Route 66

by Domenika Marzione

John ambled into the jumper bay around 1130, still working on the softball-sized peach he'd grabbed from the commissary en route. Doctor Busto, the engineer who served as maintenance crew chief -- and that he now had a Ph.D supervising other Ph.Ds for vehicle repairs never got old -- was giving him dirty looks, so he waved the napkins he'd brought because really, he knew better than to get juice or sticky fingers on the puddle jumper controls.

Reletti was due at noon, which meant he'd be there at 1150. John was still not quite sure whether or not to call Lorne on the suspiciously free afternoon that had appeared on his schedule just before Lorne had asked him to teach Reletti to fly. Obviously Lorne was behind the scheduling, but if it was a choice between sitting in a staff meeting (and John really wanted to know how Lorne'd gotten everyone to agree to reschedule) and sitting in a jumper giving piloting lessons... Which fate was better depended on how good a pupil Reletti was.

John didn't know the sergeant well apart from as 'the blond one on Lorne's team'; they hadn't done any joint missions yet and Lorne's marines (and that's how everyone not-USMC described them) tended to sit quietly and unobtrusively in the group briefings they had for off-world teams, melting into the background like they were doing recon but had neglected to camo up. Lorne seemed to be happy with them, but nobody knew what to make of Lorne's choices after he'd started out by picking Safir. (Elizabeth's unfeigned spit-take reaction to that was still a fond memory.) Granted it was still early, but they hadn't gotten themselves shot at, chased off of a planet, or kidnapped yet, so obviously it was working out.

"Colonel Sheppard," Doctor Zigmanis said by way of greeting as he passed by. "You are taking Bessie out today?"

John swallowed peach and wiped his mouth. "Am I?"

Bessie was Jumper Four, probably the best choice for a first driving lesson. She was a little sluggish with the acceleration, but exceedingly well-balanced and smooth once underway. She also tended to self-throttle when you asked her to do risky maneuvers and John didn't like taking her out on missions because of that, but she was otherwise a pleasure to fly and was everyone's favorite jumper for trips to the mainland.

Zigmanis shrugged. "It is the most comfortable jumper and Snowball is still getting her crystals tweaked."

He had long since given up the fight about what the engineers called the jumpers. First, he hadn't survived more than a decade of combat flying by contradicting maintenance crew. Second, it was kind of funny to watch them fight about the names. Snowball was also Mimi was also Zhuzha was also Jumper Two. Since these were academics and not marines, the names tended toward the genteel and the feminine and the esoteric and there were no jumpers named Death From Above or Wraithkiller.

"Bessie it is," John said. He had his own names for the jumpers, ones he did not share.

He had already taken a casual tour around the bay, both to finish his peach as well as to survey the state of things, by the time Reletti showed up.

"Right on time," John said mildly after Reletti had presented himself as ordered. He was very clear about the as ordered part. Reletti was still damp from a shower and had the distinct look of someone who'd rather be anywhere else. Kind of like how Markham had looked, too, once upon a time. Which also happened to be the last time John had had to teach an enlisted man how to fly.

He led Reletti to Bessie. "Go in first," he said because he wanted Reletti to feel the jumper key to him. Standing outside, he gently aimed "I'm invisible" kind of thoughts at the jumpers because they were always happy to see him and Bessie more than most. Familiar sounds as the jumper powered up, lights coming on and the low hum of her secondary engines kicking in.

"Woah," Reletti murmured from inside, sounding very Keanu. "Left or right, sir?"

"Left," he answered, stepping on to the ramp. "I already know how to drive."

Bessie was showing full-screen diagnostics when he entered the cabin, controls on the panel illuminated to match the highlighted screens, presumably a response to Reletti's mental 'what the fuck?'. John politely told the jumper to hide the screens because they already knew that she was in perfect health and the viewscreen cleared.

"You do that, sir?" Reletti asked, eyebrows raised.

"Yeah." He sat down in the co-pilot seat. "Easier to see this way."

The next half hour was spent explaining what each of the controls on the console did. The co-pilot's seat was basically redundant, he explained, in that the pilot could control everything on his own but could also cede certain systems.

"For an experienced pilot," he explained, "there's not much of a need. You'll see when we take her up that navigation and weapons aren't that hard to keep track of. For the kind of situations you'll most likely be flying in, though, you may want to throw one or both over to the CPG. But we should get you used to handling everything first."

Reletti nodded, a wry look on his face. He wasn't here to train for milk runs to the mainland or satellite maintenance taxi trips for the engineers. He was here to learn how to fly the jumper in case something happened to Lorne and when that happened, Reletti would need to be able to handle everything on his own.

"That's about all we can do sitting here in the jumper bay," John went on. "Why don't we take her up and I'll show you the rest."

Reletti was leaning forward to peer at the roof beyond the viewscreen. He turned to look at John wide-eyed. "Sir?"

"Don't worry, Sergeant," John assured him with a smile. Because it really had been a long time since he'd been in a jumper with anyone who didn't know about the auto-pilot. "Atlantis controls entrances and exits. On this side of the stargate and this side of the bay roof, all you have to do is tell the jumper that you want to go."

Reletti fussed at the console for a long minute, placing his hands with excessive care and sitting forward on the seat with the sort of posture that only marines and patients in a halo could get away with.

"Up, up and away?" he asked tentatively.

John didn't think that would work -- in order to prevent accidents, the jumpers were usually fairly demanding in terms of what got them started -- but Bessie's primary thrusters engaged and the clamps that held the jumper in its mooring fell away. She moved forward, into the hub of the jumper bay, and then started to rise slowly. Flirt, he thought fondly at the jumper.

"Now when we get to the top, just relax and remember what I said," he said calmly. "It's like driving a car -- you don't need to steer nearly as much as you think you do. The jumper will do most of the work. All you have to do is pay attention."

There was a bit of a jolt as the jumper disengaged from Atlantis's auto-pilot, but Reletti recovered well and they hovered over the city.

"Take us to the mainland, Sergeant."

Reletti opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again when maps came up on the viewscreen. "Oh," he murmured, tilting his head a little to orient himself on the map.

John checked Reletti's hand positioning -- the pilots he has taught had understood the gentle-but-firm hold required, but Rodney's death grip reminded him that not everyone had such instincts. Reletti's palms were reddened, like he'd been practicing climbing ropes. Maybe he had been. The marines had an unhealthy affection for the urban obstacle course next to Little Tripoli, a smaller version of the more extensive (and harder to get to) one on the mainland, and were on it constantly. John and Lorne and the three captains had already spent considerable time trying to come up with a more useful regimen for their men. You trained as you fought, but most of how the marines had trained in the past would be useless in Pegasus both in terms of equipment and techniques (no expectation of air support, artillery, or mechanized transport beyond puddle jumpers). In the meanwhile, the marines climbed ropes, shot up targets, and used the why-the-hell-were-they-packed RHIBS to practice amphibious assaults on the west pier. It was busywork and everyone knew it.

The jumper lurched forward and then evened out, a combination of Bessie's spastic acceleration and Reletti's inexperience. A quick glance at the map still on-screen showed that they were headed in the right direction and the small counter in the corner said that they were picking up speed, so John sat back and relaxed. He wasn't used to being a passenger in a jumper -- apart from flying lessons and medical emergencies, he hadn't been one since his first few missions when he'd taken Stackhouse and Markham along so that they'd get some familiarity with the aircraft. It was a little weird to be aware of the jumper's calculations and 'intent' and not be the focus of the information. Bessie knew he was there, but her attention was on Reletti and John told himself that he wasn't actually jealous and that he had always been a crappy passenger in any vehicle he knew how to drive himself. It almost worked.

Reletti wasn't a natural pilot, but he wasn't nervous, either. The tension in his shoulders eased as he realized that flying the jumper really wasn't like flying a helicopter or driving anything more complicated than a car on an empty road and he settled into his seat instead of leaning forward. "How fast are we going, sir?"

The appropriate screen came up, but even if Reletti could read the Ancient already -- everyone was taught the digits, but the ATA carriers were actually expected to remember them -- the numbers weren't any sort of meaningful equivalent to kilometers per hour unless you did the conversion in your head. "About the speed of a commercial airliner."

"And how fast should we be going?"

"We normally do the over-water part of the mainland run at twice that," John replied.

"Oh." Reletti made a face. "Giddyup, then."

Bessie dutifully sped up, crossing the sound barrier with a muted pop, and leveled out again around mach 1.6. John privately boggled because... giddyup?

He let Reletti scroll through screens and get accustomed to looking at the displays while driving -- probably the biggest difference between teaching pilots and non-pilots -- for another ten minutes before he got bored. "Okay," he announced. "Time to play with weapons systems."

In preparation for the driving lesson, Bessie's drone weapons had been removed and replaced with the closest the engineers could come to replicating the technology. They weren't close -- nothing could quite capture the mental connection between a drone and the one who'd launched it -- but they were moderately smart bombs in that there was a control element after launch. The dummy ordinance didn't have the intimacy of a drone, which could blindside you if you weren't prepared, but it was a lot harder to get it to go where you wanted because the controls were weaker.

"Is there anything to aim at around here, sir?"

John shook his head. "We're thinking of dropping buoys or something," he said. "We don't want to use the mainland because we've got no way to control any fires that we'd start."

The complex part, he explained to Reletti, was learning how to split attention between controlling ordinance and continuing to fly in a straight line (or evasive maneuvering, depending on the need). It wasn't that different from ground combat where you had to pay attention both to where you were shooting and where you were moving, but your M16 didn't talk back to you. It wasn't hard, but it took getting used to. If Reletti had been a pilot, John would have compared it to learning how to regulate your head movements when weapons control was slaved to your helmet. But Reletti wasn't a pilot, so he tried to come up with some analogy that would work. He couldn't, so he dropped the idea and just told Reletti to fire when ready.

With the first bomb, Reletti lost control of both ordinance and jumper; the latter listed curiously to port and the former went straight into the water. Reletti cursed himself out, but John told him it was better that way than the other way around.

The second attempt had Reletti focusing on keeping the jumper steady and the missile again went straight into the water. Before the third try, John tried to explain to Reletti how to keep the jumper's controls in the back of his mind while shifting attention and bracing himself for handling the drone.

"I think I have a new respect for AOs," Reletti muttered before he tried again. This time, the jumper stayed level and the missile shot straight out, disappearing over the horizon.

"Very good," John said approvingly. "Next time try it with your eyes open."

Reletti grinned.

After two more successful launches, John showed Reletti how to throw weapons control over to the copilot and then he fired one missile on his own without warning to see how Reletti reacted. Reletti did react, but not beyond physical surprise. The jumper didn't change speed or direction.

The rest of the flight to the mainland was more of the same -- just flying for the sake of flying. When they saw land on the horizon, Reletti looked over. "Are you going to make me land this thing, sir?"

John snorted. "What is this, the al-Qaeda School of Aeronautics? Of course."

They headed west -- the settlements were all east of their bearing -- and identified a long stretch of beach that John had privately marked out as a potential surfing locale and the marine captains had coveted for training purposes. The beach was long and wide and very sandy and John had Reletti slow to a hover (getting points for not doing it so quickly as to give them whiplash, something Rodney had done the first time despite swearing that the inertial dampeners should have prevented any such thing) and then talked him down. They landed with a thud that came short of jarring, but not much short.


"Any landing you walk away from is a good landing," John assured him. "Just think some more pillowy thoughts next time."

They popped the hatch and the ramp descended slowly and the sounds of the waves filled the cabin. They were parked perpendicular to the water, far up enough that John wasn't worried about water getting in to the jumper. He got up, grabbing the bag he had packed, and Reletti followed.

"It's different up front," Reletti said as they tramped down the ramp and on to the sand. John turned because it was the first thing Reletti had said that hadn't been an answer to a question. "In the back, it almost feels like an AAV -- you're sitting in this tiny space with no windows, no chance to see what's going on until the ramp drops. The jumper doesn't have hatches, but it doesn't have anyone tossing grenades into them, either."

John had extremely limited experience with ground troop transport -- he knew what AAVs and LAVs looked like from the air, could tell them apart from each other and a Stryker and the other rolling tin cans the Army and Marines used to move grunts from place to place -- but he'd never actually been in one.

"You've never ridden in the front before?" he asked because that struck him as odd. "Lorne's taken you guys out in the jumper a few times."

Lorne had taken his team out for training on the mainland, mostly, but also a couple of missions off-world.

"There are five of us, sir." Reletti looked a little bashful. "I don't get to ride in the front."

Reletti was the youngster on the team and he'd get the last choice in seating (and sleeping arrangements and MREs and everything else), but from the look on his face, John suspected that maybe Reletti had been banished to behind the bulkhead.

Smiling because he'd never be able to banish anyone on his team to the rear, he turned to look at the waves. "Carolina or California, Sergeant?"

"California, sir," Reletti answered with a grin. "With a bit of Oki thrown in."

An especially large wave came rolling perfectly in, crashing at the last possible moment. "How did you like Japan?"

"The people who hate us there only beat drums and blow horns and hold up signs." Reletti shrugged artlessly, kicking at the sand. "But I got to Tokyo a few times and that was cool. I liked Manila more, though. You ever been, sir?"

He took a deep breath before he answered because there was no way for Reletti to have known. "Yeah. Spent a bit of time in the Philippines."

Reletti took the lack of qualitative analysis for what it was. "It kind of feels like San Diego here," he said. "A little more humid and a helluva lot quieter, though. And fewer bikinis."

"We're about three hundred klicks from the nearest settlement," John replied as he stepped off of the ramp and on to the sand. There were a couple of large rocks further up the beach, a good a place as any for lunch. "And we're still looking for a bikini planet. At least one we can visit regularly."

Reletti's grin broke into a full smile. "Is that a standing order for off-world teams, sir?"

"Yes, Sergeant," John answered with cheerful sarcasm as he started walking toward the rocks. "Doctor McKay even has a formula for his own sunscreen."

"I'm not sure I want to see Doctor McKay in a bikini, sir."

John turned around to look at Reletti, who was standing still and had the mildly horrified expression of someone who just realized he'd said something aloud that maybe he shouldn't have.

"I'm not too keen on seeing Doctor McKay in a bikini either," he said because if he didn't dismiss the joke at Rodney's expense, Reletti would not say another word apart from "yes, sir," "no, sir," and "aye aye, sir" until they got back to Atlantis. And also because it was true. "But don't tell him that."

Reletti started walking again. "My lips are sealed, sir."

They got to the rocks after a few minutes' trudging through the sand. John took off his boots to shake them out, but Reletti, who was wearing desert boots, didn't bother. He didn't know if it was because Reletti had no sand in them or because marines didn't do that sort of thing.

"Lunch is in the bag," he said as he retied his laces.

"You brought food, sir?" Reletti brightened and reached for the bag.

"I'm Air Force, Sergeant," John replied smugly. "I don't kill my lunch unless I have to."

Reletti grinned as he dug through the bag and pulled out two paper bags. "Is there a difference between them?"

"Shouldn't be," John replied, accepting the one Reletti held out to him. The sergeants on kitchen duty were usually generous when he came by to ask for bag lunches, so he wasn't surprised to find a humongous roast beef sandwich, another of the softball-sized peaches, and one of those weird-ass clear drink pouches that reminded him of the Capri Suns he'd get in his lunches back in middle school (except the SGC only ever seemed to send iced tea, fruit punch, and pink lemonade flavors, none of which Rodney could drink).

"Doctor Safir hates these things," Reletti said cheerfully as he held up his drink pouch. "He says it's because it reminds him of IV bags, but I think it's because he can't get the straw in right."

John smiled as he squirted mustard on to half of his sandwich. "I suspect you're right."

They ate in companionable silence, watching some sea birds fly between the trees behind them and the water.

"How do you like being on an off-world team, Sergeant?" John asked eventually, partially to make conversation but mostly because he genuinely wanted to know. Once upon a time, checking with the mental health and well-being of off-world teams meant giving Rodney coffee and finding Stackhouse in the gym. Now it was a process too elaborate to handle both efficiently and casually and he'd had to choose one or the other. He'd gone with casually because he'd realized early on that efficiency on his part made people suspicious. "Major Lorne treating you okay? Doctor Safir behaving himself?"

"Major Lorne treats us great, sir," Reletti said, wiping the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. "And it's kind of a relief to be visiting people and not be looking for bad guys at the same time."

"Sure," John agreed. When he'd first started flying in Antarctica, it had taken him a few months before he'd stopped looking for the trail of an RPG out of the corners of his eyes.

"It's hard, too," Reletti went on, speaking more slowly as if he were being careful how the words came out. "I mean, the last time I was walking through villages that looked straight out of the middle ages, there was always a guy with a cell phone hiding in a back room with some AK-47s, ready to set off an IED or call his buddies and tell them where we were. Here, they're just... there."

"Well, most of the time," John countered. "Sometimes, they're shy Amish farmers with secret nuclear weapons facilities under the farmhouse."

Reletti smiled wryly. "Yeah," he agreed. "I guess that's the one good thing about losing the ability to trust the face value. It's safer in the long run."

It was a cynical statement for someone so young, but John supposed that Reletti wasn't nearly as young as his age. He'd read Reletti's file (as he had Suarez's and Ortilla's); Reletti was the kid stuck riding in the back seat on Lorne's team, but once upon a time he'd been a squad leader in his own right and responsible for the safety of his men as well as the success of the mission. He'd been very good at both, which was why he had a file thick with commendations and a PCS to another galaxy.

"Safety's important, but don't forget to enjoy yourself," John said because that was really as much the point as finding new technology or new allies to fight the Wraith.

Reletti didn't roll his eyes, but he came close. "Major Lorne keeps telling us that, sir. That we're not his bodyguards and we're full members of the team and stuff like that."

John crumpled up the wax paper that had held his sandwich. "He's right, Sergeant. You're not here to be just a door-kicker. Nobody in Atlantis is."

He wished that he could tell Reletti exactly what else he could be, that the mission of the Atlantis Battalion was clearly defined beyond the usual force protection, manual labor, and civil affairs. He and Lorne had already found themselves banging their heads against the wall that was the Marine Corps way of doing things. Atlantis was all about thinking outside the box and sometimes... sometimes marines needed to be kicked out of the box because they were very comfortable inside. "You've got options," he finally said, wrapping his peach up for the ride home. "Hell, guys with the ATA gene always end up a couple of time zones out of their MOS."

Like going from surplus pilot and head light switch to acting military commander of a battalion of marines.

Reletti made a sour face. "I saw their eyes light up when they found out I had the gene, sir. Lieutenant Patchok keeps me out of the gate room when our platoon's on guard duty so I don't make such an easy target."

John tried not to laugh. He hadn't realized that the lieutenants were already taking proactive measures. Some of the marines with the ATA gene had already been assigned to the labs and Rodney wanted more.

"Just think about it," John said as he finished his drink pouch. "Ready to go back?"

"Yes, sir," Reletti said, spitting his peach pit into his paper bag.

They trudged back to the jumper, the wind in their faces this time and John gave Reletti a cock-eyed look when Reletti paused before sitting in the pilot's seat.

Takeoff protocols on a jumper were ridiculously easy when compared to a helicopter or a plane and there weren't too many differences between taking off from the jumper bay and taking off from anywhere else except that you had to control your flight from the start with the latter. Reletti had them rising slowly and, once they cleared the tree line and had no visual references, a little jerkily. He overcompensated on the right turn by about fifteen degrees and John reminded him to call up the appropriate display on the HUD.

"How much is this like flying for real, sir?" Reletti asked after they'd gotten straightened out and were back on course for the city. "I mean, flying something on Earth. Obviously we're flying for real here."

John grinned. "It's closer to a plane, at least from what I remember of that," he replied. Take away a couple of adventures in a 302 and his previous fixed-wing experience had been more than a decade previous. "Not so much like a helicopter."

He always felt a little guilty missing rotor aircraft when he was riding in a spaceship that was keyed to his thoughts. He couldn't imagine never being able to fly a jumper again -- and he tried to forget the fear of just that when he'd been on Earth -- but sometimes he wondered if he was getting lazy. Flying a helicopter required work, effort, attention, and a tiny bit of luck no matter how good a pilot you were. Flying a jumper was so easy and so natural to him that it was probably closer to Superman than a plane: flying without wings or a motor.

Reletti was not Superman, but he wasn't exactly struggling. Bessie was cruising along at a decent clip, no longer fussing like an overprotective aunt at each correction Reletti made. One round-trip wasn't enough to qualify the sergeant as a viable choice for alternate pilot on Lorne's team, but Lorne could take him out a few more times and, if the worst happened and they got into some shit before then, Reletti would at least know the basics.

A clock came up on the HUD and disappeared almost as quickly.

"Got a hot date, Sergeant?"

Reletti blushed furiously. "No, sir. Just wondered what time it was."

The clock had been on the Ancient time system, which was no more useful than a speedometer in Ancient units. "It's 1400," he said, looking at his watch.

"Thank you, sir." Reletti was still looking slightly mortified. "We have company exercises at 1700."

John knew he was supposed to know what Charlie Company was up to. "Captain Polito punting you fellows off-world again?" he asked, because that was the most likely option.

"Yes, sir," Reletti replied. "Land nav."

For better or for worse, it was easier to get large groups of marines off-world to train than to the mainland. Rodney had a standing subgroup of engineers trying to design a large-capacity transport, something that could ferry a platoon (or equivalent numbers of civilians or Athosians) without necessarily being able to get through the stargate or go into orbit.

"Do you know which planet you're going to?"

Reletti made an apologetic face. "No, sir. I'm not doing too well learning all of the planet addresses. It's like trying to memorize a parking lot full of license plates. M3F-something, I think."

"M3F-271?" John asked, mostly to himself. "Isn't that the dinosaur planet?"

"Dinosaur planet, sir?" Reletti sounded alarmed.

"One of our old alpha sites," John replied. "It was gorgeous -- lots of trees, grass, waterfalls, the works. Except that we didn't find out until we were planning the evac right before the siege that the damned planet is home to these... Tyrannosaurus Rex creatures. Nearly got eaten going to give the place one last inspection."

A couple of months and more than a couple of disasters later, it was actually kind of funny. They'd survived the siege and he could choose to focus on Ford's reaction to the dinosaurs (shrieking like a girl) rather than to remember the Ford he'd shot last month.

"Doctor Safir never mentioned dinosaurs, sir," Reletti said carefully.

"I don't think he'd have known about them," John replied, thinking back. "Nobody needed the infirmary after that one and everyone else was kind of busy panicking. It was a fun time."

Reletti caught the sarcasm and gave a wry look of understanding.

"Does Doctor Safir tell a lot of stories?" John asked, genuinely curious as well as looking for a topic change. Yoni wasn't exactly a coffee klatch kind of guy and the thought of him either gossiping or reminiscing was a little foreign. Hell, Safir still hadn't gone to his required post-siege session with Heightmeyer. Yoni did not chat.

Reletti hemmed and hawed and focused on changing the displays on the HUD and John belatedly realized that he was asking Reletti to tattle. "Sometimes," Reletti finally said. "About strange stuff he's seen. Nothing that'd violate OpSec or anything."

"Relax, Sergeant," John said. "You're part of the same mission now. If you can get Doctor Safir to talk, more power to you. He's been off-world more than most of the people in Atlantis and is a good resource. Even if all of the stories end up making me sound like an idiot."

Reletti coughed. "Not all, sir."

John didn't roll his eyes, no matter how much he wanted to. "How many times have you heard about the nanovirus?" he asked instead. "That's got to be one of his favorites."

Reletti grinned. "Only a couple of times, sir."

It wasn't a moment he was proud of -- and it had been one that had gotten him in serious trouble with the generals back on Earth -- but time had healed the worst of it.

"He tell you guys about the shadow energy vampire?"

Reletti raised his eyebrows. "No, sir, I don't think so."

"I'd have thought that would have been one of his first ones," John mused. Because any story that featured Rodney fainting sounded like it should move right to the top.

"Doctor Safir's not real... talkative," Reletti said slowly. "I mean, you get him in the right mood and he'll tell you a story, but...."

"But Doctor Safir doesn't always remember that others expect social interaction," John finished. "It's part of his charm."

Reletti grinned again. "Yeah."

John thought Reletti actually meant it, too.

"The energy vampire thing was our first week in Atlantis," John began after they'd fallen silent for a couple of minutes. They still had fifteen minutes (probably closer to twenty-five at the speed Reletti was going) until they got back to the city and while he wasn't necessarily feeling nostalgic, there was something to be said for telling a story where nobody died and no decisions came back to haunt them. The city as a whole was still a little shocky from the siege and the new arrivals replacing the dead and departed and light fare was in short supply. "We weren't really unpacked yet -- quarters had been assigned for a day, maybe two. The engineers were going apeshit plugging stuff in, we hadn't cleared enough space for everyone to move around and we still had all of the Athosians living with us."

"The Athosians used to live in Atlantis?"

"Yeah," John said. While he'd gotten used to talking to SGC personnel who didn't know the details of Atlantis, it still felt a little odd to be in Atlantis and interacting with people who hadn't been through everything, too. They'd been all alone and all together for a year that felt like an eternity and if the new people had stopped looking so new, they still had a different outlook and a different attitude toward the city. Not to mention not knowing the details of that first year as anything but what was in the reports. "For a couple of weeks right when we got here. It was... a little thick. We were all on top of each other and the Athosians were a little weirded out living in the 'City of the Ancestors' and we were a little weirded out by the Wraith and everyone sort of stressed out at once and they ended up on the mainland once we discovered it."

It was a gross oversimplification, of course, of those first weeks full of tension and suspicion and misgiving and regrets. In hindsight, John thought that the two groups had come together too quickly and stayed together too long, or at least long enough for the initial clinging for support to have faded into wondering who the hell they'd hitched themselves to. When they'd met, the Athosians had seen the expedition both as innocents and as gods, the inheritors of the Ancestors in both spirit and blood, and when they had been revealed as merely men.... The Athosians trusted them enough to stay on the mainland -- trusted Atlantis to be their sole access to the stargate and thus the galaxy -- but the breach caused by that initial time had never quite healed.

"But before then, it was kind of like what you'd expect when you've taken in a large number of indigenous refugees," John went on. "Occasional culture clashes aside, it was a lot of fun. The expedition was all either geeks or guns and everyone was so caught up in the seriousness of what we were doing and then suddenly we had kids running around playing hide-and-seek.

"Actually, that's what started the whole thing. Two of the kids -- have you met Jinto or Wex yet? Jinto's Halling's boy -- were playing hide-and-seek one night. Of course, it's like lunch-and-Wraith here, but anyway. They're running around and accidentally discover the transporters. Which we'd only thought were closets up until then."

"Whoops," Reletti commented dryly.

"Yeah," John agreed, rolling his eyes because that had never stopped being ironic. "So Jinto gets transported out to a lab at the edge of the city. We find him because he's found a city-wide communicator. Unfortunately, he found that by touching lots of stuff, one of which was a containment unit for some sentient energy vampire thing the Ancients were studying."

"Double whoops?"

"More like quadruple," John replied, eying the display on the HUD. He could feel Bessie pinging Atlantis, judging her distance from home. "We get Jinto back, but the energy thing is running around the city, scaring the crap out of everyone and sucking power out of the generators. The Athosians think it's one of the Ancestors pissed about everyone living in Atlantis, but the engineers are actually pissing it off by making it chase its food."

In hindsight, it had been a little like bear-baiting and probably just as ill-advised.

"So I should have said that Doctor McKay had found a personal shield the day before and activated it. That was kind of fun. I got to shoot him and push him off of the gate room balcony."

"You shot Doctor McKay?" Reletti didn't even bother to hide his surprise -- and envy.

"In the leg -- nearly took out a light with the ricochet," John confirmed with satisfaction. Because he still remembered how good it had felt to turn the tables on his chief torturer from Antarctica. Not that he didn't still have plenty of moments when he'd like to shove Rodney off of balconies.

"So we've got this shield that can only be used by one person -- and, for better or worse, that person is Doctor McKay," John went on, skipping the parts where Rodney was alternately disgustingly self-absorbed, terrified, selfish, and so smug that even Elizabeth had wanted to shoot him. Without the shield. Because Rodney's not quite like that anymore. Most of the time.

"And we've tried everything else to get this energy thing back into its box, but it's not working. So we try to lure it through the gate by putting a naquadah generator on a MALP and driving it through the wormhole. Doesn't work. Damned thing starts feeding off of the stargate and the generator and the MALP before it can get to the gate. The thing's gotten so big, it's taken over the entire gate room floor. We're all trying to figure out what to do -- it fries people on contact, so running into it and pushing the MALP through just isn't an option. We're less than a week into the expedition and we figure we're all toast and it's not even going to be the Wraith that does us in."

Reletti was listening raptly, like the Athosian kids did when anyone tells them stories of Earth. He had to know that it all turned out fine, but he was riveted just the same and John couldn't help but be amused. Because in light of everything else that came afterward, that morning of terror seemed more funny than any sort of residual scary.

"And then McKay gets the shield to come back on and goes down there and tosses the generator through the wormhole, getting the thing to chase after it. Crisis solved," John finished.

Reletti turned to him, a little surprised.

"McKay can be insufferable at times," John said, because it was true and because he needed his marines to know that he wouldn't blindly take Rodney's side against them. "But he's there when it counts. Even if he faints afterward."

Reletti coughed out a laugh.

"It was a very manly faint," John added with a straight face.

"Jumper Four, this is Flight," Caughlin's voice came over the speakers. "We have you inbound with an ETA of five minutes."

John looked over at Reletti, who had automatically brought up the displays that showed their approach to Atlantis and the threshold at which the auto-pilot would engage.

"Flight, this is Jumper Four," John answered because Reletti wouldn't. "We are confirming. Catch you in a few."

Reletti slowed the jumper as Bessie began to burble happily at returning home. "Do I have to do anything, sir, or just fly her over the jumper bay?"

"Once we get closer to the city, you should slow down," John said, one eye on the speedometer. "It's essentially a high-tech carrier landing, but with invisible arresting cables."

Reletti nodded, eyes not moving from the viewscreen. "Woah," he murmured.

John looked forward again. Atlantis was just coming up on the horizon, gorgeous and glorious as always set against the sea. 'Yeah," he agreed quietly. He never got tired of that view.

Reletti must have been worrying about slowing smoothly because Bessie did her damnedest to ease them into a gentle glide once they got near the city. There was a bit of a hop when the auto-pilot caught them and they slowed to a stop. Reletti kept his hands on the controls, even though it was unnecessary, until they felt the clamps attach in the docking station.

"Congratulations, Sergeant," John said as they waited for the ramp to lower. "You've passed Introduction to Puddle Jumpers."

"Thank you, sir." Reletti fairly beamed. "For everything."

John nodded and stood up. "Get Lorne or one of the lieutenants to take you out a few more times," he said. "One successful round trip does not a jumper pilot make."

"Aye aye, sir," Reletti said, standing up, too. He waited for John to precede him to the ramp before leaving the pilot's chair.

Zigmanis was waiting for them as they exited. "Good ride, Sergeant?"

"Yes, sir," Reletti answered emphatically.

"Good, good," Zigmanis said, nodding. "Oh, Colonel: McKay is looking for you. Not in the good way."

John had been in the process of digging the peach out of his bag, but he froze. "Right," he muttered, then turned to Reletti. "Sergeant, execute strategic withdrawal plan Red Kryptonite."

Reletti looked confused, but like he was game to go along. "Did I miss that briefing, sir?"

"Escape to Little Tripoli," John elaborated. "Proximity to that many marines causes strange and unpredictable effects in scientists and they tend to stay the hell away."

Reletti beamed. So did Zigmanis, for that matter.

"Go," Zigmanis urged, making a shooing motion. "You came back when I was in the office and I didn't see you leave."

"Thanks, Doc," John said, meaning it. He held out his hand. "Have a peach."

Zigmanis accepted the peach with a wry smile. "Thank you, Colonel. Now be gone, both of you."

"Let's go, Sergeant," John exhorted. "Lex Luthor has spies everywhere."

They made it to the transporters and then they were home free. John was sure Rodney had learned to do something to the tranporters by now, but Atlantis had a favorite and it wasn't Rodney.

He parted ways with Reletti once in Little Tripoli. The sergeant looked eager to get back to his unit for his playdate and John had decided to wait out the storm in Lorne's office, ostensibly because he could confer with his XO but mostly because Lorne had comfy chairs and was willing to lie if Rodney called and asked if he were there. He'd have to confront Rodney eventually -- McKay wasn't necessarily unstoppable once he was on the warpath, but it would take a pretty good distraction to get his attention elsewhere -- and this would buy him a little time to figure out what the problem was this time.

Lorne looked utterly unsurprised to see him and John had the feeling it had nothing to do with him waiting for a report on his flying lesson with Reletti.

"Your sergeant can fly," he said when Lorne finally looked up from the notes he was taking (with a pencil on a pad).

Lorne grinned. "Thanks," he said.

"He's a good kid," John added, because he suspected that Lorne was looking for a little approval on that front. John's reaction to him picking Safir hadn't been as dramatic as Elizabeth's, but still. "A little...." he trailed off, gesturing vaguely and thinking of 'giddyup.'

"Yeah," Lorne agreed, cocking an eyebrow. "To both."

Which meant that Reletti would fit in to Atlantis just fine. John wondered what it said about himself that it had become second nature to assess new personnel for how well they adapted to his city.

feed me on LJ?

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2 August, 2006