Lorne had a bad feeling about the planet. Every ounce of his military training was screaming at him to get the civilian to safety.
Unfortunately, the botany department had been insistent upon obtaining some samples of this planet's medicinal herbs and Weir had approved their request. Which meant that he had been forced to bring their team's over-eager botanist on a mission to a planet that looked like something out of an old noir movie.
It also didn't help that their team had only been formed a few weeks ago. This was only their fourth mission together and, while he was pleased with how well they seemed to work together, they still didn't know each other that well.
Like Lorne, Captain Coughlin had come in on the Daedalus the previous month and was still trying to adjust to life on Atlantis. According to his service record, he was a good marine and had some impressive skills as a sniper. Unfortunately, Lorne didn't know very much about the man outside of his official files; he rarely spoke about himself.
Lt. Reed was as outgoing as Coughlin was withdrawn. By the time they'd finished their first mission together, Lorne practically knew his entire life story. Reed was part of the original Atlantis expedition and had even briefly taken a turn on Sgt. Stackhouse's team the previous year. He was young, and could be annoyingly impulsive, but he had more experience fighting the Wraith than anyone would ever want to have.
It was the fourth member of their team that had Lorne the most concerned. Dr. Parrish was undoubtedly a genius when it came to botany, probably one of the best in his field of study. And, when he wasn't babbling endlessly about plants, he seemed like a fairly nice, friendly guy. Lorne figured he might even enjoy hanging out with him, if he wasn't constantly tagging along to hostile alien planets. That was the real problem. Lorne firmly believed that the proper place for civilians was back on Atlantis where they could be properly protected, not accompanying military personnel into potentially dangerous situations. Civilians created an unknown variable which Lorne wasn't entirely comfortable with.
As their leader, Lorne was responsible for his team's safety, and he wanted to take every precaution necessary to ensure that this mission wouldn't be their last.
Darkness had finally settled over the crowded little village as Lorne and his teammates regrouped near the edge of the marketplace. Torch light flickered off the stone streets and cast eerie shadows around them. The large crowds of town folk walking by diminished only slightly with the onset of nighttime.
SGA2 huddled a bit closer so they wouldn't be as easily overheard by the passersby.
"Well, this is certainly an interesting place," Reed remarked. "It's very..."
"Anachronistic," Coughlin finished for him, casting a glance at the almost renaissance-era villagers, each carrying some form of firearm.
"Yeah," Reed said. "It's like they can't make up their minds if they're medieval folk or industrial-age."
Lorne nodded his agreement. There was definitely something weird about this town. "Well, we're here to set up trade negotiations, not worry about their rate of development. Did you find anything suspicious?"
Reed laughed slightly. "Besides the fact that everyone around here acts like someone out of a steampunk murder movie?"
"Yeah," Lorne said dryly. "Besides that."
Parrish shrugged. "Doesn't seem that bad to me. I mean, they're a trading planet, so it makes sense for their stuff to be a bit of an assortment. And the constant offworld visitors would certainly explain all the weapons. Are military people always so paranoid?"
Coughlin frowned at the scientist. "Have you even read any of the reports that Sheppard's team files? Sometimes a little paranoia is a good thing."
"But this place was already scouted out by another team," Parrish said. "They set up the preliminary negotiations and everything. I thought we were just here as a formality, to finish up the deal." He glanced down at his watch and shifted impatiently. "Besides, Dr. Lindsey set up an appointment for me to meet with the village’s herbalist, Neyel, for those medicines. I'll be late if I don't get moving."
"Just take it easy, Doc," Lorne said. "I like to know what I'm getting into beforehand. We were already warned about the less-than-upstanding citizens around here, so let's not go off half-cocked, okay?" He looked at Coughlin, waiting for the captain's report.
“I don’t think we have anything to worry about from the villagers, sir,” Coughlin told him. “As you can see--” he pointed to the heavily armed townspeople walking passed “--they are not the most trusting of people, but this planet survives off the trades they make with other planets. I don’t think the citizens are likely to jeopardize that.”
Lorne nodded. "Okay, we're due to dial Atlantis in a few minutes to give them an update. Afterwards, we'd better get to those trade negotiations."
Reed gave a small laugh. "You should let Coughlin handle the negotiations," he said jokingly. "He was only in the marketplace twenty minutes before his backpack was full of the useless trinkets he'd bought off the natives."
"The major wanted information on the locals," Coughlin said with a shrug. "On a commerce planet, best place to get information on anything is at the local market."
Lorne refrained from making a comment on Coughlin's reconnaissance techniques. The captain always wore his backpack when traveling offworld, and it always seemed to get filled up by the time they returned to Atlantis. Lorne had no idea what the captain did with all the items he gathered. Coughlin was without a doubt the best at digging up information, though, so Lorne didn't mind cutting him some slack when it came to his pack-rat tendencies.
"I'm supposed to meet with the herbalist in the village tavern," Parrish reminded them, growing visibly antsy. "If I don't get there soon, I'll miss the meeting."
The major sighed. "Fine," he said. "You've got one hour, no more. Reed, you go with him."
"And, Reed, keep an eye out, okay?" Lorne said, casting a pointed glance towards the oblivious botanist.
Reed nodded. He knew that the unspoken order was something along the lines of 'don't let him out of your sight or you'll be on KP for a month'. "We'll be back before you know it," he promised. Slapping the scientist on the back, he said, "C'mon, Doc. Let's get going."
Lorne watched them walk away with a sudden sinking sensation in his gut. He had a strong feeling that this wasn’t going to be as simple as the pre-mission briefing had implied.
Shaking himself out of his foreboding thoughts, Lorne turned towards Coughlin. "Alright," he said, "let's go make that phone call."
The tavern was located in the center of the town and appeared to be a popular gathering spot. The main room was enormous and crafted of thick oak beams and rough, hardwood floors. Once again, Reed couldn't help noticing how many of the people were carrying firearms, and it made him grip his P90 a bit tighter as they worked their way through the room. Almost every table was occupied and it took them awhile to find a place to sit down. Thankfully, Parrish's contact was already waiting for them and had procured a place near the back of the noisy room. It was probably as private of a table as they were likely to find in this overcrowded place.
"Ah, you must be the people I was told to meet," the man said, standing up at their approach. "I'm Neyel, the village chemist."
Parrish reached out to shake the man's hand. "Nice to meet you," he said, a warm smile on his face. "I'm Dr. David Parrish and this is Lt. Reed."
The man nodded to both of them and motioned for them to sit down. "The people you sent here earlier today said that you would want to see my herbs," he said. "I brought my samples for you to look over. If you find anything that interests you, I can arrange for more of it to be sent to you. For a reasonable trade, of course."
"That sounds great," Parrish replied. "Shall we get started?"
Kiev's radio crackled to life. "Any sign of him yet?"
He frowned and set his glass of ale back on the bar counter before snatching the radio from his pocket. "Not yet."
"What is keeping him so long? He was supposed to be there already."
"So he's a bit late," Kiev said with a shrug. "I'll contact you as soon as he shows up."
There was a slight pause on the other end. "You'd better," a new voice said, and Kiev unconsciously sat up a bit straighter at the sound of it. "Without him, this plan falls completely apart. You wouldn't want to be responsible for that would you?"
The radio clicked off before he had a chance to reply.
Stashing the piece of equipment back in his pocket, Kiev motioned to the bartender for another drink.
"That coward better not have backed out of the deal," he muttered to himself. "If I get in trouble because he suddenly got cold feet..."
He shook his head and grabbed the fresh glass of alcohol. He had a feeling he'd need quite a bit more before this evening was over.
Never in his life did Reed ever think he'd actually be wishing for a Wraith attack. But right about now he'd wish for just about anything that would spare him from having to sit here one more minute with these plant-obsessed lunatics.
At least the major had put a time restriction on this meeting, because he had a feeling that, if left to their own, these two could probably talk until the end of the world. As it was, Reed was still going to have to suffer through an hour of this. But there couldn't be that much time left right? After all they'd been here for what already felt like several hours.
Reed discreetly checked his watch.
It took considerable willpower not to face-plant on the table with a groan. How could it only have been thirty minutes?!
"...and that's why they glow only at certain times of the year," Parrish was saying, waving his hands animatedly. In his enthusiasm, he nearly dropped the small flower he was currently showing to his companion.
"They sound fascinating," Neyel said. "I would certainly like to see these flowers in the natural environment someday."
"It's definitely worth the effort. One of the most beautiful sights ever."
"I bet it is." Neyel glanced back at the fern in his hand and laughed. "But I think we got a bit off topic there. We were discussing this interesting little plant here..."
Reed didn't bother covering his groan this time. Sliding to his feet, he told Parrish, "I'm going to check the perimeter. Be back in a minute."
The botanist barely even glanced up as he nodded his acknowledgment and continued to listen to Neyel's explanation of the fern's origins and purpose.
Reed hit his radio as soon as he was out of hearing range of the table. "Major Lorne."
"Lorne here. What's up, Reed?"
"All quiet on this end so far," Reed informed his commander.
"Same here. We made contact with Atlantis and informed them that we'd be spending the night here as planned. How's Parrish doing?"
"Fine," Reed tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. "I think he's finally found his soulmate."
There was a muffled laugh from the other end. "Well, that must be keeping you pretty well entertained," the amusement in Lorne's voice wasn't hard to catch.
"In about ten more minutes, I'm going to set fire to their ferns."
"We're heading over to the town hall to talk to their council about possible trade opportunities," Lorne told him. "We'll meet you there in twenty minutes. And try not to burn down any buildings in the meantime. It might hurt trade relations."
Reed sighed as he clicked off his radio. Twenty more minutes. He should be able to handle that right?
"This is amazing!" Parrish exclaimed, reading the papers Neyel had passed to him. "This tree you're describing sounds similar to one found on our home planet, but it shouldn't be able to grow in this climate. If your people managed to develop a hardier strain of these trees..."
"Perhaps we could visit the orchard together in the morning," Neyel suggested. "Your people aren't supposed to leave until tomorrow evening, correct?"
"That's a great idea. I'll need to get some pictures and soil samples if you wouldn't mind. In fact..." his voice trailed off as his eyes landed on something in Neyel's bag. He reached across the table and quickly pulled it out, his eyes widening. "Sorry, but where did you get this?"
"It was in some old ruins in the forest," his companion responded. "We were unable to interpret the language, but the pictures of plants caused us to believe it might be some sort of catalog of the plant-life on this planet. This is merely one piece of a much larger carving."
Parrish held the small sheet of metal in his hands and stared in awe at the beautifully flowing script carved into the surface. He didn't understand the language any better than Neyel's people had, but he'd seen the writing often enough to recognize it for what it was. "Neyel," he said, "I have a friend who might be able to help read this. Do you mind if I show it to him?"
The herbalist looked at him in mild surprise. "Of course, be my guest. As I said, it's only one small part of the inscription."
Parrish leapt up and began scanning the room for a glimpse of his teammate. Reed certainly wasn't fluent in Ancient, but he'd picked up a little of it from Dr. Corrigan last year, when he'd still been a member of Stackhouse's team. Even if the lieutenant couldn't interpret the inscription, maybe he could at least give them a basic idea of what it was about. Parrish figured it was at least worth a try.
The only problem was that he didn't seem to be able to locate Reed anywhere. Of course, considering the size of the crowd in the tavern, they could have been three feet apart and still not seen each other. Finally changing tactics, Parrish headed for the bar, hoping to ask the bartender if he'd seen his missing teammate.
The bar was also packed and it took a minute for him to edge his way through the people. He managed to grab a spot near the end of the counter, next to a tall, rather seedy looking individual. The man sent him an irritated look before returning his attention to his drink.
"Excuse me?" Parrish tried desperately to wave down the bartender, but he was competing against at least a dozen other, much more aggressive individuals. "Excuse me?" he tried again, a little louder this time. Still not receiving a reply, he set the tablet down on the counter and tried to use the edge of the stool to boost himself a little higher. In the process, he accidentally bumped the arm of the tall man next to him. "Oops," Parrish said, looking at him apologetically. "Sorry about that."
The man looked angry for only a moment before his eyes fell on the tablet with the Ancient writing.
Immediately his anger dissipated and he glanced at Parrish in surprise. "So, you finally brought it."
Parrish grabbed the tablet protectively. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."
The man stepped closer and lowered his voice. "You're late," he said. "Jorrin is going to be furious with both of us."
Parrish blinked at the man in surprise. "Uh, excuse me?"
"Kiev," he said, briefly shaking hands.
"Um, I'm Dr. Parrish, but-"
"Not here." The man, who was apparently named Kiev, grabbed Parrish's arm and began guiding him towards the back door.
"I really think there's been a huge mistake-"
"Shut up. Not here."
They were almost at the door now and Parrish desperately tried to free his arm from the man's grip.
"You don't understand," he tried to explain, "I'm not-"
His words were cut off when he felt a cold metal press into his side. "I knew you would try to back out," his captor said. "Now go out that door quietly with me and don't say another word."
Parrish swallowed nervously and nodded. He spared a quick glance at the sizable gun still digging into his ribs. He didn't know a lot about weapons, but it looked very deadly. He suddenly found himself wishing that he'd taken Reed up on that offer of self-defense lessons. If he got out of this alive, he'd definitely assign himself some extra training sessions in the gym.
Reaching the door, Kiev pulled it open and motioned for him to step through first. Parrish looked at the room one last time, desperately hoping to catch sight of Reed. But the crowd was too thick and noisy for him to spot his teammate, and Kiev was quickly growing impatient.
"Let's go." He waved the gun closer for emphasis. "Do I have to start shooting people to convince you?"
Parrish quickly shook his head and stepped outside. "Where are we going?" he asked, when he finally managed to regain control of his voice.
"You'll see soon enough. Follow me."
Kiev set off down the alley, melting effortlessly into the shadows. Parrish followed a bit more clumsily. He had no idea where he was going, but something told him that this was going to be a very long night.