Qui Habitat: Six

by Domenika Marzione | art by Ileliberte

"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.

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17 March, 2007