Whiter Shade of Pale

by Domenika Marzione

There are days when Elizabeth perhaps wishes she were elsewhere, days when the wonder of being in another galaxy is completely obscured by the fact that bureaucracy, pettiness, avarice, and self-absorption translate all too well into every language and every world. And she is expected to fix all of it. By herself, because the men she relies on for assistance in the caretaking of Atlantis are great with the catastrophes but as much problem as solution when the crises are not of such grand scale.

But those days, while more common than they used to be, are not yet routine. And Pegasus, while governed by the Wraith, is still a servant of a force both whimsical and perverse. Occasionally both at once.

"...strange-looking, but ultimately harmless," Yoni says with a shrug and leans back in his chair, a relaxed gesture completely at odds with the chaos that erupts the moment he stops speaking.

"How can it be harmless?!?" Rodney half-yelps, nearly spilling his coffee cup. "Are you forgetting that we don't exactly have a good history with expedition members turning blue? Especially expedition members who know how to kill people?"

"Thanks, Rodney," John drawls with weary resignation. He's been his usual laconic self, although Elizabeth knows that he hasn't been taking this nearly as casually as he's been pretending. Which is par for the course and why she looks to the rest of the military contingent to gauge their reaction. Lorne, who is capable of being an even blanker slate than John, is clearly bemused -- he's taking this seriously, but he's been with the SGC for too long to be surprised and he's also presumably taking cues from Yoni, who in turn is... not giddy with relief, but after a snappish first couple of days has hit the point where he considers the danger to have passed. Matt Polito, however, is not so sanguine.

"With all due respect, Doc," he begins carefully, "I'd certainly love to put this down to one smurftastic misadventure, but if there's a chance of this being anything less than benign--"

"Then we wouldn't be recommending the lifting of the quarantine," Carson cuts in. He's been mostly quiet; this is Yoni's area of expertise and the marines tend to trust him more than anyone else in Medical to both protect them and let them dive freely into danger. But the marines are also creatures of habit and like the comfort of hierarchy and Carson is the boss. "Believe me, Captain, after the events of the other month, we can be nothing if not hyper-vigilant. But we've also been working on this since Lieutenant Gillick's platoon started presenting symptoms and we can find no evidence that this poses a threat to anything other than their dignity."

On Saturday, Charlie Company's Third Platoon went on a routine training mission to an uninhabited world. On Monday, they woke up blue. Today is Thursday and Atlantis is still riding the tail end of the panic that resulted. Lucius is gone but not forgotten and, for those who came over with the initial expedition, neither is the nanovirus. Elizabeth has been fighting her own memories -- of nanoviruses (she still dreams of becoming a Replicator), of Lucius (equally if differently terrifying), of quarantines both in Antarctica and at Cheyenne -- and doing her best to present a calm front to a terrified city. The thirty-hour lock-down ended Tuesday after no new cases had been reported; there'd been a rush to Medical by the most fearful and hypochondriacal, but they'd been sent away with either assurances or antihistamines and so, two days later, the dominant fear is now that there is a platoon of marines incubating into something terrifying and not that the city is reliving the Great Plague. Elizabeth sympathizes with everyone in uniform -- "it's just the marines" is a terrible sentiment when meant as a qualitative and not quantitative assessment -- even as she pushes for life in Atlantis to return to something approaching normal.

"If there's no danger and we can give Lieutenant Gillick and his men their freedom," Elizabeth says, a little loudly because Rodney's about to say something that's only going to inflame tempers, "then is it possible that we can do something to perhaps alleviate their symptoms? While I am certainly in no position to question your assessments and diagnoses, I do understand that physical appearances can perhaps be deceiving. Or, in this case, unnerving."

Damage control is as much psychological as physical and while she can't follow the science at all, she can and does understand the scope of the work and can project her own assurances that no avenue is being left unexplored. In addition to the considerable efforts in Medical, Life Sciences has been an active player with Botany and Zoology contributing personnel and resources. All of this has been explained to the city residents through frequent emails and will need to be separately communicated to the SGC and IOA in the databurst; she'd like to be able to include the coda of 'and all is well' before that goes out and while she can massage what they have now to roughly do just that, reporting that their marines are once again their proper tints would be ideal.

"We've focused thus far on their comfort and not their appearances," Carson replies with a helpless grimace that has the faintest edge of a rebuke. The blue tint is apparently accompanied by itchiness and sensitivity to touch and Elizabeth tilts her head in apology. "We've got a few ideas toward the color correction, but thus far everything with potential comes with side effects worse than what it's trying to cure."

"That's excluding the helpful suggestions that involved bathing the marines in lye," Yoni adds dryly. Both Radek and Rodney shift guiltily in their seats and Elizabeth fights the urge to sigh to roll her eyes.

"So how long is this supposed to last?" John asks, as if he doesn't have any clue from personal experience what the marines are going through. "We can't exactly go back to business as usual while they're all looking like extras from Braveheart."

Gillick and his marines are supposed to be on guard duty during the day this week and Gillick himself has diplomatic responsibilities off-world. There's little chance that the citizens of Atlantis are well-prepared to see blue marines on a daily basis -- let alone armed ones in charge of security -- and less chance that they can send Gillick anywhere.

Yoni and Carson look at each other in silent consultation and then Yoni shrugs.

"The natural keratinization and desquamation cycle suggests several weeks," Carson replies, displeased with the inexactness of his answer. "But the stratum corneum is proving... basically, the reaction is causing very dry skin and that will accelerate things, as will the itching and the marines' tendency to fetishize certain hygiene rituals. Once it doesn't hurt to scrub themselves raw, I expect them to be searching out any and all abrasives they can get their hands on no matter how many times we tell them not to."

For perhaps the first time this meeting, the laughter is genuine.

"They'll be getting progressively paler blue," Yoni adds. "They'll look worse in Atlantis because of the fluorescent lighting, but figure two weeks before they can go off-world without a lengthy explanation."

The marines are released from quarantine after the meeting, although the nature of the duty schedule changes effectively keep them out of sight except for mealtimes. Elizabeth rarely gets to the commissary in time for either the lunch or dinner rush, so she doesn't actually see any of the affected men until a week later, when a very self-conscious Lieutenant Gillick -- now more of a light cornflower than the deeper royal blue that he'd originally been -- is spotted on his way to dinner in the company of Doctor Esposito. Who is seemingly accepting of her status as definitive proof that the marines' condition was not contagious no matter how intimate the contact and is instead content to tease her companion for how well he matches her uniform.

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10 February, 2008