Qui Habitat

book one

by Domenika Marzione | art by Ileliberte


Psalm 91
Qui habitat in abscondito Excelsi in umbraculo Domini commorabitur
dicens Domino spes mea et fortitudo mea Deus meus confidam in eum
quia ipse liberabit te de laqueo venantium de morte insidiarum
in scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi et sub alis eius sperabis
scutum et protectio veritas eius non timebis a timore nocturno
a sagitta volante per diem a peste in tenebris ambulante a morsu insanientis meridie
cadent a latere tuo mille et decem milia a dextris tuis ad te autem non adpropinquabit
verumtamen oculis tuis videbis et ultionem impiorum cernes
tu enim es Domine spes mea Excelsum posuisti habitaculum tuum
non accedet ad te malum et lepra non adpropinquabit tabernaculo tuo
quia angelis suis mandabit de te ut custodiant te in omnibus viis tuis
in manibus portabunt te ne forte offendat ad lapidem pes tuus
super aspidem et basiliscum calcabis conculcabis leonem et draconem
quoniam mihi adhesit et liberabo eum exaltabo eum quoniam cognovit nomen meum
invocabit me et exaudiam eum cum ipso ero in tribulatione eruam eum et glorificabo
longitudine dierum implebo illum et ostendam ei salutare meum
He who dwells in the cover of the Most High will lodge in the shadow of the Almighty.
I shall say of the Lord [that He is] my shelter and my fortress, my God in Whom I trust.
For He will save you from the snare that traps, from the devastating pestilence.
With His wing He will cover you, and under His wings you will take refuge; His truth is an encompassing shield.
You will not fear the fright of night, the arrow that flies by day;
Pestilence that prowls in darkness, destruction that ravages at noon.
A thousand will be stationed at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not approach you.
You will but gaze with your eyes, and you will see the annihilation of the wicked.
For you [said], "The Lord is my refuge"; the Most High you made your dwelling.
No harm will befall you, nor will a plague draw near to your tent.
For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.
On [their] hands they will bear you, lest your foot stumble on a stone.
On a young lion and a cobra you will tread; you will trample the young lion and the serpent.
For he yearns for Me, and I shall rescue him; I shall fortify him because he knows My name.
He will call Me and I shall answer him; I am with him in distress; I shall rescue him and I shall honor him.
With length of days I shall satiate him, and I shall show him My salvation.

Prologue

Six Months Ago

"-- a little inconvenient."

Elizabeth took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Rodney, I'm sure Colonel Sheppard isn't trying to make your life more difficult."

An off-world mission proposed by Engineering had been rejected three times by succeeding ranks of military officer, starting with Captain Polito and ending with John, who had apparently rejected it on the basis that no amendments had been made from earlier versions and he trusted the judgment of his junior officers.

"No, he's not trying," Rodney agreed easily, losing none of his irritation. "It's just a side effect."

Things had been tense for months in Atlantis, ever since it became clear that the Ori were winning, taking over the Milky Way galaxy with increasing momentum and decreasing opposition. There had been hard choices made and harsh words spoken; in the end, however, it wasn't the contingency plans and the rationing schedules and the possible necessity of shifting research emphasis from exploration to self-sufficiency that was causing the most friction. It was the fact that they were light years (and one wormhole) away from a home that could be lost -- would be lost, barring a miracle -- and they were unable to do anything but wait and wonder. It was bringing out the worst in everyone, herself included.

"I'm going to tell you the same thing I'm going to tell Little Tripoli," she said with as much patience as she could muster. "The name of the game is 'compromise.' You know this, Rodney. If you want them to give a little, you have to be prepared to give a little, too. Especially now."

She knew Rodney knew this. She knew John knew this, too. It was that the two of them were arguing past each other -- again. John and Rodney were as much a terror working against each other as they were working together against her.

"I don't see why we have to give anything here," Rodney retorted. "This is the sort of mission that wouldn't have even required a full escort before. Even with the -- somewhat overbearing -- new system, this is still a mission where I'd be comfortable letting the personnel go out without an escort at all. And don't think I haven't considered it."

It was mostly bluster, of course, but perhaps not entirely. Rodney was neither feckless nor foolhardy, even as his time on Earth had... not necessarily made him braver, but had made him less risk-averse.

"The marines aren't comfortable with their ability to protect the science team with the logistical requirements put forth," she said instead of challenging Rodney's dare, not wanting to risk him actually following through. The marines would never let him, but it would still result in a spectacle she wanted to avoid. "You want to have your people in the best position to do their jobs and that's what Colonel Sheppard wants, too."

The simple fact was that John would have readily approved the mission if there'd been even the merest appearance of going along to get along on the part of Engineering; he often went out of his way -- out of his marines' way -- to get Rodney what he needed. All John wanted in return was some visible sign of cooperation... and Rodney, firmly believing in the importance of the mission, had refused to give in on any point.

Rodney was winding up to protest some more, but Elizabeth held up her hand. "Listen, Rodney," she said a little louder than she needed to in the quiet office. "All you have to do is pack one or two fewer cases of equipment and I'm pretty sure the proposal will get approved. There has to be something on that manifest that isn't so very crucial that it can't wait until a follow-up mission."

Elizabeth knew the course of this argument like she had once known the Beltway back in DC, the roundabouts and jughandle turns that involved driving a long distance to go a short way. And so it was that when it came time to revisit her reactions and emotions of this afternoon (something she would do far more often than she'd like) she would remember that they were somewhere between the first and second parts of Rodney's response, right around where Rodney was revising history so that he'd emerged the victor, when everything ended. Even if they hadn't realized it at the time.

She had stopped reacting to the alarm for an incoming wormhole long ago, shortly after the stargate had been turned from vault door into a revolving one by the importation of hundreds of marines and scientists eager to get in and out of the city. First she'd stopped running down the stairs to greet the arrivals, then she'd stopped getting up to go watch from the catwalk outside of her office, and finally she'd stopped hearing the blaring alarm at all. And so she hadn't shifted her attention from Rodney until Lieutenant Osgeny appeared in the doorway, looking pale for reasons that had nothing to do with his recent injuries.

"Ma'am," he began, a stiff nod at the door, waiting for her to allow him entry. She did and he stepped forward. "Doctor Weir, Doctor McKay. We've received an encrypted message from Earth."

Once confidence had started to slip back in the Milky Way, once it had become obvious that this fight wasn't going to go the way of previous ones, there had been quiet decisions made regarding emergency protocols. What to do if various crucial events occurred -- if the Odyssey or Daedalus were destroyed, if the SGC had to be abandoned (or destroyed by either the Ori or their own hands; they were not going to let the Mountain fall into enemy possession), if the regular lines of communication between Earth and Atlantis were severed, if Earth fell.

The doomsday protocols (Elizabeth refused to give them the privilege of capitalization either in her emails or in her mind) were mostly military in theme and execution -- rally points, evacuations, the gathering of resources (men and munitions), attempts to contact allies, the order of importance of the destruction of crucial technology -- and among them were ways to warn Pegasus that the fight had been lost.

Rodney had at first been smug that Sam Carter had proposed following his actions for when Atlantis had been besieged: when everything else failed, a compressed message would be sent from Earth. It would require using all of the naquadriah and naquadah generators at Cheyenne Mountain and it would probably brown out the entirety of El Paso County, but it had a better chance of working than any of the other last-ditch proposals. (Certainly after the Odyssey had been destroyed by the Ori and the rushed-into-service Apollo copenhagened by the Jaffa.)

That a message from Earth was coming now meant only one thing: Earth was about to surrender to the Ori.

There was a moment between Osgeny's words and when Rodney stood up. Elizabeth, numb with the news as well, stood as well. "Thank you, Lieutenant," she said. "Please summon senior staff for a command meeting in twenty minutes."

With an "aye aye, ma'am," Osgeny made his obeisance and left.

"Oh, god." Rodney looked at her, heartbreakingly lost in a way she hadn't seen him since the news about his sister, his argument with John forgotten completely. And then the man who'd solved so many impossible puzzles reappeared. "I'd better go get started on what came through. Sam and I never discussed what sort of encryption she'd use and it's probably so compact that it's virtually solid... Sam. Do you think--"

"I don't know," she replied. SG-1 had been effectively disbanded since before Teal'c had been killed and while they saw Colonel Mitchell during the Daedalus's infrequent visits, they hadn't had direct contact with Sam Carter in months. There was a good chance that Sam was dead and that someone else had sent the message. But she didn't want to say as much even though she knew Rodney was clearly already assuming it as fact.

Rodney was good in a crisis, far better than he realized, but only when he could be distracted from his own panic and that was a near thing right now. John's preferred method of handling that was to annoy Rodney into focusing outward, but that wasn't Elizabeth's style -- she went for his ego. "Do you need to call someone to help you with the decryption?"

That had the predicted effect and Rodney snapped back to himself. "No, I'll be fine," he scoffed. "Carter is more brilliant than the rest of them put together and she designed the delivery mechanism. I'm probably the only one who can do this."

She raised her eyebrows in a "well, then do it" gesture and he departed, already barking into his radio.

Once he was gone, Elizabeth sat back down and allowed herself a moment to grieve because while Rodney needed hope to function, she herself had learned to go without. And, for better or for worse, it was her job to assume the worst and plan accordingly.


Present Day

"But you can't!"

John gave the irate archaeologist a raised eyebrow. "I'm pretty sure I can, Doctor Brigham," he replied mildly, gesturing for the waiting marines to commence with their destruction. Lieutenant Murray's marines had rigged a series of small charges that would bring down the wall -- and probably the roof as well -- of the small building across the road from where John was standing with a few incensed members of Social Sciences and several wheeled carts. "This entire sector was cleared for repurposing."

"Repurposing" being the euphemism of choice for the process of making use of whatever they had to hand. It had been something they'd been doing all along -- John's first quarters had been someone's office back in the day and Medical had once been some kind of lecture hall, and so forth and so on -- but not on this scale and not to this kind of purpose.

Part of him agreed with Brigham and the others that destroying parts of Atlantis because they weren't going to be using them any time soon was depressing and fatalist and a little bit shameful. Especially since he could feel what this change was doing to Atlantis. (It wasn't, contrary to what the Social Science types in G-2 were saying, like cutting off a limb. It was more like getting a bad haircut, but that was a distinction G-2 was unwilling to make.)

But the part of him that wished there were another way apart from having to destroy bits of Atlantis wasn't the part of him that was the military commander of the largest free outpost left in the fight against the Ori.

Necessity was the mother of more than invention.

"But why this building?" Brigham asked. "If we systematically destroy everything to do with the arts, then what sort of civilization will we be preserving?"

John didn't roll his eyes, although he wanted to. Very much. They'd heard that argument a lot from G-2 over the last few months -- and not just about the planned demolition of one part of one level of a five-story music conservatory. Elizabeth was usually the one to deal with the protests, since John (or anyone else in uniform) had no patience to explain anything to academics so divorced from the reality of the situation. She joked that they must be doing a pretty good job of securing Atlantis if the people were more concerned with the aesthetics of their defense than the defense itself, but John didn't think she found it any less frustrating. She was just better at smiling through it and she didn't actually carry a gun.

"If the Ori or the Wraith show up, Doctor," John replied, "then they're going to destroy the place anyway. We picked this building because it's made of the same material as the other sources we're using. Your people had a week's notice to complete your work on it. I think that's more than fair."

He had three meetings today and was in no mood for more palliating.

They'd taken pictures and video and there'd be a virtual recreation of the entire building done soon (because Social Sciences was that afraid that, having taken one wall, the military would soon take the entire building). It was far more compromise than was necessary considering that G-2 hadn't even put the building on their to-do list until it had been slated for repurposing.

Brigham was turning an unflattering shade of beet and John might have been impressed if he hadn't been watching Rodney have temper tantrums for the last three years. But he had and so he wasn't and thus he could turn away and tap his radio and warn Lieutenant Paik in the control room that explosions were imminent and not to get concerned.

The wall came down as planned, leaving the roof intact -- or intact enough that the marines weren't worried about it coming down on top of them -- and Brigham and the others were left to fuss after the marines as they loaded the carts with rubble. The carts would be brought down to the kilns, melted down, and re-formed into the latest prototypes of the firearms Engineering's Munitions Task Force had come up with. The MTF was part sci-fi and part mad scientist and was everyone's favorite meeting to schedule on the officer level and the marines were still (far too) enthusiastic about doing live fire tests even after some early mishaps. Rodney, the chief mad scientist, loved the MTF like his child and ruled over it with an iron fist, micromanaging to the last detail. It was exactly how everyone imagined Rodney as a parent to be like.

John followed the first of the carts back toward the transporter; he was only out at the site long enough to spare Murray the worst of the bitching. He waited for the marines to go first, then took the transporter up to where he'd be closest to the control room.

"What's the word, Lieutenant?" he asked as he entered, neatly dodging Doctor Caughlin, who as usual was not watching where he was going. "Major Lorne's team back yet?"

Paik stood up smartly, but did not bother boss-buttoning the FreeCell up on his laptop screen. "No, sir," the lieutenant replied. "But they've got another hour before they're overdue."

John nodded. Lorne had taken his team and a couple of doctors off to a planet with which they were exchanging medical care for food. It wasn't a high-risk mission for anything but boredom (and some disgusting stuff and Safir yelling at you). But Lorne had copies of the meeting agenda and would cough up a copy without comment and thus John was hoping he'd have been back early so that he could get one. But he wasn't, so John nodded at Paik and left him to his FreeCell, heading over toward Elizabeth's office.

"The demolition went well," John announced as he entered. "At least from the point of the non-human explosions. The wall came down, the roof didn't, and Doctor Brigham is going to file a formal complaint. In iambic pentameter."

Elizabeth looked up with a small smile. "I look forward to reading it, then." The smile disappeared as she gestured toward her laptop screen. "It'll be more entertaining than this."

Pretty much everyone in Atlantis had gone through the Book of Origin by this point -- the marines had some game where they added "in bed" to all of the aphorisms -- but Elizabeth was one of the people who had to read it for more than informational purposes. Social Sciences could -- and was -- distracted by any perceived threat to Ancient culture, but most of their work these days was on dissecting Ori theology and trying to come up with some sort of answer to it, or at least some sort of understanding of it.

As important as it was, however, it was also terribly dull work and John made a sympathetic face. "Hollow are the Ori."

"Hollow are the Ori," Elizabeth agreed. "But rhetorically sound are the Ori, too."

It was generally accepted in Atlantis that the problem with Origin -- and thus with combating its spread -- was that the faultless means were paired with an unredeemable end. Take away the homicidal tendencies and there was actually a lot to like. Which in turn made it hard to argue with the Book of Origin itself, since it mostly just told you to be nice to everyone else, appreciate knowledge, and Do Unto Others and you'll get rewarded. With the added bonus that the miracles could be reproduced on demand by convenient Priors for the skeptics.

Origin had not come easily to Earth -- at best guess, well over a billion people had fallen beneath the sword rather than accept the Ori -- and the trickle of intel they got now indicated that the numbers were still climbing. The tolls hadn't been as bad on most other worlds -- the Jaffa had taken a big hit, but most everyone else had taken little convincing (i.e., one collective near-death experience) to exchange their fallen Goa'uld gods for the Ori. What everyone worried about now was that Pegasus was next on the hit list -- it's not like the bad guys didn't know where it was -- and that the Ori would come in and take over without a shot being fired from anywhere but Atlantis. It's not like the Ancients had done such a bang-up job of inspiring loyalty and all the Ori had to do was eradicate the Wraith, which everyone assumed was on their agenda anyway -- the Ori wouldn't want anyone eating their energy sources.

"The Daedalus should be back next week," John said. "Maybe they'll bring back a theologian this time."

Like something out of a World War Two spy novel -- except with spaceships as blockade-runners instead of submarines or rowboats -- the Daedalus slipped between the two galaxies, a movable hub for the gathering of both intelligence and refugees. They'd 'exchanged' a flight of X-302s for a couple of jumpers to facilitate extractions and John tried not to think about what sort of choice they were offering the survivors -- come to Pegasus and run the chance of getting eaten by the Wraith or stay in the Milky Way and risk losing your immortal soul.

The refugees were an eclectic set, both very much like and very much unlike the folks they rescued from the Wraith here in Pegasus. Ordinary villagers, scientists (the SGC had apparently gone to some effort to hide and then try to evacuate some of Earth's best and brightest), warriors of various stripes (Earth and not). Their reactions ranged from relief to the sort of numb quiet of people who'd just found out that (a) there were aliens and (b) the aliens thought they were gods and should be worshiped as such.

Elizabeth grimaced. "I'd love the help, but I'd love the intel and some smuggled weapons even more."

In the beginning, raids on Earth had been relatively easy and pretty productive -- they knew the coordinates for every country's weapons caches -- including nukes, the SGC's stores, hell they'd even emptied out a couple of supermarkets. But that had been before the second stargate had been discovered and destroyed and the Ori had taken to patrolling the vicinity around the planet with a zero-tolerance policy for visitors. As a result, the Daedalus could no longer get close enough to use its transporter beams and strategy had been adjusted accordingly. They still held out hope for HVT -- the rest of SG-1, say, or anyone else with a working knowledge of Ori technology -- but the big prizes were coming further and further apart.

"Speaking of, I should probably go bug Rodney about the prototypes," John said, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb. It would only piss Rodney off, of course, but it kept him from taking out his frustrations on his subordinates. And, since the supply of fresh scientists was dwindling, John could chalk up getting yelled at by Rodney as a kind of resource conservation.

A smile from Elizabeth, which was a secondary objective since she really didn't do it that much anymore, and he left.

Lorne's team called in ten minutes after their scheduled return time; Sergeant Suarez announced that the team would be late returning after one of the local women had gone into labor with triplets ("so far, sir; it could be more") and John resigned himself to an afternoon of carefully cultivated blank looks and taking good notes so that Lorne would know what he'd have to fix when he got back.

Three days later, the first of the new prototypes was ready for preliminary testing, which it failed but Rodney seemed unperturbed because he knew why.

Five days later, the second batch of prototypes partially failed and the success of the few was held up against the fact that Sergeant Munoz nearly lost an eye and did lose most of the skin on his right arm.

Seven days later, Sergeant Munoz's injuries were nearly forgotten when Atlantis received an emergency message from one of the X-302s attached to the Daedalus saying that the ship had come out of an encounter with an Ori vessel on the not-winning end and had lost most of her critical systems along with more than twenty crew.

They had always known that the risks the Daedalus ran by being so visible were too high for her to continue indefinitely without something happening. She was slower, more weakly defended, and less powerfully armed than the ships that were sent after her and while Caldwell had proven himself an able captain and a brilliant tactician in largely uncharted waters, it couldn't last. David could beat Goliath once, but not indefinitely. And so when the time came, it was met with surprise, but not shock.

That the Daedalus had survived an encounter with an Ori warship at all had seemed like a minor miracle (until they saw her, at which point it was upgraded to major), so it didn't hit them until later on, after the funerals and the damage assessments, just how much things would have to change with no effective means of either transport or communication with the Milky Way. Gone were their (admittedly limited) resupply sources, their ability to gather refugees and information, and, through all of that, their only chance at an advance warning of when the Ori had set their sights on Pegasus.


One

Cameron Mitchell looked at his watch and cursed as he ran down the hall, acknowledging the two amused marines walking in the opposite direction. He pulled to a halt a few feet from the doorway, but he didn't think he was fooling anyone when he sauntered into the conference room and smiled benignly at the conference table full of men who were only not laughing at him because he outranked them. On the other hand, Sheppard wasn't there yet, either, so he figured that he still won in the end.

More than six months into his stay in Atlantis and he was mostly settled in. He had quarters that could no longer be called spartan, he could identify by name all of the lieutenants and most of the civilian department heads, and it had been a couple of weeks since he'd had to call the control room for directions because he had gotten lost. He had local foods he liked, he'd met the Wraith (from a distance, thankfully), and he'd learned that officers had to buy their marine-brewed beer from the geologists but even with the cost inflation it was still a better value than the swill Engineering produced because you didn't get heartburn for three days afterward. As far as any other deployment he'd had in his almost two decades of service, this was turning out to be a pretty smooth one. But he still missed Earth with a ferocity that could make him double over in pain if he wasn't careful, an ache far more profound than anything he'd felt during his time with the Sodan. Things were a lot different when you had no home to return to.

"Gentlemen," he said with a nod, going to the empty seat across from Polito and sitting quickly because it would mean everyone else could, too.

"How's the shoulder, sir?" Captain Armstrong asked once he was settled.

"Gettin' there," Cam replied. He'd stopped wearing the sling yesterday, after a long argument with Doctor Chung. The bruises were starting to fade and he could change his own bandages, so while he still looked like he'd lost a boxing match, his visits to Medical had been cut down to once daily instead of thrice. If only the Daedalus would heal so quickly. "Don't think I'll be tossing any split-fingered fastballs for a while, though."

Sheppard showed up a couple of minutes later (he clearly hadn't been running because he'd been ten minutes late), smiling easily as he strolled over to the end where his seat was located. Lorne was at the foot of the table; he'd offered Cam the spot out of deference to his rank, but Cam had turned it down. That he was technically the second-most senior officer presently in Atlantis -- his time in grade put him ahead of Sheppard and behind only Caldwell -- was not something he'd really ever thought to use to his advantage, for the same reason Caldwell was probably down on the east pier inspecting repairs on his ship instead of presiding over the battalion staff meeting. Pulling rank had its time and place, but finding either one of those was near impossible ever since Robler Rock. (That Earth's final submission to the Ori had come by the President in some two-dog town in Idaho was both ironic and suiting, depending on what you thought of both the President and Mormons.) Lorne was arguably the most important cog in the battalion hierarchy's wheel and Cam saw no reason to upset that particular apple cart for the sake of some unimportant perquisites.

"So what've we got?" Sheppard asked, slapping the table next to the notes everyone knew he'd read and would pretend not to have done so. (Which was apparently the opposite of his meetings with civilians.) Now that he was serving 'under' Sheppard, Cam understood both why the SGC had gotten so frustrated with him and why it ultimately didn't matter. It wasn't that Sheppard didn't have goals for both himself and the battalion or that he didn't have a plan, it was that the plan was flexible in a way that tended to stress out a military that thrived on order and precedence and clung to bureaucracy like Linus's blanket. (And senior officers were, in their own ways, even more slaves of routine than enlisted of any stripe.) If asked, Cam wouldn't lie and say that he didn't miss the comfort of doing things as they'd always been done, of having everything spelled out for him in very small words and with no opportunity to deviate from the itinerary. But he was a lot more used to it than he'd been before taking command of SG-1. And it was fun to watch the marines try to keep up.

To answer Sheppard's question, what they had, at least in terms of the agenda for the meeting, was the continued shift of focus from the Milky Way back to Pegasus. The Daedalus wouldn't be space-worthy for another three months at the earliest. She wouldn't be safe leaving the galaxy for maybe twice that. She might never be ready to go into combat, not unless they got some help from someone like the Asgard (which, complete inability to prevent the Ori from taking the Milky Way aside, wasn't out of the question; Hermiod had friends, unlikely as that was), but they didn't talk about that. Their scientists had done more with less in many cases.

With no chance to get back to the Milky Way and fight the Ori there, there was nothing else to do but do what they could locally. The Wraith were still around, the Ori were undoubtedly coming, and there was no shortage of work to be done on those fronts and many others. Splitting focus had been rough on all parties -- everyone in Atlantis had family and friends back on Earth and the marines would have given anything to be allowed to go home and defend them -- but now that that wasn't even an (unlikely) option, the anxiety and eagerness had mellowed into something like determination. Enough time had passed that everyone in Little Tripoli understood that they were pretty much all that was left of the cavalry -- even if they were currently without sufficient horses.

That being said, while Cam had no regrets for how he'd spent his time since Robler Rock -- building and supporting (and, sometimes leading) the resistance movement back in their home galaxy had gotten them plenty in terms of resources both tangible and not -- sometimes he felt like he should have been doing more here all along. Nobody had begrudged him not taking part in the day-to-day running of either the military or the operations it developed and that graciousness had been both welcoming and maybe a little guilt-inducing. He got to do what they only wished they could do -- and if he'd ultimately failed, well then nobody held that against him, either.

After the marine captains finished with the local updates -- killed some Wraith, did some humanitarian work, found a planet where they could maybe convince Botany to grow more tropical fruit, secured three more (non-tropical) food sources and one mining agreement -- it was back to Cam.

"Mr. Quinn and I have decided to join forces," Cam announced when Lorne asked. "At least until we learn the galaxy to an acceptable standard, it seems like the thing to do. We'll accept any marine team that you think to give us -- which, I understand, is opening up all sorts of opportunities to abuse the poor Air Force officer --" he raised an eyebrow at Armstrong and Polito sitting across from him, both trying not to look too eager to do just that, "--but I am going to trust your judgment. 'Sides, I figure you'll be nice to Mr. Quinn."

It had been Jonas's idea, more or less, although Cam probably would have brought it up if Jonas hadn't. Both of them had been operating with their own groups back in the Milky Way, Cam's network focusing on sabotage and refugee rescues and Jonas on theft of non-people resources, but they would have different tasks here. Cam didn't think it would be a problem working together instead of complementing each other's work -- both of them were used to working in a group of (near) equals and it wasn't as if Cam actually expected to be in charge of any team he was nominally leading. He knew that Jonas was as aware as he was of being the poor man's Daniel Jackson to Cam's cheap imitation of Jack O'Neill, but, well, O'Neill was dead and Daniel was in a prison they hadn't even found yet, and copies would have to do.

Cam had read about Jonas and had heard the others speak of him before they'd actually met, but by the time they'd spent anything but the most cursory time together, almost all of the past information had become irrelevant. The Jonas he'd read and heard about had seemed most like Sam -- inquisitive, eager, a general know-it-all in a mostly good way, and determined to find life's pleasures and enjoy them. The Jonas he'd come to know, however, reminded him of Daniel -- inquisitive, eager, a general know-it-all in a mostly good way, and haunted by the people he couldn't save. Langara had fallen and Jonas had done all he could to save it and not only had it not been enough, but it had also cost him what little he hadn't already lost. In the most horrifying ways possible. More than a year later, Jonas had recovered from the worst of his pain and it wasn't hard to find evidence of the man he'd presumably once been, but Cam sometimes wondered if it was maybe for the best that they hadn't met before the Ori lest he be able to see just how much Jonas had changed.

"I suppose this means we shouldn't lend you Lorne's marines," Sheppard mused with a grin directed at Lorne, who frowned out of obligation. Everyone else laughed because they all knew that Cam would be damned lucky to get a trio like Lorne's marines. It was Lorne's epidemiologist that Cam knew to be scared of.

"I'm sure we can come up with a few prospective candidates," Lorne said mildly. "Most of the marines have been housebroken by this point."

Moving on, Armstrong, the officer coordinating the marines' involvement in R&D, gave the update on the Daedalus and any new technology the scientists had either discovered or invented or figured out how to work after it had been stolen from someone else. Armstrong, the newest company commander in Atlantis, didn't have much more than a better-than-average layman's understanding of Ancient technology, but he still managed to translate most of what McKay's and Jonas's explanations into terms they could appreciate. (Which boiled down to "stop asking about the Daedalus", "the naquadria is still too unstable", and "don't throw out the bullet molds just yet".)

They finished up with the usual sort of small-fry stuff that always got put down at the end of the list -- who'd swapped which duty when, plans for MRW days, disciplinary problems (as might have been expected, the Atlantis marines were better behaved than their Earth confreres had been, but while Uncle Sam's Migrating Chimps might profess to patrol the streets of heaven, the good Lord ain't never done confused marines with angels), and, everyone's favorite part, the captains' comparison of their platoons' run-ins with the civilians within the city. Radner's second platoon won handily this week, Lieutenant Eriksson and his marines having accidentally overrun an illicit love nest (illicit for being outside the safe parts of the city) on night patrol and catching a couple in flagrante delicto. Consensus was that Eriksson was more embarrassed than the two lovebirds, who'd had to get dressed and be marched back to civilization. Sheppard was looking forward to that disciplinary hearing.

The meeting broke up while Cam was still chuckling over Eriksson's misfortune. Sheppard flagged him down before he could go and he waited as the marines filed by, Polito and Lorne still discussing the best way to convince Doctor Weir about something and trying to come up with a better answer than getting Caldwell to do it.

"How's it going?" Sheppard asked as they started to walk.

Cam knew this was one of those questions that could be taken however he wanted. "Shoulder's better," he replied, since he wasn't sure he wanted to talk about everything else. "Got Chung to admit that there'd be no loss of range of motion once it heals if I didn't wear the straight-jacket sleeve for another week."

Sheppard gave him a pleased look. "You're learning."

It wasn't a matter of Cam needing to learn how to bully his way into medical clearance; he'd been a master of that since the first time he'd shown up at the flight line hung over. It was just he'd gotten out of practice since Carolyn hadn't been the kind of lady you browbeat into an early release. He still missed her something fierce and it still hurt to think about her, so he changed the subject. "You're not gonna let the Musketeers saddle me with a team of crazies, are you?"

Cam liked the marine captains, even if Polito had a habit of talking in dead languages nobody understood. But that didn't change the fact that they were still marines and thus still batshit insane. And, in this case, he was maybe still a little scarred from having to sort through personnel files back when he'd been told that he had to pick a new SG-1.

Another grin from Sheppard. "Nah, I wouldn't worry about that," he assured. "Lorne ended up with his team by accident, but I think there'll probably be some stiff competition for chasing you and Quinn around the galaxy."

Sheppard was leading them in the general direction of Lorne's office and Cam's own was along the way. Cam had been issued the space right when he'd arrived, but there'd rarely been any real need for it -- the briefings he'd led for missions in the Milky Way had been held aboard the Daedalus since they got the most recent intel once they'd crossed back into their home galaxy. So his office had mostly been for hanging out and playing video games and writing in the diary he was keeping for no other purpose than to get things off his chest without a trip to Heightmeyer.

"Who do I ask about AAR files?" Cam asked, stopping when they got in front of his doorway. "I'm going to need to do a bit of reading and I know Jonas is going to want to as well."

Jonas would read everything and remember it all perfectly. Cam's memory was only that good when he had nothing else to think about, which had pretty much been the case during the long months of rehab. Which in turn was why he could remember most of the details of ten years of SG-1 missions and yet routinely forgot names, faces, and where he'd put his keys.

"Lorne," Sheppard replied, a look of fond exasperation on his face. "All of the vanilla reports are in the database and you can call them up whenever, but there's probably going to be a mess with access authorization for the others and he'll have those in hard copy. Forget Snickers bars or Doritos -- the things he misses most from Earth are all office supplies."

Cam grinned because he'd known who to ask, but was instead really asking if he'd have authorization to look at the others. Rank didn't have diddly-squat to do with security clearance. "I'll be sure to bring him a stapler or something for his trouble," he said.

Sheppard nodded. "I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

With that, they parted. Cam waved his hand over the crystals and the door opened for him. They'd shot him up with the ATA gene therapy, but it hadn't taken. Jonas, however, was now making things light up like Christmas trees and loving every minute of it. Even -- especially -- the puddle jumper lessons.

Speaking of, he went over to the not-phone and punched in the extension to Jonas's lab, one of the maybe three extensions he knew without having to look it up. "Jonas!" he called out once the other man had picked up. "We have a hot date with some AARs and we're about to get saddled with three of Uncle Sam's Misguideds. They promised us good ones, but these are marines and I am going to adjust my expectations accordingly."


Two

John nodded greetings to the people he passed and found himself a seat near the rear. Past experience had shown that unless it was a holiday or something had happened to bring in a larger than usual crowd, he could normally sit by himself, which was how he preferred it. He came to services every week because his men expected it of him -- there were no atheists in foxholes and very few in Little Tripoli even before the Ori, so while nobody really cared which service he attended, it was very important to the uniformed population that he go to one of them.

He came to the Methodist service because, for better or for worse, it was the catch-all among the English-speaking Christian offerings and because he could get through it without too much uncomfortableness with what he did or didn't believe and what he could or couldn't participate in along with everyone else. He didn't want to sing with the Baptists and he couldn't take communion with the Catholics. He couldn't take communion with the Methodists, either, but there was enough here that he could remember from his youth when he'd gone along with his parents every week because godlessness was also promotionlessness even if you didn't live on base where the chaplains could tell where you weren't on Sunday mornings.

Here in Atlantis, where promotions were on the list of "not forgotten, but we'll deal with it later" issues, attendance was still essentially mandatory for all of the officers, regardless of rank. And so the lieutenants were scattered around the various denominations, Lorne and Armstrong were down in front, Polito and Hanzis were off at the Catholic mass, and Radner and Mitchell were over with the Baptists even though John wasn't sure either of them actually were of that confession.

If the Ori had made any mistake in their thus-far conclusive and comprehensive takeover of the Milky Way, it had been to underestimate the power of faith. Which was both terribly ironic considering their aims and potentially hopeful in terms of fighting them off, but it wasn't without problems for the good guys -- having large segments of the population who'd rather die than betray their god made it easier to save them while also assuring that there'd be fewer to save.

Lorne gave him a smiled greeting as he passed by en route to the more populated area closer to the pulpit, near where Elizabeth was sitting. John didn't know how much of Elizabeth's attendance was for the same reasons as his own and how much could be attributed to the general revivalism that had swept through Atlantis after the Ori had conquered Earth. Lorne had always gone to Sunday services, although John had never considered him a man of strong religious convictions, but Elizabeth rarely had. Even among the civilian population, however, attendance was up -- they'd had to move every denomination's services to bigger rooms in the past few months.

Earth had been among the most stubborn, although there had been many holdouts. From what intel they had gotten over the months that the Daedalus had been operational, they'd been able to establish patterns and predictive elements. Worlds that hadn't had an active Goa'uld presence in the last few centuries had held out longer than those that had been liberated from the snakes by either the Tokra or the Tauri. Worlds that had either never known the Goa'uld or that had been founded by the Goa'uld and then abandoned early on were more resistant -- these being the most likely to have developed their own religions -- and Earth had been the most contentious of them all. Six billion people made it one of the most populous, most advanced, and most hostile environments when it came to imposing doctrine and dogma from without. Not that there hadn't been large swatches of Earth's population that had embraced Origin eagerly and without coercion and had been willing to help convert others (by word or sword). But the majority of the planet had told the Ori that they had made their choice and would rather stick with it, thanks much. Atheists, pagans, and followers of major faiths previously inclined to doctrinal pissing matches all had that in common. And had paid for their determination.

The various social groupings of Atlantis had reacted differently to finding out that they were on the receiving end of a holy war. The military just figured it was the same old shit, different galaxy -- "Hallowed are the Ori" sounded a lot like "Allahu Akhbar" when you were looking at the business end of a weapon pointed at your head. The civilians had reactions that ranged from the impractical to the ignorant to the buckled-down determination of those for whom the message has finally gotten through. The Ori weren't the Goa'uld (driven by ego and lust for power) or the Wraith (driven by hunger), but they were like both in their own ways, using armies of believers like the Goa'uld and treating their quarry as a means to an end like the Wraith.

Within Little Tripoli, where the war with the Ori was openly called "jihad" (it was impolitic to do so among the general population), John and others (even Mitchell) wondered if a decade of fighting the Goa'uld hadn't made the SGC softer targets. The SG teams had had success from the very start with deprogramming the Jaffa -- without Teal'c, there wouldn't even be a Stargate Program. And so, since every military is always fighting the last war, PsyOps had been their first course of action with the Ori. But it had failed, badly, and now they were paying the price. They'd spent weeks analyzing and assessing the fall of the Milky Way, hoping to learn something positive from those lessons beyond "that didn't work." The jury was still out on whether they'd succeeded.

John didn't need to look over to know that it was Caldwell sitting down at the other end of his row, but he did anyway and exchanged a sort of wry grimace with the man. This was their pattern, established erratically over time as the Daedalus was around for a few weeks and then gone for months and representational of the way their relationship had evolved. They sat nearby without sitting together, acknowledging and accepting the other without any sort of overture that would imply or require friendliness. To John's surprise, Caldwell had never pushed to take over command of Atlantis's military (and, this time, he didn't think Elizabeth had anything to do with it), instead he seemed content to serve as advisor, keeping his distance and focusing his efforts on what the Daedalus could do in the fight against he Ori. They'd had friction, of course, but nothing on a level that had John worried (too much) about how things would evolve now that the Daedalus was more scrap than ship. John suspected that Caldwell understood that the time to make his move had passed.

The chaplain walked up to the lectern they used as a pulpit to begin the service with a prayer for those lost and oppressed and John bowed his head.


"I thought you weren't gonna saddle me with the crazies!" Mitchell called out as the wormhole closed behind him. John grinned as he came down the stairs, both at Mitchell's bitching and at the three mud-covered marines doing their best to look chastened and inconspicuous next to Jonas, who, like Mitchell, was only partially covered in mud. "It's like tryin' to walk Great Danes past a barbeque pit."

Mitchell had gotten his medical clearance three days ago and Jonas had been cleared for more than a week. The marines had come from Weapons Company's Third Platoon (logic being that after having been chased off of half of the planets in the galaxy because of Lieutenant Murray's awful luck, they'd be best prepared for off-world activity) and the newly formed team had been given a few days of bonding at the firing range before being handed a softball mission to check out some Ancient toys on a planet they knew to be unoccupied.

"Staff Sergeant," John began, looking at Becanek. "I thought you were under orders to behave yourself."

Becanek looked very sincere as he replied. "We did, sir. But breaking the Colonel and Mr. Quinn in gently doesn't mean we're going to let them wander around unattended."

"I didn't ask for 'unattended,'" Mitchell groused.

"Welcome to life with marines," John told him. Mitchell didn't sound too annoyed and Becanek didn't sound too unrepentant, so John would be happy to chalk this up to new team follies and the fact that even after many years Lorne was still periodically manhandled by his own team. He'd let them sort it out -- Mitchell and Jonas had enough experience with off-world teams, if not necessarily with leathernecks -- and would only step in if things didn't look like they were resolving on their own.

"And what's this about 'breaking us in gently'?" Mitchell went on, warming to the topic. "I am not a preacher's daughter on prom night. I have been captured and chased by the finest the Milky Way has to offer. And so has Mr. Quinn."

Jonas pursed his lips as if to say that he didn't necessarily consider that résumé material.

"That's the point, sir," Sergeant Horton blurted. "The capture rate of field grade officers in Pegasus is... higher than might be wished."

It was John's turn to frown. Especially after Becanek and Sergeant Byrd nodded agreement.

"So this is your fault," Mitchell accused. "You and Lorne've got them all so traumatized they think they're gonna lose me on the first mission? And don't pretend that I didn't just read all of your AARs."

The marines were giving him that 'see, we were right' look and John was about to attempt a defense of his and Lorne's honors, but he could see Elizabeth approaching in his peripheral vision and knew a strategic withdrawal when he saw one. "Doctor Weir," he turned to greet her.

"Gentlemen," she said with a nod and a smile, oblivious to her role as distraction. "How was your first mission? Apart from muddy, that is."

"The planet's in its rainy season," Jonas explained ruefully, looking down at the muddy trail they'd left on the stargate platform. "Although from the database it seems to be in its rainy season most of the time. Which explains why the Ancients chose it and why there was no indigenous population after the Ancients left -- they took the climate control with them."

The Ancient toys in question had been part of a meteorological research center. The database notes had indicated that the place had been stripped during the war with the Wraith, the resources put toward a more useful purpose, but they were currently desperate enough to try checking it out anyway. John had taken his team to the planet back in the early days of the expedition, but they hadn't gone looking for any Ancient tech because Rodney hadn't been able to get any energy readings. And since there hadn't been any people, either, it had ended up being a very short trip because it had been raining then, too.

"The mission went fine, ma'am," Mitchell added with an easy grin. "We found what we were looking for, but it's deader than Mr. Praline's Norwegian Blue. Mr. Quinn and Sergeant Horton did their best to get everything up and running, but, well, I'm afraid that the Ancient database was right on this one."

Apart from their familiarity with pointy sticks, Becanek's team had been chosen in part because Horton was one of Little Tripoli's resident electronics geniuses. There wasn't anything he couldn't fix among the equipment from Earth -- an invaluable skill now that they had no chance to replace anything -- and he'd apprenticed under Zelenka back in the first year of the expedition, so he knew his way around Ancient tech as well. With Jonas still more familiar with Goa'uld and Ori technology than Ancient, it was a necessary skill set for an off-world team.

"Even a broken clock is right twice a day," Elizabeth replied, although the joke in Atlantis was that that wasn't really true because of the clocks and time system they used. Not that the Ancient database was as helpful as a broken clock no matter how many hours in the day. "I'm sorry it didn't work out, but I'm glad to see everyone back safely and in good spirits. I'll let you boys go get cleaned up."

Mitchell took the dismissal in the spirit it was intended and herded his team toward the doorway. John turned back to Elizabeth after they went.

"They're okay?" she asked, eyebrow arched meaningfully.

"Yeah," John assured her. "It's an arranged marriage and they still have to learn how to live together, but I think they'll be all right. Mitchell was more upset with them acting like marines than anything about them in particular. Besides, who can stay annoyed at Horton?"

Elizabeth smiled. "True," she agreed. Horton was very popular among the civilians from the initial expedition; he'd fixed something of everyone's at least twice by the time the Siege had rolled around. "Are you going to be around this afternoon?"

John looked at his watch. "Part of it," he replied. "I'm tagging along with the shift change on Mars, but I can put that off if you need me for something."

The marines had started calling M9J-442 (the planet they'd parked most of the non-Earth refugees and anyone else who didn't want to live on either the mainland or in Atlantis) after Earth's neighbor for many reasons, but mostly because it was warm and the dirt was of a color that looked cocoa-like on the ground but red on everything it got on (which was, in fact, everything). It was kind of appropriate -- Mars was where there was supposed to be life off of Earth -- and the name had pretty much become accepted even among the civilians. (Especially because it kept anyone from having to come up with an actual name for the place, a task made nearly impossible by the eclectic mix of residents there.) They kept a platoon of marines there for security -- really, to be the local police and to effect an evacuation in case the Wraith ever showed -- and John and Lorne took turns going out there to inspect and listen to grievances. It was laughably imperialist in some ways and neither of them liked pretending to be a colonial governor, but it was how things had shook out and changing it now seemed more trouble than it was worth.

"It can keep until tomorrow," Elizabeth replied. "Colonel Caldwell has some proposals I'd like to look at with you."

John nodded. This was how they worked; Caldwell's input into the running of Atlantis and its military was filtered through Elizabeth. It wasn't efficient, but it kept Caldwell's suggestions from carrying the weight of an order while also preventing John from rejecting them out of hand just because they weren't orders. Elizabeth only passed on ideas she thought had merit, whether she agreed with them or not, and it was up to John (and his subordinates) to come up with reasons why they should or shouldn't be implemented. Most of Caldwell's ideas were good ones, John could admit, but many of them were developed under the mistaken impression that Atlantis was a more traditional post than she had ever been, even before the Ori.

"Tomorrow, then," John said because Elizabeth still assumed that he'd avoid anything to do with Caldwell at all costs. He only did that some of the time these days.


Various members of his team had tagged along at various times on these 'missions to Mars' -- Rodney to be scientifically nosey, Teyla to get out of Atlantis and to help the refugees adapt -- but Ronon was the only one who went regularly. John never asked why and Ronon never volunteered, but John didn't think either of them considered it a mystery.
 
Ronon had taken the news of Earth's subjugation with a sort of equanimity that John hadn't expected and perhaps should have. The people of Pegasus as a whole were so completely used to being helpless in the face of their enemies that hearing that Earth was being taken down was maybe more inevitability and less of a shock, which is how it came across for everyone actually from Earth. (Even -- especially -- the ones who'd been in Pegasus longest.) Ronon fought because he didn't know how to surrender, not because he thought he could win -- he hoped he could, of course, but it wasn't an expectation. John wondered, not for the first time, what sort of naïfs Ronon (and Teyla) must have thought them all to be that they actually did expect to go into every fight and emerge a victor. Whatever the answer, Ronon had awkwardly expressed his regret for all of the deaths on Earth and, more feelingly, that nobody in Atlantis could go and fight the menace.

They greeted each other with a nod; both were dressed for combat even though Mars was about as threatening as Ipetia. Less, even. But nobody took any chances anymore. The gate room itself was testament to that -- the guard had been doubled, including the placement of heavy machine guns aimed at the stargate. The SGC had been demolished and its computers wiped and destroyed, but the Ori had to know the address of Atlantis and there was no saying that the shield would be enough to stop them should they try to come through.

The scientists and other civilians waiting to go to Mars were huddled by the stairs, mostly to stay out of the way of the marines on guard duty and the soon-to-be-arriving group. Lieutenant Biswas herded his platoon through the door and into the gate room five minutes before their scheduled departure. Biswas was one of the new arrivals assigned to the now-extant Alpha Company, although after six months, he wasn't so new anymore. He greeted John and Ronon with a grin (that looked more scary than it was; Biswas had come to Atlantis with his jaw sliced open and there'd been a scar) and they waited for the sergeant at the DHD to dial out and send the IDC code -- they had a weak version of a shield on the stargate there, enough to stop bullets and people, but nobody knew if it would stop a Wraith dart and John wasn't about to sacrifice a jumper to find out.

Little Tripoli had been a tense and difficult place to be once the bad news about the Ori had started to trickle in from Earth; the marines had taken out their frustration on each other, mostly, although the friction between them and the civilians they were escorting through the galaxy had also gone up a few notches. Carson and Yoni had mentioned the rise in training-related injuries more than once during staff meetings, although with different levels of exasperation and expectation that things could change.

On the command level, morale had gone from passive maintenance to active caretaking, but this sort of pain wasn't anything that illicit beer and extra time with the high explosives would cure. John thought the marines understood, at least intellectually, that them being on Earth wouldn't have made any difference, that they would have probably ended up among the hundreds of thousands of military dead without changing the course of the fight at all. But that had nothing to do with them wanting to be there, to be on the same planet as their brethren in arms, to preferring try to save their families instead of puttering around in a faraway galaxy trying to keep the Wraith from eating strangers. John understood their frustration, his actual sentiment something between sympathy and wishing he could lead a charge back through the wormhole, but couldn't do anything about it besides promise that they hadn't given up the fight yet.  

Mars was as expected when they arrived -- hot, dusty, and peaceful. The marines at the stargate greeted them with relief; guard duty here was mostly boring and uncomfortable. The biggest threats were inquisitive near-deer, construction accidents, and the odd scientific experiment gone awry -- all of which usually boiled down to the marines getting yelled at about things they couldn't control. John and Ronon parted from the marines and let the civilians hustle ahead; John preferred to make his own tour of inspection rather than get dragged around by eager or vested interests.

Functioning as both refugee colony and scientific outpost, Mars was an entity unto itself -- full wifi access and no indoor plumbing. Most of the refugees from the Milky Way were scientists from Earth, so they'd been given lab space and quarters in Atlantis and a crash course in how to deal with working under Rodney without wishing they'd been left behind for the Ori. But there were also plenty of civilians, not all of whom either wanted to stay in Atlantis or who could be placed meaningfully within the city -- Atlantis simply couldn't function as a welfare state, not when they were still working to replace all of their own resources.

Logistically, it was easier to get material through the stargate than out to the mainland, so development had taken place off-world rather than under the direct auspices of the Athosians. (Teyla was still effectively heading up the de facto Department of Refugee Services, but she was in Atlantis anyway.) The Science Division had taken the opportunity for off-world research -- Life Sciences had a permanent outpost, plus several research teams focusing on explosive materials had moved out here -- and many of the civilian refugees here were working as research assistants and other laborers, in addition to farming and hunting and all of the other activities that went on on planets in either galaxy. The landscape was a combination of pre-fab housing from Earth (the part of town that looked like McMurdo after it rained) and locally procured building materials. There was the beginnings of commercial trading -- tailors, a tavern (the marines were forbidden to do more than buy food there, although John knew that rule was impossible to enforce), and a couple of other places that Lorne said gave Mars more of a Milky Way feel than a Pegasus one -- the Wraith simply hadn't let most civilizations alone long enough (or, if they had, those had been the first ones culled after John had woken them up).

Ronon stayed by John's side as he strolled up the dusty roads toward the village square. There wasn't a government per se; the lieutenant on duty handled most of the arbitrating and making sure everyone did their part to improve the place. (The locals had learned to handle most of their squabbles on their own after Kagan had offered to resolve a property dispute by blowing up the offending building.) Either by coercion or civic pride -- or, mostly likely, a combination of the two, Mars managed to look clean and prosperous despite the red dust. There were children here, more after some of the Pegasus refugees had re-located from the mainland, and they could be heard playing in the distance; John never said anything, but he always noticed that Ronon's head would turn every time their happy cries carried over to them.

Mars wasn't enough to completely erase its origins in galactic genocide, but it was maybe a little bit of hope in a situation where that was in short supply.


Three

"Sergeant Byrd, how did you make it past Lance Corporal?" Cam asked plaintively as he watched the young man try to extricate himself from the grasp of a thorny bush he'd attempted to walk through. Cam turned to Jonas, who was standing next to Becanek and Horton, all three watching with thinly-veiled amusement. "This is why the SGC used airmen instead of marines."

Becanek and Horton both bridled a little, but it was hard to look properly offended when their compatriot was currently shredding his uniform trying to get free.

"Oh, come on," Cam told them with a sigh. He was becoming very fond of his marines, something that had been a surprise to him, but it was the sort of fondness that went with owning very stupid, very happy puppies. You dreamed that they'd get some smarts once they grew out of their awkward phase, but you didn't hold out too much hope. "Let's get him out of there."

Byrd didn't have the gene -- they'd tested him three times, apparently -- but he could find technology on a planet like iron to a lodestone. ("Got good hearing, sir," he'd told Cam after the first time they'd followed him three kilometers over rough ground to find an undocumented site.) The problem was that once Byrd was on the trail, he was prone to ignoring every particular but directness to get to his quarry. Jonas has called it "path independence", but Cam had a whole long list of less oblique terms for Byrd's willingness to take the most uncomfortable, difficult, and dangerous routes to get where he wanted them to go. They were not crows, they did not fly, and Byrd's Kentucky-fried argot didn't make it any less baffling that he could so conveniently forget that.

"Nice navigating, Coondog," Becanek told Byrd as he pulled out his ka-bar. Byrd had gotten himself pretty tangled up and had to go limp before Cam and Becanek could cut him loose.

"Right." Cam looked around. Thankfully, the village on this planet was a fair distance from the stargate and nobody had seen them. "Now, can we get to where we're going without any more detours into briar patches?"

They didn't visit any more briar patches, but they did detour on the way to the village to satisfy Byrd's insistence that "something's here, sir" and, of course, there was something. What the something was, however, was not readily known by either Horton or Jonas, both of whom circled around the device -- which looked like the unhappy progeny of a crock-pot and a tree stump -- and made notes and observations to each other that might as well have been in Swahili for all that Cam could understand them.

The cluelessness was a little comforting in its familiarity; he'd spent more than two years listening to Sam or Daniel (or, on occasion, both) prattle on like a Pentecostal when they'd found something shiny. But it also left Cam feeling a little left out. He'd re-formed SG-1 knowing that he was the rookie, the new guy to a team that had been together through hell and beyond for almost a decade and had the matching scars to prove it. But by the time they'd split up for a mission that they hadn't realized would be their last as members of SG-1 (or, in Teal'c's case, his last at all), Cam had known that they'd accepted him -- not as the warm body filling in for Jack O'Neill, but on his own terms. He'd been an equal. Here, he could never be an equal and the lack of camaraderie was bothering him more than he'd thought it would when he'd agreed to take a marine fire team.

By virtue of not being an officer, already Jonas had a better chance to get something from the marines beyond the usual five replies ("yes, sir", "no, sir", "aye aye, sir", "I'll find out, sir", and "can we shoot it, sir?"). But then he could also talk technology with Horton and had a shared experience with Becanek (who, despite the Czech-looking last name, was Kosovar) and that left Cam with Byrd as 'his' marine and... yeah. Needing a leash.

Cam supposed he could talk to Lorne, see how he handled an identical situation, but he didn't want to say anything to anyone that might sound like whining. There was so much they had to do without, so much loss of both life and livelihood, so many changes in the last months and he really couldn't complain that he actually had to go back to acting like a commander and not a compadre.

"Well?" Cam asked after Horton and Jonas had slowed down a little. "Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?"

Jonas looked up at him from where he was crouching at the base of the whateveritwas. "Mineral," he replied with an almost perfect straight face. "But what it's supposed to do... It's producing an awful lot of energy, but without taking it apart, I'm not sure we'll be able to figure out either to what purpose or how it's being powered."

"Think there'll be something in the Ancient database?" Cam guessed not, but the question had to be asked. H had a new understanding for why Daniel had liked the Ancients so much -- they, too, said an awful lot without saying anything useful.

"It's not Ancient, sir," Horton said, standing up. He looked as perplexed as Cam felt.

"What do you mean it's not Ancient?" Cam walked over to where Jonas was still poking around and squatted next to him. Not that he could tell genuine from artificial Ancient -- the differences between diamonds and cubic zirconium threw him, too -- but what other options did they have? "Is it Wraith?"

Jonas shook his head. "I don't think so," he replied. "I haven't spent a whole lot of time with the Wraith devices, but this doesn't look like one of theirs."

"What does it look like, then?" Cam stood up because his knees were starting to protest. The closer he got to forty, the more he regretted high school football. He wondered sometimes if he was the last generation that would have such concerns, if the Ori would let them play sports at all -- according to Vala, there hadn't been a whole lot of frivolity on the Ori worlds. Took them away from their prostrations and devotions.

Jonas made a face. "Honestly? It looks like Ori technology."

Cam coughed in surprise. Behind him, Becanek and Byrd shifted nervously. "Ori as in we'd better double-time it back to the gate to warn of a foothold or...." he trailed off as Jonas shook his head.

"It doesn't look like any of the Ori tech we encountered once they came to our galaxy," Jonas answered slowly. "But it definitely has an Ori feel to it in terms of design and functionality."

"I thought you said that you didn't know what it did," Cam pointed out, trying to ignore the cold lump of dread in his stomach.

"I don't," Jonas agreed, gesturing to where they'd taken off part of the cover. "But the way the parts are designed, the way they move together -- it's like a prototype of an Ori design. Remember, the Ori started out in this galaxy -- it's completely possible that this dates back to then."

"Ancient and Ori technology aren't completely different, sir," Horton offered. "They used to be the same people and it shows in their design theory."

Cam pointed at the thing. "Does this look like it's twelve thousand years old -- or however old it could be? The Ori and the Ancients split up a long time ago."

They were all versed in the limited amount of knowledge that they had about the joint history of the Ancients and Ori; most of it came from the Ori, which meant that they had to take it with heaping chunks of salt, but some of it had been corroborated by Ancient sources. Not much had come from the database, unsurprisingly.

"Yes, sir," Horton said with a nod. "We can't do anything too thorough without shutting it down and disassembling it, but the parts are showing signs of wear. Considering what some of the devices in Atlantis look like, the ones that were running the entire time the Ancients were away, I'd say that this could be that old."

That was a little bit of a relief, but not enough to put his mind at ease. Nevertheless, he nodded. "Okay, so take all the pictures you want, figure out what you can, and then we try to find someone who can explain to us what this is. And when we get home, we can ask why neither Colonel Sheppard nor Major Lorne seemed to have found any other Ori tech in this galaxy."

That was the real source of his unnerve: the timing. He'd have had no trouble reading about one of the Atlantis teams finding old Ori tech -- back when he'd been sitting in the conference room outside Landry's office, reading over reports with SG-1 while waiting for a meeting to start. Jonas wasn't wrong; the Ori had once been Ancients, too, and they'd frolicked around Pegasus before the big schism had them flouncing off to wherever they'd flounced off to. But Sheppard and McKay had spent three years tracking down any advanced technology they could get their hands on and McKay would never have passed over something like this just because it didn't look classically Ancient.

They were back underway in about twenty minutes, both Horton and Jonas taking a couple dozen photos each (although Cam was sure that Jonas would remember it perfectly from memory alone) and Becanek re-orienting them because they'd all gotten turned around chasing after Byrd.

The village, when they got to it, looked like it fell into the category Sheppard had warned him about before they'd been turned loose for their first mission.  ("There are two sorts of planets in this galaxy," Sheppard had said, "those who live in fear of the Wraith and those who live in spite of the Wraith. Most of them are the former, so you should always be a little worried when you come across the latter. They tend to have nasty surprises.") It was clean and bright and had cottages with whitewashed stone walls and pretty flowerbeds and well-fed and -groomed citizens and, in pretty much every respect, looked like the kind of village that SG-1 always wandered into with disappointment because the likelihood of anything interesting going on was probably nil.

But this was Pegasus and the kind of prosperity that came with plump locals was either unbelievable good luck (the Wraith didn't know their address) or some sort of deal with the damned. And so Cam slapped on his best Sunday Church smile when they were greeted by the community leader, Consolis, and explained that they were there in hopes of maybe establishing trade relations with this prosperous place.

Consolis was pleased -- maintaining trade was very hard with the Wraith so active -- and invited them to break bread with his family. It was here that Cam could maybe appreciate that his new team wasn't a downgrade. Having to sit through a meal before conducting business had often been a necessary evil with SG-1 -- and viewed as such. Cam had always liked eating on other planets -- well, most of the time. But both Sam and Daniel, tired of so many such meals, would have been perfectly happy to skip the food (and the pleasantries) entirely and just get down to the business that had brought them to wherever they were and Teal'c... not to speak ill of the dead, but Teal'c had made people nervous whether they'd known of the Jaffa or not. He'd never been intentionally rude, far from it, but his formality (along with his size and strength and stillness) tended to freak the hell out the average simple villager.

Cam's current team, however, looked positively thrilled at the prospect of food. Any food. You'd think they were running short of chow back in Atlantis or something. (They weren't and Cam knew that Becanek had probably a pound of dried fruit in his gear. The guy was barely big enough to be a marine and ate more than the other two combined.)

The marines were always polite at table -- except when they were among themselves -- and Jonas could happily break the ice with eager questions about local produce, so Cam was able to listen and eat, considering what he heard as he chewed. The food was good -- there was meat and it wasn't near-deer, plus various spicy dishes --and Cam wasn't lying when he complimented the chef, Consolis's wife Daran.

Jonas quizzed the couple about local crops, what they traded for and what they might be willing to trade and Cam asked the occasional follow-up, but he mostly left the discussion in Jonas's hands since he could do the whole 'innocent question' thing better. (Mostly because Jonas was genuinely curious; his delight in learning new things was apparent to anyone who looked.) Some cultures considered discussing business over meals to be a great faux-pas and Cam always figured it was better to err on the side of caution there.

Consolis didn't seem to mind, though, and as the main meal disappeared and fruits and cheeses were brought out, talk turned to commerce.

The Gauhani had a pretty impressive array of local crops -- they had been practicing crop rotation for generations and had no temperature extremes -- and what sounded like cows and pigs, although they called them different things. Cam took a deep breath before beginning the bound-to-make-the-marines-giggle discussion of animal husbandry; Atlantis was building its own herds (off-world, although cows in the back of puddle jumpers to the mainland was always an entertaining thought), but it was slow going and everyone was sick of near-deer and tofu burgers while they waited.

Cam tried really hard not to think about how he'd worked so hard to fly jets, go into space, and travel across galaxies.... to find himself setting up hot dates for some cows.

Eventually -- thankfully -- they got away from bovine mating practices and on to happier news. Like the Wraith.

"We have not been plagued by the Wraith for three generations," Consolis told them. "The Ancestors have blessed us and we remember our gratitude daily."

Cam and Jonas exchanged looks. Three generations -- again with the odd timing. Why three? Either it should have been something from back when the Ancients were running around or something far more recent if it were the Ori being sneaky.

"Did something happen back then?" Cam asked carefully. "Way we learned it, the Wraith were kind of constant until a few years ago."

"So it has been our experience with other worlds," Daran said as she refilled their glasses; they'd been drinking some sort of wine cut with water. "They are most persistent now; without the gift of the Ancestors, we would have been destroyed many times over."

Cam coughed; some of the watered wine had gone down the wrong pipe. "The Wraith come here?" he gasped out once he could breathe.

"Indeed," Consolis agreed, looking more chagrined than smug. "The shield of the Ancestors protects us, but it seems the Wraith don't remember from one visit to the next."

The Wraith had stopped talking to each other; they wouldn't either warn each other or band together to try to take it out.

"You have a shield that protects you from the Wraith." Jonas didn't make it a question. "Yet we had no trouble coming here from the stargate. How is that possible?"

"It only repels the Wraith," Daran said, sitting down next to her husband. "We have not yet learned the 'how' of it all yet. After only three generations, we have only barely mastered the 'what'."

Cam wasn't sure if he felt elated or terrified. Part of him wanted to run home and get McKay out here so that he and his geek squad could reverse engineer this shield so that they could protect the galaxy from the Wraith and starve them into submission. The rest of him, however, was waiting for the other shoe to fall. Sheppard hadn't been wrong: there were always nasty surprises.

"What is the 'what'?" Jonas asked, leaning forward. "May we even ask? We don't want to ask questions that you're not comfortable answering to strangers."

Yes they did, but they also knew their manners.

Consolis gave them a grim smile. "Our gift came with the obligation to teach what we have learned about it," he replied. Cam tried not to think about how that was pretty much Ori Belief 101. "But, as Daran has said, what we have learned is not very much and to speak only of its benefits without being able to share them is merely bragging of the worst sort."

"Would you tell us anyway, please?" Jonas asked, earnestness shining like a beacon. "I believe we may be able to help you learn more about the shield in return."

It was Daran and Consolis's turn to exchange looks. Consolis spoke first.   

"It allows rain, but not the fire from the Wraith's flying ships," he said. "It allows man and insect to pass through, but not the Wraith soldiers who come to kill us. It is our salvation, but even as we are charged to understand its workings, we dare not investigate it too thoroughly lest our curiosity outstrip our knowledge and we take it apart in such a fashion that we cannot put it back together."

Jonas sat up a little. "That's a very sophisticated shield," he said.

"Because it can tell the difference between a man and a Wraith?" Cam asked. That didn't seem too different from everything in Atlantis that required the Ancient gene. Which didn't make it unsophisticated, but still.

"Because it can tell the difference between a wagon and a raindrop, sir," Horton said, perhaps the first time the marines had said anything that hadn't been related to their meal. "It's got to be at least two-tiered. It sounds like maybe the sides are one kind of shield and the top is another. We'd have to run tests to see what sort of thresholds it has in terms of object size and composition to know for sure, of course, but if it was all the same shield? Then it's something we've never even come close to seeing before."

Daran and Consolis watched Horton and Jonas with surprised, eager eyes. Horton and Jonas, in turn, looked ready to set up camp and study the thing for a couple of weeks.

Cam cleared his throat. Before he could let any of this progress too far, he had to find out what the catch was -- a friendly people with good food, a trade surplus, and a nifty shield that could singlehandedly save entire worlds from the Wraith was a little more good luck than he thought he'd earned. "You said something had happened three generations ago to get you on the road to peace and prosperity," he began. "Do you mind telling us what that was? 'Cause peace and prosperity are certainly traits we'd love to emulate."

Daran smiled. "The Ancestors came to us," she replied and Cam fought his instinctive reaction -- which was to maybe hurl. He'd seen that kind of beatific look before. Once upon a time, it used to remind him of Aunt Emma's neighbor Hortense, a woman who'd claimed she'd seen Jesus reflected in her garage window. Now, however, it made him think of only one thing.

"The Ancestors came to you," Cam repeated slowly. "Glowy light people? A little flighty and not too much with the straight talking?"

Consolis shook his head. "No, no. He was most certainly ethereal, but he was very real and he spoke openly -- if not plainly."

"You saw him?" Jonas didn't sputter, but Cam was maybe a little pleased that this was throwing him, too. It would make it easier to advise caution once they got back to Atlantis.

"I was but a small child," Consolis admitted, gesturing to his white hair. Consolis and Daran were old by Earth standards, let alone Pegasus ones. "But I remember him. He showed my father how to activate the shield and said that we needed safety in order to grow and growth in order to flourish."

"And when we have come into our own," Daran finished, "The Ancestors would return to us."

"Not that you would join the Ancestors?" Cam asked. "Could you have misheard?"

This wasn't too far off from previous visits by Ancients -- a little help, a vague hint, and an even vaguer promise of Ascension if you could hack it. Teaching them how to activate the shield instead of activating it themselves would get around the whole 'direct involvement' bit, then setting up something that was essentially like the sanctuary Sheppard had found himself in the other year. Except not really, since that was cut off from the world. But, hey, variety is the spice of life and maybe the Gauhani had met up with one of the rebel Ancients -- another Oma -- or one of the Ancients who hadn't quite given up their worldly concerns, like Daniel or like Sheppard's Chaya.

Consolis shook his head and Cam belatedly realized that he'd been rude for questioning Consolis's truthfulness.

"The Ancestor's words were written down by those who heard them," Consolis said, apparently unoffended. "When we have learned enough to understand how ignorant we truly are, then we shall be ready to receive the teachings of the Ancestors. Through them we shall achieve enlightenment, for that is the only true path."

Boys and girls, we have a winner.  

"The man didn't happen to leave you a book, did he?" Jonas asked and Cam grimaced. "A text you were supposed to learn from?"

"He did," Consolis confirmed, "but it is written in a language that none of us have ever seen before. We have chosen to believe that when we have the knowledge to read from that book, then the Ancestors will come back to us."

Cam looked over at Jonas. That was a little weird. The Book of Origin had thus far managed to get translated into every local language on every world they'd gotten to. It wasn't the Ori way to play hard-to-get.

"Maybe it's not that book?" Jonas asked him, apparently thinking the same thing.

"Would it be possible for us to see this book?" Cam asked Consolis. "Mister Quinn here has spent time learning the language of the Ancestors and maybe he can tell you what it says."

Daran looked wary.

"I understand that this is a task you have to work toward," Jonas said quickly, holding up his hands as if to placate -- or surrender, "but I promise you, this wouldn't be a shortcut. The Ancestors approve of knowledge, however acquired."

Which wasn't precisely true -- neither the Ori nor the Ancients were too happy with anyone figuring out any truth that didn't make them look like winners. But Cam figured that if it was Ori stuff, then they'd be doing the Gauhani a favor.

"Why don't we stick to the shield for now," Cam suggested when neither Consolis nor Daran looked any less hesitant. "This is an awful lot for a first meeting and we don't want to be overstaying out welcome. You've given us the finest meal we've had in a long while and it's rude to repay such generosity with too many questions."

Both of their hosts looked visibly relieved. "Please excuse us," Consolis said. "We are perhaps a little.... stunned... to encounter a people who might understand our shield and who speak the language of the Ancestors. We do not mean to appear unwilling pupils, but you have made offers that must be brought before our people. I may guide our community along our path, but I cannot lead where they will not follow."

"We understand," Jonas assured. Cam wasn't so sure -- and judging from the pole-axed looks on the marines' faces, they weren't, either.

They had pretty much finished eating and Consolis took them on a tour of the village. The locals seemed curious but not afraid, peering out of windows and doorways. It was mid-afternoon here and, Consolis explained, the able-bodied were at work and the children were still in school. The marines mostly looked around, although Becanek asked a few questions about the windmill in the distance and the whether the Gauhani kept their buildings to two stories out of choice or necessity.

Cam was half-listening to Consolis explain the peculiarities of Gauhani civil engineering when they turned the corner and he stepped on Jonas's heels because Jonas was standing struck-stupid right there.

"What's got--" Cam cut himself off. "Oh."

He turned to Consolis, who was looking proudly in the same direction as where Jonas was staring. "Let me guess," he said. "Your house of worship?"

The symbols were engraved and worn with age, but Cam knew fire signs when he saw them.

"Our place of prostration, yes," Consolis confirmed. "Do you recognize it as similar to your own?"

Cam wished he didn't hear the eager hope in Consolis's voice.

"Not exactly," he replied. In front of him, Jonas hadn't moved. "It's a little more complicated than that."


Four

"So they're not Ori followers?" John asked, mostly because someone had to. "That the whole thing looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, walks like a duck..."

"But tastes like chicken," Mitchell finished with a frown. "I know. It doesn't sit right with me, either. But there it is."

John had been doing paperwork in Lorne's office when Lieutenant Eriksson summoned them both to the conference room, only saying that Mitchell's team had come back with news. By the time they'd gotten there, McKay, Caldwell, and Beckett (two of the three looking a little shell-shocked and Caldwell looking grim) were already seated and Lorne had given him the Raised Eyebrow of Oh, Shit, What's Happened Now? before following him to the empty chairs left for them.

"They've got Ori doctrine without most of the dogma," Jonas said. "And without, really, most of the Ori. They speak of 'Ancestors', not making a distinction between Ori or Ancient -- if they even know there became one. They don't have the proselytizing imperative the way we've experienced it, although the basis of it is certainly there."

"So they're not looking to kill us just yet?" Rodney asked. "I'm not finding that very reassuring right now."

That there was something Ori-like in this galaxy, that their safe haven wasn't as safe as they had hoped, had shaken all of them. Badly. They'd understood that the Ori's arrival in this galaxy was a 'when' and not an 'if', but they'd hoped for more time and the news that the first step was a small world in a corner of the galaxy and not an invasion fleet could not yet be appreciated for the possible reprieve that it was.

"I wish I could tell you not to worry, Doctor," Mitchell said with a shrug, "but I really don't think that galactic domination in the service of their absent masters is high on their to-do list."

That was part of the problem -- what do you do with a sworn enemy who doesn't know he's an enemy? From what Mitchell and Jonas had said, the Gauhani were peaceable, prosperous, curious folks blessed (literally and figuratively) with protection from the Wraith. Take away the Ori temple and they'd be just the sort of people with whom Atlantis would love to cozy up to. But they did have an Ori temple, no matter how it was or wasn't used, and that couldn't be ignored.

"We know that the Ori didn't start out bent on conquering galaxies," Elizabeth began slowly but loudly in anticipation of the groans and protests that would follow and did. This -- the Corruption of the Ori, or How a Really Good Idea Went Very, Very Wrong -- was always an unpopular line of discussion. In the face of a lack of any real compelling evidence beyond the word of an interested party, the only real adherents were the Social Sciences people over in G-2 (and Elizabeth, who unofficially represented them in all top-level meetings). "What are the odds that the Gauhani are adherents of this earlier, peaceful version of Ori theology?"

"About the same odds of it actually existing," Caldwell retorted without heat.

John didn't think it was really so much a matter of whether moderate Origin did or didn't ever exist as that it didn't exist now. They'd tried that on Earth even before the Ori had been a blip on anyone's radar and fat lot of good it had done anyone then. You can't reason with anyone who foams at the mouth.

"Do we have enough intel to make a fact-based threat assessment?" John asked when Elizabeth only grimaced at Caldwell. That argument had been done so many times already that it could be reduced to shorthand. "Not to rehash old adventures, but just because you didn't find the underground nuclear bunker doesn't mean that there isn't an underground nuclear bunker."

Once upon a time, it had been Rodney's prerogative to use the Genii as a bludgeon to justify caution.

"I'd like to go back," Jonas admitted. "I won't deny that the place freaks me out --"

"It's like going to the Spahn Ranch before Manson moved in," Mitchell muttered. "You know Bonanza was shot there, but it's sort of unimportant."

"Like that analogy," Rodney said, shaking his head. The two of them had not gotten off to a good start, although there didn't seem to be any genuine animosity.

"But I think it's essential that we get back there," Jonas went on once Mitchell and Rodney were finished making faces at each other. "We need to do a more thorough study of both their technological capabilities as well as their faith. We don't know what we're dealing with yet."

In the end, that's what they decided to do -- send Mitchell's team back, plus a few scientists (including Rodney, since he refused to name anyone to the team unless he was first on the list) since the Gauhan had invited them to return.

John wasn't that surprised when Caldwell called after him as the meeting broke up. Lorne gave John a look that he interpreted as an exhortation to play nicely, then went on his way.

"What do you make of this?" Caldwell asked, leaning against the table.

John grimaced. "Something else we didn't need to deal with," he replied. The two of them weren't colleagues in anything but the professional sense, were still adversaries as often as not, but John still remembered when Caldwell hadn't cared what he thought about anything. "I don't know if I buy the idea that being a little bit Ori is any different than being a little bit pregnant, but weirder shit has happened here."

Caldwell grunted something like agreement. "I think it still might be time to introduce the concept of a preventive strike into the dialogue," he said.

John had known this was coming from the moment Mitchell had begun with "I think we've found the Ori in Pegasus." It had been present in every theoretical discussion, every brainstorming, every contingency meeting since the compressed databurst had come from Earth. It had come in various guises and with various conditions and a whole host of euphemisms (the phrase of choice was 'cauterizing the wound') and while almost everyone disagreed on the particulars, nobody actually disagreed that it would at some point become likely that they would have to act with great ruthlessness to keep the Ori out of Pegasus.

Once upon a time, they'd put their hope in superior weapons and strategy and simply human pluck and genius to counteract superior numbers. But it had failed thus far with the Wraith (or, at the very least, not succeeded with any acceptable speed) and it had failed (without qualifiers) against the Ori back home and John didn't think that they had the sort of hope required to pull off such a stunt here. Not anymore.

"Let's wait for Mitchell's team to get back before we bring it up to Elizabeth," John said. "She's going to think we had it in mind all along anyway, but if we keep out mouths shut, then she can't prove anything."

John sometimes liked to fool himself into thinking that there'd been a time when he wouldn't have considered conspiring with Caldwell against Elizabeth -- conspiring with Lorne was different because Lorne was his subordinate and they both knew Elizabeth could pick them apart if necessary. But, for better or for worse, John and Caldwell made a much more formidable opponent. And when John wasn't fooling himself, he'd remember that he'd always undermined Elizabeth's authority when he'd thought he had to.

Caldwell nodded. "Maybe we'll get good news back."

"Maybe," John replied. He wished for it -- desperately -- but he didn't believe they had that kind of luck anymore.


"How's it going, McKay?" John called over as he approached. One visit back to the Gauhan had led to another had led to another, each growing in scope and personnel. Today, there were marines and zoologists herding cattle to and from the stargate for doing whatever was needed to make veal (John was staying far, far away from that -- Lieutenant Gillick could handle both cows and scientists without supervision), a contingent from Social Sciences led by (and watched over by) Jonas, and the engineers still going over the shield.

"It's not going," Rodney replied with irritation and without looking up. "Unless the Ori have figured out how to create a perpetual motion machine, then we're exactly where we were the last time you asked."

Gunny Tommasso, who was lead babysitter -- John didn't know if Gillick had won or lost the coin toss with his platoon sergeant to wind up with watching bovine insemination instead of pissy engineers -- just shrugged. "They're still more annoyed with interruptions than each other," he explained.

Which, as John well knew, was a good sign in terms of getting progress made, although it invariably meant bad news for whoever was stuck minding them. With pretty much every other civilian division, herding scientists was a lot like herding cows -- without the fear of having to either witness or orchestrate reproductive activities. Anyone in uniform told them where and when to go and they went.

With the engineers, however, the most efficient means of management was divide-and-conquer -- the engineers were usually willing to rebel against Rodney and, thus abandoned, Rodney would be forced to capitulate. Except when the engineers were doing their hive mind thing and Rodney was their king instead of their tyrant, in which case you pretty much needed a Wraith dart overhead to get them to obey orders.

Tommasso had things well under control -- courtesy of the shield, the planet was low-risk for pretty much everything except boredom and pissiness -- and so John continued his cycle back toward the village. Teyla was lord knows where doing lord knows what -- one of the civic leaders had steered her off to show her something and John had yet to see either of them since. Jonas and the social scientists had been set up in one of the libraries (and that they had more than one was pretty impressive), poring over material and taking interviews and generally trying to find out as much as possible about the Gauhani without offering much in the way of reciprocal information.

Keeping Atlantis secret was something they were all used to -- even if the bad guys still knew it existed, there was no point in announcing to the rest of the galaxy that someone had set up shop in the home of the Ancestors -- but it was of special importance here. They had explained their reticence by telling the Gauhani that their original homes had been destroyed by followers of a religion very similar to their own, although they had left out when that had been and most certainly where. Consolis and Daran -- Daran being something like an elder in their church -- had been horrified and shamed upon hearing about the Ori armies and John suspected that their guilt over this loose (and thus far tenuous) association had done more to gain them concessions from the Gauhani than the agricultural trade and work on the shield. Daran had gathered the elders to offer explanations and exegesis of their holy texts, emphasizing at all times the nonviolent nature of their beliefs.

(Unfortunately, as Jonas had pointed out in the debriefs, the Gauhani didn't so much as believe in nonviolence as they didn't have any positive commandments to go forth and slaughter nonbelievers. It was a distinction with a difference.)

The Gauhani were definitely more influenced by the Ori than the Ancients, although nobody had quite figured out yet how far (or how far back) this influence went. Their temples were centuries old, for instance, and if they had no knowledge of the Book of Origin or its details, then that didn't stop their prayer book from being strikingly similar in theme if not in tone.

But while the doctrinal differences between the Gauhani Books of Light and the Book of Origin were important, it was the visitor from Consolis's childhood who interested them the most. Who or what he could have been was impossible to tell -- he'd probably been Ori but could have been Ancient, too. (John thought that someone like Chaya, willing to break the rules to protect her people, would not have cared who had been the engine of that salvation -- she'd have used Ori tech to preserve her people.) It would have been completely like the Ori to have sent someone here with no discernable malevolence just to set something in motion for down the line.

That the Gauhani might be an unknowing sleeper cell had already come up -- primed by Ori theology and already rewarded by freedom from the Wraith, it wouldn't take much to tip them over into becoming the sort of crusaders the Ori had brought from their home galaxy. And this is where Caldwell's cautioning about a preventive war came in -- if they knew for a fact that the Ori were coming, that the Ori would use the Gauhani to gain access to Pegasus, then should they eliminate the threat before it developed? The Gauhani alone were no menace, shield or no shield, but as a key to the Ori they would be deadly. And they'd only be stoppable before the Ori came.

Elizabeth had already made a preemptive first strike of her own, admitting privately to John that she feared there being a groundswell of support for an assault on Gauhan. She didn't know if it was already under discussion (it was, although only informally), but she knew it would be if and was trying to head it off at the pass by forcing John to either promise her that there would be no such plan or agree that it was too early to make such a decision. Either move would give her the power to use him as leverage in the inevitable public debate and a part of him resented that she thought he wouldn't notice the gambit. He'd told her that it was pointless to speculate about actions that hadn't been discussed yet.

John, having given up looking for Teyla, found Mitchell sitting on a bench outside one of the shops in the town square, eating something that looked suspiciously like an ice cream cone.

"You ditched 'em?" John asked as he dropped down next to Mitchell on the bench.

Mitchell grinned, raising his ice cream cone (it wasn't a cone, more like a box, but it was definitely ice cream and John was definitely jealous) in both salute and confirmation. "Horton got press-ganged by McKay, Becanek's off with Jonas, and I sent Byrd off to look for more tech," he said. "We may need to send a rescue party out for Byrd later since that boy's got the sixth sense of a prize hunting dog and the common sense of your average marine, but I'll trade that for a little peace and quiet now. Plus they don't like it when I eat off-world."

John grinned. "Lorne got himself poisoned once," he explained.

"Figures," Mitchell sighed. "You two really did traumatize the entire battalion, didn't you? Instead of thinking that the Air Force is all pantywaists, they think we're all suicidal. I'm still working out whether it's suicidally brave or suicidally stupid."

They both knew that SG-1 had had an even worse reputation than either John's team or Lorne's, so John didn't protest beyond making a face.

"How long did it take Lorne to figure out what to do with his three?" Mitchell asked. "I don't mind this breaking-in period, but I'd mind it a lot less if I knew how long it lasted. I asked Lorne and he said he's still trying to win that war, but I figured he was really talking 'bout Doctor Safir."

John laughed. "He probably was, but I think Lorne and his marines didn't so much as break each other in as settle into some kind of détente."

Lorne and his team were off checking out more possible Ancient outposts. With John not able to get off-world as much as he'd once done, the relic hunting portion of the schedule had largely been foisted off (with Rodney preserving the right to horn in on any mission that actually found something useful). Mitchell's team was more technologically apt by far, but nobody on his team had the ATA gene naturally and Lorne's team had far more experience with the lay of the land.

"Great," Mitchell sighed. "So I've got to find myself some sort of Cuban Missile Crisis. Good thing we're trouble magnets in this galaxy."

John was about to say something in reply, but a Gauhani woman interrupted them then, bringing John his own ice cream cone. He thanked her profusely and dug in. It was something vaguely cinnamon-like in and tasted as good as it looked. Ice cream and variants thereof weren't common in Pegasus -- freezers and iceboxes not being a regular feature of most cultures -- and John always remembered the look of awe and glee on the faces of the Athosian children when they'd handed out the prepackaged sundaes and popsicles they'd brought with them from Earth. (And that had been the crappy mass-produced stuff the Air Force bought in bulk.)

Jonas found them before they were finished with their cones -- they offered to get him one, but he assured them that he had been amply treated by Daran and the elders -- and paced before them, rolling his neck and shoulders.

"It's harder than I thought it would be," Jonas said, not looking at either of them, just continuing to pace in tight circles. "To sit there and listen to them explain how they don't believe in forced conversions, how they can't imagine murdering everyone who doesn't think as they do, and yet how everything else about their theology is essentially the Book of Origin without the incitement to murder parts."

John wondered if he should go, if this was something Jonas wanted to talk to Mitchell alone about; he got along well enough with Jonas, but while they shared jokes, they didn't do the personal chit-chat thing. He didn't know how much Mitchell and Jonas did, but John knew the sort of things you could say in front of people you'd nearly died with a few times.

"They're a fascinating people," Jonas went on and John could hear the strain in his voice. "Intellectually curious and eager to share and they have a lot of history written down -- I think this might be one of the most complete collections of the recording of events since the Ancients fought the Wraith in the galaxy. And it's written down and not subject to the whims of an oral history. To run what they have up in tandem with what's in the Ancient database... We'd have a chance at compiling a coherent and consistent history of this galaxy beyond 'the Ancients left and the Wraith snacked.'"

"Not something we thought'd ever happen," John said, mostly to say something.

"If we'd somehow managed to encounter them back when I was with SG-1," Jonas went on, making a sour face of agreement at John's remark. "Colonel O'Neill would have had to drag me away on a leash. Now? All I want to do is finish and go back home. It makes me hate the Ori all the more for what they've done to my people, what they've done to me that I've changed so much that I can't even appreciate the opportunity to learn."

They didn't talk about this very much, how the Ori had changed them, very often -- in any context. That they had was obvious and manifest, but it was easier for everyone to stick to what was easiest to see. By focusing on no more Earth-made junk food, the cessation of emails from loved ones and news from home, and all of the many ways their lives had changed in the last seven months, they avoided having to do the sort of self-examination that was probably necessary but not at all productive. John had been perfectly happy to avoid this sort of cataloging thus far, even though no amount of denial would let him pretend that everything was as it once had been.

"You want to call it a day?" Mitchell asked. "Take a break?"

"I can't go," Jonas replied, shaking his head. "We need this intel. I can be miserable later."

Mitchell sighed. "I was going to suggest you go bother McKay and the engineers for a while, see what they're up to. Horton's with them and hopefully Byrd's found his way back there by now. I'm sure Staff Sergeant Becanek can keep an eye on the social scientists."

"I'm sure he can, too," Jonas agreed. "They've picked up on his accent by now. But--"

"We're going to be here for at least another eight hours," John cut in. "Why don't you go bother McKay for a while -- I'm sure Gunnery Sergeant Tommasso would love the entertainment. And then you can come back here and get back to work. You're free to go check in on Lieutenant Gillick and the bovine reenactment of The Miracle of Life -- Gillick'll be happy to compare the fertilization of sugar beets to that of cows if you want him to."

Jonas made a face that clearly stated that he'd rather deal with McKay.

"They made you watch that in high school, too?" Mitchell asked with a laugh. "All we could talk about afterward is how they got that camera up there."

John started laughing -- twenty years later and health class was still funny -- and Jonas watched them both with a look that John knew from Teyla meant 'you strange, strange Earth people.'

"I think I'll go over to the engineers," Jonas said. "The walk will do me good."


"--There's nothing in the Ancient database, of course," Rodney sighed.

"Or at least nothing in plain sight," Zelenka cut in. "We are still getting Social Sciences to look for less obvious references."

"Fine," Rodney allowed with a mildness that fooled no one. It was a tone John had learned to fear on off-world missions because it invariably meant that Rodney was a step or two away from open rebellion. "While we wait for the simpletons in G-2 to look for whatever euphemism the Ancients used for 'Ori technology possibly built when there should have been no Ori in the galaxy', we can proceed on with actual data acquired from actual research. And to that cause, the Ancient database is monumentally useless, as always."

"Not quite as always," Elizabeth spoke up. "Gauhan has a long entry in the database."

"Yes," Rodney agreed, the same mutinous undercurrent in his voice. If John were to open his eyes, he knew he'd recognize the look on Rodney's face. For mostly that reason, he didn't bother opening his eyes. He was operating on about three hours' sleep over the last fifty -- he'd spent most of Atlantis's night cycle on Mars, sorting out some asinine dispute -- and he was only opening his eyes for important matters. "But I'm not interested in stories about hermitages and heretics -- especially not in stories where the heretic in question vows that his faith will preserve him and dies anyway."

"Except the heretic in question was probably an Ori," Elizabeth challenged. "And before he'd turned heretic, he'd been a leading scientist in Atlantis."

John opened his eyes.

"Oh," Rodney said in a small voice. "I didn't get that far."

"No," Elizabeth said primly. "Apparently not."

"So our heretical scientist built the shield?" Zelenka leaned forward in his seat as Rodney leaned back. "Do we know when this was or if he had any projects in the city? And why didn't G-2 know about this?"

Elizabeth held up her hands. "I'm not the one doing the research," she replied. "Jonas Quinn brought this to me yesterday. He's been working on this for a few weeks and it's been slow going. The Ancients buried all of the references and destroyed who-knows-how-much material. Valtinus wasn't just your average heretic and his break with the philosophy of the Ancients wasn't just any falling-out. His name has been deleted from the database and everything there is on him and his work here must be found through other means."

"So how did Jonas figure out who he was?" Lorne asked.

"You'll have to get the full story out of him," Elizabeth answered with a small shrug. "What he told me, however, was that he got the idea from something in Vala Mal Doran's notes on her time in Ori galaxy."

Across the table from John, Yoni Safir put down his pencil. Safir always had a notebook and was always writing, but he never took notes on the meetings -- at least that was John's theory. (Lorne suspected Safir was catching up on his own paperwork, but neither of them read Hebrew, certainly not upside-down, so there was no way to tell.) "We've been trafficking with the descendants of one of the Ori machers?"

John didn't even know what a macher was, but he could go by context.

"Indirectly at best," Elizabeth said, apparently knowing what it meant. "Jonas's best guess is that Valtinus's story dates to more than twelve thousand years ago."

The time lapse would have maybe been more comfortable if the connecting point hadn't been Vala, who'd come back from the Ori galaxy only a year or so ago.

"So this Valtinus built the shield on Gauhan?" John asked.

"He designed it at least," Elizabeth confirmed. "Judging by what the database has to say about Gauhan, it wasn't operational for long stretches after the Ancients left this galaxy, so whether he built it and it failed or whether he left the construction up to someone else and it didn't work as planned...." she trailed off. "I'll leave the details to the engineers."

Rodney and Zelenka looked both abashed and thoughtful. "If Quinn can date the design," Rodney said, more to Radek than the rest of them, "then there will be something contemporaneous, either a prototype or a successor model."

Zelenka nodded in agreement. "Maybe we'll find what they're using as the dielectric medium."

"I still think it's--"

"You always think it's piezoelectric. And it never is."

"I do not! And this coming from someone who still believes--"

"Gentlemen?" Elizabeth prompted. Both of them looked at her as if they'd forgotten there was anyone else in the room. Which they probably had.

"We'll get back to you once we've seen what Jonas has," Rodney told her.

"And why he didn't share," Zelenka added, insulted.

"Possibly because you treat him like a graduate assistant," Carson volunteered.

Zelenka made a face. Radek was a great guy, but he also had the galaxy's biggest case of Stockholm Syndrome when it came to Rodney.  

John and Lorne both snickered, as much because it was true as for Carson's innocent expression and Safir's proud one.

"Moving on," Elizabeth said loudly. "Colonel, has the.... debate on Mars been resolved?"

Preferably without threatening to blow anything up, she didn't add.

John shrugged. "It'll keep for now. If it flares back up again, we'll look into relocating certain parties. The lieutenants are handling things just fine; they just needed a little backup."

What they'd needed was John coming in, telling the two squabbling groups of settlers that if they persisted in trying to go over the heads of the lieutenants to complain when things didn't go their way, it was only going to be to their detriment because John had no intention of playing kindergarten cop. And then he'd sat there with Salker and gone over each case under dispute so that Salker understood that John really did mean to put all of his trust with the lieutenants. It wasn't a crisis of confidence per se, but the battalion's most junior officers had all been asked to absorb a lot of new responsibilities in the last year and sometimes they needed a little assurance that they were performing to expectations. (They were performing above expectations, but John left it to the captains to disseminate that information.)

"That's good to hear," Elizabeth replied with a tight smile. She, too, was a little annoyed with the pettiness of some of the gripes that made it all the way to her desk.

The rest of the meeting was cheerfully banal in its routine and John didn't think he dozed off, although Lorne's occasional sharp elbows to his ribs may have been a little more necessary than he'd let on.


Five

"--which is going to go over like a lead balloon, since it will involve change and change is bad by default," Lorne was saying when his phone beeped. He cocked an eyebrow as he pressed the intercom button. "Lorne."

Cam hadn't had to pay much attention at all to the administrative workings of the battalion -- the captains took care of the staff jobs (with the lieutenants rotating through serving as S4, since that was a shit job) and they all did them better than he could. Especially when he'd been spending most of his time either in the Milky Way, en route to or from the Milky Way, or planning what to do when they got back to the Milky Way. Now that those activities had been curtailed, however, Cam had sort of floated around as a supernumerary, filling in where needed but mostly not needed at all. He had a little too much time on his hands these days, even with off-world missions, and finally said as much to Sheppard, which in turn got him a meeting with Sheppard and Lorne since they both knew who really should be making those decisions.

"Hitman Three is three hours overdue, sir," Lieutenant Patchok's voice came over the intercom. "Requesting authorization to active the SAR team."

Sheppard sat up in his seat -- Lorne's office had really comfy chairs and even Cam was prone to slouch down in them -- and looked concerned. Cam didn't know where Gillick -- call sign Hitman Three -- had gone to or even that anyone had been overdue. He didn't think Sheppard did, either.  

"So authorized, Lieutenant," Lorne replied, looking over at the schedule written out on the dry-erase board on the far wall. It was written in multicolored markers and cramped shorthand, but it was easy enough to read if you knew what you were looking at. Cam mostly did. "Tell Lieutenant Kagan to radio in as soon as he knows what's going on."

"Aye aye, sir."

Lorne sighed as he clicked the intercom off. "Crap."

"I'm guessing we're not looking to rescue Gillick from the clutches of his fangirls," Sheppard said, not smiling.

It was a comment that obviously meant something specific, but Cam didn't know what. He'd never been made to feel unwelcome, but he also hadn't been around long enough to pick up on most of the inside jokes.  

"Hitman Three is on Gauhan," Lorne replied and Cam swore he could feel the temperature drop in the room. "Gillick's got the escort job for the research teams."

"Is Jonas with him?" Neither Cam's team nor Sheppard had been back to Gauhan since that first time. Jonas had gone, but rather than yank the marines out of their duties and have Cam twiddle his thumbs and listen to his iPod, he'd gone alone as part of the scientific teams.

Lorne shifted over to his computer and typed a few keys. "Charlie Company, Third Platoon," he half-murmured to himself as read off of what was probably the mission log, "Time of departure 0615, mission time eight hours. They are escorting ten civilians from Engineering and Social Sciences, Doctors Selikhova and Perrault as respective leads, three hundred fifty pounds of equipment, and Jonas Quinn along as additional personnel."

"Dammit," Cam sighed. "It's too much to hope that they all lost track of time, right?"

He didn't believe that for a second. The scientists, sure, and Jonas could tune out the rest of the world (and his own needs -- like hunger and sleep) with the best of them. But the marines weren't likely to either accommodate the civilians or be so forgetful.

"Gillick's our best lieutenant," Sheppard replied, standing up. "He's a guy I'd have liked to have had around in case we have to start something big. Kagan's not a bad alternative, but it's not good if someone got the drop on Gillick and his boys. Even less if it's there."

That it was on Gauhan, where it couldn't have been the Wraith... It could be someone like the Genii, of course, or could actually be the Genii -- that they'd gone almost a year without hostilities was the source of morbid humor in Little Tripoli -- but Cam knew what the other two were thinking because it was the same thing he was thinking: our luck has run out.

"I'm sure Matt knows already, but I'll go tell him," Lorne said, looking up from where he was still typing. Cam wasn't comforted per se by the utter calmness in the room, but he could appreciate it. All the more because there was probably going to be a lot of yelling and alarms and noise in their futures. "You going to be in the control room?"

Sheppard nodded. "If this is the shit officially hitting the fan, might as well get a head start." He turned to Cam. "Your marines in the city?"

"Yeah," Cam confirmed. Weapons Three was in one of their sapper classes this week.

"Get 'em on radio," Sheppard told him. "You guys'll be on standby in case we go anywhere."

Cam headed off while Lorne and Sheppard were finalizing more details; unless it was something wacky-but-simple and everyone was waiting patiently on Gauhan for a lift home, this was going to be a long evening. He didn't worry about getting a piece of the action -- Sheppard would take care of him. He also knew from experience that until there was actual intel, it would be a lot of standing around and waiting and speculating and he didn't really need to be around for that. Didn't want to be. The waiting made him crazy enough on his own and he didn't want to have to marinate in everyone else's fears.

He went down the armory, nodding grimly at the marines on ordnance duties as he passed by the machine and repair shops en route to where off-world teams kept their gear. His team had a row of lockers and he went into each in turn, pulling out radios and earpieces and stopping with his hand frozen in front of Jonas's locker because (of course) Jonas's gear was already gone.

Finding his marines was pretty easy; he headed up to the floor with the computer labs and found the one that was set up for use as a classroom. The tone of the room changed completely when he walked in; the civilian engineer teaching the class looked annoyed for half a second at the interruption, but he quickly realized that this wasn't a social call and simply stopped the lesson.

Becanek, Byrd, and Horton followed Cam back out into the hallway.

"What's happening, sir?" Becanek asked, accepting the handful of radios and sorting out whose was whose.

Cam told them, albeit a simplified version. He knew as well as they did that everyone in that classroom was going to want to know what was going on; he just didn't want the rumors to start out any more outrageous than they had to be.

This was the first time they'd been put on standby. Simply because of their relative lack of experience and serendipitous timing, they'd never needed to be on call -- Lorne's team took most of them. (Usually because Sheppard's team was the one causing them.)

"What do we do, sir?" Byrd asked.

"You go back in there and do your best to pay attention, Sergeant," Cam told him. "You know as well as I do that any orders to move out aren't going to be coming right away. Go about your day, just keep your radio on."

"The end is nigh, tune in after the game," Horton muttered.

"Pretty much," Cam agreed. 'Don't think about what could be going on' was an impossible order and he knew it, but what else was he going to say? "Now go get back in there. I don't want you blowing up something important because you were distracted when it was being taught."

Byrd smiled brightly at him. "We're learning how to build stuff, sir. Architectural modeling."

Cam cocked an eyebrow. "Sergeant, I am not sure I want to step across any threshold if you're responsible for the construction of the building around it."

The other two laughed. Byrd being Byrd, however, he wasn't insulted. "Me, neither, sir."

Becanek gave Byrd a shove back toward the classroom door. "If you need us later, sir," he told Cam, "class ends at 1830."

Translation: they wanted to be kept in the loop and expected some sort of update then. Cam was neither unsurprised nor unpleased -- they wanted in on the action, sure, but they were also worried about Jonas.

"I'll keep it in mind, Staff Sergeant."


By the time Cam got to the gate room, there was already a buzz in the air. Sheppard was in Weir's office, Lorne was talking to Lieutenant Patchok on the control room balcony, and the marines on guard duty were looking more on edge than usual.

He climbed the stairs to the concourse slowly, aware that it was still too soon for anything useful to have come back yet; it was a long walk to the village from the stargate. Lorne acknowledged his arrival with a nod as he finished up with Patchok, patting the lieutenant on the arm before moving away to join Cam just outside the control room.

"Waiting's the hardest part," Lorne said with a frown, looking at the quiet stargate.

Cam grunted agreement. "Your boys around?" he asked, mostly to say something and partially out of curiosity. He knew they were in Patchok's platoon, but had never seen then on gate room duty.

"They're around," Lorne confirmed, gesturing vaguely to indicate 'elsewhere'. "Patchok started hiding his ATA-positive marines early on -- if they're on patrol somewhere in the city, it's harder for the engineers to shanghai them. Plus it makes their absence less noticeable when they're off with me."

"Makes sense," Cam replied. He didn't know if Lieutenant Murray made any accommodations for his own three. He was about to say something to that effect when the stargate activated and the alarm for an incoming wormhole sounded as the shield was activated.

Below them, the marines got into position, manning the heavy machine guns and surrounding the gate platform. The marines in the control room and on the catwalk between the control room and Weir's office got into position near-instantly.

The kawoosh was blocked by the shield and everyone, including Cam, held their breath for the long moment before the sergeant at the DHD announced that it was Lieutenant Kagan's IDC.

"Home Base, this is Joker Three," Kagan's voice came through the speakers. "We are one half-klick from Gauhan village at the edge of the shield. Do you copy?"

Sheppard had come out of Weir's office, but gestured for Patchok to answer the radio. "We copy, Joker Three. What've you got?"

"We've got a very quiet village," Kagan replied. "Place is lit up like Christmas, though. Every torch, every lamp, everything that won't burn the village down. Including the dome on top of the church."

"Fuck," Cam bit off and everyone turned to him. "That's their version of the Eye of Sauron. Daran said that it would only be lit 'once the Ancestors had returned.'"

So much for it being wacky-but-simple. Cam ignored the familiar feeling in his stomach, the one he'd last felt standing on the bridge of the Daedalus and hearing that the Jaffa offensive had failed. The one that said that this was the beginning of the end.

"Fuck," Sheppard agreed. He tapped his radio, linking in with the connection to Kagan. "Joker Three, have you seen our missing people?"

"Not yet, sir," Kagan replied. "We haven't breached the shield."

Radio communication had thus far been possible even with the shield in place, but if the Ori were around, then that could change.

"You be careful, Lieutenant," Sheppard exhorted. "If it smells like a trap, back out. We don't need two platoons keeping the locals company. You're there to scout, not to mount a rescue. We need your intel."

"Copy that, sir." Kagan sounded a little disappointed. Cam knew exactly how he felt. So did Sheppard and Cam didn't think either man missed the irony of the order.

"Do your thing and get back to us," Sheppard went on. "You have two hours. Home Base out."

The wormhole closed a moment later and everyone watched. Once it shut down, all of the focus in the control room turned to Sheppard, who realized it.

"Get Doctor McKay up here," Sheppard told Patchok. "Tell him we need whatever they have on the Gauhani shield. And find one of the Ori experts from G-2." He gestured toward Lorne. "Get the usual suspects together. We may need to move a company through the gate within the hour. Colonel Mitchell, why don't you come with me?"

Cam crossed through the control room, avoiding Patchok (now on the phone), and followed Sheppard back to Weir's office. Once inside, he nodded grimly to Weir, who was standing behind her desk.

"Sit down, please," she said to Cam, then looked at Sheppard. "What's going on?"

"Possible bridgehead situation," Sheppard replied, dropping down into his seat heavily. There was nothing casual about him now. Cam knew this side of Sheppard existed, had seen glimpses of it in their interactions back when Cam had been working off of the Daedalus and had read about it in mission reports before he'd ever met the man. But it was different up close, when it was his own people. "We're probably going in tonight."

Weir closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them and nodded. "So it starts?"

"Apparently," Sheppard agreed ruefully, then turned to Cam. "What are we looking at?"

Cam took a deep breath before replying. He knew that Sheppard and Weir had both read all of the mission reports on the SGC's encounters with the Ori in the Milky Way, but that everyone (including Cam) had expected an invasion fleet and not the sort of missionary incursion that had started the Milky Way's descent into Ori control. And so that's where most of the preliminary planning had focused on. He also knew that he'd be repeating all of this a few times before the night was through, but accepted that Sheppard wanted to have -- needed to have -- a heads-up and refresher so that he wasn't blindsided by anything later. And that he'd want it from a military person and not one of the G-2 types. Which left him.

"Depends, really," Cam admitted, mentally flipping through all of the different scenarios from his own experiences. "If they've got a prior there, our boys are better off than if it's an army of followers. Which is what it sounds like -- if there was an invading force, Kagan would have seen sign of it."

"Whoever thought a prior would be the lesser of two evils?" Weir asked rhetorically.

Cam grimaced his agreement. "The priors seem to be okay with the skeptics at first -- it makes for a better show, so it's not 'submit or die' right off the bat," he went on. "They'd rather convert without bloodshed -- more disciples and better results if they're not doing it through terror. We -- SG-1 -- got let go more than once after we'd formally conceded that a planet had been converted to Origin. They'll probably let Hitman Three go so that they can bear witness to the power of the Ori. At least that's how it worked back home."

Sheppard tilted his head in thought. "How much power do the priors have and what are they willing to use?"

Cam shrugged helplessly. This, too, was in the reports, although most of what was in the reports boiled down to uncertainties and estimations. The bottom line was that they didn't know. "Enough to get the job done. One of them can beat out a platoon of marines if they know what's coming, but I've also taken out priors with only a little help. They're not subtle with what they've got and the prior plague'll take out however many they need."

"Is that likely?" Weir asked. Pandemic was a scary enough concept without the mixed history of dealing with the Ori's version of it. Versions.

"The Gauhani are Ori worshipers already," Cam replied. "The priors don't need to beat them into submission. They can use carrot and not stick, which for all of their violence is their preferred method. That said, what they're likely to do is try what they did against Earth -- infect one of the marines and have him import the plague on his own. Especially if they can modify it beyond what the vaccine can protect against."

Atlantis had had copies of all of the plague research since Orlin had done his thing, Sam had done her thing, Gerak had gone foomp!, and Carolyn had cleaned up the mess. The personnel who'd been on Earth when it had struck were immune and there'd been vaccinations, but from what Cam remembered of the Carolyn's research, the plague had been slightly different in every instance and nobody knew if the vaccinations would work or if even the immune could be passive carriers. There'd been work done since -- Safir had picked up where Carolyn had left off -- but it was still all largely theoretical.

Weir nodded. "We'll have to take precautions for all returning parties," she said. "The vaccine is still untested and while the average citizen of Pegasus has a hardier immune system than someone from the Milky Way, I don't want to take any chances."

"Safir'll be overjoyed," Sheppard muttered. "Planetary quarantine."

"That's why we gave him his own research team," Weir replied with a bit of a smile that mostly had nothing to do with being amused. On the other hand, watching Safir bitch was kind of fun -- as long as it wasn't you he was pissed at.

The back door to Weir's office hissed open and McKay walked in, eyes on his laptop instead of where he was going and Sheppard had to pull in his feet. "Oh," McKay said when he saw Cam sitting where he'd been walking on auto-pilot. "You're here."

Cam gave him his best shit-eating grin. "Nice to see you, too, Doctor."

McKay rolled his eyes and looked around for another seat, finding one on the side of Weir's desk. It was a little further away and he dragged it closer.

"Don't get too comfortable, Rodney," Weir warned. "I think we'll be moving over to the conference room soon."

Soon turned out to be almost two hours later, after Kagan had reported in again. The large conference room was full to overflowing with almost all of the battalion hierarchy plus senior NCOs, the civilian leadership elements, and a contingent from G-2.

"Do we know for certain that there's an Ori presence on Gauhan?" Caldwell asked as soon as Lorne got through the overview of the briefing. "Holy fire in the temple aside, we can all cite examples of everything from Jesus to Elvis appearing and people accepting it."

A snicker around the room, but no genuine laughter.
 
"Lieutenant Kagan was told that 'a man of great power and sanctity' appeared in Gauhan four nights ago -- their time, which puts it about 0430 Tuesday morning here -- and lit the Beacon of the Ancestors by pointing at it," Lorne replied, reading off of his notes. Lorne, of course, had a yellow pad instead of a laptop because they hadn't run out of paper yet and he was holding out. "The Beacon is about thirty feet up so, no, it's not a fun trick with the Athosian lighters. He then announced that he was the vanguard of the Ancestors and was there to guide them to the path of enlightenment. And he's been preaching what sounds like the Book of Origin from the square in front of the House of Prostration ever since."

"Sounds like a yes," Cam muttered. Next to him, Sheppard made a noise of agreement. Behind them, Polito said something in Latin -- or maybe Ancient; they sounded similar to Cam's ear -- that might have been profound if anyone in earshot could have understood it.

"Did he say 'Ancestors' or is that a paraphrase?" one of the G-2 people asked. Cam thought her name was Mathis.

"It's a quote," Lorne replied. "Kagan requested clarification and was told 'Ancestors'."

"By using the word associated in this galaxy with their arch-rivals," Mathis mused. "They could be staking claim to the inheritance of the Ancients, appropriating the legacy to bolster their own legitimacy."

"The Gauhan use the word indiscriminately when referring to the Ori and the Ancients," another social scientist pointed out. "They don't seem to distinguish between the two peoples or have knowledge such a difference even exists. It could be a specific case of targeted semantics -- taking advantage of the lack of clarity."

"And it's not like the Ori or the priors have ever flat-out lied before," Cam said loudly because the academics were big fans of ignoring what was right in front of them.

"Did Kagan see this person for himself?" Caldwell asked loudly. "Or is this all second-hand?" He was sitting on Sheppard's other side, albeit with a space between them. Both the location and the distance were probably intentional.

"No, sir," Lorne replied with a quirk of his lips that Cam would have thought he'd maybe imagined if he didn't know how proud Lorne and Sheppard were of their junior officers and how quick they were to defend them. Or if Sheppard hadn't twitched next to him. "He couldn't get close enough without getting seen. His intel comes from Consolis, the leader of the Gauhani, who counseled him to stay hidden and assured him that our people are imprisoned but unharmed."

"And we're trusting him why?" McKay asked from the civilian side of the room. "He worships the Ori. Doesn't he have every reason to lie to us? His gods have returned, haven't they?"

Lorne grimaced. "His gods have shown up -- or at least their messengers have," he agreed. "But the first thing the prior did was start telling everyone that they'd have to start ensuring the survival of Origin by destroying those who don't accept it. And then he took Consolis's wife away."

Cam leaned forward, surprised. "Daran is missing?"

"Daran and the other elders vanished on the third day," Lorne confirmed, looking down at his notes for something. "They were, and I quote, 'brought before the Eternal Flame to be judged as righteous.'"

Cam made a face. "Which means they're going to either get turned into priors or barbecued." Or both because he'd seen more one prior go up in flames.

"Doctor Jackson and Vala Mal Doran both survived the experience intact," Mathis pointed out.

"Jackson and Vala weren't in their own bodies at the time," Cam retorted, annoyed that his own team's AARs were being thrown back at him. He wasn't there for that but he might as well have been from all of the debriefing that had gone on. "And they weren't there to be judged. They were there to be intimidated."

Mathis rolled her eyes, like this was a distinction without a difference.

"I don't remember reading about too many cases where new priors were made so quickly when there was already a prior on the scene," Sheppard said. "They acted fast with Gerak because they couldn't get a prior into Chulak otherwise. That's not the case here. Are we not getting the whole picture or are the Ori changing game plans on us? If it's the latter, what do we have to do adapt? We can't afford to be fighting the last war here."

Various murmurs from around the room because these were all important questions and there'd be no consensus on any answers. Cam caught the quick nod between Sheppard and Lorne, the former letting the latter guide the discussion. Lorne gestured toward one of the G-2 people Cam didn't recognize.

"Elevation to prior has to be treated as a strategic move," the guy said, "but we can't look at it purely from the angle of asset placement in difficult locations, as it was in the case of Gerak. It has also been used as a reward for effective followers, both in strongholds and in newer areas of conquest. Even considering the objections of Consolis --for now accepting his motivations as genuine, we can speak to that assumption later -- we can certainly posit that the elevation of the Gauhani church elders to priorship can be seen as either the establishment of credentials on the part of the original prior or the reward for the Gauhani people adhering to Ori doctrine for millennia. Or both."

"Great," Sheppard sighed, leaning a little toward Cam and looking at him. "Carrots?"

Cam nodded. "By the bushel."

"Getting back to Consolis for a moment," Weir began, "Should we be looking at him as an ally or something less? There are many reasons for him to be aiding Lieutenant Kagan and not all of them require him to actually doubt his own beliefs."

"They took his wife," Caldwell pointed out.

"To make her a prior," Sheppard countered. "Now, granted, priors are not exactly easy on the eyes..."

"He might not know that," Caldwell said. "We don't know that."

Cam bridled. "With all due respect, sir, I don't think I'm wrong here."

"I'm not questioning your experiences, Colonel," Caldwell replied with asperity. "I'm reminding everyone that we are drawing a conclusion from past knowledge that may have no application here. I happen to think you're correct, but until Daran and the others are returned, we don't know. Which in turn makes our character assessment of Consolis based on a supposition. He may simply be wavering in his commitment to the Ori until the safe return of his wife, at which point he will be confirmed in his beliefs. He may be a genuine apostate. Either way, we are relying entirely on an unknown resource for intelligence and that's a very dangerous thing to forget."
 
"Lieutenant Kagan has sent men into the town to try to verify what Consolis has told him," Lorne said before either Cam or Sheppard could say anything. "But caution costs speed and so, until he's able to do that, what Consolis has given us is what we have."

Kagan was still on Gauhan; he'd checked in and then asked to stay longer, assuring Sheppard that the advantages of keeping constant surveillance outweighed the risks. After a quick conference with Cam, Lorne, and the captains, they'd agreed.

"Do we know where and how they're being held?" Sheppard asked.

"They're being held in a house in the center of town," Lorne answered. "It's guarded, it's got a front door that opens up into the square in front of the church, and the back courtyard is walled off. Kagan's hoping to get a few of his men to the house itself, maybe get inside."

Cam tried to recall the area around the House of Prostration, but didn't remember anything particular -- once you were in that square, you were pretty much drawn to the big old church that dominated it. But he remembered other parts of the village. Gauhani architecture was sturdy -- rocks and mortar and one of his marines had asked about construction materials and he'd tuned it out but now he regretted it because it would be useful now. On the other hand, his marines were in the unit that was as close to combat engineers as Atlantis got (and Horton really was an engineer -- he had a degree from NC A&T to prove it) and would probably be the ones who needed that information in the end, anyway.

"Everyone's alive and being fed," Lorne went on, shrugging because that really meant nothing in context. "Consolis said that Lieutenant Gillick had been taken for questioning at least once, but seemed fine. Which, again, is of relative value."

Since who knew what the prior was doing to Gillick that nobody could see.

"And still means that we need to get in there ASAP," Sheppard said, turning around to look at Polito. "You got anything for us yet, Matt?"

Polito stood, edged past Cam crossed the floor to Lorne, accepting the remote control for the projector. Lorne took the empty seat closest to him as Polito typed some commands on the laptop synced to the projector. The projector whirred to life from standby, the photo of the House of Prostration disappearing in favor of a schematic of the Gauhani town.

"The Gauhani have no standing army," Polito began. "What they have is an irregular militia that, by their own acknowledgement, doesn't train and doesn't have much in the way of weapons beyond pitchforks, butcher's knives, and the odd fowling piece. In other words, they aren't the problem."

Polito's briefback was of a plan that was obviously still in its infancy, but Cam could recognize the soundness of it -- as much as any former pilot could critique an infantryman's strategic designs -- and figured that most of the changes would be cosmetic and not fundamental. It was a standard snatch-and-grab and the marines had done hundreds of them. Granted, none of the sheikhs in Anbar Province had super-powered shields and priors tended to be uncanny with the sixth sense and all in a way that not even the sharpest lookout with a cell phone was, but that didn't mean that all of that practice had been worthless. Cam had gotten in and out of enough prior-held towns and worlds to know that the marines could handle this without it turning into Black Hawk Down.

When it came time for questions, there were many. Caldwell asked about the feasibility of knocking out the shield, which got bounced over to McKay.

"It depends on whether you ever want it to be useful again," he answered, a tone to his voice that Cam recognized and hated. It was McKay's bubble-bursting voice, the one he used when he was going to be just a little bit smug (for McKay-scaled values of smug) when he shot down your good idea. At least Sam had always been slightly apologetic about it. Most of the time. "It's made of almost the same materials we're using to build weapon prototypes. Which, as everyone in uniform here knows well, is pretty simple to blow up since we're currently acquiring it by reducing parts of Atlantis to rubble."

Aggrieved murmuring from the G-2 contingent.

"But?" Sheppard prompted. "There's a but in there, Rodney."

"But we haven't finished figuring out what makes it work," McKay went on. "And it stands to reason that while the walls of Atlantis weren't built to withstand the elements, let alone a Wraith attack, this shield generator was specifically designed to survive both. Opening up the casing should hopefully do the trick -- while also ruining one of the most crucial research projects we have -- but you need to be aware that it might not."

"Brings an extra level of meaning to 'hardening a target,'" Cam muttered to Sheppard, who grimaced in agreement.

"I'm guessing you guys don't know how to just turn the thing off?" Sheppard asked.

McKay rolled his eyes. "I'm going to pretend that you didn't ask that question," he replied. "Because anyone who has spent the last three years in a city where nothing has an on/off switch--"

"Besides me," Sheppard cut in and McKay deflated a little. Cam bit his lip to keep from grinning. So did almost everyone in uniform apart from Caldwell.

"No, we haven't figured out a way to turn it off," McKay sighed.

They were discussing refugees -- in case Consolis or any of the others wanted out of Gauhan -- when Lorne interrupted.

"Lieutenant Kagan has dialed in," he said, then tapped his earpiece. "Patch him through to the conference room."

A beep and a chirp and then Lorne asked. "You with us, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir," Kagan's disembodied voice replied.

"What've you got?" Sheppard leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

"Good news and bad news, sir," Kagan said, then gave them both.

The good news, so to speak, was that Kagan had managed to get a team to the house and, through them, had spoken to Gillick. Gillick had reported that everyone was relatively fine for now, but that the prior had told him that they would not be released until they'd come to accept Origin and that he was expected to convince the others. Kagan said that Gillick had avoided answering most of the questions about what went on during his sessions (plural) with the prior and Kagan was taking that to mean that there'd been either some sort of torture or some more dire threats made that Gillick didn't want to speak of in front of the others. One of Kagan's marines had left a radio with Gillick and they'd set up a time to check in later.

Cam wanted to ask about Jonas, but knew he'd been lumped in with the "relatively fine."

The bad news was sadly familiar: a mysterious illness was sweeping through Gauhan. It had started the day before, but Consolis hadn't thought to mention it because he hadn't imagined a connection until Kagan had brought it up. About a third of the population was ill; some serious, a few not so much. There had already been one death. Kagan hadn't found out about the prior plague until after he'd spoken to Gillick, so while he didn't know for certain whether anyone from Atlantis was affected, both the chance and symptoms of prior plague were things Gillick was aware of and would have mentioned if he'd seen signs.

"Hopefully this means that our vaccine is working," Weir said.

Everyone, including Cam, looked over at Safir, who stared expressionlessly at the projected image of the shield blueprint.

After finishing with Kagan, the meeting lasted another fifteen minutes before finally breaking up into its component parts. The engineers were charged with coming up with alternate ways to disable the shield if conventional explosives didn't do it and the social scientists were released to do whatever the hell they did (which, at this hour, was probably go back to their quarters and watch obscure BBC dramas). The military men were told to break for dinner and report to Little Tripoli's war room in an hour.

Cam radioed his marines on the way to the commissary and told them that Jonas was fine for now.


Six

"This is one fugly TOC, sir. Functional, but fugly."

"Pulchritudo in oculis aspicientis est."

"Be that as it may, sir, it's still fugly."

John chuckled as he climbed up the ramp leading up to the jumper that was the nexus of the Tactical Operations Center. By the bulkhead door, First Sergeant Backman turned to him and nodded. "All due respect to your baby, Colonel."

John tipped his head graciously. "Call 'em as you see 'em, First Sergeant."

"That I do, sir," Backman assured, then looked over his shoulder with an expression both concerned and put-upon. All good NCOs had their version of it. "Why don't you let one of the sergeants do that, sir?"

From where he was crouched on the floor doing something John couldn't see, Matt Polito muttered something to himself, then answered aloud. "Because I'm not completely useless, Kenny. Just mostly so."

John craned his neck to see what Polito was messing with; it was the router for the radios. It had half a dozen plugs coming out of it, not to mention the cables running between it and the jumper's console and John had never once tried to mess with it. He'd never even gotten close -- whenever it had been used (in training exercises, mostly, and the odd time like this when they could actually plan an organized entry into a conflict instead of relying on QRTs to hold the fort until reinforcements could swarm in), he'd either been part of the ground force or he'd shown up to his jumper and the entire system had already been rigged.

"You're supposed to be assuring me of my utility, First Sergeant," Polito prompted, looking up.

"You do have utility, sir," Backman replied easily. "Just not when it comes to fucking with the radios."

Thus defeated, Polito stood up and wiped his hands on his pants. He grinned at John because they both knew that Polito was one half of a comedy routine and that Backman had his own ideas on playing straight man. "We on schedule, sir?"

It was almost an hour after sunset on Gauhan, the sky darkening enough that night vision gear had gone from useful to necessary for not stumbling on the uneven ground by the stargate.

"Yeah," John confirmed. Everyone was ready and waiting, milling around with the sort of compressed energy that you got right before a mission. They were going with a mixed group: the rest of Polito's company leading the charge to recover his missing platoon, plus Salker's platoon since they usually used some part of Weapons Company as their combat engineers. Kagan's men were out there and had managed to stay undetected during the day, but they'd been out a long time. "Just waiting for--"

"Right here, sir," Lorne appeared behind him. Speaking of uncooperative straight men. "Everyone else is waiting outside."

Everyone else was the command element of Lorne's de facto TOC staff -- none of whom could fit into the jumper with him, Polito, and Backman taking up most of the free space in the cockpit.

"Right," John said. "So..."

"So let's get out the way," Polito agreed, gesturing for Backman to go so that he could pass. As the pair moved through the rear compartment, John could hear Polito greeting Armstrong. Armstrong had fit in well with the other captains, a self-styled D'Artagnan to the three musketeers, although this wasn't the circumstance by which John would have liked to have finally gotten his missing company of marines.

He turned to Lorne. "Everything good on your end?"

Lorne was staying behind to run the TOC, an assignment that would have made John crazy with the watching-and-not-doing, but his staff seemed to realize that and nobody had even brought up the suggestion that he stay and let the marines do their thing on their own. Lorne probably wasn't too crazy about the staying behind, either, but he had a better handle on what XOs were supposed to do than John ever had mustered and running the TOC was one of those tasks. His team was around -- the marines were with their platoon as part of Polito's company and Yoni was there to handle any plague-related issues (his 'plague squad' was already at the gamma site; Clayton and Metzinger were along as the actual battalion surgeons) -- but hopefully Lorne wouldn't be seeing any action today except via the video monitors.

"Everything's fine," Lorne replied, gesturing behind him. John could see Sergeant Horton unpacking crates in the rear of the jumper. Most of the equipment had been set up before they'd left Atlantis, but a few items had to be calibrated on-planet. "I've been told it'll take about two minutes to be up and online."

Sergeant Byrd came through the rear compartment and entered the cockpit, shimmying past them with apologies, and crouched down where Polito had been. He fiddled for a couple of seconds with the radio and then stood up to flick switches on the console. "Radio check: alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, five, four, three, two, one."

John looked at Byrd, who had his back to them, and then at Lorne, who shrugged. "It's all a mystery to me," Lorne said. "Ortilla won't let me near anything with batteries."

With nothing to do but go address the marines, John headed out of the jumper, past the waiting Armstrong, Eriksson (pilot for the ambulance jumper), and Doctor Griffin (a former Army sergeant and thus the only member of the Computer Science unit who'd been disappointed when he'd been told that he was just along for tech support), and over to where the LD would be if they actually had an LD.

From sergeant to colonel, they all knew that there was a chance that they could radicalize the locals by coming in armed and unsympathetic; it had happened enough times on Earth. But there were three dozen of their people being held here and while it was understandable that the Gauhan were scared of the prior and overwhelmed by his message, that compassion didn't extend to letting anyone from Atlantis be sacrificed to Gauhan's fears and beliefs. And so the atmosphere was business-like, but not too serious; over the years John had learned how to gauge the pulse of infantry the way he'd once been able to walk through airmen and know how things stood. Everyone was ready.

On the big list of advantages and disadvantages to command, addressing his men was probably on the latter list. John had no trouble telling a subordinate that he'd done a good or a bad job, but he'd spent most of his career sitting in the back and making wiseass remarks while senior officers gave their pep talks. Now that it was his turn to rally the troops, he couldn't quite ignore the little devil on his shoulder saying the same things he'd once snidely remarked to whoever had been sitting next to him in the peanut gallery.

He kept it short, leaving the bulk of the ooh-rah stuff to Polito (who was really good at it) and the lieutenants, since the marines would be more likely to believe men who remembered their names even when it wasn't stitched on to their shirts. He focused his words instead on the mission, on what he wanted done (liberation of Gillick's platoon and the scientists) and what he didn't want done (taking out their frustration with the Ori's actions on Earth out on the Gauhani), on how he was sure that they could handle everything (they could), and that the mission's scheduled completion time had them back in Atlantis in time for breakfast and they'd better all be there for pancakes.

The speech went over well enough; he hopped off the ammunition case he'd been standing on to barking and other noises marines made when pumped and happy. Polito took over, giving directions and going over details, and John made his way to where Mitchell and his trio of marines were waiting. Ronon was there, too. Rodney and Teyla were back in Atlantis because life didn't stop just because they had a platoon captured by the Ori; both of them had offered to shift their responsibilities, but as much as John would have liked them here, it wasn't really necessary. Ronon had responsibilities in Atlantis, too, and John suspected that Elizabeth had spoken to Lorne about it because John hadn't either asked or been asked -- Ronon had simply been added to the personnel list.

"Pancakes, huh?" Mitchell asked with an arched eyebrow. John shrugged; they both knew it wasn't really about pancakes. Mitchell was the kind of guy who'd be up front like he was supposed to during the big speeches, nodding dutifully and all the while imagining his CO in hot pink scuba gear.

"You weren't there when we introduced the Athosians to maple syrup, sir," Byrd said. Byrd, thankfully, thought it was about pancakes.

Mitchell smiled fondly. "I've done my fair share of introducing folks to the finer point of Earth cuisine, Sergeant," he assured.

Byrd was about to say something else, but then First Sergeant Backman called them all to pray and so he closed his mouth and took a knee instead.

The plan was for the marines to do the invading and rescuing while Mitchell and his team went to the shield in case in needed to be handled (there'd been a prioritized list of definitions for "handle", starting with disable-and-remove and ending with "nuke the fucker") during the mission and, whether or not it did or didn't, to then remove it afterward. Collaborating with the Ori pretty much revoked the Gauhani's right to life unaffected by the Wraith.

John and Ronon were going along with the marines, but mostly so that John could get some first-hand intel of what was going on in the town and thus be in a better position to decide what had to be done next. The tactical decisions could -- and should -- be made by the marines, but John had to be the one to look at the bigger picture. (Something both Caldwell and Weir had reminded him of separately and which John had taken poorly both times.) This was the opening of a second front in a war when they weren't exactly winning on the first front and John was perfectly well aware of just how much was riding on them (him) not fucking this up.

Sovereignty and freedom of religion were all well and good and John accepted the necessity of destroying both in Gauhan. He didn't like it, but there was a difference between not squirming while the Ipetians offered up devotions to the Ancestors and then watching a population get the means, motive, and opportunity to slaughter thousands in their gods' name. The Ori could not be allowed to get established in this galaxy and it was John's responsibility to decide what sort of price the Gauhan had to pay to make sure that didn't happen. For both the wisdom to make that decision and the strength to live with it, John prayed to an entity he wasn't sure he believed in.

After the concluding Amen, John looked over at Ronon, who'd watched with respectful silence, as he usually did, and then waited for Mitchell to open his eyes and stand.

"You sure you don't want some more support?" John asked him. Around them, the marines sorted themselves into teams, squads, and platoons and then advance, main, and reserve elements. It was orderly and purposeful and sort of like standing in a busy train station at rush hour and yet surprisingly comforting in its familiarity.

As expected, Mitchell shook his head no. "Standing guard while the geeks do their thing is my kind of mission," he replied with a grin. "Besides, if I have a squad along, I'm gonna have to pull rank to get the detonator if we have to blow this thing."

John smiled. He hadn't had a lot of time to socialize with Mitchell in the time that they'd known each other -- a couple of beers on Earth, a few hurried meals in the commissary, the odd time when they'd both shown up for one of the showings either in Atlantis's movie theater or in Little Tripoli (the latter because sometimes you needed to be among men who understood that Team America: World Police was a part of Earth civilization worth saving). He suspected they'd have become good friends if the first place they were stationed together hadn't been post-Robler Rock Atlantis. It wasn't a stumbling block, but it did mean that it was going to take a lot longer if (when) it happened.

"Sir?" Lorne's voice in his radio earpiece. "It's ninety seconds to mission start and everything's looking good here."

"Okay," John replied, then turned back to Mitchell. "Let's get this party started."


His last helicopter flight into a combat zone had been five years ago and, most of the time, John successfully managed to forget that his AFSC still said he was a pilot. Except when he found himself going in on the ground with large numbers of marines, at which point it was never more obvious. He knew the marines didn't mind, knew he had the skill if not necessarily the discipline to keep up and keep out of the way (plus a few war games exercises had cured the worst of the doubters) and that was ultimately what they cared about. Along with him not getting killed, but between the marines and Ronon, John wasn't too worried on that score.

Nonetheless, with his radio providing a quiet soundtrack to the scenes unfolding before him, he felt the difference between good-on-the-ground pilot and marine infantry acutely. The marines were moving silently through the streets, setting themselves up at intersections (Gauhan was big for a Pegasus village, but not that big) and making their way to where Gillick and the others were being held. The plan was to breach the courtyard wall from the rear and lead their people out the back way, a task made easier by the fact that tonight, unlike last night, every street lamp in town wasn't lit. In fact, none of them were -- the only light came from the moon above (a slim quarter moon with a sickly greenish cast) and the Eye of Sauron atop the House of Prostration.

While night vision gear and years of training would get everyone into place without anyone in Gauhan being the wiser -- except if that fire really was all-seeing -- it was still hard to hide even a small controlled demolition in a place so quiet and dark. That's what the rifles, grenades (both CS gas and high-explosive), and SAWs were for -- covering up for the loss of the element of surprise.

The expectation was that the infil would be easy but that there was an excellent chance that the exfil would be under fire. Maybe literally. Between what they knew from the Milky Way and what they'd gotten from Kagan, they knew that the only sympathetic souls in Gauhan were the ones currently trying not to choke to death as their lungs liquified. The ROE were meant to give any of the Gauhani who had a crisis of faith at the business end of a rifle the chance to surrender, but John expected resistance. If there was a prior here, he wasn't going to give this place up without a fight and he'd let them slaughter as many of Gauhan's citizens as it took. If there was more than one prior, things might get ugly.

art by Ileliberte

At John's side, Ronon was wary and tense. Raring for a fight and knowing that they'd be better off without one and it was probably even odds whether the whole wheat side or the frosted side would win out. Ronon had the discipline, but he was undisciplined in using it and John was both sympathetic and frustrated by it. And fully aware that he himself made things worse by the example he set.

They were at the edge of the square in front of the House of Prostration, the church on their far left and the front door to the prison house much closer on their right. There were two guards in front, burly young men with big staffs and large knives, but the square was otherwise deserted except for the marines at every point of entry, hidden by the shadows from the light coursing upward from the dome like a cigarette lighter left open.

Ronon tapped John's shoulder and pointed at the House of Prostration, making a gesture with his hands that he heard two, maybe three voices. John nodded. He didn't expect the church to be empty at any hour, but there was nothing they could do about it now. The marines guarding the church no doubt heard the voices, too.

The warning that the charge on the explosion had been set came through the radio, calm like the sergeant was announcing that it was Saturday. John lifted his NODs up enough that they were no longer covering his closed eyes; the breach was timed to the release of flash-bangs into the square and John didn't want to blow his night vision. Plus the goggles were heavy and he'd stave off the incipient headache for a little while by getting them off of the bridge of his nose.

He heard the noise of the explosion, muffled by the distance and the buildings in between, and the louder bang of the grenades in the square. The marines to his and Ronon's left moved in, subduing the stunned guards, securing the front of the house, and repositioning to maintain control of the square. It was as smooth as any training exercise. John and Ronon followed as the smoke cleared, hearing the marines announce that the house was clear before they got to the door.

Once inside, John took off his goggles and breathed the fresher air; there were oil lamps lit on tables and it was easy enough to see. The first sergeant who saw him told him that the hostages were all upstairs, but before he and Ronon could get to the staircase, the command channel beeped and Lieutenant Patchok was informing them that Gillick was missing, taken, and that the radio the hostages had been given had been dead almost since the last check-in so there'd been no way to warn anyone.

John felt his heart plummet -- both for the missing man as well as for the fact that a complication (or worse, a casualty) this early on would have an effect on not only morale, but how long the mission could stay on the rails before everything got too chaotic. No plan survived first contact, but even the best plans could get knocked sideways by something going wrong two minutes in. "Let's go," he told Ronon.

As they ran back through the house, out the door and into the street, John could hear over the radio as Polito was re-arranging his marines to get enough men to storm the House of Prostration, since that's where Gillick had been taken the previous times. He could hear Lorne checking in with Mitchell about the shield's continuing functionality (they were still trying to disable it without destroying it) and informing Polito that Eriksson was ready to bring the medevac jumper forward if needed and that Paik's platoon was ready to go as well.

"Don't bring Hitman Two forward until we know this isn't a giant trap," John said as they crossed the square, fiddling with his goggles that suddenly didn't want to stay put. Hitman Two was the reserve force and they might need the help.

John knew that Polito had two squads with him and they were approaching from the rear of the church; they'd flush everyone out the front into the square. With the hostages safe and the house secure, Patchok was sending a squad out to join the marines already in the square waiting and John was unsurprised to see Staff Sergeant Ortilla and his men exit the house at a brisk trot.

"Sir?" Ortilla prompted once he'd arrived, asking John for orders.

"When we get the all-clear, your squad follows me inside. Everyone who was already out here stays out here." He spoke loudly enough that everyone could hear.

The waiting, as usual, was the hardest part. John wanted to push in from the front entrance, help with the search, do something besides stand there and wait for Polito and his men to beat the rushes inside. But that would've only complicated things -- not to mention jacked up the chances of a friendly-fire incident -- and so he stood his ground next to the similarly uncomfortable Ronon.

The House of Prostration was thankfully more Meeting House than gothic wonder; there was no basement and there hadn't seemed to be too many side rooms when John had been through it the one time. Of course, Consolis hadn't been showing them every little thing and hadn't mentioned any trap doors or secret passages or anything else that could be of use to a prior on the run. Or any potential torture chambers. He suspected Mitchell's team would know the place better -- certainly Jonas -- but they weren't here.

The call-and-response of the marines' forward progress inside was familiar and at a pace that was both comforting and disquieting -- they were encountering no resistance, but they weren't finding either Gillick or the prior. The command channel was busy, but Lorne was keeping order admirably. Patchok was starting the evacuation of the hostages and while Jonas was given permission to join his team at the shield, Lorne refused Gunny Tommasso's request for his marines to join the fighting. They could have used Hitman Three to supplement their numbers, but until they knew where their gear and weapons had been taken, the platoon was just two dozen unarmed men. And while John liked their chances in hand-to-hand fighting, there was no guarantee that that was all it would be. Salker and Kagan were both running into pockets of trouble, some armed and some not but all the same kind of determined that went with an invasion of your home by infidels with a death sentence. John trusted his lieutenants completely, but he still worried that their marines were being put in situations where there was no easy way to keep things from escalating into a bloodbath. Foam-at-the-mouth fervor was scary and powerful and men had done amazing things under its influence, but rifles on automatic still won the day.

Soon enough, the all-clear was given from inside the House of Prostration, without finding either the prior or Gillick. John looked at Ronon, then at Ortilla, both already watching him, and nodded. "Let's go."

They found Polito coming down the stairs that led from an anteroom off the main sanctuary, Backman close behind. Polito met him with a grim expression and angry eyes, then switched his attention to the assembled marines. "Door to door," he told them. "One team sweeps, one watches the door -- just like we did back in the sandbox. We're not worried about anyone submitting claims for compensation, but don't incite a riot. Be polite, but 'no' is not an acceptable answer."

He looked over at John, as if John were even considering challenging the orders. He wasn't. "Staff Sergeant Ortilla, go with Captain Polito," he said instead. Three squads searching were better than two and he and Ronon could function well enough on their own.

John left Polito to organize the search; he knew where he wanted to go -- Consolis's house. Consolis was supposed to have met up with Kagan and guided the lieutenant and his marines to where those who were unwilling to abide by the Ori's messages were hiding -- at least those well enough to leave their own homes. But Consolis had never shown. They'd factored in scenarios where Consolis was either unwitting dupe or active conspirator with the Ori, although most of those possibilities had come down to Consolis leading Kagan into a trap and not his disappearing entirely.

The square in front of the church was finally clearing of smoke; it still stunk, but not as badly. Over the radio, John heard Lorne and Armstrong both giving orders to different groups. There was nothing they were saying that he wanted to either countermand or elaborate on -- simple was necessary now and Lorne had a better overview in the TOC than John did on the ground. Keeping the fighting coordinated from the TOC was nonetheless a task that grew exponentially more difficult the more fragmented each unit became. He could imagine the chaos on the unit channels; radio discipline always went to shit the minute the bullets started flying. And they were. Joker Three-Two was not responding to radio and the sounds of gunfire could be heard in the distance, echoing weirdly because of the stone buildings. Bullets would ricochet, too, and John worried once again about their medical evacuation procedures. They had corpsmen with every platoon and two doctors with the ambulance jumper and Safir in case things really went to shit and that would have to do.

Ronon was practically on his ankles as they ran, literally so the one time John stopped short. Over the radio, Salker announced that his marines had found where Hitman Three's gear was being stored, so Armstrong turned that platoon around and guided them back into the town. The civilian hostages were still under protection as they moved back toward the stargate. Mitchell broke in to say that Jonas (who didn't have a radio) had found a way to turn the shield off, but they couldn't get it to stay off. Keep trying, John told him.

As he turned a corner, John realized belatedly that he could have gone another way and saved this circuitous route; he was following the path that Consolis had led them on when he'd taken them back to his home for lunch, but Consolis had been giving them a tour at the time and not taken the most direct path. Too late to turn back, so John just ran harder.

He stopped short of Consolis's door, halting Ronon with a hand signal. There was no one here except for the team at the nearest corner, which wasn't very near, so it was quiet as they approached. John turned off his radio and leaned in against the door to see if he could hear anything inside, but the door was heavy wood. He was still debating whether to knock or have Ronon bash their way in when the door opened suddenly and swiftly, throwing him off balance and sending him stumbling over the threshold.

"Good evening, Colonel Sheppard," Daran said sweetly as John stood up. Or, what Daran was now, since it wasn't the nice old lady who'd stuffed him and Mitchell and Teyla full of roast pork. Even in the uneven light of the oil lamps, John could see that her eyes were milky and there was an odd look to her, something John couldn't place but just seemed wrong. Like she was out of tune. This was the first time he'd seen a prior in person and all of the different ways they were described in the various reports suddenly made sense.

"Daran," John said, nodding his head as if in greeting, as if he was just visiting instead of leading the destruction of her town. He kept his focus on her, but in his peripheral vision he could see Consolis at the table, his head bowed over what John could safely assume was a copy of the Book of Origin. Consolis didn't look up, but John thought by the stiffness of his neck that it was an effort not to. "Sorry to be barging in on you at this hour, but we seem to have lost someone of ours. Tall, blondish, the girls seem to think he's a hottie although I'm guessing your days of admiring the wares are over...."

Daran smiled serenely, like she was above his patter and his insults. "I have been cleansed by the Flames of Enlightenment," she said, her voice both more melodious than it had been and yet also sounding completely dead. "It is my charge to help others achieve the wonders that the Ori have placed in our reach."

John wrinkled his nose. "Sorry to speak badly of your new friends here, but the Ori haven't put anything but bullshit and blood in your reach. Where's our guy?"

Another beatific smile. "Lieutenant Gillick has been chosen to bear witness to the splendors of enlightenment," Daran replied. "It is a great gift."

That was exactly what John didn't want to hear.

"I'm pretty sure Gillick's a Lutheran," John said, swallowing his own revulsion. This was the opposite of the kind of peace he half-heartedly sought on Sunday mornings and John wondered if it was a blessing or a curse that he'd never be a candidate for this kind of reward for true faith. "They're not much for splendor. Besides, you can't give the marines anything nice as a gift; they'll only break it."

Behind him, Ronon shifted. "What's wrong with him?" he asked, meaning Consolis.

John looked over at the table, where Consolis was practically vibrating with tension as he sat bowed over the book, a shielded candle near his hand for light. John wondered if there was more to the picture than what they were apparently seeing. Maybe the tense posture was because of something Daran had done to him or because he knew where Gillick was and was afraid to say -- if Gillick was even still on this plane of existence and hadn't been swooped off to Celestis or wherever the Ori took people. They hadn't yet established how the first prior had gotten to this galaxy, let alone how and if they could go back.

"That's a good question," John replied, turning back to Daran. "Cat got his tongue?"

"Consolis must be made to see that the path to enlightenment is the only true way," Daran explained and there was just a touch of desperation to her voice, just a little bit that made John realize that she was afraid that she'd have to kill her husband because of his heresy. And just enough steel in her voice to make it clear that she was afraid of the necessity, not of the deed. "He must see the wisdom of the Ori."

"Or be destroyed," John finished with a disgusted smirk. "Yeah, we've heard that shtick before. So you should hear ours: we're not leaving this place until we've got Gillick and we are not going to be very considerate while looking for him. Give him back to us, in one piece, or the only enlightening that's going to go on here is going to come from our explosives."

Daran shook her head. "You threaten, only giving credence to the warnings of the Book of Origin."

"I'm not threatening," John told her with a calmness that he really didn't feel. "I'm promising. Give us back our man or we'll turn this place into a rubble heap."

He wasn't sure what he himself could do here with Daran, but it wasn't an idle promise -- they had brought enough demolition supplies to turn this place into a crater.

"This is hallowed ground," Daran said with a shake of her head. "Stone and mortar can be remade."

"Not without a head," Ronon rumbled and John wasn't sure which came first -- Ronon pulling out his blaster or both of them being flung against stone walls, held there by the force of Daran's Ori-granted power.

Pressed up against the wall between the still-open door and the window, John felt like he was in one of those carnival rides (or an out-of-control chopper) where you're getting spun so quickly that the centrifugal force keeps you pressed in place. He could breathe -- at least once he regained the air knocked out of him when he'd been slammed against the wall -- but he couldn't move a muscle. To his right, at the edge of his vision, he could see Ronon in similar straits. Ronon's eyes were wild, with rage or fear John couldn't begin to tell, and he was fighting in vain against his invisible bonds. If he could have spoken, John would have told him to chill out and save his energy, but it was just as well because he didn't think Ronon would have heard him. It would have been a bit hypocritical; John wasn't feeling too calm himself. Was feeling kind of nauseated, actually, and wondering if his inability to move went as far as keeping his stomach from emptying on him.

"This is where the rebirth shall begin," Daran said in her placid, dead voice. John was frozen facing her and he saw her smile as she spoke. The urge to wipe it off -- possibly with his sidearm -- was strong. "The Ori will come and destroy the Wraith, cleansing our worlds so that we may live in peace and without fear. Is that such a horrible future, Colonel Sheppard? Why do you turn from such a wondrous offering?"

Being as he couldn't move his mouth, John took that as a rhetorical question.

"Gauhan shall be a beacon," Daran went on. "It shall be a light in the dark--"

Whatever else she was going to say would never be found out, not with the bullet hole in her forehead. John felt the weight pressing him to the wall disappear and he dropped to the floor as Ortilla and Reletti burst through the open doorway, one high and one low and casing the room in a blink of an eye.

"We're clear," John said a little breathily, swallowing his nausea and getting to his feet. He looked over at Ronon, who was pushing himself to standing, and then at Consolis, who looked up at them with tear-filled, horrified eyes. John met the gaze, then turned to the marines.

"Thanks," he told Ortilla. "Good timing."

"You weren't answering your radio, sir," Ortilla explained with thinly veiled disapproval, a reason that John took to mean as Lorne having sent them and which also meant that half of the battalion knew that he'd gone missing. Way to go, John.

Ortilla was watching the doorway and nodded at who he saw appear. "Good shot."

Suarez came in and looked at the bullet hole in the window. He grimaced, taking no pleasure in the kill. "Yeah."

John turned back to Consolis, who was standing unsteadily in front of the place where he'd been seated before. He was shaking his head slowly, silent tears sliding down his cheeks.

"I'm sorry," John told him carefully. He was sorry -- that it had come to this. He didn't regret what Suarez had done, not when he was sure that Daran would not have been either willing or maybe even able to tell them where Gillick was.

Consolis wiped his eyes with the back of one shaking hand, not looking up from where he was staring at Daran's still form. Reletti was standing over her; he'd closed her eyes, but John didn't miss that Reletti was holding his 9mm out of its holster, ready to shoot if Daran so much as twitched. They all knew that priors weren't easy to kill; as perverse as it sounded, they may have only managed to surprise her.

"That wasn't Daran," Consolis said in a broken voice. "Daran died when she was taken from me. My wife would have never harmed another person. This was someone else. A monster wearing her face."

John nodded, unsure of what else to say. Ronon came to his side and stood quietly, his posture as much an apology for putting everything in motion as John was likely to get, so he accepted it by letting it pass without comment. Behind him, Ortilla was saying something on his radio and John remembered why they'd been found in the first place and turned his radio back on. He got Lorne on the command net, confirmed that they were okay, and passed on what Daran had told them about Gillick. In return, Lorne told him that they were almost through searching the city and there were only minor casualties so far with a broken leg, a separated shoulder, and some burns being the worst. The scientists who'd been held hostage were safe, Mitchell's team was digging up the shield in an effort to cut it off from its power supply, and he and Armstrong were starting to work on effective means of resupply or extraction, whichever one proved necessary.

"We have to go," he told Consolis once he was finished with Lorne. "We have to find Lieutenant Gillick and stop the other priors. Do you want to come with us?"

It was a crappy question -- we just killed your wife, need a lift? -- but there was nothing to be done about the timing.

Consolis took a deep breath. "I want my home to be safe and free."

John grimaced. "I can't promise you that," he said, putting as much apology into his words as he could. "I don't even think I can offer that. I meant what I told Daran -- I'll have my marines tear this place apart stone by stone until we find our missing lieutenant. We can't let them have him -- or this place. We can take you away from here -- you and whoever else wants to go. But...."

But this is the end of Gauhan.

Consolis nodded, defeat and determination warring on his face. "I know. And I do not want them to have this place, either. These Ori have turned father against son, wife against husband. They made ill those who won't swear fealty to gods that thirst for blood and death while promising eternal bounties to those who do their bidding. I will try to gather those together who are well enough to flee."

John had read enough about the prior plagues to know that that might not be either possible or necessary -- the plague had a near-perfect fatality rate unless a prior stepped in. But he couldn't take that hope away from Consolis, not when he'd just about taken everything else away. Instead, he turned to Ortilla, intending to tell him to take his team and go with Consolis, but Ronon spoke first.

"I'll go with him," he said. John cocked an eyebrow. Not that he minded, but it wasn't the sort of task Ronon usually volunteered for -- not when the other option was hunting bad guys. But Ronon had a way of surprising him even now and John didn't think for a second that this was Ronon acting out of contrition.

John nodded, gesturing for Ronon and Consolis to precede them out the door. Once they were gone, John tapped his radio and got Polito. "Meet us at the church," he said. "If they've taken him to go bear witness, that's where he's going to come back."

John resigned himself to killing Gillick personally if the lieutenant came back a prior. Aaron was a good kid and a great marine, but John had learned his lessons well enough. Aiden Ford had been a good kid, too, and that hadn't mattered in the end.

Turning to Ortilla, he sighed. "Let's go."

Ortilla nodded and signaled for Suarez to go first, but before they got to the door, Reletti called over.

"Sir?" he asked, gesturing down with his head at Daran's body.

John nodded, then followed Ortilla outside. Two quick gunshots later -- a double-tap, since there was no such thing as a too-dead prior -- Reletti appeared, holstering his sidearm.

The trip back through the town was fast and depressing. The air smelled of wood fires and gunpowder and the noise of gunfire and furious screaming could both be heard and everything was so bright that they didn't need goggles to see -- the lamps were lit and things were on fire. Despite everything that had happened, John still felt a little guilty for his part in the destruction of this once-beautiful place. Over the radio, Armstrong was directing traffic, getting the lieutenants and Gunny Tommasso to herd the locals toward the market square, which was on the other side of Gauhan from the House of Prostration. John answered a few questions, but mostly kept his breath for the jog.

Polito, Backman, and the other half of Ortilla's squad were already at the church when they arrived. They were standing in the front entrance, the heavy doors open and scarred. Polito had a thick smear of blood on his cheek, but John didn't think it was his. John also didn't think that he noticed.

"Good to see you okay, sir," Backman said and John nodded acknowledgement. There was a note of chastisement there, but not enough to be improper and it was more than outweighed by the genuine relief.

If Gillick had been taken to wherever Daran and the others had been, there was no saying how long it would take for him to be brought back -- if he was brought back. But John thought that he would be -- if Gillick was meant to bear witness, he'd have to be here to do so. They'd wait. Destroying Gauhan and finding out how the Ori had gotten to this galaxy would keep them occupied.

Over the radio, Mitchell announced that they'd pretty much dug the shield generator free. He sounded out of breath but excited when he told them that the power source was a ZPM, but they were all a little tired and could Lorne maybe dispatch a few marines to help with the rest of the digging and the lugging of the surprisingly heavy shield generator back to the stargate.

John was about to congratulate Mitchell by telling him that Rodney was going to be insanely jealous, but before he could get a word out, there was a giant explosion above them. The square was lit up like daytime and John was already crouching on instinct, away from the hot wind, when he was tackled to the ground by Ortilla, who covered him as sparks and embers landed around them.

Once the rain of debris had lightened, Ortilla let him up, standing quickly and then helping John rise. Polito was getting the same treatment from Backman and everyone else was dusting themselves off, looking around and then up. The Eye of Sauron had been the source of the blast, oily black smoke still pouring from the top.

"Did someone toss a grenade up there?" Sergeant Rourke asked. A muttering of agreement from the rest of the marines.

A crash from inside the church, like something being knocked over, and a pained, cut-off moan.

John looked at Polito, whose eyes went wide.

"Gillick?!" Polito called, turning and running inside, his marines in pursuit and John, the farthest from the door, following. "Aaron? That you?"

The main sanctuary of the House of Prostration was a large, open room with an altar and a lectern at one end. The lectern was on its side, next to the bloodied and burned body of Lieutenant Gillick.

John stopped by the door, hit the button for his radio, and called for a medevac.


seven

"What does 'litter urgent' mean?" Jonas asked, not looking up from where he and Horton were messing around with the generator.

Across from Cam, at the other side of their illuminated area, Byrd and Becanek froze for a moment. The call for the evac had come over the command network, so neither Becanek nor Horton (Byrd having given up his radio to Jonas after the fourth time Cam had had to pass on a question) would have heard.

"It means that someone's hurt very badly, sir," Becanek finally said. "That they'll probably die if they don't get proper medical treatment within an hour."

Jonas looked up at Cam with an expression Cam couldn't place before they all turned to follow the sound of a jumper racing from the TOC toward the village, flying low and fast.

"It's for Lieutenant Gillick," Cam said quietly after it had passed.

"Fuck," Byrd sighed. "At least we found him."

They'd been lucky with casualties so far; this was the second time that the ambulance jumper had had to go out and the last time had been for a broken leg and a couple of other non-incapacitating injuries.

Cam understood why it was important that his team be where they were, that they had done good work already and that a ZPM was a prize beyond anything they had hoped for. But he knew that his marines wished that they were in the town and Cam didn't necessarily feel differently. He also knew that there was only so much he could have done considering his relative lack of ground combat experience, but nobody in uniform wanted to stand around and hear the noise of combat and not be a part of it. They'd heard the gunfire in the distance and saw the town light up with the fires and explosions and Cam could follow everything on his radio and it all felt a little too much like being on the sidelines. Even -- especially -- after they'd gotten Jonas back.

Noise nearby and Cam snapped out of his reverie. Byrd and Becanek were already in position, rifles unslung, but it was just the squad of marines Lorne had sent forward to help them dig up the ZPM and get the shield generator back to the stargate. Staff Sergeant Brandeis reported for duty and had his marines setting up the hydraulic lift they'd brought in no time.

On the command net, Lorne was telling Sheppard that Weir had allowed them to bring Gillick back to Atlantis straightaway. When they'd been going over the medical evacuation part of the mission planning, they'd decided that everyone going to Gauhan would be quarantined on the gamma site before returning to the city and that they'd set up a field hospital there accordingly. Nobody knew if the vaccines for the prior plague would work and while pretty much everyone in Atlantis was either vaccinated or had already been exposed, there was no point in taking chances with a disease that could travel through the air. Safir's infectious diseases team had set up there (Safir was here, though, back at the TOC) and they'd do whatever tests they needed before moving people back to Atlantis.

But Gillick was litter-urgent, the first and hopefully only such case, and so there'd be an isolation room and the best emergency care the Pegasus galaxy could provide waiting for him. Cam offered up a little prayer as he heard the jumper fly back toward the stargate.

A little bit later Horton, freed from having to crouch awkwardly and straddle the hole they'd dug to get at the generator, rolled his neck and it popped loudly. "I think a litter'll hold it, sir," he said, gesturing behind him.

"If it'll hold Ortilla and Booger, it'll hold anything," Brandeis added, and then explained to Cam that Booger was Sergeant Beauregard of Bravo Company's Second Platoon, just in case Cam thought that they were talking about really big snots. He loved that the marines all treated him like an idiot.

It was going to take a while before Brandeis could test his assertion, however; like the world's most stubborn potato, the generator clung to the ground through a network of wires and tubes (or the Ancient equivalent of such) that Jonas hadn't the foggiest idea the purpose of when Cam asked. The marines worked their shovels around the base, digging out new mechanical roots and clearing the clay-like dirt as the lift creaked and groaned and the engine whined its displeasure. It was a sight, but not one Cam could get close to -- the marines weren't letting him anywhere near, were only letting Jonas come close since he was a scientific type, and so he had nothing to do but work the perimeter with the others and listen to the radio.

The battle was mostly over, at least it sounded like it. The marines had rounded up most of the Gauhani, killed two more priors, and were on the look out for two more -- including the original one. The population was mostly violent and the marines had flexicuffed almost everyone because of that, which was not ideal but certainly better than having to use more standard riot control methods.

Lorne asked Cam if he had a time estimate on getting the generator and the ZPM loose. Cam asked Jonas, who pursed his lips and said maybe an hour. Cam passed the information on to Lorne.

"Are you seeing any traffic out there?" Lorne asked.

Cam shook his head, even though he knew Lorne couldn't see him. "Not a hare," he replied. "Should we be expecting any?"

"Depends," Lorne said. "There's been flight from the town, but we have no idea in what direction. And there's still two loose priors, but I don't think they'll be running too far."

The generator site was between the town and the stargate, but well off of the road. Which meant that they had a far greater chance of running into someone trained in fieldcraft than a fearful civilian running from an invading force. Cam didn't think a prior was a likelihood, either, but weirder stuff had happened.

"We'll keep our eyes peeled," Cam promised.

The first footsteps they heard were not fleeing Ori worshipers, however. It was Ronon leading Consolis and a ragged parade of Gauhani resistors, most of whom were children.

"Safer this way," Ronon said with a shrug when Cam came up to him. Ronon had been carrying a woman like a bride over a threshold, which wasn't the easiest way to bring a weight over a distance and Ronon wasn't the kind to choose someone's dignity over a fireman's carry. But Cam had realized why Ronon had chosen that method when he'd gently put her down -- she was pregnant.

Cam couldn't argue about the route, so he instead pulled everyone not essential to either security or unearthing the generator toward settling the refugees. There were a few adults, mostly younger ones who nonetheless looked just as ready to drop as the children, and more than a dozen kids and babies. Everyone was coughing, the children were whimpering and crying, and Cam felt overwhelmed for a moment by both the déjà vu and the shift from being so far away from the events to having the consequences landing in his lap. He might not be such an expert on MOUT, but shepherding refugees from the Ori had been his work for almost a year. He radioed Lorne to tell him that they could use some help, then started giving orders.

Staff Sergeant Brandeis was put to organizing the children, as much as miserable, terrified children could be organized. Through cajoling and guiding the shellshocked kids by hand, Brandeis got them sitting in a small circle, like they were going to play duck, duck, goose. Cam had Sergeant Rigler fetching canteens and helping the kids drink. Hydration had been a problem in past prior plague epidemics, The adults were given canteens as well and one of the other sergeants was tearing up a clean cloth he'd pulled from somewhere to let them give water to the babies, so Cam stepped back and let the marines do their job.

"Their parents are dead or dying," Consolis said and Cam turned to him. He looked far older than the last time Cam had seen him. "The sickness moved so quickly. It was the only comfort I could offer, that their children would not live under such a hateful rule."

Cam nodded, unsure of what to say. "I'm sorry," is what he did say, since that was usually good. "About Daran, about all of this."

Consolis shook his head. "You warned us as best you could. There was no way for you to say or us to believe that everything we valued in our culture was deviant to that which spawned it."

Consolis was right, but that both of them accepted that the Ori had brought this on didn't make it any better. Consolis had lost his wife and his world and Cam knew that this wasn't the end of things, just the beginning.

One of the women started a coughing jag, a wracking fit that left her unable to breathe and unable to hold the infant in her arms. Cam rushed over and took the baby before it could be dropped as Jonas tended to the woman; their eyes met for a moment and Jonas gave him a look that made it clear that he'd hoped he'd seen the last of this scenario, too.

The baby boy was squalling, loud peals of misery, and Cam stood up and put him against his shoulder and rubbed his back. He murmured to it, the sort of meaningless blather that got said to babies who just wanted to hear a soothing voice, and then walked back toward Consolis, who was moving among the adults, speaking to them quietly.

"Don't you worry about falling ill yourself?" Consolis asked, gesturing to the baby, who'd quieted to whimpering. Cam had consoled a lot of infants over the last year. "Ronon brought us here and promised that we would not spread the illness to you, but I don't understand how. It only spared those who accepted the Ori and you are most certainly not among them."

"Once you get the plague, you're immune to it if you can survive it," Cam explained, grimacing slightly as Consolis reacted in realization. "Everyone else got the vaccine. We weren't sure it would work, but apparently it is."

Cam wasn't sure Consolis knew what a vaccine was, but it became a moot point once Doctor Safir and three marines showed up bearing supplies. Cam explained who Safir was as they watched him move from person to person, triaging as he went. Safir issued sharp orders to the marines, but he was gentle with the refugees and even smiling with the children. It was like watching someone else and not the cantankerous man Cam had interacted with.

As Safir worked, Cam thought that the tension level of their camp dropped a few notches; professionalism always gave confidence. Not that they'd been unprofessional before, but they'd been swamped and Safir's obvious competence (and three assistants) let everyone else fall back into roles they were better suited to perform. (Except for Byrd, who when he wasn't bird-dogging Ancient technology was the team's resident mother hen.) Becanek was handling security and Brandeis was back to the excavation and, between them, they had all of the marines gainfully employed. Ronon was on the periphery of the site, staying out of the floodlights but a presence nonetheless. Jonas had accepted a juice packet from one of the marine orderly-types and was sitting by himself near the hydraulic lift, looking a little lost, and Cam reminded himself that Jonas was only a few hours removed from captivity.

Safir came over to look at the now-sleeping baby. Cam leaned forward to shift the infant to his hands. "Any word on Gillick?" he asked. Not that Cam thought that he had missed any word coming over the command net, but maybe Safir had heard something from being around the TOC or from one of the doctors in the ambulance jumper.

"Only that he'd arrived safely," Safir said with a grimace, not looking up from the baby. "But Aaron Gillick is nothing if not sturdy and that will help him through this."

From anyone else, that might have been a platitude.

Safir wiped a trace of a tear from the boy's cheek. "He's going to wake up famished," he said with what might have been a smile. Cam had thought Lorne had been playing him when he'd said that Safir was good with kids. "There will be a jumper soon that will take everyone to the gamma site."

On the assumption that the assault force would be quarantined for a few hours and that there would be refugees, food and water had been part of the gear brought to the gamma site.

Cam shifted the baby back to his shoulder and reached out with his free hand as Safir turned to go. "Doc?"

Safir turned back, eyebrow raised in question.

"Can you take a look at Jonas, please?" Cam asked in a low voice. "He said he was fine, but he was still a prisoner a few hours ago."

A nod in return and then Safir turned away again. Cam didn't think that any medicine could fix most of what was affecting Jonas, but he'd be damned if he let him hide any sort of physical damage. Jonas had come back to them brittle and angry, upset with himself and pissed at the situation and not doing a very good job of keeping himself from taking it out on anyone else. Cam had let him be, partially out of relief and mostly because he'd seen this reaction from Jonas before -- this wasn't the first time they'd shown up too late -- and knew that the lashing out would be over quickly. It was and the marines had quietly gone back to fussing over Jonas and he'd let them. They were almost a team again.

Cam deposited the sleeping baby with one of the Gauhani adults -- he got the impression that while some of the children belonged to some of the grownups, most of the collection was mix-and-match -- and wandered over to check in with Horton.

"I think we're just going to cut all of the protuberances, sir," Horton said, gesturing toward the expanding network of tubes and crap coming out of the generator. "We've got enough of a sample for the engineers back home to figure out what they are and it's starting to look like we're digging up someone's irrigation network."

"Are you sure we don't need all of the pipes?" Cam asked. "I don't want McKay on our asses for six months because we left something behind. And by 'our' I mean 'mine.'"

Horton, who'd been working with McKay on and off for three years and knew exactly what they'd be in for, grinned. "No, sir. The generator itself is the business end. Best I can figure is that the underground wiring is for something that's not here anymore. It may have been a power grid for a village back in the Ancients' days -- this shield is some pretty fancy stuff, but it doesn't need an entire ZPM to run."

Cam nodded, but he had no way of knowing if Horton was right or just wild guessing. He was spared having to confess by someone calling his name.

It took him a minute to realize that it was Ronon. "What is it?" he asked into his radio.

"Company," Ronon replied, this time using his own radio.

"Another refugee?"

"We took everyone who could move on their own," Ronon answered.

Cam sighed. They'd gotten to the Gauhani relatively early on in the indoctrination process, so while the majority was pretty rabid there were still bound to be a few cases of second thoughts sweeping through the population. Especially once it was explained that the Ori were false gods and oh, by the way, we're not going to be too nice to the folks who are still bent on killing. But Cam had been following the battle's progress on the radio and knew that the marines in the town hadn't gotten to that part of the game plan yet. "Do you want help?"

"I can handle it," Ronon said, sounding insulted to Cam's ear.

"I'm sure you can," he replied. "But keep that blaster of yours set on stun. He's worth more hogtied than barbecued right now."

There was no reply and Cam really hoped that that meant that Ronon wasn't arguing with him rather than that Ronon wasn't listening to him. Sheppard spoke whatever language Ronon used, but Cam sure as hell didn't. (He was still working on the whole Marine-to-English thing.) In anticipation of either result, Cam went over to Becanek and told him that Ronon was off intercepting a possible assailant and might need an extra pair of flexicuffs. Judging by Becanek's expression, the staff sergeant wasn't sure if they would be necessary, but trudged off in the direction Cam pointed him toward with an "aye aye, sir."

The two returned about five minutes later. They stayed outside of the camp's light, Becanek calling Cam over the radio to tell them that they were back. Cam found Consolis, who was still circulating among his people, and guided him to where Becanek said they'd be, which was by the giant tree just north of their site.

Becanek turned his covered flashlight on the captive's face. He was a young man, probably in his twenties, and he was bloodied and unconscious.

Consolis sighed heavily. "That is Alnor," he said. "He is a butcher's apprentice."

Which was exactly the sort of religious fanatic you wanted running around loose in the dark. Although it was already edging toward first light; the nights on Gauhan were ridiculously short this time of year.

"He was carrying these," Ronon said, holding out two massive knives so that they'd be visible in Becanek's flashlight. The red of the covering filter made the blades look more threatening than they already were. Cam didn't think Consolis missed the blood already on the blade.

"He was one of the first to embrace the... extreme wishes of the prior," Consolis said. "He volunteered to raise an army to cleanse the universe of unbelievers."

"Great," Cam murmured. "I'm guessing not a candidate for rehabilitation."

"Probably not, sir," Becanek agreed dryly. "What should we do with him?"

Cam looked at the horizon. It would be a couple of hours until sun-up, if they were still here that long. "Tie him to the tree, I guess. And gag him."

It wasn't ideal, but Cam didn't know what else to do with the guy. There would be a jumper to take the Gauhani to the gamma site soon, but throwing him in with them wasn't an option even if there would be marines there. Consolis didn't seem to object, but Cam didn't want to read anything into his acquiescence just yet.

On the way back to the site, Lorne radioed that the jumper for the refugees was en route. When it landed two minutes later, Cam was unsurprised to see Teyla helping the marines load the Gauhani into the ship.

Safir stayed behind, both for space considerations -- the jumper was pretty crowded, even with the kids sitting on laps -- and to deal with any more plague incidences. There hadn't been any reports of marines falling sick, but Cam doubted that any of the marines would self-report while there was still action in the town, not unless they were seriously ill.

There was some back-and-forth with Lorne about whether Safir should stay with them since the generator site was closer to the town or whether he should go back to the TOC since if he had to get anywhere fast, he'd be going by jumper anyway. Judging from the discussion, Cam thought Safir had probably been getting bored and restless at the TOC and Lorne knew it. In the end, however, Safir took his three assistants and went back to the TOC since he hadn't brought what he needed to go poking around the corpses of those who'd died of the plague.

"He's not really going to go play with the dead bodies, sir, is he?" Byrd asked, face scrunched up, after Safir and his crew left.

"'Fraid so, Sergeant," Cam replied. "Although I am pretty sure that he was not using 'play' in the literal sense of the word."

At least he hoped so.

The sky was just starting to lighten a little, from black to dark blue, as Horton and the marines finished cutting the generator free of its network of 'protuberances', a process that involved a circular saw, a blow torch, and a lot of grunting marines. Jonas, having been relegated to pointing and answering questions and thus not involved in the disentangling and hoisting, came over to where Cam was taking a break between circuits around the perimeter of their camp.

"What's next?" he asked, looking at the horizon in the direction of the town. The sky was brighter there, courtesy of the fires that were starting to burn out of control. Cam had been listening to his radio as best he could over the ruckus the generator extraction was making and knew that the search for the missing priors was being hampered by the blazes and that the marines were starting to pull back into sections of the town that were not yet on fire.

"The marines finish rounding up the indigs, find the priors, do a headcount, and pull out," Cam replied. That had been the plan, more or less oversimplified. "Or was that one of those existential questions?"

Jonas gave him a wry smile. "Both, I guess," he sighed. "It not like we've been on vacation since we got to Pegasus, but.... "

"But it was nice remembering that once upon a time, we'd done something besides fight the Ori?" Cam finished, since he was pretty sure that's where Jonas had been going. They weren't thoughts he hadn't had before.

"Yeah," Jonas agreed. "I wish I could stop feeling guilty for thinking that."

Me, too, Cam didn't say. Didn't think he had to. Survivor's guilt was probably the single best reason Heightmeyer's appointment book was still full as they crept toward the first anniversary of Robler Rock. That they were in a galaxy where there was still an implacable foe that didn't even offer the option of submission almost didn't matter, not in the relative safety of Atlantis and her growing dominions. Nor, frankly, did the mainland full of refugees from the Wraith -- everyone felt bad for Ronon and Teyla and the losses they'd incurred, but in the darkest parts of their Earth hearts, they had expected a better fate for such an advanced civilization as they were.

Like everything else brought to Gauhan, the generator was packed up and sent to the gamma site. Cam, back at the TOC after they'd closed out the site, had gone to the jumper to better follow the action, but had had to retreat outside for a moment rather than be overheard laughing at McKay's pitching a fit at Weir that the generator and ZPM couldn't be delivered to Atlantis. It was one of the few highlights of the morning.

Cam and Ronon caught a lift with Safir after daybreak, meeting up with Sheppard and taking a tour of the smoldering town as they wended their way to where the Gauhani citizens were effectively penned in the large market square. It was depressing to see the whitewashed stone turned black with ash or, on occasion, red-brown with drying blood. There were knocked-over benches, destroyed storefronts and homes, the occasional collapsed wall, and other signs of a fight that hadn't been as lopsided as the results looked.

The market square, however, had remained untouched by fire or any real destruction -- the shop where he'd been given ice cream still had its picture window intact, rows of sweets on display -- but there was no mistaking the bitter undercurrent of malevolence swirling around. On the other side of Sheppard, Ronon was almost hyper-alert, flexing his fingers and looking around like he expected something to break out at any moment. Cam idly wondered if Ronon had ever seen this sort of thing before coming to Atlantis -- one human force subjugating another -- or if it had always been man-against-Wraith.

They caught up with Polito, who was being both watched after and attended by his first sergeant.

"We have no idea how many people we're missing," Polito admitted, gesturing with the pencil in his hand toward the crowd milling in the square. Most had settled in what were presumably family groups and there were children dozing on their mothers' laps. It was a far cry from the scene he'd beheld earlier and Cam hardened his heart a little; these children were healthy and most of them hadn't lost at least one parent last night. "We're still tracking down the dead and wounded so we can count them against the fled."

"You got mine?" Cam asked. Alnor-the-knife-wielding-butcher's-apprentice had been handed over to the marines, who'd brought him back here.

Ronon looked over with an expression that Cam took to mean that he'd have preferred the prisoner be referred to as his.

"Yes, sir," Polito replied with an amused look. "He's off with one of the corpsmen -- tried biting his way out his flexicuffs."

"Sounds like my boy," Cam agreed. Sheppard shook his head.

"At least they're not surrendering and then detonating," Polito said. "Although I think some of them would if they could."

In Cam's experience, martyrdom was both a really big and an inconsequential problem with the Ori followers. They didn't have the same sort of concept of a paradise awaiting them that Earth types were used to among martyrs of any flavor, so the urge to suicide for their cause wasn't as great (priors were a different story; they lived to die). On the other hand, they were damned quick to be heedless of their own safety when it came to enforcing the submit-or-die part of the Ori creed.

Cam wandered a bit -- not too far -- as Sheppard and Polito talked with Lorne over the radio about replacing the marines; Kagan's platoon had been out for two days and everyone else had been up all night fighting and the Gauhani population wasn't going to be dealt with right away. Cam was tired, too, but not the sort of fatigued that went with combat. He'd volunteer to hang out if Sheppard needed a senior officer around.

In the meanwhile, he started walked down one of the streets, stopping in front of a tavern not too far from the square. The door was open, which was a little odd because every other door on the street had been closed. He was inclined to consider it just one of those things -- if he were going to break into some place during a riot, the local taproom was certainly high on the list -- until he heard a noise inside.

He took a step back and asked Polito over the radio if the streets leading from the market had been swept.

"Yes, sir," Polito replied. "Did you find something?"

"Maybe a mouse in the tavern," he answered, "Maybe bigger than a mouse. I'm going to go have a look-see."

"I'll send someone in case it's bigger than a mouse, sir," Polito said.

"Much appreciated," Cam said as he approached the doorway again. The door was open enough that he could get through without opening it further; he did and then, taking advantage of a little vestibule before the main room, he closed his eyes for a second to get them accustomed to the relative darkness inside.

There was nobody in the main room of the tavern. The room itself was undisturbed -- all of the tables in the right place, all of the chairs pushed in -- and Cam could see behind the bar as he entered. He was about to concede that maybe it had been a mouse (and wouldn't that be great to tell the marines undoubtedly running over to save him from some fanatical Ori) when he heard noise coming from above him. Someone walking around upstairs.

There was an archway leading to a stairwell on the far side of the bar and Cam crossed to it carefully, crouching down at the end of the bar so he could take a peek in case there was a look-out at the bottom of the stairs. There wasn't, so he moved to the stairwell, 9mm raised in case there was someone at the top. Safe again, so he climbed the stairs, slowly at first until he realized that going slow was making them creak louder, so he ran up the rest, careful to take light steps. The upstairs was probably the home of the tavern owner and Cam cursed to himself as he had to clear each room by himself. There were a million places to hide in each one, but he'd heard footsteps at the front of the building, so he went there after more cursory checks of the first rooms.

In the last room, a bedroom, there was a ladder and an open trap door. So much for subtlety. The ladder could be climbed one-handed so he could keep his pistol out, but Cam still took a deep breath before he stuck his head through the hole. This wasn't the time he took one in the head, though, so instead he saw the mouse he'd been chasing. It was a man and he was looking to be Gauhan's Lee Harvey Oswald and that really would put a crappy topper on the day. He was kneeling at the edge of the roof, an old rifle aimed in the direction of the market square.

Cam sighed to himself, climbed up the rest of the ladder, and silently crossed the roof until he was just far enough away from the man to avoid getting nailed if he swung around with what looked like (upon closer inspection) one of the muskets Cam used to see at the Civil War museums. From what he remembered about muskets, there were half a dozen steps involved in firing one and judging by the materials still on the ground, the would-be shooter hadn't gotten around to any of them. There was a ramrod on the ground and what Cam figured were gunpowder cartridges.

He had put the safety on his pistol when he'd climbed the ladder, but he took it off now and cocked it. The man before him started, but didn't turn around.

"Muzzle-loading musket's an awfully inaccurate weapon," Cam said, all friendly-like. "Now I'm gonna assume you know how to work that baby and so I'll wager that you can hit something. But I think we both know that the odds aren't good that it'll be what you're aiming at. Me, on the other hand, I've got myself a 9mm pistol and while these babies don't have the stopping power of a nice .45, I'm willing to bet I can still splatter your brainpan like an egg from this distance. Wanna take me up on that wager or are you just going to put your hands on your head?"

"Those who reject the path to enlightenment must be destroyed," the man said, not moving.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Cam sighed, because this was rapidly descending from Dirty Harry Callahan cool to Just Another Wacky Fanatic. "Hallowed are the Ori and all that jazz. Put the pop gun down."

Cam heard the marines join him on the rooftop, but didn't take his eyes off of the would-be gunman. They approached carefully, wrestled the musket away and cuffed the Gauhani man without too much fuss, and presented him to Cam like a gift.

"Well, let's take him back and put him with the others," Cam told them. He followed them downstairs -- the marines were relatively solicitous and didn't let the man fall all the way to the bedroom floor from the roof -- and back to the market square. Sheppard and Polito watched their approach.

"That very nearly wasn't very funny," Sheppard said after the marines had taken the man away.

"I think we'll step up the sweeps through the town, sir," Polito said, signaling to one of the lieutenants. "Go for a staggered relief in place instead of sequential."

Sheppard gestured as if to say that he was leaving this entirely up to Polito, who started organizing with Lorne on the radio and Lieutenant Patchok in person.

Cam and Sheppard both ended up going out with patrols (and Ronon, too, but only after they'd left because he'd gone wandering on his own) with the understanding that when the squads were relieved, they would follow them to the gamma site. The early results were in from those already there -- it didn't seem like anyone who'd got the vaccine was displaying any signs of plague. Which meant that the quarantine should be relatively short, at least in theory. If McKay was still waiting on that generator, the quarantine might get shortened further still. Three cheers for the demanding, cranky guy.


Cam hadn't realized he'd maybe fallen asleep until he was woken up by Jonas laughing in the hallway.

"That bad?" Jonas asked as he sat down in the chair across from Cam's desk, banana in one hand and coffee mug in the other. Cam sat up with a groan, rolling his neck and shoulders and thus nearly knocking over the coffee that Jonas had brought for him. Along with the still-warm donuts that left powdered sugar and oil on Cam's fingers as he scarfed them down.

"Thanks," Cam said as he washed everything down with a slug of coffee. It wasn't Earth coffee, but it tasted close enough and (through processes nobody dared ask about) it had caffeine and so it was what everyone lived on. He looked at his watch; it was a half-hour later than he remembered it being and twenty minutes before they had to be down in the briefing room. Again. "And not so much 'bad' as that I think I've hit my saturation point. Ain't nothin' else gonna fit in the shotglass that is my brain."

Jonas, mouth full of banana, nodded in sympathy, which Cam might have gotten annoyed by if Jonas hadn't brought him coffee and donuts. Jonas read voraciously and remembered everything and tended to forget that other people couldn't, which meant that his sympathy was completely false.

"At least the lieutenants seem to have some grasp of the English language," Cam went on, since Jonas was still chewing. "Kagan's got a career as a novelist if the marine thing doesn't work out."

Since he was detailing all of his recon work before the mission, Kagan's AAR had read in part like a spy novel -- albeit a spy novel with a lot of acronyms and jargon and different spelling for two of the Gauhani priors than what everyone else was using. But it had been entertaining and, considering how much paperwork they'd been generating and trying to absorb in the past few days, it still counted as a high point.

"Did you read McKay's?" Jonas asked, having swallowed.

Cam gave him a look. "I skimmed the first paragraph, understood maybe four words, and then went on."

In truth, he probably would have skipped it even if he'd understood ten words; McKay's report had nothing to do with the action on Gauhan. It was instead a thesis on the nature of the shield and Cam had learned long ago to stick to the parts that told him what he had to do and not wonder at the nuts and bolts of things. Either Engineering could get it to work again or they couldn't, they'd be reproducing for use on other worlds or they wouldn't, and Cam would find out those answers in due course.  

"I read yours, though," Cam added. He'd understood a bit more of that -- Jonas was more used to writing for laymen than McKay (or Sam, for that matter, but Sam hadn't ever really expected anyone to understand her technical evaluations). Plus Cam had actually been there for much of what Jonas was recounting and thus could translate long paragraphs of details and measurements and energy outputs into 'this is where Jonas and Horton nearly blew us up by putting the crystals in backward to see what would happen if they did'.

There'd been a few paragraphs in Jonas's report on his capture, captivity, and rescue, too. Cam read those because he'd never get the story out of Jonas.

"McKay's got some interesting theories," Jonas went on, looking mournfully at the empty banana skin. Which was purple, since those kinds were apparently easier to grow on the planet they were currently using for tropical crops, and never quite stopped reminding Cam that they weren't on Earth anymore. Despite the fact that Jonas had assured him that purple and red bananas grew on Earth. ("Why do you know these things?")

"About?" Cam asked, since he'd realized he'd been thinking too hard about bananas.

"The detection mechanisms of the shield," Jonas replied, perking up. "If he's right, then we've got some amazing avenues of exploration in terms of defending Pegasus from the Wraith -- and possibly an Ori armada."

Cam raised his eyebrows. "Do you think he's right?"

Jonas shrugged and took a sip of his coffee. "Either he's right or he's completely insane," he said. "Personally, I'm hoping for 'right'. He's got access to far too many dangerous materials to be a mad genius."

On that note, it was time to head over to the meeting.

The overview took less and less time each iteration; by this point, everyone could repeat the salient points of Operation Gabriel like a mantra, from the successful rescue of all hostages to the planned destruction of the DHD on Gauhan when they'd finished trying to convince the people there that the Ori were just snake oil salesmen.

There was still an element among the rank and file (and some officers) to salt the earth there, that effectively isolating the planet without either shield or convenient means of escape wasn't enough, but Cam wasn't on that boat just yet. His reasoning for not wanting to drop a nuke on Gauhan (emptied or not) was that he wasn't sure it would do anything besides waste fissionable material. Besides, then they'd have to find another planet to store the ones who were there now. The people still left on Gauhan were the hardest of the hard cases, the wackos like Alnor-the-knife-wielding-butcher's-apprentice who were thus far refusing to give up the Ori as gods despite concerted attempts at deprogramming including Consolis's heartbreaking pleas. Cam really didn't pity them and understood that they were taking a risk by leaving them behind. But the real risk of leaving them there came from them being re-armed and helped out by the Ori and if that were to happen, then Cam figured they'd have much bigger problems to worry about.

The biggest problem remaining was that they still didn't know how the original prior had gotten to Gauhan, whether he'd used the stargate and, if so, where was he dialing in from? Not Earth, they didn't think. Even if the SGC hadn't been cratered along with the rest of NORAD, the Pegasus addresses in the SGC files hadn't included Gauhan. The priors -- Daran and the others -- had spoken of Gauhan as a holy place, which could have been Everywhere-is-Holy-to-Us bullshit but the choice of planet was both just a little too random and not-random-at-all for anyone to quite believe that.

The nerds over in G-2 had been working on the story of Valtinus-the-Ancient-Heretic, but the Ancients, to nobody's surprise, had been very thorough in purging direct references to him from the database. G-2 had gotten a little further by trying from the Gauhan angle -- Consolis had been very helpful, apparently, translating texts and explaining bits of Gauhani lore -- and then working back from there to the Ancient database. Valtinus may have built the shield and if he did that, then he might have left some other gifts in place. But, like the best booby traps, Cam (and everyone else) suspected that they wouldn't find anything until it bit them on the ass.

The meeting ended with a medical update. While everyone knew that Sergeant Ricardi wasn't going anywhere until his compound fracture healed and Gillick was still sedated to let him ride out the worst of the pain, it was a pretty big sigh of relief to find out that the two marines who'd come down with plague-like symptoms were not, in fact, afflicted with prior plague and just had bad cases of the garden variety bronchitis that had been going through Little Tripoli. The vaccine seemed to be doing its job despite Safir's findings that the strain of prior plague that had hit Gauhan had been an especially virulent one, perhaps specially crafted to be more effective on the hardy Pegasus immune system.

"When are we going to get good news that doesn't come with a giant But attached to it?" Cam asked as they filed out of the briefing room.  

"It happens," Jonas protested. Cam gave him a challenging look because he was quite sure that Jonas would be hard-pressed to actually give an example if asked.

"It's usually bad news that just looks good by comparison," Cam said instead, walking quickly to catch up to Sheppard so they could get on the transporter together. He was sure Sheppard was heading to the commissary; they had run over on the meeting and Sheppard tended to be like him with the snack-before-eat-later routine. Nothing like the growling stomach of the CO to cut short an endless digression. "'No prior plague in Atlantis' is just the silver lining on 'acute bronchitis running rampant among the marines.'"

"On the other hand," Sheppard said, waving his hands over the crystals, "'Acute bronchitis running rampant among the marines' gets us a very quiet peanut gallery. Or was I the only one to notice the lack of just-out-of-earshot commentary from the rear two rows?"

The last few rows of the briefing room were invariably taken up by lieutenants and senior NCOs, all of whom were pretty sure that they had better ideas than their superiors. But between the attention devoted to cough drops and tea and the laryngitis that seemed to follow the hacking cough, however, it had been unusually quiet.

They exited the transporter near the commissary, noisy for it being actual lunchtime for the rest of the city. Thankfully, it was near the end of the busy period and the lines were short.

"Can you do something about banning the word 'surprise' from the menu?" Cam asked Sheppard as he accepted a tray from Jonas. "I'm as much an omnivore as anyone else with dog tags, but a man's got to have his limits and we are in another galaxy."

"Also, it's redundant," Jonas added with a moue of distaste.

From what Cam had been told, once upon a time the kitchen staff had been marines and Atlantis had been fed a narrow range of options with a wide range of edibility. Since he'd been here, though, the kitchens were the domains of civilians -- some from Earth, some from other planets in the Milky Way, a few from Pegasus -- and between the changeover in staff and the switch to entirely Pegasus-based food sources, there was no guarantee that anyone would be able to identify anything but the salads. Ingredients familiar and not were thrown together in combinations that were usually tasty and even occasionally recognizable -- lasagna was a standard, even allowing for everyone's take on it -- but the hot foods line still tended to be a kind of choose-your-own-adventure.

Sheppard shook his head and smiled as some kind of sautéed green was dropped on to his tray. "I lost control of that once we eliminated KP," he said. "I've asked Elizabeth, but all I've ever gotten in return is an offer to have the menus put online."

Cam was prepared to let Sheppard go his own way once they were through the line -- enough tables were clearing out that there wasn't a press for space -- but he gestured with his head for them to follow, so they did. Or at least Cam did; Jonas saw one of his scientist buddies and peeled off.

Sheppard led Cam to a table where Teyla was sitting with Ronon. Greetings all around and the men got to eating -- Teyla was picking at her roll delicately like a bird, although Cam had seen her eat like a real person enough times to know that she was just picking so as to have something to do while they shoveled in food.

"Are you up for a practice later today?" Sheppard asked Teyla after the gorging part of the meal was over. "I'm going to be spending the afternoon getting beaten up verbally; might as well get the bruises to go with it."

Ronon snorted a laugh.

"It's not that funny," Sheppard told him sourly.  

"Yes it is," Ronon assured him.

Cam smiled. It reminded him both of what he missed with SG-1 and what he was still building with his own team here. Things were getting a lot better; they were still learning each other's mannerisms and tendencies, finding a way around the inequalities of rank, but they were definitely coming to a détente. They weren't yet Lorne's team, would never be Sheppard's (and, despite the current bonhomie, Cam was a little glad of that), but they were going their own way. And Cam was good with that.

What he was less good with -- or, rather, what he was pretty good with and just depressed him -- was spending the afternoon playing liaison to the Gauhani refugees. Consolis felt most at ease with him, so Weir had made Cam point-man. Answering questions was an involved process because it was actually up to him to get what Consolis needed to know -- everything from "where can I get another blanket?" to "will we be able to visit Gauhan ever again?" was Cam's responsibility, plus more usual sorts of duties like getting updates from Medical on the status of the plague victims (all but two of whom were making decent recoveries; one adult and one baby were touch-and-go) and making sure everyone had food and clothes and wasn't getting lost in the city. The joke about the last was that Cam was probably the last person to rely on for direction in the city.

The Atlantis command was involving Consolis in the decisions regarding the fate of his people, but Cam figured that both sides understood the limits of that partnership. Consolis displayed a rare grace in this weird limbo between liberated and imprisoned -- he didn't begrudge anyone's suspicion, but he refused to cater to it, either. Cam didn't think there was anyone in Atlantis who remained unimpressed by him.

Consolis had spent a lot of time in G-2 learning about the Ancients and the Ori and it wasn't unusual for Cam to find him with red eyes and wiping away tears. With all of the crises of faith that had come with the Ori's attack on Earth, Cam couldn't imagine having his beliefs ripped away from him like the Gauhani had. Consolis was trying to figure out what had happened as well as what should happen and that was a responsibility Cam prayed he'd never have to see among his own people.

Today's activities were no different and, by the time he wished Consolis a good evening and headed back to Little Tripoli to get some target practice in with his team (the marines went to the range with their platoon, but were always a little too enthusiastic to come shooting with Cam and Jonas), he was almost looking forward to getting mocked for his groupings.


eight

"Go away."

John cocked an eyebrow at Zelenka, who looked back with an equally confused look. There was no way Rodney had seen him come in and Radek wasn't doing anything offensive even by McKay standards and John didn't see anyone else in the room.

"If you're here to ask about the A-3 working models, they're not ready. If you're here to ask about the hyperspace navigational system for the Daedalus, it's so not near to being operational that we're closer to not having started. If you're here to work on your miserable attempts at banter and wit because you're bored, I have a soldering iron and a Wraith stunner in easy reach. In short, go away."

So Rodney had been talking to him.

"What number do I press for more options?" John asked, since even if Rodney did have a Wraith stunner nearby -- not impossible; there were always a few lying around the Engineering labs -- he wasn't exactly worried about Rodney's aim. Zelenka, on the other hand, was probably a dead shot at this distance. And he really did come down here for a reason.

Rodney slid out from under the generator prototype he was working on. Big and purplish, it looked a lot like a mushroom, kind of like the Smurfs' houses if they'd been a little less fond of polka dots. (The marines, of course, told anyone who'd listen about the giant dildo Doctor McKay was building in ATA Lab 6.) He sat up on the roller -- in his familiar environments, Rodney was not without grace -- and glared. "What do you want, Colonel?"

"A pony, beer not made by marines, and the reason why you're not suited up and in the gate room," John replied, ticking off his answers on his fingers. At the last, he saw Rodney's eyes go wide and he smiled in satisfaction. "We organized this play date for you, Rodney. The least you could do was RSVP that you couldn't make it."

The mission had been on the schedule for only two days, which really wasn't much of an excuse, not when the only reason they were going at all was because McKay had pitched a fit that Jonas was getting all of the new projects. (Jonas wasn't getting all of the new projects, just most of them because Mitchell's team was uncanny with the stumbling across new technology and first dibs had always gone to the discoverer -- which, up until recently, had usually been Rodney.) But Lorne's team had stumbled across something "odd" on ML6-R45 during one of the now-routine sweeps for Ori activity and, since Lorne almost automatically handed off tech findings, it had been claimed by John as a present for Rodney. Who was not exactly showing his appreciation by looking like John had tracked dog shit into the lab.

"Now?" Rodney asked, looking up at the magic mushroom like he was seriously afraid it was going to be insulted if he left it. The prototype was for a naquadriah generator and the size and girth were supposed to compensate for the instability of the fuel (John really hadn't been paying too much attention during that part of the meeting; if it didn't fire projectiles, he didn't really care until it was finished), but John was pretty sure it wasn't built with an AI that could feel abandoned.

"Now," he answered, tapping his watch. "Actually, ten minutes ago, but I'll settle for now."

Ronon and Teyla were waiting in the gate room and John had been feeling charitable by going himself to retrieve Rodney instead of sending Ronon. But now he was second-guessing that impulse, even if Rodney would have been close to unbearable if Ronon had dragged him (perhaps literally) from the labs to the stargate.

"Go, Rodney," Zelenka urged. "The prototype will keep until your return. I can finish laying the plating and I won't let Williams anywhere near it. The technology on ML6-R45 could be very useful here -- the shielding alone could put us ahead months."

Rodney sighed and nodded, pushing up to standing so that the roller didn't slide away. "Tell Williams that I'll have him chairing every interdisciplinary meeting from now until Doomsday if he so much as casts a covetous eye in this general direction."

With that, he trudged off toward the door, a little bowlegged from pushing around on the roller for so long.

"Thanks," John told Zelenka, who was putting down his tablet and picking up a flashlight.

"It was only partially for you," Radek admitted, sitting down the roller. "The A-4 mold seems to have a defect and has to be re-cast. He's been driving everyone nuts all day. If I didn't get a break, I might have used the Wraith stunner."

John grinned. "Just the same. I'll try to return him too tired to work until tomorrow."

"That would be a gift," Zelenka said, leaning back.

John still beat Rodney back to the gate room, where he assured the rest of his team that Rodney was coming. Rodney himself showed up a minute later, trying to walk and close the snap on his holster at the same time and doing neither particularly well.

With a wave and a gesture to Lieutenant Cardejo to dial the gate, John got them underway only a half-hour behind schedule.

ML6-R45 was another of those planets with "Pegasus-like conditions" (temperate, tree-heavy) and no people. Which, sadly, was also Pegasus-like. Whether the Wraith knew that the Ori were coming or not, they seemed to be getting some last good snacks in. Refugee inprocessing in Atlantis hadn't been this high since the first couple of times the Daedalus had shown up after things got bleak on Earth. Teyla had been getting run ragged trying to place and placate the various groups and John suspected that she viewed the relatively suddenly scheduled mission as a relief instead of an inconvenience. He didn't know for sure because the two of them haven't gotten much chance to hang out lately; both of their jobs had kept them too busy and too tired.

Ronon was looking around like he always did on new planets, especially abandoned ones.

"Look familiar?" John asked, keeping one eye on Rodney, who had his PDA out and was paying attention to that instead of the ground.

"Smells familiar," Ronon replied.

John took an experimental sniff. It smelled outdoorsy in a way that was completely different from any comparable on Earth (although, after more than three years in Pegasus and one more in Antarctica, John wasn't sure how much of Earth's smells he even remembered and that depressed him a little in ways it hadn't a year ago), but there was an undercurrent of something... fruity. Almost tropical, except that the actual climate was all wrong. He wasn't sure he'd classify the scent as memorable, but he wasn't Ronon, either.

"Do you have something, Doctor McKay?" Teyla asked.

Rodney was standing, arm outstretched like the world's most hesitant weathervane. "Which way did Lorne's report say we were supposed to go?"

"Half a klick in the opposite direction from where you're pointing," John replied. According to Lorne's AAR, his team had found an undeniably Ancient artifact (translation: Reletti had accidentally activated something) and hadn't the foggiest idea what it did apart from generate heat. It was on the edge of a copse of trees (what else was new?) and should be pretty hard to miss. Lorne had left an informal note: "R2D2 with a square head."

"Hunh," Rodney mused. He looked like he was about to say something else, but didn't. They turned to go, Ronon in the lead and Teyla bringing up the rear and John charged with keeping Rodney upright since this wasn't going to be the mission where Rodney started looking where he was going instead of at his PDA.

"This it?" Ronon asked from up front, far enough ahead that John couldn't see with him (and Rodney) in the way.

"Yes," Rodney announced, still not looking up.

John figured it was flat ground and Rodney could be left unattended, so he moved up to where he could see what Ronon was talking about.

"These aren't the droids you're looking for," John said because Lorne really hadn't been wrong.

"Should we be--" Teyla began, but Rodney cut her off.

"No, we shouldn't," Rodney said, glaring at John. "The Colonel is having another fit of attempted humor. This is what we're here to see."

John shrugged at Teyla, who smiled back indulgently, and then took a look around. The planet was uninhabited -- really, truly uninhabited, as opposed to the 'no permanent settlements, but there are often people around' kind of uninhabited. He knew why Lorne's team had been out here -- any planets mentioned in context of the Ori were automatically put on the short list for visits -- but there hadn't been anyone here for millennia.

He nodded absently when Ronon gestured that he was going to make a sweep of the area -- it was good for everyone's security and sanity if Ronon spent some time far away from where Rodney was unpacking his supplies.

"Need a hand?" John asked, knowing that Rodney absolutely didn't, not with the equipment, but might still need his ATA gene.

"Can you turn it on and off quickly?" Rodney asked, making some sort of hand gesture that was supposed to be a light switch. "I want to see what it does before I take it apart. It's probably not dangerous if Lorne's team came back in one piece, but I'd rather not rely on their luck."

John had been tuning out the object, whatever it was, pretty much since they'd come through the gate. He could see how Reletti had accidentally triggered it -- it was, on the spectrum of devices requiring Ancient activation, a bit of a floozy. All John had to do was stop fighting its overtures and Rodney was burbling happily about energy spikes and thanking him. Meanwhile, John didn't know why Rodney hadn't been able to turn the thing on himself.

The device turned out to be some sort of heater ("an Ancient space heater?" "No! Well, maybe. Kind of. For a space the size of one of those bubbles they put over outdoor tennis courts in the winter." "And why is it in the middle of an uninhabited planet?" "Because maybe it wasn't uninhabited ten thousand years ago") and Radek was maybe right about the shielding being useful. They returned a couple of minutes overdue because Rodney was still working an hour after they'd established that he had neither the tools nor the personnel to do with it what he wanted.

Nobody in the gate room was too worried about them being overdue -- a nice change from every other time they've gone out and come back since Gillick left for Gauhan two weeks ago tomorrow.

(Gillick was still in the infirmary, but his release date had been moved up to 'imminent' from 'soon' in no small part because Gillick was not an idiot and had asked Safir and not Beckett. He'd always carry scars -- it had been impossible to tell at the time that his more serious wounds had come from a scourge and not flames -- but his recovery was still pretty remarkable. His fellow lieutenants were comfortable joking that he'd managed to preserve his pretty face.)

Once they'd cleared all of the returning-from-off-world routines, Rodney fled back to the labs and Ronon muttered something about going to Mars when the marines went for their shift change. Teyla was slow putting her gear away and John struck.

"You feel like a snack?" he asked. "Watching Rodney yell at Ancient heaters has really worked up an appetite for me."

She smiled, a fond smile that John knew meant that he wasn't fooling her for a second and she was going to let him get away with it. "A snack would be lovely," she said. "It has been a long time since lunch."

The commissary was about half-full -- they didn't have anything formal as a tea the way the English did it, but over the years 1600 had become a time when the giant thermoses of hot water were refreshed and arrangements of sweets, fruits, and sandwiches mysteriously appeared. (It would be easy to blame the influx of immigrants to Atlantis, but the fact was that it had started under the marines in response to popular interest -- the longer days of Atlantis meant later dinner hours.)

Once they'd settled with their tea and cakes (and one of those grapefruits that had purplish skins and pale white flesh), John waited. He knew Teyla was expecting him to grill her about something, but the fact of it was that he just wanted a few minutes for neither of them to have anything more important to do.

Of course, that plan pretty much went out the window when Mitchell and Consolis entered the commissary. Consolis always looked worse than he had the previous time John had seen him and John couldn't tell if it was because Consolis was actually fading or if John just forgot how bad he'd looked before. Either way, he didn't look good. He'd gone from energetic and animated to, well, looking like the old man he'd always been and never acted like. He was papery and frail-seeming and while Mitchell wasn't helping him, he was definitely hovering a little.

"It is difficult," Teyla said, putting her tea cup down gently "Colonel Mitchell is doing an admirable job of tending to the needs of the Gauhani, but they are a very broken people right now and there are many wounds that he cannot heal."

No kidding. They'd been essentially invaded twice in a week, both by outsiders who promised only the best intentions. Except that the Ori had done them no harm (so they thought; the plague was still not quite universally accepted as the prior's doing) and the Lanteans had come in with weapons and anger and punishment. More than half of their population was either dead -- from plague or combat wounds -- or still on Gauhan, which had essentially been turned into a prison planet while they weeded out those who could be deprogrammed from the hardcore.

They'd removed the control crystals from the DHD on Gauhan on the day of the assault and blown the actual device to smithereens four days ago; the only way off Gauhan now was with a ship with its own DHD or to Ascend and the folks there had little chance at either. There was still the possibility for entry and exit, however, and if John could have either taken or destroyed the actual stargate, he would have.

He didn't doubt for a second that they were the good guys in this, but he could accept how the Gauhani might not be so sure, even those who had been victims of the plague for their refusal to accept Origin. Everyone in Atlantis was doing what they could for the Gauhani refugees, but it probably still looked like a gilded cage from the other side. John wondered if this is what it was like for the Athosians once upon a time -- tolerated instead of welcomed, not trusted enough to be accepted and not trusted enough to let leave, cared for without being given the sense that they were cared about. A mess to be cleaned up, never graduating past obligation.

They'd sucked royally at the whole imperial thing before -- John sometimes wondered how Teyla put up with their smug superiority and attitudes straight out of Kipling when all they'd been doing is bumbling and making it up as they went along. And now that they were forced into it a second time, not just with the Gauhani but with Mars and everything else that came with being the last refuge for the Milky Way's free peoples, he worried constantly that they were fucking it up again. It had been a year since the first refugees arrived, it would be a year since Robler Rock coming up soon, and John knew that Elizabeth was doing everything she could so that they learned from their previous mistakes, but he didn't know if that would be enough in the face of a two-front war with superior enemies on both sides.

"I wish we were making better progress with the deprogramming," John said as he watched Mitchell and Consolis head outside to the open-air seating. "I don't know what we can say differently than we are now. Back in our galaxy, we spent ten years telling people that the Goa'uld weren't gods. That's the one thing we should be experts on by now."

Whatever expertise they'd mustered beating back the snakes in the Milky Way, the mojo wasn't carrying over. Pretty much everyone who'd gone to Gauhan to try got attacked, even Consolis -- who had been advised not to return after an especially close assassination attempt, but had refused anything more than a few marines as guards -- and it was hard telling people about peace when you had to point rifles at them all of the time. G-2 was at a loss for how the population could have been so swayed in only a few days -- sure, Gauhani religion had pretty much been Ori all along, but they'd been radicalized so suddenly it was like an electric charge had gone through them and changed their polarity. Priors, Jonas had said, usually weren't that charismatic -- that's why they had prior plagues.

"We will become experts," Teyla said firmly. John looked over at her. She gave him a tight smile that did not erase the tiredness from her eyes. "Our first steps may be tentative, but we shall grow assured in time."

John gave her a cock-eyed look. "Since when did this snack become a pep talk?"

Teyla raised her eyebrows archly in return. "Was it not supposed to be one already?"

"Try to be nice to a lady and see what thanks I get," John muttered into his piece of Battenberg cake, since the alternative was to either confess or lie.

"Thank you, John," Teyla said. This time, the smile did reach her eyes.

The rest of their teatime was spent discussing the sort of inconsequential things they used to be able to talk about without guilt -- Rodney's antics ("He means well" "Do you really still believe that after all this time?"), John's lack of progress with his stick fighting ("I practice" "You must practice with your sticks. And another person."), why John pretended not to know about the marines brewing beer ("The key to any functional bureaucracy is plausible deniability -- and cheap booze").

There was a bit of a commotion when Lieutenant Gillick, on furlough from the infirmary, was wheeled into the commissary by Doctor Esposito (how a lieutenant had ended up with the hottest babe in Engineering, possibly in the entire Science Division, was beyond both John and Rodney's comprehension, but Lorne seemed to be faintly proud of him and Polito definitely so), but all in all, it was a pleasant break in a work day that was not scheduled to end until 2230 and in fact didn't end until 2430.

John hated that these sorts of work days had become regular enough that nobody bothered apologizing for it.

Late nights included, life slowly returned to normal over the next few weeks. Gauhan became less of a priority; figuring out where the Ori might try next grew in importance. Rodney's Ancient space heater made its way back to Atlantis, as did the populations of two more worlds the Wraith demolished apparently in a single afternoon. (The joke in Little Tripoli was that it was a plea for attention.)

Eight weeks after Gauhan, John finally landed himself and his team a mission that didn't have the Ori as its primary objective. In hindsight, he should have known that that was when it would all go to hell.

"Colonel Sheppard?"

John froze in place, since it was never a good thing when a captain was on the horn.

"What is it, Dave?" He gestured for Teyla to go get Ronon. He'd decide whether to start packing up Rodney's toys after he heard what Radner had to say.

"We've had another prior sighting, sir. MR9-552." Radner said. "The Ori are back."


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31 July, 2008