ShaViva's Stargate Fan ... Stuff

Inconceivable!

Forlorn Hope: Part Two

Chapter 9: Appropriated but not Condemned

Part of Lorne's job was the evaluation of personnel slotted for a spot on the Atlantis expedition. Now that communication and travel between the city and Earth was again possible the SGC was very keen to maintain regular rotations. Colonel Sheppard was heavily involved in managing the military and in particular the off world aspects of their role in Pegasus and didn't have time for anything else. Plus he'd freely admitted to Evan that paperwork wasn't his forte – anything Lorne could do to help him there would be very much appreciated.

Every trip the Daedalus made some crew would go home while others arrived, putting pressure on staff in many departments. There was a kind of twelve week routine to it ... starting at week one when the Daedalus arrived and they were all heavily involved in orientation of the new crew and beginning the three week training program. Civilians would also be integrated into their respective departments while the military recruits were assigned to teams and given roles for various scenarios that regularly took place within the city. Week three was also all about resupply – working out what was needed and getting all the paperwork done before the Daedalus left.

Weeks four through six the Daedalus was en-route back to Earth so things were pretty quiet on the Earth/Pegasus connection front. There weren't any specific requirements the three weeks the Daedalus was on Earth either, so long as Atlantis could communicate its personnel and resupply requirements before the ship left Earth again. Weeks ten to twelve they worked out who was going where – assigning quarters and work stations so the new guys had somewhere to work and sleep the day they arrived.

If the right people weren't chosen, if they had to be replaced ahead of schedule, then it just exacerbated the pressure on everyone. So Evan looked at the hopefuls first – military and civilian – came up with a short list based on what was needed for each department and the qualifications of the people available, and presented it to Colonel Sheppard and Doctor Weir.

It had to be someone military checking over both military and civilians because the military were responsible for running the basic training all residents of Atlantis had to pass. There were certain things they looked for – in the psych write-ups and the fitness appraisals - that indicated an individual would be suited to the kind of life they'd lead on Atlantis. Lorne didn't pretend to be an expert on anything the civilians did in the city – which meant he spent just as much time talking to the seconds of each department as he did reading files in order to come up with that short list. It was a lot of work but it did have benefits – Evan very quickly got into the position of knowing everyone in the city, and being known to practically everyone too. And he'd formed quick friendships with the deputies of the main departments, Radek Zelenka chief among them.

The nine weeks between Daedalus arrivals went quickly. Lorne had learned that after the first one when he'd had to pull a couple of all nighters to get through everything in time to give the SGC the approved list of new recruits before the cruiser left Earth. Of course it had been worth it - Daedalus arrivals always brought news from home and Evan had been as eager as anyone to take his mail - videos from Elaine and Piper and letters from his Mom and a few friends - to enjoy in the privacy of his own quarters. Being busy kept him from really thinking too much about just how far away from home he was and he'd surprised himself with how easily he'd settled into life in another galaxy. Not that he didn't miss his family - he did, but something about the city made that easier to bear than he'd expected.

Now more than three months into his role on Atlantis Evan had a Daedalus 'schedule' in place and had decided on a routine to make sure the key things were done at the end of each week. First in the list was getting through the stack of personnel files the Daedalus had brought with it. Evan spent a part of each day reviewing candidates ... usually in his office but every now and then he'd take a few files to the Mess Hall with him and sit on the balcony.

"Any standouts Major?"

Lorne looked up from his reading to see Doctor Weir standing beside his table. "Ma'am?"

"I see you're working through the latest batch of potential staff Major," Weir clarified.

"Yes Ma'am," Evan smiled. "Doesn't take long ... unless you leave it all 'till the last minute."

"Hard not to sometimes," Elizabeth said with a chuckle. "Other things have a way of getting attention over the routine details."

"That they do." Lorne nodded to the file and mug the city's leader was holding. "Looks like you've got some of that routine work to do too ... please Doctor, join me." He just barely resisted the urge to stand respectfully, having already been told by Elizabeth on a previous occasion that the courtesy, although appreciated, wasn't required.

"Thank you Major," Elizabeth took the seat across from him gratefully, taking a moment while she sipped her coffee to look around the Mess Hall. "It's been quiet for a few weeks," she commented softly.

"I take it that's not usual?" Evan asked. After his first mission and the drama's of Cadman getting trapped inside McKay's mind things had settled down for Lorne. The past month had allowed him to get his own bearings in the city – find a balance between his duties as Sheppard's 2IC as well as being a team leader in his own right.

"Not especially," Weir returned. A faint smile played over her lips as she looked at Lorne. "You'll probably see that for yourself before too long."

"I read all the mission reports covering the first year on the way here," Evan admitted. "Plus there's always a lot of talk every time Colonel Sheppard's team heads out."

"Yes, the Colonel does have a way of attracting trouble, doesn't he?" Elizabeth agreed blandly.

"So it seems," Lorne returned, a faint smile hovering over his face this time.

"So ... any standouts in our latest batch of young hopefuls?" Elizabeth repeated her earlier question.

"Depends on your definition of stand out," Evan chuckled. "You'd know yourself that most of the civilians are scarily qualified ... makes you feel like a hopeless drop out if you make the mistake of comparing yourself to some of them."

"I've read your file Major," Elizabeth said pointedly. "You're underselling yourself ... General O'Neill personally recommended you for Atlantis."

"Yes Ma'am," Lorne agreed. "As soon as I discovered I had the gene it was a foregone conclusion I'd end up here eventually – if contact could be re-established."

"Even with the gene therapy we still need every natural gene holder we can get," Weir agreed, referring to the fact that all new starters to Atlantis were given the gene therapy unless they had a good reason to decline. "Radek tells me repeatedly that some things just don't work as well ... that even a weak natural gene is better than a 'fake' one." She smiled suddenly. "I think he's still irritated that the gene therapy didn't take with him."

"Understandable," Evan shrugged. "We don't have enough natural gene holders, weak or otherwise, and I know Colonel Sheppard isn't always available to be ancient device activator for the entire science department."

"You would have had some experience with that yourself, wouldn't you?" Elizabeth asked curiously.

"Not really," Lorne grinned. "The personnel stuff on top of running a team keeps me pretty busy. Given a choice I think Colonel Sheppard prefers helping the scientists to doing the paperwork, not that he'd ever admit it to them."

"I'm sure that's true," Elizabeth said with an amused expression that told Evan she'd grappled with John's aversion to reports more than once in the past. "You should think about assisting sometimes anyway Major ... practice using your gene for more than just Puddle Jumper flights and opening doors."

"You think that makes a difference, practising?" Lorne asked curiously.

"I don't know," Elizabeth smiled. "But there's no harm in trying, is there?" Finishing her coffee, Weir stood. "Thank you for the company Major. I'll look forward to seeing your short list."

"Yes Ma'am," Evan acknowledged.

oOo

The fates must have been listening in to that conversation because it was only two days later that Lorne got his first taste of a proper, rescue team Sheppard mission. The city's lead team had gone on another 'visit unknown planet, see what they've got to offer' mission, the risky kind you wished weren't as necessary as they were. Even with an established connection back to Earth Atlantis still had to be self sufficient – for resources like perishable food as well as for the power they required to be able to fully defend the city. For that you needed to get out there, find allies, make trading agreements, and with any luck find an ancient facility brimming with fully charged ZPMs. So far they were doing okay on the first two, the ZPMs still feeling more like a pipe dream than something they'd actually stumble across one day.

It was that pipe dream that had driven Sheppard's team's current mission. Doctor McKay had found reference to an ancient outpost on M4F 199, a planet they'd yet to gate to. It wasn't one Teyla or the Colonel's newest team mate Ronon had been to either so they really were going in blind. As far as anyone on Atlantis knew, with a mission like that everything was going great ... until you heard otherwise.

Evan was in the mess hall with his team when the call came in.

"Major Lorne, this is Doctor Weir."

"Ma'am," Evan tapped his ear piece, holding up a hand to stop Nate Coughlin from continuing his story.

"Colonel Sheppard's team is late checking in," Elizabeth said briskly. "Have your team ready to gate out in ten minutes."

"Yes Ma'am," Lorne returned. Standing up he gathered the remains of his late lunch together. "We're up," he told the other men. "Rescue mission."

"Who is it?" Coughlin asked, already up too.

"Colonel Sheppard's team." Evan didn't need to say more - Reed and Coughlin had been around longer than him, they both knew the score. The three men moved quickly to exit the Mess, Lorne tapping his ear piece as they walked. "Lorne to Cheung," he said briskly.

"Cheung here Sir," Airman James Cheung, sometimes fourth member of Lorne's team (when a scientist wasn't required) replied.

"Meet us in the Gateroom asap," Lorne instructed. "We've got a mission."

oOo

An hour later they were walking down a path on M4F 199 that cut through a densely forested area. It put Lorne in mind of his first Pegasus mission, minus the scorching heat and annoying complaints. As with that mission they'd been unable to take a Jumper - no point in flying in when you couldn't see what was on the ground for all the trees.

As soon as they'd dialled in Doctor Weir had requested Colonel Sheppard or any member of his team respond. The silent wait for a reply had been tense - Evan becoming aware for the first time as he'd watched the city's leader just how close the leadership bonds had become between Weir and the Colonel. Not that Doctor Weir had been unprofessional - just the opposite, and yet still Lorne knew that she was personally concerned at John's lack of response.

"We'll find them," he'd promised before leading his team through the wormhole.

Easier said than done! The planet was strangely quiet, beyond the rustling of the leaves overhead and the sounds of their boot steps on the ground. Of their team, apart from himself Airman Dan Reed was their most proficient gene user. Lorne always assigned him 'scanner' duty, preferring to take point rather than walk unfamiliar ground with his eyes on a hand held computer screen instead of on the terrain.

"Sir, I'm picking up an energy reading," Reed reported. "Dead ahead. We should get there inside the next few minutes."

"Strong?" Lorne dropped back, reaching out for the scanner which immediately glowed brighter once in Evan's hand. About to glance down at the screen he didn't miss the way Reed partially rolled his eyes. "Something wrong?" he queried.

"No Sir," Reed shrugged self deprecatingly. "It's just a little annoying for most of us how the ancient tech lights up for you natural gene holders."

"Right," Lorne smirked. "I can't take credit for that - it's just in the blood right? Maybe you should practice more. Doctor Weir thinks that might help."

"I don't think any amount of practice will get that scanner to light up for me the way it does for you Sir," Reed replied.

"Try anyway," Lorne returned. "I know Doctor Weir and Doctor Zelenka would be very interested in the results."

"Yes Sir," Reed said with a hint of petulance that had Evan biting back a smile. Dan was probably regretting pointing out the gene thing now that it had resulted in extra work for him.

Looking down at the scanner, Lorne narrowed his eyes. "This is a pretty strong signal," he commented. "McKay must have been champing at the bit to find the source."

"There's evidence that someone passed through here recently," Coughlin offered, pointing to where the leaves were newly broken in places along the edges of the path.

"That'd be McKay," Evan said, amused. "No way Ronon or Teyla would have left that obvious a trail."

"Lucky for us then Sir," Nate returned with a grin.

Pocketing the scanner Lorne pushed forward back to point again. "We should be seeing something soon," he cautioned, raising his P-90 to the ready position. "Tread lightly and keep your eyes open."

Muted 'Yes Sir's were returned, everyone's senses heightened for whatever had resulted in Colonel Sheppard's team not returning to Atlantis. No one wanted to suggest it but there was always the chance that they'd find an answer no one wanted to live with ... thoughts about luck finally running out not far from anyone's mind.

The path led them around a bend in the trees, opening abruptly into a small clearing - one it was immediately apparent was empty of threats. "Secure the perimeter," Lorne instructed, moving forward to the only manmade feature visible. It was a small building, no more than ten by ten, with a single door and no windows. It looked Ancient in design but Evan would have known it regardless of that, because of the clearly Ancient controls in plain view beside the door.

"This is interesting," he muttered, stopping just a few steps from the door. "Lorne to Sheppard," he tried the radio, not expecting a reply and not surprised when he didn't get one.

"Should we try opening it?" Coughlin asked, moving to stand beside his team leader, the other two members of their team having taking up secure positions to guard their way back to the gate as well as the structure itself.

"Ordinarily I'd say yes but that could be exactly what Colonel Sheppard's team did and so far I'm seeing no evidence of what happened to them," Lorne replied, eyes narrowed as he considered the problem. McKay would have been rushing to open the door before Sheppard could stop him - Evan didn't' doubt that's what had happened; he just didn't have anything to suggest what might have happened next. Taking out the Ancient scanner he grimaced before putting it away again. "No help there," he explained. "Whatever's in there, it's shielded."

Moving closer Lorne put a hand to the wall beside the door controls, careful to not think 'Open' or any variation thereof. He wasn't sure what he was looking for and for the first time appreciated that he probably should have done a little more research on the ancient gene so he'd know what was actually possible. All he could tell was that yes, it was Ancient, and that there were definitely Ancient systems inside, none of them giving off 'bad' vibes.

"Reed, Cheung, stay on guard here," Lorne ordered, coming to a decision. "Coughlin, you're with me."

"You're going to open it," Nate observed, his expression controlled, ready for action.

"Yeah," Lorne agreed. "I'm thinking it's unlikely the Colonel would have let everyone crowd around the door when McKay opened it. Suggests they at least went in there without any obvious signs of danger." Moving forward he swiped a hand over the controls, thinking open with confident force. There was a moment's delay and then the door slide open.

"It's about time!" Rodney McKay must have been pacing impatiently on the other side because he moved quickly enough through the door that Lorne and Coughlin had to jump out of the way.

"Nice way to say thank you Rodney," Colonel Sheppard said, following his team mate outside.

"It is good to see you Major Lorne," Teyla said with her usual grace, moving clear of the door to let Ronon pass through with his own silent nod of thanks. As soon as all four people were clear the door slid silently closed again.

"Sir?" Lorne frowned, confused.

"Long story Major," Sheppard replied lightly.

"Actually it's not," Rodney turned to glare at the structure accusingly. "An Ancient building empty of anything of value lured us in and then locked us inside for no apparent reason. Lorne came along and ...," he trailed off, eyes narrowing. "Come to think of it that is interesting. How did you open the door Major?"

"The same way we usually do McKay," Lorne returned blandly. He nodded to the obvious door controls. "You know ... swipe and think open. Isn't that how you got in there?"

"Ah, no, no it's not," McKay returned, turning back to look at the structure with renewed interest. "The door was open when we got here ... we walked in and it closed behind us. Even super gene over there," he gestured to Sheppard, "couldn't open it."

"Probably because you were inside," Lorne offered with a careless shrug. "Assuming it's some kind of holding facility wouldn't it make sense that the inmates couldn't just think open to get out?"

"You think it's a jail?" Sheppard asked curiously.

"An empty building in the middle of nowhere, shielded from the scanners," Lorne offered as a reply, starting to feel a little uncomfortable with the attention he was getting, particularly from McKay who was currently looking at him like he was a bug under a very large microscope. "Doctor Weir will be anxious for an update Sir," Evan changed the subject, his expression carefully neutral.

"Right, let's head back to the gate," Sheppard said decisively. "You can puzzle this one out back on base Rodney."

Sheppard took point this time, the rest of his team close behind, with Lorne's team following in the rear. When McKay dropped back to walk beside him Lorne barely held back an impatient groan.

"Something I can do for you?" he asked somewhat dismissively.

"So you just walked up to the door and thought open?" Rodney ignored the Major's obvious reluctance as well as any attempt at social niceties.

"Pretty much," Lorne agreed.

"Was there any delay before it opened?" McKay continued. "Did you feel anything unusual after you gave the command?"

"A very slight delay - microseconds," Lorne replied, "and no, nothing unusual."

"Interesting," McKay muttered, not paying attention to where he was walking. When he almost tripped Lorne grabbed his arm and hauled him upright.

"Maybe you should watch where you're going McKay," he advised helpfully.

"Right," McKay said distractedly.

"So there was nothing useful in that building?" Lorne decided since he wasn't getting rid of McKay he'd take over the conversation instead.

"No," Rodney said bluntly. "You were right about the jail thing Major. As soon as the door closed the force shield was raised."

"Like in the holding cells back on Atlantis?" Lorne asked, genuinely interested.

"Isn't that what I just said?" Rodney said impatiently. "I don't know how you knew that just from opening a door."

"Common sense Doc," Lorne smirked. "The kind of thing they do teach at Major School."

"You military types never take anything seriously do you?" McKay complained.

"Not if we can help it," Evan said easily. He could see that Rodney wanted to say more but wasn't interested in cooperating, especially not if it was more questions about how he'd known that building was a jail, or how he'd opened the door. Because honestly he didn't know the answer to either of those questions! He'd blurted out the holding facility comment without thinking about where that explanation came from. Maybe it was common sense as he'd told McKay, or maybe he'd picked up a little more than he'd realised from trying to tune in to the building before he'd opened the door. Regardless he didn't want to have a conversation with Rodney where he had to admit that he'd even thought for a second that doing something like that was a possibility.

"Maybe you could -," Rodney began.

"Maybe," Evan cut him off, "but not right now." Nodding to the scientist he quickened his pace until he'd made it to the front of their procession. Engaging his commanding officer in a discussion covering some of the questions he'd needed to ask before finalising the list of new recruits took up the remainder of their trip back to the gate.

"Welcome back," Doctor Weir smiled, the relief evident on her face as she watched Sheppard and the others returning through the wormhole.

"Good to be back," Sheppard quipped lightly.

"Debrief in an hour," Weir ordered, regaining her more 'leader' like expression. "Well done Major," she nodded to Lorne and his team before turning and walking back up the steps to the control room.

"Infirmary," the Colonel reminded everyone of the standard routine, his faint smirk announcing to all that yes, once again all was right with Atlantis.

oOo

Two hours later, medical checks and a debrief done and dusted, Lorne headed for his quarters, feeling tired enough to skip dinner. The mission had begun late in the afternoon and they'd covered considerable ground during their hour long trek each way – thankfully the debrief had been short. There wasn't much to talk about when all you had to report was that you'd been mistakenly locked in a holding cell and had to wait until someone came along to release you. Rodney made some noises about going back to learn more about how they'd locked out the door so it could only be opened from the outside. Doctor Weir had vetoed that, saying it didn't further their primary objective of finding resources off world. Lorne had breathed a sigh of relief, his fears that Rodney would start adding him to the list of 'gene testers' alleviated for the time being. He barely had time to do the job he was currently responsible for, let alone adding time in the science labs to it.

He was tired but as Evan rounded the corner that led to his room he abruptly stopped, deciding to detour. A few minutes later he was stepping into the hologram room.

"Evan, welcome," Morgan shimmered into existence, her appearance and all purpose nature now pleasingly familiar. "How may I help you this evening?"

"Ah ... listen, did the Ancients ever do any research on the ATA gene?" Lorne asked, not sure where he was really going with his enquiry.

"I do not understand the nature of your question," Morgan returned.

"The Ancient Technology Activation gene," Evan clarified. "It's the reason we can operate the systems here even though none of us are actually Ancients."

"You refer to those aspects of the Atlantian's genetic makeup that your people, as their progeny, have inherited."

"I guess," Lorne agreed.

"For what purpose do you ask this question Evan?" Morgan asked.

"I don't know," Evan shook his head. Getting into the habit of consulting a machine when he had doubts probably wasn't his best idea. "It's okay – it's a dumb question," he dismissed, intent on leaving.

"On the contrary, it is an insightful question and you are the first occupant of this city since the Ancients abandoned it to have asked," Morgan corrected, her tone more forceful than Lorne had heard before.

"Insightful? How so?" he couldn't help but ask, his intention to leave forgotten.

"The Atlantians were well versed in genetics," Morgan explained. "What you call the ATA gene was just one of many aspects of their genetic code, the one they took advantage of to ensure only they would be able to use this city."

"Right, because obviously they had more than one gene." Lorne shook his head – it was obvious but strangely he'd never heard Carson or anyone else talk about any other genes they might have inherited from the Ancients.

"Yes," Morgan agreed. "The Atlantians chose this one because it was most prevalent within their population. It was extremely rare for it to be missing from any individual's gene code."

"Okay, that makes sense," Lorne agreed. "What I don't get then is why having been born with the ATA gene switched on as opposed to getting the gene therapy makes a difference to how well someone can control using the gene."

"It does not," Morgan stated simply.

"Then what does?" Lorne frowned, confused. As far as he knew there was a 'strength' element to the gene, even though as Doctor Jackson had pointed out, you couldn't necessarily measure it with a blood test. That strength determined how good you'd be at turning things off and on.

"The Atlantians were also very proficient at mental discipline and control," Morgan revealed. "This was just as important in utilising the various aspects of their genetic makeup."

"Right, like someone born with natural sporting ability still needing to learn and practice their skill," Evan nodded. "So you're saying Doctor Weir was right? If anyone with the gene, natural or not, practices then they'll get more control?"

"To some extent that is indeed true," Morgan confirmed. "However, natural ability does play a part and practice can only take an individual so far."

"That's okay – even a small amount of improvement will help the science departments out no end," Lorne grinned when the hologram actually managed to look confused. "McKay and his department are always hounding the natural gene holders to switch things on," he explained. "If they can build skills with the people they have it will take pressure off of everyone."

"Then I am glad I could be of assistance," Morgan said complacently.

"Is there any way you can draw Doctor McKay's attention to references about this without involving me?" Evan asked.

"This is possible," Morgan agreed. "Although it is not my function to question an operator of this system, for future reference in tailoring my service to you I would ask why you cannot simply tell Doctor McKay yourself."

Evan's brows rose in surprise at having his 'weakness' called out – he hadn't been expecting that! Because yeah, of course he didn't want to tell McKay himself because he knew the next words out of the scientist's mouth would be how Lorne knew, followed closely by a request to see for himself how Evan had been utilising the hologram. The Major wasn't sure what would happen after that, but a ban on using the hologram followed by a schedule of when he himself could act as gene user for the science department seemed to be predictable outcomes. It made perfect sense to Evan – he just wasn't sure how to justify it to what was essentially a computer program.

"I could do that," Lorne finally answered. "That would probably prompt McKay to start looking into how your programming works. I'm not sure on the power consumption but if it's too much he'd probably stop use of this room too. Since I'm not here that much I'd rather retain using your facilities as an option instead of losing them because McKay can't keep his tools to himself."

"Very well. I will do as you request," Morgan said after a short pause that felt to Lorne like she was actually assessing him in some way. The city had internal sensors – was it possible for the hologram system to tap into them somehow? 'Okay, you seriously need to get real,' he told himself. 'It's a piece of software, not a person with real motives!'

"Thank you," Lorne smiled. "See, you'd miss me if I stopped coming by with my questions," he joked.

"My system is not designed to assign expected levels of regularity to user visits," Morgan replied seriously. "Collecting user data is a primary task which requires that visitors return to utilise this facility. In order to provide the best, tailored service the system requires regular input from users."

"Well, whatever the reason I appreciate the help," Lorne concluded. "Thanks Morgan."

"You are very welcome Evan," the hologram replied.

Lorne was again about to leave but the hologram continued to shimmer in its usual position. "Do I need to shut you off or something?" he asked hesitantly, never having needed to do so in the past.

"May we ask if you intend to practice using your ATA gene?" Morgan stated.

"Me?" Lorne asked, surprised.

"Natural gene holders would benefit more than those who underwent the gene therapy," Morgan explained. "It is possible that much more can be done beyond being able to turn technology on and off."

"I'll think about it," Evan decided. Although he'd speculated about what could be done with the gene earlier that day, on reflection he was no longer sure it was a good idea. They'd been given the Ancient city of Atlantis without having to earn any of the technology it held, and while it had helped in their fight against the Wraith, not understanding what they were doing had also caused a boat load of trouble for everyone in the galaxy. Did they really want to increase the magnitude of what they could get wrong?

"Very well," Morgan said formally. "Is there anything else I can help you with this evening?"

"No, that's it," Evan replied. "Good night Morgan."

"Good night Evan," Morgan hovered for a moment more before winking out of existence.

Lorne stood in the darkened room, aware of a level of discomfort for the first time since he'd arrived in the city. He felt unsettled but he couldn't have said why. The usually background hum of Atlantis static rose inside his mind as soon as the thought occurred to him, as though the city itself were trying to reassure him that all was as it should be.

Abruptly amused at his turn of thought Evan spun on a heel and quickly strode from the hologram room. It really was time for bed because clearly he was a lot tireder than he'd realised!

 

Chapter 10: The CO trio ... Captured. Converted. Lost

"Damn it!" Colonel Sheppard stormed through the door of Lorne's office and threw himself into the visitors chair across from where Evan was immersed in the usual stack of paperwork. For a post so far away from home it still amazed Lorne how much administrivia made it to the base.

Focussing on his CO Evan considered the possible reasons for his visit. The preceding weeks had been difficult. Any one of a number of recent events could be at the route of the Colonel's mood since that month had been particularly hard on him personally. First the Colonel and his team were taken prisoner in a penal colony located on an island off world, one with a sickening agreement with the 'local' Wraith. It was the second time in as many weeks that Lorne and his team, along with the addition of Doctor Weir, had stepped in to rescue the lead team.

The incident was quickly forgotten when Sheppard's team discovered an abandoned Ancient facility. Initially it seemed like a dream come true for the Atlantis expedition - the potential to solve many of their ongoing problems. As those things too often seemed to do, possibility shifted into disaster with the loss of a promising scientist and the almost annihilation of both Sheppard and Doctor McKay. It was an event that shook the city's leaders, one that would have long reaching consequences already evidenced by the Daedalus delaying its scheduled departure to revisit protocols, something Lorne knew Colonel Sheppard was less than thrilled with.

"Sir?" Lorne had already learned that a non committal response usually got more of the story from his CO than specific questions would have. Sheppard liked to volunteer the information instead of having it 'interrogated' out of him and the style suited Evan's own natural preferences too.

"The next time I decide to support one of McKay's harebrained schemes schedule me for a visit with Doctor Heightmeyer ... it'll be a signal that I've completely lost my mind!"

"He's still defending his actions on Doranda?" Lorne asked, well aware of what had transpired during the scientist's attempts only days before to resurrect the Ancient's project Arcturus. He'd been left in command of the city while Sheppard and teams of scientists worked over the span of weeks to first assess the facility and then get it up and running.

"Oh yeah," Sheppard emphasised that with a shake of his head. "He practically destroyed an entire solar system and all the guy can do is correct me – keeps reminding me it was only five sixths, like that matters! We're just lucky those planets were uninhabited."

"But that's not why you're angry, because of the destruction," Lorne made that deduction without thinking first about whether he should say it aloud, earning a narrow eyed look from his commanding officer. "Not that that isn't something to be angry about Sir," Evan hastened to add.

"Not that," Sheppard agreed blandly. The two men were still getting to know each other, still filling in the blanks that everyday life and the occasional rescue mission couldn't reveal. "So why am I angry then?" John challenged.

"It's not really my place to draw conclusions pertaining to the members of your team Sir," Lorne replied more formally.

"Let's just say today it is," Sheppard countered. "Major?" After a few moments of silence he made Evan's rank his insistence that Lorne speak up.

"Right, sure, okay," Evan gathered his thoughts quickly and then spoke. "In your place I'd be understandably worried about the scale of destruction Sir ... but I'd be angry at having my trust in a team mate used to manipulate the circumstances so said team mate could 'get what they wanted' ... Sir," Evan trailed off, waiting for a reaction from John.

"And what would you do about that anger Major?" Sheppard asked without expression.

Lorne looked at his CO intently but couldn't decide why the question was being asked. Sheppard wouldn't ask unless he genuinely wanted to hear an opinion though – testing someone just for the sake of it when real life provided enough opportunity to measure the mettle of everyone wasn't John's style. "I think I'd be inclined to ... wallow in it for a while Sir," Evan replied blandly, "just long enough so that all the consequences of that kind of thinking could be fully felt." Taking a chance he made it a little more personal. "Anyone can see Doctor McKay rates your trust pretty highly Sir. He's smart enough to understand the damage he did to that – and to work out he's gonna have to earn it back."

Nodding, Sheppard frowned, eyes intent on where he had his boots stretched out in front of him, although clearly his mind was elsewhere.

"I can understand the lure," the Colonel finally commented. "A power source that could have meant we'd be able to defend this city indefinitely – that's the pipe dream right there. Hard not to jump on any chance, no matter how remote, to make it a reality."

"Doesn't mean you can't hammer home the message Sir," Evan pointed out. "Better now than when it's a full solar system or even just one planet that is populated." He hesitated a moment and then added. "If it were me I probably wouldn't wallow for too long though."

"Oh?" Sheppard looked at Lorne curiously. "Why's that?"

"From what I've read Sir it just strikes me that Doctor McKay needs a certain level of ... arrogance," Lorne offered. "Not every day, but under pressure definitely. You erode his confidence too much and he'll be questioning himself instead of coming up with the quick solutions when we need them."

"From what you've read?"

"Ah ... I might have read all the mission reports Sir," Lorne admitted, feeling embarrassed for some reason. "It was a long trip from Earth Sir," he added unnecessarily.

"Time well spent Major," Sheppard chuckled. "And don't worry – I think I know how to handle McKay."

"I'm sure you do Sir. I heard Doctor Weir actually yelled at him in her office," an almost smile lurked on Lorne's face. "That would have been interesting to witness."

"Yeah, Elizabeth wasn't impressed," John grinned. "Kinda sucks that Caldwell had to rescue us though," he muttered, shooting Lorne a quick look. "Just between you and me."

"Of course Sir," Lorne held in an amused smile, something he was already seeing would become a habit with his CO. The other man had an irreverent way of looking at the world that reminded Evan a little of General O'Neill, although Sheppard had a unique perspective that was all his own, one that often appealed to Evan's own sense of humour. He was getting a lot of practice at putting on his 'game' face.

"Right," getting up suddenly Sheppard was almost at the door before he spoke again. "Thanks Major."

"Anytime Sir," Lorne replied, watching the Colonel's departure with a puzzled frown that quickly turned into a grin. Evan had never worked for a CO who was so laid back and casual about the chain of command, never had one who'd asked for an opinion in such an unstructured way either. But that's exactly what Colonel Sheppard had done. If that wasn't an indicator that Lorne had found a real place on Atlantis then he didn't know what would be!

oOo

Lorne might have been forgiven for thinking that something on the scale of Doranda would be the worst thing he'd see in Pegasus for a while. But little more than a week later they were immersed in an even more intense situation. Colonel Sheppard returned from a mission with a simple scratch wound that veered sharply into an unexpected manifestation of Doctor Beckett's Wraith retrovirus. The city's military leader was almost lost inside a Wraith-like exterior before a cure was created. The whole thing felt like too close a call - the events troubling and a little scary for everyone.

What had happened to Sheppard was bad but it wasn't the worst of it. Lorne's failed mission to find a cure resulted in the loss of two good soldiers, the first since Evan had been on Atlantis. He didn't have a chance to acknowledge it when it happened, given the urgency of Sheppard's situation. In the end it took the Colonel himself braving the Iratus bug den for eggs before Carson could manufacture a cure and return Sheppard to himself.

Once assured that his CO would recover, Evan sat down to write letters to two families whose son's wouldn't be coming home. He expressing his regret at their loss ... admitted that he'd not had the chance to personally get to know each man as much as he would have liked ... affirmed that they'd died bravely in the service of their country ... all the while knowing nothing he wrote would really make a difference.

Lorne was so consumed with what had happened that a second bunch of flowers, there waiting at his door when he got back from Iratus Bug Hell, didn't even make a dent in the direction his thoughts were taking. He'd stopped, frowned down at them and then picked them up, depositing them on his bedside table absently and then not giving them a second thought. Maybe the gesture could have offered some level of comfort but he didn't want that - he wasn't ready to be let off the hook over the loss of two good soldiers.

Even a week later Evan could still hear the sound of thousands of creatures moving in the darkness and that chittering, talking noise they made.

He could still hear the sound of Walker and Stevens crying out in agony before he'd pulled the pin and ended it for them.

He relived that moment when he'd called for the two men to get out of there, when he'd realised they weren't going to make it, over and over. He'd thrown that grenade to ensure the safety of everyone else but it didn't help him feel better about the failed mission. The entire experience bothered him – as it should. That had been his mission – Stevens and Walker's deaths his responsibility - but no amount of reflection and analysis shed any light on how Lorne could have avoided the tragedy.

He'd thought and rethought every action taken but couldn't see where he could have done something to get a different result, aside from not taking the mission in the first place. He'd made the decision to leave Reed and Coughlin back on Atlantis to 'guard' Colonel Sheppard - would it have made a difference if he'd taken his own team or would he be staring down the barrel of a deeper grief at the loss of two men he knew a hell of a lot better than Walker and Stevens? Lorne just didn't know ... one minute Carson was cautiously approaching that egg sac, the next they were running for the exit already too slow to completely avoid disaster. Lorne pulled the plug on the mission then, despite Carson's protests, but it wasn't enough that more lives weren't lost.

After days of reflection Lorne was forced to conclude that the mission was what it was, the end result locked in as soon as they'd decided to pursue that course of action. It was a tough pill to swallow to realise that in Pegasus, even more than back on Earth, many things would be outside Lorne's control even though they were part of his command. All he could do was make sure he had as much information as possible and that he learned whatever lessons he could glean from every mission.

Perhaps luckily for Atlantis the Daedalus was still at the tail end of its extended visit when Sheppard fell 'ill' and Colonel Caldwell stepped in to run the city through the crisis and John's recovery. Evan appreciated working with Caldwell but admitted internally that he much preferred operating as Sheppard's second in command. The atmosphere was just that little bit more relaxed while still making sure all things military moved as they should. John also seemed to trust Lorne more than Caldwell, not seeing the need to look over Evan's shoulder every five minutes, nor impose pointless structure on activities that already worked well. That being said, Lorne was happy to sign off the last report and forward it to the Daedalus 2IC, happy that it flagged the ship's departure and the return to business as usual.

oOo

Evan thought back to those prior events when a couple of weeks later Sheppard's team went missing again. This time it wasn't just a few hours or even a few days ... and it wasn't one relatively simple mission to rescue them. The Colonel's team had vanished without a trace and Atlantis was stuck running intel mission after intel mission searching for some kind of clue to their location.

Doctor Weir became concerned immediately – Lorne could see the strain on her growing each day that passed without news. He'd gotten to know her better during the Colonel's previous troubles and his regard for her had grown as he'd watched her struggle to deal with situations no one could prepare for.

He stepped up behind the scenes to help however he could, making sure anything that had to be done in Colonel Sheppard's absence was done without calling attention to it. He also led many of the missions sparked any time they got word from one of their contacts that someone knew something about John's team. Evan didn't want to think the worst but the more time that went by without finding their missing colleagues the more likely it was that they just wouldn't. That wasn't acceptable ... Lorne wasn't sure what he'd have suggested to push things forward but the prior day they'd received word that Teyla and Ronon had been seen on M77-273 and he and his team were geared up for the mission to check it out.

"Major, is your team ready?" Doctor Weir asked as she completed her descent from the control room to the Gateroom floor.

"Yes Ma'am," Lorne nodded respectfully. He could almost see the cloud of worry that hovered over the city's leader and felt compelled to say something reassuring. "Intel looks promising."

"Yes, but then so did our prior attempts," Weir replied, not negatively but simply stating the facts.

"True," Lorne gave her a faint smile. "Means we're due a break, right?"

"Let's hope so Major," Weir nodded. "Good luck."

"Ma'am," Lorne gestured for his team to precede him to the open wormhole, nodding to Elizabeth himself before stepping through to follow them. He noticed the surge of 'static' from his connection with the city just before he made contact with the event horizon but was already committed to moving forward.

"Get Down! Get Down!"

Coughlin's yelled warning came too late. Lorne literally walked into the bullet – his forward momentum against the velocity of the projectile like two opposing forces clashing with his body in the middle. It dropped him where he stood, gravity taking his body backwards so that he landed on the ground inside the Stargate mere moments after the wormhole dissipated.

"Sir!" Coughlin did a rapid look and check to see where his team leader was – catching sight of boot soles in front of the gate. "Damn it!" Looking to where Reed huddled behind the DHD he yelled an order. "Reed – give me some cover fire!"

Reed shifted the aim of his P-90, firing a rapid burst across the clearing that lay between them and their unknown assailants.

Coughlin reacted immediately, leaping up and sprinting, huddled as low as he could get, back to the gate. "Sir," he said again, dropping down to Lorne's side, eyes tracking over his team leader to assess the situation. The Major appeared to be unconscious but was breathing evenly, despite the rapidly growing burst of bright red blood high on the grey jacket he wore. "Sir," Nate repeated.

"Ouch," Lorne groaned out, opening his eyes to the relief of his second. "What the hell?"

"It was a trap Sir," Coughlin said, ripping open a pocket on his vest and pulling out a field dressing. Applying it quickly he then wrapped Lorne's shoulder and tied the bandage as tight as he could get it, worried about the amount of blood Evan seemed to be losing. "They were waiting in the trees – opened fire as soon as we came through. There wasn't time to warn Atlantis."

"Reed and Cheung?" Lorne queried, focussing on the business at hand instead of the mess of pain that was his right shoulder.

"Both okay. Reed's covering the gate. Cheung has our six."

"How many?" Evan took a preparatory breath and then, with a hand over his wound, sat up. He actually felt the blood dropping from his face, leaving him lightheaded. Black around the edges, low blood pressure ... early indicators of the expected shock he hoped to avoid.

"Sir?" Coughlin maintained his position, still protecting his leader while Reed and Cheung continued to lay down fire to discourage a closer attack.

"Still here," Lorne gathered himself and pushed down the feeling of weakness that told him the bullet had probably hit something important. Funny thing that – he would have been better off if he'd taken the hit lower where the Kevlar in his vest could have done its job. It wasn't the first time he'd copped a bullet on the way to or from the gate either – in fact if he didn't know better he'd think there was some kind of invisible target painted on him with instructions to aim there. At least this time it was his right shoulder – more scars but less chance of lasting damage given it'd taken a few weeks of PT to recover when he'd caught a bullet in Afghanistan. "How many are we up against here?"

"Hard to say," Coughlin reported. "They don't have us surrounded so I'm guessing five or six."

"Enough to keep us pinned down," Lorne concluded. "We need to dial Atlantis ... and draw attention away from the gate so we can get through." Running over his mental inventory of the standard equipment he grinned. "Stun grenade?"

"Yes Sir," Coughlin grinned too, ripping open a different pocket and pulling out the weapon, more popularly called a flash bang on account of the blinding white light and hearing distorting noise it created. "You okay to move Sir?"

"Too bad if I'm not Sergeant," Lorne nodded back to the gate, both men aware that they were inside the 'kawhoosh zone'.

Evan's shoulder was throbbing with each heart beat and he could still feel the blackness waiting to descend but giving in to it wasn't an option. Rolling to his knees he got his feet under him and pushed up enough to crouch. Running in that posture, pale faced and grim with the effort with Coughlin beside him, Lorne covered the distance to the DHD in seconds. Bullets pinged against the gate, dust puffing up from the ground a few steps away, but they made it there without further injury.

"Dial Atlantis," Evan ordered Reed, nodding for Coughlin to replace him on cover fire duty. "Cheung," Lorne called out over the noise of more gunfire. "Fall back to the DHD!"

In moments the wormhole was connected, just as Jimmy Cheung dropped down beside his team mates. It was crowded but they wouldn't need to be there for long.

"Atlantis, this is Major Lorne," Evan began.

"Major?" Evan could hear the frown in Doctor Weir's voice.

"We've run into a little trouble here Ma'am," Lorne explained. "We're gonna drop a distraction but I'd recommend clearing the area in front of the gate – we could still be coming in hot."

"Understood Major," Elizabeth said briskly. "The shield is down."

"Right," Lorne looked at Coughlin expectantly. "On three."

The two of them pulled the pins on their stun grenades, waited for the count and then lobed the weapons over the DHD, all four of them immediately turning their heads away and covering their ears. The noise of two stun grenades going off still set their ears to vibrating, the flash hopefully blinding their assailants.

"Go!" Lorne ordered.

Reed and Cheung reacted immediately, jumping up and sprinting to the wormhole, disappearing quickly. Coughlin also jumped up, reaching down and grabbing Lorne's elbow to haul him up too. Evan decided not to protest his liberal interpretation of orders, grateful for the jump start. Keeping up with his second, the two men cleared the event horizon together.

"Shut it down!" Lorne yelled, looking up to the control room even as he noticed a host of things all at once. The armed guard off to one side, Elizabeth Weir striding down the steps, his team spread out in front of him, and mental static that berated him for completing that step through the gate when the city had tried to warn him not to.

The shield flashed up as the wormhole vanished, leaving the Gateroom strangely silent for a few moments, only the sounds of Lorne's team breathing hard registering. Inside his head Evan pleaded for silence, his physical concerns too pressing for him to be able to concentrate on the mental aspects. "Later," he promised, feeling slightly ridiculous at the thought.

"Major Lorne," Doctor Weir appeared in front of the team, her eyes moving from Evan's face to his shoulder, her expression shifting immediately to concern. "Medical team to the Gateroom," she ordered.

"Not necessary Ma'am," Lorne protested.

"You're wounded Major," Elizabeth pointed out sternly.

"Yeah, but I can walk to the infirmary when we're done here," Lorne persisted. He ruined the 'I'm a tough guy, I can take anything' image by swaying slightly, revisiting that light headed, shocky feeling.

"No need for that Lad," Carson strode onto the scene, medical bag in hand. He took in the situation with one glance. "That looks like a nasty wound there Major," he urged Evan to take a seat on the steps leading up to the control room, squatting down beside him, blood pressure cuff already in hand.

"What happened Major?" Elizabeth asked, distracting Lorne from Carson's work.

"No idea Ma'am," Lorne admitted. "At a guess I'd say the intel was false, designed to get a team from Atlantis to that planet. Didn't catch more than a glimpse of who attacked us though. Coughlin, what about you?"

"I saw enough to suspect Genii Ma'am," Coughlin answered. "Grey uniforms, consistent weaponry, underhanded tactics."

"Genii," Lorne agreed, once again glad he'd taken the time to read all those reports on the way to Atlantis. He glanced at Elizabeth with a frown. "If we can't trust our intel it's going to seriously impact on our ability to find Colonel Sheppard and the others."

"You won't be going anywhere Major," Doctor Weir reminded him.

"It's a clean through and through," Beckett offered, busy assessing Lorne's wound. "You've lost a lot of blood Major and your pressure's a little low but with the proper treatment you should be right as rain in a week or two."

"Maybe I could still -," Lorne began.

"Infirmary," Weir ordered firmly.

"Right," Evan conceded, realising there was no point in arguing, particularly since he felt like shit and wanted nothing more than to lie down and switch it off for a few hours.

"Major," Carson guided Lorne to the stretcher he hadn't noticed arriving, assisting him to lie down. The trip to the infirmary passed in a blur of Atlantis ceilings and concerned faces until the Doctor had him set up in a quiet corner of the medical bay.

"I'll just prep for surgery," Beckett advised. "Feel free to sleep Major – we'll wake you up when we need to."

"Thanks Doc," Lorne said gratefully.

"Gentlemen," Carson looked at Coughlin, Reed and Cheung, all having followed Lorne to the infirmary. "Nurse Harper will conduct your post mission checks and then it's food and rest for all of you. I'll let you know when the Major is receiving visitors." His tone brooked no opposition and all three men nodded, resigned to doing what they were told.

"Thanks for getting me back here guys," Lorne told his team before they could move away.

"You'd have gotten here by yourself Sir," Coughlin countered.

"Probably not with as much style though," Reed murmured, earning a grin from the Sergeant and a muffled chuckle from Cheung.

"Right ... remind me again why I keep you guys around," Lorne joked weakly.

"Because we make you look good Sir," Coughlin reported, serious soldier face in place.

"Oh yeah," Lorne laughed and then pressed a hand to his shoulder when it throbbed painfully.

"Out!" Carson ordered, making shooing gestures. "You," he pointed at Lorne, "rest!"

Still grinning Evan closed his eyes ... between one breath and the next he let the darkness claim him.

oOo

He dreamt but it was stranger than any dream he'd had – that he could remember anyway. He was standing in a random room somewhere in the city having a conversation ... with no one. The room was empty and he couldn't see anyone he could be talking to and yet he was doing just that, and getting responses back too.

"Wormhole diagnostics indicated a problem at the destination coordinates, resulting in a warning to halt departure being delivered. A warning that was ignored – unwisely as it resulted in your injury."

"Ah ... that would be because I didn't get the warning," Lorne defended himself.

"Because you do not listen as fully as you are capable of. One system recommended practice in utilising your genetic compatibility with this city's systems but to date you appear not to have done so."

"I've been busy," Lorne felt defensive again. "Are you like the hologram program?"

"Your subconscious is utilising something you are comfortable with to answer questions that concern you at this time."

"That makes – wait," Lorne frowned. "I'm dreaming about explaining why I'm dreaming about something? That makes no sense! It's like one of those scenes with a picture showing the same thing, with a picture inside that also showing the same thing, to infinity."

"You are free to awaken whenever you like."

Eyes snapping open, Evan didn't recognise his circumstances for a second before memory rushed in to fill the void. Infirmary. Gunshot wound. Again. Mission to find Colonel Sheppard's team. Failed. Again.

"Ah good, you're awake," Carson's cheerful voice drew Lorne from his internal musings.

"What's the damage Doc?" he asked.

"As I expected Major," Beckett said, happy with what he had to report. "The bullet passed straight through – minimal tissue damage which I repaired during surgery. You nicked an artery though, explaining the larger than usual blood volume lost. We've already transfused you for that but you'll probably feel tireder than usual for a day or two yet. You'll be sore for a few days too – no training, no strenuous exercise, and no off world missions. You agree to that and I'll release you for light duty tomorrow afternoon."

"I guess that's as good as I could have hoped for," Evan conceded.

"I'm sure we'll find Colonel Sheppard and the others soon," Carson offered reassuringly. "Either that or they'll find their way back to us. The Colonel is very innovative and Rodney is quite brilliant at implementing his solutions." Carson narrowed his eyes sternly. "And if you tell Rodney I said that I'll make a permanent note in your file about additional, post mission shots."

"Wouldn't dream of it Doc, even without the threat," Lorne said, amused. Rodney McKay certainly inspired a unique form of friendship, as evidenced by Colonel Sheppard and Doctor Beckett. Was that a factor of Atlantis or of the man himself?

"Try and get some rest Major," Beckett advised, finishing making a note in Evan's chart and moving back to his office.

Lorne settled back again, letting himself relax. Immediately the static of Atlantis' ancient systems rose up to greet him, thankfully without the dialogue his subconscious had supplied in his dream.

"I'm okay," he thought, ignoring the weird familiarity of talking to himself like that. "Not a headache this time so I'm guessing there won't be a 'gene' solution."

The static shifted to regretful before subsiding, presumably so Lorne could get the rest Beckett had ordered. Lorne started to think about the weirdness scale on Atlantis continually rising but then stopped himself. Time to stop thinking like that and just realise that this was the city, this was his life here. It was just a different kind of normal – his kind.

Still, he was curious about something he'd thought in his dream. Had the systems picked up the danger on M77 273? Was that something they could make use of in the future? Resolving to talk to Radek about it as soon as he could Evan closed his eyes again, falling quickly back into sleep.

oOo

True to his word Carson released Evan early the next afternoon, his shoulder wrapped tight and his arm in a sling for support. The Doc had approved him to return to light duty the following morning, the list of do's and don'ts sternly stated so there was no room for creative misunderstanding. Lorne walked slowly back to his quarters, mind full of plans for what he could still do to further the search for his CO. He had his eyes on the floor so this time he noticed them immediately - the same purple flowers, like stars with green leafy tails, tied with a narrow ribbon and laid carefully just outside his door.

Evan stopped to glance up and down the deserted corridor before bending to pick up the bouquet. He'd straightened almost to standing before he registered the faint clunk that said something had dropped to the floor. His eyes caught the sparkle of reflected light and he bent down again, picking up the tiny item. Standing Lorne opened his door and strode inside, dropping the flowers on his desk before moving closer to the window and opening his hand.

Nestled in his palm was a small blue stone, polished until it gleamed in the light streaming through the window. It wasn't just one shade, but rather a swirl of darker and lighter blues creating a depth his artists eyes wanted to sink into. It was almost perfectly round, like a small marble, and felt heavier than its size would suggest. It was beautiful and unique and ...

... and he had no idea what it was or what it was supposed to represent.

No idea who'd left it outside his door ... or when.

No idea why.

Deciding that this time he'd look at the security tapes for his floor, Evan placed the stone on the shelf over his desk, found the same vase and some water for the flowers and put them on his desk too. He stepped back for a moment and regarded the gifts, his expression unreadable. And then he pushed it from his mind, settling on his bed for the nap Carson cautioned him to take while he could.

It wasn't a mystery he was going to solve right there and then and maybe that was a good thing. Right now the flowers were just an interesting diversion – an amusement. Once he took it further and tried to find out the source he'd have to deal with the result and, being honest with himself, Evan was in no hurry to do that. They still had to find Colonel Sheppard and his team and that was Lorne's only priority.

 

Chapter 11: The good kind of Hive

A week later Colonel Sheppard still hadn't been found. With no new leads and all the most likely planets from Radek Zelenka's fifty gate addresses already checked they were down to checking out the less likely ones. That included M99 699.

"It's a space gate Radek," Lorne pointed out, absently rubbing at his healing shoulder as he squinted at the display screen the scientist was operating.

"Yes," Radek said simply. "But it was dialled from the planet Colonel Sheppard's team went missing from. Perhaps whoever took our people had flight capability."

"Hang on, didn't you tell me when you mined those addresses that you weren't sure they were even right?"

"This is true Major," Radek admitted. "And in all likelihood the Colonel will not be on whatever planet that gate is orbiting but ...," he trailed off, pushing his glasses up his nose as he waited for Lorne to finish that sentence.

"But we've got nothing else," Evan concluded, "and Colonel Sheppard did have a Puddle Jumper."

"Precisely," Radek folded his arms across his chest, frowning at his screen. "Perhaps when the Daedalus returns we can utilise their greater scanning capabilities but until they arrive there are few options. Unless you have additional intelligence to add from the database?"

"Ah," Evan frowned for a second before realising what Radek was asking. Had he 'discovered' any more files in the Ancient database that could help with this crisis, like he'd done when Cadman had been stuck in McKay's head? "Oh! Ah- no, no. That was a one time deal - a fluke. I'll leave the database research to the experts."

"Perhaps you undervalue your expertise Major," Radek said softly. "The information you found on Wraith materialisers was instrumental in helping Doctor McKay and Lieutenant Cadman."

"Yeah, well I kind of had help," Lorne admitted. Not waiting for Radek to ask 'from who?', he kept talking. "Listen, I'll take this space gate planet to Doctor Weir," he said, already starting for the door. "If it doesn't pan out then we can think about doing something different."

Once clear of Radek's lab, Lorne headed straight for Elizabeth's office. He paused in the doorway before the city's leader noticed him, assessing what he could of her mood from her demeanour. He regretted now the cavalier attitude and mild teasing he'd greeted her original concern for Atlantis' number one off world team with, even though at the time it had been justified. Of all the gate teams Colonel Sheppard's was the one most often missing their regular check-in's ... in fact they were famous for it.

"Ma'am," Evan said respectfully.

"Major, come in," Elizabeth said with an easy smile. "Any news?" Even though she hovered over every dial in and every transmission they received, Elizabeth still greeted each of his visits with the same words.

"Ah, no ma'am," Evan replied a little awkwardly. "No new leads. We've also crossed all the most likely planets off Doctor Zelenka's list."

"And the unlikely ones?" Weir asked blandly.

"That's why I'm here," Lorne admitted. "It's a long shot but one of the addresses Zelenka pulled from that DHD was to a space gate."

"You think Colonel Sheppard was somehow forced to fly the Jumper through to a planet with an orbiting Stargate?"

"It's an idea," Lorne shrugged. "To be honest Ma'am we don't have much else to go on and sitting around doing nothing isn't an option."

"No," Elizabeth regarded her acting military commander thoughtfully. Lorne had done an exemplary job during John's absent. He had a way about him that was quietly competent but approachable. The men liked him and, unlike when Colonel Caldwell had been in charge, Major Lorne made no attempts to 'make his mark' on city procedure. In fact he made it clear with unassuming consistency that he was a reluctant holder of the office who fully expected Sheppard to return, the sooner the better. Still, no matter how impatient Lorne was Elizabeth couldn't in all good conscience allow him to ignore medical advice to go out and search.

"How's your shoulder Major?" she asked casually, well aware that Lorne hadn't returned to full duty yet.

"Good enough ma'am," Lorne replied evasively.

"Is that your diagnosis Major or Doctor Beckett's?"

"Ah ...," Evan looked down to the floor for a moment, before raising his eyes to hers. "To be honest Ma'am I've still got a ways to go but I am fit enough to lead this mission. I wouldn't ask if I thought my presence would risk its success."

Elizabeth remained silent for a few moments, considering the alternatives, while Lorne waited silently.

"Very well Major. You're cleared to go and check it out," she held up a hand when Lorne went to speak, "on the proviso that you talk to Doctor Beckett first and that you follow any restrictions he sees fit to impose, to the letter. Understood?"

"Yes Ma'am. Thank you Ma'am," Lorne smiled slightly, taking that as his cue to leave before she changed her mind. Stopping at the door he turned. "Any further word on when the Daedalus will arrive?"

"They're pushing the engines," Weir replied, "but it could still be a couple of days before they get here."

Nodding Evan continued on his way, radioing his team to meet him in the Jumper Bay in half an hour. At the infirmary he spotted Carson sitting in his office and headed straight over. "Doc, got a minute?"

"For you Major, of course," Carson smiled, motioning Lorne to have a seat. 'What can I do for you lad?"

"Reinstate my off world pass," Evan replied bluntly.

"You're recovering well Major but I don't think that's wise," Carson frowned, watching Lorne with concern. "You know better than most that gun shot wounds are a serious business lad. Besides, there's no way you're anywhere near back to full strength."

"Look Doc, it's reconnaissance," Lorne explained earnestly. "I'll by flying the Jumper and looking, probably in vain, for someone to ask about Colonel Sheppard's whereabouts. There's minimal chance I'll even be getting out of the pilot's chair."

"Do you know how many times I've had someone in here telling me it was just a routine mission Major?" Beckett asked. "Enough to know there's no such thing, not here."

"I know," Lorne sighed, looking at Carson hopefully. "I'm going stir crazy sitting around waiting for something to happen Doc. I need this – I'll be careful, I promise."

"I'm not sure Colonel Sheppard will appreciate it if you cause yourself permanent damage because you were too impatient to wait Major," Carson said firmly. "In any case it might not be fully up to me," he warned. "Elizabeth will listen to my recommendation but ultimately the decision to approve an off world mission is hers."

"Great, then you'll sign off on my going," Evan grinned, watching as the penny dropped for Beckett.

"You already spoke to Elizabeth," Carson concluded after a moments pause. "Bloody hell Major – why didn't ye tell me that up front?"

"Didn't seem right Doc," Lorne shrugged. "Come on, you were leaning towards clearing me, right?"

"Don't be presumptuous lad," Carson motioned for Lorne to follow him. "Let me check your shoulder first. If I'm happy with your progress and you promise to follow my instructions, then you can go."

"Thanks Doc," Evan said gratefully, knowing he was as good as on the mission.

oOo

Lorne managed to beat his team to the Jumper Bay by a few minutes. They arrived while he was prepping the ship for a departure, settling into their usual seats with the kind of casual chatter that went with such a mission.

"Dial M99 699," Lorne requested of the Control Room technician, waiting for confirmation that the procedure was in progress before powering up the Jumper.

He manoeuvred it into position to be dropped down in front of the already open wormhole. Not that he'd admit it but a part of him was buzzing with the excitement of what he was about to experience ... his first trip through a space gate ... his first flight in space. Sure, he'd travelled to Atlantis on the Daedalus so technically he'd already experienced that first space flight but ... well, the Daedalus was huge and since he'd spent his first few hours in the infirmary being checked over by the ship's doctor and scheduled for rehab sessions he'd missed that moment when he could have sat in front of a window and watched as the Earth slowly receded from view.

As the Jumper burst from the wormhole into space on the other side of the gate, as he felt zero gravity have an effect on the inertial dampening systems, Evan grinned. He'd been right - the Daedalus didn't count as his first space flight. This was it ... and it was everything he'd ever imagined and more.

"First time Sir?" Reed's low voice had him looking over to his co-pilot quizzically. "In space Sir," Airman Reed clarified.

"Yes it is," Lorne agreed easily, turning his attention back to the front window. The blackness of space was broken by the pinpoints of stars too distant for them to reach without a Stargate, unfamiliar constellations that Evan itched to study further. Calling up the HUD he did a quick assessment of their situation and surrounds before plotting a course to take them to the planet below. And while it wasn't as moving as seeing Earth would have been, Lorne still felt something inside both lift and settle as he took in the view before them. That he was in command of a space ship, far enough out that he could see the entirety of a planet practically in one go was ... unbelievable.

"It never gets old Sir," Reed said, his eyes also trained on the view outside.

Lorne nodded, taking a few more moments to admire what his eyes were drinking in before turning his attention to the mission at hand. He'd cloaked the instance they'd cleared the wormhole because they didn't know what to expect on the planet below. Sheppard and the others could be under attack, cut off from the gate or detained in some fashion so they couldn't make it back to Atlantis. Or they could not be there at all. Didn't mean something else equally as threatening wasn't, hence the cautious approach. Evan knew that if he got into any more trouble off world while searching for the Colonel, Doctor Weir would revoke his off world pass. He was still counting himself lucky that she'd let him return to duty so soon after his last mishap.

The Jumper cleared the atmosphere with ease and soon they were skimming the trees, scanning the surface below. After about ten minutes of that the sensors picked up a small group of manmade structures, the only signs of inhabitants in the immediate surrounds. Deciding it was worth checking out, Lorne quickly found a clearing large enough to land in. Settling the ship down lightly he powered down, grabbing the Jumpers remote on the way through the back section. Hitting the button to lower the ramp he turned to his team.

"The village is a few clicks from our position," he stated. "We break into two teams and come at it from either side. Check out the situation before we make our presence known. You see anything that points to Colonel Sheppard's team having been there you radio in. Coughlin, you take Cheung. Reed, you're with me. Let's move out."

The men all moved quickly, purposefully heading out in opposite directions.

"No sign of the Jumper," Lorne commented to Reed as they walked.

"Cloaked maybe?" Reed suggested.

"Or just not here at all," Lorne countered. "You really think Colonel Sheppard would let anyone force him to fly a Jumper anywhere?"

"Then why are we here Sir?" Dan implicitly agreed with Evan's conclusion.

"Because Doctor Weir needs us to be doing something," Evan returned simply. "Because we need to be doing something." "And managing the mood of the city's leader is just as important as finding Colonel Sheppard," he added to himself silently.

When they got close to the village the two men shifted into the trees, continuing their approach with quiet steps until they found a position to watch from. Evan kept his eyes trained on the buildings closest to edge of the village. A few people were moving around, engaged in standard 'daily' activities. There were no signs of soldiers or weapons ... or strangers.

"Body language is pretty open," Lorne commented. "They don't look like people who're hiding anything." Making a quick decision he stood and motioned for Reed to fall in beside him. "Good morning Ma'am," Evan greeted the nearest villager - an older woman - with an easy, friendly smile.

"Good day," the woman replied, no hint of worry on her face.

"My name is Evan Lorne and this is my colleague Daniel Reed," he gestured to where his team mate stood just behind him, deciding that ranks would only intimidate when he needed cooperation. "I was wondering if I could trouble you for some information," Lorne began.

"Oh, I don't think I'd know anything that one such as yourself would find useful," the woman said with a self deprecating laugh, her cheeks flushing slightly at the attention.

"Four of our people went missing a few weeks ago," Evan explained, even more sure he'd made the right decision to just talk to her when her expression went from puzzled to concerned. "Three men and a woman. They'd have been dressed like us. Did you see anyone like that pass through here recently?"

"I'm sorry dear," the woman said compassionately. "You're the first strangers we've had visiting for months now. It's not harvest season you see. That's when the village is busy."

"So, no one new has been here lately?" Lorne checked.

"No," the woman reiterated. "I'm sorry I couldn't help more."

"That's okay," Evan smiled, raising an answering smile from the villager. "Are there any other settlements nearby?"

"None less than a few days walk from here," the woman said. She put a hand on Evan's arm and patted him comfortingly. "I hope you find your friends dear."

"Yeah, me too," Lorne put a hand over hers briefly, grateful for the easy way she'd spoken – truthful too if he was any judge of character. "We'll leave you to your work," he added, nodding his thanks before motioning for Reed to follow him back the way they'd come. "Coughlin, regroup back at the Jumper," he ordered over the radio.

"Acknowledged Sir," Nate replied.

Lorne and Reed walked in silence for a few moments before Evan chanced to glance at his team mate, noting the amused smile immediately.

"What?" he demanded.

"Nothing ... dear," Dan returned, laughing when his CO glared at him.

"I know I don't have to order you to keep that to yourself," Evan said pointedly.

"No Sir!" Reed said smartly, straightening instinctively. "But she sure took a liking to you Sir."

"She was fifty if she was a day! I probably just reminded her of her son or something."

"Or something," Reed reiterated, eyes twinkling with suppressed laughter.

"Can it Airman," Lorne ordered, amused despite the joke being on him.

"Yes Sir."

oOo

Back at the Jumper Coughlin and Cheung reported having observed nothing out of the ordinary either. They hadn't spoken to anyone but Nate was as sure as Lorne had been that the people in that village weren't hiding anything, including their missing colleagues. Lorne filled the two men in on his side of the mission, everyone visibly disappointed at another dead end.

"So it's back to the drawing board?" Coughlin queried with a frown.

"Unfortunately yeah," Lorne agreed. "Worse than – there's not much written on that board right now. I'm kind of surprised McKay hasn't found some way to get them home already, without our help."

"Because he's usually the one fixing all the problems," Nate concluded.

"In his own way, sure," Lorne threw himself in the pilot's seat and focussed on his flying duties. It didn't take long to lift off and head back out to space. The ease with which that was accomplished amazed Evan despite the fact that he knew how capable the Puddle Jumpers were. They weren't due back in the city for an hour and when they got back there'd be a stack of new requests piling up on his desk – the Colonel's and his own. With there being nothing else he could do to find the others Lorne decided an extended approach to the gate was in order.

"Strap in," he told his team, the only warning they got before he sent the ship into a corkscrew trajectory away from the space gate.

"Are we taking the scenic route Sir?" Coughlin asked, unconcerned.

"Training Sergeant," Lorne said piously. "It might be a while before we get back out in space like this and simulations only get you so far."

"Of course Sir," Nate agreed, throwing his CO an amused look.

Evan held in his own smile, turning his attention to the HUD. There was another planet relatively close. Sending the ship streaming towards it Lorne reflected on the contrasts. Part of him was always tense with concern – had been since Sheppard first went missing. Evan didn't want to be in charge – not even temporarily, in an unofficial capacity, like he currently was. He'd been happy as 2IC and he wanted things back the way they'd been. That on top of his genuine personal concern for the lead team made for the tense environment.

And yet he could take delight in a flight through space. He could joke with his team, let Reed get away with his light teasing because he knew that having that feeling of camaraderie made Dan a better soldier. He could genuinely enjoy a brief interlude in a string of difficult days. It was contradictory but it was the nature of the beast ... and maybe that was part of what kept them all sane.

oOo

Lorne's team was in for a surprise when they got back to Atlantis. They needn't have hurried back because Doctor Weir didn't care about their lack of progress, for one very important reason. While they'd been gone Rodney McKay had returned to the city.

Stoned out of his head and rambling himself into a collapse but returned none the less.

He was minus the rest of his team but Doctor Weir told Lorne that she was trusting in the things Rodney had stuttered before his collapse, all pointing to the scientist knowing where Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon were.

Lorne reserved judgement until hours and hours later when Rodney was on the other side of going cold turkey on the Wraith enzyme. Then the scientist was very clear on what they needed to do and Lorne was one hundred percent behind him all the way.

The Daedalus arrived and Lorne accompanied McKay to the site of a Wraith culling, where Sheppard and the others were believed to be attempting to destroy a hive ship. Although Lorne and McKay's personal mission to locate Sheppard's radio signal and beam the team off the hive ship failed, the Colonel managed with his usual flair to not need rescuing after all. He stole a dart, beamed Teyla and Ronon on board and then proceeded to reap the benefits of the seeds of dissention he'd already sown to create conflict between the two hives.

Lorne was amazed and impressed as he watched the Wraith destroying each other while Sheppard flew the dart to the Daedalus and safety. Not that he wanted to be a prisoner of the Wraith, but if Evan ever found himself in a similar situation he could only hope to handle it with half the flair the Colonel had shown.

"Sir, welcome back," he told the Colonel as Sheppard strode onto the Daedalus bridge, Teyla and Ronon following behind him.

"Good to be back Major," John said easily. "Colonel," he acknowledged Caldwell before turning to his team mate. "McKay – about time you got here."

"What?" Rodney spluttered in protest. "Oh that's rich! You have no idea what I had to do to get here!"

"It is good to see you well Doctor," Teyla said, diffusing the situation in her usual calm manner.

"I – ah, you too," Rodney replied awkwardly.

"So, you kept the city ticking over while we were gone?" Sheppard's question drew Evan's attention away from the conversation between Rodney and Teyla. He did notice the point when Ronon got involved, scoffing when McKay started on about the size of the two guys he'd had to take down to escape, and held in a smile.

"Yes Sir," Lorne answered John's question without expression, correctly deducing what the Colonel really wanted to know. "Doctor Weir will be relieved to have you back Sir."

"She was worried, right?"

"You've been gone a few weeks Sir," Lorne pointed out. "Worried doesn't really cover it."

"Ah ... right," John looked uncomfortable for a minute before forcing a casual grin. "She made you keep up with all the paperwork, didn't she?"

"Yeah, and then some," Evan took his CO's lead, steering the conversation away from the impacts his absence had had on Atlantis and more specifically its leader. He knew the two were close and it was really none of his business just how close. "The Daedalus getting here early won't help either."

"Well, don't pull another all nighter Major," Sheppard said firmly. "I need my 2IC in fighting form."

"Yes Sir," Lorne said blandly, but inside he was grinning, more than glad to be handing the reigns back to John.

oOo

"Hi Evan!" Elaine Rider's smiling face beamed out from the computer screen. "Wow, I can't believe it's been six months since you left. I know I say it every video but I really miss you big brother. We all do ... the boys are too young to really know what they're missing but I know you do. Sometimes it makes me sad."

She frowned, looking down for a moment as though collecting her thoughts, before looking up again with a forced smile.

"Sorry Evan ... it wasn't my intention to make you feel guilty because you're so far away. I'll let it drop, I promise, but I have to ask when you're coming to visit. Everything's okay here so don't worry – I just, I really want to see you ... just because, you know?" Elaine sighed, letting her sadness show as she looked into the screen cam intently. "You -,"

"Mam-ma," Jon's still babyish voice preceded the three year old into the scene. "Teddy's lost." He pouted, lips quivering and eyes filling with tears.

"Oh Baby," Elaine gathered her oldest into her arms, pulling him up on her lap and cuddling him close. "Teddy seems to be getting lost an awful lot lately."

"He wants to have aventers," Jon explained earnestly. "Like Unca Evan."

"I hope your Uncle has someone just as dedicated as you to help him on his adventures," Elaine murmured, squeezing her boy tighter and pressing a kiss into his hair. "Don't worry honey – we'll find Teddy." Her expression would have touched anyone's heart - being an open declaration that here was something precious and special ... perfect. Her love for her child spoke louder than words - her love and her overwhelming pride in the little boy.

"Are you making Unca Evan a letter Mam-ma?"

"I am," Elaine smiled, nodding to the camera. "Do you want to say hello?"

Jon shot her a look that was so Drew it was uncanny. He rolled his eyes and the 'duh' didn't need to be said. Turning back to the camera Jon broke into a beaming grin. "Hi Unca Evan. Me and Teddy is having aventers just like you do ... we're getting real good at them too." He leaned a little closer as though getting ready to share a secret. "Teddy gets scared sometimes but I tell him you'll rescue us if we really, really, need you to."

"Tell your Uncle what Grandma got you," Elaine suggested.

"Paints!" Jon laughed. "Gramma said if the aventering doesn't work out that I can be a famous artist when I grows up." He looked proud of himself for having remembered Grace Lorne's words so perfectly. "The paints smell bad ... Gramma called them aca ... aca-lick-tic. I don't know what that is," he added honestly. "Mam-ma promised we could send you the first picture when it dries proper. Can you hang it up on your wall? Please?"

"I'm sure your Uncle will be more than happy to display your work," Elaine promised confidently.

"Matty's gonna be pissed he didn't get to visit with you Unca Evan," Jon said gleefully.

"Jonathan Evan Lorne!" Elaine swivelled her son on her lap and raised an eyebrow at him pointedly. "Where did you hear a phrase like that?"

"Daddy's friends," Jon said uncertainly. "Unca Cade told Daddy that Unca Marcus was pissed he couldn't get no pass to visit." He looked at his mother innocently. "Did I do a bad?"

"Oh Honey, no. Sometimes your Daddy's friends forget there are little ears listening and say things that aren't appropriate for you or your brother to hear."

"Oh O! Mam-ma's gonna tell Daddy off," Jon turned to the screen to share that insight with Evan, all smiles again.

"I'm not!" Elaine protested, sending the camera an exasperated look. "Sorry," she murmured, shaking her head. "Welcome to family life with three boys in the house." She laughed suddenly. "Never a dull moment though, right?"

"Are you coming home soon Unca Evan?" Jon asked earnestly. "I miss you a whole bunch which is really a lot ... Matty is a baby so he misses you but not as much as I do. Can you come visit soon? Please?"

"Your Uncle will visit just as soon as he can Honey," Elaine promised on Evan's behalf. "Now tell him goodbye okay? Then we can send this and he can send us a reply."

"Okay." Jon smiled big into the camera. "Bye Unca Evan! Teddy and me loves you a whole bunch too. Have fun on your aventers."

"Bye Evan," Elaine added. "Love you ... be careful, okay?"

She looked into the camera for another moment before leaning forward with a faint smile, the picture fading to grey as she switched off the camera.

Evan swallowed hard, eyes locked on the blank screen as he absorbed Elaine's message, newly arrived on the Daedalus. He'd missed Christmas and both Jon and Matt's birthdays and although Elaine hadn't set out to make him feel bad that was the end result just the same. God, he missed them so much. Not every day, not like a sharp pain that was always there. It was more a faint ache he was only sometimes aware of, like when he saw things that reminded him of family ... or when he got a letter from home. Life on Atlantis kept him busy enough that he could almost pretend Elaine and the boys and his Mom were just around the corner instead of a galaxy away. Until correspondence from home reminded him otherwise, like it had that day.

Jon had gotten big, and a lot more talkative and Matt was probably unrecognisable - six months was a lot of time for a baby to grow and change. Evan was missing everything and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

Clicking the play button again, he sat back to watch the video again.

 

Chapter 12: Epiphanous beginning

"God, that woman is ... painful!" Lorne slammed into his office, unaware that someone was already there.

"What woman would that be Major?" Colonel Sheppard looked at his usually unflappable 2IC with unmistakable interest.

"Sir!" Evan stopped abruptly, his face going blank. "Great," he thought. "Way to look like an idiot Evan!" "Ah, sorry?" he dissembled.

"The woman you find painful Major," Sheppard didn't let him off the hook, his amusement all too clear. "Who is she?"

"Oh, right," Lorne looked down at the floor before raising his eyes to his CO. "You know the civilians Sir. Sometimes they ask for things you can't deliver and then get a little ... moody when you tell them no. I'd rather not name this particular civilian Sir ... I should have spoken more respectfully."

"Relax Lorne," John dismissed Lorne's upright military persona. "I'm sure if you knew I was here you'd have been more circumspect."

"With all due respect Sir, why are you here?" Lorne asked curiously, glad to have a reason to change the subject.

"Elizabeth wants to add an additional mission into the roster," Sheppard explained. "Request from M4R 883 – friends of the Athosians."

"So, too good to pass up the opportunity for trade agreements," Lorne concluded. Reviewing the mission roster in his head he nodded. "If they can wait a couple of days my team could take care of it."

"Excellent," Sheppard grinned, pleased to get the desired outcome. "I'll let Teyla brief you on –"

"Major Lorne."

Both men turned their heads to the doorway and the woman who stood there, arms folded across her chest. She wasn't tapping her foot impatiently but she might as well have been for the way she was holding herself.

"Doctor Darnell."

Sheppard shot a glance at his 2IC, registering the exaggerated patience in Lorne's voice. He looked at their visitor again and held in a grin. So this was the painful woman who'd had Evan storming into his office. Interesting. He hadn't had the chance to meet all the new people yet but from what he could recall her name was Prudence Darnell and she was a doctor of computational linguistics, whatever the hell that was. John only remembered because McKay had commented that having someone working on a translation program for Ancient and Wraith would allow him to focus on more important things like finding a way to recharge a ZPM or, you know, saving the planet.

"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," he stepped forward and introduced himself. "Welcome to Atlantis."

"Colonel," Doctor Darnell said, her tone brisk. She barely gave John a glance before turning her attention to Lorne. "The conclusion of our prior conversation was unsatisfactory Major Lorne," she said briskly.

"Is that right Doctor?" Lorne replied blandly.

"Right, well you kids obviously have business to discuss," Colonel Sheppard interrupted. He had to walk around the doctor to get to the door and when there turned to look at Lorne. "Play nice Major," he said, eyes alight with amusement.

"Yes Sir," Lorne acknowledged his CO before returning his attention to his unwanted visitor. He looked at her expectantly, not giving her a lead in.

"As I was explaining before Major," Prue began, "in order to properly fulfil my contractual obligations I require access to ancient facilities located off world, as well as at least a month's notice of new staff before their arrival."

"And as I already said Doctor no one gets off world travel without doing the training," Lorne explained again. "You're welcome to sign up for the next course just like everybody else."

"And as I told you I've already completed gate travel training at the SCG! This is unacceptable and a waste of my valuable time," Prudence exclaimed, clearly exasperated.

"You and McKay must have gone to the same school," Evan muttered under his breath.

"I beg your pardon?"

Prue's eyebrow rose sharply and she pinned him with a look that made him suddenly uncomfortable. Shaking it off Lorne tried to look innocent. "So I take it you won't be putting your name on my list?" he challenged.

"I have no desire to be on any of your 'lists' Major Lorne but clearly I must abide by your ridiculous rules if I'm to have any hope of doing my job properly."

"That's right Doctor," Lorne smiled but it wasn't exactly happy and friendly. "You do have to abide by my rules. I'll make note of your request for off world training – someone will let you know when the next course kicks off."

"And sufficient notice of new personnel?" Prudence queried pointedly.

"Look Doc, this is a military base first and foremost," Evan reminded her. "The schedule is driven by a number of competing priorities – anything outside of that is 'get in line'. The new staff routine might be tighter than you're used to but you'll just have to adjust because I'm not changing an established process that works for one civilian."

"You are an exasperating man Major Lorne," Prue commented primly, her dissatisfaction apparent.

"That's fine Doctor ... I'm not sure I like you either," Lorne smiled, clearly amused rather than insulted by her apparently poor regard.

Prue blinked, distracted for a moment by his unexpected reaction. "I'm glad we understand each other then," she finally concluded.

"Right," Evan waited, frowning when she continued to look at him, her expression unreadable. "If there's nothing else Doctor, I have a lot of work to do. Those schedules don't manage themselves."

"Ooo!" Prue glared at him before spinning smartly on her heels and storming out of his office.

"Yeah, nice talking to you too!" Evan shook his head, wondering what in the hell had gotten into him. He didn't usually take such an instant dislike to someone but Doctor Prudence Darnell had managed the feat with ease.

She'd been in Atlantis for less than a week, coming in with the Daedalus as one of the newest recruits, and had put him off side almost from the moment she'd set foot in the city. They always started with a tour of the main areas that included some of the most important do's and don'ts. It gave everyone the chance to get their bearings while their gear was transported from the Daedalus along with the rest of the supplies. Evan had been between missions so he'd taken the most recent tour himself.

"There are designated areas of the city that have been cleared for general use," he said as he stood in front of one of the transporter units, explaining the system to the group of twelve civilians. "Any other areas are restricted. All transport activity is logged with the control room," he smiled as he added "so if you have a burning need to access a restricted part of the city you'll need to put in a request for permission."

"And how long does it take for permission to be granted Major?"

Lorne focussed on the questioner, getting those first impressions meeting someone new always generated. She was small, barely five two, with dark brown almost black hair pulled back tightly into some kind of bun at the back of her head. Pretty if you could look past the serious, dedicated vibe she was sending off – evidenced by the fact that she was dressed in the Atlantis civilian uniform and made it look starched and pressed to perfection. She had dark eyes to go with the hair and well shaped brows that were currently arched at him expectantly as she waited for his answer. Evan wasn't sure why but he knew immediately that this one was going to be trouble.

"That depends on where it is you want to go and why," he answered reasonably, "Ms ..?" He'd thought quickly back over the personnel files he'd reviewed a few weeks back but couldn't immediately put a name to her face.

"Doctor Prudence Darnell," she said briskly. "Computational linguistics, software engineering, network control and maintenance."

"That's quite the title you have there Doctor," Lorne smiled charmingly, getting only the hint of a forced smile back.

"So Doctor Weir decides which parts of the city are open to civilians?" the scientist persisted with her questioning.

"Doctor Weir assesses all requests yes, in conjunction with Colonel Sheppard and myself," Evan explained patiently. "Some parts of the city haven't been touched in thousands of years Doctor and the safety of both you and your military escort is always paramount."

"I assume urgent requests for access will get priority?"

"All requests are assessed on merit," Evan returned, frowning. "I can't imagine what circumstance would require an immediate response but if our view on what classifies as urgent meets yours then your request will get the attention it warrants."

She opened her mouth to say something more and he held up a hand, stopping her. "If you have additional questions about city access Doctor I'm happy to speak with you after the tour. For now, let's move on," he motioned for the group to follow him towards the mess facilities.

Prudence Darnell had wanted to talk to him after, in detail, and it seemed every answer out of his mouth was unsatisfactory to her requirements. She'd been given responsibility for setting up any tailored systems required by new starters to the city – mini networks so that people working on the same thing had the set of information and access they needed - and questioned him in detail about their process for selection and approval of new recruits. She wanted to have a say in everything and although Evan was happy to have input on staffing decisions there was no way he could give her the involvement she seemed to want. He'd have to deal with Doctor Darnell on a regular basis so he did his best to be polite and helpful but found himself doing the blank facade, at the back of his mind wondering if she'd be this painful every time the Daedalus was due into the city.

Bringing his thoughts back to the present Lorne couldn't help but chuckle. From his first mission off world in Pegasus he'd known that the civilian scientists were going to be difficult – he'd just add Doctor Prudence Darnell to the list of people to keep a closer eye on.

oOo

"Major Lorne, could you join me in resource room three please," Weir spoke over the radio.

"I'll be there in five," Lorne returned, already up and heading for the nearest transporter. Almost exactly five minutes later he strode through the doors of the large open plan room, frowning as he took in the activity going on around him. "Ma'am?" he stopped beside Doctor Weir, concern starting to rise as he registered the presence of both Rodney McKay and Carson Beckett, the two talking in an urgent manner. Since McKay had left for M55 878 with Colonel Sheppard a couple of hours previously and now seemed to be back and by himself the situation had a definite ominous feel to it.

"Major," Elizabeth moved to one side, drawing him with her. "We have a ... situation with Colonel Sheppard," she explained in a low tone. "The way Doctor McKay explained it the Colonel is currently trapped behind some kind of time dilation field."

"A time dilation field?" Lorne repeated slowly. "Dilated how?"

"Time is moving much faster for Colonel Sheppard than it is for us," Weir summarised succinctly. "Doctor McKay is gathering what he needs to find a way to shut off the field. We'll be going back with Doctor Beckett shortly."

"We Ma'am?" Lorne's brow rose as he realised what she was implying.

"Rodney said there are ancient writings around the doorway Major and someone needs to translate them," Elizabeth explained. "Right now that means me."

"Permission to come along Ma'am," Evan asked briskly, straightening and giving her his best 'I mean business' look. She might be the city's leader but there was no way he was letting her put herself at risk.

"I'm sorry Major but I need you here," Elizabeth replied. "With Colonel Sheppard and myself both absent from the city you're the logical choice to provide leadership. I'm only there to look at the Ancient writing ... I'm not even sure how long we'll be gone."

"Yes Ma'am," Evan acknowledged her request reluctantly. "I'll have Private Cooper report to the jumper bay ... he's one of our best Jumper pilots."

"Thank you Major," Elizabeth smiled, putting a hand on his forearm in gratitude or maybe support, before moving back to talk with McKay and Beckett.

Lorne watched for a moment, his expression unreadable, before he strode off, contacting Cooper on the radio as he went.

oOo

"Why wasn't I given the opportunity to translate the Ancient writings on M55 878?"

Lorne looked up from his computer screen to see an obviously annoyed Doctor Darnell standing in his doorway.

"I see the city grapevine is working with its usual efficiency," Evan commented, shifting his chair back from his desk and leaning back a little. Rodney and the others had only left an hour before and there was no word so far that they'd managed to free Colonel Sheppard. He was worried, more so because he hated being the one to have to wait around while others went out and 'did', but doing his best to ignore it.

"Am I wrong?" Prudence asked, arching one of those sleek brows at him in a manner that just dared Lorne to disagree.

"About what Doctor?" he returned, standing up and approaching her, his expression suddenly grim. "About there being some Ancient writing to translate?" He stopped when he was just shy of invading her personal space, ignoring the fact that she seemed suddenly small and delicate despite the fact that she didn't give any hint that she was intimidated by his proximity. "Yes there was Ancient text found on M55 878 but no, you shouldn't have been given the chance to go and translate it. This isn't a science lab where you can hook up your computer and test out your theories. It's Colonel Sheppard facing unknown risk under extreme time pressure – a situation you're not qualified to deal with yet."

"I ...," Lorne watched as Doctor Darnell seemed to gather her resolve, straightening and looking up at him again. "I'm sorry Major – I was unaware of the surrounding circumstances and will make sure to have the full picture before I approach you in this manner in the future."

"That would be better," Lorne agreed, finding his previous annoyance dwindling away. That was when he realised how close he was standing to the computer scientist. Shifting back he sighed. "Look, just give yourself time to find your feet here Doctor. I know you have experience at the SGC but you need to realise that this galaxy is a whole host of different challenges. Don't be in such a hurry to get out there before you're ready."

"Good advice Major," Prudence said studiously enough that Evan wouldn't have been surprised if she'd ripped out a note book and started taking notes. "I will endeavour to be patient until such time as I've completed all of your imposed requirements."

"One, they aren't 'my' requirements – the training program is based on lessons learned the hard way," Evan shot back, "and two, they aren't a formality you have to get through Doctor Darnell. If you're not going to give the training the proper consideration then you might as well pack your bags and go back to Earth with the Daedalus."

"I apologise Major," Doctor Darnell replied quickly. "I didn't mean to imply that the training wasn't important and of course I will give it my full efforts. I have no desire to return to Earth." She looked at Evan, meeting his gaze intently and he found himself distracted by what he imagined he could see in her eyes. There were depths there he wouldn't have guessed at – she didn't just want to be on Atlantis, she needed it, and the mystery of why that was had him narrowing his eyes with interest. Unfortunately she took control before he could question her further.

"I'll leave you to your work Major Lorne," she said briskly, spinning and practically marching to the door. He thought that was all the leave she was going to give him until she stopped and looked back quickly. "I hope Colonel Sheppard is okay," she said quietly, not waiting for his acknowledgement before she disappeared into the corridor.

"You and me both," Lorne muttered, staring for a moment at where she'd been standing.

"Major Lorne to the Control Room ... unscheduled off world activation," the announcement from Chuck broke into his musings.

"On my way," he said, striding quickly from the room.

oOo

The unscheduled gate activation turned out to be Colonel Sheppard and the others, returned from M55 878 with quite a story to tell. Lorne listened during the briefing, noting all the practical details about the sanctuary and the presence of Ancient technology they'd never be able to get their hands on. As the debrief broke up he moved to walk beside Sheppard.

"Must have been strange being away from here for so long," he commented to his CO.

"Yeah," Sheppard agreed. "Days and days bored out of my skull Major." He grimaced, clearly thinking back over the past seven months from his perspective – only hours from Lorne's. "They meditated ... all the time."

"So you won't be lining up for ascension any time soon," Evan quipped with a slight smile.

"From what I could tell it sounds like a pretty dull way to spend eternity to me," John shot back with a grin.

Lorne hesitated before speaking again. "Did you miss it, the city I mean?"

"Atlantis?" Sheppard clarified, getting a nod in return. "It does draw you in, doesn't it? Doors opening just because you thought it, lights coming on ... it's pretty cool."

"Yes it is," Lorne agreed casually. He wasn't sure why he'd asked the question – maybe hoping the Colonel would let something slip about his own connection to the city. Evan had begun to believe John more than anyone else would understand what Evan felt from the city – that hum of systems engaging, that almost welcome when he returned from off world, as though the city was happy to have him there. If he'd been away for seven months Evan knew he'd struggle to hide that surge of reconnection he knew he'd feel. Sheppard's response didn't give him an opening though – either because John didn't feel things from the city or because he, like Evan, didn't really want to talk about it openly. That was something Lorne understood – he no more wanted to draw attention to himself than Colonel Sheppard.

"It's good to have you back Sir," he said instead.

"At least you're not reminding me it was only hours for you," John muttered, glancing back to where his team were following along.

"It's tough getting the level of ... appreciation you deserve, isn't it?" Lorne quipped, thinking about the ribbing he got from his own team.

Sheppard laughed. "That it is Major. That it is."

Authors Note:

A couple of minor points - in Epiphany the planet didn't get a designation so I gave it one to save on having to refer to it as 'the planet where Sheppard got trapped in a time dilation field' all the time. Secondly the pilot for the Jumper when Rodney returned with Carson and Elizabeth was nameless and rankless as far as I could tell from the transcript and by looking closely at his uniform, so I gave him a name and rank, again to make referring to him easier.

 

Chapter 13: The Fifth Horseman

"Lastly, the weekly report from the SGC," Elizabeth said, eyes narrowed on her laptop as she scrolled to the information she wanted to share.

Doctor Weir ran regular meeting with the department seconds, usually weekly, so that she'd be up to date on what wasn't covered at the top leadership meetings. It also gave staff most in touch with what was going on at the 'people' level the chance to speak to her on a regular basis. In the room, apart from Lorne himself and Radek Zelenka, was Doctor Claudia Moon – 2IC of cultural and diplomatic services; Doctor Jennifer Keller – Carson Beckett's second; Doctor Katie Brown – second in charge of Special Sciences (Rodney McKay would call them soft but for the fact that he was more than a little taken with Katie Brown); Melissa Wilson – as close as Elizabeth got to having a civilian assistant to back her up on the administrative front; and Sergeant Charles Moore who'd taken over from Sergeant Bates as the head of security after the other man had been injured during the Wraith siege.

They all knew what had been going on in their own galaxy ... the Prior's of the Ori moving in on many planets and forcing inhabitants to live according to 'Origin', to seek the path to enlightenment or face destruction. It was grim but to date there'd been nothing Atlantis could do to assist ... aside from the fact that they had their own problems with the Wraith to contend with.

Lorne shifted in his seat, his interest evident in his posture. He still felt a connection to the SGC, still had friends there who sent him emails every now and then. Some of what he knew about the Ori threat had come from them and none of it sounded good. People were tired after years of trying to subdue the Goa'uld – to have an even more menacing enemy crawl out of the woodwork only months after defeating them was tough on morale.

"The Ori threat is escalating," Weir revealed, "and that threat has now reached Earth. One of the SG teams returned from a planet with a Prior visiting and within hours all but one of them had fallen ill with the Ori plague. I know that's bad enough but the Ori were able to make one of our own people a carrier ... he took the plague outside the SGC before they knew there was even a threat and began a pandemic that spread very quickly beyond control. It was only intervention from a previously ascended ancient, Orlin, and Gerak, leader of the Jaffa free nation and a Prior, that saved this from becoming a global disaster."

"The death toll?" Doctor Keller asked, her expression bleak. It was a shock to everyone - there'd been no mention of a threat in the previous week's reports and no communication from Earth in the intervening time.

"Three thousand worldwide," Weir replied, "including more than twenty SGC personnel. It's a lot but it could have been very much worse. There were reported cases spread across the globe."

"A full scale international incident," Doctor Moon commented. "With the source inside the U.S. there must have been public outcry, particularly given the President would have necessarily been vague on where the illness came from."

"Yes, the administration did come under fire, externally as well as from the IOA," Elizabeth agreed. "They did eventually agree that there was nothing that could have been done to detect this threat before it occurred."

"What about preventing it from happening again?" Sergeant Moore asked.

"They have a vaccine," Weir said simply.

"From the survivors?" Jennifer asked incredulously. "If they've developed a vaccine already that's very impressive work."

"There were no survivors apart from the ones Gerak cured," Elizabeth explained. "It was mainly the work of Orlin ... you can read the full report for the details but suffice to say there'd be no cure without his sacrifice and the sacrifice of Gerak."

"What team?" Lorne asked abruptly, not sure he wanted to know the answer but feeling compelled to ask the question anyway. He'd listened to the questions and comments while a sick feeling of dread had crept over him and now he just needed to know, one way or the other.

"Major?" Weir frowned, not understanding the question.

"The team who brought the plague to Earth initially," Evan clarified. "Who were they?"

Elizabeth glanced at her screen before looking back at him. "SG-6."

He'd dodged a bullet. The knowledge of what would have happened had he remained at the SGC washed over Lorne like a cold wave of icy numbness. Riding hard on the heels of that impact came regret and grief for the members of SG-6, the kind that made his heart pump fast. Cold numbness and hot grief ... it was a dizzying clash of contrasting emotions that left him feeling a little sick. As if in response Evan's awareness of background static from the city shifted and drew his attention. He wasn't sure for what purpose – maybe he was giving off bad vibes and confusing the systems – but he couldn't have it, the distraction making it harder for him to force down all the emotions he was feeling. "Not now!" he thought harshly. The systems responded immediately, dropping the feedback down to background again, allowing Evan to think.

He'd served with Colonel Barnes for more than six months which might not sound like much but bonds formed quickly when you were being chased by angry natives on a regular basis. He'd genuinely liked the SG-6 leader ... Evan couldn't believe the other man had gone out in such a crappy fashion. Fisher and Ryan either ... none of them deserved to be used as pawns like that and the tragic waste sent anger rolling through him. That anger was almost welcome because it swept away the more confusing emotions and the numb cold of his initial reaction. Anger he could deal with ...

"Major?" Doctor Weir queried Lorne again.

Evan looked up to see that everyone in the room was watching him with varying degrees of concern. "Sorry," he muttered, looking down again.

"Something you want to share Major?" Elizabeth asked gently.

"No Ma'am," he replied briskly, trying to swallow back the emotions crowding his mind without success. He had to get away so he could sort them into some semblance of order. "Is there anything else?"

"That's all for today Major."

Before Doctor Weir had finished voicing her negative response Lorne was up on his feet. "Then I'll take my leave Ma'am. The paperwork for the Daedalus departure next week is overdue," he excused on his way to the door. He didn't wait for Weir's dismissal or look at the others and was out in the corridor before anyone had a chance to call him up on his behaviour.

Evan went straight to his office, swiping the door closed and thinking 'locked' before relaxing his guard. He stood for a moment in the middle of his office, hands at his hips, thoughts racing.

Information ... that's what he needed.

Throwing himself into his chair Lorne called up the detailed report from the SGC, reading the entire thing in minutes. It didn't help to have it confirmed ... Colonel Barnes, Airman Ryan and Lorne's replacement Captain Brooks all dead, and Lieutenant Fisher confined until they could work out how to make him not a carrier of almost certain death. It wasn't written but Evan could read between the lines – solving Fisher's 'carrier of the plague' problem would be much easier than convincing him that the deaths of his teammates and thousands of others weren't his responsibility.

Lorne understood guilt. It made no sense to feel like his previous team had suffered because he hadn't been there. It made no sense to feel bad because the guy who'd replaced him on SG-6 was now dead ... and yet Evan did feel bad.

God," he muttered, getting up and pacing back and forth in the enclosed space. He felt restless, ineffectual ... full of energy with nowhere to direct it. The attack on Earth was over and there was nothing he could do. It didn't help that Atlantis was back to treating him to a continuous burst of insistent static. Maybe the systems were trying to help but all he wanted to do was tell them to shut the fuck up. That was the anger talking, not him, and it made Evan realise he needed to deal with what he was feeling. This was where a handy webcam link back to the States would be helpful. He could dial Piper; give her the guts of what had happened and count on her to say something to diffuse the emotions down to something manageable. Maybe he should have developed a connection to someone on Atlantis equally as useful but he hadn't – not unless you could count a set of inanimate systems and a piece of holographic software.

"You're a sad individual," he thought grimly. Yeah, sad but also a little annoyed with himself too. Loss often served as a wakeup call and if that were the case here then the person at the other end of the line was telling Evan to get a life on Atlantis beyond his work and his connections to the city. If he'd put himself out there a little, made some friends who weren't an active part of his role or direct subordinates then maybe he would feel able to talk to someone about SG-6. Maybe not – talking about his feelings wasn't exactly his strong suit – but it would be nice to have the option.

Instead he didn't have an obvious outlet when he needed it. Jumping up, Evan swiped the doors open again and headed for his quarters, changing into track pants and a t-shirt with quick, economical movements. Two minutes later he was out the door again and on his way to the gym.

He went at the punching bag hard, ignoring the few others in the gym beyond acknowledging their 'Sir's as they all eventually left him alone. He'd gotten into a rhythm and worked up a nice sweat before he started to feel a little less ... on edge. Atlantis static swelled in volume in his head again and he paused, breathing hard. "I'm okay," he thought, wondering if he'd ever get over feeling like an idiot every time he attempted to reassure the systems of his wellbeing. He knew the city wasn't really a thinking, feeling, living entity and yet he didn't doubt anymore that in some way the Ancient systems were tuned in to him. The city had sophisticated sensor systems capable of distinguishing individuals based on a host of different parameters and there were aspects McKay would never admit to not fully understanding yet. Evan figured those sensors were monitoring him and registered whenever his 'readings' weren't in the usual range. It made sense, in a strange, 'I have ancient DNA kicking around my system' kind of way. Why it happened was a different story, and Lorne wasn't ready to speculate on answers for that quite yet.

"Major?"

Evan frowned at the interruption, turning to glance at the doorway and just barely refraining from groaning out loud.

"Doctor Darnell," he acknowledged her but returned his attention to punching the bag in front of him.

It took him a few repetitions of right, left, right, right before he realised that she hadn't spoken again but was still standing there, watching him. "Something I can do for you Doctor?" he queried, keeping up with his pattern of punches.

"I was ... I wanted to ...," Prudence almost stuttered, her uncharacteristic awkwardness grabbing his attention.

"Spit it out Doc," he urged, throwing a particularly hard punch at the bag that sent it away and then swooping rapidly back towards him.

"You're obviously busy," Prudence muttered. "I shouldn't have interrupted. I'll just ... I'll come back later."

"I won't be here later," Evan pointed out blandly, deliberately misunderstanding what she meant by coming back, "so whatever you wanted, you better get it off your chest now."

"I failed the firearms section of the off world training program," the scientist admitted in a rush, not looking at him directly. "I get one chance to repeat the test and if I fail again I have to wait for the next program and repeat the entire course."

"Yeah, I know the setup," Lorne reminded her that he knew all the rules and restrictions. In fact it had been his idea to require participants to repeat the course if they failed the test twice. Not as a punishment but rather to give them a chance at a clean slate as well as the time to get used to the fact that they would in all likelihood at some point in the future have to fire a weapon at something or someone. "If you're asking for me to relax that rule forget it Doc. If you can't hit what you target with some degree of accuracy then you don't belong off world here."

"It wasn't a requirement back at the SGC but I'm not an idiot Major," Prudence retorted impatiently. "I understand the need, which is why I want a tutor. I was told that you could assign me someone for one on one training and I would very much like it if you could do so as soon as possible. The repeat test is next week and I can't afford to fail again."

"A tutor huh?" Evan smiled slightly, amused at her approach. Clearly she needed something from him but just as clearly she was unhappy about having to ask, even though he could see that she was very committed to correcting her mistakes and passing that test. "I can do that ... in fact, consider yourself tutored."

"Thank you Major."

Prudence actually smiled and the effect had Lorne blinking in surprise. He wanted to tell her she needed to relax like that more often because her happy face was a hell of a lot more compelling than her serious one. Since that was the kind of observation that could get a guy's face slapped, Evan wisely refrained.

"I'm sure you would like me to leave you to continue your pointless assault on that punching bag now," she said briskly ... Lorne chose to read a fair slice of condescension in there as well.

"Pointless?" he queried, grabbing the bag when it swung back instead of hitting it again. Pushing it away, he stepped back, pulling off his gloves as he approached her. "How so?"

"What?" Prue swallowed nervously, her eyes darting from his to stop for milliseconds on his chest, his forearms, his hands. Realising what she was doing, Doctor Darnell's eyes lifted abruptly back to his. "Oh, I ah ... sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything ... it's just ... you do realise the energy expelled if this is for exercise purposes isn't matched by the fitness outcomes it can deliver? You'd be better off running or swimming."

"Is that an invitation?" Lorne almost laughed at the horrified look on her face. "Because you know, any time you want me to run you into the ground you're welcome to come find me Doctor."

"I'm not sure what outcome you'd derive from demonstrating a necessary physical superiority Major," Doctor Darnell pointed out primly, "but you've made your 'keep out' message very clear. I apologise for my clumsy attempt to acknowledge the obvious emotion driving you."

"Don't presume to know anything about me Doctor Darnell!" Evan shot her an exasperated look, anger resurfacing. "You have no idea what drives me."

"And I'm sure you're too much the tough guy to tell me," Prudence retorted, challenging him without coming right out and accusing him of being unable to express himself.

"You worked at the SGC right?" Lorne got up right into her space, looming over her without touching her, his expression grim. "I bet you know all twenty victims of the Ori plague too ... by name but not to talk to, right? Not to feel bad you got out of there before that plague got you too. I bet you're not kicking yourself right now that you really should have included them in your last email home because God knows around here you can't count on another chance! I bet they're all just names on some database to you ..."

Her eyes were locked to his as he unloaded his negative emotions onto her – Lorne felt remorse even before he saw the tears welling up in her eyes and it had him grabbing for her arm before she could run away. He felt a jolt of heat from the contact, saw an answering recognition in her eyes ... but put it down to the understandable emotions they were both feeling.

"Jesus, I'm sorry," he said intently, taking her other hand and squeezing both firmly. "I had no right to offload my anger like that."

"Who did you know?" Prudence asked in a low tone.

He let the silence dominate for a few moments, hesitant to offer anything of himself but suffering enough remorse that he felt like he owed it to her to be open. "SG-6," he finally said succinctly.

"Colonel Barnes was always very nice to all the scientists," Prudence offered, seemingly content to let him continue to hold her hands in his. "I liked him."

"Yeah, me too," Lorne admitted, all the fight just dropping out of him. "They were my team ... before I came here."

"That was you?" Prudence smiled. "He mentioned you Major ... usually to complain about flyboys running off to chase rainbows in other galaxies but I could tell he thought highly of you. He tried the team with two other marines before settling on Captain Brooks to replace you." She blushed suddenly, looking down, her voice dropping in volume. "Indirectly you're the reason I decided to come here."

"Really?" Evan missed the opportunity to use that admission to his advantage, so surprised was he by the fact that she'd actually admitted it to him.

"Really," Doctor Darnell agreed simply.

She watched him think about that for a few moments up until the point that he realised he was standing in the gym practically holding hands with her. Then he dropped her wrists like they'd burned him and took a hurried step back.

"Don't start being nice to me Doctor or I might think you actually like me," Lorne teased, ignoring both the lingering impression of heat on his palms and the weirdly supportive direction the conversation had taken.

Prudence's formerly open expression instantly shifted back to annoyance as she glared at him. "Don't worry Major – there is no chance of that!" Turning smartly she headed for the entrance, clearly intent on leaving without saying anything else. Self interest prevailed and she stopped at the door, turning back to him. "You neglected to tell me the name of my firearms tutor Major," she reminded him, all prim and brisk in her manner.

Her manner challenged him and Evan couldn't resist taking up the gauntlet. "I've got some free time after the next couple of days," he said, struggling once again not to laugh when her expression shifted to dismay. "Meet me at the training range Tuesday morning, 0700 hours."

"Very well." Prudence shot him a frustrated look before continuing on her way, leaving him to a deserted gym.

Evan contemplated the punching bag but there was no point in starting up again. He just didn't feel that angry anymore and the fact that it was Prudence Darnell who was responsible for lightening his emotional turmoil was something he chose to add to the growing list of things he wasn't thinking about.

oOo

Lorne worked hard for the rest of the day, finishing the paperwork he'd used as an excuse to get out of Elizabeth's meeting and then getting a head start on reports that weren't due until the Daedalus arrived back at Earth.

Anything to keep his mind occupied.

Hours later and well after dark Lorne made his way tiredly back to his quarters. He wasn't even surprised when he glanced down as he was opening his door and saw the flowers waiting for his return.

Stooping low he picked them up and continued inside, barely glancing at their purple, starlike beauty this time as he refilled the vase he still had out and deposited them inside. He could see the pattern now and it was one that troubled him. Every time he was injured he'd come back to his room and there would be the flowers. His first off world mission and the vision blurring headache he'd brought back. Losing Walker and Stevens to the Iratus Bugs. The gunshot wound to the shoulder he was still recovering from. And today with his distress over the Ori plague reports – not exactly like the other times but those first moments had been too much like physical pain ... he still felt injured in a way by the news.

It was the most recent occurrence that raised concerns. The prior three events were public knowledge that anyone could have been aware of, but no one could possibly know the full extent of his emotions for the fate of SG-6. Only Doctor Darnell knew even a small part of it – not that he thought she'd be leaving him flowers. One because she seemed to dislike him quite actively and two because she hadn't been in the city for the first two events. It couldn't be her but at the same time he couldn't see how it could be anyone else.

It made no sense ... unless someone on Atlantis could see inside his mind and surely that was impossible.

oOo

The fate of his old team and the fact that he'd struggled to find an outlet for dealing with the emotional fallout had an almost immediate effect on Lorne. He needed to get out there more. Not that he wasn't sociable – he ate with his team on a regular basis and made time to catch up with Lieutenant Cadman whenever she was in the city. He spent some time with Radek and Carson outside of his duties too, when time allowed. He just didn't join in with the group events that occurred on a regular basis – all part of trying to maintain that necessary distance between outranking almost everyone in the city, or being in a position of authority over them, and wanting to be friendly and approachable.

"Major Lorne."

Evan stopped, his lunch tray in hand, and looked over to where Cadman was sitting with two other people – Jennifer Keller and Claudia Moon. He didn't wonder how Laura knew the two women – the explosives expert was friendly and outgoing and seemed to know everyone, even though she only lived in the city three weeks out of twelve.

"Lieutenant," he acknowledged her with a slight smile, moving closer to their table. "Getting in some last minute socialising?"

"No need this time Sir," Cadman grinned, pleased with herself. "Colonel Caldwell did approve my request for an extended stay this time and Colonel Sheppard agreed too so you're stuck with me for a few weeks yet."

"I'll alert all the security teams then shall I?" Evan smirked when she looked insulted for a moment before working out that he was joking.

"We were just discussing movie night," Laura said. She glanced at his full tray and then around the crowded mess hall. "You're welcome to join us Sir," she invited casually.

"Ah," Evan thought for a moment and then shrugged. No time like the present to be a little more open. "Sure, okay. Thanks Lieutenant."

"No problem Sir," Cadman replied, shifting to give him room to sit in the only empty chair on the corner between herself and Doctor Keller. "Doc," he acknowledged Jennifer, nodding to Claudia as well before focussing on his lunch.

"So I was thinking we have a marathon again," Cadman returned to her prior discussion with her companions. "How about we watch all the Godfather movies?"

"No!" Jennifer shook her head emphatically. "Why do you always pick bloodthirsty movies?"

"Because they're fun," Laura shot back with a cheeky grin.

"To you," Jennifer retorted. "I see enough of that in my day job thank you very much."

"What about Lord of the Rings?" Claudia Moon suggested.

"We've watched that too many times already," Laura complained.

"And we haven't watched the Godfather before?" Jennifer queried pointedly.

"What would you pick Sir?" Laura looked at Lorne curiously, drawing him into their conversation.

"Me?" Evan asked, surprised his opinion was being sought.

"You don't like movies Major Lorne?" Jennifer asked curiously.

"Ah ... no, I mean, yes," Lorne frowned, shaking his head at suddenly finding himself the centre of their attention, the uncomfortable feeling reminding him of why he kept that distance between him and the civilians. "I like movies Doctor ... just not one after another. Plus there are other things I'd rather do with my spare time, you know?"

"Oh, you can't leave that one there Sir," Cadman protested, mischief dancing in her eyes.

"Pretty sure I can Lieutenant," Evan returned, giving her a look that said 'continue pushing me at your peril'.

"You should come to our movie night Major," Jennifer said with a smirk. "We've been lacking someone to keep Laura in check."

"Doctor Beckett not invited then?" Lorne asked blandly, enjoying the faint blush that appeared on Laura's face.

"Carson always pleads too much work," Jennifer laughed. "I think he'd rather see a nice light-hearted movie too."

"Right, sure," Evan hesitated for a fraction of a second before making a decision. "Okay, then in the interests of equality you can count me in for your next movie night. As long as you pick something Carson will turn up for as well."

"I'll make sure we do Major," Jennifer agreed solemnly, ignoring the suggestive way Laura was raising her eyebrows at her.

"Let me know the details," Lorne replied easily.

Jennifer nodded, her expression turning hesitant before she leaned a little closer to Evan and spoke in a low tone. "I wanted to ask if you were okay Major," she said softly. "I couldn't help but notice at the meeting yesterday that you were bothered by the report from the SGC."

Lorne's expression closed like shutters over a window. "I'm fine Doctor," he said in a way that didn't encourage further questioning.

Jennifer nodded, regret evident on her face. "I didn't mean to pry Major Lorne. To be honest the meeting left me feeling very sad myself and I never served at the SGC prior to coming here. It would be understandable for anyone who did serve there to be upset."

"Yeah," Laura had been keeping track of the semi private conversation going on between Lorne and Jennifer. "I kicked the crap out of my sparring partner yesterday Sir and I still felt angry enough to climb the walls. It's not right, what the Ori are trying to do. I wish there was something we could do to retaliate."

"Me too," Lorne softened a little, understanding the need for soldiers to band together against a common threat, even one so far away. "And who knows, maybe in the future there will be." Glancing at his watch he stood. "Duty calls," he said simply, nodding to Jennifer and Claudia and then stopping on Laura. "Behave Lieutenant," he said sternly, a smile playing over his face as he tried to lighten the mood again.

"Yes Sir," Laura replied, keeping her eyes away from where her friends were now laughing at her.

Lorne chuckled as he walked away, deciding it would only give her ammunition if he admitted he was happy she was hanging around the city for a while. He wasn't sure going to their movie night was necessarily a good idea but figured if it didn't go well he could always beg off of any future invitations.

He'd passed most of the tables, all still bordering on being at full capacity, before he had that feeling of someone watching him. Glancing to his left he saw Prudence Darnell, eating with a few of the other new starters at a table near the entrance. She looked away quickly but Evan knew she'd been following him with her eyes and he slowed, waiting until she looked up again. It was interesting that instead of being embarrassed she gave him a rueful smile, seemingly comfortable being caught. It roused an answering smile from him and a casual half wave before he continued on his way. Maybe Doctor Darnell wasn't as painful as he'd initially decided, not that it meant he was ready to make her his new best friend or anything.

Shaking his head at his own fanciful turn of thought, Evan put social obligations and one annoying but strangely hard to ignore computer scientists from his mind so that he could focus on his job.

Authors Note:

I had to make a few decisions this chapter - on when Jennifer arrived, where Season 9 (Ep 10/11 - The Fourth Horseman Pt 1 & 2) of SG-1 slots in with Season 2 of SGA, what other department heads they'd be likely to have in the city besides Rodney. The Daedalus being there one episode and not mentioned then next and then back again the episode after that with no mention of whether they'd been there the whole time or to Earth and back was a complicating factor too because it makes working out a reasonable timeline almost impossible. I'm mentioning it because anything I have that deviates from people's perceived version of canon is done for a reason.

 

Chapter 14: Critical Mess

"Proficiency in the basic weapons used by off world teams is crucial in the Pegasus Galaxy," Evan explained. "99% of the time that'll be the P-90 submachine gun or the M9 pistol. The P-90 puts the power of an assault rifle into a smaller sized weapon, suitable for close quarter's encounters." He suppressed a grin as Doctor Darnell bit her lip, clearly holding in the need to tell him she already knew all that. She'd turned up for their first tutoring session with her usual, starched to perfection, uniform in place and an obviously forced expression of friendliness on her face. Lorne didn't think she was unfriendly as such – she was just very ... serious ... brisk, and her attempts to put on a more relaxed facade for his benefit were amusing and maybe even a little humbling. Prudence had asked for his help and clearly doing well with him was very important to her – something that had nothing to do with whether she personally liked him or not. He could respect that – there were staff on Atlantis he wouldn't be signing up to be friends with and that was okay.

Wondering how long he could go on before she reverted to her usual approach and told him to stop wasting her time, Evan continued with his impromptu lecture.

"The P-90 is classed as a Personal Defence Weapon. PDW's are designed to bridge the gap between assault rifles and pistols. They're more powerful than a pistol, but lighter than a rifle. The P-90 is a fully ambidextrous weapon, in a bullpup configuration," Evan grinned. "That just means the action and magazine are behind the trigger ... gives it a longer barrel without substantially increasing the weapon size. It also means that maintenance of the gun doesn't require a complete disassembly ... removing the magazine gives access to the entire firing mechanism."

Motioning to a table on the far wall where he'd set up a weapon before Doctor Darnell arrived, Lorne continued. "I disassembled this one before you got here so you could see the major component groups." He pointed to each as he named them. "Trigger group, barrel and optical sight assembly, butt plate, magazine, bolt carrier and recoil assembly, -"

"And stock body and trigger," Prudence finally interrupted him. "I was paying attention during the theory section of the training Major."

"Never said you weren't Doctor," Evan returned. "Just wanted to make sure we're on the same page here." He glanced at her with a hint of challenge in his eyes. "So you know what all the parts are called. Can you put it back together?"

Moving forward confidently, Prue picked up each component in the right order and then carefully put it in place until she had a properly constructed P-90 in her hands. She'd done it much slower than he could have but Evan was impressed with her performance and the way she hadn't hesitated with any of the components.

"Nice work Doctor," he complimented her, not missing the faint hint of a smile that played across her lips. "Understanding the weapon and how it works clearly isn't your problem." Moving to the nearest shooting station he pushed the button to set the target at the right distance. "Ear guards," he said, grabbing a set for himself and then holding out a pair for her. "Let's see what you do while you're firing it."

Prudence took the ear guards and lifted them into place. Taking up the P-90 again she stepped into position, eyes narrowed on the human outline target before her. Taking a deep breath she squeezed the trigger for a short burst, the recoil sending all but the first bullet wildly off course.

"You need to brace yourself Doctor," Lorne shifted to stand behind her, keeping a small span of distance between his chest and her back. "Think physics ... Newton's first law ... action and reaction. You need to counter the force generated by the bullets being propelled from the weapon if you want to hit anything you aim for."

"You don't talk like any soldier I've ever known," Prudence muttered, resetting herself and sighting on the target again.

"How many soldiers have you taken the time to talk to Doctor?" Evan asked rhetorically, watching her actions carefully. He could have told her he wasn't just a soldier but the session wasn't about him - it was about her, and him working out what was stopping her from gaining proficiency in the basic weapons.

Prudence squeezed the trigger again, the recoil sending her stumbling back into Evan. He braced expecting that result, and grabbed her shoulders to steady her.

There it was again ...

Even through her jacket Lorne could feel the heat of her seeping into his palms. It was disturbing and not at all what he wanted to be noticing, especially since he intended to maintain his position to show rather than just tell her what she wasn't doing.

"You can't be half hearted about this Doctor," he instructed. "It's an all or nothing thing. You hesitate and you might as well not have a weapon." Gently pulling her back until she was flush up against him, he leant down to speak close to her ear. "Try it again."

Prudence tensed the instance he laid his hands on her. Seemingly ignoring that and him, she took a visibly deep breath, raising the P-90 again. Evan waited until just before she squeezed the trigger, bracing her himself just as the recoil struck. This time her arms hardly jerked at all and most of the bullets landed inside the outline rather than spraying wildly and not hitting it at all.

"Better," Lorne said simply, eyes narrowed on the target consideringly.

"I get it Major," Doctor Darnell shrugged her shoulders insistently, a clear message that she wanted him to stop holding on to her. "You can let go now."

"Don't get the wrong idea Doctor," Evan drawled, letting his hands slide away rather than removing them in one go. He didn't miss the way she tensed again – and couldn't have missed her annoyance when she spun to look at him, her eyes shooting sparks. "All part of the training process," he added blandly, holding up his hands innocently.

The sound she made was half growl. "Are you always this much of an ass Major?" she accused.

"An ass huh?" Evan laughed. "Since you're the first person who's levelled that accusation at me I'd have to say no. You seem to be bringing out that side of me Doctor."

"It's hardly my fault Major Lorne," she pursed her lips together and he was sure she was grinding her teeth too. "I think it best you find me another tutor," she finally requested, brisk primness firmly in place.

"No can do Doc," Lorne returned.

"Why the hell not?"

Lorne raised a brow at her cursing, eyes narrowed as he considered how to answer that. Truthfully he could assign her to someone else and a large part of him wanted to do just that. She didn't annoy him as she'd initially done but now he had a whole host of other problems, chief among them his physical awareness of her even though he wouldn't have said that he was attracted to her. She intrigued him intellectually too because he was sure there was much more to her than she seemed willing to show the general populace and that was the kind of puzzle he'd always been challenged to solve. So yeah, he should assign her to someone who wouldn't have those issues and save himself some aggravation. Only problem with that was you started to shift your problems on to someone else instead of dealing with them and next thing you knew you were unable to deal with anything. He didn't want that for himself and something told him it wouldn't be good for her either.

"Look Doctor, I could find you another tutor but I'm not going to," he held up a hand when she opened her mouth to argue. "No ... no more protests. You think you'll have the luxury out in the field to request who you deal with? 'I'm sorry Genii soldier – I'd much rather deal with someone I like'?" He shook his head. "It doesn't work that way out there and I can't let it work that way here. You deal with me or you try to pass your firearms tests on your own. That's the only choice I can give you."

Prudence watched his eyes as he spoke – Lorne knew she'd see nothing but conviction there. So he wasn't surprised when she let her shoulders drop, in defeat or resignation or maybe a bit of both.

"Fine," she muttered resentfully. "Can we continue with the lesson then?"

"Sure, of course," Lorne smiled slightly, stepping back to give her plenty of space and waving her towards the target. "Try again, bracing like I showed you."

Doctor Darnell followed his instructions for the rest of the lesson without argument, showing marked improvement by the end of the forty five minutes. Neither of them acknowledged the awareness between them, nor the way it drove them to rub each other up the wrong way. It was all painfully business like ... and consequently less friendly than it could have been.

"Thank you Major," Prudence said at the end, her formal tone leaving no room for him to take the conversation anywhere but to the conclusion of their session.

"No problem Doctor," he replied. "We'll do another practice session in a couple of days and then you should be okay for the test. We'll meet again same time tomorrow for M9 training but I don't think you'll have a problem with that."

"Very well," Darnell shot him an unreadable glance, hesitated for a moment, and then turned away. She was out the door and disappearing down the corridor before Lorne could blink.

Shrugging, Evan gathered up the P-90 and the ammo they hadn't used, cleaned up the range and then headed out, the lights switching off silently behind him.

oOo

"Sheppard to Lorne."

"Yes Sir," Lorne answered from the armoury. The Daedalus had been gone a week but he was only now getting to signing off on all the new weapons supplies having been logged appropriately.

"Assemble all the teams for a full scale search of the city Major," the Colonel instructed. "We've got a bomb on Atlantis."

"A bomb Sir?" Evan frowned.

"You heard right," Sheppard confirmed. "The Daedalus relayed a transmission from the SGC. They'd got evidence that the Trust have been here and rigged a bomb to go off when we dial Earth."

"So what are we looking for exactly?"

"No idea," Sheppard's tone was frustrated as he continued. "Something that doesn't belong."

"Understood Sir," Lorne acknowledged. John closed off their private channel leaving Evan clear to request a city wide channel to all military personnel. A full mobilisation and search of Atlantis was one of the standard military operations they'd organised and trained for. Getting ten teams assembled, geared up and out to their designated sectors went smoothly, Lorne meeting his own team at drone control - the key point of interest in his own zone. Atlantis was out of drones but the system itself still had the potential to deliver weaponry and so would be a logical choice for a would be bomber.

"What are we looking for Sir?" Nate Coughlin asked, walking beside Evan, his P-90 ready just in case they came across the culprit in action.

"Something that doesn't belong," Lorne repeated Colonel Sheppard's vague description, glancing at his second. "Hopefully it'll stand out as not being Ancient Sergeant, otherwise I'm not sure any of us will recognise it for what it is."

"Why would the Trust want to destroy the city?" Reed asked, bringing up the rear with Airman Cheung beside him.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Lorne shrugged before offering his first suggestion. "Maybe they're worried about the Wraith using our gate to get to Earth. The Trust aren't exactly known for their logic."

"No Sir," Reed agreed.

"Right," Lorne said when they turned the corner and walked into the drone room. The racks of empty shelves where the small missiles should have rested were depressing to see ... any threat to the city carrying more weight because they no longer had that capacity to defend themselves. Evan hadn't seen the Ancient weapons in action for himself but from what he'd heard they were scarily impressive. "Reed, Cheung – search over there," he pointed to his left. "Coughlin, with me."

Switching his P-90 torch on for extra illumination, Lorne walked forward slowly, covering every inch on his row with Coughlin working the one next to him. "Nothing," he concluded when they reached the other end, looking to Nate. "You?"

"No Sir," Coughlin replied. "To be honest though, I don't think that's saying a lot. Shouldn't Doctor McKay or one of the other scientists be able to detect stuff that shouldn't be here?"

"It's a big city," Evan pointed out, "a fair portion of which we haven't explored in detail. That's the physical. From what I can tell the database is so big it'll take years to look at everything in there." Still, Nate's words had given him food for thought. If there was ever a time when having a natural gene connection with the Ancients would be useful, surely now would be it.

"Keep searching Sergeant," he directed his team mate. "I want to look at the control console." Returning to the controls at the entrance Evan stood for a moment, trying to decide how to go about it. With a shrug he swiped a hand over the console, powering up the system.

"Ah ... Major Lorne?" McKay's voice in his ear wasn't unexpected.

"Yes Doctor," Lorne said patiently.

"I'm reading a power up in the drone room," McKay advised.

"Yeah, that would be me," Lorne explained. "There's nothing obvious to check down here Doctor so I thought I'd see if anything popped with the power running. We're okay with the ZPM disconnected, right?"

"I should think so, yes," Rodney shot back impatiently. "Just don't do anything stupid Major ... since we don't know how the bomb's been rigged to explode we have no way of predicting the effects of different systems being in operation simultaneously."

"Understood," Lorne smirked. "And for the record ... I never plan to do anything stupid. That's more your deal, isn't it?"

"Yes, very funny," Rodney said sarcastically. "When you're done amusing yourself Major let me know what you find. McKay out."

Evan chuckled, feeling that his 'tolerate/annoy' relationship with the head of everything science related was developing just fine. Lucky he had an actual friendship with Radek should he ever need real help with the science stuff.

Turning his attention back to the console Lorne contemplated the display for a moment, everything reading in the green as far as he could tell. Resting his hand on the console he tried to 'connect' more actively with the systems, tried to tap into that static that was always there in the background. Aside from getting an increased volume of mental noise in return, his attempts were pretty much ineffectual. Feeling more and more ridiculous Evan tried something more active. "Ah ... is there anything wrong with the drone control system?" he thought uncertainly, not sure what he'd get back or even if the systems 'mental' aspect extended to that kind of questioning.

The console flashed Ancient blue light up into his eyes before returning to the normal display, the flash bright enough to have him seeing the negative image when he looked away. It was a pretty clear message that he'd achieved something ... he just wasn't sure what.

"Is that good or bad?" Evan tried again, reassuring himself that really what he was doing was no different than talking to a computer with voice activated controls. Replace 'thoughts' for 'voice', which really wasn't that much of a stretch for a race that had built the gate network in multiple galaxies, and you were where he was right then.

He didn't get a verbalised thought back - plenty of relief there! - but if he could judge the tone of the city's hum in his head then he'd go with good. Since he'd done similar interpretations of the different kinds of static he'd registered in the past, he felt confident that he'd made the right conclusion.

"Sir?"

Looking up Lorne saw Coughlin standing in front of the drone racks watching him curiously.

"Sergeant," Evan glanced down at the control console before swiping his hand over it to turn it off again. "As far as I can tell there's nothing attached to this that shouldn't be there," he said with a self depreciating shrug. "Not that I'd really know for sure. You?"

"Reed and Cheung are just finishing up the last rows at the back Sir," Nate reported. "Nothing unusual stood out."

"Reed, return to the entrance," Lorne ordered via the radios. "We're done here."

"Yes Sir," Reed replied.

"Lorne to McKay," Evan continued, giving the same report of nothing found when Rodney answered.

The key system in their section done, Lorne reported in to Colonel Sheppard who ordered them to stand down and wait for further instructions. Evan told his team to take a lunch break, pretty sure they'd be called back to service sooner rather than later. Coughlin hung back, clearly wanting to walk with Lorne which probably meant he had questions of his CO that he didn't want his team mates to hear.

With an internal sigh, Lorne played along, slowing to give Nate the opening he needed.

"If you don't mind my asking Sir, what's it like, using your gene to give commands?" Coughlin asked.

"To be honest Sergeant it's kind of weird," Evan admitted. "Especially because I have no idea how it works, just that it does."

"So it's not like you talk to the city or anything?" Nate continued. "Because you looked pretty distracted by something back there Sir."

"Probably because I was trying to work out what the hell that display meant," Lorne said with a chuckle. "The only thing I achieved was a reminder to myself that I should leave the science stuff for the scientists."

Coughlin glanced at him before redirecting his gaze in front of him, nothing judgemental in his manner and yet unexpectedly Evan actually felt a little guilty, like he'd been caught out telling a lie instead of just withholding information. He knew what Nate was really asking and although he had no intention of telling him how far it went, a little bit of openness wasn't out of the question.

"I don't talk to the city Sergeant," he said in a low tone, "not if by talking you mean holding any kind of conversation. It's a little hard to explain," Evan added, thinking quickly for a way to elaborate. "Okay, right ... so, when you read a book, do you hear the words in your head?"

"Yeah, most of the time," Nate replied thoughtfully.

"I imagine most people are the same," Evan replied. "That's kind of what I do when I'm trying to activate something in the city. I think in words because that's what comes naturally to me. I have no idea how anyone else does it and I don't get words back or anything. I think in words and somehow the systems pick that up – like I said, I have no idea how. I guess it's a little distracting when I'm trying to work out what to ask the systems for when I don't know what I'm doing ... like today."

"Even though I took the gene therapy I wasn't disappointed it didn't work. I don't envy you Sir," Nate admitted. "I don't think I'd like all the unknowns."

"I'm not sure I'm all that fond of them either," Lorne admitted ruefully. "Since I didn't get a choice I try to make the best of it. Does that make it clearer?"

"Yeah, it does. Thanks for explaining it Sir," Coughlin said.

"No problem Sergeant," Lorne returned. Picking up the pace a little, the two men caught up to the rest of their team just as they reached the mess hall entrance.

Grabbing a sandwich and water, Evan sat down, half listening to the usual flow of conversation but mostly thinking about the situation in the city and what other options there might be to help find the bomb. He'd just gotten to the point of contemplating the hologram as a means of finding out if the sensor systems could be used when his radio activated.

"Sheppard to Lorne. I need you up in the control room Major."

"On my way Sir," Evan replied, already getting to his feet. "Don't go far," he told his team before heading off.

oOo

An hour later they were involved in the next phase of the bomb situation – flying one of several Jumpers to the mainland to evacuate the Athosians. Lorne was happy to be off the hook for actually locating the bomb, McKay having come through and worked out that the ZPM, along with tampering of the fail safe systems, was enough to make a bomb without adding anything else.

It took many trips over the space of hours before all of Teyla's people were safely located within the city. Evan had literally landed the Jumper after the last trip, feeling mentally tired from so much active controlling of the systems, when he was called upon to organise everyone in the city, including the newly arrived Athosians, for beaming up to the Daedalus. The star drive had been activated ... Lorne stopped to get his bearings, his mental exhaustion dropping away abruptly, leaving a kind of nervous static clearly audible - to him anyway. The city was in trouble.

"How bad is it?" he queried Colonel Sheppard over the radio, already on his way to the control room to get started.

"Bad," Sheppard replied. "As in if we don't get the access code to switch the star drive off in the next twenty minutes Atlantis is vaporized."

"And how likely is it that we'll get this code?" Lorne asked urgently.

"Ronon just went to interrogate Doctor Kavanagh," John revealed, "so if he's got it I'd say pretty good. Get on to evacuating everyone anyway Major ... we need to cover every eventuality."

"Yes Sir," Lorne signed off, running through the steps in his head as he ran down the control room steps from the Jumper bay. He'd rather be working actively to save the city but didn't have a clue how to go about it. Trust was a big thing in Atlantis - trust that your team mates would have your back, that those back in the city would fight for you if you needed it ... and trust that the people with the skills required for any given situation would be able to use them to save everyone's hides. Today that meant trusting that either McKay would crack the code of Ronon would coerce it out of their prime suspect. That was their jobs for the crisis of the day. Lorne's job was to make sure that if the worst happened, no one would be left in the city to pay the price.

They had evacuation plans too that included every person being assigned to a group for beaming out. Evan would have to re-jig things a bit to include the Athosians but that shouldn't be a problem. Aware of Colonel Sheppard and the others pursuing the access code Lorne used another station and gave a city wide address to activate evacuation plans, talking with Marks up on the Daedalus to coordinate their efforts.

Within minutes they'd beamed up the first group, the beginnings of a steady stream of people congregating and being beamed from the Gateroom floor up to the orbiting ship. It was such a smooth operation that, fifteen minutes later, only the final groups who'd leave via the Puddle Jumpers were left in the city.

"All bar the Jumper groups have been evacuated Sir," Lorne reported to Colonel Sheppard. "The Daedalus will be ready to leave soon."

"Well done Major," John returned. "Meet your group in the Jumper Bay now."

"Yes Sir," Lorne replied like the good soldier he was. Inside he wanted to protest the order, to stay until the last moment like Colonel Sheppard and Doctor Weir intended. Surely they should do something more than just leave even though that left him back where he'd started, feeling like he had an untapped resource he couldn't find a way to get at quickly enough for it to help. It wasn't right ... he felt agitated over the potential destruction of Atlantis. Some of that was his own feeling but he suspected some of it came directly from the city itself, the hum of systems shifting in his mind from background to foreground with foreboding overtones the longer the stardrive remained on.

"Doctor Beckett, are you ready to leave?" Lorne radioed Carson, one of the final group scheduled for his Jumper. Coughlin, Reed and Cheung were back with him, the team heading for the Jumper Bay as ordered.

"Not quite Major," Carson replied in an almost whisper. "Teyla and some of her people are conducting a ceremony."

"Now?" Evan asked incredulously. That explained the singing he'd heard in the background and discounted as unlikely.

"That's right lad," Beckett admitted. "It looks like they might be almost done ... if you can wait a few minutes?"

"How many Athosians?" Lorne was annoyed because he'd assigned all of Teyla's people for the beam outs but clearly some of them had disregarded those assignments without consulting him. It was hard to guarantee that everyone was accounted for when they failed to inform the person running the evacuation of their intentions.

"I haven't done a head count Major but I'd say about fifteen to twenty."

"Great," Evan shook his head, a headache beginning to press outwards across his forehead. "They won't all fit in my Jumper Doctor. I'll have to shuffle them through the remaining groups. Hang tight and keep them all with you ... I'll be down there shortly."

"Righteo Major," Carson agreed, still whispering.

"Go get the Jumper ready," Evan told the rest of his team. "I'll be there once I've sorted out the Athosians."

"Yes Sir," Reed, Coughlin and Cheung all chorused, continuing to the Jumper Bay while Evan detoured to Carson's location.

"Attention all remaining personnel," Elizabeth's voice echoed over the all city address system, slowing his steps. "You may now stand down from evacuation. The threat has been eliminated. Your colleagues will be returned from the Daedalus over the next few hours. In the mean time return to your usual duties as best you can. Weir out."

The relief was instant ... from Lorne and from Atlantis. He hadn't realised just how loud the city's melodious hum had gotten, the build up had been so gradual, until it abruptly returned to its usual levels.

"Thank God for that," he muttered, doing an about face and heading for the control room. Now all he had to do was reverse his efforts of the past hour and the city would be back to normal. "All in a day's work!" he thought ruefully.

oOo

"I can't believe Rodney had the audacity to suspect me as the bomber," Cadman exclaimed, still annoyed at McKay's behaviour.

It was movie night, the one that Evan had agreed to attend, and they were already part way through watching Carson's choice – Braveheart, for obvious reasons although a little more bloody than Evan would have guessed he'd choose. The five of them were scattered on the couches in one of the recreation rooms set up for that purpose, only Carson and Laura sitting close enough to be of interest to the casual observer.

"Don't be too hard on him Lieutenant," Lorne advised. "You are the only explosives expert on Atlantis right now and at the time he had no way of knowing there wasn't an actual, physical bomb in the city."

"Yeah, but I've been in his head," Laura persisted. "He should know better!"

"Wasn't that a one way thing?" Jennifer Keller asked.

"She's right love," Carson told Laura in his usual gentle tone. "Rodney didn't get to see inside your head. He doesn't know you as well as you know him."

"Don't remind me," Laura shuddered dramatically.

"Wouldn't getting a real insight into how the male mind works be a kind of gift?" Doctor Moon asked. "I know from a cultural point of view it would help me work out how to approach alien races for negotiations if I really understood how they think."

"No one should get that close to another person," Evan muttered half under his breath.

"You don't like the idea of someone getting inside your head Major?" Jennifer teased.

"Hell no!" Lorne grimaced. "Don't tell me you'd really sign up for that if you had the chance Doc."

"Probably not," Jennifer admitted. "It's not as interesting in my head as you might expect."

"Exactly!" Evan grinned. "Let's keep the natural line between the sexes where it belongs. Keep the mystery instead of killing it."

"Well said lad," Carson agreed.

"As someone who's been there, done that, I have to agree wholeheartedly with that very wise decision," Laura intoned with feeling.

"We caught the culprit," Evan pointed out, still hardly able to believe it had been Colonel Caldwell, Goa'uld-ed months ago. "Atlantis didn't blow up and everyone is back where they're supposed to be. Sounds like a successful day at the office to me."

"And no one was injured," Carson added. "Aside from Charin who died from natural causes, unheard of in this galaxy."

"I find that very sad," Jennifer said softly. "Everyone should have the chance to live to see old age."

Everyone nodded silently. The sounds of battle from the screen seemed to grow in volume suddenly, clashing with the tone of the conversation.

"Movie," Cadman said, redirecting everyone's attention.

Lorne refocussed, deciding that attending hadn't been a bad idea after all. He always enjoyed spending time with Cadman and Carson was good value, even more so as Evan witnessed firsthand their introductory dancing around each other, precursor to a closer relationship. And it was interesting getting to know Jennifer and Claudia better, in a non work setting. Doctor Keller in particular ... Lorne was already sure they had enough in common to become friends. It was nice to feel that instant rapport with someone and have it be nothing more than like minded people making a connection – nothing man/woman romantic about it. After his inexplicable reaction to Doctor Darnell the other day Lorne welcomed the simplicity.

Settling back, he reached for a handful of popcorn and let himself get immersed in a tale of epic struggle in a different time and place.