Prodigal Files: Sheppard

by Domenika Marzione

"Okay, so the lesson learned here is that I am never approving Major Lorne for leave again," John announces. Everyone laughs. "Lieutenant, make sure that's in the minutes."

Kagan, scribbling furiously, assures him that it is.

That Lorne is the hamster wheel that keeps Little Tripoli running is not news to anyone; that he's a big reason the city itself doesn't collapse inward like a supernova is also not news. John just wishes it was a point that the universe would accept as completely understood so that it would stop feeling the need to reiterate it.

Or, at least, that Mechanical Engineering would save its shenanigans for when Lorne is around to meet secretly with Zelenka, saving everyone a lot of unpleasantness. John is not about to overhaul city security measures (and undermine his subordinates in the process) because Mech Eng wants to do things that they know they're not supposed to and Rodney, ever the indulgent parent, is willing to let them. If Lorne were here, he would disappear for a few hours and come back with an agreement with Zelenka that would save face for Science and let the marines stave off civilian insurrection for another week. But Lorne is not here; Lorne is back home, en route to Maryland for a wedding. And that leaves John dealing with Rodney, who is not interested in any greater good than his favorite scientists getting what they want.

"That said, our course of action otherwise remains the same," John continues. "Mech Eng is still forbidden to wander off into A-1 and A-2 without escort or at all after dark. Anyone out there is to be hauled back in immediately and rung up. Be polite, but 'no' is not an acceptable answer. Hopefully, this won't escalate before we get something settled. I don't--"

The phone on Lorne's desk rang. Hanzis, the closest person, answers it. He listens for a moment, says "understood," and then hangs up.

"Sir, Doctor Weir would like your presence in her office straightaway," he announces. "Someone just showed up from the SGC."

John stands and sighs. "Well, at least it's not Mech Eng," he says. "Okay, I'm sure you fellows can sort out the rest without me and I'll hear your decisions later. And, for the record, no, you may not schedule the rail gun test yet. Put that in the minutes, too, Lieutenant."

Kagan murmurs assent, this time far less enthusiastically.

The someone from the SGC turns out to be Lt. Col. Breier, who is officially the team leader of SG-21 but who is operating in the capacity of deputy head of a task force headed up by Cam Mitchell. A task force necessitated by the fact that someone back on Earth seems to be going after scientists with SGC connections. Logic would indicate that Atlantis would be safe from worry, but logic is either wrong or does not apply, depending on which side of the argument you're on.

"You want us to what?" John asks once Breier's finished with his spiel. "You've got to be kidding me. No. We have been waiting forever for this bridge and we're not shutting it down without warning."

After his time stationed at the Mountain, John has a new appreciation for how the SGC works, one that mostly validates the conclusions he'd drawn from afar. First and foremost being that they have a nasty habit of making their first response to any crisis to be shutting the barn doors after the cows have already fled. He exchanges a look with Elizabeth, who seems to be no more impressed by the Mountain's request than he is.

"The effects of suddenly shutting down the bridge far outweigh any gains such a move might have," she tells Breier in her 'using very small words because the big ones aren't getting through' voice. "Logistically, morale-wise, and, most importantly, safety-wise. I do not believe there is an advantage to cutting Atlantis off from Earth on the off chance that someone might sneak into the city to do us harm. All it would do is set off a panic and disrupt plans. Our stargate protocols are strict and--"

"And with all due respect, ma'am," Breier cuts in, "so are the Mountain's."

Elizabeth cocks an eyebrow and John feels a little pity for Breier. "Compared to Atlantis, Colonel, Earth's stargate is a revolving door. We do not have the traffic or activity that Earth's gate has and can afford to dedicate greater scrutiny to that which does occur. We have had fewer Class One security breaches in our entire existence than the SGC has had in the last six weeks. Please tell Colonel Mitchell -- or General Landry or General O'Neill -- that we appreciate the severity of the situation and will take steps to address it, but that will not include agreeing to shut down the bridge. Certainly not with our DCMO and deputy military commander currently on Earth; Doctor Safir's and Major Lorne's returns should not be at the whim of the Daedalus's schedule."

Breier can argue about it some more, but he's not going to get anywhere and he senses that. He thanks Elizabeth and John for their time and begins the process to return to Earth.

"So how do you want to handle this?" John asks after the wormhole closes, dropping into one of the chairs. "Because we're going to have to do something. Both for actual security and for the perception of it. Once this news filters out into the city -- and it will -- we're going to have a panic on our hands. Open bridge or not."

Elizabeth sighs and leans back in her seat. "Yeah," she agrees. "For the time being, I think we might be able to get away with a combination of increasing the visibility of our internal security and upping our precautionary measures for returnees. But we're going to have to sit down with Carson and Rodney and work something out."

John makes a face and Elizabeth makes one right back at him.

"I know you don't want to turn everything into a bureaucratic nightmare, but Rodney's people are going to be the most affected, in all ways, and we need to know what sort of measures Carson's staff can handle without completely gumming up the works."

John nods reluctant agreement. He hadn't really held out any hope that this would be something that could be announced as a fait accomplit.

"Any chance we can hold off on this until Lorne and Safir get back?" he asks instead. "Under the circumstances, they're both more important than usual."

John could make a joke about Lorne being the power behind the throne, but this is going to make life in Little Tripoli a lot more complicated than anything Mech Eng could dream up and the simple fact is that John needs Lorne to help him manage this. And Yoni is the architect of all of their medical security protocols, so while Carson can and will address the practical matters, even he will defer to his deputy on this.

Elizabeth looks at her calendar. "I'd like to have them here," she agrees. "But they're not due back for another week, which puts us up against it in terms of the city response."

"We'll have the marines doing a show of force by then," John replies. "It should buy us some time."

It does and it doesn't, since when the news of the murders finally hits the city, it does so like an announcement of a Wraith attack, but John's immediate attention is on a problem of much more unfamiliar proportions.

"AWOL?" It comes out as a squeak. "With all due respect, sir, are you sure that's a reasonable response to the situation? What if they just missed their flights? It's been less than forty-eight hours."

"All five of them?" General Landry retorts. This is a video teleconference and his indignation is thus in surround-sound stereo. "One or two I'd buy. Maybe even three if the weather's been bad. But five puts us well past coincidence and into the realm of conspiracy, Colonel, especially without contacting us to let us know that there's been a problem. And don't tell me that they're not capable of any malfeasance -- just because Lorne and Safir remain unindicted conspirators in your little stunt the other month doesn't mean I've forgotten that they were involved."

John is not completely without a sense of self-preservation. He shuts his yap, even though the idea that Lorne could have taken his team and turned them criminal is simply unfathomable.

"I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation, General," Elizabeth offers, faith ringing in her voice.

"I'll need you to come up with one, Doctor," Landry snaps. "In case you've forgotten, lofty and safe perch that you have, we've got a bit of a problem with rogue operatives right now. So you'll excuse me if the fact that your deputy military commander has taken his entire team off the grid does not inspire in me feelings of patience and forbearance. "

Elizabeth, professional diplomat, does not offer a response.

"I want a list of everyone stationed in Atlantis who is not currently in residence," Landry continues. "Military and civilian. I want the names of everyone who has taken leave at any point since the re-establishment of the expedition, whether or not they returned on time. And I'd like them today, please."

There's more, but the gist of it is that Landry expects complete cooperation, with the understanding that if Atlantis were not run by lone-wolf types with no regard for the bigger picture, none of this would have happened.

John opens up Elizabeth's door and summons Lieutenant Cardejo, standing in the gate room, and tells him to pull together the lists Landry requires, since that's under the purview of the gate room officer's duties. Once he gets an aye-aye out of Cardejo, John closes the door again and returns to Elizabeth.

"I don't know what's going on," he begins, "but this can't be what Landry thinks it is. It's Lorne. He cleans up our messes; he doesn't make them."

"Tell that to Steven Caldwell," Elizabeth replies ruefully.

"Okay, yeah, but even if it's a Goa'uld, unless there was a whole snake convention or some mass hypnosis thing, that doesn't explain how he got Yoni and their marines to go along with anything. Yoni's more likely to sedate him when he's not looking and have the marines carry him back to the Mountain."

Elizabeth grimaces reluctant agreement. "If this had happened at the Mountain," she muses, "I'd be willing to accept that they might be under the influence of something or someone, but they were all on leave, scattered around the globe. They didn't even go at the same time, so they wouldn't have been caught up in the same event if there was an event."

"There's going to be someone checking to make sure that they actually did scatter," John says sourly. "That they haven't been up to something the whole time."

The idea that all five are up to something without external influence is hard to believe, but so is the notion that all five of them are compromised in the same fashion without anyone else being affected. Which is something John totally doesn't want to think about, but knows he's going to have to. He gestures in the general direction of Little Tripoli. "I'm going to go start damage control. This is really going to be a pain in the ass if it leaks out that there are marines under suspicion. The city's already paranoid and now there's a chance that the only body they think's been keeping them safe is actually part of the threat."

"I know," Elizabeth agrees sadly. "If General Landry suggests bringing in SFs again, we might have to agree."

While Elizabeth calls Carson to her office to talk to him about Yoni -- it'll be better if they do it together and do it quickly -- John radios Radner and tells him he wants the captains and first sergeants in Lorne's office in ten minutes.

Carson, harried because his deputy is still away, shows up not suspecting a thing. He takes the news about as well as John and Elizabeth did, which is with a mix of shock and disbelief.

"'Primum non nocere,'" Carson says. "He took that oath, too, and I refuse to believe that he would willingly violate it if it were in his power to avoid doing so. I know he's not the easiest person to work with, but--"

"Nobody -- in this room, at least -- is accusing him of anything," Elizabeth stops him. "At least not beyond failing to show up at the Mountain when he was supposed to. But the fact remains that he is missing, along with the rest of Major Lorne's team, and the SGC is understandably cautious right now."

"Paranoid," Carson corrects sharply. "I'm sure there will be a reason for it. One that doesn't involve killing anyone."

Once he's sure that Carson understands the real need to keep a lid on the details, John leaves him to Elizabeth and heads off to repeat the exercise in Little Tripoli.

"No fucking way," Polito spits out. "Sir."

"Okay, listen," John sighs, ignoring the outburst. "Let's be right up front about the fact that, barring really incontrovertible evidence, we don't think our people -- or Doctor Safir, for that matter -- have gone over to the dark side. But this is still the Stargate Program and weird shit does happen. Including, so I've heard, the odd case of someone not being quite themselves."

He looks around at the men sitting around the table, making eye contact with all of them.

"What we have to do right now is play nicely with the Mountain because they are the ones doing the investigating and they are the ones with the body count. That does not mean enabling a witch hunt in Atlantis. What it will mean is that we are going to have to be extremely vigilant, both policing ourselves and keeping order -- and sanity -- in the city."

The plan, such as it is, is to keep any mention of Lorne's team's status quiet. They're not AWOL, just temporarily re-assigned to the Mountain. It's not completely implausible -- everyone in Atlantis is used to the Mountain's sticky fingers when it comes to nice things. They will increase city patrols, alter some of the gate protocols, and hope it's enough.

John is back in Elizabeth's office with Cardejo's list by 1600 AST.

"It's seemingly half the city," she remarks. "Weekend passes, short trips for conferences, medical emergencies..."

John can only shrug, since she's right. "If Landry was hoping to find a suspect off of that roster, he'll have better luck pulling a needle out of a haystack."

What Landry does with the list remains unknown because the next response from the Mountain takes a while and is General O'Neill showing up looking tired and grim.

"We need to talk in private," he tells John and Elizabeth. "Absolute private."

Which ends up being space in an unused conservatory in E-5, one of John's hiding spots that nobody but Lorne can find without the life signs detector.

The story is both far more unbelievable and far less bizarre than John thought it would be. As a veteran of unwilling possessions, he's relieved that none of his people are being forced to act contrary to their own wishes, although he can't help but feel betrayed at what is being done willingly. Or at least that Lorne couldn't find some way to let him know that he was okay and that things were not as they seemed. But John appreciates that he's really very low on the list of people who can hold grudges -- Landry and (especially) Mitchell are rightly pissed at how they were led along. And there's still a murderer on the loose.

Elizabeth knows the Tok'ra in question and remembers that Lorne had a good working relationship with him. She's taking this better than John is, he thinks, possibly because John's never met anyone who has had a positive experience with possession and can't really imagine Lorne or anyone else cheerfully handing over their entire being to someone else. Especially Lorne, who is not as fanatical as Yoni but certainly keeps his private life private. But Azem is apparently one of the good guys and O'Neill seems more upset at the necessity than at the details, so John just decides that this is all above his pay grade for the time being.

Of course, knowing that Lorne and his team are working on the side of the angels is a relief, but that really doesn't solve any problems because they're not the only ones who need convincing. NCIS has gotten involved and they are being exceptionally obdurate and there's a real chance that Lorne may wind up taking a career-ending, freedom-ending hit to keep the Stargate Program secret if nobody can get them to back off or if Lorne can't find the mole before NCIS finds him. Especially with Lorne's fingerprints somehow turning up on the weapon that killed former SG-team member Staff Sergeant Baxter. O'Neill can't promise that they'll get Lorne back if they can't shake the Navy cops.

The other bit of news is that Lorne wasn't the only one keeping secrets.

"You have something you want to tell me, Lieutenant?" John asks Gillick, who stands stiffly by the conference table in Lorne's office. Polito stands off to the side, leaning against the wall by the coffee service, and John's not sure if it's because he's too pissed to sit down or something more benign.

Gillick looks crestfallen as he makes his confession. "Dani-- Doctor Esposito was the one they really needed. I don't think Colonel Carter planned on me showing up, too. But I was there and when they asked me to help, I didn't think I should say no."

Although he is perhaps more amused than embarrassed by Ortilla, Suarez, and Reletti staging a brig break on his behalf, Gillick is clearly remorseful that he's had answers to some of the mysteries plaguing Atlantis and kept them to himself. John is inclined to let him off the hook -- the kid was in an awful spot -- but he's not sure what Polito will do.

Polito waits until John is finished. "C'mon, Aaron," he says, shaking his head. There's a hint of a smile on his face. "Let's go get a cup of coffee."

The following day is databurst day and someone's email contains the news of Baxter's death and Lorne is the only suspect. It's all over the city by mid-afternoon and by dinnertime, the marines on patrol are reporting accusations and confrontations with civilians. By 2100, Elizabeth takes the extraordinary step of making a city-wide broadcast, simultaneously reassuring everyone of their safety and the marines' part in it and also chiding them for their faithlessness. They know Lorne isn't the murderer because he was in Atlantis when it started and, in light of all that he's done for the city and its people, he deserves more credit and more respect, as do the marines who have risked their lives countless times for the sake of the city.

John's woken up at 0420 by Murray, on gate room duty, who tells him that General O'Neill would like him back on Earth ASAP.

"They've picked up Major Lorne, sir," Murray tells him. John knows 'they' doesn't mean the SGC.

He's showered, shaved, dressed in his service uniform, and in Landry's office inside an hour. It's 1050 local time and he, Landry, and Mitchell are riding on an 1145 flight to Andrews from Pederson.

"The lead Navy investigator's a god-damned pain in the ass," Mitchell tells him as they wait in the kitchen of a safehouse for O'Neill and Landry to finish shouting at each other in the living room. Carter and her minions, including Danielle Esposito, are downstairs and upstairs, hard at work. "He knows as well as we do that Lorne's not the murderer, but he's convinced that we'll fold rather than leave Lorne to dangle for something he didn't do."

Mitchell's angry at the deception still, this John knows, but Cam's differently angry at the circumstances that will probably lead them to do just that -- abandon Lorne to the wolves.

"Is there any reason we might have to fold?" John asks. He doesn't pretend to understand half of what's going on with the good snakes and bad snakes and whatever superweapon was supposed to be stolen from them and given over to the Ori. There might be something about the 'blending' (he hates that term; it doesn't sound like what it is and that makes it an ugly euphemism) that means that they might need to physically hide Lorne to prevent the true nature of what's going on from being revealed.

"Give up the program?" Cam asks. "No. Get Lorne out by underhanded means? I don't know -- I don't know enough about the death process when it comes to Tok'ra, if it's anything that can't be explained away. If we have to zap him out of Leavenworth, he's still done for as a free man."

Life in prison or life in exile. Great choice.

John's not sure what exactly his role is in this activity; they clearly want him along to deal with Lorne, but he's not sure why -- Lorne clearly has O'Neill's and Carter's confidence and he'd gone to O'Neill first with the mole news. It's not like they need John to pry loose information.

Except maybe they do, since after sitting in a very frustrating conference with the lead investigators, O'Neill throws John into the interrogation room to wait for Lorne.

Lorne shows up looking... like Lorne. He looks tired, but not nearly as tired as you'd think considering all of the running around he's been doing, and a little embarrassed and a lot like he always does, which is vaguely amused at the ridiculous situations he keeps finding himself in. John thinks he should be relieved, but he's more annoyed than anything else and that surprises him. He wants some kind of evidence that Lorne's not quite Lorne -- not just Lorne -- but there isn't any.

His anger doesn't last, though. This isn't the time or place for questions and he still wants to get Lorne and his merry men back to Atlantis in one piece and without a court martial. They recall Lorne's team -- Yoni and Ortilla from Austin, Reletti and Suarez from San Jose -- which is a more complicated process than how it looks on the other side of the interrogation room glass, since it involves triangulating cell phone signals with the orbiting Apollo and bouncing the quartet up to the ship and then down to the safehouse.

They're sleeping when John returns with the generals and Mitchell and Carter, but Ortilla shows up in the kitchen while John's eating a sandwich.

"I'm sorry, sir," Ortilla says, standing by the doorway. Mitchell, who'd been carefully slathering mustard on his pastrami, finishes up and leaves John with a nod. "We're sorry."

John isn't not angry, but it's more complicated than that. "One of the facts of life when it comes to command, Staff Sergeant, is that your subordinates keep secrets from you. Things you're better off not knowing because if you don't know, you can't act on them. Usually, those secrets fall into certain categories -- morale-boosters, attempts to defeat the military bureaucracy, covering for a buddy -- minor things that just make life easier for everyone. And that's okay. That's good.

"But I'm not sure I'm ready to accept 'my XO is a Tok'ra and he took his team off the grid to track a Goa'uld mole' is on the same level with the beer vats I don't know about on Deck Nine of the admin building."

Ortilla draws himself up as if to protest, but John waves him off and instead gestures toward the seat on the other side of the table that's not holding the paper bag all of deli was brought in. Ortilla sits.

"I'm frustrated, Manny," John continues. "Don't confuse that with being pissed off at you and Reletti and Suarez and Safir. I'm not questioning your decisions to go along with Lorne. You guys have been through hell together and, in other circumstances, I'd be proud of you for being so willing to risk your careers -- and possibly your freedom -- on faith."

"The Major's a good man, sir," Ortilla offers. "A good officer, too."

"He is," John agrees easily. Although that's neither part of the problem nor part of the solution.

"Are the brass going to be able to get him out of this, sir?" Ortilla asks after a moment. He knows as well as John does that what should happen and what will happen could be two different things.

"They're going to try," John answers. "Hopefully, they'll succeed."

"Is there anything we can do?"

John looks over at him. "Behave yourselves and answer questions."

"We always do, sir," Ortilla answers with a completely straight face. "I'm going to go crash. We've been up for a couple of days."

He waits for John to nod dismissal before leaving.

The next day, they go see Lorne. The trip over is a bit like chaperoning a field trip, but once they get to the Navy Yard, it's a bit more us-against-them. At least until Yoni decides not to make nice with the Mossad agent, at which point it's just like chaperoning a field trip again right up until the point where Lorne's inner snake puts in an appearance.

John is maybe a little too surprised to be worried about what their watchers on the other side of the glass saw or understood. Which appears to be nothing, thankfully, but John's not prepared to take that as a complete victory when there's a Goa'uld wandering around upstairs.

Leaving Lorne alone is the last thing he wants to do, but he can't not warn the others. They're not back long when Colonel Mann calls Mitchell to tell him that the Goa'uld is Holden -- of course, she doesn't know what she's telling them, but that's beside the point.

O'Neill won't let him go back to the Navy Yard.

"I don't like it any more than you do, Colonel," O'Neill tells him. "But the fact is that you can't do anyone any good over there right now. You can't protect Lorne. They're not going to let you near him carrying any kind of weapons and there's really nothing you could carry that would do much of anything against a Goa'uld and not kill Holden. We don't even know that Jarilo's after Lorne or Azem -- he could've just been letting you know he's in town."

John's seething -- mostly because he knows O'Neill's right and because that wouldn't have stopped him anyway if there hadn't been a direct order from a man he respects as much as O'Neill.

He spends the evening sitting around a coffee table with Mitchell, Carter, and O'Neill trying to wargame possible confrontations. O'Neill has a floorplan of the NCIS headquarters -- procured from who knows what secret corner -- and they study it and the maps of downtown DC and, for good measure, the area around the safe house. Safir and the marines hang out, contributing when consulted -- Yoni mostly to answer Carter's questions about her Goa'uld death device, the marines for likely ambush points. Landry is back at the Mountain coordinating additional resources; there's talk of getting a half-dozen SG teams to DC by tomorrow, plus whatever is being done to protect the rest of Holden's team.

The next day is more of the same except that O'Neill works the phones and his connections to get the murder charges on Lorne dropped as well as the breaking-and-entering up in Wisconsin. It's minor in the sense that those really aren't the problems they need to be worried about, but it's not because it means that O'Neill is clearing the path for Lorne to be free once (if) the military investigation can be wiped out. It means they're trying to save him.

Lorne's team goes to see him. Which turns out to be impossible, so they spend the day loitering around the Navy Yard as a kind of first response team. It won't be terribly useful should Holden show up, but they'll be able to warn everyone else faster than NCIS will and it keeps them occupied and out of trouble.

John gets drafted into playing aide to O'Neill since Mitchell is back in Colorado, to return tomorrow with Landry.

Wednesday morning is another meeting at the Navy Yard, but only Landry and Mitchell go with O'Neill. John and Carter stay behind at the safehouse, Carter to tinker with her Goa'uld device and John to coordinate any kind of reaction force should Jarilo try something with everyone congregating at NCIS headquarters.

The meeting does not go well, although Lorne's team now has permission to visit him. In hindsight, that was probably the only victory they really needed.

Landry goes straight back to Colorado afterward, but O'Neill and Mitchell are back at the safe house when Yoni's call comes in.

John's been doing all of the prep work for the reaction force and so he has to stay with that, piling into the C2 truck with O'Neill and Mitchell inatead of jumping into the car Carter's speeding off in. But he can't and it bothers him a lot. He knows this is part of the responsibility of his rank, but he enjoys leading from the front.

"It's always easier to head off into danger yourself," O'Neill tells him, sitting down heavily on the bench next to where John's got his laptops and radios set up. They've got four teams closing in on the Navy Yard and John's got to figure out if there's a way to get them aboard without causing an incident. "Let them do their jobs, Colonel."

In the end, it doesn't matter how many teams are there. It comes down to Carter and her Goa'uld thingie. John listens to all of it on the two-way mic Carter's wearing, O'Neill and Mitchell sitting anxiously on either side.

When it's all over, O'Neill sighs with relief and stands up. "Stand down the QRF and then come get your people," he tells John before leaving with Mitchell.

By the time John gets to the scene of the showdown, it's swarming with people. He finds Suarez first, carrying a couple of cups of water, and follows him through the crowd to where he gives one cup to Lorne before moving on to give the other to Ortilla to give to Holden.

Lorne looks like he got hit by a truck.

"You okay?" John asks, sitting down next to him. It's a stupid question, but he knows Lorne will take it the right way.

"I will be," he replies with a shrug. There's a tightness around his eyes that says far more than his words. Lorne doesn't look away when he sees John notice.

"So I think I'm going to be replaced as the officer in Atlantis the SGC would most like to take out back and zat a few times," John says, since just because Lorne lets him see doesn't mean he has to bring it up.

"I have faith in your ability to reclaim your title, sir," Lorne says, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall. There's a tiny hitch when he exhales and John can't tell if it's him trying to hold back a sob or if he's got bruised ribs.

"Yoni take a look?"

"Yoni took a look," Lorne confirms, not opening his eyes. "'You've lived through worse,'" he says in a credible version of Yoni's accent.

They're quiet then, letting the chaos around them ebb and flow. John catches Reletti watching them and nods at him; Reletti nods back and then turns away, satisfied.

"I'm sorry," Lorne says after a few minutes. He still hasn't opened his eyes.

"I know," John replies. Because he does and it was never a matter of faith or trust when it came to Lorne. "So'm I."

feed me on LJ?

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15 August, 2009