Qui Habitat: Chapter Seventeen

by Domenika Marzione

"I'm busy." Rodney announced. "What do you want?"

John smiled to himself and leaned against the door jamb. "A beer and eight hours without my damned earpiece beeping."

Rodney looked up and gave John a baleful look, which John returned with a hopeful grin.

Rodney shook his head in surrender, returning to whatever he'd been doing when John had shown up. Something with an eighth-inch flathead screwdriver and an unidentified Ancient thingie that didn't require his actual attention, which was still very much on John. "How did it go?"

"It went," John answered with a sigh that didn't quite come out as careless as he'd hoped. "We came back with everyone we left with and no shots were fired."

The meeting with the Genii had gone about as well as expected, which was not really very well at all, but considering the history between the two peoples and the state of the galaxy at large, 'no casualties' was still something of a success. Nonetheless, it was still the reason why John had come down to Science's rabbit warren once the time-sensitive details of their return had been taken care of. Rodney hadn't been part of the suspiciously large welcoming committee waiting for him and Elizabeth and their marine contingent, but neither of them had taken that as a sign that he wasn't anxiously awaiting news of their safe return. There'd been loud and long arguments as to who should or shouldn't go, with the fact that almost everyone in Atlantis's command structure had been either held hostage or fired upon in anger by the Genii at some point serving as evidence for both sides. But while everyone had grudgingly accepted that both John and Elizabeth had to go, nobody had liked it and Rodney arguably least of all. Which was why Lieutenant Wong's passing on his demand to be told the moment the wormhole was established hadn't been necessary and why John was not buying his feigned indifference here.

"So they're not prostrating yet?" Rodney asked, squinting to see what he was doing before reaching over for the magnifying lamp.

"Not yet," John confirmed. "But it's only a matter of time. I wouldn't be surprised if Radim already has a task force prowling the galaxy to hunt down a prior and invite them in."

Atlantis had known going in that the likeliest scenario was that the Genii would stop listening to anything they had to say beyond "kill the Wraith first." And that was pretty much what had happened -- Radim and his delegation had sat through Elizabeth's spiel, then asked questions that all could be reduced to "why should we have a problem with the Ori if they're going to free us from the Wraith?"

In preparation for that, Elizabeth had pulled together a collection of hard data and witness testimony and crafted what John thought was an effective multimedia presentation on why you should be very careful of getting what you wished for. There were videotaped accounts from survivors currently under Atlantis's protection, including military personnel, and both video and photographic evidence of what sort of hell the Ori could wreak in pursuit of their goals. It had been difficult, emotionally more than logistically, to put together and G-2 had done a hell of a job. All of the senior command had sat through it during its final edits and John had come away profoundly disturbed and distressed in ways he hadn't anticipated.

But the purpose of the horror show hadn't been to scare the Genii into fighting the Ori or to appeal to their sense of humanity and asking them to fight on the behalf of others. The Genii weren't selfless like that and so Elizabeth, veteran diplomat that she was, had crafted her presentation to appeal to the Genii megalomania, their greed and arrogance and sense of self-preservation at any cost. She'd framed the question in terms of Genii survival, of what sort of fate awaited those who failed to submit to the Ori completely and in all ways -- object lesson being the Sodan, who were destroyed for apostasy after faithful service, and not Earth.

"They didn't stay tuned long enough to catch the part about demanding genuine belief?" Rodney asked. He pushed away the lamp and sat back on his stool, looking up and giving up the pretense that he'd been thinking about anything else all day.

John shook his head. "They don't get it," he said sourly. "And nothing Elizabeth or I or anyone else said could change that. They think they can work out some kind of secular agreement with the Ori, pay some kind of jizya or whatever, and go on their merry way as godless vassals. Preferably with us eliminated as a threat, although Radim was nice enough to not look like he was thinking that."

The Genii had been militant atheists since long before Atlantis had risen from the sea, although the expedition's revelation that Ancients were not gods but instead evolutionary steps away from human had certainly hardened that philosophical commitment. Their fundamental tenets, so much as they believed in anything, were free will and self-determination. They didn't have gods, Ancient or otherwise, because they believed themselves ultimate masters of their own destiny and didn't want anyone else, supernatural or not, pulling their puppet strings. Elizabeth had tried -- and ultimately failed -- to make the Genii see that their own belief system was not only incommensurate with Origin and its followers, but also dangerously and probably fatally so.

"The question is whether they'll end up hurting us before they get themselves killed," John went on. "And I don't know the answer to that one yet. They know enough about how we operate to try to sell it to the Ori in the name of buying goodwill and they won't shed a tear if we go down first."

Rodney grimaced, but the effect was more to make him look nauseated than unsurprised.

"Was this a waste?" he asked quietly. "Did we just speed the process?"

That, too, had been a point of contention during the discussions.

John shrugged with the shoulder that wasn't bearing his weight. "It's a moot point now," he said. Rodney looked like he was going to complain about the equivocation, so he went on. "This wasn't the first they'd heard of what's been going on in the galaxy, not with their intel network. They just wanted us to clarify and corroborate. Which we did, although not with the results we'd hoped for. But the bright side is that the Genii aren't nearly as clever as they think they are and the Ori don't have to be the only ones to take advantage of that. They're the devil we know and we'll use it as best we're able."

Which might not have been any more of a real answer, but seemed to mollify Rodney somewhat.

"Listen," John began, pushing up off of the wall, "I have to go to Little Tripoli and prove that rumors of my safe return weren't greatly exaggerated."

Because Rodney wasn't the only one whose concerns needed to be acknowledged, however obliquely. Lorne hadn't been part of the welcoming committee waiting in the gate room either, but that had been as much about setting a good example as anything. Little Tripoli took its cues from its commanders and Lorne, who had as much reason to worry about the Genii as anyone, could not be seen as anything but his usual unflappable self. Which, as with Rodney, did not mean that he would not want to see with his own eyes that everyone had come back in one piece and unharmed. And he was far from the only one in Little Tripoli of whom that could be said.

"I'm sure Elizabeth will have us all trapped in the conference room soon enough," Rodney said, picking up his screwdriver again.

"No doubt," John agreed. Because there were going to be at least two meetings to rehash what had happened and to second-guess the rationale for doing it in the first place.

Rodney grunted something between agreement and dismissal and reached for the magnifying lamp again.

Gossip moved through Little Tripoli at approximately 3.7 times the speed of light, so everyone already knew that the delegation had returned safely by the time John stepped out of the transporter in across from the guard desk. He greeted the MP on duty with a brief wave and headed off toward Lorne's office, where BM2 Rowell was utterly unsurprised to see him.

"I'm not late, Boats," John told him sourly as the sailor pointedly looked up at the clock on the wall.

"As you say, sir,' Rowell replied as John reached for the doorknob to Lorne's office.

Lorne made no pretense of being casually unconcerned with John's appearance in his workspace. He put down his pen and closed the folder he'd been working on before John sat down and waited expectantly for the AAR. Which John gave. With Lorne, John was more honest -- and thus less dismissive of the Genii as potential threat -- than he'd been with Rodney, wondering aloud whether they should respond to the Genii reaction to the conference.

"We know them," John sighed. "They'll try something stupid and we'll end up paying for it."

In some other time and place where they'd never heard of Ori, he'd be tempted to let them try, since they had a relatively poor success rate. Over the years the Genii had managed to do grave -- if largely temporary -- damage to Atlantis, but most of the time, they shot themselves in the foot. Left to their own devices, the Genii had better than even odds of destroying themselves before they took out anyone else. But the problem here was that there were Ori and, sooner than later, the Genii would no longer have to rely on their own devices.

"We can send out more spies," Lorne suggested with a frown. "We can review our security measures on the satellite worlds and here, but unless we're willing to preemptively go after the Genii, there's not a whole lot we can do."

John sighed heavily. "I know."

The door opened and Rowell appeared, two mugs in one hand and a pile of folders in the other, a plate of what looked like sliced fruit and cheese on top of the folders. At some point in their still-nascent relationship, Rowell had decided that Lorne needed help feeding himself. (Whether he'd gotten that idea from, say, Ortilla, was as-yet undetermined with the hulking marine still on the mainland serving as a drill instructor.) Lorne put up with it with the same sort of 'go limp' approach he'd taken to almost every other change Rowell had made to his daily routine -- there'd been a determined struggle, but it had been brief and futile -- and John privately supported Rowell's attempts to take things in hand. Rowell was around in the first place because Lorne had shown to be much better at taking care of Little Tripoli than of himself.

"When do you want Captain Hanzis to show up, sir?" Rowell asked as he put the mugs down and then the folders.

Hanzis had gone to the summit as part of the delegation; as the marines' intelligence officer, he'd have his own two cents to contribute.

Lorne looked at his watch and then at John, who shrugged. "Later?" he offered. "Unless he's got something he absolutely has to say now, it'll keep."

"Seventeen hundred it is, sir. I'll inform the others," Rowell agreed before turning and leaving.

"Did he just schedule a staff meeting?" John asked as he leaned forward and picked up the mug that looked like it had tea in it. For all that Rowell often acted like John was just another obstacle on his quest to steer Lorne to calm seas, that didn't extend to not remembering that John preferred tea to coffee and how he liked it prepared.

"You'll have to ask him. I just work here," Lorne answered, picking up his own mug and a piece of fruit.

Rowell had indeed scheduled a meeting, since at 1705 John's radio chirped and Lorne dryly informed him that he'd been invaded by marines plus Colonel Mitchell and his alleged guard dog, far from doing anything to stop the assault, had given them coffee instead. By that point, John had circled the city to check in with Teyla (who had not been part of the delegation by choice) and Elizabeth (who still looked like she wanted a stiff drink) and Ronon (who, assured that the Genii hadn't done anything to him, proceeded to run him into the ground). The meeting was supposed to be relatively brief and mostly informational; there wasn't much to be done apart from agreeing that vigilance needed to be maintained and whatever they were going to do to improve security on the satellite worlds should be done quickly. Which was still a point of confusion, if not contention.

"We have the shields for the Cordinar and Dela stargates ready to go," Armstrong said. "Science finished the generators for them last month."

"Why haven't we installed them?" John asked. Mars had had a shield since the beginning and it had been his understanding that the delay on the others had been because of power requirements.

"Because they're not safe to turn on, sir," Polito replied. "We're still getting visitors to both places. Not regularly, but semi-regularly. If we throw up a shield, we'll be killing whoever doesn't know not to come through. Especially Cordinar; we're still getting shoppers who don't realize the market's moved. And Dela's going to be getting busier once they get closer to spring and people start visiting to arrange for crop trading."

Belatedly, John remembered this part of the debate.

"If we expect to be able to hold any kind of muscular defensive posture on Dela or Cordinar," Armstrong replied with the heat of a familiar argument, "we are going to have to cut them off. If we can't use the shield, we're going to have to use more men, which we don't have yet and won't have at all once the fighting starts."

John definitely remembered this part. He held up his hand. "Okay, halt, stop, cease."

Polito, who'd been about to rebut Armstrong, sat back in his seat and dropped into his usual slouch. It looked a little childish and John tried not to smile.

"We've been down this road before," he said. "And, if I'm not mistaken, we came to a decision about what would be done once we had what we needed to bring the shields online. And that decision was to lock up the stargate."

For all the talk about turning Cordinar over to the refugees and re-opening the market there, the logistics of doing so and still both keeping it safe and preventing it from being used as any kind of back door into the rest of Atlantis's burgeoning empire were bad enough that it had become a bit of a pipe dream. The market would open again, but maybe not until the Ori were gone.

"With all due respect, sir," Polito spoke up, not sitting up, "that was a decision reached when it was just Cordinar. Dela hadn't been in the picture at that point."

"Is there anything about Dela that should force a reevaluation?" John asked. "If anything, Dela being in the equation should make it even more necessary that we close them both down."

Three satellite worlds meant three rifle platoons out of circulation at any moment, a quarter of their infantry forces. It wasn't anything they could sustain once the fighting began and there was already talk of turning Mars over to the SFs.

"It's a major agricultural center, sir," Hanzis answered. "Even if we are going to keep the lion's share of the crops for our own uses, we still have to deal with all of the Delai's trading partners. Even if it's just to tell them that the deals are off. I'm not sure we have enough lead time to head everyone off at the pass and I can't guarantee that we've got a complete list of their active agreements. Plus there are the walk-ins and the beggars."

"We can move the business center off-world," Radner pointed out. "Cemarra, Albarin, the other big market worlds. It's the fastest way to get the word out. We're going to be doing that anyway as a means of getting our exports up and letting the RDRs sell their own goods. Adding Dela into the pooled resources would make things much easier on our end."

The plans for that were indeed ongoing, a joint operation between the military, civilian, and refugee populations that John was aware of but not familiar with the details of their progress.

"Why haven't we done that already?" Mitchell asked before John could.

"Competing ideas of capitalism," Lorne answered wryly. "There's some disagreement over who should go and with what. Also, they want a military detail much larger than the one we're willing to provide. It should be sorted sooner than later."

Which John took to mean that Lorne was going to handle it with Elizabeth the next time the two of them got together to secretly organize Atlantis to their whims. And, judging by the lack of audible skepticism regarding Lorne's ability to solve the problem, everyone else was thinking along the same lines.

"Okay, so how about we go halfway on the shields for now," John suggested. "We lock the door at night. Everyone trading with Dela or going to Cordinar knows what kind of daylight they're running on. We turn on the shield two hours after dusk and turn it off two hours before civilian dawn. Once we're up and running at the markets, we can work toward a total shutdown."

There were no protests, which was probably as much a recognition of the compromise nature of the solution as of John's standing as commanding officer and thus his suggestions carrying the force of orders.

They wrapped the meeting up with a brief update on the inaugural boot camp (going well, only five washouts so far) and the news that while the marines had gotten multiple confirmations that the Torani were running around with a prior, they still didn't know where anyone was hiding.

After everyone else left, John stayed behind. He'd stashed his laptop here before leaving for the meeting with the Genii - half-joking to Lorne that if the Genii played dirty, it would make the succession of command easier if his files were findable - and he dug it out now, intending to catch up on paperwork and whatever else had gone on during the day while he'd been trying to get Radim and the others to see wisdom. In truth, though, it was more than just today; the meeting with the Genii had sucked up a lot of his attention all week. Which is perhaps why he hadn't noticed a particular item in his inbox.

"Neither Carson nor Yoni have waylaid me to rant about making work for their people, so I'm assuming whatever the SFs and marines got up to resolved itself without mass casualties?" John asked, skimming Mitchell's forward of Gantry's email. There'd been a new joint civil defense evolution and it had looked ripe for friction during the planning stages.

"They didn't play nicely," Lorne answered, "but there's no lasting damage to bodies or egos."

Which, they both knew, was about as good as it got.

The irony of working in Lorne's office now that Rowell was outside guarding the door was that when John was there with the clear intent to be productive, he was magically transformed from unwelcome interruption to worthy of protection. Rowell didn't let anyone in to see him, either, unless they had a really good reason and would produce (occasionally without being asked) people and files he needed. And tea and cookies on occasion, which always made Lorne grumble loudly about how he was never going to succeed in getting rid of Rowell if the sailor kept buttering up the CO.

There were no treats with tea today, though. And no uninterrupted work, either, because the door opened and one of the sailors assigned to the Daedalus appeared.

"Colonel Caldwell's compliments, sirs," Machinist's Mate Third Class Kane began. "He'd like you to know that the first shield test was successful."

John and Lorne exchanged surprised looks. Repairing the Daedalus's engines and systems had been deemed the less complicated of the many tasks required before she was once again flightworthy; computers and components could be either salvaged or made from what was already in Atlantis. But her hull had been an entirely different matter, requiring material in quantities and qualities that Atlantis just couldn't provide. After more than a year of trading for heavy metals and testing alloys and synthetics, her reskinning had been completed six weeks ago, although it was more a cosmetic victory than a military one. They didn't even know if the hull was space-proof -- with no shields, she'd been unable to do any but the most basic integrity tests because there was no way she'd survive breaching the planet's atmosphere. It was John's - and everyone else's - understanding that the shields were not going to be ready any time soon. Or, at least, it had been his understanding.

"Shield test," John finally repeated. "Did I miss a memo somewhere?"

Armstrong was their official liaison with Science so far as who asked for things on behalf of Little Tripoli and who found out what Rodney and his minions were building for military use, intentionally or not. (As opposed to Polito, who was the one Science went to to get what they wanted.) This in turn meant that he was also their primary source of information for anything that had been completed for the Daedalus. But there'd been nothing from him on this, which made John curious. Caldwell largely did his own thing when it came to his ship and her people and often considered keeping John informed a courtesy and not an obligation, but John was surprised Rodney hadn't said anything. Modesty wasn't one of Science's attributes and the gossip mill ran fine there, too.

"What kind of shield test?" Lorne asked warily.

"I believe it involved Wraith stunners, sir," Kane answered. "And some of the plastic training rounds."

"He turned a firing squad on the Daedalus," John translated.

"More or less, sir," Kane agreed, fighting hard to control his grin.

"Would you happen to know if Colonel Caldwell is planning a repeat performance?" John asked. Caldwell hadn't sent Kane here just to pass on information he knew John would be surprised by. He'd sent Kane here with the intent to force a reaction that would fit his needs. It wasn't malicious or any kind of negative statement on John's authority - quite the opposite. It was an explicit acknowledgment that John did have authority and Caldwell couldn't bypass him completely.

"I'll find out, sir," Kane replied. "But I'm sure he'd be happy to restage the test at your convenience."

Nobody argued how much of a difference having the Daedalus would make in the coming war, but they could - and did - argue about how much human and material resources should be directed toward making that happen. Caldwell wanted to show John that his ship was close enough to deployable to justify whatever it took to complete the process.

John dismissed Kane with formal congratulations to Caldwell and waited for the door to close behind him before slouching down in his seat.

"Why does good news give me a headache?" he asked with a sigh. He was going to have to outthink Caldwell on this; Caldwell knew he couldn't go over John's head and take this directly to Elizabeth, but he could maneuver John into a position where there was no other choice but to do what he wanted.

Lorne hit the intercom button on his phone.

"Sir?" Rowell's voice answered immediately.

"Could you find Captain Armstrong, please?"

John cocked an eyebrow. He knew Lorne wasn't bringing Armstrong in to call him on getting snowed by Caldwell.

"He loses the element of surprise if you show up well-prepared," Lorne answered with a shrug. "Armstrong can get you whatever you need."

Without Caldwell necessarily finding out, he didn't say. John smiled crookedly.

Armstrong appeared a few minutes later. "Sirs?"

"Daedalus ran a shield test today, Captain," John said, careful to not sound accusatory. Armstrong had a million things to do above and beyond his duties as a rifle company commander and keeping up with what was going on in Science was a job that required a lot of cooperation from them, cooperation that they were more than occasionally unwilling or unable to give freely, depending on whether they were pissed or distracted. Plus, Caldwell had clearly taken steps to make sure Armstrong didn't know; this wasn't his fault.

Armstrong did not hide his surprise. "They have shields?"

"That was news to us, too," John agreed, motioning for Armstrong to sit down, which probably did more to assure Ryan that he wasn't getting called on the carpet than anything else. "We want to know what else they're hiding from us."

Armstrong sat down thoughtfully. "These can't be main shields," he said. "Daedalus doesn't have all of her projectors installed, let alone tested and functional. They haven't gotten most of the internal systems working, let alone start working on externals. If they're doing anything with shields, it's something local, maybe secondary shields or the hangar covers or something else that doesn't require much control from the bridge. She's still missing too much to do anything fancy."

John didn't have to explain what he wanted in too much detail; Armstrong understood the task and, more importantly, the delicacy with which it had to be carried out.

"I know who to ask, sir," Armstrong assured with a wry smile. "I learned long ago to take what the project heads say with a grain of salt and find out who is willing to say what is really going on. And none of them will be interested in running to Caldwell's people."

It wasn't just a matter of outfoxing Caldwell; John was well aware of the… potential for sides to be taken. He didn't want this turning into a pissing match, didn't want either Science or, perhaps worse, Little Tripoli thinking that this was an escalation in the cold war between himself and Caldwell. It wasn't. Caldwell's first priority was his ship and this was him acting on that priority; it wasn't personal and it wasn't him acting against the best interests of either Atlantis or the war effort. Caldwell believed, not without reason, that the Daedalus's return to action was the most important thing Atlantis could do. And it was John's job to look at the larger picture and agree or disagree as he saw fit. He didn't want anyone reading into it more than that and ramping up the tension in the city.

"I'll try to get something for you this afternoon," Armstrong promised as he stood up to go.

John had no intention of rushing down to the pier to see what was going on with the Daedalus, but he wouldn't be able to avoid Caldwell indefinitely on the matter. "Thank you."

Rowell came in as Armstrong left. "The F-302s are still in the jumper bay, sirs, but the crew chiefs have been given warning orders about moving them aboard the Daedalus."

Lorne cocked an eyebrow at Sheppard. "That is jumping the gun a little."

"How imminent is this move, Boats?" John asked. He hadn't thought to check out any other signs of movement; thankfully, Rowell had.

"Nobody's packing anything yet, sir," Rowell replied. "I'd wager it's a combination of skepticism and love of comfort."

The auxiliary jumper bay, where they'd repaired and then stored the Daedalus's complement of F-302s, was a palace compared to the flight deck and hangars aboard the ship.

"Three cheers for Air Force softness," John said and Rowell fought manfully to hide his grin since that was clearly what he'd been thinking. "You'll keep an eye out for anything -- or anyone -- that might be migrating over to the Daedalus?"

"Aye aye, sir," Rowell answered. "Nothing's come through the galleys or Ordnance yet, but I'll make the rounds."

The rest of the afternoon was relatively peaceful and productive as the city settled back into its regular routines after the Genii meeting failed to detonate in any unforeseen ways. John slowly got himself back up to speed -- or at least not as far behind as he had been -- and left Lorne's office at 1945 comfortable that there wasn't too much else going on in the city that he didn't know about and was supposed to. Armstrong had called in to report that Daedalus had tested her starboard flight deck shield, which was nice but not nearly any kind of justification for preparing to transfer the F-302 squadron, and Rowell had determined that while there did seem to be some checking-in with the ship's division heads in exile, nothing was actually getting prepared for loading aboard ship. ("Nothing that's not stamped Daedalus is going anywhere without you or Major Lorne's say-so, sir.") John was looking forward to dinner, an evening of relaxed summary-reading, and the sleep of the not-taken-prisoner.

The next day promised more of the same, sunny with a chance of marine shenanigans -- Little Tripoli had that giddy feel about it when John went down for PT -- and lots of paperwork. Through various channels including Rowell and Armstrong, John had acquired enough of a feel for what Caldwell had done and, perhaps more importantly, what he could not yet do. Which meant that he was safe accidentally running into the man or being confronted with any more surprise announcements or invitations, but it also meant that he should go and talk to Elizabeth so that she had some understanding, too.

"He's not asking for anything you can't give him, is he?" was her initial response.

"He's not asking at all," was his answer. "Which for the time being I don't care about. But I will eventually."

Which was all he had to say, thankfully, since he didn't like to bitch and whine at Elizabeth. They moved on to the fallout from the Genii meeting and the annoying realization that they were going to have to dedicate more resources to counterespionage than they currently were, since while they had assets all over the place looking for Ori, they didn't have a lot of coverage on the Genii anymore and that was not an area they could afford to let slide again. They'd kept an eye on the Genii for years, but in a passive, old-fashioned kind of way where both knew that the other was spying on them and pretended they weren't. With the Genii all but declaring for the Ori, that would no longer be sufficient.

"Will you need my help there?" Elizabeth asked.

The civilian intelligence network was semi-officially under the authority of Hanzis and the Intelligence section in Little Tripoli, but day-to-day control was handled by a couple of the more experienced Resistance fighters from the Milky Way with guidance and aid from both Teyla and Ronon. The end result was that they were effectively independent of Little Tripoli, although they played nicely together and cooperated well and Hanzis's word was usually final.

"Probably not," John assured. "It's the Genii."

Many of the civilian intelligence agents were Pegasus natives, refugees from the Wraith or other disasters, and knew well of Atlantis's history with the Genii. And the rest, the Resistance vets, were ruthless in their pursuit of any Ori followers. Hanzis would not have to twist any arms to get what he needed out of Abel, Thir, and the others.

Elizabeth gave him a 'it couldn't hurt to ask' shrug since it had been only yesterday when the city had been on high alert because of the Genii.

John was about to ask her to pass on the change in shield policy to the civilian news organs when through the window he saw marines moving en masse and with purpose through the stargate, rifles at the ready. He stood up to watch; he'd heard the stargate activate a few times while he'd been in Elizabeth's office, but he'd ignored it the way he always did.

A knock on the closed door.

"Come!" John called, knowing it would be for him.

"Sir," Sergeant Mooreland began as soon as he was revealed. "The QRF's been activated; Homer One has requested assistance. They've come into contact with an Ori element."

Patchok's platoon. Once upon a time, it had been their first to meet the Wraith, too.

"A prior or an army?" John asked, looking over Mooreland's shoulder where he could see Salker talking on his radio while directing his marines with hand gestures. "Is the QRF enough?"

"Army, sir, and it's all over but the shouting," Mooreland replied. "Lieutenant Patchok reported the area secure."

"Where is the area?" John had no idea where most of the marines were on a daily basis, inside the city or out.

"M4J-32K, sir," Mooreland answered. "No local population."

John thanked Mooreland, who returned to his post, and looked back to Elizabeth, who was standing, and gestured with a tilt of his head that he was going into the control room; she nodded and moved around from behind her desk as if to follow.

"Three casualties, sir, none urgent," Salker reported before John even cleared the catwalk. "I've informed Medical."

"Good," John said. "Now what the fuck happened?"

He was not surprised that marines stumbled upon Ori armies; that was, more or less, what they were being sent out regularly to do. But he was surprised - and grateful -- that Patchok had apparently found a small element and not the entire Cormin army.

Down below, the stargate activated again and the alarm for an incoming wormhole sounded. The commo NCO confirmed radio contact with Patchok and Kagan, the platoon leader for the QRF.

"Channel seven, sir," Salker offered, gesturing to his earpiece.

John tapped his own earpiece. "Homer One? You good?"

"Yes, sir," Patchok assured, the radio not quite hiding that little post-adrenalin catch in his voice. "We're just checking for stragglers and trying to pull together any identifying evidence. We're fine, sir."

"You need anything?" John asked, fighting the urge to go out there himself, wherever 'there' was. "A jumper? More people?"

Patchok replied that he didn't think anything additional was necessary; they hadn't stumbled upon a campsite - "best guess is that they were looking for one" - and Reletti, leading one of the squads with Ortilla still off playing Drill Instructor, had identified their opponents as Bargashi, another of the nations from the Ori galaxy. Which was, of course, shitty news in that they now had confirmation of at least two Ori armies roaming around Pegasus, but under the circumstances could be worse.

"How many prisoners and what shape are they in?" John asked. He hoped the answer was 'few' and 'not too bad.' They hadn't even begun to consider where to keep POWs, let alone how to handle any in the infirmary. The brig was a temporary solution at best. "Do we need to send a doctor out there?"

"We have five, sir," Patchok answered. "Doc Stohr says two of 'em won't make it as far as the stargate. The other three are pretty messed up, but stable. We can bring them in ourselves."

Not wanting to micromanage from a distance, John kept his instructions general and minimal. He told Patchok and Kagan to evacuate the wounded marines first and hold off on the EPWs until they knew where to put them. He asked how many dead there were and if there was any urgency to do anything with them and was told that there were sixty-three, all military-age males, and, considering the planet was unoccupied, they were hoping to leave them where they were but would throw together a pyre if necessary. John told the lieutenants that it wasn't, then asked Patchok if he wanted to bring his platoon in and have someone else serve as overwatch while Kagan's combed the place for weapons and for evidence of where they might have come from. The three most seriously wounded marines had been evacuated, but that didn't mean others weren't trucking along patched up by the corpsmen as best as could be done in the field.

"Negative, sir," Patchok replied firmly. "We can clean up our own mess while Joker Three provides overwatch."

John smiled as he agreed to the plan.

The first stretcher came through the event horizon before John made it back to Elizabeth's office.

"I'm going down to Medical to let Beckett know we've got enemy combatants showing up," he said. "And then I'm going to head over to Little Tripoli to start the process there."

Elizabeth nodded. "Let me know if you need anything."

Medical was already in a bustle by the time John arrived. He already knew that Sergeant Jones had gotten himself shot in the thigh and was surgery, Garrotte had taken a ricochet in the shoulder and just needed bandaging, and Ramirez's hand was a mess of unknown severity after a mishap with a malfunctioning SAW, so he went looking for Beckett.

"Five?" Carson asked John once found him.

"Three," John corrected. "Two won't make the trip."

Carson accepted it without question. "We're going to put them in the back room," he said, gesturing with his free hand toward the small room in the rear. John knew it well; he'd been a resident there many a time over the years. "It'll be crowded, but it's private and out of the way."

"There'll be guards posted," John said. "And anyone going in there's going to need the empty their pockets."

This got an eyeroll from Carson."We've done this before, Colonel."

Polito and First Sergeant Backman arrived while John was doing his best to stay out from underfoot of the orderlies moving furniture in and out of the back room, acknowledging him before heading over to the infirmary to check on their marines. John stayed where he was and watched as of the corpsmen came in to attach padded cuffs and restraints to each bed, which got raised eyebrows from a few of the civilian orderlies, most of whom were refugees, before moving on to checking each of the cabinets and all of the drawers for their contents.

"We got lucky, sir," Polito said as he joined John leaning up against the far wall outside the back room. It kept them out of the way of traffic and afforded them a good view of both the preparations for the prisoners and the inpatient ward as a whole. "I know the whole galactic movement to contact was our only option, but now that we've seen it play out, we're going to need to re-evaluate."

The problem with any kind of combat operation in Pegasus was that for all of the space-age travel, strategy and tactics were still largely dictated by Bronze Age logistics. Resupply, reinforcements, and evacuations were reliant on getting to and keeping the stargate, while artillery and air support were effectively nonexistent. You had to plan to fight -- and win -- with what you brought with you. Which was doable, or at least acceptable so long as you had a realistic expectation of what you were looking to fight on the other side of the event horizon. But Polito was only the first to say aloud what they'd silently known all along -- they couldn't keep sending light infantry platoons out to look for armies and expect to get away with it indefinitely.

"You're right," John agreed, watching as Backman led a parade including Garrotte and Ramirez and medical staff into the ward. "But I'm not sure our options are really very broad right now."

They could beef up the QRF, but short of keeping the entire battalion on permanent alert, there was no way to provide any real sense of comfortable protection to anyone going through the gate. Polito knew that, at least intellectually, but the odds of it coming back to bite them -- hard -- had never been higher and he was the one sending them through wormholes.

John's radio chirped; Salker passed on Patchok's query on whether it was okay to send the EPWs on. Looking around, John figured it was fine, but checked with Carson anyway, who agreed.

Moments later, Gunny Ornberger, Salker's platoon sergeant, showed up with the presumptive first guard rotation, nodding to John and Polito before taking charge of both the marines he'd brought and the orderlies and corpsmen already present.

"I'm going to head out," John said, pushing off the wall. "You're going to stick around until they get the EPWs settled?"

It was as much a question as an order and Polito nodded. "Yes, sir."

Hanzis, unsurprisingly, was waiting for John in Rowell's office when he arrived.

"You're not allowed to interrupt Major Lorne until necessary?" John asked wryly as Hanzis stood.

Rowell looked unoffended, or at least unimpressed, at the accusation. "The Major's not in his office, sir."

"Do you have an ETA?" John asked, not bothering to ask where Lorne was. If Rowell was going to say, he would have said. Lorne was off brokering secret peace agreements with one of the civilian departments or he was at lunch or, highly unlikely, he was actually doing something of a non-professional nature, in which case he'd never do it again because there was now clear evidence that the Ori armies attacked while he took personal time.

"No, sir," Rowell answered.

"Can we use his office?"

"That's not for me to refuse, sir," Rowell answered and Hanzis coughed to cover up a sour laugh because everyone in Little Tripoli could have found issue with that statement if they'd heard it.

"Thanks, Boats," is what Hanzis actually said as he followed John into the other room.

"Abel wants to take the lead on the interrogations, sir," Mike began once John was settled in a chair. "Actually, he wants in on the whole thing, but he definitely wants the EPWs."

John was not surprised. Abel had been one of Mitchell's men back with the Resistance, one of the only survivors of a world destroyed for failing to submit to the Ori. He was very good at his job, but whatever else the Ori had taken from him (rumors included varying numbers of children and a wife), they'd stripped his compassion and humanity, too. Thir, his colleague, was the smooth talker, the con man turned fighter, and still chose charm as his primary tool to Abel's switchblade. Thir taught their agents and assets to walk into a market or a tavern and come out with whatever they needed and leave everyone with a smile on their faces; Abel was the one who planned their less convivial operations.

"You're inclined to give them to him?" John half-asked. Clearly Mike did, since otherwise he would have told Abel no and that would have been the end of it as far as telling John anything went.

"We don't have any trained interrogators, sir," Hanzis said with a shrug. "And Abel knows more about Ori operations in the Milky Way than almost anyone. He's most likely to be able to catch them not saying things."

Nobody was going into this with any expectations of getting easy, useful information. John had no idea how the Bargashi rated as foes, but even the most green recruit was a far tougher customer by his second campaign.

"So let him have them," John said. "Just remind him that this is not some quiet corner of a battlefield and we expect them to survive the experience."

Hanzis made a face to indicate that that caution had already crossed his mind.

There were a few other things Mike had to pass on as informational items -- plans for the debriefing of Patchok's marines and the processing of the items they'd brought back with them and preliminary responses based on whatever was revealed -- and then he left.

Left alone, John forced himself to try to get some work done -- he'd had a long to-do list well before the marines had clashed with the Ori -- but it was hard to focus on administrative and jurisprudential tasks when all he could really think about was 'what the hell do we do next?'. All of their wargaming always sounded practical and reasoned at the time, but it was all ultimately one giant thought problem and his job was to make sure they were best able to fight the war they had and not the one they'd imagined they'd have. Most of the time he was fine with that responsibility -- or as fine as anyone could be, which did not mean that he was without doubts -- but sometimes he was less so. He'd hoped they'd have had time for the first of the recruits to be trained and integrated before the fighting began in earnest, but there was little chance of that now. He'd hoped they'd have the Daedalus ready, but they wouldn't, despite Caldwell's putting his best face forward. He'd hoped that Rodney's people would have their satellite program working by now, which they didn't, but Rodney seemed reasonably sure that was at least on the horizon and so it became, by default, John's next milestone of planning success.

Unhappy with his thoughts and his lack of productivity, he got up, assured Rowell that he was returning, and went back down to Medical. Salker had told him more than an hour previously that everyone was back in Atlantis and that should have given Medical enough time to absorb the EPWs.

The ward was crowded with marines, some visiting with wounded comrades and most on guard duty, and the population density of men and arms was clearly not making the medical staff happy. Beckett was nowhere to be seen but Safir was on station and, judging by the seriousness of the conversation he was having with Gunny Haumann, Yoni seemed to be trying to do something about the crowding.

John greeted the marines as he passed through the ward; out of the wounded, Jones was out of surgery and in traction and the other two were settled comfortably.

Reletti was standing next to Jones's bed, letting his squad crowd around their wounded mate, and he met John's gaze with a tiny, wry grimace. The goofy kid they'd sent home to college had never come back to Atlantis, but most of the time he was still very much the way they'd remembered him. Except for moments like now, when if you looked at all closely you could see just how much more fighting he'd done in the last couple of years than almost everyone else in Little Tripoli and how much it had taken out of him.

"Come on, guys," John heard him say to his squad after he was past them. "Let's let Spike enjoy the good shit while they're giving it to him. Doctor Safir's going to punt us out soon anyway."

The guards by the back room were watching his approach. There were three outside and three inside.

"Everyone settled?" he asked.

"Two of 'em are still in surgery, sir," Sergeant Matthews replied, his tone clearly indicating he didn't think the Bargashi soldiers merited the expenditure of Atlantis's precious resources. Which might include the bullets used to shoot them in the first place. "Third one's doped up inside. No trouble so far."

John had no real urge to see the prisoner, so he didn't do more than peer in, nod at the trio of marines, and leave them to the boring duty of watching a man sleep.

Yoni was indeed punting marines out of the ward; Gunny Haumann was urging marines to finish up and get lost before Doc got pissed. Unafraid of -- or at least used to -- a pissed Yoni, John went over to him.

"They'll all pull through," Yoni told him before he could ask. "One of them is AB-negative, of course, so he is draining our pathetic supply even further."

The quality of mercy could not be forced, but the quantity sure as hell could be kept track of.

"How long before any of them are useful?" John asked.

"The one in there, tomorrow," Yoni answered, gesturing with his head toward the back room. "The other two will depend on their recovery. Not before Thursday. Maybe not until the weekend."

John thanked him and left for Little Tripoli. Lorne was back in his office when he arrived, on the phone with someone John couldn't guess from context.

"G-2 coughed up what they had on M4J-32K," Lorne said when he hung up, holding up a single piece of paper. "They're doing a more thorough search, since all this says is that the local population was known for its fine olive oil before the Wraith wiped them out ten thousand years ago."

"There might not have been any significance to why they were there," John replied as he sat down in front of where his laptop still stood. "If they were looking for a camp, it was as good a place as any and that was reason enough."

John had no reason to doubt Patchok's assessment that his platoon had interrupted a scouting party. Five dozen men was not big enough to be a training exercise and if it was a raiding party, then there would have been no reason to be lingering around on an unpopulated world. If they were getting any help from locals like the Torani, then they would know that if there was nobody near the stargate, there was likely nobody there at all.

"Two-Shop's pulling together a briefing on the Bargashi," Lorne went on. "See if they can come up with any kind of rhyme or reason for why they might be here beyond the obvious."

There was a tendency to both overestimate and underestimate the Ori armies when it came to strategy and tactics. It was all guesswork at this stage, whether the Ori would try the same things that had worked in the Milky Way, whether they would change to accommodate the differences in population (both size and availability, faith-wise) and the fact that their true near-peer opponent in Pegasus was the Wraith, not any resistance, organized or otherwise. Almost every data point they had - the appearance of priors, the plagues, the disappearing populations, the arrival of battle-hardened armies - could be used to buttress competing and contradictory arguments, to give the Ori credit for sharp thinking when it had actually been blind luck (and vice versa). The Ori in the Milky Way hadn't displayed much finesse - if the prior couldn't get a victory without a shot getting fired, the Ori armies would swarm and overwhelm. It hadn't done much for their soldiering skills - John was not surprised by the disparity in casualties between his marines and the Bargashi troops - but, in sufficient numbers, skill levels made no difference.

"I'd be happier if they gave us a suggestion for where to find the main army without walking in on them by accident," John said as he took his laptop out of hibernation mode, thinking back to his conversation with Polito. "I'm willing to take today as a firm reminder that we're one good guess away from losing an entire platoon."

This morning's politicking with Elizabeth over Caldwell might as well have been a lifetime ago. With the news of and then the evidence of combat fresh upon them, he couldn't help but feel that there had been a shift, that they'd passed a milestone of some kind and were now entering a new phase -- of war, of day-to-day life, of expectations for what was required of them and what would come next.

The prospect of full-fledged direct fighting with the Ori had always been there. First in an abstract way when the SGC had still looked to have control of the situation, then in a slightly less abstract way once it was clear that the SGC did not, and then coalescing into something almost concrete once Earth had been invaded. But even after Earth's submission at Robler Rock and then after Daedalus had limped into port and Atlantis had been fully cut off from the Milky Way, there'd still been something almost fantastical about it -- the Ori were probably coming, but they weren't here yet and maybe they weren't coming at all -- that hadn't been fully shaken off until after Gauhan had been taken over by priors. But the Ori didn't come in force after Gauhan. They came in single file, a prior here, a prior there, and six rumors for every actual sighting. There was plague and then the plague became something else that the Ori neither wanted nor could control and they lost possession of it, at least in John's mind. It became just another way Pegasus made life difficult, up there with the Wraith and aspired to by the Genii and Michael and other threats yet unknown.

He'd never relaxed; he'd never been allowed to. There'd been too much to do, too much to prepare, to ever slack off or reduce vigilance or stop believing with all of his heart and mind that the Ori were going to come and Atlantis was going to have to make the last stand and it was his job to best prepare them for that. But all of the waiting had taken a little bit of the edge off and, belatedly, he realized that's what had been making him feel uncomfortable in his own skin all day. He'd done all he could, asked of his men (and women) all that he could of them, and, intellectually, he knew that nobody had let him down. But the skirmish today was nonetheless a sharp reminder that that might not be enough and his restlessness had been a lousy attempt at avoiding that harsh fact.

"We've always been a good guess away from something," Lorne pointed out. "But since God looks after drunks, fools, and travelers, we've never been that good at guessing."

John smiled, since he knew this was Lorne telling him not to dwell on things. Which was sort of a 'do as I say and not as I do' piece of advice, but it was the gesture that counted.

They focused on their own work for a while, getting through it mostly uneventfully with the odd interruption from either Rowell or their charges' preferred method of bypassing him (IM for John, the phone for Lorne). The EPWs got through their surgeries successfully, the crop system for Dela had been finalized, and something had blown up in Engineering but the scientists were denying it despite smoke billowing out of one of the labs. It was almost normal and John caught himself wondering if that wasn't part of the problem, then stopped himself. There was no normal in Pegasus and there never had been. Yesterday he'd been relieved to get home from meeting the Genii without incident, today he was relieved that his marines had gotten home from meeting the Bargashi with incident, and tomorrow would bring something else unanticipated. And they'd deal as best they could because that was what they always did.


tbc...

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22 November, 2009