Qui Habitat: Chapter Thirteen

by Domenika Marzione

"I'm not saying you have to turn the project over to them," John said as he waited for Rodney to finish retying his boot. "But you could maybe let them babysit for an afternoon."

At the top of the hill in the near distance, the one Rodney was performing shoelace maintenance to avoid climbing without a break, Teyla and Ronon waited with varying degrees of impatience. John could pretend that they were annoyed with Rodney, but he knew better; it had been his decision to not take the jumper even though he knew that the walk from stargate to village was too long and too difficult for Rodney to manage without griping. But John had been trapped in the city for what seemed like forever, going from endless command staff meeting to private meeting with Caldwell to battalion staff meeting to private meeting with Elizabeth to disciplinary hearings and his only breaks had been visiting places that the Ori had wrecked by some fashion or another. He'd weighed Rodney's misery and ability to inflict it on others against the chance to spend time walking in air that smelled nothing like death and had gone with the latter. Teyla and Ronon, mostly unaware of his schedule and its limitations, were expressing their opinions on both his decision and his failure to include them in the process by which it was made.

Rodney did his careful double-knot and stood up with an outraged expression. "You want me to order Bernier to turn the delicate project he's been working on for more than a year over to the marines?"

John cocked an eyebrow. "You know that argument would work a lot better if he wasn't building it for them in the first place," he said mildly. "And the whole point is that it's rugged and durable and can play nicely with them. Unless your people have completely ignored the mandate and the specs."

The robo-donkey was supposed to make it easier for the marines to take what they needed to fight with them, since resupply was at best limited in Pegasus. And John knew that while these things took time, it was also true that everyone in Science was far too attached to the prototype (currently called Eeyore, although the marines were already working on more butch monikers) and it was, in fact, ready for field-testing. The thing had been prancing and dancing down the halls of the city for months, had been making deliveries between labs and giving pony rides to engineers for the last several weeks, and, despite Zelenka's dissembling when asked, was ready to get outside and try open ground.

"It'll do what it's supposed to," Rodney said, starting to walk. He knew as well as John did that he was only safe so long as Teyla and Ronon were more irritated with John than with him. "But it's not ready to be turned over."

"The marines'll be gentle," John assured, following behind.

It was Rodney's turn to look at him disbelievingly. John ignored him because he knew it was ready, Rodney knew it was ready, and, perhaps most importantly, the marines knew it was ready. Which meant that there was exactly one inevitable ending to this story and he'd rather not waste anyone's time with drawing that inevitability out.

"Nice of you two to wait," John said once they rejoined Teyla and Ronon, both of whom gave him pointed looks of 'we weren't doing it to be polite.' He ignored the matching expressions and gestured with his chin at the bustling valley below. "Looks like Leneka is in fine form."

Leneka was a longtime trading partner of Atlantis, a completely typical agrarian society on almost every count. They were shy but gracious, happy for the trade but not interested in most of Atlantis's newfangled gadgetry, and gently disapproving of the Lanteans' completely academic fascination with the Ancestors. Excellent trading partners, in other words, but not so much with the socializing.

"That is a relief," Teyla said, meaning it. They weren't stumbling on to Wraith- or plague-afflicted worlds with any regularity, nobody from Atlantis was, but it had still been a rough couple of months on that front. It didn't have to be a regular event to be heartbreaking, even for those who weren't privy to Safir's team's research. Yoni wasn't prepared to declare a viral shift, but he wasn't prepared to say that one hadn't happened, either. John understood only a fragment of the medical stuff -- most of what he got was pieced together from what Lorne had gleaned from dumbed-down explanations from Safir -- but he knew that the inability to come to a conclusion was frustrating everyone.

Having made their statement, Ronon and Teyla took a more active role in shepherding Rodney the rest of the way to Leneka, mostly in the form of Ronon distracting him by asking questions that he knew would set Rodney off. Rodney knew it, too, and his increasingly loud responses didn't sound genuinely irate -- if you knew what to listen for.

Nonetheless, the Lenekar knew they were coming well before they were in eyeshot.

"Greetings," Piro said with a stiff bow. He was leading the Lenekar delegation at the edge of the village. "I trust you and yours are prosperous."

"As well as can be expected, thanks," John replied. The book on Leneka was that good manners were very important to getting anything done. "You all look well."

"We are," Piro said, nodding. "Staff Sergeant Stackhouse was not able to accompany you?"

John fought off a grin. Stackhouse's team had been the one to make initial contact at the very beginning of the expedition. No matter how many times various people had explained rank and title to the Lenekar, they persisted in believing that Stackhouse was the boss and always seemed a little hurt when he didn't come and sent 'subordinates' in his place. Rodney found it frustrating, but John thought it was funny, all the more so because Stackhouse was extremely embarrassed by the situation and fell over himself apologizing any time it came up.

"Things are a little busy back home," John said apologetically. "He sends his regards."

After a few more rounds of somewhat ritualized asking after various people, it was on to lunch and then the trading. As usual, it was a quiet meal -- feeding guests was as much business move as anything friendship-oriented and there was remarkably little to talk about considering how long Atlantis and Leneka had been trade partners. For obvious reasons, they usually sent marines out here -- not Stackhouse's platoon, since the Lenekar would've been horrified to see Stackhouse being ordered around by his lieutenant and platoon sergeant. But John had wanted out of the city and the marines were over-tasked as it was, and so there they were.

Even before they'd started importing refugees from the Milky Way instead of foodstuffs, Atlantis had required a complicated and overlapping network of local suppliers to meet their needs. Agriculture in Pegasus was mostly subsistence-level and the planets that could produce sufficient surplus to make it an industry were, with few exceptions, not able to produce enough to be Atlantis's sole supplier of anything. With Atlantis now in possession of its own colonies and none of them yet able to either support themselves or supply the city proper, trade was ever more important and John now had a more complete knowledge of what they got from whom and in what quantities than he'd ever had before. Which was how he knew to be surprised at the amount of produce available for purchase.

"They lose a customer to the Wraith?" John asked Teyla as they stood waiting for Piro to organize his band of 'reckoners' (accountants and supply chiefs, really). "This is maybe twice what they usually have."

Teyla shook her head slightly, mystified. "We have not heard of any recent cullings on such a scale," she replied. As Atlantis's refugee coordinator, she'd be in a position to know. "Perhaps they have broken with another of their trade partners?"

Trade partnerships tended to go back for generations and survived all kinds of upheaval; John thought it no more likely than she did. He didn't say anything, though, because Piro was about ready to being the ritual haggling.

"We have more to offer than usual," Piro said, gesturing toward the baskets of peaches, carrots, and string beans. Atlantis traded for a pretty wide variety of fruits and veggies from Lenaka, but they'd never been able to get peaches. Lenakar peaches were prized throughout much of the galaxy and each tree's fruit was promised before the blossoms fell.

"So I see," John agreed. It was impolite to ask if anyone had gotten culled, so he didn't. "We're grateful that you thought of us."

"Your young men are always hungry," Piro said with a smile, which was true, because marines were never not hungry. It was also true that Piro knew that Atlantis was one of the few places that could afford to buy someone else's contracted allotment of peaches without having budgeted for it months ago. (That Atlantis was less able to do so than in the past was something to be kept quiet, like any other noble house fallen on hard times.) "When the Delai chose to leave their world and end their trade with us, offering them to you was an obvious next step."

John didn't even try to fake casual. "The Delai moved?"

In the near background, both Rodney and Ronon, who'd been amusing themselves in socially acceptable ways, stopped what they were doing.

Atlantis also traded with the Delai, but their seasons were opposite to Lenaka's, so it was still cold there and John didn't think Atlantis so much as checked in with them in the off-season. They sent marines in the spring to barter for the harvest and that was that.

"Why would they so willingly give up such fertile land?" Teyla asked, surprised. "Dela's fields feed so many."

Piro shook his head, clearly not agreeing with the Delai's decision. "They have found faith," he said, a touch of irony in his voice. The Lenakar weren't godless, but theirs was a quiet faith and much more with the good works and less with the veneration. "They were visited by a preacher who promised them salvation and freedom from the Wraith."

John looked over at Teyla and she mirrored back his unease. Behind him, Rodney and Ronon edged forward. This wasn't the first people to up and disappear and have it not look like the Wraith took them, but this was the first time they'd had any kind of proof that it was voluntary -- and that it sounded way too much like their worst fears.

"Did they say where they were going?" Rodney asked.

"'To a place of safety and peace,'" Piro answered sourly. "It sounded like nonsense. It still does, to be truthful. There is no place safe from the Wraith and to abandon all that you have worked for and that your fathers have left for you to follow the empty promises of a madman... One man, sure. Such things happen all of the time. A family or three, even, following the same dream together. But a whole people? It is folly and it cannot end well."

John, capable of imagining far more darkness than Piro, could only nod.

With not much else to say about it, they got on to discussing what the Lenekar wanted for the produce no longer needed by the Delai. It was a do-able deal -- the Lenekar tended to want manual labor and medicines and Pharmacology had gotten pretty good at making aspirin and Atlantis was never short willing workers, especially unskilled.

"You should send your young men to Dela," Piro advised after the terms of the transaction had been finalized -- John would send the jumpers to make the actual pickup once they got back. "Their fields will be fallow otherwise and your people will have what to eat and to trade."

Piro didn't want the Lenekar to lose whatever they'd been getting from Dela in trade.

"We'll take a look," John said, since he had plans to do just that. More than that, actually, if there was nobody else squatting there already. While he'd been less than eager to commit Atlantis to MZ3-231 -- hell, he wasn't too thrilled about Cordinar and that battle was long over -- Dela was different. It was a purely agricultural world, a resource rich planet that Atlantis could desperately use. To the point that John might consider using military force to get it and keep it. (Funny how they never spoke of empire and yet here they were.) There would have to be long and contentious discussions about who settled Dela -- people from Pegasus, people from the Milky Way, people from Earth -- but that was going to end up being a secondary point of interest. The discussion about why Dela was vacant in the first place would be first.

"We're not going to be lucky and have them going off to meditate until they ascend, are we?" Rodney asked as they began the long walk back to the stargate. That there was another Ancient sanctuary was a theory they hadn't been able to discount; the Ancients being the Ancients, it was completely possible that they'd either created or revealed another protected place and were quietly shepherding people there to protect them from the Wraith and Ori through some wacky shenanigan that didn't break their rules against getting involved. Atlantis didn't know enough about all of the missing populations so far -- or even if there were more that they hadn't found -- to be able to say how likely it was.

"The Delai did worship the Ancestors quite faithfully," Teyla offered, but she didn't look convinced by her own reasoning.

"The Torani didn't give a rat's ass about the Ancestors," John pointed out. The disappearance of the Torani was still stuck in everyone's craw. Atlantis had relocated them, helped them plant fields and build homes at not inconsiderable expense, and then they'd up and left without so much as a note. It had been months and there'd been no word of them anywhere. With no signs of violence and every sign of an orderly and peaceful departure, it had been an unpleasant mystery still unresolved.

"I don't mean to let down Team End-Is-Nigh," Rodney began, oblivious to the fast pace Ronon was setting for them, "but the Ori have been converting in place, not pooling their resources. If the Delai had been visited by a Prior, why would he get them to abandon all of their worldly goods? They will still need food and shelter and the whole point of having an omnipresent god is that you can be decentralized."

John didn't really have a good argument against that.

Back in Atlantis, Elizabeth took the news with equanimity. "You're sending people out to take a look?"

"Yeah," he confirmed. "I'll get some marines out there, see if the reports are accurate and if anyone's squatting. If it's clear, we'll send out the agricultural crews and Teyla and Mitchell can start canvassing for settlers."

Elizabeth was a lot less bothered by the prospect of using coercion to get what Atlantis wanted (or, increasingly, needed) than she had been a year or so ago, but there was no need to bring it up unless necessary. He wasn't worried she'd be angry or upset -- Atlantis's ability to support and protect its population remained first and foremost on her priority list -- but instead that this was yet another concession to how things were and how they no longer could be. They all kept their peace and their sanity by keeping up appearances and he didn't want to watch yet another layer of Elizabeth's stripped away.

"If the Delai are gone, then where did they go?" she asked. "Who did they follow and who were they fleeing? Or was it even a 'who?' Could they have been running from the plague?"

John made a face, since he had no idea. The wave of planets falling ill without being visited by a prior had seemingly crested; Sirod had been the last major one to fall without being pushed and while there'd been a few reports since then, they'd all turned out to be false alarms and Yoni was currently more annoyed at getting called out to investigate influenza outbreaks than worried about possible pandemics. Awareness of the illness was growing in Pegasus, but not to the point that John would have thought an entire world would have fled from it.

"We won't know until we get out there and take a look," he replied, since Elizabeth seemed to want an answer. "If we see fresh graves or a forgotten Book of Origin, then we'll have a better idea."

With nothing more to discuss other than that there would be more discussions, John left her to the growing queue of supplicants waiting on the catwalk and headed over to Little Tripoli. He tasked the first captain he could find -- Armstrong -- with getting out to Dela and asked him to take Ronon with him, since Ronon had indicated interest in tagging along.

Armstrong's relationship with Ronon was different than Ronon's with the other captains. Ronon got on well with all of them, but he'd met the others in a time of peace and what they'd learned from each other and how had been shaped by that. Armstrong, on the other hand, had come to them after the fighting had long been underway, as a veteran of impossible decisions, and while he'd never had to execute the worst of them, he'd carried them for long enough that the imprint remained. As a result, he and Ronon recognized each other as survivors.

"Don't start another war," John cautioned and Armstrong grinned wryly. John had mused aloud at making Polito write that on a blackboard a thousand times after he'd inadvertently annexed Cordinar. "If there are squatters or foragers, encourage them to either go along or get along. If any of the real Delai are still there, we don't want to evict them from their own planet. But this is an opportunity we can't pass up and they should be prepared to live with a new mayor in town. I want a base set up to establish our claim and to fend off anyone else's. We'll rotate through the battalion, but your boys'll end up with the first shifts, so make sure they pack snivel gear because it's cold."

"Okay, so what are our hopes and dreams for Atlantis's first agrarian satellite?"

Armstrong had come back with the news that Dela was indeed abandoned, that it had been left orderly and intact and seemingly undisturbed apart from the oxen mulling around looking for food. As had been the case with the Torani, the homes were intact and well-supplied for winter with items like firewood and preserved food, plus all of their weapons had been left behind. There had been no sign of either Wraith or Prior visitation -- no Books of Origin, no signs of culling, no signs of struggle at all. They'd apparently just up and left.

"Depends on whether you think Doctor Weir'll object to a minimal protective posture," Mitchell replied from the other end of the table. He didn't sound optimistic.

John had called a battalion staff meeting (plus Mitchell and Caldwell) to wargame out the possible plans of action that would come out of the command meeting later on. He wanted to know before going in what his fighting forces thought they could handle, what they would reject outright, and what he should be trying to push on Elizabeth.

"Which in turn will depend on what sorts of civilians we're sending out there," Lorne said. He and Lorne had already had their own discussion and, unsurprisingly, were in agreement. Unfortunately, part of that agreement was that someone was going to have to twist the marines' arms a little.

"Or whether this will be seen as a 'cross-training' opportunity," Caldwell added, a wry look on his face because the Daedalus crew was not immune to Elizabeth's attempts to acclimatize Earth personnel to Pegasus living. "A controlled environment with relatively optimal conditions like Dela seems to be?"

Their unofficial -- but still universally understood -- position was that Earth people got Earth security. It was unofficial because stating it out loud sounded terrible, but everyone more or less understood that Earth people were among the least capable in terms of basic necessities of life. They were practically the only ones who had little to no history feeding, clothing, or protecting themselves, which actually put them in an odd kind of place with respect to their standing in the Greater Atlantis ecosystem. Idiot savants, able to master the wonders of the Ancients but otherwise helpless as babies.

Like every other unit in Atlantis, Little Tripoli had a mixed reaction to Elizabeth's back-to-basics proposals -- unflatteringly referred to in terms of the Cultural Revolution by all quarters -- although their reasons were largely unique to them. The unit commanders were not, in principle or in fact, against the idea of having people other than the marines qualified to be outsourced as manual labor or doing more to provide for Greater Atlantis's food supply. But converting microprocessors to plowshares, even temporarily, still required a lot of work on the military's part and whether it was just easier to keep certain skills the province of marines and non-Earthers from agrarian societies was yet another unsolvable debate.

"Okay, so we'll officially be hesitant about this being the ideal laboratory for the Great Leap Forward," John agreed, hoping to forestall that particular digression. "With the current lack of stability, I don't think we should be getting too ambitious anyway. Let the scientists work on improving crop yield, not their hoeing techniques. I'm going to assume that we're going to get a good number of volunteer settlers who already know how to till soil."

Mitchell nodded agreement. "There'll be plenty."

"Which will bring us back to the militia argument," John went on since Lorne was giving him that look from the other end of the table. The captains groaned, but John was more scared of Lorne than he was of the marines and Lorne had expressed a desire not to be the one strong-arming the marines on this matter. "I don't want us garrisoning out there any longer than we have to and Doctor Weir will want to know how we plan on protecting the place -- and Cordinar, while we're on the subject."

Elizabeth wasn't wrong in thinking a militia would be a good idea and, as the marines were being spread thinner and thinner as Atlantis's obligations, both assumed and forced upon them, were expanded, there was less and less ground to stand on to argue that only Earth-born military personnel should be dressed and armed and trained as fighting forces. Nobody was actually against expanding Atlantis's military, but the how and the where and the with-what was something else entirely. There were competing theories for the how and picking one and working out the logistics of it was something everyone -- and especially John -- had been putting off. Which was why Lorne was putting his foot down -- because Elizabeth would be putting her foot down next and Lorne, bright man that he was, wanted them to be the ones making the choice rather than implementing someone else's.

"We need to make a decision, gentlemen," John said. "Either we're training a militia or we're training marines. But we need to start training someone to be something."

The marines wanted to build a local version of Parris Island and John was perfectly willing to let them. (Which service the new force was modeled after was a non-argument. Even if the marines didn't dominate the population, marine-like qualities -- small, self-contained, infantry-focused, used to privation -- were what was desired.) But nobody was quite sure what would come after that -- were the newly-made marines turned into the local militias? Were they integrated into the regular marine companies, turning those into more traditional units instead the all-NCO special forces they'd been? The handfuls of non-US infantry they'd collected since Earth's fall had been attached to regular companies, but those guys were all NCOs and it had been painless, like they'd been on exchange. Newborn privates would not be so easy to incorporate or field.

(Absolutely nobody cared whether the new marines were Pegasus natives, Milky Way natives, or Earthers. You didn't have to be a US citizen to be a US Marine, just competent and willing to do the work. It was lost on no one in uniform that this made Little Tripoli a more inclusive community than, say, the Atlantis dating scene.)

"Can we put Doctor Weir off by organizing a recruiting drive, sir?" Radner asked.

John frowned at him. "We can probably put her off," he said meaningfully. "Look, I know that this is going to be ugly and messy and dilute our forces when we have ever-increasing responsibilities. But we can't keep fooling ourselves that there's going to be some better time down the line. We've just accepted responsibility for another planet and, in case anyone's forgotten in the last thirty seconds, there's a war coming in addition to the one we've already got.

"I've been as guilty as anyone else at letting this slide, but it's time to settle this thing."

John ended up going to the command staff meeting with the proposal for a recruiting drive and a promise for a set plan for what to do with the recruits by the end of the week. Thankfully, Elizabeth was content with that -- or, at least, failed to return to the point after Rodney started bickering with Carson over who was supposed to be seeing to Pharmacology's needs (it was Carson's department, but almost everything they didn't have and still required was found in Chemistry, which was Rodney's domain).

Caldwell found him afterward, back in Lorne's office as the two of them were trying to come up with an interpretation of Zoology's request for an escort that didn't sound like a safari for pigeons and parakeets.

"Can I interrupt?" Caldwell asked from the doorway.

"Come on in, sir," Lorne answered. Caldwell had come here knowing that Lorne would be a part of whatever discussion occurred; if he wanted to talk to John alone, he knew how to do that. But Caldwell had understood Lorne's role in the city long before the Ori had been a blip on the horizon.

"What are the planned parameters of the recruiting drive?" Caldwell asked as he came in and sat down. "Or are there any yet?"

Caldwell wasn't uninvolved in the force expansion discussion, but as with almost everything else, he kept a respectful distance so long as he had assurances that he'd be included in the major discussions if not the decision-making. John knew that Caldwell occasionally bent Elizabeth's ear over matters he thought John wouldn't be receptive to hearing directly from him, which was itself a mixed blessing but not one John could change without causing a scene. But neither Elizabeth nor Caldwell were outright challenging his command and, so long as that remained the case, the two of them could keep each other's counsel if they wanted. In many ways, their jobs were even lonelier than his.

In the here and now, however, the direct approach was probably appropriate. Not in the least because Caldwell was more than willing to help John with Elizabeth if he thought it was warranted.

"Boot camp'll be open to anyone," he told Caldwell. "No restrictions so long as they can pass a physical and we can teach 'em to read English. We're getting Heightmeyer to come up with a questionnaire we can use to do a loose psych profile, but we pretty much know who the crazies are by now."

Literacy and (especially) numeracy were non-trivial matters, especially for the Pegasus natives. Most of the Milky Way fighters were literate in something and many of them had picked up some written English in their time working in the Resistance. But the Pegasus natives -- at least the ones in Atlantis's care -- largely came from cultures without a written tradition and it wasn't that rare to have refugees who couldn't count past twenty (or, in the odd case, ten). Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic weren't going to be dealbreakers to get into boot camp, but they were going to become factors in assignments and advancement.

"We expect most of the recruits to wind up in the combat arms, but a few of our blueprints allow for support services," Lorne added. "We'll decide what to do with the female recruits depending on how many we get."

The marines were... divided on that front.

"What about people from Earth?" Caldwell asked and John frowned, since he knew what the question really was.

"We're not really expecting much in the way of recruits from Earth," he said. "Our civilian population is mostly disinterested or ineligible for one or another reason. Also, they tend to be already gainfully employed and we're not looking to destabilize the city economy. Same with the folks from the other services currently doing whatever -- including the Daedalus crew. Anyone who wants to cross-enlist will have to have a good reason besides boredom and their commanding officer's approval."

The Daedalus crew, already over a third Navy personnel, was almost entirely engaged in the rebuilding of the ship. Once the Daedalus had been grounded, John had asked for and Caldwell had agreed to send his crew through a crash course in city defense, with a monthly refresher drill, although that hardly counted toward active involvement. They were housed in the same barracks as the rest of the military personnel, but apart from formations and overlapping times in the gyms, ranges, and commissary, they had nothing to do (professionally) with the city-based units.

Caldwell had a few more questions, all of which were reasonable and one of which was rather insightful, but John still suspected that he'd really come over just to make sure that John wasn't hatching a plan to press-gang the Daedalus people.

Three days later, the marine captains and their first sergeants trudged into Lorne's office for the big planning meeting, bringing notepads and laptops and coffee and understanding that nobody was escaping until decisions were made.

It wasn't nearly as painful a negotiation as everyone had anticipated, at least the theoretical and big-picture part. The marines had obviously had discussions among themselves and neither John nor Lorne were interested in making this any more complicated than it had to be. The early consensus was to have both 'active duty' and 'reserve' components, the latter becoming local militias and the former being integrated into the regular rifle companies. Everyone would go through boot camp, which would be thirteen weeks, same as on Earth, and as close in form and function to what had been run at Parris Island and San Diego as possible. (They had former DIs, not enough for the job but enough to train others and to supervise.) By having both active and reserve units, they could train more people, since there would definitely be a segment of the population interested in the training but unwilling or unable to commit to living in Atlantis.

Also, and this was not a trivial matter, having local militias made up of reservists was good PR as much as good counter-insurgency doctrine. Having men defending their own people gave them a very good reason to take it seriously, but it also kept the colonialism angle from being too prominent - John and the others were very aware of the potential for the project to look like they were training cannon fodder to defend Atlantis and her interests at the expense of everywhere else.

The logistics and timing was and always were always going to be the difficult part of the planning, the entire reason this whole enterprise had been put off time and again. Some decisions couldn't be made until they saw how many recruits they had and - perhaps more importantly - how many completed the course. But most could be at least estimated and that was where they got bogged down. All of the captains understood the necessities, but none of them wanted to put their marines in the position of being overburdened or under-staffed at critical moments. In addition to all of the regular tasks the marines had to complete, which included serving as outsourced labor, security duties, routine mission and training schedules, and shifts on Mars and Cordinar, the marines now also had to garrison Dela and build the training camp. All of this was already plenty to do without having to make adjustments to incorporate new personnel and/or lose men to combined militia units.

"That wasn't so bad," John said to Lorne once it was over and the marines had gone off to start putting things into action.

Lorne gave him a baleful look.

"Okay, so it was that bad, but it's mostly done," John amended, slouching down in his chair until it felt like his chin was level with the table. "From now on, it's just tweaking and reinforcing and revising."

"And getting it past Doctor Weir," Lorne added, leaning back in his seat himself.

"That shouldn't be too much trouble," John mused. "She'll like the combined units."

Elizabeth, ever worried about social stratification, had been pushing John since the beginning to find something to do for their growing population of untrained refugees. Getting them involved in civil defense would make her day.

"Does this mean we're going to hold off on mentioning the possibilities of conscription?" Lorne asked, eyes closed. He'd gone out yesterday with his team and hadn't gotten in until about two hours before the meeting began. He'd probably had just enough time to shower, change, eat, and then sharpen his pencils.

The plan was to hold a recruiting drive and work with whatever they got. They were anticipating a high interest level and considered it more likely that they would have to turn people away instead of beating the bushes for candidates. But this was now, when they were still mostly at peace and had a large population looking to protect their property and their families from Wraith and more pedestrian trouble. Once they were fully on a war footing and facing casualties - nobody in Little Tripoli was under any illusion that they weren't training their own replacements - the situation might be different while the need for reinforcements with at least minimal training would be most acute. They'd gone back and forth on the idea of universal conscription versus an all-volunteer force before ultimately deciding on the latter - the US military had improved in every area once the draft had been abolished - but had reserved the right (or at least the right to ask) for mandatory conscription.

"For the time being, I think that's probably a good idea anyway," John answered. Once the shit started hitting the fan with regularity, a draft would probably end up being one more radical change in a boatload of them. "Why don't you go crash for a few hours? I promise I won't get into trouble."

Lorne didn't open his eyes, but he smiled. "All I have left on the schedule is a confab with Zelenka."

John made a mental note to drop by later. Even if Lorne didn't find a dozen other tasks on his own to keep him occupied, the walk-in traffic would be enough. Let everyone deal with John instead - which would automatically cut down on the visitors, since problems somehow always seemed to be more solvable when the alternative was going to the CO.

Which was why by tea-time John had been 'on duty' for more than an hour and there'd been precisely one visitor and that had been Mitchell, who'd come in search of a plausible explanation for why his team had been assigned the mission to Nelo. (Short answer: the Neloi had been pissed off at the Athosians for generations and John wasn't taking Teyla there again if he could help it, Lorne's team had too many prior commitments, and the last time they'd sent a platoon, the Neloi had freaked and thought they were getting invaded.)

Such freedom from visitors allowed John to play catch up on his own ever-increasing workload, most of which in turn had been passed on by Lorne as the relatively small percentage of business that absolutely had to be handled by the commanding officer. (And that was a far smaller percentage than it might've been be because of who Lorne was and how well he could anticipate John's wishes and responses.) Little Tripoli had mostly ordered itself after the sudden and piecemeal expansion from runt marine infantry battalion to full-service station, but John knew that this coming expansion, one that might see the marine battalion double in size, would highlight everything that still hadn't been satisfactorily worked out. Most of these issues wouldn't be obvious until they cropped up, but some of them would be and, as much as he was fond of swearing that he didn't join the Air Force to be an administrator, he had an obligation to fix what he could before it became a problem for everyone who worked for him. And that should probably start with the action closest to the top.

He was still debating whether to just assign Lorne an NCO to help him out or wait until he actually agreed to it (not likely) when Ronon showed up with a large plate of cookies and fruit and one of the sachets that passed as teabags these days. He also had his books with him, which he put on the conference table and then went about getting water for the electric kettle Lorne kept and prepping the teapot that had somehow migrated in here over the years. He did all of this without so much as a word to John - a grunt of acknowledgment was all.

The first time Ronon had come in here to study, John had assumed that this was something he'd started doing with Lorne, but that turned out not to be the case. So John accepted that it was him Ronon was seeking out (for Ronon-type values of 'seeking out' that did not necessarily involve actually communicating) and had more or less determined that Ronon wanted someplace where he would be neither observed or disturbed and still had access to someone he trusted to ask questions of should the need arise. Ronon was surprisingly shy about resuming his education, not wanting to take the literacy classes G-2 offered but instead working his own way through the textbook on his own. (Teyla, on the other hand, was apparently a bit of an apple-polisher in class. John and Rodney both found this hilarious and completely unsurprising.)

Ronon was literate in several languages in addition to Satedan, so he'd picked up the basics of English quickly, although spelling and the seemingly endless exceptions that made every phonics rule appear arbitrary frustrated him. He was currently working his way through a library book and dutifully writing out the words he didn't understand for later dictionary searches. As John did his own work, he could occasionally hear Ronon sounding out words. He didn't offer up corrections unless asked, though, or if it seemed like Ronon had settled on a wrong choice.

The radio in his ear had been quiet most of the day, but it beeped now.

"Sir, Lieutenant Kagan's calling in from Dela," Osgeny reported once John answered.

"Go ahead," John replied.

"Sir, we've got some Delai here," Kagan began and John sat up, since Dela had been a ghost town in the not-quite-week it had been in Atlantis's custody. "Nineteen of them. They were hiding on another world."

"From what?" John wasn't sure whether to hope that it was the Wraith, the Ori, or Michael.

"Maybe a prior, sir," Kagan replied, "But not in the way we'd expect. They say that a man showed up a couple of months ago - a regular-looking man, nobody scarred like a prior - and told them about a sanctuary where they'd be free from the Wraith. Didn't perform any miracles or make any threats in the public square, but the leaders of the Delai decided to take the visitor up on his offer and picked up and left. Our group here snuck off in the night so they wouldn't have to go."

There was an awful lot of information missing here and, judging by Kagan's tone of voice, he knew it as well.

"What makes you think it was a prior?" John asked.

"A phrase they kept using, sir," Kagan answered. "'Safe in the light.' As in the Delai left on the promise of being 'safe in the light.'"

It could be ascension that was being spoken of, or a planet with many suns or moons, or one that had invested in good fluorescents. But John had largely given up on happy coincidences. He looked at his watch, appreciating that all of his efforts to get Lorne a little down time were about to be undone.

"They look like they're going to have a problem with Dela coming under our suzerainty?" he asked, since keeping Dela secure was a separate but not unrelated problem to where the Delai had gone off to.

"To the point of doing anything about it? Not right now, sir," Kagan replied. "They're not thrilled, but they're also very respectful of our M16s for the time being."

Pacifying the Delai was going to have to be a priority; they didn't want to create their own insurgency and they didn't want Atlantis to earn a rep as rapacious or of turning people out of their homes.

"All right," John sighed. "Get what you can from them and then come in so you can explain it to the rest of us."

Kagan aye-ayed and signed off.

Ronon was already pulling his things together, preparing to leave. His dictionary list was on top and John read one of the words upside-down. "Organza? What are you reading about that for?"

Ronon gave him a wary look.

"Teyla's purple dress? The one with the--" he trailed off, making a gesture to indicate the sari-like wrapping. "That's organza."

Ronon frowned in realization. He'd clearly been expecting it to mean something else. "Stupid name for aridal."

It was the last chuckle John got for a while. He called Radner and had him collect the other captains, then called Mitchell, who'd need to be told everything later anyway, and then finally Lorne, who didn't even pretend to sound like he hadn't been sleeping, then finished what he was working on while waiting for everyone to gather.

An hour later, John still wasn't sure what they had. Kagan hadn't been able to get a whole lot out of the Delaian refugees because they were all common folk, nobody close to the center of their government, and almost everything that had gone on in terms of the decision process had happened away from their eyes and ears. They had all heard the visitor - who called himself Savan - speak, but none of them reported anything that could be construed as prior-like behavior. There'd been little preaching and nothing about knowledge and enlightenment or Origin or conversion. Kagan had asked the Delai if they thought Savan was a god or one of the Ancestors and they'd seemed split among themselves but had agreed that most of their neighbors had indeed thought that Savan was a messenger from the Ancestors if not one himself. They all speculated that that was why the governor and council had chosen to follow him and, Kagan suggested, why those who had chosen not to had fled.

"I'd say that the group is split between skeptics who think Savan's a snake oil salesman and those who think he's the harbinger of the Ancestors and either aren't willing or aren't able to live by the letter of their holy laws," Kagan said. "Mostly the former."

Thankfully, Kagan didn't think the Delai would be a problem long-term with respect to the recolonization of their world. "As long as they can keep their homes and work their land, most of them will be fine, sir," Kagan answered Mitchell's question. "They'd like to have a voice in how we set things up - make sure we don't wreck anything or run roughshod over their traditions - but they seem to appreciate that nineteen people can't run the entire place themselves. There's one pair that could be trouble, though. Both of 'em - a guy and a girl, about my age - have dreams of petty despotism dancing in their eyes. They set themselves up as the leaders of the group and they're trying to bargain for leadership of the colony itself once it's set up. They've been able to wield influence over their gang to an extent, but I don't know how much longer it's going to last - there's a stronger alternative now and their original reason for banding together is done."

"We'll keep an eye on them, then," Lorne said.

"Gunny said we should conscript them both, sir," Kagan said with a grin. "Thirteen weeks with the DI's would cure what ails 'em."

A chuckle around the table, although only a few hours earlier they'd been discussing almost the exact same thing - offering enlistment as an alternative to incarceration as another tool for policing.

"We'll keep the idea in mind," John said wryly.

They sent Kagan back out to Dela to rejoin his marines and turned their attention to what he'd left with them.

"This isn't anything like what the Ori have tried in the past," Mitchell said sourly. "They usually start off with the threats and that is their soft sell."

"Maybe you weren't joking about the Ancients going door-to-door like the Jehovah's Witnesses, sir," Armstrong mused. "They drumming up business for a new sanctuary?"

John frowned. "This is a little straightforward for the Ancients," he said. "Even with all of their 'rules' about not getting involved."

"Change of RoE?" Polito offered weakly.

"Why now?" Hanzis retorted. "It's not like they didn't know we were gonna get hosed back in the Milky Way and they've done fuck-all about the Wraith."

Sometimes, John suspected that even if the Ancients did show up and announce that they wanted to help, they'd be turned aside. The bitterness toward them for their choices to serve their own desires over the basic survival of those most in need... He'd thought about going back to Chaya's world and trying to enlist her help, but he never had. Mostly because he still thought fondly of her and he knew that her refusal would hurt.

"Is there a non-threatening option for Savan besides 'Ori,' 'charlatan,' or Michael?" Lorne asked. "Some benevolent world looking to save those they can?"

A sarcastic murmur around the table; their experiences in both galaxies had left them all with very little hope for that kind of good fortune.

"I think we might be the only suckers here, sir," Radner said.

They ended up agreeing to have the marines start warning places they visited about the perils of such offers -- even if it was something simply human and sinister, it was still worth derailing. If it was actually the Ori, they'd need more information before devising a more productive response.

"This is a case of being careful what we wish for, isn't it?" Lorne asked, somewhat rhetorically, once the captains and Mitchell had left. It was just the two of them working on how best to tell Weir without starting a panic or forcing a reconsideration of the plans for Dela. "We say we'd be grateful if they had a lower casualty rate with their conversion pitch and now we get this."

John couldn't come up with any real positive spin -- he didn't think that the missing Delai weren't either dead or converted and, really, 'at least we don't have to bury their dead before we take over the place' was not a bright side worth celebrating. So he said nothing and grimaced.

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21 September, 2009