Qui Habitat: Chapter Nine

by Domenika Marzione

"We've had another prior sighting, sir. MR9-552. The Ori are back."

John sighed. Despite the adrenaline spike, he couldn't even muster up the energy to be fearful. Disappointed, sure, but they'd known that the Ori return was a 'when' and not an 'if'. "Fantastic. What's going on?"

Ronon appeared on the nearby hill. John gestured for him and Teyla to go collect Rodney and his toys and then started walking toward the hole in the ground they'd dropped Rodney into earlier. (It was more like a sand trap, but it had been funny this morning.)

"Lieutenant Osgeny took his marines out to MR9-522 to pick up the produce we'd contracted for," Radner said. "Got there to find a prior preaching in the center of town."

John didn't remember a thing about MR9-522 -- its local name, if he'd ever been there, what sort of local culture they had.

"Everyone get out safely?"

There'd been a lot of discussion after Gauhan, both within the context of the Ori and the general attitude toward hostage situations. There'd been an across-the-board shift toward a less sympathetic posture and they were still fine-tuning how to negotiate a strategy that kept their people safe without sacrificing their ethics to do so. John had absolute faith in the men he commanded, but that didn't mean he couldn't hope that they didn't have to test drive the new policies just yet.

"Yes, sir," Radner confirmed. "With the goods, even. Osgeny spent some time talking to the locals. They're not interested in Origin -- or our help."

John made a non-committal noise, unsure if he should be either surprised or disappointed by this go-it-alone attitude. The Ori were different from the Wraith -- folly in dealing with the Wraith made you dinner, but messing up against the Ori turned you into everyone else's problem.

"We'll be back in twenty," he said. "Sheppard out."

By the time he got over to where Rodney had set up his equipment, the first wave of bargaining and grousing was already over. Which was why he'd sent Ronon -- Ronon didn't bargain. "Let's go, Rodney," John exhorted. "We've got Ori."

That pretty much cut short all protests.

They packed the jumper quickly and headed back home. John shared the limited intel he had, but it was so limited that nobody bothered asking him to elaborate, which was just as well.

Back when he'd been reading over the weekly schedule, it had seemed like half of Atlantis had missions scheduled for today; it took two attempts to dial in to Atlantis before they got through. Once they were back and the jumper was parked, John left his team to their own devices. There were two sergeants waiting to help Rodney with his equipment, Ronon and Teyla could take care of themselves, and Radner was waiting near the office for him.

John gestured for Radner to walk and talk en route to the control room; he'd need to check in with Elizabeth at least.

"What's the lowdown on the planet? M-whateveritis?" he asked as they started down the stairs.

"MR9-522, sir. Local name Cordinar, basic Pegasus pre-industrial urban," Radner replied. "Population about three hundred. First contact by Major Lorne's team last year. We gave them a crash course in the joys of public sanitation and started them on a sewage system in return for food. Vegetables, mostly. Not big on the Ancients, no real trouble with the Wraith, not too interested in either making friends or influencing people."

They exited the stairwell in the hallway that ran behind Elizabeth's office and led to the control room and the network of conference rooms. John sensed the tension in the control room as an undercurrent more than as anything he could point at and identify as a change in behavior. The control room engineers were kind of the canaries in the coal mine -- civilians with front-row views to the nexus of Atlantis's hard power, they tended to be more sensitive its vicissitudes than the command staff and military, both of whom were trained to handle problems without freaking out.

Radner stayed in the control room and John took a left to cross the catwalk to Elizabeth's office. She looked up from where she was reading her computer screen and greeted him with an arched eyebrow.  "Welcome back," she said wryly.

"Yeah," he sighed, dropping down into one of the chairs across from her desk. Out in the gate room, the alarm for stargate activation sounded. "That seems to be the theme of the day."

Elizabeth gestured at her screen. "I've already asked G-2 to start searching the database for any references to either MR9-522 or Cordinar," she began. "It wasn't on our short list of planets to check, but..."

But all that meant was that it didn't have a big sign in Ancient saying 'Ori Were Here.'

"The troubling thing is that they aren't even anywhere near the top half of the long list, either," Elizabeth went on with a frown. The short list wasn't that short and they'd only barely gotten started on the longer one; after a month of no Ori sightings on the most probable planets, they'd necessarily had to return some of the allocated resources to doing what they'd previously been doing (which had, in turn, included looking for the Ori, just not as the sole objective). Ori or no Ori, they still had to eat, still had to fight the Wraith, still had to survive. "I'm afraid of what we're looking at if G-2 can't come up with a connection."

With a sample size of one, there had been no way to even guess how or why the Ori had chosen Gauhan to be first. They hadn't gotten enough intel out of any of the Gauhani, even Consolis, and most of what Gillick remembered hadn't been strategic in nature.

"They'll come up with a connection," John assured, not quite sure he believed it. "I can't imagine that the Ori are planning a conquest of Pegasus by cold-calling stargates and seeing who's home. Telemarketing as a means of galactic domination doesn't seem their style."

The gate alarm went off again. He turned to look over his shoulder.

"It's been like this all day," Elizabeth said, sounding a little exasperated. "I feel like I'm working in Grand Central Terminal."

John turned back to her. "Now you know why I didn't want an office here."

They both knew that wasn't the reason, wasn't close, but Elizabeth smiled anyway.

"Where are you going to be?" she asked instead.

"Lorne's office," John answered. It was where the marines knew to look first for him and the necessary work would be easier with Lorne right there. Plus there would be the usual buffer zone advantage of working out of Little Tripoli -- Rodney wasn't the only one who'd hesitate chasing him down there the way they would if he were somewhere more civilian-friendly.  

He could hear Mitchell in the gate room; his team must have just returned. "I should go get started on the mind-numbing reading portion of the program."

There were times when it didn't really matter if he'd gone over the material before the briefings started -- anything to do with Science, say, since Rodney tended to repeat everything anyway on the assumption that nobody could read -- but this wasn't going to be one of them.

"I'll see you later," Elizabeth said as he stood.

He went back into the control room. Radner had commandeered the gate room officer's station, leaving Lieutenant Murray to stand on the balcony, which he'd pretty much be doing anyway with this much activity down below.

"Colonel Mitchell's back?" John prompted Radner, who was pecking away at the laptop and squinting.

"Yes, sir," Radner confirmed, looking up. "We had a dry firing of the stargate just before that, though -- incoming wormhole established, nothing came through, it shut down. Don't know who or why. Colonel Mitchell said that it wasn't him."

Like everything else that was going on today, a dry firing could be either innocuous or suspicious and they didn't have enough information to say which. Anything from a wrong number to the Ori -- or the Wraith -- checking to see if they could get a lock on Atlantis's gate. Looking out into the gate room, he could see all of the marines at the ready positions.

"Got an ETA on Major Lorne?" John asked. Not that Lorne wasn't used to coming in to his office to find John already there, but this was going to be one of those afternoons full of constant interruptions and it would be better if they could split the responsibility of responding to visitors and radioed queries.

"We haven't been able to raise him, sir," Radner replied with a quick frown. "I've sent Weapons' Second Platoon to search. Planet's supposed to be uninhabited -- he was there to survey it for a possible civilian research site."

There were any number of reasons why Lorne was off radio and for every worst-case scenario he could come up with, there were five completely innocuous ones that would have been everyone's first guesses if the Ori hadn't shown up this morning.

"Keep me informed," John said, sighing. "I'm heading over to Little Tripoli."

En route to the transporter, he ran into Teyla. She asked him if she should delay her planned trip to Mars, where she had planned to work with the refugees there. He told her that he didn't think that was necessary yet, although she should definitely keep her radio on.

He stopped by his quarters to pick up his laptop and drop off his jacket, then went over to Lorne's office. Getting to it was a bit like running a gauntlet -- passing by open office doors when everyone knew that the Ori were back. Nobody would come out and ask questions, but he felt the eyes on him nonetheless.

He was crouching down to retrieve the adapter plug for his laptop when his radio beeped. "Sir?" Radner began. "We've got a report back from the SAR team we sent after Major Lorne. It seems the radios are useless on the planet. The dry fire was them trying to call back into Atlantis. Cardejo had to send a sergeant to a third planet to call in. They're going to track down the Major's team the old-fashioned way and bring 'em home."

"Good news," John replied, standing up and plugging in his laptop. It was. It solved two mysteries (for the better) before they could be worked into panics by the rumor mill. "Do we want to send a jumper out to expedite the process?"

Recalling Lorne was supposed to get him back earlier than he'd have otherwise been. Having to dedicate a platoon to hunting him down was a waste of resources they might need in the near future.

"Was about to ask you for that, sir," Radner replied.

"Consider it authorized," John said, watching his laptop boot up.

"Also, Colonel Caldwell is looking for you," Radner added blandly.

John grinned. Radner had come to Atlantis as Everett's aide-de-camp, but he'd since developed a strong aversion to anyone horning in on the normal Atlantis chain of command. None of the captains were ever disrespectful or insubordinate; Polito was politely passive-aggressive with people he didn't care for, Armstrong had the most amazing selective hearing John had ever witnessed, Hanzis had the bland critical-thinking-is-above-my-pay-grade look down pat, and Radner was formal and deferential in proportion to his dislike. But if John were to actually place a bet on which company commander was most likely to be caught speaking ill of someone sticking their nose where it was felt not to belong, it would be Radner. Who was the civilians' second favorite officer after Lorne because, as with Lorne, none of them saw his reserve for what it was.

"So noted," John said. He understood why the marines were still skeptical of Caldwell after all this time: at the start of Atlantis's effective separation from Earth, Caldwell had made it very clear that he wasn't assuming command of the Atlantis military because it was still geared toward Pegasus and he would rather focus on the fight back in the Milky Way. But with the Milky Way closed to them, the Daedalus out of operation, and Atlantis now officially facing a two-front war, the fact that Caldwell had spent the better part of a year fighting the Ori while the rest of them had been dealing with the Wraith was no longer honorable-but-essentially-irrelevant. Caldwell hadn't tried to take over after Gauhan, but there'd been a lot more involvement on his part since then and John had found himself defending his turf in ways he'd never really tried to do since getting involved with the Stargate Program.

Toward that end, while knowledge was power, he had neither the time nor the inclination to read everything already put together on Cordinar, so he decided to skip over the civilian documents and wait until the big briefing for G-2's summarization of what was in the Ancient database. Little Tripoli's own notes on the planet and people were spare and concise and relevant; Lorne was an old hand at SGC-style understatement and kept the exposition in his reports to a minimum.

"Is it just me or is there something ass-backwards about the Ori starting off Round Two with a planet that doesn't have any problem with the Wraith or any truck with the Ancients?" Mitchell asked from the doorway. When John looked up, Mitchell gestured with his chin, an unspoken question whether John wanted to be interrupted. John waved him in. Having Mitchell around would dissuade most other visitors except for the actually important ones. It might even keep Caldwell at bay.

"I get why they started with the Gauhani," Mitchell went on, coming in and sitting down at the far end of the table from John, the side closest to the door. "They were Ori without the Ori, at least that's how it must have looked at the start. But why pick a planet that's not going to be an easy sell? If you're gonna establish a bridgehead, then why pick a planet you're going to have to beat into submission? Especially if they're doing it with priors and not with armies."

John held up his hands in helplessness. He had no idea. They'd all spent a lot of time (a lot) trying to learn what they could from the Ori's conquest of the Milky Way and apply what they learned to defending Pegasus. But so far, it had been like comparing apples and oranges. "Maybe they're working off an old playbook," he said. "It's what we did when we got here."

It had been a theory put forth after Gauhan -- that the Ori were acting as if nothing had chanced in the millennia since they'd left the galaxy. It wasn't a train of thought that they considered a 'least dangerous' option -- sure, the Ori could be working from outdated intel, but it was still intel that the good guys didn't have access to. The Ancients had done such a thorough job of wiping away traces of the Ori that modern-day Atlantis had no chance to anticipate the Ori's actions even if they were essentially repeating history.

"I hate this," Mitchell sighed, rubbing his face with his hands. "It's straddling the border between known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns. We're guessing and then working from our guessing and then we're getting so involved that we forget that we've based our entire game plan on conjecture and not fact. But what else are we going to do?"

There wasn't anything else to do except sit on their hands, which Mitchell well knew. John was about to say something to that effect when Polito stuck his head in the doorway. "Sir?"

"Join the party, captain," John said, waving him in. "I'm sure Major Lorne won't mind so long as we clean up after ourselves."

Polito grinned and the rest of him appeared. "Just wanted to let you know that our team is back from Gauhan. No activity reported. Just the usual milling around and rock-throwing."

Gauhan had mostly settled down and the people there were rebuilding what had been destroyed in the assault by Atlantis and the subsequent skirmishes. The version of Origin that the Gauhani had practiced had been heavily vested in education and personal betterment -- enlightenment through learning and experience -- but the Origin that the Ori imposed was less about improving oneself through knowledge than about eliminating the alternatives and looking great by default. (The "Snow White approach" is what Mitchell had called it early on. It was a valid comparison, even if the discussion had ended up with some of the lieutenants named after the seven dwarfs.) They were hoping that Gauhan would, with their imposed isolation as both time-out and punishment, revert back to their earlier beliefs rather than stick with the newer, more violent version. But two months wasn't enough time to tell whether anyone had really come to accept the error of their ways. Anyone who went to Gauhan was usually dodging fist-sized rocks and other things hurled along with the invective.

"That's good news, at least," John said with a grimace. "Everyone else accounted for?"

They weren't enforcing a full recall, but after Lorne had failed to respond to his radio, they'd gone through the process of checking in on all off-world missions.

"Yes, sir," Polito replied. "We've warned everyone to be careful, but nobody's felt the need to pull in."

Back at the beginning, when all they'd had to worry about was Wraith, it wasn't that unusual for scientific missions to get aborted because some other planet had gotten attacked. Now even the civilians were inured to the dangers.

By the time Lieutenant Murray radioed to let John know that Major Lorne's team had returned to Atlantis, both Polito and Mitchell were long gone. John, now on his second read-through of the files on Cordinar, decided to wait where he was.

"With all due respect, sir," Mitchell sighed, "I'm not saying it's a bad idea. I'm saying it's an idea we have tried before and failed. A few times."

Caldwell frowned and John debated whether or not to step in. He could see both sides and knew both men understood the other's point, but he didn't know if they'd get bogged down butting heads. Caldwell and Mitchell had worked closely together for the months that the Daedalus had been shuttling back and forth between galaxies and it hadn't been the smoothest of partnerships. Mitchell was used to essentially getting his way because he was the commander of SG-1 and Caldwell was used to being captain of his own ship and not taking orders from junior officers. It hadn't been the happiest of marriages of convenience and John knew that his own relationship with Caldwell had inadvertently benefited from the tension. (That he had been deemed the lesser of two frustrations was both amusement and insult.)

"I know that, Colonel Mitchell," Caldwell said and John relaxed a little. It was only when it was 'Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell' that things were past the point of repair. Pulling rank was a guaranteed way to win an argument, but it was a pyrrhic victory and everyone at the table knew it. "I'm not suggesting that we make capturing a prior our sole response to our continued lack of useful strategic intelligence. I'm saying that it can't hurt and that we might get something useful out of the exercise before the prior self-detonates or otherwise terminates the interrogation."

John tapped his notes with his pencil, drawing both men's attention toward him. "Resource-wise, what do we need for a prior-napping? And how much risk are we assuming for the men who are going to be doing the deed?"

He was willing to make the attempt; Caldwell was right and they might get something useful out of a prior, even if it wasn't going to be what they most desperately wanted in terms of information. But it was only useful if it didn't cost them more resources than they'd be saving.

Mitchell grimaced. "Depends," he said. "The danger to our people comes from how long it takes for the inhibitor to be tuned in. Priors can do a lot of damage before we get the right frequency. Hell, they can do a lot of damage after, too, if we're not careful."

"How's that project going, Mister Quinn?" Lorne asked. Jonas had been invited in because his experience with the Ori still dwarfed that of everyone else in Atlantis put together.

Rodney had initially not cared that the work on the prior inhibitor was being farmed out to Jonas and a small Engineering subgroup; it was, at the time, a low-importance project compared to the many other things going on in Science's domain. But it had suddenly acquired much new relevance and stature in the past two months and John thought that the memory of Elizabeth yelling at Rodney that he had to share his toys and no, he couldn't replace Jonas as lead scientist on the project would keep him warm on many a cold night.

"I'm not sure we'll ever be able to significantly decrease the time it takes to tune in the device," Jonas admitted. "The priors we've tested it on were all on different frequencies and we've never been able to discern a pattern. I don't know if we'd be any more successful here, but I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to try."

John exchanged a worried glance with Lorne. For all of the mostly-quiet rivalry between Jonas and Rodney (mostly-quiet because it was mostly one-sided; Jonas understood that Rodney was in charge and was very laid back about the whole thing right up to the point where he really wasn't), they both got the same anticipatory gleam in their eyes that made everyone else around them nervous.

It was that nervousness that prompted Armstrong's question, John knew: "What about the complementary systems, Mister Quinn?"

The prior inhibitor worked so long as the prior being inhibited was kept from focusing his powers; various means of distraction had been discussed and tested, usually crowd control methods that had still been in the testing phase on Earth back before the Ori. White noise generators and pain ray guns were the most portable suggestions still being worked on; the marines were less fond of those tests than they were of the Munitions Task Force test drives, but still surprisingly game. Well, maybe not surprisingly; marines were marines.

"We're still experimenting with the mechanism," Jonas said, maybe with a little too much verve. "MTF has suggested using sonic waves that destabilize the target's equilibrium--"

"--and make them puke," Armstrong finished sourly. Everyone else at the table echoed the sentiment.

"The goal is to merely make the subject dizzy and unable to maintain their balance," Jonas said with a quirk of a smile, "But it requires delicate calibration to avoid that particular secondary effect, so it's not high on our list of options. If capturing and interrogating the prior on MR9-552 is still on the table, then I think we'd best be served with the pain ray, as ironic as that is."

John looked around the room. "Well, is it still on the table?"

The captains, in their roles as staff officers, had been working all afternoon on putting together a picture of the situation and the possible responses to it. John had gotten bits and pieces, but had mostly left them to do their thing -- he had had to put up with his own steady stream of interruptions; he wasn't inclined to make others suffer as well.

"A straightforward snatch-and-grab isn't going to be very straightforward, sir," Polito replied, looking up from his laptop. "We don't have a terrific success rate capturing priors in either galaxy and the location is going to be hostile, either because they've been converted or because we're ignoring their sovereignty by coming in when they told us not to."

"They're not going to let the prior plead sanctuary, are they?" Mitchell asked skeptically.

"If they do, sir," Hanzis, the battalion intelligence officer, answered, "then they'll be pulling it out of their asses on demand. Cordinar's not a real friendly place for strangers; they don't seem to have any refugees from the Wraith among the population. And on a prosperous trading planet like theirs, that means that they're turning people away."

John wondered what Teyla would think of Cordinar; he hadn't spoken to her at length since finding out the local name of the planet and neither of them -- or Ronon -- had recognized the alphanumeric identifier. (Rodney had, but only to say that it wasn't anywhere he'd gone.) The idea of turning away refugees was not unknown in Pegasus, but it was very, very uncommon. Even if a world was already stretched thin in terms of resources, they'd rarely turn away anyone seeking a place to stay. Especially if the asylum seeker could contribute to the local economy.

"So they're not Mister Roger's Neighborhood," John said. "What's the down side of going in without permission?"

Polito and Hanzis looked at each other and John knew this meant that they'd already debated the exact question and come up with an answer that they didn't think he would like.

"For the sake of expediency, sir, we can deal with the Cordinarians -- or whatever they call themselves -- by military force," Polito said. "We have the numerical and technological advantage to simply effect the outcome we desire. But it would be a messy clean-up diplomatically. Both internally and externally."

Translation: they didn't think Elizabeth would let them just march in with a bunch of marines.

"Cordinar doesn't so much have allies as they are part of a trade confederation," Hanzis picked up. "It's how they were able to scrounge up enough produce to trade to us in return for giving them sewers. They -- and the other worlds in the network -- have access to a pretty impressive list of resources and, frankly, sir, we'd be screwing ourselves if they shut us out and we had to cultivate replacement suppliers."

"What, like a small-scale Lucian Alliance?" Mitchell asked, mostly to Jonas, who shrugged. John had no idea, either. With rare exceptions, he'd pretty much stopped going on trade missions a couple of years back.

"Nothing quite so overtly thuggish, sir," Hanzis answered. "Although there's undoubtedly some strong-arming going on down the line. It's more like an extremely aggressive farm lobby, like we saw back on Earth. But instead of having their pliers to the 'nads of politicians, they've got a firm grip on the short-and-curlies of the bigger, more urban planets that either don't produce enough to feed their population or can't convert what they do produce into something fungible."

"And Atlantis is still far enough from self-sufficiency to be their target audience," Caldwell said, not making it a question, since it wasn't. Back when they'd been getting resupply from Earth, they'd been able to trade simply to stimulate the economies of other worlds, but now they actually had to budget and their generosity had to be scaled back in favor of more prudent business decisions. They were getting better at marketing their services and they were constantly starting new crops, but Atlantis had a long way to go before autarky.

"Yes, sir," Hanzis agreed.

"So our choice is to let Cordinar fall to the Ori or interfere and risk their wrath?" John asked. "Don't we starve either way?"

He was pretty sure he was going to be nursing a headache by the time this got to Elizabeth's desk.

"If we leave them to the prior, sir," Lorne said with a frown, "then we can still deal with the other planets. So if we are going by interests instead of ethics, our choice is really about whether we want the trouble with the Cordinarians and their alliance now or trouble with the Ori later if they establish their bridgehead there."

John sighed. Yeah, this was just getting better and better.

"What is our window for diplomacy?" Caldwell asked. "Can we go in there and try to negotiate for permission to come in and grab the prior?"

John looked at Mitchell expectantly. He made a face. "Osgeny said the prior had been there for what, three days? The fire-and-brimstone in the town square is pretty much it for their soft sell. If the prior's getting converts -- and, no matter how hard a nut Cordinar is to crack, he'll have a few -- then he might hold off on the hammer to see if he can tip the balance the easy way. But if this place is as disinterested as everyone seems to think they are, then he's probably only waiting for enough converts to accept Origin on behalf of everyone else. We may have a day, we may have two, but we might have a couple of hours instead. Gauhan was hit by the plague pretty much right away and they were half converted already."

Osgeny had been present earlier, answering questions about the brief he'd prepared. He'd done as much as could have been expected of him in that situation -- more, even. He'd explained to the local leaders that the Ori were more dangerous than annoying, that they didn't take rejection well, and that there was a group of people who'd love to come in and take care of the pest in the market. The Council of Cordinar had taken his words under advisement, but as there'd been no reports of plague, no threats from the prior, and no exhortations to commit murder in the name of Origin, Osgeny's pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

"If we can get permission from the Cordinarians to go in, do we have a plan?" John asked. "That sounds like our path of least resistance."

John didn't think an extradition treaty would work out, but Elizabeth would take whatever came afterward better if they started off seeking a diplomatic solution first.

Polito nodded. "Most of one, sir; it still needs some refinements depending on the resources available. We've got Gillick locked in a room robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Gillick was recovered enough to serve as the battalion's logistics officer, if not yet ready to stand a shift in the gate room or accompany his platoon in a combat situation.

"You'll have what you need," John promised. He waited a beat. "What about if we don't get permission?"

A tiny shrug from Polito. "It's pretty much the same plan, sir, just with more fire support."

Kind of what John expected. "Mitchell, you up for leading the mission?"

Mitchell had been scribbling notes to Jonas, but that had nothing to do with the surprised look on his face. "Hell, yeah," he answered with a grin.

This was the kind of mission that John would have happily taken for himself -- he still wanted it now -- but it was tactically better for Mitchell to do it as well as better for the battalion. Mitchell needed high-profile missions of his own to establish himself among the marines, most of whom still knew him more by reputation than experience, and this was close to what he'd been doing in the Milky Way. John could still get into the action -- they were going to have to interrogate the prior on another world rather than bring him back to Atlantis -- but this would let Mitchell do his thing away from John's own shadow and would (as a secondary bonus) appease Elizabeth, who was slowly getting more vocal about how much risk John assumed for himself.

The rest of the meeting was brief and geared toward the particulars of picking and preparing a planet to interrogate the prior on and how to show up on Cordinar looking for permission and prepared to take by force when that wasn't granted.

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31 July, 2008