Art Is Long

by Domenika Marzione

Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experimenting dangerous, reasoning difficult. -- Hippocrates


For better or for worse, Rodney's reaction to finding out about the Ori is perhaps best classified as 'extremely unimpressed.' They're like the Goa'uld except without the fancy jewelry and Jaffa armies and Rodney, a galaxy away and preoccupied with the Wraith, a much more menacing opponent, can't work up enough energy to even fake interest. Or fake concern when Teyla asks if he is worried about the fate of Earth.

"False gods, fancy pyrotechnics, 'Kneel before Zod,'" he sighs, waving his spoon vaguely over his ice cream. "At least they don't want to eat anyone."

Teyla gives him a mildly disapproving look, but she returns to her near-deer pot roast without giving him any version of the Sanctity of All Life lecture.

"Who's Zod?" Ronon asks. He, too, is working on a serving of ice cream. Except Ronon's is the size of Lake Louise because he somehow procured a serving bowl to eat it from.

"Bad guy character," Sheppard says. He's doing some zen garden thing with his mashed potatoes and a carrot and Rodney can't watch it because he becomes transfixed by it even though Sheppard is not even paying attention to what he's doing. "We'll watch Superman one of these days."

"Although he's really only relevant in Superman II," Rodney points out, returning his focus to the sundae, which has three different kinds of ice cream -- the marines have started making their own. "And we'll be doing you a service by pretending III doesn't exist."

Editing out the worst of Earth culture is one of the hidden perquisites of working in another galaxy.

"Richard Pryor was fun," Sheppard says and Rodney does what he can to not weep into his dessert.

"Anyway, these Ori are just snake oil salesmen," is what he says instead of weeping, since Sheppard's got the twinkle in his eye that indicates he might want to actually argue the merits of Gus Gorman if Rodney shows weakness. "They're picking on people who've already proven themselves to be sucker-prone. The Goa'uld are gone, there's a void at the top, nature abhors a vacuum, and the next lucky idiot who stumbles along finds himself local godhead. It's nothing to worry about."

And for the first few months, Rodney is absolutely right. The Ori priors keep their focus on planets that are easy marks -- ones just freed from the Goa'uld, ones under control of weak Goa'uld, ones that are simply between despotic overlords because independent sovereignty is beyond either their will or their ability. It's part of the learning curve -- new enemy, new game, new rules -- and at no point does anyone at the SGC sound more nervous than annoyed. There's a lot of frustration, though. The Ori priors' picking the Milky Way's low-hanging fruit makes the SGC's success rate depressingly -- if artificially -- low, which in turn makes Atlantis's life less easy because, as the younger sibling, the expedition doubles as a stress toy for its elder kin.

That does not mean Rodney, in his capacity as Chief Science Officer of Atlantis, has to humor them. He answers Sam Carter's question about naquadah isotopes because it's new and interesting and if she can make what she has planned work, then they might not even need to find another ZPM. Everything else gets either ignored or, in the case of resource requests, re-sent unchanged because his people have more important things to do than cater to bureaucrats who are trying to cover their own asses by making someone else look stupid.

Elizabeth, Sheppard, and Carson face their own versions of this dance, rehashed weekly at the command staff meetings, and they all agree to grin and bear it now, saving up ammunition for the point where the battle with the Ori takes a turn for the better and the Mountain is feeling more generous.

But that point somehow never comes. There are victories, but they are costly and few in number. Earth narrowly averts crisis, Chulak is still reeling, Langara falls. There's still no reaching for the panic button, however, and life goes on in Atlantis, just with more forbearance toward an SGC too distracted to be petty.

Life goes on in Atlantis and maybe a little too smoothly, at least as far as Science goes. Rodney is getting most of what he asks for these days in terms of people and equipment, but he may be the only one and sometimes he tends to forget that. He is always surprised to notice Elizabeth has worn a permanent furrow in her brow from all of the "no"s she hears and passes on and Carson gets exasperated with what he believes is Rodney's lack of care as he tries to better facilitate cooperation between units so they can start ameliorating their own drug supply. And Sheppard, who usually seems to be only slightly more interested in the marines' activities than Rodney, is less patient with what Rodney has always considered a gentleman's agreement to barter their respective resources.

"My supply lines have been cut to a piss trickle, McKay," Sheppard retorts angrily one afternoon as they are marching at a Ronon-set pace toward the stargate after an uneventful mission. "I just sent two dozen marines back to Earth and I'll be lucky if I get half as many back. We're sending the rest on a dozen food supply and trade-building missions a week and so, no. If Polito said you get six platoon-size research missions this week, then you get six platoon-size research missions this week and it's up to you to choose who gets bumped back to next week. Don't look to me to bail you out."

Sheppard apologizes for his outburst later, but Rodney still ends up telling Radek to pare down Engineering's load to three and let everyone else fight over the other three slots.

Privations aside, Atlantis is still doing mostly what it always did -- fight Wraith, look for Ancient tech, barter for obscene amounts of one food type or another and have to eat it at every meal for three weeks until it runs out, goes bad, or the marines on kitchen duty realize that they can freeze it. Hopefully not in that order.

News in the databursts is read more widely and thoroughly, but things are still such back in the Milky Way that Rodney is comfortable announcing to Ronon, Teyla, and Sheppard that he's almost ready to welcome the Ori if it means they won't have to see another Talavian pear ever again.

"What did we trade for these, anyway?" Rodney asks, holding up a forkful of pork-with-pear-glaze and roasted pear. "And can we take it back?"

"Labor, probably," Sheppard says with a shrug. He's got the salad with pears and the near-deer that doesn't come with visible pears, although Rodney has his suspicions about what's in the mashed yams. "We send the marines places, they dig ditches or put up barns or whatever, and they come home with food and without the energy to make trouble in the barracks. It's not a bad racket, although it might be a better one if we had a few more cookbooks."

Rodney's got his mouth full, or else he would have pointed out that he wasn't sure that there was much in the way of pictures-only cookbooks.

"Food's not bad," Ronon says instead, shoveling in giant forkfuls of pork.

"The bar's set pretty low with you, buddy," Sheppard tells him somberly and Rodney has to help out a Teyla who is laughing so hard she chokes.

One day, after the pears but before the semi-annual onslaught of cowberries (which the marines, by now, know freeze well but still insist on overusing the first week), Teyla asks him if it's possible that the expedition will be terminated to allow more resources to be dedicated to fighting the Ori.

"It's possible," he allows, since he's seen first-hand how short-sighted the IOA can be about the Stargate Program. It makes no sense and it would cost more resources than it would save, but common sense really has nothing to do with this. "But I wouldn't go looking for another place to live just yet. We might not have been fighting the Wraith all our lives, but we've still been at war in space for more than ten years. The Ori haven't even cracked the top ten on the list of threats to Earth."

And that's really the thing -- compared with a decade of fighting the Goa'uld, the Ori are still more nuisance than threat. Rodney could tell Teyla stories of exploding stargates and space armadas and rogue agents and a dozen unquarantined contagions spewing forth from the Mountain and, well, aliens are still a secret on Earth after all that. And, thus far, after all of what the Ori have done, too. He could tell Teyla, but he doesn't because then he'd have to explain why keeping alien life a mystery to the residents of Earth is so important and he's watched Sheppard sink into that trap too often to fall into it himself. He also doesn't want to have to explain why, despite the SGC's stinginess with supplies and personnel and their displeasure with their success rate in fighting the Ori on other worlds, the fact that Earth is still ignorant and untouched makes the battle an unqualified success. He doesn't know how to explain to anyone, not even himself, why the IOA would be willing to sacrifice the rest of the galaxy to keep Earth in the dark.

Apart from a few special projects requested by the SGC -- some to Medical (prior plague), some to Science (prior disruptors) -- there's not much news on the Ori front as they hit mid-year. Rodney can go days without even thinking about the Ori, mostly because he's so busy with what's in this galaxy. End-of-fiscal-year reports -- which everyone jokes are a sign that things can't be too bad on Earth if the IOA is still pissy about paperwork -- and Istvan's and Takahashi's prototypes are ready to roll and Life Sciences' continued attempts to bring the Darwin Awards to Pegasus (thankfully, they're inept at that, too) and his own mission schedule take time away from his own research, which in turn takes time away from things like sleep.

The mission schedule, after years of a pretty fixed pattern, has taken an upturn in both frequency of missions and frequency of interesting missions. To which Rodney apparently owes thanks to the departed-to-Earth Staff Sergeant Reletti, since that leaves Lorne's team without a natural ATA carrier and they're thus less useful on the tech-hunting front. Under any other circumstances Rodney would be delighted about it, except he's got so much to do in the city that getting torn away from his actual work is never a welcome interruption. But Sheppard is clearly jazzed and, more importantly, he is clearly jazzed on Rodney's behalf, and so Rodney makes the effort to be grateful. And, point of fact, most of the time he really doesn't mind so much once he goes through the gate. Except for that one time when he came home to discover that Bernier's AI robo-donkey had not only been prancing up and down the halls outside Robotics, but that it had been moonwalking.

The Ori warships come through the re-built Supergate the week after Canada Day.

The warships look like toilet seats and carry tens of thousands of soldiers and their own weapons systems, which means that they are not only capable of their own defense, but they can also participate in the attack. It's the last part that trips up the good guys, it is explained to Rodney and the others during a command staff meeting; nobody's used to a transport vessel that can double as an effective offensive weapon. ("Our aircraft carriers travel in large groups because they're giant targets.") Rodney eventually gets video and photos and some reasonably accurate specs of the Ori vessels, but the 'how' seems largely irrelevant; the 'what' is bad enough -- one shot, one Goa'uld mothership destroyed -- and it's not like they'll be able to either recreate or disable the warships' primary weaponry with what they have now.

With millions of Ori followers now flooding the Milky Way intent on converting it, what had been a kind of low-key squabble is now no longer either low-key or squabble. The SGC has given up the pretense of working on anything but defeating the Ori and Rodney finds himself accepting projects and personnel that no longer fit within that scope while also fighting off the requests for key personnel to be returned to Earth to aid the cause. He's not an idiot and he's not so divorced from reality that he's going to play a power game that might risk the fate of the Milky Way. But he also knows that, once given, it's going to be awfully hard to get some of these people back. The requested names are all working on crucial projects here in Pegasus (uniformly so because Sam's lists are somewhere between overly optimistic and outright cherry-picking) and he doesn't want to either lose their ongoing research or have to fight for their return once this blows over and the dust settles and the SGC announces that possession is ninety percent of the law. He ends up sacrificing a few to save the rest, sending back half a dozen engineers and three from the Astrophysics and Astronomy group in return for keeping everyone else on the list and putting them to work on SGC-generated projects.

Carson, facing his own lists of demands, is so terrified he's going to lose Safir to the SGC that Rodney doesn't tell him, even as a joke, that it wouldn't be such a loss. Because it would be, although Rodney's not going to say so aloud.

Less as a response to Atlantis's intractability and more as a consequence of the growing sense of crisis, the SGC starts compiling lists of reserves, epidemiology and engineering specialties at the top of the list but psychiatry and human biology are up there, too. Most of the names are people who were either employed by the SGC in the past or were candidates for Atlantis at one point or another and are already vetted, but there are separate sets of what are essentially wish-lists. The first list is really a Dear Santa letter, a fairly comprehensive list of the brightest minds in their respective fields, people the SGC didn't even try to hire because there was no way they were going to be able to hide those lights under a bushel -- not to mention the compensation required to secure however many years of super-classified, not-eligible-to-be-turned-into-future-articles-or-funded-chairs employment outside of mainstream channels. The second list is a more practical list -- a potential junior varsity -- comprised entirely of people likely to accept if asked. Populated mostly by junior faculty, low-on-the-totem-pole researchers, and the occasional promising graduate student, it is a list of just the sort of people the SGC normally tries to recruit even when there are rampaging hordes of false-god worshiping aliens running around the galaxy. This is the list Rodney adds the name "Jean Miller" to, since Jeannie is certainly smarter than most of the names already there -- she'd have been a shoo-in for the Stargate Program had she stayed in school long enough to finish -- and, if the SGC actually calls her, maybe it'll get her to drop the June Cleaver act and start remembering what used to drive her imagination.
Plus, if the absolute worst should happen -- still not a huge possibility on Rodney's radar, but one can't be too careful -- having Jeannie on that list will make her a priority rescue. He doesn't approve of her life choices, but he's still her elder brother.

Sheppard doesn't have any equivalent lists to go through or add to; the SGC won't send him any more personnel, but they're not asking for anyone, either. Sheppard is unbothered, although he makes jokes about being offended on Lorne's behalf, and Rodney can see why -- this isn't the SGC's usual passive-aggressive chain-yanking. It's just a reflection of the reality that Sheppard, unlike Rodney and Carson, does not have a near-monopoly of any limited and precious resource. There are plenty of people on Earth who can shoot.

By Labor Day, however, nobody's really joking. It's the third databurst in a row with the SGC reporting a body count in double figures excluding the casualties of their allies. The Ori are moving through the Milky Way like a plague of locusts and there has been precious little that has been able to slow them, let alone stop them.

For the first time in a long time, Rodney seriously worries about the fate of Earth. He knows that the SGC has a long and storied history of pulling improbable success from unlikely places and acting like it knew what it was doing all along -- it's why he got sent to Siberia, after all -- but he's spent the last few years reading about the most acute crises after the fact. He's not used to sitting on his hands, powerless and waiting, while something is going on right now. And this particular something, unlike any of a long series of clever and occasionally diabolical plans, is not as easily solvable. He doesn't doubt that Earth will be fine in the end, that the SGC and its allies will ultimately prevail, but he's not sure what kind of battered and bruised it will be when that victory comes.

Sheppard doesn't volunteer much except to clarify points the SGC has left vague, but all of the civilians know that Earth, for all of its advances, hasn't previously put a lot of thought into defending itself from an invasion on a scale the Ori can project. The Goa'uld System Lords were giants in their own minds, but they didn't think this big and didn't command the sheer quantity of resources that the Ori have at their disposal. The mostly irrelevant types in G-2 go on endlessly about feudal models versus nationalistic ones, but the only relevant part is that the Ori have hordes of soldiers willing to die for their cause even though, thus far, they haven't found that to be necessary.

"Why aren't your people killing them?" Ronon asks during a meal break on a mission to verify the existence of a research outpost on a culled-long-ago world. Ronon and Teyla are as much a part of Atlantis as everyone else and it hasn't crossed anyone's mind to withhold anything from them. "They're just men, right? Easier to kill than Wraith."

"They are," Sheppard replies, "And we are. But we're playing by a different set of rules than they are and that makes it harder to just go in, guns blazing."

"Change them," Ronon says, tone incredulous at the obvious solution not taken.

Rodney looks over at Teyla and she seems more curious than anything else. He helped teach her to read and write for the first time in her life and yet he still finds himself surprised when Teyla is ignorant about anything not Earth-specific. He doesn't consider warfare to be even galaxy-specific, let alone one of those wacky Earth things she asks to be explained.

"We can't change the rules," Sheppard sighs. "Any more than we can when we fight the Wraith here. The rules of engagement are the ideals we live by as applied to warfare. And they may be a little difficult to work with and could probably stand to be loosened a little to make our jobs easier, but if we go too far, if we start ignoring them, then we end up saying awful things about ourselves. We have to keep the moral high ground or else we've got nothing."

 Once in a while, Rodney catches a glimpse of Sheppard as someone completely different than the man he's used to. Not different in substance, but just... the man behind the facade. The one who's responsible for crafting the moral code that the Sheppard Rodney's used to, the one who dives headlong into danger with seemingly reckless abandon, acts upon.

"You've got your life," Ronon says. "That's not nothing."

"Not disagreeing," Sheppard says and shrugs and Rodney can watch as the mask slips back into place. "But we come from a place where it's better to die with your honor intact -- and a media intent on making sure we do."

Ronon snorts, either disbelievingly or derisively, but Rodney stops paying attention -- and inadvertently stops the conversation entirely -- when he notices that the PDA on his knee is burping out readings that are commensurate with standby-level power in an Ancient structure.

The conversation is not resumed, at least not then and there, but it's one that has come up over and over again over the last few months. Priority lists are all well and good when its all theoretical, but they are rapidly coming to the point where they will have to act on these lists, making choices not only about personnel and projects, but also how far they could -- or should -- go to defend Earth in particular and the galaxy in general from the Ori. Rodney hears more talk of rules of engagement and collateral damage than he ever remembers before, even allowing for all of the times he stopped paying attention when the military personnel were pontificating during meetings. The IOA's refusal to do anything that would jeopardize the secrecy of the stargate is hamstringing the SGC and frustrating the Monday morning quarterbacks in Atlantis and Elizabeth has to ban the topic from discussion during command staff meetings lest everyone's frustration take over and all useful dialogue be rendered impossible.

Even without having to worry about what the talking heads on CNN will say, the SGC has shifted a portion of their remaining resources from fighting to finding and collecting refugees. It's well-intentioned, Sheppard agrees with Rodney as they discuss it while flying in a jumper to the mainland, but it's poorly thought out and thus is an energy suck in a time when such cannot be afforded. Even if it gets them Jonas Quinn and a large cache of naquadriah.

When Rodney isn't offworld or in bureaucratic meetings that darken his heart and dim his faith in the SGC's ability to succeed, he's in the labs, where the stress and fear and guilt take on different forms. Unlike almost everyone he sees in the course of a day, Rodney is not working on anything related to the Ori. He's handled some power-source-related questions regarding energy weapon prototypes being developed on Earth, but the fact is that his specialties aren't really applicable to this kind of warfare. He's been the best man for the job in Atlantis before, but that's been as much about his knowledge of Ancient technology and the lack of superior alternatives as anything else. Now, by both natural evolution and the influx of brain power as part of the SGC's shift in research focus, they have people who have dedicated their professional careers to work on the sort of questions the Ori advance is challenging them to answer. And while Rodney understands enough about Ori tech to make it work, he doesn't have the instinctive feel for it that comes with long study and everyday exposure. It's not organic to him, but it is to others in the labs, and so they are the ones doing the work. It's pragmatic on many levels -- Rodney can pick up and continue others' Ancient research with relative ease -- and there isn't anyone either within Science or on the command level who has indicated that he's not maximizing the intellectual resources he has under his authority. Nobody thinks he's foisting off anything... except himself.

"I don't think the Wraith are jealous that Williams is working on the Ori project and you are not," Radek says during one of their weekly organizational meetings that double as long lunches. Rodney has never said anything about his doubts, but that's never stopped Radek from saying what he wants. "The SGC is asking for solutions to smaller problems. You are working on a big solution."

"For the Wraith," Rodney says, skimming the progress report that Hewston only thinks is in English. "Not that stopping the Wraith isn't a good thing. It's a great thing."

"But it's saving this galaxy and not ours," Radek finishes and Rodney looks up, annoyed that his thoughts, sordid and selfish in his own mind, are being spoken aloud. It feels profoundly wrong to say that the Milky Way counts for more than Pegasus; he'd do anything for Teyla, for Ronon even, and he does consider Atlantis home. But... But Rodney happily considered himself a citizen of the universe until Earth was imperiled for real and he's still smarting a little about how little he's actually transcended his nativism.

Radek seems to notice Rodney's reaction. "When you save this galaxy, we'll be able to use whatever you do to save our own," he continues and Rodney scowls at the verbal pat on the head. "Unless it's something related to Carson's retrovirus, in which case you'll still have work to do."

"At the rate your engineers are progressing," Rodney says, gesturing to the laptop screen, "I'll have work to do regardless."

Radek waves his insult away like cigarette smoke. "Pah. They are geniuses where it counts, not in the summary-writing."

Rodney doesn't have much of a chance to observe much Engineering genius in either the practical or in the summary-writing; the Wraith have been feeling neglected and Michael is still out there, although thankfully he's still refusing to read the Evil Overlord handbook and they manage to stop him (this time) before he does anything more than embarrass anyone. Two days after escaping Michael's clutches (actually, the clutches of his superbug supersoldiers, an experience Rodney will have nightmares about for weeks), Sheppard drags their team out to some planet the marines were playing around on -- a euphemism Rodney took to mean "running around a lot" until he saw the mortar craters -- when they found a subterranean lab that might be Ancient with a lot of Wraith gadgetry.

It's not Ancient. It's Wraith with a lot of Ancient gadgetry and they all know too well that nothing good -- hell, nothing not Really Bad -- tends to come from these sorts of discoveries. The Wraith labs generally fall into two categories: stuff to do to humans and stuff to do to Ancients and Rodney's not sure whether the fact that this isn't one of the eugenics labs is a blessing or a curse.

His normal course of action would be to round up the usual suspects and camp out for a few days -- it's simply too far from the stargate to justify returning home to Atlantis each night -- until they can figure out what the hell the Wraith had in mind this time. But "normal" has ceased to be an adjective applicable to almost anything, so Rodney has to cobble together a team of Wraith tech experts who aren't working on Ori projects and Ancient tech people who can plausibly fake usefulness with Wraith tech and partner them with linguists so that work can get done at an acceptable pace. And, to top it all off, they get extra marine presence because it's still less than a week since Michael's latest stunt, a move Rodney completely understands and yet fights against anyway because if you don't need large amounts of manual labor, the marines are more hindrance than help.

Sheppard offers him Sergeant Horton's platoon, which is a sop and one Rodney might have been willing to take were the mission not as long as it was, but Horton's lieutenant is frustratingly inflexible when it comes to recognizing Rodney's experience off-world and letting him evade regular protocols and Rodney doesn't want to spend the entire week trapped into following the rules. They end up with Lieutenant Osgeny, who is inclined to give Rodney just enough rope to hang himself and then clamp down on everyone. Historically, Rodney has lost that bet with Osgeny more than he's won it -- Osgeny is not above moving the goalposts -- but Rodney is always willing to take the chance anyway.

It's evident from the first day that this is a weapons lab -- most of the Ancient-themed ones are -- but this one seems to be less about the spaceships and more about ground warfare. The weapons prototypes are hand-held instead of the size of Buicks, in other words, although both tend to attract and fascinate marines with equal strength and Rodney's team has to keep a vigilant eye lest one of the marines pick something up and accidentally incinerate themselves. On the other hand, they have a ready supply of volunteers when it comes time to see what some of these things can do.

Sheppard, also predictably, is interested in making a site visit once Rodney gives Atlantis his first briefing. Rodney tells him not to show up before Friday, since they'll have neither the time nor the knowledge to do any sort of demonstration before then and they both know that Sheppard just wants to play with the toys.

Sheppard does wait until Friday, but Rodney's not there to see his glee at the demonstration. He gets recalled to the city on Thursday evening (Atlantis time, which is middle-of-the-goddamn-night where they are), getting a jumper ride instead of stumbling along in the dark with night-vision goggles and too-fast marines, so that he can help deactivate Takahashi's prototype generator. The generator is an Ancient design updated to be used with the parts and supplies they have now and Rodney knows that he's one of half a dozen people who were familiar with the design update and inspected the completed prototype before it got turned on and that there's no reason it should have gone critical. It was supposed to power a couple of 150-watt light bulbs nailed to a piece of plywood, not threaten the city.

Rodney spends an hour kneeling in glass shards and breathing ozone-y fumes as he and Zelenka and Takahashi and Esposito, the EE whose ability to think (far, far) outside the box actually comes in handy for once, cobble together an energy sink that lets them drain the generator far enough to stop the reaction without vaporizing the entire sublevel. The four of them end up in Medical for inhalation and glass removal and then, once freed, they spend the rest of the night in the commissary, drinking old coffee and raiding the fridges while they spread the blueprints and notes over pushed-together tables to try to figure out what the hell happened and how to not do it again. Because the generator's really too useful an idea and too elegant in form -- Takahashi's got no head for computation, which is why she had an army of double-checkers, but she's brilliant when it comes to design -- to abandon just because it went gonzo on the initialization.

Elizabeth is perhaps a little less sanguine, although Rodney is inclined to chalk that up to it being a stressful week.

Bolsano, left to run the Wraith tech mission after Rodney's recall, ends up becoming the deputy head of the newly formed Munitions Task Force that emerges from the follow-up rounds of tests and development proposals. Rodney is the actual head and, unlike some of the other working groups he's nominally a part of, this one he intends to participate in. Bolsano will manage the day-to-day business, but Rodney's membership and involvement go beyond the IOA demanding it.

 The MTF has been a long time coming in that finding new ways to defeat Earth's enemies was in the original mandate for the Atlantis expedition, but the isolation from Earth changed that understanding of their duty into something less literal, as did the immediacy of the Wraith and an entirely different kind of fight for survival. Rodney has been happy to interpret his instructions as including everything from ZPMs to Ancient biotech on the principle that anything that elevated their knowledge would by necessity also elevate their survivability. (Sheppard was never a fan of that theory, pointing out that Ancients were very smart people who nonetheless got their asses kicked and ran away.) And, for the first few years, the IOA and SGC were happy enough with that -- a sort of peace dividend from the effective end of the Goa'uld wars.

But the rise of the Ori threat has brought the original mandate to the fore and Rodney has no desire to fight the sort of request that he'd have bridled at and probably ignored three years ago. The Goa'uld are gone, but Rodney understands warfare much better than he did three years ago. He understands what Oppenheimer feared, rightly and wrongly, and, while he doesn't like to think about it, he understands what the Genii were up to, too. He doesn't want to be either of them.

The MTF is no Manhattan Project, by design and by necessity. It's mostly an expansion of the original team selected for the off-world mission, plus the services of a couple of the Ori Task Force people -- the SGC can't and doesn't complain about the re-allocation of resources. They're doing weapons R&D, but in a broader fashion than either the SGC or Little Tripoli would like. They have a piss-poor understanding of how and when Ancient and Ori tech parted ways along the evolutionary trail -- mostly because they have a piss-poor understanding of either the Ancient or the Ori history of science. Rodney is sure, once they can bridge that knowledge gap, they will be able to harness everything they know about the Ancients and bring it to bear against the Ori. And the Wraith.

"You do realize you're betting two galaxies on being right," Sam says during a visit to Atlantis. "You're good, McKay, but you're also arrogant. Make sure this is your brilliance talking and not your ego."

Rodney tells no one but Heightmeyer that he sometimes wakes up, sweating and afraid, that it's the latter.

The MTF is yet another plate on his tray and Rodney sometimes feels like he's the star in a bi-galactic game of Don't Tip the Waiter. His own research has gotten so back-burnered that every spare moment he can dedicate to it is spent reminding himself what the hell he was doing the last time he looked at it. Taking its space are everyone else's projects, especially those projects belonging to people now serving other masters. Rodney is still terrible at delegating anything -- Radek has long ago learned to take without asking -- but there are many projects that he can't delegate because he's the only one who can complete them. His lab is a bottleneck, where good ideas go to sit idly by until he can get to them, and it frustrates him immensely. That there is no corresponding pressure from above to get things moving faster is as much relief as regret -- he works better with someone breathing down his neck, although he knows he's that much more miserable to be around when that's the case. But neither the SGC nor Elizabeth are inclined to demand more of him than they already are and, faced with no other options for external impetus, he twists their acknowledgment of his workload into a challenge -- they only think he can't do more than he is and he'll prove them wrong.

Zelenka makes him stop after his second all-nighter in three days, when he confuses food with solder.

Sheppard, thankfully, refuses to cater to Rodney's mania or his task list. And so Rodney can still bitch about being dragged away from important work so that he can watch Sheppard and Teyla negotiate for yams and mean it, since Sheppard sees absolutely no reason for Rodney to be skipping out on missions.

They're on one of these quixotic adventures, a two-pronged negotiation for both dairy products and permission to investigate the Ancient ruins on the other side of the river, when Atlantis radios them and they are asked to return ASAP. The lieutenant passing on Elizabeth's request assures them that no chaos awaits -- nothing's wrong in the city, Major Lorne's team hasn't gotten into trouble -- but it's not hard to figure out a likely reason. Today is databurst day and, provided there was no trouble with either the connection or the packet delivery, enough time has passed for Elizabeth to have gotten through the executive summaries.

"Do you want to come back with us or do you want to handle this on your own?" Sheppard asks Teyla.

"Will there be something I can do in response to the news?" she asks in return, keeping her concerned-but-not-too-concerned expression fixed. The Akifarians are watching them from a polite distance.

"Honestly? Probably not," Sheppard replies. "Even if something bad's happened, there's not much any of us are going to be able to do from this distance."

Rodney can think of a dozen ways to contradict this, but doesn't mention any of them. He doesn't think that Sheppard believes that Elizabeth would be recalling them just to tell them that another few planets have fallen to the Ori; they're going back because something has happened that requires a timely response on their part.

"Then I shall stay here and, hopefully, complete our negotiations with Akifaria," Teyla says. "We could use both the alliance and the foodstuffs."

Sheppard nods agreement. "Okay. Just remember: no trading Ronon for an extra gallon of milk and try to avoid picking up too much of that stinky cheese."

Ronon arches an eyebrow and Sheppard smiles blithely at him. It's not a question whether he'll stay behind with Teyla.

They make their (lame-sounding) apologies to the local leader-people, who don't seem that put out since it was obvious from the start that Teyla was the smart one of their traveling party.

"Be home by 1500," Sheppard tells Teyla and Ronon, then gestures for Rodney to start walking toward the stargate.

It's maybe a twenty minute walk; Sheppard forces a brisk pace and Rodney doesn't gripe. Doesn't have the breath to gripe, although it's not as bad as it is when Ronon's on the stalk and the rest of them are half-jogging to keep up.

They get back to the city and it's... almost but not quite the same. The gate room is not oblivious to the fact that Elizabeth has recalled the two senior teams and, even though it's clear nobody knows why, they know something's up.

Carson's already in Elizabeth's office when they arrive.

"We'll wait for Major Lorne's team to return," Elizabeth says. "Doctor Zelenka's already on his way up. I only want to go through this once."

It dawns on Rodney that this is about bad news, not about anything they'll need to do because time is clearly not of the essence. Radek and Lorne are useful, but they aren't required for the most time-sensitive actions.

"What happened to Earth?" he blurts out.

Elizabeth sighs. "Wait, Rodney, please?"

"Oh, God," Carson whispers, realization on his face.

Radek is in the control room dickering around with the DHD when Lorne's team returns, but he comes into Elizabeth's office and finds space on the far side of Rodney before Safir and Lorne make their way upstairs. It's clear from their faces that they have some idea of what's going on.

"Gentlemen," Weir greets them, waiting for the door to hiss closed before she continues. "Two days ago, over the course of nine hours, the Ori bombed Beijing and Dhaka. Early count is somewhere between ten to twenty million dead. The war has come home."

The words hit with almost physical force, like a blast wave. Rodney isn't the only one who takes a step back.

"Atlantis has received new instructions," Elizabeth goes on after a moment. "We'll go through them all at length together, but the bottom line is that Atlantis will become a more active partner in the war against the Ori."

Most of what Elizabeth says is essentially more of the same of what they've been dealing with all along -- Atlantis as home to projects and personnel the SGC wants to keep away from the Ori front, more emphasis on war-related projects and less on discovery for its own sake. There will be more changes on the military front, namely that nobody's going home, but Rodney doesn't know what exactly is expected or what it will mean beyond the fact that Sheppard and Lorne both have matching sour expressions.

"We can't hold the databurst for too long," Elizabeth says, looking at the clock on the wall. There's been a dissemination protocol for material received in the databurst since the beginning, mostly so that the bosses find out the news before anyone else and can prepare reactions. It usually takes time for the packet to be uncompressed and the important messages received, but not that long and everyone in the city knows that if the contents haven't been released by 1300, something is about to hit the fan. "And I don't want to create an environment rife with speculation. I'd like to make a city-wide announcement beforehand, have everyone find out at once. We'll set it for 1200, so if you could collect your staffs, I think that would make things less... chaotic. However, it won't make things easy, just easier, and I'm afraid the reaction control will be mostly in your hands."

Rodney remembers Elizabeth's announcements before and during the siege. There will be no way to prevent any kind of collective reaction; news that the Ori have just committed the worst atrocities in the history of the planet since the Japanese and Germans redefined the terms... Off the top of his head, he knows they've probably got at least two dozen Bangladeshis and Chinese in Science alone, more the latter than the former, although he doesn't know how many actually come from either city or have family there. He looks over at Radek, who is in turn looking vaguely nauseated. They both know that Radek is going to be doing most of the damage control in Science -- Rodney can juggle schedules and tell anyone who wants to take the day off to go, but he's not good with the comforting or the sympathy and he can't think of anyone in the entire division who'd come to him for either. He'll make the initial remarks and decisions but Radek, the nurturing mother to his stern father in the Science pseudo-family, will be bearing the real load.

"You'll release the intel to us before, right?" Sheppard asks, looking restless even as he's standing perfectly still. "There're going to be a lot of angry men in Little Tripoli and I'd like to be able to answer some of their questions off the bat. At least the ones that aren't 'why can't we go home and fight?'"

That there's no good answer to that one is clear from his tone.

Elizabeth nods. "Of course."

Rodney doesn't anticipate anything like an insurrection in Science. His people won't be angry, at least not in the same way Sheppard and Lorne seem to think the marines will be. His people aren't fighters in that way and can actually be convinced that they are best able to help the cause by doing what they're doing where they are currently doing it.

Carson taps his watch. "We should get started with our preparations. There'll be documents to read and folks who were on night shift who'll need to be gathered."

It's 1135; the day got off to an early start for everyone and it seems incomprehensible that it's still before lunch.

"Do you want the marine orderlies returned to their units?" Safir asks Sheppard as they all start to head to the doors.

Sheppard exchanges a look with Lorne. "Yeah," he says, then turns to Rodney. "Lab techs, too."

Radek follows Rodney down to the office they share; it's a large room not close to either of their lab spaces and they use it only to store and handle the bureaucratic tools that are required to supervise a unit of hundreds. Radek puts out the summons to meet in the large auditorium, the one space in Science's domain where they can all fit, albeit badly. Meanwhile, Rodney reads.

Elizabeth has forwarded the relevant documents, which are rougher than any finished product would be but have obviously been through a few revisions in both substance and style. It's... not useful, at least as far as whatever Rodney is going to say to anyone.

He doesn't know what to say at all, actually. Elizabeth will cover the basics -- which is a relief, because "Hey, guess what? Genocide!" doesn't sound good in any circumstances but there's no real way he can soften that blow and many ways he can make it worse.

"Do we close up shop for the day?" he asks.

"No," Radek answers, not looking up from where he is undoubtedly reading the same material. "Most people are going to want to have something to do. If not right away, then later."

"Right," Rodney agrees. He'll be one of them, provided he gets the chance.

The auditorium is packed when they get there, nervous and curious and while they obviously expect bad news, they are completely unsuspecting as to the scope of how bad. They've had division-wide meetings before, more frequently now than before they knew Ori from Oreos, and there have been many instances of re-tasking and new priority projects coming out of the databurst's arrival. Sending the marine lab techs home only means that they're going to be here for a while and if anyone knows that everyone else in the city is having simultaneous meetings as well, then the news hasn't spread far enough to change the tone of the room from wary to desperate.

Rodney normally loves knowing things other people don't and smugness is a pleasure he enjoys whenever the situation allows. Except now, when he looks over the sea of faces and wonders which one of them is going to be weeping in ten minutes' time.

Elizabeth's announcement, when it comes, goes over about as well as could be expected. Which is to say not at all. There are gasps, the occasional wail of anguish, but mostly silence. Real silence, not the kind he gets during meetings. Everyone, even those who might have had an inkling, is shocked to stillness.

When Elizabeth signs off, faces start to turn to him and Rodney makes his way from the side of the platform where he'd been standing to in front of the podium.

"The plan for today is to just do what you need to do," he says, speaking loudly since he's standing in front of the podium and not by the microphone. "If you want to go back to work, you can. If you want to take the day, fine. If you want to go to the prayer services in Little Tripoli, go. Tomorrow morning, we'll pick up with business as usual. Earth needs us now more than ever, so however you choose to spend today, make sure you're ready to work hard tomorrow. Dismissed."

It takes a second for anyone to move; everyone is still in shock. Rodney ends up staying behind to answer questions for another half hour. Most of his answers are "I don't know yet" or variations thereof. Because, for one of the few times in his life, he doesn't. He doesn't know what the SGC has done or will do. He doesn't know if it's possible for the Bangladeshis and Chinese scientists to either find out if (how many) of their loved ones have been killed or if they can go home to deal with the aftermath if they promise to return. He doesn't know if supplies will be cut off or increased. He doesn't know how -- or if -- the SGC is handling the whole 'There are aliens and they're trying to enslave us" business. He doesn't know if there have been subsequent attacks, although he thinks the SGC would have included such information, even in preliminary form, if there had been.

He goes back to the office to read the rest of what Elizabeth sent. Radek is already there, making faces at his laptop.

"The Crawl," he says and Rodney grunts acknowledgment. The databurst has been processed through and so, like every week when this happens, the servers are choked as the entire city checks their email at once. It's probably worse than usual since everyone really will be checking now as opposed to the sane individuals who normally know to wait a few hours.

Rodney wants to check, too, besides what he's already got from Elizabeth. There will be copious amounts of messages from Sam and her people, the regular project updates and questions and requests plus whatever is going to be part of the response to the Ori attack. There will be other professional emails -- Rodney isn't completely out of mainstream science and keeps up correspondence with a few people who aren't total idiots. And most of them will probably quickly realize that Rodney's been dealing with aliens all these years -- even before the SGC contacts them about joining the program, since Rodney put all of their names down as potential candidates.

But the email he wants most to see, if it exists, is from Jeannie. They aren't close anymore, have nothing in common, and while they don't not talk, what they do is barely classifiable as conversation. There's nothing they can say to each other even if there weren't so many angry words already between them; Rodney doesn't exactly have a lot of unclassified hobbies or even friends and Jeannie has Mommy-and-Me and whatever else she does all day. She sends him pictures of her daughter, who is thankfully at least bright-looking, and he sends her manuscripts of his for-publication articles; it is an exchange of tokens that are at once understandable and completely foreign and yet, ultimately, for the same purpose. Each wants to show the other what they're missing by choosing the path they have.

But he'll only get frustrated if he tries to retrieve his mail from the server; the time-outs and achingly slow downloads are annoying not only because they exist, but also because he can't leave them alone. He'll sit there and watch the (lack of) progress, unable to do anything else in the face of this trivial distraction. So he closes his mail program and focuses on the documents from the SGC and is reading about how and when they might have had warning that the Ori were targeting Earth when his radio beeps.

Expecting either a summons from Elizabeth or an anxious question from one of his staff, he's surprised to hear Carson's voice. Does he want to go to lunch, Carson asks, since it's already 1500 and they have to be in Elizabeth's office in an hour for what will probably be a meeting of epic duration. He doesn't want to go himself because he doesn't want to be bombarded with questions he can't answer, but two of them together is probably safe. Rodney figures that's probably not the whole story -- Safir's a more effective deterrent against social interaction and he's closer -- but ends up agreeing anyway.

Radek, comfortably set up with coffee, one of the ramen cups they keep around, and an apple, shoos him away when he asks if he wants to come. "Bring me dessert," he says.

Carson is predictably still a little shocky -- not that Rodney isn't, but he's hiding it a little better. The marines serving food are not. They are at once sullen and the same kind of restless Sheppard was before and Rodney maybe understands what he and Lorne were worried about. But Rodney gets his french dip sandwich without incident and follows Carson to one of the empty tables in the unusually quiet sitting area.

They don't talk much as they eat. They compare notes on how their staffs took the news (badly) and whether they anticipate problems (not really, although it will depend on what happens next on Earth), but mostly they sit and eat and just enjoy a few minutes of no responsibilities or demands. Downtime is going to be even more of a foreign concept than before.

The command staff meeting is as predicted -- long and downbeat. They vacillate between worst case scenarios they need to plan for and rejections of any kind of acceptance that things will get worse than they are. Sheppard and Lorne have had time to read the more technical versions of the reports on the initial attacks and the SGC's counterstrikes; neither man seems at all optimistic about how things will fare, although Sheppard's unfailing faith in the ability of good to outlast evil keeps him from saying as much.

Overall, the meeting sets up what will become their new daily existence. It's mostly the same as now except more intense, although the list of new projects and requests already reflect the new reality. Security of both information and personnel will be completely overhauled and a list of what can only be called doomsday protocols is to be drawn up by both the SGC and Atlantis. The proposed scenarios are each worse than the last, a rating system of horror that is all the more depressing for every single element being a whole lot more plausible than it had been three days ago. They need to have agreed-upon instructions for what to do for everything from the destruction of Stargate Command to the vanquishing of Earth itself, from the loss of communications and supply channels to the Ori showing up in Pegasus, from refugees being brought to Atlantis to Atlantis itself being forced to evacuate.

Rodney is typing as fast as he can, a running list of ideas that may be useful and separate ones of things he'll have to do before he forgets and things he'll need to run past Sheppard, when it hits him. I'd like to wake up now.

There is no waking up because this isn't the kind of nightmare that comes with sleep. Instead it comes with spending hours, days, and weeks focusing on worst-case scenarios and Ori technology and meetings that go on forever and end up either degenerating into shouting matches or petering out into these unsatisfying, nebulous agreements to do vague things at vague points because they have reached a branch on the logic tree where everything is an unknown variable.

A couple of weeks after Beijing and Dhaka, Rodney spends the morning with Sheppard, Lorne, Captains Polito and Hanzis, and three members of the Astro unit trying to find a safe and defensible planet on the far end of Pegasus closest to the Milky Way, one that doesn't currently have either a local population or a stargate. The goal: to change the latter and, maybe, create a back door to Earth.

Back before the Ori had graduated to being an actual threat, Rodney and Sam had been pondering a bridge between galaxies, a sequence of strategically placed stargates that would allow transit between Pegasus and the Milky Way without reliance on the Daedalus -- and possibly even without a ship at all. It was a project that had met with resistance on all levels above the one that was actually going to benefit from the improved access; Sam and Sheppard had commiserated over the military bureaucracy and made bitter cracks about 'the dull end of the spear,' but the fact was that the IOA was just as opposed. Too much risk, too easy for the Wraith to stumble upon it, too many resources required, too much math in the proposal (a complaint that had all but ruined Rodney's faith in civilian oversight). The proposal hadn't been formally killed, just effectively so by being forced to adhere to a list of conditions that made it all but impractical. And so both Sam and Rodney had tasked various members of their staffs to come up with ways to either meet the conditions or circumvent them.

This back-burnered, back-channeled, backlogged project is now front and center, however. There are Ori ships all over the Milky Way and Earth has precisely three spacecraft capable of making the journey between galaxies and, as everyone is constantly reminded, the Daedalus may have been functioning as a cargo vessel, but it is in fact a warship and needs to be used as such. The half-assed work done on alternatives is suddenly no longer someone's lowest priority and nothing they have to hide from the IOA.

The bridge is still out, as is the idea of a midway station; nobody wants to make it any easier for the Ori to get to Pegasus and the Wraith are still a threat. But if they can't take the Daedalus or Odyssey out of the fight for the two months that it would take to do the round trip from Earth to Atlantis, they can maybe cut down the time so that they don't have to cut Atlantis off entirely. The trip is eighteen days, but almost a third of that is in Pegasus and if they can create some kind of secure depot at the edge of Pegasus or maybe just beyond, some place where the Daedalus -- or maybe a Jaffa or captured Goa'uld ship -- can unload and then turn around again without coming all the way across the galaxy to Atlantis, then maybe they've got something. It's still essentially a way station, but it's far lower key. There'll be nothing there that says "This Way to Earth/Atlantis", nothing that will let the Wraith take a shortcut to the Milky Way, and if they can pick a planet without any history or past civilization, then there's no reason for anyone, Wraith or Ori or Genii or next week's bad guy who doesn't want to take a number and wait his turn, to know it's there.

Archer and Marsalt have narrowed down the sector of space they'd like to use and Rodney is explaining to the military contingent that, yes, they'll be able to figure out the gate address of the planet once they install a stargate (getting a DHD installed is much harder and they're still going back and forth whether convenience or security dictates whether they should or shouldn't try), when everyone's watch beeps almost simultaneously. It's 1100, which since it's Tuesday also means that it's databurst time.

Lorne gestures vaguely over his shoulder. "I'll catch it."

Radek, who is off chairing a meeting, and Rodney take turns; it's Radek's week.

"Don't you have a field trip later?" Sheppard asks him.

"Two hours," Lorne replies with a dismissive shrug. "It won't take that long to read through all the different ways the SGC has to say 'No, you can't have that.' I'll leave the fun stuff for you guys."

Mirthless chuckles all around; the databursts are full of rejected requests, but also bad news and occasionally tragic news and Rodney doesn't miss Sheppard setting his watch for one hour. They try not to run missions on databurst days; nobody wants to go through the repeated waves of horror that was each off-world mission being told in turn what had happened in China and Bangladesh. But sometimes it's unavoidable and this, apparently, is one of those times.

Rodney speeds up his presentation of data, since he's only going to get Sheppard for an hour and the two marine captains will be far less useful without him present. They don't get the hour, however. It's not even forty-five minutes before the Elizabeth radios him and Sheppard to tell them that Jerusalem has been attacked.

Sheppard immediately radios Lorne, leaving Rodney to pass on the information to the other five in the room. Only hearing Sheppard's side of the conversation, Rodney knows that Lorne is still going on the mission -- Estande can't be put off another day -- but neither of them are sure if Safir will go.

He feels both relieved and then guilty for feeling relieved that Vancouver is a second-tier city without either the religious significance or population count to merit being a target.

"Let's finish this up," Sheppard says to Rodney when he'd done talking to Lorne. "This isn't going to be a high-productivity day and I'd like to finish something."

Ninety minutes later, Rodney is one his way back to his office when he passes what is probably an impromptu prayer meeting. He can't make out the words, but he can see Weissman and Shilman and a couple dozen others and can hear the way voices rise and fall in a rhythm that isn't song but has a melody.

Radek greets him with a grimace when he gets back to their office. They've spent more time in here in the last six months than they did in the first three years. "We lost the quorum when the Jews went off to say kaddish," Radek says, standing up. "There's a mass in Little Tripoli in twenty minutes. I'm going to go."

Rodney nods, a little proud for not asking why, since Radek is about as religious as a turtle and would probably name Lasker, Capablanca, and Kasparov as his holy trinity if required to provide one.

Sheppard is right and nothing really gets done the rest of the day, but everyone is more or less back to work the following morning. It's a little perverse that they have established protocols for how to handle news of genocide, but at the same time, Rodney is relieved that this sort of news doesn't require mandatory communal therapy sessions and public displays of grief. By the end of the week, Rodney's piling into a jumper with Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon and a list of gate addresses to check out to find an unused stargate they can relocate to the planet they're temporarily designating as MQ6-4F3. (Temporarily, at Rodney's insistence, since the designator is contingent upon the address actually working once they get the gate there.)

"Jerusalem is a holy site for your world?" Ronon asks as they do a fast circumnavigation around a planet with a space gate. Space gates tend to mean either no people or marvelously primitive and oblivious people and while Elizabeth has forbidden them from choosing a gate orbiting above any world with people on it, Rodney privately thinks that would be a blessing.

"One of several," Sheppard answers, eyes and attention still focused on the HUD, which is searching for life signs and also other tasks that Rodney thinks may be related to scoping out the place for other purposes. He'd ask, but Sheppard's been distracted and distant all morning and he's not sure there'd be an answer. "But it's got significance to all of the biggies, so it was a natural first choice."

"Bargain horror," Rodney adds sourly. "More bang for your... bang."

Everyone expects the next databurst to include news on Mecca, maybe Rome, then get started on the Hindu and Buddhist centers. Unless the Ori just wanted to what many had threatened before and wipe Israel off the map -- an alliance with local Bad Guys is not out of the question -- then this was the first wave of a re-considered attack and it shows an adaptability that does not bode well for the planet's defense. The Ori's lack of understanding of how Earth works is supposed to be the biggest advantage when it comes to defeating them, but if the Ori are shifting from attacking population centers to attacking religiously significant targets within the span of a month, then it means that they've got a much steeper learning curve than would be helpful.

A graphic pops up on the HUD that Rodney knows means that the planet is populated, heavily so for Pegasus, and Sheppard guides the jumper into a gracefully arcing u-turn without suggesting they stop in for lunch. "What's the next address?" he asks instead when they're back within eyeshot of the gate and he's slowed the jumper to a near-halt.

Rodney fumbles with the piece of paper on which the list is printed out and starts to dial. "I could have sworn we went to this one before," he says, since the address looks familiar. But he's been staring at gate addresses for the last three days pretty much non-stop, partially to compile this list and mostly for a dozen other projects for other people, and that's probably what it is.

Teyla, who is working on her reading and writing skills by putting them in context, pulls out her own list of today's itinerary. "We visited this planet shortly after you arrived in this galaxy," she says. "We were all affected by something in the air."

That gets Sheppard to turn from the display. "You put the Pollen Planet on the list?!?"

Teyla smiles, a little smugly, and if he didn't know better, Rodney would think he was being set up.

"I didn't remember," Rodney says indignantly. Which is true of now, but not of when it was put on the list, since he distinctly remembers thinking that it would be a boon and ultimate revenge on the planet that had them all congested and sneezing for a week. Soft tissues had been a precious commodity back then.

Sheppard gives him a look that clearly expresses how little he buys that explanation, then turns back to the rear. "What happened to you?" he asks Ronon, apparently just now noticing that Ronon's sporting a nine-stitch cut on his cheek. Ronon's had it since Thursday afternoon at least, since that's merely the first time Rodney saw it, and Rodney knows Sheppard's seen Ronon between now and then.

"Training accident," Ronon replies with a casual shrug.

Sheppard rolls his eyes. "Tell the marines to give you less well-worn material," he says. "Who accidentally got their knife in your face?"

Rodney wouldn't necessarily have immediately gone for 'knife wound', but he's not the expert in that sort of stuff. He also knows who gave Ronon the injury, so maybe "knife fight" should have been higher on the list.


Another sigh from Sheppard, this time more frustrated. "I appreciate your willingness to take the hit here, but the marines are supposed to be laying off the Fight Club crap for now. You know that and so do they."

"Wasn't a marine," Ronon says after a pregnant pause and Rodney can see the realization when it hits Sheppard. Teyla would have said if it were her and there aren't that many civilians who'd want to fight with Ronon. Fewer still Ronon would agree to fight with.

Sheppard shakes his head and turns forward in his seat. "Let's go see if anyone's moved to Planet Pollen," he says, accelerating the jumper toward the still-open wormhole.

They end up choosing the fourth gate on the list, since it's in orbit over a planet without breathable air. Rodney doesn't know if Sheppard ever went to talk to either Safir or Carson about making sure Safir didn't take his grief out on anyone else. Not that Ronon was at all an unwilling participant; Rodney had gathered from the conversation on Thursday that Ronon may have even suggested the fight.

Word on the attack on Mecca comes -- attacks, since they keep bombing the place and it gets filled anew the next day -- and Vatican City and a dozen other places that Rodney has to look up in the atlas because he doesn't know what they symbolize to whom and he's tired of accidentally setting off crying jags or stony silences because of his ignorance. He's never been one for either emotional or cultural sensitivity, but there's riding roughshod over someone's ego because they've just made a mistake a grade-schooler could have avoided and then there's riding roughshod over someone's ego because they've just made a mistake a grade-schooler could have avoided because they've just spend the last six hours freaking out that their entire family may have died. One of these is to be avoided and Rodney doesn't need either Radek's pointed looks or Elizabeth's even more pointed "quick chats" to appreciate which one it is.

Getting the purloined stargate from where it was to MQ6-4F3-P(rovisional) requires waiting for the Daedalus and its transporter beams. They've got an ongoing project dedicated to fine-tuning the utility of Wraith scoopy beams attached to puddle jumpers, but while they could probably dematerialize a stargate and pop it back out, getting it over to MQ6-4F3-P would take years without a hyperdrive. And Rodney's maybe a little less sure than he's letting on that they wouldn't make the stargate explode on the rematerialization; Wraith tech is more unstable than either Asgard or Goa'uld (which in turn is really just old school Ancient) and they use it because it's relatively cheap and easily acquired, not because of its quality.

They have to wait a while for the Daedalus; it's not only being used to defend Earth, but it's also running teams around the Milky Way and serving as a mobile hospital and munitions depot and eighty other tasks it wasn't ever meant to consider primary functions. When it does arrive, it brings refugees, much-needed supplies and personnel and Jonas Quinn, who is nothing like what Rodney remembers except that he's got a million ideas that Rodney's half-jealous of. He gives Jonas space, since Jonas has his own people, and turns his attention to the list of his own projects that are now possible with new equipment.

There's plenty to do, but Rodney finds himself distracted as much by all of the new possibilities as by the fact that Caldwell has arrived bearing the 'request' that Rodney return to Earth. Not permanently, not even long-term, but that's almost beside the point. There's too much here that requires his presence and, no matter how many times the SGC promises that they'll only keep him for as long as it takes for the next return trip to Pegasus, he knows that once he goes back to the Milky Way, he's not getting back to Atlantis for the better part of a year.

The IOA planned this kidnapping well -- the news didn't come in any of the databursts, but instead is transmitted personally by Caldwell, a maneuver that allows them no lead time to coming up with either a well-crafted refusal or a simple list of excuses piled high enough to be confused with substance. It means they have to either lie to Caldwell's face or tell him personally that, no, Atlantis is more important than Earth and Doctor McKay really can't be bothered.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that the IOA has framed the request in terms as much about his scientific brilliance as for his personnel management abilities.

"That surprised me, too," Elizabeth admits during one of their frequent brainstorming sessions, which are really sessions for him to bitch and her to console. "Not that it's not true, but I've never considered terror and belittlement to be management techniques in short supply."

They want him back on Earth to serve as a consultant and corral the herds of new personnel they are drafting into the program; the fact that Atlantis's Science Division was up and running and productive within days of arriving in Pegasus has made Rodney the IOA's first choice to organize and direct the SGC's redoubled efforts. It's a promotion and, under the circumstances, a high and indubitable honor. And Rodney is doing everything in his power to get out of it.

Or almost everything. One of the newest members of the SGC's physics department is Mrs. J. Miller and Rodney doesn't think for a second that that's a coincidence. He doesn't think they'll fire her if he says no -- Jeannie'll have proved her worth before the Daedalus returns to the Milky Way, whether he's on board or not -- but he also knows that this is a good-faith gesture. And that the IOA isn't entirely wrong; for all of his crappy social skills, it's him and not the good and kind and supportive (and currently distracted) Sam Carter who can best turn a ragtag bunch into useful warrior-scientists. Sam is the ultimate warrior-scientist, but she's never had to impart those skills to others.

He tells Radek that he will expect progress reports and a strict accounting and to not let Bolsano turn the MTF into the Pentagon's wet dream. He tells Teyla and Ronon to make sure Sheppard doesn't do anything more stupid than usual. He tells Elizabeth that he'll bring back dark chocolate Raisinets, since when she's not insulting him, she's been doing everything in her power to assure that the SGC doesn't keep him for a second longer than necessary.

The Milky Way is a changed place; the Daedalus goes through evasive maneuvers and performs the spaceship equivalent of a combat landing once near Earth. Rodney feels like he's been tumbled through a dryer as he's rematerialized in a massive storage room along with all of the other equipment that was piled on to the platform in the Daedalus's transporter room.

"Welcome home, Doctor McKay," General Landry greets him. "Master Sergeant Jefferson will show you to your office."

Rodney's had three weeks with the personnel files and project proposals and resource lists and every other bit of paperwork the SGC could muster up to give him for the ride to Earth. He's already got the framework for what he wants to do -- bureaucracy isn't time-consuming or difficult if you can turn it into a dictatorship -- and just needs to fine-tune it to make it fit the reality of the situation. So he takes a look at his office, hands over a list of tasks for Jefferson, and then he goes and sticks his head into everyone else's labs because if they're going to keep him here to slave-drive, then he's going to make the best use of the rest of his time as he can.

He finds Jeannie is exactly where she's supposed to be, in front of a whiteboard with a green marker in hand, schooling three other junior physicists with the sort of exasperated expression that clearly states that her kid could pick this up faster. She sees him and smiles. "Hey, Mer."

"Class dismissed," Rodney tells the trio who have turned to look at him. "And next time, stop thinking everything gets fixed if you do it in cylindrical coordinates. All you end up is wrong in an extra dimension."

Once they're alone, Jeannie gives him a hug that he returns with a force that surprises him. His concern for her welfare was never abstract, but from a galaxy away and with sixteen levels of security clearances and non-disclosure agreements between them, it feels different in person. Especially when they're here, on his turf, and not the toy-strewn living room filled with everything that is emblematic of all that they've ever fought over.

"You eat yet?" Jeannie asks, looking at her watch. "I had a cruller at seven."

It's 1400 local time and the commissary is packed. People look at them as they join the end of the queue for hot food, recognition and then realization on their faces in turn. Jeannie laughs.

"My life is about to get much easier or much more difficult depending on who you make cry," she says. "Everyone's been going on for a month about how the great and terrible Rodney McKay was coming down from on high to turn this place into a labor camp. I'm glad I changed my name."

Once upon a time, she'd said that exact same thing to him in anger. His remembrance must show on his face because she pats his arm. "Buck up, Rodney. And don't think I won't expect a decent assignment from you. If everyone's going to assume nepotism, I might as well get something out of it."

During lunch, the relief of seeing the other safe fades in favor of the reality that there's a lot out there to need protecting from. Jeannie's mostly over the initial shock of it all -- she explains that Earth didn't have a whole lot of time to dwell on anything -- and is instead spending most of her energy on trying to figure out how to save the planet and thus her family.

"How are they?" Rodney asks, since he's forgotten until now. "Where are they?"

"Right now, they're back in Vancouver," she says, digging in to her Kraft dinner with gusto. "Maddie needs some stability when everything else is falling apart and Kaleb's part of the community safety force. They come down when he's got time off and I go up when I can get a weekend free. We were saving up to buy a cottage in Penticton and now we're using the money for flights to and from here."

Canada on a war footing is different than the US, both for better and for worse, and Jeannie describes the surreality of traversing them both after time spent at the SGC, which is isolated from the rest of the planet at the same time it is far more in tune with what's going on in the rest of the galaxy.

"It's like the wormhole is at the front gate of the base, not in the basement," she says, shaking her head. "I don't like the person I become when I'm here. We all act like everything upstairs is unimportant, like we've forgotten why we're here and what we're protecting because it's got nothing to do with our research or our daily lives. We get so caught up in the means that we forget the ends we're trying to achieve. It's everything I don't miss about academia, all rolled up into one neat little package. And I can't walk away because I don't trust anyone here to remember that there are people out there. I don't trust them to protect my daughter."

Rodney knows she's not talking about him per se, not here and now, but she is in the larger context. This is exactly the sort of thing they've been fighting over for the last half-dozen years and Rodney is acutely aware of the solidness of her argument in a way that he wasn't back when there were veils of secrecy between them.

They part ways after eating, with plans to catch up later. They make it sound like it'll be dinner, but they'll be lucky if it's even any time this week. Rodney has meetings, demonstrations, two site visits, and a presentation to look forward to in the next few days. He spends the afternoon trying to sift through the bullshit of one particular Mech Eng proposal (if they're anywhere close to where they say they are, then he'll give them everything they want; if not, they get nothing and are re-assigned to more useful projects), securing resources to punt the entire bio-warfare unit off-world, and by the time he looks at his watch -- while standing waiting for Jonas to finish up a phone conversation -- it's already 2045 and he'll be lucky if there are tunafish sandwiches in the commissary fridge.

Life at the SGC is pretty much as Jeannie described it -- frenetically busy, intellectually satisfying, and completely divorced from what's going on on Earth. Which is a jarring combination of "nothing" and "utter horror." The Ori are still using carrots (priors) and sticks (the destruction of holy sites); SGC intelligence says that the fact that they're still trying to win Earth over is a good sign, but it doesn't seem all that good when the death counts in places like Jerusalem and Mecca are growing ever upward. Eventually the Ori will stop trying to ask and will instead just take and Rodney keeps that in his mind always.

Jeannie is right and wrong about focus not being on Earth. The war is immediate here in ways that it can't be for the rest of the planet, but the exchange is that they are less concerned with the quotidian life of anyone not presently engaged in it in an active fashion. Which happens to include people like Kaleb and Madison Miller. Jeannie is allowed -- to a point -- to begrudge that focus, but Rodney is accepting of it. War is what war is and he, too, felt differently before the Wraith laid siege to Atlantis.

The SGC is the information hub of the galaxy's defense -- and why the Ori haven't blown this place to smithereens is beyond everyone's understanding; it's possible that they don't know where the stargate is on Earth, but their ignorance or incuriosity won't last forever. Rodney spends enough time in Landry's conference room to hear the constant updates from the control room and the near-endless alarm for an active wormhole. He sees Sam and Jonas rarely; in this galaxy, they are in the field constantly and he learns to read between the lines on the brief notes attached to the artifacts they retrieve. The prizes cost them blood; Teal'c is killed in what is essentially a diversion during a weapons run and they are losing gate team members so quickly that the posted list has switched from 18-point font to something closer to twelve.

Nonetheless, some of the science personnel are able to create alternate realities for themselves, where the war is just an inconvenience or an opportunity.

This is not an academic exercise, he berates the astrophysics unit when they present him with results that are beautiful and elegant and completely irrelevant to the matter at hand. You do not get style points. You do not get a gold star. If you pass, your children grow up free. If you fail, their souls belong to selfish aliens pretending to be gods.

He makes them all watch the next time the gate teams return from action off-world, worn down and wounded. He stands there with them, which is how he's greeted by a vaguely familiar face.

"Hey, Doc," a blood- and mud-covered Staff Sergeant Reletti greets him with a weary smile as he trudges down the ramp on legs that wobble a little. He's been off-world for three days and fighting for almost all of it. The planet fell to the Ori anyway. "We holding up the gate?"

Rodney shakes his head no. He does not explain why he's here with half a dozen astrophysicists -- the point is education, not shame. At least for now. If they fail to appreciate either the lesson or his grace in teaching it, they will be deprived of all future hope of either.

"Nark!" Reletti barks. Rodney doesn't jump, but just barely. He's the only one who doesn't. "Quit makin' eyes at the airmen and get your ass down to the fucking infirmary."

Nark, a young man with an impressive slash down the entire right sleeve of his jacket, clumsily obeys. Reletti shakes his head and grimaces at Rodney. "Gotta go, sir. Catch you around."

He jogs off after his wounded companion and Rodney wonders if Lorne and Sheppard know he's here. If they know how much he's changed. If Rodney will have to be the one to tell them the details of how he died.

It's a Wednesday morning when he finds out that the Daedalus is en route to Atlantis. Rodney's less angry than he thought he'd be -- he's not actually surprised -- mostly because the Daedalus hasn't been anywhere near Earth in the last couple of weeks and the trip is being seen as an inconvenience for almost everyone else. Mitchell, Jonas, Sam, and various SG teams are all using it as a mobile base of operations; the Odyssey, with its superior weapons platform, is currently engaged close to Earth and the Navy is helping the Air Force complete and staff the still-in-dry-docks Apollo. The Daedalus is carrying the usual complement of refugees and supplies out to Atlantis, including the four project teams that Rodney himself designated for Pegasus because the SGC is in the process of spreading its resources around to hopefully prevent any single hit from proving fatal. Again. They lost a dozen people (plus twice that to injury) and a lot of research when the facility on P3X-367 was discovered and destroyed and Rodney has spent quality time with both Jonas and Sam sorting ongoing work by portability and how much it would come back to haunt them if it fell into Ori hands. Anything that falls into the latter category is being either exported or exceptionally well-hidden. There are plenty of planets in the galaxy that the Ori have either no knowledge of or no interest in, but there's usually a reason for that and it's usually the same reason for why simply setting up camp there is not an obvious solution. But there are a few that are simply lucky and those are the places the SGC is depositing high-risk, high-level science teams. The lower-risk teams are being scattered around Earth and more comfortable, more risky off-world planets and it's because of that that Rodney is greeted by a flustered Jeannie.

"They're sending my team to P89-534," she says as she walks into his lab. "Three weeks -- at the minimum. Leaving tomorrow."

Jeannie's on Kalprovsky's team, which is the theoretical physics part of the group charged with figuring out how the hell to find the Ori galaxy and get there without a truckload of ZPMs. (Not to mention getting back and forth between Atlantis and Earth without forty-five stargates or a hyper-space capable ship.) In other words, she's a junior member of a very important team, but a very important team that rates high on the portability and low on the may-bite-us-in-the-ass meters and thus has had the luxury of being moved around North America instead of parked someplace in the galaxy and told to stay there. They've even gotten to do a week in Vancouver, which was totally not Rodney's doing -- he's not involved in logistics or security -- but for which he was happy to accept credit from Jeannie because he knew he'd need it as a balance against some point in the future when something like this came up and he'd end up accepting some of the blame for a move that is similarly out of his hands. Like this.

"It probably will only be three weeks," Rodney says, since he can't do anything like offer to get the order changed. He could, he supposes, but he won't. The time until the Ori invade Earth is drawing to a close and the SGC wants to be able to say that they can both scatter their resources as well as keep them under control and protection. Plus, even the teams that can effectively work off-world need to do some work here. "This is a fire drill, not a relocation."

"I had a four day break in that window," Jeannie explains, angrily tugging at her ponytail and redoing it. "I had a ticket home."

"Re-book it for next month," he says. "You'll be back here by then and they'll give everyone a furlough."

Jeannie laughs sadly. "I might as well give you the ticket and just buy a new one then. They're not going to let me change my flight without a huge fee -- if at all."

Rodney's gone to Vancouver once with Jeannie. It was less awkward than expected considering that Rodney's made it abundantly clear that he blames Kaleb for ruining Jeannie's life -- imminent alien invasions have their bright sides, apparently. But as precocious as his niece is, Rodney's simply been too busy to take weekends off to make another trip.

"Give me the details," he says, hoping she'll take his offer of action as the sympathy he intends it to be. "I'll re-book it. I've got fancy government credentials, remember?"

Airline fares are closer to cruise tickets these days; petroleum prices broke all records months ago when militaries started stockpiling in anticipation of the invasion. That doesn't mean that the airlines themselves have gotten any more passenger-friendly and Rodney ends up canceling Jeannie's ticket and buying her a new one with his own money, since his fancy government credentials will allow him to commandeer the plane, but not exchange tickets without a $300 fee.

Jeannie never ends up needing the new ticket. Halfway into her first off-world adventure, the Ori bring their armies to Earth. The invasions of New York and Zhengzhou don't get them off on the right footing -- the Ori are defeated in China and routed in New York -- but it's only a first attempt and there will be others. With the invasions comes the implementation of long-planned protocols. Rodney is sent back to Atlantis on the first ship out, part of the first wave of high-priority evacuations. He goes without argument; he's better with a gun than most of the other civilians, but he's not Sam or even Jonas -- his value is not in that area. He goes without demanding that Jeannie come with him, too, because he knows she won't. Not without Madison and Kaleb, who will at least be brought to wherever Jeannie is set up to work -- the SGC and IOA, out of either compassion or after watching too many action movies where the plucky heroes go off to save their families instead of the universe, made allowances for spouses and dependents.

Atlantis is blessedly unchanged in his absence, but Rodney doesn't make too much of a deal of it lest Radek get a swelled head.

"Welcome back," Sheppard says as he appears in the doorway to Elizabeth's office, where Rodney is sitting with her and Teyla. "Where's my candy?"

He's asked constantly about Earth, about what it was like, about what is going on (as if he hasn't spent the last two weeks in hyperspace), about whether the good guys will win. He answers all of the questions from people he likes, which happily coincides with people he has to report to, and deflects or ignores the rest as necessary. The SGC is still up and running and the databursts are still coming through. Everyone knows that the answers boil down to "not well" and "maybe, possibly not."

Rodney has never been Atlantis's resident Pollyanna.

Along with Rodney and many crates of equipment came Colonel Mitchell and four dozen Galarans, their first non-Earth refugees. Why they have them in Atlantis is a bit of a mystery to Rodney -- and Mitchell, who apparently has some sort of unpleasant history with these people -- but it's at least partially due to their good luck at being on board when the Daedalus was re-tasked with evacuating scientists from Earth. They're not peasants, are in fact quite advanced in terms of technology ("problem's not with their know-how," Mitchell says darkly when asked during a meeting. "It's with their ethics."), and the decision is made to incorporate them into the city. They can better fill the positions that marines have held since the beginning -- lab techs, PAs, cooks -- and Rodney surprises everyone by being eager to accept anyone who can pass muster with the various department heads. Being forced to do your own scutwork is excellent in terms of keeping the basics of your field fresh in your head, but it's also a time waste and that's why God invented graduate students.

Time passes more slowly in Atlantis than it did on Earth. Atlantis is nominally also the focal point of a galactic defense system and the Wraith, as individual entities, are probably more dangerous than the average Ori worshiper, but the weight of expectation and responsibility does not sit as heavily on Atlantis's head as it did on the SGC's. Or maybe Rodney's just not feeling the pressure as much after life in the hurricane's eye; he finds himself more sympathetic to the chaotic and occasionally nonsensical flow of data and materials from Earth than Elizabeth or Sheppard or Carson... at least up until the point where he can clearly see where the IOA had a straightforward choice to make and blew it because they're idiots.

His first mission out with Sheppard and Teyla and Ronon is so hilariously awful that nobody can even blame him for being out of shape or out of practice, although both are true. They get caught in quicksand and have to be rescued by marines bearing rope and Rodney would probably find it as hilarious as everyone else if he didn't ache from having to tread water (quicksand) for hours and if his laptop hadn't been in his backpack. Granted it's a backup machine and there'll be no data lost, but hardware is hard to come by now and he isn't sure that the humiliation of having to explain to Ogrodnick why he's bringing it in for cleaning and salvaging is worth not getting 'charged' for the replacement.

Email from Jeannie ceases being a regular thing once she (and Kaleb and Madison) and her team are moved from San Jose to PX9-757; messages get through every few weeks, but they require being bounced back to Earth and then packaged in the databurst and that's just too much of an effort to make for personal contact. He knows her team is safe and that, for the time being, is enough.

Atlantis gets another boatload of refugees when the Odyssey shows up unexpectedly. These are not like the Galarans, who are fitting well into the city's rhythms, but instead are a cross-section of the Milky Way at war. Some will be able to function in the city in some sort of professional capacity, but most were farmers or tradesmen or whatever else you do when your local Goa'uld god didn't want you advancing past guild system economics. Teyla becomes Atlantis's refugee liaison, although in truth she's been in the role since they first invited the Athosians to stay. She offers the hospitality of the mainland -- already home to a half-dozen or so different kinds of Pegasus natives -- to those who can't find any useful purpose in Atlantis, but the next command staff meeting involves a lengthy discussion of setting up shop on another planet. Carson is the one who makes the Dr. Moreau reference to their burgeoning social experiment on the mainland.

Rodney has nothing to do with M9J-442 -- called Mars by the marines and so thus soon by everyone else -- beyond approving the loan of a couple of civil engineers and blanket permission for Botany to go and do whatever the hell they do to pass the time. He's kept apprised nonetheless because Teyla and Ronon and Sheppard make it the leading topic of conversation on pretty much all of their missions.

Time may move more slowly in Atlantis than it did on Earth, but Rodney has the same sense of timelessness -- it's just he loses a couple of days instead of a week. Which is why he's completely oblivious to why Elizabeth is summoning him to her office one day just before lunch.

"What is it?" he asks, since he's been up since five and is hungry.

"Why don't you sit down," Elizabeth says and, in the space of a heartbeat, Rodney realizes that today is Tuesday and thus databurst day and Elizabeth did not summon Sheppard or Carson. He sits down heavily. "Is she dead?"

He hasn't gotten email from Jeannie in a month; he's been expecting something soon.

"They don't know," Elizabeth says, sympathy in her eyes and Rodney looks away. He doesn't want sympathy. He wants accurate intelligence and a plan of action. "PX9-757 was taken by the Ori. Non-essential personnel were evacuated, but the science team there was not. The scientists have all been classified as missing in action."

The military protection force were killed, she doesn't have to add.

He's surprised, but not shocked. This was a risk, this was always a risk. He'd chosen to give Jeannie a chance to have a say in her fate and, as he'd known she would, she'd chosen the harder course. If he'd done nothing, she'd be home in Vancouver, eating tofurkey and alfalfa with her husband and daughter, and she'd be safe. For now, at least. In a fit of remorse, he'd apologized to her once, for taking her away from everything, and she'd told him he had nothing to apologize for, that ignorance was not bliss. It had eased him then, but it is cold comfort now.

"Thank you," he says, still looking at the floor, because Elizabeth will be expecting an answer. "I'll hope there will be news next week."

He leaves, going directly to the commissary with the intention of picking up lunch and taking it back to his lab. But Ronon finds him on line and seems intent on not leaving him alone. Rodney doesn't know how Ronon could know -- he's never spoken of Jeannie -- and he doesn't. But it doesn't take a genius to realize that today is databurst day and that brings bad news. Ronon enjoys playing the savage, but he's really not an idiot.

Under the weight of a questioning glare, Rodney gives up and tells.

"They're not dead," Ronon says as he chows down on the chunky stew that's one of the many new offerings now that they have refugees and not marines doing the cooking. "If they were supposed to die, the Ori would've just left the bodies with the soldiers."

If the Ori were the Goa'uld or the Genii or one of a half-dozen other bad guys, that would be a cause for hope. But the Ori are more like the Wraith -- there are far more options on the table than merely life or death.

"They might wish they were dead," Rodney says, cutting a potato chunk in half with his spoon. "Or we might wish they were."

Interrogation, turned into priors, brainwashing... Rodney thinks of Daniel Jackson, missing for months, and how he's never told Sam that he overheard Landry and O'Neil discussion assassination if it turned out that Jackson had been turned.

"She's smart like you, right?" Ronon asks. "She'll be fine."

Rodney wishes he could have such simple faith, but it's not his nature. And so he buries himself in work, takes his fear out on his subordinates and anyone else who crosses his path, and waits for Tuesday to come around again. Because either there will be news right away or not at all and he thinks he'll be fine once he knows which it is.

There is no news on Tuesday, just an email from Kaleb with more details of the same story. Rodney has lunch by himself, but ends up spending the afternoon with Radek, Simpson, and Istvan watching Robotics stage an obstacle course for their robo-donkeys. He makes an effort to be nicer to his staff, which as predicted makes them all nervous as hell, and goes on a mission with his team that, for once, goes completely according to plan and they come home on time.

The following week, along with news about the Ori solidifying their base in sub-Saharan Africa, is the item that the scientists from PX9-757 turned up on Entak, safe and unharmed. They are still being debriefed, but all seem to be of sound mind and body and the Ori haven't done anything apart from feed them a steady diet of propaganda. Rodney doesn't cry with relief at the news, but he maybe wants to.

And then Gorshuk shows up and asks if Life Sciences can set up shop on Mars, to which Rodney's response is "I'll help you pack," and Radek's is to ask for specifics and, by the time everything is done, Engineering has their own set of mud huts in Mars's growing shantytown and Carson's mumbling about setting up a clinic and a research outpost and Rodney can only wonder why so many want to work in a place with no toilets and silt that gets into everything.

When the email from Jeannie does come, it's subdued and sad and he feels a renewal of the regret he'd felt when he'd found out that she was missing. Jeannie's always been alive, even when displaying the stillness and patience that Rodney himself never mastered, and for all of her gratitude for being reunited with her family and safe, her spark is dimmed and Rodney wishes he could simply blame the Ori for that. But she's still a McKay, whatever her name is now, and she gets back to work. Her project team had been making important breakthroughs before their capture -- not ZPMs, but something better than naquadah generators and maybe enough to power the Ancient base in Antarctica-- and Rodney reads Sam's impressed comments on their work with pride.

His sister proving herself a genius is, unfortunately, one of the few bright spots on the databurst these days. Earth is falling, slowly but surely. A country here, a tribe there, and the Ori gain purchase as much through overwhelming military might as promises of a puritan utopia -- blooming deserts and fattened livestock, miraculous cures of AIDS and cancer, the end of hardship in exchange for adherence to the Ori's creed. It's a potent cocktail, a combination that has made the Ori's simple choice of Submit or Die no choice at all for an increasing number. Not that Earth's poor are rushing to join the masses at Prostration -- the same people who shot at UN peacekeepers bringing in food are shooting at Ori soldiers -- but it's making the good guys' jobs that much harder.

So is the fact that Earth's military powers are running out of materiel. Even with an industrial transformation that defied expectations in time and scope, China, the US, Russia, and the combined might of the EU cannot produce enough weaponry that will be effective against the Ori. Bullets and artillery will and have been decimating the foot soldiers when the priors haven't interfered, but they've got nothing that'll stop the Ori carriers and twenty years of nuclear disarmament and neglect have left them with insufficient vehicles to carry the kind of payloads required to take down Ori cruisers and destroyers with any rapidity.

Watching from a distance -- although it's more like watching the telegraph machine from a distance -- is all the more frustrating because the collective opinion in Atlantis, born in Little Tripoli and exported to the civilians, is that Earth's fate is largely self-inflicted. Rodney does not disagree, even though he does not have the military history background to go on anything but current assessment and his own experiences. Since creating a defense system that could take on a space armada would be impossible to hide from Earth's citizens, the Stargate Program became the sole guardian of the planet. In ninety percent of the cases, keeping the stargate safe was enough. But it left them completely and utterly unable to handle the other ten percent. Earth's defense was entirely based on the attackers never getting close enough to breach the upper atmosphere.

"We had a Maginot Line," Captain Hanzis explains at one of the briefings. "They had a blitzkrieg."

Atlantis, the other Maginot Line ("More like the Alpine Line, sir," one of the lieutenants helpfully corrects him), is aware of the irony that Earth has just as little to protect them from the Wraith should the Pegasus end of things -- also woefully underserved, although not for PR purposes -- fall down on the job. It would be an interesting mental exercise in the choice of two evils, except the Wraith hive ships are easier to take down. Nobody seriously entertains the idea of setting the Wraith against the Ori; that's a genie nobody's putting back in a bottle.

The Wraith are currently at low tide in the ebb and flow of their activity in the galaxy. Local intelligence -- Rodney has more or less learned the official terms for how the marines classify news, although three-quarters of it falls into the Pegasus equivalent of 'my cousin's uncle's girlfriend's hairdresser's neighbor said' -- indicates that the Wraith are stepping up attacks on each other, which is good news but not great news because the Wraith's civil wars are always short in duration and invariably are followed by the victor's going on a food binge. The Wraith aren't staging any kind of massive intra-species conflict, more one hive picking off the other hive and then going back to what it was doing. It's more Darwinian than anything, the weaker hives going down and the stronger ones emerging hungry.

They nearly lose Lorne's team during one such bout of the munchies, but end up instead with two dozen more refugees -- almost entirely women and children -- to send to either the mainland or Mars.

The SGC is effectively disbanded in the spring, Colorado Springs having drawn too much attention. The SG teams are spread around the planet and the galaxy and the Asgard-cloaked Apollo, in orbit around Earth, becomes the central hub of transport and information. The stargate itself is still operational and the Mountain isn't abandoned, but the diffusion and limiting of resources makes contact between Earth and Atlantis all the more rare. Most of the time, they end up sending data back and forth to and from other planets, working from a list of gate addresses provided by Sam through Caldwell.

Atlantis has been slowly preparing for a second period of isolation for more than a year, but now is the first time Rodney can look around and be reminded of what it was like the first time.

"As long as we don't have to start growing tomatoes in the hallway again," Radek says as they pass by the new forests of recycling bins.

They can mostly joke about it, so long as they don't think about the 'why' too hard, but this second go-round is much more complicated. The population is more than quadrupled from the original expedition and what they need to feed, shelter, and protect everyone is more than proportionally demanding of their energy and ingenuity. The settlement on Mars doesn't count as any kind of benefit resource-wise, especially since they're not contributing anything in the way of crops or raw materials yet, and Atlantis has had to wean itself off of the easy-and-cheap trade of Earthmade goods in exchange for whatever they've been getting. Rodney has never particularly cared about Atlantis's economy; Elizabeth has always had the final say on things and either Sheppard or Teyla or both have handled negotiations on team missions. But now Elizabeth expects Rodney and even Carson to start playing a part, coming up with ways that their units can contribute to the city's self-sufficiency.

"I don't know what she expects us to do," Rodney gripes to Radek after yet another such reminder. "We can't pimp out our personnel like Carson or Colonel Sheppard can. There's not a lot of work for freelance physicists and bioengineers in Pegasus."

"I think we could record Williams bitching about whatever it is he's always bitching about and sell it as a pest deterrent," Radek says, not looking up from where he's squinting at his laptop. He mutters under his breath in Czech and Rodney presumes he's reading another email from the engineer in question.

"That wouldn't work," Rodney sighs. "Williams drives away sane and reasonable people, not just pests."

They end up convincing Life Sciences to work as veterinarians and crop consultants and manage to cobble together a list of small engineering feats that they can perform on other worlds without using up more resources than they'd bring in. Radek, who hates going offworld no less now than when they first arrived, ends up leading the debut project, a complex network of mirrors to illuminate some mine shafts too cramped for torches.

Another new milestone is reached when Sutherland, a chemist, gives birth. Hers was the first pregnancy to happen after the personnel movement freeze -- there'd been a couple over the years; they'd invariably sent the women home -- and while there have been births all along, this is the first time an Earth woman has popped one out in Atlantis. (It won't be the last; there are others already en route and their supplies of various birth control methods are limited.) There have been weddings since the freeze and presumably other life events that Rodney hasn't paid any attention to, but even he can't avoid the bizarrely optimistic mood that carries through the city at word of Atlantis's first baby baptism.

He doesn't attend, but Radek does and brings him back some of the pastries.

"You should go to these things," Radek tells him as he hands over the napkin-covered treats. "There's always food."

There have been priests and pastors and chaplains in Atlantis since Little Tripoli finally threw a big enough stink to acquire some the other year and religious service attendance has been on the increase since the Ori got serious about Earth, but Rodney stopped going to church twenty-five years ago and he's not sure he's interested in returning, even for (really, really) good dessert. It's not the God thing; Rodney is not an atheist. But he's also not a believer in any kind of faith where sitting around and begging for some external force to fix things is a productive use of his time. Newton, whether he actually believed in the watchmaker or not, thought there was a code to the universe and, by figuring it out, he could approach God in his own fashion. Rodney's not sure he wants to approach God to such a proximity that they'd be able to carry on a conversation without cell phones, but he is sure that he's not going to draw any closer by getting a numb ass in a pew once a week.

But the pastries are pretty good and Radek's looking kind of hopeful, so he mumbles something that might be interpreted as being open to considering it next time the situation comes up.

The databurst actually gets through on Tuesday and contains the ray of hope that is a power source for the Antarctic base; it's not anything Jeannie's group has put together, instead something smuggled in from the Asgard galaxy and modified to not make Ancient tech explode. But the provenance almost doesn't matter -- they now have access to the weapons platform that was supposed to defend Earth all along.

Staff Sergeant Reletti, apparently feared dead, has risen from the grave to man the chair.

"Good thing we gave him lessons," Sheppard says during the meeting when it's discussed.

It was lesson, singular, but it's still more than anyone else on Earth got.

Antarctica isn't ready to fire off its drone weapons just yet; they only now have access to the chair's full systems -- routines and processes and databases that Rodney hadn't been able to gain entry to with only a naquadah generator powering the chair -- and they need time to plot out what everyone hopes might be enough for a momentum-changing counterforce attack.

The next databurst after that, eagerly awaited and yet mostly completely forgotten about in the interim courtesy of a pair of Wraith attacks on Atlantis allies, contains more detailed discussions on what the chair is capable of doing and how much damage they think unloading the drones will do.

It also contains the news, pithy in its directness, that the SGC has evidence of its first confirmed defections to the Ori. They've lost people -- various shades of misplaced the travel orders, got the gate address wrong, reported captured, suspect-they've-gone-home-without-leave, or presumed-dead-but-nobody's-seen-a-body -- but they've never actually gotten proof of any of their people voluntarily walking over to the other side. And now they have.

It's not the most surprising news ever. It was more of a when and less of an if, especially once the death totals for Earth crossed the one (two, three) hundred million mark.

Rodney's not sure what to say or do or think when he sees the name Jean Miller on the list.


Sheppard is standing next to where he's sitting, waiting for the answer to the question Rodney was only half paying attention to before he saw the list and now can't remember. He's proud of himself for remembering to answer to his name. "What?"

"Who on that list do we have to be worried about?" Sheppard repeats slowly, letting his exasperation and impatience show.

It dawns on Rodney that Sheppard doesn't know. He came down to Rodney's lab to ask him about the list of names, but for all of the ways Sheppard has changed in this time of crisis, getting a quick jump on paperwork isn't one of them. Which means he found out about the list either from Elizabeth or Lorne or both. And since the first question wasn't asking him why his sister has defected to the Ori.... Either nobody looked at the names on the list or everyone had assumed that Sheppard would know the significance of one of them.

"Parker's from the initial Atlantis expedition," Rodney says, sounding strange to his own ears. "He led the overnight repairs crew for the first six months; he knows everything about this place. Strikov's been with the SGC forever and has the memory of an elephant. Everyone else is a new hire, post-Beijing. The only one who's a serious threat out of them will be Jean Miller."

"Who's he?" Sheppard asks, scribbling on a printed-out version of the list. "What project?"

"She," Rodney corrects absently. "She was on Kalprovsky's team, high-energy physics. They're trying to make us a ZPM."

Thankfully, Kalprovsky's not on the list.

"You got to know her well when you were there?"

Sheppard isn't leering and there's nothing in his voice that's the least bit wink-wink-nudge-nudge, but Rodney knows what he's asking and why. "She's my sister."

"Jesus, Rodney!" Sheppard explodes. Not in anger so much as in surprise and realization of what this might mean. "Is she the most dangerous one because she's a chip to use against you?"

Rodney shakes his head no. "She's the most dangerous because she's smarter than me," he says. It doesn't hurt him to say the words. He's always known it, just as he's always known that she'd never go as far as he did because she didn't have the drive. Kaleb hadn't had to twist her arm very hard to give up academia and Rodney's anger at him has been mostly about that rather than anything else. "Kalprovsky's an old Soviet -- he believes in divide and conquer. Nobody on his team has access to all of the parts of their project because that way nobody's a threat to him. Or to us, in this case. But Jeannie's the only one who is capable of taking what she knows and extrapolating the rest."

The Ori don't need power sources; they seem to have more than enough for their own purposes. But they can keep Earth's defenders from acquiring what they need to patch together their own, especially if they knew how and what and why.

"Great," Sheppard sighs, deflating to lean against the lab bench and rubbing his hand over his face. "So the Ori have their own McKay."

"Apparently," Rodney agrees. "I should tell Elizabeth."

He's not looking forward to having this conversation again -- and then again once more during the command staff meeting. And whatever interview he's going to have to give to Hanzis, Little Tripoli's intelligence officer. It's probably futile, but he can hope that it doesn't become common knowledge.

"No," Sheppard says, pushing off the bench. "I'll do it."

Rodney nods as Sheppard turns to go. Sheppard pauses by the doorway. "I'm sorry, for what it's worth."

"Thanks," Rodney replies, since there's not much else to be said on the matter.

The interview with Hanzis is about as painless as Rodney suspects it can get. Lorne is there, too, because he's got the best knowledge of the SGC of anyone in Little Tripoli, but Hanzis asks almost all of the questions. They start off with questions about the others, which Rodney both can and cannot answer to any depth, And then they move on to Jeannie. They ask him about Jeannie's personal history, her academic work and what she did at the SGC, whether Rodney spoke to her about anything beyond her classification status or otherwise showed favoritism, whether she saw or did anything that might have accidentally given her insight into the SGC's plans, how often she went off-world before the SGC was evacuated and how often she saw teams prepare for or return from off-world. They ask if she'd ever shown sympathy for the Ori cause or creed, if she'd ever expressed extreme disgust with the SGC in specific or the defense of Earth in general, if she'd ever said that she'd be willing to run away. They ask if she believes in God, if she ever took her daughter to church, if Kaleb has any strong religious beliefs. They manage to smile when Rodney asks "beyond vegetarianism?"

Nobody knows what has happened to Kaleb and Madison; the report was brief and made no mention of where or when the defections had occurred, whether they'd been all at once or piecemeal, whether they'd taken anyone or anything with them or left it all behind. Rodney doesn't know if they'll ever know, if the SGC will be distracted at the time of the next databurst by the ever-worsening situation on Earth. He doesn't know if Kaleb was the instigator, the partner, or the victim of Jeannie's betrayal. He doesn't know where his niece is or if she's still alive. He'd like to think that Jeannie, no matter where she stands on faith, loves her daughter too much to let anything happen to her. He'd like to think that, but he'd also like to think that Jeannie wouldn't voluntarily wind up in league with the soul-stealing genocidal aliens, either.

They're unable to make a connection with the Milky Way for a while, so their next chance at information comes with the arrival of the Daedalus.

"They just walked off," Mitchell says, shaking his head in lingering disbelief. "They were on P2M-554. We've set up a small facility and they were all stationed there on different projects. They seem to have just... up and left. The men stationed at the gate saw them go, but they said that they had to go to P3S-114, which is another of our hidey-holes. But they never arrived there, they had no orders to go there, and they disappeared with all of their belongings. One of 'em -- Parker? -- left a note saying he'd gone of his own accord and don't try to find him."

There's more to the story, but not much more. Rodney finds out that the families and dependents are scheduled to be returned to Earth at earliest convenience, given help but otherwise cut free and on their own. The facility on P2M-554 is temporarily shut down and everyone else is on the move -- they shuffle the off-world research teams around every few weeks anyway to keep them hidden, so it's not quite the chaos that it could have been. Close, but Mitchell assures them that there have been worse mass migrations in recent SGC history.

Kalprovsky's team -- what's left of it, as Jeannie wasn't the only one from that captured-and-returned team to go -- have been moved to Kheb, which is about as secure an off-world base as the SGC and its allies still have. They'll be under the watch of a great deal of marines and expected to merge with one of Sam's tech squads and while precautions are being taken, nobody really expects anyone else to try to make a run for it.

"Miller, Pagat, and Sesniak were the ones Medical was worried about, ma'am," Mitchell explains when Elizabeth wants to know how the SGC's so sure. Rodney knows Mitchell knows Jeannie's his sister, but he's not making mention of it and Rodney finds the courtesy more a relief than anything."They were the ones who came back depressed instead of angry or relieved."

Once upon a time, in a past that feels more distant than a little more than a year ago, they would have been stood down, given extensive counseling and therapy options, and not asked to do anything more strenuous than write on whiteboards or go to Starbucks until they were ready to put in a full day's work again. Rodney doesn't remember the last time anyone in Atlantis got stood down while still being able to stand up.

He finds himself wondering if what Jeannie did is an act of courage or an act of cowardice. Did she jump off of the sinking ship or did she follow her convictions no matter how they damned her? He wonders what he'd say if they were face to face, whether he'd beg her to reconsider or regret that he'd left his sidearm in his quarters. He hates Jeannie most of the time, hates her for hurting him and her daughter and even Kaleb, hates her for the trouble she's caused to so many people and for the fact that Earth is more at risk for her not being part of the team to protect it. He hates her for spiting him one last time.

He goes to the Methodist services one Sunday, sitting in a corner far apart from everyone, especially those he knows. He doesn't believe in an active God, doesn't believe in a God who completes touchdown passes or saves babies from burning buildings. But he believes that God has granted them a free will whereby they can move toward him or turn away as is their wont. And so he sits as the minister leads the congregation in prayer and he listens, hoping to find some part of an answer to the questions he's not sure how to ask. At least beyond wondering how Jeannie, who once followed him to Sunday School even before she was old enough to go, could see the dark hearts of the Ori and still turn to them in a time of need.

Silence from the Milky Way is the rule rather than the exception now. Rodney doesn't quite get used to it -- none of them do -- but under the circumstances, no news is good news. It's too hard for Atlantis and the SGC pockets to coordinate who is dialing where and when, so intel must come from the Daedalus, Earth's last surviving warship. The Odyssey was destroyed four months ago in a desperately overmatched but absolutely necessary encounter with the Ori and the Apollo was stripped of her prize platforms before being scuttled by the Jaffa after coming out the worse for wear in her own battle against Ori destroyers. The Daedalus, oldest and slowest and least prepared to face down the Ori even with the Apollo's cloaking system and shields, is now everything to everyone.

With nothing coming from the Milky Way and no way to get anything back to that galaxy except for the infrequent appearances of the Daedalus at their improvisational base on MQ6-4F3, life in Atlantis turns back toward Pegasus. Not as thoroughly as it was before the Ori turned imperialist -- the MTF is still working hard to come up with ideas for the SGC fighters -- but more than it's been in the last year. Some of the personnel working on war-related projects are re-tasked because what they are working on no longer has any practical application -- missile designs that can't be implemented because there are no longer any mass production capabilities, shields for the Goa'uld death gliders that they don't have enough of anymore to justify the resource usage -- and some because Atlantis now has more to do to keep their own house in order. Mars grows ever larger and so does its list of needs -- defense, sanitation, shelter, irrigation. Atlantis proper has more citizens than ever before and that, too, requires more work because so much of what they've gotten used to is really just the continuation of stop-gap measures put in place during the initial expansion and not anything that reflects how the intervening years have shaped the city's needs. And, above all, the supply and resupply problem.

Colonel Caldwell doesn't have many friends in Atlantis, but he has far fewer enemies after becoming an expert at supermarket banditry; the Daedalus's transporter beams have emptied out many a Costco and other warehouse-like stores and so while Atlantis may be running out of industrial grade steel and certain chemicals, they're good for toothbrushes and AA batteries. What seem like frivolous wastes of cargo hold space really aren't -- morale is improved immeasurably by the appearance of cans of Pringles, sure, but Elizabeth is a big believer in the theory that not having to sweat the small stuff allows everyone to concentrate better on the bigger things. Besides, it's not like Caldwell is stealing vats of Cheez Wiz -- potato chips aside, the Daedalus crew has gotten proficient at grabbing the electronics and sundries and leaving behind the useless. And the fact remains that even the potato chips aren't displacing more crucial items; there's not much left that the SGC forces can or want to evacuate to Pegasus. While emptying out military caches is on the to-do list for some nebulous future point when those weapons will be used in service of the Ori, they aren't there yet.

Except they get there sooner than they think. Rodney is in Elizabeth's office seeking redress after a failed attempt to convince Sheppard to overrule his zealous minions when Osgeny appears, visibly disturbed.

"Doctor Weir, Doctor McKay. We've received an encrypted message from Earth."

They know what this means and while they've known for a while that it was coming, it still comes as a shock many orders of magnitude greater than finding out that Beijing and Dhaka were bombed. Maybe not more than finding out about Jeannie, but enough so that Rodney feels frozen, trapped inside an unmoving shell.

Earth has fallen and they are all alone.


feed me on LJ?

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5 April, 2008