Status Quo Ante

by Domenika Marzione

As soon as people found AJ was applying to colleges, everyone had an opinion. Usually it was a comment on where they'd gone to school -- go here, don't go there -- and didn't have too much practical use for his specific needs (acceptable to the Marine Corps program that would be paying for it, open to students not coming directly from high school, etc.). But occasionally he did get helpful advice and not always from the most likely sources -- Doctor Bresloff's unsolicited monologue during meal break on an off-world mission turned out to be pretty wise.

In the end, Doctor Griffin (ex-Army), Doctor Safir, and Major Lorne turned out to have the best advice -- stick to schools in or near bigger cities, since he was going to end up being quite a bit older age-wise (and eons older experience-wise) than his classmates and he might want friends his own age and something to do that wasn't getting drunk every weekend with eighteen-year-olds. And be patient with everyone and everything, which seemed obvious when they were telling that to him in Atlantis and far less so when he was standing in line during orientation, surrounded by kids in Che Guevara t-shirts carrying shoulder bags with anti-war buttons. He'd never felt so old in his life, acutely aware that he had been graduating boot camp at the same time these kids were graduating elementary school and the gap had only widened since.

The opening broadside was weathered, however, and things evened out remarkably quickly. His first days at U Chicago were far less mindblowing than his first days in Atlantis (certainly in the literal sense) and much less of a shock treatment than finding out that he'd signed up to go fight aliens. He settled in to a new city, did his best to transition into quasi-civilian life, and figured out where he needed to be when in order to serve his academic and military masters. Once classes started, the fish-out-of-water feeling got stronger, but he dealt. Massive amounts of reading and weekly quizzes weren't exactly high on his stress meter after what he'd been doing for most of the last decade. Having to politely turn down explicit invites from nubile eighteen-year-old girls... that was stressful -- or at least awkward in a way that turning down invitations in Pegasus had never been. The grad school girls were thankfully a little more mature and just as willing.

Life was good, which pretty much meant that it wasn't going to last. AJ had expected something along the lines of a bureaucratic fuck-up or winding up in a core-required course taught by one of the military-hating professors on campus. He hadn't seen the destruction of Beijing and Dhaka by the Ori on his horizon.

He'd been in the library, getting lost in the stacks as usual (years of land nav in two galaxies were no preparation for the mysteries of Regenstein) when he'd heard students whispering about bombs going off in China. He hadn't thought much of it -- it could have been anything, from terrorism to the Chinese themselves -- but by the time he brought his books to the circulation desk, it was all anyone was talking about. The TVs in the cafe were all tuned in to the news, the first reports telling wild stories of beams from the sky and destruction far too massive to have come from a non-state actor.

"Oh my god!" A girl in a Linn t-shirt cried, her macchiato frozen halfway to her lips. "Did we just nuke China?"

Dhaka was leveled the next morning; AJ caught the news as he was leaving to get to class. He'd spent most of the previous evening surfing the web looking for something more than wild speculation. Most of the traditional news sources were having a hard time rectifying what they thought they knew with what eye-witnesses were saying -- death rays from the sky was movie talk, not reality. (At least if you hadn't been read into the Stargate Program.) "Military analysts" pondered which weapons could have done this, but AJ knew what kind of officers ended up leaving Pentagon assignments to work on TV and ignored them. He suspected it was something to do with aliens -- maybe the Goa'uld, more probably the Ori, hopefully not the Wraith, possibly some new threat that popped up since he'd left Atlantis -- and wondered if he should try to contact the SGC, see if they needed someone. Because he loved being in college, but he loved being free and safe even more.

Turned out that he didn't need to call someone -- someone called him. Two USAF majors were waiting for him as he left Intro to Art.

"Staff Sergeant Reletti?"

"Sir?" he addressed the one who spoke. The curious stares of his classmates and passers-by were ignored.

"You're being TDY'ed," Major Kenneally told him. "We'll pick up your stuff on the way."

A stop at home and a short flight later, he was being whisked past security and down into the bowels of the SGC. Back in uniform, everything felt both familiar and not -- he hadn't spent an awful lot of time at this site, but it wasn't that different from Atlantis despite the change in location.

He found out it was the Ori who'd attacked Earth before he was ushered into General Landry's office, introduced to Marine Lieutenant Colonel Porter, and told that he was the newest member of SG-3.

Landry explained the big picture -- lots of Ori, little notable progress for the good guys -- before turning him over to Porter. Porter had clearly read his SRB closely, asking questions not only about his time in Atlantis and on Major Lorne's team, but also about before, about Recon and Iraq and Djibouti and Japan. Porter asked why he wanted to become an officer, why he joined the marines, whether he called his mother, whether he prayed. The last got a curt "good" and the penultimate a stop at a phone so he could leave a message back in Tucson telling his mom that he had been recalled to duty.

On the intel end, there was a lot to catch up on and Porter didn't beat around the bush -- the Ori had been making near-unimpeded progress through the Milky Way and were now close enough to completing their takeover that they could bring more resources to bear against Earth than the SGC could hope to counter, at least without shredding the thin veil of secrecy between the planet's peoples and the rest of the known galaxies. Yesterday's attacks pretty much ended that.

Beijing and Dhaka had been targeted for their population density, a strong first salvo to convince large groups of people to give up their gods and worship the Ori. That China was officially irreligious was ironic; the eight million dead each in the municipality of Beijing and greater Dhaka was not. Apparently only the fact that Shen Xiaoyi was back with the IOA had kept World War III from starting -- the Chinese government, like the undergrads, had thought the Americans had bombed them.

"Would've been easier on us if we had," Porter said darkly.

Their allies were thin on the ground; the Jaffa had taken a bad hit, the Asgard were fighting a two-front war as it was, and attempts to contact advanced races (the Nox, a people AJ knew nothing about) had not worked out well. Unsurprisingly, the SGC had been decimated in the last month -- twenty men from the teams had died along with a dozen scientists -- and everyone who had ever been affiliated with the Stargate Program was being recalled. AJ had only been left alone as long as he had been because they had been forbidden before yesterday to tap reservists or active duty personnel in civilian placements.

Porter shrugged. "Ain't no such thing as a reserve anymore."

AJ was told that SG-3 was three NCOs and Porter and AJ was the new team sergeant; Gunnery Sergeant Kamber had been killed on P6B-41J two weeks ago evacuating survivors from a fallen world. Sergeants Narsky and Lisak were good kids, but they were kids and enthusiasm and brawn couldn't overcome their relative inexperience. AJ was expected to provide the experience.

Narsky ("call me Nark!") and Lisak were kids, but not so green that AJ didn't know what to do with them. It had been a while since he'd led a squad, let alone a team, but it wasn't hard to get back up to speed. A couple of hours on the range and in the team room and he had a better sense of who they were and what they were capable of. Porter didn't believe in P-90s; SG-3 used M-16s like good marines and AJ had to re-acclimate himself to the larger weapons after more than two years away. Getting comfortable with the M-16 also let him feel less like a stranger in his own skin -- the bruise in his shoulder from the stock of his rifle made everything else feel more real.

So did getting shot at, which happened all too soon -- their first time through the gate, as one of four teams sent to support the Jaffa main force. It was a little weird fighting a massive, well-coordinated army, like something out of a history book; AJ hadn't had a lot of experience with that in either galaxy. Pegasus didn't have any worlds big enough to support brigade-sized elements, let alone the divisions that the Ori were throwing at them, and his combat experience on Earth had pretty much been smaller groups since the Iraqis had tended to surrender or flee instead of fight and die. He wasn't scared looking out upon the sea of Ori soldiers that stretched back to the horizon, but he couldn't say that he liked the feelings he did have.

Nonetheless, he brought his team back in one piece -- Lisak and Narsky did what he told them to, occasionally before he had to tell them, and Porter didn't do anything too crazy. Porter was a bit like Colonel Sheppard and a lot like Captain Blain, his Recon commander -- a little too eager to be up front, but not a complete idiot once there. AJ had only had to yank him out of imminent danger once; they'd glared at each other and moved on.

On a rare catching-up-on-sleep-and-paperwork day, AJ caught part of General O'Neill's press conference in one of the rec rooms along with various other SG personnel. Nobody was saying anything they didn't already know, but they were really there for the grim entertainment of watching the Q-and-A that followed. The highlight was O'Neill snapping at the gal who asked if there was any merit to Al-Jazeera's report that the Ori were really an American-and-Israeli plot to take over the Middle East's oil reserves.

"If that man wasn't already my hero," Colonel Mitchell announced after O'Neill blasted the question with a helluva reply, "he'd be right up there."

The SGC was on Earth, but it wasn't really on Earth -- he caught word of things like spiking gas prices and restrictions on international air travel second-hand in the commissary or skimming someone else's leftover newspaper. Emails from his mother contained details about neighborhood watches and blood drives and record numbers at the recruiting stations, but AJ didn't really process any of it because it didn't matter to his daily life. He rarely had the energy for anything beyond the rhythm they'd fallen into -- fight, run, kill, rescue, kill, run, sleep. AJ didn't even realize it was Christmas week until he saw the signs up for Midnight Mass.

His mother and sisters had separately emailed him to ask him if he'd been fighting aliens for the last few years, if that's what he was doing now. He'd asked Porter what he should tell them.

"The truth," Porter had replied with a shrug. "Just leave out the part where you did most of your fighting in another galaxy."

Nobody knew if the Ori knew about Atlantis, but the decision had been made to keep that part a secret from Earth just in case. AJ didn't know if Atlantis knew that he'd been recalled, suspected that they didn't. The news traveling back and forth between Earth and Pegasus was a lot more high-level these days. But he knew how much everyone there wanted to get back here and he wished that he could send a message saying that he was there. Not that he was Superman or anything, but maybe Ortilla would freak out less about his boy and Suarez about his brother and parents if they knew someone they trusted with their own lives was helping defend them.

He didn't have much time to read the reports that came back from Atlantis; he knew that Major Lorne hadn't replaced him on the off-world team yet, but whether that was just because Ortilla's squad was still down a man or some other reason was unclear.

The priors came to Earth in ships. The first couple were destroyed, but neither the US nor the rest of the world had enough surface-to-air missiles to deal with the quantities of scout ships and transports that entered the atmosphere and they were losing fighter jets at a rate that could not be sustained. The militaries of the world were activated or redeployed to their home lands to defend them; the Ori didn't seem to care.

They did care about troop movements on other worlds, however. Teal'c was killed in a Jaffa raid on the fallen Chulak; the SGC was like a silent movie for days after the news.

The priors went to places like Jerusalem and Mecca, gave their spiels, and then destroyed the multitudes who failed to fall at their feet. Mount Kailash was destroyed in the same fashion as Beijing and Dhaka, as were half a dozen other sites significant to one religion or many. Next to a church outside of Independence, Missouri, AJ stood and watched in disbelief as everything around him withered and died. "Why hast thou forsaken us?" a sign said.

AJ didn't believe that they were forsaken, not the way the Ancients had left Pegasus high and dry. Nor did he believe that the Ori had been sent by God to cleanse the Earth of its sins. The Ori weren't divine, not on their own terms and not on anyone else's. He went to Mass whenever he could, asked God to keep his family and the families of those he cared about safe, but he never asked 'why', instead looking for signs of hope even in the wake of military defeats.

The brains at the SGC seemed to think that some critical mass was required before the Ori would bring their armies to Earth. The Ori needed as many people alive to worship them as possible, so they would give the priors as much time as possible to convert by means other than at the barrel of a gun. Not that there weren't deaths in the thousands daily -- suicides, attempts at martyrdom, the unlucky innocents who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time and refused to apostatize -- but without the plague at their disposal, the priors hadn't gotten too inventive to compensate.

The SG teams still went off-world, but their focus necessarily was on Earth, where they showed up for prior sightings and tried to do their thing, usually in tandem with the local army. The SG teams were given wide latitude and treated as almost separate from the military services they'd come from, both by the US Armed Forces and the world's militaries. AJ found himself in the slightly surreal (if he'd stopped to think about it) position of ordering around field grade officers of three different nations during a confrontation outside of Kushinagar, none of whom even noted that he was an enlisted man.

The first Ori troops landed in New York and Henan Province simultaneously. The Chinese took a heavy loss in their ground forces, but still won the day. NYC was more of a rout for the good guys; the Ori armies were not meant for urban warfare in a place so technologically advanced and with a citizenry so unwilling to be victimized again. AJ thought Ortilla would have been proud of the way civilians and military worked together to drive the Ori into the sea. After those fiascos, the Ori went for less ambitious targets. They found purchase in Africa, taking advantage of the fractured governments and warring societies to build their lodgment and not a Cold War's worth of nukes had been able to budge them.

With action falling into the more realms of combat, the SG teams were re-focused on other tasks such as resource procurement and protection. It was during a snatch-and-grab gone badly wrong in Ori-controlled Côte d'Ivoire that AJ nearly ended up a martyr to the cause, narrowly missing out on a spectacular gut wound by tripping over Nark's boot as he lay prone. He still ended up with an impressive gouge in his arm, but better that then his intestines. Between his arm and Lisak's concussion and Porter cracked tibia, SG-3 was put on stand-down. It became a de facto disbanding after SG-5 returned with only half of their number; the two marine teams were to be combined with Porter as the nominal head but Major Segassi actually in charge on field missions once he was cleared through medical.

AJ had been running on fumes and crappy coffee for so long, he didn't know what to do with even the concept of down time. Except sleep, which he did in copious amounts. The next day, Porter found him in the commissary, wolfing down eggs and hash browns and what he thought might be dandelion greens but he wasn't sure and was eating them anyway.

"Here," he said, handing over a blank envelope.

"What is that, sir?" AJ asked, wiping his mouth.

"Orders for you to fly to Phoenix," Porter said, quirking his lips into a smile. "I figure you know how to get home from there."

A hundred miles straight down I-10. "How'd you swing that, sir?" he asked. Why wasn't even worth saying aloud. AJ knew why -- the war was going badly and this might be his last chance to see his family.

"You learn shit as a staff officer," Porter replied with a shrug. "Don't go AWOL or we'll send airmen to drag you back and won't that be embarrassing."

AJ opened the envelope after Porter hobbled away; there was a C-130 heading down to Phoenix at 0400 tomorrow to do a supply run that involved waiting for a Herk up from Panama, returning 0650 Thursday morning. Three days in Arizona.

He left the commissary before he did something stupid like cry.

It was tempting to just surprise everyone by showing up on his mom's doorstep, but the real world didn't work like that anymore and AJ didn't even know if he could get down to Tucson without hiking I-10 half the way. He called his mom, who did cry and they made arrangements to meet in Phoenix.

"Seeing you is worth spending the money on gas," his mother said.

Being home made him ache in ways both good and bad. He hated seeing everyone so worried, so afraid, and so confused. He'd hated keeping secrets from his family, but there'd been the fiction of comfort in those secrets, too -- now they knew for sure that he was doing something dangerous instead of just suspecting the worst and never having it be confirmed. They asked lots of questions, some of which he could answer and most of which he couldn't, and generally treated him like a visiting prince. AJ wondered if they understood, too, that this might be his last visit home.

Wednesday night, as he packed his seabag, his mother came and sat on the chair in his room, unwilling to be apart from him until she had to.

"If they come," he began, paying very close attention to the socks he was wedging into the bag. He couldn't say stuff like this to her face. "tell them what they want to hear."

"Don't speak like that, AJ," his mother chided. "They're not going to come and if they do, I'm not going to die some alien-worshiper."

His mother went to mass every day now. They said grace before meals, which they hadn't done since AJ was eight. He didn't expect her to take this sort of talk well.

"I'm trying to help you not die a Catholic, either," he sighed with frustration. He turned around and sat on the bed, putting his elbows on his thighs. "They're not here to be reasonable and they're not interested in debate or polite refusal. They're here for one thing -- fuel. And if you can give them what they want without dying for it, then I don't see what the problem is."

He didn't know if it would work, if surface obedience was enough. But he'd seen enough on other worlds to maybe have a hope that it would, at least long enough for the good guys to figure out how to save the day.

"Listen to me," he went on, "Peter denied Jesus three times and still got to be the rock of the Church. You can lie to save yourself a few times, too. Jesus'll know you don't mean 'Hallowed are the Ori' and the Ori, frankly, don't give a fuck."

There was silence between them for a long moment. AJ hung his head, a little worried that their last words together would be harsh ones. But then he felt fingers carding through his still-regulation-but-only-barely hair.

"Such language the Marines have taught you," his mother sighed. It was forgiveness, a token of peace. Her hand slipped from the top of his head down his cheek. "This isn't what I wanted for you."

He lifted his head, feeling the prick of tears. "I know. But I'm glad it's what I got."

His mother took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You don't think you're coming back again, do you?"

He closed his eyes, not wanting to lie to her face. "I'm coming back, Mom. It may be a while, but I'll come back."

"I'll hold you to that," she said, patting his cheek once and standing up. "Finish packing. You should be able to crash for a couple of hours before we have to leave."

When he got back to the SGC, bleary-eyed and aching with loss, he was told not to unpack.

"You're going down to Antarctica," Colonel Mitchell told him. Landry was in DC with O'Neill for the week and so, with Carter still off along with SG-12, Mitchell was head of the base. "We got a power source for the chair down there and now we just need someone who can sit in it and make it light up."

Unable to find another ZPM or to get a naquadah generator that wouldn't blow up when the control chair was in use, the SGC had been stuck watching the invasion of Earth with the Ancients' own global defense system sitting idly by -- except as the research facility it had always been. Now it was a matter of maybe too little too late, but there was so little hope left that nobody wanted to bring that up.

AJ asked when he was leaving.

"When you're ready," Mitchell said. "Apollo still ain't nothin' but an orbiting teleporter. General O'Neill said to tell you to just wear the Zoomie fleece so you don't freeze to death."

Thankfully, Nark saved his dignity by finding him some USMC and civilian snivel gear, cannibalized from places AJ didn't want to think about lest he be accused of being an accomplice after the fact. Lisak, whose brains had finally gotten unscrambled enough so that he wasn't singing Sesame Street songs anymore, took AJ to find Porter in the infirmary where he was getting his cast filed down.

"They've been sending people down there for about thirty hours," Porter said. Days and nights were kind of meaningless in a facility with no windows and an enemy who didn't respect the rise and fall of the sun, so people tended to speak in hour terms. "There are a couple of other people with the gene being punted down there, but you're the one they want. You ever sit in the chair in Atlantis?"

"Once," AJ replied with a frown. It had been a long afternoon, just him and the Colonel, as AJ learned what he needed for "just in case." Activating the chair had been like beaming down to Atlantis the first time, except not quite as intense. Conversely, the streams of data flowing into his head were all ones that he had to keep track of instead of just pushing to the side and ignoring. He'd had a headache for two days afterward. "Hopefully it won't be like that."

"Hate to break it to you, Staff Sergeant," Porter said. "But I suspect they're hoping that you're wrong."

He'd heard about the Antarctic facility from the few marines who'd been with the project since those earliest of days. They all agreed that the place was pretty interesting, but none of them had wanted to be playing Marine Security Guard for a bunch of excitable scientists when there was a war going on half a world away.

AJ wasn't there to pull security. He was there to blow shit up.

Doctor Grimaldo was the chief scientist, the McKay of the place, and he nearly dragged AJ off to the chair the minute he materialized. But the actual head of the facility was Colonel Aplar, who did not have a problem exercising that authority over the scientists and AJ was sent to go find his rack and drop off his seabag before getting coffee and making his way back down to the chair room.

Grimaldo turned out to be kind of the anti-McKay, at least once you discounted his assumption that everything he needed was automatically everyone else's top priority. But, past that, he was actually a nice guy. He treated his subordinates well, and didn't seem to think that AJ was the ATA Gene Who Walked, let him take frequent breaks to avoid migraines, and made sure there were snacks and water bottles to hand. He also tried to explain all of the things he was asking AJ to do -- bring up this schematic, bring up that diagram, does the chair have any data on This, That, and the Other -- but AJ usually got lost by the fourth sentence in and smiled and nodded at appropriate junctures until he realized that he could just close his eyes and let the words flow over him and Grimaldo wouldn't even skip a beat.

For the first few weeks, AJ was more control panel than key to an artillery battery -- there weren't enough rich targets to merit blowing both their cover and their drone supply, so it was more intelligence gathering and plotting and planning, none of which involved AJ beyond being requested to change the image. Brass and geeks both showed up -- Doctor Jackson one day, General O'Neill another -- but most of the work was done by videoconferencing. AJ preferred the on-site visits because that was pretty much the only way he got reasonably fresh intel on what was going on back in the real world and on the war front.

Doctor Jackson was the one who told him that Nark had been killed, shot protecting a child. Eight days later, AJ didn't remember who was talking when it came up that Jackson hadn't returned home from a mission to Paraguay and was presumed captured.

Finally, more than a month after he'd arrived, AJ was woken up by Corporal Eiglitz and told that he was needed in the chair now -- they had acquired targets. Colonel Apler and Grimaldo were both waiting for him as he stumbled into the chair room. He sat down, barely remembering to brace himself for the rush of data before he activated the chair, and waited for instructions.

"Bring up the planetary view, Staff Sergeant," Aplar ordered. AJ did, seeing more with his mind than with his eyes the schematic of Earth surrounded by satellites and warships. The crap littering their planet was essentially the same -- AJ's geography wasn't good enough to know which western African country was now hosting the Ori carrier that had been in the Sudan -- but the picture of space was far different. There were more ships in orbit than there had been yesterday, three of the giant toilet seats, each with their own support group of cruisers and the ugly little transports that carried no offensive weapons but were practically impossible to shoot down with conventional weapons.

"Can we do a target assessment for both land and space?" Aplar asked. They routinely wargamed possible bombings of the Earth-based ships, trying to figure out how many drones it would take to knock out an Ori warship -- assuming that they could destroy an Ori warship. AJ didn't even wonder anymore how the chair could process the request without him actually asking it to do anything, but it did. Red and green and blue lines arced out from the purple dot at the bottom of the world and he waited to hear what it meant.

"I think we can do this, sir," Major Benoit, their intelligence officer, said. "It looks like we'll cause enough damage to at least put a crimp in their forward progress, if not halt it entirely until they can bring in reinforcements. It'll definitely buy us time to consolidate our resources."

Nobody said it outright, but AJ knew that the SGC was already moving from a strategy based on defending Earth from the Ori to building up a resistance that would overthrow and remove them. Earth wasn't lost -- but it was losing. AJ couldn't really wrap his head around that, around the idea of his planet being enslaved. That was a fate for lesser worlds, for places that didn't have their shit together and didn't have access to technology. Pegasus was in constant threat of being overrun and destroyed, but Earth... even knowing about the Goa'uld and the other threats, he'd always imagined it as impregnable. No more.

"Stand down, Staff Sergeant," Aplar said and AJ let the schematics drop. He pulled himself free of the chair, a process that always reminded him of The Matrix with the spikes being unhooked from his brain, except for the fact that his connections were all intangible. He sat forward in the quiet chair and closed his eyes, getting used to only five senses and one voice in his head. It got harder every time to do that.

"We're going to have to run this by the Pentagon, but I think we'll have a go for launch in a few hours," Aplar was saying, probably not to AJ. He figured someone would repeat the important stuff to him later.


He looked up to find everyone watching him. "Sir?"

Or maybe he had been supposed to have been paying attention.

"Go get some food and some coffee and do what you need to do," Aplar told him. "You're going to have a busy afternoon."

He let Corporal Eiglitz drag him upstairs. He was still a little clumsy -- too much chair and no coffee always made things worse -- and she playfully offered to help him shower and shave. Despite -- or maybe because of -- the imminent bombing, he was tempted to let her. It wouldn't have been the first time. But he knew that everyone was going to be essentially watching his brain later on and he didn't want the chair displaying something wacky because he'd gotten laid. So he risked a few nicks with the razor and instead let her 'buy' him breakfast.

The confirmation came two hours later. AJ settled back into the chair, brought up the routine he'd run earlier, and waited for Aplar to tell him to fire. Colonel Sheppard had explained that firing drones from the chair was an order of magnitude more difficult than firing them from a jumper and, frankly, he hadn't been that awesome at that. But AJ wasn't nervous as he waited for the launch order. The chair -- he'd kind of named her Betty -- was almost eager, as if she sensed that this wasn't going to be another game, and he felt better with this vague assurance that one of them knew what they were doing.

"On my mark, Staff Sergeant," Aplar said and AJ closed his eyes again.

When the command came, AJ realized what Sheppard had meant. It wasn't that difficult to get the drone in motion -- Betty moved like a well-oiled machine considering she hadn't fired anything in millennia. But keeping his -- and therefore the drones' -- attention on the right target was hard. The drones were smart bombs in the sense that they could be directed after launch, but they were pretty fucking stupid past that. It was like herding cats or trying to keep privates in line on a patrol; the drones saw a target and went "this one?" and AJ had to keep his mind focused on the Ori target map all the harder until the next drone went "this one?" and the process repeated all over again. Again and again. With every drone.

The chair room had been set up for the mission -- monitors had been brought in for VTC and satellite imagery, telephones and other communications crap had been imported as well -- but AJ was only peripherally aware of them as he watched the drones fly through air and space. He heard voices, but honestly couldn't tell if they were speaking to him; he couldn't dedicate enough attention to anything but the drones, ever eager to blow up the next worthy-looking target. He wasn't paying specific attention to any one drone, just a sort of passive mental eye on them all, repeating the "this one?" conversation without knowing which non-Ori targets he was bypassing or which Ori targets he was approving. He could sense that the drones were hitting where they were supposed to, but not how much damage they were doing, if any.

When it was over, AJ had to be shaken back to awareness. He felt disconnected from both his body and his surroundings, neither human nor animated. He couldn't feel anything except a hum, like his entire body was vibrating, and there was a delay between when he saw people's lips move and when he processed the words they were saying. Doctor Sykes held out a water bottle for him and it took a moment before he realized that he had to reach out and take it. He dropped it, his fingers not closing around it fast enough, and that was enough for Doctor Barrett to have him escorted to the infirmary. There was a neurological baseline testing that went acceptably, an attempt at drinking water that went not-so-acceptably, and he was left to doze with an IV in his arm.

He was woken up a few hours later, given another neurological check-up, and told he could either go back to sleep or go shower. He chose the latter because his uniform felt stiff with sweat and he could still smell puke even if he couldn't see any.

"Ninety-two percent hit rate," Benoit told him later. "And seventy-eight percent destruction of our targets. That's pretty much what we hoped for -- better, really. We had doubts about the drones' effectiveness against the warships."

Even feeling relatively normal and all in one piece, AJ didn't have much of a reaction to the news. He was pleased, proud of a job well done, but he couldn't get as excited about it as Benoit seemed to be. He understood enough about first strike strategy to know that they had only bought themselves time. They certainly hadn't won anything -- the Ori could still do great damage with a counterstrike. All they'd maybe gotten was the chance to make the seemingly inevitable loss less damaging and maybe less enduring.

Nonetheless, for the next two weeks, a sense of optimism pervaded the ice and AJ, if not actually caught up in it, was at least not completely immune. The SG teams pulled in supplies and, perhaps more importantly, human resources -- scientists and soldiers they'd been unable to bring to safety. With them came prototypes and intelligence and, since the Ori were still in recovery mode, the occasional news of a significant victory.

It didn't last.

When the Ori counterstrike came, it came hard and it came fast. The SGC had been moved from NORAD for a couple of months already, the infrastructure destroyed and the personnel and resources fragmented into subcommands and task-oriented cells. The Ori found almost all of them and turned them into ash and powder. Generals O'Neill and Landry were killed the same day six thousand miles apart, along with more than sixty others split over eight hideouts. Colonel Mitchell's large rescue and evacuation unit had been off-world and Colonel Carter's tech units had somehow managed to escape mostly intact, but those had been two of the very few gray spots on a very black day. The SGC had led the global resistance effort and, without it, defeat seemed more assured than it ever had before.

The Ori came for Antarctica, too, but shields they didn't even know existed kept them safe from everything but falling chunks of loosened ice. AJ spent the siege sitting in the control chair, paying attention to but not really controlling the defense. He still had the gash on his forehead from where falling ice had nailed him; he had watched it come, but had been unwilling to disengage the chair by moving to avoid it.

One morning, Aplar collected all of the base personnel together and told them that a message had gone out to Atlantis -- Earth was about to fall. Their energies were now to be focused on evacuations -- to other worlds, maybe to Atlantis -- so that they could regroup and reassess. Projects should be sorted between crucial and not, between portable and not, and dealt with accordingly. Everyone should be ready to evacuate with five minutes' notice.

Six weeks and two planets later, AJ ended up on the Daedalus, the last of the rescued from PX5-G21, a world that had gone from violent resistance to the Ori to an epic case of Stockholm Syndrome in the time since their last intel on the place had been collected. He didn't know how many they'd lost there, just that Eiglitz was one of them.

Atlantis greeted him with the same sort of muted acknowledgment that she always had when he'd come back from off-world, like he hadn't been gone for a year. The people he'd left behind were less reticent.

"You look like crap," Doctor Safir told him as he sat fidgeting on the exam bed. AJ was nominally getting looked over to update his medical files, but from the way everyone kept an eye on him like they thought he was going to fall over, he thought it was really because they didn't trust the ship's doctors to not have overlooked something.

"I missed you, too, Doc," AJ said, since Doc didn't like sentimentality any more than the marines did. Suarez had popped him in the arm, all while giving him the once-over. Ortilla just told him he'd gotten uglier.

"Unless you're feeling any strong desire to go chat with Heightmeyer, I'm going to give you your psych clearance," Doc told him, writing up his notes. "Our barometer for 'okay' has been adjusted downward in the last year and you still qualify."

"Sometimes I wonder about that," AJ sighed.

"That's why you're getting your clearance," Doc told him, giving him a look that expressed just how much everything had been weighing on him. AJ nodded. "Now get out of here. Someone who is actually ill might come in."

AJ smiled in spite of himself and hopped off of the bed and picked up his uniform jacket and rucksack and headed for the transporter, poking the spot for Little Tripoli without really thinking about it. It wasn't like coming home, not when home and the people he loved were in danger or dead, but it was a place he could maybe be comfortable in again until they were all ready to go home for real.

feed me on LJ?

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5 April, 2008