Qui Habitat: Chapter Sixteen

by Domenika Marzione

"They're going to be upset," Jonas said as they walked along the path from the stargate.

"I know," Cam agreed, squinting into the sun as he looked around. "But this whole road trip will take less time than it would take to write up a mission profile, run it by Polito and/or Sheppard and/or Weir, figure out a time that works, write an absence note for why Georgie, Levon, and Stevie can't come to school today, and then get the aforementioned trio dressed and ready to face the world outside of Little Tripoli. Let alone the actual mission, during which Byrd will find something, Horton will want to dismantle it, and Becanek will be giving me dirty looks to indicate that none of this would have happened if I'd been a marine."

He was leaving out the part where Becanek might've been right and Jonas would have been aiding and abetting the other two, but those were just details.

"I don't think that logic is going to work on them," Jonas said with a frown. "That, and if we so much as catch a cold, we'll never hear the end of it."

Cam sighed. That had been the biggest 'con' on the pro-con list he'd drawn up in his head when deciding to leave their marines at home while they went to the market on Cemarra. Not that he had any intention of catching a cold -- or getting caught by the Wraith or anything else -- but he was fairly certain that the crap he'd have to deal with from anything less than an uneventful trip would probably not be worth the corner-cutting that had sent them through the wormhole without marine escort.

"Waterman thought it was a fabulous idea," he said instead.

"Waterman wanted you out of her hair so she could get some work done," Jonas retorted, pulling a small leather baggie out of his satchel and opening it. Cam couldn't see inside, but he could hear it -- coins and stones and whatever else passed as currency in Pegasus's weird half-barter/half-cash economy.

"Where'd you get that?" he asked, since they didn't normally travel around with that much walking-around money.

"Teyla," Jonas replied, looking over the contents and jiggling the sack a few times before gesturing for Cam to put his hand out. He did and Jonas poured some of the contents into it -- less than half, Cam noted. "I told her you were broke and we needed to make useful friends."

Cam already had a few coins and trinkets on him in case he had to grease a few palms to get information, but that was pocket change compared to Jonas's haul. "I'm not broke," he said, looking over what was in his hand. "I'm just wealthy in non-material ways."

He could recognize most of the coins -- there weren't that many worlds that minted their own money and fewer still that used metals to do so -- and a few of the clay and stone pieces. The currency economies tended to be the more urban -- or, as Ronon had put it, if they have a taproom, they have a coinage -- and most of the market worlds qualified. There were several Cemarran coins of all denominations (they had three) in his hand.

"She said not to buy anything we couldn't use or re-sell," Jonas said, closing up the sack and re-tying it with a leather thong.

"I'm not the one who came back with the wooden canaries," Cam pointed out. God only knew what Lieutenant Kagan had been thinking. They'd been sending marines and civilians out for a couple of days and had gotten a few leads, plenty of unrelated intel, and many more dry holes. And wooden canaries, which had apparently been purchased to loosen the tongue of a potential intel source. "We really can't go wrong here as long as we stay away from that stall with the blinged-out copper jewelry."

The reason he'd been able to get out of the city with just Jonas was that he'd been to Cemarra before -- twice. That, and he'd promised to get into no trouble whatsoever and been believed. Or the Marine captains were perfectly willing to let something happen to the Air Force officers. ("Major Lorne made us promise not to do that anymore, sir," Polito had blandly replied. "Resources must be conserved and Mister Quinn would be very hard to replace.") But regardless of the marines' mostly feigned disregard for his personal safety, the fact was that Cemarra was low-risk, familiar to him, and, while a potential source of intelligence, not expected to provide anything in the way of the instantly actionable.

It was late morning local time, which meant that the market was in full swing. Cemarra ran a good-sized market -- not overwhelming, but much more than the handful of stalls that some other worlds claimed as their bazaars. It had benefited greatly from the demise of Cordinar and expanded outward since Cam's first visit so that the entire town square was now occupied.

"You want to split up?" Cam asked, already knowing the answer. If Jonas had wanted them to stick together, he wouldn't have given Cam any of Teyla's funds.

"We'd get more coverage that way," Jonas replied with a shrug. There was no agenda; just practicality.

"Keep your radio on and we'll meet at the inn by the well at 1600 AST," Cam told him, looking at his own watch. That would give them almost three hours of wandering around. "We'll get lunch, compare notes, and figure out if we need a second tour or not."

Jonas agreed and the two of them headed off in opposite directions. Cam started at the right-most aisle, going slowly and looking around and, most importantly, listening. He had considered not wearing his uniform, but had decided not to bother playing dress-up because there was very little he had to wear that didn't immediately identify him as Lantean whether he was carrying a gun or not. (That, and the marines guarding the gate room might not have let him out of the city if he'd been visibly unarmed.) On the other hand, after so many years of Atlantis being active on the Pegasus scene, most people, especially on market worlds, were rather happy to see someone from there, Atlantis being rumored the wealthiest and most powerful world in the galaxy, and Cam heard several calls for him to come and see wares.

That was another reason for he and Jonas to work separately -- Jonas was dressed in a less obviously Lantean fashion (a homespun shirt over cargo pants; both of them had accumulated a lot of local costuming while working for the Resistance) and could hear things that might not be said in Cam's (and thus Atlantis's) audible range.

Which was not to say that Cam didn't know how to listen for things he wasn't supposed to hear. He had done his own share of reconnaissance back at home, both as a member of SG-1 and then later on.

He listened to everyone and no one as he walked, passively riding the rise and fall of voices and waiting for someone to utter the magic words ('Wraith,' 'plague,' 'protection,' or, heaven forbid, 'Ori') as he made a show of ignoring the hawkers selling things Atlantis had no need for -- honey, near-deer, pottery -- and heard out the ones who might have something Atlantis could use and/or would justify spending some of Teyla's money. It was really Atlantis's money, but Teyla, when she wasn't coordinating refugees, was helping build up and run Atlantis's civilian intelligence network and, as such, she had a slush fund. He quizzed the representative from Gamor about how many heads of bison she could offer up (some now, more later) and what she wanted in return (salt, sugar, wheat flour) before agreeing to send someone to inspect the herds and possibly work out an agreement and had a short conversation with the hawker from Partan, which ended as unproductively as always because Partan charged outrageous prices for items Atlantis could acquire elsewhere for less.

He paused by the booth selling herbs, half-trying to identify the various specimens, because he heard some shoppers discussing someone visiting their world offering means of protecting against the Wraith, but it turned out to be nothing. Pegasus had its share of superstitions and old wives' tales and some of them went as far as providing recipes for the Wraith version of mosquito repellent. According to Horton, in the early days of the expedition Atlantis had tested several of the formulas on the off-chance that Wraith olfactory senses were either disrupted or disgusted by one, but had quickly determined that there was no basis in fact for the claims. Although a few of the recipes did turn out products so noxious in aroma that the testers had stunk for weeks and Weir had forbidden further experimentation inside the city.

After turning down what might have been some high-grade opium -- Atlantis bought, just under very strict guidelines -- Cam moved on.

The Mattear booth was crowded, as usual. They were metalworkers, producers of the galaxy's finest knives and delicate silver jewelry. Cam didn't really need another knife -- he had two on him already -- but it never hurt to look and it would be a good place to listen, too.

The centerpiece of the booth was a long broadsword with an inlaid hilt, driven into a stone not unlike every depiction of Excalibur ever (including the one Cam yanked free), but he was more interested in the less mythical options. The display featured mostly shorter, fatter double-edge blades that could double as eating utensils; there were a couple of stilettos and other single-purpose fighting knives, but they weren't big sellers in a galaxy where they would be next to useless against the most likely opponent. There were, however, more single-bladed knives on display than Cam would have expected -- Atlantis bought large ones for their kitchens, but there were a lot of smaller ones here, what Cam would call picnic knives and table knives and not at all what he'd come to expect in Pegasus, where almost everything was multipurpose by design and intent. A blinged-out hilt didn't correspond to a ceremonial blade in this galaxy, so it was odd to see so many single-use utensils on display.

"That's my favorite," a woman said. Cam looked up to see a Matteari woman; Matteari costume reminded Cam of a cross between I, Claudius and Xena, or what Caligula might have looked like if he'd run a biker gang instead of an empire. The woman gestured at the knife in his hand, a double-bladed utility knife that could spread peanut butter and gut a near-deer equally well. "The beauty's in the blade."

She wasn't wrong -- it looked like Damascus steel, the folds giving the blade delicate swirls like ocean waves at night. Conversely, the hilt was simplicity itself, leather-wrapped grip with a rounded guard and pommel. Cam balanced the knife on two fingers; it was an exquisite piece of work. "I bet you say that about whichever knife someone picks up."

The woman laughed. "I do," she admitted. "But in this case, I'm not lying."

She reached for the knife tucked into the belt at her waist and pulled it out a few inches; it was a smaller version of the same knife, the only difference being size and the way time and use had darkened and molded the leather grip.

"And how much of my world's wealth would be required to buy it?" Cam asked. It really was a fabulous knife and Mattear did not sell its work cheaply.

The woman looked at him thoughtfully and Cam waited for a price quote that would be laughably high; she clearly recognized his dress as Lantean. Atlantis had modest trading with Mattear, although there'd been talk in Little Tripoli of commissioning a much larger purchase to arm their potential recruits with a uniform combat knife instead of the variety of blades almost everyone currently carried, and she'd know of Atlantis's wealth.

The price she quoted, however, was very low. Suspiciously low. Cam could cover it easily with what he'd brought here without dipping in to Teyla's pin money -- lunch with Jonas might cost more if they went to the nice taproom.

"That's practically a gift," he said warily. "Not that I'm adverse to such lovely presents."

The woman shrugged. "We do a lot of business with Sirod," she said with a grimace. "Did a lot of business, I suppose. Slaughterhouses and knives are a well-matched pair. My husband's sister married a Sirodi."

Cam frowned. "I'm sorry. Was she...?"

"She survived," the woman answered. "But she wishes she hadn't -- she lost her babies. Three of them, the youngest still at the teat. Her husband sent her home to us while they clean up, see if they can't re-open. If anyone will even go back after what happened."

Cam had tried to forget Sirod (and Cordinar and every other world that he'd been to when the plague had been at its worst in this galaxy and his own) but he really couldn't. Sirod had been bad -- the terrified populace, the stink because they'd been treating the sick and dying in an abattoir, the rooms full of the dead, Valentine weeping in Safir's arms -- and it had been the most recent.

"I know what your people did for them," she went on. "Were you there?"

Cam nodded. He hadn't known anyone from Sirod, which at the time had made it marginally more tolerable than the worlds that had fallen because he'd been there with SG-1 telling them not to submit to the prior, but now he wondered which three of those tiny shrouded bodies had been this woman's kin.

"Then you have my final offer on price," she told him with a smile that was more determined than joyous. "Don't haggle."

He paid her for the knife and put it in his vest pocket after examining the sheath; he'd need to widen the slits to get it to fit on his belt.

"Can I ask you a question?" he asked before she turned away. "Why so many butter knives?"

He gestured with his chin toward the display table when she gave him a curious look.

"There's been interest in them," the woman answered with a shrug that he took to mean that she didn't get it, either. "The Algari bought almost as many as we had. They offered us their old blades as part of the exchange -- they said that they didn't need them anymore."

Cam had no idea who the Algari were or where Algar was, but he made a note to find out. It wouldn't be the first world Atlantis had realized had up and gone since they'd started crawling the markets for HUMINT. "Did you take them?"

"Some," was the reply. The woman gestured toward a selection of knives on a red cloth. "The ones we'd sold them."

The knives on the cloth were typical, practical Pegasus knives, similar to what was found on the belts of everyone old enough not to cut themselves.

"When was this?"

The woman screwed up her face in thought. "A month or so ago as far as Mattear goes."

Cam nodded; they'd be able to figure out what that meant in Atlantis terms. "That's indeed odd. Thank you. And thank you for the gift."

"May the Ancestors preserve you," the woman said with a nod, then turned to find another potential customer.

Cam lingered a bit at the other tables, found a couple of examples of what Atlantis might consider buying for the recruits, and moved on. He gave the incense booth a wide berth and headed over to the cluster of cloth and fabric sellers, where there was a lot of gossiping going on as people examined the wares. Most of it was old news or useless information -- why Sivira had survived a plague and Cordinar had not (answer: because Siriva had had a flu outbreak, not prior plague), did you hear that the Uizen's drought had killed their harvest, did you see how empty the Brexan stalls were -- why did they come to market with so little to offer and so little of it top-of-the-line?

Someone else answered that the Brexans had sold most of their crops to an eager buyer before coming to market.

"To one world?" A skeptical voice asked. "Who could afford it?"

"The Lanteans could," someone said. "They've got more mouths to feed since the sickness came."

Cam had heard of Brexa, but had never been there. It was a major farming world and Atlantis had longstanding trade ties with it, but it was a transaction the lieutenants could take care of and so they did. But they hadn't here, he was willing to bet, since Atlantis's major food purchases didn't happen in a vacuum and he would have heard of it, even if it was just Gantry needing help keeping their people from being press-ganged by the Battalion for transport duty. He put down the canvas he'd been making a show of weighing and headed back in the direction of the produce sellers.

He didn't know where the Brexans were and had to ask, getting pointed toward a large stall with barrels in front. Some of the agricultural worlds seemed to drag half of their GDP through a stargate for market days, which seemed counterintuitive to Cam in a galaxy without much more than wagons. But, it had been explained to him, that most commerce in Pegasus was on a far smaller level than anything Atlantis transacted and a good show at a popular market was both an easy source of small-scale revenue (“quick nickels over slow dollars”) as well as advertising for the few worlds who bought in the quantities Atlantis did.

When Cam got closer, he could see that the barrels in front of the stall held potatoes of different colors and another one of what looked like turnips. There were carrots piled high on one table and parsnips on another and a crate overflowing with something that Cam couldn't recognize. It was a good-sized spread and they were doing a brisk business, but the gossip over by the dry goods had been right -- judging by the size of the stall, there should have been more.

One of the Brexans manning the stalls approached him, wiping off his hands on a rust-brown apron. "And what can we do for fair Atlantis today?"

"Depends," Cam replied with a smile. "Word has it that we've been scooped on the best of the potato crop."

"And carrots and beets and turnips, too." The man smiled with false modesty. "We got a very nice price."

"These hungry folk have a name?" Cam asked.

The man looked at him skeptically. Cam wondered if 'do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck?' was an expression on Brexa, too.

"We're not interested in jumping in front of you on the tuber market. We can't sell them what we have to buy from you to feed our own," he assured. Which was perhaps technically no longer true, but Dela wouldn't be producing enough to sell for a while. "If they have the means to meet your price on food, then they probably have enough left over to buy some of the things we can offer."

The man's expression softened a little, or at least grew a little less suspicious, but not enough that Cam thought he'd be able to get any further without a little help. He reached into the pocket with some of the coin money and pulled a few out, jiggling them in his hand. "Wouldn't you want to know about your new competition if you were in our shoes?"

He raised his eyebrow, both to punctuate his question and to emphasize that yes, he was willing to pay for the answer.

"I don't know where they were from," the man said, eyes on Cam's hand. "A few of them were Torani, but the rest were not. They said that they were brethren from far away, but what does that even mean? We are all equally close and equally far."

Cam handed over a couple of coins, ones he could identify as being of moderate value. He wanted the guy to keep talking - especially if he'd seen the erstwhile Torani - but he didn't want to hand out too much too quickly. Experience had shown that a too-generous initial payment tended to get you tall tales as a reward. "They ask you anything weird? Like about the Ancestors?"

The man pocketed the coins, not in the apron with the other money from the stall, but in his pants. "They didn't talk much," he said. "They let the Torani conduct business."

"The Torani aren't living on their world anymore," Cam said. "Did they say where they are now?"

Certainly not on the planet Atlantis had found for them and built up to house them safely.

"They just said that they were safe from the Wraith," the man answered, eyes back on Cam's closed hand. "At least that's all I heard."

"Did anyone else hear anything?" Cam asked, lightly jiggling the coins in his hand again and, when the man said nothing else, making a motion as though he was about to put the rest in his pocket.

"One of the strangers said that what happened to Cordinar was punishment," the man said hurriedly and Cam stilled his hand by his pocket. "That the Ancestors had returned and would seek out those who had betrayed them."

"What was the answer to that?"

The man made a 'what can you say to that kind of talk?' expression. "The Torani never used to care about the Ancestors. The guy who got struck by lightning has probably got them all convinced that he saw the gods and now knows what they think."

Cam froze. "The guy struck by lightning?"

"One of the strangers looked like he'd survived a fire," the man explained with a shrug. "I don't know why they brought him. He didn't carry anything."

Cam handed over another few coins, including one that was worth a little, and left the stall. He went to the end of the row, away from the press of the crowds a little, and tapped his radio.

"You up for an early lunch?" he asked, looking at his watch. It was 1445 AST.

"Give me twenty," Jonas answered. "I want to finish this up first."

Cam wandered around, not going anywhere in particular, until it was time to head toward the inn by the well. Jonas showed up ten minutes after he was supposed to, which was only five minutes after Cam had gotten there because he hadn't been running around with Jonas this long without learning a few things about the man.

"I've got a prior, some Torani, and possibly another world up and leaving their worldly goods behind," he greeted Jonas, whose satchel was considerably less empty than it had been earlier. "What've you got?"

Jonas opened up the top flap of his satchel and pulled out a heavy copper bracelet.

"Didn't we discuss not picking up crap that we couldn't use?" Cam asked with a sigh, totally unsurprised. "Especially the blinged-out copper jewelry?"

He knew that Jonas hadn't forgotten the discussion; he'd recalled it perfectly and then decided that an exception was in order and that nobody else needed to be consulted. He'd done it on Langara when he'd gone AWOL - practically the first time Cam had met him -- and he'd done it countless times since then. Cam hadn't quite mustered the ability to not be frustrated, but he'd learned how to save the outbursts of genuine indignation for when it really mattered. Thankfully, this was a relatively harmless incident, except that Cam was sure the marines would deem the bracelet a greater offense to good taste and common sense than Kagan's wooden canaries.

"I didn't get it from the Rual," Jonas said, waving away the comment with his free hand. "I got it on the black market."

Pegasus had a very pragmatic view toward scavenging - the Wraith made 'you can't take it with you' a universally accepted maxim - but a very harsh view of anyone who tried to profit off of someone else's misfortune. From what Cam understood of Teyla's explanations (and backed up by his own interactions with Pegasus natives), scavenging worlds culled by the Wraith was acceptable so long as there were no survivors to provide for and that you only took what you needed and left the rest for anyone else who came along. That could include things like jewelry or art or whatever, but only as a quality of life improvement and not with an eye toward selling it for cash. Anyone who violated this taboo risked blacklisting, which in turn necessitated an underground economy. One that Cam, readily identifiable as Lantean, could get nowhere near.

"They didn't have anything more useful than that for you to buy?" Cam asked holding out his hand for Jonas to give him the bracelet. It was lighter than it looked, with surprisingly delicate designs etched on the front. "Teyla's going to yell at me and not you, you know."

"It's supposed to be from Oano," Jonas said, ignoring Cam's chiding and gesturing for him to return the bracelet. He did. "Which is apparently another world that emptied out suddenly and without the Wraith helping out. But Oano was -- is -- a subsistence-level farming planet; they have poor natural resources and little to trade with other worlds."

Cam made a face totally unrelated to Jonas demonstrating once again that he'd been staying up too late reading the Ancient database. "Okay. So..."

"So this," Jonas replied, turning over the bracelet and holding it up so that Cam could see the inside. It was etched with another design, one not at all similar to the one of the front. It took Cam a moment to realize was in fact script, albeit not in any language he'd seen before. "This is not Oanan. They don't have a written form and they probably don't have the ability to do this level of fine craftsmanship with copper, which they don't have on their planet and don't have the wealth to trade for. Certainly not for use as jewelry."

Cam cocked an eyebrow. "So someone dropped it while scavenging Oano?"

It wasn't an unlikely scenario, but Cam was failing to see how this was relevant to their stated purpose for being on Cemarra. Thieves and brigands dropped things accidentally all the time. Pegasus had no fingerprinting database; it was a harmless -- albeit not financially -- mistake.

Jonas grimaced. "Whoever dropped it wasn't from Pegasus," he said, then waited for Cam to react, which he did. "I think I've seen this language before, but not with this kind of stylized script."

"Back when we were pirates in another galaxy," Cam asked, not really making it a question.

Jonas nodded and gave a little shrug. "The Ori armies came from at least a dozen different worlds, all with high literacy."

Back then, while Jonas had been leading his team of saboteurs and tech thieves, Cam had been kidnapping people and rescuing survivors and, in the course of those activities, he'd had plenty of interaction with the various nations of the Ori armies. He'd gotten pretty good at determining which army he was dealing with (or, at least, whether he'd dealt with them before), but the cultural cues he knew were mostly speech- and behavior-related, things he needed to be able to sneak in and out of camps and past guards and pickets. The Ori armies had a lingua franca for orders and official communication, something modeled loosely on Ancient, and that's what Cam had spent the most time learning because that's what he'd needed most. He'd picked up the odd word in the various local dialects -- mostly cusswords -- but never much more than that. He hadn’t been reading their mail or their diaries.

"I think it might be Cormin," Jonas went on. "It has some elements that are the same from the samples I've seen, but it's a handwritten form and a stylized one at that. I want to check it against what I have in my notebooks."

Cam nodded grimly. The Cormin were the Grenzers of the Ori galaxy, rough and dangerous people who'd guarded the peripheries of the Ori territory back in their home galaxy. Once in the Milky Way, they'd been the most brutal wardens of the internment camps and the least merciful of the invading forces. They had a couple of irregular beliefs as far as worshiping the Ori went, but they were intensely pious and absolutely nobody questioned their loyalty to the priors or to the Ori. They were an obvious choice as far as sending a vanguard to Pegasus went and had, in fact, been the unanimous answer when Cam (and Jonas and Armstrong and Reletti) had been asked.

"Let's continue this over lunch," Cam said, gesturing with his chin toward the taproom behind Jonas. "We're going to put Little Tripoli on its ear once we start talking; we should at least get our stories straight."

That, and the odds of Sheppard dragging them straight into a meeting, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and do not stop at the commissary first were pretty high. He didn't have much of an appetite after realizing the Cormin might be in Pegasus, but he knew better than to miss his last chance to eat.

Over a meal of steak and potatoes and flagons of porter, Cam and Jonas compared notes. They had three possible planets either with Ori activity or who'd disappeared, plus wherever the hell the Torani were with, apparently, their prior. And Jonas had brought his mini camera and had surreptitiously taken photographs of wares being sold by the scavengers, documenting anything that looked like it could be unique to one people; the plan was to hand photos over to Teyla to see if she or any of the refugees could identify any worlds that hadn’t been reported as attacked or abandoned but had nonetheless been visited by the scavengers. The camera was a tiny thing with no way to look at the pictures stored on the memory card, so that would have to wait until they got back to Atlantis. Jonas thought he'd seen a few things of interest, but admitted that some of his interest might have been that they were interesting or simply pretty; it was an imprecise task.

"I was hoping we'd pick things up sooner than we have," he said as he swirled the last of his beer in his glass. "How many planets are we up to on the list of ones we have to check out because they might have already been taken by the Ori? Eight? Ten?"

Cam put down his knife - his beautiful new knife, which he'd shown to an appreciative Jonas before using it on his steak. "We're not that late out of the starting blocks," he pointed out. "We probably know about it faster than we did when it started back home - everyone talks to and about everyone else here. In case you've forgotten, intel back home sucked even before there were Ori."

Earth hadn't been the only place where advanced civilizations hadn't realized that their was life elsewhere in the galaxy and thousands of years of the Jaffa shooting strangers and interlopers had put a damper on social visiting and gossip. Cam knew this and he knew Jonas knew this, too. And it maybe didn't matter.

"All that experience did get us something -- we were able to put two and two together and come up with five a lot faster than we should have considering that people have been disappearing en masse in Pegasus for more than ten thousand years." He was trying to sound unbothered, but he wasn't sure Jonas was buying it because he wasn't sure he was buying it. But he didn't want Jonas slipping into one of his dark moods, those moments when his grief and anger burst out and it was entirely obvious how much the last few years had changed him and not for the better. He didn't like seeing Jonas in that much pain and he didn't want to expose himself to his own none-too-well buried fears that he wasn't strong enough to go through it all again. So he kept talking to distract both of them.

"Come on," he exhorted, cleaning off the knife and putting it away. "Finish up so we can get home and you can upload those pictures and we can start punting marines through the stargate to see what they can see."

When they got back to Atlantis, Cam made a point of informing the marines guarding the stargate that he'd returned himself and his companion in one piece, despite being Air Force.

"There's always next time, sir," Sergeant Mooney replied.

Waterman was busy at work when Cam got back to his office, typing and talking on the phone and still managing to free up a hand to point imperiously at his desk without otherwise interrupting herself.

His desk was piled with folders in three stacks. The first one was labeled "Now (Yes, Really)," the second "Today," and the third "Before Someone Complains." The first one was, mercifully, the smallest and he skimmed their contents -- mostly items for Gantry, all things that required action on his part before someone else could do their job -- before checking his email and his phone messages.

"Is 'Now' really 'now-now' or can it wait until I get back from ruining the rest of Colonel Sheppard's afternoon?" Cam asked once Waterman was off the phone.

"I'd say it could wait, sir, but the usual consequence of you -- or anyone else -- ruining the Colonel's day is getting to spend quality time in Major Lorne's office being fed coffee and danish by BM2 Rowell," Waterman replied with a straight face. "So unless you're off to report the imminent arrival in Atlantis of either the Ori warships or Our Lord and Savior, then it's now-now."

"I'm sure the Rapture wouldn't ruin Sheppard's day," Cam said, sitting down in his desk chair and reaching for a pen. "Pretty sure, at least."

He signed what he needed to sign, called Gantry to make sure she really wanted to piss off the Battalion like that (yes, although not for its own entertainment value), and cleared out the stack with only one plaintive wail in Waterman's direction to ask what the hell this was and why did it need his signature. (Answer: training for the SFs and because none of the marine officers were going to agree to it without it being an order.)

"And now I'm off to see the Wizard," Cam announced as he signed the last page (and underlined the part of the sentence that said "stun ONLY") and stood up. "If Mister Quinn shows up, let him know where I am and make sure he has his radio on or is otherwise findable. Permission to shackle him to your desk is granted if required."

Jonas had gone back to his lab with the intent to get the pictures off of his camera and see if there was anything interesting in them.

Waterman cocked an eyebrow. "What about as a preemptive measure, sir?"

"Find someone else to explore your bondage fetish with, Corporal," Cam told her, getting out of her effective line of fire as quickly as possible -- she had a wicked bank shot -- and scurrying down the hall.

BM2 Rowell did not make himself an obstacle in Cam's pursuit of seeking out Sheppard, mostly because Sheppard wasn't in Lorne's office. (He was, however, perfectly willing to be an obstacle in Cam getting in to see Lorne.) But once Cam triumphed over the Navy's version of Kerberos, Lorne, as usual, knew where Sheppard was and called him, then called Hanzis because everything Cam was going to say was going to have to be added to the database they were building of where the Ori were (and where the people weren't) in Pegasus.

Hanzis arrived first with a familiar face bearing a laptop in tow. Technical Sergeant Garcas was an airman assigned to Hanzis's intelligence section, since obviously the marines needed help with anything intelligent. A veteran of the SGC who'd been at the Mountain longer than Cam, she nodded to him and Lorne as she crossed the room to set up at the conference table.

"I've got Torani and a prior," Cam announced once Sheppard appeared. "Together."

"Crap," Sheppard sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "Where?"

"Don't know that," Cam answered, then proceeded to report on his and Jonas's adventures on Cemarra, including showing off his knife and guessing that Jonas was currently verifying that the bracelet was Cormin in provenance. He waited for Garcas to catch up, but, unsurprisingly, she was ahead of him.

"Mister Quinn has uploaded three images, sirs," she reported, turning the laptop so that everyone else could see. Lorne came around from behind his desk to get a look.

"The first one's the bracelet," Cam said, since it wasn't immediately obvious -- Jonas had zoomed and cropped so that all that was visible was the script etched into the copper.

The next picture was a scan of one of Jonas's notebook pages, or at least part of one. He'd written out the Cormin alphabet, with English and Kelownan analogues in pencil underneath each character. It was a page from an old notebook -- Cam had seen it back before they'd moved permanently to Pegasus, which is how he knew the other characters not English were Kelownan. It was one of several notebooks dedicated to the linguistics of the Ancients, the Ori, and their followers.

"Is the next one going to be a translation?" Hanzis asked, mostly rhetorically.

It was not. The last picture was of a satchel. Cam knew it had come from the black marketeer on Cemarra, but without that context he'd have suggested it was from Earth. He'd seen dozens just like it in the souks when he'd been based in Morocco after they'd abandoned the SGC.

"What is that?" Sheppard asked. There were no captions on the picture yet and the filename was just a sequence of numbers. The datestamp was today’s date, but the fact that Jonas hadn’t mentioned it at lunch presumably meant that he hadn’t considered it of great importance then. Clearly, something had changed.

"It's Amran, sir," Garcas answered.

Lorne cursed.

"Care to share with the class, Major?" Sheppard prompted, then looked at Garcas. "Either of you?"

Garcas looked up at Lorne.

"They were - are, who knows? - a people from the Milky Way," Lorne explained sourly. "We had some kind of minor treaty system with them. They'd be totally forgettable if not for the fact that they were a standard part of the ‘no shit, there I was’ stories everyone used to tell about O’Neill."

Cam had a flicker of a memory – of the story, not the event itself, which had happened well before his assignment to the SGC, probably while he’d still been under sedation after his accident.

"Their reps were driving Major Davis nuts, so the General locked them in a room, although the rumor mill turned it into the brig," Garcas recalled with a fond smile. "It was one of the fun highlights of a very strange week."

Everyone took a moment to say a silent prayer for O'Neill, who'd died with his boots on, as he'd have wanted, but was still very much missed and needed.

"Did they submit to the Ori?" Hanzis asked. He, like Sheppard and Lorne, was looking at Cam to answer.

But Cam didn't know the answer. He had no recollection of Amra at all and he felt very ashamed by that. He hadn't been - couldn't have been - at every battle, but he'd had a large role in the galaxy's defense and, later, an even larger role in the Resistance. He felt he ought to remember every loss as he tried to do for every victory.

But he couldn't and confessed to such.

"It was a helluva time, sir," Hanzis offered and Cam looked up to see neither sympathy nor scorn. "And an impossibly big AO."

Cam nodded, more in acknowledgment of Hanzis's gesture than in acceptance of his words.

Garcas, meanwhile, was typing. "They submitted, sirs, but only after a three-week fight," she announced as she skimmed the file open on her screen. "SG-3 was present for that, so if there are questions, we can find Staff Sergeant Reletti."

Garcas looked over at Hanzis, who then looked up at Sheppard, who shrugged. "If you have questions for him, get him here.”

"Does it say who was actually doing the invading of Amra?" Hanzis asked Garcas, gesturing at the laptop screen. "If it was the Cormin or one of the others we were able to identify? Three weeks means more than just a prior, right?"

Just what they needed - the possibility of a second (or more) army in Pegasus. But it wasn't necessarily a given.

"It depends on how opposed the local population was and how organized they were," Cam pointed out. "Some of these places, especially before the Supergate was built, took a long time to fall and it was just a prior. They were usually classic insurgencies -- the holdouts would disappear from the urban centers and last until the priors had converted enough of the locals to stop them helping the fugitives and then to start ferreting them out. But if Reletti was there, then it was after the Supergate, so it could have gone either way."

"It doesn't say, sir," Garcas reported after a minute. "There was definitely an army, but it doesn't say who. Details of the fighting, casualties, outcome, likely consequences. Judging by the dates, I'm not sure we even knew how to tell anyone apart when this occurred."

Lorne exchanged a look with Hanzis and then tapped his earpiece, presumably to talk to Rowell. "Can you get Staff Sergeant Reletti here, please?... No, just him… Thank you."

"I knew you'd like him," Sheppard told him smugly. Everyone chuckled, especially after Lorne frowned in resignation.

Reletti appeared a few minutes later, slightly flushed as if he'd been running. He was not wearing his uniform blouse and there was a streak of gun oil on his forearm. He stopped barely inside the door and drew himself up, counting heads and assessing the situation to see how much trouble he was in. Cam thought he saw Reletti relax minutely when he realized that neither his CO nor his company sergeant were present.

"Reporting as requested, sir." It came out half as a question and half Marine Corps bark.

"Relax, Staff Sergeant," Sheppard chuckled, vaguely waving with his hand as if to dismiss Reletti's concerns. "Whatever it is you've done, we haven't caught on to it yet."

Reletti ventured a crooked half-smile. "What can I do for you, then, sir?"

"Come here and take a look at this," Hanzis answered, gesturing at the laptop. "Garcas, put that third picture back up."

She did and he did and then Reletti chuffed a rueful laugh. "One Plainsman Amran ammo bag, ladies version, sir," he said. "Can hold up to six cartridges without looking like you're carrying. Ten if you don't bother with any bread or fruit."

"Ammo bag?" Sheppard repeated.

"It was just a shopping bag before the Ori came, sir," Reletti explained with a shrug. "The women used to bring us food, then they started humping ammo."

Hanzis exchanged a look with Sheppard that Cam couldn't see well enough to guess at.

"How much do you remember about the specifics of that fight, Staff Sergeant?" Hanzis asked.

"Enough, sir," Reletti replied. "SG-3 got there on the second day and we stayed for twenty. We spent more than half of it fighting over the Plains of Goran - half of the Amrans considered it a holy site, so they were willing to go to the last man to defend it. Eventually, the Ori obliged them. After that, it was just a matter of trying to evac as many as possible. SG-9? SG-18? I don't remember who else was there with us. Whoever it was, they ended up with the half of the local population that decided that Origin was the way to go before anyone fired a shot. They spent a week trying to get to us with the few dissenters without getting turned over to the very welcome army of occupation."

Cam could remember any of a dozen battles that had gone along those lines. Especially on the worlds where there were discrete population centers.

"So you'd consider Amra successfully converted?" Hanzis prompted.

Reletti made a face. "By default, sir. After three weeks, there weren't enough Plainsmen left to argue the point."

Which was also too common of an occurrence.

"How quickly did the Ori armies turn the compliant population around?" Cam asked. Even on worlds where the Ori gained victories without firing a shot, they weren't always able to use the indigenous population against their unconverted brethren. There was always a re-education period, one that could be swift or extended -- Langara's, for instance, had been protracted, which was why they'd initially been able to rescue so many from the camps -- and the priors' assessments on that front were a fairly good indicator of how dangerous the fully converted population would become. "Were they re-armed before you left?"

For obvious reasons, the Ori forces didn't hand the weapons back to the locals until they were sure of them.

Reletti's expression showed he understood the significance of Cam's question and he closed his eyes in thought for a moment, then opened them. "They were, sir."

Cam nodded, mentally assigning the Amran bag to an Amran soldier in the Ori army and not a trophy dropped by a more veteran soldier. Three weeks was lightning speed, even for a willing population.

"Did you know which Ori armies were there?" Lorne asked.

Reletti exhaled loudly. "At the time, no, sir. They were just a lot of guys with shotguns and scimitars that they knew what to do with. Hindsight says it was the Cormin supported by a couple of those minor league armies, the ones they'd only garrison on worlds where they didn't expect trouble."

"Well, here's to 'hey, it's the Cormin' being the good news," Cam said, not quite able to mask his bitterness.

Reletti grimaced in acknowledgment at the general notion of using the Cormin as any kind of gauge of badness, but also looked more than a little curious about why this line of questioning here and now when there'd been months of interviews upon his return to Atlantis and again after the Milky Way had been effectively lost.

"Sir?" Reletti was looking at Sheppard. "May I ask what this is about?"

Sheppard pointed to the laptop, although Garcas had turned it back toward her so that she could type. "That ammo bag wasn't found on Amra, Staff Sergeant. Colonel Mitchell and Mister Quinn found it on Cemarra this afternoon."

"Fuck," Reletti sighed. It was no secret in Little Tripoli that there was evidence of major Ori movement in Pegasus; that was why marines and civilian intelligence agents had been getting punted through the stargate in ever-growing numbers. It was also no secret that they were finding more signs now that they knew where and how to look.

"That seems to be the general consensus," Sheppard agreed. "Thank you for your help, Staff Sergeant. You may return to either greasing or de-greasing, whatever we interrupted, but do me a favor and keep this latest revelation to yourself for now?"

Reletti aye-ayed and left.

“We should tell everyone going out on intel missions to ask about the Torani,” Hanzis said once it was just them again. “We stopped asking about them, more or less, after the plague peaked. If they’re helping the Ori do their food shopping, they might be easier to find.”

Garcas was already typing.

“Send people around to the cattle ranchers and meat processors,” Lorne added. “If they’re buying potatoes from the Brexans, they’ll need meat. There’s no planet that has enough near-deer to support an army for long, let alone their growing number of camp followers, and these people aren’t vegetarians.”

Hanzis’s watch beeped and Cam reflexively looked at his own. It wasn’t the top of the hour.

“Two-Shop meeting, sir,” Hanzis explained. “If we’re not done here, I’ll stay.”

“Will it just be marines trying to take off their socks so they can count to twenty if we keep Garcas?” Sheppard asked.

Garcas nodded emphatically. Hanzis shot her a dirty look. “We have four services and three countries represented, sir, all of whom can read and write,” he replied. “Although I occasionally have my doubts about the Australian. But, yes, we’d be a lesser group without Tech Sergeant Garcas.”

Sheppard and Lorne exchanged a look; Lorne shrugged slightly.

“Go and be intelligent,” Sheppard told Hanzis. “We’ll have to hash it all out with the gang later anyway.”

Sheppard and Lorne met with the marine captains daily, sometimes twice. Cam was occasionally invited, but the discussions were mostly informational as far as he and his people went.

“You go first, Garcas,” Hanzis said as he stood. “If your ego gets you stuck in the doorway, I’ll push and BM2 Rowell can pull.”

“With some details still to be worked out,” Sheppard began once Hanzis and Garcas (uneventfully) departed, “we have confirmation that the Ori have boots on the ground in Pegasus and some of those boots are Cormin. So we can drop the theory that the Ori just have a few warships here and no transports.”

“It was the least likely possibility anyway,” Cam agreed. It was also the most hopeful scenario, at least after they’d found out what was floating in space around Basirosk, but they’d all given up on being lucky.

"Which means we're going to have to start refining that list of planets to go visit before the Ori do," Lorne said, returning to his desk and sitting down. "Should I tell Gillick to head over to Ipetia and set up the meeting?"

Sheppard sighed heavily. "Yeah. We're not going to be able to put that off much longer."

Cam waited for an explanation.

"We need to talk to the Genii," Lorne said, making a complicated face to match Atlantis's complicated history with the Genii. "The Ipetians can serve as intermediaries, set up a meeting on neutral ground."

"The marines are going to want to send a company along," Sheppard chuckled darkly, then frowned. "Fuck. I hope we're the ones breaking the news to them. I don't want to find out they're already holding prostration ceremonies and printing their own versions of the Book of Origin."

Cam could only nod agreement. He'd been aware of the Genii all along, had knowledge of their bad history with Atlantis, but it wasn't anything he'd thought about recently. Or at all. It was all in the pre-Ori past, with its soft-focus memories and an innocence he couldn't even imagine anymore.

Lorne's phone rang. He answered it, said maybe three words, and hung up.

"Colonel Mitchell," he began, cocking an eyebrow. "Corporal Waterman would like you to know that she's got Mister Quinn secured."

Cam grinned. "He's good with locks. I'd better hurry down there."

He held up his hand in departure, leaving a chuckling Sheppard and Lorne behind.

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22 November, 2009