ShaViva's Stargate Fan ... Stuff

Inconceivable!

Science Fact

Author: ShaViva

Rating: T

Content Warning: A couple of instances of swearing is about all

Season: This is set during the gap between Uncle Evan and the beginning of Forlorn Hope. SGC timeline wise it starts 3 months before S7.07 Enemy Mine.

Summary: So how did Major Evan Lorne begin his association with the Stargate? With cautious enthusiasm, quiet bravado and a healthy dose of Lorne smarts of course! Again, pure Lorne, AU, and following on from Uncle Evan.

Classifications: Family, friendship, adventure

Pairings: None

Spoilers for: Major spoilers for SG1 7.07 Enemy Mine - if you haven't seen it you'll feel like you have after reading this!

Acknowledgements: Gateworld for information on SG-11 and the transcript for Enemy Mine.

Disclaimer: The Stargate characters, storylines, etc aren't mine. I am unfortunately not associated in any way with the creators, owners, or producers of Stargate or any of its media franchises – if I was Lorne would have been in A LOT more episodes. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, equipment, etc are the property of whoever owns them. The original characters and plot and anything else I made up are the property of me, the author. No copyright infringement is intended.

Copyright (c) 2010 ShaViva

Chapter 1: Are you up for it?

Early April 2003

"Drew, how's Elaine? And the baby?" Evan leaned closer to the computer camera, smiling along with Drew when the other man's face broke into a happy grin. "How's my nephew doing?" It still gave him a buzz saying that - 'my nephew' - that he referred to five month old Jonathon Rider by that title as much as he did by his name.

"They're both great. Elaine's still pretty tired but Jon's putting on plenty of weight – she keeps saying that's worth being at his beck and call 24/7," Drew returned. "She won't admit it to you but she's missing you buddy – you spoilt her spending so much time with her during the pregnancy."

"I'm missing you guys too," Evan said simply. He didn't do well with the touchy feely conversations when they were face to face but admitting to emotions was always easier when you were stationed in a war zone and the people you loved were so far away.

"How's it going over there?" Drew asked.

"Not much has changed," Evan returned. "The place is still growing – more facilities, better food," he grinned as he said that bit, remembering their conversation Drew's first day at Kandahar. Man, that seemed like a lifetime ago now. "A little more contact with the locals," he continued, "but the rest of it feels all too familiar."

Lorne had been stationed back at Kandahar after his work at Groom Lake was complete. He'd stayed in Nevada all through Christmas until the X-302 had been fully tested and shifted into production. That had been the end of Evan's involvement and after getting a commendation from Doctor Murphy he'd quickly put in a request for a return to Afghanistan. He'd gotten a fast turnaround, rotating in for another air force major who'd been due to come home just after the New Year. Instead of heading one wing Lorne now found himself running operations for three U.S. air combat wings coming from different bases across the States. He spent less time in the air but still managed to catch a few missions each week. It was exciting and challenging on a whole different level - but the responsibility felt right, and sat well on his shoulders.

"Yeah, well as long as you're not looking for trouble on the ground we'll all be feeling fine with you being there," Drew grinned when Evan rolled his eyes.

"You're never gonna let me live that one down, are you?" he complained.

"Comes with the title and increased responsibility," Drew teased. "That's what they pay you the big bucks for."

"What big bucks?" Evan chuckled. "Hey, if we were doing this for the money there'd be something seriously wrong with both of us, because the pay sucks."

"True," Drew agreed. "Listen, I'm still part of the rotation plan for the Canadian wing but Elaine and I have agreed on my taking another three month leave of absence." He shrugged, feeling like he had to justify that decision to his brother-in-law because Evan was still so heavily involved in Afghanistan. "I've got the leave there - more than enough to cover it - and I missed so much of Jon's beginnings ... I just ... I don't want to miss his first months too."

"I can understand that," Evan said earnestly. "Emails, pictures ... videos – they help but it's not the same. Not for me and certainly not for you. Tell Elaine I appreciate that she's sending me stuff though – Jon's too young to know me but at least I'm still getting to know him through her messages."

"I'll tell her," Drew promised. "So, any news on when you're rotating back Stateside?"

"Not so far," Evan explained. "I've got one wing due to rotate next month, the others are all staggered the following two months after that. Leadership stability while that's going on would help with the transition – once everyone's settled then it'd be my turn to rotate out if I want to."

"So, I'll tell Elaine still a few months yet," Drew concluded.

"Yeah," Evan sighed. "Never been so torn over where I was posted," he admitted. "Not that I'd be seeing you guys every week but it'd be easier to drop in than it is right now."

"Speaking of dropping in your Mom's coming back next week," Drew grinned. "Jon's got her wrapped around his little finger – it's pretty cool watching that. Elaine loves having her around – if Grace would agree to leave San Francisco and come live here permanently Elaine would be over the moon."

"I don't see that happening," Evan said lightly. "Mom's had plenty of chances over the years to leave the Bay but she's never even considered it."

"I know," Drew agreed with a shrug. "No harm in asking ... stranger things have happened."

The timer going off was a harsh reminder that Evan didn't have unlimited use of the computers. He had to take his turn just like everyone else ... lucky for him with increased facilities those turns came a lot more often than they had during his first tour.

"I gotta go," he told Drew. "I'll call the same time next week, okay. Tell Elaine I want to see my nephew sitting in front of the computer with her next time."

"Will do buddy," Drew lifted a hand in a casual half salute wave. "Be careful out there."

"Hey, I'm always careful!" Evan grinned even as he moved to close down the connection.

Getting up he walked back to the pilots meeting room ... he had a mission briefing to prepare for.

oOo

"Major Lorne?" Evan looked up from the forms on his desk a couple of days later to see his youngest wing member, Lieutenant Harris standing hesitantly at the entrance of what they jokingly called his 'office'. It was little more than a corner of the pilot's preparation area off from the F-16 hangar. Lorne liked being close to the planes and had pushed a desk and a filing cabinet down from the admin building so he could do all the paperwork that seemed to be a part of running operations while still keeping up with the 'mood' of all his pilots.

"Harris," Evan looked at the young officer expectantly.

"Ah, there're a couple of people here to see you Sir," Harris replied. "Big wigs ... they're waiting for you down at welcome central."

"Okay," Evan stood, taking the time to close files and lock everything away before he headed for one of the administration areas used exclusively to welcome new recruits to Kandahar. He wasn't expecting anyone new, and certainly not anyone high enough up the chain for Harris to describe them as big wigs.

He checked in at the desk and was directed to one of the small meeting rooms.

"Major Lorne," Evan stood to attention as soon as he registered the ranks of those already waiting for him. Both air force – both Colonel's – and suddenly he was wondering what in the hell he'd done to garner that kind of attention.

"Sir," Lorne nodded to one of the men, tall, greying hair, bland expression but with a hint of something in his dark brown eyes that suggested amusement. "Sir," he repeated, nodding to the second man. This one was younger, all business and clearly impatient to be done with whatever it was they were there for.

"At ease Major," the first man said casually, waving for Lorne to sit down across from them.

Lorne relaxed a little, sitting down and watching as the two retook their seats as well.

"Colonel Jack O'Neill," the older one said, "and this is Colonel Mason Edwards. Before we go any further we're gonna need you to sign a non disclosure statement."

"Ah ... okay," Evan was puzzled but he took the folder O'Neill pushed across the table to him, opening and reading it quickly.

"... Classified information is marked or unmarked classified information, including oral communications, that is classified under the standards of Executive Order 12958, or under any other Executive order or statute that prohibits the unauthorised disclosure of information in the interest of national security ... I understand and accept that by being granted access to classified information, special confidence and trust shall be placed in me by the United States Government."

It went on in the same vein, explaining his obligations and the consequences should he breach the agreement after signing it. It was a standard document, prohibiting Evan from telling anyone not already cleared whatever it was they were about to share with him. Lorne didn't mind signing it - he'd signed something similar before he'd started work on the X-302, to protect the U.S.'s interests in developing new technology and new capability in the defence of its assets, both locally and abroad.

Taking the pen Evan scrawled his name efficiently, passing it back across the desk to O'Neill. The Colonel glanced at it, signed his own name as a witness and then closed the file.

"You worked on the X-302 a few months back," Jack began, slouching a little in his seat. In contrast Colonel Edwards remained stiff and proper as he sat silently, letting O'Neill do all the initial talking.

"Yes Sir," Evan agreed. The fact that the other men clearly knew about the aircraft was enough for Lorne to feel free answering the question. "Test flights until the aircraft was cleared to move into production at the end of last year."

"And what did you think of her, the 302?"

"It was the fastest thing I've ever flown Sir," Lorne said simply. "With the inertial dampening system and the additional engine capacity I don't think there's anything else currently flying that could beat it."

"Anything else that you know of," Jack corrected.

"Sir?" Lorne frowned, confused by the correction.

"Did you ever wonder where we got the technology?" O'Neill asked.

"Every day," Evan admitted. "I've done test flying before Sir – some of it for NASA High Speed Research – and I've never seen anything that would suggest we could create something like the 302. Not for a long time anyway."

"That would be because we couldn't have ... not without help," O'Neill explained. "I've got people who could explain this a lot better than I can but in a nut shell, for the past six years we've been travelling to other planets through a device they found in Egypt in nineteen twenty something – we call it the Stargate."

"Other planets?" Lorne thought, looking from O'Neill to Edwards and back again. They both seemed to believe what they were saying but Evan's first thought was that maybe they'd been out in the Afghanistan sun a little too long. It was a harsh environment and heat stroke was all too common ... and mental confusion was up there on the list of side effects. "Right," he told himself ruefully. "Heat stroke ... that explains everything! Get a grip Evan ... this will all make sense eventually."

"A Stargate ... ri-ght," he repeated aloud, the unfamiliar word sounded odd coming out of Lorne's mouth but no odder than the expression felt on his face. There he was, thinking internally that the two Colonel's needed medical help but on the outside he tried for all he was worth to present a professional, bland facade.

"This is the part where they usually start looking at me like I'm insane," Jack commented to Edwards with a smirk.

Edwards nodded, watching Lorne closely. "He's a little more polite than we usually get though," Edwards returned. Colonel O'Neill nodded, holding in a smile as he waited for the rest of the young Major's reaction.

"Sir?" Evan wasn't sure what he was asking – but there had to be more because surely what he was hearing was a fiction of some sort.

"I don't blame you for being sceptical," Jack excused. "I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it in action. But rest assured Major, we wouldn't be here if what I was telling you was anything less than the truth. We've had teams going through the gate for six years, give or take ... enough time for us to pick up technologies and enemies to keep us busy for the foreseeable future. Technologies like you've already seen with the 302."

"Okay," Evan decided abruptly that he'd play along. "Let's say I believe you Sir ... why would you be telling me?"

"Good question Major," O'Neill congratulated in a manner that was full of amusement, like he knew Lorne was just humouring him. "We're telling you because you already have experience with some of the technology. That along with your qualifications makes you the ideal candidate for a little job we have going out of Stargate Command – on a planet we lovingly call P3X-403."

"A job Sir?" Lorne felt like he was disconnected from reality – he was playing along but the two Colonel's were continuing the act beyond the bounds of any practical joke and it was starting to freak him out. Why would they come to him – tell him something out of science fiction – and then offer him a job if it wasn't true? It made no sense but at the same time Evan was completely sure it made perfect sense. And suddenly his foundation – his internal belief about the nature of existence – was shaken.

There were other planets you could go to, beyond the ones we knew about in our own solar system.

Other people ... enemies ... were out there too. Marcus's little green men were real – and contact had already been made.

The air force had actually sent people to those planets ... including the two men in front of him. They'd actually been to other planets.

And it was a secret from the entire world!

"Breath Major," O'Neill said with amusement.

"Sorry?" Evan blinked, took an involuntary breath and then blinked again. "You go to other planets through a Stargate and you want me for a job on one of them ... Sir?"

"That about sums it up," Jack agreed.

"What about my Command Sir, my men?" Lorne asked, resorting to the predictable and commonplace in an effort to counter the bizarre turn his day had taken.

"We've got someone else already lined up to take over," O'Neill replied. "We can have them here before you can say boo. So, what do you say Major? Are you up for it?"

"Sure, why not ... I'm not doing anything for the rest of the day," Lorne laughed sarcastically, wondering when the hidden cameras were going to come out. Instead he got Colonel O'Neill touching a hand to a small communication device in his front shirt pocket as he said "tell our little grey friend that we're ready down here."

A few moments later a flash of blinding white light engulfed the room. Evan closed his eyes against the glare, opening them moments later to a scene that baffled him completely. The associated disorientation was enough that he stumbled before steadying, his legs feeling weak even as his heart rate kicked up a notch.

"Welcome to the SGC Major," Colonel O'Neill said lightly.

"What ... how?" Evan looked around the room in disbelief. He'd closed his eyes on that meeting room in Kandahar and opened them to another room, drab concrete, exposed pipes running across the ceiling.

Unfamiliar.

He had no idea where he was!

"We don't usually do things this way but time's a little short so we called in a favour from one of our off world allies," Jack explained. "Asgard beaming technology. Don't ask me how it works, I only know that it does."

"So we're ....?" Evan trailed off uncertainly.

"Back on U.S soil?" O'Neill queried. "Yes we are Major, in Colorado to be precise. The Cheyenne Mountain complex. NORAD do their thing up on the surface but the lower floors are all part of Stargate Command."

Lorne nodded, struggling for a little internal calm. "This is all real Sir?"

"It's all for real Major," O'Neill confirmed. "Come on – I'll show you the Stargate and then introduce you to General Hammond."

Authors Note:

Non disclosure information from www.fas.org/sgp/isoo/new_sf312.pdf.

Chapter 2: Oh we've got the right guy!

Lorne stood on the ramp, looking up at the Stargate – the commanding centrepiece of the entire room. Colonel O'Neill had made a few comments as they'd walked into the Gateroom but Evan had found it hard to pay attention. Every thought in his head ... the way his heart kicked up a notch, the weird dislocated 'unreality' feeling that washed over him, took up all of his spare capacity, and then some.

It was ... enormous ... a giant circle rising storeys high into the old missile silo. Eyes tracking over the device Lorne noticed the details – the symbols traversing the circumference, none that he recognised on first glance; the metallic, shimmery quality of its composition, again, a substance he didn't recognise which given his geology background was more than a little interesting. It was all very alien to him and if nothing else had convinced him of the truth of Colonel O'Neill's story, this alone would have done it.

Lorne was so captivated by his first sight of the Stargate that it actually took a few moments for him to notice the recognisable touches – clamps holding the gate up, cables connecting the whole thing to power and to computer systems.

"Major?" Colonel O'Neill's voice drew his attention, his tone making it clear it wasn't the first time he'd tried to get Lorne's attention.

"Sorry Sir," Evan apologised. Gesturing to the gate he continued. "This is ... a little overwhelming."

"That it is," Jack agreed. Nodding behind them he stuck his hands in his pockets, rocking backwards on his heels. "Looks impressive from the control room too but nothing beats seeing it up close and personal."

Looking up, Lorne noticed the large window – and the figure standing there watching them.

"The base commander," O'Neill explained. "Ready for a briefing?"

"I guess so Sir," Evan felt apprehensive for the first time in living memory. He wasn't one to stick to his comfort zone but he couldn't help but wonder what they had in store for him and whether he was up to the task.

Colonel O'Neill led them to a large briefing room, most of the space taken up by a rectangular table and a number of seats, only two of them occupied. One by Colonel Edwards, the other at the head of the table by a somewhat rotund older man, bald and with that air of comfortable command sitting firmly on his shoulders.

"General George Hammond, Major Evan Lorne," Jack introduced him, sounding for once completely serious.

"Sir," Lorne said respectfully, standing to attention.

"At ease Major," the General's Texas twang was evident as he waved Lorne to one of the vacant chairs. "Now that you've seen the Stargate let's get down to business. Colonel," he motioned for Edwards to take the running.

"Thank you Sir," Edwards pushed a button and the display screen lit up. An image appeared and Lorne looked at it closely, eyes narrowed as he absorbed some of the familiar aspects of its design. "SG-11 are being assigned long term to P3X-403 because we recently discovered evidence of the presence of a substance called naquadah. Ultimately we need it for this," he gestured to the diagram on display. "Any ideas on what this is?" he looked at Lorne expectantly.

"I'm unfamiliar with this design Sir but if I had to guess I'd say it's some kind of power generator," Lorne returned, well aware that he was being tested. "The X-302's fourth 'engine' looks a lot like this – not that the research guys ever let on about its purpose."

"Very good Major," General Hammond said with a slight smile.

"You're observant," Colonel Edwards agreed.

"So this naquadah," Evan said the unfamiliar word carefully, "it's the source of power for these generators?"

"Amongst other things," Edwards clarified. "We also use it as a building material – it's tougher than anything we have on Earth."

"Is that what the Stargate's made of?" Lorne asked curiously, drawing the connection instinctively.

"Yes Major," General Hammond replied with a faint smile. "The air force currently has a project to build interstellar ships," he continued. "Naquadah will both power those ships and make them as strong as humanly possible."

"My team is charged with mining the naquadah on P3X-403," Colonel Edwards concluded. "Another team discovered a number of abandoned mine entrances on the planet – we don't know how big the network is or whether there's even any naquadah deposits remaining, but if it's there, it's our job to find it. That's where you come in Major."

"This is all ... beyond impressive Sir," Lorne told Hammond. "I just have to ask one thing," he said simply. "Why me?"

"We're glad you asked," Colonel O'Neill smirked.

"Colonel," General Hammond's tone had a well worn quality that suggested he'd often had to reign in the other man's irreverent attitude. "Your record stands for itself Major," Hammond explained. "That would have been enough to draw our attention but your actions in Afghanistan last May are the reason we're calling you in now. We need someone military who'll have at least a chance of understanding the scientific aspects of SG-11s mission. And as of now that puts you in the prime seat."

"You need a geologist," Lorne concluded.

"A geologist capable of thinking on his feet, who's not afraid of getting a little dirty," O'Neill clarified. "And it has to be military, for obvious reasons."

"This mission will test those skills Major," Hammond continued.

"With all respect Sir, I'm a pilot, not a scientist," Evan pointed out carefully. "Not to mention that I have no experience mining anything, let alone a substance I'm completely unfamiliar with."

"That may be the case and if you were only a pilot we wouldn't be having this conversation," Hammond replied. "You've proven you can use what you know out in the field and right now that's as good as we can hope for. The rest you'll learn as you go."

"I've read your file Lorne," Jack broke in. "You applied to NASA ... twice. I'm guessing because you wanted to be an astronaut." Evan nodded. "Trust me when I say that going through the gate beats anything you could have done for NASA if you'd been successful. If you think the X-302 was a dream to fly in the air, try flying it in space."

"The Colonel's right," Hammond took over again. "This mission to P3X-403 is expected to be long term but it's not forever. When operations have been set up there you'll join the SGC program and be assigned to an off-world exploration team."

"The universe is a big place Major," O'Neill concluded with a smirk, watching Evan. He could almost see the wheels turning in the other man's head.

Lorne nodded, his mind racing with the possibilities and the drawbacks, too fast for him to grab on to any one thought. He was aware that all three men were waiting for his reaction - he just wasn't sure he had one he was willing to let show.

"I'm not going to force you to take this post Major," Hammond said after a few moments of silence. "If you're going to do this it needs your full commitment. You'd be second in command to Colonel Edwards as well as taking the lead on the geological aspects of the mission. We have mining experts for consultation here but recommendations in the field on where to direct our efforts will fall to you, as will interpreting the science so that Colonel Edwards can act on it." He looked at Evan expectantly. "So, what do you say Son?"

"You can sign me up Sir," Evan decided abruptly. He couldn't have said anything else really, not after Colonel O'Neill had pointed out the full scope of what would be available to him in the future. Ultimately it came down to one thing ... space. He'd do just about anything for the chance to get out there. It was a dream he'd put away years ago and now, suddenly, it was back on the table and the thought of that alone had his heart rate kicking up a notch.

"Well done Son," Hammond nodded approvingly. "I'm sure you have questions, and Colonel Edwards will be happy to answer them. Once we've got the paperwork signed off we'll fast track you through the standard training program. The need for a large, reliable source of naquadah is our primary focus right now – for the expansion of our defensive capabilities. It's priority one on the agenda of some of the key supporters of the Stargate program. Buckle in Major," he added with a smile. "You're about to get a crash course in everything Stargate related."

"Yes Sir, thank you Sir," Lorne stood when the General did, nodding to him and Colonel O'Neill as both took their leave. "See you out there Major," Jack added, giving Evan a cavalier salute delivered with a smirk.

"So ... questions Major?" Colonel Edwards got down to business once they were alone.

"Too many to cover in one go Sir," Lorne said ruefully. "There is one thing I'm wondering though. If we're expected to be on this planet long term, what kind of contact will we have with home?"

"You've got family here Major?" Edwards asked. He'd read Lorne's file before they'd beamed into Kandahar but hadn't seen mention of a wife or children. That might complicate things for Lorne somewhat.

"It's just my Mom and my sister's family Sir," Lorne replied, "including a five month old nephew. They're used to me being able to keep in touch pretty regularly, one way or another."

"We'll be reporting in on a weekly basis Major," Edwards explained. "You'll get to include personal communications then. Depending on how long we end up needing to stay on P3X-403 some leave back on Earth might be possible as well."

"Thank you Sir," Lorne nodded. It wasn't as good as he would have liked but nowhere near as bad as the 'no contact' he'd almost been expecting.

"Anything else bugging you Major?" Edwards said purposefully.

"My command at Kandahar Sir," Lorne began. "Colonel O'Neill mentioned having a replacement in mind. I left pretty abruptly and I'd hate for my teams to be left in the dark or put under additional pressure because of my departure."

"All taken care of Major," Edwards replied. "Your replacement is already on the way with the cover story of a family situation back home to explain your departure. Any other burning issues?"

"Ah ... no Sir, that's it," Lorne replied.

"Good ... let's get down to briefing you on the Stargate program then," Colonel Edwards proposed.

oOo

They assigned Evan to quarters on base, and when he retired there late in the evening Lorne's mind was buzzing dizzily. There was too much to absorb – details and history on what the SGC had already achieved through the Stargate. That and the grim truth about the enemies they'd found out there – enemies who'd already attempted to get a foothold on Earth in the past.

It was almost more than he could take in but at the same time it made more sense than some of the conflicts he'd been involved in. Fighting a war when friend and foe were too much alike to even know who was who versus fighting an enemy totally different, hiding inside its host. And damn, wasn't that something to make your stomach drop ... the very idea of an enemy who'd literally take over your body and use it for its own purposes while you screamed impotently inside. That was the stuff of nightmares ... the kind you hoped stayed firmly in the darkness of your dreams.

Lorne was a part of something bigger now ... and it filled him with anticipation and a renewed sense of purpose. All he had to do was work out how to tell his Mom, Elaine and Drew about his new assignment and why it was he was going to be uncontactable from their end for the foreseeable future. The Cheyenne Mountain cover story was deep space radar telemetry ... who the hell ever believed that? For sure Drew and Elaine wouldn't – even knowing his fascination with space.

So what in the hell was he going to say to them?

Lying awake in the narrow bed thinking about it wasn't helping him sleep ... he'd skipped dinner and although he wasn't exactly hungry, maybe something hot from the Mess would help him feel a little more like himself.

It was late and he wasn't expecting anyone to be there ... walking in he headed for the coffee machine, making himself a mug and taking it to the far corner. Sitting, he rested his head on his hands, contemplating the depths of his beverage absently.

"It's not gonna bite you," Colonel Jack O'Neill's voice had Evan raising his head quickly.

"Sir?" he said with a confused frown.

"The coffee – it's not gonna bite you," Jack repeated. "Rot your gut, maybe, but that's about it." Watching the other man's weak smile the Colonel gestured to the vacant chair across from Lorne. "This seat taken?"

"Ah – no Sir," Evan replied.

"If you don't mind my saying Major, you're looking ... troubled," Jack opened the door for the younger man to talk, if he wanted. He wasn't usually the confiding type but Lorne had interested him since he'd first read the younger man's file and he felt responsible for bringing him into the program. If a little bit of support made a difference then Jack was willing to provide it ... besides, Evan Lorne hardly seemed the emotional type. Jack was pretty sure any confiding he did would be of the minimalist style, which suited him just fine.

"Busy day - lots to take in," Lorne returned simply. Looking up he met the other man's eyes. "You got family Sir?" he asked curiously.

"Not anymore," Jack's eyes went dark and Evan knew immediately that there was a painful story there – and a subject that was taboo. "Is that what's troubling you?" Jack asked.

"Kind of," Evan admitted. "I'm ... struggling to work out what to tell them – my Mom and my sister. Not to be disrespectful Sir, but deep space radar telemetry? They're not gonna believe I'd sign up for that."

"Hey, it wasn't my idea," Jack held up his hands innocently, amusement evident.

"I've never been posted anywhere that I couldn't at the very least tell them where I was," Lorne shared ruefully. "I know – pretty boring but it's always made a difference. Them knowing where I am kind of cushions the fact that often I can't tell them what I'm doing. I'd rather say nothing than tell them an outright lie."

"Then say nothing," O'Neill said simply. "It'll be difficult whatever you tell them Major ... there's no getting around that."

"That's what I'm getting my head around Sir," Lorne replied, smiling faintly. "I'm still not sure you've got the right guy for this."

"Oh we've got the right guy Lorne," Jack returned with certainty. "You'll be on a steep learning curve but you've got the background for it." He hesitated a moment. "One thing though ... you'll have to watch Edwards ... he's not known for his patience, or his tact. But I think you're smart enough to manage that along with everything else."

"Understood," Lorne ran a finger around the rim of his mug. "What's it like Sir – going through the Gate?"

"It'll be the wildest ride of your life," Jack was all seriousness now. "You'll wonder how you ever did without it – and you'll never want to go back. It'll make you ... if it doesn't break you first."

"Yeah, that's what I'm worried about Sir," Lorne returned feelingly.

"Relax, you'll do fine," O'Neill said, his tone blasé again. "We'll have you in training first thing tomorrow – you'll be feeling like a part of the furniture inside a week."

Nodding Evan smiled gratefully. "Thanks for your help Sir."

"Yeahsureyoubetcha," Jack returned with a casual wave of his hand. Rising he gestured towards the door. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to see a man about an Egyptian artefact ... or something."

Lorne chuckled, wondering if the older man ever took anything seriously – outwardly that is. Evan was sure already that whatever thoughts went on in the Colonel's head they never showed.

Returning to his earlier thoughts and the reason he'd been unable to sleep, Evan considered O'Neill's advice. "Say nothing," he muttered under his breath, wondering how that would go down with Elaine and Drew. It was too late to call them now so it would have to wait until tomorrow.

Chapter 3: And where will you be, once you get where you're going?

Lorne hadn't been assigned a laptop or an offical log in yet so first thing the next morning he headed for the surface, borrowing one of the base cars and driving into Colorado Springs. It was a nice place ... had a mountain city feel to it, quiet and kind of picturesque. Since he didn't have a lot of time Evan headed straight for the internet cafe he'd previously looked up in the phone directory, following the directions he'd memorised. Paying for half an hour he sat down at a station in the deserted cafe and quickly started the video calling software, dialling Elaine's number first. It was early - only 8:00 am for both locations - but Elaine usually started her laptop up first thing every morning. If she hadn't done that yet he'd have to resort to a phone call but had his fingers crossed that wouldn't be the case - he didn't have time to go and see them and really wanted as close to a face to face as he could get.

"Evan," Elaine opened the incoming video call and frowned when she saw her brother – he'd only spoken to Drew a couple of days before so they weren't due for another call so soon. "What's wrong?" she asked, her thoughts going immediately to that being the reason he was calling.

"Nothing's wrong Sis," Evan reassured her. "Listen, is Drew around? Something's come up and I only want to explain this once."

"Jon's teething - he'd been unsettled all night but we finally got him to sleep - Drew's just putting him back in his crib," Elaine turned to look behind her. "I'll just ...,"

Evan watched her get up and disappear from view, tapping the table unconsciously as he waited for her to return with her husband.

"Hey buddy," Drew sat down in front of the camera, pulling Elaine down beside him. "What's up?"

"Is Jon okay?" Evan asked instead of answering.

"He's fine," Elaine smiled. "All babies grow teeth Evan - it's painful but hopefully once he gets this first one the rest won't be as bad."

"Wow, first tooth already," Evan grinned. "Next thing you know he'll be asking to borrow the keys to your car."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Elaine told him firmly.

"Not that we're ungrateful buddy, but why are you calling so early?" Drew took over, bringing the conversation back to his friend. "You okay?"

"I'm fine. I just wanted to tell you both that I've been reassigned," Evan began.

"You're leaving Kandahar?" Elaine asked hopefully.

"First mine in the field," Evan thought. He didn't want to lie outright but he had to be careful how he answered, because ordinarily it took more than a day to travel from the U.S. to Afghanistan which made it unlikely he'd already made it back. "I already have," he said simply, pushing on before she could question him. "I'm on my way to another assignment – stopping off in Colorado for training. Once I get where I'm going I'm gonna be out of contact. I'll be able to send and receive letters - hopefully emails too - but there won't be any phone or video calls, or quick trips home."

"And where will you be, once you get 'where you're going'?" Drew asked. He'd picked up on Evan's careful wording, despite his friends attempt to bury that under the bad news regarding keeping in touch.

"I'm sorry guys – it's classified," Evan winced a little as he said that, kind of braced for a negative response.

"You can't tell us where you'll be?" Elaine said incredulously. "Evan, this is dangerous isn't it? Please tell me this isn't dangerous!"

"It's not dangerous," Evan repeated dutifully, knowing it was pointless because she wouldn't believe him anyway.

"Then how come we can't know where you're going?" Elaine persisted. "I understand you not being able to tell us what you're doing - you've had to do that before - but how can knowing where you are be a problem? It's not like we're going to tell anyyone!"

"I know that Sis," Evan replied. "I hate to fall back on the 'sorry, I'm just following orders' excuse but that's pretty much what it comes down to. You know I'd tell you if I could." "Man would I tell you," he thought. Not revealing something so ... huge ... just didn't sit well. He felt like he was cheating them both by not telling them just how big the world actually was. He knew Elaine would get a kick out of the idea of Evan actually getting to meet aliens even though she'd worry about him being so far away. Drew would just be envious that he wasn't getting to launch himself across thousands of light years through a stable wormhole between planets. It all still sounded like science fiction to Evan though - maybe if he could have told them the truth they'd both be thinking he was insane right now. "It's important stuff okay," he added. "The U.S. air force doesn't do things on a whim."

"Funny, I haven't heard of anything new going on that would need a fighter pilot," Drew commented, watching Evan closely.

"That's because it's not a conflict situation," Evan felt safe enough admitting that much. "Look, all I can tell you is that I'll be based out of Cheyenne Mountain but working in the field. And listen, at this stage it's looking like you guys won't be able to contact me directly for at least a few months, maybe more. I'll send you something with the contact details but I'm not sure how long it'll take for things to get to me."

"You're going to be away for months?" Elaine repeated dismayed. "We don't get to talk to you at all?"

"I'm sorry Sis," Evan said simply. "It's not like I've got a choice in this – I go where they tell me to go. I thought you'd be happy I'm out of harm's way in Afghanistan. That's a good thing, right?"

"Not if you're going somewhere even more dangerous!" Elaine retorted. "And I hate that we won't know where you'll be."

"You know how it goes Elaine," Evan said simply. "We've been lucky so far that I've never had to keep my location secret. This time I don't get that luxury. I'll be fine though, don't worry about me."

"You're going to some secret location that means you can't even call us and you're telling me not to worry?" Elaine was incredulous. "I'm sorry but that's too much to ask Evan!"

"Honey," Drew put a calming hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure he'd tell us more if he could." Looking at Evan he added "they made you sign a non disclosure statement, didn't they?"

"Yeah," Evan returned simply. "I could tell you the cover story they use but we'd all know it was bogus - I didn't want to do that."

It was funny - Evan had been initially unhappy that Elaine had chosen to give her heart to someone in the miltary, even though it had been his best friend. Now, knowing that Drew really did understand the complexities of the situation and the realities the military operated under, it was actually a good thing. Drew woud be the voice of reason for Elaine - talk her around when Evan couldn't - and in doing so save Evan a fair degree of angst.

"You know how much it bites that I can't tell you anything," Evan continued. "They're hustling pretty quickly to get this off the ground too so I can't even come visit before I ship out. I'm sorry." He'd already apologised a few times but still felt compelled to repeat it again.

Elaine took a visible breath and then tried to smile. She could see how troubled her brother was and the last thing he needed was for her to be so openly upset ... Evan needed to see that they were okay with this so that he could go off the next day with a clean slate. "It's okay. I'll just write you like I always do, keep adding in the photos and videos of Jonathon. You'll just have lots to catch up on when you get your mail."

"I'll look forward to it," Evan said simply. "I hate not being a part of everything Elaine but I have to do this."

"It's your job," Elaine concluded in a low tone.

"And maybe I'm making this sound worse that it'll be ," Evan offered some level of reassurance. "I'm assuming opportunities for personal contact will be limited but to tell you the truth I don't really know for sure. We'll just have to play it by ear, see how things go once I get there."

"Be careful Evan," Drew's expression was serious and thoughtful. Since Evan's rescue of those marines and his subsequent promotion he'd almost expected his friend to get tagged for something bigger than Afghanistan. Even though he hadn't revealed details Drew could connect the dots enough to know this was it, and to assume it wasn't just Evan's flying abilities that had put him in whatever spotlight he was currently sitting under.

"Hey, I'm always careful," Evan shot back, a smile flashing over his face for a moment. He only had a few more minutes left and even though he wanted to keep talking he couldn't. He was due to report for training back at base in an hour and he still had something else to do first. "Sorry guys, I have to go. Keep in touch okay. I promise I'll be looking at everything you send me, even if it takes a while to get you a reply."

"Evan," Elaine said his name carefully, her eyes locked to his even across so many miles. "You know I'm gonna come after you if you end up injured doing whatever it is you're doing. I need you to be okay – especially because I don't get to speak to you."

"I'll be fine, I promise," Evan said earnestly.

"You better be," Elaine shot back. "Okay, go ... I love you big brother."

"Love you too little sister," Evan smiled fondly. "Take care of each other and my nephew. I'll visit just as soon as I can."

It took a lot for him to close the connection and shut down the computer, feeling like he was shutting down more than just a piece of machinery. Thanking the lone cafe attendant, Lorne returned to the car. Sitting in the front seat he took out his mobile and dialled his Mom's number quickly. This one had to be over the telephone because Grace Lorne still wasn't comfortable with the video thing. It was 8:30 am in Colorado Springs which made it 7:30 am in San Francisco so his Mom would be getting ready for work in any case.

"Grace Lorne," Evan smiled when she answered the phone.

"Mom," he said simply.

"Evan!" Grace drew in quick breath, her happiness replaced by fear. "Are you ..."

"I'm fine Mom," he reassured her much as he had Elaine. "I'm calling because I'm back in the States."

"Oh, that's wonderful news honey!" Evan could hear the happiness in her voice and winced, knowing he was about to shatter it. "Why didn't you tell us?! When are you coming home?"

"That's the thing Mom," he said slowly. "I'm not – not for a while. I've been reassigned and there's some urgency to get started. They're rushing me through training and then I'm shipping out – probably before the end of the week."

"Where is it this time?" Grace frowned, not wanting him to pick up on her disappointment. She'd long ago learned to mask what she was feeling – she had to because Evan didn't need her to put more pressure on him by being too upset every time he had to go somewhere. It was hard though, to continually let him go, knowing what he was risking. Worrying that one day he just wouldn't come back. Stifling a sigh, she concentrated on his answers.

"I'm sorry Mom – I just, I can't tell you," Evan admitted in a rush. "I wish I could but the entire thing is classified."

"So you can't tell me what you're doing or where you're doing it," Grace summarised.

"That about sums it up, yes," Evan agreed. He fell silent for a moment and then with a sigh, added the last part. "I don't know for sure but there's a chance it might be a few months Mom, before I can even talk to you over the phone again, let alone see you in person."

"Oh," Grace swallowed back her protest with difficulty. Her baby had come home less than a year before, battered and bruised and with new shadows in his eyes. That hadn't been enough though – they'd sent him back to the same hell, and asked so much of him looking after all the young pilots they were sending over there. And now this – hadn't he done enough already?

"That's it?" Evan was surprised. He'd been braced for her to be either irritated or upset and her silence was freaking him out a little.

"What did you expect dear?" Grace regrouped, glad he couldn't see her. "I could tell you I think it's unfair to expect sons to leave their mothers without word for months. I could cry that you've already given so much and ask you when it's going to be enough. But life isn't always fair and I know you do what you feel you must. I'm proud of you for that even though it comes at such a high cost for all of us."

"Ah ...," Evan didn't know what to say. "Listen, it won't be with no word at all. I'll get regular mail delivery and there's some talk of getting leave to come home – I just can't tell you when that'll be."

"Well that's something then isn't it," Grace said bracingly.

"You're making me feel like I should be apologising," Evan couldn't help the hint of complaint in his tone. It was so like his Mom to make him feel like a misbehaving school boy, even though he was a grown man about to discover a world bigger than the one he'd always lived in.

"That's not my intention Evan," his Mom returned briskly. "I understand you have mixed feelings about this – I'd worry if you didn't." She paused and then continued. "Did you speak to Elaine?"

"I did and she didn't take the news as well as you have," Evan admitted. "And you're right. I do have mixed feelings about this." Honestly compelled him to continue. "I could have said no Mom but what they're doing, what I'm going to be part of? It's important, really important."

"You couldn't say no," Grace conceded in a low tone. "I guess you wouldn't be the Evan Lorne we know and love if you'd done anything else. Its okay honey – we'll muddle along without you for a few months. You just be careful – no more volunteering for crazy rescue missions."

"Drew wasn't supposed to tell you about that," Evan complained, holding in a smile. "I'll be careful."

"We'll miss you," Grace added gently.

Evan swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. "Yeah, me too," he got out.

Promising he'd write and getting his Mom's promise in return Evan finally ended the call, slowly returning the phone to his pocket.

Sitting for a moment in the silence he wondered why it was that great opportunities so often came at so high a personal price. He'd told Elaine and Drew he didn't have a choice and that was true but not in the way they'd assumed. He could have said no ... General Hammond had made that clear ... but at the same time he just couldn't. His Mom had understood that, and it cushioned the feelings of guilt he had over what he was doing.

Evan had always felt like he was working towards something, searching for that ultimate place where he was meant to be. Maybe this mission to P3X-403 wasn't it, but it was feeling finally like he was on the right track. He needed to follow the path, needed it to satisfy something inside he wasn't sure he even understood. If that meant going somewhere his family couldn't follow then so be it. He trusted that the connections would remain as strong as they'd always been, that family would be there waiting for when he was able to return. And that would have to be enough ... for all of them.

oOo

"So, what do you think?" Elaine turned to her husband as soon as Evan closed the connection.

"About what?" Drew asked.

"About this new post of Evan's!" Elaine clarified impatiently.

"I think it's none of our business," Drew said firmly. "He told us as much as he could and we're just gonna have to be content with that."

"So you're not worried at all?" Elaine asked incredulously.

"I didn't say that," Drew stood, pulling her to her feet beside him. "Of course I'm worried. And to answer your first question I think Evan's gotten himself noticed by some pretty important people. They'll put him in danger but I think they'll also look after him too."

"I knew he was lying when he said it wasn't dangerous!"

"Evan doesn't lie," Drew said simply. "You know that. If he can't tell you the truth he just clams up. Whatever they'd told him about this, he at least believes it won't be dangerous."

"Well I hope he's right," Elaine sighed, resting her forehead on her husband's chest. "This is really unfair you know," she muttered.

"What's that?" Drew rested his chin on her head, swaying them both slightly.

"I just get you back, barely get the chance to get used to it, and now Evan is off to who knows where," Elaine shifted to look up at him. "It'd be nice to get the chance to relax without all this worry and stress."

"Then you probably should have married a lawyer or something," Drew suggested with a cheeky grin.

"Oh you!" she slapped his shoulder, attempting to shift away.

"Not so fast missy," Drew held on, pulling her in until he had her pressed against him in a very satisfactory manner. "Jon's asleep ... we're both awake ... and it's been too long. How about we get ... reacquainted?"

"I might be amenable to that," Elaine replied, her eyes going dark and intent.

Leaning down, Drew kissed her purposefully, once, twice and then again.

It didn't take much for them both to lose themselves in each other, to take their minds off of everyday concerns. It was only a momentary reprieve though – all too soon Elaine and Drew would be back to worrying about Evan and what he was doing in that place they couldn't know about. But it was something they'd have to learn to get used to because to do otherwise just wasn't a option.

 

Chapter 4: It's a little ... disconcerting.

After three days of intensive training, covering procedures specific to the SGC, weapons, refresher field first aid and a whole truck load more information about what he was likely to find out there, Lorne was scheduled for his first trip 'through the gate'.

He was nervous, not that you'd know it from his outward facade. Evan had years of experience at hiding his inner feelings and that skill had certainly come in handy since he'd arrived at the SGC. He could probably run a course and title it 'how to look professional while your mind is just going off', or something like that. His thoughts had been running at supersonic pace for days – it was tiring, enlightening, and just plain crazy but he wouldn't take back his decision to sign up for anything. Especially not with his agenda for the day only moments away from starting. He'd wanted to check out a dial out beforehand but they'd kept him so busy he hadn't been able to. So this wasn't just his first time through the gate, it was his first time seeing it in operation.

"Major," Evan turned to see Colonel O'Neill making his way through the gate room doors.

"Sir," he greeted the other man with a faint smile.

"Heard you were heading out for your first time – thought I'd tag along, make sure you got there in one piece," Jack said whimsically.

"That's very generous of you Sir," Lorne replied, "although could you maybe not refer to my being in pieces? It's a little ... disconcerting."

"Feeling a little edgy are we Major?" Jack smirked, watching the younger man closely. He was good. If Jack didn't empathise with what Lorne was feeling – because he'd stood in the same spot over six years ago himself and still remembered it like it was yesterday – he would be hard pressed to detect any of the nerves he knew Lorne was feeling.

"I wouldn't say edgy Sir," Evan countered, suppressing his smile of amusement. "More like ... cautiously enthusiastic."

"Very diplomatic," Jack complimented. "So, you ready to take the leap?"

"As I'll ever be," Lorne replied.

Nodding, Jack turned to look up at the control room. "Dial it up," he called out.

Evan felt the tremors through the concrete floor as the inner circle of the Stargate began to spin. It was louder than he'd thought it would be – stronger, and more mechanical too.

"Chevron one encoded," Walter Harriman's voice announced as the first triangular marker clicked in and out again, remaining lit.

"I take it you spoke to your family," Jack asked as the gate continued to spin.

"I did Sir," Lorne shrugged. "They weren't happy but they understand. I've been doing this for a lot of years now – I guess you can get used to just about anything given enough time."

"Chevron two encoded."

"We'll do our best to get you back here from time to time," Jack promised casually. Lorne knew that he was more than just the leader of SG-1, impressive as that was .... the scuttlebutt on the lead team was the stuff of legends. O'Neill was also General Hammond's second in command – so it meant a lot, that he'd offer that reassurance.

"Chevron three encoded."

"Thank you Sir," Lorne said gratefully, eyes shifting from the spinning circle to the Colonel for a second before being drawn back.

"Chevron Four encoded."

"Does he run through that every time the gate get's dialled?" Evan asked curiously, nodding back towards the control room window.

"Every ... single ... time," Jack confirmed, with a long suffering expression.

"Chevron five encoded."

"I suppose maybe it'd be easy to lose track Sir," Evan offered uncertainly.

"The chevron's light up Major," Jack pointed out intently. "Even I'd be hard pressed to mess that up."

"Chevron six encoded."

"Right, of course Sir," Lorne nodded, a grin even more wanting to break out over his face.

"Wait for it," Jack held up a hand. "This is where it gets ... interesting."

"Chevron seven is locked."

Anything Colonel O'Neill might have said about Walter switching it up for the last chevron was drowned out as the gate responded to that last symbol slotting into place. Lorne just barely stopped himself from flinching and stepping back as a large plume of water burst from the Stargate, engulfing half the room before settling back to form a shimmering puddle inside the circle.

"Holy ...," Evan broke off, walking forward slowly, unaware of how the event horizon was drawing him closer like it was one giant magnet and he was entirely composed of lead. He felt ... energized ... and there was a kind of murmuring in his head, like the gate was talking static to him. "This is ... awesome."

"We like it," Jack grinned. "Time to try it out Major – the Alpha site awaits."

"Right, of course," Lorne took a deep, bracing breath, steeling himself for the unknown. And then he strode up the ramp and through the event horizon without a second of hesitation.

It was the strangest sensation – to be somewhere one moment and then somewhere else the next with no true feeling of the distance travelled. "Holy Fu-ck," he muttered on the other side, trying to take it all in in an instance. It had been just as O'Neill had described – wild and exciting and scary. Evan couldn't wait to do it again!

As he walked down the corresponding ramp inside the alpha site facility he conceded that although he didn't feel like he'd travelled light years his body was reacting. Racing pulse – not unexpected. Slight disorientation, like his feet weren't quite touching the ground – also kind of predictable. All over tingling like he'd hooked up to the ultimate power source – not so much. That was just the physical side of the coin. Mentally it was another story again. He was on another planet ... another planet for God's sake! Theory was one thing but living it, knowing that your boots were standing on soil most of the population of Earth didn't even know existed ... well that was enough to have your head spinning. All together it left him feeling very unlike himself.

Shaking his hands discretely to try and clear that tingling feeling, Lorne turned and watched Colonel O'Neill's arrival.

The older man gave nothing away – either he felt everything Lorne had, even after hundreds of missions, but was really good at hiding it, or he'd gotten used to the sensations to the point they were common place, until there was nothing to hide. Lorne wasn't sure he ever wanted to get to that place if the latter were true.

"Well, what did you think Major?" Jack strolled down the ramp to stand beside Evan.

"Just like you described Sir," he replied simply. "I can see why you'd want to do it again ... it certainly wakes up the system, doesn't it?"

"That it does," Jack smirked. "I'll give you this much Lorne – you're a cool customer. Most people at least pause at the event horizon their first time through but you didn't even hesitate."

"Thank you Sir," Evan smiled, pleased at the compliment.

"Let's find someone to show you around," Jack proposed, moving off. Although he had made the effort to see Lorne's first gate trip it wasn't a frivilous endeavour for him - the Colonel was there to check in with the Alpha site CO, go through training schedules and just generally make sure everyone knew that Earth hadn't forgotten them. That he'd lined up the needed trip with Lorne's was just ... smart.

Lorne grinned, looking back at the Stargate before moving to join the Colonel. Yes, this was definitely part of what he was supposed to be doing. Part of his place in the grand scheme of things. And it settled him inside, knowing that he'd made the right decision.

oOo

Back from the Alpha Site late the same day Lorne headed straight for his quarters. They were leaving tomorrow and he still had to pack his stuff, still had a couple of emails to send. And to be honest he felt tired - down to the bone. In the midst of talking about the excitement of gate travel no one had mentioned how exhausting it was. He still had the aftermath of that tingling sensation in his hands and his mind was still humming with what he'd decided was gate 'noise'. Like white noise only a hell of a lot more difficult to ignore. Hopefully that was something he'd get used to with repeated exposure.

Falling down on his bed, Evan stretched out and folded his arms up under his head, staring up at the ceiling. This time tomorrow he'd be a permanent resident of another world for as long as it took for them to complete their mission. A week wasn't enough for that not to feel surreal ... he wasn't sure how long would be - something else for him to find out on the job.

He'd worked hard in the week he'd been back in the U.S. - read more reports and documents than he had in the past year, met with engineers and mining experts, as well as with everyone who'd be going to P3X-403. Not enough to feel like he knew any of them, but enough to get a sense of them and where they'd fit inside the whole. Colonel Edwards had been called away to Washington for his own mission briefing the day after he'd briefed Lorne on the stargate program so Evan hadn't had the chance to form anything other than the first impressions he already had about his new CO.

Closing his eyes, he drifted for a bit ... just on the verge of dropping off the edge into sleep before he let out a pained groan and made himself get up. Starting up his new laptop he rubbed hands over his face, trying to wake himself up along with the computer.

"Okay," he muttered, loading up his email program and typing quickly.

An hour later he'd sent messages to all his friends - to Marcus, Paul, Cade and Neil; to Dom and Ryan in Australia; and to a few others he kept in touch with. He'd confirmed contact details via emails to his Mom and Elaine too and followed that up with quick phone calls to each to say goodbye for now. Both had put on brave voices - told him they'd miss him but that the time would go quickly, which he'd appreciated beyond words.

That just left one more call to make. Checking the time and doing a quick time zone adjustment in his head Evan dialled Piper's home number and waited for an answer.

"O'Hara resident, Robert O'Hara speaking."

"Hey, Rob," Evan greeted Piper's husband.

"Evan!" Rob returned. Evan heard the sounds of muffled movement from the receiver along with Rob loudly yelling for his wife to come to pick up the second handset. "She'll be here in a second," he told Evan. "How's it going over there?"

"It's fine - although over there is now over here," Evan replied. He'd formed a friendship with Piper's husband since they'd met ten months before. Rob had a way about him that just encouraged an openness Evan didn't usually buy into - Rob would interject comments into Piper's emails to Lorne and if he was around when Evan did a video call he'd often sit down too, ask questions and somehow get Evan to admit to things he wouldn't normally admit to. It was kind of a surprise but Evan found himself liking Robert O'Hara - in his own right and as a match for Piper. They just worked as a couple and Evan could understand now why it was she'd always seemed so contented even half a world away from home.

"You're back?" Rob queried. "When did that happen?"

"About a week ago," Lorne said vaguely. "I would have -."

"Hang on Evan, just let me put you on speaker," Rob interrupted. "He's back in the States," Rob told Piper as he pressed the button.

"You're home?" Piper queried, joining her husband. "Since when?"

"Since this week," Evan returned.

"And you're only calling now?"

"Hey, if you knew the week I've had you'd be congratulating me on doing it so quickly!" Evan retorted.

"Right," Piper smiled, noticing Rob's amusement too. "So where are you then?"

"Colorado," Evan said promptly, "but not for long. I'm shipping out tomorrow morning - remote location. You can still contact me but there won't be any instant responses."

"You've only been back a week and they're already sending you out again?" Piper frowned. "That sounds pretty serious."

"It's high priority sure, but nothing dangerous," Evan explained. Getting up, he paced the confines of his room while he talked. "It's just one of those things Piper. I could tell you more but then they'd probably have to kill me."

"Wow, that must really have you frustrated," Piper smiled across at her husband.

"Mr Integrity forced to keep secrets," Rob offered, smiling back.

"Hey, I'm quite comfortable keeping secrets when it's necessary," Evan said defensively, wondering why he'd thought it a good idea to call. He should have sent an email - that way Piper wouldn't have been able to see through him so clearly.

"You just don't like admitting that that's what you're doing," Piper concluded.

"Maybe," Evan allowed. "It's necessary though - you understand that."

"How long are you going to be gone?" Rob asked.

"No idea," Lorne admitted. "Probably a few months but it could be less if things go well."

"I bet Elaine wasn't too happy about that," Piper suggested, "your Mom either." She'd call Grace herself to find out and offer her support. Since she'd met Evan's Mom and he'd returned to Afghanistan, Piper had called her a couple of times just to say hello. It wasn't a duty or an effort - she liked Grace Lorne, for herself and for how much the older woman reminded her of Evan and took as much from the calls as she hoped Grace did.

"Not particularly, no," Evan admitted. "Drew will talk Elaine around though - that's the upside that she went for someone military. My Mom knows enough to understand how this all works."

"So, you're happy about this new post, right?" Piper asked.

"Yes, sure, of course," Lorne said immediately, smiling a little when he realised Piper was the first to ask him that. "Although I have no idea what to expect day to day. Like I said, it's important and with any luck it'll lead to me getting to do things I'd put aside as not achieveable."

"Then I'm happy for you," Piper said quietly. "Even though we'll miss talking to you regularly."

"We'll send you messages though," Rob added. "You'll do the same." He stated that like a fact rather than a decision Evan should make and had him grinning again.

"Sounds like I don't have a choice," Evan shot back. "So, enough about me. What's in store for you guys?"

Piper and Rob entertained Evan with their tag team approach to filling him in on things like Rob thinking about selling his business and Piper taking a transfer to a more administrative position to avoid another tour in Afghanistan. Evan knew she'd been thinking about her future career for a while without coming to a decision - the transfer bought her some time to figure it out. She still wanted to fly ... and was trying to come up with a way to stay a marine, stay in the air, but not get shipped so far away from Rob when she wasn't even used to being married to him yet.

They talked for a few more minutes before Evan regretfully drew the conversation to a close by yawning too loudly.

"You sound tired Evan - you should go," Piper said.

"Yeah, I am tired," he agreed. "Training has been pretty intense - plus I still have to pack my stuff tonight. We're shipping out first thing."

"Well ... good luck," Piper said softly. "You come back exactly as you left okay - no hero stunts."

"Who me?" Evan retorted innocently.

"Yes you!" Piper laughed. "Just behave okay."

"That I can do," Evan stopped in the centre of the room, looking blindly at the floor in front of him. "You guys take care too, okay. I might not be at the other end of the phone anymore but I'm still there if you need to talk - about anything."

"I know," Piper swallowed back the sudden urge to cry, motioning for Rob to speak up and fill the silence.

"We appreciate that Evan," Rob replied for his wife, moving to put an arm around her. "That goes both ways okay - from both of us."

"Thanks," Evan took a deep breath, reigning in the desire to just keep them talking. "Okay - I should turn in. I'll talk to you ... in some format ... soon."

"You better!" Piper insisted. She paused and then finished it reluctantly. "Bye Evan."

"Later guys," Evan returned, lowering the phone and slowly pressing the end button.

And so it was done - all the things he needed to do to put a hold on all his ties to Earth. He was free to leave the following morning with everyone important to him knowing not to expect anything from him for the foreseeable future. It didn't satisfy him - in fact it felt uncomfortable and he didn't like it at all. But it was necessary and if there was one thing he was good at, it was doing the necessary.

Looking around his room he regrouped - there was still packing to do before he could switch it all off for the night.

oOo

The next day Major Evan Lorne set foot on P3X-403 for the first time. He'd read all the intel on the planet, seen the MALP footage more than once, and studied all the photos of the terrain. He'd also consulted with the two geologists attached to the air force with a high enough clearance to know about the Stargate program, and worked out a broad plan including where to put their first base of operations, using the topography maps created from MALP and UAV analysis. It was as much preparation as he could do before seeing everything with his own eyes.

The planet was abandoned now but at some point probably hundreds of years ago it had played host to ... someone, identity unknown. What they did know was that whoever'd resided on P3X-403 in the dim dark past they'd forged a number of mines spanning a large part of the main continent. The only reason the SGC even knew anything of the planet's history was that the mining entrances still remained intact, silent tributes to the past. History – the galactic version of it Lorne was still getting his head around – suggested the planet as a possible Goa'uld outpost since naquadah apparently made their world go around as well. They'd abandoned it – reasons also unknown – and Lorne could only hope it wasn't because they'd tapped out every source of the precious mineral.

So there were mine entrances – lots of them – which meant lots of places to start looking. From the pictures all Lorne could conclude was that they were made of black stone that probably had traces of naquadah in it to have stood for so long without visible signs of weathering or age. They were almost elegant in their construction too which intrigued Evan and made him very curious about these prior inhabitants. In all likelihood there were networks of tunnels hidden under the surface too, which meant they were looking at a job of mammoth proportions. They could easily spend months looking and find nothing and still not be sure it was because there was nothing to find.

Colonel Edwards would be joining the team shortly, but until he did Evan was in charge, which basically meant getting their first camp set up was his responsibility.

"Sir?" Captain David Menard stepped through the gate, shuddered visibly and then gathered himself to get his orders.

"Find a place out of the way for the time being Captain," Lorne advised. "Camp site's a couple of hours walk away – we'll hike there in groups."

"Yes Sir," Menard nodded vigorously before hurrying away. Evan suppressed the urge to laugh – the young officer wasn't exactly a poster boy for the U.S. air force. In fact he was more the quintessential geek with his thick rimmed glasses, short and skinny physique and general lack of social graces. He talked too fast and never picked up on when you were done listening, but for all that he was very enthusiastic about his work and from what Evan had read in his last few evaluations, never complained about anything. Outwardly it wasn't obvious but Lorne was pretty sure the Captain would do well on P3X-403. Which was just as well because Menard was slotted to assist Evan with assessing the rock sample compositions for naquadah concentration. They'd be working pretty closely once the set up was complete.

Lorne took up position near the gate but away from the arrival path so that he could direct the traffic coming through from the SGC. The rest of SG-11, minus their CO, arrived first, followed by a couple of MALPs loaded down with equipment. More personnel followed behind – when he had a good sized group Evan directed Lieutenant Ritter to lead them to the camp site.

Jason Ritter was the team's surveyor so he'd been in on the initial planning and decision making for where along the cliffs they'd be locating their base. He didn't react to the order, just nodded and competently began to move his group forward in an orderly fashion. That was Lieutenant Ritter though – on the surface he was Joe Average ... average height and build, brown hair and eyes, no distinguishing features to speak of. It made him a great member of an off world team because nobody ever paid attention and Ritter had learned plenty simply by keeping quiet and observing. If there was anything to be said about him it was that he was studious looking, not soldiery – more brains than brawn. Ritter's job would be to record elevations and map the region around their mine – that required a level of independence he was well suited to.

Rounding out SG-11 was Airman Ben Daniels – young and eager to please he was the muscle of the team. He did what he was told with good grace and helped out wherever he could, always with a smile on his face that said you were doing him the favour.

It was an interesting mix for Colonel Edwards - SG-11 – Evan was sure there had been more than a few times when Ritter's outward calmness had exasperated the CO simply because it was hard to tell what the Lieutenant was thinking. In contrast, Menard's tendency to talk a subject to death probably drove Edwards to the brink of shutting the younger man up, in whatever manner he could. Lorne could almost picture Menard's nervous gulp and quick retreat in the face of the Colonel's brash impatience. Evan had also noticed that Menard stood to attention and saluted the Colonel all the time ... and while that level of formality would have driven Lorne to distraction Edwards just acknowledged it and moved on with very little outward expression. Evan could imagine that maybe he'd tried to tell Menard to relax in the past – Menard had probably nodded earnestly, all the while continuing to salute him.

Yeah, it was certainly going to be an interesting situation and Lorne was actually looking forward to that aspect as well.

"That's everyone Sir," Daniel's brought up the rear behind the last of the equipment and support personnel. In all they had probably a large truck load of stuff and two additional teams of four men each, enough to set up camp quickly and begin the process of testing the first mining site for sufficient naquadah.

"Thank you Airman," Lorne replied, activating his radio. "Stargate Command, this is Lorne. It's all clear from this side."

"Acknowledged," General Hammond's voice came through strongly. "Colonel Edwards will join you tomorrow after he returns from Washington. You let us know if you need anything before then. Good luck Major."

"Thank you Sir," Lorne smiled, clicking off his radio. A few seconds later the wormhole shut down, leaving them alone on P3X-403.

Squinting up at the sky Evan noticed the moons just visible in the afternoon sky – two of them. Aside from that the terrain was so similar to what he'd see on Earth that you could almost be forgiven for thinking you'd never left it.

"Okay people, let's move out," he called out, moving to the head of the second group. "Pick up the pace – we want to get camp set up before we lose the light. Menard – watch that equipment. Daniels, cover our six."

Everyone moved as ordered. Lorne allowed himself a quick grin as he led them out. It was time to get to work.

Authors Notes:

The members of SG-11 listed at the time of Enemy Mine were just Edwards, Menard and Ritter - no first names either. So I added Daniels for the four man team and gave them all first names.

 

Chapter 5: Mine number seven

July 2003

Lorne settled into life at the camp on P3X-403 with relative ease ... during the day when he was busy anyway. Being on what was essentially a permanent camping trip required some adjustment. They had solar power after setting up the panels they'd brought with them but it was limited. The result was that your day was ruled by the sun – you got up when it did and retired for the night when it was too dark to see anything. Maybe you got a couple of hours of solar power at the end of the day for personal time but the need to power the equipment, the computers, during the day was the top priority.

Evan had missed things in the past ... in the early days in Afghanistan they'd made do with the essentials, but there'd been compensations he didn't have on four oh three. Like radios to keep up with the latest news ... lights as far into the night as you wanted them ... and plenty of hours in the air doing what you loved. Lorne had realised when he'd accepted this post that he wouldn't be flying anything for some time ... he just hadn't realised how much he'd miss it, or how much he'd taken for granted all his previous positions that carried with them enough air time to keep even him satisfied. He wouldn't call it grief as such but it took him a couple of months to get used to that feeling of dissatisfaction and incompleteness ... that longing for something that couldn't be satisfied. He consoled himself that it wasn't forever, that he'd be back in the air again eventually, and spent his nights dreaming of flying.

Not being able to talk to his family made for a difficult adjustment to off world life too. Sure, they got letters and all the emails received via the SGC were transmitted to their computers at every check-in but the two weeks in between seemed very long and Evan found himself rereading messages from his Mom and from Elaine and Drew more than once. Elaine had sent videos too - Evan appreciated it but it was difficult watching his nephew on the screen when he couldn't be a part of it. Jon was growing up too fast, babbling all the time and so close to crawling it wouldn't be long now ... and Evan was missing all of it. Sometimes it hit him - the distance between four oh three and Earth - and he had to get up and do something to take his mind off it. He let none of it show of course, instead using it as part of getting a handle on how everyone was doing - he wasn't the only one doing this for the first time, nor to miss things and people back on Earth.

Thankfully the days were busy and the daily routine soon became ingrained - extracting rock samples and performing core analysis hoping that this would be the one to justify their presence. That and the daily disappointment when the naquadah concentrations came back below five parts per million when they needed fifty times that to make mining at any one site viable. They'd been on the planet for three months and had still to identify a mine with a high enough concentration. It was frustrating and discouraging and added additional challenge in keeping motivation up.

They'd already tested six mine sites in that three months without success and Lorne was starting to think his first thoughts – that the Goa'uld had abandoned the planet for a reason – were going to prove true. They weren't there yet but the time when they'd run out of places to look was fast approaching and the pressure to succeed was being felt by everyone assigned to the planet.

Lorne's thoughts about SG-11 in those initial days panned out in the longer term too. David Menard was just as painfully enthusiastic and geeky as he'd seemed on first meeting Evan; he still stood to attention whenever Colonel Edwards was within a few paces of him, and he still saluted their CO every single time he addressed him. But the young Captain was also determined their mining efforts would be a success which made him a great guy to have around when morale was getting down. He was easy to work with ... if you could overlook the exuberance and excessive talking – once he got going, David was sometimes hard to shut up.

Airman Daniel's was exactly as Evan had expected too – easy going and casual, he happily went about his duties, seeming to be everywhere all at once as he helped the engineers and scientists alike. Lorne was sure Ben was the type of guy who'd be happy with any post – not that he didn't have ambition, it was just of a general kind – do well, get good evaluations, hopefully proceed up the ranks.

Lieutenant Ritter had turned out to be a bit of a surprise for Lorne though ... his quiet unassuming outward facade hiding a wicked sense of humour. If there was a slyly teasing remark to be made, Jason would make it, resulting in too many times when Evan had to swallow back his laughter to maintain that leadership edge. The two had struck up an unlikely friendship despite, or perhaps because of the opposites in their respective backgrounds. Geology degree aside, Lorne at the heart was pure flyboy and made no apology for that, even though in his current role he was as far away from anything airborne as he could get. Jason was a scientist who'd joined the military to get as far into his chosen fields of study as he could. Along with geography the younger man had studied topography and cartography – and the maps he'd produced of the areas around each mine site fascinated Evan.

"These are almost art," he'd told Ritter after the Lieutenant had used them to brief Evan on the first mining site. Often what was above the ground was a clue for what was hidden beneath and the two had fallen into an interesting discussion about whether those rules could apply to alien planets as they did on Earth.

"Not really Sir," Jason had replied to Lorne's compliment.

"Sure it is – you've got composition here," Evan pointed to the use of colour, shading, the way it all told a story about the terrain it was representing. "I've seen a few of the early cartograms in art museums," he smiled, "so I'm not the only one who thinks they qualify as art."

"It's just rules and a system Sir," Jason countered, getting interested in the discussion. "Certain colours for different features, for showing elevations. It's more fact than art – like we'd get if we could afford to launch a satellite to orbit the planet and do all this mapping for us."

"Then you'd be out of a job," Lorne pointed out. Looking back down at the map he shrugged. "If you're discounting this as art because it's trying to present something factual then you'd have to take out half the paintings at the Louvre. Portraits, landscapes – they're all doing the same thing."

"Yeah, but there's emotion and interpretation in that," Ritter insisted. "Neither of which belong in cartography. It's a science – if I let personal perception get in the way then I wouldn't end up with a very good map."

"Maybe," Evan agreed, "if we were going to follow it with precision, rely on an accurate scale. But it's just a guide right? We're not going to look at this alone, to the exclusion of taking in what's around us."

"I guess." Ritter looked thoughtful as he reconsidered his work and decided, in his own mind anyway, to agree to disagree with his superior officer. Cartography was a science, one that had captured and consumed his interest for as long as he could remember. When he'd found out about the Stargate it had been as if his life's work had been validated – cartography as it used to be done, with lines of sight, walking the land and mapping as you went, was a lost art on Earth. Now he had planets beyond counting, none of them with any chance of being mapped using modern methods. He had a job doing what he loved probably for as long as he continued to show he was good at it. There were things to deal with unique to the planet - like its electromagnetic properties that hampered their ability to keep in touch by radio if they strayed too far away from camp. Same for the compasses - you really had to pay attention to the path you'd taken because that was the only way you were finding your way back. Jason just thought of that as the extra challenge that made this particular job more interesting.

"You interested in art Sir?" he asked Evan curiously.

"I've been known to appreciate a painting here and there," Lorne replied blandly. He smiled. "Plus I did a kind of tour of the European galleries a few years back – enough to know the books just don't do any of it justice."

"An arty flyboy Sir," a teasing gleam shone from Ritter's eyes. "Isn't that like an oxymoron or something?"

"Maybe," Evan laughed. "I could argue that flying is a different kind of art but we'll save that debate for another day."

"Yes Sir," Jason agreed, making a mental note to follow up that comment in the future.

oOo

They'd arrived at their latest location – mine number seven - a couple of days before and started testing immediately but were still settling in, still getting to know the lay of the land surrounding the camp.

"Sir," Evan turned to see Captain Menard approaching, the usual look of excitement on his face. "Find something?" Lorne asked hopefully.

"Our initial samples show concentrations still in the same range," Menard revealed.

"Keep taking samples - we might get lucky," Lorne advised, not showing his disappointment. After their previous efforts he'd come to realise that the early tests usually panned out - if they didn't anything in the first few days they ended up not finding anything later either. But each site was given two weeks – they either found a reason to stay or moved on when that time was up.

"Yes Sir, I was going to do that but there's something ...," he trailed off uncertainly.

"Something you need me to check out?" Lorne asked.

"Yes Sir," David said in relief.

"Okay, lead the way."

Evan followed the younger man through the camp and to the base of the hillside where they'd begun to take samples surrounding the mine entrance. As they got closer he saw the areas that had been cleared of surface cover, the top layer of dirt also removed to get to the rocks underneath. In one of them objects stood out, having had the dirt around them cleared away. Nodding to a couple of marines assisting with the physical efforts Lorne squatted to get a closer look.

"Looks like tools of some sort," Evan said, surprised. It was the first time they'd found any evidence of the planet's prior inhabitants. Some of them were recognisable - a stone axe tied to a wooden handle, another that had probably served as a mallet. A couple of the items were less obvious, including a thin stick with points at the end and another long wooden object with two long arms and an oval cut out section in the middle. The thing that struck him most about all the artefacts was that they were big – really big. All but the most muscled marines he had on site would struggle to heft them, let alone put them to use. Picking the stick up, Lorne tested its weight, frowning when he realised that it wasn't made of wood or stone like the other items.

"What should we do with them Sir?" Menard interrupted his inspection. "This is where we were going to sample next."

"And they're in the way," Evan considered the options. They could call in someone from the SGC - would have to report their finding during the next regular update anyway - but given it was most likely the tools were simply left over from the planet's mining history, one they already knew about, it wasn't urgent enough to put a priority on that. "Set up something near the command tent," Lorne decided, straightening back to standing. "Move this stuff ... carefully ... and cover it up. We'll get someone in to have a look later."

"Yes Sir," Menard nodded to the marines who'd been waiting for just that order to proceed. Lorne watched for a few moments and then shrugged. It was interesting sure, and had him wondering again about the success of those early miners, but it didn't impact on their current work. Colonel Edwards was a hard task master, totally focussed on achieving their objective of finding a naquadah deposit large enough to suit the intended purpose. Any delay, even one that might shed some light on the history of the planet, would be frowned on before it was trampled over to make way for action. At least Lorne had ensured the artefacts would be preserved for someone to look at - under the circumstances that was the best he could do.

oOo

Daniels usually escorted Ritter when he was working beyond the confines of their small camp. Lorne had made it common practice for anyone leaving their base of operations to do so in twos – because the radios were unreliable. That and it was too easy to get turned around when everything looked pretty much the same and you couldn't use your compass to get a bearing. The terrain was mostly trees, trees, and more trees which made picking out landmarks difficult too.

Three days at mine seven and Evan could see Colonel Edwards already turning the screws again – putting too much pressure on everyone to work hard and long. Lorne had come to an understanding within himself about his CO very early on in the piece. He'd never warmed to the guy and didn't have to do his job properly – and it had only taken a couple of days to work out that Colonel O'Neill had been right. Mason Edwards was impatient and as unplugged from the mood of his men as it was possible for a commanding officer to be. He stepped on toes without even realising it and didn't seem to notice people deflating in front of him with the way he spoke to them at times. He was sarcastic and snide - sometimes funnily but more often painfully cutting. Lorne did his best to plug that gap, finding tactful ways to rein the Colonel in when he stepped too hard on the accelerator, but discovered it wasn't as easy as it sounded on paper when you were isolated on another planet, making the head guy's word law.

"I was thinking to map south of the ridge today Sir," Jason Ritter began his daily report to Evan. "We still have a couple of days testing around the mine but we'll need to broaden that soon, right?"

"Yeah, assuming we don't find anything closer," Evan agreed. Thinking for a moment, he nodded. "Okay, take Daniels. Report back here in five hours."

"Belay that order Lieutenant," Colonel Edwards had approached on the tail end of the conversation without Lorne's notice.

"Sir?" Evan said respectfully.

"We're going to run an extra crew each shift from today," Edwards revealed. "I need Daniels along with every other able bodied person not already assigned to a team."

"Understood Sir," Evan struggled to keep his voice even with his thoughts irritated. It was his job to manage the teams, not his CO's and yet again Edwards was stepping in, making decisions without consulting Lorne first. Biting back his frustration, Lorne looked at his CO with a bland expression. "But we also need to begin surveying the surrounds in preparation for when we run out of test sites in the immediate vicinity."

"I'm sure Lieutenant Ritter is capable of doing that on his own, right Lieutenant?"

"Ah," Jason glanced at Evan before looking back to Edwards. "Yes Sir."

"Good man," Edwards slapped a hand to Ritter's shoulder and then motioned for him to get moving. "Off you go then," he urged.

Jason looked at Lorne with a pained expression but had no choice but to follow that order.

"With all due respect Sir, do you think it's wise to send Ritter out alone?" Evan asked in a careful tone, watching the Lieutenant go.

"We're been here three months Major," Edwards replied. "Has anyone encountered anything dangerous during that time?"

"No Sir," Evan admitted, "but that's not my chief concern. Lieutenant Ritter could suffer an injury or lose his bearings given the unfamiliar terrain – without a radio or a reliable means of finding his way back, in my opinion it's too risky to send him out alone."

"And in my opinion that's more caution that we can afford," Edwards shot back. "Are you aware of how much interest the IOA, not to mention the Pentagon, have in our operations right now?"

"Not personally but I've got a pretty good idea Sir," Evan returned.

"Well then you'll understand that unnecessary delays are severely frowned on," the Colonel drawled. "You want to risk your future career at the SGC on Ritter needing his hand held?"

"I don't believe it's a risk but yes Sir, I do," Lorne stood straight and tall, holding his CO's glance.

"Well then lucky for all of us you're not in charge Major, or we'd still be back at the first site puttering around." Not allowing a return this time, Edwards took a sip of his coffee, grimaced. "Have Daniels report to Lieutenant Greerdon," he ordered before striding away, leaving Lorne to his thoughts.

"Damn it," Evan muttered, feeling beyond frustrated with the situation. He didn't have a choice in following Colonel Edwards's orders but it didn't sit well to send one of his men out without the proper consideration of security and wellbeing. No, he didn't have a choice about orders, but he could be smart about how he followed them.

"Daniels," Lorne called the young officer over to him.

Yes Sir," Ben replied, standing at the ready.

"Colonel Edwards wants you for a third mining team," Evan revealed. "You'll need to report to Lieutenant Greerdon."

"Yes Sir," Ben said again.

"Hang on a second," Lorne said when Daniel's looked like he was going to follow the order immediately. "Lieutenant Ritter is checking out the terrain south of camp – tell Greerdon you'll need a longer break at half shift. I want you to go for a walk, make sure Ritter is okay. Can you do that discretely, and report back to me before you return to shift?"

"Happy to help out Sir," Ben returned confidently.

"Thanks," Lorne nodded, waving the younger man off to duty. It wasn't much but it was better than leaving Jason out there by himself for five hours. And with any luck the Colonel would never find out.

oOo

"How'd it go?" Lorne caught up with Lieutenant Ritter a couple of hours after his return to camp that evening.

"Got everything mapped in the south east quadrant Sir," Jason replied, "everything a half hours walk from camp that is. I'll need to continue with the second quadrant tomorrow but you can begin tests using what I did today if it's needed."

"We'll see how it goes," Evan replied. "Still got a few places left to test around here first."

Jason hesitated a moment and then spoke in a low tone. "Thank you for sending Ben to check on me Sir," he said. "I really didn't mind going out alone – cartography is a solitary endeavour – but it was good to know the team was looking out for me."

"You're welcome Lieutenant," Lorne returned. "I think we'd both agree leaving someone out for a full shift without the capability to at least do a radio check in isn't good practice. I'm sure Colonel Edwards would agree."

"I'm not," Jason muttered under his breath, putting on an innocent expression when Evan looked at him pointedly. "He'd getting worried, isn't he Sir? That we won't find what we're looking for?"

"It's his command," Lorne pointed out. "And while I don't think any of us should be held accountable for this planet not having enough naquadah, if that turns out to be the case, at this point in time ... well, let's just say that those with a stake in this back on Earth are putting a lot of pressure on this mission succeeding. Colonel Edwards is the one who has to respond to that and I don't envy him that position."

"No Sir," Jason agreed emphatically.

"It's my job to make sure procedures get followed, despite the pressure," Evan continued.

"Do you think we'll find it Sir, the naquadah I mean?"

"If it's here we'll find it," Evan replied. "I'm not sure how likely it is that we'll find something soon – the Goa'uld had to have left here for a reason. It'd be nice if we knew what it was."

Jason nodded, his thoughtful expression turning to one of slight embarrassment when he couldn't hold back the yawn that overtook him.

"Go get some food and rest Lieutenant," Lorne ordered, "we've got an early start tomorrow."

"Every day is an early start," Jason grinned, adding a quick 'Yes Sir' and a nod before turning to follow the order.

Evan watched him go, shaking his head in amusement. He was a good officer, a valuable team member – which only meant Lorne was even more troubled that he'd been forced to send him out alone. Particularly since he was pretty sure he'd have to do the same thing again the following day. Rubbing a hand over his face tiredly, Evan decided to take his own advice and go get some food and rest.

oOo

Two days later Lorne had to concede that Edwards had been right about one thing - with another full team running tests in a third sector they were assessing the area directly around the mine entrance much faster than at any of their previous test sites. He still wasn't happy with sending Lieutenant Ritter out to survey the surrounds by himself but the Colonel had been adamant when Evan had brought it up again. They were under the pump and had to deliver results, one way or the other. Edwards wanted to it to be in the positive and was prepared to push everyone as hard as it took to make that happen. The result was that Lorne's job of managing morale as well as the mining tests themselves just got a whole lot harder.

So far they'd found nothing - after confirming Airman Daniels standing order to check in with Ritter in person before the camp's official lunch hour, Evan had collected the latest reports on naquadah concentrations. None of them were favourable - the amounts barely enough to register - and Evan knew Colonel Edwards wasn't going to be happy.

"God ... three months on this rock and I still can't get a decent cup of coffee," Edwards said when Lorne approached him at the command tent.

"Core sample analysis still coming in, but so far ... highest concentration is 2.3 parts per million," Evan reported efficiently, wondering how the Colonel would display his dissatisfaction with their progress this time.

"2.3 parts?" Edwards clarified.

"Yeah, nothing to write home about," Lorne thought, nodding silently.

"Major Lorne, we need enough naquadah to manufacture 303s," Edwards reminded him. Lorne relaxed a little – the other man's reaction was pretty low on the grumpy scale - so far. "You know how big a battle cruiser is?"

"It's pretty big, sir," Evan kept his expression bland and his amusement in check. An amused sarcastic Edwards was much better than an impatient and bordering on angry one and he'd take what he could get.

"Hmm ... if we start mining these deposits right now, today, your great-grandchildren are still gonna be trying to pull out enough ore just to make one," the Colonel pointed out snidely.

Lorne would have offered some kind of comment but before he could Captain Menard hurried up to the tent, clutching a printout with an excited expression practically bursting from him.

"Colonel Edwards?" David gave the customary salute, his eyes shifting to Lorne for a moment and then returning to their CO.

"Menard," Edwards acknowledged the salute with a vague wave of his coffee mug.

"You're gonna want to see this, Sir," Menard held up his printout. "You too Major," he added, grinning at Lorne. "Latest sample analysis shows a concentration fifty times higher than anything we've seen so far ... and-and it's increasing as we go deeper. This could be the one, Sir."

Colonel Edwards took the printout, gave it a cursory glance and then handed it to Evan. "Yeah. If this pans out, your great-grandchildren might just be off the hook," he told Evan, looking about as happy as Lorne had ever seen him.

"Yes, sir," Evan said. He wasn't thinking about non mining grandchildren though. No, his concerns were much more immediate. If they'd found a viable mine then they could move on to phase two - setting up a permanent mining operation. Once that was done Lorne was assuming his part of the mission would be done. With Menard's news he was one step closer to going home.

oOo

"Sir," Lorne was just about to sit down in the Mess tent, instead turning to see Airman Daniels standing there, a worried expression hovering over his face.

"Daniels?" Evan queried. "Problem?"

"Maybe Sir," Ben replied. "I went to complete my daily lunch mission Sir but Lieutenant Ritter wasn't there."

"What do you mean he wasn't there?" Evan said intently.

"Just that Sir," Daniels returned. "His gear was exactly where he said he'd be this morning but there was no sign of the Lieutenant. I searched the immediate area, called out to him, but he didn't respond."

"Show me," Lorne ordered, moving to follow the younger man from the tent. Daniels led him across the camp down a path through the trees that ended up a rise overlooking the camp.

Evan frowned, slowing his pace as they approached, eyes on the ground. The area was scuffed, lots of partial prints consistent with Ritter having moved back and forth from his surveyors equipment to his computer and back again. The site was deserted and quiet ... too quiet.

"Lieutenant?" Evan called out loudly, waiting a few moments and then repeating it. There was no response. "You tried the radio?" Lorne asked Daniels, moving to activate his.

"Yes Sir," Daniel's replied. "Didn't pick up any kind of response."

"I'm not getting anything either," Lorne admitted. "Did Lieutenant Ritter mention any intention to shift sites this morning?"

"No Sir," Ben said simply. "Plus his gear is still here and you know how particular he is about that."

"Yes I do," Evan acknowledged. The theodolite - a movable telescope mounted within two perpendicular axes - was Jason's pride and joy – there's no way he'd just abandon it like that. Lorne was worried ... because it wasn't like Jason to leave his stuff lying around, just as it wasn't like him to wander off without telling anyone where he was going. He'd known Lorne was uncomfortable with him being so far away from base camp alone - he wouldn't intentionally do anything to exacerbate that. It could only mean one thing.

Lieutenant Ritter was in trouble.

"Maybe he lost his bearings?" Daniels suggested hopefully.

"Maybe," Lorne allowed, even though he thought it unlikely. Ritter was a cartographer - he knew how to find his way around. Evan wanted to head out immediately, search the surrounding area for any clues but he knew Colonel Edwards needed to be informed first - outside radio range they were forced to do that in person. "Let's head back to camp - raise the alarm and get some more people out here looking too."

Ten minutes later Evan was wishing he'd stayed in the forest and sent Daniels back alone to report in.

"With respect Sir, if Lieutenant Ritter is injured the quicker we find him the quicker he gets medical attention. Plus, the longer we leave it the more chance there is we'll lose any clues he might have left behind," he told Colonel Edwards, struggling to keep his tone respectful while at the same time arguing his point. He'd already tried once to talk his CO into letting him lead a team into the forest to widen the search for Ritter, getting a negative response. Edwards had ordered Daniels to send up a couple of flares, assuming Ritter had just lost his bearings and would find his way back to camp.

Daniels had retreated to follow that order while Lorne had continued to pursue a more proactive solution. Evan wasn't sure what Edwards would have done next, if he wasn't there arguing for something more - just leave Ritter out there and go back to work?

"Is search and rescue amongst your many talents Major?" Edwards asked sarcastically, "because the last time I looked none of us are trained to do what you're suggesting. The radios won't work and neither will our compasses and the last thing we need is to lose more people in an effort to find one man." He held up a hand when Evan went to respond. "Uh! No - we dial Earth and ask for assistance from the people who are trained. And in the mean time we continue our operations."

"I agree that sending teams out given the problems with long range communications is a risk Sir," Evan said earnestly. "I have had some personal experience with a rescue mission," in Afghanistan with a trained SARs team at your back, he thought – not that the Colonel needed to know that. "With your permission I could take Airman Daniels and search for the Lieutenant alone."

"While I admire your persistence Major, you're the man I can least afford to lose!" Edwards almost growled that one out, clearly frustrated. "Go dial the gate - report our situation to the SGC - and then return to duty. That's an order Major," he added, in case Evan hadn't gotten the pointed tone.

"Yes Sir," Evan stood straight, looked Edwards in the eye and then spun smartly on his heels. Even at the brisk pace he set it would still take half an hour to hike to the Stargate - although that was actually a piece of luck in the whole scheme of things because their previous locations had been even further away. "I knew I shouldn't have let Ritter go out by himself," he thought, trying to keep the worries in check. If they were lucky it would turn out to be as simple as a colleague getting turned around in the trees and they'd end up feeling stupid for calling in the big guns. Unfortunately Lorne didn't think that would be the case - the longer it went without hide nor hair of Jason Ritter, the more Evan was sure things had gone horribly wrong.

"Stargate Command, this is Major Lorne," he said as soon as he had a stable connection.

"Major, we weren't expecting your check in call for another couple of days," General Hammond himself replied.

"Yes Sir," Lorne acknowledged. "We've got a situation here General," he began. "Lieutenant Ritter - our surveyor - has gone missing Sir. There's no sign of him and we haven't been able to raise him on the radios."

"How long Major?" Hammond's tone was all business.

"Going on for two hours Sir," Lorne replied. "Colonel Edwards requests that you send a search and rescue team to come and look for him Sir."

"You didn't look for him yourselves?" Hammond asked in surprise.

"We checked out the immediate area Sir," Lorne offered, trying to be tactful. "Couldn't find any trace of Ritter ... communication is difficult given the magnetic properties of the planet so the most we know right now is that he's outside limited radio range and is unable to find his way back to camp. Colonel Edwards doesn't feel we have the skills to conduct a full scale search and rescue effort under the circumstances."

"Understood. We'll send a team as soon as we can," Hammond decided. "Inform Colonel Edwards to expect them within the hour."

"Yes Sir, thank you Sir," Evan felt some relief at the quick decision. The wormhole shut down and he set an even brisker pace back to camp to report in.

 

Chapter 6: He was a good man

Over an hour later the situation hadn't improved. In fact it had gotten a whole lot worse. Ritter hadn't turned up on his own in the time it took for the SAR's team to arrive. When they did and Lorne realised it was most of SG-1 accompanying a team of specialist marines he'd almost groaned. Just great - now Colonel O'Neill would get the chance to personally see just how badly Lorne had screwed up. Evan was sure he wouldn't be thinking they'd picked the right guy after hearing the full story.

Lorne had had to tactfully admit that yes he had allowed Lieutenant Ritter to work alone, so far from camp, and with dodgy communication capability. And that yes, it had become a regular thing. Talking about the difficulties they had with radios and compasses sounded like the reason for Ritter being missing rather than the pathetic excuse it was for why they'd lost track of him. On top of that Doctor Jackson had found the alien artefacts under the tarp covering and almost blown a gasket when he'd realised they'd been moved.

"Well, they were in the way," was the best response Evan could think to give - he'd practically seen the steam coming from Jackson's ears before Colonel O'Neill had taken pity on Lorne and urged him to vacate the vicinity. Turns out they were from some race called the Unas, which was apparently a pretty big deal. On top of his increasing concern for Jason, that news had really turned this into one of Evan's crappiest days on record.

Colonel O'Neill had returned to base camp to talk with Doctor Jackson, leaving Teal'c and the team of marines for Lorne to continue escorting. They were walking a path through the trees into unknown territory. The fact that there was a path at all, plus the creepy feeling Evan had that someone or something was watching them had him on edge.

"What's the deal with these Unas?" he asked Teal'c as they walked.

"They are the first ones .... the race the Goa'uld enslaved in order to emerge from the waters of their home world," Teal'c explained in that deep, formal tone of his. Having never met the Jaffa before Evan was still feeling his way – he was curious about the only alien member of an SG team, had a host of questions to ask. But the other man was clearly a talented tracker and Lorne was grateful to have him on board – that took precedent over everything else, including his curiosity.

"We haven't seen any signs that this planet is inhabited," Evan offered.

"The Unas are experienced at avoiding detection," Teal'c returned. Stopping he squatted, looking at the ground closely. "This way," he said, standing again and motioning for Lorne to follow.

They followed the path as it veered towards the mountains. Turning the corner, Teal'c stopped again, holding up a clenched fist. Lorne moved closer to see what had the other man's attention.

Before them were a line of the most macabre versions of scarecrows Evan could imagine. They seemed to be made of sticks from the surrounding trees, supplemented with tools similar to the artefacts they'd unearthed at the mining site and what looked like armour of some kind. Each was topped with a human looking skull and long tuffs of hair. The sharp spikes protruding from each were a very clear 'keep out' warning.

Teal'c moved to pick something up from a rock – a necklace of – were they bones?

"What is it?" Lorne asked.

"The Unas wear these to prevent the Goa'uld from burrowing into their necks," Teal'c explained. "I believe these figures are intended as a warning to stay away."

"Yeah, and a pretty blatant warning at that," Lorne thought, moving to check out the next scarecrow constructed in a similar style. He wasn't sure why but something made him turn to look behind him ... and then he wished he hadn't.

He was barely aware of Teal'c moving to join him, everything focussed on the horror before him.

"Lieutenant Ritter," Teal'c intoned.

It was Jason Ritter but barely recognisable as such. He'd been slashed across the chest deep enough to have ripped through his uniform in places. Lorne swallowed hard as he noticed the details – bloody patches of colour spread across the front of his shirt, bare torn flesh visible through the tears. The Lieutenant's face was blackened and swollen with bruising – those parts that weren't coloured dark with blood and dirt. The damage stood out starkly against the few glimpses of too pale flesh underneath. The expression on his face was the real kicker for Evan though – Ritter's eyes were open wide and a look of terror and pain was permanently etched over his face, turning familiar features into a ghoulish mask that made Jason look like a caricature of himself. It wasn't Jason but at the same time it was and Evan felt sick to the stomach at what had been done to him.

Lorne had seen death before ... caused it by his own hand and been confronted with the aftermath ... but never like this. Never so brutal ... so ... inhuman ... too close to home. Even finding John in that cave in Bosnia hadn't been as bad as this. It hit Lorne hard and he found himself bent over double, retching painfully into the bushes before he could control it. It didn't matter that he hadn't eaten for hours and had very little to expel – he was retching dry and still feeling like it wasn't enough before his stomach finally decided to let him off the hook.

"God," he muttered, sitting back on his heels and wiping shaking hands over his face as he struggled to regain his composure.

"I am sorry Major Lorne," Teal'c said simply, no hint of judgement in his tone.

"Yeah, me too," Evan returned. "He was a good man ...," he trailed off, lost for words. How could he sum up the life of someone – their essence, their value – in just a few words? How could he acknowledge what had been lost – Ritter's potential, the ambitions he'd had, how happy he'd been being part of the Stargate program? The guilt that he'd let Jason go out alone – that he hadn't fought hard enough to change Colonel Edwards' mind was eating at Lorne too. He could have saved the Lieutenant if he'd just been smarter. Standing again, Lorne took a moment to steady himself, very deliberately keeping his eyes away from Ritter's body.

"We must inform O'Neill and Daniel Jackson," Teal'c put a hand to Evan's shoulder, squeezing firmly, before motioning the marine team forward.

Nodding, Evan followed Teal'c away from the scene, letting the marine's take care of Jason now.

oOo

The next few hours passed in a blur, only seemingly random impressions standing out in Lorne's mind afterwards.

The sound a body bag made when it was zipped up – so harsh and ... final.

The rustle of leaves on the ground as they'd crept through the forest looking for the creatures that'd killed Ritter.

Evan's first sign of an Unas, reptilian, the howling sound of grief reverberating in Evan's ears before the thing had loped off into the trees with its brethren.

Menard's surprising bravery, especially for a geeky scientist. He'd managed to retain some of that enthusiasm even in the face of the wounds an Unas had slashed across his chest before one of the marines had stepped in to kill it.

Unas blood - a bright fluorescent green that shone harshly amidst the browns and dull greens of P3X-403 and screamed 'alien'.

Being back on Earth to discuss the situation and finding out a whole lot more about what was really going on. How a supposed attacker could turn out to be a defender – of territory, of a sacred place they'd trampled on without even knowing they were doing so. Ritter had died for actions they hadn't intended, actions they could have adjusted if only they'd know – Lorne could hardly blame the Unas for that because in the same situation, wouldn't they do exactly the same thing?

oOo

Colonel O'Neill had been injured in the first push forward and it had fallen to Daniel Jackson to fix the tense situation, calling on the help of another Unas they'd forged a friendship with on another planet.

Lorne didn't get to participate in any of it and that galled as well. He wanted to do something active ... maybe not to avenge Jason but to at least make sure his death counted for something. Instead he'd been ordered by Colonel Edwards to continue testing the vein of naquadah they'd found that morning - hours instead of the days ago it seemed - ordered to wait it out in relative safety and watch while his CO made the situation worse by sending out more marines while Jackson was out there still trying to make contact. Evan did his duty grimly, his expression closed enough that even Airman Daniels steered clear of him. He wasn't accustomed to the guilt and anger eating at him - didn't know what to do with the emotions beyond pumping them back into his work. He helped clean up the mess the Unas had made of half their camp and then got right into the thick of taking more core samples and running the resonance scans Edwards had ordered - anything to keep his mind off the overriding situation. When the hours passed and the results were in Lorne took no joy in reporting that mine number seven was everything they'd hoped to find and more ... and added more internal anger to what he was already carrying when Colonel Edwards looked so happy at that result. That he'd let noone - especially not the Unas - get in the way of their success was more than apparent, not even when the Unas surrounded the camp and made their potential aggression towards the human interlopers abundantly clear.

The sound of thousands of Unas all chanting together was scary and disturbing ... they were outnumbered and Lorne wasn't sure how P-90's and handguns would fair against the reptilian strength of so many aliens all working together. Luckily they didn't have to find that out. Evan watched, intrigued, as Daniel negotiated with the Unas leader, all the while kneeling with his head bowed. Edwards had given in and followed Jackson's instructions - Evan was somewhat surprised but relieved the man could be smart when the situation proved there was no other course of action. As an introduction into alien relations it was a real eye opener – the sun was sinking low in the sky before they were done and Lorne wasn't the only one shaking the feeling back into his legs once they were all allowed to stand again.

"That's it?" he asked Doctor Jackson after the Unas moved away to talk to its peers.

"For now," Daniel clarified. "It's going to take time to follow this through Major – to teach the Unas what they need to meet their side of the bargain."

Nodding, Lorne moved aside when Colonel Edwards came to stand with them.

"The work is just beginning Lorne," Edwards commented, watching the Unas with a still faintly suspicious expression. "Don't be making any plans for going home any time soon."

"No Sir," Evan hesitated a moment before continuing. "Permission to return to the SGC with Doctor Jackson Sir - just for a few hours," he said. "I'd like to inform Lieutenant Ritter's family personally Sir."

Colonel Edwards looked surprised for a moment, his eyes narrowing as he met Lorne's eyes. "That's not a requirement," he pointed out almost gently, surprising Evan again.

"No Sir," Lorne agreed, "but we owe them something, right? I know I can't give them the details but I can tell them he died in the line of duty doing what he loved. It's not much but perhaps it'll comfort them a little to hear it from someone Jason worked with."

"Permission granted Major," Edwards agreed, giving Lorne an approving nod.

"Thank you Sir," Evan took that as his leave, turning and heading quickly for his 'quarters' – a corner of one of the sleeping tents that thankfully hadn't been damaged by the Unas. Grabbing the half finished letters to his Mom and sister, he stuffed them in his pocket before reluctantly turning to face Jason's sleeping area.

Staring blindly at the neatly made bed, the tidy storage unit, Lorne sighed and then quickly did what had to be done. The sum of Jason's time on P3X-403 fit into one standard issue rucksack – and he too had letters to family waiting to be delivered. Carefully storing them with his own, Evan stood, looking at the now empty area for a moment before slowing turning and leaving the tent.

oOo

"You blaming yourself?" Colonel O'Neill waited until Daniel had finished his debrief, silently motioning for the archeologist to leave them alone in the conference room. Even though Lorne wasn't there for that the Colonel had insisted he participate in Doctor Jackson's update on the part of the mission he'd missed. Jack's shoulder was in a sling and he had a look about him that said he was in pain but he wasn't confined to the Infirmary so it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Daniel had cast Lorne one look, noted the way the other man was staring blankly at the table and nodded.

"Sir?" Evan looked up suddenly, frowning when he realised Doctor Jackson had left. He made a move to get up too but the Colonel's quick 'Uh," accompanied by the unvoluntary wince as his injured shoulder protested had Evan sitting back again.

"I asked if you were blaming yourself," Jack reiterated.

"Hard not to Sir," Lorne admitted.

"Good," Jack said simply, watching the Major's expression turn from blank to frowning surprise.

"Sorry?" Lorne blinked, not sure he'd heard right.

"You wouldn't be the man I think you are if you weren't blaming yourself," Jack clarified.

"I should -," Lorne made to stand again, not sure what he was going to say next. He should what? Turn himself in? To who? And for what?

"Relax Evan," Jack said irritably. "I didn't say you were to blame ... we could argue over whether it was negligent to post a fully trained officer away from camp alone but we both know that wasn't your call."

"But I was the one who saw what a problem it could be Sir," Evan pointed out.

"Yes you were," Jack agreed, "and it bites being right, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it does," Lorne got out, his voice suddenly rough.

"Learn from this Major," Jack ignored the emotions he could seeing broiling in the Major, even though it was a first. Lorne's stoic mask had cracked today - in his reaction to finding Lieutenant Ritter as they had and now, in dealing with the understandable guilt, justifed or not.

"I'm not sure exactly what you expect me to learn Sir," Lorne said, irritated but knowing enough to try to hide it. "A man died because I couldn't find a way to get around the chain of command. If you believe in that - it's at the core of what we do and I do believe in it - then I'm not sure what I could have done differently."

"Exactly," Colonel O'Neill said like Evan had had some kind of revelation. When Lorne frowned, opening his mouth to say more Jack held up a hand. "Think about it," he said simply.

"Yes Sir," Lorne nodded, deciding the Colonel was even deeper than he'd first thought if he expected Evan to be able to make sense of that much crypticness.

"Think about it," Jack said again, "but don't let it affect your career. You still have to work on P3X-403 ... with Colonel Edwards. Teaching the Unas was part of Daniel's bargain but it'll require someone like you to see that it happens."

"Understood Sir," Lorne didn't slump down even though part of him wanted to. He was still angry with his CO for the poor decisions made at the mine site even though Edwards had shown a different side when he'd gone along with Jackson and when he'd allowed Evan to come back to Earth. "I can handle it Sir," Lorne promised.

"Yes - I'm sure you can," Jack returned.

Lorne nodded, appreciating the vote of confidence, knowing that it wasn't going to be easy.

"I hope you're not doing the thing with Ritters family as some kind of punishment," Jack said after a few moments of silence. "We have people trained in this sort of thing you know."

"I know Sir, and I'm not punishing myself," Evan said earnestly. "He deserves for them to be told by someone who knew him ... it's the least I can do."

"Right," Jack nodded, hesitated for a moment and then slowly got to his feet, favouring his shoulder. "Well, get to it then. We'll be here when you're done."

"Yes Sir, thank you Sir," Lorne registered the other man's casual gait as the Colonel walked from the room, knowing he'd ponder the meeting for some time to come. With a sigh he got up too, heading for personnel to find out what he needed to know to go and shatter the lives of people he'd never met.

oOo

It was difficult, knocking on the door of two people who didn't realise their world was about to change forever. Turns out Jason had been a Junior - when Jason Ritter Senior opened the door and saw Evan standing there in uniform something in his eyes shifted - and Evan knew that he knew without a word having been spoken.

"Come in," the older version of the man Evan had counted as a friend stepped back and let Lorne inside.

Evan nodded, moving forward and then waiting for Mr Ritter to lead the way.

"My wife - Sarah," he introduced Lorne to the woman sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of something hot raising steam into the air in front of her.

"My name is Major Evan Lorne," Evan began, taking the seat Jason Senior motioned him into. He looked at the faces of the two people in front of him, the painful fear and hope in the mothers eyes and felt himself quiver inside. He'd never had to tell someone their loved one wasn't coming back, never appreciated just how hard it was. He'd been on the receiving end though - that memory of a uniformed man turning up at their doorstep twenty three years ago to tell them his Dad wasn't coming back never far away - only now he had an idea of how that man must have felt. "I'm very sorry to tell you that your son was killed in the line of duty this morning," Evan said quietly.

"No, you must have made some kind of mistake," Sarah Ritter clasped her hands together tightly. "My son is a cartographer - he wouldn't be anywhere dangerous."

"I'm sorry Ma'am but there's no mistake," Evan reiterated. God, this was bringing back memories he'd put away. The denial - the surety that the message was being delivered to the wrong person - had been so strong. As he watched Mrs Ritter carefully he could almost see the pain and despair washing over her. That wave of crushing grief that had you feeling as bad as you'd ever felt ... until you realised down the track that the grief escalated before it diminished to a manageable level, that'd you'd feel a hell of a lot worse before you felt better. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said again.

Sarah Ritter started crying - she was quiet about it but the tears pouring down her face and the pain that radiated from her entire being spoke loudly to Evan.

"You knew our son?" Jason Senior asked, his voice rough with emotion as he took his wife's hand and held on tightly for both of them. Maybe the question was a distraction, maybe he needed to know ... either way, it was why Evan had come personally.

"Yes I did," Lorne said simply. "We were on the same team - Jason reported to me mostly. I'm not at liberty to tell you specific details of where or how Jason was killed - but you should know that he was very brave. He was doing what he loved in a place that turned out to be more dangerous than any of us realised. I can't tell you how much I regret that he was killed before we appreciated that."

"He loved being in the air force," Sarah whispered sadly, her eyes on a framed photo of Jason that sat on a side table nearby. "Talked of nothing else since he worked out what he wanted to do with his life. Maps," she swallowed back her tears. "How could my boy be killed making maps?"

"He was very happy doing what he was doing Ma'am," Evan reiterated. "He didn't want to be anywhere else - he enjoyed the challenge of the unfamiliar. I don't know for sure but it always seemed like he was happy to take the risks of being stationed where we are just so he could do what he'd trained for."

"He was hap-py," Sarah agreed, her voice shifting into tears elongating that last word.

Jason Senior pulled her closer and looked over her head to Evan. "Thank you for coming to tell us personally Major. It means something that his commanding officer would do that."

"I thought very highly of your son Sir," Evan let the man see the emotion in his eyes before he looked away, getting himself under control again. "The loss of a friend bears little comparison to your loss but I hope it comforts some to know that Jason was well liked and well respected."

"Can we see him?" Sarah looked up suddenly, her tear ravaged eyes pinning him intently.

"I don't know," Evan admitted. Ritter had been killed off world by something alien enough to have left quite the mark on the young man - Lorne had never been in that position before and wasn't sure how the air force maintained security while still giving the families of the dead the due consideration they deserved. "I'll give you the number of someone to call though - they'll help you with anything you need, and with any arrangements you need to make."

"Thank you," Jason Senior said again.

"There's no need to thank me," Evan said grimly. "We did what we could but it wasn't enough."

"And you'll have to live with that just as we have to live without our son," Jason Senior returned. "Have you ever lost someone close to you Major?"

"Yes I have," Evan admitted openly. "My father - in the line of duty too - when I was ten."

"Then you'll understand more of how we feel than most," Jason nodded, turning back to his wife.

Lorne watched them comfort each other for a moment, feeling awkward and superfluous and just plain unsettled, his own grief mixed up and too close to the surface. "Is there anything I can do for you, anyone I can call?"

"No - we only had Jason and each other," Sarah wiped at her eyes, her hands shaking. "Please ... we need to deal with this ourselves ... together."

As a hint to get out it was pretty subtle but Evan understood. They wanted to regroup, to take refuge in the familiar and in each other. They didn't need a stranger clogging up the works.

"Of course," he said, getting to his feet quickly. Pulling out the letters he'd taken from Jason's things he placed them carefully on the table, along with two business cards. "I found these in Jason's things - it was mail day in a couple of days but Jason always had his letters ready to go early. The first card has the number you'll need to see ... to have arrangements made." He stopped, cleared the lump from his throat and finished it. "The second card has my number on it - if there's anything I can do for you, please don't hesitate to give me a call. I'm not sure how long I'll be around but someone will know where to reach me."

Maybe they nodded, maybe they said something, expressed more thanks, but Evan was deaf to it. He just wanted to get out of there and get some calm back. "I'm sorry," he said again, turning quickly and finding his way back to the front door.

And then he was out on the street, breathing deeply of the fresh air. "God," he muttered, rubbing his hands over his face and through his hair. That had been tough ... walking back to the car he threw himself into the drivers seat and then just sat there, staring out the window.

His phone was in his hand before he could think, the familiar number dialled without pause.

"Hello, Grace Lorne." It was just a voice saying his name but Evan felt something inside settle a little.

"Hi Mom," he said simply.

"Evan! Oh honey it's good to hear your voice. Are you back? How long can you stay?"

Evan smiled fondly at her questions, understanding as he never had before that just having someone to share a burden with did make it easier to carry. Elaine and Drew understood that ... Piper and Rob too. Jason Senior and Sarah Ritter perhaps understood it best of all right then. He still had the guilt to work through - still had to believe what he thought Colonel O'Neill had been trying to tell him - but having people who cared would help.

Lorne would have to return to P3X-403, to the work they'd started, to the commitment they'd made with the Unas that'd killed a good man. But he wasn't alone, even so far away. And that did make it easier to do what was necessary. After all, he was good at necessary.

The End

 



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