Thankless Tasks

by Domenika Marzione

"Well, sir," Captain Matt Polito began as he dropped a stack of file folders on to the conference table. "I think it's fair to say that Atlantis is getting a little fidgety."

Lorne got up from his desk and moved over to the conference table with the weariness that befit the start of a bureaucratic session. He wasn't dreading it per se -- Polito didn't share Radner's and Hanzis's love of minutiae and tended to handle his share of the office work with the sort of hard-charging efficiency that occasionally made it exhausting to simply be around marines. Probably because the sooner he got done with the paperwork, the sooner he could go back to doing what he really loved, which was coming up with new adventures for his (adoring) marines in the name of training.

But this was not Mad Matt, coming in for approval of a five-planets-in-four-days evasion exercise. ("No, really, sir. It'll be fun. I promise we won't lose anyone this time.") This was Polito in his guise of the battalion S-3, the operations officer, and thus more Kerberos (all requests for civilian off-world missions went to him before they came to either Lorne or Sheppard) than Teufel Hunden.

Polito was splitting the unusually large pile of folders into three smaller stacks as Lorne sat down: the good (approved missions), the bad (rejected missions), and the ugly (missions that had either been rejected and Polito anticipated trouble or had been approved and would require complicated preparations). The good pile was always the largest; the size of the bad varied from session to session and the ugly had steadily diminished as both Polito and the various civilian department heads got a better feel for each other.

"Are we waiting for the Colonel?" Polito asked as he sat down.

Lorne looked at the clock on the wall; Sheppard had an erratic attendance record at these meetings although he, like Lorne, read the summaries Polito put together on a daily basis. Whatever Lorne couldn't resolve now would get taken up the next time the two of them got together, so he didn't have to be there. Plus today was a Commander's Review day, which meant that Sheppard had spent all morning handling disciplinary infractions, security protocols, and other matters that couldn't be solved within the various civilian and military units. Which in turn meant that the odds of him being anywhere that might be near other human beings was rather slim. "I don't think so."

Polito wasn't wrong about Atlantis getting fidgety; it seemed like every scientific unit had at least three mission requests in, plus all three of the marine commanders had off-world exercises to propose. How much of this was an effect of the city's two recent quarantines was debatable; cabin fever, like everything else, went in cycles.

The usual problem was to balance the priorities of marine training with scientific exploration -- the marines were there to enable the latter, but they needed the former to best accomplish it. A portion of the Ugly pile was always made up of perfectly reasonable mission requests that had nonetheless been either turned down or put on hold because the marines were overtasked. Polito was very good about juggling the needs of both civilian and military, but he was perhaps not the most patient man when it came to the feelings of... entitlement that certain department heads carried. Lorne trusted Polito's judgment, so his usual role in these affairs was to back up his officer and hope that he could smooth ruffled feathers enough that the conflict didn't get dragged to Weir and Sheppard.

"On to this week's logistical nightmares," Polito said as he got to the second-to-last stack. "I took the liberty of re-sending to Life Sciences the memo on the tonnage limits for puddle jumper missions. Doctor Gorshuk has enough shit here to need a convoy and he wants to go to a planet where we're going to need to bring extra ammunition."

Lorne skimmed the printout of the mission request form. "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my," he murmured as he read. Why did Zoology never learn? "I'm not sure how well he's going to accept 'No Safaris' this time, but we'll give it the old college try."

Polito made a face to indicate what he thought the likely success of that would be. "Maybe if we get AFS to show White Hunter, Black Heart...."

"It's far too subtle for Life Sciences," Lorne replied, closing the folder. "We'd have just as good a chance showing Tron."

The next three were more of the same -- rejected mission proposals by personnel unlikely to take rejection well and very likely to run all the way up the chains of command to get Weir to authorize the mission for the sake of peace and quiet. Lorne could occasionally head these off at the pass and with at least one of the offenders would make an active effort to do so because this wasn't the first time.

"And this one..." Polito slid the folder over. "This one, you're just not going to like, sir."

Lorne cocked an eyebrow and opened the offered folder. It was an Engineering request, which automatically made it difficult because McKay was not above using his friendship with Sheppard to get these approved, and it featured two of Lorne's least favorite engineers, Williams and Takahashi. It also had a very modest equipment list -- a puddle jumper and under two hundred pounds of gear -- which, coupled with the codes Polito had entered to indicate low-to-moderate security risks, meant that there was almost no logistical reason to reject the request even though it required an extended planet stay. "What's the problem?" he asked, looking up. "Apart from some unlucky shlub getting stuck camping with Williams, Otkharev, and Takahashi for a week?"

Polito gave him a rueful smile. "I think that unlucky shlub may be you, sir."

Polito's responsibilities did not officially include tasking the two senior off-world teams. As a legacy from Sheppard's first year of making up his own calendar, both Lorne and Sheppard did most of their own scheduling, often picking up assignments directly from Doctor Weir. But Polito did provide the list of missions that were best handled by their teams and not a regular marine unit.

"How'd I draw the short straw?" Lorne asked, already working out possible ways to either foist this off on Sheppard (McKay was the head of the Science Division) or come up with some sort of secondary objective that would keep his own team from going nuts. Yoni had no love for Williams, a fellow member of the initial expedition, and the marines would get fidgety after a week of babysitting.

"The tech is on a planet that's fifteen hours away by puddlejumper, sir," Polito explained apologetically because that ruled out making more than one trip. "And while they're not carrying much, it's enough to make it difficult to fit the equipment plus the marines required for a security detail."

"Oh, god," Lorne sighed. If there was one way to make this worse than spending a week with that Engineering team, then it was getting trapped in a flying tin can for fifteen hours with the same group. At least on land they could get out of each other's space for a few hours at a time.

"I'm working on reasons to kibosh this one, sir, really I am," Polito promised. "I've even got someone trying to come up with a route that doesn't need fifteen hours in a jumper."

Lorne didn't doubt that the engineers had picked the fastest route to the planet; they were scrupulous to the point of anal about that. But the fastest route wasn't necessarily the least unpleasant and if there was a way to get around that particular bit of hell....

This was going to be one of those hot potato missions, Lorne knew. If Polito couldn't come up with a way to kill it, then it was going to get tossed between himself and Sheppard until one of them couldn't find a good enough reason to pass it on -- and, since rank had its privileges, Lorne lost those games more often than he won them. Sheppard was a good commander, but he wasn't a saint.

"McKay's been talking my ear off about that one," Sheppard sighed when Lorne brought the mission up later that afternoon, after Sheppard had deemed himself once again fit for human interaction and dropped by. "They think it could be something almost as good as a ZPM."

Lorne made a face. "So we're not getting out of this one." He didn't make it a question.

"Short of the planet being a Wraith stronghold? No," Sheppard replied grimly. "He's not only been bending my ear, but also Doctor Weir's. It's some toy that's referenced in the Ancient database as a reliable, high-output energy source."

Which was pretty much what the mission request form said. There were very few magic words in Atlantis, but those were pretty much all of the good ones right there in one neat sentence. Which in turn meant that they were six kinds of screwed. Or at least Lorne was.

"Engineering's got a laundry list of possible uses," Sheppard went on, frowning at the Rubik's Cube in his hands. "Starting with the idea that if they can replicate it, then we can fully power the city and they can send one back to Earth to power the gate there."

Finding a way to instantaneously travel between galaxies securely -- the gate bridge made everyone in Little Tripoli nervous, even as the idea of thirty-minute trips home meant the marines could get back to Earth for leave more often than they did -- would pretty much get carte blanche for anyone who said that they could pull it off.

"Isn't this all counting chickens before we even get the eggs?" Lorne asked incredulously.

"Before we build the henhouse, before we buy the farm... wait, we don't want to use that phrase," Sheppard said, waving his hand vaguely. "Anyway, yes. It's all sorts of pie-in-the-sky and we're going to get stuck with it anyway. Because I pointed out the problems and McKay and Weir gave me matching looks and said 'But that's how we ended up in Atlantis in the first place' and I always lose that argument."

"You can't fight hopeful idealism with reality and logic," Lorne replied, because they all lost that argument. "And we can't pack Paik off with a squad, apparently."

Lieutenant Paik was the preferred pilot to get if you couldn't get Sheppard; he'd been an aviator before Atlantis and it showed.

"I wish," Sheppard sighed, rolling his neck and putting the Rubik's Cube back on Lorne's desk. "I really don't want to spend fifteen hours in a jumper while McKay and Williams argue about shit that nobody but the two of them cares about."

Lorne must have looked surprised because Sheppard chuckled.

"As much as I'd like to give this mission to anyone capable of flying a jumper, including Carson Beckett, there's no way I'm keeping McKay out of this -- he is not letting Williams find the Holy Grail on his own," Sheppard said, then made a sour face. "Plus, McKay's already muttering about probably needing someone with the ATA gene and we all know what that means."

Sheppard may have gotten more comfortable with his status as Best ATA Gene in Atlantis, but that didn't mean he'd ever stopped resenting being looked at as a walking light switch. Even when it was McKay taking him for granted.

"Polito's still looking for a way to avoid the long flight," Lorne offered, trying not to sound too relieved.

Three weeks later, as Lorne watched Ortilla play loadmaster with the puddle jumper and resisted the urge to pull his team aside for pack inspections to make sure they weren't carrying anything that might be used to intimidate or otherwise silence the three engineers, he marveled a little at fate's little twists and turns. Or, how Mister Murphy seemed to have a chokehold on the Pegasus galaxy.

Polito hadn't been able to get the mission killed -- Sheppard had been right; short of a hive ship parked on the planet, nothing was going to kibosh this plan -- and nobody had been able to find a route that involved a shorter jumper flight. And then, three days before the launch date, Sheppard had had to pull out because his team was needed on M84-K26, a planet they had an alliance with mostly because there might be naquadria mines and who wouldn't talk to anyone but Teyla because they didn't traffic with anyone they hadn't known for five generations. McKay was still bitching three days later, but Lorne couldn't muster up the sympathy required for Sheppard's pained looks.

Lorne watched Ortilla order Reletti and Suarez around with already-thinned patience; they had stowed the scientific equipment and were now on to tents, food, ammunition, and everything else required for a weeklong adventure on an uninhabited planet. He didn't turn around because he couldn't hear Yoni messing with his medical chest, which meant that Yoni was busy glaring daggers at his back.

He'd done the best he could -- made sure everyone had their iPods, borrowed a pair of laptops from Ogrodnick so that the marines didn't have to use the engineers', and put in a special request with the commissary for not-powdered-and-comes-from-an-Earth-cow milk to go with the cookies he'd scored because Salker's platoon was on KP duty and Sergeant Weissgroten was a baking fiend. But nothing could make up for the fact that this was a shit mission and that this sort of thing was just a hazard of being on an off-world team.

That didn't mean that he didn't think the rest of his team wouldn't prefer a more typical misadventure to this. Hell, he wasn't sure he wouldn't, either.

They were underway within the hour. That the three scientists were up in the cockpit with him while his team sat in the back was neither unintentional nor unnoticed. Lorne had already told Reletti that he was going to get some flying hours in, news that sparked a healthy round of crash jokes from the other two marines and a mild panic in the three scientists despite the fact that there wasn't a damned thing they could crash into that wasn't as big as Rhode Island and just as easily avoided.

Fifteen hours, sixteen minutes, nine seconds, and two hissy-fits later, they arrived.

"I'm sorry, sir. But you can't go more than a hundred meters past the security perimeter. Not without an escort."

From the shade of a nearby tree, Lorne watched Suarez deal with Doctor Williams. Again. He couldn't hear what Williams was griping about, although he could tell from context and Suarez's ramrod-straight posture. Spend enough time with marines and you learned to differentiate between them being more formal than usual because they respected you versus when they were using formality as a means of keeping themselves from killing you with their bare hands.

"Because it takes a world record holder ten seconds to cross that distance, sir, and that's an awful long time when you're in danger."

Three days and they weren't worried about Wraith or hostile indigs. The large, ugly rhino-like beasts that hovered on the edge of their site... that they were a little worried about. The things weighed several hundred pounds and looked sturdy enough to destroy the jumper and none of them thought the P-90s had enough stopping power to drop one quickly if it decided to charge. (They kept that tidbit from the three scientists.)

Apart from the rhinos, the biggest hazards were turning out to be the anticipated frustration and accompanying murderous impulses. Williams and Takahashi were their usual charming selves, plus Otkharev had been especially pissy since he'd realized that having only five men to protect the site instead of a full platoon meant that his movements were severely restricted. Yoni had suggested that they break into his lab and take his still as punishment -- Otkharev couldn't report it, obviously -- but Lorne was holding out against that. For now.

With Williams having been rebuffed by Suarez, Lorne turned back to the makeshift command table they'd set up. It had a rough map of the site, a series of overlays with energy readings and notes, and notes on the rhinos in Ortilla's neat, tiny handwriting. It was obvious that the project wasn't going to be finished in the alloted time and Lorne had spent at least three cumulative hours a day arguing with Williams (the lead scientist) about how no, they weren't calling Atlantis for either resupply or additional personnel because no, they weren't staying extra days and no, they weren't leaving the scientists behind.

They did call Atlantis regularly, but not to talk about the thus-far-elusive power sources; check-in was every eight hours. Lorne let the marines do the checking-in from the jumper; the repeater in the jumper meant that their radios would work pretty much everywhere they were going (there was one large dead spot in one of the half-collapsed buildings and Lorne had forbidden anyone being out of eye-shot there because of it), but getting a break from both the scientists and the standing around was about as much of a treat as they were going to get now that the milk and cookies had been finished.

"Sir?" Reletti's voice over the radio. "Could you come here, please?"

Lorne didn't miss the note of concern in Reletti's voice, but he kept his gait casual because Takahashi, the most nervous of the three, was watching.

"What is it, sergeant?" Lorne asked as he stepped on to the jumper's ramp.

Reletti had been sitting in the co-pilot's seat, but stood. "Something's gone wrong in Atlantis, sir."

He cocked an eyebrow and ignored the sinking feeling in his stomach. "Can you be more specific?"

Reletti shook his head. "I called in and got Captain Polito and he said he'd call us right back, then he terminated the connection."

That's not good, Lorne didn't need to say out loud. Calling the control room and getting a captain instead of a lieutenant was never a good sign. That it was Polito, who was third in command after both Sheppard and himself.... "Staff Sergeant?" Lorne began, tapping his radio. "Be prepared to start packing up."

"Problem, sir?" Ortilla asked.

It could be nothing, of course. But they didn't have that sort of good luck. And there was probably very little Lorne could do from fifteen hours away, but if Sheppard had gone missing, then he'd be needed back in Atlantis as soon as he could muster it.

"Type and severity unknown," Lorne replied. "Don't start a bug-out yet, but know that we might need to."

Ortilla was just as used to these sort of vague warnings, born of no concrete intel, as everyone else.

"Yes, sir."

A light on the console and Reletti leaned over to hit the button for the radio.

"You still there, Sergeant?" Polito's voice came through the speakers of the jumper.

"Yes, sir," Reletti replied. "And I fetched Major Lorne."

"What's going on?" Lorne asked, not waiting.

"Colonel Sheppard's been taking captive, sir," Polito answered grimly. "His team came under fire and he was grabbed on the exfil. I've dispatched two platoons to search along with the other members of his team, but the initial report is that the site is clear."

Reletti gestured toward the rear of the jumper and Lorne nodded; Reletti would pass on the instructions to pack up.

Lorne took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Wraith?"

"No, sir," Polito answered. "Ronon said that it sounded like gunfire. Eriksson and Gillick know to look for casings, but there aren't that many folks who have that sort of tech."

Polito didn't have to say it. Lorne knew what everyone else was thinking because it was what he was thinking, too. The Genii. Nobody else they'd encountered had both the ill will and nothing more advanced than rifled weapons.

"We'll be underway in under an hour," Lorne said; he could hear an argument in the distance but had complete faith in Yoni's ability to win there. "I want updates as close to real-time as you can make them."

"Aye aye, sir."

They took off forty-five minutes. This time the scientists sat in the rear, quiet and sulking. Suarez was with them in the sense that he had a seat in the rear -- Reletti, normally exiled to the rear of the bulkhead when they traveled by jumper, would be taking over the piloting once they cleared atmo. He currently sat where Lorne had set up a laptop and notepad as a kind of remote command center. Lorne was leaving Polito in actual command, but he wanted as much involvement as he could get. Because it was a very long flight home and there was nothing else he could do.

By the time Reletti had taken over flying duties, they knew it was, in fact, the Genii. The news was met with anger and surprise, but no shock. The Genii had double-crossed them too many times already. Ladon Radim had been the best of a bad lot, Lorne knew, but maybe six months of peace had made them forget the bad part.

He worried a little about Reletti and how he was taking all of this news about the Genii; Reletti was a little too much like Sheppard at times, internalization raised to an art form. But Ortilla, who was sitting in the co-pilot's seat, gave Lorne a quick nod to let him know that he shared the same concerns, and then kept griping at Reletti that he drove too slow.

When Polito contacted to tell them that they knew who'd taken Sheppard, it was Yoni who was the first one to react.

"Motherfucker," he breathed. Yoni had been so quiet since he'd finished bullying the scientists into the jumper that Lorne had almost-but-not-quite thought he might be dozing.

"Who's Kolya, sir?" Suarez asked after Polito cut the connection. Suarez was sitting on the floor, halfway between Yoni's seat and the bulkhead door, having decided that the rear compartment was too far away from the center of activity and too far away from his team.

"Ask Doc," Lorne said, eyes on the list of planets McKay had gotten off of the DHD. As they knew from when Ford captured Sheppard's team and from when his own team had gotten lost en route to Ipetia, the DHDs didn't have any sort of useful memory function. If the planet had been any kind of busy, they'd need hours -- days -- to figure out the right sequence of addresses. And they couldn't weed out any unlikely suspects because they knew from experience that the Genii would build hideouts on occupied worlds. They had on Malthusa.

"He is a man with a long and ugly history with Colonel Sheppard," Yoni said resignedly. "He was the leader of the Genii assault team when they took over Atlantis and so he killed Sergeants Boscanti and Lewis. He took Colonel Sheppard's team hostage again on Dagan, which was a mess of more than one making. I think Sheppard regretted not killing him the first time. Even more so now, obviously."

The news, trickling in bit by bit, got progressively worse. A pet Wraith, a choice between saving Sheppard and turning the Genii into lifelong enemies (as if they'd ever really stopped; their peaces tended toward the unilateral), and more lives than just Sheppard's hung in the balance. Polito did not forward the video of Sheppard being fed upon; they heard the audio through the radio and Sheppard's scream echoing in the jumper's cabin was more than enough.

Radim was cooperating, mindful of his own position and even more mindful of the fact that if -- when -- Sheppard died, that death would cast a permanent shadow upon everything the Genii ever did with Atlantis from that point onward. Atlantis would never be friends with the Genii, not with the rivers of bad blood between them, but any kind of neutrality was fading along with Sheppard's chances.

That Sheppard would die seemed an almost foregone conclusion. Gillick was leading a rescue team with Ronon, but how quickly they could find him and how much good it would do... Lorne made himself not think about it. He was a soldier, as was Sheppard, and death was always a possibility in war. That didn't make it not hurt, but it allowed him to leave the pain until later.

In the end, however, Pegasus proved to be as fickle as ever. Always grasping, forever taking, and for once it gave something back besides disappointment. They were three hours from Atlantis when they got the news that Sheppard was back, apparently hale and hearty. Nobody could explain how beyond some sort of Wraith thing, that Sheppard had bonded with his torturer and been rewarded. It was an explanation that made no sense in or out of context and Lorne resigned himself to waiting to hear about it later. Maybe even from Sheppard.

"Reletti," he called over to the pilot's seat. "Switch out."

They'd been switching on and off -- mostly off, because Reletti had nothing else to do but fly and Lorne had been working at the laptop -- but the last switch had been hours ago, after Sheppard had been fed upon again and Beckett and Yoni had discussed the likelihood of Sheppard surviving.

"I'm fine, sir," Reletti answered. "And we're almost home."

I need something to do, Lorne didn't say. Because he knew that the helplessness had been wearing on all of them. They'd been in the jumper for more than thirteen hours and there'd been no dozing an no sniping. There'd been water and food breaks because Yoni had been unmovable on that front, but even the scientists had been if not respectful, then at least appreciative of the circumstances.

They arrived back in Atlantis without fanfare. The engineers got help unloading their gear from the jumper bay staff and the marines and Lorne dismissed his team. He went down to the control room and found it subdued. Polito was still at the makeshift command center -- the abandoned-except-in-emergencies Military Commander's Office (Sheppard's sum contribution to the office he didn't use was a few knick-knacks acquired on other planets as gifts) -- and Lorne got more of an explanation for what happened to Sheppard, none of which made sense except for the fact that it's what had happened and, like everything else in Pegasus, you rolled with the punches.

He was back in his office -- too wired to sleep, he put away his gear and started catching up on what else he'd missed in his time away -- when Doctor Weir pinged him on the radio and asked if he'd seen Colonel Sheppard because, according to the sensors in the city, Sheppard was not in Atlantis. He sighed, as much at Sheppard's asking Atlantis to hide him as for the city's acquiescence. Both of them knew better. Thankfully, Reletti had accidentally found Sheppard over in H-7 when they'd been flying in to the city, a single life sign in a place where there shouldn't have been any, and he knew where to start looking.

Polito stopped him on the way to the transporter and handed him two clear plastic bottles marked to indicate that they held machine gun lubricant.

"I forgot to change my radio off of the command frequency when you got back, sir," he explained when Lorne gave him a cock-eyed look. "If you're going to chase down Colonel Sheppard, we figured you might need these."

He was surrounded by marines, whose first answer to almost every sort of stress was high explosives. It was entirely possible that Polito, Radner, and Hanzis thought Lorne and Sheppard would go down to the range and blow off some steam that way.

"I'm not sure we'll be needing lube," Lorne said carefully. There were so many bad places for that sentence to go.

"It's not LSA, sir," Polito said with a wry grin. "It's the Athosian firewater you brought back last year. We keep it in Mike's office to keep the marines from getting their mitts on it, but we keep a few bottles in the freezer for emergencies. I think this qualifies."

If and when Atlantis stopped being a dry expedition, alcohol consumption would probably plummet because what would be the fun in booze you didn't have to hide?

Lorne smiled and shook his head. "Thanks, Matt."

A cocky salute and Polito went back to his office. Lorne transferred the bottles to his other hand and continued on to the transporter.

feed me on LJ?

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28 January, 2007