Qui Habitat: Chapter Fourteen

by Domenika Marzione

For a guy with no formal place in the military hierarchy, Cam had an awful lot of shit to do.

It had taken time for him to actually feel like he was getting integrated into Atlantis, which probably hadn't been a bad thing in hindsight as his physical injuries had only been the most obvious reason to take it slowly. But now, as Atlantis's footprint in the galaxy grew larger, so did his responsibilities.

Presumably because of his experience rustling refugees back home, he’d become the big-picture guy for Atlantis’s various satellites and settlements. Teyla was their refugee coordinator, but Cam was the one who handled everything else. And that was a lot, especially now with Atlantis having absorbed yet another world without quite having figured out what to do with the ones they’d already ended up with. The settlers for Cordinar hadn't yet been finalized, but Dela had been pushed up to the top priority so that they could both hold the place and get the crops in and started once the ground defrosted and Sheppard and Weir were all expecting him to have that sorted out on his own and quickly. As well as keeping up with Cordinar (with its Our Gang mafia) and Gauhan (and the erstwhile Gauhani) and whatever other strays found their way into Pegasus’s version of the Star Wars Cantina.

More locally, Cam’s AO within Little Tripoli had been no more clearly defined. He’d effectively been given command of all non-marine personnel regardless of their job descriptions or whether Cam had any idea of what to do with them. Lieutenant (jg) Gantry officially reported to him and, through her, a motley crew who required direction -- and frequently protection from the marines in the rifle companies. The squadron of misfit toys versus ‘The Battalion,’ a battle that had gotten markedly more involved after Lorne had apparently decided that Cam had graduated from staff officer preschool and no longer needed a leg up. It wasn't a fair fight -- Cam and Gantry and their too-clever non-coms were no match for the marine captains, who knew in turn that they were Lorne’s and Sheppard’s favorites -- but it was, in its own way, a victory. Even if most days it felt nothing if not pyrrhic.

"Miss Gantry, what are our miscreants doing now?" Cam asked plaintively into his speakerphone.

It was 0930 and he'd just sat down at his desk after a thrilling morning of PT (today, exercising with the SFs) and then PT (getting his shoulder worked on by HM2 Adler) and he'd been looking forward to coffee and pastries at his desk, especially with Corporal Waterman not around and thus not in a position to yell at him for eating at his desk. (Waterman wasn't Walter -- she was much better looking and wore an Army uniform and was still alive -- but she ran Cam's office better than he did. And was totally unashamed to tell him so.) But his plan to enjoy his coffee and sugar-covered carbs was at least temporarily put on hold by the fact that his email inbox was a whole lot more full than it should have been at this hour of the morning. Like everyone else, he checked his email first thing and made sure there was nothing that couldn't wait until after he showered and there'd been no crises at 0630 today. Except now there were at least a dozen emails, five of them with the same subject header and all from marine captains. Which meant that either the marines had done something and their officers were trying to cover for them or they were bitching about something Cam's non-marines had done and were demanding recourse. Normally, he'd be inclined to blame The Battalion, simply by virtue of them being marines, but the subject headers had the delicate odor of complaining about them.

"You're going to have to be more specific than that, sir," Gantry replied with the tired familiarity of someone who babysat for a living. "They're up to many things, only some of which I've been able to divine with only one cup of coffee in my system. If it's the police blotter, that's already been taken care of."

The non-marine military personnel in Atlantis were outnumbered by the marines so long as nobody counted the Daedalus crew, which nobody did. They were, in their own ways, as trouble-prone as their leatherneck brethren, although their versions of trouble were rarely as headache-inducing for their COs, something for which Cam was grateful.

"What are they up to that I've got four marine company commanders whining in my inbox?" he clarified, since he knew better than to even ask who'd gotten picked up by the SFs during the night. "It's something they weren't up to at 0600."

"Ah," Gantry said. "That would be me, sir."

Cam put down his blueberry roll. "Lieutenant, you are supposed to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

"The Battalion has to do their inventories same as everyone else, sir," Gantry replied, totally unrepentant. "I don't want to be a pogue, but I don't want Doctor McKay stalking me, either."

Inventories used to be a matter between departments and their corresponding Earth units. Until the Ori, Science hadn't cared what was running out in Little Tripoli or Medical. But with the city now entirely reliant on themselves for making sure they had what they needed, it mattered. Science was their provider of everything from gunpowder to medicine ingredients and batteries and the planning meetings were lengthy, loud, and guaranteed to have someone not talking to someone else by the end of it. Cam had been to three already and had come out with a headache each time. Every unit's priorities became a negotiating point, subject to the needs and desires of every other unit. and nobody liked having to justify their choices to people most definitely not experts in the subject matter and with their own stakes in the game.

"I'll smack their asses for you," Cam promised. "You want everything by end of play today?"

Gantry shouldn't be serving as the logistics officer for the entire military section, but she more or less was. The marines were perfectly fine with it when it meant they got out of bureaucratic work -- within The Battalion, the job was foisted off on lieutenants -- but when Gantry actually made demands instead of filled them, they tended to remember that she was their most junior O-2.

"I wanted everything by start of play today, sir," she replied, "but I'll take the end of it so long as it's AST and not Mars Time."

Cam read his email as he ate his breakfast, then washed his hands and cleaned off his desk on the off chance that Waterman wouldn't assume that he'd eaten at his desk just because she wasn't there, then wrote an email explaining that Gantry had enough to do already without having to add mind reading to her task list and if the marines wanted a trio of Air Force field grade officers and a Navy lieutenant (jg) deciding on their matériel priorities, then by all means leave the decisions up to them. He put all four captains in the To, CC'ed Lorne and Sheppard, and BCC'd Gantry because she deserved to know that someone was sticking up for her.

Waterman was back by the time Cam returned from lunch, along the rest of the day's schedule scribbled out on the whiteboard. It was her way of reminding him that they both knew what he had to get done today as well as serving as an informal service for anyone who came looking for him while he was out.

"Not that I mind, but why did you schedule me for a nap?" Cam asked as he read, tilting his head because Waterman might have amazing powers of organization and omniscience, but she had crappy handwriting that couldn't entirely be blamed on her injuries. "And can I nap earlier if I want to? It's been a long day."

After getting Gantry off of the hook, he'd managed to be more usefully productive, which in today's case meant spending an hour with Teyla, working on the ever-changing rosters of which refugees were moving where and when, and then meetings with both Swarzak and Bristaw about policing issues within the city and as a possible expansion of the defense forces once the recruitment drive kicked in.

"No, you can't, sir," Waterman told him firmly, not looking up from her screen. "Because that nap corresponds exactly with the G-2 presentation you have to go to and will sit in the back of while Mister Quinn takes notes for the both of you."

Cam grinned and went to his desk.

"Also, sir, you keep eating at your desk and you know that's not the path to enlightenment, ascension, or really quality naptime."

"Corporal, I'm going to trade you to Major Lorne for a box of pencils and an extra blue marker," Cam threatened half-heartedly -- he wasn't sure he had need of another blue marker, plus Lorne was already fighting Sheppard over the assignment of a staff NCO. Also, when Waterman wasn't mocking him, she was incredibly useful. He'd flipped up his laptop screen to see that she'd left him all of the files he'd need (or want) to sit through the meeting with Biology to set up their site visit to Dela to do the agrarian assessment. The ground on Dela was still much too cold and hard to plant anything, but the snow seemed to be at least much less frequent and so now was the time to figure out what they were going to do there. The Delai rump had been forthcoming about how the fields had been used, but they'd also been forthcoming about how many of the choices had been governed by tradition and land ownership rights and not efficiency.

Cam did not nap during G-2's presentation on Ori and Ancient semiotics, but that was entirely because Jonas would elbow him every time he started slipping off. He did, however, get a solid hour of eye-resting because he knew Ori iconography backwards and forwards by this point and didn't need the geek squad showing him how the fire sign had evolved in the last ten thousand years. Next to him, Jonas was drawing pictures and taking notes even though this was just as much a waste of his time as Cam’s, probably even more so. As if to prove the point, Jonas was adding a lot of information that wasn't in the talk to the margins of his pages, mostly in English and some in Kelownan and Cam wished he could read the latter. For all of the time they’d spent together in two galaxies, they didn’t speak much about Jonas’s experiences with the Ori. It wasn’t out of guilt – Jonas didn’t blame Cam for anything that happened to either him or Langara. But Jonas rarely volunteered anything and Cam felt uncomfortable asking; he knew the timelines and the results and asking additional questions seemed like picking at scabs that Jonas sometimes seemed determined not to let heal.

The presentation was for all off-world teams, which practically speaking meant Cam's, Sheppard's and Lorne's and then all of the marine lieutenants. The captains technically didn't have to show up, but Polito was there (because he was a geek) and Hanzis was there (because he was S-2) and Colonel Caldwell was there (because he was paranoid and had probably been convinced that this was a cover for something nefarious). Sheppard and Lorne were near the right front with the captains, the rest of the marines -- Cam's, Lorne's, and the gaggle of lieutenants -- were in the rear with Safir, Teyla, and Ronon on their front edge. McKay was off on the front left with Doctor Weir, who'd shown up with a small group of civilians of mixed provenance judging by the uniform shirts.

After the G-2 poodle show, it was off to Biology to discuss improving crop yields on Dela, including the not-trivial point of getting the marines to go along with whatever roaming and surveying needed to be done, and then back to his office, where he expected to finish out the day reading about Cordinar. Which he did for a while, until Jonas showed up and Waterman suddenly disappeared.

Waterman did not normally flee from the sight of Jonas. In fact, most of the time, she ordered him around with the same impunity she did Cam, except "Mister Quinn" didn't quite sound like the insult "sir" did. (Jonas, either out of self-preservation or amusement, went along with it.) But occasionally, she did disappear when she thought it was a personal visit and privacy needed to be more than a pretense.

Jonas had looked perfectly normal and Jonas-like when he'd come in, at least to Cam's eyes, but that really didn't mean much. Still water ran deep and they'd spent part of the afternoon talking Ori and maybe that was why Waterman had decided that it was a good time to head down to Ordnance and remind herself that she used to fix missile launchers for a living before she'd gotten blown up in downtown DC.

"Have you spoken to the members of our former teams about what they plan to do?" Jonas asked as he sat down and dug out a cloth-wrapped package from his bag, which he unwrapped to reveal two small boxes from the commissary and handed one to Cam along with a small fork. Waterman would get annoyed, as Jonas knew, but Waterman wasn't here. In fact, she'd left. Cam accepted his snack, opening up the box to reveal fruit salad.

"Spoken? Not to most of them, no," Cam replied, pulling his unofficial placemat out of his drawer -- a square of cloth Waterman knew damned well was in there and for what purpose, but if she didn't ask and he didn't tell, then nobody got into trouble -- and covering his desk top. "But I know who has plans for what, if they have plans. They show up on lists."

Most of the people from Jonas's group were scientists of some type, either formally trained or simply picking up enough on-the-job training to have been successful as a tech smuggler and saboteur back in the Milky Way. With few exceptions, they were working in Atlantis as part of the Science Division, although a few had moved out to Mars on projects there. Most of Cam's people, on the other hand, were generally lesser (or differently) skilled and had initially found homes on the mainland, although a few were working in the city in various capacities. His people had been soldiers, either by training or necessity, and there was not yet a fight in Pegasus for them to join. But with several new options opening up, there would be movement. Many of them had once been farmers or shopkeepers and were hoping to be selected for Dela or Cordinar. Almost all of them had signed up for the first wave of military training, either as part of the reserve force or the full-time element.

"Kirnon wants to see if the marines'll let him do the reserve even if he can't hold a rifle," Cam went on. Kirnon had lost his hand in the same attack that still had Cam going to PT three times a week and joked that it was better to have lost it at once and not have to deal with the months of work required to repair what had merely been broken. It wasn’t precisely true since Kirnon had had months of follow-up appointments in Medical, but Cam didn't believe him for a second anyway. "I don't know how serious he is about it."

Jonas nodded, not looking up from where he was carefully stabbing fruit chunks. "Will they let him?"

"Probably not," Cam said. "I'm sure they'd let him do martial arts or PT or whatever else he wants, but they're not going to give him a uniform until they have to."

Cam wasn't sure Kirnon would mind too much. He was happy on the mainland living in the Athosian community, having built himself a home (literally) and a life among a people who shared many traits with the Salish. Privately, Cam thought that Kirnon believed that there would be a time down the road where the cycle would begin again, when it would once again be a fight for survival against the Ori, and he would fight then here as he had once before.

"Dannah wants to join up," Jonas said after he swallowed. "She said that she needed my permission. I wasn't sure if she meant it literally or just as a kind of benediction."

Dannah was their best Ori hacker, fearless and brilliant and so tiny she made Teyla look like a giant.

"I can't speak to her asking for a blessing, but she means it literally, at least," Cam answered. "She's got a Class One job, so she needs your permission as her supervisor and then McKay's as head of the division."

Jonas wrinkled his nose. "Is there any reason why I shouldn't give it?"

"Apart from the fact that she's got a Class One job?" Cam asked in return, unsurprised that Jonas had completely ignored all of the discussions on city personnel enlistment. Class One jobs were 'mission critical, Atlantis-based' and that employment sector was supposed to be left alone in the recruitment drive. Which didn't mean that nobody would sign up from there, just that those were the folks who were supposed to be talked out of it, not talked in to it. "Even if you do, I'm not sure McKay will sign off on it. She's a little too valuable to be trading in her keyboard and mouse for an M16 and taking patrol shifts out on Mars."

She was too small to carry an M16, but that was beside the point.

"There's no reason she can't do the reserve training," Jonas argued. "She fought back in our galaxy. I don't like the idea of telling her she can't in this one."

The nature of the reserves was still being decided; right now, it was a general term for non-Atlantis personnel who would not be housed in the barracks once training was complete – the refugees and settlers who would return and protect their homes or otherwise hold jobs beyond “marine.” (And, man, did it gall Cam that they were all going to be little marines.) The recruits from Atlantis herself were supposed to be so few in number that no firm plan had been drawn up for them. Or, at least, none that Cam had heard. He wouldn’t be surprised if the marines had figured out ways to get them, too.

"Why don't you tell her to wait a little bit,” he suggested, since Jonas was seeking some sort of advice. “Let us get a better feel for what the numbers are going to be like, both in the total numbers and then what's going to be done with the women. I don't think there's going to be a training unit for them in the first go-round anyway; they might want to -- or need to -- wait for a quorum."

The marines were still changing their mind every twenty minutes about mixed units, but it had been unanimous that the boot camps would be single-sex units only.

"I'll tell her that, then," Jonas agreed. "By that time, it might be a moot point."

It was Cam's turn to make a face, even if he didn't disagree.

They ate their fruit salad in companionable silence, although Cam wondered if there was something else Jonas was here to say. Waterman had seemed pretty determined to leave them alone and she'd stayed through countless episodes of 'remember the time...' and casual conversation.

"I'm going to the mainland tomorrow," Jonas said as he stowed the fork inside the empty container and closed it tightly. "I should be back on Thursday. We didn't have any missions planned, so I assumed it would be all right, but I can cancel if there's a problem."

Cam smiled to himself as he chewed and swallowed the last piece of melon and then began to clean up his desk. Waterman's radar had been right after all. Jonas wasn't passive-aggressive; he was unfailingly accommodating and generous with his time and energy or else he was unmoving and unmovable and there was no doing anything about it. He was considerate of others always, which meant that if he was seeking forgiveness instead of asking permission, there was a reason. Of course, Jonas having a reason and Jonas sharing that reason were two separate things.

"I've got nothing planned, although I can't promise the same for the galaxy at large," Cam said as he handed his container back to Jonas, who wrapped them both up in the cloth they'd come in. "You going out for a purpose or just to get out of the city?"

Jonas paid far more than the required attention to the knot he was tying for a long moment and Cam waited.

"Both," Jonas finally said, not quite meeting Cam's eyes right away, looking over his left shoulder and out the window until he finally switched his focus to Cam. "Zina's birthday is Wednesday."

Cam nodded. He'd suspected it was something like this -- her birthday, their wedding anniversary, some other date that had significance on Langara. Last year, when they'd been fighting in the Milky Way, Jonas had gotten odd at a few moments that hadn't been timed to anything they'd been doing as part of the resistance.

"You tell her I'm doing my best to keep you in one piece, yeah?" he said. He knew that despite Jonas working his way through every holy book to be found in Atlantis, Jonas was still very much an atheist. An atheist who maybe wished he wasn't, but an atheist just the same. Which didn't mean that he didn't still talk to ghosts. They all did.

Jonas gave him one of those complicated smiles. "I will."


"I wonder if they'll feed us lunch."

"We just stopped to eat."

"And now we're going to have to walk for another couple of hours. It'd be the hospitable thing to offer lunch after such a long hike from the gate."

"These are the crazy spice people. They don't have to be hospitable. It's like the guys back home with the oil -- they always had customers, so there was no incentive not to be nutjobs."

"Hey, is that a near-deer?"

"We're not stopping for venison, Sergeant," Cam called out, just in case Byrd started getting ideas. It wasn't much of a stretch to imagine Byrd as the Tom Sawyer-type he sounded like he'd once been, a skinny kid running through fields with a stick or a slingshot or a shotgun, knocking over anthills or shooting rabbits, some responsible adult hollering at him in the background. It wasn't much of a stretch because that was largely what Byrd did now, except he'd swapped the slingshot for an M16 and all of his battle rattle did a fairly good job of hiding just how scrawny he still was.

"It can be for the way home, sir," Byrd replied hopefully. "It might be too dark to hunt later."

"You're a fucking marine," Becanek growled. "You can last a fucking hike without a fucking hot entrée."

Cam fought back a grin as Byrd kicked some pebbles in disappointment and resisted the urge to offer Byrd the hope of it being an option for later, since this was a pretty good hike and they were likely to be returning late and unfed.

Nelo was a lot like every other place in Pegasus that Cam had visited in that it had a lot more trees than people, at least by the stargate, where it had lots of trees and no people. The leafy welcome was apparently a feint, though, as they were close to the planet’s equator and things were supposed to be more tropical once they got closer to the town. Which would not be for a while because it was at least a three-hour walk, depending on how many non-marines you had in your travel party. Cam would have been willing to brave Jonas's driving or, more likely, gone about arranging for taxi service from one of the jumper pilots had that been an option, but it wasn't for the same reason sending a platoon of marines to Nelo wasn't an option. It's hard to negotiate with the locals if they're busy cowering under their mattresses in fear. And so they walked.

Truth be told, Cam didn't mind so much – a long walk gave him time to think about the work he’d left behind in a way that a more direct route would not. Once upon a time Cam had complained that he had nothing to do. Now he simply had no time to do anything – including ponder.

"Byrd, keep your filthy infidel boots on the road!" interrupted Cam's ruminations on whether they needed to cap the number of people who'd be transferring from Mars to Dela and if he could get Technical Sergeant Swarzak to come up with a better demarcation of the boundaries between where the marines' sphere of influence in the gate room ended and the SFs' control of the city at large began because the turf wars were starting to annoy Weir.

"I wasn't going anywhere!"

"The hell you weren't," Becanek retorted. "My ancestors had the right idea -- chain you unbelievers to the galley benches and keep you out of trouble."

Considering they were in a religious war that had already decimated a galaxy, one might imagine that individual beliefs would be off-limits. But only if one hadn't spent time in the military, where there was no such thing as a sacred cow and the poorer the taste, the richer the joke. Which was how his team ended up pissing all over Christianity and Islam (and Origin and veneration of the Ancestors and...) by turns. Horton and Byrd were both survivors of being dragged to church by the ear every Sunday as Cam had been, Becanek was Muslim, and Jonas was whatever the Kelownan state religion had been, a combination that could have meant some heated debates that Cam would have had to have stopped before they began. But Becanek was proud of the fact that Kosovars were not very observant (he ate pork and drank booze except during Ramadan), Jonas had been completely secular long before anything had ever happened to Langara, and Byrd and Horton weren't the bible-beating type, so apart from a few very tortured discussions on the credulity required to accept the Holy Trinity, it ended up just being a way to kill (hours at a) time by insulting each other. Which Cam was, in fact, more than willing to let slide. Or occasionally encourage.

"Staff Sergeant, don't make me go all Southern Baptist on your heathen ass," Cam warned. "Your people lost the Crusades."

"Do with me as you will, sir," Becanek replied airily. "If you manage to defeat me by power of numbers, then I shall get my eternal reward for suffering a martyr's death."

"Seventy-two Virginians," Horton cracked.

"See, that's what's fucked up about Islam," Becanek sighed. "Who the fuck wants six dozen virgins? I'd trade them all for a single girl who knew what she was doing. Instead, you end up with a harem full of black-eyed girls who won't learn how to give a decent blowjob for all eternity no matter how many times you try to teach them because they're permanently innocent. That's not paradise."

"I wouldn't mind spending eternity trying anyway," Byrd mused. "Bad blowjob's still a blowjob. And some girls are naturals."

"Byrd is speaking hypothetically," Horton helpfully explained to Jonas, who'd been taking in the entire 'discussion' with a faint look of amusement and horror. Jonas was still learning that his time among airmen at the SGC had not been adequate preparation for living among marines. "He's only ever seen blowjobs in pornos."

"Fuck you, man," Byrd spat. "I'm doing a hell of a lot better than you are."

"Rosie Palm and her five sisters don't count," Becanek told him, waggling his fingers at Byrd.

"Gentlemen, time to stow the highbrow conversation," Cam announced as they hit a rise and the first signs of civilization could be spotted on the other side. The road was less of a road-road than a path worn down by generations of wagon wheels and footsteps, but it was such that they could be seen by the Neloi before they could see in turn. Cam had read the notes on Nelo, but they hadn't been terrible helpful beyond 'pack lunch.' It seemed like every past interaction between Atlantis and the Neloi had been of the 'object lesson' variety instead of the 'good example'; as a result, there was a whole lot of what not to do, but not much on what would be useful in a constructive fashion. Even Lorne's team, which should have had the advantage of not inflaming ancient rivalries or sending the locals fleeing into the woods, had ultimately ended up making things worse after an initial positive experience because they'd brought Reletti the second time and he'd accidentally activated some Ancient tech. (The Neloi didn’t venerate the Ancients; they’d wanted to burn Reletti at the stake for being a witch.) Under normal circumstances, Cam suspected trade relations with Nelo would have been abandoned long ago - the sheer amount of effort that went into the enterprise rendered it hardly cost-efficient even if Nelo was one of the key spice growers in Pegasus. But there were no longer normal circumstances and jumping through flaming hoops to deal with the Neloi was currently easier than freeing the Milky Way so that they could get their nutmeg from Earth.

"Quite a change from what's on the other side," Jonas said, gesturing with his chin in the direction they were going. He’d been all sorts of intrigued about Nelo once Cam had told him they’d be going, first for the fact that every time Atlantis visited it turned out like a Fawlty Towers skit and then, after looking over the geographical notes, for the other peculiarities that made Nelo special.

Nelo might look like every other planet in Pegasus by the stargate, but Cam could feel the air change a little as they descended the far side of the hill, which was much steeper on this side than the one closer to the gate. This side was warmer and more humid, like stepping out from under a shady tree on a summer's day and correspondingly less comfortable. He'd left his jacket at home and was already starting to regret the LBV with its nylon that kept heat in better than insulation, although there was really nothing to be done on that score. The rest of the path was through open ground with little shade; the trees, when they started up again, were mostly crop trees and not the sort of omnipresent forest that seemed to cover every planet in Pegasus and had been hinted at on the way they'd come so far. It didn't look like Tahiti, but there was certainly a different feel to the place.

"Yeah," Cam agreed. "Hopefully we'll be able to get something done. I'd hate to have to trek through all this just for the exercise."

The temperature continued to rise as they continued to descend and so by the time they hit sea level (according to Jonas's Ancient PDA), Cam was ready to flash back to some particularly crappy summer days in Texas when he'd been learning to fly.

The marines were crestfallen that the Neloi didn't walk around topless, but they hid it well.

While there was hope that Dela would be able to supply Atlantis not only with sufficient crop yield to feed themselves but also enough to trade elsewhere, it was too soon to be offering anything from there. As such, Cam had a list of what he could offer that was heavy on the skilled and unskilled labor and craftwork and lighter on the in-kind edibles, although the Neloi apparently had a major sweet tooth and he'd been given a sampler to offer as a gift.

Atlantis's success as a candy purveyor was a surprise to almost everyone in the city, but it was rapidly becoming one of their bigger exports -- in the number of places that asked for it, if not yet in quantity. Atlantis currently produced everything from fudge to salt water taffy to hard candy to chocolate, all in countless varieties in relatively small batches. Production was a boon to the Atlantis employment rate -- it required its own kitchens and staff, tool and packaging production, and ingredient sourcing. The chemists in the city taught sugar inversion and additives, G-2 taught wax paper, but almost everything else was taken care of by refugees, which had other benefits.

Gemar wasn't the leader of the Neloi, Cam didn't think, but he was the one who handled their commerce and so if he wasn't at the top, he was near it. He took the change in trade delegation personnel with equanimity, not asking why Lorne and his team were not present, and Cam didn't know if that was because of the Wraith or just the assumption that Atlantis wouldn't send the previous failures back for a return engagement. Which was a faulty assumption, if that's what it was, but Cam didn't doubt that Nelo would permanently fall under his purview if they got out of here with a successful agreement.

The Neloi weren't big on hospitality, so there was no fuss made about the visitors (which Cam didn't mind) and no refreshment offered (which his team most certainly did after a long, hot walk). Instead, it was a quick walk through the village and out into the fields full of plants, trees, and shrubs and then over to one of the log cabins that served as a storage shed. At Gemar's brisk orders, workers showed off the various dried spices, grinding up peppercorns and shaving cinnamon quills. An experienced salesman, Gemar tried to direct Cam toward the more valuable products on offer -- white peppercorns instead of black, mace instead of nutmeg -- but Cam stuck to what was on his shopping list. He left Jonas in charge of the cassia and cinnamon since he really couldn't tell the difference and while Jonas had explained how to identify them, the cinnamon was for the kitchens and the cassia was for Pharmacology and Cam didn't want to screw up the amounts of each.

Finally, Gemar was satisfied that he'd twisted Cam's arm as far as it would go -- the Neloi were a little nuts, but not in ways that hindered their ability to bargain. Like most everyone else in the galaxy that Atlantis traded with, the Neloi were quite sure that Atlantis had endless resources with which to buy more than they were – a legacy of the years of largesse in commerce, a reputation Atlantis regretted more days than not now that they had more mouths to feed and nothing to trade to do so except what they could provide themselves. Which was why Cam was packing items that had never been on Atlantis’s menu of saleable goods before Robler Rock.

"I've been sent with this as a sign of friendship as well as a sample of what we have to offer on this front," Cam began as he pulled out the candy box from his pack, unwrapping the cloth that covered the box because the coolpak tucked underneath wasn't part of the deal. The box was nice, though, one of the stained teak ones the non-Athosian settlement on the mainland produced in quantity, lined with dark cloth and filled with everything from marzipan to chocolate-covered handmade marshmallows.

From the look on Gemar's face as he looked inside, Cam suspected he'd be making a pretty large dent in their bill with dessert.

With the box of candy apparently serving as some kind of proof of good faith, they were escorted back into the village and out of the hot sun. Bol, who might've been the guy actually in charge of Nelo, greeted them along with a handful of others whose names Cam promptly forgot but knew Jonas would keep track of. They were given large wooden mugs of cold water lightly flavored with aniseed and plates of fruit were put out. Very small plates with very small pieces of fruit -- papaya, it looked like -- and Cam tried not to laugh at Becanek's look of abject disappointment at the paucity of the portions. For all of his barking at Byrd over the venison, everyone on the team knew who had the biggest appetite.

The small-talk was a little stilted, as might be expected between crazy folk and the third set of people sent to chat with them, but Cam did his best. He’d come to realize that Pegasus was full of gossips in a way his home galaxy was not. He didn’t know if it was because there were fewer people in Pegasus, whether it was because they had a common enemy instead of living in separate hells under different Goa’uld, or what. But a good way to break the ice was always to ask about the other folks had heard. The Neloi weren’t big travelers – they went to market on a few different worlds, but they didn’t need to trade for many staples and between that and the distance to the stargate, they didn’t get out much. Which put Cam at an advantage because even more than he did, his marines most certainly did get out often.

Jonas, meanwhile, was talking to one of the other big-wig types about the Ancients. He’d been curious about why the Neloi didn’t worship them – it wasn’t very odd on its own, but they did have Ancient tech on their world and hadn’t recognized it for what it was. Cam was a little nervous about that; picking on teammates was one thing, but there was a reason his momma had always taught him to stay away from politics and religion in conversation. Especially conversation with the crazy folk who’d thought Reletti was a witch – everyone could joke about Reletti escaping getting burned at the stake, but there was nothing funny about Jonas and fire. But while Cam couldn’t make out every word in their chat, he could tell that there were no raised voices – hell, even some laughter – so he relaxed a little.

After everyone seemed to be well-sated (or pretended to be, since papaya and water did not a meal make), the box of candy was put out. Despite the hungry looks on the marines’ faces, Cam’s team politely refused to take anything from it, insisting that they had ample opportunity at home, although they took turns explaining what was what. Which in turn led to the unintentionally hilarious adventure that was Byrd explaining marshmallows.

In the end, Atlantis was going to end up with about a year's worth of spices, which for a population their size was quite a lot, for a couple of batches of marshmallows -- apparently Byrd's description hadn't killed all interest -- some marzipan, a box of homemade Snickers bars, some woodwork, and three sacks of sea salt.

Considering they sat on a planet that was 98.3% salt water, setting up the salt works had been a non-trivial task; using the output of the city's desalinization tanks had required too much additional processing to bother with and what they had now was apparently hardly a model of efficiency if McKay's ranting was any indication. However, Jonas seemed to think they were maybe three months away from it being a source of more income than frustration now that it had its own project team. In the meanwhile, there was still a decent market for the magic rock that made everything taste good and Cam was more than relieved to get out of Nelo without having to offer up bodies as a labor force -- the logistics would've been hell, especially since they'd probably need to bring their own food.

The logistics of getting everything to and from Nelo weren't going to be awesome, either. Cam suspected they were going to cheat and take the jumpers as far as they could on the other side of the hill, but from that point to the village it was going to be pack animals, either marine or the four-footed variety.

With trade completed, there wasn't much reason to linger on in Nelo, so after accepting Bol's offer to refill their canteens from the cistern, they got ready to go.

"A moment, Colonel?" Bol asked hesitantly as they left the building they'd been sitting in. Cam nodded at Jonas, who followed the marines and the other Neloi outside. He had no idea what Bol could want, just that it didn't seem to be that embarrassed kind of request for privacy that went with an apology for your credit card being declined and did you have cash. Or whatever the Pegasus equivalent was.

"What's up?" Cam asked once it was just the two of them.

"We have heard rumors of great plagues sweeping through worlds faster than the Wraith," Bol began slowly. "Entire villages dead in only moments. Your people travel broadly throughout the many worlds, more broadly than the Neloi. Have you also heard of these dreadful rumors?”

"It takes longer than a few minutes, but not by much," Cam sighed.

"It is true about Cordinar, then?" Bol asked, sounding less than surprised. Whoever his sources had been, he'd trusted them even if he couldn't quite believe them. "We used to trade at their market before they started asking for exorbitant fees."

"Cordinar's gone," Cam admitted. "But people will be moving back soon and the market will be starting again."

It might be another year before they got that far, especially with Dela now taking priority, but it didn't hurt to start advertising already. Cam had long since gotten over the worst of the inherent creepiness of selling real estate made available by tragedy. Which didn't mean he didn't occasionally wake up from a dream featuring that dead boy lying in the alley, just that he didn't stutter over offering the house next to that alley.

"There have been other places," Bol pressed.

Cam nodded. "Sirod, a few others," he said. They didn't even know the names of some of these worlds, just their gate addresses. "Vergaine was hit, but it didn't wipe out the whole world, just a few of the islands."

Vergaine was another water world, after a fashion, with a mainland with the stargate and then an archipelago with smaller populations. It was a fresh-water world, the body of water a giant lake -- the galaxy's biggest koi pond -- and Atlantis traded for fish from it.

"Some are saying that it is punishment from the gods," Bol ventured. "For sins known and unknown."

"Cordinar didn't get struck by a plague because of high rent," Cam said sourly. This wasn't the first or the fifth time he'd heard a variation on this theme. “And everyone else got sick because of Cordinar. There were no gods involved.”

He could see how 'divine retribution' would be a viable theory -- especially with the Ori rhetoric being what it was -- but he still didn't understand how people who'd sat around waiting while their gods had done nothing for ten thousand years while they were victimized by the Wraith could now suddenly believe that those gods were hellbent on wreaking vengeance upon the poor shmoes who'd sat around venerating their absent asses.

He was maybe a little bitter about the Ancients.

"This horror is the work of man?" Bol looked at him skeptically. "Forgive me, Colonel, but I find that difficult to believe."

Cam frowned. "It wasn't intentional," he explained, aware that there was only so much he could reveal and even less that Bol could understand without a working grasp of modern science. Of course, Cam had a working grasp of modern science and he didn't understand it all. "It was something meant to be done to Cordinar alone, but they probably didn't realize that so many people from so many worlds would be there and that the effects would travel and change without them there to control it all."

Bol looked neither enlightened or convinced.

"Say someone -- let's call him Joe -- decides that he's got a reason to want everyone on Nelo dead. Doesn't matter why, just that he does. And so he comes here and he slips poison into your well. Now everyone who drinks from that well's going to be affected by the poison, right? Which, if it happened today, would not only include all of the Neloi, but also me and my people since we drank here and filled up our canteens. So that's already at least two worlds affected by Joe's actions. But if it's not a poison that acts right away, then maybe we aren't feeling ill and go on to our next trading stop and maybe we let someone drink from our canteens or some of the poison slips out when we refill them on some other world or back at home.

"That's three worlds affected by just one man with a vial of poison. Cordinar had how many people coming and going every day from how many different worlds? And it wasn't a poison there. It was an illness, something you can pass on by touching someone or coughing on them -- something you don't even have to realize you're doing. Especially at a market, where everyone's touching everyone and everything anyway. And as it passes from person to person, it changes -- maybe it becomes more dangerous, maybe it becomes less. There haven't been any rumors we've heard since Sirod and that was a while ago."

This time Bol nodded. "We are well-versed in sicknesses traveling from market worlds," he said. "But who could have gotten so angry at Cordinar that they would choose to kill them all? When Cordinar raised their fees, we simply stopped going. It took some work, but we have made up for our losses. There are other markets, other ways. How could anyone fall so far as to choose to emulate the Wraith?"

"They weren't trying to emulate the Wraith," Cam told him, aware that Becanek was hovering outside, sneaking peeks in to see that everything was still okay. He made a tiny hand gesture to indicate that it was. "They were trying to emulate the Ancestors. They weren't angry at Cordinar for the high fees. They call themselves the Ori and they were angry because they wanted Cordinar to worship them as gods and Cordinar chose not to."

The Neloi had their own gods and even if they didn’t recognize Ancient tech for what it was, they knew who the Ancestors were.

Bol shook his head. "You believe this danger to have passed?"

"No," Cam answered honestly. "The Ori are just getting started and as for their little accident, well, it was an accident. Who knows what else might or might not happen there. It's been quiet, but I can't promise that it won't stay quiet."

Safir's people had a theory that, viral shift or not, the fact that Atlantis's population was both immune (and capable of passing on the immunity) to the original prior plague and very mobile within the galaxy might be serving as a suppressing factor. Possibly enough to hit whatever threshold was required for a herd immunity. But it was a theory, not one that could be tested or verified -- hell, they weren't even sure they had a viral shift in the first place -- but one that was nonetheless supported by anecdotal evidence.

"We shall mind these Ori, then," Bol said. "And pray to our gods that they do not come to supplant them."

"It'll be best in the long run," Cam agreed. He could make no promises about the nearer term.

He left Bol then and rejoined his team, which were getting antsy with him being sequestered. “Let’s go, gentlemen.”

Jonas waited until they were starting the climb back up the hill to the cooler air before asking about what Bol had wanted. The marines would have preferred him not waiting that long.

“He wanted to know about Cordinar,” Cam answered, rehashing the conversation.

“Will it be better or worse for them if they know about the Ori before they come, sir?” Horton asked, wiping his brow. The hill was steep, uneven, and all in the sun with no shade available. “GI Joe may say knowing’s half the battle, but the priors don’t like to hear ‘no thanks,’ either.”

“I don’t think we will have ended up affecting their choice, should they have to make one,” Jonas answered. “The Neloi gods are very active. They form a pantheon more in the spirit of the Greco-Roman gods than, say, the Hindu or Terranian ones. Their gods possess human-like traits, weaknesses and desires that prompt them to actions that require divine responses that require their own divine responses and so forth. There’s a soap opera quality to it all. But the bottom line is that the Neloi are very sure that their gods are present and will protect them from any theistic poachers. They would refuse the prior’s demands whether or not we’d told them about the Ori.”

Which absolved Cam of a little guilt, but not of the dread that came with knowing that a people would chose death – even if it was a choice Cam would himself make. Conversely, Jonas seemed almost energized by the thought. Not energized, but… satisfied? Relieved? Cam couldn’t quite name it. But for a man without any god, Jonas always seemed to take heart in displays of faith in the face of the Ori.

The rest of the walk back to the stargate was long and uneventful except for Horton giving Byrd crap for getting startled by what turned out to be a rabbit but Horton said Byrd thought was a Neloi god after him for thinking dirty thoughts about that one woman with the blue dress. (Byrd, of course, denied that he thought it was anything but a rabbit – not that he’d been thinking dirty thoughts about one of their hosts.) Cam called a hydration halt after two hours because they'd had to climb up out of the tropical heat and over the hill back down to the temperate side and everyone had been sweating by the time that part was over. Byrd, on the alert for more rabbits (or Neloi gods) saw three different near-deer and followed them with his rifle, eyes to the sight and barrel tracing their progress, but they returned to Atlantis without venison.


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18 October, 2009