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The Care and Feeding of a CO

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There were times Lorne felt like nothing more than a well-trained dog and for reasons that had nothing to do with the sit-stay-heel aspects of military life.

He hadn't had too many Doberman moments in his career. Before he'd joined the stargate program, he had been flying KC135s, so he hadn't so much been let loose with the dogs of war as come in part of the way through and make sure the dogs were fed. It was still in on the action, but it was more important to have good legs than sharp teeth.

Here in Atlantis he was a St. Bernard or a pit bull, depending on the situation. Right now, however, it was bloodhound. Or maybe just Lassie.

"Are you using the city defenses to track me down?" Sheppard asked, not looking up once he came through the doorway. Sheppard was sitting on the ground, the laptop actually living up to its name, and looking out over the water. The screensaver on the computer was active, so Lorne wasn't worried that he'd interrupted anything beyond the obvious fact that Sheppard hadn't wanted to be found. His earpiece was balanced on his knee.

"There was some discussion about that, sir," Lorne admitted, walking past Sheppard to the balcony's edge so that he didn't hover. "But Atlantis either doesn't think you're in town or she doesn't want to tell us where you are, so... no. I found you the hard way."

McKay had pitched a fit when the city sensors had told them that Sheppard was not in the city.

"Should I ask how you did that?" Sheppard looked up at him, squinting because the sun was now in his eyes.

"XO's Spidey-sense," he answered with a shrug.

Sheppard raised an eyebrow in bemusement.

"Also, I spent my first month here chasing you down to get your approval on everything," he went on, smirking in embarrassed memory. "It made sense that you'd return to your old bolt holes once they were safe again."

A genuine smile from Sheppard this time. "I'm getting predictable, then. I'll have to reassess my evasive strategies."

"Don't do that, sir," he implored sincerely. "It'll mess with my reputation for always knowing where you are."

Everyone knew that Sheppard was impossible to find because he tended to wander. Everyone also knew that Lorne could always track him down. Gate keeping was a science as well as an art, so not everyone who wanted to find Sheppard was allowed to do so.

Sheppard looked at him speculatively. "We have a life signs detector in the control room. Is that such an accomplishment?"

"If Atlantis is willing to pretend she can't see you? It just became my most valuable skill." He stretched his arms along the balcony's banister. It was terrible posture for a grown-up, let alone an officer, but he'd long ago learned not to stand on ceremony with his CO. That standing on ceremony tended to make his CO nervous, in fact. "Although, between the two of us, I think she's been lying for you since the beginning."

"That's my girl," Sheppard said with a smile, patting the ground next to him with clear affection.

Lorne smiled, too. He lived in a city that was having a love affair with his immediate superior -- what was there not to smile about?

"So what brings you here?" Sheppard asked, typing something on the laptop. "I'm not blowing off a doctor's appointment or a meeting, am I?"

Lorne stood up straight. "Not that I know of," he replied. "Although Doctor Weir is planning on rescheduling the personnel meeting for tomorrow and was thinking out loud that you should go."

Sheppard made a sour face. "Did you say something at the last one that she didn't like or does she think I'm getting cranky because I'm bored?"

"We all think you're cranky because you're bored, sir," Lorne said. "And I didn't say a word at the last one because Colonel Caldwell thought he should go."

Neither of them were afraid of Caldwell, so to speak, but his presence created tension and his temporary command of Atlantis's military forces had created a lot more than that. Personally, Lorne found the man much easier to deal with when he wasn't his CO, when Caldwell was instead just another senior officer outside the chain of command. He'd spent most of the last month wondering how different things might have been if Caldwell had gotten the job he wanted -- everyone knew that Caldwell would gladly trade the Daedalus for Atlantis. What Lorne knew and never mentioned to anyone was that he himself would still have been the XO because Sheppard would have been back on Earth; he'd been given his new post before Sheppard had been promoted. He'd come to the conclusion that he'd probably have been a lot less content in his job if Caldwell had taken over. Caldwell was a superb manager and a fair man, but he lacked the... frontier spirit that made Atlantis what it was.

"So why did you track me down?"

Lorne gave his best innocent smile.

"I'm taking my team on a tour of E5 tomorrow," he answered, referring to the grid coordinates of a largely unexplored part of the city. "If you might want to tag along."

Sheppard looked at him speculatively. "Even though I'm not cleared for fieldwork?"

"You're cleared to wander around Atlantis," Lorne went on. "As far as anyone knows, it's what you do all day anyway. E5 is not exactly injun country and we're not doing anything other than surveying the place. If, say, around 1500 you find some Ancient doohickey that looks interesting and don't want to leave it, then, well...."

The personnel meeting was going to be rescheduled for 1500.

"One of us has to go," Sheppard pointed out. "Doctor Weir is not going to take it well if we send a captain or one of the staff NCOs."

"I'll go," Lorne assured, trying not to sound eager.

"Why would you volunteer to sit through ninety minutes of McKay griping about task prioritization?"

"Because it'll save time," he explained. "I'm just going to have to get everything from you afterward anyway."

He didn't add that he'd also have to spend at least half a day undoing what Sheppard had either agreed to or failed to disagree with because he hadn't been paying attention and didn't want to admit it.

"This isn't some pity thing, is it?" Sheppard asked, closing the laptop and picking up his earpiece. "Keep me out of trouble while I'm still buggy?"

"I don't think there's a power in the galaxy that's able to keep you out of trouble for too long, sir," he replied, ignoring the reference. Sheppard made a face, but didn't disagree. "I'm just trying to get things back to normal. You'll be cleared for offworld missions at the end of the week and I've been going to the personnel meetings since I've been here and there's no point in putting either of them off any more than they have been."

"That's very pragmatic of you, Lorne." Sheppard stood up. In the sunlight, he looked almost back to normal. A little pale still, but thankfully human. "Am I supposed to stay hidden for a little while longer so that Doctor Weir doesn't think you went straight to me or..."

"I don't think she'll ask, but if you want to stay hidden for a while longer, I won't tell anyone where you are."

Doctor Weir wasn't going to ask because he'd already told her that Sheppard would be joining his team and then counted on his ability to find him before she did. Gate keeping was an art as well as a science and he knew that Weir didn't really want Sheppard at the meeting. She just wanted him to feel useful and busy. Even if by 'useful and busy' she meant 'bored but at least nominally involved in the workings of the city again.' And Lorne half-suspected that she knew that he hadn't told Sheppard yet.

"'Kay." Sheppard nodded. "What time tomorrow?"

"Armory at 1100," Lorne replied. "We're getting kitted out. I want to run the boys through some exercises while we're out there."

He also wanted to run himself through some exercises while they were out in the city. His time on SG-11 had given him more ground skills than should have been his by right as a tanker pilot, but he'd chosen a team staffed by infantrymen and his marines already had a terribly low opinion of Air Force competence.

Sheppard snorted. "I'm sure Doctor Safir is going to love practicing room-clearing."

They both knew that Yoni had spent enough time during his IDF service doing just that and his conscription into Atlantis's forces during the Siege had been an excellent refresher.

"Yoni's better at it than I am," Lorne said wryly. "But he's still going to bitch and moan, so... "

"So the armory at 1100 and we'll see if Doctor Weir objects to me carrying a P-90," Sheppard said with a nod.

Lorne was as dismissed as he was going to get, so he nodded and left Sheppard on the balcony.


"Let's go, Suarez," Lorne groused. "I want to get back before breakfast tomorrow."

Sergeant Christopher Suarez, pride and joy of Pecumseh, Ohio, was possibly the most particular Marine in the history of the Corps. Or at least in Lorne's limited-but-expanding-like-a-mushroom-cloud experience. Suarez wanted his kit precisely as he felt it should be and, in the absence of incoming fire, could rarely be moved before then. If it weren't for the fact that, once kitted out, he was one of the most effective and skilled Marines assigned to Atlantis, Lorne would have given thought to replacing him on his team. As it was, however, Lorne usually tried to encourage Suarez to allow himself extra time before missions and then would let Staff Sergeant Ortilla ream him out in two languages (only one of which he understood) when that didn't work.

"Is Lieutenant Murray supposed to be here?" Sergeant Reletti asked. "Or did we pop his cherry and he's free to go?"

Murray wasn't an official member of Lorne's team, but he'd been taking the lieutenants out with him for a few missions to see how they acted in the field and around men not their own. Murray had gone with them on three missions in as many weeks and, between that and his own platoon business, was now familiar with both gate travel and placating angry villagers while staring at the business end of pointy spears.

"Lieutenant Murray has third watch in the gateroom this week," Lorne replied. "Suarez! Let's go."

"Aren't we waiting for the Colonel?" Suarez asked, digging through the box of spare clips for his P-90.

"The Colonel doesn't take more time getting dressed than a teenaged girl," Yoni Safir answered, clearly irritated.

"I what like a teenaged girl?" Sheppard asked, strolling in to the armory with a relaxed expression and an unzipped tac vest.

"Squeal," Safir replied easily. "Like a thirteen-year-old at an Enrique Iglesias concert."

"Only when properly motivated," Sheppard said as he went to the locker where he kept his gear.

Lorne had been there for the protracted conversation between Sheppard and Doctors Weir and Beckett regarding his participation in this morning's exercise. Lorne hadn't told them and he knew Sheppard hadn't either, both independently deciding that it was better to seek forgiveness than ask permission, but they'd somehow known. And so Lorne had had to make it sound like his support of Sheppard's getting back into the field -- even if the field was only Atlantis -- was because it was the most practical thing to do and not because Sheppard was his CO and this was what he wanted to do. Eventually Beckett had admitted that Sheppard's blood work had been back to normal for a week and he'd already been cleared for strenuous exercise, so between that and the knowledge that Yoni would be there, Weir had finally relented.

"Suarez," Sheppard sighed as he returned, vest zippered and P-90 attached by its clip, "the bullets in that clip are in tighter than a ruler up a nun's asshole. Pick one and let's go."

Suarez, who'd been tapping clips against the crate and listening for the rattle, stopped. "Yes, sir," he mumbled and put the one in his hand into a pocket in his vest.

Sheppard rolled his eyes and grinned at him as he passed by and Lorne fought to keep the return smile off his face. "So where are we going?"

Lorne follows him out the door and into the corridor, turning the corner toward the transporter. "E-5. Going to poke around, do a little surveying, see what's out there. Not shoot any errant social scientists..."

"One offhand comment," Safir griped loud enough to be heard. "Reletti liked the idea."

"Reletti has no taste," Suarez retorted. "Reletti likes the new Star Wars movies."

Ortilla was waiting for them at the transporter, having taken care of some platoon-related business over in Little Tripoli, the building dedicated to all things military. He looked at his watch as they approached and made a face to indicate that they were earlier than he thought they'd be.

"Reletti also loses to the anthropologists in their weekly craps game," Lorne added, enjoying the surprised look on the marines' faces that he knew about the game. He hadn't bothered to stop it -- or at least stop military involvement -- because it was so low-stakes as to be harmless. "He probably owes them money."

"The anthropologists shoot craps?" Sheppard asked in surprise. "How very Guys & Dolls of them."

They filed in to the transporter, a tight squeeze with six men in battle rattle, and emerged a moment later in a hallway illuminated only by a broken window high above them and a couple of cloudy windows along the side. It wasn't black, but it was certainly dark enough to be spooky and threatening.

"This looks cozy," Sheppard said as he looked around, flicking on the light of his P-90.

Lorne and the others did the same, fanning out into the room as they exited the transporter. This part of the city had sustained heavy damage during the Wraith siege, but hadn't been explored in any serious way before or since except for a cursory "is anything about to collapse and damage the city?" spot-check. They had assumed that these were labs -- Atlantis was infested with them -- but weren't sure what the district had been used for by the Ancients.

"Everyone keep their eyes open," Lorne cautioned as he stepped over a box. "Don't open anything and don't clear anything off without asking first. We don't know what's gotten knocked loose and is running around."

"Like a nanovirus," Safir added, looking deceptively innocent when Lorne glared at him over his shoulder. Yoni had forgiven Sheppard for his role in the nanovirus outbreak the previous year, but it had been a long time coming and he'd made it clear that he would never forget it.

"I think the three nuclear bombs we've detonated over the city have pretty much taken care of that," Sheppard replied blandly, moving slowly toward the far wall. "Probably took care of the rate of reproduction, too..."

"Do we get hazard pay for that, sir?" Reletti asked as he looked through a closed and dirty window. "Nukes and shit?"

"You already get a half-dozen pay adjustments," Ortilla replied. He was mirroring Lorne's approach to the open doorway and had to sidestep what looked like a shattered wall panel. He looked up while Lorne kept his light trained on the darkness beyond the room. When Ortilla's light joined his, he looked over to see Ortilla pointing upward. "Ceiling tile," he mouthed. Lorne nodded and they took another step toward the doorway.

"Ain't nobody wants you having kids, Reletti," Suarez chimed in. He was at the transporter doors, standing guard and watching their rear. "Darwin don't want you having kids."

"Children," Ortilla intoned. "Don't make me come back there and kick your asses."

The four of them -- Lorne, Ortilla, Reletti, and Safir -- made it to the doorway. Lorne looked around behind him. Suarez had the transporter and Sheppard was looking over a section of wall next to it that was of a different pattern than the rest. He turned back to Ortilla and nodded. Reletti and Safir moved to the front, Yoni lowering into a crouch. They went through the doorway together on Ortilla's side, Safir low and to the right and Reletti high and to the left. The two paused just inside to sweep the room with the lights on their rifles. Ortilla went through after Reletti signaled the all-clear and Lorne followed after Ortilla hit the far wall and set up there.

Safir and Reletti were moving toward doorways on opposite ends of the room, vision focused through the sights of their rifles. This wasn't an official drill and, after the talking in the other room, they weren't doing much in the way of noise discipline, but everyone moved as though they weren't sure that there wasn't a Wraith or a Genii or someone else intent on doing them harm waiting just out of view.

Lorne was raising his hand to activate his microphone to tell Suarez that they were moving on when he heard the telltale signs of systems powering up. All of a sudden, lights in wall sconces flickered on and wall panels were illuminated and the covered console near the wall by Ortilla started to glow and beep from under its dusty cover.

"What the--"

"Who--"

The room was fully lit and humming and Lorne spun around to look behind him when he heard the click-clack of Suarez chambering a round in his rifle.

Suarez was in the ready position at the transporter doors, but Lorne could see Sheppard's and Reletti's faces. Reletti had the ATA gene naturally, but thus far had a limited ability to use it -- intentionally, at least -- and he looked like he'd heard something that he couldn't quite make out, not like he'd done something he hadn't intended. Which left them with one prime suspect, who was currently giving himself away with a smirk.

"Stand down, Suarez," Lorne said. "Nobody's coming through."

Sheppard still had both hands on his rifle and wasn't even within five feet of a wall. He looked a little frustrated and embarrassed when he turned to Lorne, a sour smile on his face.

"Major?" The voice of Caughlin, the head of the control room, came through the radio. "We're registering a significant power spike in your vicinity. Is everything okay?"

"Control, this is Sheppard," the Colonel said. "Everything is fine. Atlantis is just a little happy to see us."

Over the radio, Lorne could hear someone snort. Everyone knew who Atlantis was really happy to see.

"We might as well put bells on his toes," Safir said with an annoyance he knew wasn't genuine.

"Copy that, Colonel," Caughlin replied. "Power usage has dropped back down to the usual range. Let us know if you run into anything interesting."

"That was the plan," Sheppard said, lowering his rifle and standing up straight.

"Control out."

Behind him, he could hear someone approach. It was Ortilla, standing with his rifle pointed down. "We scratching the fun and games?"

Lorne shook his head. "We can still do our thing with the lights on."

Ortilla nodded approval, then turned back to the room behind them.

Lorne watched Sheppard approach the wall nearest him, reaching out to touch it experimentally. He could see Sheppard's lips moving, but there was too much ambient noise to hear if noise was coming out. Speaking to himself or to Atlantis, they were words he wasn't meant to overhear and so he turned back to see where Ortilla had gone.

Lorne didn't really understand Sheppard's relationship with the city and didn't think anyone else did, either. He'd gotten the gene therapy before he'd boarded the Daedalus and it had taken, so he at least got a glimpse of what it must be like. But it was only enough to know what he was missing. Atlantis usually did what he asked, but he didn't ask much. Sheppard didn't have to ask at all.

The second room was oriented perpendicular to the transporter vestibule, one open doorway at each end. Ortilla was standing with Reletti and Safir at the one to the right, casual but wary.

"There's a dead end at the other side," Yoni said once Lorne joined them. "At least it looks like a dead end. Maybe Colonel Covert over there can make it do something else."

Lorne raised an eyebrow.

"It's a random spot for a room that small," Yoni explained with a shrug. "Also, it's empty."

Safir had been the one to explain to him that Atlantis didn't have empty rooms. If they couldn't see anything, it just meant that they hadn't found it yet.

Ortilla gestured with his chin past Reletti, who was oriented mostly away from them, keeping a careful eye on the space beyond them. "It's a long hallway with a turn at the end of it, sir," he said. "I'd really like to know what sort of place this is."

They all tended to forget that Atlantis was a city, the way Chicago or New York or Tokyo was a city. There were apartment blocks, libraries, hospitals, and the infrastructure of government. There had probably been shops and restaurants and seedy corners for the practice of vice.

"Do we know anything about this area at all?" Safir asked. "The Ancients did seem to go for city planning."

Very little of Atlantis was used for the same purpose that the Ancients had intended and the choice now was whether to adapt their surroundings or adapt to their surroundings. They'd found an Atlantean hospital a few months ago, for example, but had chosen to import the equipment to the space they were using as medical suites rather than relocate.

"Nothing useful," Ortilla replied. "It's been offline since we got here."

"This is one of the places where the shield failed before we rose to the surface," Sheppard said through the radio. "It was flooded and we never bothered to visit once it drained."

Sheppard appeared through the doorway a moment later, Suarez behind him. He approached with his usual casual lope even as Suarez scanned the room through his rifle sight before following.

"There's some sort of damage," Sheppard continued once he'd joined them. "I can't tell where it is or how bad it is. But something didn't engage when the building turned on."

Safir made a face. "Atlantis told you all this?"

Sheppard ignored the skepticism. Everyone knew Atlantis talked to Sheppard and Yoni, the only member of Lorne's team to have been part of the original expedition, knew it better than most. "More or less."

Everyone also knew that Sheppard really didn't like talking about what Atlantis said or didn't say.

"We'll keep our eyes open, then," Lorne said, hoping to end the discussion. "Let's get going."

They split into two teams, Sheppard with Safir and Ortilla, Lorne with Reletti and Suarez, and moved on silent feet down the hallway. There were only two doorways on each side and they treated each one as though there could be hostiles inside.

The first room was long and mostly empty, the floor an open expanse. The far wall had the sort of grooves and notches that Lorne knew were Ancient cabinetry. "Reletti, be careful when you open those," he warned.

"Trust me, sir," Reletti replied as he edged closer to the wall. "I'm being as antisocial as she'll let me be."

Atlantis being the 'she' in question. Reletti, like all of the ATA-positive marines newly exposed to Ancient technology, had a long and growing list of mishaps, most unintentionally hilarious and a few that weren't quite as funny.

"Fat lotta good that did you," Suarez retorted. "We had to dig you out from under all those blankets last week, remember?"

A previous jaunt around Atlantis had landed them in a warehouse full of bolts of cloth.

Reletti stood off to the side and tapped the nearest door with a tentative gloved hand while Suarez stood back, ready to shoot whatever came out. It did nothing for a long moment and Reletti was starting to reach out again when there was a loud hum and the door rose slowly, retracting into the wall like a roll-top desk.

"Oooh, pretty," Reletti murmured, peering in. "Can we take them if they're not dangerous, sir?"

Lorne came closer. The contents looked like longer versions of Teyla's fighting sticks, except that these were sleek metal and maybe twice as long as Teyla's bantos sticks. Instead of leather straps tied at the end for grips, there were striations of a darker material.

"Jesus," Suarez muttered. "We found the Ancient's supply of dildos."

Reletti scowled and Lorne couldn't help chuckling. They did sort of look that way.

"You'd know," Reletti said.

"Boys," Lorne warned. "There are certain things I really don't want to know about you."

Reletti carefully reached into the cabinet and took out one of the sticks. He twirled it in his hand easily and Lorne remembered that Reletti, an accomplished escrima fighter, was one of Teyla's fiercest opponents. Which really meant that he only lost most of the time, but that was still an accomplishment and treated as such.

"These are beautiful," Reletti murmured appreciatively. "Perfect balance, not too heavy but enough to do damage."

"For those of us only listening to the audio track," Sheppard drawled, "Are we still on porn or are we back to weapons?"

"I think we're in a practice room, sir," Suarez said, reaching out to tap open the other doors in the row. More of the same sort of metal sticks appeared. "Hand-to-hand."

"I think we are, too," Sheppard answered. "So does that make this place the Ancients' version of Little Tripoli?"

"It would make as much sense as anything else." Yoni's voice. "After all that time and we never found their barracks or their training facilities."

Lorne knew that Sheppard had had teams searching for weapon caches almost from the start of the expedition.

"The Ancients' armory would be a find," he said. "Maybe they had something that stopped the Wraith faster than bullets."

"A room full of drones would be a bigger find," Sheppard replied. "The SGC won't give us too many of them from Antarctica."

Reletti took a few steps away and tapped the stick in his hand against the wall. Nothing happened, so Reletti tried it again, this time harder. The hollow ring of metal on the plasticy-mineral walls that built Atlantis rang around the empty room.

"Didn't know if they had anything inside," Reletti explained as he walked back to the cabinet. He took out another and knocked the two together, but again nothing except the clang of metal on metal.

Suarez went to the next bank of compartments, reaching out carefully to open them. These were taller and, unsurprisingly, opened to reveal longer sticks. He took one out and hefted it. "Jo staffs?" He took a couple of strides away from where Reletti was standing and swung it experimentally, producing a low whooshing noise. "Thing could take down a horse," he said approvingly.

"How did you end up with all of the toys?" Sheppard asked. "We've got tumbling mats and--Jesusfuck!"

Safir's shout was audible both over the radios and through the air.

"What is it?" Lorne was halfway back to the hallway, Reletti and Suarez behind him with their rifles up and ready, when he heard Sheppard and Ortilla laughing and Yoni muttering what were probably hideous curses in Hebrew.

"Sorry 'bout that," Sheppard said a little breathily, like he was still laughing.

"No you're not." Yoni accused petulantly.

"It's okay," Sheppard called out. "We're fine. Doctor Safir just found the Ancients' tasers."

"And yet I'm the one who got shot."

"You did say he squealed like a girl, Doc," Ortilla pointed out.

Suarez and Reletti snickered as they went back to retrieve their stick weapons. "Should we take some of these back, sir?" Suarez asked.

"Yeah, but only enough to show around," Lorne answered. "We'll come back for the rest if there's demand."

They stayed in the room another fifteen minutes, during which Suarez experimented and found that the jo staff separated into two halves that he could easily keep in his pack, which in turn made Reletti ask if he could have one as part of his kit for off-world missions. ("You're not Nightwing," Suarez had replied before Lorne could say anything. "You're a Marine. You have a rifle, even if it's a dinky rifle.") Sheppard's team had already moved on to their next room, which was apparently turning out to be another room for stick weapons training.

"What do those tasers look like?" Lorne asked after they'd cleared and entered the second room on their side of the hallway.

"Ice cream cones," Sheppard said after a moment.

"Ice cream cones?" Lorne repeated skeptically.

"The handles look like cones," Safir agreed. "The business end less so. Have you ever seen that hideous glass pyramid they parked in the middle of the Louvre?"

Reletti held up a device that suddenly rendered the conversation both useful and over.

"I think I know what you mean anyway," Lorne said. "Don't aim that at anyone, Sergeant."

Reletti held the weapon, which really did sort of look like an ice cream cone, away from himself at arm's length.

"Don't worry, sir," Ortilla said. "Unless it's Reletti. These things seem to need the gene to be able to work."

Suarez eyed Reletti with a mixture of wariness and warning. Reletti smiled brightly, which had Suarez backing away and looking for a place to hide that might or might not be behind Lorne, who gestured with his hand for the two of them to stop and for Suarez to stay put.

"Is it a matter of just initializing it or is it every time?" Lorne asked over the radio. It made sense -- the Ancients had engineered other technology so that it couldn't be used against them -- but he didn't want to take any chances.

"No gene, no go, sir," Ortilla answered. "We took a couple for the engineers to play with. Maybe they can fiddle with it."

Reletti put the taser down. "It won't be any good unless they can make 'em stronger. If all this one did was make the Doc jump a bit, then it won't do shit to a Wraith."

Yoni muttered something intended to preserve his dignity.

They reconvened in the hallway, a hundred meters from where it went around the corner to the left.

Suarez took point, jogging ahead and then slowing to a skulk. He reached the corner quickly and waited for Safir to join him before he poked his head around the corner. He looked behind him and gestured with his hands that there was a staircase. They joined him, Reletti bringing up the rear, and headed down together.

Suarez and Safir checked out the stairwell exit and, unsurprisingly, indicated that it was safe. There were only two doorways in this hallway, which in turn was darker than the one upstairs.

"Something's weird here, sir," Ortilla warned. He rapped the wall next to him with his knuckles. "The walls here aren't made of the same stuff as the walls we're used to."

Sheppard repeated the gesture. "They're more solid," he agreed.

"Soundproofing, sir?" Suarez offered. "For a firing range?"

Lorne shook his head. "The walls of Atlantis are all soundproofed," he said. "But it could be protection for a range. One way to find out."

He took his team left and Sheppard followed Ortilla and Safir into the room on the right.

"It's a range," Reletti announced as soon as the lights in the room turned on. Ancient shooting galleries looked comfortably familiar when compared to the one they'd rigged in Little Tripoli.

"Same here," Yoni reported. "The question is what were they shooting and can we find it?"

Suarez was carefully walking the length of the back wall. "Maybe it's like the rooms upstairs and they've got them stored in the walls?"

"They probably have an armory somewhere nearby," Lorne said, looking around. "We don't keep our weapons at the range for a reason and it's probably the same for the Ancients."

Suarez's exploration produced nothing, so they went back into the hallway where Sheppard's team was waiting. Together, they began to walk down toward the far end, Reletti periodically turning around to guard their rear against invisible attackers.

"Major Lorne?" Caughlin. "We've been running diagnostics since your area came online. We've been reading a slowly building power drain about sixty-five meters below your present position. It seems you've got a bit of a monster in the basement."

They stopped moving. "Define 'slowly building power drain'?" Lorne asked, feeling his hackles rise.

They were two floors and a hallway away from the transporter and hadn't had a chance to look out any windows to look at the ground below them. Jumping out of one of them was not an option even were there any windows on the level they were walking through -- the transporter had been on the fifteenth story and they had come down only two.

"It means whatever you've turned on with your little Sunday stroll is starting to divert power from resources we actually need," the distinctive snark of Rodney McKay came through their radios. "So go find out what you accidentally did and undo it before the ZPM starts to compensate and waste power that we may need to defend ourselves with down the line."

"Rodney," Sheppard's voice betrayed none of the annoyance on his face. "Are we actually browning out the city or are you just worried that the ZPM will only last eighty years instead of eighty-five?"

"It's more like fifty years," McKay replied, sounding more petulant than pissed. He obviously hadn't realized that Sheppard was with them. Lorne saw the others hide their grins from Sheppard; McKay was not a popular man among the Marines, but he was Sheppard's teammate and one of the most powerful civilians in Atlantis. "And that's presupposing very few conversions between cloak and shield modes. But you've turned something on -- and I am assuming that it was you -- that is draining power at a rate we haven't seen since that shadow entity."

"Hunh." Sheppard pulled his scanner out. Lorne carried his own, as did Reletti, but they hadn't bothered using them so far that morning. Control was monitoring them from a distance and would have warned them of any life sign readings just as they had the energy spike when the building had come online. It was Sheppard's first exercise since he'd been released from the infirmary and, accompanied by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer or not, Weir probably had them monitoring every step he made.

"Yes, well that's a helpful contribution," McKay retorted. "Can you turn off whatever it was you turned on?"

Sheppard turned around slowly, eyes on the scanner. "I don't know. I don't know if it's something that got turned on or something that can't turn on but is trying anyway."

He took a few steps back in the direction they'd come from.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"When the building powered up, something failed to re-initialize," Sheppard explained, his frustration in his own inability to elaborate clear. "It felt like Atlantis was pushing against something that didn't want to budge. I think that's what's draining power. A building shouldn't screw things up on its own. There's no real tech here."

"What is there?" Doctor Weir asked. Lorne could just imagine the scene in the control room, all of senior command crowded around the consoles. "Where are you?"

Sheppard gestured toward the stairwell and they started to walk. "So far, it looks like a training facility for the Ancients' army. We've found some weapons we're bringing back. One of them seems to be some sort of taser. You'd like it, Rodney. It looks like an ice cream cone."

They hit the stairwell and started the climb down. Suarez and Safir moved a staircase ahead and Reletti stayed one behind. Lorne was a few steps behind Sheppard and Ortilla a step behind him, looking vaguely protective. Ortilla always got that way when their team was co-opted for something and Lorne found it endearing after a fashion. Ortilla, a platoon sergeant before being seconded to Atlantis, seemed to thrive most when those circumstances were recreated. He'd make a fine gunnery sergeant in a couple of years.

"I'm quivering with excitement, Colonel. But can we go back to the mysterious immovable object that is sucking energy like a Hoover?"

Sheppard sighed. "I don't know what it is, McKay. Probably some system that got damaged when the ocean started pouring in. If this is a military structure, then maybe it's a weapon of some kind or a defensive tool."

"If it were a defensive tool, why wouldn't it be represented here in the control room?" Weir asked.

"We've barely touched what's available through the control room," McKay explained. "We were running the bare essentials when all we had were the naquadah generators. We've been trying to turn other systems online now that we have the ZPM."

"No matter what it is," Safir said, "It is going to wait until we climb down a dozen floors. Unless you can tell us there's another transporter that will get us there faster."

"No," McKay confirmed.

Suarez looked behind him and smirked knowingly. Ortilla gestured sharply for him to face forward.

"We'll call in when we get there," Sheppard offered. "Sheppard out."

He looked apologetically at Lorne. "Regretting asking me along yet?"

"I was prepared for the risk, sir," he deadpanned. He had been, too, because with Reletti and his ATA gene around, there had still been the very good chance that something would have gone haywire, although probably not on this magnitude.

A long walk later, Suarez and Safir could be heard cursing.

"What is it?" he called down.

"Basement's flooded, sir," Suarez replied. "It's maybe hip-deep."

"Great," he muttered. "Make sure it's not electrified before you wade in, guys."

"I left my swim fins at home," Safir grumbled loudly, but then splashing and disgusted noises could be heard.

Lorne, Ortilla, and Sheppard stopped at the last landing before the flood long enough for Reletti to join them.

"This water hasn't been standing since the city rose, has it?" Lorne asked.

Sheppard made a face as he stepped low enough for his boots to get wet. "I don't know. It may be rainwater, too."

The water was cool but not cold and it was almost refreshing after the long march down the stairs. Almost.

Suarez and Safir were in the stairwell doorway. Both of them had their P-90's raised and the attached lights illuminated. "There's only emergency lights on down here, sir," Suarez warned. "It's enough to see where we're going, but not much more than that."

"Better and better," Lorne sighed. For all of their missions' lack of danger, they certainly did seem to corner the market on discomfort.

Sheppard pulled his scanner out again and waded past Suarez and Safir to take the lead.

"It's this way," he said, gesturing to his right.

They waded slowly through water that their rifle lights made look worse than it probably was. They couldn't quite see through to the bottom and Sheppard had to step tentatively while keeping one eye on the scanner. It took almost a half hour to reach the room, which of course had no lights whatsoever.

"Doc, aim your light at me?" Suarez asked Safir, reaching around to retrieve his pack without getting it wet. He pulled out three small, portable battery lamps and turned them on. "I figured we were going to an unpowered area, sir," he explained when Sheppard gave him a look as he accepted one of the lamps.

With the light the lamps produced, they could see that the room was full of tech, all seemingly turned off except for one console that had lighted parts not visible from the doorway. "I think we have a winner," Sheppard murmured as he waded toward it.

"It looks like the room where we found one of the long-range sensor arrays," Yoni said, shining his rifle's light around the far wall. "Except that was working and not half-submerged."

"We're not gonna get shocked, sir?" Suarez asked worriedly. "Playing with electronics in the water?"

"I don't think this is quite the same as using a hair dryer in the bathtub, Sergeant," Lorne replied, although he honestly had no way of knowing that. "We probably would have gotten zapped once we got wet if we were going to get zapped at all."

The others spread themselves around the room. Reletti stayed in the doorway looking out. Lorne found himself next to a console that looked just like the old Casio keyboard his sister had had in junior high.

"Control, this is Sheppard."

"Go ahead, Colonel," Weir responded.

"The good news is that we've found the source of the problem," he began, circling it again while keeping a hand on it. "It's definitely some sort of hardware for a remote system. Maybe--"

"How do you know that?" McKay broke in.

"You sent me to look at enough of them before the siege, Rodney," Sheppard snarked back.

Behind Lorne, Reletti snickered.

"What's the bad news, Colonel?" Weir asked loudly, trumping all other conversation.

"It's half under water and I can't turn it off."

A flicker of green light in the corner and Ortilla's light was immediately aimed at it, everyone else keeping an eye only on their sector of the room.

"It's nothing," Ortilla reported.

"Can we send a team of engineers down to work on it?" Weir asked.

Sheppard said nothing for a moment, obviously thinking it over. When he snapped his fingers twice, Lorne looked over.

"Paik?" Sheppard mouthed, pointing up. Lorne took this to mean that Sheppard was asking if Lieutenant Paik was the gate room officer on this watch and nodded."

Sheppard mirrored the gesture then mouthed "Who's ready-room?"

"Eriksson," he replied silently.

"Anyone out?"

Lorne shook his head no. There were no missions scheduled for today. The ready room was probably full of marines playing penny-ante poker, reading last year's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, and dozing.

Sheppard nodded again. "Elizabeth?" he began aloud, "I think it'll be fine. Rodney, you can put together a crew to come down here. Have them ready in an hour in front of the armory."

"All right," McKay agreed with surprising readiness.

"Paik," Sheppard went on, "Go find Lieutenant Maguire and tell him to dig out his hip waders. His platoon's got the mission."

"Yes, sir," Paik replied. Maguire was a favorite of the senior officers because he didn't need more direction than that to get the job done. Once Paik found him, he wouldn't call either his own CO or Lorne or Sheppard to ask how he was supposed to muster the rest of his platoon, get them into appropriate gear, get down to a remote position, build a makeshift levee, dry out and illuminate a large room, and then retrieve the scientists inside an hour. Not all of their lieutenants were so blessed with such competence and independent thinking.

"We're coming up," Sheppard said, gesturing toward the doorway. "Tell Maguire we'll meet him on the stairwell. Have someone leave us a pile of towels. Doctor Safir hates getting wet."

Yoni said something in Hebrew. He was smiling when he said it, but it was the same smile he had when he told you that it wouldn't hurt and then you had to bite your tongue to keep from yelling in pain.

They followed Sheppard past Reletti and back toward the stairwell. Going up was naturally harder than coming down, but their waterlogged boots and clothing, uniform pants sticking to their skin, made it all the more unpleasant. They encountered the front of Maguire's platoon on the tenth floor and Maguire himself in the middle of the pack on the landing below the twelfth, discussing logistics with his gunnery sergeant, Tommy Aguilla. They'd left a team of Marines behind to escort the engineers and bring any additional gear needed.

Almost all of the men, Maguire included, were carrying pairs of sandbags tied together and thrown over their shoulders. Maguire, a hulking young specimen of marine, was one of several who were carrying more than one pair. The men who didn't have sandbags were carrying pumps to evacuate the water. Sheppard wished them good swimming.

At the top of the stairs on the floor with the transporter, there was a large pile of towels, six pairs of standard issue Marine PT sweatpants, and six pairs of the rubber-soled soft booties the infirmary gave to patients. There were also energy bars and bottles of water and plastic bags for their wet gear.

Without any shame of stripping down to their wet skivvies in front of the potentially imminently arriving scientists, they undid their boots and got out of their soaking wet uniform parts.

"Lieutenant Maguire is a mensch," Safir announced as he used one of the towels to dry his bare legs. He picked up the top pair of sweatpants, looked them over, then went back for the second pair. "Here," he said, offering the first pair to Lorne. "They're a small."

Lorne accepted them with a flat-eyed stare as everyone else laughed. "Thanks, Yoni."

Dried, changed, and finishing off their bottles of water, they headed for the transporter, carrying their wet things as far from their bodies as they could. Lorne felt a little ridiculous wearing a (damp) shirt under a tac vest along with USMC sweatpants and baby blue fuzzy booties, all accessorized by a P-90 (his 9-mm. and holster were attached in haphazard fashion to his vest). But it was more comfortable than being damp and he was just going to his quarters anyway.

They encountered no one but three of Maguire's marines en route to the armory, where they returned their weapons and made sure that the pistols had been undamaged by water.

Lorne was about to dismiss his team when he looked at his watch. It was 1435, more than enough time for Sheppard, currently in the other room putting his own gear away, to get to the personnel meeting.

"Before you go," he told his team, looking them all in the eyes. "You know that Colonel Sheppard didn't come back with us, right? He stayed behind to help Lieutenant Maguire."

They looked back at him in confusion for a moment, then understanding dawned. "Yes, sir," Ortilla assured. Yoni, who had to go to the meeting himself, just rolled his eyes.

By the time Sheppard re-emerged, they'd all gone. Lorne had waited for him, putting away the chamois he'd been using.

"I missed the goodbyes?"

"You said goodbye on the other side of the transporter, sir," Lorne said slowly. "You decided to stay behind and help Maguire."

"I did," Sheppard agreed, making it sound more like a question. "Why did I do that?"

"Because the alternative is going to the personnel meeting, sir, and the whole point of today's adventure was to get out of that."

Sheppard gave him a cock-eyed look. "You make me nervous when you're so eager to take my place in an official capacity."

He wasn't being serious and they both knew it. Not with Caldwell's recent actions -- and Lorne's work to keep the marines from openly rebelling -- made it poor taste to even joke about it.

"In this case, do you really mind?" Lorne asked as he picked up his wet clothes.

"Well, no."

"So, then," he said with a smile. "Atlantis would love to help you disappear."

"She likes me," Sheppard agreed.

"So take her up on the offer and show her a good time because you get all your paperwork back at the end of the month."

It was a silly thing to say, maybe, but only if you didn't see the way Sheppard adored Atlantis right back.

Sheppard grinned at him, a boyish grin people rarely saw. "I think I will."