by Domenika Marzione

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.

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1 December, 2010