Qui Habitat: Chapter Fifteen

by Domenika Marzione

John was ten minutes from Atlantis when he called in to let them know he was on his way back. He should have done it when he'd left the mainland, but this way got him twenty minutes of peaceful flight -- chatter in the rear notwithstanding -- and it was a treat he could afford to grant himself.

"Colonel," the gate room officer -- Biswas, from the sound of it -- greeted him, "Major Lorne's team has returned. He'd like to speak to you once you're in."

John cocked an eyebrow. "Did something happen, Lieutenant, or is this a public renunciation of the silent treatment?"

Lorne wasn't not talking to him -- he was still annoyed at being assigned an aide and was still making that annoyance clear, much to Little Tripoli's amusement -- but John didn't think that this was that. He also didn't think it was anything of extremely high import, or else his trip to the settlements would not have gone uninterrupted.

"I can't speak to his willingness to talk to you, sir," Biswas replied, "but all's quiet here."

John mourned the passing of the time when Biswas was too afraid of him to be a smart-ass. "Tell him I'll be visiting his domain in fifteen."

A moment later, Teyla appeared and sat down in the shotgun seat. He'd picked her up on his way back from the 'other' settlement on the mainland, a not-entirely-necessary-for-the-CO-to-do-it run to drop off and pick up supplies and people. The Athosians had welcomed refugees into their own village with open arms, but they were forest people and hunters and had their own ways of doing things and it hadn't been very surprising for there to eventually be a splintering. The second settlement was a coastal community a good ten days' walk from the Athosian-led areas and had been blessed by Atlantis after the fact, provided with radios for emergencies and weekly shuttles to the city for off-world travel. They got on with the Athosian settlement -- distance had solved almost every problem -- and what could have been both troublesome and tension-filled had turned out to be neither.

"Has something happened?" Teyla asked.

"Probably," John answered. "But nothing that requires an immediate military response, so I'm not going to worry about it until I find out what it is."

It could be something that Lorne had seen on his off-world mission, but it could also be something in the city that had manifested itself while Lorne had been away and that was the more likely choice. Even odds whether it was military or civilian in origin; it wasn't like the marines had cornered the market on acting up while the COs were gone.

"Are you sure it is not Major Lorne's public forgiveness?" Teyla asked with a smile -- one that broadened when John gave her a dirty look.

Boatswain's Mate Second Class Rowell was still making himself at home in his new billet and in Lorne's newly expanded office. He'd been a group effort -- John had asked both Gantry and Caldwell for candidates and the marine captains had helped pare down the list -- and presented to Lorne as a fait accompli because Lorne was not nearly the mystery he thought he was and everyone in Little Tripoli had known what the reaction would be. But they'd also known that it was necessary, was in fact overdue, and were determined to support Rowell until Lorne stopped sulking about it.

"I gave him someone to help him rule the galaxy," John sighed. "It was meant as a gift. Why does he keep acting like I cheated on him in public?"

"Because you are acting guiltily," Teyla told him.

"I'm not acting guiltily," John insisted. "I'm not guilty. Lorne sucks at delegating, he's a closet control freak, and he should have had someone easing his workload back before anyone had heard of the Ori."

Teyla looked at him fondly. "I think it is very sweet."

"Tell Lorne that," John groused.

Once back in Atlantis, he headed straight to Little Tripoli, nearly getting mown down by pallet-pushing marines by the transporter -- not all of the equipment for the training camp came from the tool sheds outside. The mood in Little Tripoli was not especially charged or tense, which was a good sign as far as whatever Lorne wanted to speak to him about.

The expansion of Lorne's office into a suite that would accommodate both BM2 Rowell's workspace and the fact that almost all military meetings took place there hadn't really displaced anyone, just wiped out a study space and a supply closet, but there was now no reason to be in the area besides visiting Lorne and the overall effect was to turn that hallway into an informal expansion of his space. He'd gone from an office to a wing. And he hated it.

Lorne's office door was now closed permanently, entry required through Rowell's always-open one. If Rowell would let you pass.

The primary purpose of giving Lorne a dog robber had been to cut down on his workload, not in the least by cutting down on access to him. Everyone in Little Tripoli -- and to a smaller extent Atlantis -- had gotten used to wandering in to his office and asking him to fix whatever their problem was. Putting someone -- and a door -- between everyone and Lorne was one way to cure that particular habit. Which was why Rowell's typing had not been his primary qualification.

"I've been summoned," Sheppard told Rowell, who managed to look imposing even while stationed behind a paper-covered desk. The captains had been gleeful at the realization that Rowell was possibly even more of a Luddite than his prospective boss.

"Indeed you have, sir," Rowell agreed, tone implying that John was late.

He checked his watch despite knowing that he was not and that it would not matter if he were, glared at the smug Rowell, and walked past the desk toward the door to Lorne's office.

"My jailer let you pass," Lorne said with false surprise once John was on the other side.

John rolled his eyes. "You know, when you stop being such a baby about this, you'll realize that the two of you are perfect for each other and we'll all tremble before your combined might."

He crossed the room to his favorite chair. Lorne was still protesting the change in the status quo, but he'd stopped piling folders on the comfy chairs after the second day.

"I heard something possibly hinky while out exploring the wonders of M5G-421," Lorne said once John was settled.

"Hinky how?" John asked warily. "Hinky like Ori or more old-school hinky?"

Lorne made a face. "The former, but I can't say well enough to start sounding the alarms."

John raised an eyebrow and waited for Lorne to continue.

Lorne told the short story of visiting the locals, finding out that they had little to trade that Atlantis wanted, no Ancient tech, and a willingness to sit through a warning lecture on the Ori. And after a fine meal of local fruits and near-deer, one of their hosts asked if they'd heard of what had happened on Basirosk.

"Not having heard of Basirosk, we said no," Lorne explained with a shrug. "The guy says that it's a small ranching world, they raise cattle. And at some point in the recent past, they got a visitor who offered to protect them from the Wraith."

John cocked an eyebrow and Lorne nodded, affirming that this was where things started to get hinky.

"My first thought was that he was talking about us," Lorne went on. "One of the marine platoons went out there at some distant point in the past, either to trade for beef or just stumbling on to the place and said something about fighting the Wraith and the gossip mill and the Pegasus version of Telephone turned it into an offer of protection."

Once upon a time, Atlantis used to offer to help improve or design defenses against the Wraith. It was entirely possible that this could be that.

"But?" John prompted, since there was more to the story or else Lorne wouldn't be telling it.

"But when I asked for details, it was clear this wasn't that," Lorne continued. "It was a single man, the story went, no weapons."

John sat up. "You think this was a prior?"

Lorne made a sour face. "I think it's something we should follow up on," he replied. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was a prior, but I don't want to wind everyone up just to find out it's some charlatan selling snake oil."

"Christ," John sighed, feeling the last of his good humor and jumper-inspired zen fade away. "I'd never be so happy to see Lucius in my life."

"Yeah," Lorne agreed. "If it's a prior offering safety from the Wraith in exchange for worshiping the Ori, we've just lost this war before firing a shot."

That this could be the missing explanation for who had made off with the Delai -- and the Torani as well -- was both viable and terrifying.

"Reletti have anything to say?" John asked. Reletti had spent a year fighting the Ori as the team sergeant on SG-3; he'd seen countless planets fight and submit to the Ori and should have a decent range of experience for their tactics.

"He'd never seen the Ori just show up and not demand submission," Lorne admitted. "But he was suspicious, too. I tried to find Mitchell so I could ask him as well, but he's off-world somewhere."

Lorne had already checked that nobody from Atlantis had ever gone to Basirosk and had asked G-2 to start poring over the Ancient database for any mention of the name or the gate address. There was an even chance that the choice of locations was random, but neither he nor John thought it would be. Gauhan had been the first battle site for a reason.

For the time being, there was nothing else to be done but send some marines out to Basirosk to check out the story, which was what they did.

Lieutenant Carlson, commander of the platoon they'd sent out to Basirosk, reported in as per orders three hours later.

"It's a prior, sirs," he confirmed. "He's set up in a house with three... followers? Acolytes? I don't know what they're calling themselves, but they're not locals. I don't know where they come from, though. I didn't get a chance to ask and none of the Basiroskians seemed to know."

Carlson was one of the marines who'd come with Armstrong from Kheb, which made him one of the only officers in the battalion who'd seen action against the Ori. John didn't know him well enough to know how that would affect things; Alpha Company had lost most of their strangeness as they'd been absorbed into Little Tripoli, but not all of it and John no longer had the luxury of taking the junior officers out for test drives to learn their quirks.

"So should we consider Basirosk converted?" Hanzis asked.

Carlson made a face. "Not in the sense we've come to understand, sir," he answered thoughtfully. "For the time being, they're skeptical -- they're waiting for proof that the prior's offer is worth anything. Right now, he's an old crank with a couple of followers squatting on the edge of their village. The sense I got is that most of the Basiroskians think he's going to be Wraith chow the next time they show."

John was aware that while everyone's eyes were on Carlson, their attention was on him.

"Did you get a chance to talk to him?"

"Yes, sir," Carlson replied. "Briefly. I asked him what his purpose was and why he had chosen Basirosk. He said that he had come to bear witness to the power of the Ori and that Basirosk was as good as any other place to do it."

"Do you believe him?" Hanzis asked.

"On the first count, yes, sir," Carlson said with a nod. "He's not there to threaten them into converting -- at least not yet. There's a passive campaign on; his followers have Books of Origin, but nobody's literate and nobody's really listening, either. My guess is that he'll make his big move when the Wraith show and not before. As for whether it's random, no, sir. I don't know why they chose Basirosk, but it wasn't just the first address they dialed. There was something deliberate about the whole thing - or at least nothing as haphazard as you'd expect. He didn't have that vague 'the Ori will provide' baloney going. He was confident of something concrete."

John exchanged a look with Lorne and then looked over at Mitchell, who looked a little seasick.

"G-2 hasn't come up with anything," Hanzis said, voice implying that he doubted their ability to do so more than he believed that there was nothing to find. "There's a chance that it's a purely opportunistic -- not to contradict Lieutenant Carlson's assessment, just in the sense of logistics. Basirosk is small enough to be manageable with a modest crew, but big enough to count as a victory. It's got commercial ties, but it's not a market world, so if they realize that the prior plague went haywire, there's less a chance of a repeat of that while they'll still be able to get the word out."

"Which means that anything we do, if we choose to do anything, we're going to have to do before the Wraith show up," Armstrong offered. "Once the prior's done his thing, the Basiroskians are going to either choose to worship the Ori on their own or they're going to have that choice taken away from them."

Either back home or in this galaxy, they'd all seen that story before.

"What I want to know is how this prior knows that the Wraith are coming and what he's planning on doing about it," Polito mused. "Everyone in this galaxy knows the Wraith are showing up at some point, but short of throwing up a beacon, nobody knows when or where. It could be years before the Wraith come to Basirosk without prompting."

"The Goa'uld would stage a show like this," Radner said. "Would the Ori?"

Murmuring around the conference table went both ways; history said 'no' but the evidence seemed to say otherwise.

"We know that the Ori are going to have to do something about the Wraith if they want to conquer this galaxy," Lorne began and the murmuring ceased. "What if Basirosk is the first step in that plan, not -- or not just -- a bridgehead in the galaxy?"

Hanzis started typing suddenly on his laptop and gestured for Polito, the one sitting closest to the cabinet where Lorne kept the projector, to take it out and set it up. They waited.

"Basirosk is one of two populated planets in its solar system," Hanzis read off as Polito fiddled with the focus on the projector, finally giving up and letting Armstrong do it. "The other is Sama, which we visited in the expedition's second year and haven't since because they've got nothing we need."

A galactic map appeared on the screen along the far wall. Hanzis changed the image so that Basirosk's solar system, unnamed except for its root gate address, was highlighted.

"There's not much else out there," Mitchell observed. The nearest solar system was seemingly uninhabited and the closest dot with a name instead of a gate address on it was not very close at all. "It'd be a good place for a shoot-out."

"Provided they could draw the Wraith there," Polito pointed out. "You could maybe seduce a hive into an ambush if one happened to wander into the area, but the Wraith are too fractured for one hive going down to draw the entire fleet."

Even chance now that none of hives would know or, if they did know, would care.

"I want to know what they're planning on using," John said. "If a prior can knock down an F-22, then they can take down a dart. But they're going to need a hand with anything bigger. If they have tech out here -- or one of their carriers -- then we need to know about it. Now."

Lorne tapped his earpiece and, a moment later, the door opened and Rowell appeared. Realizing he wasn't immediately needed, he stood at rest and waited.

"Who's available?" Lorne asked, looking around at the captains.

"Sir?" Carlson, who'd been sitting quietly since his debriefing, spoke up hopefully.

"You're going back out, too, Lieutenant," John assured.

They ended up picking Salker's platoon and Rowell went back to the outer office to summon him along with Lieutenant Cardejo, who was the pilot-on-call.

"What we're doing here is recon," John announced once the two had arrived. "If the Ori are changing tactics on us, I want to know and I want to know how and what. Right now, that's more important than getting a quick one in. I don't want us getting caught with our pants down like we did on Gauhan, but we gain nothing by diving headfirst into something we don't understand."

Once upon a time, that had practically been his job description and everyone here knew it. But that had been once upon a time and things were different now.

With a nod from John, Polito took over. "We're going to have to check out the entire system," he told the lieutenants. "God knows what else is going on there."

"And that includes going back to Basirosk, Lieutenant Carlson," Hanzis cut in, since Carlson was still looking like he was sure he was about to be told that his services were no longer required and was prepared to protest the decision. "See if you can't get anything else out of the prior and his minions - where they're from, how long they expect to wait, whether they know anything about the prior plague that got loosed on Cordinar."

"Lieutenant Cardejo," Polito picked up, "you're on space detail. Take a jumper and see if there's anything parked out there - ships in space or anything parked on a planet. Anything that looks like a population mass is probably not going to be friendly. If you want help running the sensors or taking notes, bring someone with you."

There were more details, but not that many, and John dismissed the lieutenants with an exhortation to choose discretion over valor.

"Wyatt," Armstrong called after Carlson. The young lieutenant stopped and turned. "Good work."

"Are we going to leave that prior in place?" Mitchell asked as soon as the door closed.

John made a face. "If our young gentlemen can return with enough actionable intel - and don't ask me what 'enough' will be - then there's an argument for leaving the prior in place, at least for now."

Among the myriad other possibilities, there was a chance, however slight, that the three lieutenants would return with the news that Basirosk's solar system was swarming with Ori troops and/or ship, or Wraith, or both. In which case, there would be bigger fish to fry. But that wasn't the only justification for leaving the prior untouched.

"Are we damning Basirosk by doing so, sir?" Radner asked.

"Not necessarily," John answered, not especially liking the answer. "But if we have to lose that battle to win the war, then it's a chance we'll have to take."

Above and beyond the strategic-level choices, there were the corresponding operational and tactical questions. Prior-napping remained no less of a messy and resource-heavy proposition than it would have been on Cordinar and had been back in the Milky Way; it was a high-risk, heavily involved procedure with a history of poor returns on investment. Also, and this didn't not matter, unless Carlson or someone else could convince Basirosk that the prior and his minions were a cancer that needed to be excised immediately, going in without permission would be an invasion of a sovereign world. While they had technically already made the choice that that was not going to be an overriding factor in their planning, the fact remained that, thus far, it was still a theoretical choice. They hadn't invaded Cordinar; as far as anyone knew, Atlantis had instead been the gracious hero by doing Cordinar the mercy of burying their dead. Basirosk was, in effect, a chance to second-guess that strategy-- and not just for John. Elizabeth had never been comfortable with the choice, even as she understood why it had been made, and while ultimately John knew that he could do what he felt he must - especially with Caldwell's likely backing - he respected her too much to disregard her opinions and reasoning. And one of those reasons against going in to Basirosk was going to be Cordinar - and Dela. Atlantis was in no position, resource-wise, to clear and hold Basirosk against the Wraith, let alone the Ori and the Wraith. Especially if this turned into a shot across the Ori bow and began this phase of the war in earnest.

There was nothing to do but speculate until the marines returned, so John sent everyone off to get other work done. Mitchell lingered behind while Lorne, either coincidentally or (more likely) not, went to go conspire with Rowell in the outer office.

"If there's a carrier out there, just the one, do we take a shot at taking it out?" Cam asked. In all of their wargaming, they'd rarely focused on pitched battle in space; almost all of the scenarios that involved spacecraft involved another siege of Atlantis. It wasn't an oversight, just practicality -- the Daedalus was making progress, but Atlantis's entire fleet essentially boiled down to a handful of F-302s used for planetary defense and eight jumpers for transportation. As such, Atlantis had no choice but to concede a space fight before it began. "Enough drones will take one down. Reletti knocked out three of them - and one of them was in orbit."

They'd put together a file on Operation Maccabim, the last major defense of Earth the SGC was able to launch. Mitchell and Caldwell had reproduced the target list as best as they were able to while Reletti, who'd been in the chair in Antarctica and had essentially conducted the entire operation himself, had been unable to remember any kind of details until he'd sat in the chair here and let Atlantis pick his brain. (As an almost intimate witness to the procedure, John's already significant respect for the marine had grown. He'd felt nauseated during the reenactment.) But they'd never really considered using the file for a remote offensive - the purpose had been to better craft a defense of Atlantis.

"It'll depend," John answered, shrugging at the lack of definitive answer. "My instinct is no. We'd need to send three or four jumpers out there to get enough drone weapons, which would be putting half of the working fleet at risk. We have no idea how well the jumpers can shield against returning fire - or if they can at all - and there's going to be the possibility that if we see one carrier, that's only because they want us - or the Wraith - to see one carrier. They're like roaches - if we see one, there are three more we don't."

Mitchell frowned and nodded, like he'd come to a similar conclusion and had been hoping John had had some thought that would change it. "I fucking hate this."

It was John's turn to show rueful agreement. Both he and Mitchell - and everyone else - knew that there was no way to save everyone, that that strategy hadn't worked for the SGC and Atlantis was operating with a fraction of those resources. But knowing these things in the head and understanding them in the heart were different matters. He and Cam had spent the better part of twenty years living by (and nearly dying by) the maxim 'leave no man behind.' And leaving Basirosk to the Ori, no matter if it was because they could do nothing to save it, felt like just that.

"What's your recommendation?" he asked. It was a question that couldn't hurt and would help. He respected Mitchell's experience and intelligence as a man of combat no matter what sort of bureaucratic crap they had him doing in the city. And he had a sneaking suspicion that Cam's discomfort was less about the tactical choices than something else, whatever it was.

Mitchell rubbed at his face with his hands. "I don't know," he admitted. "I may have a more productive answer once we get the space recon done, maybe there's a way out of this, butů I don't like the idea of ceding the low-hanging fruit to the Ori. We did that back home, figuring we could just get them back when it was all over, and we never did. We just lost ground. And we're in even less of a position to reclaim lost worlds here."

"I know," John agreed. "But I'm not going throw marines and jumpers away just so that we can say that we showed up. It didn't work last time."

If that sounded like an indictment of the SGC's handling of the war in the Milky Way, well... it was, in part. It had taken John a long time to shift mindsets, to accept his own weakness against the Wraith and learn how to fight using that weakness to his advantage -- or at least to stop trying to fight like Atlantis was any kind of near-peer to the Wraith. And while there was absolutely nothing to be gained by sitting in Pegasus and playing Monday Morning Quarterback while the SGC led the fight against the Ori, John had every intention of learning from their mistakes and their experiences. And on both lists had been how arrogance had cost the SGC early on, how refusing to see the enemy for what it was and not as how they wished them to be, had cost the galaxy millions of lives before Earth had ever become a battlefield. The SGC hadn't moved away from conventional warfare until after Robler Rock; John could not -- and would not -- let Atlantis fall into the same trap of fighting the war they wanted to have instead of the war they did have.

They were utterly ill-equipped to fight any kind of conventional war against the Ori and would be slaughtered if they so much as tried. It was not a point of debate within Little Tripoli, just an acknowledged fact. Instead, they continued the path they'd been on before the Ori, focusing on insurgency and counter-insurgency, what history and their own experiences had taught them about how to fight from a position of weakness. Mao and the Viet Cong and the various groups in Iraq and Afghanistan had gone from being villains to teachers and the marines spent a lot of time retraining themselves to think like the little people and not like the great power they'd so recently been -- with the Wraith around to provide frequent practical lessons. John had once spent a decade fighting narcoterrorists and marxists in Central America and now he had to think like them; the irony didn't escape him. Nor did the realization that Atlantis's greatest effectiveness -- as insurgents -- would only come after they'd lost the ground they were currently scurrying to defend.

"Cardejo's away," Lorne announced as he came back into his office, no doubt waiting for an opportune moment. "He took someone from the stellar cartography group and Major Bixley."

Bixley was one of Caldwell's bridge officers. "Is he their weapons guy?" John asked. He never saw the Daedalus crew except at formal events or by accident and could barely keep them straight.

"Tactical Action Officer," Lorne replied as he moved to his desk. "In case there actually is an Ori fleet out there, he's supposed to be able to get the most useful info out of their order of battle."

Lorne's tone of voice told John that there was every likelihood that Bixley's inclusion had been Caldwell's idea; Lorne had probably asked for a helmsman or any NCO who'd seen the Ori fleet a few times and gotten back a bridge officer because Caldwell had his own ideas about how certain tasks should be assigned and he'd impose his will if he thought he had to.

Mitchell presumably came to a similar conclusion, since he made a disgusted noise. "I'm going to head off before he comes storming in wondering why he wasn't invited to the party."

Which was possible, but not likely. John was, however, expecting a tartly-worded email at the least.

"See you in a few," he said.

Mitchell waved and left.

"The census split for boot camp came in while we were conferencing," Lorne said, holding up some papers he'd brought back from Rowell's office. "Our initial class is going to have an even hundred souls to start with, all for active duty."

The response to the recruiting drive had been far beyond even their wildest projections; there'd been a lot of back-and-forth about how many marines could be spared for the training and how many newly-minted privates could be absorbed into the battalion without drastically affecting combat readiness and how to keep the reservists from losing their perishable skills. John and Lorne had left the marines to argue amongst themselves, since they were the ones who were going to have to deal with it down the line.

"It's more than I expected," John replied, since it was. Last he'd heard, it was going to be around sixty.

Lorne nodded agreement. "I think they're trying to get the worst of it over with at once - they're anticipating much higher washout rates in the subsequent classes, plus the reservists, so the absorption rate will slow."

He handed over the papers and John skimmed them, knowing that there would be a copy in his email. The marines had chosen the strongest candidates to go first and were sending less-obviously promising candidates to various 'prep schools' - literacy lessons, physical training, military acculturation, etc. - before accepting them into the boot camp. It was a solid plan, at least on first reading.

"Hopefully the Ori will be accommodating and let us fill out our forces before engaging us in battle," Lorne said wryly as he accepted the papers back.

John chuffed a laugh. "I'm going to go brief Doctor Weir," he said. "She's going to want to know what all the gate action's about. Especially if Caldwell knows and starts bending her ear."

Elizabeth would be disappointed, but probably not surprised - at either the Ori sighting or Caldwell's exclusion. How she'd react to John's argument for or against acting on that intelligence would be something he'd have to find out.

Lorne gave him a look.

"I know," John sighed. "I'll make sure Caldwell knows about the meeting later."

Later ended up being 1900 AST, with orders for everyone to eat first, including the returned Cardejo, Salker, and Carlson, because there wasn't going to be any intel that required immediate action and the meeting was going to take a while.

Before that, though, John had an early (for him) dinner with Elizabeth. He gave her a brief version of what he'd learned since their talk earlier (Salker had reported no signs of incursion on Sama or any of the unpopulated worlds in the solar system; Cardejo had found no Ori ships but signs that there had been at least one; Carlson had confirmed that while the prior Thule was not a Pegasus native, his acolytes were) and, as they ate, ran through his options with her.

"I think it's pretty clear that the Ori are setting a trap for the Wraith in that part of the galaxy," he said as he stabbed at his cauliflower gratin. "What isn't clear is how they plan on springing that trap. Or, for that matter, whether we should be focusing any energy on trying to stop it."

He'd talked about this with Lorne and then with Mitchell and Caldwell, too. There was no clear-cut best option for Atlantis's next move; there were only bad options with some of them having the dubious advantage of being less-bad than the others.

"Just give the Ori their bridgehead?" Elizabeth asked. "Isn't that what we've been so willing to give up our blood and treasure to prevent?"

John finished chewing and swallowed. "If they have ships in this galaxy, they already have their bridgehead."

Cardejo and Bixley had found beacons -- multiple -- in and around the solar system and two alone in orbit around Basirosk. The beacons hadn't gotten there on their own and, since neither Basirosk nor Sama had been bothered by the Wraith recently, they hadn't been active long. There was a chance they had been piloted to their current location from a great distance, the way, say, Galileo had mapped Jupiter from Earth, but there was no way they hadn't originated within Pegasus -- they could not have flown from the Milky Way or the Ori's own galaxy.

"The opportunity cost of saving Basirosk from the Ori may be dooming someone else to the Wraith," John went on. "We can't guarantee that eliminating Thule and knocking out the beacons will keep the Ori out of Basirosk. It may just end up reminding the Ori that we're here, which we'd rather not do until we're at least marginally more prepared than we are. And while it may end up causing us a lot of trouble with anti-Ori PR, letting the Ori wipe out the Wraith for us isn't necessarily an awful thing."

Elizabeth sliced her near-deer with more vigor than strictly necessary. John didn't think she was angry at him, just at the situation. They'd lasted this long with the truly hard decisions being more thought-problems than reality. That had started to change with Gauhan and now it was becoming more routine. Which didn't make it any easier.

"There's a chance the Ori might not be interested in wiping out the Wraith entirely," she said after a few moments of silent eating. "From a purely propaganda standpoint, if the Ori are interested in casting themselves as the heroes for a new age, then there necessarily has to be a villain as well. The most obvious villain is the Wraith, which would entail keeping them around long enough to reinforce the priors' ability to defeat them. And so giving Basirosk to them would just be setting up the first domino to fall."

John took a sip of his iced tea. "Makes sense," he agreed. "The Ori aren't going to be able to wipe out the Wraith in one swoop anyway -- the Wraith are too fractured for one beacon to bring them all running. But we're not ready to start open warfare with the Ori right now."

"We never will be," Elizabeth reminded him sadly.

"Not in the conventional sense, no." It wasn't an argument; they both agreed entirely and knew it. "But if we are going to be the best thorns in their sides as we possibly can, we have to know what their game plan is and what they have brought to the fight. Intel is going to be our most important force multiplier and, right now, we've got a very incomplete data set. And we might have to let Basirosk fall to the Ori if it means they show their hand."

Elizabeth had been poking at her salad, but she looked up at his words.

"We're fighting those who think they're gods and here we are deciding an entire planet's fate," she said, shaking her head in wry bemusement at the irony. "I'm sometimes more afraid of becoming like the Ori than submitting to them."

At 1900, Lorne's conference table was crowded. The entire battalion command staff was there, plus Caldwell, Mitchell, and the three lieutenants and their platoon sergeants. Rowell had procured one of the giant coffee urns and had made copies of the picture of M5V (Basirosk's solar system in gate coordinates) along with other images that would be useful to have and impossible to sketch. John noticed that the copies were on the stiff paper Atlantis produced over in G-2's workshops and, knowing that Rowell had free access to their remaining Earth-made stock, thought it was an intentional decision. The heavier-stock paper would last longer as it was folded and unfolded and was the material of choice for all mission-related paperwork; Rowell was counting on these maps and charts having to travel.

"... sensors we can get out there. I'm pretty sure Science has something we could use," Lorne was saying when John realized he'd gotten distracted by those star maps, trying to imagine a tactical plan that made sense for the Ori to attack the Wraith in full view of their appreciative audience. The lieutenants had given their briefings and been excused and the senior staff was now on to the 'what do we do now?' stage of discussions. "We've had contingency plans set up since the beginning, to help us get advance warning of the Wraith figuring out Atlantis still lived, and most of them involved sensors of some sort. It shouldn't be too hard to repurpose those."

"Except for the logistics, sir," Radner spoke up. He'd been in de facto charge of Atlantis at the time those plans had originally been drawn up. "Almost everything we ended up not implementing immediately had requirements we still don't have now -- mostly, a ship with a hold big enough to carry them."

Everyone looked at Caldwell, although it was really almost a reflex. They all knew that Caldwell was working his people as hard as he dared to get the Daedalus ready to return to action. They also knew that Atlantis was still hampered by its inability to move anything except through a stargate until that happened.

"What about a scoopy beam?" Polito mused, mostly to himself. He sat forward -- Matt had picked up John's habit of slouching during meetings, but he always pushed himself up to proper marine posture if he had something he wanted to say and thought would require convincing (or at least eye contact) to get through. "Can we rig one up to make it compressed storage?"

"That's an awful lot of inorganic material," Armstrong replied thoughtfully. "The scoopy beams won't pick up wooden crates until we have marines sitting on them. They won't even sniff at composites or whatever it is those sensors are made of."

While Rodney's people had largely been able to reduce the effects of the Wraith scoopy beam on people - only the most sensitive felt ill now and unconsciousness was no longer a problem - there hadn't been as much success with things-not-attached-to-people. At least nothing that anyone would risk valuable material trying to use. There were hard drives full of unrecoverable plastic boxes or whatever it was they used to test the prototypes.

"We could strap a few scientists to 'em," Hanzis suggested and everyone laughed. "Like bait."

"Actually," John began, "that might work."

"Doctor Weir's not going to be too eager to hold a lottery for civilians willing to get spaced, sir," Lorne warned, although John could tell by his expression that he was making a joke, that he knew John wasn't, and that he wanted to know what John was suggesting. "We're not that hard-up for food yet."

"EVA suits," John said, smiling a little as realization dawned around the table. "Anything we punt out there is going to need tweaking and adjustments once it's deployed and nobody from Science is going to let us do that on our own."

"I don't think anyone from Science is going to be too happy at being strapped to a sensor, dematerialized, and then rematerialized in deep space, either," Mitchell pointed out. But he was smiling. "Which might or might not matter."

Rodney was going to flip at the suggestion, John knew, which meant that if they were even the slightest bit serious about it, it would have to be him who did the asking.

"As much as I can see the efficacy of the approach, the one most likely to get a positive response -- or at least keep Doctor McKay from threatening to accidentally-on-purpose nuke Little Tripoli -- would be to seek suggestions for logistical solutions and then, if and when that fails, offer up our own," Caldwell said dryly. "And then we should be prepared for him to counter with the suggestion that we strap our own people to the components instead."

Everyone chuckled and mumbled about having at least half a dozen worthy candidates, with or without adequate protection.

"But to return to an earlier point," Caldwell continued, "I would like to throw my support behind Captain Hanzis's suggestion that we ask G-2 to work on some kind of Psy Ops scripts and get them out as soon as possible. Trying to convince the average Pegasus citizen that someone who wants to destroy the Wraith is bad will be hard enough once there's evidence that the priors can indeed live up to their billing; if we can raise even the shadow of a doubt about whether it's a worthwhile exchange, we should do it as quickly and as effectively as possible."

John nodded; it had been a good suggestion and nobody had disagreed. Nobody had been sure it would work -- after Hoff had been willing to sacrifice half of their population to protect the other half, there were no guarantees on that front -- but everyone thought it worth the effort. "Mike, you want to handle it or should we send G-2's favorite marine in as a honey trap?"

Chuckles around the table, except for Polito.

"I'll take care of it, sir," Hanzis assured. "First Sergeant Backman would never forgive me if he came back with a social disease."

"Social science disease," Radner corrected.

"That, too."

"If anyone's getting clapped, it's not going to be me," Polito said, mostly to save face.

"What I want to know is where those ships are," Mitchell said. "They can't be too far away, not if they want to stop the Wraith before they chow down on Basirosk."

"And why is nobody on Sama?" Armstrong added. "The Ori weren't too proud to scarf up small worlds back home."

"Maybe there's more to Basirosk than just location," Hanzis offered. "G-2 came up with jack squat so far, but there has to be something somewhere. There are other prime locations in the galaxy to stage an ambush and yet they went with this one."

"We might not find out until doesn't matter anymore," Polito said with a frown. "What we really need to find is where they're parking here. If they came through a stargate or if they drove here, they're bivouacking somewhere. It's apparently not in MV5 - Cardejo found no unusual population centers. Is there any way we could have missed them?"

The Ori could live off of their ships for extended periods, but they tried not to -- hygiene, resupply, and a desire for fresh air meant that they parked those toilet bowls when and where they could.

John looked at Caldwell. "How good is their cloaking?"

Caldwell frowned. "Good enough, but the sample size is fairly small. They rarely bothered, frankly."

"Would they bother here?"

"It's an ambush," Mitchell pointed out. "I know the Wraith are cheap dates as far as looking to start a space battle with anything they find, but blowing up a Hive does the Ori little good if nobody's there to bear witness to the miracle."

"So we're back to them either being there cloaked or not being there at all," Polito said. "Either way, we still have to look for where they're sleeping at night."

"Which might not be too hard to find out - or even find," Radner mused. Everyone looked at him. "An army marches on its stomach, right? All we have to do is find someone who's been to a market world where strangers were buying in bulk."

John laughed at both the cleverness of the suggestion and the irony. "The Pegasus galaxy's penchant for gossip might have finally found its upside."

It was quickly agreed to send the marines and the civilian intelligence operators out to the various market worlds and their more trade-savvy allies. The Ori armies would be foreigners here, unused to Pegasus's half-barter, half-currency economy and would stick out even more than Atlantis had at the beginning. Even if the RUMINT and HUMINT from the markets turned up nothing, there might be other ways to follow the same trail. Well before the resistance had become proficient at disrupting Ori supply likes, the armies had descended like locusts on the more fertile worlds in the Milky Way, including Earth, to first demand tribute and then, if refused or insufficient, to straight-up raids. The last refugees had carried tales of rationing and starvation; the priors had turned deserts into fertile plains on converted or subdued worlds, but it still took time for crops to grow.

"We still have to figure out what to do when we find the Ori armies, in whatever form," John said, turning to the captains. "Obviously, we're not going to do it tonight, but I'd like something tomorrow. We're not worried about enemy casualties, especially if this is going to be our only chance to inflict maximum damage with minimum risk. But we will not become our enemy in order to fight them. Collateral damage will happen, but we should not cause it needlessly."

Polito, as ops-and-plans officer, would head up the strategizing with help from the others and his subordinates. He gave John a quick nod to indicate that he understood the intent behind John's words.

There were other points to bring up and hash out before the meeting broke up, but they were mostly time frame and resource questions.

Caldwell and Mitchell stayed behind after the captains left.

"So I'm guessing that our best hope is that the Ori armies are bivouacked somewhere centralized that we can act on," Mitchell said as Rowell came in and started cleaning up.

John exhaled loudly. "If they're all parked on some uninhabited world that we can get to - and nuke into radioactive dust - without firing a shot, I'd never be as happy."

He felt a little weird saying the words, but his heart was clear on the decision. He knew the Ori soldiers brought their wives and children on to the battlefield, but that didn't matter. This was total war. He'd grieve the necessity of it, but not the act itself.

"What if it's not uninhabited?" Caldwell asked. "There's every likelihood that they're parked on a world they've converted and we haven't yet found."

John rubbed at his face with his hands, taking a look at his watch in the process. It was 2245. "Then we think long and hard about it before we do the same thing," he said, looking up at Caldwell, who returned the gaze evenly. This wasn't one of the innumerable subtle challenges to John's authority; it was a straight question because Caldwell probably didn't know what John would do. For all that had gone on between them since the command of Atlantis's military had been given to John instead of Caldwell, they really didn't have a good measure of the other. They had the measures they used to justify the political games they played, which were really taken from caricatures of the actual men. Rusty ones at that, since they'd worked under an uneasy and unspoken truce since the Ori had taken Earth. "I'd love for there to be not a single innocent life lost, but there will be. And better theirs than ours."

He thought about Elizabeth's words from earlier, about fearing that they'd become what they were fighting against. And he knew what she'd say if she were in the room now - that they might not be in a position to realize when they'd crossed that line. She was right, but that didn't mean he wasn't, too.

"Before we start worrying about the slippery slope," Mitchell began, breaking the moment, "we should find the Ori first. I'm honestly a lot less worried we're going to have to kill the Ori's unwitting landlords than that we won't find them at all. We can't even find the Torani or the Delai - or Michael, for that matter. A Wraith-looking fellow with an army of bugs should be easy to spot, but we haven't and our vaunted gossip wire hasn't, either."

"Michael doesn't want to be found," Lorne pointed out. "The Ori aren't interested in hiding -- they're interested in making as big a name for themselves as possible as quickly as possible. They might be cloaking their ships, but the priors are something else entirely. If they're the ones behind the sanctuary that the Delai - and presumably the Torani - have gone off to, then it'll only be a matter of time before we find them, too."

"Possibly among the Ori ranks," Caldwell said wryly.

"Probably," John corrected. "I don't know how far this benevolent protection racket's going to go, but the Ori are too greedy to give anyone a free lunch. It's not enough to merely believe and reap the benefits of not dying an infidel."

"'Faith without deed is but hollow words,'" Mitchell intoned, quoting the Book of Origin.

"I guess we'll see whose boot camp finishes first," Lorne said, gesturing to a pile of papers on his desk that John knew were from the marine planning session. "Ours or theirs."

on to the next chapter | Go back to the Qui Habitat cover page

back to the yearly index | back to the main SGA page

22 November, 2009