The Pledge and the Turn

by Domenika Marzione

a remix of Jenn Seperis's What I Look for on the Sides of Mountains

It was a few months into the job before Lorne really learned how to write AARs SG-style. Judicious editing had always been part of the game -- by the time he hit captain, it didn't even ping his honor code to spend a few hours writing and re-writing to settle blame all around rather than pin it all on the crew chief who in turn had been covering for a subordinate. Nonetheless, a certain something extra was required when it came to writing up missions for SG-11, where the reports had to meet Edwards' exacting standards and still adhere to the SGC's What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas version of DADT.

The flip side of everyone leaving the juicy parts out of AARs, of course, was that everyone knew that you were leaving the juicy parts out of the AAR. Reading between the lines was everyone's favorite job-related activity, up there with working to complete the Zagat's Guide to the Milky Way (Best for booze: P3X-595; worst for food: Argos; new in 2003: expanded section on Goa'uld prisons).

Once Lorne had gotten assigned to Atlantis, he had read Sheppard's AARs and then he had read Ford's, the latter of which were a lot more unintentionally illuminating and thus what Lorne figured he'd need since Sheppard was really fucking good at the opaque thing. Ford obviously had the good intentions and clearly worshiped the ground Sheppard walked on, but he lacked the experience to pull off the bait-and-switch required for really quality avoidance. (Once you knew what you were doing, the substitution of bland descriptions of local flora and fauna could easily fill in for more vivid explanations of why your entire team had returned through the gate sans pants.)

All of which was to say that by the time he got to the Pegasus galaxy, Lorne knew exactly what he was in for.

Not that that actually helped.

Lorne was coming out of Weir's office when the wormhole opened to let Sheppard's team back in from PSX-111. They'd been gone overnight, staying for dinner-and-a-movie Pegasus-style, and hopefully only bringing back a new trade agreement. (Stackhouse still taking grief two years later for coming back with space fleas.) Judging by how exhausted everyone looked as they stood on the platform in front of the stargate, however, Lorne suspected that Sheppard and company were more likely to have encountered the sort of activities that got extra-long paragraphs on local agrarian habits in the mission reports.

A wan wave from Sheppard would have been ample proof of the former, except... Except. While Sheppard was still really fucking good at the opaque thing, he still associated with people who weren't. And, after a couple of years of having to read between his CO's lines, Lorne knew that the best way to see Sheppard was by looking at those around him.

If this had been just a really good party, McKay would have looked pissed (even if he'd enjoyed himself the night before) and Teyla would have had that white-knuckled expression where you knew that she was hanging on to her zen calm by sheer dint of effort. (Ronon, bless him, would have looked just as he did now -- hung over.) But McKay didn't look annoyed and Teyla didn't look like she was going to take out her frustration on Sheppard the next time they had stick-fighting practice. Teyla and McKay were both hovering and that had all of Lorne's alarm bells ringing louder than did the fact that all four went straight to the infirmary, do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not bitch and moan until Weir comes out of her office to remind everyone that even department heads are subject to the same safety regulations as everyone else.

Lorne was unsurprised when Sheppard came into his office a couple of days later to tell him that he would have to take the next mission.

"Not feeling well," Sheppard said, not quite meeting his eyes.

"There's a bug going around the barracks," Lorne agreed, knowing that there hadn't been a single marine at sick call for the last three days.

The AAR for PSX-111 remained unfiled for more than a month, which in itself wasn't that outrageous -- Lorne was at least that far behind on his own mission-related paperwork and he was the conscientious one in Atlantis's senior military command. But it was the fact that the supplementary material (i.e., McKay's report) had been submitted that caused him to finally act. He yanked the report out of the compressed file meant for the databurst under the pretext that nobody submitted supporting material when the main file wasn't attached (true enough) and that to do so made Sheppard look bad (also true enough). But it turned out that the real reason was that it wasn't so much that the report existed, but instead what it said. For all of his superior education and well-advertised intellect, McKay was just as well-intentioned and just as bad at papering over the truth as Ford had been.

Lorne printed out the relevant documents before going down to the labs, figuring he might need the physical evidence since his attempts to win McKay over with logic and reasoning had historically not gone well.

"Got a minute?" Lorne asked when he found McKay -- mostly by following the shouting -- in one of the more out-of-the-way labs.

McKay gave him a look that implied he'd asked a very, very stupid question. "Does it look like I have a minute?" he asked, voice rising. He gestured toward the lab table and the three engineers jostling each other for space to hide behind it. "I turned my back for thirty seconds and those three stooges nearly blew up the city. If I left them alone for a whole minute, they'd take out the planet."

A quick look over at the trio in question showed that, buried under the terror of their current situation, all three remembered that McKay had singlehandedly blown up a solar system. And not one of them was going to mention it.

"Well, then," Lorne replied easily, since neither irony nor reminders of disaster past would be appreciated at this juncture, "when you have time today. It's about the files for PSX-111."

McKay turned back to the trio of quivering engineers. "Go. Get lost. And if I find you near any machine more complicated than a lever, I will have you on repair duties until the next time Earth's and Atlantis's calendars coincide."

Which Lorne knew would be never. And the scientists knew that, too. They scrambled toward the door, not caring why they had earned the reprieve.

Once the lab door had swooshed closed, McKay turned to him, a look of mild curiosity on his face. Idly, Lorne wondered if anyone bought that look, since instead of actually looking mildly curious, McKay looked like he was on the edge of a bad acid trip.

"Is there a problem with the formatting?" McKay asked. "I know that the Air Force has eighty thousand forms for everything, but as a civilian, I've never bothered to--"

"It's not the formatting," Lorne cut him off, since this would go a lot easier if they cut the crap. "You've been flaunting that regulation for years; I'm not about to drag my ass down here for that."

"Oh." McKay was dropping the wide-eyed-and-innocent in favor of a more defensive posture. "Well, then what did you drag... what is the problem, then?"

Lorne unfolded the papers in his hand, laying them down on the table next to them. "The problem is that in addition to trying to submit a report in lieu of the mission commander's official AAR, your report makes reference to incidents of which there is no official documentation."

McKay's eyes stayed glued to the papers on the table, but he didn't reach for them. Finally, he looked up, chin out in defiance. "I have submitted plenty of AARs and there's never been a problem, Major. Colonel Sheppard has managed to get himself incapacitated enough times that it's been necessary before and undoubtedly will be so again. I don't see what the difficulty is this time."

Lorne took a deep breath before replying. It would be pointless to get pissy with each other since they were essentially on the same side performing the same task.

"The problems are this, Doc," he began, ready to tick them off on his fingers. "First, any time the mission commander doesn't submit the primary paperwork, red flags go up back at the Mountain. Which means that whatever documentation is submitted will be scrutinized. Which makes everything you say -- and don't say -- very important."

McKay inhaled as if to start arguing, so Lorne pressed on. The key to verbal combat with McKay was to not let him get started.

"Which leads on to the second problem: you don't actually say that Colonel Sheppard was incapacitated in any way, which is the past pattern for you doing the paperwork. It makes it look like you're covering for Sheppard, which you are, but it makes it look like you're doing so because he's being remiss, which we both know is exactly the sort of ammunition the SGC is hoping to collect. And, in this case, is also blatantly untrue."

McKay's defiance bled out of him like a tire with a slow leak. Lorne saved the feeling of victory for later.

"Third," he went on, "the aforementioned references to undocumented incidents. You're pretty good with the segueing from the invite to dinner into what sort of agriculture is on PSX-111 instead of even hinting at whatever actually went on at the meal. Everyone at the SGC knows to read that as 'something mildly embarrassing, but with no lasting consequences and it's not worth asking about.' You'd be good up to there, but you made the fatal mistake of going in to too much detail. Instead of leaving well enough alone and concluding that they have no crops we're interested in, you explained why Atlantis shouldn't trade for their primary fruit crop because it had previously been determined by Sheppard to be a serious allergen."

"It's true," McKay said, not bothering with any real force behind his defensiveness.

"I know it's true," Lorne agreed. "And so will they, which is how by coupling that with points One and Two, it's a short hop to concluding that Sheppard was again affected by whatever he'd been allergic to the first time. And that's where the trouble comes: anyone looking up that incident will have no trouble finding it. Which really could be anyone, from the medical researchers to the botanists to the anthropologists to bird colonels interested in horning in on the job the next time Sheppard's OER is due."

McKay didn't say a word, just closed his eyes. He knew as well as Lorne did that anything involving toxins of any sort, from exposure to allergens to accidental poisonings, got written up and generally had a low classification level precisely so that it could be widely read.

"And thus not only will they be able to tell that Sheppard was the only one affected by the allergen the first time," Lorne pressed on, because it never hurt to reinforce the obvious with McKay, "but also, if they do do any following up, they'll note that despite the limited exposure, the infirmary was full for a week after the incident."

Lorne hadn't even known that there had been an incident until he'd done his own casual research. No fancy Google-fu, just following the embedded links to see where things led. And they'd led to something that had been expertly covered up by hiding it in plain sight.

"More than a half-dozen marines suddenly needing care for non-trivial training injuries is hard to hide when the entire force is as small as it was the first year," Lorne explained. "Sheppard and Ford would never have pushed the marines so hard that such a significant percentage of the unit was either operating at reduced capacity or completely incapacitated.

"'Training injury' being a handy euphemism for everything nobody wants to confess to and someone as lethal as Sheppard simultaneously being treated for a food allergy that causes hallucinations and memory loss? Instead of letting everyone believe that six months into the expedition Sheppard took some bad shrooms and saw Elvis, you just told them that he had a psychotic episode and took out a quarter of the marines before it was over. And that it happened again when you were off-world last month."

McKay opened his eyes and reached out for the papers on the table. In addition to McKay's AAR, Lorne had brought down a copy of the original report on the citric acid laden strawberries, the summary brief of infirmary events for the week Sheppard had been exposed to them, and last month's medical brief, which had a charmingly pithy line from Beckett about Sheppard running into an old allergen and that Ronon Dex seemed to be immune to it (as Teyla Emmagan had been).

"Nothing happened this time," McKay said in a quiet voice, looking over the papers just enough to see what they were before putting them back down. "We figured it out in time. Not enough for the symptoms to be avoided, but... nothing happened. He didn't hurt anyone. Or himself."

Lorne knew that that was an extremely simplified version of what had happened on PSX-111 that night, but he nodded anyway. And as much as he trusted Sheppard, it was something he needed to hear if he was going to be complicit in the cover up. He had no doubt that Teyla and McKay (and Ronon, if he in fact remembered any of it) would cover for far more than a simple night of debauchery gone wrong. Loyalty to teammates went that deep, deeper if you went through as much shit as Sheppard's group had over the years. They'd protect him from anything they could. Whoever had covered up the initial episode had done well. (Lorne's guess was Weir, since while Sheppard had the skill to pull it off, he didn't have the slippery kind of ethics that would allow him to cover up the threat he presented to the rest of the expedition.)

"Did this go out in the databurst yesterday?" McKay asked, meeting Lorne's eyes for the first time.

"I pulled it when I was reviewing the compilation table of contents," Lorne said. "Nothing from that mission went through."

A simple nod from McKay, one that belied the way his entire body seemed to sag with relief. "What happens now?"

"Depends on if Sheppard is going to write his own report," Lorne replied.

McKay shook his head no. Lorne didn't know if that was informed speculation on McKay's part or if they'd discussed it at all. He didn't pretend to understand the relationship between those two, although he had his suspicions and, frankly, couldn't care less.

"If you want, I'll edit this into something less remarkable," Lorne offered, since this was the other half of what he'd came down to do. The primary objective had been to make McKay aware of the fact that AARs got read differently than did scientific reports and more care had to be taken. Lorne didn't read all of Sheppard's mission reports, didn't read any of them unless it was needed for something else or if Sheppard asked him to, and couldn't act as filter with any sort of regularity or diligence. The secondary objective had been to make this particular problem go away. "I can ghost-write an AAR for Sheppard, but you're harder to fake."

A quirk of McKay's lips, then an actual smile. "I'd appreciate your assistance."

"I'll send you the revised copy when I finish it." With both objectives thus met, Lorne didn't really have anything else to say, so he picked up the pile of papers and took his leave.


He turned back.

"Thank you."

The first rule of SG-style AARs was that there were no SG-style AARs. "Aliens or no aliens, you write up a report just like you did back in Big Air Force," they were all told when they started. "You write down everything since that's how you and your readers are going to learn from your experiences."

The second rule of SG-style AARs was to ignore what you were told when you started. Dignity got impugned often enough and the hazards of the job took too many good men from gate teams as it was; there was no reason to give the SGC the same opportunities. And so while there were some details that had to be included -- anything to do with the Goa'uld and anything to do with technology being right on top --there were plenty of other details that really didn't need to be recorded for posterity. Up to and including glossing entirely over such basics as actions taken to procure either information about the Goa'uld or any sort of technology. Especially if such actions were counter to standing orders for all US Armed Forces personnel and concerned actions while in uniform. (General Hammond was, within reason, open to informal briefs -- but he really didn't want to know all of the particulars of the ceremony by which you married your teammates in order to be considered an adult by the indigenous population.)

The third rule of SG-style AARs was that speculation had a greater entertainment value than factual information. Answer what you had to, but leave the rest to the peanut gallery, which would inevitably come up with a better story than whatever the truth was.

The fourth rule of SG-style AARs was that senior command knew the first three rules as well as the gate team officers did and practiced go-along-to-get-along just like their subordinates. They covered your ass because one day you were going to have to cover theirs.

feed me on LJ?

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19 May, 2007