by Domenika Marzione

Round One: Prey

Lorne stumbled through the stargate, nearly tripping on the step right in front. He balanced himself before the marine next to him could reach out to steady him and trudged down the rest of the stairs without further incident.

Eriksson, who once upon a time had been the junior lieutenant in Atlantis but now was the senior one in his company, was already ordering marines around, setting up a perimeter and security sweeps because running into the Wraith on three planets would be just their luck.

"Well, that sucked donkey balls," a sergeant said to no one in particular.

They'd been out for three days so far and had met four of the seven objectives, which put them slightly ahead of schedule despite losing half a day on the hazard known as "Ancient Database Doesn't Know Shit, Sir" and having to give up on that planet's objective. They'd also ran into the "Wraith" twice, losing a dozen marines in the first assault (Sheppard piloting a Wraith dart was as dangerous as Sheppard playing Wraith Queen on the ground) and then three in the second, a ground attack with Teyla as Wraith Queen and Lieutenant Salker's platoon as her nimble henchmen. There'd been a mass bout of dysentery (thankfully simulated) after drinking stream water that hadn't been purified by their iodine tablets, a march through snow that had produced two ankle sprains and one case of hypothermia, a couple of 30km rucks over uneven ground (the same times two, minus the hypothermia), and nearly losing a second objective because Booger (Lorne didn't think anyone actually called him Sergeant Beauregard anymore) was the only naturally ATA-positive marine left in Bravo Company and he had poor 'fine motor skills' when it came to Ancient technology while Lorne had the control but not the ability.

Overall, Lorne thought that they were doing pretty well.

He said as much to Radner, who'd had to be carried through the gate after getting zapped by a Wraith stunner on the last planet.

"It's not as much of a goat rodeo as last time, sir," Radner agreed with a sour expression that had very little to do with his attempts to regain feeling and movement in his limbs. First Sergeant Wrubelski stayed nearby, not trusting Radner to sit up alone and not wanting to delegate the responsibility to anyone else. "But right now I'm still down fifteen marines and we've got twice that in walking wounded."

Not much to say to that, so Lorne didn't, instead turning to go find Eriksson, who was standing with Osgeny and Kagan.

The security sweeps were reporting nothing, the lieutenants told him. Lorne pulled out his own Ancient PDA (rather than risk Booger blowing up his) to find no life signs and no unusual energy readings and he felt comfortable declaring the planet safe -- at least from Wraith or other hostile beings. Which in turn meant that they could settle in for a much-needed breather. Lorne ached in ways he usually associated with missions gone seriously off the rail -- bone-deep exhaustion, bruises, the twinge in his arm from where he'd been shot last year. The marines around him were mostly a decade younger and were all in better shape, but they were still looking worn down, too. They had lost most of a night running between planets the first time they'd escaped the Wraith, had been unable and unwilling to call a halt in the frozen tundra, and been woken up early by a deluge on the last safe haven. Everyone was short of sleep, short of temper, and more prone to mistakes that would cost dearly -- in time, in manpower, in safety. The platoon sergeants were more vigilant than usual as a result.

The wounded marines -- Radner hadn't been the only one zapped, plus the outstanding injuries from the marathon treks -- were all being tended to by corpsmen and their fellows, but nobody was in so bad a shape that an evac to Atlantis would be required.

Lorne made his way back to Radner, who had progressed to standing, wobbly as a new colt, under a corpsman's watchful eye. "How long do you want to stay?"

"Don't think we have much more than eight to spare, sir," Radner replied with a grimace and then a glare at Wrubelski, who was hovering nearby. "If we want to get on to M3V-4Q5 before dawn, we can't be more than ten hours here."

"Agreed," Lorne said with a nod. It was more or less what he'd decided on his own. Eight hours of rest for the group would be two shifts of four hours. "I'll take first shift, you'll get the tail end."

Radner looked to protest and Lorne cocked an eyebrow. They both knew that Radner needed the rest more immediately and that Lorne would make it an order if he had to.

"Aye aye, sir," he sighed and Lorne nodded. He left Radner to summon his lieutenants and conduct company business and went back to where he'd stowed his pack, digging out the rest of the MRE he'd started to eat... earlier. A couple of planets ago, at least. He sat down to pour water into the chemical heater because he didn't think he had enough coordination at this point to do it standing. What entree it was was almost academic (almost; he'd have pulled rank to escape the Country Captain chicken) and he chewed without regard for anything but the fact that it was warm and the wet sawdust texture made for more substantive chewing. Around him, marines were doing the same -- the injured had been seen to and the rest was wary exhaustion that four hours of prospective slumber would only dull and not cure.

The scenarios were intentionally made to be as difficult -- if not more so -- than a typical mission in the field, either for a platoon or an off-world team. And it was mishap after mishap with few breaks (except where they made them) and no warning. Lorne had seen every scenario, as had the captains who had dreamt them up, but that was no help -- which ones were chosen and how they were to be enacted (and by whom) was decided by others. With both Sheppard and himself in the field, the decisions had fallen to the company commander left in charge of the military in Atlantis. In this round, that meant Polito and Lorne was sure that that meant that they were in for one hell of a time for the four days left to them to complete their objective list.

After the lieutenants finished with Radner and the orders filtered down to grunt level, there was murmured discussion about who was sleeping first and who was too wounded to stand guard (no one; if there was any action to be had, everyone would be getting their asses up anyway). Lorne finished eating and took out his cup to draw some of the water that the marines were boiling. He made himself cocoa instead of coffee (save that for after he slept) and sipped it as he wandered around the camp, greeting marines and asking after injuries and laughing at crappy jokes. It was a subdued affair -- practice or not, they had still lost more than a dozen comrades (knowing that Sheppard was driving the Dart didn't make the sight of watching marines disappear before their eyes any less of a nauseating shock) and understood that things were going to get much worse before they got better.

The four hours passed uneventfully. First Sergeant Wrubelski signaled the changing of the guard and Lorne fell asleep as soon as he settled down against his pack.

"Hello, nurse!"

"She's a doctor, retard."

"It's from the Animaniacs! Didn't you ever watch that?"

"It's from Vaudeville, actually. It got appropriated by Animaniacs."

"Sir, were you serious when you asked us to warn you when you were being a dork in public?"

Lorne, walking a few meters behind the unintentional comedy routine, smiled as Kagan gave his marines the stink-eye. He couldn't see what they were talking about -- or rather who -- but he could take a wild guess from context and have it be confirmed by the murmuring about Doctor Clayton dressed like a serving wench. A few of the Bravo marines had been around since the initial expedition and Staff Sergeant Laganzo was reminding his squad that just because there was a hot chick in a dress didn't mean that she couldn't kick their asses.

Lorne caught Radner's gaze as they found each other before going to face whatever scenario Clayton represented. There had been civilians who had volunteered (or, as in the case of certain members of the Science Division, been volunteered) for participation in the exercises and Clayton was one of them. What scenario this could be was not really determined by the civilian participants -- Clayton could certainly manage to pull off a Sora routine and several of the other volunteers were former military and/or adventurous types.

"Here's hoping they just want to feed us," Radner muttered as they put on their best smiles and went to go greet the natives.

"Howdy and welcome," Clayton said with a big smile and a bigger sweep of her arm. "What brings you to Alabamastan?"

There was a muffled explosion of mirth behind Lorne; he, too, needed a second to maintain his composure. He took a deep breath, wiped the tear of stifled amusement from his left eye with the back of his glove and started into Friendly Explorer Speech #2 (#1 being the one with 'bring us to your leader' and #3 containing 'no, really, we're just armed for our own protection'). After he got to the part about seeking allies against the Wraith and trading partners, Clayton gave him another cheerful smile and encouraged him to come and meet their headman.

"I don't mean to be rude, sir," she said, pausing to bite her lip nervously. "But I fear that so many armed men coming in to our village might cause a bit of a panic. We've never seen an army so large -- have you left no one behind to tend to your families and crops? -- and, well..."

Lorne looked behind him at the sea of combat-clad marines. He'd been looking at the same faces for four days and was used to the picture, but part of him still retained the ability to see things from an outsider's perspective and that was a different image altogether. More than five dozen large, dirty men with heavy weapons and heavier loads and, with the initial surprise of the actors gone, nary a smile in sight. It was at best a little menacing, Lorne could easily grant. But this was Pegasus -- and this, in particular, was Pegasus distilled down to its rawest parts -- and Lorne was not inclined to eschew safety completely for the sake of a trade agreement. (The agreement could very well be the objective for this planet; it was a scenario.)

"I understand," he said in his smoothest placating voice. "Captain?"

Radner nodded and stepped away with a short bow to Clayton.

"Joker One, come forward," Lorne could hear him say over the radio. "Joker Two and Three, you are to stay out here and on radio. Be ready for anything. This could be all kissyface or it could be something else."

Movement and shuffling among the marines as Osgeny brought his platoon up and Eriksson and Kagan gathered their men.

"You'll excuse us if we bring some of our men with us," Lorne told Clayton. "They get nervous when we wander off on our own."

A glint in Clayton's eye as she nodded and Lorne thought she understood that that was no convenient lie.

The walk to the village of Alabamastan (Lorne had no idea who'd named these places; they'd already had the pleasure of being chased out of Whoville) was maybe half a kilometer. Clayton filled the time with questions that both probed their defenses -- or, rather Lorne's, since he was the one answering -- while simultaneously setting up the scene for the rest of the visit.

Lorne wasn't worried about saying anything he shouldn't; evading and outright lying by both omission and commission came easily enough after all of these years. Lorne was more concerned that Radner and the lieutenants -- Osgeny with them and Eriksson and Kagan over the radio -- listened and learned, both to what he and Clayton were saying (and how they were saying it) as well as what neither of them were saying. Talking to locals while on deployments on Earth was nothing new to any of them, but while everyone on Earth could see the flag on your right shoulder and know where you were from, hiding the existence and abilities of Atlantis was both more challenging and more crucial here in Pegasus.

The first "villagers" they saw were Doctor Abelard with a pitchfork and Doctor Rosmanova leading a cow toward a pasture. They stopped and stared appropriately. Lorne gave his most harmless smile in return, taking comfort in the familiarity of being the star of the traveling circus.

Clayton led them to a small farmhouse and it was absolutely a testament to both their professionalism and the way they'd subsumed themselves into the scenario that they didn't lose it completely when they got there.

"Howdy strangers," Yoni said from the doorway, emphasizing the hairball sound at the beginning even though he usually tried to eliminate that part of his accent. "Welcome to our village. To what do we owe such a momentous occasion?"

Clayton introduced them, repeating the salient parts of what Lorne had told her, and Yoni nodded thoughtfully. "We are always interested in trade and we most gratefully encourage anyone who dares to fight the Wraith. You have the look of serious intent about you and I am flattered that you seek us out to aid your cause."

"They have twice this many men waiting near the Ring," Clayton piped up. Lorne had been hoping that that wouldn't come up, but it was no big deal.

"They do?" Yoni mused. "All the more welcome are they. We shall send refreshment to them, if that is acceptable to you."

"Of course," Lorne said, knowing something was afoot and not being able to place what it was. "That is very generous."

If Lorne had been here with his own team, he'd only have had to nod in Ortilla's direction to make it clear that he wanted nobody off alone, nobody out of contact, and everyone on full alert. And Ortilla would have made it happen because this would have raised his hackles, too; his entire team would have been able to read his intent as well as he could read their moods. But this wasn't his team and Lorne could only hope that Radner and Wrubelski were on wavelengths near to his own. Because he knew that Yoni, for all of his feigned inattention and unfeigned irritation with the drudgery of diplomacy, understood his thoughts and instincts and that that understanding would be used against him the way Sheppard had used his knowledge of marine tactics to scoop so many men with the Dart.

"Sir, we should let the men know that hospitality is on its way," Wrubelski said to Radner in a low voice. When Lorne looked over, he could tell that his concerns were shared. "Don't want them thinking it's something not so nice."

Radner met Lorne's glance; he, too, sensed a trap. It wasn't that hard to grasp -- Yoni wasn't trying to be that subtle, instead banking on their past experiences to make them edgy and lead them into actions they wouldn't otherwise take.

"Do that please, First Sergeant," Lorne said, turning back to Yoni. "We've had some unpleasant surprises in the past, you see. It's better to be safe than sorry."

"Of course," Yoni said, smiling magnanimously as Wrubelski moved away.

Yoni led them around to the rear of farmhouse, where there was a wooden table and benches not unlike a picnic table from Earth and several bales of hay. Clayton tagged along, flirting outrageously with Osgeny, who was handling it with more politeness than actual grace. Much to the amusement of his marines.

"Please, sit," Yoni exhorted and Lorne, Radner, and Wrubelski did. Clayton looped her arm around Osgeny's elbow to drag him toward them, but he held his ground long enough to ensure that his gunny was settling the marines on hay bales and the one low bench behind the house.

"Sirs," Osgeny muttered as he sat down, wincing slightly when Clayton (and her much-more-on-display-than-usual cleavage) squeezed next to him.

"Buck up, Lieutenant," Radner told him with laughter in his eyes. "It's why you became a marine in the first place."

What followed was a chess match. From years of watching, Yoni knew Lorne's weak points of negotiating, knew what topics he tried to avoid, knew which rote answers he gave that couldn't stand up to logical parsing. And he exploited all of them within the bounds of his role of leader of a village ignorant of Atlantis. Or, at least, ignorant that Atlantis had been re-inhabited since Yoni and Clayton seemed to know all about the home of the Ancestors. (Most of it was accurate, even, and the rest was the sort of wacky exaggeration that could be expected after ten thousand years of story-telling -- or too many viewings of Xanadu in Little Tripoli.)

Alabamastan was modeled on one of those very devout worlds they came across with surprising frequency considering the Ancients had abandoned the galaxy to the Wraith ten thousand years ago. The Ipetians weren't with them on this round, but Valarn and his militia would have found kindred spirits in the frequent references and open reverence for the Ancestors and their works. It made Lorne relieved that Booger was still on the outskirts of town and he tried to tamp down his own sensitivity to Ancient tech. The last thing they wanted was to be stuck here with people who sought to either idolize or utilize these descendants of the Ancients who had stumbled through their stargate.

Yoni, of course, knew that, too. The team fussed about Lorne and especially Reletti in those potential situations, especially after they'd been kidnapped for that purpose by the Genii. That, too, was on the list of possible scenarios, but there were too many other plausible choices here -- including the fact that Alabamastan was harmless and simply 'unintentionally' making them nervous -- to wed themselves to a course of action even as Clayton waxed rhapsodic about her hopes that the sons of the Ancestors would come to defeat their ancient enemy and wouldn't it be wonderful if they were those men.

In between questions both subtle and not about their knowledge of (and devotion to) the Ancestors, Yoni asked more practical questions -- what did they have to trade, what were they interested in trading for, how did they hope to defeat the Wraith, have they had any success so far -- that Lorne and Radner took turns answering. For someone who occasionally had to be elbowed to stay awake during these sessions, Yoni was pretty good at them and Lorne made a mental note to utilize that later on. He wasn't the only one exposed here.

While they talked, Athosian children ran around, a couple of the youngest settling themselves on and near Yoni's lap because that's what they always did when they saw Yoni. A very serious Jinto, not quite old enough to be part of Halling's Merry Men, served them fruit and juice while a not-very-serious Marta took a page out of Clayton's playbook and flirted as she did the same for Osgeny's marines. Osgeny kept looking over his shoulder to make sure nothing untoward was happening, but Lorne (and everyone else) had heard Gunny Jenkins growling at the marines to pretend she was wearing a burqa and had a lot of brothers and so nothing came of Marta's overtures.

After a couple of hours of back-and-forth questions and evasions, they had a trade agreement pretty much worked out. It was a more complicated version of the usual 'starter' agreement -- the kind that was small-scale until both sides could prove they would be able to meet the terms, at which point it was extended and expanded. Yoni knew where Lorne's limits were and tried to bluster past them, but Lorne really had been doing this for longer than anyone else at the table combined and came away giving up no more than he was comfortable giving.

"Very well," Yoni said, slapping one hand on the table, the other occupied holding the sleeping girl in his lap upright. "Your tenacity speaks well of your people, Major. Let us now give thanks to the Ancestors for allowing this propitious meeting between our two worlds."

Lorne did not glare at Yoni, who hated these ceremonies with a passion.

Marta, perhaps finally convinced that her wiles would get her no attention from the marines, brought over a pitcher of what turned out to be local wine. Lorne, as he always did, politely requested water to dilute the wine, explaining with much apology that it was against their custom and creed for soldiers to partake otherwise. (It was against regs to partake at all, but practically speaking it was more important not to offend the host.)

"Of course," Yoni replied, snapping his fingers and gesturing. Jinto appeared with a fresh pitcher as Marta was carefully pouring blood-colored wine into elegant metal goblets. "I hope that you return here when you are not 'on duty' so that you may enjoy our wine in its fullness. We have had exceptional results the past few years and they only improve with age."

When the goblets were filled with water, Marta poured the rest of the wine into the water pitcher and brought it over to the marines, perhaps to try again or maybe just to annoy Jinto, who'd been waiting to do just that. After everyone was served, Yoni made a surprisingly eloquent and entirely too-long spiel to the Ancestors (Lorne's team had a whole points system for references made during these sorts of speeches and Yoni seemed determined to break all scoring records) and then they drank. The mixture was far less sweet than Lorne would have expected -- Pegasus was too often a White Zin and Muscatel kind of place -- but Yoni hated sweet drinks and had probably insisted on something else.

They finished their goblets over more benign conversation -- now that the measuring-up was done, both sides could relax a little -- and Lorne was starting to wonder when the chit that signified a met objective would be presented. It was turning out to be a pretty warm day after a pleasantly cool morning and if this was their softball challenge, he would be happy to take it and move on. Perhaps sensing his eagerness, Yoni started with the informal rituals of departure and they rose from the table.

Radner stumbled a bit as they started to walk around to the front of the farmhouse, but whether it was from the wine hitting him (Lorne could feel a very slight buzz, but nothing he'd call tipsy) or some residual effect of the stunner blast he'd taken (clumsiness lingered far after the worst effects of the shot dissipated), it was hard to tell. Lorne gave Wrubelski a questioning look, but the first sergeant shrugged back and he didn't think anything of it until he heard a whispered "sir!" behind him and turned. Osgeny was standing still and unsteady, his eyes closed and skin pale.

"You eat something you shouldn't have, lieutenant?" Lorne asked, concerned as Wrubelski called over for First Platoon's corpsman. The line between playing out the scenario and breaking character to tend to Osgeny was fine, but not as fine as it had to be with both Yoni and Clayton right there. Neither of them were looking professionally concerned, however, and Lorne would have happily let Doc (all corpsmen were Doc, which tended to offend the Ph.D-bearing scientists more than the folks in Medical) tend to the now-sitting Osgeny except... except that neither Yoni nor Clayton were looking any kind of concerned. They were looking expectant. And Lorne was starting to feel something that he knew wasn't worry.

"Oh, fuck," he muttered. Not this again. As the first wave of nausea hit -- strong enough to have him biting his tongue to keep from vomiting -- he reached for his radio to warn Eriksson and Kagan. But all he got was static. Osgeny's marines were around them now, rifles drawn and blinking against the dizziness.

Lorne looked at Yoni, who gave him a smile that was perfectly wolfish. "We know who you are, Lanteans."

And that was the last thing he saw before he passed out.

When he came to, it was inside -- maybe the farmhouse they had been sitting behind judging by the windows he could see. He was tied to a chair by his ankles and wrists, a rope thrown around his middle for good measure. He jostled at his bonds, but they were efficient and effective and not going to budge. Marines knew their knots.

"Fuck," he muttered.

"You with us, sir?"

Lorne turned his head as far as he could and at the edges of his peripheral vision saw both Wrubelski and Osgeny, one on each side. Osgeny's head was still bowed, but Wrubelski seemed to be looking at him. It was hard to tell -- they were far enough apart and at such an angle that eye contact was impossible and even a decent look was a guarantee for eye strain. "More or less," he replied.

"Captain Radner's directly behind you, sir," Wrubelski went on. "We're all facing out from a square."

Under the circumstances, it wasn't necessarily a relief to be with the others. Lorne alone or Lorne with Booger would have been a sign that this was all about the Ancient gene, which while unpleasant (extremely) was at least limited in scope -- and left Radner and Wrubelski to manage Bravo Company toward a rescue and escape. But that it was all four of them together meant that this was about Atlantis and that never turned out well.

"We the only ones up?" Lorne asked. He felt surprisingly good all considering; he had a quick metabolism and processed drugs faster than most, although he had yet to find a good use for that trait beyond imprisonment situations.

"No, sir," Osgeny said, sounding a little hoarse. "Skipper's still out, though."

"How are you feeling, Lieutenant?" Lorne asked.

"I think I've revisited every meal since we left home, sir," Osgeny admitted wryly. "But I'm feeling better now."

Lorne smiled. It was... not comforting, but at least vaguely amusing that he'd ended up with another puker since Reletti wasn't here. "What kind of marine can't hold his liquor?"

"Out of practice, sir," Osgeny replied. "Dry expedition."

They all knew that it wasn't the alcohol and that Earth wasn't the last time Osgeny had had a drink, but going along with the joke eased the tension just a tiny little bit.

"Sir, what do they want with us?" Wrubelski asked. "And where are our marines?"

"The usual," Lorne answered with a sigh. "Where we come from, how do they get there, what we're up to. And I have no idea. Probably not too far from where we left them -- that's a lot to carry any kind of distance."

"What about mine?" Osgeny half-croaked.

"Same," Lorne said. "Although it makes sense to keep them all in one place. Depends on what kind of capabilities they have."

"And how they got the jump on two platoons," Wrubelski added. "If they drugged them, too, then why didn't they warn us? They wouldn't have all gone down at once."

"Radios were out," Radner said groggily, sounding far away from Lorne's ears.

The next steps were to see if anyone could get free or if, cumulatively, they could at least put together a picture of what sort of bindings held them. Lorne knew from past experience that it would only be a matter of time before someone came for them, either to talk or threaten or to bring them to wherever the hard sell would take place. Unfortunately, he got the order of events wrong.

So this is what it feels like, Lorne thought. His skin, from the top of his head to the bottom of his soles, felt like it was being burned, like he was lying full-body on a smoking frying pan. It was distracting and it hurt -- not the worst he'd ever felt, not by a long shot, but enough that he wanted it to stop as soon as possible and he tried to wriggle free, to tip his chair over, to do something, anything to get away from the pain. But there was nowhere to go -- the bonds held fast and the chair was bolted to the floor.

As suddenly as it started, it stopped and Lorne gasped for cool air. He opened eyes he hadn't realized he'd closed to find Yoni standing in front of him, looking at him like he was a specimen in the lab. Lorne turned to see Clayton in front of Osgeny and Abelard, sans pitchfork, in front of Wrubelski. He wondered if Rosmanova had left her cow and was by Radner or if it was someone else.

"They created you in their own image, as they did us," Yoni said in a flat voice. "But you were their beloved pets and we were merely their weapons."

"Ten thousand years ago," Lorne replied, accepting that this was the Replicator scenario and the pain ray had been in lieu of mind probing. "Kind of a long time to hold a grudge."

He'd had iterations of this discussion so many times, with both friend and foe, that the answers were almost rote by this point. Except for the fact that part of him hadn't forgiven the Ancients yet, either.

"Time does not heal all wounds," Yoni said. "What the Wraith could not finish, we will."

This part, too.

"You'll be killing innocents."

A derisive snort from Yoni and Lorne realized, all of a sudden, what most of Atlantis saw when they looked at Jonathan Safir. He'd never borne the full brunt of Yoni's ire before, never had the sharp tongue or casual derision aimed at him without Yoni holding back because they were, if not friends then something close enough. At least not before now.

"'Sins of the father' -- is that not the expression from Earth?" Yoni asked rhetorically, one eyebrow arched. "There is no position for you to argue from here. You yourself are testament to how clearly their traits have bred through -- you seek to make yourself closer to your erstwhile parents than even nature intended. Gene therapy."

Lorne shook his head. "It's not that you can't understand. It's that you won't. We just want to learn, to stop the Wraith, to save our own planet."

Yoni shook his head in disgust and left him then, followed out by Clayton, Abelard, and Rosmanova. Mental probe or not, this had been the soft sell, the warning. Next would come the actual threats, specific and scary. Lorne didn't know what would get them free here -- Sheppard and company had been sprung by a curious and softhearted Replicator they betrayed. He didn't know if that would work again.

"Everyone okay?" Lorne asked once they were alone again.

"Peachy, sir," Radner replied. "Apart from the mental probing."

"They have enough to take Atlantis, sir?" Osgeny asked.

"Maybe," he answered, suspecting that the answer was 'yes.' "I'd rather not stick around to find out."

"I'm not sure they're going to let a SAR team through, not if they've got two platoons prisoner by the gate," Wrubelski said.

There were provisions for a 'rescue', but it came with a penalty in addition to forfeiting the objective from this planet. Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that.

Lorne didn't have access to his watch, so he didn't know how long it had been since he'd passed out or how long since they'd had their little 'interrogation.' He didn't know how long they'd have to wait until the next round. The sun was on the other side of the building from their windows, so beyond being able to see that it wasn't night yet, there was little way to judge the passage of time.

While they waited for the Replicators to return, they worked on their bonds; most possible escape scenarios pretty much demanded that their hands be free and working on that had the added bonus of keeping the circulation in their arms from going completely.

Nonetheless, Lorne's fingers were still cold and tingly when the door opened and Clayton entered with a dozen marines dressed in some amalgam of cammies and Athosian clothes. She said nothing as the marines undid their bindings and led them, stumbling, into a smaller windowless room. Four covered trays and a pitcher of water were in the middle of the floor.

"You don't expect us to eat after last time, do you?" Lorne asked ruefully.

"There's nothing in it this time," Clayton replied flatly. "You are of more value to us alive than dead, so you must eat. You won't eat if we drug your food. Therefore, your food is safe."

It was dubious logic, but Lorne had nothing witty to say in return, so he said nothing. The marines emptied out of the room and they heard a lock click.

Lorne crossed to the far side of the room and sat down heavily; the others followed. "Might as well work the kinks out now," he said, rolling his wrists and flexing his elbows.

"Should we, sir?" Wrubelski asked, gesturing at the trays.

"We should probably all drink water," Lorne said. "Whatever they gave us doesn't seem to have too many aftereffects, but water never hurts. Except when it's used to drug us, but I think we're past the deception part of the program. If she said it's good, then it probably is."

Wrubelski poured four glasses of water and handed them out. They all drank and Wrubelski refilled the glasses.

"You should try to eat something, Mark," Radner told Osgeny. "See if there's some bread or something bland."

Osgeny didn't look overjoyed at the prospect, but picked up one of the tray lids hesitantly and found a roll and a pear, which he took back with him to the wall he'd been sitting against. Unlike Reletti, who usually pretended to eat, Osgeny actually did finish both.

Lorne looked at his watch. It had been five hours since they'd gotten up from the table in the back of the farmhouse. Not enough time to have triggered the rescue scenario mechanism, but they were 'overdue' and it would only be two more hours before they lost the objective and whatever else the penalty was.

Thankfully, they never got that far. About a half-hour later, when Lorne had closed his eyes and started to doze, he heard a loud noise in the distance. It sounded familiar and comforting in a way that the cacophony of a large group of marines not trying to be subtle never really was -- except if they were coming to help you.

"Hello? Major? Captain?"

"We're in here," Radner called out.

"Stay back, sir," came the warning.

Lorne dropped his head down and covered himself in a protective crouch, relieved when the door didn't shatter into thousands of high-velocity splinters. Marines -- Osgeny's, from the few faces Lorne recognized -- poured in and Lorne and the others were helped up and half-dragged from the room and then the building. Lorne was used to this part, had been since before he'd gotten to Pegasus, and rode out the sharp orders and rough treatment, bracing for the moment when he'd be left to stand on his own and everyone remembered he was the ranking officer.

When that happened, Lorne took a deep breath and a moment to savor his freedom, then thanked the grinning marine next to him.

Wrubelski greeted one of Osgeny's marines with gruff cheer nearby and Lorne watched as the big first sergeant made a big show of being just fine, of them all being just fine. "Where the fuck were you boys? Jerking off?"

"We had to shake off the mickey they slipped us, sir," GySgt Jenkins apologized to Lorne as he watched marines fall into position to move out. "They made the mistake of only taking our rifles and packs. Marines have done more with less for more than two hundred years. That, and we kind of charmed the girl a little -- Marta? She wants to come with us."

"You do realize she's a machine, right?" Lorne asked, looking around to see where Marta was. She was standing near a few marines, looking hopeful. "Her and the others?"

"Better tell her that," Jenkins said, shaking his head as he followed Lorne's glance. "A bit young for me, but the boys liked her well enough and she them."

Lorne chuffed a laugh. It was a long deployment and there weren't that many women around. The marines were pretty much fond of anyone with the right anatomy. Even if, in this case, Teyla would squash their balls with teaspoons if they so much looked at Marta the wrong way.

"We have to haul ass, sir," Jenkins warned. "Still haven't hooked up with Joker Two or Three yet and the bad guys have to notice by now that we're loose."

They started off, Jenkins keeping an eye on Osgeny, who was still pale but otherwise seemed fine, moving in the general direction of the stargate and trying to stay out of sight of a village that was a lot more populated (by Replicator marines) than it had seemed before.

Radner sent marines in search of their gear and the rest of Bravo Company as they moved out; they found the marines first -- Eriksson and Kagan and their men had managed to get free of the pen they were kept in ("they built it around us while we were out, sir") -- and then they found their gear. Marta, eager to prove her worth, led them through trees and fields toward the gate until she suddenly stopped and froze, like her battery had died. Lorne knew what this meant -- she'd been found out and rebooted -- and he yelled for the marines to haul ass double-time back to the stargate, not even bothering to return fire when the Replicators (in the form of Cardejo's platoon) chased them because they needed to save their bullets for things that would stay down when hit by them. On the DHD was the chit for meeting the objective.

They go back to the planet they had rested on and, as soon as the wormhole closed behind them, dialed Alabamastan to keep their stargate busy for 38 minutes of peace, during which they intended to figure out where the hell to go next.

The first fifteen minutes were spent sprawled indelicately on the ground, catching their breaths, drinking water, and figuring out what the hell had just happened. They would have to warn Atlantis about the compromised security, but there was precious little that could actually be done with the knowledge that the Replicators were gunning for them. At least nothing that they weren't doing already.

The next twenty-three minutes plus were spent with Lorne and Radner going off a little bit into the woods to plan the next steps -- Wrubelski hovering just far enough away to maintain plausible privacy while they wrangled out a decision they were only going to bring to him for confirmation later.

"We should have saved Hoth for later, sir," Radner said with a bemused shake of his head. "Ruck through the snow sounds like a picnic just about now."

"I'm not making any suggestions, Captain," Lorne said with a shake of his head. "Last two times you let me choose, we ended up with Wraith."

Radner smiled. "Third time's the charm, sir?"

If Dave only knew, Lorne thought to himself. "If that's the case, then it's supposed to be nice on MP4-5G3 this time of year."

MP4-5G3 was a very nice planet when it wasn't going to be used for a training exercise. Lorne had no idea what it was like now.

"Well, worse comes to worse, sir," Radner said, "it probably won't be Replicators again."

"Don't jinx me," Lorne said, turning and walking a few steps so that the noise of the zat opening wouldn't be too loud. He tried to time it with snapping a branch, but he needn't have bothered -- some mild ruckus among the marines distracted them both.

"Just a near-deer, sirs," Wrubelski said over the radio. "Told the boys to stick to their MREs."

Lorne shielded the gun from Radner's view with his body, walking back a little toward where Wrubelski was. Radner had his back to Lorne and was looking up at the sky through the trees. He sighed, but it turned into a groan when he tried to roll his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Dave," Lorne said and Radner turned, surprised by both the sentiment and the use of his first name. His eyes widened, but he didn't get a chance to say anything before Lorne shot him with the zat. Radner fell with a muffled thump, rolling down a short hill before coming to rest by the foot of a big tree, and Lorne came as close as he dared to make sure that he was out cold before turning back.

"Hey, First Sergeant!" Lorne called over his radio. "C'mere for a second, please?"

Wrubelski appeared a few moments later. "Sir?" he prompted, looking around for Radner.

"Pee break," Lorne explained, gesturing with his free hand toward where Radner had fallen. Wrubelski made a face because Radner was out of eyeshot when he shouldn't have been -- and crossed past Lorne to be a little closer. Once he was past, Lorne shot him, too, with the zat and then closed the weapon, putting it back in his tac vest pocket. Then he went back to the marines, who were all drinking water and exchanging bemused stories.

"Okay, gentlemen," he began, clapping his hands for attention. "Our timeout is over. Onward and upward. Next stop, MP4-5G3."

"Where's Captain Radner, sir?" Eriksson asked.

"Gone to explore the wonders of nature," Lorne replied with a wry grin. Everyone chuckled, getting the euphemism. Lorne looked around. "Captain Radner's the one with the cheat sheet, isn't he?"

"Yes, sir," Kagan admitted wryly.

All of the squad leaders, platoon sergeants, and lieutenants had a weirdass decoder wheel that allowed them to translate alphanumeric planetary designations into gate symbols, but Radner was the only one who had done the 'translation' for every possible planet in the exercise beforehand. Lorne had known this already, but it hadn't come up before now.

"Never say the Air Force isn't good for anything," Lorne warned them as he went to the DHD and dialed as the marines chuckled and got themselves up off of the ground and into some sort of formation. The wormhole opened and Lorne looked around.

"Lieutenant Eriksson, volunteer a scout team, please?"

Eriksson nodded and called out names. Three marines moved up and toward the wormhole, going through. Everyone waited for them to radio back, which they finally did, informing them that the area around the stargate was clear and the weather was fine.

"Let's start moving out," Lorne announced, nodding to Eriksson, who was still closest.

"Should we wait for Captain R and First Sergeant Wrubelski, sir?" Kagan asked as he jumped up and down to re-settle his pack. Next to him, his gunny rolled his eyes and yanked on the top of the pack, fixing whatever was bothering the lieutenant. Kagan grinned at him.

"The man has been shot with a Wraith stunner, drugged, and nailed by pain rays in the last thirty-six hours and doesn't even get to take a leak in private," Lorne replied. "I don't think he wants an audience waiting for a report on a successful piss. Besides, it'll take enough time to get all of you water buffalo herded through the gate that he can join in on the end of the queue."

That seemed to be a sufficient answer, at least in terms of getting everyone in motion. But when neither Radner nor Wrubelski appeared as the last platoon was preparing to leave, Lorne asked for and received a team to go look for the missing men.

"We'll dial in once they're back," Lorne told Osgeny. "In the meanwhile, see if someone can't get us oriented and make sure everyone's good to go. Canteens full, injuries taken care of, the usual shit."

"Aye aye, sir," Osgeny said, then followed his platoon through the wormhole, which closed behind him.

"All right," Lorne sighed. "Let's go follow the yellow brick road."

The marines grinned and started off in the direction Lorne pointed them in, leading the way because one missing officer was enough. It gave Lorne enough time and space to pull out and charge the zat gun and wait for his opportunity. Which came when Sergeant Wiebler half-slid down the slope Radner lay at the bottom of. Lorne got O'Conner and Shultz first, from the rear, and then Wiebler in the chest as he ran back up the hill with his rifle up. It was all pretty easy and Lorne was sure it was more from something other than his own quick-draw skills.

He had been mildly surprised when Polito had given him the assignment; it was very much an out-of-the-blue kind of betrayal, although in hindsight Caldwell's had been just as random. He'd been told that he would be a Goa'uld agent and given a short list of suggestions for how to sabotage Bravo Company, since there would be no way to assure than any particular method would be available. He probably could have chosen a different means earlier in the exercise, but that would have defeated the purpose of the exercise even as it would have saved him a couple of very unpleasant afternoons.

By sending them to Planet Nowhere, the world his own team had been lost on for almost a month, instead of MP4-5G3, he had effectively ended Bravo's week -- they weren't getting off of that (very nice) planet until someone came for them because the DHD was busted. He wanted to give them as much opportunity to train and learn as possible before sabotaging their chances of winning, although maybe he'd have done so before getting smacked with the pain ray were he to do it all over again.

The marines on Planet Nowhere would be fine; the Wraith had no knowledge of the planet and, between the MREs they were carrying and the ample supply of near deer and flora, they weren't going to starve. It really was a nice place, although he expected that Bravo would be less than thrilled about their three-day vacation there. McKay had been working on a portable DHD since Lorne's team had been rescued and, if for some reason that didn't work, the Daedalus would be in the area by the end of the week.

Lorne looked at his watch. He needed to be gone before anyone woke, but he didn't want to leave the five marines defenseless, either. The Wraith had no knowledge of this place, either, but those weren't the only fish in the sea. He waited as long as he dared, but when he thought that Radner might be starting to stir, he beat a hasty retreat back to the stargate and dialed Atlantis.

Sheppard and Polito were waiting for him when he returned.

"How'd it go?" Sheppard asked. "Was being evil fun? Do I have to start worrying about you now?"

"It went," he replied with a shrug. "Nobody saw it coming."

"They never do, sir," Polito said with perhaps a little too much cheer. "How'd you like Alabamastan?"

"Doctor Safir and I are going to be having a long talk," Lorne said sourly, then yawned. "After I shower and then sleep for maybe a week."

"Not for a week," Sheppard told him as they started to walk toward the door. "We have a command staff meeting on Thursday."

Lorne cocked an eyebrow. "If I turn evil, do I still have to go?"

"Believe me, I've pondered trying it," Sheppard sighed.

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1 December, 2010