Taking a Shot for the Team

by Domenika Marzione

It's all over but the shouting and even that has mostly died out -- except for McKay and his people, who are still carrying on at 110 decibels on the other side of the clearing. It's not calm, but the noise level is commensurate with work getting done and not chaos and Lorne is comfortable enough with the state of things to change the default channel on his radio from the all-access net to the command one.

Not that the officers are any less chatty -- Weapons Company makes up for their laconic commander by having particularly garrulous platoon leaders -- but it still cuts down on the noise in his ear and makes it less likely that he'll mishear (or simply miss) what the people next to him are saying. On a world without any technology more advanced than levers and pulleys -- except for the still-smoldering Ancient outpost -- radios are considered occult and pleading distraction by them is a lost cause. Most of the Belnari think the Lanteans are either rude or crazy, depending on whether they believe you're ignoring them or hearing voices. Lorne isn't sure which way he should be encouraging them.

Being catered to because the locals think you're nuts isn't necessarily a bad thing, however. It helps get things done -- 'Don't argue with the crazy people' is apparently a saying in this galaxy, too -- and makes one part of this complicated afternoon less so. Not that Lorne's complaining about how things are running; with Sheppard on site, he doesn't actually have to worry about managing the situation -- for all of Sheppard's laid-back approach to the day-to-day operation of Atlantis, he's far less hands-off away from the city. And so instead of Lorne and the captains generating ideas that get run by Sheppard before they are implemented, here Sheppard is the one creating their to-do list and expecting his men to carry out his wishes. It is a testament to all of them that the spirit of those orders is essentially unchanged regardless of location.

Nonetheless, there's not a whole lot anyone can do, whatever Sheppard -- or McKay, who is far more sanguine about their prospects judging by the way he's berating everyone -- wishes. The Wraith came, the Wraith saw, and the Wraith destroyed. How much they saw and how much they destroyed is still up in the air, which is why McKay is somewhere between shrill taskmaster and hoarse football fan and Weapons Company is stripped down to sweat-soaked t-shirts as they haul and move and blast their way to where everyone hopes there are survivors and, possibly, intact equipment.

Sheppard has already had to remind McKay twice that the survivors come before the equipment.

The outpost isn't actually that close to the village, so they're spread out between the stargate and the outpost, jogging back and forth between those two endpoints and the village in the middle with security details throughout. Out by the site, Hanzis has command and control over his marines and McKay his scientists; in the village, Lorne has been handling the diplomacy and negotiations with the Belnari, freeing up Sheppard to move unencumbered and manage the entire affair from the top without getting bogged down in either discussion or detail. It's a bizarrely traditional way of doing things, at least as far as Atlantis goes, and it's a little refreshing. Even if the Belnari are more hindrance than help and Lorne feels a little like a decoy by keeping the locals distracted while the real work gets done by others. But he would be the best man for this job even if it hadn't been his team who'd made first contact with the Belnari way back when.

According to Raelo of the Belnari (everyone here is of the Belnari, but they repeat the epithet every time just the same), there should have been a dozen men and four women at the outpost at the time of the attack in addition to the six Lantean scientists and the marine escort. The escort was only a single squad; there have been excursions to Belnar for more than a year and the greatest risk has been judged to be drunkenness -- Belnari brandy is very strong and freely given and copious consumption of it is perhaps the surest way to endure this tedious people. This used to be Appleman's assignment in the Lieutenant envoy system, but they haven't re-assigned it since his departure and keep it as a punishment mission instead.

Morrison wound up with the short straw this time because two of his marines got cited for fighting in the barracks on Monday; it's turned out to be much more of a punishment than fit the crime and Lorne, Sheppard, and Hanzis are acutely aware of that.

Lorne has been listening to the occasional calls in to and from Atlantis as they come. Doctor Weir on the other end sometimes and Lieutenant Kagan more often, depending on whether information is being passed on or a decision has to be made. They're bringing in a medical team, although nobody's sure whether it'll be needed; they're packing body bags, too.

He's unsurprised to see the medical team lead by Yoni, with Metzinger and Chung and Hospitalman Fletcher along with a handful of marines carrying equipment. They are escorted into the village by Belnari militiamen and Lorne does a quick introduction -- they are all "of the Tau'ri" because the Belnari think it's rudely informal to not say where you're from. Raelo remembers Yoni, or at least he says he does. Raelo also thinks every single marine who shows up is Ortilla, Reletti, or Suarez, so he may be just going by general description. Either way, Lorne points them in the right direction before Raelo can get wound up and invite them for a meal or a glass of brandy, since not providing a repast for your guests is also considered rude and the Belnari fear rudeness possibly more than they fear the Wraith.

Last year, on the way home from their their first visit, after they'd all enjoyed as much brandy as they could manage while still maintaining the necessary sobriety for work and the risk of Wraith, Lorne's team had decided that the Belnari offered and poured with such a free hand because they knew that they were uptight and boring and this was the only way to make and keep friends. Lorne didn't disagree -- the Belnari were a lot more tolerable (and easily tolerated) after everyone had had a few.

Ten hours later, Lorne wishes he'd had more than a few. He's spent most of the time at the outpost, but Raelo and the other dignitaries followed him out here and he's had to act as liaison and Explainer of Things and since the Belnari thought that their radios were hocus-pocus, there was no easy way to explain the Camero or the other high-tech toys the marines and scientists were using. Raelo is convinced that they've been using the Camero to sneak peeks at the undressed forms of the Belnari women and no matter how many times Lorne explains what it can and can't do, no matter how many times they show Raelo that they are more likely to see skeletons than any forbidden skin, it's not an argument they can win.

The scientists are frustrated by the disbelief and non-comprehension, but the marines are philosophical.

"It's like night vision goggles back in the sandbox, sir," Gunny Wilder says with a shrug. "They either didn't believe they worked or thought we were looking under their wives' abayas."

Thankfully -- and not just because it distracts Raelo from the possible offenses to Belnari modesty -- they start finding people before sunset. Even better, they're alive.

The Belnari are found first. Most are conscious and all are bloodied; there are a few visibly broken bones and more injuries that are revealed during the scan -- Chung is along because he's got the gene and can use the device. Hanzis is polite but resolute in questioning the most lucid of the survivors as they are being treated, asking where the others were when the building came under attack. He gets some answers and then leaves Lieutenant Murray to suss out a more complete story, trusting Murray's people skills (and patience with talking to the inebriated -- the survivors were offered brandy as soon as they were liberated from the rubble, although Yoni forbade any consumption until after triage) to get a more complete picture of what happened.

They know already that a Wraith cruiser appeared out of nowhere, escorted by four Darts, and went straight to the outpost, blasting it from the air and then flying off without either checking their work or stopping for a snack. What they don't know is whether the Wraith were after the outpost (in which case why?) or whether it was a message (in which case, for whom?). There's also the possibility that this was some kind of offering by the Belnari to the Wraith -- after dealing with Wraith worshipers, the Genii bounty, and, more recently, with Runners-turned-restaurant-reviewers, it's something they have to consider. Lorne knows that while the Belnari lack technology and senses of humor, that doesn't mean they can't have guile. Or, as Sheppard put it, a nuclear bunker under the distillery.

The marines and scientists are found roughly where the Belnari survivors told Hanzis they would be; apparently the Belnari had retired to a rear room for a meal (and brandy) with the scientists working near the front and the marines staying nearby. The first Lantean they find is Sergeant Zoeller, who is obviously concussed and keeps asking if he missed the last bus to Cincinnati and not believing the answers he gets. Hanzis finally tells him that he's got two hours, but if he misses the bus, First Sergeant Dyson will drive him. Surprisingly, this gets him to finally settle down and let Fletcher clean up his bloody scalp.

"He better make that bus, sir," Dyson tells Hanzis as they leave Zoeller. "It's a long fucking drive to Ohio from here."

Lorne has to politely explain to Raelo that the found marines cannot have brandy, even Sergeant Wilbart, who lets out an awful howl as his dislocated shoulder is popped back into place. Raelo is displeased that his hospitality is being refused -- brandy is a curative on Belnar -- but Lorne is far more afraid of a pissed-off Yoni than of setting off an international incident by keeping the marines sober.

He lets Raelo 'medicate' the scientists, who are found safe-but-trapped in a reinforced engine room and are suffering more from claustrophobia and too much close proximity to each other than anything else. A little brandy will help them not only with that, but also with enduring the ranting of McKay, who is masking his relief at their safe recovery by bawling them out for not getting work done while they were waiting for rescue.

The Belnari presence thins out a little as dark falls; they are both awed and a little disgusted by the bright lights the marines have put up on tripods; the harsh light is unpleasant compared to torchlight, they say, and it is unnatural. Also, it's getting late for them -- it's summer here and the night is very short. Raelo goes back to the village with one of the convoys of wounded, promising to return. Lorne tells him not to hurry back and is proud that it sounds like he's actually worried about Raelo's safety and comfort only instead of his own sanity as well.

Chung and Metzinger escort the wounded marines back to Atlantis; Yoni keeps Fletcher and stays behind, ostensibly in case there's an accident but really because he's been subtly doing research on the Belnari all day and wants to continue. He also might have a clinic shift that he's trying to avoid, but Lorne doesn't ask because this way Beckett can't yell at him for enabling Yoni's truancy.

Even without the Belnari meddling, there's still a lot to do. The trapped scientists have recovered enough to start winding McKay up about what they suspect might have been in the outpost -- they'd found a hidden cache of control crystals ("Where?" McKay demands. "We've been over that place a dozen times!") and had just figured out which console they were for when the Wraith showed. While that goes on, Lorne, Sheppard, and Hanzis discuss the best way to get relief in place for Weapons Company, which has been on the job long enough that fresh bodies are of more use than their combat engineering savvy.

Raelo returns when Charlie Company marches through the stargate and on toward the site. Polito declined the offer of traditional welcoming toasts as they pass through the village and Lorne isn't sure if Raelo wants to explain that he tried to make the offer or if he wants Lorne to tell the marines to stop refusing it.

"I may take 'em up on it on the way down," Hanzis says as he waits for his marines to form up so that they can get home. He rolls his neck and grunts as it pops; he's as filthy and worn-looking as his marines from the labor and the worrying. Mike's not a guy who likes to show much in the way of emotion, but anyone who knows him could easily have seen how the prospect of losing six marines -- and then finding them alive -- affected him throughout the day. His marines certainly hadn't missed it. "Keeping that a theoretical drink, of course, sirs."

Sheppard grins crookedly. "Theoretically," he says, "we could say that you did what you had to do to preserve good relations with the indigenous population. Raelo's gettin' kind of grumpy."

Weapons Company trundles off, tired but satisfied that their mission was accomplished and they're still a full complement after that was anything but a sure deal. Lorne and Sheppard and Polito watch them go and then get on with the still-waiting work of clearing away the rest of the rubble and seeing how much of the outpost is salvageable. Before the Wraith had deemed it important enough to bomb, it hadn't really been a high priority to Atlantis -- in better shape than most of the ones they'd come across thus far, but not exactly rich in either information or useful technology. It still might not be -- those crystals the expedition team had found could prove useless, but it's very clear that they're not leaving until they find out for sure.

Lorne doesn't so much find his marines by sight as by sound; he can hear Reletti bitching loudly to a fellow marine that he's not a fucking bomb-sniffing dog for Ancient technology. Except he sort of is -- he and Spelcher and the three other ATA-positive marines are probably going to find out the hard way if there's anything still viable. Sheppard's been in and out, but while Lorne hasn't asked him per se -- he doesn't think Sheppard would take it any better than Reletti -- he's also sure that Sheppard would have spoken up if he'd found anything. To McKay, at least; a general announcement would only reinforce the marines' beliefs that their commander is a little different beyond his quirky command style.

For the time being, there's not much for anyone to do as Charlie gets organized except to stay out of the way. The few Belnari still around are milling about at medium proximity; they're watchmen, more or less, making sure that nobody from Atlantis does anything too mystical or profane. The Belnari don't so much worship the Ancestors as venerate them; they don't want the Lanteans either making a mess or doing something perverse at a site that is less than holy but more than historical. It's why there were so many 'guides' at the outpost when it was attacked -- after a half-dozen trips, it wasn't as if the expedition scientists didn't know their way to and fro.

"You and the Colonel going to hang out for a while, sir?" Polito asks as he walks by. He's got his sleeves rolled up and is holding work gloves in his hand.

"I expect so," Lorne replies. It hadn't really crossed his mind to go back to Atlantis; there's enough to do here beyond the heavy lifting and he and Sheppard still need to caucus on what they're going to tell Weir, who has largely left them be since the initial search and rescue phase. Nothing he's seen has given him any sort of feeling about the answer to the questions about how and why this happened. He'd love to put it down to an unhappy accident, but there's too much at stake to make such an assumption.

Plus, Atlantis has never been that lucky. Nor have the Wraith, for that matter.

Sheppard is off at the other end of the site, getting yelled at by McKay and several of the engineers judging by the noise and arm-waving.

"Want us to accidentally drop something heavy, sir?" Gunny Tommasso asks as they watch.

Sheppard shamelessly avoids most of the mundane bureaucracy of command, but he will never, ever let his people get barked at by anyone other than their own. Not even McKay is allowed that privilege, even if he's right and there needs to be an intra-military chewing-out later. And so with the scientists unhappy about something, this is Sheppard diving on a grenade for the marines and it's best for all if they let him do it. Especially when it's only metaphorical; they all know there are plenty of times when it is a little too literal for everyone's tastes.

"Your chivalry is admirable, Gunny," Lorne tells him, "But I think the Colonel's virtue is probably safe."

Tommasso gives him a nod and heads off to where Gillick is scribbling on a map with a pencil.

Lorne ends up looking for a quiet(-ish) spot to start writing up his notes on the day's events. He's not likely to forget anything -- not enough has gone on that details are going to fall through the cracks -- but maybe organizing things on paper will spark something in the way of conclusions.

It's full-dark, so the only choices for a resting place are within the perimeter of floodlights. By Pegasus standards, Belnar is pretty bare tree-wise, but there's still a small copse at one end and thick grass in front of it. It's undoubtedly the most comfortable spot around and the scientists had been hanging out there earlier, but Lorne doesn't go all the way to edge to get there. He's magically disappeared a few times too many recently and he doesn't need to turn around to know that there are at least a handful of marines watching to make sure he doesn't wander out of easy reach. Instead, he settles for the base of a short, squat rock formation still well inside the floodlit area. He pulls out his notebook and his pencil and by the time he looks up, only First Sergeant Backman is still openly watching. He nods at Backman, who nods back approval, and wonders when the marines are going to start lobbying Weir again for a couple of extra staff NCOs to keep an eye on him and Sheppard.

He's still scribbling -- Belnar isn't close enough to Atlantis that they have to worry about a Wraith cruiser (or, worse, a Wraith armada, since it's unlikely that a cruiser travels alone) in the neighborhood -- when he senses someone approach. Looking up, he sees Yoni, who is settling down against the rocks close enough to be in the same picture frame but not close enough that it looks like they're sitting together. Which means Yoni is here because proximity is safety and not because he wants to be talked to; Lorne's known him too long and too well to be offended by that -- it's still something of a compliment that Yoni's opting for this space instead of finding his own. They work in companionable silence -- Yoni on his laptop and Lorne in his little notebook -- with the sounds of demolition and marines at work as soundtrack.

Sheppard joins them some time later.

"What do you want?" Yoni asks peevishly as Sheppard doesn't come over to Lorne, but instead drops down heavily next to Yoni on the far side.

"To bask in the sunshine of your warm and welcoming personality," Sheppard replies easily.

"I'm busy," Yoni says and Lorne looks the other way because he's trying not to laugh. Sheppard is one of the few people who can successfully use sarcasm against Yoni, in part because it can be hard to tell when Sheppard is being flip and mostly because Sheppard is one of the few people so completely unintimidated by Yoni that he'd even think to do so.

"I'm not here for the conversation, Doc," Sheppard assures him, leaning back against the rock and folding his hands over his stomach. Lorne can't see if his eyes are closed without leaning forward, which he won't do. "I'm on hour nineteen of a search and rescue and have been getting bitched at for at least seventeen of those hours. I want a couple of minutes of peace and quiet and nobody from Engineering is going to come within twenty yards of you if they don't have to."

That's not strictly true -- McKay will, but even he'll hesitate. Either way, Yoni takes the news that he's being used as a force field remarkably well.

"Don't abuse the privilege," he says and starts typing again.

Sheppard's rest -- and all chances of peace and quiet -- end when the marines find the generator for the outpost and the engineers deem it intact enough to power up before getting the all-clear from Polito, causing something that showers sparks over the marines working at the other side of the rubble pile.

Lorne has rarely seen Matt get truly angry -- irritated, sure, with his marines and especially with the less pragmatic of the civilians proposals for off-world missions -- but both he and Sheppard are up and running over to where Polito is reaming out Selikhova for endangering his marines at a volume that could possibly be heard back in Atlantis. McKay is already there, but he's not so much yelling back at Polito as trying to end the display, which Lorne takes to mean that he knows that Selikhova screwed up badly.

By unspoken agreement, Lorne stays with Polito while Sheppard half-drags McKay -- who in turn sends Selikhova back to where the other engineers have huddled -- off for a quick discussion that Lorne knows will be about sending the scientists home for the day. It's going to be sunrise soon here and it's getting toward late evening back in Atlantis and nobody wants to turn this into a marathon session. Especially since they don't know if or when the Wraith will return to check their handiwork.

With help from Backman, Lorne guides a still-seething Polito over to where Yoni and Fletcher are examining the affected marines.

"We're all good, sir," Staff Sergeant Laganzo assures his commander as they approach. "Just a tickle."

Yoni concurs with a dismissive wave and a grimace that is more annoyance with the chaos than anything else.

Sheppard jogs over a few minutes later.

"Everyone but Ferguson and Lienberg is going to head back to the city," he announces once he's joined Lorne and Polito. "They'll stay behind for consult with the understanding that if they try anything without asking first, they can be marched back to the city singing the Marine Corps Hymn."

Lorne smiles; McKay, even bargaining from a position of weakness, agreed to nothing of the sort except for the part where he designated the two engineers least likely to piss off the marines.

"They're probably crappy singers," Sheppard goes on, "So if there's trouble, you can just send them back without musical accompaniment."

Translation: Polito has the authorization to boot the scientists, but is being advised to do that instead of verbally tear them into strips again.

"Understood, sir," Polito says.

"You ready to go home?" Sheppard asks Lorne. "We should bring Doctor Safir back, too, before Doctor Beckett declares him MIA."

This was probably part of the actual agreement with McKay. It's not a complete face-saving for the scientists, but it looks less bad if the other non-marines are packed up for home along with the engineers.

"Sure," Lorne replies, since it wasn't really a question.

They're underway inside fifteen minutes. They need a squad of marines to carry all of the scientists' equipment back to the gate and that it ends up being Ortilla's squad is completely unsurprising. It's another message from Polito to both the marines watching them go as well as to Lorne and Sheppard, meaning different things to both. The scientists are completely oblivious, except for maybe McKay, who micromanages them less than usual.

On the way back through the village, which is starting to stir with pre-dawn activity, Raelo scurries up to them; after a day of accusing every marine of being Suarez, Ortilla, and Reletti, he doesn't recognize the genuine articles. Nonetheless, he offers them a drink.

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28 January 2008