Qui Habitat: Four

by Domenika Marzione | art by Ileliberte

"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."

There was an uncomfortable look in Jonas's eyes and John saw that Mitchell had seen it, too. John knew the basics of Quinn's history with the Ori, but both he and Elizabeth had agreed that Jonas had done nothing to merit any extra scrutiny with regard to Ori matters. He'd either never had any demons or he'd conquered them.

"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 the Gauhani 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 Doctor Weir," 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 and Reletti back to be the mobile ATA gene, 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. They sure as hell didn't discuss Jonas's months of hell on Langara. 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 get back to Atlantis."

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, some more than others, 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 year 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. He wasn't sure that was an option for Jonas.

"You want to call it a day?" Mitchell asked, wariness hidden behind a casual facade. "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 Becanek can keep an eye on the social scientists for a while."

"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.' Which was better than the haunted look of a minute earlier and Mitchell may have planned it that way.

"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.

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17 March, 2007