Qui Habitat: Eight

by Domenika Marzione | art by Ileliberte

"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