by Domenika Marzione


The email came unadorned except for a bland 'FYI' type line or two from Lorne, which meant that:

(a) Lorne wanted to make sure that John actually saw the email. He'd been CC'ed on the original and hadn't needed Lorne's forward... except maybe he did because he hadn't realized that he'd been CC'ed on the original until he'd seen his name in the forwarded headers;

(b) Lorne wanted to talk about it in person, since by this point John could read volumes into his XO's understatement;

(c) Marines were batshit insane, which wasn't news either in general or in the context of the ones in John's care, but was still a concept being reinforced here.

(a) and (b) might have direct relationships to (c). Although Lorne knew better than anyone else what sort of character the Marine Corps cultivated, so this was probably a request for guidance in shaping that insanity toward a more productive end.

"Mad Matt's at it again?" John asked, leaning against Lorne's doorway.

Polito wasn't the sole author of the war games exercise -- there were touches that could only have come from Radner and Hanzis -- but he was the driving creative force. And that he'd gotten the other two captains to contribute was a testament to their unity of vision for what Atlantis's marines should be doing. As well as a warning sign that John better think long and hard before agreeing to it.

"Apparently," Lorne answered, looking up and grimacing.

John took that as an invitation to enter and crossed the room to his favorite chair, picking up the Rubik's Cube as he sat. "It's been a rough couple of months," he began. "If the leathernecks want to go crazy, I'm inclined to let them. Within reason."

The marines had lost men -- John had lost them men. They'd been sent packing back to Earth with their tails between their legs before the job was done and then yanked back to Pegasus just as soon as they'd re-acclimated. They had spent the last few months apologizing for their sudden disappearances, for their failure to be when and where they promised to be, and rebuilding trust lost -- in two galaxies. They were frustrated and aching for a fight and if John couldn't give them one, then he could at least give them something close.

"It's their definition of 'reason' that I'm worried about," Lorne replied wryly. "This makes the Five Planet Hump look like a stroll in the park."

The proposal was extreme, even by crazy-ass Marine standards. A list of planets, scenarios, enemies (many), allies (few), and resources gave them possibilities of sieges, betrayals, ambushes, hostage situations, rescues, and the rare chance to emerge unscathed. It was a quick and brutal tour of all of the various ways Pegasus could kill you -- the ways Pegasus had already tried to kill them, with varying degrees of success. John didn't think anyone in Little Tripoli had actually forgotten the lessons, but he also understood, as did Lorne, why they wanted to reinforce them.

"I think the control room scenario was really just there for wishful thinking," John said and Lorne cocked an eyebrow. "I hope."

Elizabeth got pissed off every time they practiced the Enemy In the Gate Room drill; she hated being forced into her office and kept under guard, out of danger and thus also out of the loop. (The control room engineers got cranky and pissy, too, but John didn't care about them and Rodney always ended their stream of complaints with "Would you rather die?") Elizabeth went along with it because she had no choice, but he didn't see her agreeing to an extra three go-rounds just to keep the marines amused. Six times a year was enough.

"We could probably clear A-sector for them if they really want," Lorne mused, tapping the eraser end of his pencil on the papers on his desk. John suspected he'd printed out the entire proposal, which included Powerpoint slides of maps and graphs and photos. "I don't know how they'd get from there to the stargate without stampedes through the gate room, though."

"There's enough here otherwise," John said. "I say we kibosh the Atlantis scenarios -- we can do some elaborate city defense drill later on -- and maybe see if they can live without getting the Daedalus involved because I don't think Caldwell's forgiven us for the scavenger hunt yet ."

Caldwell would probably approve of the Goa'uld thing if (when) he heard about it, but John wasn't sure he wanted to take another chance with Caldwell facing most of Atlantis's marines while they were armed with Wraith stunners.

"Yeah," Lorne agreed. "And the temptation not to exact revenge may be too much for the crew."

Especially after the weapons officer got zapped with a stunner during one of the exercises.

"I won't admit it in front of the Three Stooges, but I'm impressed with the proposal," John said. "Not in the least at what they got shipped here for it."

Water cannons, experimental crowd control weapons, and a few other items that John couldn't believe the SGC had coughed up when they still wouldn't send drone weapons.

"It's like that episode of MASH with Radar and the Jeep," Lorne chuckled.

John nodded. "We should at least let them use it. Preferably not on us."

"You've got to be kidding me," Elizabeth said as soon as they sat down. "Pain rays?"

"The marines'll love it," John assured her, settling down and preparing to weather the worst of the storm. "We'll have to ration time with it, like we do with the other cool toys."

That didn't seem to have the placating effect John was hoping for. In fact, Elizabeth's eyebrows went up even further.

"It's been tested many times, ma'am," Lorne said in his most soothing voice. "It's safer than most everything else they have to play with in Little Tripoli and we really don't have anything else we can use for a Replicators scenario."

Elizabeth looked at Lorne skeptically, the way she did when she was sure he was covering for John but couldn't prove it.

"And it's already here," John added. Pragmatism usually got him points.

"So are the Wraith," Elizabeth shot back. "I don't see you using them."

"Actually, on Page Eight...." John trailed off with a grin. "Seriously, Elizabeth, it'll be a useful teaching tool. You have to train as you fight and we can't safely reproduce most of the hazards the marines will face in this galaxy. This is something new, something that they can't anticipate, and it'll be effective for what we need it to be."

Elizabeth took a deep breath, but when she didn't immediately say anything, John knew he'd won that point. She may have thought that he gave the marines entirely too much rope to hang themselves, but she also knew that he would give them whatever training advantages they could get and she trusted him on that score.

"Does this mean that you won't be using the Wraith stunners again?" she finally asked.

"Um, no, ma'am," Lorne replied. "A Wraith ambush is going to be included in all three rounds of the exercise."

The plan was to run the exercise three times, each company alternately running the gauntlet, being the gauntlet, and staying back in Atlantis to protect the city and see to regular duties. The exercise would change each time, to avoid any advantages gained by repetition, but there would be constants in each iteration and the Wraith would be one of them. John was looking forward to taking the Dart they'd acquired out for another spin or three.

"It says here you're making this a joint training mission?" Elizabeth tapped the Page Down key and she skimmed the screen.

"Yeah," John confirmed. "We figure this'll be a good experience for the Ipetians -- Valarn wants his people to have a little more hands-on practice and we weren't able to do the annual shindig because we were on Earth, so..."

They'd been training the Ipetian militia almost from the beginning and the marines liked working with the Ipetians, who had the necessary ethic if not the skill with technology that John didn't think any of them had really understood until it wasn't there.

"And the Athosians?" Elizabeth prompted.

"The Athosians are reprising their roles as bad guys, ma'am," Lorne answered. "Halling's choice. The armorers are trying to graft paintball pellets on to rubberized arrow tips for them to go hunting marines."

Elizabeth smiled slightly and John grinned in response, remembering Polito's giddy glee at the possibility of an army of Green Arrows.

"Everyone else will have guest starring roles, depending on which scenarios we're using," Lorne went on.

"So I saw," Elizabeth said. "Some of the... assignments... seem to strike a little close to home."

John looked down, pretending that he didn't know that Elizabeth was watching him. Most of them had come from his experiences, but that was both completely irrelevant and very much the point.

"That was intentional, ma'am," Lorne said, maybe a touch louder than necessary. "It's the most effective way to evaluate if we handled situations in the best possible way."

"I don't see Pheobus or Thalan -- or their analogs -- on the list," Elizabeth said questioningly.

"It was conflated with the Goa'uld and my adventures with the Ancients," Lorne answered with an even tone. "A sort of general 'compromised element of the senior command' scenario."

"We certainly have a wealth of examples to choose from," Elizabeth murmured sourly. "I'm going to assume that you have medical protocols covered, yes?"

"Beckett and Safir are both involved," John confirmed. "We'll have a medical station on every planet and every platoon's got a corpsmen now, so we're not anticipating anything weirder than usual."

The worst usually involved sprains, strains, the occasional broken bone, dehydration, and a half-dozen allergic reactions. All were avoidable to some degree and successfully doing so was part of the exercise.

"Is Doctor Safir participating again?"

Yoni had usually gotten dragged into these things because they were short of medics, but now that they'd brought back a dozen corpsmen, Yoni's involvement beyond vetting the medical business was because the marines wanted him there and he wanted to do it.

"Yes, ma'am," Lorne replied cheerfully. "Capacity to be determined. But I'm sure they'll come up with something good."

Carson had offered a few suggestions, each more unflattering than the last.

Elizabeth grimaced. "I know I'm going to end up regretting this," she sighed, holding up her hand to forestall protests. "But go ahead, have fun, and make sure to leave the scientists alone."

Round One: Prey

Lorne stumbled through the stargate, nearly tripping on the step right in front. He balanced himself before the marine next to him could reach out to steady him and trudged down the rest of the stairs without further incident.

Eriksson, who once upon a time had been the junior lieutenant in Atlantis but now was the senior one in his company, was already ordering marines around, setting up a perimeter and security sweeps because running into the Wraith on three planets would be just their luck.

"Well, that sucked donkey balls," a sergeant said to no one in particular.

They'd been out for three days so far and had met four of the seven objectives, which put them slightly ahead of schedule despite losing half a day on the hazard known as "Ancient Database Doesn't Know Shit, Sir" and having to give up on that planet's objective. They'd also ran into the "Wraith" twice, losing a dozen marines in the first assault (Sheppard piloting a Wraith dart was as dangerous as Sheppard playing Wraith Queen on the ground) and then three in the second, a ground attack with Teyla as Wraith Queen and Lieutenant Salker's platoon as her nimble henchmen. There'd been a mass bout of dysentery (thankfully simulated) after drinking stream water that hadn't been purified by their iodine tablets, a march through snow that had produced two ankle sprains and one case of hypothermia, a couple of 30km rucks over uneven ground (the same times two, minus the hypothermia), and nearly losing a second objective because Booger (Lorne didn't think anyone actually called him Sergeant Beauregard anymore) was the only naturally ATA-positive marine left in Bravo Company and he had poor 'fine motor skills' when it came to Ancient technology while Lorne had the control but not the ability.

Overall, Lorne thought that they were doing pretty well.

He said as much to Radner, who'd had to be carried through the gate after getting zapped by a Wraith stunner on the last planet.

"It's not as much of a goat rodeo as last time, sir," Radner agreed with a sour expression that had very little to do with his attempts to regain feeling and movement in his limbs. First Sergeant Wrubelski stayed nearby, not trusting Radner to sit up alone and not wanting to delegate the responsibility to anyone else. "But right now I'm still down fifteen marines and we've got twice that in walking wounded."

Not much to say to that, so Lorne didn't, instead turning to go find Eriksson, who was standing with Osgeny and Kagan.

The security sweeps were reporting nothing, the lieutenants told him. Lorne pulled out his own Ancient PDA (rather than risk Booger blowing up his) to find no life signs and no unusual energy readings and he felt comfortable declaring the planet safe -- at least from Wraith or other hostile beings. Which in turn meant that they could settle in for a much-needed breather. Lorne ached in ways he usually associated with missions gone seriously off the rail -- bone-deep exhaustion, bruises, the twinge in his arm from where he'd been shot last year. The marines around him were mostly a decade younger and were all in better shape, but they were still looking worn down, too. They had lost most of a night running between planets the first time they'd escaped the Wraith, had been unable and unwilling to call a halt in the frozen tundra, and been woken up early by a deluge on the last safe haven. Everyone was short of sleep, short of temper, and more prone to mistakes that would cost dearly -- in time, in manpower, in safety. The platoon sergeants were more vigilant than usual as a result.

The wounded marines -- Radner hadn't been the only one zapped, plus the outstanding injuries from the marathon treks -- were all being tended to by corpsmen and their fellows, but nobody was in so bad a shape that an evac to Atlantis would be required.

Lorne made his way back to Radner, who had progressed to standing, wobbly as a new colt, under a corpsman's watchful eye. "How long do you want to stay?"

"Don't think we have much more than eight to spare, sir," Radner replied with a grimace and then a glare at Wrubelski, who was hovering nearby. "If we want to get on to M3V-4Q5 before dawn, we can't be more than ten hours here."

"Agreed," Lorne said with a nod. It was more or less what he'd decided on his own. Eight hours of rest for the group would be two shifts of four hours. "I'll take first shift, you'll get the tail end."

Radner looked to protest and Lorne cocked an eyebrow. They both knew that Radner needed the rest more immediately and that Lorne would make it an order if he had to.

"Aye aye, sir," he sighed and Lorne nodded. He left Radner to summon his lieutenants and conduct company business and went back to where he'd stowed his pack, digging out the rest of the MRE he'd started to eat... earlier. A couple of planets ago, at least. He sat down to pour water into the chemical heater because he didn't think he had enough coordination at this point to do it standing. What entree it was was almost academic (almost; he'd have pulled rank to escape the Country Captain chicken) and he chewed without regard for anything but the fact that it was warm and the wet sawdust texture made for more substantive chewing. Around him, marines were doing the same -- the injured had been seen to and the rest was wary exhaustion that four hours of prospective slumber would only dull and not cure.

The scenarios were intentionally made to be as difficult -- if not more so -- than a typical mission in the field, either for a platoon or an off-world team. And it was mishap after mishap with few breaks (except where they made them) and no warning. Lorne had seen every scenario, as had the captains who had dreamt them up, but that was no help -- which ones were chosen and how they were to be enacted (and by whom) was decided by others. With both Sheppard and himself in the field, the decisions had fallen to the company commander left in charge of the military in Atlantis. In this round, that meant Polito and Lorne was sure that that meant that they were in for one hell of a time for the four days left to them to complete their objective list.

After the lieutenants finished with Radner and the orders filtered down to grunt level, there was murmured discussion about who was sleeping first and who was too wounded to stand guard (no one; if there was any action to be had, everyone would be getting their asses up anyway). Lorne finished eating and took out his cup to draw some of the water that the marines were boiling. He made himself cocoa instead of coffee (save that for after he slept) and sipped it as he wandered around the camp, greeting marines and asking after injuries and laughing at crappy jokes. It was a subdued affair -- practice or not, they had still lost more than a dozen comrades (knowing that Sheppard was driving the Dart didn't make the sight of watching marines disappear before their eyes any less of a nauseating shock) and understood that things were going to get much worse before they got better.

The four hours passed uneventfully. First Sergeant Wrubelski signaled the changing of the guard and Lorne fell asleep as soon as he settled down against his pack.

"Hello, nurse!"

"She's a doctor, retard."

"It's from the Animaniacs! Didn't you ever watch that?"

"It's from Vaudeville, actually. It got appropriated by Animaniacs."

"Sir, were you serious when you asked us to warn you when you were being a dork in public?"

Lorne, walking a few meters behind the unintentional comedy routine, smiled as Kagan gave his marines the stink-eye. He couldn't see what they were talking about -- or rather who -- but he could take a wild guess from context and have it be confirmed by the murmuring about Doctor Clayton dressed like a serving wench. A few of the Bravo marines had been around since the initial expedition and Staff Sergeant Laganzo was reminding his squad that just because there was a hot chick in a dress didn't mean that she couldn't kick their asses.

Lorne caught Radner's gaze as they found each other before going to face whatever scenario Clayton represented. There had been civilians who had volunteered (or, as in the case of certain members of the Science Division, been volunteered) for participation in the exercises and Clayton was one of them. What scenario this could be was not really determined by the civilian participants -- Clayton could certainly manage to pull off a Sora routine and several of the other volunteers were former military and/or adventurous types.

"Here's hoping they just want to feed us," Radner muttered as they put on their best smiles and went to go greet the natives.

"Howdy and welcome," Clayton said with a big smile and a bigger sweep of her arm. "What brings you to Alabamastan?"

There was a muffled explosion of mirth behind Lorne; he, too, needed a second to maintain his composure. He took a deep breath, wiped the tear of stifled amusement from his left eye with the back of his glove and started into Friendly Explorer Speech #2 (#1 being the one with 'bring us to your leader' and #3 containing 'no, really, we're just armed for our own protection'). After he got to the part about seeking allies against the Wraith and trading partners, Clayton gave him another cheerful smile and encouraged him to come and meet their headman.

"I don't mean to be rude, sir," she said, pausing to bite her lip nervously. "But I fear that so many armed men coming in to our village might cause a bit of a panic. We've never seen an army so large -- have you left no one behind to tend to your families and crops? -- and, well..."

Lorne looked behind him at the sea of combat-clad marines. He'd been looking at the same faces for four days and was used to the picture, but part of him still retained the ability to see things from an outsider's perspective and that was a different image altogether. More than five dozen large, dirty men with heavy weapons and heavier loads and, with the initial surprise of the actors gone, nary a smile in sight. It was at best a little menacing, Lorne could easily grant. But this was Pegasus -- and this, in particular, was Pegasus distilled down to its rawest parts -- and Lorne was not inclined to eschew safety completely for the sake of a trade agreement. (The agreement could very well be the objective for this planet; it was a scenario.)

"I understand," he said in his smoothest placating voice. "Captain?"

Radner nodded and stepped away with a short bow to Clayton.

"Joker One, come forward," Lorne could hear him say over the radio. "Joker Two and Three, you are to stay out here and on radio. Be ready for anything. This could be all kissyface or it could be something else."

Movement and shuffling among the marines as Osgeny brought his platoon up and Eriksson and Kagan gathered their men.

"You'll excuse us if we bring some of our men with us," Lorne told Clayton. "They get nervous when we wander off on our own."

A glint in Clayton's eye as she nodded and Lorne thought she understood that that was no convenient lie.

The walk to the village of Alabamastan (Lorne had no idea who'd named these places; they'd already had the pleasure of being chased out of Whoville) was maybe half a kilometer. Clayton filled the time with questions that both probed their defenses -- or, rather Lorne's, since he was the one answering -- while simultaneously setting up the scene for the rest of the visit.

Lorne wasn't worried about saying anything he shouldn't; evading and outright lying by both omission and commission came easily enough after all of these years. Lorne was more concerned that Radner and the lieutenants -- Osgeny with them and Eriksson and Kagan over the radio -- listened and learned, both to what he and Clayton were saying (and how they were saying it) as well as what neither of them were saying. Talking to locals while on deployments on Earth was nothing new to any of them, but while everyone on Earth could see the flag on your right shoulder and know where you were from, hiding the existence and abilities of Atlantis was both more challenging and more crucial here in Pegasus.

The first "villagers" they saw were Doctor Abelard with a pitchfork and Doctor Rosmanova leading a cow toward a pasture. They stopped and stared appropriately. Lorne gave his most harmless smile in return, taking comfort in the familiarity of being the star of the traveling circus.

Clayton led them to a small farmhouse and it was absolutely a testament to both their professionalism and the way they'd subsumed themselves into the scenario that they didn't lose it completely when they got there.

"Howdy strangers," Yoni said from the doorway, emphasizing the hairball sound at the beginning even though he usually tried to eliminate that part of his accent. "Welcome to our village. To what do we owe such a momentous occasion?"

Clayton introduced them, repeating the salient parts of what Lorne had told her, and Yoni nodded thoughtfully. "We are always interested in trade and we most gratefully encourage anyone who dares to fight the Wraith. You have the look of serious intent about you and I am flattered that you seek us out to aid your cause."

"They have twice this many men waiting near the Ring," Clayton piped up. Lorne had been hoping that that wouldn't come up, but it was no big deal.

"They do?" Yoni mused. "All the more welcome are they. We shall send refreshment to them, if that is acceptable to you."

"Of course," Lorne said, knowing something was afoot and not being able to place what it was. "That is very generous."

If Lorne had been here with his own team, he'd only have had to nod in Ortilla's direction to make it clear that he wanted nobody off alone, nobody out of contact, and everyone on full alert. And Ortilla would have made it happen because this would have raised his hackles, too; his entire team would have been able to read his intent as well as he could read their moods. But this wasn't his team and Lorne could only hope that Radner and Wrubelski were on wavelengths near to his own. Because he knew that Yoni, for all of his feigned inattention and unfeigned irritation with the drudgery of diplomacy, understood his thoughts and instincts and that that understanding would be used against him the way Sheppard had used his knowledge of marine tactics to scoop so many men with the Dart.

"Sir, we should let the men know that hospitality is on its way," Wrubelski said to Radner in a low voice. When Lorne looked over, he could tell that his concerns were shared. "Don't want them thinking it's something not so nice."

Radner met Lorne's glance; he, too, sensed a trap. It wasn't that hard to grasp -- Yoni wasn't trying to be that subtle, instead banking on their past experiences to make them edgy and lead them into actions they wouldn't otherwise take.

"Do that please, First Sergeant," Lorne said, turning back to Yoni. "We've had some unpleasant surprises in the past, you see. It's better to be safe than sorry."

"Of course," Yoni said, smiling magnanimously as Wrubelski moved away.

Yoni led them around to the rear of farmhouse, where there was a wooden table and benches not unlike a picnic table from Earth and several bales of hay. Clayton tagged along, flirting outrageously with Osgeny, who was handling it with more politeness than actual grace. Much to the amusement of his marines.

"Please, sit," Yoni exhorted and Lorne, Radner, and Wrubelski did. Clayton looped her arm around Osgeny's elbow to drag him toward them, but he held his ground long enough to ensure that his gunny was settling the marines on hay bales and the one low bench behind the house.

"Sirs," Osgeny muttered as he sat down, wincing slightly when Clayton (and her much-more-on-display-than-usual cleavage) squeezed next to him.

"Buck up, Lieutenant," Radner told him with laughter in his eyes. "It's why you became a marine in the first place."

What followed was a chess match. From years of watching, Yoni knew Lorne's weak points of negotiating, knew what topics he tried to avoid, knew which rote answers he gave that couldn't stand up to logical parsing. And he exploited all of them within the bounds of his role of leader of a village ignorant of Atlantis. Or, at least, ignorant that Atlantis had been re-inhabited since Yoni and Clayton seemed to know all about the home of the Ancestors. (Most of it was accurate, even, and the rest was the sort of wacky exaggeration that could be expected after ten thousand years of story-telling -- or too many viewings of Xanadu in Little Tripoli.)

Alabamastan was modeled on one of those very devout worlds they came across with surprising frequency considering the Ancients had abandoned the galaxy to the Wraith ten thousand years ago. The Ipetians weren't with them on this round, but Valarn and his militia would have found kindred spirits in the frequent references and open reverence for the Ancestors and their works. It made Lorne relieved that Booger was still on the outskirts of town and he tried to tamp down his own sensitivity to Ancient tech. The last thing they wanted was to be stuck here with people who sought to either idolize or utilize these descendants of the Ancients who had stumbled through their stargate.

Yoni, of course, knew that, too. The team fussed about Lorne and especially Reletti in those potential situations, especially after they'd been kidnapped for that purpose by the Genii. That, too, was on the list of possible scenarios, but there were too many other plausible choices here -- including the fact that Alabamastan was harmless and simply 'unintentionally' making them nervous -- to wed themselves to a course of action even as Clayton waxed rhapsodic about her hopes that the sons of the Ancestors would come to defeat their ancient enemy and wouldn't it be wonderful if they were those men.

In between questions both subtle and not about their knowledge of (and devotion to) the Ancestors, Yoni asked more practical questions -- what did they have to trade, what were they interested in trading for, how did they hope to defeat the Wraith, have they had any success so far -- that Lorne and Radner took turns answering. For someone who occasionally had to be elbowed to stay awake during these sessions, Yoni was pretty good at them and Lorne made a mental note to utilize that later on. He wasn't the only one exposed here.

While they talked, Athosian children ran around, a couple of the youngest settling themselves on and near Yoni's lap because that's what they always did when they saw Yoni. A very serious Jinto, not quite old enough to be part of Halling's Merry Men, served them fruit and juice while a not-very-serious Marta took a page out of Clayton's playbook and flirted as she did the same for Osgeny's marines. Osgeny kept looking over his shoulder to make sure nothing untoward was happening, but Lorne (and everyone else) had heard Gunny Jenkins growling at the marines to pretend she was wearing a burqa and had a lot of brothers and so nothing came of Marta's overtures.

After a couple of hours of back-and-forth questions and evasions, they had a trade agreement pretty much worked out. It was a more complicated version of the usual 'starter' agreement -- the kind that was small-scale until both sides could prove they would be able to meet the terms, at which point it was extended and expanded. Yoni knew where Lorne's limits were and tried to bluster past them, but Lorne really had been doing this for longer than anyone else at the table combined and came away giving up no more than he was comfortable giving.

"Very well," Yoni said, slapping one hand on the table, the other occupied holding the sleeping girl in his lap upright. "Your tenacity speaks well of your people, Major. Let us now give thanks to the Ancestors for allowing this propitious meeting between our two worlds."

Lorne did not glare at Yoni, who hated these ceremonies with a passion.

Marta, perhaps finally convinced that her wiles would get her no attention from the marines, brought over a pitcher of what turned out to be local wine. Lorne, as he always did, politely requested water to dilute the wine, explaining with much apology that it was against their custom and creed for soldiers to partake otherwise. (It was against regs to partake at all, but practically speaking it was more important not to offend the host.)

"Of course," Yoni replied, snapping his fingers and gesturing. Jinto appeared with a fresh pitcher as Marta was carefully pouring blood-colored wine into elegant metal goblets. "I hope that you return here when you are not 'on duty' so that you may enjoy our wine in its fullness. We have had exceptional results the past few years and they only improve with age."

When the goblets were filled with water, Marta poured the rest of the wine into the water pitcher and brought it over to the marines, perhaps to try again or maybe just to annoy Jinto, who'd been waiting to do just that. After everyone was served, Yoni made a surprisingly eloquent and entirely too-long spiel to the Ancestors (Lorne's team had a whole points system for references made during these sorts of speeches and Yoni seemed determined to break all scoring records) and then they drank. The mixture was far less sweet than Lorne would have expected -- Pegasus was too often a White Zin and Muscatel kind of place -- but Yoni hated sweet drinks and had probably insisted on something else.

They finished their goblets over more benign conversation -- now that the measuring-up was done, both sides could relax a little -- and Lorne was starting to wonder when the chit that signified a met objective would be presented. It was turning out to be a pretty warm day after a pleasantly cool morning and if this was their softball challenge, he would be happy to take it and move on. Perhaps sensing his eagerness, Yoni started with the informal rituals of departure and they rose from the table.

Radner stumbled a bit as they started to walk around to the front of the farmhouse, but whether it was from the wine hitting him (Lorne could feel a very slight buzz, but nothing he'd call tipsy) or some residual effect of the stunner blast he'd taken (clumsiness lingered far after the worst effects of the shot dissipated), it was hard to tell. Lorne gave Wrubelski a questioning look, but the first sergeant shrugged back and he didn't think anything of it until he heard a whispered "sir!" behind him and turned. Osgeny was standing still and unsteady, his eyes closed and skin pale.

"You eat something you shouldn't have, lieutenant?" Lorne asked, concerned as Wrubelski called over for First Platoon's corpsman. The line between playing out the scenario and breaking character to tend to Osgeny was fine, but not as fine as it had to be with both Yoni and Clayton right there. Neither of them were looking professionally concerned, however, and Lorne would have happily let Doc (all corpsmen were Doc, which tended to offend the Ph.D-bearing scientists more than the folks in Medical) tend to the now-sitting Osgeny except... except that neither Yoni nor Clayton were looking any kind of concerned. They were looking expectant. And Lorne was starting to feel something that he knew wasn't worry.

"Oh, fuck," he muttered. Not this again. As the first wave of nausea hit -- strong enough to have him biting his tongue to keep from vomiting -- he reached for his radio to warn Eriksson and Kagan. But all he got was static. Osgeny's marines were around them now, rifles drawn and blinking against the dizziness.

Lorne looked at Yoni, who gave him a smile that was perfectly wolfish. "We know who you are, Lanteans."

And that was the last thing he saw before he passed out.

When he came to, it was inside -- maybe the farmhouse they had been sitting behind judging by the windows he could see. He was tied to a chair by his ankles and wrists, a rope thrown around his middle for good measure. He jostled at his bonds, but they were efficient and effective and not going to budge. Marines knew their knots.

"Fuck," he muttered.

"You with us, sir?"

Lorne turned his head as far as he could and at the edges of his peripheral vision saw both Wrubelski and Osgeny, one on each side. Osgeny's head was still bowed, but Wrubelski seemed to be looking at him. It was hard to tell -- they were far enough apart and at such an angle that eye contact was impossible and even a decent look was a guarantee for eye strain. "More or less," he replied.

"Captain Radner's directly behind you, sir," Wrubelski went on. "We're all facing out from a square."

Under the circumstances, it wasn't necessarily a relief to be with the others. Lorne alone or Lorne with Booger would have been a sign that this was all about the Ancient gene, which while unpleasant (extremely) was at least limited in scope -- and left Radner and Wrubelski to manage Bravo Company toward a rescue and escape. But that it was all four of them together meant that this was about Atlantis and that never turned out well.

"We the only ones up?" Lorne asked. He felt surprisingly good all considering; he had a quick metabolism and processed drugs faster than most, although he had yet to find a good use for that trait beyond imprisonment situations.

"No, sir," Osgeny said, sounding a little hoarse. "Skipper's still out, though."

"How are you feeling, Lieutenant?" Lorne asked.

"I think I've revisited every meal since we left home, sir," Osgeny admitted wryly. "But I'm feeling better now."

Lorne smiled. It was... not comforting, but at least vaguely amusing that he'd ended up with another puker since Reletti wasn't here. "What kind of marine can't hold his liquor?"

"Out of practice, sir," Osgeny replied. "Dry expedition."

They all knew that it wasn't the alcohol and that Earth wasn't the last time Osgeny had had a drink, but going along with the joke eased the tension just a tiny little bit.

"Sir, what do they want with us?" Wrubelski asked. "And where are our marines?"

"The usual," Lorne answered with a sigh. "Where we come from, how do they get there, what we're up to. And I have no idea. Probably not too far from where we left them -- that's a lot to carry any kind of distance."

"What about mine?" Osgeny half-croaked.

"Same," Lorne said. "Although it makes sense to keep them all in one place. Depends on what kind of capabilities they have."

"And how they got the jump on two platoons," Wrubelski added. "If they drugged them, too, then why didn't they warn us? They wouldn't have all gone down at once."

"Radios were out," Radner said groggily, sounding far away from Lorne's ears.

The next steps were to see if anyone could get free or if, cumulatively, they could at least put together a picture of what sort of bindings held them. Lorne knew from past experience that it would only be a matter of time before someone came for them, either to talk or threaten or to bring them to wherever the hard sell would take place. Unfortunately, he got the order of events wrong.

So this is what it feels like, Lorne thought. His skin, from the top of his head to the bottom of his soles, felt like it was being burned, like he was lying full-body on a smoking frying pan. It was distracting and it hurt -- not the worst he'd ever felt, not by a long shot, but enough that he wanted it to stop as soon as possible and he tried to wriggle free, to tip his chair over, to do something, anything to get away from the pain. But there was nowhere to go -- the bonds held fast and the chair was bolted to the floor.

As suddenly as it started, it stopped and Lorne gasped for cool air. He opened eyes he hadn't realized he'd closed to find Yoni standing in front of him, looking at him like he was a specimen in the lab. Lorne turned to see Clayton in front of Osgeny and Abelard, sans pitchfork, in front of Wrubelski. He wondered if Rosmanova had left her cow and was by Radner or if it was someone else.

"They created you in their own image, as they did us," Yoni said in a flat voice. "But you were their beloved pets and we were merely their weapons."

"Ten thousand years ago," Lorne replied, accepting that this was the Replicator scenario and the pain ray had been in lieu of mind probing. "Kind of a long time to hold a grudge."

He'd had iterations of this discussion so many times, with both friend and foe, that the answers were almost rote by this point. Except for the fact that part of him hadn't forgiven the Ancients yet, either.

"Time does not heal all wounds," Yoni said. "What the Wraith could not finish, we will."

This part, too.

"You'll be killing innocents."

A derisive snort from Yoni and Lorne realized, all of a sudden, what most of Atlantis saw when they looked at Jonathan Safir. He'd never borne the full brunt of Yoni's ire before, never had the sharp tongue or casual derision aimed at him without Yoni holding back because they were, if not friends then something close enough. At least not before now.

"'Sins of the father' -- is that not the expression from Earth?" Yoni asked rhetorically, one eyebrow arched. "There is no position for you to argue from here. You yourself are testament to how clearly their traits have bred through -- you seek to make yourself closer to your erstwhile parents than even nature intended. Gene therapy."

Lorne shook his head. "It's not that you can't understand. It's that you won't. We just want to learn, to stop the Wraith, to save our own planet."

Yoni shook his head in disgust and left him then, followed out by Clayton, Abelard, and Rosmanova. Mental probe or not, this had been the soft sell, the warning. Next would come the actual threats, specific and scary. Lorne didn't know what would get them free here -- Sheppard and company had been sprung by a curious and softhearted Replicator they betrayed. He didn't know if that would work again.

"Everyone okay?" Lorne asked once they were alone again.

"Peachy, sir," Radner replied. "Apart from the mental probing."

"They have enough to take Atlantis, sir?" Osgeny asked.

"Maybe," he answered, suspecting that the answer was 'yes.' "I'd rather not stick around to find out."

"I'm not sure they're going to let a SAR team through, not if they've got two platoons prisoner by the gate," Wrubelski said.

There were provisions for a 'rescue', but it came with a penalty in addition to forfeiting the objective from this planet. Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that.

Lorne didn't have access to his watch, so he didn't know how long it had been since he'd passed out or how long since they'd had their little 'interrogation.' He didn't know how long they'd have to wait until the next round. The sun was on the other side of the building from their windows, so beyond being able to see that it wasn't night yet, there was little way to judge the passage of time.

While they waited for the Replicators to return, they worked on their bonds; most possible escape scenarios pretty much demanded that their hands be free and working on that had the added bonus of keeping the circulation in their arms from going completely.

Nonetheless, Lorne's fingers were still cold and tingly when the door opened and Clayton entered with a dozen marines dressed in some amalgam of cammies and Athosian clothes. She said nothing as the marines undid their bindings and led them, stumbling, into a smaller windowless room. Four covered trays and a pitcher of water were in the middle of the floor.

"You don't expect us to eat after last time, do you?" Lorne asked ruefully.

"There's nothing in it this time," Clayton replied flatly. "You are of more value to us alive than dead, so you must eat. You won't eat if we drug your food. Therefore, your food is safe."

It was dubious logic, but Lorne had nothing witty to say in return, so he said nothing. The marines emptied out of the room and they heard a lock click.

Lorne crossed to the far side of the room and sat down heavily; the others followed. "Might as well work the kinks out now," he said, rolling his wrists and flexing his elbows.

"Should we, sir?" Wrubelski asked, gesturing at the trays.

"We should probably all drink water," Lorne said. "Whatever they gave us doesn't seem to have too many aftereffects, but water never hurts. Except when it's used to drug us, but I think we're past the deception part of the program. If she said it's good, then it probably is."

Wrubelski poured four glasses of water and handed them out. They all drank and Wrubelski refilled the glasses.

"You should try to eat something, Mark," Radner told Osgeny. "See if there's some bread or something bland."

Osgeny didn't look overjoyed at the prospect, but picked up one of the tray lids hesitantly and found a roll and a pear, which he took back with him to the wall he'd been sitting against. Unlike Reletti, who usually pretended to eat, Osgeny actually did finish both.

Lorne looked at his watch. It had been five hours since they'd gotten up from the table in the back of the farmhouse. Not enough time to have triggered the rescue scenario mechanism, but they were 'overdue' and it would only be two more hours before they lost the objective and whatever else the penalty was.

Thankfully, they never got that far. About a half-hour later, when Lorne had closed his eyes and started to doze, he heard a loud noise in the distance. It sounded familiar and comforting in a way that the cacophony of a large group of marines not trying to be subtle never really was -- except if they were coming to help you.

"Hello? Major? Captain?"

"We're in here," Radner called out.

"Stay back, sir," came the warning.

Lorne dropped his head down and covered himself in a protective crouch, relieved when the door didn't shatter into thousands of high-velocity splinters. Marines -- Osgeny's, from the few faces Lorne recognized -- poured in and Lorne and the others were helped up and half-dragged from the room and then the building. Lorne was used to this part, had been since before he'd gotten to Pegasus, and rode out the sharp orders and rough treatment, bracing for the moment when he'd be left to stand on his own and everyone remembered he was the ranking officer.

When that happened, Lorne took a deep breath and a moment to savor his freedom, then thanked the grinning marine next to him.

Wrubelski greeted one of Osgeny's marines with gruff cheer nearby and Lorne watched as the big first sergeant made a big show of being just fine, of them all being just fine. "Where the fuck were you boys? Jerking off?"

"We had to shake off the mickey they slipped us, sir," GySgt Jenkins apologized to Lorne as he watched marines fall into position to move out. "They made the mistake of only taking our rifles and packs. Marines have done more with less for more than two hundred years. That, and we kind of charmed the girl a little -- Marta? She wants to come with us."

"You do realize she's a machine, right?" Lorne asked, looking around to see where Marta was. She was standing near a few marines, looking hopeful. "Her and the others?"

"Better tell her that," Jenkins said, shaking his head as he followed Lorne's glance. "A bit young for me, but the boys liked her well enough and she them."

Lorne chuffed a laugh. It was a long deployment and there weren't that many women around. The marines were pretty much fond of anyone with the right anatomy. Even if, in this case, Teyla would squash their balls with teaspoons if they so much looked at Marta the wrong way.

"We have to haul ass, sir," Jenkins warned. "Still haven't hooked up with Joker Two or Three yet and the bad guys have to notice by now that we're loose."

They started off, Jenkins keeping an eye on Osgeny, who was still pale but otherwise seemed fine, moving in the general direction of the stargate and trying to stay out of sight of a village that was a lot more populated (by Replicator marines) than it had seemed before.

Radner sent marines in search of their gear and the rest of Bravo Company as they moved out; they found the marines first -- Eriksson and Kagan and their men had managed to get free of the pen they were kept in ("they built it around us while we were out, sir") -- and then they found their gear. Marta, eager to prove her worth, led them through trees and fields toward the gate until she suddenly stopped and froze, like her battery had died. Lorne knew what this meant -- she'd been found out and rebooted -- and he yelled for the marines to haul ass double-time back to the stargate, not even bothering to return fire when the Replicators (in the form of Cardejo's platoon) chased them because they needed to save their bullets for things that would stay down when hit by them. On the DHD was the chit for meeting the objective.

They go back to the planet they had rested on and, as soon as the wormhole closed behind them, dialed Alabamastan to keep their stargate busy for 38 minutes of peace, during which they intended to figure out where the hell to go next.

The first fifteen minutes were spent sprawled indelicately on the ground, catching their breaths, drinking water, and figuring out what the hell had just happened. They would have to warn Atlantis about the compromised security, but there was precious little that could actually be done with the knowledge that the Replicators were gunning for them. At least nothing that they weren't doing already.

The next twenty-three minutes plus were spent with Lorne and Radner going off a little bit into the woods to plan the next steps -- Wrubelski hovering just far enough away to maintain plausible privacy while they wrangled out a decision they were only going to bring to him for confirmation later.

"We should have saved Hoth for later, sir," Radner said with a bemused shake of his head. "Ruck through the snow sounds like a picnic just about now."

"I'm not making any suggestions, Captain," Lorne said with a shake of his head. "Last two times you let me choose, we ended up with Wraith."

Radner smiled. "Third time's the charm, sir?"

If Dave only knew, Lorne thought to himself. "If that's the case, then it's supposed to be nice on MP4-5G3 this time of year."

MP4-5G3 was a very nice planet when it wasn't going to be used for a training exercise. Lorne had no idea what it was like now.

"Well, worse comes to worse, sir," Radner said, "it probably won't be Replicators again."

"Don't jinx me," Lorne said, turning and walking a few steps so that the noise of the zat opening wouldn't be too loud. He tried to time it with snapping a branch, but he needn't have bothered -- some mild ruckus among the marines distracted them both.

"Just a near-deer, sirs," Wrubelski said over the radio. "Told the boys to stick to their MREs."

Lorne shielded the gun from Radner's view with his body, walking back a little toward where Wrubelski was. Radner had his back to Lorne and was looking up at the sky through the trees. He sighed, but it turned into a groan when he tried to roll his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Dave," Lorne said and Radner turned, surprised by both the sentiment and the use of his first name. His eyes widened, but he didn't get a chance to say anything before Lorne shot him with the zat. Radner fell with a muffled thump, rolling down a short hill before coming to rest by the foot of a big tree, and Lorne came as close as he dared to make sure that he was out cold before turning back.

"Hey, First Sergeant!" Lorne called over his radio. "C'mere for a second, please?"

Wrubelski appeared a few moments later. "Sir?" he prompted, looking around for Radner.

"Pee break," Lorne explained, gesturing with his free hand toward where Radner had fallen. Wrubelski made a face because Radner was out of eyeshot when he shouldn't have been -- and crossed past Lorne to be a little closer. Once he was past, Lorne shot him, too, with the zat and then closed the weapon, putting it back in his tac vest pocket. Then he went back to the marines, who were all drinking water and exchanging bemused stories.

"Okay, gentlemen," he began, clapping his hands for attention. "Our timeout is over. Onward and upward. Next stop, MP4-5G3."

"Where's Captain Radner, sir?" Eriksson asked.

"Gone to explore the wonders of nature," Lorne replied with a wry grin. Everyone chuckled, getting the euphemism. Lorne looked around. "Captain Radner's the one with the cheat sheet, isn't he?"

"Yes, sir," Kagan admitted wryly.

All of the squad leaders, platoon sergeants, and lieutenants had a weirdass decoder wheel that allowed them to translate alphanumeric planetary designations into gate symbols, but Radner was the only one who had done the 'translation' for every possible planet in the exercise beforehand. Lorne had known this already, but it hadn't come up before now.

"Never say the Air Force isn't good for anything," Lorne warned them as he went to the DHD and dialed as the marines chuckled and got themselves up off of the ground and into some sort of formation. The wormhole opened and Lorne looked around.

"Lieutenant Eriksson, volunteer a scout team, please?"

Eriksson nodded and called out names. Three marines moved up and toward the wormhole, going through. Everyone waited for them to radio back, which they finally did, informing them that the area around the stargate was clear and the weather was fine.

"Let's start moving out," Lorne announced, nodding to Eriksson, who was still closest.

"Should we wait for Captain R and First Sergeant Wrubelski, sir?" Kagan asked as he jumped up and down to re-settle his pack. Next to him, his gunny rolled his eyes and yanked on the top of the pack, fixing whatever was bothering the lieutenant. Kagan grinned at him.

"The man has been shot with a Wraith stunner, drugged, and nailed by pain rays in the last thirty-six hours and doesn't even get to take a leak in private," Lorne replied. "I don't think he wants an audience waiting for a report on a successful piss. Besides, it'll take enough time to get all of you water buffalo herded through the gate that he can join in on the end of the queue."

That seemed to be a sufficient answer, at least in terms of getting everyone in motion. But when neither Radner nor Wrubelski appeared as the last platoon was preparing to leave, Lorne asked for and received a team to go look for the missing men.

"We'll dial in once they're back," Lorne told Osgeny. "In the meanwhile, see if someone can't get us oriented and make sure everyone's good to go. Canteens full, injuries taken care of, the usual shit."

"Aye aye, sir," Osgeny said, then followed his platoon through the wormhole, which closed behind him.

"All right," Lorne sighed. "Let's go follow the yellow brick road."

The marines grinned and started off in the direction Lorne pointed them in, leading the way because one missing officer was enough. It gave Lorne enough time and space to pull out and charge the zat gun and wait for his opportunity. Which came when Sergeant Wiebler half-slid down the slope Radner lay at the bottom of. Lorne got O'Conner and Shultz first, from the rear, and then Wiebler in the chest as he ran back up the hill with his rifle up. It was all pretty easy and Lorne was sure it was more from something other than his own quick-draw skills.

He had been mildly surprised when Polito had given him the assignment; it was very much an out-of-the-blue kind of betrayal, although in hindsight Caldwell's had been just as random. He'd been told that he would be a Goa'uld agent and given a short list of suggestions for how to sabotage Bravo Company, since there would be no way to assure than any particular method would be available. He probably could have chosen a different means earlier in the exercise, but that would have defeated the purpose of the exercise even as it would have saved him a couple of very unpleasant afternoons.

By sending them to Planet Nowhere, the world his own team had been lost on for almost a month, instead of MP4-5G3, he had effectively ended Bravo's week -- they weren't getting off of that (very nice) planet until someone came for them because the DHD was busted. He wanted to give them as much opportunity to train and learn as possible before sabotaging their chances of winning, although maybe he'd have done so before getting smacked with the pain ray were he to do it all over again.

The marines on Planet Nowhere would be fine; the Wraith had no knowledge of the planet and, between the MREs they were carrying and the ample supply of near deer and flora, they weren't going to starve. It really was a nice place, although he expected that Bravo would be less than thrilled about their three-day vacation there. McKay had been working on a portable DHD since Lorne's team had been rescued and, if for some reason that didn't work, the Daedalus would be in the area by the end of the week.

Lorne looked at his watch. He needed to be gone before anyone woke, but he didn't want to leave the five marines defenseless, either. The Wraith had no knowledge of this place, either, but those weren't the only fish in the sea. He waited as long as he dared, but when he thought that Radner might be starting to stir, he beat a hasty retreat back to the stargate and dialed Atlantis.

Sheppard and Polito were waiting for him when he returned.

"How'd it go?" Sheppard asked. "Was being evil fun? Do I have to start worrying about you now?"

"It went," he replied with a shrug. "Nobody saw it coming."

"They never do, sir," Polito said with perhaps a little too much cheer. "How'd you like Alabamastan?"

"Doctor Safir and I are going to be having a long talk," Lorne said sourly, then yawned. "After I shower and then sleep for maybe a week."

"Not for a week," Sheppard told him as they started to walk toward the door. "We have a command staff meeting on Thursday."

Lorne cocked an eyebrow. "If I turn evil, do I still have to go?"

"Believe me, I've pondered trying it," Sheppard sighed.

Round Two: Predator

"So can you do it?"

Captain Polito tapped the spot on the map where the Ancient artifact was. Along with Polito, Lieutenants Patchok and Gillick, Gunny Cole, 1stSgt Backman, and Ronon were all watching him with various degrees of hopeful expressions and AJ hated having to give anything but an affirmative answer.

"Can I fuck it up?" he asked with a frown. "Yes, sir. At least enough to make it annoying. Can I hold it against the Colonel? Probably not. We haven't met anything the Ancients built that doesn't like him best."

He couldn't imagine winning a mental tug-of-war against Sheppard. He could usually override Spelcher, but that was because Spelcher never practiced unless he had to -- none of the marines with the ATA gene did, at least not beyond tuning out Atlantis and not accidentally setting shit off on other worlds. Which they all did anyway, even Sheppard. Among marines, the joke was that if you couldn't eat it, kill it, or fuck it, then it didn't have a point. AJ was the freak for working on it anyway, had gotten into fights because of it (no big deal; marines fought over everything, mostly just to keep themselves amused) even though everyone knew why he needed to.

Polito nodded, already considering the next six options. He'd written the rules, but that meant that he was in a good position to come up with ways to bend them. "How much time will you need?"

"Depends on the device, sir," AJ replied. "It's kind of like dealing with a woman -- there're the ones who expect dinner and conversation first and the ones who... don't."

A chuckle from the group around the map. "Understood, Sergeant," Polito said dryly. "Thank you."

It was a dismissal, more or less, and AJ caught Patchok's eyes to get confirmation. When Patchok nodded, AJ left the command group and returned to where his squad was waiting. He'd hear about the orders when the rest of the platoon did. In the meantime, chow.

It was a long walk back to where First Platoon had made their home at the edge of the clearing. Halfway through the week and Polito was rotating the platoons through the objectives depending on skill set and who was most rested, but between missions Charlie Company was using this planet as a home base and the platoons had their own areas. Gunny could always spec out the best holes, so First Platoon's space was the furthest from the stargate, which allowed them to not be woken by boots walking by at whatever hour everyone else got in or went out.


AJ shrugged as he sat, catching the MRE Suarez threw at his head. Cheese tortellini, which meant that Suarez had gotten lucky on the draw. They usually picked MREs by random and Suarez had had to take for both of them since AJ had been summoned by Polito. It was understood that AJ would end up with whichever was the less appealing of the two -- a favor AJ would and did return when the situations were reversed -- so Suarez must have scored something good since he actually liked the tortellini one.

"We're going to keep some Ancient toy away from Batman," AJ said as he opened the package and shook the contents out in front of him. He tossed the MRE's pound cake at Ramirez, who tossed back chocolate chip cookies and a packet of powdered milkshake.

"Which means you're gonna go up against Batman," Garrotte corrected, not looking up from his construction of a sea pie from among his MRE parts. "The rest of us are going to end up standing around like a fucking Greek chorus while you two do your zen mind thing."

Garrotte had been a history teacher before he enlisted and sometimes it showed.

There was murmured resentful agreement and AJ knew better than to try to deny it or point out that Spelcher would probably help, too. Because nobody cared and Spelcher wasn't going to be much help.

"Fuck if you all are gonna sit around with your hands on your dicks while Obi-Wan here does his thing," Gunny said as he strolled up. "Whole company's going out and it ain't as fucking farmers again."

That improved everyone's mood and AJ felt relief as the collective pissiness of the platoon shifted off of him and dissipated. While Gunny wasn't above saying shit just to quell a mutiny, Gunny also had very good hearing and if Patchok had said or heard something, then he'd know about it.

AJ was relieved, too -- scuttlebutt was that that the most of their assignments were going to be more role-playing than action, something that seemed likely to be true after their most recent scenario had been to be villagers wary of technology. The first task they'd gotten had been to go out with Ronon as Wraith -- a return engagement from their first exercise and the one everyone wanted -- and everyone in First Platoon had assumed that the rest of the choice assignments would be distributed around to the others out of fairness. Especially after Third Platoon got to spend the night in a firefight with the Major and half of Weapons Company.

"We goin' out against Batman?" Gallitan asked, mixing something awful-looking in a bowl. AJ thinks one of the ingredients is a fruit cup, but the whole thing looks like puke. After too much Jager.

"How many other HVTs we got?" Gunny asked in response and everyone else grunted and laughed. Sheppard hadn't gone out on every mission over the course of the exercise, not this time and not the round before, but everyone on both sides fought a little harder when they knew he was out there. Everyone wanted to beat him or impress him or both, even AJ a little and he'd had more than enough opportunities over the years to make an impression. But Sheppard's their leader and while most of them could take him in a one-on-one match-up of combat skills, that wasn't the point.

Gunny's inside info was at least partially confirmed when Patchok returned and said that they were going out at 1500 AST.

Out of the target sights of the rest of the platoon and fed, AJ got down to the business of weapons maintenance. He stripped down, cleaned, and reassembled his pistol, taking a quarter of the time that Suarez did because Suarez was OCD about shit like this and kept stopping and re-starting when he found something he didn't like. AJ would have appreciated this attention to detail except for the fact that Suarez did this every fucking time and he'd already seen this show once already today. Ortilla finally threatened to do it himself if Suarez didn't hurry the fuck up, so AJ got to watch Chris pout and then put his M9 back together with a speed and grace unmatched by anyone in the platoon -- all while glaring at Ortilla.

"Fucking showoff," Gunny grunted. He was sitting across from them, next to Patchok. The LT was trying to maximize the ability of one hot sauce packet to cover up the hideous taste of an entire Black Bean & Rice Burrito entree. Officers ate last in the Marines, which meant that Patchok (and Gunny, as platoon sergeant) were stuck with whatever was left over after everyone else had drawn their MRE. Which were invariably the ones that tasted like week-old unwashed ass. Not that AJ had any actual knowledge of the accuracy of the comparison.

Eventually, 1stSgt Backman called everyone over to the platform near the stargate. They hadn't had a company briefing since the beginning, when Polito had explained the rules -- which ones could be broken and which ones could not, basically. Since then, assignments and instructions had been for individual platoons and Polito had come by to each unit's area to give the orders and answer questions in person. Polito had been going out on some of the missions -- not the Wraith one, although AJ knew that that had been a sacrifice on Polito's part -- but he always made sure to do each briefing himself. It wasn't that he didn't trust the platoon commanders, just that each one was so fucking weird that there was really no other choice.

But, here and now, they were one unit again, whole and ready to fight. Polito waited for everyone to get settled (Patchok shamelessly hid behind Ortilla so that he could finish wolfing down his burrito; Gunny was short enough to hide behind pretty much anyone, but pointing that out was hazardous to your health) before beginning with a review of their recent activities.

Their opponents would be slightly tenderized coming in to this round, Polito explained, but the whole point of the exercise was to wear them down until they started getting stupid and getting picked off. While First Platoon had been pretending to be simple farmers for Lieutenant Murray, most of the rest of Weapons Company ("Lanteans" in the terminology of the exercise) had been chased around some random planet by Halling and the Athosians posing as villagers eager to collect on the Genii's bounty; AJ ignored the meaningful looks and not-so-gentle elbow jabs from the marines surrounding him. He remembered the original incident just fine, thanks.

AJ wasn't sure how Polito knew which planet the Lanteans were going to be on and which scenario got used when, but apparently he did and the details, as per usual, were not deemed essential grunt knowledge. Nonetheless, there were theories and rumors, some practical and a few completely off the wall, although most of the guys didn't seem to care too much what the actual answer was. AJ did want to know, but he'd probably have to wait until the exercises were over and they were on a mission with the Major before he could get an answer. This was why he wanted to get a commission, why he was grateful that he was on an off-world team -- he wanted to be in a position where details weren't deemed a impediment to him doing his job.

"We've done admirably so far," Polito was saying when AJ realized that he was perhaps not paying full attention. Which happened to coincide with when Ortilla realized and stepped on his foot accidentally on purpose. "I'm sure Robin Hood and his Merry Men will hurt a few, but this next action is going to be key. This is a major objective for them -- the artifact is supposed to be some sort of device that Doctor McKay can turn into a weapon that will be effective against the Wraith. They get this, they get another objective for free. Needless to say, we don't want that."

As Polito went on, it became clear just how much he was willing to assure that that didn't happen. While most of the actions so far had been platoon-sized movements, this was going to be all of Charlie Company on one planet as part of the same force. It was a risk, although Polito didn't frame it as such. But it was obvious to everyone that whoever came out of this encounter the winner was going to have the upper hand for the rest of the week.

It was equally obvious that this was going to be a close fight -- Mad Matt didn't usually talk about rally points and fall-back plans when they were supposed to be only on offense.

Pretty much all of the marines in Atlantis were first rate -- even guys like Gallitan and Booger, the ones who made NCO by virtue of a combination of luck and bravery overcoming a startlingly small portion of intelligence -- and all of the companies were good at what they did. But Charlie was best and they had a reputation to maintain, even if that reputation was largely self-perpetuated (not like anyone else was going to concede inferiority). These exercises had scores attached and they could only laugh at Bravo Company for getting duped by the Major until they failed to meet (and beat) Bravo's score. They could only lord the current score over Weapons until they got their asses kicked by them and Batman.

Fuck if anyone in Charlie was going to allow that to happen. Fuck if Mad Matt was going to let them fail.

The briefing was less actual passing on of information than pep rally; Polito would have given his orders to Patchok, who'd explain them to the marines in turn. Mad Matt reinforced the Commander's Intent ("they are not walking off that planet with any prize") and left the lieutenants (and Gunny Cole, since nobody had replaced Nagley yet) to hammer out the details.

AJ didn't get his part of the puzzle until later on, after they'd returned to their space and Patchok had met with the squad leaders while the rest of them were left to dick around with the Wraith stunners they'd be using.

More than two years and it still burned a little not to be in that particular pow-wow anymore; the ache of leadership lost hadn't gone away completely. He'd led a squad in fucking Recon and now he wasn't even a team leader here and the fact that every other E-5 in Little Tripoli was in the same boat (except for the Recon part) didn't make it sting less. Just made him sure not to open his yap and say as much. He got respect within the squad and within the platoon -- Recon counted, as did his spot on the Major's team -- and he was maybe a little embarrassed that it bothered him as much as it did, this ego problem. It wasn't as if they got treated like privates or anything like that.

"Alright, here's what's going on," Ortilla began even before he sat down. "Rourke, pull out that map."

Rourke, assistant squad leader, dug out the pile of laminated maps they were using for squad meetings and fished out the one for M94-G32.

The entire map looked, to AJ's eyes, very much like almost every other planet in this galaxy. The route from the stargate to the building where the device was located was more or less a straight line cutting through some obstacles of various difficulties. There was a road and trees on one side and rocks on the other; the building was the ruins of some Ancient lab and even Suarez wondered aloud if they'd been here before, it all looked so familiar.

While the objective for the Lanteans was to get the Ancient device and get out, Polito and then Patchok had explained that Charlie's scenario was that the planet's residents were an advanced society with no love of strangers. Certainly not those who wanted to poke around on their planet and look for toys left behind by the Ancestors. The Lanteans thought that the planet was uninhabited and would find out differently -- the hard way. It meant that they had to let the Lanteans try to get the device first, then hammer them on the egress and now Ortilla was filling in the details on their part in the show. Which, until everyone else showed up and got in position, was to scout the planet and fuck around with the Ancient device.

One of the things AJ had noticed early on, even before they'd left Earth for Atlantis, was that Ortilla was really good at allowing everyone to have their say while still not giving away any of his authority -- making them feel like their experience wasn't being ignored just because they weren't in command of marines anymore. It was a neat trick; they'd all been squad leaders, but Ortilla'd been a platoon sergeant and it showed. Today, that meant he let Suarez and Figeroa bitch at each other over which route the Lanteans were likely to take before putting his two cents in and his foot down.

"Skipper thinks they're gonna diddy bop up the road until they've got an actual reason not to," he began, pointing to the red-colored line on the map. "They know it's an exercise and they're gonna be eyes-open, but they gotta play like this is just any other uninhabited planet until they don't have a choice."

Because AJ "had to do his thing with the thing," First Platoon left early for M94-G32. Personally, he didn't think he'd need as much time as Polito had given them, but he wasn't in a position to either complain or criticize and so he didn't. He packed his shit, camoed up, waited as Ortilla growled at Suarez for being a girl for taking so long with his makeup, and then followed his unit to the stargate.

Even allowing for the fucked-up way stuff appeared in night vision goggles, M94-G32 was not exactly as the map had led them to believe. Not that that was in any way unusual or unplanned for, but the degree was maybe more than even AJ had anticipated and he was used to showing up on planets that weren't at all how they'd been described. The terrain was far more complex than the map would have been able to show, but Ramirez was maybe right when he wondered aloud if they were using a ten thousand year old map the Ancients had left behind. Some of the missing and erroneous topography was just fucking random and made AJ think back to the aerial photos of Iraq they'd gotten in Kuwait before the invasion, confusing bits of nonsense that got all of the dimensions wrong, had nothing where it actually turned out to be, and seemed to describe some alternate universe that merely shared a few features and only rarely place names.

There was no point in bitching, though -- they didn't get to pick the planet, so they could at least get the better choice of where to stand and fight now that they were there. In terms of what they'd need for later usage -- both to pass on to the other platoons and to use against their quarry -- they took pragmatic and informal notes, except for Patchok who was actually writing shit down and marking up his copy of the map with a grease pencil. AJ could imagine the put-upon look on Gunny's face as he tried to keep Patchok from tripping while holding a map in one hand and his red-filtered flashlight on the other. He'd like to think that he'd be better about that when he became a lieutenant.

As they moved from the gate area -- except for Sanderson's team, bitching because they always got gate duty -- and mentally applied the plan of action to the actual environment, it didn't look as bad as it could have been. But there would have to be adjustments. Night vision goggles pretty much took away your depth perception, but, NODs or not, the ground was uneven under any circumstances and the path to the Ancient outpost made it clear that the planet hadn't been anyone's home in a really long time. Patchok first sent Gustafson's squad up to the rocks with one of the fancy viewers that worked well in 3-D so that they could get a better vantage point and see how badly fucked up the map actually was. Then he sent AJ's squad up ahead so that he could fuck with the device and everyone else could survey the area by the outpost.

"Let's go," Ortilla called over and AJ looked up from his PDA. Both he and Spelcher had had them out since they'd come through the gate -- the life signs detector was the only feature they used with any regularity -- and AJ kept it out as they moved off. They hadn't seen any signs of either an advance party -- or anything else alive beyond some near-deer -- but the building was out of range still and there was time and space to be unpleasantly surprised.

The road to the building was overgrown with grass, some spots more than others, and rocky. The combination, helped by the two-dimensional view through the NODs, made for a couple of slips, which would translate into a couple of falls once there was reason to be distracted. A klick and a half in and AJ, walking point, considered himself a little lucky that he caught the sharp drop -- maybe a meter and a half, not quite body length -- before he stumbled over it. He made sure to pass off his discovery as a testament to his skill, however.

"This is gonna be a kill box later," Rourke said as they jumped down to lower ground and looked around.

There were rocks jutting out on the sides of the tiny cliff, big enough to hide behind. A couple of the guys in Weapons were ATA positive and would have PDA, but everyone else would be relying on their NODs and heat sensors and those you could hide from if you had the right kind of cover and knew what you were doing.

"For which side?" Jones retorted, holding up his compass so that the dim moonlight would reflect off of it.

After marking the defilade on their maps -- of course, the rally point was on this side of the drop, a couple hundred meters to the east -- they moved on.

AJ had his eyes and ears tuned in to his surroundings, enjoying the familiarity of what he was doing. Strange galaxy, strange planet, strange weapons in his kit, but this was what he'd trained to do, what he'd done -- and done well -- back on Earth. Some of the guys weren't used to this kind of independence -- no officer nearby, no micromanagement, nobody to cover your ass when you made your choices -- but he was. This was what Recon had taught him and he felt in his element, even holding alien technology in his hand.

Of course, nothing in Recon had prepared him for said alien technology interacting with his brain. He 'heard' the noise right about the time the energy signature flared on his PDA and held up a fist to pause the group so that he could listen more closely. There had been no mention of any sort of Ancient tech on the planet besides the device (that they'd put there for the purpose of the exercise), but this wouldn't be the first time they'd been sideswiped like this.

"Que pasa?" Ortilla asked over their radios.

"I think the building's got juice," AJ answered, since that was the most likely scenario. The energy reading on the PDA was too high to be from whatever device they were using for the objective and the only kind of small shit that sounded so loud in his head tended to turn out too important to Atlantis to be used in a training exercise. McKay wasn't letting them have any of the cool shit.

"That a good thing or a bad thing?" Ortilla queried, not doubting his assessment. AJ wasn't always right, but he rarely made guesses when he thought he was wrong.

"Depends," he said, signaling for everyone to start moving again. "We may be able to use it, but it'll probably end up being one more thing we'll have to break so Batman doesn't use it better."

"Any chance there's something important there?" Rourke asked as they executed a controlled slide down a dirt slope. "Like stop-the-scenario kind of important?"

"No," Ortilla answered before AJ could. "This planet was cleared for the exercise, so the geeks have been through already. They wouldn't risk us breaking their toys otherwise."

AJ turned them left after another few meters, toward a shallower slope down. It would be a longer walk to the building, but the ground was uneven and loose and he suspected that if they tried another controlled slide here, they'd end up someplace where they didn't want to be. Which was apparently what had happened to Ramirez's team back closer to the gate if the chatter on the radio was any indication.

The radios were set to the platoon net, although they have the option to talk only to each other. AJ has been listening in passively, like he did with Ancient tech, because while the other squads were currently covering areas that weren't even going to be the responsibility of their platoon, shit happened in combat and especially in a situation where they were going to be pretending to be something they weren't. There was every chance that AJ would wind up in someone else's AO and it was better to be at least partially aware of all of it.

Or, you know, to gather intel to give your fellow marines shit for making stupid mistakes.

Ortilla updated Patchok about the building (or, rather, what AJ thought might be the case with the building) and Patchok told them to take a look around and do what they needed to do. Two years in and Patchok was still content to let the ATA carriers do pretty much whatever they wanted without asking too many questions.

AJ led the squad down the last decline around the back of the building, but stopped when something metallic reflected in the green-tinted moonlight.

"Some kind of sensor or defense?" Suarez asked as he came up, kicking gently at the base of the metal prong. AJ thought that it looked like a garden sprinkler or some of the weird footlights he'd seen at beach houses in San Diego. "Can you..." Suarez trailed off, gesturing vaguely near his head.

"No," AJ replied. If it was carrying any power, it would have to be at a very low level to be missed -- the outpost wasn't that loud.

"Probably where they set up perimeter defense," Suarez said, turning away, probably to look for more.

AJ made his way carefully to the ruined building, which wasn't actually that ruined-looking up close. It was one level, compact but not really that small. And it was happy to see him, but not in any kind of way that he'd associate with any "boy, do I have something to show you!" excitement.

"I hate these fucking places," Suarez sighed next to him as he and Ortilla caught up. Ortilla had left Rourke's team up by the metal thing, partly for security and mostly to be able to tell if the building did anything weird. ("Like blow up?" Figeroa had asked, feigning innocence.)

"I'm gonna turn on the lights," AJ warned.

When Ortilla didn't tell him to wait, he thought "on" and could hear motors start to whir and hum. He lifted up his goggles as the lights came on inside. There were a few external lights, but most seemed to be broken and the ones that came on weren't very bright.

"Anything doing up there?" Ortilla asked over the radio.

"Not a peep," Rourke replied.

AJ nodded at Suarez then went in, pistols out. They weren't carrying their P-90s, just their sidearms and the modified Wraith stunner pistols that served as generic Ronon-like weapons without being nearly as cool (or having any setting but "stun").

The inside was typical Ancient outpost: like Atlantis, but dusty and smaller-scale. There were a series of rooms off of the one corridor, but AJ found the artifact easily -- the protective casing had the loudest 'voice' in the building. It was built in to a pillar, not something portable like he'd expected -- at least not without a chainsaw -- and it opened only after some dedicated mental effort.

Inside, there were some control crystals. They were scratched, either useless or unusable because nobody let the marines have anything nice, and AJ put them back in their padded spaces. He closed the case and felt it hesitate before re-locking.

"What, are you two sharing life stories?" Suarez asked, coming up behind him. "Having phone sex?"

"Maybe it's an orgasmatron," Ortilla suggested. "Wouldn't surprise me if the Ancients needed one."

AJ flipped them off absently. "I'm trying to make it Batman-proof," he said.

In Atlantis, having the Ancient gene naturally meant that you could pretty much expect to be summoned every once in a while to the ATA labs to solve some 'crisis.' Having the gene naturally and being a marine meant that the scientists tended to think you had nothing better to do, no right of refusal, and were automatically the best choice in case the problem was any kind of dangerous.

But in the times that AJ had been unable to avoid those summonses -- Patchok had gotten good at hiding him and Spelcher -- he had learned a little about how some of this shit worked. Occasionally from the scientists, even. And one of those things was that there was a strong working theory that the Ancients had been able to use their genetics as a lock and key system. Not just Ancients keeping stuff from non-Ancients, but Ancients keeping stuff from each other -- because why use a lock that could be broken when you didn't have to?

It was still unproven, at least as far as AJ knew. He'd had his finger pricked a few times in case blood was required ("You're not going to summon Cthulhu, are you, sir?") and he knew Sheppard had tried to use it in a few dire circumstances. But there'd never been a way to verify that it had worked or that if it did that it could work on any device or just ones designed for the purpose. There were plenty of reasons why nobody could get a device to work -- or stop working.

Here and now, however, there was no harm in trying. The worst that could happen was that it would be as difficult for Sheppard to open as it was for him (or not, because Ancient tech really did like him best). AJ had no idea how an Ancient would have done this, so he just thought don't open for anyone else but me really hard at the box. It clicked, loud enough for the other two to hear, and AJ thought 'thanks' at it, not sure if it had obeyed or if it even cared that he had remembered his manners.

"Alright, let's get on to the part of the game we can all play," Suarez exhorted, shrugging to take one of the pack straps off of his shoulder to get at the booby-trap gear.

"Is there anything else you can do here?" Ortilla asked AJ, hitting him in the arm because Ortilla had this phobia that AJ was going to mind-meld with Ancient tech if left undisturbed. Ortilla'd deny it if asked, and AJ had, but that first rough introduction to Atlantis had stuck in both of their memories and two years of being targeted by both technology and people because of his ATA gene had left their mark. And so Ortilla left his -- usually on AJ's arm. "Save us time?"

AJ knew what he was asking, but shook his head. "I don't think this place has any real defenses, at least not past whatever that shit was outside. Nothing that'd recognize Sheppard as an enemy, at least."

Ortilla nodded. "Let's get everything set up, then. No point in letting him have it if we can't."

"You know where the battery is?" Suarez asked from the doorway and AJ shook his head. The three of them knew from running around with the Major that places like these -- abandoned outposts -- usually ran on backup power if they ran at all. The larger places had had their power sources repurposed during the war with the Wraith and it was usually a matter of if the backup generator still functioned. "What the fuck good are you, then?"

"Better than you," AJ replied, then followed Ortilla out of the room. There was nothing else here that could possibly have been hiding a generator.

As they were searching, Ortilla radioed Patchok to tell him that the device had been dealt with and that they were moving on to the booby trapping phase.

The battery was hidden behind a wall panel in the room with most of the main consoles, thankfully of a kind they'd seen before and knew how to deactivate.

Rourke's team came down from their post to help rig the building, Figeroa being the squad's most creative demo guy. The rest of their platoon was en route, still working on correcting the maps, and the rest of the company was making their way through the wormhole now after Patchok had reported back that the maps were not as useful as hoped.

With six men, rigging the building was easy. Somehow, they'd ended up with some pretty fancy gear in addition to the usual toys. (AJ suspected Sheppard had asked Engineering for everything they had in the Experimental Warfare department.) Tripwires that were invisible both to the naked eye and the infrared viewfinder of the NODs would be very useful -- the Lanteans would know where to look, but in this case it wouldn't matter because they wouldn't be able to see.

Disabling the battery -- Ortilla took the purple control crystal with him -- was the last thing they did and AJ was unsurprised to see Mad Matt with Patchok and Gunny standing outside once they exited.

"You do your hocus pocus, Sergeant?" Polito asked, wiggling his fingers.

"Yes, sir," AJ answered, looking around for 1stSgt. Backman, since Charlie's Top tried not to let their commander wander around unattended. Backman was talking to Gunny by the edge of the cleared ground next to the building. Probably comparing notes on how hard it was to keep officers alive.

"Good, good," Polito exhorted, looking around with obvious interest. "I think we'll get him this time."

No need to ask who was being referenced. Sheppard had safely led his marines out of what had been a surefire takedown on the first day and even if there'd been nothing Second Platoon could have done after he'd pulled that miracle out of his ass, it still chafed.

"It'd be nice, sir." With the exception of a couple of instances of Sheppard not being himself (part bug or part possessed), AJ'd never been up against Sheppard before. He'd known before Sunday how pissed everyone had been after the last big war games exercise, but AJ had spent two years seeing the man everyone in Little Tripoli called Batman in far more contexts than most of the other marines. It may not have given him any real insight, but he definitely saw Sheppard far differently than he had looked at his last COs in his previous billets.

None of which was to say that he wouldn't take immense pride and enormous glee in being the one to put Sheppard down with a stunner blast.

It took another hour for everyone to settle into position -- in accordance with the scenario, there'd be no welcoming committee and no interaction with the Lanteans until they tried to walk off with the Ancient tech. The booby traps meant that they would already be in a defensive posture by that point, but AJ preferred that then to another tea-and-thanking-the-Ancestors routine.

The company was mostly split between an ambush site near the outpost and then a secondary force to catch anyone who made it as far back as the gate. Not that they had anything to worry about there -- Mad Matt had given the order to remove the control crystals from the DHD once the Lanteans were clear. There were squads of rovers to catch anyone who slipped out of the net, each one with at least one ATA-positive marine to track fugitives with their PDAs, and AJ was unsurprised to find his squad listed among them. (Sanderson's squad was, too, because of Spelcher, and Gustafson was a little pissy because his was the only First Platoon squad not on such duty.)

By the time the alert came that the gate had been activated, AJ was more than ready. So was everyone else -- they'd been in position long enough to get antsy, to start griping about piss breaks and hunger and boredom until the officers and team sergeants had to start cracking down. But then there was a kawoosh and suddenly nobody had to pee or wanted to open their cookie packets.

Scouts and spotters all along the road monitored the progress of the Lanteans. It wasn't a large detachment -- one of the spotters sarcastically wondered if this was all that was left of Weapons Company after three days of pursuit -- but it was bigger than a platoon and Sheppard was definitely there as were a few of the remaining Ipetians.

It took the Lanteans more than an hour to get to the building; in the dark and without maps (which, even if they'd had, wouldn't have helped them any more than they'd helped Bravo Company), it was still pretty good time. AJ listened to the play-by-play of the procession, waiting for anything that would change his orders. They were stationed closer to the building than the stargate, not overwatch for the first assault force but close enough to join in as a second wave if necessary. He didn't have his PDA out yet -- the procession was still out of range and all he'd see would be the friendlies.

"They are on approach," the marine on spotter duty for the last segment of the path announced. "One hundred meters and closing. Sheppard is in the lead.... They're setting up defensive positions.... Fifty meters.... They're at the building."

There was an explosion and shouted curses and AJ grinned at Suarez in the dark. Suarez grinned back. They'd necessarily had to avoid using anything that could hurt their fellow marines, but you didn't need concussion grenades to start a party. They listened as the Lanteans regrouped -- Sheppard letting Lieutenant Salker give orders while he tried to get his hearing back -- and then more explosions and shouts (some in surprise, most in the usual room-clearing cadence) that were only partially muffled as the Lanteans penetrated the building.

With the explosions came the first overt countermeasure -- Lieutenant Gillick moving in. AJ could hear without the radio, albeit not perfectly clearly, as Gillick demanded explanation and then surrender. Sheppard was still in the building, as were a handful of marines, but Salker insisted there was only one Lantean inside and called him out. One marine exited and Gillick rounded them all up, sending three of his own men in to verify that the "shrine" was empty.

Surprisingly, they came back out confirming that it was.

"Must've found some closets," Suarez murmured.

AJ thought Sheppard might have been the one doing the finding -- they hadn't seen any obvious hiding spaces, but it wouldn't have been the first time someone with the ATA gene had stumbled into one.

Gillick took his prisoners away and Ortilla signaled for them to move into position, ready to try to capture Sheppard and the rest of the fleeing Lanteans. There were at least a dozen men still in the building and no saying how long they'd wait before making a break for it.

They waited thirty-five minutes.

AJ had had his PDA out and ready the entire time, watching the dots clumped together on his screen because the building wasn't shielded. When they started to move, he signaled Ortilla, who alerted the others.

Sheppard sent them out in groups of three or four, staggering departures and directions to increase the odds of someone making it back to the gate. AJ thought it was a good plan, although the sheer number of marines waiting for them -- and the fact that the DHD had been rendered inoperable -- would have made it difficult to succeed. Would have, because Patchok was still dispatching chaser teams when they got word that the stargate was activating again.

Sheppard had either been on a very short leash timewise or he'd planned for the probability of engagement -- another platoon of Lanteans was stepping through the stargate.

"Fuck," Suarez muttered in approval. They could hear Polito pulling marines back from ambush detail to support the marines guarding the stargate. Their squad were staying put, however, since Sheppard and some of the Lanteans were still in the outpost, and AJ stopped paying close attention to the firefight at the gate because of that.

"How many dots are left?" Ortilla asked.

"Six or seven," AJ replied, squinting down at the PDA through his goggles. "They're right on top of each other, so it's hard to tell for sure."

Over the radio, Patchok said that Ronon was hooking up with them and that they were the last of the fugitive hunters, at least until Gillick could organize and collect the hostages and bring some of his men back. They'd get back-up then, but not before. ("You guys are the hotshots. Now prove it.")

Ronon showed up just as the last dots in the outpost started to move. He appeared near silently, nodding at Ortilla and going straight over to AJ to look at the PDA in his hand. Sheppard's group was still inside the outpost, but just barely; they were by the door preparing to leave.

Ortilla signaled for Rourke to move his team north and they left. They were all close enough that they would be able to intercept whatever path Sheppard took, but there was a chance that he'd split the remaining group in half and this way, Rourke's team could close the gap faster.

AJ had no idea what kind of radio communication the Lanteans had, whether Sheppard could talk to whoever had led the second wave through the gate, but over his own radio he could tell without listening that engagement was turning into a pitched battle with casualties on both sides.

Ronon tapped Ortilla's shoulder and indicated that they should start moving. They'd spent enough time with Ronon over the past couple of years, especially in various goat lassoing events, to have a loose kind of understanding and a mutual respect. They'd been prisoners together, killed together, rescued and been rescued by each other -- it couldn't be otherwise. And so Ortilla would cede tactical command to a point because Ronon wouldn't expect them to disobey orders (or at least useful and important orders) to follow him.

Right now, Ronon led them closer to the outpost and gestured that they should spread out a little; Ortilla signaled for AJ to stay with Ronon and he and Suarez started moving slightly west. Not out of sight, but enough apart to make a difference.

A few long minutes later, Sheppard and his men broke out together, heading southwest from the outpost. It was toward the gate, but not the road, which curved southeast before cutting back west. According to the PDA reading, they were south of Rourke's position and AJ could see them start to close in, a cluster of three dots chasing a larger cluster of seven. Ortilla signaled for them to move northwest and close in from the other side and AJ, resting on one knee, stood up to follow.

Ronon put a hand on his shoulder, stilling him, and AJ looked up. Ronon gestured southward with his head; AJ nodded and Ronon dropped his hand so AJ could stand up. When Ortilla turned to see where he was, AJ signaled that they were going to separate and he nodded.

No need for radio confirmation when Rourke's team caught up to Sheppard, although the noise from the stunner blasts didn't carry over the louder report of the Lantean rifles. Ronon tapped him on the arm and signaled for them to start moving south. It wasn't where AJ wanted to go -- even Ortilla and Suarez showing up wouldn't even the odds for Rourke's team -- and it was at best predicting their failure and at worst sacrificing them to set up a better chance down the line. That didn't make going after them the right move, but it was what he wished he could do.

"Won't get there in time," Ronon explained. "Woods are making it sound closer than it is."

AJ nodded -- the mission came first, time was of the essence, and there still wasn't any backup on the way -- and let Ronon lead on.

They cut directly south for a couple hundred meters, then west. Ronon paused to listen and AJ pulled out his PDA. It took a second to orient himself on it, but he could see the two dots that were him and Ronon and the three dots that were probably whichever of the Lanteans had escaped. Sheppard was at the far edge of the screen and if any of AJ's squad was in pursuit, they were out of range.

Out of range of the PDA at least -- AJ listened as Ortilla radioed in a nine-line to Patchok. (One KIA and two GSW among the good guys; four prisoners, two of whom were litter urgent and none of whom were Sheppard.) Patchok confirmed, said a medevac was ten minutes out and then confirmed with AJ that he'd heard.

On Earth, AJ would have been able to give GPS coordinates for his position and Sheppard's position. Patchok could have pushed reinforcements directly there and Ortilla could have sent Figeroa and Suarez (the only two unscathed members of Third Squad) to meet up with them without too much confusion. But there was no GPS here, none of the others had a PDA, and there wasn't time to work out who was where on a map. AJ could estimate from triangulating his and Ronon's movement from the outpost and the fact that there were still trees on the other side of the overgrown trail, but whatever support Patchok could spare was probably going to have to guesstimate and follow the gunfire.

For Ronon, AJ could be much more specific. He indicated that Sheppard's team was two hundred meters away and closing fast; the sound of their progress was canceled out by the noise of everything else going on around them. Nonetheless, AJ knew that Sheppard was moving parallel to the road, just far enough off of it that he and his men wouldn't be easy marks but not too far so that he could wind up lost in unfamiliar (and hostile) territory without a map.

He followed Ronon as the other man started walking -- stalking. They were on an intersecting course with both the road and Sheppard's group, but it wasn't the most direct route to cross their paths; Ronon was hoping to move ahead of the trio and get between them and the stargate.

The sky was starting to lighten, but not enough to be able to lose the NODs when walking through the trees and it was only the years of night patrols both practice and actual that kept AJ from stumbling (too much) over roots and rocks that the goggles failed to distinguish as raised from the ground. Ronon was pressing hard, not looking back or pausing to check that he was following and AJ supposed that he should be proud of Ronon's confidence in his abilities. Except part of him was sure that Ronon wasn't looking back because Ronon didn't care. Either way, it was nice to be working at such a clip -- patrols moved as quickly as the slowest man and if he was that man, then they were moving pretty quickly.

He could see clearing in the distance when he looked east, which meant that they were approaching the bowl-like area where the road had dropped so sharply. He had no idea if there would be a commensurate cliff here in the trees -- probably not, but it could be a gradual slope or something else. Either way, Sheppard would risk it rather than try to scale the near-sheer wall of stone by the path when there was nothing but open ground surrounding him.

AJ pulled out his PDA to see where everyone was and was surprised to see how far ahead they were of Sheppard and his two fellow fugitives. Even considering their trajectories, he hadn't considered the differences in footspeed to be as great as they apparently were; they had enough time and space to make a stand if they wanted. He got Ronon's attention with a short, quiet whistle and held up the PDA.

Ronon stopped and AJ walked the few steps over to him, holding up the screen. Ronon had picked up hand signals early on and they were able to briefly debate tactics before coming to a compromise, all without a word being spoken.

AJ jogged past Ronon, deeper into the woods until he found the start of what could not honestly be called a gradual slope, although it would be far easier to climb than the sheer rock somewhere to the east of it. There was no defined path up the hill, but the ground was notably less treacherous in one area and he knew that that was where Sheppard would go. He high-stepped it to the top, turned around, and dropped to the ground just behind the crest. He was able to make a pretty low profile -- the nature of the terrain helped -- but he was still thankful that he was camoed up, his hair was newly shorn, and the sky was lightening in front of him instead of behind.

Of course, all of this was a gamble -- all of the camo paint in the world wouldn't hide him if Sheppard pulled out his PDA. But while AJ had raised the point out of necessity, he had ultimately agreed with Ronon that Sheppard wouldn't do any such thing. AJ knew from his own experiences that teams -- fire teams or off-world teams -- fell into a routine and the same people always wound up with the same jobs beyond the ones that were assigned to them. As it was with cooking fires, so it was with the Ancient PDAs -- it was someone's job to figure out how and when to use it and everyone else left him to the task. On AJ's team, that person was the Major. On Sheppard's team, that person was McKay. It wasn't instinct for Sheppard to use his PDA any more than it was for AJ -- less, because there weren't any circumstances where Sheppard had squad leaders or platoon commanders reminding him to take the fucking thing out and use it.

According to the radio still chirping in his ear, the aforementioned platoon commander and squad leader were both en route to the makeshift "capital city," complete with prison and hospital, that had been set up with concertina wire and plywood sometime before the exercise had begun. Events had quieted down; the action by the stargate had finished and there were no other known fugitives. The radio in his ear was less urgent than it had been only a few minutes before, barked commands and harried questions gone in favor of calmer chatter from various points.

At AJ's point, there wasn't any movement below, but he was careful as he pulled out the grenade, sliding down the reverse slope to work so that there would be as little motion at the crest as possible before re-positioning himself to wait. And wait. It would only be a few minutes -- chased or not, Sheppard would be aiming toward the gate and coming this way -- but time tended to bend and flex in these situations and AJ tried to relax his body without relaxing his guard.

The ground so close to his face smelled like something familiar that he couldn't quite place. He'd been face-down in enough mud, dirt, clay, and various other substances that loosely qualified as "land" -- forget about how he'd drunk of five of the seven seas and all but one ocean -- that he could appreciate the base smell of earth despite the change in galaxy. But there was still something about this place that was both familiar (if unidentifiable) and yet completely weird. Sort of a valid description for all of Pegasus, actually.

He heard the movement before he saw anything, the harsh breath of men running and talking simultaneously, the crunch and rustle of their footfalls giving away their position with no combat noise to drown them out.

"Now," he breathed into his radio as he slid the PDA back into his pocket. It was as much of a warning as Ronon was going to get.

Not wanting to blow his cover with the motion, AJ waited as long as he dared before pulling the pin on the flashbang and rearing back to throw it. As his momentum carried him back to the ground, he buried his face and let the goggles slide up to his forehead, digging in to his skin, as he covered his ears from the explosion.


AJ pushed himself forward, executing a graceless but effective slide and roll down the hill so that he was up standing, Wraith pistol at the ready, before the other three could completely recover.

Sheppard barked out orders AJ didn't understand -- some code worked out among the Lanteans -- and the trio scattered, which was what AJ had hoped (expected) would happen. He still got a shot off, however, winging Sheppard near the right elbow. It wouldn't be enough to stop him or even slow him, but it would kill his shooting hand.

This was what he and Ronon had worked out: divide and conquer. Two against three were crappy odds when everyone was an expert marksman, but one-on-one and AJ knew that he and Ronon had the edge. Sheppard scattering his men was a calculated gamble the way the PDA had been -- Sheppard's priority was getting someone (anyone) back to the gate to dial the others and get more reinforcements and he had no idea how many men were or weren't chasing him through the woods. Also, as good as Sheppard was on the ground, he was still an Air Force pilot and his tactics were still those of someone used to air combat instead of the messy world of infantrymen.

AJ took off after Baxter, leaving Sheppard to Ronon and Ochoa for later. He could find Ochoa with the PDA once he'd taken down Baxter, the slower runner.

He radioed an update Patchok as he ran, got a reply back that there were men at the stargate waiting in case Ochoa got their first. AJ had no intention of letting that happen, but he didn't say anything.

Baxter had gotten a head start, but AJ was the better man in the woods (or in any terrain; Baxter couldn't run for shit) and finding him wasn't difficult. The woods got denser closer to the gate and it took three shots from the stunner to bring Baxter down -- the first hit a tree, the second was a graze because Baxter had the sense to use evasive moves, and the third was center of mass because AJ really was the better man in the woods. He cracked a chem light and left it next to Baxter's prone body before pulling out his PDA to see where Ochoa was.

The answer was that he was far enough ahead that AJ knew that the stupid fucker had used the road. It was a risk that had paid off, at least temporarily, but it went against every rule for what you should do when trying not to be seen and Ochoa'd have been dead six times over had he tried that on Earth. And he knew it. The fact that it wasn't Earth didn't matter -- developing bad habits would eventually get you killed in Pegasus, too.

AJ was not worried about being seen, but he stuck to the woods because he had a better feel for them by this point than having to stumble over the overgrown path with its loose rocks and hidden potholes. It was getting toward actual civilian dawn now, but it was still dark enough in the trees to make good use of the goggles, which were starting to give him a headache. Between the PDA and the goggles, he found Ochoa fairly close to the gate, hiding from the men guarding it. It was a good hiding spot -- if AJ hadn't been carrying the PDA and seen one dot beyond the perimeter. It took one shot because Ochoa was focused on what was in front of him instead of what was behind. AJ moved as close as he could because Ochoa deserved humbling after di-di'ing up the road like a fucking lance coolie.

A successful hunt nearly ended in a terribly embarrassing fashion two minutes later when AJ momentarily blanked on the password and nearly got stunned into a drooling mess by the patrol near the gate. After finally identifying himself, he got a dirty look from Gunny Cole and a canteen of water from one of the marines. Gunny Cole radioed Polito and AJ sat down on a convenient rock to drink and wait for whatever came next.

Which turned out to be AJ leading a diminished squad of marines back to retrieve Ochoa and then Baxter and bring them to the 'city,' which AJ hadn't seen up close and only knew from the map as the rally point. He took a final swig from the canteen and made to hand it back, but was told not to bother -- Second Platoon had had their own version of Thermopylae when the reinforcements had come through and there were far more canteens than marines left over.

The walk to pick up Baxter and Ochoa and then back to the 'city' was quiet -- they were all tired and the four marines with him were pissed from having lost so many men defending the gate. AJ asked a few questions, but mostly figured he'd wait for the debrief since rumors were always growing wild on the ground after major contact with the enemy. Instead, he pulled out his PDA to make sure they were going in the right direction.

Ronon was already at the city when they'd arrived. He'd apparently slung Sheppard over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and brought him in alone. AJ nodded in greeting to him, then went to go find his platoon and check in, accepting a solemn pat on the shoulder for a job well done from a subdued Polito. Mad Matt had gotten what he came for -- but at a cost. Whether or not it had been a bargain was a value judgment that was over AJ's pay grade to make.

Bargain or not, roleplaying or not, AJ didn't like finding Patchok and being told that he was now squad leader with Rourke KIA and Ortilla having succumbed to his wounds. It took a moment to absorb the shock because he'd heard Ortilla call for the medevac. Of course Manny would play it down over the radio, but AJ didn't want to think about Ortilla (or Rourke) being dead, even a pretend dead that would only last as long as this round of the exercise did. Nevermind that it was fucked up that they'd lost both their squad leader and assistant squad leader in the same engagement.

AJ shook his head when Patchok asked him if needed to be seen by a corpsman -- the cut on his face was shallow and he'd only noticed it when it had been pointed out -- and went to go find what was left of his squad, now actually his squad. (This wasn't how he wanted to return to his old responsibilities, not by attrition when he was third in line.)

He found Suarez, Figeroa, and Jones sitting next to where Ortilla's and Rourke's bodies were laid out, eyes closed and hot pink tags attached to their shirt fronts. Jones had his arm in a sling; he'd been shot in the forearm, but had been RTD'd after getting it splinted because they needed the manpower.

"You get the fuckers?" Suarez asked, angry instead of amused. They'd all laugh about it later, but right now their squad leader and assistant squad leader were dead, their friends were dead, and there wasn't anything funny about it.

"Yeah," AJ confirmed. He'd had enough experience with this in the real world -- comforting fellow marines and keeping his men together -- that he didn't need the practice here. He resented Polito for insisting on this bit of verisimilitude because nobody else in this exercise needed it, either. Nobody in Atlantis did, not when it hadn't even been a month since Charlie Company had added four names and photographs to the Wall in Little Tripoli. "You good with that wing, Spike?"

Jones shrugged his good shoulder and winced. "Good enough. Not my shooting arm."

AJ stayed crouched next to Ortilla's feet, part quiet reflection and part creeping tiredness, until he felt his knees start to ache and the prick of tears in his eyes because this brought back too many memories. He tapped Ortilla's boot gently, stood up with a grunt, and rolled his shoulders. "Come on. We've got work to do."


"They're not alone," AJ told Figeroa, gesturing toward the corpsmen moving about, the other marines crouched next to their fallen comrades. "Nobody's going to leave them alone. But we've got to get back. Second Platoon took a beating holding the gate and we've got a lot of prisoners."

He let Suarez, Figeroa, and Jones file past him before crossing himself and turning to follow. He turned back once as they were leaving the 'room' (indicated by marks on the ground; only the prisoner areas had actual walls) and saw that Ortilla had opened his eyes to watch them go. AJ met his glance with a nod and then turned back to go. It was maybe cheating a little, on both of their parts, but he didn't really care.

It was afternoon before First Platoon got back to the restored stargate and dialed their temporary home, where of course it was after dark and they had to put their goggles back on to get to their area. They'd been 'freed' from the scenario on the other side of the stargate, but everyone was too subdued to do much in the way of chatter or celebrate.

Once back 'home', they broke down into their restored teams and got down to the business of eating, weapons maintenance, and hygiene (not in that order). AJ swapped his Pasta with Veggies for Garrotte's Chicken with Thai Sauce (a completely uneven exchange in Garrotte's favor) because they needed a second cheese spread if Ortilla was going to make nachos and Suarez had ended up with the Teriyaki and refused to trade it away.

Patchok and Gunny moved separately from team to team, the former reminding everyone that they'd completely the mission successfully and the latter listening to everyone bitch about what they'd had had to do for that result. Nobody was under the illusion that the two weren't going to compare notes later, but this was how information had always been transmitted.

Everyone went to sleep pretty much straightaway; they had to be ready for the next objective in the morning. Sheppard and his men would probably be released in a day or two -- depending on how smooth a talker Sheppard was and how generous 1stSgt Backman (playing the pissed-off local leader) was feeling -- but Captain Hanzis and the remainder of Weapons Company and the Ipetians were still on the loose.

"Dude, you try to take a fucking bullet for me again and I'm going to march down to Hell and shoot you myself," Suarez told Ortilla as they were getting ready to rack out. AJ was already settled for the night, but Suarez, as usual, needed everything just so. "And Reletti's coming with me. Ain't no fucking way I'm telling your kid that I'm why his Daddy ain't coming home."

AJ didn't feel like opening his eyes to watch the exchange. "Yeah," he agreed, although his vehemence was somewhat undone by a yawn. Ortilla knew how he felt.

Not that he'd admit it. Not that any of them would.

"Someone'd better tag along so you can find your way home again," Ortilla said instead.

"Fuck you," Suarez bit back and that was that.


After three years working next to Pegasus's version of Grand Central Terminal, Elizabeth was very good at ignoring the world outside her office. Which wasn't to say that she didn't notice when the alarm sounded for an incoming wormhole or that she didn't hear the awesomely uncouth sea of words and noise that accompanied the en masse departure and return of marines or the periodic heated arguments that broke out between engineers in the control room. Just that she didn't have to stop what she was doing to register what the sounds meant, to her and to Atlantis.

Right now, the chatter in the control room was louder than usual and certainly more animated. There were voices that didn't belong, although she could tell who they were, and from this she knew that it must be close to the time that the marines would be checking in.

She had been paying attention to the exercises as they'd progressed, interrupted as they were by death and crisis and occasionally the joys of Pegasus. It seemed like they'd been going on forever, but it had only been three weeks spread out over as many months and now it would be drawing to an end in two days.

The marines -- and John, Lorne, and their various civilian accomplices -- seemed to be having a ball, but Elizabeth thought she'd be relieved when it was over. She didn't like having so many of Atlantis's protectors out of the city for extended periods, even though she accepted without question John's assurance that the city would be safe in their absence. And she understood, as much as she could, that these sorts of activities were necessary for the betterment of Atlantis's future defense.

But it was still one week a month where two thirds of Atlantis's military personnel were doing their utmost to at best demoralize and at worst maim each other and Elizabeth couldn't quite get around the idea that this was a positive thing.

Finishing the last of the SGC-bound reports she'd intended to work on this afternoon, Elizabeth stood up and made her way from her office to the control room, smiling at the marine on the catwalk in between. Captain Hanzis was there, as would be expected as he was the 'event coordinator' with the other two captains in the field, and Yoni was there as well. Each round of the exercise had brought its share of marines (and occasionally civilians or Athosians or Ipetians) back on stretchers, but most of the injuries were treated by the hospital corpsmen attached to the platoons and sometimes they wanted confirmation from a doctor that they had done the right thing.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," she said as she walked up to the small group. In addition to Yoni and Captain Hanzis -- and Lieutenant Murray, lingering off to the side -- Doctor Plesak from Engineering was present, presumably for tech support. If Elizabeth had been mildly horrified at the list of destructive implements the marines had gotten shipped from Earth for this affair, she knew she'd be much more so were John or Lorne to confess to what, precisely, they'd gotten from the bowels of Atlantis.

"Afternoon, ma'am," Hanzis replied with a nod. Of the three marine captains, Hanzis was the one who reminded her most of Marshall Sumner. It wasn't anything in particular, although she could point out vague resemblances in carriage and demeanor, but an overall sense of the man. She didn't know how accurate an assessment it was -- she accepted that the officers had lives and personalities away from their duties that, by virtue of her position, she saw only by accident -- but it had come to her at some point last year and stuck. "Come to hear the tally?"

She'd kept closer tabs on the civilian participation (and John and Lorne), both out of concern and the more pragmatic reason that she needed to know who was actually running various parts of the city at given moments. The marines had generally been careful of their civilian and indigenous colleagues, but this was simulated combat and Elizabeth was under no illusion that everyone could be kept either safe or within their comfort zone at all times. Some of the civilians seemed to generally enjoy the experience, but others -- such as Rodney's 'volunteers' -- were less thrilled for having taken part.

"I've come to make sure everyone has survived this latest clash of the Titans," Elizabeth replied, trying to sound reproachful and knowing she'd failed by the grins from the men around her. "Do I even want to know what's going on this time?"

"Payback, ma'am," Hanzis replied seriously, although Elizabeth did not miss the twinkle in his eyes. "Captain Polito's going to be getting as good as he's given."

Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "Was the exercise not designed fairly?" She knew Polito had been the architect of the project, but had assumed that there had been equitable decision-making with so many other hands involved.

"Oh, he was fair about it, ma'am," Hanzis replied with a nod. "But there's no reason we have to reciprocate."

The shock must have registered on her face because Yoni laughed, a short, sharp, not entirely pleasant sound. "Polito orchestrated the 'vacation' at the end of Bravo's week and kept most of Weapons prisoner on M94-G32 for two days. Among other highlights."

Elizabeth remembered the first instance, but not as a potential source of lingering humiliation -- she'd just laughed uneasily along with everyone else at the thought of Lorne as sleeper agent. John had been scheduled to be out the entire week with Weapons Company and how he'd spent that week had been deemed nothing she'd needed to be briefed about.

"Charlie Company's already won the exercise, ma'am," Hanzis added. "Between the blanket party they threw for my marines and what they've done so far this week, they've already got the points. We're just making sure they don't run up the score."

Marines, as a rule, did not believe in using a scalpel when a machete was available. "You're not going to do anything that's going to hinder Charlie Company's effectiveness once the exercise is over, are you? I don't want sour grapes carrying over into something that will threaten the city."

"Don't worry, Doctor Weir," Yoni assured her. "This is strictly a blow to the ego. And the nervous system a little, too, but mostly the ego."

"We've got Charlie walking on to a planet with a Hive ship," Hanzis elaborated. "A hive led by Ronon and the Colonel."

The first time the marines had had a war games exercise, it had been on the mainland and it had been a Wraith scenario, one platoon of marines with John and Ronon as Wraith and the rest of the Atlantis marines as themselves. It had been a relative slaughter, Elizabeth recalled. And now a company led by Ronon and John against a fatigued Charlie?

"Remind me not to get on your bad side, Captain," she said wryly.

Elizabeth was back in her office by the time Bravo's captain dialed in. She was figuratively knee-deep in a proposal from Pharmacology about prospective new drugs, advents that made her both hopeful and a little terrified, when she overheard the money phrase from Captain Radner.

"We ran out of 'snack' flags."

feed me on LJ?

back to the yearly index | back to the main SGA page

1 December, 2010