Qui Habitat: Chapter Twelve

by Domenika Marzione

Cam knew it was going to be one of those days when he could hear the debate from the other side of the jumper bay. Nevertheless, there was no turning back. Not when he had such a vested interest in the success of the operation. Not when everyone knew he had such a vested interest in the operation. Which is how Weir'd turned him into the military liaison for the project as well as chief guinea pig and why he'd never really objected.

He would put up with a lot for the chance to fly.

"Good morning, gentlemen," he said in his loudest, friendliest, just-caught-the-airmen-dicking-around-on-the-flight-line voice. He smiled broadly when Jonas and Zelenka stopped yelling at each other long enough to register his presence and then wonder what the hell he was so cheerful about. They weren't bickering per se, not like Zelenka and McKay could go at it, more that they just each had lots of ideas and talked over each other in their efforts to share them first, each getting louder until they were both in full roar and didn't realize it.

"No need to shout," Jonas chided, peering up with eager curiosity at the box in Cam's arms. "Breakfast?"

"Breakfast," Cam confirmed, holding the box away so that neither Jonas nor Zelenka could easily see inside. "But we'll wait for everyone to show up first."

This was the fourth 'field test' of the prototype device that would allow non-ATA gene carriers to operate puddle jumpers. The device didn't work, but it apparently didn't work in a way that was good and not bad, which was why they were still staging field tests. But, good or bad, 'not working yet' was still 'not working yet', which was why Cam was still essentially coffee boy and referee and not pilot. The actual pilot was nowhere to be found, which was not surprising. Staff Sergeant Reletti, both very used to engineers arguing in puddle jumpers and extremely unhappy about being dragooned into a project because he had the ATA gene (instead of one of the pilot-lieutenants), had made a practice of showing up exactly on time and no earlier.

Of course, it was "exactly on time" by marine standards, so he was still there ten minutes early by Cam's Air Force-compatible watch. As per what was becoming the usual, Reletti came armed with a book and his iPod, since apart from periodic requests to turn something on or off, there wasn't a whole lot for him to do, either. He flew the jumper because while Jonas had the gene artificially, he was still a dubious pilot.

"What's the reading for today, Staff Sergeant?" Cam asked, gesturing toward the book Reletti was about to drop in the storage compartment next to the pilot's seat. Reletti paused in his motion and held up the fat, worn hardcover treatise on counterinsurgency. Cam frowned wryly. "I hate to be the one to break it to you, son, but we are the insurgents this time around."

A grin from Reletti, since they both knew that that didn't make the book any less useful. The marines had been teaching counterinsurgency theory and practice since before Cam had arrived in Pegasus. "Best way to figure out what works is to understand what didn't in the past, sir."

Cam didn't know Reletti well, but better than any of the other marines save his own trio of dingalings. They'd worked together a few times back in the other galaxy when Reletti'd been on SG-3, shared meetings and tables at the commissary and the not-quite-prayer-sessions where it didn't really matter what your denomination was (or even what you called your god) so long as you were asking for deliverance from the Ori. He'd been the one to order Reletti to go down to Antarctica and the one to rescue him from the bloody mess on PX5-G21 and none of that meant squat here, months and battles and losses later, beyond the fact that Reletti didn't treat him like a stranger.

"You'll let me know if Ho Chi Minh's got any insights applicable to our current situation," Cam said, settling in to the shotgun seat. He didn't especially like riding shotgun in the jumpers -- didn't like the reminder that he was being conveyed in a vehicle he couldn't control even if he knew how -- but it had become his seat by necessity. Jonas had the habit of bringing up displays on the HUD as he thought of things, which tended to disturb and distract Reletti, and Zelenka obviously didn't want to ride up front.

Reletti got them cleared through flight control and they were soon riding the autopilot up through the bay doors and into the brilliant morning sunshine. Atlantis from on high was a gorgeous sight, Cam would not deny, even if he preferred viewing it from the cockpit of one of the F-302s he was occasionally allowed to book time on. He waited for the gentle hiccup that was the autopilot disengaging and Reletti taking over manual control before turning around to get at the crate he'd brought aboard.

He distributed the elaborately knotted cloth-wrapped boxes he'd gotten from the commissary to everyone but Reletti, who'd eat later, when it was Cam's turn to sit in the pilot seat and see if anything worked. Reusable packaging had long since come to Atlantis, more from necessity than any bow to environmentalism. Some of the folks on the mainland and out on Mars made their livings carving wooden bento boxes and molding baskets and whatever else could became Pegasus tupperware, leaving the still-plentiful MRE supply available to marines for the increasingly common combat missions.

With kitchen staff coming from half a dozen planets, the idea of appropriate breakfast foods had gone back and forth before settling at some point between what American folks were used to (and thus what Atlantis had gotten used to with the marines on KP duty for the first few years of the mission) and what the rest of the galaxy considered viable choices. Which was why Cam was tucking into something that had been listed as 'breakfast bake' on the menu board and yet was nothing he'd ever encountered in any of a lifetime's worth of greasy spoon diners. It wasn't bad -- the cooks had figured out that most Earth people would pretty much eat anything in the morning if it was sweet -- but Cam always got a special thrill out of meals that could conceivably remind him of home and this wasn't one of them.

"I think we might be able to get somewhere this morning," Jonas said as he worked on his papaya slices. The marines had brought home tons of papayas last week in trade for whatever it was marines did when they were getting paid in papayas, and so there was no guessing what would be the featured ingredient in everything the commissary offered for at least the next week. Jonas was obviously pleased, which was good because he had a habit of forgetting to eat if not sufficiently motivated, but Zelenka didn't seem to be as much of a fan. (Reletti, like all marines, had been trained to eat anything that didn't move faster than his fork.) Cam was already getting a little fatigued by papaya everything, but this wasn't as bad as the Month of Eggplants and he kept it in perspective.

"Getting somewhere as in 'mid-flight handoff?'" Cam asked, wanting to be realistic -- these sessions were usually hours of concentrated failure and frustration -- but knowing he sounded hopeful nonetheless.

"All yours if you want it, sir," Reletti offered, although he did not actually take his hand off the stick.

Zelenka, a white-knuckle passenger under the best circumstances, looked terrified.

"Somewhere as in we might have a better understanding of why we can't try that just yet," Jonas replied, sipping thoughtfully on the straw for his papaya juice. "We're finally finding the places where the Ori device could conceivably be applied to ATA-dependent mechanisms."

Translation: not this time, not the next time, maybe not before the battle with the Ori in Pegasus was joined for real.

Cam looked over at Reletti. "We'll try to get you outta here before you acquire enough flight hours for a senior pilot rating, Staff Sergeant."

Reletti, who never showed actual displeasure once he'd made his arrival time statement, grinned. "I'd appreciate that, sir."

The flight was mostly quiet between the eating and then both Jonas and Zelenka doing their things -- away from the front console. Cam pulled out the little PDA (made by General Dynamics, not Ancients) he'd been issued when he'd first gotten to Atlantis. He'd never really bothered to learn how to use it (beyond the 3-D Tetris and solitaire), let alone remembered to carry it, before he'd started getting administrative duties within and without the city. He still forgot it more than he'd liked, but now he was actually starting to need it.

Teyla was the capo di tutti capi as far as refugee management went, but Cam was still the go-to guy for Gauhanis and Weir had asked him to run events on Cordinar and while that included frequently meeting with (and deferring to) Teyla, there was plenty else that was beyond her knowledge or scope. Mostly it was a lot of bureaucratic bullshit -- on top of the slow (but not so slow that he didn't realize it was happening) accretion of day-to-day responsibility for the non-marine military personnel. The irony didn't escape Cam that he had had to become an exile from his own galaxy to finally end up with the sort of staff officer middle-management tasks that he'd been so thrilled to avoid by being part of the Stargate Program.

But beyond the bureaucracy and refereeing and arguing about supplies and security, it was turning out to be more interesting than he'd imagined. He was a people person, something that had presumably factored into the equation, and there were a lot of people to person when it came to re-settling Cordinar. He knew Sheppard was hoping to keep Earth personnel away from Cordinar for security reasons -- the Wraith knew about it and there was talk of re-starting the markets once it was up and running -- but so far that hadn't really come up. There were scientists involved in the reconstruction efforts, marines, 'civilian contractors' (the currently in vogue term in Little Tripoli for refugees with jobs within Atlantis), and the various prospective resident groups and their representatives.

There was also the consortium that had once been in league with Cordinar, the one Polito had driven off at gunpoint. Although they were turning out to be more comedy than the security threat second only to the Wraith they'd originally been deemed to be. The flip side of Sheppard's concern about armed reprisals for 'stealing' a world from the consortium was Weir's request that Cam try to negotiate with the them. She'd asked him to at least get a decent read on their willingness to fight for Cordinar and, if possible, try to assure that Atlantis didn't lose their contract with them. Thankfully, this was where the comedy kicked in. The consortium, instead of taking offense or taking up arms in response to Polito's action, had been impressed by the show of force and returned a week later, this time to forge a new alliance. Considering Cordinar was months away from habitation and these folks had no idea how long (or short) Atlantis's reach was, Cam wasn't sure what sort of agreement they were seeking, but he had a meeting with them next month nonetheless. Atlantis's consumables contract was safe -- hell, Cam expected even more favorable terms when it next came up for negotiation.

He was still going over his notes on Ensign Gantry's various requests and suggestions (Cam was supposed to be her mentor and aide for dealing with Sheppard and Weir, but she'd pretty much gotten over her fear of going straight to Lorne and cutting out the middle men) when Reletti announced their imminent arrival. The landing wasn't that rough -- more than the gentle bump in the jumper bay, less than some of the more graceless halts Cam had managed early in his career -- but Reletti looked vaguely embarrassed, as he usually did. And so Cam suggested to Jonas and Zelenka that they attach rubber bumpers to the bottom of the jumper for comfort next time, since marines weren't bright enough to distinguish between encouragement and pity and thus any sympathy for Reletti's junior pilot status would be wasted.

The morning went about as well as the previous excursions to the mainland had gone -- Jonas and Zelenka nattering at each other in what Cam knew had to be English but might as well have been Urdu, Reletti staying as far from the jumper as was prudent from a safety standpoint so that his gene didn't accidentally mess with the tests but still close enough to show up quickly when summoned, and Cam alternately getting called to sit uselessly in the pilot's seat and shooed away to keep from being underfoot.

Jonas, the resident expert in Ori technology, had become thus by spending his post-imprisonment time stealing Ori toys and figuring out how they worked. It had been his idea to try to use it to 'unlock' Ancient tech; Cam understood very little of the original proposal beyond why it was both prudent as well as advantageous to start experimenting with puddle jumpers instead of anything else that required the ATA gene to operate. (Short answer: most everything else was either a critical system within the city or something they didn't fully understand how it operated. Or, in the case of the control chair, both.) There'd been ongoing work on the Ori-Ancient technology link, but Jonas had apparently suggested something completely new and, after much bargaining with McKay, had gotten what he'd needed to go forward and explore it.

There were certain tests that were better done away from Atlantis, both for safety and scientific reasons, but Cam had had a bit of a time explaining to both Jonas and Zelenka that their time away from the city wasn't unlimited. Reletti had missions to go on and regular marine duties to perform, Cam had his own increasingly busy schedule, and so they had to learn to budget their time. (Jonas's initial offer to fly the jumper and Zelenka out to the mainland himself was met with a stern "hell, no!" from both McKay and Sheppard.) They were still working on their time management -- it seemed to get worse as their science got better -- and so Cam gave them a warning about how much time was left every time he jogged over in response to the "Colonel!!!" bellowed over the radio.

Nonetheless, he still had to enlist Reletti's help in getting them to pack up, since almost all of his experience in scientist-wrangling had come with Jonas and Daniel Jackson, both of whom were masters of the "you're not the boss of me" look, actual command authority notwithstanding.

"It's like puppy training, sir," Reletti explained after a firm tone of voice and much pointing to their 'corners' had gotten Jonas and Zelenka ready for departure. "Almost everyone from Science who's been in Atlantis a while has been whapped on the nose with a newspaper a few times by now. You just have to reinforce it."

Cam wanted to take the advice as insight into how his own trio kept Jonas from doing anything they'd all regret, but he couldn't help but suspect that they might be using it on him, too.

"-- willing to work on something, ma'am," Cam assured. "Not sure we'll need that many pounds of meat -- got a few sources of that ourselves -- but grains'll be good, that I can promise."

MH5-64G, local name Litar had been on the long list of planets to check for Ori. The marine platoons were grinding through the list -- which was not the entire catalog of planets in the galaxy, they were assured, no matter what it looked like -- at a pretty good clip. But Cam had been working twenty-hour days at his desk and Jonas, when asked, hadn't been able to recall the last time he'd left the city and it wasn't like their marines were going to complain about the extra outing. At least not after Cam had rescheduled it so that it didn't conflict with one of the electrical engineering seminars Horton really, really hadn't wanted to miss.

"The time for reaping is soon," Betta, the Litari leader, said with a nod. "And we have several fields still uncontracted-for."

Teyla had explained to Cam what the usual sort of arrangement was for trading labor for a share of a harvest and how to both minimize and maximize profit depending on how badly the other party was trying to fleece you. Cam had done his share of bargaining here and there, but only an idiot ignored Teyla's wisdom on the subject and Cam was really trying to bring his stupid quotient down. So, once they'd gotten confirmation that Litar had never heard of anything related to Ori, priors, plagues, or fire iconography, he kept her words in mind when tiny Betta, who looked just like one of those sweet grannies who carried extra candies in their Sunday purses to hand out at church (unlike his grandmas, who'd both been battleaxes), turned out to be the Pegasus equivalent of a used car salesman.

Betta's initial offer was only a little short of insulting and then improved merely to laughable, so Cam kept his most charming smile plastered to his face and went for the kill. The Atlantis marines had, by now, acquired all sorts of agrarian skills and Teyla had assured him that they could plow through so many acres in a day, for values of 'so many' that were greater than Litar's offered space. The marines weren't necessarily better at it than anyone else in Pegasus, but they had strength and endurance and, most importantly, numbers. Teyla had explained that most worlds that traded labor for harvest shares would indeed turn out all hands that they could spare, but this included the very young, the very old, and the infirm -- and not more than a hundred men in their physical prime.

The negotiations didn't take long -- Betta was a veteran haggler, but the Wraith had been hyperactive for the better part of a decade and while Litar had no idea what the Ori were or could be, they had heard of the mysterious deaths on Cordinar. In other words, it was a buyer's market.

Cam had just gotten to the 'don't call us, we'll call you' part of the deal-making when Byrd, who'd been zoning out with the other two and Jonas off to Cam's right, unshouldered his rifle and looked to the way they'd come. "Sir? Incoming."

"Hide your people from the Wraith," Cam told Betta, who'd startled at Byrd's actions and then as both Horton and Becanek followed suit. He didn't think to doubt Byrd, whose weird dog-hearing went beyond picking up grinding gears at three kilometers.

Litar's village wasn't that far from the gate, but the geography of the area around the gate meant that any inbound aircraft would have to go north before they could come south. It would buy them a few extra seconds if Byrd had caught them early enough.

Betta unfroze and flew into action, calling for the alarm to be sounded and Cam watched for a second before ordering Jonas and the marines into action herding the Litari into the closest buildings. While the expansive fields of wheat and barley stretched out to the horizons in two directions, the village itself was stone-and-thatch buildings scattered in a forest, hard to hit from above unless the plan was to set the entire place ablaze, so if the Wraith wanted a snack, they'd either be going for whoever was working the fields or they'd be beaming down.

"Get ready for ground forces," Cam radioed his team as the whine of darts overhead grew louder. They were flying past, not dropping payloads, so this wasn't a torch-and-destroy mission. The darts disappeared again, back toward the gate from the sound of it, so this wasn't a drive-through snack in the fields, either. He checked his rifle out of reflex, already knowing it was ready and would fire. This part of the fight, the waiting and wondering from which direction and in what form the fight would arrive, was not his favorite. He'd gotten used to ground fighting -- which was different from being good at it, although he knew he was more than merely capable -- but he still missed seeing the world from on high, the rush of adrenalin and of gravity as he changed directions, the way everything looked so slow and small from above. Now he was the ant in the ant farm and while he'd grown to appreciate the change in scenery, it wasn't ever going to be his favorite view.

The noise of gunfire preceded Becanek's radioed announcement that he'd gotten visuals on the Wraith.

In the end, there were a dozen Wraith, a few too many for Cam to be happy with his odds of getting Litar out of this without casualty, but they did okay considering how sprawled out the village was. There were three fatalities, all men fighting back with the long-handled axes the Litari carried, and nine people stunned without being fed upon. And twelve dead Wraith. Cam didn't hear the darts after that initial run and he wasn't sure what to make of that apart from that the Wraith probably hadn't expected resistance. Either way, the fight didn't take that long.

"Find Betta," he told Jonas once it was over. Jonas had put down at least one Wraith on his own and still looked like he might be willing to put down a couple more. Becanek, who'd decided that Jonas was an entirely different (and more unpredictable) kind of danger to himself than Cam could manage, was right next to him, as usual. They trotted off and Cam went looking for Byrd and Horton, who'd both answered on radio but were unable to give precise current locations.

Horton, dark skin and cammies doing a little too good of a job hiding him in the shadows, scared the crap out of Cam by appearing suddenly at his left. He didn't rub it in beyond grinning as Cam lowered his rifle in irritation and the two of them went back toward the heart of the village, knowing Byrd would track them down.

"Can you tell if the darts are still here?" Cam asked Byrd once he had.

"Don't hear anything, sir," Byrd replied, wiping what might've been Wraith blood off of his face with his sleeve. Cam hadn't asked for or received a sitrep beyond the basics and Byrd had reported that he was unharmed "even by civilian standards", since Cam had learned to request clarification. "Might've just been a drop-off."

"Hope so," Cam said. "And I hope that they don't come back wondering why their buddies never came home."

Even after years in this galaxy and too-intimate relations with Wraith hives and queens, nobody in Atlantis had a really good idea of how the Wraith worked. There were theories, most of which could be relied upon and some that really couldn't, but the sociologists and other types over in G-2 hadn't come up with anything that could be called a definitive guidebook on Wraith behavior.

Betta was waiting with Jonas and Becanek when they got back to the small clearing that operated as the town square. Cam knew that she wasn't actually more upset about the damage to the village than she was pleased at so little loss of life, but it certainly sounded like it. After making sure that they were still on for next month's harvest, he said goodbye, since Betta neither asked for help cleaning up nor offered thanks for defending her people -- Cam's team had killed all twelve Wraith.

"Now there's a charming woman," Jonas said sourly once they were well away from the village.

"If it weren't for the fact that we could use the trade, I'd love to have told her where to stick that summer wheat," Cam agreed, putting away his now-empty canteen. Betta hadn't even offered them water after the fight.

"I guess we'll have to bring our own lunch when we come back to collect it, sir," Becanek said, already digging in to his pouch of dried fruit. He held it out and Cam and Jonas both took handfuls. Horton and Byrd, ready but not expecting danger, walked a little ahead, but they slowed down enough for Becanek to fill their outstretched empty hands.

"We're gonna get one day to collect as much as we can out of those eastern fields," Cam mused as they entered the narrow mountain pass that led directly to the gate. "I should talk to Captain Polito about how many marines we can bring to make it worth our while."

"Battalion exercise, sir," Becanek suggested. "I'm happy to be saving people from the Wraith, but courtesy is courtesy. 'Thank you' is not hard."

It ended up being two full companies, plus an assortment of able-bodied types from both the mainland and Mars so that they could claim some grain for those places. Betta was unhappy, of course, but Cam, who accompanied Alpha and Bravo to Litar, rather enjoyed the look on her face. It wasn't about teaching anyone manners, but Cam had risked his own life and the lives of his team and, well, he had fleeced her a little and wanted to enjoy that. He doubted that Litar would trade with them again, at least not at what was turning out to be such a bargain rate, but maybe next year they wouldn't need to. Maybe next year, they'd be getting their flour from Earth once more.

"... in a few months. It will be a relief, I believe, to have somewhere permanent to call our home. A chance to create something familiar when nothing else is." Consolis smiled wryly as he spoke. "Please do not take that as ingratitude, Colonel. Your people have been nothing but generous and patient with us."

Cam shook his head. "Never crossed my mind," he replied, pausing to look around at the unfamiliar landscape because he could only shorten his stride so much without looking like he was doing so. "In fact, I think I can understand exactly what kind of relief it'll be."

He'd told Consolis some of his own story in bits and pieces over the months -- including life in exile, since it was relevant.

"I suppose you would at that," Consolis agreed, patting Cam's arm as he drew even. Consolis was... if not necessarily improving, then at least no longer looking like he was receding from life. There was a vitality to him that had been missing since the Prior had taken Daran and when he smiled, which was more frequently now, you could see glimpses of the vibrant man he'd been. But he was not that man any longer and Cam thought him sometimes a bit like Bilbo Baggins after he'd given up the One Ring -- better for the exchange, but in no way that could be seen by the naked eye. Or maybe that was wishful thinking; it was hard to look at the settlement that was the new home of the Gauhani and not feel guilty still.

The Gauhani -- or, really, what was left of the sane ones, since there were still a few dozen rabid types actually on Gauhan -- had rejected offers to move to either the mainland or to Mars, choosing instead an unprotected, uninhabited planet with fertile soil and ample supplies of fresh water that were at least a week's march from the planet's stargate. It was a move that had been well underway before Atlantis had realized that the Toranians had gone missing, else they'd have just handed over that place -- it was similar enough.

It would be an isolated life, which was what the Gauhani wanted, but it wasn't a statement about Atlantis, something Cam understood in a way that maybe Weir and Sheppard didn't. Instead, it was a kind of penance -- exposing themselves to the dangers of the Wraith and even the Ori as atonement for using the devil's instruments. It wasn't necessary and Cam had argued with Consolis as to the benefits, if any, but it wasn't the sort of argument Cam thought he either could or maybe should win. He'd wrestled with his own guilt too recently to pass judgment.

"And here we are," Consolis said as they crested the small hill. Below and before them were the fields the Gauhani had sown (with help from marines and other refugees; Cam had asked and Consolis had agreed to welcome anyone who chose to go with the Gauhani, which turned out to be about two dozen people, all from Pegasus). To the left were neat rows of vegetables and to the right were the starts of orchards, saplings that were rebounding from their transplant shock. Beyond were what would be grain fields in a different season; Botany had had a field day (pun intended) choosing what to grow where.

"Looks good," Cam said, meaning it. The last couple of times he'd come out here, he hadn't wandered as far as the fields. The new Gauhani settlement was still being built and improved and there'd been more than enough to see there to fill up an afternoon (or until Consolis was too tired to walk around). "And you're good to go until the crops come in?"

"Yes," Consolis confirmed. "Doctor Weir has been more than generous and we have been learning much about what is already around us with the help of Teyla and her people."

The Gauhani weren't hunters; they'd historically traded for meat. But their new isolation pretty much meant that they'd have to learn if they wanted near-deer steaks. The animals that had been brought here -- cows, chickens, sheep, a couple of goats -- weren't meant to be sources of meat, at least not yet.

"You just let us know if you need anything else," Cam told him, watching children running around between the saplings. Consolis had at least accepted radio equipment so that Atlantis could call in every once in a while and check in, maybe set up some trade down the line.

The rest of the visit was more of the same -- updates on the building of the community in all senses. New homes, new ways of life to learn, new blood, new starts. Cam knew that there were going to be new babies soon, too. The Gauhani were maybe a little bit more reflective than the typical Pegasus society, but they understood the need to move forward -- stagnate and die.

It was maybe a little ironic that Atlantis, on the vanguard of so many fronts, was probably not quite as ready, willing, or maybe even able to push forward in a similar fashion. The babies they made were still considered accidents, pitied for being born in such a wilderness instead of considered lucky for being born free.

Neither Consolis nor any of the other Gauhani asked about the people still left on Gauhan; early on, Weir had allowed them to go back and try to reason with their neighbors (and occasionally family), but the results had been disastrous -- tears, hysterics, the occasional assault, an assassination attempt on Consolis. By the time they had moved out here, the Gauhani had accepted that more than just their homes were lost to them. Consolis and a new group of community leaders were trying to overhaul their theology to excise elements that could lead to future generations falling prey to the Ori once more. Cam thought they'd be better served just sticking to incorporating the lessons they'd learned rather than trying to un-learn ideas, but it wasn't his place to comment and so he didn't.

"Call it and move on!" Safir barked sharply from across the room, gesturing toward the sea of bodies lying on the ground. "Stop sniveling like a child. Go!"

Cam, from his vantage point (way-the-fuck out of the way), watched as Doctor Valentine, tears in her eyes, did as she was told, silently indicating to the marines that they should retrieve the dead woman before her as she stood up and half-stumbled toward the next patient. He felt bad for Valentine -- she was young, just a resident when she'd been grabbed during one of the post-Robler Rock supply raids on hospitals, and she hadn't yet developed the kind of hard shell that numbed the impact of these sorts of horrors. But the medical team was fighting a losing battle against numbers and an illness they couldn't cure and energy had to be expended on those they had the best chance at saving and not on palliative care.

"Excuse me, sir," a marine said as he waited impatiently for Cam to get out of the way. A stretcher moved past, another patient moving in from triage to this area set aside for those deemed too ill to justify treatment. Some of them would survive anyway -- Valentine's job was to increase their odds -- but most would not. This was not a job anyone wanted, but Valentine did as she was told without complaint, if not without tears.

It had been luck -- good or bad not yet clear -- to find out about this place in time. Or at least before the entire planet had been wiped out. Sirod was (had been, now, Cam supposed) a town that doubled as a slaughterhouse, raising herds and producing meat for trade. Atlantis did a fair bit of business with them, buying meat as well as live animals to build their own herds. Which was how Lieutenant Paik had shown up for a routine visit and stumbled across the beginning of the end. Cam wasn't sure of exactly how things had progressed from Paik's urgent report to him heading up a rescue mission, but at this point it really didn't matter.

At the beginning, Cam had conducted interviews, tried to parse out information from the panicked and the grieving while the marines and doctors were setting up care stations and rounding up the citizens. He had gotten a variety of stories, some relevant and most really not, with a few common elements. The most important information was that Sirod had never seen a prior and had never heard of the Ori. They knew Cordinar had fallen -- they had done business with that market world -- but not why or how and could not imagine how that tragedy could have impacted them in any way beyond financial. It had been months since Cordinar's demise and how could anyone without either a sophisticated concept of the transmission of disease or any understanding of the Ori be expected to grasp how time, in this case, didn't matter? Pegasus didn't have a strong belief in magic per se and what they couldn't explain in familiar terms could usually be waved off as the technological prowess of either the Wraith or the Ancestors. That people dying in droves didn't exactly benefit either group didn't factor in the beliefs of the Sirodi.

There were forty dead so far. This area, shaded by trees and the tall walls of the corrals, held almost that many again, most of whom would be dead before sunset along with however many from the rest of the slaughtering-complex-turned-hospital. Early estimates at survival rate were around 20% and Safir had warned that that was pretty much a wild (and wildly optimistic) guess. They were looking at more than a hundred dead, easy, and it might be twice that by the time this was done. Most of the dead so far were the obvious cases -- the elderly and the very young. Valentine had been less composed when facing a room half-full of dying children.

Safir and the others were in the larger areas still triaging everyone, separating the asymptomatic from the treatable ill from those who were brought here to die in peace if not necessarily in comfort. Marines had penned the animals and were serving as orderlies and gravediggers and jailers, preventing anyone from leaving Sirod so that they could not spread the disease.

Cam was nominally in charge of the operation, but practically speaking it just meant making sure what Safir wanted done got done. More than four hours in to the horror show and there was very little left to do even on that front -- the triage was operating smoothly, the marines were where they needed to be, and Cam really didn't have anything better to do than wander around and see who needed what supplies before checking in with Atlantis and updating body counts.

That the process had been streamlined along the same principles of the abattoir hosting it had escaped no one. Cam walked from the hospice area out into the open through the same door through which the marines carried the bodies of the dead. He tried not to listen to the sounds -- the wet coughs, the shrieks of grief, the crying, the miserable moans -- but it was as impossible to avoid as the smells of blood and entrails. He needed a break, at least for a few minutes. The marines, thankfully, were fresh -- they had been relieved at the four hour mark -- and the doctors were too busy to either replace or meditate on their fatigue.

Sirod, away from the castle-like abattoir that dominated the town, was pretty rustic -- some stone-and-mortar homes, some pueblo, nothing fancy. Fields, mostly for raising grain for animal feed, and wide grazing areas with stone and wood fences were off into the distance. It was a spread-out kind of place and the marines had had a time of it going house to house looking for people; some had come toward the town center once the illness had begun, but most had stayed in their homes. The result had looked like that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the marines leading a donkey cart full of those too ill to walk. Except it hadn't been funny.


"What's up, Lieutenant?" Cam asked into his radio.

"The animals are starting to get sick, sir," Salker said. "We're starting to separate and quarantine them so that maybe we don't have to put down the entire herd, but...."

But Safir had warned them of this. "I'll let the docs know," he replied. "Do you need more hands?"

"No, sir,' Salker replied. "We've pulled everyone in from the town -- there's no point in running patrols anymore."

Safir was on radio, but Cam had no idea if he was actively listening. He had to go back there anyway, so he'd pass on the intel -- or at least confirm that Safir had received it -- in person. He made his way back toward the slaughterhouse, but stopped when he saw Safir on the far side, away from everyone else, standing with Valentine and rubbing her back as she wept helplessly on his shoulder. Cam turned, went the long way around, and waited a few moments before getting Safir's annoyed response to his radio query.

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21 September, 2009