Qui Habitat: Respite

by Domenika Marzione

"Considering that I know better than to ask what this once was when it was on the hoof," Cam began, gesturing to the hunks of grilled meat on his plate, "this really isn't too bad."

He knew that most of what they were eating was near-deer, since most of the meat in Pegasus was near-deer, but there was definitely some cow and pig in addition to the chicken and fish and vegetables. (Between religious considerations and the small-but-vocal vegetarian contingent, the marines had had to get fancy with the cooking. Cam would feel bad for them if he hadn't known how much fun they had had setting it up.) He suspected he'd ended up with more of the pig because Byrd was one of the line cooks and had heard Cam wax poetic about barbecued pork on many a mission.

Next to Cam, Sheppard grinned and wiped sauce off of his chin with the back of his hand. "I'm just happy to be a real carnivore again. A man can only eat so much chicken and still keep the title."

With the increase in population in Atlantis and the disappearance of supplies from Earth, the structure of the average diet had had to change and one of those changes had been the marked decrease in red meat. Doctor Weir had spoken at length about Asian cultures and how the Chinese used meat as garnish instead of main feature, but the grumbling in Little Tripoli had been long and loud and the fact was that most of the nationalities represented in Atlantis were red meat aficionados and felt the loss acutely.

"I'm not sure whether the marines had more fun catching dinner or eating it," Lorne said, gesturing with one hand to the barbecue pits where a handful of marines, including Byrd and Lorne's Ortilla, were wearing "Kiss the Cook" aprons and carrying on as they tended to the never-empty spits. Cam wasn't sure how effective the apron campaign was going, at least in terms of the target audience; there had already been incidences of tongs used as weapons on fellow leathernecks.

"We should let them go near-deer hunting more often," Sheppard said, as if they weren't all aware that the marines weren't already making illicit hunting trips during regular exercises and mission. He took a long swallow of beer; the restrictions on alcohol had been lifted for the day -- nobody even blinked at the sudden appearance of large supplies of spirits both civilian- and marine-produced -- with the appropriate warnings that excessive drunkenness would be punished and a mostly unenforced two-drink limit. "It's not like the galaxy's going to run out of them any time soon and it seems to have done wonders for morale."

"Judging by the seating arrangements, at least," Cam said, not looking up from his plate. He hadn't been lying when he'd told Byrd that his macaroni salad was the best of the three.

Rather than waste wood to build picnic tables, the organizing committee had come up with an impressive collection of tatami-like mats and locally-woven blankets to make a de facto seating area, setting them up in between where the meat was being grilled and the clam baking area. The blankets were unassigned except for two -- one for Doctor Weir (her name neatly printed next to a tiny red square) and one with the Air Force logo that came with extra napkins and a tiny table and seat cushions and other signs that the marines were not quite prepared to give up on the inter-service rivalries despite everything that had happened on Earth and since. Cam (who was flattered to be included in the harassment) and Lorne and Sheppard took it with good humor -- the bibs and the baby blue sun umbrella were pretty funny -- and assured each other that they'd take revenge at an appropriate juncture, which was not when the marines were in charge of the food.

Nearby, Doctor Weir was holding court on her blanket, looking younger and more alive than Cam remembered seeing her. The last couple of months had been hard on everyone -- beyond the usual weight of what was happening on Earth -- but Cam, by virtue more of his rank than his place within Atlantis's hierarchy, had had a pretty good view of what the cost had been for both the senior command and the rank and file. Freed from having to run interference between Atlantis and Earth, Weir was instead a sort of unelected president-for-life of a growing empire of refugees with few resources, fewer options, and greater responsibilities. She didn't go out to the planets full of corpses -- Cam suspected it was because Sheppard wouldn't let her, although he'd never asked -- but every failure to prevent another tragedy weighed on her just the same. Today, however, she was laughing animatedly at some story Doctor Beckett was telling, sipping at a cup of what was being called a pina colada even though the rum was really cachaça and the coconuts were pink-fleshed and sweet.

(Cam had tried explaining to Jonas that anything fruity was pretty much a girl's drink, but Jonas's love of anything related to tropical fruit trumped his concern over whatever the marines might think of him. Their marines were well aware of Jonas's independence of spirit and lack of self-consciousness, but Becanek nonetheless seemed to think that Cam simply hadn't tried hard enough to dissuade Jonas, Cam being Air Force and thus probably a drinker of mudslides and amaretto sours.)

While the availability of alcohol had certainly helped in terms of social lubrication, Cam didn't think it was doing nearly as much as the swarms of children and a surprising array of toys and games that had everyone feeling and acting a fraction of their ages. The beach looked like some resort at the height of tourist season -- packed with pale bodies trying to tan, volleyball nets, a badminton net, and some surprisingly complex sand castles. He had gone into the water earlier and found himself volunteered to help out with the impromptu swimming lesson a couple of the lieutenants and a handful of marines were giving to a group of refugee children, all of whom were wearing makeshift water wings and none of whom had seen an ocean before. There was surfing and water polo and at least a dozen kites in the air and the odd soccer ball flying through the eating area and Cam could almost -- almost -- forget how rare a day like today was, what this was a break from, and what awaited them once they returned to an Atlantis that always smelled of the sea but never like the sun.

Atlantis herself was nearly empty -- some had chosen not to come, some had already gone back, and there was a skeleton crew of marines and AF cops rotating through on two-hour guard shifts. Caldwell had offered to stay behind for the duration, but after some discussions to which Cam hadn't been privy, it was decided that Caldwell would take half of the eighteen hours and the next senior officers would split the rest. Cam considered it a kind of quiet milestone that he had been included in the rotation instead of the captains.

After he was finished eating, he escaped the segregation of the Air Force blanket and wandered around a bit. Out of uniform, everyone looked different and Cam found himself struggling to put names to faces (it wasn't his fault Doctor Clayton looked very different in a bikini and sarong). He'd made some acquaintances in his time in Atlantis, but he'd also spent the first months after Robler Rock mostly in the Milky Way, the next months recovering from his injuries, and then the next months after that fighting again here in Pegasus. Whether that was avoidance or denial or exhaustion or something else, the fact was that he hardly knew anyone outside of the people he worked with every day and it was extremely noticeable -- and perhaps lamentable -- during this official non-working event. Especially since he couldn't find Kirnon, whom he'd seen earlier among those learning to surf.

Once upon a time, Sam, Daniel, and Teal'c had half-jokingly lamented the change in habits required by the change of command of SG-1 from the laconic O'Neill. Cam didn't think there was anyone in Atlantis who'd accuse him of being willing to talk to walls just to have a conversation partner.

Regardless, he had done his best to knock off the worst of his chatty rust and was in a spirited discussion with Lieutenant Eriksson and Bob Schechler from Chemical Engineering about the similarities between BCS rankings and the Teapot Dome Scandal when an engineer named Amitav came over and, in hushed and urgent tones, told them to follow him if they wanted to see something special. Cam cocked an eyebrow at Eriksson, since Science Division humor tended to be either obscure or impenetrable and not worth the effort even after it was explained to you, but they followed along just the same.

The beach was long and wide, so for safety reasons the marines had floated buoys as markers to keep everyone swimming in a fixed area. People were allowed to go past the markers on land, however, and Amitav led them through this area, which had been mostly co-opted by the weird pairing of sun-bathers and then the less-social sorts who'd taken books and laptops and, apart from the sun-shields, were looking like they were there under protest.

The end of the beach was a spit of land and there, with a crowd already starting to form, was what Cam figured would happen when you took a couple hundred geeks to the shore.

"What the hell?" Cam asked, eyebrows raised. Two competing sand castles -- sand fortresses, complete with moats and redoubts and were they braiding a trebuchet out of kelp?

"It's a civil engineering pissing contest," Amitav announced cheerfully. "McKay and Zelenka versus the marines."

Cam saw a familiar form appear from behind a parapet and felt completely vindicated for not steering Jonas toward more manly beverages -- he had nothing to be ashamed of if Becanek couldn't keep Horton from trying to out-nerd the biggest nerds in Atlantis.

"What's up with the half-pint bucket brigade?" Eriksson asked. "I'm pretty sure Doctor McKay doesn't like kids."

There were maybe a half-dozen kids running around moving sand under McKay's and Zelenka's micromanaging eyes. Cam recognized a couple from his swimming lessons earlier in the day. At the other end of the field of battle, five marines -- Horton and four Cam didn't recognize, were sweaty with industry.

"McKay doesn't like anyone," Bob corrected.

"The children are allegedly there to even out the odds," someone -- Simpson, Cam thought, but she had pigtails and it was hard to tell -- said from the other side of Amitav. "Rodney opened his mouth and said that he didn't need the help of anyone over the age of ten. I've got twenty on Sergeant Horton making him eat his words. Rodney and Radek aren't structural engineers and this is exactly the kind of thing that we've been teaching Weapons Company for the last few years. And I'm going to assume that Horton's brought his colleagues in to help."

"Yes ma'am," Eriksson confirmed, squinting into the sun to look at the marines, who apart from Horton were indistinguishable to Cam's eyes except for the variations in tattoos. "I think they're all from Third Platoon."

Cam hadn't done a whole lot of anything related to form and function since flight school, but he could tell that the marines were going for simple -- except for the trebuchet, which Horton was taking special care on -- while Zelenka and McKay were designing a more complicated system of supports and counterbalances.

"They're overthinking," someone said from behind Cam. "This isn't a beauty contest. That defilade is going to collapse with one direct hit to the left buttress."

Part of Cam wished for his radio, so he could summon Jonas without having to leave his spot. But the rest of him was just going to enjoy this. He listened to the play-by-play from the engineers around him, most of whom were rooting for the marines and all of whom thought McKay and Zelenka were outsmarting themselves. Lieutenant Murray, Horton's platoon commander, appeared next to Eriksson at some point.

The building part of the competition ended with a sharp whistle from a short woman Cam didn't recognize but who was apparently the official timekeeper and judge of the event. The war-waging part of the competition ended in the fifth round when Horton's trebuchet-launched mudpie managed to open up a breach along the right side. The marines -- including the ones scattered in the large crowd -- whooped and barked and made marine-like noises of happiness. And then both structures were turned over to the kids while McKay berated Zelenka after first getting chastised for blaming his youthful minions.

"Do I want to know what the prize is?" Cam asked Bob.

"Bragging rights, abject humiliation for the losers, and I think Horton asked for access to some construction supplies that McKay wouldn't let the marines have," he answered. "McKay's out some volunteer manual laborers. We've got a long list of projects that we can't get the officers to agree to help us with otherwise and none of the civilians are strong enough to do."

Cam nodded; he had heard Jonas speak wistfully of things that would never be built because the give-and-take of human and material resources was limited by the finite and diminishing quantities of both.

As both fortresses were being repaired by children with no regard to their original construction, Cam headed back toward the more populated areas. He had two hours before he was due to return to Atlantis to take his shift and he wanted to get some more swimming time in.

feed me on LJ?

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11 October, 2008