Qui Habitat: Chapter Eleven

by Domenika Marzione

They came through the gate not quite in a tumble, but definitely in a rush. It wasn't 'stop, drop, and roll', more 'get the fuck out of the way because getting zapped by a blast fired from light years away still hurts like hell.' John yanked Rodney with him toward the side of the platform, behind the marines with their rifles raised and away from the direct fire still coming through the wormhole until first the shield went up and then the wormhole closed.

"That was entertaining!" John announced to no one in particular. He grinned at the marines and they grinned back. Rodney, however, rolled his eyes and frowned in return. Getting chased off of a planet by the Wraith wasn't exactly entertaining, but it was perhaps a little more... welcome? No, not welcome. Maybe it was just the familiarity of it -- by this point, the Wraith were the villain equivalent of comfort food: you knew it wasn't good for you, but you also knew exactly what you were getting.

"That was close," Teyla corrected sternly, but John could see the glimmer of excitement in her eyes, too. Everyone was safe and the adrenaline could be appreciated for what it was.

"That was fun," Ronon announced unashamedly as he holstered his weapon. "We good?" he asked John, gesturing toward the door.

"We're good," John replied, since the debrief was going to be short and wouldn't require additional testimony.

"Provided none of us get coronaries," Rodney grumbled, but jogged to catch up with Ronon anyway.

John looked up at the control room balcony. "Lieutenant Biswas, is Doctor Weir free?"

Might as well tell Elizabeth now that there was no news rather than have her hector him for a month for a report that would boil down to "we came, we saw Wraith, we ran from the Wraith, we left."

"Yes, sir," Biswas replied, leaning forward a little bit to get a better angle to double-check.

John unclipped his P-90 and handed it to Teyla with a smile of thanks; the only people allowed to carry rifles on that level were the marines on guard duty. (It had been Caldwell's suggestion and John had gone along with it for the sake of compromise rather than point out that someone could do just as much damage with their sidearm or by overpowering a marine.) He took the steps two at a time, nodding to the familiar faces in the control room and especially to Biswas, who was the only marine officer who hadn't been part of the Stargate Program before being punted through a wormhole in one of the evacuations and still sometimes looked like he thought John might send him home if that were possible.

"You're home early," Elizabeth said as he stopped in her doorway. She didn't look up, instead squinting at the screen and continuing to type.

"The locals weren't too happy to see us," John explained with a shrug she didn't see.

Elizabeth looked up. "Ori?"

John shook his head no. "It's a Wraith planet."

There'd been at least two hive ships parked on the planet, which was a little weird considering that there'd been no real evidence that the fracturing of the common bonds had ever been healed. Of course, most of their intel on that had come from Michael, who was neither trustworthy nor necessarily in a position to know the truth when he'd told them. But, then again, they'd only gone there in the first place because the Ancient database -- another source renown for its (in)accuracy -- had said that there should have been people there working the ore mines.

"Is that all?" she asked with mock boredom, fingers flexing over the keyboard. "These days, that's hardly enough to exclude it from being a vacation spot."

"Don't give the marines any ideas," John exhorted. "They'll request it for their next MWR day."

A smile from Elizabeth. "And how's the current one coming together?"

He held up his hands in mock surrender. "I am happy to say that I have no idea. It involves a barbecue, beach toys, and some complicated scheme by which the marines intend to get as many of the female civilians into bikinis as possible."

Actually, the marines were going for topless, but they'd settle for bikinis.

"Would you like me to act surprised?" Elizabeth asked, eyebrow arched. "I can be if you'd like."

"No need," John demurred. "Although if you could get Life Sciences to get back to the organizing committee on whether those clam things are edible, that would be great. I was supposed to ask Rodney, but I don't think he and Doctor Salinger are acknowledging the other's existence right now."

"No, they're not," Elizabeth sighed with frustration, then smiled brightly. "A clam bake would be fun."

"Only if they're not poisonous," John reminded her. "Otherwise, we're going to have to keep the doctors on call because that's not going to stop the marines from trying to eat them anyway."

Elizabeth nodded, since she knew as well as John did that "slightly toxic" was really only a challenge as far as the marines went.

"I just came by to let you know that the mission was a bit of a bust apart from the 'getting Rodney some exercise' secondary objective," he said, pushing off of the door jamb. "I'll let you get back to whatever you're doing."

Before she came up with anything for him to do with the sudden gap in his afternoon schedule.

"Thanks, I think," Elizabeth replied wryly. "Are you in for the rest of the day after your perambulation through Wraith territory?"

John shook his head no and grimaced since he knew what was coming next would suck all of the levity from the conversation. "It's my turn to go to MZ3-231."

Just an alphanumeric designation, no name. They'd never learned it, nor anything about the place except that something that could have been prior plague had killed all of the inhabitants several days ago. He and Mitchell and Lorne, along with the captains, were taking turns going out there to help with the disposal of bodies.

"How is that going?" Elizabeth asked, smile gone.

John shrugged. He tried to pretend it was just another unpleasant task the military had to accomplish -- and some days, he almost believed it. "It's almost done. I haven't looked at the stats since the last time I was there, but it should be only a day or two more at most. Everyone wants to get it done before nature takes its course any more than it already has."

As they had with Gauhan and then with Cordinar, they kept track of the demography of the dead. With Gauhan, there had at least been names and it had seemed almost like a memorial -- Consolis and the others had said prayers for each family, for each loss. But with Cordinar and now this place, MZ3-231, where they didn't even know the local name let alone their customs or if they'd worshiped the Ancients or anyone else, they had no such opportunities. Which, John thought, was probably better. It was too much already to be burying children and hoping that they were at least in the same mass grave as their parents. He'd been in what had once been Yugoslavia a couple of times over the course of the 1990's and had seen some of the mass graves from the sky as he'd flown over them. Seeing it from the ground was remarkably dissimilar.

"Of course," Elizabeth said with a slight grimace. The plague had only hit a couple of days before the marines had come, but it was enough for decomposition to begin. "If there's anything you need....."

John shook his head. They would bring plenty of water to wash away dirt and tears and the gore of the task, juice for thirst and energy, and heavy hearts. Nothing else really belonged. They had no obligation to tend to the dead -- these weren't allies or friends or anyone they'd formed any kind of association with or been responsible for -- and the task itself was gruesome and soul-crushing and unpleasant by any measure of the word. But the alternative was even more unpalatable and so they buried these strangers and said words over the pits they dug for graves and hoped that if the worst ever happened, that someone would do the same for them.

"I'll go talk to Doctor Salinger today," Elizabeth said. "I think this beach party will be a little more necessary than usual."

John had originally scheduled about two hours between mission end and the shift change for MZ3-231, so coming back early got him some extra time. He grabbed some food then went looking for his laptop, which he thought was on the desk in his quarters but turned out to be on the conference table in Lorne's office, and got some work done. The Ori hadn't really made him more efficient an administrator, but he'd originally planned to work after he'd gotten back from MZ3-231 and the unappealing thought of having to deal with battalion bullshit after there was enough impetus to get it done now.

Lorne himself appeared about a half-hour before John had to go down and get re-kitted, dropping down into his chair with the sort of exhaustion that he rarely let anyone see.

There wasn't anything to do but exchange wry grins of complete understanding, but John privately made a note to himself to gently ask the captains if Lorne was failing to delegate responsibilities again. The stooges were not about to volunteer that information -- it would look like bitching and they liked Lorne -- but they'd already been through this once before and John didn't think as many verbal gymnastics would be required this time around. Getting Mitchell more involved in the day-to-day operations was supposed to be a load off of Lorne's shoulders, but Cam was still getting comfortable and everyone (including and especially John) had long gotten used to Lorne fixing everything. They didn't call him the Wizard of Oz for nothing.

John finished writing up the notes on his Wraith adventure and bid Lorne farewell; he left his laptop behind because there was a battalion staff meeting at 0730 tomorrow morning and he'd need it then.

The massing of marines to draw rifles and ammo and pick up repaired equipment from Ordnance and then heading to the gate room was subdued as far as any massing of marines went. Everyone knew what was waiting for them, even if they hadn't seen this particular planet yet. There were still the usual stupid jokes -- marines didn't tell any other kind -- but it was less raucous than usual.

In most ways, MZ3-231 was a typical Pegasus planet -- lots of trees, grass, a completely unclear path from the stargate to the town. That it was bereft of people wasn't that weird -- the Wraith were still overpopulated and underfed and still more interested in feeding themselves than in anything else. But even abandoned worlds had some life to them -- cullings were just that, not razings -- and MZ3-231 shared none of that.

The work here was a choice between backbreaking or heartbreaking -- attending to either the pits they were using as burial sites or the business of body collection. John had spent time at both tasks already and thought the pit labor was easier; sore muscles healed faster. He greeted Radner near the pits, both of them stepping aside so the marines guiding the reconfigured MALP, loaded down with bags of lime, could get past.

"We close?" John asked, silently thankful for the regular breeze. The smell wasn't as bad as it could have been -- after the first two days, the temperature had been cool and the marines had been free with the chemical cleansers in the town -- but the wind helped and John hoped it would continue.

"Just about, sir," Radner replied, stripping off his work gloves. The officers took the same jobs as the marines here. "We're down to the last square on the grid, but it looks like it was probably the last area affected -- there are signs that the locals were collecting there and that they were trying to flee."

John grimaced; one of the only things that had made this task less unpleasant was the thought that while nobody had seen it coming, they hadn't lasted long enough to suffer much. It had struck here during the day, unlike Cordinar, judging by where the bodies were being found, and there hadn't been any signs of any kind of reaction -- until now.

"Safir and a couple of his people are running around," Radner went on. "He said he'd check in before he left, so I am going to assume that he hasn't."

Yoni and his team -- they hadn't been formally coalesced into a task force, but that was more because Yoni deplored bureaucracy than any reflection of reality -- had been regulars at all of the sites thus far, taking samples and pictures and doing whatever else they did. John had been kept duly informed via memos, of course, but both he and Elizabeth figured that handling Yoni was a job best left to Beckett and thus most of his knowledge was a little vague on the details.

The changeover in personnel went quickly -- those who were here wanted to go quickly. John let the lieutenants sort out who was starting where after bidding farewell to Radner. Gillick -- back on active duty for all of three days -- ended up with the job of running the body retrieval in the village while Paik managed the burial site and John suspected it was as much about not wanting to tire Gillick out as the personalities of the two lieutenants. Gillick, fading scars hidden by his shirt, had been run through the wringer in Little Tripoli before he'd been cleared, but everyone knew he was still feeling the effects of his injuries and the layoff that followed.

John accompanied Gillick's platoon into the town for the relief-in-place of Patchok's unit. The walk to the initial site had been full of chatter, but there wasn't any talking now as they passed through the streets; in the silence, they followed the sounds of the marines still at work as much as the grid map. The 'life, interrupted' feel of the town had largely disappeared; the marines had righted upturned buckets and cleared away spoiling food as they'd removed bodies and the result was something closer to a ghost town. Not a ghost town like Atlantis had been when they'd first arrived -- John was pretty sure it was entirely in his mind that this place felt like the people had been torn away -- but not as though if the walls could talk, they'd scream. It looked like Cordinar did now, though, empty and haunted.

"Staff Sergeant, have you seen Doctor Safir around?" John asked when he saw Ortilla.

The big man wiped his sweaty brow with a towel he'd tucked into his belt. Like everyone else, he looked weary in a way that had little to do with his physical exertions. "Haven't seen Doc in a couple of hours, sir," he replied, looking around and then down at his watch. "He and Doctor Christensen were going off to Delta-Four to do something with wind."

Christensen was a meteorologist on loan from the Physics unit; Rodney referred to him as "the Weregild" since he considered losing Christensen's services to be the price paid for getting rid of people he didn't want (i.e., various members of Life Sciences) to Yoni's group and a few other specialized task forces.

"He missing, sir?" Suarez asked.

"No," John assured, since Suarez sounded more than idly curious. "I'm just seeing if I can save myself getting chewed out over the radio for interrupting him."

Suarez's concern melted into amusement and not a little bit of pride. "Good luck with that, sir."

Next to him, Gillick chuckled, too, and John felt vaguely plotted-against. But a little levity in this place did a world of good, so he just smirked.

Gillick and Gunny Tommasso exchanged notes with Patchok and Gunny Haumann and John wandered off, wanting to get a feel for what was going on so that when it came time to figure out what to do with the place, he had an opinion. Cordinar had become part of the Atlantean empire (so to speak, although sometimes it seemed to speak closer to the truth than others) pretty much by accident and John didn't want that to become any sort of precedent -- either the acquisition of devastated worlds or the means by which they'd come into custody.

Polito acknowledged that he'd let his emotions get the better of him when he'd been 'visited' in Cordinar by representatives of the commercial alliance, but neither John nor Elizabeth had chosen to reprimand him any further than a stern talking-to. Polito had spent the day burying children -- Cordinar had converted its material wealth into another kind of bounty -- when the representatives had shown up like some medieval mafia's stooges. After listening to their attempts at intimidation, Matt, backed up by fifty marines, explained that possession was 90% of the law in any galaxy. And so thus Cordinar became Atlantis's.

After much debate and a half-dozen proposals by different factions, Cordinar was slated to become another refugee village -- this time, with indoor plumbing and paving stones. Teyla was doing most of the people-work on the project, which was still in its infancy, seeking out groups of refugees who were willing to move there. John thought it would be a little like being the real estate agent for the house in the Amityville Horror, but Teyla reported that many were amenable after being told that whatever had killed the previous residents was no longer a threat. People moved on to worlds decimated by the Wraith, after all. Mitchell was handling everything else, including security and logistics and keeping the marines and the scientists from turning on each other. John wasn't sure which one of the two had the harder job.

Whether they'd need this place, too, he wasn't sure about, either. Whether they could afford it was another matter entirely. They had more marines than before, but committing them to the full-time policing and protection of off-world locations was not a thing done lightly. With the allocation of marines came other resource requirements -- power, development and maintenance of infrastructure, food unless they could sustain themselves (which would be down the road, if ever) -- and the supplies of everything were not limitless. They were already working to make MZ3-231 livable, but nobody knew yet for whom or whether it would be under Atlantis's growing aegis.

If they were going to be sending scientists or other people from the Milky Way, they had a higher level of responsibility than if they were just going to turn it over to refugees from the Wraith. Which was why they were tacitly discouraging Earth personnel from relocating from Mars (or Atlantis) to Cordinar. John wasn't completely comfortable with that sort of preference system -- necessary though it might be, especially for Earth citizens who had never been directly responsible for their own safety. Elizabeth, too, was concerned about creating, either in fact or in belief, a two-tiered system by which some people counted for more than others. John didn't think Teyla (or Ronon or anyone else who'd been in Atlantis for a while) thought that they were biased against people from Pegasus, but how did you explain that some refugees required more concern than others, which was what it looked like? For that reason alone, John was inclined to leave this place to whoever wanted it. The takeover of Cordinar would be enough of a suck on their time and energy -- especially if they'd pissed off the trade alliance enough to have to look for new food sources.

"Sir?" Gillick's voice came through John's radio.

"What's up, Lieutenant?" he replied, stopping in front of a small storefront. This world had been fairly developed for Pegasus -- stone-and-thatch homes and a tavern, a tannery, a forge, and a dry-goods store. It was vaguely Old West, but with less dust and no hitching posts.

"Doctor Safir's ready to take his team back to Atlantis, sir," Gillick reported. "Did you want to speak to him before he left?"

John looked in the open doorway. Once they determined that (if) everything was safe, they would strip the town of supplies -- bolts of cloth, half-treated leather, jars of preserved fruits, pots and pans, whatever else hadn't rotted or been ruined -- and the neatly organized shelves made John feel both guilty and resigned. "That depends," he said. "Does he have anything interesting he wants to tell me?"

Safir was on radio, so he could just answer if he wanted. But John was expecting Gillick to carry on the conversation because Yoni, for all of his antisocial tendencies, preferred talking to real people and not thin air.

"He wants to know where you're hiding, sir," Gillick reported. Some of the lieutenants would edit Yoni, but Gillick wasn't one of them.

"I'm in Charlie-Three," John replied. "And I'm not hiding."

Yoni found him about five minutes later -- the village wasn't that big and John hadn't wandered that far.

"What's up, Doc?" John asked. He never got tired of the joke, even if every Ph.D and MD in Atlantis quickly had. "Anything interesting blowing in the wind?"

"So far, it appears nothing is blowing in the wind," Yoni said, making a face. "Except hot air. Christensen has been around McKay too long -- he forgets that what he finds fascinating, the rest of us find trivial and arcane and generally irrelevant."

John smiled both in recognition of the sentiment and at Yoni's frustration -- Christensen was but a cheap copy of the original, after all. "But?" he prompted, since Yoni hadn't tracked him down to tell him that everything was hunky-dory and Christensen talked too much.

"What is going to be your recommendation for this place?" Yoni asked, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "If I may ask."

"Haven't made up my mind yet," John said with a shrug. He was used to seeing Yoni as a kind of subordinate to Lorne because of their off-world team, but within Atlantis Lorne and Yoni were essentially equals and within the scope of the prior plague and its effects, Yoni had more authority than all of them. "I don't think we're running short of space and expansion is expensive, but I'm not set on anything yet. Why? Something you don't like about the place?"

Before they had to worry about the expenditures of human and material resources, MZ3-231 had to be cleared for habitation by Medical, which really meant Yoni and his task force since Carson would be working off of their findings.

Yoni didn't answer straightaway, instead walking slowly toward the dry goods store and in through the open door. John followed.

"The prior plague has a higher mortality rate in Pegasus than it did in the Milky Way," Yoni said, picking up a small white cloth that was maybe a handkerchief or a fancy napkin. He unfolded it, looked it over, and then re-folded it neatly and put it back down. "The sample size is still relatively small, which might explain why we haven't come across even one naturally immune person. There are competing theories for why there is a difference -- if there in fact is a difference -- and most of them are irrelevant to the decision at hand. The bottom line is that the prior plague is doing damage at a rate that we cannot check."

John leaned against a counter, waiting.

"We haven't found a trigger here," Yoni went on, turning around and leaning against the chest against the wall. "Prior plagues can and are carried in their inactive form, but they require some mechanism initiated by the priors to be activated so that they may kill. We haven't found any indication that there was a prior on this world. No Books of Origin lying around, no signs and markings on any building, nothing at all."

"They're still looking," John said, but he knew that the lack of Ori paraphernalia was making more than just Yoni nervous -- the idea that the Ori had just shown up, killed everyone, and left made sense from the evidence, if not necessarily from the Ori's behavior in the Milky Way. But, as they were constantly reminded, they didn't know what the Ori's plan was for Pegasus. "Maybe something will come up in this last sector -- it was the last to fall."

"Or maybe there was no prior," Yoni countered, crossing his arms over his chest and holding his elbows. "We've done autopsies and are running tests and we still don't know what killed these people. There are markers that could be prior plague, but could also be something else."

John shook his head. He didn't even want to think about some crazy illness that wasn't prior plague. "An entire world wiped out at once by some mystery disease and it's not related?"

"Not unrelated," Yoni corrected. "Very related. If we could isolate the damned thing, we would have a chance to tell if it's the same virus we've been facing all along or if there's been a viral shift. In which case we may be looking at a pandemic and if it weren't for the fact that we've got no cure, we'd almost be able to appreciate the irony of the Ori accidentally killing the galaxy they want to enslave."

John sighed and rubbed his face with his hands. "Why don't you ever take me aside for good news?"

It was a (mostly) rhetorical question and Yoni took it as such.

"How much time do you think you'll need to figure out if this is the Ori's doing or a really unfortunate accident?" John asked, mentally rifling through the list of everything that would have to be done if this turned out to be the latter. "And are the marines at risk?"

"Maybe a week and I don't think so," Yoni replied. "I've got everyone who has ever taken apart a cell working on it, but the tests themselves take time. And as for the marines, nobody's gotten sick yet and I've already taken blood samples from different platoons."

John nodded. He could tell Yoni that whatever Yoni needed, he would get, but Yoni knew that already. "Why did you ask what I wanted to do with this place?" he asked instead.

"Whether or not there has been a viral shift, keeping Mars and the mainland isolated may be the only way to keep them safe," Yoni answered with a shrug. "It's not ideal and it won't work long-term, but it's better than nothing. Cordinar will have its own problems when the time comes."

"I'd never be as happy to find a copy of the Book of Origin as I would be now," John said sourly, pushing off the counter.

"You and me both," Yoni agreed, following him back outside. He turned right to head back toward the stargate while John went left to head back to where the marines were working. John found Gillick taking pictures of a room that smelled strongly of death and rot; there were five bodies inside, all adults, all in moderately advanced stages of decomposition. Outside, marines were waiting with stretchers covered in plastic sheeting. They didn't have the resources to give them shrouds or even body bags.

The process was routine now -- pictures before, body removal (if necessary), pictures afterward, investigate and catalog, move on. It was numbing, which was fortunate because it was miserable work. The platoon was split up by squads and John attached himself to one. They moved room to room in the small house as teams and he let Sergeant Silpert take the pictures, waiting for the go-ahead before going in to look around and pick up and put down objects that might have been significant to someone's life and might not have been before helping with the body removal. There were no Books of Origin, no religious iconography of any sort that John could tell. Nothing that would say that a prior had been here and even less to say that these people would have fought against accepting Origin.

Each house took about half an hour and with three squads working it was closer to two hours before the platoon finished the sector. The signs of flight that Radner had spoken about were there and even John had to turn away for a moment a few times -- the bodies of infants who had died next to where their parents had fallen hurt no matter how numb they tried to pretend they were. The adults hadn't gotten far; this was the opposite end of the town from the stargate and running into the woods wouldn't have saved them (getting to the stargate wouldn't have saved them, either), but it was the evidence of knowledge that something had gone wrong... it was a harder death than those who'd perished in ignorance.

The platoon escorted the last of the bodies to where Paik's marines were digging a fourth pit. They switched off tasks; Gillick's men got to take their anger and distress out on the earth and Paik and his marines started the sweep from the first sector -- looking for artifacts as well as any bodies that had been missed. John accepted a pair of work gloves and a shovel and stripped down to his t-shirt alongside the marines. Gillick did, too, dropping down into the growing hole with a pick in his hands despite exhortations from his marines that he stick to shoveling lime.

Pit-digging was therapeutic in its own way -- although John had needed a couple of aspirin after his last shift -- and allowed him time to think while also providing an opportunity to just not think. He did a little of both, wondering what to tell Elizabeth about Yoni's revelations and also losing himself in the set-stick-lift of shoveling dirt out of a hole.


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31 July, 2008