"Somewhere, Travis Weinstock is smiling and he doesn't know why."
"Huh?" Sheppard looked over from where he'd dropped the giant duffel bag full of equipment he'd carried from the stargate. He thought it might've actually contained lead boxes. Lead boxes full of rocks. Heavy rocks.
"Travis Weinstock," Lorne explained as he put down his own burden next to Sheppard's, "was the president of the chess club, the science club, and the star of the math team. And he swore every time he got picked last in gym class or got rejected by one of the cheerleaders that he'd have his revenge. One day, he'd be laughing last. I think that this may be that day."
Maguire's team had discovered what looked to be some sort of Ancient waystation on a routine exploration of a planet and, two weeks' worth of follow-up visits later, the scientists had been turned loose. All of them had packed what seemed to be twice their weight in equipment and, of course, weren't expected to actually carry any of it. The stargate was too close to a town to allow use of a puddlejumper to deliver things to the site, so the Marines had turned a pair of MALPs into slow-moving ferries for the kilometer-plus stretch of dirt road running from the town to the far edge of the waystation. It was still a couple hundred yards from that point to the building, though, and Sheppard was part of the crew carrying the loads from the MALPs.
"Look at us," Lorne went on, waving his arm expansively at the growing piles of equipment being hovered over by fussing engineers. "We were once prom kings and quarterbacks and home run heroes. And now we're cammy-covered pack mules for the pocket protector set."
Sheppard laughed as he stretched his back. Lorne griped a lot, but the sort of self-deprecating griping that was funny and welcome, as opposed to how Rodney got when he was off his feed and behind on sleep and determined to make everyone else completely aware of his discomfort.
"Were you a quarterback, Maguire?" Sheppard asked as they passed the lieutenant by the door. Maguire was crouched down next to a motorized trolley, securing the bungee cord that kept its contents in place. He stood up. Taller and broader than Sheppard, he made Lorne look tiny by comparison.
"I was a right winger, Sir," Maguire said, his South Boston accent making casualties of his consonants. "I was going to be the next Cam Neely."
"What happened?" Lorne asked as they moved outside, sunglasses dropping on to noses.
"I graduated," Maguire said as he pulled out his boonie cap. Bald and fair, he never went anywhere without it. "In January I was standing in the slot on the power play and in July I was standing in mud at TBS."
Sheppard looked around. Maguire's three teams were stationed at the stargate, along the MALP route, and here at the outpost. There hadn't been any reports of danger -- the locals didn't seem to care, especially after the Athosians started tagging along so that they could trade goods -- and all was quiet. "Shoulda come to the Air Force, Maguire."
"I'd never have respected myself in the morning, Sir," Maguire replied with a lopsided grin. He saluted and then went off.
Part I: 0200 Atlantis Standard Time
Next time, Lorne told himself firmly, he was going to hold off on taking the painkillers until after the debrief. His senses were all distended -- his hearing at once too sharp (the air conditioning vent sounded like a hurricane) and too soft (Colonel Caldwell sounded like he was in the next room), his body prickly and numb except for his arm. The Vicodin was making him stupid and sweaty and when it wore off, he was going to be in a world of hurt, but at least he'd be able to think clearly instead of following along like an especially dull-witted spectator as he was now.
"How many men were there?"
Ronon, who'd growled at the doctor who'd tried to anaesthetize his wounds before treating them, leaned back in his seat and tilted his head in thought. "Thirty-two in the first wave."
Caldwell scribbled notes on a yellow pad. His laptop sat open next to him, untouched. "They were all armed?"
Ronon gave him a glare that made it very clear that he thought it a very stupid question. "Most with machine guns, some with pistols. Two Wraith stunners."
"Any of our equipment?"
"There were two P-90's being fired at us as we went through the gate," Lorne answered, sitting awkwardly in his chair. The sling put his arm at an angle and elevation that made getting too close to the table painful in many possible ways and he wasn't sure whether to push in and risk them or push back and look detached from the interview. "But that was at the end, after everything had already gone to hell. They must have been picked up off of the ground. We'd have noticed if they'd had them earlier."
Caldwell wrote some more, then flipped back to an earlier page in his notepad. "Sgt. Talaveres said that there was no warning. 'They came out of nowhere'." He looked up. "Well? How do thirty-two men appear out of thin air? The last Genii strike force was single-handed eliminated by Colonel Sheppard."
The real question was not how the Genii could sneak up on a platoon of Marines -- they'd duped Marines the first time, too -- but instead how they could prove a threat to a group of well-trained professional soldiers, even with superior numbers.
"We've had men patrolling the perimeter for the last week," Lorne replied, sitting up as straight as he could and wincing at the effort. It wasn't an answer and he knew it. He'd been trying to figure out the answer to that as he'd lay in the infirmary, shirt cut open and blood in his eyes and mouth and on his skin and not all of it his. But he'd been unable to work out a scenario that fit the available data and didn't require a serious lapse on their part. "Dr. McKay and Dr. Ferguson were trying to get the waystation's own defensive systems operational, but they were having trouble with the power supply, so we'd kept up the patrols. Sgt. Bispo's squad had just been..."
"The fire," Ronon said suddenly. "They set the fire in the granary."
"The fire had been out for hours," Lorne pointed out, more for information's sake than any genuine objection. He'd long since accepted Ronon as his superior in almost anything related to ground warfare. A diversionary fire certainly made sense in hindsight.
"The Marines were still thinking about the fire," Ronon explained with a shrug only after Caldwell gestured for him to go on. "There was a lot of movement in the trees. Townspeople moving around. Easy enough to blend in behind that."
Lorne closed his eyes, trying to search his too-fuzzy mind for memories of the afternoon. The copse of trees around the waystation wasn't deep, but it was dense. They'd come across children playing in it when they'd first arrived, plus the occasional herd animal. They'd probably gotten used to the noises, lulled into security, if not necessarily laxness.
"Would you like to continue this later, Major?" Caldwell asked, not unkindly.
"I'm fine, Sir," Lorne replied hastily. "Just trying to remember as much as I can."
Caldwell nodded. He'd been far less aggressive today than the previous time he'd had to step in for Colonel Sheppard and the solicitousness made Lorne uneasy.
Lorne was Sheppard's executive officer, which meant that he tried to have Sheppard's back at all times and never more so than when the Daedalus was around. Sheppard respected Caldwell's position, but he sure as hell didn't trust the man and tended to treat the Daedalus's visits like small-scale sieges to be endured. He argued with Dr. Weir less, went out on missions more, and his usual easy-going manner easily got subsumed by irritation and impatience because he'd suddenly try to do at once all of the administrative work he usually spread out over time or foisted off on Lorne. Lorne, for his part, did what he could to keep Sheppard from doing anything he'd later regret, which usually meant playing dumb when Caldwell came looking for him, and did not think for a minute that this collaboration with his CO went unnoticed. Which in turn made him vulnerable with Sheppard gone and the plaster of his shoulder-to-wrist cast still drying.
The Daedalus had three majors on board as part of her crew and any of them could be summoned down to serve as Caldwell's temporary XO if Lorne were to find himself unable to perform his duties. He may have wanted nothing more than to go to his quarters and sleep off the pain and stupor, but he might wake up to find himself "temporarily" replaced and Sheppard would never forgive him for leaving Dr. Weir to face Caldwell alone. Even if they both knew that she'd probably be able to take him best-of-three.
"What happened on contact?" Caldwell asked, returning his notebook to its previous page.
"We took fire," Ronon answered. "We fired back."
Caldwell leaned forward, as if Ronon were waiting for proximity to start elaborating, and raised his eyebrows in expectation. Lorne, completely willing to blame it on the drugs, waited until Caldwell's eyebrows reached what might have once been his hairline before chipping in.
"It was an old-fashioned firefight, Sir," he said. "Lieutenant Maguire got his men into a defensible position and started shooting back. Colonel Sheppard sent Teyla and Ronon after the Athosians trading in town and he and I herded the scientists inside."
Caldwell sat back and looked at him with something that might be interpreted as relief. Lorne resisted the urge to look over at Ronon, whom he knew was doing this intentionally. "There were... nine scientists assigned to the project?"
"Six, actually," Lorne corrected, hissing through his teeth when his suspended elbow made contact with the table. He could feel the vibration in his shoulder, pain radiating all the way to the other side and his eyes watered involuntarily. "Dr. Takahashi wasn't officially attached to the project, Dr. McKay was there as part of Colonel Sheppard's team, and Dr. Safir was there with mine."
"That would explain the presence of an epidemiologist," Caldwell commented dryly. Lorne made a face in acknowledgement, not bothering to explain that Yoni Safir had spent three years in the IDF and four years in medical school, which made him a field medic with a marksmanship badge in addition to (apparently) a first-rate diagnostician and researcher and an obvious choice to Lorne when the time had come to choose his own team. There was more to discovering the Pegasus galaxy than just ZPMs.
"So you got the scientists inside the waystation and... left them there?" Frank disbelief, which Lorne found insulting not only personally but also because no matter what Caldwell thinks of Sheppard's personnel management skills, it was quite another to think that he'd leave non-combatants unprotected in a firefight.
"Not exactly," Lorne replied with some asperity, willing himself to not give in to the Vicodin's false bravado and say more. He was being baited and he had to remember that. "We waited until Sgt. Talaveres's squad pulled back, then went out. Our radios weren't working indoors and we couldn't follow what was going on, plus Colonel Sheppard wanted to get in touch with Ronon and Teyla."
Six Marines to guard nine scientists, one of whom was capable of defending himself adequately and another who could at least reload a P-90 and carried his own 9mm. It had proven more than sufficient and they'd dropped it down to three before the exfil.
"How far away were you?" Caldwell asked Ronon.
Lorne could see Ronon's fingers wiggle slightly as he did the math. Ronon had an accurate internal clock, so Sheppard had put him on a treadmill and timed him, figuring out how long it took to make a kilometer at a dead run, at a jog, and at a walk. "One and a half kilometers."
"The Athosians were on Malthusa to trade furs?"
"Trade furs, drink ale," Ronon agreed. "It's a good tavern."
Caldwell pursed his lips in unsurprised displeasure as he wrote. "How many Athosians were there?"
"Five. All unarmed."
"Could you have left them in the town to wait out the fighting?" Caldwell put his pen down. "Hidden them there?"
"We didn't know if they were working with the Genii or not," Ronon explained. "If they'd sold us out."
Lorne didn't miss the "us" and he saw that Caldwell hadn't, either. Ronon's presence on Sheppard's team had become yet another point of conflict between Sheppard and Caldwell, although Lorne honestly didn't know if it was because it left Sheppard as the only military representative on the team or because of Ronon himself. Ronon had been in Atlantis six months and still got a wide berth as he moved around the city.
"You circled around behind the Genii," Caldwell continued, looking down at his notes again and finding a place with his index finger. "Close enough to draw attention from the front?"
"They had men guarding the stargate. Took those out instead."
"I'm not sure it would have mattered," Lorne cut in, remembering the scene with nauseating clarity. He felt his gorge rise at the remembered scent of blood and cordite and fresh dirt. Before joining the Stargate program he'd flown KC 135s and he'd never quite gotten used to ground combat. "They weren't watching their flanks. It didn't look like they had any plan past blitzing us. Once they lost the element of surprise, they were going to get creamed and they knew it. It looked like they were trying to take as many of us out as possible before we struck back."
"Cannon fodder." Ronon started to fold his arms across his chest, then apparently thought better of it. He'd been grazed along his ribcage by a bullet and wore thick bandages over the spot. "Those are Wraith tactics."
Caldwell picked up his pen again. "Teyla Emmagan dialed Atlantis and sent the Athosians through and warned of the raid," he read. "With the stargate open, we contacted Colonel Sheppard and he reported a dozen casualties, two KIA. That was all from the initial contact?"
"All but one," Lorne confirmed, still thankful for the fortuitous combination of bad aim and good body armor. "Peluzzi got shot in the ankle pulling one of the others to safety."
Caldwell crossed something out and wrote in a correction. "What did you do after the Athosians went through the gate?"
"Shot my way back to Sheppard," Ronon replied. "He told me to get the scientists out."
Caldwell looked at Lorne for either confirmation or elaboration and Lorne had to remind himself not to shrug. Instead, he took a deep breath and tried to ignore the prickle of sweat on his forehead and neck. The room felt ten degrees hotter than it had five minutes ago and his teeth were numb. It was like a really good drunk settling in, but without the fun of actually drinking. He'd have to leave before the urge to puke became overwhelming.
"We had already split up by then, Sir," Lorne said after Caldwell started looking at him as if he were expecting Lorne to fall over. "Colonel Sheppard ordered me to take what was left of Team Two and start doing casevac."
"What was he going to do?"
"Provide covering fire with the rest of Team Three," he answered. "He had Sgt. Larzon's sniper rifle."
"So he was planning a withdrawal?"
"He wanted to avoid trapping the wounded in a siege of the waystation, Sir," Lorne said, not bothering to hide his annoyance. In light of what had probably happened, it seemed an especially pointless line of questioning and Lorne didn't understand why Caldwell was pursuing it. He knew that Sheppard had told Caldwell and Dr. Weir of his intentions when they'd contacted him. He hadn't heard their side of the conversation, but he'd been standing close enough to Sheppard to catch enough by the responses Sheppard was giving to know that none of them had liked the idea of abandoning the waystation. "He was sure that the Genii were going to send in more troops and he didn't want to get everyone holed up in the waystation with no way out."
"Even though he knew we were sending our own reinforcements? Captain Radner was..."
"With all due respect, Sir," Lorne cut in, "We were down to ten healthy Marines and a limited amount of ammunition. We hadn't had time to hook up the generators to power the lights and it was getting near sunset. We were sure we could keep the Genii out, but we knew that they had some of our C-4 and were eager to remind us of it. Colonel Sheppard didn't want to risk them burning us out or bringing the waystation down on top of us. Not with so many civilians and wounded. He planned on holding the waystation with a small team until reinforcements showed up. He told me to come back with the Mark-19s because he wasn't sure if he'd told you to make sure Captain Radner brought them."
Radner had come to Atlantis with Colonel Everett and, as such, was a veteran of the Wraith siege of Atlantis. He had indeed had the Mark-19s packed along with plenty of ammunition and spare clips. There were also extra NVGs, AN/PAS-13s, and the other toys they'd brought for nighttime warfare. When Lorne had come through the stargate at the end of a ragtag train of Marines and stumbling under the weight of a hobbling Sgt. Peluzzi, Radner and his lieutenants had already distributed the extra equipment among the Marines prepped to return to Malthusa. They had been waiting, packs at their feet, for the incoming wormhole to close and an outgoing one to be established.
"Let me go back there," Ronon said suddenly, as if he, too, had been reliving the afternoon. Ronon had come through the gate about ten minutes before Lorne, carrying a wounded McKay and with Dr. Safir as tail-end Charlie for the group of scientists, "Sir."
"We have people there, Specialist Dex," Caldwell cut him off sharply. They'd have this discussion twice already that Lorne had overheard. Probably a few more times that he hadn't. "Sgt. Pellain's team is very experienced at this sort of work."
Caldwell stared at him, annoyance naked on his face. If Lorne were sitting closer, he would have kicked Ronon under the table no matter what the motion would have done to his arm.
"That may be so," Caldwell agreed with deceptive mildness. "But you are one man and they are a team used to working with each other."
"Sir, is there anything else you'd like to know from me or Ronon?" Lorne asked once the staring match between Ronon and Caldwell started getting serious. "I have tasks to return to and I'm sure Ronon would like to prepare himself for when you are ready to send him out."
Caldwell's glare turned from Ronon to him without losing any of its heat. "Shouldn't you be resting, Major Lorne?"
I'm going to be paying for that, Lorne sang to himself. "I spent six hours lying in the infirmary, Sir. I'm rested enough."
Ronon shifted in his seat as if he were ready to stand and Caldwell closed his pen, putting it down.
"The recon team will be back at 0730," Caldwell said flatly. Lorne nodded and stood awkwardly, his balance off both from the drugs and his casted arm in the sling. He saluted, even though he wouldn't have bothered otherwise, but he was still under arms and while Caldwell probably didn't care if he did, he would remember if he didn't. He waited for Caldwell to return the salute, then turned and left the small conference room, Ronon trailing behind.
His plan was to go to his own office and kill time with busywork until the recon team returned. There was a couch there and he wanted desperately to doze, but he couldn't let himself, not until after they had a better idea of what was going on.
"Is he going to send me out?" Ronon asked as Lorne entered the transporter.
Lorne shook his head as he used his good arm to touch the spot on the map he wanted. "I don't know. And you have to stop pushing him. He's not like Colonel Sheppard -- he won't give up and let you do what you want just so you'll stop nagging him."
It was an unfair thing to say -- Ronon didn't nag per se. And he'd largely given up the passive-aggressive taunting after he'd realized that Sheppard was immune to challenges made to his manhood or courage. At least as far as command decisions went. But Ronon could still be unremittingly persistent if there was something he wanted to do and Sheppard -- or himself, if Sheppard was busy -- was reluctant to agree to it.
The transporter doors opened in Little Tripoli, the squat building near the South Pier that housed the Marines' team rooms, training areas, classrooms, and everything else required to keep Atlantis's midget battalion occupied and ready. The officers had space here as well, except for Sheppard, who nominally had an office across from the Control Room but had never actually been seen in it. Colonel Caldwell was using it now.
"He let us do what we needed to for Sheppard last time," Ronon said pushed open the door to the stairwell for him and Lorne went through, nodding thanks.
"It's more complicated than last time," Lorne sighed, focusing hard on the steps so that he didn't tumble. The stairwell was dark and he was dizzy. "That was... that was Colonel Sheppard getting turned into an alien bug. They don't teach you what to do with that in War College."
"And this they do." Ronon didn't make it a question.
"It's trying to track down POWs taken by a guerilla force," Lorne said sourly, pausing on the landing. "That we know what to do with."
"So he's not sending me out to look for Sheppard."
Lorne swallowed a groan and continued down the stairs. "I don't know. Probably not to look for him. Maybe to get him back."
"Really?" Ronon sounded dubious and skeptical and disappointed. After a long beat, he continued down the stairs as well, heavy footfalls making Lorne's ears ring and head pound.
"As a guide, maybe," Lorne replied. "I don't know, Ronon, I really don't. I don't know Colonel Caldwell well enough to say what he'll do or not. I hope to have a better idea after the recon team gets back and debriefs."
"Can't you send me out?"
"Not after you kept pushing Caldwell, no." He was at the door to the floor with his office. "I can't countermand Colonel Caldwell's orders. And Dr. Weir can't, either, because this is a military situation."
"I can go on my own." Ronon sounded like a petulant child almost and Lorne looked up at him with thinly veiled frustration.
"Sure you can," he agreed. "But will Caldwell let you back here afterward? We need you here, Ronon. Whether or not Colonel Sheppard and the others are found -- and especially if they're not found right away." Or at all, he didn't say, but he knew Ronon heard.
Ronon's face was impassive in the dim light.
"Colonel Sheppard's right -- you're all tactics, no strategy," Lorne said to break the growing quiet. "And Colonel Caldwell's a strategist. We -- all of us -- need to lie low. We can't disobey his orders, so we have to stop putting ourselves in a position for him to need to issue them."
Ronon smiled then, a wolflike smile. "You've spent too much time with Colonel Sheppard."
"And I look forward to spending more time with him being a bad influence once he gets back," Lorne replied, smiling despite himself. "Go sleep, Ronon. I can stay up all night because I'm not going anywhere in the morning with this dinged wing. If and when Colonel Caldwell turns you loose, you should be ready for it."
Ronon nodded, then opened the door for him again and then continued down the stairs alone.
The walk to his office was painful. Partly because of the way each step vibrated in his arm and partly because this was where the Marines lived -- the barracks were in another building, but they lived here. A platoon had gone out on a routine trip but now three of them were dead, more than a dozen were injured, and they'd lost far more than five Marines along with their commanding officer. The weight of the day's events bore down on the very air itself. None of them had come here without seeing combat elsewhere first and they all knew that not everyone gets to come home, but that didn't change anything. There were surreptitious glances from open doorways and solemn looks from those who passed him and nobody said a word but everyone wanted to know the latest and Lorne felt sick (sicker) that he had nothing new to tell anyone.
Part II: 0430 Atlantis Standard Time
"Are you sure you're supposed to be up and about, Sir?"
Major Lorne glared at Captain Radner from where he was sitting on the third side of the triangular table. Elizabeth watched him carefully. Lorne looked exhausted, as they all did, but he had been shot earlier and was still far too pale from blood loss. The doctor taking care of him had wanted to keep him in the infirmary overnight, but Lorne had refused. Had instead gone right back to work and, as far as she could tell, hadn't been to sleep, either. She could order him to stand down and Caldwell would back her up, but she didn't have the heart to do it. He wanted -- he needed to be working, the same as the rest of them.
"I'm fine, Captain," Lorne said sharply, unconsciously holding his wounded arm close to his chest. "No need to worry about this Zoomie keeling over."
Radner's brow furrowed. "Sir! That's not..."
"I know," Lorne cut him off with a disappointed sigh. "I know. Don't worry about it. I'm tired and cranky and I apologize."
Radner nodded and Elizabeth gestured to him to sit down and he did.
"How are your men?" She asked. All of the missing, wounded, and dead came from his company and he was taking it hard. According to Lorne, after it had become clear that there would be no returning to Malthusa, Radner had spent the night between the infirmary and the military facility, checking in on the wounded and standing tall for the rest.
"I haven't been able to go down to the infirmary to get an update since after we got through to Malthusa," she explained belatedly. It was a weak excuse to her own ears.
Most of the past three hours had been spent with Teyla and the Athosians trying to parse out the previous day's events and whether the Malthusans could have played a role in the Genii ambush. No answers either way and the Athosians, guilt-ridden over being unable to support the defenders, had required more solace than Elizabeth had been able to provide. She'd left them to Teyla and gone back to her office to start the day's routine work, annoyingly banal in light of what else was going on. But necessary it was and necessary to at least project the image of life going on here in Atlantis. Even when everyone seemed to be walking around slightly stunned.
Radner's face fell. "Sergeant Leary died this morning, Ma'am."
Elizabeth closed her eyes and let the disappointment and sadness wash over her. She hadn't known Leary except as a name on a roster and, separately, as a face she'd seen in the hallway and, later and in private, she would feel the guilt that the two only came together posthumously. She then opened her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose.
"I'm sorry," she said. Looking over at Lorne, it was clear that he had already known. "And the others?"
Radner screwed his handsome face into something inscrutable, then smoothed it out. "Everyone else is recovering, Ma'am. Sergeant Peluzzi is still in surgery for his ankle, but Dr. Beckett said that he should be walking again inside a few months. It looks like four will be going back on the Daedalus when it goes back to Earth. The rest can rehab here."
"I'll be down as soon as I can," she said, "I apologize that I haven't been able to get down there sooner."
"I'm sure they'll appreciate the look-in, Ma'am."
There was silence for a moment and the din from outside could be heard quietly, muffled and rendered opaque by walls.
"How long until the reconnaissance team returns?" Elizabeth asked. "I wasn't party to the final arrangements."
Caldwell was being respectful of her authority, keeping her included in all conferences and copied on all memos, soliciting her opinion even when they both knew she could do little other than nod and agree. But exchanges happened in hallways and armories and away from her view and sometimes, when they were technical in substance, she was not apprised. She'd been told that there was a reconnaissance team going out, who was on it, and how long the mission was scheduled to run, but she had not been near the gateroom when they had departed and didn't know when the six hours had started.
"They're scheduled back before 0730 Atlantis Standard," Lorne said, looking at his watch. "We've bumped up the retrieval team to one hour's notice."
For every team out on a mission, a second team was kept on standby in case something went wrong. Elizabeth still remembered the argument with Sheppard that had led to deciding at exactly what point such a determination was made. They'd eventually settled on three hours overdue with the option of making it sooner for riskier missions.
"Has there been any contact?"
"They're running silent," Lorne replied. "The Predator drone we sent out indicated that there was nobody around, but, well..."
"We don't know enough about the situation to risk discovery, Ma'am," Radner finished, smiling humorlessly. "Neither the Wraith nor the Genii know that Atlantis survived the siege. Dialing directly in to send a radio report would violate OpSec if anyone were to see it."
"Do we seriously think it's the Wraith?" she asked, looking at both Radner and Lorne. "I know the alternative isn't much better, but... The Genii hijacking a stargate for ten hours? I'm no engineer, but that sounds a little beyond their capabilities."
"So did getting to another galaxy by stargate," Radner replied with a slight shrug. "We can't do it always, but we were able to do it when it counted."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Elizabeth admitted. "That the Genii would be willing to become what they hate in order to get to us? That they'd go so far?"
She remembered Prenum's words, the schadenfreude so thick in his voice she'd hoped he'd choke on it. In her head, she knew that the Genii would gladly offer up Atlantis as either gift or bribe to the Wraith. It was her heart that was reluctant to accept that anyone could be so malevolent.
"You're the one who got held hostage during the siege, Ma'am," Lorne answered evenly, as if he could see her recollections and didn't want to press the point. "The Wraith tactics work and, frankly, if we were in the same position, we'd be considering using them, too."
"I'd like to think that we'd never be in the position where we'd be actively seeking to destroy another culture," she retorted, feeling her cheeks flush with anger.
"If this escalates much further, Ma'am," Radner warned, "we may very well find ourselves in such a position."
Elizabeth looked up sharply. "I consider such possibilities unlikely at best, Captain. And disgusting at worst."
This is why she fought so hard to keep Atlantis a civilian operation, why she fought every slippery slope she found herself on with Sheppard, why she battled SGC over every crumb even if it wasn't strictly necessary. Because if left to their own devices, the military contingent would answer violence with violence at such a greater magnitude as to threaten to turn their mission from peaceful exploration to imperialism. Diplomatic solutions were not even considered by types like Steven Caldwell -- or even John Sheppard most times. She was not naive; she understood that sometimes words must be reinforced with deeds. But words must be tried first and always.
"We're guarding the gates between Pegasus and the Milky Way," Lorne said. "If Atlantis falls, then so does Earth. And if it comes down to it, then we might very well have to destroy the Genii to preserve them both."
She looked over at Lorne, feeling betrayed and surprised for it. Lorne was like Sheppard in that he was friendly, laid-back, and willing to adapt to their new surroundings. She dealt with him regularly in the course of the business of keeping Atlantis running and knew that he was generally open to compromise -- far more open than John, who too often had to be pried off a decision with a crowbar and brute force. She tended to forget that the reasonable and personable Lorne was first a soldier, the way she tended to forget that John was a soldier first, until something came up and reminded her forcefully. Like this.
"Some folks aren't going to accept any reasoning but their own, Ma'am," Radner said almost gently, as if he were worried about spooking her. "We see enough of that with the al-Qaeda types on Earth. If the Genii aren't interested in anything short of our complete destruction, then our choice is to either give up or fight back. And we have to fight to win."
She took a deep breath. This was neither the time nor the place. "I'll keep that in mind when the time comes, gentlemen." She didn't look directly at either, embarrassed at what she might see. "But right now, we have a smaller, less philosophical problem at hand. Getting our people back."
Lorne turned his head away suddenly, holding his unaffected hand to his ear. "Roger that, Lieutenant. Go when ready and check in every eight."
He turned back to face forward. "We're sending a couple of teams to the Alpha site, in case Colonel Sheppard or any of the others gate there."
Faintly, Elizabeth could hear the alarm for stargate activation.
"They'd have tried to bounce back here if they were there already," he added in response to the unspoken question. "Lieutenant Garson is bringing along one of the doctors and some extra medical supplies just in case. He's got the same orders as Lieutenant Cadman does at the Delta site: set up near the gate and be prepared for anything coming through."
The Delta site, a pleasant, uninhabited planet that would have served as a backup to the Alpha site if the stargate had been closer to a clean water source, was the gate address all offworld-bound personnel were told to give if they were asked where the Atlantis mission had 'relocated' after the Wraith siege.
"If it was the Genii holding the stargate open for so long," she said as the alarm ceased, "then the odds are that Colonel Sheppard and the others are still being held on the planet, correct?"
"That's what the recon team is hoping to find out, Ma'am," Radner answered. "We think so. Dr. McKay and Dr. Zelenka had the DHD dialing as fast as it could, which means that in order for the Genii to have dialed out once they'd closed their own incoming wormhole, they'd have had to have been pretty fast on the draw and lucky as well."
As if on cue, Rodney's voice came over her headset. "Elizabeth? We think we've figured out a way for the Genii to have pulled their stunt. Should we come to you or..."
"I'll be down in five minutes," she told him. It wasn't anything that really demanded face-to-face interaction; they all suspected that if the Genii were behind the stargate's inaccessibility, it would have required their tapping in to their limited nuclear capabilities. But she wanted to walk, to get away from the tension of the gateroom.
"Gentlemen?" She began, standing up. "Dr. McKay and Dr. Zelenka have some news for me, so I'm going to have to ask you to excuse me."
Both men stood immediately, Lorne a bit uneasily.
"Major, please contact me when the reconnaissance team returns?" She knew that Caldwell would tell her, but it would not be right away.
Lorne nodded. "Of course, Ma'am."
"And if I asked you to get some rest, would you do that, too?"
"Probably not, Ma'am." Lorne smiled wryly. "I passed out for a few hours earlier. Does that count?"
"Not in any meaningful way," she said, matching his expression. "Captain, walk with me, please?"
"Yes, Ma'am." He waited for her to come around the table and precede him out the door.
There was a transporter entrance close to the Control Room, but Elizabeth led him toward a further one. The lab Rodney and Dr. Zelenka were using was very close to a transporter itself and she wanted the feeling of actually moving from place to place.
Along the way, she asked Radner about the particular injuries to his men, their estimated recovery times, and the welfare of the rest of his unit. He answered her forthrightly, not mincing words or sparing her sensibilities. The four who would eventually leave with the Daedalus were likely done as Marines, forced to retire because of their injuries. The other injuries were mostly gunshot wounds to arms and legs and it was a matter of how much bone they had hit; ballistic plate in their body armor kept the damage to torsos to a minimum, although one sergeant had gotten shot in the neck. Bullet had passed clean through without hitting anything, a million-to-one kind of injury and he was already walking around, even if the doctors wished he wouldn't.
They parted at the transporter, Elizabeth reiterating that she'd be down to the infirmary as soon as she could and Radner saying again how the men would be pleased to see her. With so many Marines now -- the "runt battalion" was still just over 200 men -- she did not know all of them nearly as well as she had gotten to know the original detachment. She wasn't sure whether or not it was a relief -- each death felt less like personal grief but more like deep regret that she hadn't gotten to know the man who had died to protect their mission.
"Talk to me Rodney," she said as she stepped through the lab doors. As always, her presence in a room sent slouchers upright and a discreet shuffling of papers to make it look like entropy didn't apply in Atlantis.
"We came up with a schematic for what the Genii prototype bombs looked like when you got them," Rodney started, waving his hand vaguely in the air. He was still looking wan even though she knew he'd slept for a few hours since the wormhole had been opened. He'd taken a Wraith stun shot to the back and had been unconscious for the first few hours of the frantic attempts to reach Malthusa and had been relatively subdued since, letting Dr. Zelenka handle much more than he'd normally have let out of his personal control. Elizabeth didn't have to guess that it was from guilt.
"What we remember," Zelenka corrected. "We didn't take precise notes because..."
"Because we were on the verge of getting obliterated," Rodney cut in. "I think she remembers that part of the story."
Zelenka muttered at him in Czech. Elizabeth had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the rather creative insults because she got the feeling that Zelenka would stop if he knew he was being understood.
"So here's what we have," Rodney went on, pointing at the laptop screen in front of him. "From what Colonel Sheppard and I saw of the Genii underground facility, we know that they have a nuclear reactor. It's primitive and extremely unsafe -- their average lifespan would probably be knocked back to fifty-something even without the Wraith, which could in turn probably be likened to medieval infant mortality rates screwing up average lifespans, although that's assuming that they don't have other problems like smallpox or some other epidemic infection..."
"Focusing," he half-growled. "The Genii can generate nuclear energy. It's not very efficient, but it doesn't have to be. Especially if they're not worried about whether they microwave themselves."
"Ten hours' exposure at the levels we're predicting..." Zelenka trailed off with a shake of his head. "Not pretty."
"So they can hook up their reactor the stargate," Elizabeth said quickly, not wanting to dwell on the effects of radiation poisoning. "We knew that, didn't we?"
"We suspected," Rodney agreed, wagging his head back and forth slowly. "But now that we think we know how, we can get a better feel for what else they can do."
"Or can't do," Zelenka added. "Keeping a stargate open for ten hours, even broken up into thirty-eight minute intervals, requires an amazing amount of power. Especially since they were pretty much consecutive intervals."
Zelenka had tried for hours to get the DHD to perform some function of a speed-dial, to no avail. Rodney, once he was awake and functional, had spent almost as much time trying to narrow down a window into which the breaks between the 38-minute intervals would fall. They had not been able to break through until, from all appearances, the stargate had been released by whoever had been hijacking it. Sometime in hour six, they had guessed that there was a randomizer being used on the other end, arbitrarily choosing the length of the intervals that the stargate was open, closing them down, and then re-establishing a new wormhole of another undeterminable length of time.
"Could we do it?" Elizabeth asked. The two pairs of eyes across from hers grew wide. "Theoretically."
"We could," Rodney admitted. "But it would deplete the ZPM at such a rate that we really wouldn't want to. Maintaining a wormhole for any duration requires an energy expenditure that increases as time goes on. Geometric progression, not arithmetic."
"Plus we think that the activation energy required goes up each time," Zelenka broke in. "It would take more and more energy to establish each successive wormhole."
"If we tried this at Cheyenne Mountain," Rodney finished, "even with the massive power generators, we'd still brown out all of Colorado Springs."
"So how did the Genii pull it off?"
"Short answer?" Rodney asked rhetorically. "A series of controlled detonations of primitive atomic bombs. Emphasis on 'detonation' and 'bomb', not so much on 'controlled'."
"There has to have been some protection," Elizabeth protested. "They'd have vaporized themselves otherwise, right?"
"Some," Zelenka agreed. "But the Genii are mostly, if not entirely, unaware of the effects of radiation. They would not necessarily have shielded themselves from anything but the blasts themselves."
Elizabeth leaned back against the table in surprise.
"So we're looking at more Chernobyl and less Three Mile Island," Rodney confirmed. "Which would be in line with the Genii level of obsessive behavior, except that this damage was to their own facilities. The blasts alone would have destroyed a portion of their underground network -- their equipment, if not also the structure. And so our real question is now not how, but why. Because even for the Genii? This is going very far to take something of ours."
"They intentionally kept us from getting to the way station for ten hours," Elizabeth mused aloud. "That's more than enough time to do whatever damage they wanted to do and get away. Especially if they couldn't get off the planet."
The why of the situation had taken second place to the situation itself since the beginning. But now that they were catching up to the how and the what, it was now time to try and figure out what the Genii could possibly want.
"They had to want something specific from the waystation," Rodney said. "Which makes no sense because we didn't even know what was in it. The equipment we brought in wasn't worth blowing up part of their city for. Even they must have known that."
"Perhaps not something," Zelenka corrected quietly. "But someone."
Elizabeth and Rodney both looked at him. "A bid for hostages?" Elizabeth finally asked.
"If they were watching the waystation," Zelenka continued, "Which we must assume now that they were, then they saw who was going back and forth."
"Lieutenant Maguire's team discovered the waystation," Rodney pointed out, shaking his head. "I can't identify who is on Maguire's team -- they're all Marines and thus look alike. I can only identify Maguire because he's built like a refrigerator and can bellow at 130 decibels."
"Lieutenant Maguire's team discovered the waystation," Zelenka agreed. "But you and Colonel Sheppard were frequent visitors."
Elizabeth put her hand over her mouth to keep in the sound she knew she'd make otherwise. Maguire had been in charge of local operations, but John had gone back and forth several times to supervise the security and later to initialize the Ancient systems. Rodney had gone along on a few of the trips, also in a supervisory capacity -- he had chosen the science team for the mission. Others had come and gone, but John and Rodney had certainly been the most recognizable to make the trips.
"That's..." Rodney trailed off. He looked nauseated and horrified.
"A possibility," Elizabeth agreed softly.
"Oh, god," Rodney murmured. "They... It must have been any scientist they could get their hands on. They know we're soft."
The last words were spoken bitterly and Elizabeth did not think that Rodney even realized that he was holding on to the spot on his arm where he'd been stabbed.
"Don't coddle me, Elizabeth," Rodney snapped, his voice just a little too brittle for it to be genuine ire instead of bravado. "If they were trying to get some of us, then they had to have a plan. If they'd wanted just any old hostage, they could have grabbed a Marine all last week. They want someone for a purpose."
"The question is whether Colonel Sheppard can serve that purpose," Zelenka said.
Elizabeth bit her lip. She knew that with every hour the reconnaissance team was gone, the odds of them returning with John, alive or dead, dwindled.
"It's the Genii," Rodney said bleakly. "If he didn't fit the original one, I'm sure they'll come up with a new one."
Part III: 0600 Atlantis Standard Time
The alarm sounded and Steven Caldwell looked at his watch. It wasn't the Recon team, he didn't think -- it was either too early or too late unless they'd run into some trouble.
"Incoming wormhole!" came from the gateroom.
He stood up and moved around to the front of his desk. The office was almost opposite to Dr. Weir's, but it had no clear view of the stargate. Not that that had been the reason John Sheppard had never taken occupancy. Or at least not the sole reason.
"Control Room, do we have an IDC?" he asked into his earpiece, moving into the hallway.
They had teams on three different planets right now and it could be any of the three reporting in... or else it could be the Genii if they'd found out that Atlantis was still active.
He could see Elizabeth Weir on the walkway between her office and the Control Room. She was standing against the railing between the two Marines stationed there (against her wishes) and looking down, tension on her face visible from across the room.
The team on guard duty below was in position with their hands on their trigger guards, ready to raise their P-90s the second the order to drop the shield was issued.
He was past the stairs and had one foot into the Control Room when Farrantino looked up. "It's the Jenny Code, Colonel."
Looking up, he caught glances with Elizabeth. "Keep the shield up," he said calmly. "If you get a secondary code from one of the teams on Malthusa, let me know."
Elizabeth gave him a 'your office or mine' look and he gestured behind him with his head. His. If he'd learned anything from his first stint as Acting Military Commander of Atlantis, it was that there were no arguments won in Elizabeth Weir's office -- at least none that she hadn't decided to let you win.
Elizabeth put her fingertip to her earpiece. "Major Lorne, could you meet us in the Acting Commander's office, please?"
And sometimes you didn't even need to be in her office to get beaten, he thought wryly. As if Elizabeth needed a chaperone.
Lorne appeared in the doorway after they'd already gotten themselves seated and through a discussion on the status of the injured. He looked even more like crap than he had before and was a little bleary, as if he'd been woken up by Elizabeth's summons. Entirely possible all considering; they'd both been up for more than thirty hours. Lorne also looked liked he'd accidentally on purpose forgotten to take his next dose of painkillers.
Barring a direct order, Lorne wasn't going to stand down until he either passed out or Sheppard and the others were returned and Caldwell knew it went beyond mere duty. Iron Majors were all of a kind and Lorne was certainly one of those, but this stubbornness was personal. Lorne was being subtle about it, but not so much that he couldn't figure it out: Lorne didn't trust him anymore than Elizabeth did.
It was his own fault, Caldwell knew. In his eagerness to prove himself up to the task of assuming command of Atlantis's military while Sheppard had been infected by the iratus bug, he had (in hindsight) overplayed his hand. Instead of looking like a qualified and logical successor to Sheppard, he'd come across as an ambitious supplanter. Sheppard himself didn't seem to hold it against him -- the two had enough already between them -- but Elizabeth and Lorne had hardened their hearts and minds against him and this was his first opportunity to try to win them over.
The truth of it was that he didn't dislike John Sheppard. He thought that Sheppard was in over his head and probably knew it, but that wasn't necessarily a weakness. Sheppard was a fast thinker, if occasionally too impulsive, and fanatically dedicated to his men, who in turn repaid him twice over. It's what made solid officers like Lorne risk censure from superior officers rather than disappoint the absent Sheppard.
"The wormhole's closed," Lorne said as he took the empty seat. "We got visual confirmation from the team at the gate before it did. Five men in civvies carrying satchels very carefully. They're going to move in for intercept and will report when Avenger Three comes in with the Athosians."
Caldwell flipped to the relevant pages in his pad and updated his notes. The yellow pad felt positively archaic in Atlantis, but he couldn't make himself use the ever-present laptops. They'd given him his own, transferring the relevant files from Sheppard's for him rather than give him access directly to it. He distinctly doubted that Sheppard kept anything of a personal nature in any place anyone could gain access to it, but he'd kept silent.
"Anything else from them?"
"There's one confirmed KIA," Lorne answered solemnly. "Lieutenant Maguire's body was found. I told them we'd be ready."
A flag and an impromptu honor guard waiting at 0730 AST. Another letter of condolence and official report going back through the wormhole in the next data burst so that another white-gloved casualty assistance calls officer could go knocking on a door. His own career had not included very much of this and he was grateful.
Elizabeth hung her head and shook it sadly before looking up. "Has Captain Radner been told?"
"I took the liberty, Ma'am." Lorne quirked his mouth humorlessly. "He'll tell Maguire's men."
Elizabeth nodded. "Colonel Sheppard had been hoping to get him promoted."
"It can happen posthumously," Caldwell said, lacking anything better. He hadn't known Maguire at all except as the commander of the ambushed platoon and a photo on a personnel file.
"What do we make of the Genii trying to use the Jenny Code?" Elizabeth asked briskly, an unspoken rebuff of his attempt at comfort.
"As of the last check-ins, there's been no attempt to dial into either the Alpha or Delta sites," he answered. "Which means that whoever was forced to give up the Jenny Code had sufficient reason to skip directly to it instead of following protocol."
He hadn't gotten the joke at first when they'd explained the Jenny Code to him. Elizabeth had told him not to worry -- most of the Marines hadn't, either, because they were too young to know the song. Nevertheless, Sheppard had established the IDC 8675309 as a kind of SOS, a warning that the sender was dialing in under duress and that the shield should not be dropped no matter what sort of voices or verifications came through the wormhole.
"It was probably Colonel Sheppard," he went on. "He's the only officer and he's a known quantity."
He could see Elizabeth and Lorne bridle at the implied accusation that Sheppard had cracked under interrogation. He held up his hand to still the expected protest. "I know he's been through every SERE course there is, which means he knew what he was doing when he divulged the survival of Atlantis."
"And that means we're officially pressed for time," Lorne added quietly. "Above and beyond the very real concern that the Genii might want payback for what he did here."
Elizabeth turned to him.
"SERE teaches you to only give up as much information as you have to in order to keep yourself in one piece," Lorne explained. "I think we both know Colonel Sheppard well enough to know that he'd err on the side of not saying enough instead of talking too much."
"Which means he told the Genii about Atlantis because he had no other option," Elizabeth finished, horrified realization dawning on her face.
Caldwell nodded. It was not the situation he wanted, but it was not one he'd considered unlikely. "How long until sunset on Malthusa?"
Lorne looked at his watch. "Six hours plus."
"Get all the officers, senior NCOs, and team leaders in the large conference room in ten minutes," he told Lorne. "Our window just got pushed up. I want everything we can sort out before Avenger Three returns to be sorted out."
Lorne stood and bowed slightly, then nodded at Weir before taking his leave. Caldwell didn't worry about reminding Lorne to make sure all maps, slides, and photos were ready for use.
"Is there anything I should bring to this pow-wow?" Elizabeth asked with false casualness. She was daring him to tell her that she didn't belong. He wasn't fool enough to try; the entire base would shut down on him if he did.
"You have the most experience with the Genii," he replied with what he hoped was a friendly smile. "Not to mention knowledge of the Pegasus galaxy and of Colonel Sheppard's thought processes. So... your laptop, if you'd like to refer to it."
"What about Dr. McKay or Ronon Dex?" She leaned forward slightly. "And Teyla, when the Athosians return."
He frowned. If there was an aspect of the Atlantis command that he still felt he had a poor grasp on, it was the relations with allies. The association with the Athosians was at least reducible to any of half a dozen examples from his own career, but Ronon Dex proved more complicated. Sheppard seemed to trust Dex implicitly and, if Dex's persistence in demanding a place on one of the off-world teams was any indication, it was a trust well rewarded. But Dex was intentionally opaque and completely unpredictable and that made him difficult to plan around -- or with. He'd dealt with rogue operators, Air Force and Army, during his time as a combat controller, and there was a point at which their unpredictability became predictable. Sheppard had had the time to learn that point; he hadn't.
"Teyla will be part of the debriefing as a matter of course," he finally said. "Dr. McKay, if he has the time, and Ronon Dex are welcome for what they can add to our knowledge. But I'm not promising to send any of them outside the wire. Especially Dr. McKay. This is going to be a military assault, make no mistake, and there is a difference between fieldwork and infantry experience."
Elizabeth leaned back, nodding. "All I ask is that they are included in the planning."
The briefing started at 0630 in a crowded conference room that, despite the foreignness of the environment, felt very familiar. Senior officers and NCOs at the table, lieutenants sitting with their platoon sergeants and team leaders in groups around the room, civilian scientists spread throughout. Elizabeth had a seat between Lorne and Radner, Ronon Dex stood leaning against the wall near the rear, next to McKay and the disheveled man who was presumably his deputy. The surviving members of Maguire's Thunder One who were mobile enough to leave the infirmary sat together and it made Caldwell angry to see how small a group it was.
They started off reviewing the events, not dwelling on any particular point but just to make sure that the collated story fit the recollections of those who had been there. There was a murmur throughout the room when Caldwell told them of the Jenny Code -- the incoming wormhole was no secret, but the logical explanation for why it was used caused a reaction that he had sensed on and off throughout the day, but had been unable to pin it down until now.
It was focused on Sheppard, he realized with a suddenness that would have been accompanied by the sound of elastic snapping back into place were he in a cartoon. It was the assumption of Sheppard's inevitable survival coming up against the realization that maybe this time he wouldn't make his last-minute escape.
He himself was familiar with Sheppard's action hero antics -- he'd met the man by interrupting his suicide mission -- and understood what sort of galvanizing effect they could have on the people dependent upon him for their safety. The problem with such 'cult of personality' type leaders was that when they finally fell, and they always did, it was that much harder to keep everyone else together. That Sheppard did it unintentionally was irrespective to the situation. It was up to Caldwell -- since Elizabeth was just as much under that spell as anyone else -- to deal with it.
"Avenger Three returns in thirty," he told the room after the review of the past day's events, "And we will stand down for two hours because there's nothing useful we can do until they bring back intel. Go look after your men -- make sure they eat, try to get them to sleep, keep them busy, or do what you think they need. Stay off the range."
He looked around at the serious faces. "We will reconvene at 0900 and we will be working, so come prepared. Our plan is simple: we are going to Malthusa and we are coming back with Colonel Sheppard, Gunny Aguilla, Sergeant Francis, Sergeant Hopewell, and Sergeant Olivet. We are not going to pussyfoot this. We are the most proficient fighting force on Earth and we will prove it. Dismissed."
He walked out of the room without stopping or turning around, knowing that if he did there would be half a dozen requests to do something other than nothing in the downtime. So instead he went straight to the transporter and then to his quarters. He showered, shaved, and put on a clean uniform, getting back to Stargate Operations by 0720.
The crowd in the gateroom did not surprise him, although he would have ordered the area closed to all but essential personnel if Avenger Three hadn't reported an all-clear when they dialed in at 0729. He could see no empty space on the concourse; the team on guard duty had kept the perimeter around the stargate itself clear except for the usual personnel who awaited any returning team. Dr. Beckett and a medical team were off to the side next to the men of Thunder One who would serve as Lt. Maguire's escorts.
"Atlantis, we'd like a hazmat team ready, please," Sgt. Pellain's voice came through. "Got some goodies we will definitely want to take a look at."
"Avenger Three, do you need us to clear the area?" Elizabeth asked before he could.
"Negative, Atlantis," Pellain replied. "We've taken care of it. We're just being careful."
It took less than five minutes for a quartet in orange protective suits to appear on the platform; Atlantis was very used to these requests.
"We're ready, Avenger Three," Elizabeth announced. "You can bring your package through."
Two Marines in full rattle came through, each carrying large, clear plastic bags in both hands. In the bags were brown leather satchels. The bags were carefully handed over to the hazmat team, who in turn moved carefully off the platform and past Dr. Beckett's staff and through the doors. The Marines stayed by the gate.
"Avenger Three, this is Caldwell. Do you have any prisoners?"
The particulars of the Geneva Convention escaped most civilians, especially the parts about who was protected by it. Even assuming that the Genii were a nation-state formally at war with Atlantis, which was a stretch despite their past actions, the five men who had dialed Atlantis and then given the Jenny Code were not wearing "a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance" and had been dressed as civilians. If they had dialed the gate with the intention of delivering whatever was in those satchels that required hazmat suits... "operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war" was not on the menu. That was an act of terrorism and not an act of war. Elizabeth may object, but he'd have no trouble with whatever Pellain had decided to do with them.
"None, Atlantis," was the terse reply. "There's nobody here we'd like to waste food and bandages on."
They were alive, then. "Are the Athosians with you?"
"Yes they are," Pellain answered. "They're coming through now."
Teyla and four of the five Athosians who had been on the planet during the ambush came through. The fifth had sprained an ankle in the flight to the stargate and was unable to travel. At Elizabeth's gesture, they took places behind Beckett's team.
"Are you ready to come through, Avenger Three?"
"We are, Atlantis," Pellain answered. "We are keeping a fire team here to watch the gate."
"Confirmed." He gestured to the men of Thunder One. They moved as one to the platform carrying the gurney and the flag. "We're ready for you."
The return of Lieutenant Brian Maguire's body was brief, formal, and brought the sting of involuntary tears to his eyes. The room was still and silent even after the doors hissed closed on the flag-draped gurney, staying so until the stargate deactivated.
The spell broken, a quiet murmur returned. He met Sgt. Pellain's glance and nodded; Avenger Three would report as soon as they were through with their return procedures.
The crowd on the concourse, mostly Marines, slowly dispersed. Teyla dismissed her companions with their traditional gestures and went to Elizabeth's side. He thought to follow her, but decided against it when he realized that it would mean swimming through the still-congregated Control Room staff and assorted civilians. Instead, he headed toward the conference room.
Ronon Dex was waiting for him there, standing in a position that could be mistaken for the bastard cousin of parade rest. "Permission to accompany the team to Malthusa," he said stiffly. "Sir."
He was about to tell Dex that it all depended on what sort of attack plan was formulated, but something in the other man's bearing made him pause. The return ceremony had rattled him, Caldwell realized. Dex had been a soldier once, had seen combat on his native world, and had missed its destruction because he'd been a prisoner of the Wraith. He was concerned that this was the way Sheppard would return to Atlantis as well, no doubt, but the return of Lt. Maguire must have stirred up memories and feelings that had been buried in shallow graves.
"I need your promise that you will follow whatever orders you are given, Specialist Dex," he found himself answering. "Even if that means hanging back when you'd rather be charging forward."
"I can do that."
"Then consider yourself attached to Lieutenant Gillick's platoon. He's down a couple of men."
He had already decided that Charlie Company, Gillick being the commander of its third platoon, would provide the first assault team. Radner would want his Bravo Company leading the way and it would be easy enough to replace the missing platoon, but there were other considerations. He couldn't leave Bravo out of things, wouldn't even if he had the manpower to do so -- it was an insult that would never be forgiven. But Charlie's commander, Polito, was better suited to the task and Radner would just have to accept that.
The six men of Avenger Three entered the room as Dex left. They had all been Recon Marines before their assignment to the Stargate program and had a little bit of the rock star swagger that went along with the prestige. The swagger was muted by exhaustion and sadness, though, and Pellain and his men sat down wearily at Caldwell's prompting.
"Before Dr. Weir gets here," he began. "What is the status of the five Genii you intercepted?"
Pellain frowned. "One may not see morning, Sir, and the rest aren't getting up any time soon," he answered. "They drew weapons when we surrounded them and told us that they'd kill us all with what they were carrying."
"'Wipe out half the planet' is what he said," one of the others added.
"You took a look," Caldwell prompted, knowing that they hadn't brought back anything they hadn't deemed harmless first.
"One of them cracked without much physical prompting, Sir," Pellain replied with an ugly smile. "It's some sort of biological weapon. A powder. The Genii have apparently graduated from nukes to other kinds of WMDs."
Caldwell cursed. "Wonderful. Do they have any more on Malthusa?"
"No, Sir." Pellain looked relieved and Caldwell didn't blame him. "This was their entire stock, at least for now."
By the time the war council began at 0900, Caldwell knew that the Genii had accidentally figured out how to weaponize their cash crop of tava beans and create a variant of ricin that was twice as potent as the one produced by castor beans. They had been prompted to use their new poison against Atlantis because a change in Wraith feeding habits has left them desperate to finish their nuclear projects.
"They've been under attack constantly since the first culling," Pellain told the room full of soldiers and scientists. "They were bluffing when they took Dr. Weir hostage -- they've lost hundreds of people since then. Apparently it's gotten worse since the Wraith think we blew up Atlantis, so they blame us for siccing the Wraith on them."
"So they've graduated to genocide?" Elizabeth asked, horrified.
"They think we did it first," Pellain answered with a shrug. "So they thought they could just kill enough of us to get the rest of our C-4 and enough weapons to fight off the Wraith until they could build their nukes, which they could then deliver with our puddlejumpers."
"Is there some gene in their DNA that prevents logical thought?" McKay asked, sarcasm dripping from his voice. "That's got to be the most idiotic plan of action ever."
"It's a plan of action that would have worked as far as killing all of us," Lorne retorted from Elizabeth's side. "If we weren't in Atlantis, we wouldn't have had the shield and they could have walked right through."
There was a long pause as that thought sank in. Caldwell waited until everyone's attention was back on what was instead of on what could have been.
"The bottom line is that now they know that Atlantis still exists and they still have five of our men," he said emphatically. "They also know that their attempt to... acquire what they need didn't work."
Pellain had explained how they had been unable to coerce the would-be suicide bombers -- homicide bombers -- to confirm a successful passage to Atlantis.
"And if that's true, then they know that we are on to them and that we are coming. So let us plan our arrival because that knowledge will not save them."
There was not much more information acquired from the Genii team -- like their nearest Earth equivalents, the ones operating on the promise of 72 virgins in heaven, they were low-level soldiers who had no access to the ones making the plans.
The Athosians, however, were able to provide necessary intelligence. The Malthusans, not knowing the Genii as anything but simple farmers who did not leave their homeworld, were nonetheless aware of a network of bandits' dens in the forests far outside their towns. They didn't know much about the bandits and lived in fear of them, telling stories of foolhardy souls who had gone exploring and never returned.
The assault was planned for Malthusa's nightfall. Caldwell knew that, as on Earth, their military might came not from any supposedly superior bravery or intelligence or imagination, but instead from their technology and the ability to use it that came from training. Night fighting was a specialty of American forces and it would be used to its fullest advantage. Carrying neither the advantage of numbers nor of surprise, it would be that much more important.
The mission was scheduled for eight hours with the allowance of ten. It took six.
There were a dozen casualties, none fatal. Caldwell knew it had nothing to do with his mission planning. The Atlantis battalion had precisely one Corpsman and Sheppard had apparently left him free rein to drill the basics of first aid into everyone else. Hospitalman Fletcher was feared by everyone in fatigues, including the officers, for his pop quizzes on treatment scenarios and spot inspections of field teams for ready-to-use tourniquets. Caldwell suspected that Fletcher would be less hated after tonight.
Part IV: 0915 Atlantis Standard Time
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Sir?"
Lorne was giving him the look that clearly stated he already knew the answer.
"No, but I'm lacking for better ones," he answered. His voice was still rough and hoarse. "We need to get this done as soon as possible. They're going to try again."
"Not right away." Elizabeth was perched on a stool next to where Lorne stood. She looked tired and pitying and he closed his eyes and looked away because the solicitousness in her expression pissed him off. "Our men did a pretty good job on--"
"You don't get it, Elizabeth," he ground out. "This--"
"They held me hostage twice, John," she cut him off. "They've tried to take the city before. They came damned close to dosing us with a nerve agent. Don't tell me what I don't get."
"Colonel?" Caldwell was standing on the other side of the bed from Elizabeth and Lorne. The usual challenging tone was gone and that, more than anything else, disturbed him. "What makes you sure that they'll be an immediate threat?"
"Kolya was opportunistic," he answered. "He got greedy and tried to take more than he was capable of holding and that's how we beat him, but he was willing to make the low-percentage play on the chance it worked out. When we interrogated her, Sora was embarrassed by that. 'It wasn't the Genii way,' she said. It is now."
"They've been so radicalized?" Elizabeth asked. He envied her idealism for its innocence even as it frustrated the hell out of him when it kept him from taking actions he knew to be necessary. All of the conventions that were supposed to make Earth's fighting 'civilized' -- the sanctity of women and children, the giving of quarter, the treatment of prisoners -- were largely absent here in the Pegasus galaxy and she never quite believed that. It was a function of fighting the Wraith, an enemy that did not even comprehend the concepts of mercy or 'non-combatant', and it hardened the hearts of everyone. It would harden them, too, eventually.
"They've lost two thousand people in the last year and a half," he retorted. "It's skewed their perspective on collateral damage."
"Couple that with a willingness to blame us for practically everything to do with the Wraith," Lorne finished for him, "they won't mind exacting some revenge."
"What happened after the wormhole closed?" Caldwell asked, switching the conversation from theoretical to practical. That was, after all, why they were there and why they had pulled curtains around his bed to give the illusion of privacy. Bullshit, all of it.
"The reinforcements came," he answered, remembering his frustration. He hadn't known that the Genii had hijacked the stargate; he'd only known that it was suddenly six against sixty and his own people weren't coming to the rescue. "You know that movie they made about the Alamo?"
"At what point did you decide to blow up the waystation?" And surrender, Caldwell didn't add, but might as well have.
"They had IEDs," he answered, sounding more defensive than he'd have liked. "Like what we saw coming out of the caves in Afghanistan. Not quite mortars, but close enough. They were walking them in to our position and I could see what sort of craters they were leaving."
"Walking them in?" From the look on Elizabeth's face, he could tell she thought he meant literally.
"Ranging them," Lorne explained. "So that once you hit the target, you can hit it consistently."
"They were using a lot of C-4, plus whatever else they had." He closed his eyes and could see the pits and flying clods of dirt and grass. "It was enough to breach the walls. The place really wasn't meant to withstand an attack."
"Could you have taken out their weapons?"
"We were trying," he answered, opening his eyes. "We had two M40s and we'd taken out the first few. But then they moved back behind the trees and were out of range. We didn't have anything bigger to aim at them."
"They weren't surrounding us," he began again at Caldwell's unspoken prompting, "At least we couldn't see that they were. Everything was coming from north and east. Maguire said that there was a path to the south that swung around and could get us to the stargate. So once they breached the north wall, we started packing up."
"You destroyed the sensitive equipment first." It wasn't a question. Caldwell knew that he would follow standard operating procedures for leaving things behind.
"Maguire started the exfil and I rigged charges," he confirmed. "I put the consoles permanently offline, in case enough of them remained."
"You can do that?" Elizabeth looked surprised.
"It's what the Ancients did when they left Atlantis," he answered. "It's... uninitializing. Making sure only someone with the gene can turn them back on. I tried to key it to me, that only I could re-initialize anything, in case they got someone else with the gene. I don't know if it worked."
"It doesn't matter," Lorne said, looking up from where he was fiddling with the digital recorder on the table next to him. "There was nothing left to turn on."
A chuff of unamused laughter made his chest ache.
"Maguire was killed on the way out?"
He nodded, ignoring the throb in his head to do so. Carson had put him on one of those morphine drips where you had to push the button yourself to get a dose. His entire body was fairly thrumming with pain, but he needed a clear head for this, so he ignored the button so close to his right hand.
"He wasn't leading, but he was the easiest target to hit." Big Brian Maguire, easy to pick out from any distance. "He was dead before he hit the ground."
"Were you able to evade for any length of time?"
"We ran right into them." He laughed bitterly. "They had a second company spread out in the trees, waiting for us. We'd have gone back to the waystation, but the charges were already going off. They took us after a scuffle."
The Genii soldiers were raw and undisciplined, but made up in numbers what they lacked in professionalism.
"Were they looking for anyone in particular or just hostages?" Elizabeth looked thoughtful and he could tell from her expression that she was looking for evidence to support or refute a theory.
"They wanted to know if any of us was Major Sheppard," he answered reluctantly.
She nodded. "Were they looking for you or just hoped you'd be there?"
"They knew I was there." Face down in the dirt, twigs poking into his cheek, a boot on his back and a rifle butt near his ear. "They just didn't know which one."
"Did you confirm your identity?" Caldwell asked.
"Not until they cocked the hammer."
"What was their reaction?"
"Like they'd won a prize at the carnival." He closed his eyes again, remembering hoots of glee and a couple of solid kicks to his ribs as he lay prone on the ground. "I got special treatment for that."
"I'm fine, Elizabeth," he cut her off before she could finish. He turned to look at Caldwell before opening his eyes. Caldwell didn't look solicitous or worried for him and his concern was professional and that was a relief. "I'm not looking for sympathy."
"Well, you're getting it anyway," she bit back.
"How did Gunnery Sergeant Aguilla die?" Caldwell asked as the silence threatened to stretch.
"We were going to try to pull a Hansel and Gretel," he answered. "Bust open some infrared chem lights and leave a path. Get the juice on some pebbles, on our hands, whatever we could to mark our direction."
"The advance teams saw it," Caldwell confirmed. "Saved them a lot of time in getting to you."
In getting to Tommy Aguilla's body, he didn't say.
"It wasn't my doing," he said. "I couldn't do anything; they had me trussed up like a turkey and surrounded. Gunny Aguilla was compensating and he got caught with wet hands after tripping and falling once too often."
"Did they realize what you were doing?"
"No. He told them it was a poison and they were going to make him drink it." He felt bile rising. "It is poisonous and it's a fucking ugly way to go, so I said it was an explosive. So they shot him instead."
Once, in the forehead. He remembered the brain matter and blood spattering the leaves. He'd started to retch, but swallowed it. Francis did puke because he'd gotten hit in the face with skull fragments and bits of scalp.
"We didn't try anything else."
"You know there's nothing you could have done," Caldwell said without a trace of pity.
"And you know that that doesn't mean a whole lot right now," he retorted.
"Fair enough," Caldwell responded evenly. "What sort of interrogation did they use?"
Skipping over the building and its details, which he'd memorized in case he had a chance to get out. Even though he was fairly sure that he wouldn't live long enough to escape.
"They searched us, took everything, and then threw all of us in a cell together. They came back almost right away and pulled me out and took me to meet the commander," he started.
"Kolya?" Elizabeth stiffened involuntarily with the question.
"No. Guy named Etrolis. I don't know if Kolya's alive anymore or, if he is, whether he's still got his job." He looked over at Lorne, who was trying to type in the name one-handed. "Don't bother. Etrolis is dead."
Lorne stopped typing.
"The soft-sell wasn't very soft or very enthusiastic. They wanted their pound of flesh." He looked over at Caldwell. "They have spies on a lot of worlds. They know we have contact with Earth."
"How?" Elizabeth and Caldwell ask in sync.
"They knew how many people we evacuated to Manaria during the storm and how many of them were soldiers," he explained. "They've seen too many new faces on offworld missions."
"We'll have to reevaluate protocols for mission security," Elizabeth said and he felt oddly good that she was looking at him when she said it, not at Caldwell. "And how big this Genii spy network is."
He met her gaze and nodded.
"They put me back with the Marines for an hour or so," he began again. "It's hard to tell time in those situations. It could have been thirty minutes. We didn't have time to discuss much in the way of tactics or escaping. Just trying to keep each other sane and ready to resist."
"Did they interrogate any of the Marines?"
"Not right away," he said, taking a deep breath. "They wanted me to be the one who broke."
'Did you?' hung in the air like a blanket.
"The next time they brought me out, it was on to the hard sell," he went on, ignoring the unspoken question. "They wanted the address to our 'new home' so they could deliver a present. I asked if it glowed in the dark and they said it didn't even need a match. I made a crack about candles on a cake and they said that maybe they should have done that instead."
"Did you realize what it was?" Caldwell kept his tone even.
"Yeah. I told them I wasn't going to help them poison my people. They didn't like that, so they went back to asking for the gate address. I name-rank-serial numbered to the beat for a while."
He looked at his wrists, wrapped in gauze and covered in salve.
"They asked why I wasn't a major anymore. I told them I promoted myself. That's how I found out that they were watching us -- they wanted to know who'd promoted me and whether I'd gone back to Earth for it.
"They should have gone to SERE," he said. "I got more out of that interrogation than they did."
As a joke, it bombed. He looked away from Elizabeth, who was biting her lip, and Lorne, who had stilled. He focused instead on his blanket-covered feet.
"Eventually, they got to understanding that I wasn't in a talkative mood." He exhaled slowly, unaware that he'd been holding his breath. "So they went with less... personal inducements."
"They stopped the torture, you mean," Elizabeth said flatly.
"They started with it," he said before he could stop himself. "They brought out Sergeant Francis and held a gun to his head."
Caldwell shooed away a nurse.
"They started asking him what they'd been asking me -- what's the gate address of our new home. He gave them his name, rank, and serial number. They cocked the pistol at his head and asked me again."
"You gave them the Jenny Code?"
He shook his head no, feeling the burn of tears in his eyes. "Francis asked me what they'd do with the information. I said they'd poison our people. He said 'Semper Fi, Sir.' They told me if I didn't tell, they'd blow his brains out. I gave them the Gamma site. They did it anyway because they thought I was lying."
A gasp from Elizabeth and she put her hand over her mouth to stifle herself.
"They brought out Sergeant Olivet. Had him kneel in Francis's blood, right next to his body. Rinse, repeat. I told them to dial Atlantis and gave them the Jenny Code."
"Did they shoot Sergeant Olivet right away?"
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. His broken ribs protested nonetheless.
"They sent men to the gate with the... ricin. Can I call it that? Whatever it was. They were supposed to radio in before they all went through. I knew they'd never get through. I knew Olivet would die once Etrolis found out. Olivet knew it, too. He... handled it well. He was a Marine until the end."
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Elizabeth start to fidget, a sure sign that she was at her limit. He looked away.
"What did you hope to accomplish by this course of action?"
"Colonel!" Elizabeth barked.
"I knew the Jenny Code would work the way it was supposed to," John said loudly to cover up any burgeoning argument before it could get anywhere. "I sacrificed Sergeant Olivet's life on the assumption that you had the stargate covered and could intercept the delivery boys and get intel out of them."
"Which we did," Caldwell agreed solemnly.
"At a very dear cost," Elizabeth added.
"If there was another choice, I couldn't think of it," he spat out, looking at Elizabeth, who in turn looked surprised at his anger. "They weren't going to kill me. I'd told them to shoot me instead, that Olivet and Hopewell knew valid codes. Etrolis said that that wasn't the point anymore. If Atlantis was standing, then I was far more useful than just for an access code."
"I'm not questioning your judgment, John," she answered firmly. "I can't even imagine being in your position, facing those decisions. I pray that I never am."
"What did the men charged with delivering the ricin to Atlantis manage to report back before they were taken?" Caldwell plowed on. John was grateful for it.
"Only that they hadn't been able to get through to Atlantis, that you were delaying dropping the shield. One of them started to say something, but got cut off. And then there was nothing."
"Did they know that you'd sent them into an ambush?"
"Etrolis guessed. He asked me if I'd given them a valid IDC. I said I had and that the problem wasn't with the code, but with the fact that an unfamiliar voice was using it. He shot Olivet as punishment for my failing to be completely cooperative. Then he put the gun to my head and said that I may have caused more trouble than I was worth."
He remembered the tip of the barrel, hot from firing against his forehead. Half-wishing that Etrolis pulled the trigger, half-relieved when he didn't.
"They brought Hopewell in next."
Hopewell was knelt down next to two dead friends, across from a CO who was getting worked over, and he looked at him and said 'You might've made a good Marine after all, Sir...'
He coughed out a laugh that didn't even come within a light year of amused. The trio around his bedside looked at him anxiously, as if the anticipated meltdown had begun.
"He knew what was going to happen?" Elizabeth asked.
"How could he not?"
The nurse from before returned, ignored Caldwell's meaningful glare, and changed the emptying IV bag. She turned his arm over carefully to inspect the needle site, gingerly lifting his elbow because there was no spot big enough on his forearm that was free of bruises or cuts.
"What happened next?" Caldwell asked after she reminded him of the morphine drop and departed.
"The gun went back to my head and Etrolis asked Hopewell for a valid IDC for getting into Atlantis. I ordered him to keep silent. He did."
"And that's when you got shot in the calf?" Elizabeth asked.
"You guess?" Her eyebrow arched.
"I don't remember. One minute I'm watching Hopewell wait for me to get my brains blown out, the next I'm in the cell with a hole in my leg, puking."
He'd been concussed at some point, but whether it had been then or earlier on was indeterminable. He suspected Hopewell would have said something if he'd simply passed out.
"We'll check with Sergeant Hopewell," Elizabeth assured him. "I'm sure he remembers."
"How is he doing?" He'd gotten an update earlier, from Dr. Clayton. But that was hours ago.
"He was released a few hours ago," Lorne piped up. "He was supposed to go rest, but he's probably in Little Tripoli."
"Did anything else happen between then and the arrival of Captain Polito's men?" Caldwell asked, looking at something outside the impromptu walls.
"Not really," he answered. "I don't know how long I was out for. The cavalry showed up relatively quickly. Or at least it felt that way."
"I think we're done here for now," Caldwell looked over at Lorne, who hit some keys on the laptop. "Is there anything you'd like to add, Colonel?"
John started at the use of his rank, but shook his head no and immediately regretted it. The throb was worsening.
"You look like you can use a nap, John," Elizabeth said, standing up. "So why don't you quit being a stoic and take your morphine and get some rest."
"Yes, Mom," he muttered not ungratefully. But he didn't reach for the button.
"I'm glad you're back," she said seriously. "I'm glad you're safe."
Caldwell said something appropriate and followed Elizabeth out of the makeshift room, leaving him and Lorne, who was folding up the laptop.
"Get them to get rid of these... walls, would you?" he asked. "Too much like the bug thing."
An experience he'd never have thought would be knocked off top of the list of Shitty Things That Happened in the Pegasus Galaxy.
Lorne smiled despite himself. "Wilco."
"Not that I look any better than the bug time..."
"Not really," Lorne agreed, putting the laptop into a case along with the digital recorder and zippering it closed. "It's good to have you back home, Sir."
"Yeah," he agreed, watching Lorne leave the laptop case to go find an orderly. "Home."
He closed his eyes and reached out to feel the city, the hum of its workings always in the corner of his mind. He was asleep before the privacy screens were removed.