Qui Habitat: Book Two

by Domenika Marzione


Psalm 91
Qui habitat in abscondito Excelsi in umbraculo Domini commorabitur
dicens Domino spes mea et fortitudo mea Deus meus confidam in eum
quia ipse liberabit te de laqueo venantium de morte insidiarum
in scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi et sub alis eius sperabis
scutum et protectio veritas eius non timebis a timore nocturno
a sagitta volante per diem a peste in tenebris ambulante a morsu insanientis meridie
cadent a latere tuo mille et decem milia a dextris tuis ad te autem non adpropinquabit
verumtamen oculis tuis videbis et ultionem impiorum cernes
tu enim es Domine spes mea Excelsum posuisti habitaculum tuum
non accedet ad te malum et lepra non adpropinquabit tabernaculo tuo
quia angelis suis mandabit de te ut custodiant te in omnibus viis tuis
in manibus portabunt te ne forte offendat ad lapidem pes tuus
super aspidem et basiliscum calcabis conculcabis leonem et draconem
quoniam mihi adhesit et liberabo eum exaltabo eum quoniam cognovit nomen meum
invocabit me et exaudiam eum cum ipso ero in tribulatione eruam eum et glorificabo
longitudine dierum implebo illum et ostendam ei salutare meum
He who dwells in the cover of the Most High will lodge in the shadow of the Almighty.
I shall say of the Lord [that He is] my shelter and my fortress, my God in Whom I trust.
For He will save you from the snare that traps, from the devastating pestilence.
With His wing He will cover you, and under His wings you will take refuge; His truth is an encompassing shield.
You will not fear the fright of night, the arrow that flies by day;
Pestilence that prowls in darkness, destruction that ravages at noon.
A thousand will be stationed at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not approach you.
You will but gaze with your eyes, and you will see the annihilation of the wicked.
For you [said], "The Lord is my refuge"; the Most High you made your dwelling.
No harm will befall you, nor will a plague draw near to your tent.
For He will command His angels on your behalf to guard you in all your ways.
On [their] hands they will bear you, lest your foot stumble on a stone.
On a young lion and a cobra you will tread; you will trample the young lion and the serpent.
For he yearns for Me, and I shall rescue him; I shall fortify him because he knows My name.
He will call Me and I shall answer him; I am with him in distress; I shall rescue him and I shall honor him.
With length of days I shall satiate him, and I shall show him My salvation.

Nine

"We've had another prior sighting, sir. MR9-552. The Ori are back."

John sighed. Despite the adrenaline spike, he couldn't even muster up the energy to be fearful. Disappointed, sure, but they'd known that the Ori return was a 'when' and not an 'if'. "Fantastic. What's going on?"

Ronon appeared on the nearby hill. John gestured for him and Teyla to go collect Rodney and his toys and then started walking toward the hole in the ground they'd dropped Rodney into earlier. (It was more like a sand trap, but it had been funny this morning.)

"Lieutenant Osgeny took his marines out to MR9-522 to pick up the produce we'd contracted for," Radner said. "Got there to find a prior preaching in the center of town."

John didn't remember a thing about MR9-522 -- its local name, if he'd ever been there, what sort of local culture they had.

"Everyone get out safely?"

There'd been a lot of discussion after Gauhan, both within the context of the Ori and the general attitude toward hostage situations. There'd been an across-the-board shift toward a less sympathetic posture and they were still fine-tuning how to negotiate a strategy that kept their people safe without sacrificing their ethics to do so. John had absolute faith in the men he commanded, but that didn't mean he couldn't hope that they didn't have to test drive the new policies just yet.

"Yes, sir," Radner confirmed. "With the goods, even. Osgeny spent some time talking to the locals. They're not interested in Origin -- or our help."

John made a non-committal noise, unsure if he should be either surprised or disappointed by this go-it-alone attitude. The Ori were different from the Wraith -- folly in dealing with the Wraith made you dinner, but messing up against the Ori turned you into everyone else's problem.

"We'll be back in twenty," he said. "Sheppard out."

By the time he got over to where Rodney had set up his equipment, the first wave of bargaining and grousing was already over. Which was why he'd sent Ronon -- Ronon didn't bargain. "Let's go, Rodney," John exhorted. "We've got Ori."

That pretty much cut short all protests.

They packed the jumper quickly and headed back home. John shared the limited intel he had, but it was so limited that nobody bothered asking him to elaborate, which was just as well.

Back when he'd been reading over the weekly schedule, it had seemed like half of Atlantis had missions scheduled for today; it took two attempts to dial in to Atlantis before they got through. Once they were back and the jumper was parked, John left his team to their own devices. There were two sergeants waiting to help Rodney with his equipment, Ronon and Teyla could take care of themselves, and Radner was waiting near the office for him.

John gestured for Radner to walk and talk en route to the control room; he'd need to check in with Elizabeth at least.

"What's the lowdown on the planet? M-whateveritis?" he asked as they started down the stairs.

"MR9-522, sir. Local name Cordinar, basic Pegasus pre-industrial urban," Radner replied. "Population about three hundred. First contact by Major Lorne's team last year. We gave them a crash course in the joys of public sanitation and started them on a sewage system in return for food. Vegetables, mostly. Not big on the Ancients, no real trouble with the Wraith, not too interested in either making friends or influencing people."

They exited the stairwell in the hallway that ran behind Elizabeth's office and led to the control room and the network of conference rooms. John sensed the tension in the control room as an undercurrent more than as anything he could point at and identify as a change in behavior. The control room engineers were kind of the canaries in the coal mine -- civilians with front-row views to the nexus of Atlantis's hard power, they tended to be more sensitive its vicissitudes than the command staff and military, both of whom were trained to handle problems without freaking out.

Radner stayed in the control room and John took a left to cross the catwalk to Elizabeth's office. She looked up from where she was reading her computer screen and greeted him with an arched eyebrow.  "Welcome back," she said wryly.

"Yeah," he sighed, dropping down into one of the chairs across from her desk. Out in the gate room, the alarm for stargate activation sounded. "That seems to be the theme of the day."

Elizabeth gestured at her screen. "I've already asked G-2 to start searching the database for any references to either MR9-522 or Cordinar," she began. "It wasn't on our short list of planets to check, but..."

But all that meant was that it didn't have a big sign in Ancient saying 'Ori Were Here.'

"The troubling thing is that they aren't even anywhere near the top half of the long list, either," Elizabeth went on with a frown. The short list wasn't that short and they'd only barely gotten started on the longer one; after a month of no Ori sightings on the most probable planets, they'd necessarily had to return some of the allocated resources to doing what they'd previously been doing (which had, in turn, included looking for the Ori, just not as the sole objective). Ori or no Ori, they still had to eat, still had to fight the Wraith, still had to survive. "I'm afraid of what we're looking at if G-2 can't come up with a connection."

With a sample size of one, there had been no way to even guess how or why the Ori had chosen Gauhan to be first. They hadn't gotten enough intel out of any of the Gauhani, even Consolis, and most of what Gillick remembered hadn't been strategic in nature.

"They'll come up with a connection," John assured, not quite sure he believed it. "I can't imagine that the Ori are planning a conquest of Pegasus by cold-calling stargates and seeing who's home. Telemarketing as a means of galactic domination doesn't seem their style."

The gate alarm went off again. He turned to look over his shoulder.

"It's been like this all day," Elizabeth said, sounding a little exasperated. "I feel like I'm working in Grand Central Terminal."

John turned back to her. "Now you know why I didn't want an office here."

They both knew that wasn't the reason, wasn't close, but Elizabeth smiled anyway.

"Where are you going to be?" she asked instead.

"Lorne's office," John answered. It was where the marines knew to look first for him and the necessary work would be easier with Lorne right there. Plus there would be the usual buffer zone advantage of working out of Little Tripoli -- Rodney wasn't the only one who'd hesitate chasing him down there the way they would if he were somewhere more civilian-friendly.  

He could hear Mitchell in the gate room; his team must have just returned. "I should go get started on the mind-numbing reading portion of the program."

There were times when it didn't really matter if he'd gone over the material before the briefings started -- anything to do with Science, say, since Rodney tended to repeat everything anyway on the assumption that nobody could read -- but this wasn't going to be one of them.

"I'll see you later," Elizabeth said as he stood.

He went back into the control room. Radner had commandeered the gate room officer's station, leaving Lieutenant Murray to stand on the balcony, which he'd pretty much be doing anyway with this much activity down below.

"Colonel Mitchell's back?" John prompted Radner, who was pecking away at the laptop and squinting.

"Yes, sir," Radner confirmed, looking up. "We had a dry firing of the stargate just before that, though -- incoming wormhole established, nothing came through, it shut down. Don't know who or why. Colonel Mitchell said that it wasn't him."

Like everything else that was going on today, a dry firing could be either innocuous or suspicious and they didn't have enough information to say which. Anything from a wrong number to the Ori -- or the Wraith -- checking to see if they could get a lock on Atlantis's gate. Looking out into the gate room, he could see all of the marines at the ready positions.

"Got an ETA on Major Lorne?" John asked. Not that Lorne wasn't used to coming in to his office to find John already there, but this was going to be one of those afternoons full of constant interruptions and it would be better if they could split the responsibility of responding to visitors and radioed queries.

"We haven't been able to raise him, sir," Radner replied with a quick frown. "I've sent Weapons' Second Platoon to search. Planet's supposed to be uninhabited -- he was there to survey it for a possible civilian research site."

There were any number of reasons why Lorne was off radio and for every worst-case scenario he could come up with, there were five completely innocuous ones that would have been everyone's first guesses if the Ori hadn't shown up this morning.

"Keep me informed," John said, sighing. "I'm heading over to Little Tripoli."

En route to the transporter, he ran into Teyla. She asked him if she should delay her planned trip to Mars, where she had planned to work with the refugees there. He told her that he didn't think that was necessary yet, although she should definitely keep her radio on.

He stopped by his quarters to pick up his laptop and drop off his jacket, then went over to Lorne's office. Getting to it was a bit like running a gauntlet -- passing by open office doors when everyone knew that the Ori were back. Nobody would come out and ask questions, but he felt the eyes on him nonetheless.

He was crouching down to retrieve the adapter plug for his laptop when his radio beeped. "Sir?" Radner began. "We've got a report back from the SAR team we sent after Major Lorne. It seems the radios are useless on the planet. The dry fire was them trying to call back into Atlantis. Cardejo had to send a sergeant to a third planet to call in. They're going to track down the Major's team the old-fashioned way and bring 'em home."

"Good news," John replied, standing up and plugging in his laptop. It was. It solved two mysteries (for the better) before they could be worked into panics by the rumor mill. "Do we want to send a jumper out to expedite the process?"

Recalling Lorne was supposed to get him back earlier than he'd have otherwise been. Having to dedicate a platoon to hunting him down was a waste of resources they might need in the near future.

"Was about to ask you for that, sir," Radner replied.

"Consider it authorized," John said, watching his laptop boot up.

"Also, Colonel Caldwell is looking for you," Radner added blandly.

John grinned. Radner had come to Atlantis as Everett's aide-de-camp, but he'd since developed a strong aversion to anyone horning in on the normal Atlantis chain of command. None of the captains were ever disrespectful or insubordinate; Polito was politely passive-aggressive with people he didn't care for, Armstrong had the most amazing selective hearing John had ever witnessed, Hanzis had the bland critical-thinking-is-above-my-pay-grade look down pat, and Radner was formal and deferential in proportion to his dislike. But if John were to actually place a bet on which company commander was most likely to be caught speaking ill of someone sticking their nose where it was felt not to belong, it would be Radner. Who was the civilians' second favorite officer after Lorne because, as with Lorne, none of them saw his reserve for what it was.

"So noted," John said. He understood why the marines were still skeptical of Caldwell after all this time: at the start of Atlantis's effective separation from Earth, Caldwell had made it very clear that he wasn't assuming command of the Atlantis military because it was still geared toward Pegasus and he would rather focus on the fight back in the Milky Way. But with the Milky Way closed to them, the Daedalus out of operation, and Atlantis now officially facing a two-front war, the fact that Caldwell had spent the better part of a year fighting the Ori while the rest of them had been dealing with the Wraith was no longer honorable-but-essentially-irrelevant. Caldwell hadn't tried to take over after Gauhan, but there'd been a lot more involvement on his part since then and John had found himself defending his turf in ways he'd never really tried to do since getting involved with the Stargate Program.

Toward that end, while knowledge was power, he had neither the time nor the inclination to read everything already put together on Cordinar, so he decided to skip over the civilian documents and wait until the big briefing for G-2's summarization of what was in the Ancient database. Little Tripoli's own notes on the planet and people were spare and concise and relevant; Lorne was an old hand at SGC-style understatement and kept the exposition in his reports to a minimum.

"Is it just me or is there something ass-backwards about the Ori starting off Round Two with a planet that doesn't have any problem with the Wraith or any truck with the Ancients?" Mitchell asked from the doorway. When John looked up, Mitchell gestured with his chin, an unspoken question whether John wanted to be interrupted. John waved him in. Having Mitchell around would dissuade most other visitors except for the actually important ones. It might even keep Caldwell at bay.

"I get why they started with the Gauhani," Mitchell went on, coming in and sitting down at the far end of the table from John, the side closest to the door. "They were Ori without the Ori, at least that's how it must have looked at the start. But why pick a planet that's not going to be an easy sell? If you're gonna establish a bridgehead, then why pick a planet you're going to have to beat into submission? Especially if they're doing it with priors and not with armies."

John held up his hands in helplessness. He had no idea. They'd all spent a lot of time (a lot) trying to learn what they could from the Ori's conquest of the Milky Way and apply what they learned to defending Pegasus. But so far, it had been like comparing apples and oranges. "Maybe they're working off an old playbook," he said. "It's what we did when we got here."

It had been a theory put forth after Gauhan -- that the Ori were acting as if nothing had chanced in the millennia since they'd left the galaxy. It wasn't a train of thought that they considered a 'least dangerous' option -- sure, the Ori could be working from outdated intel, but it was still intel that the good guys didn't have access to. The Ancients had done such a thorough job of wiping away traces of the Ori that modern-day Atlantis had no chance to anticipate the Ori's actions even if they were essentially repeating history.

"I hate this," Mitchell sighed, rubbing his face with his hands. "It's straddling the border between known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns. We're guessing and then working from our guessing and then we're getting so involved that we forget that we've based our entire game plan on conjecture and not fact. But what else are we going to do?"

There wasn't anything else to do except sit on their hands, which Mitchell well knew. John was about to say something to that effect when Polito stuck his head in the doorway. "Sir?"

"Join the party, captain," John said, waving him in. "I'm sure Major Lorne won't mind so long as we clean up after ourselves."

Polito grinned and the rest of him appeared. "Just wanted to let you know that our team is back from Gauhan. No activity reported. Just the usual milling around and rock-throwing."

Gauhan had mostly settled down and the people there were rebuilding what had been destroyed in the assault by Atlantis and the subsequent skirmishes. The version of Origin that the Gauhani had practiced had been heavily vested in education and personal betterment -- enlightenment through learning and experience -- but the Origin that the Ori imposed was less about improving oneself through knowledge than about eliminating the alternatives and looking great by default. (The "Snow White approach" is what Mitchell had called it early on. It was a valid comparison, even if the discussion had ended up with some of the lieutenants named after the seven dwarfs.) They were hoping that Gauhan would, with their imposed isolation as both time-out and punishment, revert back to their earlier beliefs rather than stick with the newer, more violent version. But two months wasn't enough time to tell whether anyone had really come to accept the error of their ways. Anyone who went to Gauhan was usually dodging fist-sized rocks and other things hurled along with the invective.

"That's good news, at least," John said with a grimace. "Everyone else accounted for?"

They weren't enforcing a full recall, but after Lorne had failed to respond to his radio, they'd gone through the process of checking in on all off-world missions.

"Yes, sir," Polito replied. "We've warned everyone to be careful, but nobody's felt the need to pull in."

Back at the beginning, when all they'd had to worry about was Wraith, it wasn't that unusual for scientific missions to get aborted because some other planet had gotten attacked. Now even the civilians were inured to the dangers.

By the time Lieutenant Murray radioed to let John know that Major Lorne's team had returned to Atlantis, both Polito and Mitchell were long gone. John, now on his second read-through of the files on Cordinar, decided to wait where he was.


"With all due respect, sir," Mitchell sighed, "I'm not saying it's a bad idea. I'm saying it's an idea we have tried before and failed. A few times."

Caldwell frowned and John debated whether or not to step in. He could see both sides and knew both men understood the other's point, but he didn't know if they'd get bogged down butting heads. Caldwell and Mitchell had worked closely together for the months that the Daedalus had been shuttling back and forth between galaxies and it hadn't been the smoothest of partnerships. Mitchell was used to essentially getting his way because he was the commander of SG-1 and Caldwell was used to being captain of his own ship and not taking orders from junior officers. It hadn't been the happiest of marriages of convenience and John knew that his own relationship with Caldwell had inadvertently benefited from the tension. (That he had been deemed the lesser of two frustrations was both amusement and insult.)

"I know that, Colonel Mitchell," Caldwell said and John relaxed a little. It was only when it was 'Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell' that things were past the point of repair. Pulling rank was a guaranteed way to win an argument, but it was a pyrrhic victory and everyone at the table knew it. "I'm not suggesting that we make capturing a prior our sole response to our continued lack of useful strategic intelligence. I'm saying that it can't hurt and that we might get something useful out of the exercise before the prior self-detonates or otherwise terminates the interrogation."

John tapped his notes with his pencil, drawing both men's attention toward him. "Resource-wise, what do we need for a prior-napping? And how much risk are we assuming for the men who are going to be doing the deed?"

He was willing to make the attempt; Caldwell was right and they might get something useful out of a prior, even if it wasn't going to be what they most desperately wanted in terms of information. But it was only useful if it didn't cost them more resources than they'd be saving.

Mitchell grimaced. "Depends," he said. "The danger to our people comes from how long it takes for the inhibitor to be tuned in. Priors can do a lot of damage before we get the right frequency. Hell, they can do a lot of damage after, too, if we're not careful."

"How's that project going, Mister Quinn?" Lorne asked. Jonas had been invited in because his experience with the Ori still dwarfed that of everyone else in Atlantis put together.

Rodney had initially not cared that the work on the prior inhibitor was being farmed out to Jonas and a small Engineering subgroup; it was, at the time, a low-importance project compared to the many other things going on in Science's domain. But it had suddenly acquired much new relevance and stature in the past two months and John thought that the memory of Elizabeth yelling at Rodney that he had to share his toys and no, he couldn't replace Jonas as lead scientist on the project would keep him warm on many a cold night.

"I'm not sure we'll ever be able to significantly decrease the time it takes to tune in the device," Jonas admitted. "The priors we've tested it on were all on different frequencies and we've never been able to discern a pattern. I don't know if we'd be any more successful here, but I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to try."

John exchanged a worried glance with Lorne. For all of the mostly-quiet rivalry between Jonas and Rodney (mostly-quiet because it was mostly one-sided; Jonas understood that Rodney was in charge and was very laid back about the whole thing right up to the point where he really wasn't), they both got the same anticipatory gleam in their eyes that made everyone else around them nervous.

It was that nervousness that prompted Armstrong's question, John knew: "What about the complementary systems, Mister Quinn?"

The prior inhibitor worked so long as the prior being inhibited was kept from focusing his powers; various means of distraction had been discussed and tested, usually crowd control methods that had still been in the testing phase on Earth back before the Ori. White noise generators and pain ray guns were the most portable suggestions still being worked on; the marines were less fond of those tests than they were of the Munitions Task Force test drives, but still surprisingly game. Well, maybe not surprisingly; marines were marines.

"We're still experimenting with the mechanism," Jonas said, maybe with a little too much verve. "MTF has suggested using sonic waves that destabilize the target's equilibrium--"

"--and make them puke," Armstrong finished sourly. Everyone else at the table echoed the sentiment.

"The goal is to merely make the subject dizzy and unable to maintain their balance," Jonas said with a quirk of a smile, "But it requires delicate calibration to avoid that particular secondary effect, so it's not high on our list of options. If capturing and interrogating the prior on MR9-552 is still on the table, then I think we'd best be served with the pain ray, as ironic as that is."

John looked around the room. "Well, is it still on the table?"

The captains, in their roles as staff officers, had been working all afternoon on putting together a picture of the situation and the possible responses to it. John had gotten bits and pieces, but had mostly left them to do their thing -- he had had to put up with his own steady stream of interruptions; he wasn't inclined to make others suffer as well.

"A straightforward snatch-and-grab isn't going to be very straightforward, sir," Polito replied, looking up from his laptop. "We don't have a terrific success rate capturing priors in either galaxy and the location is going to be hostile, either because they've been converted or because we're ignoring their sovereignty by coming in when they told us not to."

"They're not going to let the prior plead sanctuary, are they?" Mitchell asked skeptically.

"If they do, sir," Hanzis, the battalion intelligence officer, answered, "then they'll be pulling it out of their asses on demand. Cordinar's not a real friendly place for strangers; they don't seem to have any refugees from the Wraith among the population. And on a prosperous trading planet like theirs, that means that they're turning people away."

John wondered what Teyla would think of Cordinar; he hadn't spoken to her at length since finding out the local name of the planet and neither of them -- or Ronon -- had recognized the alphanumeric identifier. (Rodney had, but only to say that it wasn't anywhere he'd gone.) The idea of turning away refugees was not unknown in Pegasus, but it was very, very uncommon. Even if a world was already stretched thin in terms of resources, they'd rarely turn away anyone seeking a place to stay. Especially if the asylum seeker could contribute to the local economy.

"So they're not Mister Roger's Neighborhood," John said. "What's the down side of going in without permission?"

Polito and Hanzis looked at each other and John knew this meant that they'd already debated the exact question and come up with an answer that they didn't think he would like.

"For the sake of expediency, sir, we can deal with the Cordinarians -- or whatever they call themselves -- by military force," Polito said. "We have the numerical and technological advantage to simply effect the outcome we desire. But it would be a messy clean-up diplomatically. Both internally and externally."

Translation: they didn't think Elizabeth would let them just march in with a bunch of marines.

"Cordinar doesn't so much have allies as they are part of a trade confederation," Hanzis picked up. "It's how they were able to scrounge up enough produce to trade to us in return for giving them sewers. They -- and the other worlds in the network -- have access to a pretty impressive list of resources and, frankly, sir, we'd be screwing ourselves if they shut us out and we had to cultivate replacement suppliers."

"What, like a small-scale Lucian Alliance?" Mitchell asked, mostly to Jonas, who shrugged. John had no idea, either. With rare exceptions, he'd pretty much stopped going on trade missions a couple of years back.

"Nothing quite so overtly thuggish, sir," Hanzis answered. "Although there's undoubtedly some strong-arming going on down the line. It's more like an extremely aggressive farm lobby, like we saw back on Earth. But instead of having their pliers to the 'nads of politicians, they've got a firm grip on the short-and-curlies of the bigger, more urban planets that either don't produce enough to feed their population or can't convert what they do produce into something fungible."

"And Atlantis is still far enough from self-sufficiency to be their target audience," Caldwell said, not making it a question, since it wasn't. Back when they'd been getting resupply from Earth, they'd been able to trade simply to stimulate the economies of other worlds, but now they actually had to budget and their generosity had to be scaled back in favor of more prudent business decisions. They were getting better at marketing their services and they were constantly starting new crops, but Atlantis had a long way to go before autarky.

"Yes, sir," Hanzis agreed.

"So our choice is to let Cordinar fall to the Ori or interfere and risk their wrath?" John asked. "Don't we starve either way?"

He was pretty sure he was going to be nursing a headache by the time this got to Elizabeth's desk.

"If we leave them to the prior, sir," Lorne said with a frown, "then we can still deal with the other planets. So if we are going by interests instead of ethics, our choice is really about whether we want the trouble with the Cordinarians and their alliance now or trouble with the Ori later if they establish their bridgehead there."

John sighed. Yeah, this was just getting better and better.

"What is our window for diplomacy?" Caldwell asked. "Can we go in there and try to negotiate for permission to come in and grab the prior?"

John looked at Mitchell expectantly. He made a face. "Osgeny said the prior had been there for what, three days? The fire-and-brimstone in the town square is pretty much it for their soft sell. If the prior's getting converts -- and, no matter how hard a nut Cordinar is to crack, he'll have a few -- then he might hold off on the hammer to see if he can tip the balance the easy way. But if this place is as disinterested as everyone seems to think they are, then he's probably only waiting for enough converts to accept Origin on behalf of everyone else. We may have a day, we may have two, but we might have a couple of hours instead. Gauhan was hit by the plague pretty much right away and they were half converted already."

Osgeny had been present earlier, answering questions about the brief he'd prepared. He'd done as much as could have been expected of him in that situation -- more, even. He'd explained to the local leaders that the Ori were more dangerous than annoying, that they didn't take rejection well, and that there was a group of people who'd love to come in and take care of the pest in the market. The Council of Cordinar had taken his words under advisement, but as there'd been no reports of plague, no threats from the prior, and no exhortations to commit murder in the name of Origin, Osgeny's pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

"If we can get permission from the Cordinarians to go in, do we have a plan?" John asked. "That sounds like our path of least resistance."

John didn't think an extradition treaty would work out, but Elizabeth would take whatever came afterward better if they started off seeking a diplomatic solution first.

Polito nodded. "Most of one, sir; it still needs some refinements depending on the resources available. We've got Gillick locked in a room robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Gillick was recovered enough to serve as the battalion's logistics officer, if not yet ready to stand a shift in the gate room or accompany his platoon in a combat situation.

"You'll have what you need," John promised. He waited a beat. "What about if we don't get permission?"

A tiny shrug from Polito. "It's pretty much the same plan, sir, just with more fire support."

Kind of what John expected. "Mitchell, you up for leading the mission?"

Mitchell had been scribbling notes to Jonas, but that had nothing to do with the surprised look on his face. "Hell, yeah," he answered with a grin.

This was the kind of mission that John would have happily taken for himself -- he still wanted it now -- but it was tactically better for Mitchell to do it as well as better for the battalion. Mitchell needed high-profile missions of his own to establish himself among the marines, most of whom still knew him more by reputation than experience, and this was close to what he'd been doing in the Milky Way. John could still get into the action -- they were going to have to interrogate the prior on another world rather than bring him back to Atlantis -- but this would let Mitchell do his thing away from John's own shadow and would (as a secondary bonus) appease Elizabeth, who was slowly getting more vocal about how much risk John assumed for himself.

The rest of the meeting was brief and geared toward the particulars of picking and preparing a planet to interrogate the prior on and how to show up on Cordinar looking for permission and prepared to take by force when that wasn't granted.


Ten

"You got everything you need?" Sheppard asked Cam, wading through the last of the marines milling around the gate room floor. Sheppard's remarks to the assembled group -- Cam's sea of cammy-covered humanity, plus the group readying to go to the site they'd chosen as an interrogation planet -- had been, as usual, mercifully brief and to the point, and Cam was grateful. He'd have to do his own bit of talking once they were on-planet and he didn't want anyone tuning him out because they'd had their quota of listening to officer soliloquies for the day.

"One standard prior-grabbing kit, a couple of Wraith stunners, and a company-plus-one of marines. I'd say we're packed to go," Cam answered. He'd gotten everything he'd asked for, which had included Jonas (and his geek squad) but not his off-world team. "I really hope this doesn't turn into the OK Corral."

"Me, too," Sheppard agreed with a grimace. They both knew that the odds of this ending without a shot fired were somewhere between slim and laughable.

Behind Sheppard, the stargate activated as the sergeant at the dialer began the sequence to open a wormhole to MR9-552. Cam looked around, finding Jonas (discussing something with McKay, who wasn't leaving Atlantis), Captain Armstrong (listening to his first sergeant and nodding), and then Lieutenant Osgeny (adjusting his holster). Everyone looked ready for whatever they encountered on the other side of the wormhole.

"Get 'er done," Sheppard said, patting him on the shoulder and then moving off to where his group was parked, backed up near the stairs and the rear entrance to the gate room. There wasn't much floor space.

As the wormhole was established, Cam looked up to where Weir was standing with Lorne, Caldwell, and Radner. She gave him a nod and he nodded back. He hadn't been party to the discussion between Weir and Sheppard, but he understood that she was willing to accept the probably-messy outcome so long as he gave a good faith effort at diplomacy first. Sheppard had implied that she perhaps thought that Cam was better suited to that than other possible candidates.

"Let's get a move on," he said and jumped up on to the gate platform, not looking behind him to see that everyone was following.

It was just after civilian dawn on Cordinar when they arrived, the sky still pink and purple and everything in the not-quite-shadow of early morning. It was cold enough for Cam to see his breath, but he figured he'd be fine once they started moving. He waited off to the side for everyone to come through the gate and assemble.

Jonas's team was the remainder of the group he'd worked with back in the Milky Way, although there might have been a couple of Atlantis people added. Cam had worked in parallel with Jonas rather than in partnership with him and so while Cam could recognize a few of the faces of Jonas's people, their names and exact purposes were still a mystery more than a year on. Most of the time, he didn't care and this was one of them -- all he ultimately wanted to know was that he returned to Atlantis with the same number he'd left with. Ditto for the marines, of course, but Cam wasn't as worried about them.

The wormhole closed behind the last of the leathernecks and he waited for them to be settled before he went over what needed to be gone over. Reviewing the rules of engagement and the mission parameters was brief and a little nostalgic. The very concept of RoE felt a little quaint; it was a relic of combat against an enemy unlike any they faced anymore (in truth, one they hadn't faced in generations), a system of restraint and honor that bound -- and hobbled -- only one side. Cam knew he'd been fighting dirty for too long when he started bristling at the cost of maintaining civility. He kept his reservations to himself, however, as he spoke to the collected marines.

The plan for the morning was to take a platoon into the town, leaving Armstrong with his marines to guard the stargate and wait for word whether they would be coming in as support or rescue force. A platoon of marines was going to be unsubtle enough; if he was going to make a good faith effort at the diplomacy thing -- and he had no doubt that Weir would be able to tell if he lied about that -- then leaving the bulk of the marines behind was probably imperative.

"Lieutenant, which way're we going?"

Osgeny look startled -- he always looked a little startled; Cam thought it was the eyebrows -- but he pointed off to the east, toward the rising sun. "It's about half a klick, sir."

The ground near the stargate was well-trod and hard to get directionality from, but once they got past the trees it was easy enough to see which way to go. The road wasn't paved, but it was wide and pretty flat except for what were probably wagon furrows. Trading planets were all alike in certain ways no matter what galaxy.

"Your marines ready?" Cam asked Osgeny as they walked. Well, Cam walked. Osgeny loped.

"Yes, sir," Osgeny replied.

The best case scenario was to get the prior to the interrogation site, preferably without too much of a fuss but Cam would exchange fuss for answers. The more likely scenario involved having to get whatever questions they could get asked right here before the prior did whatever he was going to do. Either he'd go flambé or else he'd start taking out other people and then the marines were going to have to try and kill him and that would get messy fast. If the odds were in favor of Cam failing spectacularly in meeting his mission objective, he'd rather just have a barbecued prior than collateral damage and dented marines.

They had to squint as they walked directly into the sun and Cam tried to look down, but it wasn't much help.

Maybe it was the sun in his eyes distracting him or maybe it was that he was a little out of practice, but he finally got a grasp on what had been bothering him since they'd come through the stargate. "A question, Lieutenant."

"Sir?" Osgeny jogged up. He had dropped a little behind, partially out of respect, partially out of fear that he'd have to carry on polite conversation with a superior officer, and mostly in case he had to run interference between the marines and Jonas's scientists. Who were not McKay's scientists and thus tended to play nicely with the boys with guns, but it made Osgeny feel useful, so Cam had let it slide without comment.

"Does this place seem a little quiet to you?" Cam had been to his fair share of market towns, both in the Milky Way and here in Pegasus, and they were all open for business with the dawn. Before the sun was up, off-world merchants were already on their way in, locals were already setting up, and the business of the day had already begun. As far after first light as it was and they should be seeing travelers' wagons, hearing voices, smelling both breakfast and the fresh manure of beasts of burden. There was none of that here.

Osgeny tilted his head as if to listen. "It could be a day when there's no market," he said, not sounding convinced. "Their sabbath?"

"Could be," Cam agreed, but called a halt anyway and leaned back to see where Jonas was standing; Jonas gave him a questioning look then came trotting up to the front.

"What's up?" Jonas asked.

"It's what isn't up," Cam replied, gesturing over his shoulder toward the town, now backlit on the horizon. "Quiet as a church mouse."

Jonas nodded absently and looked around. "It's not the right time of day for prostration," he said. "Wraith?"

Cam hadn't even thought about that possibility; he wasn't sure whether or not to be embarrassed by that oversight. He'd been trotting around Pegasus for a few months and his default bad guys were still from the galaxy he'd left behind.

"I don't think so, Mister Quinn," Osgeny replied, shaking his head. "It's not usually this quiet right after a Wraith attack and we haven't been gone long enough for the dust to settle."

Cam looked at the young man, who shrugged with something like self-deprecation; this was the sort of experience no one wanted to acquire and yet did anyway. They all did.

"We've been a few hours too late a few too many times, sir."

"Know the feeling, Lieutenant," Cam sighed. "Know the feeling."

They were silent in thought for a quick moment, the only noise the quiet rustling of the marines as they waited for Cam to review his options. He didn't especially care for any of them.

"You could be right and this could be their day of rest," he told Osgeny. "But I'm thinking that we're not gonna like whatever we find when we get there."

Next to him, Jonas shook his head in disgust, then turned away to go back to where his team was standing, not waiting to hear if Cam had any orders for him. Cam let him go. Jonas had been hoping that they'd be able to save this place from the Ori, this place that was maybe not even worthy of being the one where they got it right. This galaxy was their do-over after the Milky Way and if Gauhan had been a failure, maybe it had just been a slow start and not the continuation of past patterns. But now Cam suspected that it wasn't and he ignored his own disappointment as he had ignored Jonas's. There'd be time for that later; regrets were what AARs were for.

They started moving again, less faux-casually and more like a patrol through a bad neighborhood. Jonas's team had been permitted to tag along at the rear, but now they were turned into a middle column so as to be protected by the better-armed marines. Jonas's people weren't new to fighting their way out of situations or running from trouble, but they really hadn't ever fought their way in to trouble and Cam was trusting Jonas's judgment by letting them do so this time.

He could feel the tension among the group as they approached the first vestiges of civilization. The town, like pretty much every other world in Pegasus that he'd seen so far, started from nothing. There was no such thing as a walled city in this galaxy, or at least one that had been well-maintained over the millennia; there was no point in battlements and redoubts when the threats came from the sky with vastly superior firepower and the Wraith didn't let anything worth maintaining stand.

There was a turn in the road so that they were no longer walking straight into the sun and it was instead a blinding presence to their left. It allowed them to see (so long as they didn't look left), but there wasn't much to see -- and that's what worried him. He'd been speaking the truth to Osgeny; he'd arrived too late to save anyone more times than he'd like to count (but he did, remembering each planet). Even when the Ori had come in with armies and in no mood for anything but immediate submission, there were always stragglers -- sometimes shot down in mid-flight, sometimes perishing of the plague on the road to the stargate, sometimes still alive (by some very poor appraisal of 'life'). But there was none of that here.

"Okay," Cam said as they walked by an empty wagon parked in front of a small house. "This is officially not good."

The streets were empty. Not near-empty, but absolutely deserted. And silent. There were stables here and goat pens there and he couldn't hear a whinny or a snort or the shuffling sounds of animals awake before their masters. He looked down side streets, but nobody was carrying water from the wells or emptying chamber pots into the sewers Atlantis had helped build.

"Lieutenant!" One of the marines called out from behind Cam and Osgeny jogged over, followed by his gunny. The rest of the marines halted and slid into a defensive posture and Cam moved about its periphery, availing himself of the protection more to appease the marines than out of any real concern. He wasn't sure there was anything left here to hurt them.

It was still pretty dark in the town proper, the sun not yet high enough to be of any real use beyond not walking into walls and while there were lamps and sconces, their fuel had burned up hours ago. Holding his flashlight in one hand, he lifted up what turned out to be the lid of a cistern for rainwater and put it back down. Jonas, Cam, and Osgeny were carrying vials to collect blood and water and a few other substances -- testing for inactive plague -- but that could wait. Or might not be necessary after all.

"Colonel?"

Cam crossed through the murmuring marines to where Osgeny was standing. Osgeny gestured down with a tip of his head and Cam followed with his eyes to where Gunny Jenkins was pointing the beam of his flashlight.

"Ah, hell," he sighed. Mostly hidden by the dawn shadows, a young boy and a goat were lying on the ground, clearly dead. There were no signs of violence, at least no blood or bruising obvious without moving the bodies. The boy couldn't have been more than nine or ten, eyes wide open in fear, and Cam looked away for a moment to compose himself.

"He's still warmer than air temperature, sir," Osgeny said, voice not hiding his own reaction. "If he's been outside, then he should have cooled off faster."

"Which means that this happened not too long ago," Cam finished, watching as Gunny Jenkins knelt to close the boy's eyes. They were all wearing gloves as part of their combat gear, so Cam wasn't worried about contagion just yet. "And probably means that he's not the only one. Let's do a sweep to make sure. If this was prior plague, then there should be survivors somewhere."

The survivors would either be the converts (and with the converts, maybe the prior) or else they'd be the unfortunate souls left to bear witness to the awful power of the Ori and the equally awful price of resistance. The former would need to be met with guns and the latter with emergency medical care. The one positive of just missing the boy's death was that the survivors would probably still be in good enough shape to be transported to someplace they could be treated.

Osgeny gave the orders to his platoon to split into squads and search the town. Cam radioed Armstrong and told him to keep what he needed to defend the stargate but send everyone else forward to help search. Once he was done, he walked over to Jonas, who already seemed to know the details if the stormy look on his face was any indication.

"This doesn't make sense," Cam said as they watched the marines head off. "They only really started killing entire worlds once they were already established in the galaxy, once everyone knew who the Ori were and that they were coming. Nobody here knows but us."

And in this galaxy, where entire worlds were wiped out with terrifying regularity by the Wraith, who would even appreciate the message?

"Maybe we're the ones they want to warn," Jonas suggested, eyes on the tiny shrouded body by the door. One of the marines had found a blanket and wrapped the boy in it, setting down the tiny bundle in front of a doorway before running off to join his squad. "And they killed the Sodan pretty early on."

"The Sodan were punished for apostasy," Cam replied. Punished cruelly and inventively and made to suffer in ways that wounded far more profoundly than the physical injuries that had actually killed them. But Jonas knew all about that. "And if this was a message for us, then what was it? That they can reach here? We knew that. That they're ruthless? We knew that, too."

Jonas closed his eyes and rolled his neck. When he opened his eyes, Cam could see that he was finished with his grieving and his sympathy. This was the Jonas he'd come to know, the one Sam had said broke her heart a little every time she saw him. "We can't assume that they know who we really are. It makes sense that they do, but there's a lot about the Ori that doesn't make sense."

Cam nodded because Jonas was right. They couldn't afford to hope that the Ori would show up in Pegasus and not know who was in Atlantis, but nothing about this incursion so far had gone the way they'd expected and this was just one more thing. "We should look around."

Taking Jonas's team, they went down one of the streets the marines hadn't gotten to yet. Cam had turned down Osgeny's suggestion of keeping some marines for protection; Jonas's team wasn't the usual collection of soft civilians, but in the eerie silence, a few extra rifles held by hands that instinctively knew how to use them would have been nice. Conversely, without any marines around, nobody was there to give him dirty looks for going through the doors first.

They found pretty much what they'd been expecting. Most of the dead were still in their beds, although, judging by the bodies in kitchens and washrooms, some of the Cordinarians had apparently started on their day when whatever it was had struck. It didn't look like the usual kind of prior plague -- not enough sputum and the bodies didn't look flushed and sweaty -- but Cam wasn't going to rule it out. He'd only ever seen its victims after they'd been suffering for a while -- and what little he remembered from his own infection. A new variety, one that was so quick to kill, was not a cheerful thought. Nor was the thought that they were possibly infecting themselves with something they couldn't cure.

There was nothing to say, so they bore witness silently, looking around for anything that they recognized as related to the Ori. They found a couple of what they assumed were local translations of the Book of Origin -- it wasn't a picture book, but the iconography was the same. Unless they found a survivor, however, it was going to be an educated guess about a dead language.

By the sixth house, Cam was ready to radio Armstrong and tell him to report in to Atlantis and to the gamma site where Sheppard and Safir and the others would be still setting up camp. They would have to search the entire town to make sure that the prior wasn't anywhere with converts, but Cam was pretty sure that if anyone was around, someone from Atlantis would have encountered them by now. There was no reason for them to hide.

"Sir?" Osgeny's voice came over the radio. Cam thought he sounded a little angry, but there was plenty here to be angry about. "We've got some live ones."

Cam stepped outside of the house he'd just entered. "They locals?"

"No, sir," Osgeny replied, definitely angry. Contained, calm, but clearly angry. "They're traders from another world who came to run a stall at the market, took a look around, and saw a business opportunity."

"Fantastic," Cam sighed. In the corner of his eye, he could see Jonas watching him from the doorway, but Cam didn't acknowledge him. "Where've you got these stellar examples of humanity?"

Osgeny gave him directions, but they were pretty useless considering that neither Cam nor Osgeny knew the layout of the town well enough to be able to identify their positions relative to each other. They agreed to meet by where they had entered the town.

Cam turned to Jonas. "The marines have picked up some scavengers," he said. Jonas made a disgusted face and Cam shrugged in agreement. They knew this sort of thing happened in Pegasus the way it had happened at home -- the Wraith culled a planet and people came in to take what had been left behind. But there was something especially low about rifling through the possessions of the dead before they were even cold. "You want to come or to keep looking?"

"Keep looking," Jonas replied. "The faster we get done, the faster we get out of here."

Cam nodded. "Keep an eye out," he warned. "Anyone walking around without a P-90 can probably be assumed to be hostiles."

Jonas grimaced, then turned back into the building and Cam trotted back in the direction they'd come. He found Osgeny, Gunny Jenkins, and one of Osgeny's squads already waiting, a half-dozen men (although upon closer inspection it proved to be five men and one woman) on their knees in the dirt with their hands flexicuffed behind them. The prisoners looked up at him with fear unalloyed by defiance. Cam wondered what the marines had done or said. He drew Osgeny off to the side.

"They think that we're part of the cartel and that we think that they killed everyone, sir," Osgeny explained, correctly interpreting Cam's expression. "We haven't disabused them of the notion."

That would explain the terrified looks. Hanzis had pulled together intel on this association and it sounded a little more like the Lucians than maybe they had first thought -- opportunistic and vaguely menacing, not enough to galvanize a resistant response but enough to ease their way. And apparently with enough of a reputation that nobody was surprised to see armed men checking up on one of their members.

"May be useful," Cam said, mostly to assure Osgeny that they were on the same page. "We should probably send them on to the interrogation site, let Colonel Sheppard and the others see what they can get out of them. And test them for the plague -- we don't want them carrying it back to wherever they came from."

Osgeny made a face. "If the prior was here for three days -- four days -- before this happened, sir, then I think we're probably far too late on that score."

"I know it, Lieutenant," Cam sighed. The plague had spread like wildfire on Earth, where there had been a short incubation followed by a quick quarantine. Here, they were looking at asymptomatic transmission over Lord knew how many planets. "All the more reason to get done here as fast as possible. Take our new friends to Captain Armstrong and tell him to punt 'em through to the gamma site and that it's probably safe for the med squad if they want to come through. And then get back here."

"Aye aye, sir," Osgeny said, pausing before he turned. "What are we going to do with the bodies?"

Cam shrugged. He'd been thinking about that, too. "Bury 'em, I guess. It'll have to be mass graves."

Cam had gotten this mission because prior-napping was something he'd done before, but he had done this -- cleaning up massacres -- before, too, and it wasn't really any easier. They'd look around, see if there was any way to tell how Cordinar had handled their dead. Back in the Milky Way, picking up the local burial practices hadn't been hard, but in Pegasus most deaths weren't ones that left a body -- or weren't really even deaths, depending on how long the Wraith kept you in their fridge.

Osgeny nodded and left him, ordering his marines to get their prisoners to their feet and en route to the stargate.


"So does this mean we're not immune anymore?" Byrd asked as they ambled down the road from the stargate. Byrd, as usual, was not watching where he was going. However, he was watching where Jonas was going, a compromise Cam was willing to accept.

"Not necessarily," Jonas answered, not looking up from his PDA and thus requiring Byrd's attentions. They were trying to track down a community of refugees from a planet that had been culled by the Wraith the previous year and Atlantis had helped re-settle. This wasn't the first group who'd upped and disappeared and while an initial theory had been that the Wraith had found the Torani again, the Ori arrival on Gauhan had given them cause to reevaluate. "It means that we might not be, but that we can't tell for sure."

Medical had been doing whatever it did for the last not-quite-three weeks since most of Cordinar had woken up dead and come up with no definitive answers. Most of Cordinar, since while there'd been no survivors on the planet, they hadn't found as many bodies as they'd expected and weren't sure where the others were. They could have left Cordinar with the prior, they could have been off-world when the plague hit (nobody had returned to Cordinar from abroad, although the marines had turned away many traders during the clean-up), it could have been some combination of the two or it could have been something else they weren't imagining right now.

"I'm sure Doctor Safir or Doctor Beckett would have said something if he thought we were at risk," Cam said, mostly because Byrd was still looking worried. "They don't think the plague on Cordinar was that different from the ones we've seen before. It just moved a lot faster."

Which was the truth, even if it maybe underplayed the uncertainty a bit. Safir, the one doing most of the work on the plague front, had actually said that they were always at risk of something happening and that he didn't consider the mutated plague strain to be enough of a threat to justify doing anything radical like restrict off-world activities. This would have been comforting if he hadn't then suggested that the new plague was perhaps the reason why Cordinar had been chosen by the Ori -- if they had been looking for a place to expose as many people as possible to a highly contagious virus, Cordinar was a fantastic choice. A market world would generate traffic, but Cordinar wasn't big enough commercially that most of the vendors didn't also go to one of the other market worlds, thus spreading the inactive virus far and wide.

"Which means it won't matter if we are immune anymore," Becanek said, looking up at the sky for the sun and then looking at his watch. "Either we are or we'll be dead too fast to do anything about it."

Cam grimaced. "Do you have to be so practical, Staff Sergeant?"

Becanek grinned cheerfully at him. "Sorry, sir," he replied, then turned to look at the map they were using. "Veer to port, Horton."

According to the files, when Atlantis had been looking for a place to resettle these particular refugees, they'd chosen this planet for the distance from the stargate. Cam was starting to regret not having a jumper -- he'd had the option, but he'd chosen a walk. It was as much out of habit (SG-1 hadn't had access to a ship) as the combination of his not-quite-fear of Jonas's driving skills and the fact that Cam was never comfortable in a craft someone else was flying. This wasn't the kind of mission where time was of the essence, however, and a long walk in the sunshine and the chance to breathe air that didn't smell of salt-water was a bit of a treat.

"Are there people here, Mister Quinn?" Cam called out after they'd walked for another kilometer.

"Not in range, but we're about half a klick from the village, so we might as well check it out," Jonas replied. Jonas had spent the time since Cordinar mostly in his lab working on the prior-napping schemata. Cordinar was bothering him more than Gauhan had and Cam could appreciate that even if he didn't understand it. There was nothing they could have done about Cordinar -- Lieutenant Osgeny (another one with unwarranted guilt) had done what he could and there had been nothing in the Ori's playbook that would have prepared them for an entire world getting wiped out in a few hours with no warning.

The village appeared on the horizon after a few more minutes of walking. The marines had been through this place -- the planet hadn't had a name before and the Toranian refugees had not yet decided on a new one -- a few times after the resettling and everything had been going fine. The Torani had been agrarian types and they'd accepted help in starting crops and building shelters; Lieutenant Salker had reported that they had been settling in fine and were working out a complicated plan for choosing soil-appropriate crops for future growing seasons. Which meant that there was no reason for them to have packed up and left, despite every bit of evidence pointing that way. When Salker had returned a couple of weeks ago, the place had been empty, completely deserted with no signs of either haste or destruction.

"I don't get it, sir," Byrd said once they were in the village, seeing for themselves what Salker had reported. "Why leave a place like this? It's got food and shelter and safety and that's pretty much the only things anyone ever hopes for in this galaxy. The Wraith haven't been here, so why go?"

There hadn't been anyone here since the Torani had disappeared, Cam didn't think, not just the Wraith. He was still learning to read the kind of destruction that the Wraith brought -- the forensics of predators and prey that the people who spent time in this galaxy all seemed to master -- but this place was far too peaceful. Becanek had explained to him that a culling was like any other kind of violation; you could clean up the obvious wounds, but the effects remained. Here there were no overturned stools, no sense of life cruelly interrupted, and Cam didn't see the sorts of metaphorical holes that had been filled by humans before they were suddenly not there. It wasn't even a ghost town -- the place didn't feel haunted.

Salker and his men hadn't had the kind of time to do a thorough search -- they'd looked around, found no signs of either violence or life, and left to go on to the next planet on their long list of places to check for Ori infestation. Cam's team could be more thorough, but he didn't think there was much point in spending a lot of time here. The Torani hadn't left a "gone fishing, back later" note and, short of that, there wasn't much chance in figuring out what had happened to them.

"Sir?" Becanek called over from across the room. He was holding up the bronze-tipped pike the Torani had used as their primary defensive weapon. "This is the fourth house we've found where the wardrobe's empty and the weapons are still here. Who takes their clothes and nothing to protect themselves?"

Cam shook his head, not having an answer. They'd found shields and knives and the occasional sword in previous dwellings, but no stores of food or clothes. Empty pantries and empty closets were the signs of an organized departure. Full armories were not.

He tapped his radio. "Mister Quinn, what are you finding?"

Jonas had taken Horton and Byrd and started at the other end of the village, which wasn't that big.

"Empty pantries and full weapons chests," Jonas replied after a moment. "Wherever they were going, they weren't worried about their safety once they got there."

"What about the sanctuary, sir?" Horton asked over the radio. "The one Colonel Sheppard got stuck in a couple of years ago? If they were going there, they wouldn't need weapons."

Cam vaguely remembered reading about the incident, the same way he remembered everything before the Ori vaguely, and thus not enough to make a useful statement in reply.

"How do they know it exists?" Byrd asked. "We didn't know about it until the Colonel tumbled through. If regular people knew about it, why wasn't it more crowded than it was?"

"Maybe there's another one," Becanek suggested. "No reason why there shouldn't be."

"What sanctuary?" Jonas asked, sounding more confused than Cam felt, but that was because Jonas hadn't ever heard the story while Cam had merely forgotten it.

Cam let Horton -- interrupted by Byrd -- tell the tale while they continued searching. After another half-hour, Cam decided that enough was enough and they were just finding confirmation of a pattern instead of expanding on it. The Torani were gone and not returning, probably off to greener pastures instead of the great beyond. It was maybe a little inconsiderate not to let Atlantis know for all of the work they'd put in to settle the Torani, but, well, they obviously thought they would be safer and better off where they were going and Cam really didn't have it in him to begrudge them that. He'd recommend that the settlement be turned over to other refugees and that would be the end of that.

It was 1945 AST on Cam's watch by the time they got back to the stargate and Cam was very much looking forward to dinner as the whiteboard in the commissary had promised fried chicken when he'd checked it at lunch. He'd make a quick report to Weir if she was still in her office (even odds; Weir worked long hours) or send an email to her and Sheppard if she wasn't -- after he ate.

Dreams of spicy battered drumsticks evaporated upon arrival back in Atlantis, however. It may have been a different galaxy, but Cam still knew how to read the mood after stepping through a wormhole and this wasn't good. Weir's office lights still being on was nothing shocking, but Sheppard visible through the glass, Lieutenant Cardejo standing on the balcony instead of playing games on his laptop, and the invisible heavy weight pressing down on the marines in the gate room was enough to set off a few alarm bells. Not just for Cam -- he looked over his shoulder at his team and they had the same apprehensive expressions Cam thought he was probably wearing.

"What's going on, Sergeant?" Cam asked the nearest marine.

"Found another town full of dead folks, sir," he replied.

"Ah, hell," Cam sighed.

He wasn't sure whether he had the right to barge into Weir's office and expect to be given an update. Once upon a time, he'd known that if he'd come back home to a crisis, he could stroll into the briefing room but not into Landry's office itself. But that time and that comfort zone was long gone and while Cam didn't think Weir had the same kind of death-grip on privilege of rank that Caldwell had had on the Daedalus, he didn't want to piss off his hosts. Again. He would have gone up there if she'd been there and nothing was going on, but now that there was and he knew about it, telling her that the Torani were gone-baby-gone really wasn't that important that it couldn't wait.  

"Colonel Mitchell?" Cardejo called down from the balcony. "Colonel Sheppard would like you and Mister Quinn to join him in Doctor Weir's office."

"Go," Cam told his marines, unclipping his P-90 and handing it to Byrd, who was waiting for it. "I'm sure you'll get the details in the barracks."

Becanek gave him the same dubious look he always gave Cam when he didn't think they should be dismissed just yet, but the three followed orders just the same. Jonas gave Horton his rifle and followed Cam up the stairs toward the control room and Weir's office.


Eleven

They came through the gate not quite in a tumble, but definitely in a rush. It wasn't 'stop, drop, and roll', more 'get the fuck out of the way because getting zapped by a blast fired from light years away still hurts like hell.' John yanked Rodney with him toward the side of the platform, behind the marines with their rifles raised and away from the direct fire still coming through the wormhole until first the shield went up and then the wormhole closed.

"That was entertaining!" John announced to no one in particular. He grinned at the marines and they grinned back. Rodney, however, rolled his eyes and frowned in return. Getting chased off of a planet by the Wraith wasn't exactly entertaining, but it was perhaps a little more... welcome? No, not welcome. Maybe it was just the familiarity of it -- by this point, the Wraith were the villain equivalent of comfort food: you knew it wasn't good for you, but you also knew exactly what you were getting.

"That was close," Teyla corrected sternly, but John could see the glimmer of excitement in her eyes, too. Everyone was safe and the adrenaline could be appreciated for what it was.

"That was fun," Ronon announced unashamedly as he holstered his weapon. "We good?" he asked John, gesturing toward the door.

"We're good," John replied, since the debrief was going to be short and wouldn't require additional testimony.

"Provided none of us get coronaries," Rodney grumbled, but jogged to catch up with Ronon anyway.

John looked up at the control room balcony. "Lieutenant Biswas, is Doctor Weir free?"

Might as well tell Elizabeth now that there was no news rather than have her hector him for a month for a report that would boil down to "we came, we saw Wraith, we ran from the Wraith, we left."

"Yes, sir," Biswas replied, leaning forward a little bit to get a better angle to double-check.

John unclipped his P-90 and handed it to Teyla with a smile of thanks; the only people allowed to carry rifles on that level were the marines on guard duty. (It had been Caldwell's suggestion and John had gone along with it for the sake of compromise rather than point out that someone could do just as much damage with their sidearm or by overpowering a marine.) He took the steps two at a time, nodding to the familiar faces in the control room and especially to Biswas, who was the only marine officer who hadn't been part of the Stargate Program before being punted through a wormhole in one of the evacuations and still sometimes looked like he thought John might send him home if that were possible.

"You're home early," Elizabeth said as he stopped in her doorway. She didn't look up, instead squinting at the screen and continuing to type.

"The locals weren't too happy to see us," John explained with a shrug she didn't see.

Elizabeth looked up. "Ori?"

John shook his head no. "It's a Wraith planet."

There'd been at least two hive ships parked on the planet, which was a little weird considering that there'd been no real evidence that the fracturing of the common bonds had ever been healed. Of course, most of their intel on that had come from Michael, who was neither trustworthy nor necessarily in a position to know the truth when he'd told them. But, then again, they'd only gone there in the first place because the Ancient database -- another source renown for its (in)accuracy -- had said that there should have been people there working the ore mines.

"Is that all?" she asked with mock boredom, fingers flexing over the keyboard. "These days, that's hardly enough to exclude it from being a vacation spot."

"Don't give the marines any ideas," John exhorted. "They'll request it for their next MWR day."

A smile from Elizabeth. "And how's the current one coming together?"

He held up his hands in mock surrender. "I am happy to say that I have no idea. It involves a barbecue, beach toys, and some complicated scheme by which the marines intend to get as many of the female civilians into bikinis as possible."

Actually, the marines were going for topless, but they'd settle for bikinis.

"Would you like me to act surprised?" Elizabeth asked, eyebrow arched. "I can be if you'd like."

"No need," John demurred. "Although if you could get Life Sciences to get back to the organizing committee on whether those clam things are edible, that would be great. I was supposed to ask Rodney, but I don't think he and Doctor Salinger are acknowledging the other's existence right now."

"No, they're not," Elizabeth sighed with frustration, then smiled brightly. "A clam bake would be fun."

"Only if they're not poisonous," John reminded her. "Otherwise, we're going to have to keep the doctors on call because that's not going to stop the marines from trying to eat them anyway."

Elizabeth nodded, since she knew as well as John did that "slightly toxic" was really only a challenge as far as the marines went.

"I just came by to let you know that the mission was a bit of a bust apart from the 'getting Rodney some exercise' secondary objective," he said, pushing off of the door jamb. "I'll let you get back to whatever you're doing."

Before she came up with anything for him to do with the sudden gap in his afternoon schedule.

"Thanks, I think," Elizabeth replied wryly. "Are you in for the rest of the day after your perambulation through Wraith territory?"

John shook his head no and grimaced since he knew what was coming next would suck all of the levity from the conversation. "It's my turn to go to MZ3-231."

Just an alphanumeric designation, no name. They'd never learned it, nor anything about the place except that something that could have been prior plague had killed all of the inhabitants several days ago. He and Mitchell and Lorne, along with the captains, were taking turns going out there to help with the disposal of bodies.

"How is that going?" Elizabeth asked, smile gone.

John shrugged. He tried to pretend it was just another unpleasant task the military had to accomplish -- and some days, he almost believed it. "It's almost done. I haven't looked at the stats since the last time I was there, but it should be only a day or two more at most. Everyone wants to get it done before nature takes its course any more than it already has."

As they had with Gauhan and then with Cordinar, they kept track of the demography of the dead. With Gauhan, there had at least been names and it had seemed almost like a memorial -- Consolis and the others had said prayers for each family, for each loss. But with Cordinar and now this place, MZ3-231, where they didn't even know the local name let alone their customs or if they'd worshiped the Ancients or anyone else, they had no such opportunities. Which, John thought, was probably better. It was too much already to be burying children and hoping that they were at least in the same mass grave as their parents. He'd been in what had once been Yugoslavia a couple of times over the course of the 1990's and had seen some of the mass graves from the sky as he'd flown over them. Seeing it from the ground was remarkably dissimilar.

"Of course," Elizabeth said with a slight grimace. The plague had only hit a couple of days before the marines had come, but it was enough for decomposition to begin. "If there's anything you need....."

John shook his head. They would bring plenty of water to wash away dirt and tears and the gore of the task, juice for thirst and energy, and heavy hearts. Nothing else really belonged. They had no obligation to tend to the dead -- these weren't allies or friends or anyone they'd formed any kind of association with or been responsible for -- and the task itself was gruesome and soul-crushing and unpleasant by any measure of the word. But the alternative was even more unpalatable and so they buried these strangers and said words over the pits they dug for graves and hoped that if the worst ever happened, that someone would do the same for them.

"I'll go talk to Doctor Salinger today," Elizabeth said. "I think this beach party will be a little more necessary than usual."

John had originally scheduled about two hours between mission end and the shift change for MZ3-231, so coming back early got him some extra time. He grabbed some food then went looking for his laptop, which he thought was on the desk in his quarters but turned out to be on the conference table in Lorne's office, and got some work done. The Ori hadn't really made him more efficient an administrator, but he'd originally planned to work after he'd gotten back from MZ3-231 and the unappealing thought of having to deal with battalion bullshit after there was enough impetus to get it done now.

Lorne himself appeared about a half-hour before John had to go down and get re-kitted, dropping down into his chair with the sort of exhaustion that he rarely let anyone see.

There wasn't anything to do but exchange wry grins of complete understanding, but John privately made a note to himself to gently ask the captains if Lorne was failing to delegate responsibilities again. The stooges were not about to volunteer that information -- it would look like bitching and they liked Lorne -- but they'd already been through this once before and John didn't think as many verbal gymnastics would be required this time around. Getting Mitchell more involved in the day-to-day operations was supposed to be a load off of Lorne's shoulders, but Cam was still getting comfortable and everyone (including and especially John) had long gotten used to Lorne fixing everything. They didn't call him the Wizard of Oz for nothing.

John finished writing up the notes on his Wraith adventure and bid Lorne farewell; he left his laptop behind because there was a battalion staff meeting at 0730 tomorrow morning and he'd need it then.

The massing of marines to draw rifles and ammo and pick up repaired equipment from Ordnance and then heading to the gate room was subdued as far as any massing of marines went. Everyone knew what was waiting for them, even if they hadn't seen this particular planet yet. There were still the usual stupid jokes -- marines didn't tell any other kind -- but it was less raucous than usual.

In most ways, MZ3-231 was a typical Pegasus planet -- lots of trees, grass, a completely unclear path from the stargate to the town. That it was bereft of people wasn't that weird -- the Wraith were still overpopulated and underfed and still more interested in feeding themselves than in anything else. But even abandoned worlds had some life to them -- cullings were just that, not razings -- and MZ3-231 shared none of that.

The work here was a choice between backbreaking or heartbreaking -- attending to either the pits they were using as burial sites or the business of body collection. John had spent time at both tasks already and thought the pit labor was easier; sore muscles healed faster. He greeted Radner near the pits, both of them stepping aside so the marines guiding the reconfigured MALP, loaded down with bags of lime, could get past.

"We close?" John asked, silently thankful for the regular breeze. The smell wasn't as bad as it could have been -- after the first two days, the temperature had been cool and the marines had been free with the chemical cleansers in the town -- but the wind helped and John hoped it would continue.

"Just about, sir," Radner replied, stripping off his work gloves. The officers took the same jobs as the marines here. "We're down to the last square on the grid, but it looks like it was probably the last area affected -- there are signs that the locals were collecting there and that they were trying to flee."

John grimaced; one of the only things that had made this task less unpleasant was the thought that while nobody had seen it coming, they hadn't lasted long enough to suffer much. It had struck here during the day, unlike Cordinar, judging by where the bodies were being found, and there hadn't been any signs of any kind of reaction -- until now.

"Safir and a couple of his people are running around," Radner went on. "He said he'd check in before he left, so I am going to assume that he hasn't."

Yoni and his team -- they hadn't been formally coalesced into a task force, but that was more because Yoni deplored bureaucracy than any reflection of reality -- had been regulars at all of the sites thus far, taking samples and pictures and doing whatever else they did. John had been kept duly informed via memos, of course, but both he and Elizabeth figured that handling Yoni was a job best left to Beckett and thus most of his knowledge was a little vague on the details.

The changeover in personnel went quickly -- those who were here wanted to go quickly. John let the lieutenants sort out who was starting where after bidding farewell to Radner. Gillick -- back on active duty for all of three days -- ended up with the job of running the body retrieval in the village while Paik managed the burial site and John suspected it was as much about not wanting to tire Gillick out as the personalities of the two lieutenants. Gillick, fading scars hidden by his shirt, had been run through the wringer in Little Tripoli before he'd been cleared, but everyone knew he was still feeling the effects of his injuries and the layoff that followed.

John accompanied Gillick's platoon into the town for the relief-in-place of Patchok's unit. The walk to the initial site had been full of chatter, but there wasn't any talking now as they passed through the streets; in the silence, they followed the sounds of the marines still at work as much as the grid map. The 'life, interrupted' feel of the town had largely disappeared; the marines had righted upturned buckets and cleared away spoiling food as they'd removed bodies and the result was something closer to a ghost town. Not a ghost town like Atlantis had been when they'd first arrived -- John was pretty sure it was entirely in his mind that this place felt like the people had been torn away -- but not as though if the walls could talk, they'd scream. It looked like Cordinar did now, though, empty and haunted.

"Staff Sergeant, have you seen Doctor Safir around?" John asked when he saw Ortilla.

The big man wiped his sweaty brow with a towel he'd tucked into his belt. Like everyone else, he looked weary in a way that had little to do with his physical exertions. "Haven't seen Doc in a couple of hours, sir," he replied, looking around and then down at his watch. "He and Doctor Christensen were going off to Delta-Four to do something with wind."

Christensen was a meteorologist on loan from the Physics unit; Rodney referred to him as "the Weregild" since he considered losing Christensen's services to be the price paid for getting rid of people he didn't want (i.e., various members of Life Sciences) to Yoni's group and a few other specialized task forces.

"He missing, sir?" Suarez asked.

"No," John assured, since Suarez sounded more than idly curious. "I'm just seeing if I can save myself getting chewed out over the radio for interrupting him."

Suarez's concern melted into amusement and not a little bit of pride. "Good luck with that, sir."

Next to him, Gillick chuckled, too, and John felt vaguely plotted-against. But a little levity in this place did a world of good, so he just smirked.

Gillick and Gunny Tommasso exchanged notes with Patchok and Gunny Haumann and John wandered off, wanting to get a feel for what was going on so that when it came time to figure out what to do with the place, he had an opinion. Cordinar had become part of the Atlantean empire (so to speak, although sometimes it seemed to speak closer to the truth than others) pretty much by accident and John didn't want that to become any sort of precedent -- either the acquisition of devastated worlds or the means by which they'd come into custody.

Polito acknowledged that he'd let his emotions get the better of him when he'd been 'visited' in Cordinar by representatives of the commercial alliance, but neither John nor Elizabeth had chosen to reprimand him any further than a stern talking-to. Polito had spent the day burying children -- Cordinar had converted its material wealth into another kind of bounty -- when the representatives had shown up like some medieval mafia's stooges. After listening to their attempts at intimidation, Matt, backed up by fifty marines, explained that possession was 90% of the law in any galaxy. And so thus Cordinar became Atlantis's.

After much debate and a half-dozen proposals by different factions, Cordinar was slated to become another refugee village -- this time, with indoor plumbing and paving stones. Teyla was doing most of the people-work on the project, which was still in its infancy, seeking out groups of refugees who were willing to move there. John thought it would be a little like being the real estate agent for the house in the Amityville Horror, but Teyla reported that many were amenable after being told that whatever had killed the previous residents was no longer a threat. People moved on to worlds decimated by the Wraith, after all. Mitchell was handling everything else, including security and logistics and keeping the marines and the scientists from turning on each other. John wasn't sure which one of the two had the harder job.

Whether they'd need this place, too, he wasn't sure about, either. Whether they could afford it was another matter entirely. They had more marines than before, but committing them to the full-time policing and protection of off-world locations was not a thing done lightly. With the allocation of marines came other resource requirements -- power, development and maintenance of infrastructure, food unless they could sustain themselves (which would be down the road, if ever) -- and the supplies of everything were not limitless. They were already working to make MZ3-231 livable, but nobody knew yet for whom or whether it would be under Atlantis's growing aegis.

If they were going to be sending scientists or other people from the Milky Way, they had a higher level of responsibility than if they were just going to turn it over to refugees from the Wraith. Which was why they were tacitly discouraging Earth personnel from relocating from Mars (or Atlantis) to Cordinar. John wasn't completely comfortable with that sort of preference system -- necessary though it might be, especially for Earth citizens who had never been directly responsible for their own safety. Elizabeth, too, was concerned about creating, either in fact or in belief, a two-tiered system by which some people counted for more than others. John didn't think Teyla (or Ronon or anyone else who'd been in Atlantis for a while) thought that they were biased against people from Pegasus, but how did you explain that some refugees required more concern than others, which was what it looked like? For that reason alone, John was inclined to leave this place to whoever wanted it. The takeover of Cordinar would be enough of a suck on their time and energy -- especially if they'd pissed off the trade alliance enough to have to look for new food sources.

"Sir?" Gillick's voice came through John's radio.

"What's up, Lieutenant?" he replied, stopping in front of a small storefront. This world had been fairly developed for Pegasus -- stone-and-thatch homes and a tavern, a tannery, a forge, and a dry-goods store. It was vaguely Old West, but with less dust and no hitching posts.

"Doctor Safir's ready to take his team back to Atlantis, sir," Gillick reported. "Did you want to speak to him before he left?"

John looked in the open doorway. Once they determined that (if) everything was safe, they would strip the town of supplies -- bolts of cloth, half-treated leather, jars of preserved fruits, pots and pans, whatever else hadn't rotted or been ruined -- and the neatly organized shelves made John feel both guilty and resigned. "That depends," he said. "Does he have anything interesting he wants to tell me?"

Safir was on radio, so he could just answer if he wanted. But John was expecting Gillick to carry on the conversation because Yoni, for all of his antisocial tendencies, preferred talking to real people and not thin air.

"He wants to know where you're hiding, sir," Gillick reported. Some of the lieutenants would edit Yoni, but Gillick wasn't one of them.

"I'm in Charlie-Three," John replied. "And I'm not hiding."

Yoni found him about five minutes later -- the village wasn't that big and John hadn't wandered that far.

"What's up, Doc?" John asked. He never got tired of the joke, even if every Ph.D and MD in Atlantis quickly had. "Anything interesting blowing in the wind?"

"So far, it appears nothing is blowing in the wind," Yoni said, making a face. "Except hot air. Christensen has been around McKay too long -- he forgets that what he finds fascinating, the rest of us find trivial and arcane and generally irrelevant."

John smiled both in recognition of the sentiment and at Yoni's frustration -- Christensen was but a cheap copy of the original, after all. "But?" he prompted, since Yoni hadn't tracked him down to tell him that everything was hunky-dory and Christensen talked too much.

"What is going to be your recommendation for this place?" Yoni asked, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "If I may ask."

"Haven't made up my mind yet," John said with a shrug. He was used to seeing Yoni as a kind of subordinate to Lorne because of their off-world team, but within Atlantis Lorne and Yoni were essentially equals and within the scope of the prior plague and its effects, Yoni had more authority than all of them. "I don't think we're running short of space and expansion is expensive, but I'm not set on anything yet. Why? Something you don't like about the place?"

Before they had to worry about the expenditures of human and material resources, MZ3-231 had to be cleared for habitation by Medical, which really meant Yoni and his task force since Carson would be working off of their findings.

Yoni didn't answer straightaway, instead walking slowly toward the dry goods store and in through the open door. John followed.

"The prior plague has a higher mortality rate in Pegasus than it did in the Milky Way," Yoni said, picking up a small white cloth that was maybe a handkerchief or a fancy napkin. He unfolded it, looked it over, and then re-folded it neatly and put it back down. "The sample size is still relatively small, which might explain why we haven't come across even one naturally immune person. There are competing theories for why there is a difference -- if there in fact is a difference -- and most of them are irrelevant to the decision at hand. The bottom line is that the prior plague is doing damage at a rate that we cannot check."

John leaned against a counter, waiting.

"We haven't found a trigger here," Yoni went on, turning around and leaning against the chest against the wall. "Prior plagues can and are carried in their inactive form, but they require some mechanism initiated by the priors to be activated so that they may kill. We haven't found any indication that there was a prior on this world. No Books of Origin lying around, no signs and markings on any building, nothing at all."

"They're still looking," John said, but he knew that the lack of Ori paraphernalia was making more than just Yoni nervous -- the idea that the Ori had just shown up, killed everyone, and left made sense from the evidence, if not necessarily from the Ori's behavior in the Milky Way. But, as they were constantly reminded, they didn't know what the Ori's plan was for Pegasus. "Maybe something will come up in this last sector -- it was the last to fall."

"Or maybe there was no prior," Yoni countered, crossing his arms over his chest and holding his elbows. "We've done autopsies and are running tests and we still don't know what killed these people. There are markers that could be prior plague, but could also be something else."

John shook his head. He didn't even want to think about some crazy illness that wasn't prior plague. "An entire world wiped out at once by some mystery disease and it's not related?"

"Not unrelated," Yoni corrected. "Very related. If we could isolate the damned thing, we would have a chance to tell if it's the same virus we've been facing all along or if there's been a viral shift. In which case we may be looking at a pandemic and if it weren't for the fact that we've got no cure, we'd almost be able to appreciate the irony of the Ori accidentally killing the galaxy they want to enslave."

John sighed and rubbed his face with his hands. "Why don't you ever take me aside for good news?"

It was a (mostly) rhetorical question and Yoni took it as such.

"How much time do you think you'll need to figure out if this is the Ori's doing or a really unfortunate accident?" John asked, mentally rifling through the list of everything that would have to be done if this turned out to be the latter. "And are the marines at risk?"

"Maybe a week and I don't think so," Yoni replied. "I've got everyone who has ever taken apart a cell working on it, but the tests themselves take time. And as for the marines, nobody's gotten sick yet and I've already taken blood samples from different platoons."

John nodded. He could tell Yoni that whatever Yoni needed, he would get, but Yoni knew that already. "Why did you ask what I wanted to do with this place?" he asked instead.

"Whether or not there has been a viral shift, keeping Mars and the mainland isolated may be the only way to keep them safe," Yoni answered with a shrug. "It's not ideal and it won't work long-term, but it's better than nothing. Cordinar will have its own problems when the time comes."

"I'd never be as happy to find a copy of the Book of Origin as I would be now," John said sourly, pushing off the counter.

"You and me both," Yoni agreed, following him back outside. He turned right to head back toward the stargate while John went left to head back to where the marines were working. John found Gillick taking pictures of a room that smelled strongly of death and rot; there were five bodies inside, all adults, all in moderately advanced stages of decomposition. Outside, marines were waiting with stretchers covered in plastic sheeting. They didn't have the resources to give them shrouds or even body bags.

The process was routine now -- pictures before, body removal (if necessary), pictures afterward, investigate and catalog, move on. It was numbing, which was fortunate because it was miserable work. The platoon was split up by squads and John attached himself to one. They moved room to room in the small house as teams and he let Sergeant Silpert take the pictures, waiting for the go-ahead before going in to look around and pick up and put down objects that might have been significant to someone's life and might not have been before helping with the body removal. There were no Books of Origin, no religious iconography of any sort that John could tell. Nothing that would say that a prior had been here and even less to say that these people would have fought against accepting Origin.

Each house took about half an hour and with three squads working it was closer to two hours before the platoon finished the sector. The signs of flight that Radner had spoken about were there and even John had to turn away for a moment a few times -- the bodies of infants who had died next to where their parents had fallen hurt no matter how numb they tried to pretend they were. The adults hadn't gotten far; this was the opposite end of the town from the stargate and running into the woods wouldn't have saved them (getting to the stargate wouldn't have saved them, either), but it was the evidence of knowledge that something had gone wrong... it was a harder death than those who'd perished in ignorance.

The platoon escorted the last of the bodies to where Paik's marines were digging a fourth pit. They switched off tasks; Gillick's men got to take their anger and distress out on the earth and Paik and his marines started the sweep from the first sector -- looking for artifacts as well as any bodies that had been missed. John accepted a pair of work gloves and a shovel and stripped down to his t-shirt alongside the marines. Gillick did, too, dropping down into the growing hole with a pick in his hands despite exhortations from his marines that he stick to shoveling lime.

Pit-digging was therapeutic in its own way -- although John had needed a couple of aspirin after his last shift -- and allowed him time to think while also providing an opportunity to just not think. He did a little of both, wondering what to tell Elizabeth about Yoni's revelations and also losing himself in the set-stick-lift of shoveling dirt out of a hole.


Twelve

Cam knew it was going to be one of those days when he could hear the debate from the other side of the jumper bay. Nevertheless, there was no turning back. Not when he had such a vested interest in the success of the operation. Not when everyone knew he had such a vested interest in the operation. Which is how Weir'd turned him into the military liaison for the project as well as chief guinea pig and why he'd never really objected.

He would put up with a lot for the chance to fly.

"Good morning, gentlemen," he said in his loudest, friendliest, just-caught-the-airmen-dicking-around-on-the-flight-line voice. He smiled broadly when Jonas and Zelenka stopped yelling at each other long enough to register his presence and then wonder what the hell he was so cheerful about. They weren't bickering per se, not like Zelenka and McKay could go at it, more that they just each had lots of ideas and talked over each other in their efforts to share them first, each getting louder until they were both in full roar and didn't realize it.

"No need to shout," Jonas chided, peering up with eager curiosity at the box in Cam's arms. "Breakfast?"

"Breakfast," Cam confirmed, holding the box away so that neither Jonas nor Zelenka could easily see inside. "But we'll wait for everyone to show up first."

This was the fourth 'field test' of the prototype device that would allow non-ATA gene carriers to operate puddle jumpers. The device didn't work, but it apparently didn't work in a way that was good and not bad, which was why they were still staging field tests. But, good or bad, 'not working yet' was still 'not working yet', which was why Cam was still essentially coffee boy and referee and not pilot. The actual pilot was nowhere to be found, which was not surprising. Staff Sergeant Reletti, both very used to engineers arguing in puddle jumpers and extremely unhappy about being dragooned into a project because he had the ATA gene (instead of one of the pilot-lieutenants), had made a practice of showing up exactly on time and no earlier.

Of course, it was "exactly on time" by marine standards, so he was still there ten minutes early by Cam's Air Force-compatible watch. As per what was becoming the usual, Reletti came armed with a book and his iPod, since apart from periodic requests to turn something on or off, there wasn't a whole lot for him to do, either. He flew the jumper because while Jonas had the gene artificially, he was still a dubious pilot.

"What's the reading for today, Staff Sergeant?" Cam asked, gesturing toward the book Reletti was about to drop in the storage compartment next to the pilot's seat. Reletti paused in his motion and held up the fat, worn hardcover treatise on counterinsurgency. Cam frowned wryly. "I hate to be the one to break it to you, son, but we are the insurgents this time around."

A grin from Reletti, since they both knew that that didn't make the book any less useful. The marines had been teaching counterinsurgency theory and practice since before Cam had arrived in Pegasus. "Best way to figure out what works is to understand what didn't in the past, sir."

Cam didn't know Reletti well, but better than any of the other marines save his own trio of dingalings. They'd worked together a few times back in the other galaxy when Reletti'd been on SG-3, shared meetings and tables at the commissary and the not-quite-prayer-sessions where it didn't really matter what your denomination was (or even what you called your god) so long as you were asking for deliverance from the Ori. He'd been the one to order Reletti to go down to Antarctica and the one to rescue him from the bloody mess on PX5-G21 and none of that meant squat here, months and battles and losses later, beyond the fact that Reletti didn't treat him like a stranger.

"You'll let me know if Ho Chi Minh's got any insights applicable to our current situation," Cam said, settling in to the shotgun seat. He didn't especially like riding shotgun in the jumpers -- didn't like the reminder that he was being conveyed in a vehicle he couldn't control even if he knew how -- but it had become his seat by necessity. Jonas had the habit of bringing up displays on the HUD as he thought of things, which tended to disturb and distract Reletti, and Zelenka obviously didn't want to ride up front.

Reletti got them cleared through flight control and they were soon riding the autopilot up through the bay doors and into the brilliant morning sunshine. Atlantis from on high was a gorgeous sight, Cam would not deny, even if he preferred viewing it from the cockpit of one of the F-302s he was occasionally allowed to book time on. He waited for the gentle hiccup that was the autopilot disengaging and Reletti taking over manual control before turning around to get at the crate he'd brought aboard.

He distributed the elaborately knotted cloth-wrapped boxes he'd gotten from the commissary to everyone but Reletti, who'd eat later, when it was Cam's turn to sit in the pilot seat and see if anything worked. Reusable packaging had long since come to Atlantis, more from necessity than any bow to environmentalism. Some of the folks on the mainland and out on Mars made their livings carving wooden bento boxes and molding baskets and whatever else could became Pegasus tupperware, leaving the still-plentiful MRE supply available to marines for the increasingly common combat missions.

With kitchen staff coming from half a dozen planets, the idea of appropriate breakfast foods had gone back and forth before settling at some point between what American folks were used to (and thus what Atlantis had gotten used to with the marines on KP duty for the first few years of the mission) and what the rest of the galaxy considered viable choices. Which was why Cam was tucking into something that had been listed as 'breakfast bake' on the menu board and yet was nothing he'd ever encountered in any of a lifetime's worth of greasy spoon diners. It wasn't bad -- the cooks had figured out that most Earth people would pretty much eat anything in the morning if it was sweet -- but Cam always got a special thrill out of meals that could conceivably remind him of home and this wasn't one of them.

"I think we might be able to get somewhere this morning," Jonas said as he worked on his papaya slices. The marines had brought home tons of papayas last week in trade for whatever it was marines did when they were getting paid in papayas, and so there was no guessing what would be the featured ingredient in everything the commissary offered for at least the next week. Jonas was obviously pleased, which was good because he had a habit of forgetting to eat if not sufficiently motivated, but Zelenka didn't seem to be as much of a fan. (Reletti, like all marines, had been trained to eat anything that didn't move faster than his fork.) Cam was already getting a little fatigued by papaya everything, but this wasn't as bad as the Month of Eggplants and he kept it in perspective.

"Getting somewhere as in 'mid-flight handoff?'" Cam asked, wanting to be realistic -- these sessions were usually hours of concentrated failure and frustration -- but knowing he sounded hopeful nonetheless.

"All yours if you want it, sir," Reletti offered, although he did not actually take his hand off the stick.

Zelenka, a white-knuckle passenger under the best circumstances, looked terrified.

"Somewhere as in we might have a better understanding of why we can't try that just yet," Jonas replied, sipping thoughtfully on the straw for his papaya juice. "We're finally finding the places where the Ori device could conceivably be applied to ATA-dependent mechanisms."

Translation: not this time, not the next time, maybe not before the battle with the Ori in Pegasus was joined for real.

Cam looked over at Reletti. "We'll try to get you outta here before you acquire enough flight hours for a senior pilot rating, Staff Sergeant."

Reletti, who never showed actual displeasure once he'd made his arrival time statement, grinned. "I'd appreciate that, sir."

The flight was mostly quiet between the eating and then both Jonas and Zelenka doing their things -- away from the front console. Cam pulled out the little PDA (made by General Dynamics, not Ancients) he'd been issued when he'd first gotten to Atlantis. He'd never really bothered to learn how to use it (beyond the 3-D Tetris and solitaire), let alone remembered to carry it, before he'd started getting administrative duties within and without the city. He still forgot it more than he'd liked, but now he was actually starting to need it.

Teyla was the capo di tutti capi as far as refugee management went, but Cam was still the go-to guy for Gauhanis and Weir had asked him to run events on Cordinar and while that included frequently meeting with (and deferring to) Teyla, there was plenty else that was beyond her knowledge or scope. Mostly it was a lot of bureaucratic bullshit -- on top of the slow (but not so slow that he didn't realize it was happening) accretion of day-to-day responsibility for the non-marine military personnel. The irony didn't escape Cam that he had had to become an exile from his own galaxy to finally end up with the sort of staff officer middle-management tasks that he'd been so thrilled to avoid by being part of the Stargate Program.

But beyond the bureaucracy and refereeing and arguing about supplies and security, it was turning out to be more interesting than he'd imagined. He was a people person, something that had presumably factored into the equation, and there were a lot of people to person when it came to re-settling Cordinar. He knew Sheppard was hoping to keep Earth personnel away from Cordinar for security reasons -- the Wraith knew about it and there was talk of re-starting the markets once it was up and running -- but so far that hadn't really come up. There were scientists involved in the reconstruction efforts, marines, 'civilian contractors' (the currently in vogue term in Little Tripoli for refugees with jobs within Atlantis), and the various prospective resident groups and their representatives.

There was also the consortium that had once been in league with Cordinar, the one Polito had driven off at gunpoint. Although they were turning out to be more comedy than the security threat second only to the Wraith they'd originally been deemed to be. The flip side of Sheppard's concern about armed reprisals for 'stealing' a world from the consortium was Weir's request that Cam try to negotiate with the them. She'd asked him to at least get a decent read on their willingness to fight for Cordinar and, if possible, try to assure that Atlantis didn't lose their contract with them. Thankfully, this was where the comedy kicked in. The consortium, instead of taking offense or taking up arms in response to Polito's action, had been impressed by the show of force and returned a week later, this time to forge a new alliance. Considering Cordinar was months away from habitation and these folks had no idea how long (or short) Atlantis's reach was, Cam wasn't sure what sort of agreement they were seeking, but he had a meeting with them next month nonetheless. Atlantis's consumables contract was safe -- hell, Cam expected even more favorable terms when it next came up for negotiation.

He was still going over his notes on Ensign Gantry's various requests and suggestions (Cam was supposed to be her mentor and aide for dealing with Sheppard and Weir, but she'd pretty much gotten over her fear of going straight to Lorne and cutting out the middle men) when Reletti announced their imminent arrival. The landing wasn't that rough -- more than the gentle bump in the jumper bay, less than some of the more graceless halts Cam had managed early in his career -- but Reletti looked vaguely embarrassed, as he usually did. And so Cam suggested to Jonas and Zelenka that they attach rubber bumpers to the bottom of the jumper for comfort next time, since marines weren't bright enough to distinguish between encouragement and pity and thus any sympathy for Reletti's junior pilot status would be wasted.

The morning went about as well as the previous excursions to the mainland had gone -- Jonas and Zelenka nattering at each other in what Cam knew had to be English but might as well have been Urdu, Reletti staying as far from the jumper as was prudent from a safety standpoint so that his gene didn't accidentally mess with the tests but still close enough to show up quickly when summoned, and Cam alternately getting called to sit uselessly in the pilot's seat and shooed away to keep from being underfoot.

Jonas, the resident expert in Ori technology, had become thus by spending his post-imprisonment time stealing Ori toys and figuring out how they worked. It had been his idea to try to use it to 'unlock' Ancient tech; Cam understood very little of the original proposal beyond why it was both prudent as well as advantageous to start experimenting with puddle jumpers instead of anything else that required the ATA gene to operate. (Short answer: most everything else was either a critical system within the city or something they didn't fully understand how it operated. Or, in the case of the control chair, both.) There'd been ongoing work on the Ori-Ancient technology link, but Jonas had apparently suggested something completely new and, after much bargaining with McKay, had gotten what he'd needed to go forward and explore it.

There were certain tests that were better done away from Atlantis, both for safety and scientific reasons, but Cam had had a bit of a time explaining to both Jonas and Zelenka that their time away from the city wasn't unlimited. Reletti had missions to go on and regular marine duties to perform, Cam had his own increasingly busy schedule, and so they had to learn to budget their time. (Jonas's initial offer to fly the jumper and Zelenka out to the mainland himself was met with a stern "hell, no!" from both McKay and Sheppard.) They were still working on their time management -- it seemed to get worse as their science got better -- and so Cam gave them a warning about how much time was left every time he jogged over in response to the "Colonel!!!" bellowed over the radio.

Nonetheless, he still had to enlist Reletti's help in getting them to pack up, since almost all of his experience in scientist-wrangling had come with Jonas and Daniel Jackson, both of whom were masters of the "you're not the boss of me" look, actual command authority notwithstanding.

"It's like puppy training, sir," Reletti explained after a firm tone of voice and much pointing to their 'corners' had gotten Jonas and Zelenka ready for departure. "Almost everyone from Science who's been in Atlantis a while has been whapped on the nose with a newspaper a few times by now. You just have to reinforce it."

Cam wanted to take the advice as insight into how his own trio kept Jonas from doing anything they'd all regret, but he couldn't help but suspect that they might be using it on him, too.


"-- willing to work on something, ma'am," Cam assured. "Not sure we'll need that many pounds of meat -- got a few sources of that ourselves -- but grains'll be good, that I can promise."

MH5-64G, local name Litar had been on the long list of planets to check for Ori. The marine platoons were grinding through the list -- which was not the entire catalog of planets in the galaxy, they were assured, no matter what it looked like -- at a pretty good clip. But Cam had been working twenty-hour days at his desk and Jonas, when asked, hadn't been able to recall the last time he'd left the city and it wasn't like their marines were going to complain about the extra outing. At least not after Cam had rescheduled it so that it didn't conflict with one of the electrical engineering seminars Horton really, really hadn't wanted to miss.

"The time for reaping is soon," Betta, the Litari leader, said with a nod. "And we have several fields still uncontracted-for."

Teyla had explained to Cam what the usual sort of arrangement was for trading labor for a share of a harvest and how to both minimize and maximize profit depending on how badly the other party was trying to fleece you. Cam had done his share of bargaining here and there, but only an idiot ignored Teyla's wisdom on the subject and Cam was really trying to bring his stupid quotient down. So, once they'd gotten confirmation that Litar had never heard of anything related to Ori, priors, plagues, or fire iconography, he kept her words in mind when tiny Betta, who looked just like one of those sweet grannies who carried extra candies in their Sunday purses to hand out at church (unlike his grandmas, who'd both been battleaxes), turned out to be the Pegasus equivalent of a used car salesman.

Betta's initial offer was only a little short of insulting and then improved merely to laughable, so Cam kept his most charming smile plastered to his face and went for the kill. The Atlantis marines had, by now, acquired all sorts of agrarian skills and Teyla had assured him that they could plow through so many acres in a day, for values of 'so many' that were greater than Litar's offered space. The marines weren't necessarily better at it than anyone else in Pegasus, but they had strength and endurance and, most importantly, numbers. Teyla had explained that most worlds that traded labor for harvest shares would indeed turn out all hands that they could spare, but this included the very young, the very old, and the infirm -- and not more than a hundred men in their physical prime.

The negotiations didn't take long -- Betta was a veteran haggler, but the Wraith had been hyperactive for the better part of a decade and while Litar had no idea what the Ori were or could be, they had heard of the mysterious deaths on Cordinar. In other words, it was a buyer's market.

Cam had just gotten to the 'don't call us, we'll call you' part of the deal-making when Byrd, who'd been zoning out with the other two and Jonas off to Cam's right, unshouldered his rifle and looked to the way they'd come. "Sir? Incoming."

"Hide your people from the Wraith," Cam told Betta, who'd startled at Byrd's actions and then as both Horton and Becanek followed suit. He didn't think to doubt Byrd, whose weird dog-hearing went beyond picking up grinding gears at three kilometers.

Litar's village wasn't that far from the gate, but the geography of the area around the gate meant that any inbound aircraft would have to go north before they could come south. It would buy them a few extra seconds if Byrd had caught them early enough.

Betta unfroze and flew into action, calling for the alarm to be sounded and Cam watched for a second before ordering Jonas and the marines into action herding the Litari into the closest buildings. While the expansive fields of wheat and barley stretched out to the horizons in two directions, the village itself was stone-and-thatch buildings scattered in a forest, hard to hit from above unless the plan was to set the entire place ablaze, so if the Wraith wanted a snack, they'd either be going for whoever was working the fields or they'd be beaming down.

"Get ready for ground forces," Cam radioed his team as the whine of darts overhead grew louder. They were flying past, not dropping payloads, so this wasn't a torch-and-destroy mission. The darts disappeared again, back toward the gate from the sound of it, so this wasn't a drive-through snack in the fields, either. He checked his rifle out of reflex, already knowing it was ready and would fire. This part of the fight, the waiting and wondering from which direction and in what form the fight would arrive, was not his favorite. He'd gotten used to ground fighting -- which was different from being good at it, although he knew he was more than merely capable -- but he still missed seeing the world from on high, the rush of adrenalin and of gravity as he changed directions, the way everything looked so slow and small from above. Now he was the ant in the ant farm and while he'd grown to appreciate the change in scenery, it wasn't ever going to be his favorite view.

The noise of gunfire preceded Becanek's radioed announcement that he'd gotten visuals on the Wraith.

In the end, there were a dozen Wraith, a few too many for Cam to be happy with his odds of getting Litar out of this without casualty, but they did okay considering how sprawled out the village was. There were three fatalities, all men fighting back with the long-handled axes the Litari carried, and nine people stunned without being fed upon. And twelve dead Wraith. Cam didn't hear the darts after that initial run and he wasn't sure what to make of that apart from that the Wraith probably hadn't expected resistance. Either way, the fight didn't take that long.

"Find Betta," he told Jonas once it was over. Jonas had put down at least one Wraith on his own and still looked like he might be willing to put down a couple more. Becanek, who'd decided that Jonas was an entirely different (and more unpredictable) kind of danger to himself than Cam could manage, was right next to him, as usual. They trotted off and Cam went looking for Byrd and Horton, who'd both answered on radio but were unable to give precise current locations.

Horton, dark skin and cammies doing a little too good of a job hiding him in the shadows, scared the crap out of Cam by appearing suddenly at his left. He didn't rub it in beyond grinning as Cam lowered his rifle in irritation and the two of them went back toward the heart of the village, knowing Byrd would track them down.

"Can you tell if the darts are still here?" Cam asked Byrd once he had.

"Don't hear anything, sir," Byrd replied, wiping what might've been Wraith blood off of his face with his sleeve. Cam hadn't asked for or received a sitrep beyond the basics and Byrd had reported that he was unharmed "even by civilian standards", since Cam had learned to request clarification. "Might've just been a drop-off."

"Hope so," Cam said. "And I hope that they don't come back wondering why their buddies never came home."

Even after years in this galaxy and too-intimate relations with Wraith hives and queens, nobody in Atlantis had a really good idea of how the Wraith worked. There were theories, most of which could be relied upon and some that really couldn't, but the sociologists and other types over in G-2 hadn't come up with anything that could be called a definitive guidebook on Wraith behavior.

Betta was waiting with Jonas and Becanek when they got back to the small clearing that operated as the town square. Cam knew that she wasn't actually more upset about the damage to the village than she was pleased at so little loss of life, but it certainly sounded like it. After making sure that they were still on for next month's harvest, he said goodbye, since Betta neither asked for help cleaning up nor offered thanks for defending her people -- Cam's team had killed all twelve Wraith.

"Now there's a charming woman," Jonas said sourly once they were well away from the village.

"If it weren't for the fact that we could use the trade, I'd love to have told her where to stick that summer wheat," Cam agreed, putting away his now-empty canteen. Betta hadn't even offered them water after the fight.

"I guess we'll have to bring our own lunch when we come back to collect it, sir," Becanek said, already digging in to his pouch of dried fruit. He held it out and Cam and Jonas both took handfuls. Horton and Byrd, ready but not expecting danger, walked a little ahead, but they slowed down enough for Becanek to fill their outstretched empty hands.

"We're gonna get one day to collect as much as we can out of those eastern fields," Cam mused as they entered the narrow mountain pass that led directly to the gate. "I should talk to Captain Polito about how many marines we can bring to make it worth our while."

"Battalion exercise, sir," Becanek suggested. "I'm happy to be saving people from the Wraith, but courtesy is courtesy. 'Thank you' is not hard."

It ended up being two full companies, plus an assortment of able-bodied types from both the mainland and Mars so that they could claim some grain for those places. Betta was unhappy, of course, but Cam, who accompanied Alpha and Bravo to Litar, rather enjoyed the look on her face. It wasn't about teaching anyone manners, but Cam had risked his own life and the lives of his team and, well, he had fleeced her a little and wanted to enjoy that. He doubted that Litar would trade with them again, at least not at what was turning out to be such a bargain rate, but maybe next year they wouldn't need to. Maybe next year, they'd be getting their flour from Earth once more.


"... in a few months. It will be a relief, I believe, to have somewhere permanent to call our home. A chance to create something familiar when nothing else is." Consolis smiled wryly as he spoke. "Please do not take that as ingratitude, Colonel. Your people have been nothing but generous and patient with us."

Cam shook his head. "Never crossed my mind," he replied, pausing to look around at the unfamiliar landscape because he could only shorten his stride so much without looking like he was doing so. "In fact, I think I can understand exactly what kind of relief it'll be."

He'd told Consolis some of his own story in bits and pieces over the months -- including life in exile, since it was relevant.

"I suppose you would at that," Consolis agreed, patting Cam's arm as he drew even. Consolis was... if not necessarily improving, then at least no longer looking like he was receding from life. There was a vitality to him that had been missing since the Prior had taken Daran and when he smiled, which was more frequently now, you could see glimpses of the vibrant man he'd been. But he was not that man any longer and Cam thought him sometimes a bit like Bilbo Baggins after he'd given up the One Ring -- better for the exchange, but in no way that could be seen by the naked eye. Or maybe that was wishful thinking; it was hard to look at the settlement that was the new home of the Gauhani and not feel guilty still.

The Gauhani -- or, really, what was left of the sane ones, since there were still a few dozen rabid types actually on Gauhan -- had rejected offers to move to either the mainland or to Mars, choosing instead an unprotected, uninhabited planet with fertile soil and ample supplies of fresh water that were at least a week's march from the planet's stargate. It was a move that had been well underway before Atlantis had realized that the Toranians had gone missing, else they'd have just handed over that place -- it was similar enough.

It would be an isolated life, which was what the Gauhani wanted, but it wasn't a statement about Atlantis, something Cam understood in a way that maybe Weir and Sheppard didn't. Instead, it was a kind of penance -- exposing themselves to the dangers of the Wraith and even the Ori as atonement for using the devil's instruments. It wasn't necessary and Cam had argued with Consolis as to the benefits, if any, but it wasn't the sort of argument Cam thought he either could or maybe should win. He'd wrestled with his own guilt too recently to pass judgment.

"And here we are," Consolis said as they crested the small hill. Below and before them were the fields the Gauhani had sown (with help from marines and other refugees; Cam had asked and Consolis had agreed to welcome anyone who chose to go with the Gauhani, which turned out to be about two dozen people, all from Pegasus). To the left were neat rows of vegetables and to the right were the starts of orchards, saplings that were rebounding from their transplant shock. Beyond were what would be grain fields in a different season; Botany had had a field day (pun intended) choosing what to grow where.

"Looks good," Cam said, meaning it. The last couple of times he'd come out here, he hadn't wandered as far as the fields. The new Gauhani settlement was still being built and improved and there'd been more than enough to see there to fill up an afternoon (or until Consolis was too tired to walk around). "And you're good to go until the crops come in?"

"Yes," Consolis confirmed. "Doctor Weir has been more than generous and we have been learning much about what is already around us with the help of Teyla and her people."

The Gauhani weren't hunters; they'd historically traded for meat. But their new isolation pretty much meant that they'd have to learn if they wanted near-deer steaks. The animals that had been brought here -- cows, chickens, sheep, a couple of goats -- weren't meant to be sources of meat, at least not yet.

"You just let us know if you need anything else," Cam told him, watching children running around between the saplings. Consolis had at least accepted radio equipment so that Atlantis could call in every once in a while and check in, maybe set up some trade down the line.

The rest of the visit was more of the same -- updates on the building of the community in all senses. New homes, new ways of life to learn, new blood, new starts. Cam knew that there were going to be new babies soon, too. The Gauhani were maybe a little bit more reflective than the typical Pegasus society, but they understood the need to move forward -- stagnate and die.

It was maybe a little ironic that Atlantis, on the vanguard of so many fronts, was probably not quite as ready, willing, or maybe even able to push forward in a similar fashion. The babies they made were still considered accidents, pitied for being born in such a wilderness instead of considered lucky for being born free.

Neither Consolis nor any of the other Gauhani asked about the people still left on Gauhan; early on, Weir had allowed them to go back and try to reason with their neighbors (and occasionally family), but the results had been disastrous -- tears, hysterics, the occasional assault, an assassination attempt on Consolis. By the time they had moved out here, the Gauhani had accepted that more than just their homes were lost to them. Consolis and a new group of community leaders were trying to overhaul their theology to excise elements that could lead to future generations falling prey to the Ori once more. Cam thought they'd be better served just sticking to incorporating the lessons they'd learned rather than trying to un-learn ideas, but it wasn't his place to comment and so he didn't.


"Call it and move on!" Safir barked sharply from across the room, gesturing toward the sea of bodies lying on the ground. "Stop sniveling like a child. Go!"

Cam, from his vantage point (way-the-fuck out of the way), watched as Doctor Valentine, tears in her eyes, did as she was told, silently indicating to the marines that they should retrieve the dead woman before her as she stood up and half-stumbled toward the next patient. He felt bad for Valentine -- she was young, just a resident when she'd been grabbed during one of the post-Robler Rock supply raids on hospitals, and she hadn't yet developed the kind of hard shell that numbed the impact of these sorts of horrors. But the medical team was fighting a losing battle against numbers and an illness they couldn't cure and energy had to be expended on those they had the best chance at saving and not on palliative care.

"Excuse me, sir," a marine said as he waited impatiently for Cam to get out of the way. A stretcher moved past, another patient moving in from triage to this area set aside for those deemed too ill to justify treatment. Some of them would survive anyway -- Valentine's job was to increase their odds -- but most would not. This was not a job anyone wanted, but Valentine did as she was told without complaint, if not without tears.

It had been luck -- good or bad not yet clear -- to find out about this place in time. Or at least before the entire planet had been wiped out. Sirod was (had been, now, Cam supposed) a town that doubled as a slaughterhouse, raising herds and producing meat for trade. Atlantis did a fair bit of business with them, buying meat as well as live animals to build their own herds. Which was how Lieutenant Paik had shown up for a routine visit and stumbled across the beginning of the end. Cam wasn't sure of exactly how things had progressed from Paik's urgent report to him heading up a rescue mission, but at this point it really didn't matter.

At the beginning, Cam had conducted interviews, tried to parse out information from the panicked and the grieving while the marines and doctors were setting up care stations and rounding up the citizens. He had gotten a variety of stories, some relevant and most really not, with a few common elements. The most important information was that Sirod had never seen a prior and had never heard of the Ori. They knew Cordinar had fallen -- they had done business with that market world -- but not why or how and could not imagine how that tragedy could have impacted them in any way beyond financial. It had been months since Cordinar's demise and how could anyone without either a sophisticated concept of the transmission of disease or any understanding of the Ori be expected to grasp how time, in this case, didn't matter? Pegasus didn't have a strong belief in magic per se and what they couldn't explain in familiar terms could usually be waved off as the technological prowess of either the Wraith or the Ancestors. That people dying in droves didn't exactly benefit either group didn't factor in the beliefs of the Sirodi.

There were forty dead so far. This area, shaded by trees and the tall walls of the corrals, held almost that many again, most of whom would be dead before sunset along with however many from the rest of the slaughtering-complex-turned-hospital. Early estimates at survival rate were around 20% and Safir had warned that that was pretty much a wild (and wildly optimistic) guess. They were looking at more than a hundred dead, easy, and it might be twice that by the time this was done. Most of the dead so far were the obvious cases -- the elderly and the very young. Valentine had been less composed when facing a room half-full of dying children.

Safir and the others were in the larger areas still triaging everyone, separating the asymptomatic from the treatable ill from those who were brought here to die in peace if not necessarily in comfort. Marines had penned the animals and were serving as orderlies and gravediggers and jailers, preventing anyone from leaving Sirod so that they could not spread the disease.

Cam was nominally in charge of the operation, but practically speaking it just meant making sure what Safir wanted done got done. More than four hours in to the horror show and there was very little left to do even on that front -- the triage was operating smoothly, the marines were where they needed to be, and Cam really didn't have anything better to do than wander around and see who needed what supplies before checking in with Atlantis and updating body counts.

That the process had been streamlined along the same principles of the abattoir hosting it had escaped no one. Cam walked from the hospice area out into the open through the same door through which the marines carried the bodies of the dead. He tried not to listen to the sounds -- the wet coughs, the shrieks of grief, the crying, the miserable moans -- but it was as impossible to avoid as the smells of blood and entrails. He needed a break, at least for a few minutes. The marines, thankfully, were fresh -- they had been relieved at the four hour mark -- and the doctors were too busy to either replace or meditate on their fatigue.

Sirod, away from the castle-like abattoir that dominated the town, was pretty rustic -- some stone-and-mortar homes, some pueblo, nothing fancy. Fields, mostly for raising grain for animal feed, and wide grazing areas with stone and wood fences were off into the distance. It was a spread-out kind of place and the marines had had a time of it going house to house looking for people; some had come toward the town center once the illness had begun, but most had stayed in their homes. The result had looked like that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the marines leading a donkey cart full of those too ill to walk. Except it hadn't been funny.

"Sir?"

"What's up, Lieutenant?" Cam asked into his radio.

"The animals are starting to get sick, sir," Salker said. "We're starting to separate and quarantine them so that maybe we don't have to put down the entire herd, but...."

But Safir had warned them of this. "I'll let the docs know," he replied. "Do you need more hands?"

"No, sir,' Salker replied. "We've pulled everyone in from the town -- there's no point in running patrols anymore."

Safir was on radio, but Cam had no idea if he was actively listening. He had to go back there anyway, so he'd pass on the intel -- or at least confirm that Safir had received it -- in person. He made his way back toward the slaughterhouse, but stopped when he saw Safir on the far side, away from everyone else, standing with Valentine and rubbing her back as she wept helplessly on his shoulder. Cam turned, went the long way around, and waited a few moments before getting Safir's annoyed response to his radio query.


Thirteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The marines were... divided on that front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorne gave him a baleful look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go ahead," John replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kagan aye-ayed and signed off.

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

Ronon gave him a wary look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Change of RoE?" Polito offered weakly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fourteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cam grinned and went to his desk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

"We just stopped to eat."

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

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

"Hey, is that a near-deer?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I wasn't going anywhere!"

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

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

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

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

"Seventy-two Virginians," Horton cracked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"There have been other places," Bol pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

He was maybe a little bitter about the Ancients.

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

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

Bol looked neither enlightened or convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Has something happened?" Teyla asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tell Lorne that," John groused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John raised an eyebrow and waited for Lorne to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you believe him?" Hanzis asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"See you in a few," he said.

Mitchell waved and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorne gave him a look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuckles around the table, except for Polito.

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

"Social science disease," Radner corrected.

"That, too."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Would they bother here?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caldwell and Mitchell stayed behind after the captains left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sixteen

"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.


Seventeen

"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