Work Header

A Very Long Night

Chapter Text

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 Reed was as outgoing as Coughlin was withdrawn.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."

"Yes, sir."

"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.

Thirty minutes.

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."

"Thank you!"

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.

Chapter Text

Reed stared in disbelief at the empty table where, only a few minutes ago, he’d left his seemingly contented botanist. This couldn't be happening. There was no way even Parrish could manage to get into trouble in the short time Reed had been away.

"I'm sorry," Neyel was saying next to him. "He said he was going to show you something. I didn't know there was a problem with that."

Ordinarily, there wouldn't be, Reed thought ruefully. Unfortunately, there never was an ordinary when it came to offworld missions -- especially offworld missions involving reckless botanists. Lorne is going to kill me.

The lieutenant reached up and tapped his radio. "Parrish, this is Reed. Come in."

He was met with only silence from the other end.

"Parrish, this is Reed. I need you to answer immediately if you can hear me." Still receiving no answer, he toggled his radio to the other channel. "Major Lorne, this is Reed. We have a situation."

Lorne and Coughlin were only halfway back to the village when they heard Reed's voice come to them over the radio.

"Major Lorne, this is Reed."

Lorne immediately tensed at the lieutenant's urgent tone. That background worry that he'd been feeling all evening came back at him full force.

"We have a situation."

Coming to a halt, Lorne clicked his radio on. "Lorne here. What's going on?"

"It's Parrish, sir. He's gone missing."

Lorne bit back a curse. "How long ago?"

"I only stepped away for a moment when I radioed you," Reed said. "It must have been less than a minute ago. I don't see him anywhere in here, and he's not answering his radio."

"We're on our way. Get outside and search the surrounding alleys and streets. But don't leave the immediate area. Until we know what happened, I don't want you taking any chances. Got it?"

"Yes, sir," Reed said, managing to sound both remorseful and concerned.

Lorne couldn't find it in himself to be truly angry with the lieutenant. He knew firsthand how difficult it could be to keep an eye on scientists in the field. "We'll be there in two minutes," he said, switching off the radio. He picked up the pace and Coughlin also sped up to match his gait.

At least Parrish couldn't have gotten very far in such a short amount of time. But it was a small comfort. Trying to find a single person amidst the town's enormous population and crowded streets -- and in the dark -- wasn't going to be an easy feat.

Lorne glanced at his watch. They'd been on this planet just over an hour, and already this was turning bad.

Simple mission, Weir had said.

Yeah, right.

Kiev dragged Parrish down yet another dark alley. It looked identical to all the others they'd been through, and Parrish was beginning to wonder if they were walking in circles all this time.

His kidnapper finally stopped in front of a solid wooden door and rapped on it in what was obviously a prearranged code. The door opened a second later and Parrish was roughly shoved through it.

The room inside was small and mostly bare. A wooden table stood in the center with chairs all around it. Several crates and burlap sacks were stacked around the edges. A single candle sat on the table, causing the shadows on the walls to dance in bizarre patterns. At least a dozen men were scattered around, some playing cards at the table while others lounged lazily on the crates and sacks. A few were even sitting cross-legged on the rough wooden floor.

Kiev dragged Parrish over to the corner that was farthest from the door and shoved him onto one of the crates. "Stay here," he ordered. "Jorrin will be here soon to talk to you."

Parrish had decided already that talking to this man was getting him nowhere. Maybe this Jorrin person could be reasoned with, made to see that this was all a huge misunderstanding. He sat down on one of the sturdier looking crates and tried to appear as cooperative and non-threatening as possible. Kiev seemed satisfied and drifted away to take up a position near the door.

Parrish deflated slightly and slumped against the stack of crates. There had to be a way out of this mess, but he was at a loss to figure out how to do it. He dug into his pockets, hoping to find something even remotely useful, but came up empty. Besides a few power bars and a penlight, he only had the rare glowing flower he’d been showing Neyel earlier that evening. He almost smiled at the sight of the small, mostly dried plant. It was hard to believe this mission had started out so well, only to end with his possible demise.

No, he told himself. No panicking. That was one of the first things they’d been taught during their week of team training. Panic leads to errors in judgement.

What he needed was a plan. Unfortunately, he had no idea what sort of plan would get him out of this situation. He wondered if anything in McKay's email could help right now.

Despite constantly yelling at all of them, McKay could be surprisingly protective towards "his scientists" and often took extensive precautions to keep them alive and in one piece. As soon as he'd found out that Parrish had been selected for an off-world team, he'd sent the botanist a twelve page email filled with numerous warnings and instructions for surviving on hostile alien planets. Parrish assumed a lot of the warnings were probably based off the physicist's own experiences, which made it quite a bit scarier to read.

At the time, he'd only skimmed through what felt like the most relevant parts of the email, but now he couldn't help wishing he'd committed it to memory. Was there anything that pertained to his situation? As far as he could remember, one of the first warnings had been about being kidnapped on a surprisingly advanced planet that, at first glance, had seemed primitive and peaceful. But the warning had also mentioned radioactive bunkers and nuclear bombs, so Parrish had a feeling it wouldn't be very helpful in this case.

There was a faint shout from somewhere outside followed by a strangled cry that sent a shiver down Parrish's spine. A bang that might possibly have been a gunshot sounded from nearby, and then everything became silent again. None of the other men reacted in any way to the sounds and merely went about their business.

Parrish wrung his hands nervously, swearing he was going to resign from off-world duty as soon as he was safely back on Atlantis. The idea of dealing with McKay and Zelenka on a daily basis suddenly seemed far less stressful in comparison.

As they walked towards the village square, Coughlin observed his commanding officer out of the corner of his eye. Apart from the tense set of his jaw and the hurried pace at which they were moving, Lorne was doing a remarkable job keeping his worry under the surface.

Coughlin didn't know any of his teammates that well yet. Not only was he new to the Atlantis expedition, he'd only found out about the existence of stargates a few months ago when a group of government and military officials showed up at his door with a hefty NDA for him to sign. Every moment since felt like he’d stepped into the weirdest sci-fi movie ever. Before he knew it, he was on a spaceship headed towards a faraway galaxy to fight life-sucking aliens. When he'd been offered a position on SGA2, he almost couldn't believe it; he surprised even himself when he actually accepted.

A year ago, he probably wouldn't have agreed to any of this. A year ago, he never would have gotten as far as signing the NDA. But his circumstances had changed since then. In a way, he supposed he should be grateful; the Pegasus Galaxy might be dangerous, but it also held unimaginable beauty and wonder. That was one of the reasons he'd agreed to joining this team. Now if he could just keep them alive long enough to get any actual exploring done.

Both military men went on high alert as they entered the village square. Their eyes scanned the buildings and rooftops in each direction and their hands rested on their P-90s.

The cobblestone of the square glowed orange in the light streaming from the various buildings. It looked like all the structures around the tavern were eating and entertainment establishments. People were everywhere, crowded into the two-story wooden buildings, walking through the streets, and standing around the square. A large number of them looked intoxicated.

"Sir," Reed called out as he ran to meet them.

"Lieutenant." Lorne nodded a greeting to the marine. "What have you got?"

"He disappeared while I was on the radio with you," Reed said. "I checked the alleys and several of the neighboring buildings. Neyel, the guy Parrish was talking to, said that he ran off and never showed back up again. The bartender claims not to have seen him, but I don't think he was being straight with me. To be honest, no one around here seems to be too eager to help."

Coughlin slowly scanned the crowd of surrounding villagers. A few were throwing suspicious glances at the Lanteans, but most seemed to be trying a little too hard to mind their own business. There was something that felt so wrong about this town. Coughlin discreetly slid his finger closer to the trigger of his P-90.

"We're going to need backup," Lorne said. "You two go back to the gate and dial Atlantis. Let them know what's happening and request they send more teams to help. And stay at the gate until the backup teams arrive. I'm going to speak to the council and see if they can offer any assistance."

Parrish tensed at the sound of a knock on the main door. Everyone reached for their weapons as Kiev rose and opened the door carefully. As soon as he saw who was outside, he stepped back and allowed the person to enter.

The newcomer was a tall man with broad shoulders and thick dark hair. He carried a massive weapon as his sidearm and had a knife hanging from his belt. From the way everyone in the room reacted to his presence, Parrish correctly guessed that this must be Jorrin. It was easy to see the fear in the eyes of his underlings and Parrish couldn't help thinking that it was rather sad. On Atlantis, Sheppard's men were completely loyal to him, but their loyalty was born out of respect, not fear. Parrish had never really appreciated Sheppard’s leadership skills until that moment.

Jorrin and Kiev stood to the side, conversing in hushed tones for several minutes. Finally, Jorrin took a seat at the table and motioned for Parrish to take one of the other chairs. The scientist did so immediately.

"So," Jorrin said, eyeing him doubtfully. "You are the scientist who is going to help us. What is your name?"

"Dr. Parrish. However, I think there's been a mistake--" Parrish began.

"You're not a scientist?"

"Well, yes, I am, but..."

Before he could continue, one of the other thieves stepped forward and handed Jorrin the tablet with the Ancient writing on it. "We found this on him," he said.

"Ah, so it is true," Jorrin said, a grin spreading out on his face. "You can translate the writings of the Ancestors. That is good. I was afraid that you were lying to us." His hand slid unsubtly to the knife on his belt. "That would have been unfortunate."

Parrish swallowed. Up to now, he'd been intending to correct this obvious case of mistaken identity, but now he found himself doubting that plan. On the one hand, Jorrin might believe he was lying and trying to back out of the deal; on the other hand, even if he believed him, that would end Parrish's usefulness to this gang. Either way, the chances of survival were slim.

What was it McKay had said in his "Geek Survival 101" email? 'If captured without your team, stall for time. Use what limited brains you have to make yourself useful to them. The military grunts will find you soon enough and blow up everything necessary to rescue you, so your job is surviving until they show up. DON'T try anything stupid; I don't want to have to explain to Dr. Brown how one of her botanists ended up dismembered.'

Okay, so survive until rescued. That shouldn't be too hard, right?

"So, are you ready to hear your instructions?" Jorrin asked.

Parrish nodded, not quite trusting his voice to remain steady right now.

"Good." Jorrin leaned forward in his chair and slid a large map in Parrish's direction. "Tell me, Dr. Parrish," he said, his grin taking on a slightly more sadistic edge. "How do you feel about pulling off a little heist?"

Lorne looked pointedly at his watch while listening to the Chairman's inane droning. He was getting nowhere and so far had only accomplished wasting precious time that could have been used searching for Parrish.

The governing council was gathered in what looked like a dual-purpose court room and meeting hall. Like everything else in the village, the room was constructed of rough wood planks and featured austere decor. It was sparsely furnished and the main focal point in the room was a large conference table. The five council members were seated on one side and Lorne stood alone on the opposite side.

"You do not understand, Major Lorne," the council Chairman said, leaning forward in his seat. "There are appropriate channels that must be gone through to authorize what you are suggesting. We could not possibly launch a search attempt on the scale you demand. Our people have very specific protocols for situations such as this. You wouldn't want us to circumvent our own laws, would you? I can only imagine the tension that would place on the newly formed diplomatic ties between our two peoples."

Lorne could feel his patience dwindling as the discussion wore on. The council was obviously not interested in helping, and were merely keeping up this charade for the sake of diplomacy. It reminded him of every politician he'd had the misfortune of running into at the SGC, and he had no more tolerance for it now than he had back then.

He placed both hands on the table between them and leaned forward. "Look, I don't care what sort of political game you're playing here," he said, keeping his tone even. "I just want to know what happened to my man."

"As I have said--" the Chairman started.

The major cut him off before he could continue. "I've heard, Chairman. I've stood here and listened to you use every excuse in the book to justify your actions. But, underneath all the diplomatic language and fancy wording, it all boils down to the same thing: you're willing to let my man be taken against his will without batting an eye. What I want to know is why."

The council members shifted uncomfortably and several of them glanced at the Chairman for guidance.

"Are you trying to accuse us of having a hand in your man's abduction?" the Chairman asked.

Lorne sighed. "I'm just trying to find out what happened to Dr. Parrish. I can assure you, Chairman, I couldn't care less about any political aspects of this. And I can also assure you that I'm not leaving this planet until I know the answer."

One of the women council members suddenly turned to the others with a frightened expression. "It wouldn't exactly be interfering to tell him what he wants," she said. "I mean, no one could hold that against us."

"Hush, Lyria," one of the men said quickly.

"We have to help somehow," she protested. "Please, Chairman? We are not murderers. If we can help in any way by offering what we know..."

The Chairman waved a hand to silence her. But Lorne could see the indecision in his eyes now. After a few moments to consider, the Chairman finally nodded. "Several of our people in the tavern said they saw him leave with one of Jorrin's men."

"And who is Jorrin?"

"He is a... a trader. He brings things from other planets to sell in our marketplace here."

"Okay," Lorne said. "Let's go talk to Jorrin."

"You don't understand," the Chairman's eyes widened. "We can't interfere where it concerns Jorrin and his men."

"And why not?"

"He is not an average citizen, you see. Actually, he wasn't even from our planet originally. But his people have found a hospitable refuge here between their excursions through the Ancestral Ring. They bring much wealth back to our planet when they return and we are immeasurably grateful for what they offer us. All they ask is to be left alone. We do not see the harm in fulfilling such a simple request."

"So, Jorrin's a thief," Lorne stated bluntly.

"His ways are not as civilized as ours, perhaps, but he has been nothing but generous to our community. The items he brings to our marketplace have given an incredible boost to our economy when we were badly in need of it. We are forever indebted to him and his people for all the help they've given us."

"So, as long as you continue to profit from his activities, you don't care what a known criminal does to any innocent civilians who just happen to get in his way," Lorne said, not quite keeping the disgust out of his voice.

The Chairman bristled. "I'm sorry," he said, not sounding even slightly remorseful, "we cannot help you."

"You can, but you won't. Someday, Chairman, you're going to have to decide if all that financial security you're enjoying is worth the cost." Ignoring their indignant expressions, he turned and stormed out of the council chamber.

Lorne was seething as he stepped into the alleyway outside. He knew what Weir would have to say about keeping diplomatic relations open with these people, but he found it very hard to care right now. Diplomacy ranked very low on his list of priorities where the safety of his men was concerned. Especially when the man in question was an untrained civilian and was currently in the clutches of a highly unscrupulous gang of criminals.

The door opened behind him and Lorne turned around to see the youngest member of the council walking towards him. He'd been referred to by the others as "secretary," but Lorne didn't know exactly what that title meant in this society. He'd gotten the distinct impression, though, that this man wasn't very highly placed within the council.

"Major, if I could have a word with you?" the young man said hesitantly. "I'm very sorry about your missing man. I really wish there was more my people could do to help."

"Yeah, a lot of good that does."

"I believe the Chairman's heart is in the right place. But Jorrin is extremely powerful and he has many men at his disposal. They do whatever they please because they know that, realistically, there is nothing we can do to stop them. Even if we could, doing so would ultimately cause the collapse of our economic system. If the Chairman seems cold it is only because he has many aspects to consider in this matter. You have to understand, the people of this planet are his responsibility."

"And right now one of those people is holding captive someone who I'm responsible for," Lorne said. "So it shouldn't be that hard to figure out why I'm not in a particularly understanding mood at the moment. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a missing person to go find." He turned to leave.

"Major, wait." The man hesitated a moment before adding in a hurried breath, "Maybe there is something I can do to help."

Lorne stilled. The council secretary now had his full attention.

Stepping closer, the secretary said in a low voice, "As far as the public is concerned, the council has no knowledge of Jorrin and his activities. However, off the record, the Chairman is not stupid enough to allow these criminals to go about unmonitored. We keep tabs on their most frequent hangout spots and try to watch their movements as best we can. I know of a place near here where Jorrin's right hand man, Kiev, frequently visits. Using one of the council's paid operatives, it is possible to arrange a meeting between you and Kiev. With luck, and a good cover story, you might even be able to meet Jorrin himself."

"You can trust this operative?"

"He owes my family a favor," the young man said. "A rather large favor."

Reed was beginning to think they were jinxed. It was the only explanation for their team's track record thus far.

It should have been some kind of sign their very first mission had been to P3M-736...where they'd promptly proceeded to lose the entire SGA1 team and then almost get culled by Wraith darts. And although the next two missions hadn't been anywhere near that disastrous, they still weren't exactly shining successes either. Now they'd lost their team scientist within an hour of arriving on a supposedly peaceful planet. And with the way things were going, Reed had serious doubts that they were going to leave this place before destroying all hopes of a trade agreement.

Coughlin suddenly stopped walking and put out an arm to halt Reed's forward progress.

"What's wrong?" Reed whispered quietly, shifting his P-90 into a ready position.

Instead of answering, Coughlin motioned towards a brush covered rise in the terrain ahead. Dropping to the ground, he carefully climbed to the top and peeked over the edge. Reed followed, moving as quickly as he could through the dense thicket. Reaching the crest of the ridge, he dropped into a concealed position beside his captain.

In the clearing below stood the Stargate and DHD, the same as they'd been over an hour ago. Only now there were at least a dozen heavily armed men surrounding the gate. Upon closer inspection, Reed noticed several other similarly armed guards patrolling the edges of the clearing. From their vantage point above, they could not possibly be seen by the guards, but that would change the moment they made a move in the direction of the gate.

Yep, Reed thought ruefully. Definitely jinxed.

Coughlin slid back down the embankment, coming to a stop between the rise of ground and a reed-filled bog. They were well concealed here and the ridge that separated them from the clearing doubled as an effective sound barrier.

"Okay," Coughlin whispered. "Looks like we need a change of plans."

"No kidding," the lieutenant whispered back. "Looks like they called out the cavalry. What in the world did we ever do to those villagers?"

"Those aren't villagers," Coughlin said. "Those weapons are far more advanced than anything we saw in town."

"So who are they?"

"I don't know. Maybe we should go ask them."

Reed blinked in surprise. "Did you just make a joke? Wow, we really must be doomed."

Ignoring him, Coughlin moved back up the embankment. Reed once again followed.

They watched the guards for a full minute before Reed tapped Coughlin on the shoulder and motioned over his shoulder. Taking the hint, the captain followed him back down to their hiding place near the reeds. After they were a sufficient distance from the gate clearing, Reed turned around to explain his idea.

"You know," he said slowly, "that one guard closest to our side of the clearing passes pretty close to the treeline every time he walks by. I bet if we subdue him, we could find out who he's working for and why they're guarding the gate."

"And how exactly do you plan on subduing him?"

Reed grinned. "I think I can figure something out."

Coughlin put a restraining hand on his arm before he could slip away. "Hold on, I have a better idea. One which hopefully won't alert everyone in a three mile radius to our presence." He reached into his overstuffed backpack and dug around for a minute before pulling out a small bottle. "This should do the trick."

"What's that?" Reed asked curiously.

"One of the many 'useless trinkets' I purchased from the marketplace in town. The guy selling it claimed this can down an elephant." He opened the cap on the bottle and Reed could immediately smell a faint, repugnant odor wafting out of the top. “According to the vendor, it’s nonlethal and it doesn’t take very much to knock a person out.”

"Should I ask why you felt the need to buy this planet's version of chloroform?"

Coughlin shrugged. "Vendors only talk if you buy stuff. The more you buy, the more they talk. And, in case you haven't noticed, weapons are sort of a big deal on this planet. Half of those marketplace stalls were filled with enough ordinance to keep you happy for years to come. I highly doubt Weir will let us keep any of the items I have in my backpack right now."

"So, how do I administer our little sedative?" Reed asked. "Run up to one of the guards and wave it under his nose?" His eyes suddenly lit up and he snapped his fingers. "That's it!" Reaching into the reeds behind them, he hunted around a bit before finding one that satisfied him. "Here," he said, feeling more than slightly pleased with himself. "We'll fashion one of those old fashioned blowguns like you see in the old jungle movies."

"You have got to be kidding," Coughlin scoffed. But the expression on his face was mildly impressed. After considering it a moment, he nodded. "Okay, help me find a stick that will work for a dart. And let's pick up the pace, shall we? The major's waiting."

It only took a few minutes to get the blowgun and darts ready. Coughlin looked like he was having serious doubts about their plan, but he kept quiet as they worked. Reed was cautiously optimistic, however. As far as he was concerned, this was just crazy enough to work.

"Okay," he said, when they'd completed their task, "Which one of us gets to run out there and fire this thing? We'll only have one shot before they see us, so we can't really afford to miss."

"That would be the purpose of bringing a sniper along," Coughlin said dryly.

Grabbing the crude weapon, the captain carefully worked his way up to the top of the ridge and took up a position looking down at the guards. Working his way around the base of the embankment, Reed inched forward through the brush until he was at the edge of the clearing around the gate. He waited until the guard drifted close enough to his position before signaling Coughlin by clicking his radio's call button twice. A moment later, the guard stiffened up and then went immediately slack. Reed reached out and caught him before he slumped over.

As he dragged the unconscious man back through the brush to their little hiding place, he couldn't help thinking that he was very glad Coughlin was on their side. He couldn't imagine very many people being able to make that accurate of a shot with such a poorly designed homemade weapon. He wondered if the captain had prior experience with unconventional weapons. It was something he would have to ask him after they were safely back on Atlantis.

Coughlin joined him a moment later and handed the blowgun back to him. He seemed to be trying very hard not to look pleased with the outcome. "Not a terrible idea after all," he said cautiously.

Reed grinned. "See? Sometimes crazy makes the most sense."

Rolling his eyes, the captain leaned down and quickly disarmed their prisoner. While checking for any hidden weapons, he suddenly paused and pulled off what looked at first glance to be military dog tags.

"What is that?" Reed asked, inching closer.

"Not sure yet." Coughlin turned over the small metal pendant and examined the odd symbol etched into it. "I don't recognize it. Maybe a family crest?"

"Pity he's not really in any condition to answer questions at the moment. Any idea how long that stuff lasts?"

Coughlin gave him a noncommittal shrug and tapped his radio. "Major Lorne, come in."

"Lorne here," the major responded.

"I'm afraid we have a problem, sir. The gate is heavily guarded. It doesn't look like the locals, either. Too heavily armed and well trained."

Lorne looked up at the secretary. "Is it possible Jorrin's people are also guarding the gate?"

"It's possible," he said uncertainly.

"Sir, we captured one of the men and found a pendant on him with a strange symbol."

"What kind of symbol?"

"It looks like a bird with a crescent."

"Secretary, do you know a bird and crescent symbol?"

A look of realization spread across the council member's face. "Vreen’s men use that symbol to identify themselves. Vreen is a rival of Jorrin, with almost as many men and firepower. But he's not in as high of favor with the council because he often sells to other planets instead of our own."

"Why are his men holding the gate?"

"I don't know. Maybe he knows Jorrin is planning something. They have many spies in each other's gangs. By holding the gate, he prevents Jorrin's men from leaving the planet unchallenged. That is only a guess, though."

Lorne spoke into his radio, "Apparently there are two groups of thieves going at each other's throats, and Parrish got caught in the middle. The group at the gate might be planning something against the group that grabbed Parrish."

"So how do we pull the doc out of this?" Reed cut in.

"Hold on, I have a plan," Lorne said. Turning back to the council secretary, he asked, "Do you think you can get me a meeting with Vreen instead?"

The secretary looked surprised. "Possibly. But why?"

Lorne smirked. "I think this calls for a little game of spy versus counterspy."