably stories of SG-1 escaping from similar situations with nothing more than Samantha Carter, bobby pins, and some bubble gum, but he didn't have a Sam Carter—or a Rodney McKay, or bobby pins—with him to MacGyver such a miracle. Yoni had already asked him if he'd wished he'd chosen an engineer instead of a doctor for his team, but the answer remained no, as it had since the beginning.

He did, however, wish he had taken the time to learn more about the Ancient technology that made the stargates work. He'd tried to channel Sheppard and 'listen', just in case the tech was trying to reach out to his ATA gene and he could cajole it into functionality, but there was no go on that front. Either his gene wasn't strong enough or there wasn't enough power for the technology to power up, no matter how much it wanted to comply.

Voices could be heard in the distance, the sound of movement through the trees making all three look up.

"Cast Away"

"--Robinson Crusoe"

"Survivor."

"Swiss Family Robinson."

Lorne looked over at Gillick, who was looking back at him with cock-eyed amusement. Reletti, for all of his moments that made you wonder what was going on in his head, read a lot. He tried to pass it off as the unfortunate combination of years of long deployments and an English teacher girlfriend back home, but Lorne knew it wasn't a habit that had begun late in life.

"Lost."

"Lord of the Flies."

"Now there is an image we want to linger," Yoni commented sourly as the trio emerged from the clearing. He was carrying a rubber bladder, now full of water, against his chest like it was a sleeping toddler. "How about something more pleasant, like The Wizard of Oz?"

Or Apocalypse Now?" Suarez asked mischievously. He had some sort of dead animal slung over his shoulder and Lorne cringed inwardly at the thought of having to gut and skin the thing. He knew how—more in theory than in practice—but really wouldn't mind it if the marines decided to handle it themselves.

"Heart of Darkness would be more apropos," Reletti countered. "Not that we're expecting the major to go batshit on us either way."

Lorne gave him a flat stare and Reletti grinned cheekily.

"Reletti, tuck your inner nerd back inside," Ortilla sighed as he sheathed his knife and met the trio. The frame of a shelter was already discernible among the pile of twigs and branches that they'd helped him collect before he'd (respectfully) shooed them away the first time. "We can't keep covering for you if you let it flap around where anyone could see it."

"What've we got?" Lorne asked before the conversation could devolve into insult-flinging. The marines usually viewed such as a form of entertainment, but once in a while their aim was a little too true.

"Water from a stream," Yoni answered, putting down the bladder with some care. "And one of those hideously ugly deer that seem to outnumber the people in this galaxy."

A chuckle from everyone for that; almost every temperate planet they'd been to was teeming with the creatures. And every population on every one of those worlds tried to trade its meat and fur, knowing that it had little barter value because of its plentifulness and hoping that the strangely dressed Atlanteans would be too naive to realize it. Their own supply came from the mainland, where the Athosians used the quick-but-stupid creatures to teach their children how to hunt.

"I'm gonna go clean it up, sir," Suarez said, gesturing behind him toward the edge of the woods. "I gutted it where I shot it, but it would've been too messy to skin it and then carry the meat back."

Coming from a culture catered by KBR and supplemented by MREs, the marines had embraced the survivalist nature of the Pegasus galaxy with various degrees of alacrity. None faster than Polito's company, represented here, because Matt was always punting them offworld to uninhabited planets to learn from experience.

"Downwind's thataway," Gillick offered, pointing with a knowing grimace. "Do you want a hand?"

Suarez looked skeptical. "You have much experience skinning game, sir?"

"I'm better with cleaning fish," Gillick admitted wryly. "But I've done it before. I can at least help you hold it down."

"Up to you, sir," Suarez replied with a shrug. It was as much as an acceptance of aid that Suarez was likely to give and Gillick seemed to recognize that, starting to walk in the direction he'd pointed. Suarez followed.

"How come you let him help?" Lorne muttered somewhat rhetorically.

"Because he's a lieutenant, sir," Reletti answered, emphasis on the rank implying both compliment and insult. He put down his pack and started working on the shelter Ortilla had temporarily abandoned.

"How do we know that the water is safe?" Lorne asked, turning to Yoni.

"We're going to have to guinea pig," Yoni admitted ruefully, eyes on the bladder, which looked like a cross between a giant water balloon and a very pathetic bagpipe. "If we're in a similar situation to that place, then we've got until our MREs and water purification tablets run out. We should probably find out before we hit that point."

There was no saying how long it would take for Atlantis to find them—the Daedalus was the most likely resource and she wouldn't be in for almost a month. They'd rationed carefully the first day, but their supply, laughable for an overnight mission where they would have been fed until they burst, would not last forever. They could play it safe and live from their supplies and use only purified water to drink and wash, only resorting to living off of the land when they ran out, but it would make life more complicated. And the fact of it was that in the almost two years of the expedition, there had been only one case of planet-level toxicity. They'd just happened to find it.

"I'll be the lab rat," he sighed, remembering the lingering weakness of his recovery. He didn't want to remember nearly dying on Planet Cyanide, but it had provided an important lesson learned. Namely that all offworld teams carried a poison treatment kit.

"No you won't," Yoni retorted sharply. "I'm not going through that again with you."

Lorne turned to him. Turned on him.

"So you'll go through it with someone else?" he asked, conveying all of his frustration in the words. It was indulgence on everyone's part when it was the marines not letting him help with manual labor and him not forcing the issue. But he was not going to let one of his men possibly drink poison instead of him simply out of deference to his rank.

Ortilla went over to help Reletti with the shelter, as always making it look like an independent decision instead of the granting of privacy.

"I'm the logical person to test it out," he went on once Ortilla had left them alone. "Exactly because we've done it before."

Yoni glared at him, their height difference and close proximity making it a far more menacing expression than Yoni probably intended. "That was an accident," he hissed. "This will be intentional. And if there is something in the water, there is no saying that I can undo it."

"Exac--"

"Gillick is a nice boy and a promising officer," Yoni cut him off ruthlessly. "But he is a boy and he is a lieutenant. If something goes wrong, you will be leaving him in charge. He is not incompetent, far from it, but he is not ready for this command, either."

Lorne opened his mouth to speak, but Yoni held up his hand; he wasn't finished.

"Don't forget that I've been through that before," he said in a quieter voice. "The one-way trip to nowhere? The suddenly-dead commanding officer and the lingering guilt over who should have done what to prevent it? There is no Sheppard here and I won't let there be one. Not you with the suicidal tendencies and not Gillick forced to become a man he'd rather not be."

Lorne closed his mouth and stared. It was too easy to forget that Yoni, for all of his general disinterest in and disregard for the people who surrounded him, was not nearly as oblivious as he pretended to be. And as much as he readily shared certain stories from the first year of Atlantis, there was much more that he simply refused to talk about. He insulted Sheppard to his face, often and without fear and meaning every word, but Lorne had never doubted his respect for the man.

"We'll let Gillick volunteer and be rejected," Yoni went on, an ironic smile playing at his lips. "It will save his honor. And then there will be bickering and then Suarez and Reletti will fight over which one of them does it."

It was what would happen, more or less, if they put it to a group decision. Lorne had hoped to avoid it, but it was obvious that Yoni wouldn't go along. Would actively obstruct instead. The choice was whether to pull rank—ultimately, nobody could argue with that—or comply.

As much as he wanted to bull ahead and follow his own plan, he understood Yoni's point better than Yoni did—nobody on the expedition apart from Dr. Weir (and Lorne himself) knew that Sheppard had killed Sumner. Here and now, it would repeat if the worst happened: someone would be dead by a colleague's hand—Yoni blaming himself for not saving them and everyone else feeling guilty for not pushing harder to volunteer. Aaron Gillick was a fine young lieutenant, but he was no more prepared to handle that than Aiden Ford had been to lead the marines after Sumner's death.

"Do I get to make any decisions here?" he asked. It was a peace offering and a concession and Yoni's answering grin was an acknowledgment of that.

"Not if we can avoid it."


Three

"--closer to thirty-six. And that's if we err not on the side of caution, which isn't the best idea," McKay finished.

John looked at Zelenka, hoping that his usual willingness to revise Rodney's estimates would give a better answer. Instead, Zelenka shrugged apologetically.

"I wish that I could tell you that it would take an hour, Colonel," Zelenka sighed. "But I can't. When your team was kidnapped by Lieu--by Ford, it took almost ten hours to get the addresses from the DHD on that planet. And that was an infrequently used stargate, not a busy one like ours."

By the time John had gotten back to the control room, Rodney had already arrived, pushing aside the sergeants, commandeering the laptop used for the DHD, and ordering around both the control room personnel (live) and Zelenka (over the radio). Osgeny had been on the balcony, obviously trying to stay out of the way while still maintaining a presence in the room he technically commanded. None of the lieutenants quite knew what to do with Rodney, the only civilian who not only didn't recognize their authority in the control room, but also tended to forget that they were there no matter where 'there' was.

Zelenka had shown up bearing boxes of equipment, muttered an apology to both John and Osgeny, and proceeded to ignore them both as he and Rodney descended upon the DHD and pretty much stopped speaking any variation of English understood by anyone else.

"Shouldn't it be easier to get the data from our DHD?" Elizabeth asked, leaning forward so that her elbows rested on the conference table. "We know which addresses we dialed and when—at least we think we know."

"You'd think it would be easier," Rodney replied mildly, "but you'd be wrong. The relatively constant use of Atlantis's DHD has created an almost infinitely cascading set of impressions that can only be measured in attolumens, which in turn amplifies the margin of error because of the superimposition of the --"

"Is like footprints," Zelenka cut in. "On a dirt path, you can see many distinct sets of footprints, but you won't necessarily know when they were made. Atlantis's dirt path is very, very busy and all of the footprints are on top of each other. It will take time to distinguish between each set of footprints and then see which set doesn't belong."

"Thank you, Dr. Zelenka," Elizabeth said with a wry smile.

Rodney gave Zelenka a withering look. "The point is that it's going to take a while and we won't know for certain how accurate the results will be."

"But once we get the list, it will be much faster work than last time," Zelenka added earnestly, looking right at Elizabeth. John tried to feel excluded, but failed. "With the log, we have a comprehensive list of all of the addresses we dialed—or that we think we dialed—and through process of elimination, the error will stand out."

"Unless none of them do," John pointed out, mostly because everyone was simply assuming that there had been a dialing error and Rodney had already been overheard making disparaging remarks about the marines and finding out which sergeant had been the one to possibly space Major Lorne's team. John already knew who it was, knew that Sergeant Edderson was beside himself with guilt, and didn't want anyone piling on the guy.

"In which case we—and by 'we', I mean 'Major Lorne and his team'—are screwed," Rodney answered simply. "The Ancients weren't big on posterity, Colonel. They may have left us a database that can be measured in googols of terrabytes, but they didn't particularly care if anyone could find anything in it. They didn't believe in instruction manuals, redial, or any of a hundred other conveniences that would have allowed anyone to follow in their footsteps, physically or spiritually."

John frowned to himself. The Ancients, when they weren't blowing your mind with their brilliance, were blowing your mind with their selfishness and arrogance. The little, tiny, miniscule part of him that was Ancient was embarrassed on their behalf. They'd populated this galaxy like an aquarium and then left without getting anyone else to keep the fish alive. Without giving anyone the chance to use the abandoned knowledge to save themselves.

"So there's nothing we can do?" Elizabeth asked, clearly disturbed by the narrowness of their options. "Either you find an anomalous gate address or Major Lorne and his team remain missing forever?"

Rodney sighed and did that thing where he shook his head slowly like Stevie Wonder, the look that was supposed to be his expression of 'not quite, but don't get your hopes up'.

"Rodney?" Elizabeth prompted.

"On the supposition that someone misdialed Ipetia's gate address," Rodney began, an elaborate expression saying exactly what he thought of that someone, "we generated the list of addresses that would result from a variety of possible mistakes, from one chevron being off to, well, to the entire thing being entered incorrectly. We're running the simplest of those results against the list of known gate addresses and hoping we get a hit. If we do, then we can send a MALP and see what we can find out."

"It is a very long shot," Zelenka added. "Even if it is just a matter of the address dialed having one chevron wrong."

John did the math in his head. Thirty-nine gate symbols, take away the correct chevron, multiply it by every possible position in the dialing sequence.... "It's not that bad."

"When that's the simplest possibility?" Zelenka chuffed a humorless laugh. "If it's not, we're looking at millions of possible gate addresses to verify."

It probably wasn't going to be the simplest case. Teyla had already been asked if she knew of any gate addresses similar enough to Ipetia's that could be possible starting points for a search. She hadn't, but had gone to the mainland to ask the rest of the Athosians and the RDRs what they knew.

"And all of this requires assuming that the incorrectly dialed address is actually in the database," Rodney added. "Not something we can take for granted. We applied Samantha Carter's algorithm for planetary shift immediately upon our arrival and re-generated the entire database to account for ten thousand years, but...."

"But we're always finding new ways that the Ancients confound us," Elizabeth finished. "We understand, Rodney."

"We're not even going to start considering what happens if there was an isolated problem with the wormhole itself," Zelenka mumbled half to himself.

"Because if we did, then we'd go insane from the possibilities," Rodney answered with a disparaging snort. "Time displacement, galaxy displacement, reality displacement."

"Or a tear in the boundaries of the wormhole," Zelenka went on. "We have no idea what would happen if matter were to be ejected mid-stream, what sort of decompression...."

"Explosive," Rodney answered, as if it were obvious. Perhaps it was. "Except on the subspace level."

"Which we have never been able to do anything but theorize about!" Zelenka retorted.

 "Lorne could be in another reality?" John asked, before the two of them could get any more distracted by how fine a spray of subspace particles his XO could be right now.

Rodney turned to him, rolling his eyes. "Yes," he agreed with annoyance at the distraction. "Elizabeth ended up in another time, so it's not that improbable."

"How likely are any of these other possibilities?" Elizabeth asked, a little loudly, like she knew that the conversation was again teetering on the edge of irrelevance.

"A galactic shift would be the most likely," Zelenka replied quickly. "At least among the options that don't include sudden death."

"Let's skip the sudden death," John agreed with a moue of distaste.

"Is there a chance Major Lorne's team could have gotten thrown back into our home galaxy?" Elizabeth looked hopeful at the notion.

"There is a chance," Zelenka confirmed. "I wouldn't call it a good chance, but...."

"But there's probably a way to accidentally do what we do intentionally when we establish a wormhole back to Earth," John finished for him. Because he wanted to hold on to the idea that Lorne and his men had not been spaced or explosively decompressed or otherwise killed, that they were instead alive and safe somewhere and simply couldn't get back to Atlantis. And getting stuck in Earth's galaxy would be a plausible way to explain that. "Lorne used to be on an SG team, so he'd know how to get around our galaxy. We may get the SGC's databurst in two days and find out Lorne and his men are on the Daedalus coming home."

"Or we might find out that they've been turned into pink bunnies," Rodney retorted. "The odds aren't that different."

"Rodney!" Elizabeth bit out. "There is nothing wrong with not focusing on the worst possible outcome."

"I think Rodney might like Dr. Safir as a pink bunny," John said, mostly to get the last word in. He was also a little punchy from being short of sleep and spending most of the day worrying about Lorne and performing damage control in Little Tripoli.

"He'd be just as annoying except he'd bite," Rodney scoffed, but he still sat back and slouched a little in his seat. "It'd be like Monty Python," he added sullenly.

Elizabeth looked like she wanted to say something, but just didn't have the words to come back from that statement. So instead, she unfolded her hands and stood up. John rose as well, as did Zelenka. Rodney got up when Zelenka hit him in the forearm. "I think we may have done all we can do here. Rodney, you and Dr. Zelenka will keep us informed on your progress?"

"Of course," Zelenka agreed.

"Or lack thereof," Rodney corrected.

"Let's think positively, okay?" Elizabeth asked a little pleadingly. "Colonel, walk me to my office, please?"

Considering that Elizabeth's office was a hundred feet away, it was probably going to be a short walk followed by a long talk. "Of course," he said, smirking at McKay and Zelenka before following Elizabeth out of the room.

Elizabeth waited for him to catch up, but didn't begin speaking until they were back in her office.

"How is everyone holding up in Little Tripoli?" she asked as she sat down at her desk.

He dropped into one of the chairs without ceremony. "Everyone's anxious," he replied with a shrug, choosing oversimplification over detail. "They're popular men and everyone remembers how long my team was gone when Ford grabbed us."

Elizabeth looked him over carefully, like she was searching for something, and he resisted the urge to flinch or look away.

"Or when the Genii ambushed you on Malthusa," she added quietly, making it sound a little like a question.

"There's a little of that," he admitted. Because it was true, from himself on down. Lorne's team had been with his when they'd gotten ambushed and Gillick had led one of the assault forces during the rescue. "Mostly, though, everyone's just remembering that Lorne always gets into trouble when he's got a lieutenant along."

Elizabeth cracked a half smile. "And hopefully this will end up as a funny story, too."

"Yeah." Because the one possibility that they hadn't discussed during the meeting with Rodney and Zelenka was that Lorne and his team had arrived somewhere and been taken, by the Genii or someone else. They'd been working on trying to suss out the Genii spy network, but to limited success and the Manarians weren't the only people the Genii could use against them.

"How are you doing?" she asked, looking down at her hands.

"There's nothing wrong with me," he replied easily. Because this wasn't about him and he didn't want to be the convenient target of sympathy. "I'm not the one under the gun to produce results here."

"No," Elizabeth agreed, she looked up at him almost shyly. "But you're the one going crazy sitting on your hands."

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "There's nothing I can do about that right now, is there? And I've got plenty to keep me occupied. I just... don't want to do it right now."

Elizabeth gave him one of those amused looks that made her look both older and younger all at once. "I've always wondered about you and Lorne's division of labor," she said mildly, making it clear that she was indulging him by taking him off the hot seat.

"He doesn't do everything," he replied, trying for peevish and probably failing. "I'll get it all done in time for the databurst."

Elizabeth sighed and smiled. "I know you will, John."

There wasn't much else to be said, so he took his leave and lingered a bit in the gateroom, standing with Salker and watching Rodney and Zelenka terrorize their minions as they worked on the DHD until he looked at his watch and realized that he'd been up for twenty hours and still had the military portion of the databurst to get ready.


Four

"Reletti, do that again—especially here—and I will make you squeal like a pig."

Lorne sighed, the pretense of peace shattered by the squabbling children in his charge. He couldn't hide under the water forever.

"Next person to make a Deliverance reference is going to be on nights for the next month," he announced, not turning around. They washed in groups and he'd taken pity on Gillick and left Ortilla with him, knowing that Suarez (their eventual choice for water-taster) would behave without anyone to egg him on.

"I didn't do anything, sir," Reletti protested from the bank. Near Lorne, Yoni spluttered.

"Of course you didn't," Lorne replied mildly, continuing his ablutions. The stream—more like a small river, really—carried away the bubbles from the soap and he had to be careful that it didn't carry away anything else. Nobody had brought changes of clothes and he preferred to keep his underwear. He looked over at the bank, where Reletti was keeping watch. "That was someone else whistling 'Dueling Banjoes'."

Reletti grinned. "Birds around here learn fast, sir."

Lorne gave him a baleful look and waded over to where he'd left his razor and soap on a rock. He'd never bothered with the former as part of his pack when he was on an Earth-based SG team, but he'd never spent that much time with marines before, either. Eleanor Roosevelt was right, he'd long since decided. In all respects.

Two weeks of wilderness life and the worst they'd had to put up with was one vicious thunderstorm and a couple of cases of the trots; they knew that were getting off easy. (Not literally; the lack of privacy was a bit grating to them all at times.) They had food—in limited varieties, but abundant enough—and water and shelter.

The plan, such as it was, was to wait close to the stargate for the first month in order to give Atlantis the best chance of finding them. After that, with the Daedalus in range or close enough, they would be freer to travel and explore and find a new home from which to await rescue. Because while the odds seemed greatest that the next wormhole would be coming from Atlantis, there was still the chance that the Wraith could show up and everyone in Pegasus knew that those closest to the stargate got culled first.

He finished shaving and rinsed off, climbing carefully to the bank to avoid the worst of the mud. He dried off with his chamois, dressed, and picked up his earpiece and his rifle. "Go," he told Reletti, turning his radio on. To preserve batteries, they only kept one radio on per group. "And leave Dr. Safir alone."

Reletti looked wounded for all of half a second, then mischievous, then speculative. And then he simply got down to the business of stripping. Yoni, for his part, was washing his hair and thus oblivious to his imminent doom.

In the grand scheme, which got less grand each day they'd spent on Planet Nowhere, a little mischief wasn't so bad. Morale was still high; he thought they'd probably have about six to eight weeks total before the fear of never being found grew strong enough to feel. The quick establishment of a routine, the ease of subsistence, and the personalities involved—even Yoni, whose solitary nature was both respected and intentionally trod upon—made things as uncomplicated as he imagined they could be. At least for now. If they were here six months from now, he couldn't answer as to what might happen.

"You motherfucker!!"

He spun around to find a wet and spluttering Reletti apparently sitting in the stream and a smug Yoni standing over him. Possibly standing on him.

"There is a saying in Yiddish, 'Ich hob dich in bod'," Yoni explained calmly, clearly pleased with himself as mud dripped from the top of Reletti's head. "It translates, roughly, as 'I'm going to get you in the bath.' But it means something more direct. I'd teach you 'gay kocken affen yam', but you might take it literally."

"Need a hand, Sergeant?" he called over mildly. Reletti was good with fighting sticks and had actually beaten Teyla once or twice, but he should have known better than to try a sneak attack on Yoni.

"I'm fine, sir," Reletti replied, reaching out to try and hook Yoni's leg, but failing.

"Don't break anything Dr. Safir's going to have to fix," he said, then turned back to the trees, one ear remaining cocked to the sound of cursing and splashing and then just splashing as the two stopped playing.

"Sir!" Gillick's voice came through the earpiece. "The stargate is activating!"

Gillick, Ortilla, and Suarez had been the first shift to bathe; they'd be ready for whatever came through.

"I hear you," he replied. "You guys good over there?"

"Yes, sir," Gillick replied. "Let us know when you're on your way back."

Lorne turned his head, but kept his body oriented toward the trees and, beyond them, the stargate. "Get dressed, you two. We've got company."

More splashing as Reletti and Yoni made their way to the bank.

"Anyone there?" A familiar voice asked. "Major Lorne? Lieutenant Gillick?"

He couldn't stop the smile. "Here, sir."

A sigh of relief through the radio, echoed in sentiment at his feet, where Reletti and Safir were lacing up their boots.

"Damned good to hear your voice, Lorne," Sheppard said feelingly. "Everyone okay?"

"We're all safe and sound, sir," he replied, waiting for Reletti and Safir to pick up their things and shoulder their rifles before starting to walk back in the direction they'd come. "But we're trapped. The DHD's busted and we can't dial out."

The path was well-known by this point, so a five minute walk became a two minute dash through the woods and they emerged to find a grinning Suarez, with Ortilla and Gillick standing between the stargate and their camp. The stargate was at the edge of a small clearing in a large forest, but it was not oriented to face the clearing. Instead, the trees were too close in front for a ship to come through at any speed without getting demolished—any Wraith would have to show up on foot or beam down from a cruiser—and they'd set up their camp to the side.

"Major?" McKay, which meant that they were on speakers, which meant he should watch what he said. "Is the DHD functional at all?"

"Not that we can tell," he replied. He and Gillick had been experimenting with the DHD for two weeks, but hadn't gotten so much as sound out of the thing. "No lights, no noise, no connection."

"Hunh." Lorne could imagine McKay standing in the control room, eyeing their own DHD, and contemplating. "Maybe I could go out there and--"

"And get stuck with us," he answered at the same time Dr. Weir said almost the same thing. Behind him, his team (now all with their radios on) looked comically wide-eyed and fearful. Stuck on a strange world with Dr. McKay was terrifying for them in theory, at least. He knew for a fact how miserable it could be. "As much as I'd like to get us all off of this mudball as quickly as possible, I'm not sure that's the best way to go about it."

Ortilla went back to what he was doing, which was boiling water for the instant coffee and cocoa they'd ratfucked from the MREs. The others settled into their morning routines, all moving quietly so that they could hear what was going on.

"Can we send a MALP with a camera?" Sheppard asked. "Park it in front of the DHD, let McKay and Zelenka take a look through the camera?"

"It would be better to send a laptop with a camera," Zelenka suggested. "The thirty-eight minute window will make things much more difficult."

"Good point," McKay agreed. Lorne had rarely heard him sound this way—excited instead of annoyed. "You can shoot as much video as you can, then WiFi it to us in the next wormhole. And then we can call you back when we get something. Or when we don't, I suppose. There's a chance the DHD is just dead. They're sturdy, but not indestructible. Actually, it's pretty amazing that this sort of thing hasn't happened to us already considering some of the shady leads we've followed over the past year."

"Rodney?" Dr. Weir cut him off. "Major Lorne, the Daedalus is approximately a week away. If we can't repair the DHD, then you'll have to wait until it arrives to pick you up. What sort of supplies can we send you? Two weeks is a long time and it could be that much again before you're home in Atlantis."

Reletti and Gillick both pointed to their impromptu clothes line with its underwear and t-shirts and socks. Safir and Suarez pointed at Ortilla, who was still at their cooking pit.

"Food that's not MREs or Near Deer would be great, ma'am," he replied, nodding and waving acknowledgement at his team's emphatic gestures. "Toiletries, an extra set of cammies so we can wash the ones we've got on. Underclothes, especially."

On one of the first nights, they'd gotten into an unfortunate discussion about who had gone the longest without being able to change clothes. Reletti had won because he'd been in a MOPP suit for a month at the start of the invasion of Iraq, but it had been a close race for second place and none of them were interested in setting new records.

"We'll get together a care package," Sheppard assured him. Lorne knew he'd know what to pull together and send through. "You need anything out of the armory?"

He looked over at Suarez, who'd been doing most of their hunting. Suarez shook his head.

"Not really, but it probably couldn't hurt to throw in a clip or three," he replied. "And batteries for the radios."

"Give us an hour to put everything together," Sheppard said. "And take video of yourselves when you're at it. Just so we know you haven't been turned into pink bunnies or anything."

Laughter among the team.

"Pink bunnies, sir?"

"It was an example," McKay huffed in the background.

Yoni took off his earpiece so he could laugh in earnest.

After a few more expressions of relief that they'd been located, the wormhole closed, to reactivate in an hour.

"Well," he said as he sat down on the log they'd dragged over. "I'm looking forward to fresh fruit and clean underwear."

"Amen to that, sir," Gillick replied and everyone chuckled. Gillick had taken a spectacular tumble the morning after the thunderstorm after slipping on a muddy slope. Covered head to toe in muck, he had simply taken off his boots and walked into the stream to wash off, then spent the better part of the afternoon huddled under his unzipped sleeping bag as Ortilla toasted his cammies from 'dripping' to 'dampish' for him by rigging a second clothesline over the fire. A week later and he'd finally stopped smelling like wood smoke.

Breakfast wasn't much; the coffee was almost gone and they'd finished the Wheat Snack Bread, pretzels, cookies, and vegetable crackers from the MREs. That left berries or waiting for the care package from Atlantis, so they opted to wait.

With the promise of comforts and rescue passing from hope to actuality, they spoke of things they'd previously not, either out of superstition or wistfulness or wanting to keep the ominousness of their futures at bay. Lorne felt relaxed enough to sit back and listen as Suarez announced that he craved ham and eggs, fresh milk, and pretty much any food that he didn't have to catch and clean himself. Gillick wondered aloud how his platoon was faring and joked that they probably didn't notice that he was gone, especially since he knew (even though he wasn't supposed to) that Sgt. Bisniak could mimic his Minnesota accent perfectly. Safir calculated just how many clinic shifts he'd missed and what percentage of them Dr. Beckett would ask him to make up and how good his chances were of bartering that number down. (Not good at all.) Reletti solicited suggestions for possible excuses he could give to his mom for why he hadn't written home in almost a month because the truth wasn't an option.

They were still debating the merits of "internet outage" versus "outside the wire" versus "changing FOBs" when the stargate activated again. It had been almost forty-five minutes, but it wasn't necessarily Atlantis dialing in and it would be painfully ironic to get themselves killed or taken right after they'd re-established contact.

"Lorne?"

"Here, sir," he answered Sheppard, gesturing for everyone to drop their rifles.

"One care package coming through," Sheppard announced. "We don't miss you guys enough to waste a MALP, so you're getting a trolley."

One of the quartermaster's trucks came through a moment later, stopping awkwardly on the grassy, uneven ground by the stargate. It was laden with plastic boxes ganged together and tied down with bungee cord.

"Like manna from heaven," Ortilla announced as he snapped his fingers for Reletti to help him guide the trolley to where they'd set up their camp.

"Major?" McKay. "The video camera is in the same box as the laptop. We put the instruction manual on the hard drive just in case--"

"We're marines, not morons," Suarez muttered sourly. Lorne gave him a look.

"I think we'll figure it out, Doctor," he said aloud. Because Suarez wasn't wrong. "Do you want us to try out the wireless connection now?"

"No, no," McKay replied. "Ogrodnick hasn't set up the router yet."

A shout of victory from Reletti, who was holding up an unopened package of briefs.

"Keep your pants on, Sergeant!" Lorne called over. It was too early in the day for their washed pairs to have dried yet.

"Literally and figuratively!" Gillick added, going over to help the unloading.

"What time should we be expecting you to dial in again?" Lorne asked, remembering to hit his radio button. Despite the fact that Atlantis couldn't see him through the wormhole—and the fact that, half-dressed, he didn't really want to be seen—he still found himself facing the open wormhole, like it was some sort of magic mirror.

"You guys still have your watches set to Atlantis Standard?" Sheppard asked.

"Yes, sir." Between the different speeds and positions of Planet Nowhere's rotation cycle, keeping their watches set to AST put them off by several hours—two weeks in and morning here was afternoon in Atlantis—but they had never before changed their watches on missions and doing so in this case would have been some sort of concession to the fact that they might not make it back to Atlantis.

"How about 0900 tomorrow?"

Lorne frowned. It would make life easy in Atlantis, but would require being up in the middle of the night here. "That's kinda oh-dark-thirty here, sir," he finally replied. "Dawn's around 1300 AST."

"Right," Sheppard agreed readily. "Is 1500 better?"

"Much," he replied.

"Okay, so it's a date," Sheppard said. "Go have your little Christmas morning and then get the video—McKay is chomping at the bit to see this DHD. We'll talk to you guys tomorrow."

"Yes, sir. And thanks."

They signed off and the wormhole closed. He went back to the camp to find Reletti and Ortilla sorting out clothes, Suarez grinning and holding an orange, and Gillick and Safir untangling the cables from the laptop and its peripherals.

"Christmas morning is right," he murmured to himself with a grin.


Epilogue

"Weren't you supposed to be taking the rest of the day off?" Sheppard asked, sauntering in to Lorne's office and leaning against the nearest file cabinet.

Lorne had his laptop open, but was taking notes on a yellow pad with a pencil. He looked up with a wry grin. "What can I say? I'm still basking in the joy of returning to the world of indoor plumbing. Figured I'd get the worst of the catching up done before I came to my senses and remembered that I hate this stuff."

He looked at his XO skeptically. "I'd have thought that three hours rehashing everything with Weir and Caldwell would have done that," he said. "Damned near sapped my will to live."

It had been an epic meeting, even as far as the epic meetings that usually accompanied the Daedalus's arrival in town went. Rodney, aided and abetted by Zelenka, had gone on (and on and on) about their genius plan to figure out where Lorne's team was without running ninety million possible stargate addresses through the database. He'd had to pay attention to the conversation instead of spacing out completely, as was his wont during really long lectures on the brilliance of the science division, because Caldwell asked questions during these meetings and sometimes he was expected to answer them. At least the part that wasn't Rodney declaiming had been mercifully brisk—Lorne's quick summary of their three weeks on Planet Nowhere and his own even briefer summary of how the Atlantis Battalion had coped.

Lorne grinned. "Any other day, I'd be right there with you, sir."

He grinned back, then got serious. "Everyone settling back in okay?"

They hadn't been able to get the DHD to work, something that hadn't surprised any of them—except Rodney—very much. A week of daily deliveries of food and sundries made the waiting easier, but he didn't make the mistake of thinking that Lorne's team had been having a summer camping trip. Those first two weeks of uncertainty and doubt would have been hellish even though, as Lorne insisted, everyone was sure that they'd be found eventually. Lorne was too experienced at this game to not appreciate how many ways things could have gone wrong and how close they had been to never being found at all.

Lorne shrugged. "I think the week of waiting helped, actually. Got the worst of the shakes shook out, you know?"

He did, probably better than Lorne thought he did. To go from suppressing despair and the fear of losing everything to fitting back into a life that had started to go on without you.... "Yeah."

"Safir's probably locked himself in his lab," Lorne went on, rolling his eyes. "I think he's had more uninterrupted human contact in the last three weeks than in the last three years. The marines are all reacquainting themselves with their units and their porn."

He nodded understandingly. Even odds as to which one first.

Heightmeyer wanted her time with all of them, of course. And Elizabeth thought it was a good idea. He didn't think it was a bad idea, but he'd wait to see how Lorne felt. Because it was his team and he knew them and it was going to be hell getting them to go even if he approved. The marines would require a direct order (and assurances of it not appearing on their records) and Safir, who still hadn't done his required post-siege session, would probably need an armed escort and a cattle prod. Lorne would go because he's a good airman like that, but if he didn't think it was Heightmeyer's business, then she'd get nothing out of him because he was a good airman like that, too.

"Gillick did really well out there," Lorne said. "He usually does, but...."

"But this was more than the usual Amazing Adventures with Major Lorne," he finished. "Polito's almost glowing with pride."

"Good," Lorne agreed. "Because I was starting to worry that none of the captains are going to let me borrow their lieutenants anymore after this."

He laughed. "Your insurance premiums are going up, don't doubt it."

"And my ability to protest when my team starts packing survival gear keeps going down," Lorne added with a rueful smile. "They want a cushy mission, by the way. To make up for missing the party on Ipetia."

It was his turn to shrug, one-shouldered so that he didn't have to stand up. "Dr. Weir's going to Ipetia next week to formalize the agreement with the Subbiluma. You can go as the escort. Yuenthea'll be happy to see that you're in one piece."

Lorne raised an eyebrow. "Who would I be booting off the mission?"

"Me, probably," he replied. They hadn't set a roster yet. "But I don't mind."

"I'm not worried about you minding, sir, but Dr. McKay has been known to hold a grudge."

He smiled. Rodney loved Ipetian cuisine, but he really wasn't that keen on having to sit through the ceremonies that would be required to get to the food. The Ipetians were devout worshippers of the Ancestors and all of the invocations tended to make Rodney fidgety and meanspirited. Ronon had nearly fallen asleep last time and, personally, he wasn't going to mind missing a few hours of surreptitious glances because the Ipetians knew that he had something of the Ancestors within him and the Subbiluma were just as serious in their devotions. Teyla could go if she wanted, but otherwise? "Bring back a few creta and I think he'll consider it an even exchange."

Lorne nodded. "I'll see if the boys are up to it by then." Which was a nice euphemism for his agreeing on the condition that Elizabeth agreed first.

"Good," he said, not offended. "Now put that crap down and go relax. This vacation of yours won't go on forever."

"This means I'm going to the personnel meeting on Friday, doesn't it?" Lorne asked, not making it sound like a question.

He kept a straight face as he pushed himself off the cabinet and stood up. He'd been on his way to see Hanzis about a drill they were designing. "Yes, yes it does."

Lorne gave him one of those looks that made it very clear that John wasn't nearly as surprising as he sometimes wished he was.

"Glad you're back, Lorne," he said as he turned to go.

"Me, too, sir."


“The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”

Eleanor Roosevelt

feed me on LJ?



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