The Slippery Slope

by Domenika Marzione

"I think we can skip past 'why'," Sheppard said, still looking up.

Lorne could only grunt agreement, still a little too awed to actually say anything. Not that anything needed saying on that front. Marines were what they were, which was courageous and determined and completely batshit insane and, frequently, all at once. But even by the standards of the Corps in general and the Atlantis marines in particular, this latest stunt was.... special.

The initial report, dated almost two months ago, had come from G-2 when a few of the social scientists had reported marines doing strange things in the part of the city that was E-2 on the grid. Nobody had given it much thought; G-2 was frequently -- and frequently hilariously -- vague about what they reported ("strange things" was often the actual phrase used). Which in turn was invariably some kind of training exercise that G-2 was objecting to because it existed, not because it was actually interfering with anyone's work. The marines liked practicing in that part of the city; it was normally unoccupied and brilliantly lit by morning sunlight and nobody had followed up on the initial report beyond verifying that some platoon had in fact been training that day. At least that's what the paperwork said.

"If we move past that and on to the 'how,'" Sheppard went on, finally looking away from what was admittedly a transfixing sight. "We can ask the obvious and more interesting question: did they have help and from whom?"

"Wasn't G-2," Lorne said dryly. "Question is whether it was anyone from Engineering or whether this was an all marine effort."

Lorne doubted Engineering was in on the gig, at least not intentionally. Zelenka had his moments of whimsy and a deep disregard for G-2, but, frankly, this required more chutzpah than Zelenka normally possessed.

"And how long Larry, Curly, and Moe knew about this," Sheppard added.

It was completely improbable that the captains were unaware that their marines had constructed something between a bobsled run and a water log ride inside the city. Certainly not one that ran through two sectors and ended next to the southeast pier. The marine captains were hands-on commanders of varying degrees, but those degrees covered a narrow range from 'involved' to 'acutely aware' and what they didn't know -- actually didn't know, not the convenient kind of ignorance -- was usually the result of a carefully coordinated effort on the part of the staff NCOs, who really did know everything. The lieutenants, closer to the daily actions of the marines than the captains and also guardians of the city from the gate room, were even less plausibly clueless.

In short, this was a leatherneck conspiracy of vast proportions.

"Does Doctor Weir know about this yet?" Lorne asked, since he was still sorting out whether he was impressed by the marines' efforts or insulted that they didn't think that he and Sheppard would notice sooner rather than later. The slide itself made admittedly brilliant use of existing Atlantis architecture, but whooping and hollering marines careening down its length in wheeled IBS were a little harder to camouflage.

"No," Sheppard replied with a sigh. "I don't think she's going to take this one too well."

After a couple of years of trying to reasonably justify the sometimes less-than-reasonable actions of both his CO and the herd of leathernecks in their charge, Lorne could perfectly imagine Weir's reaction: the raised eyebrows, the lips pursed into a frown, and the twinkle of humor in her eyes because even though she was the one who'd have to bring the hammer down, she wasn't bereft of the ability to appreciate the creativity required to really cut loose in Pegasus. But then would come the questions delivered in a voice both disbelieving and stern and Lorne didn't imagine for a second that they'd be able to laugh this one off the way they did when the Corpsmen staged an impromptu NBC drill in the gate room the other month.

"Probably not."

"We should get some hard intel before we tell her," Sheppard said, making it sound nothing like avoidance. "She's going to ask why everyone in Little Tripoli but us knew about this and I'd rather be able to answer at least one of the other questions without sounding like an idiot."

Bandana-wearing marines hollering at the top of their lungs as they raced down a makeshift slide through parts of the city and into the sea were nobody's idea of subtle, but it had still taken at least a month for either of them to notice. (Maybe more -- if the original G-2 report had been of its implementation and not its construction, the marines could have been at this since they moved back to Pegasus. Or longer.) This was an unoccupied part of the city and neither he nor Sheppard had any reason to be out here to help herd in civilian wanderers. E-1 and E-2 were classified such that they didn't require marine escort for civilians to enter, just supervisor notification and, for safety, a check to make sure the marines weren't training in the area. Additionally, Lorne and Sheppard were both off-world often, had plenty of other duties, had two layers of marine officer between then and the enlisteds, and... and none of that mattered. It had still taken an off-hand query from a curious archaeologist during a meal break off-world for Sheppard to be made aware and, through him, Lorne.

To the captains' credit -- or at least to the credit of their sense of self-preservation -- they reported to Lorne's office looking chastened, coming to a halt and drawing up stiffly before settling in at ease. Standing at attention was what they did for officers they didn't like.

"Well?" Sheppard asked, looking up from the Rubik's cube.

"It was a joint decision, sirs," Radner said. Lorne wasn't surprised to see him take the lead here. Polito was the senior captain, but he was also the prime suspect for ringleader and everyone knew it. Radner had the city knowledge from his time in command after the siege and Hanzis's marines were the ones being taught combat engineering and thus were the probable architects, but Polito was the one with both the inspiration and the ability to convince the other two to do things they were wise enough to know better not to. Nonetheless, Radner was older, mellower, and had political savvy the other two hadn't developed yet. "We've known about the aqueduct since we had to repair the city after the siege and the marines have used it for both entertainment and training since then. Especially at the start, when we weren't going out of the city. We only organized the enterprise after we lost the ZPM."

Little Tripoli had been restive after the two McKays (three, counting Rodney's sister) had deprived the city of its main power source, but so had all of Atlantis. The prospect of reduced capabilities and canceled missions and of having to send people home had been the concerns in the city at large, but Little Tripoli had been far more concerned with the loss of contact with Earth, weekly emails from the databurst replaced by batches of old and outdated missives when the Daedalus came to town. There had been steps taken to ease tensions in the barracks, some of which Lorne had been apprised of and a few he hadn't and this was apparently one of the latter.

"And the thought of asking permission didn't occur to anyone?" he prompted. Because he'd known that the captains were doing damage control on the MWR front, but there was scheduling extra beach days and then there was, well, this.

Radner and Polito exchanged glances. "We opted for forgiveness over permission, sir," Radner said with a frown. "There was going to be a lot of bureaucracy and G-2 was going to retroactively declare the whole area culturally significant and the aqueduct a Class One artifact and we'd never have gotten approval."

They all knew that both Science and G-2 had the generosity of greedy toddlers when it came to turning anything in Atlantis over to Little Tripoli. Even when they knew it wasn't at risk of destruction. Every expansion of Little Tripoli might as well have been a reenactment of its namesake's battle.

"Also, it's dangerous, sirs," Hanzis spoke up. "With all due respect to Doctor Weir, she's not a big fan of us doing dangerous shit in the city."

Only among marines was prudence a character fault.

"I can't say I'm overjoyed at the prospect, either," Sheppard said, although he didn't really sound more than annoyed. He wasn't angry and neither was Lorne -- they were both pissed about being blindsided by the realization, but that wound's sting was already fading and they were both well back on their way to being amused by the audacity. At least until they had to go face Weir. Lorne thought Sheppard was probably more annoyed at not being asked to be a conspirator than anything else -- he wouldn't have been overjoyed, but it's not like he would have said no.

"Part of the reason we chose to interpret your desire to soothe the marines in the fashion we did, sir," Radner said, sounding more helpful than actually contrite. Nobody would have believed the contrition -- at least for the deed. For the deception, maybe. "It's not a freely used option for the marines; we open it up for MWR days in the city and as a reward for training excellence."

How it was used was not the point and they all knew it, but making it sound like a well-monitored activity wasn't going to hurt.

"Uh-huh." Sheppard looked back down at the toy in his hand and then up at Radner. "How much did this amusement ride cost us?"

The marines had a discretionary budget as well as the battalion's fund for necessary training, mission-related, and bureaucratic supplies as well as MWR and other items. But there was absolutely no sport in actually using the discretionary fund for anything they didn't have to and so inserting the drone weapons in among the fruits and veggies wasn't the only requisitions sleight-of-hand done in Little Tripoli. Lorne occasionally entertained himself by trying to pick out all of the below-board requests, a word game made more complex through standard and non-standard abbreviations and the military's often nonsensical official names for everyday items.

"If they haven't asked, then nothing, sir," Radner said, risking the faintest edge of a smile. "And if they do, then all materials were used within official teaching units for the engineering schools."

"MCES teaches you how to rig a roller coaster out of Itty Bitty Ships, trolley casters, and ten thousand year old architecture?" Sheppard cocked an eyebrow.

"There's a section on irrigation, sir," Hanzis supplied easily. "Aqueducts are in it. Repair and construction."

Sheppard looked over his shoulder at Lorne, who gave a minute shrug in return. The captains had clearly wargamed this meeting and there was little chance that any question would reveal anything other than a well-crafted answer.

"You three are going to go away and ponder the ramifications of (a) pulling a fast one on the commanding officers who have given you nothing but freedom and (b) getting caught pulling a fast one on the commanding officers who have given you nothing but freedom," Sheppard said. "Major Lorne and I are going to decide on those ramifications. Consider the slide off-limits until judgment is rendered."

The three made their obeisances and left.

"So?" Sheppard asked once they were gone.

"We should probably get the engineers to inspect it for safety," Lorne said, since disassembling it was out of the question -- it really was almost entirely Ancient architecture -- and the simple act of forbidding its use would probably just turn it into a rogue event, like beer-making and porn-sharing and other nominally illicit entertainments. Atlantis didn't have either the staffing or the structure to employ traditional military methods of conduct enforcement, so instead of a steady supply of new regulations curtailing behavior and an army of MPs charged with enforcing them, they'd gone with something a little looser and more effectively applicable. Which could still be exploited -- as the captains had done to admittedly masterful effect. Nevertheless, the honor code had held up thus far and, on the grander scale of things, this wasn't the worst thing the marines could have done. Which they'd known was the case, too, and Lorne knew that failing to respond in some fashion would only invite further attempts to push the envelope.

In the end, they opted to not tell Weir. Apart from not wanting to look like negligent commanders, both Lorne and Sheppard knew that the captains weren't wrong about the various ways this enterprise could and would be shut down permanently. Better to let them get away with this than come up with something else.

But there was getting away with it as far as the civilians went and then there was getting away with it as far as their COs went. The captains were punished by allowing a short-term carte blanche for Science and G-2 -- not to the point of wearing out the marines, but a higher quotient than usual of the "are you kidding me?!?" type missions that drove everyone nuts. And then making sure the captains went on them. The balance of the punishment was a suspended sentence, a debt owed that could (and probably would) be pulled out and used the next time Sheppard had to ask the marines to do something that he might have otherwise tried to get them out of at great expense.

And possibly a ride or two. Just to make sure that it was really as safe as promised.

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16 June, 2008