The Second Terrace of Purgatory

by Domenika Marzione

"I think we should switch missions," Sheppard said as he walked into Lorne's office.

Lorne looked up from where he was still trying to come up with a way not to use "act of God" to describe what McKay had done with his temporarily Ancient-bestowed powers. Lorne harbored a secret suspicion that McKay did vanity searches on the AARs queued up for the databurst and he didn't want the unfortunate turn of phrase coming back to haunt him.

"Because you have a sudden urge for mesclun, sir?"

Sheppard sat down heavily. "Because your epidemiologist is very close to causing an armed insurrection in Bio-Engineering and I can only ask Ronon to distract him for so long before it's either a human rights violation or Doctor Weir gets suspicious."

Lorne wanted to ask why he was the default choice to yank on Yoni's leash, but he knew the answer. With Carson gone, he was the next best option. Nancy Clayton didn't have any sort of official authority to make Yoni do anything and while Keller did, her authority was mostly theoretical -- Yoni was still both making and enforcing the bulk of the decisions in Medical and Keller was still dependent upon him for that. So instead he asked the next most obvious question.

"You're getting Ronon to beat Yoni up to keep him out of trouble?"

Lorne had no idea what could be a cause of friction between Bio-Engineering and Medical, assuming that this wasn't something to do with Yoni or his research in particular. Which was not necessarily an assumption he could make because this wouldn't be the first time Lorne had been asked to get Yoni out of Atlantis quickly. It could be any of a dozen scenarios, most of which Lorne only barely understood because academia was largely beyond him.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," Sheppard replied with a shrug. "My team is supposed to go out tomorrow and you're not going anywhere until Thursday. It's a standard wild goose chase for Ancient tech that probably doesn't exist anymore, so the odds of you actually needing to involve Engineering are slim-to-none."

"It's going to be anything but standard if Yoni's beaten to hell before we even leave," Lorne pointed out.

"I told Ronon to play nicely," Sheppard assured him. Lorne cocked an eyebrow in response because they both knew what the odds were that Ronon would listen. "Actually, I told him to make sure it took a while, but the effect'll be the same. Weir can deal with McKay, but not if Safir's around to exacerbate things."

Lorne could have said no if he'd really wanted to, but his mission was a boring one -- a trip to Cudor to expand a trade agreement; it was something they normally would have sent a senior lieutenant to handle -- and going looking for non-existent Ancient technology was an improvement over bargaining for lettuce. While Yoni was a grown man fully capable of both getting himself out of trouble and dealing with the consequences when he couldn't, Lorne did have an obligation to maintain the peace in Atlantis. And if that meant getting Yoni out of the city so Weir and Keller could smooth things over, so be it.

Getting the marines a couple of days early wasn't going to be hard -- they were on city patrol this week and one day was as good as another -- so it was more a matter of notifying Polito and Patchok and then sending the trio the new briefing files and hoping that at least Ortilla read them. (Ortilla would; Reletti had gotten a lot better since he'd gotten serious about the commissioning business, but both he and Suarez too often took for granted the fact that they were back on the bottom rung and everything would be explained to them anyway.) Emailing Yoni and then re-arranging his own schedule was left for last.

"Helping Doctor Safir choose discretion over valor, sir?" Polito asked him later in the day as he stopped by with some of the lieutenant-generated paperwork from routine missions.

"Why does everyone seem to know what's going on except for me?" Lorne asked plaintively.

"You're above the furtive trading of salacious gossip, sir," Polito told him with a straight face. "And Ortilla's squad was the one that ended up breaking up the shouting match down in Bio-Engineering."

Lorne sighed. Sheppard had probably left that part out because he didn't know about it -- even odds that he'd gotten his news from McKay, who after two years still only recognized Ortilla, Suarez, and Reletti by context. "Am I going to have to get all of them out of the city now?"

Maybe he could get them lost on another planet for a couple of weeks again.

"Nah," Polito assured. "I think all Manny did was promise to carry Volnik back to Engineering if he followed Safir and Laurentian over to Medical."

Ortilla didn't use his size as a threat, explicitly or implicitly, very often with the civilians in Atlantis. Or much at all, really. His version of looming was far less menacing than, say, Ronon's. Except when it wasn't.

"I am going to have an Excedrin headache this big by the time this week is over," Lorne said with absolute confidence and the proper hand gestures. Then he remembered the rest of what Polito had said.  "This involves Laurentian?"

Not exactly who'd he'd have figured as Yoni's partner in crime. Laurentian was a very good neurologist, a fairly crappy GP, a non-factor in the Atlantis social scene, and Yoni didn't seem to care much about him one way or the other either professionally or personally.

"Yes, sir," Polito confirmed. "Not quite sure who said what first, but there was some discrediting of theories and that devolved into the usual sort of crap the scientists get up to when someone tells them they're wrong. Doctor Safir wouldn't authorize some equipment usage -- said he wasn't going to enable a witch-hunt -- and Doctor Keller's not overriding him. Apparently Bio-Engineering said some stuff about Keller that went too far, Doctor Safir said some things that made some of the engineers cry, and now they're cut off from everything."

"And why I'm going on a wild goose chase tomorrow morning," Lorne finished, feeling the headache begin already. "I hate these pissing contests. Why can't they just beat each other up and be done with it?"

The worst part was that Lorne could completely see how this might have played out -- and that Yoni could very well be in the right here. Which would make the totally obvious maneuvers to get him out of the city all the more galling and would probably mean he'd be in a fantastic mood for the entire trip.

"Not everyone can appreciate the simplicity of life like a military man can, sir," Polito said with a shrug. "The marines'll keep the peace while you're gone. Probably be happy to enforce Doctor Safir's edict, too."

The marines liked Medical best for many reasons, Yoni being only one of them, and any excuse for stepping on Engineering's toes wouldn't go untaken.

"Just so long as they don't make things worse," Lorne said, then looked at his watch. "Speaking of, I'd better make sure Ronon didn't do any permanent damage."

Yoni showed up in the armory the next morning with a bruise blooming on his left cheek.

"You didn't beat up Doctor Volnik, did you, Doc?" Suarez asked warily as they got their gear together.

Volnik was the head of Bio-Engineering; he was an asshole, plain and simple. But he was apparently a brilliant asshole and McKay wasn't going to fire him just because he was as welcome as a turd on a dinner table.

"Suarez," Lorne sighed, as much for the question as for the fact that he still hadn't put his vest on, which in turn meant that he still hadn't finished packing his ruck. The question had an even chance of setting Yoni off and then they'd still have to wait ten minutes for Suarez to finish being a diva.

"Volnik wouldn't be able to get a punch in," Yoni responded, not looking up from where he was deciding how much medical kit to bring along. Lorne was relieved when he packed only the usual supplies. "And I'm inclined to leave him to his just desserts rather than bloody my knuckles on him."

"How's that gonna play out?" Reletti asked with a grin as Ortilla gestured for Suarez to hurry it up.

"Clayton and Esposito have long been planning an unanaesthetized vasectomy with plastic sporks," Yoni said cheerfully as he zipped up his pack. "Another day or two and Keller will gladly run the instruments under fetid water first."

Bio-Engineering hadn't had any female members since the first year and had a high turnover rate in general; nobody would open an official complaint, but Lorne knew that Weir was just waiting for someone to be the first so she could send Volnik packing, with McKay's blessing or not.

Suarez finally got ready and they finally got underway and then... nothing. They wandered around the planet for a few hours, but neither Lorne's PDA nor Reletti's gene picked up anything and so they came home again. The highlight of the excursion was lunch, which took place in a meadow surrounded by flowers and was observed from a careful distance by a couple of families of rabbits. The lowlight of the excursion was the marines asking first if they could bring a rabbit home as a pet and then, upon being told no, whether they could bring one home for dinner.

Back in Atlantis sans rabbits, Lorne didn't know whether to be amused or horrified that Keller had apparently told McKay that Engineering was welcome to use Medical's equipment as soon as Volnik publicly apologized to Laurentian or hell froze over, whichever came first. Yoni, of course, was beaming like a proud father.

At least they'd gotten a picnic out of the deal.

It turned out that Lorne had to go out on Thursday anyway. Not to Cudor -- Sheppard's team was still on lettuce detail, much to McKay's displeasure -- but to Baratha, which was a world they'd had dealings with for a while. It was more social call than anything else. They'd expanded the Baratha irrigation system in return for a share of the increased crops and now the harvest was in; the Barathian leadership had hinted to Lieutenant Eriksson, the one handling the transaction, that they'd love for someone more senior to grace them with a visit.

Lorne got to be the lucky fellow, but he left his team behind and just tagged along with Eriksson and his platoon; his own marines weren't really needed and the worst of the crisis between Bio-Engineering and Medical seemed to have passed (the official end coming about ten minutes after McKay needed to borrow something from Medical; he'd marched Volnik over himself and offered to make him kneel) so there was no need to request Yoni's presence. Also, Yoni picking at his food was usually not considered a diplomatically savvy move.

It was a nice time considering that it was a dinner-type banquet that had started at 0500 AST. Baratha was a prosperous agrarian planet with extensive caverns to hide from the Wraith; they ate well, lived well, and appreciated trade partners who could do both, too. Which was why Lorne, who was leaving early, told Eriksson to stay as long as he wanted; the Barathians liked the marines as much for their ability to do hard work as for their great appetites and, hey, if feeding the leathernecks counted as diplomacy, the Barathians could feed Bravo Company's Second Platoon until they burst. Or ran out of food, which was probably more likely.

Radner was in the control room when Lorne got back to Atlantis, presumably discussing something with Osgeny. "Sir?" he called down. "Do you have a minute?"

Lorne debated with himself how worried he should be as he climbed the stairs. On the one hand, Radner didn't sound that concerned. On the other, it was something that couldn't wait until Lorne was rid of his gear or back in his office.

"What's up, Captain?" Lorne asked as he entered the control room. Osgeny was seated at the gate room officer's station, Radner leaning over his shoulder and squinting at the laptop. Radner had given up and gotten glasses, but never wore them except in the field or in his office.

"We have social scientists in E-4, sir," Radner said, standing up and gesturing behind him to the display in the corner of the room.

Lorne looked over at the large screen, which served as a life signs monitor for the city. There was a cluster of dots far outside of where there should have been dots -- at least dots without permission. Which presumably they didn't have, or else this wouldn't have been an issue.

"What's the problem with bringing them back in?" Lorne asked, since that should have been the obvious response -- nobody, not McKay, not Weir, not anyone -- went into restricted parts of the city without clearing it with Little Tripoli first. The marines had never had a problem enforcing that policy, so the question was why they suddenly did now.

"When I sent a squad down to march them back in to civilization, sir," Osgeny answered, "They told me they had filed the paperwork and had permission."

"There's an approved mission request form in the system," Radner agreed, gesturing at the laptop, "but Polito swears he never saw it because if he had, he would have rejected it -- E-4 was where the building collapsed when the whales came and we haven't let anyone but the structural engineers in since and they go with a heavy escort."

Lorne remembered the incident vaguely -- too much else had been going on that day and since. "So call bullshit and bring'em in," Lorne said, still missing the problem beyond the obvious one of G-2 falsifying documents. He planned to make their lives very difficult for that.

"The request has Colonel Sheppard's name as the approving and submitting officer, sir," Radner explained with a grimace.

Lorne sighed to himself. Radner and Polito weren't sure if Sheppard had approved the mission without paying attention to what it was. It wouldn't have been the first time.

"Lieutenant, get your marines to haul their lying asses in," Lorne ordered with a frown. Sheppard had absently agreed to many things he shouldn't have, but only ever verbally. He'd never actually file the paperwork without realizing what he was doing. Getting Sheppard to file his own paperwork was a challenge; someone else's was a little too much to believe. "And don't stop at the edge of civilization. Perp walk them straight down here."

Osgeny practically beamed. "Aye aye, sir," he said, standing up.

"C'mon," Lorne told Radner. "Let's go tell Weir."

Weir took the news about as well as she had the Engineering-Medical dust-up earlier in the week. She clenched her fists in frustration a few times, thanked them, told Lorne to handle the matter as he saw fit, and then excused herself to make a visit down to G-2.

Lorne read Doctor Wallach and his minions the riot act right in the middle of the gate room before an audience of civilians and marines. Wallach's justification had been that he didn't want the marines blowing up any other crucial buildings before G-2 had a chance to work on them (the way Weapons Company had the other month) but Lorne reminded him that while the social scientists may live to research, their lives still counted more than their research and if G-2 couldn't be counted on to get that prioritizing straight, Lorne would take care of it for them. He then radioed Polito, who normally approved requests, and told Matt that G-2 wasn't going anywhere without a hard copy printout of the forms signed by both the S-3 and either himself or Sheppard, which would pretty much keep them under lock and key until Weir finally had enough of their bitching and told Polito to let them off the leash. As pissed as she sounded, though, that might be a while.

Matter settled, he went back to his office and was working on the AAR from his team's rabbit adventure when his phone beeped.

"Sir?" Osgeny sounded confused. "Colonel Sheppard just checked in to say his team would be staying late on Cudor. He asked what was happening here and I mentioned the E-4 thing and he said he'd authorized a trip to Delas, not E-4, and that I should check with you."

Lorne felt instinctively for the scar on his shoulder. Sheppard had never mentioned that he'd read Lorne's jacket, but that didn't mean that he hadn't. Obviously he had and the uncensored one at that.


"Is Captain Radner still there, Lieutenant?" Lorne asked, standing.

"No, sir," Osgeny replied.

"Tell Doctor Weir that we'll be needing her in the small conference room in fifteen minutes," Lorne said, looking around his desk for the folder for Cudor before remembering that Sheppard had been reading it at the conference table. "And gather the company commanders, please."

Lorne called Yoni and told him to be prepared for a call to go out. Yoni asked what had happened and Lorne said he wasn't sure yet, although he pretty much was.  

It was almost time for the shift change in the gate room; Salker was already in the control room getting the hand-over briefing from Osgeny when Lorne arrived. He'd intended to talk to Weir first before addressing the captains, but she was already in the conference room, so Lorne just went ahead.

"What's going on, Major?" Weir asked as soon as Lorne entered the room. He urged the doors to close behind him. "What or where is Delas?"

Lorne sighed as he took his seat. "Delas is a planet in the Milky Way," he said. "It used to be part of Bastet's empire, then it was part of Anubis's, then it was nobody's. During the nobody's phase, SG-11 got itself kidnapped and held for ransom there."

He was sure the captains all knew he'd been on SG-11 before Atlantis.

"You think Colonel Sheppard's team is being held against their will?" Weir asked, surprised but not shocked. "That that was a message to warn us?"

It hadn't been that long since Sheppard's team had gotten themselves kidnapped by Kolya -- either time, really -- and nobody in Atlantis could easily forget just how many bad guys out there wanted Sheppard or how frequently they seemed to get him.

"I can't think of any other reason he'd reference Delas, ma'am," Lorne replied with a shrug. "And why he'd make sure I got the message."

Sheppard could have easily referenced any of the half-dozen times he'd gotten kidnapped in Pegasus and he hadn't. He'd chosen a reference only Lorne would get, which Lorne was taking to mean that the specifics of Delas were important beyond merely just a code for 'being held hostage.'

"The kidnappers on Delas weren't Delasians," Lorne began before they could get sidetracked by alternate scenarios. He'd have printed out the AAR for the others to read, but it was long and parts of it were still classified above what the captains had clearance to read. "They were mercenaries from another world and they wanted to trade the Tau'ri for weapons. They wanted SG-1 to bring them the weapons. The also wanted to shoot SG-1 with the weapons, but thankfully it never got that far."

It was about the only part that didn't go that far. Lorne had woken up sweating for the better part of a month afterward and still had the occasional dream, although Pegasus had provided richer and more recent nightmare material.

Weir frowned. "I don't remember reading about this," she said.

"It happened right before you took command, ma'am," Lorne told her. "The paperwork hadn't been done by that point."

In a lighter mood, Lorne might have suggested that SG-1's portion of the paperwork still might not be done because Jack O'Neill made John Sheppard look positively dedicated when it came to feeding the bureaucratic machine.

"Why haven't we gotten a ransom request?" Weir asked, since she was probably thinking the same thing. "Why did they let him dial Atlantis at all?"

"He probably told them what would happen if he didn't, ma'am," Polito answered. "He told them we'd send a search party and they're either not willing or not yet able to deal with that."

"That's not comforting," Weir said.

"It's actually good news, ma'am," Hanzis said. "It means they're not interested in killing him too quickly -- or at all -- and it means they're listening to him instead of just tying him up and going through with their plan. It also probably means that they're scared of us and what we can do or else they wouldn't bother trying to improve their situation or deviate from what they intended to do."

"If Major Lorne is correct in interpreting Colonel Sheppard's message -- and it seems pretty obvious that Colonel Sheppard was leaving a message," Radner added, "then we can expect a ransom request to follow once they're in whatever defensive position they'd like to be in. On Cudor or wherever else they may want to go."

None of them wanted to relive the weeks of fruitless searches that had gone on when Sheppard's team had been kidnapped by Ford.

"How fast can you put together a plan of assault on Cudor?" Lorne asked. He remembered the planet more from the files than from actually going out there, but the town was one of those 'can't take a jumper but still a hike from the gate' kind of places, which meant that unless the bad guys were covering the stargate, they'd be able to get a ground force in. And if they were covering the stargate, then the marines could get them out of the way without raising too much of an alarm.

Polito and Hanzis, operations and intelligence officers respectively, looked at each other. "We can get boots on the ground now, sir," Polito said. "But give us half an hour for a larger plan."

"You have it," Lorne replied, then looked at Weir. "Anything you want to add, ma'am?"

Once upon a time, he'd have been deferential even though they both knew that this was a military matter and Lorne was effectively in charge. Now they both accepted that it was a needless formality and simply gave up the pretense.

Weir shook her head and stood up; they all rose in turn. "Get them home in one piece and with as little force as necessary," she said. "If the ransom is indeed weapons that could be used against us or our allies, then of course it's off the table. But if it's something else, then do consider it, please. Our people's lives are worth far more than shovels or medicines."

Lorne told Salker to bring him up on the phone/intercom system if Sheppard or any of his team dialed in for any reason and then followed Radner and Hanzis back to Little Tripoli while Polito put together a recon team; he could work better from his office and there was no real need to put up a public display of strength or continuity of command. This was still technically a hunch they were playing -- for all they knew, Sheppard had gotten high on some wacky weed, hadn't realized he'd put Atlantis on a combat footing, and would obliviously stumble back through the gate with his team any minute now. None of them believed that to be the case, but the rules said they had to allow for the possibility.

Back in his office, Lorne cleared his desk of everything else but his laptop; the files from Delas were electronic-only. He didn't think he'd forgotten anything of the actual incident, but he also knew that Sheppard hadn't been there and had been referencing the AAR and not the actual event. There might be something in the former that could be key, something that seemed relevant now but had only been an administrative footnote to a harrowing experience at the time. It had taken the better part of a week to write the original draft and Edwards hadn't even complained the once.

"Do you still not know what's going on?" Yoni asked from the doorway. He was being sarcastic, but without rancor.

"Yes and no," Lorne replied, waiting for Yoni to enter before starting to explain. Yoni had been with the Stargate Program when Delas had happened, but even if he'd been at the SGC that day and the days that followed (and it turned out that he hadn't been), there was no reason for him to recall the incident. He'd been a pure researcher then; the only doctors in Medical were those who'd chosen to become practitioners.

"Do you think there's a revenge angle as well or was Sheppard just flagging the situation and the probable ransom?" Yoni asked. He didn't sit down, instead staying standing behind the chairs, holding his elbows.

"No way of knowing for sure until we get our next communication," Lorne replied. He'd been going back and forth on that as well. "I'm inclined to say yes, although I can't really imagine who the focus could be."

None of the lieutenants had gotten into much trouble recently and Lorne didn't think he'd done anything, accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose, to spark this level of rage and vengeance.

"Blood feuds are usually the province of Sheppard's team," Yoni agreed. "Perhaps--"

A beep from the phone indicating an incoming intercom message.

"-- brought by Major Lorne and his men. By sundown or they will die. That is all."

"Wait!" Lorne called out, hearing the echo of Weir's own plea and the distinctive sound of a wormhole closing.

He looked up at Yoni, who shook his head in ignorance.

"What just happened, Lieutenant?" Lorne asked, wondering if he could have done more from the gate room and second-guessing his decision not to relocate.

"You heard almost all of it, sir," Salker replied. "No introduction, no identification, no anything. He just said that he wanted two hundred of our rifles, brought by you, and, well, you heard the rest. He started talking the second the wormhole was established and closed it right when he was finished."

Lorne ran his fingers through his hair. "I'll be right there," he said, standing up.

"What have we done?" Yoni asked, mystified. "We haven't..." he trailed off, snapping his fingers as the realization hit. "The -- what were their names? The ones who chased us off their planet because we wouldn't give them our rifles? McKay rescued us and hasn't let us forget it since."

The Gaorgi. Lorne had considered them, but had ultimately decided against it because he'd figured their anger at his unwillingness to trade weapons had been spent by attempting to kill or capture him and his team then and there. "Dammit," he sighed, leaning over to reach the phone and dial Polito's extension. "Matt, it's me and mine they want. Plus two hundred P-90s. Dig up the AAR for M72-656, local name Gaorg. I turned it in yesterday."

"I remember it, sir," Polito replied. "We know for certain?"

"No, but I haven't pissed off anyone else who wants our guns recently," Lorne said. "Do we have men on the ground yet? Can we get a cloaked jumper there flying surveillance? Is Eriksson back yet?"

A pause.

"Yes, we can, and no, sir," Polito said. "We can recall him or send Cardejo."

Lorne sighed. This was the second time in a month that their lack of a seasoned pilot not himself, Sheppard, or Eriksson had come back to bite them. "Both," he said. "We may need Eriksson later."

There'd been alcohol at the gathering on Baratha and while neither Lorne nor Eriksson had partaken since it had essentially been breakfast for them, there was no saying that Eriksson hadn't indulged once it had gotten to after lunch, especially with Lorne gone. Not that he expected Eriksson to return drunk, but they might need him to sober up in a more metaphorical sense -- to go from a party to flying a combat mission required a change in mindset.

"What time is sundown on whatever planet they're on?" Yoni asked.

It was going to be much sooner than Atlantis's -- Cudor had been an early-morning mission same as Baratha because of the time differences -- but Lorne had no idea how much sooner. "File's on the table."

Yoni went over to it and started flipping through, then stopped, ran his finger down the page, and then looked at his wristwatch. "Two hours."

Which was not enough time for anything approaching 'considered' or to even wargame the wild suggestions.

Lorne was still moving around his desk when the three captains came jogging in bearing files, laptops, and coffee cups.

"Cardejo's en route to the jumper bay," Polito said as the three set up shop at the conference table. "We're going to make him our JSTARS unit. He's taking Staff Sergeant Cerney's team from Bravo's First Platoon since Cerney's got the gene and used to be ANGLICO and two riflemen may be useful, plus a corpsman in case we get a chance for a spot rescue. We've got a squad at the Cudor stargate now, but their orders are to stay put, hold the gate, and make sure we know if they try to take Sheppard's team off of the planet."

Lorne nodded. Solid opening moves, not that he expected anything less. "Sit down, Doc," he told Yoni. "You might as well see what we're getting into."

Yoni sat.

Hanzis typed something on his laptop and the projector attached whirred to life, throwing up an image on the screen Lorne usually didn't bother to raise when it wasn't in use. "Cudor from the sky, more or less," he explained. The shot wasn't from orbit, but it was at least from a jumper and it was from high enough up that the stargate and the start of the town were at opposite ends of the frame. "You'll notice that the stargate is oriented away from the village, which should buy us some space once it gets dark. Cudor City is on high ground, essentially on a mountaintop, and you can see the stairs here and here--" Hanzis used his laser pointer to show off the rough stairs mostly obscured by trees, "--and what may be redoubts or defilades. It's hard to tell from this angle and with all those trees."

The briefing from Polito and Hanzis, supplemented by Radner, was practical and promising. The problem, as always, was that they had no true close air support; the jumpers were excellent for surveillance and medevacs, but with only the drones as armaments, they had both too few and too powerful weapons to be used as complements for ground forces.

"We have less than ninety minutes," Lorne told them after he'd asked his questions, "Minus however long it takes for Cardejo to get intel back to us. Unless one of you gets struck by divine inspiration, I don't see another way to go but for me to put in an appearance and try to stall them. We'll have almost every advantage except terrain familiarity with nightfall and I'd rather do this the right way than charge over there half-assed and start a war we don't need to be fighting."

Coming up with a plan that worked with the intel they got from Cardejo, briefing the marines and then getting them mobilized and in position to implement the plan was going to take a lot longer than ninety minutes.

"Sir," Radner began with a grimace, but Lorne cut him off.

"I know this doesn't sound brilliant," he said, holding up his hands to forestall argument. "But I'm pretty sure they want our rifles more than they want to kill me or Colonel Sheppard."

Actually, he wasn't sure at all -- he'd badly misjudged the ire of the Gaorgi already. But now wasn't the time to admit to that.

"Sir, with all due respect, I'm not sure that you'll buy us enough time merely by the act of showing up on Cudor and saying 'hold on a second.'" Polito said. "You're good with the diplomatic bullshit, but talking productively with the bad guys is a tall order even for a short duration and what you'll probably end up doing is just making yourself another hostage."

"If they aren't content to just kill you and take a half-dozen rifles they can reverse engineer, sir," Hanzis added. "Now I'll grant you that they are probably more interested in the rifles -- or else they would have just taken the ones from Colonel Sheppard's team and left -- but we don't know enough about these people to assume that they'll be logical or consistent. We don't want to repeat any of the mistakes we made with the Genii with them."

The similarities with the Genii had come up here and there during the briefing and Lorne accepted them because they seemed true. But he also didn't want to become trapped by the past. The Gaorgi may be like the Genii, but they weren't the Genii.

"I'd rather make myself another hostage than get a lot of marines and Colonel Sheppard's team killed because we were too cautious," he said, knowing he was baiting the marines and counting on them to bridle at the accusation.

He stood up and everyone else did, too. "I'm going to brief Weir," he said. "You three are going to figure out who's coming with me to Cudor and who is going to be part of the main effort. Doc, you coming?"

He left without waiting for either an answer from the marines or to see if Yoni was following. Yoni was, however, and caught up by the time Lorne hit the transporter area.

"They're not wrong, you know," Yoni said as they exited the transporter station closest to Weir's office. "You want to run off like Sheppard does and telling them that they're cowards so that they'll let you isn't very wise or very gentlemanly."

Lorne sighed and stopped walking. "I'm not trying to shame them into letting me go off on a suicide mission," he said. "But we all know that I am going to have to go to Cudor and that I'm probably going to have to do something ridiculously dangerous and stupid once I'm there. I don't want them protecting me from that just because I used to fly refuelers and don't have Sheppard's Special Ops background. I don't think I'm the best man for the job, but it doesn't matter because I'm the only man for the job. And I'd rather them focus on getting me home than on not letting me leave in the first place."

Yoni grimaced, but gave him a curt nod. "Do you want me there?"

Yoni was generally very aware of his limitations as a soldier -- he was better than any other civilian in Atlantis, but under no illusions when it came to the marines.

"Of course I want you there," Lorne said with a shrug. "But I also want a half-dozen choppers and maybe some arty and everyone to have one of those Ancient personal shields."

Yoni gave him a dark look and Lorne rolled his eyes because he wasn't making fun. "Let's wait and see what the captains come up with; if they'll let me take our team, wonderful."

He wanted his team with him, wanted the comfort of familiarity because he was fully appreciative of how dangerous walking in to this situation could be. Which was precisely why he'd abide by whatever the captains decided. He respected their judgment, even when he chose to overrule it.

Weir, when he got to her, took the update thoughtfully. "I got where I am by wowing the right people with my mediation skills and yet here I am leaving the most difficult negotiations to someone else."

"Ma'am, if I let you go to Cudor, there'll be a dozen people who'll shoot me before the Gaorgi can get a chance," Lorne told her. He knew she wasn't implying that he'd do a crappy job. He also knew that a dozen might be on the low side.

"I don't want to lose you, too, Major," Weir said, her smile fading. "I appreciate the necessity of you handling this in person, but I also know that Atlantis is not a company-level command."

Radner had handled Atlantis pretty much on his own at one point and Polito was fairly close to trading in his railroad tracks for a gold oak leaf, but Lorne understood what she meant.

"Don't plan on putting that to the test, ma'am," he said.

Anything else in the way of reassurances was cut off by the alarm for an incoming wormhole. After a nod from Weir, Lorne headed out into the control room.

"Atlantis, this is Jumper Two," Cardejo's voice came over the speakers. Lorne gestured for Salker to connect the intercom in his office so that the captains could hear. "We've completed our first circuit."

Lorne listened as Cerney gave most of the report -- who was manning the town's defensive positions, where their people were, how many dots were there on the life signs display -- and then the captains asked questions. By the time they closed the connection, Lorne was more sure than ever that walking in to Cudor was going to be extremely dangerous -- and just as sure that there were no other viable options.

Ortilla, Reletti, and Suarez were waiting with Yoni in the armory when Lorne arrived to kit up. Suarez was even already packed.

"It's been a while since we got ourselves taken prisoner, sir," Ortilla explained with a shrug.

Lorne shook his head and smiled. This was as much about the captains trusting him as he did them. They were giving him the tools he wanted to do the job and expecting that he'd bring them home again intact.

"I've almost forgotten what Reletti's puke looks like," Suarez added cheerfully, ducking out of the way as Reletti swatted at him.

Polito was in the control room, standing on the balcony, when they entered the gate room. Weir was next to him and they both looked determined and uncomfortable. Lorne nodded at them, then waited for the stargate to be dialed.

Shadows were starting to fall on Cudor when they got there. The sun set on the opposite side of the mountain atop which the town sat, so the stargate was already out of the light and the path through the trees and up the steep steps would be dark.

"Welcome to Cudor, sir," Staff Sergeant Stackhouse said wryly, stepping to the edge of the tree-provided darkness. His squad emerged behind him, camoed-up and hands-on-rifles and barely visible even right up close. They'd be impossible to see from the city on the hill. "It's all quiet down here, but the eye in the sky's got a different story. "

"You'll be good up to the first redoubt, sir," Cerney said in their ears, taking his cue. "It's about half a klick and then you've got five men. Three on the left, two on your right. Not sure if they're locals or Gaorgi or if it makes a difference, but they've been there since we got here. They've got a sixth guy running back and forth, probably with orders, but we haven't seen him in twenty minutes and he's not en route."

"Thank you, Staff Sergeant," Lorne said to Stackhouse, signaling for his team to start moving. Stackhouse and his men melted back into the darkness and Lorne turned to follow his team.

 They fell into single file -- Reletti, Yoni, Ortilla, Lorne, and then Suarez. "Any changes since your last report, Cerney?"

The first part of the route to the town from the stargate was in open space, a clearing that would make it easy to observe the stargate from the town were anyone watching -- and Lorne was sure that they were.

"No, sir," Cerney replied. "The Colonel and his team are still together in a building on the western side of the town. Nobody's been to see them. Hasn't been much movement in the town at all, which would support the theory that Cudor is victim instead of conspirator here."

Lorne was willing to accept Cerney's assessment; the marines had been deployed to enough places on Earth that they had pretty good radar about who was actively helping the bad guys and who simply couldn't stop them.

It was indeed dark once they hit the trees, but not so dark that they needed their goggles, more the kind of heavy shadow that could be dealt with once their eyes adjusted to the dimness. The path itself was clean and clear and far less rough than it had looked from the aerial shots. A series of dirt paths and stone steps worn smooth through time led to the city; Cudor probably dated back well before the Ancients had upped and left Pegasus to the Wraith.

"Hundred meters, sir," Cerney warned. Lorne had taken his PDA out, as had Reletti, and he could see the dots. He put it away now and gestured for Reletti to do the same.

"Got it, Staff Sergeant," he said, then switched his attention to his team. "Remember, we're here to negotiate, so don't draw unless they do and don't fire unless we've got an imminent threat. They're going to be a lot more scared of us than we are of them, so don't get riled by the bravado."

Warning his team wasn't really necessary; these were the sorts of instructions they would have passed on to their own marines were they fighting back on Earth. But it couldn't hurt; once things turned bad -- and they would, at some point tonight -- the marines would shoot to kill without hesitation and Lorne wanted to keep that point as far off as possible, hopefully at least until they had a couple dozen more marines as support.

Three men were standing at the foot of the stairs that went between the defensive positions. They had their weapons out and, between the particular shape of the rifle and their dress, Lorne could tell that they were Gaorgi.

"Let us through so we can get on with this thing," Lorne told them. The trio cocked their shotguns and Lorne didn't move.

"Hand over your rifles," one of them said.

"Or what, you'll kill us?" Lorne asked, careful to keep any tone of disdain and dismissiveness out of his voice. He kept his eyes on the one who had spoken, but his attention on his own team, which was handling the tension just fine. All of them had their hands on their rifles, trigger fingers extended along the sides, but Lorne felt bemusement from them and not anything else.

"We're here to negotiate with your leaders, which we can't do if we're dead and which we won't do if we're accosted before we get there," Lorne went on calmly. "You've demonstrated your commitment to your cause and the seriousness of the situation. Now let us go on so that we can do the same."

The leader didn't move for a long moment, but Lorne didn't prompt him or start moving or do anything but wait. Everything that happened here would be useful later. So far, Lorne could tell that getting the rifles was if not the only priority, then at least tied as the main one. If killing him had been the purpose, these soldiers would have taken a different posture.

After enough of a pause for the leader to get his penny's worth of power rush, he moved aside and the other two followed suit.

Lorne nodded at Reletti, who started walking again.

"They're scared shitless of us," Ortilla said once they were far enough past.

"Warrior respect," Suarez said. "We probably killed their brothers or cousins or something."

That was what Lorne was worried about -- personal revenge as a motive. Political embarrassments, even the kind of failed gambit that had had his team running for their lives on Gaorg, could be papered over even with the flimsiest of treaties. But blood feuds were never that cleanly handled.

"Don't give 'em credit they haven't earned," Reletti countered. "I'm going with 'scared shitless.'"

Cerney radioed to tell them that the path was clear until they cleared the trees; the other checkpoints were either not usually manned or had been emptied for the occasion. It was welcome news as parts of the climb were steep and some of the steps had been worn down to slopes; negotiating them in the dark was hazardous enough without having to focus on defense. There were alternate means up and down to the city itself -- wide, smooth switchback paths that allowed wagons of goods for trade to get up and down the mountain -- but they were necessarily much longer routes and in open air, neither of which was desirable here and now.

The next manned checkpoint was outside the town, in the space between the end of the trees and the first buildings along the road. Lorne thought that this was a Gaorgi creation and not something the Cudorians had normally employed; it had a makeshift quality to it where the others had been either carved out of the mountain itself or heavily fortified with stone.

Up here, on the plateau, it was already sunless if not yet dark; they'd left enough time to get to the town before sunset, but not much beyond that.

"You've come," a man said. He was dressed a little better than the soldiers around him, but still in the same uniform. Lorne thought he looked familiar, but he didn't remember the guy's name. Once Gaorg had been emphatically dismissed as a possible ally or trading partner, Lorne had retained what he'd had to for as long as it took to write up the report, the rest forgotten in favor of more useful information. The leader of the Gaorgi was Themal, their war chief was Ivnel, and this guy wasn't either. "But you have come without what was requested."

Behind and around him, his team shifted slightly. Not a show of force or defiance, just getting themselves a little more comfortable for whatever happened next.

"For all we knew, you just wanted us to bring the weapons and then you'd kill us all," Lorne said patiently. "You're not getting anything until we know Colonel Sheppard and his people are healthy and safe."

This kind of situation was far newer to his team than to him, at least in terms of non-Earth interactions. While there were exceptions, Pegasus was generally so beaten down and primitive that these kinds of alpha dog moments -- confrontations between peoples who could at least put a dent in each other if not necessarily classify as near-peer competitors -- were almost never to be found. You showed up on someone's doorstep in Pegasus and you were most likely a trader or a refugee and were assumed to be benevolent until proven otherwise. Back in the Milky Way, where the Goa'uld had put an entirely different kind of fear into the galaxy, showing up to a well-armed welcoming party was far more routine and Lorne had had plenty of experience talking fast to the barrel of a gun.

The man smiled faintly. "Are you really in a position to dictate terms, Major?"

Lorne shrugged. "Depends. Are you?"

This guy didn't have decision-making authority, at least not on the live-or-die level. The Gaorgi weren't the Genii, a Wehrmacht pretending to be a civilization. They wanted to be, but they weren't. They ran a traditional civilian militia that was better-trained and better-armed than most Pegasus militias, but it was still essentially a two-headed beast with a lot of tail. All of the big choices were going to be made by Themal and Ivnel and not anyone else.

"Follow me," the man said, answering the question with deeds instead of words, and turned to go back into the town proper. Lorne did, surrounded by his team and then a small escort of Gaorgi soldiers.

Cudor looked like what it was -- a city that had probably been quite grand ten thousand years ago and persisted today as a remnant of that past greatness. It reminded Lorne a little of the ruins he'd seen in Turkey; some of the buildings were patchworks, their bases one style and then the repairs done with another, and some were entirely old or entirely new. Some of the streets they walked down were cobblestone, some plain dirt, and there were gutters and signs of an aqueduct system. Cudor had an agrarian economy, but the farming wasn't done in town despite the frequent appearances of house gardens and even flowerboxes. The Gaorgi soldiers were patrolling in the street, which did not do much for the aesthetics but certainly did make it clear that the Cudorians were at best unwilling allies.

There were torches being lit in the streets, primitive street lamps that didn't do much in the narrow alleys and roads except cast greater shadows and throw the building edges into sharp relief. The curtains were drawn on all of the houses and the businesses were closed, but Lorne could see lights behind the drapes and wooden shutters and wondered if anyone was planning to overthrow this imposition or whether Cudor had collectively chosen to ride it out. Fatalism and passivity were rampant in Pegasus, but not always found in the obvious places.

From the colors of the sky, he knew that they were walking west, which was good because that's where Sheppard and his team were. From Cerney on the radio, however, he also knew that this was where the Gaorgi troop buildup was as well -- the belly of the beast.

The light concentration near the entrance of the city would make things easier later on. As soon as it was dark enough, marines would begin moving through the stargate. Another fifteen minutes might be enough time, Cerney thought.

Cardejo broke in to tell them that they'd dialed Atlantis and had established a live radio link. If Lorne was going to end up another hostage, then it was crucial to get as much on-the-ground intel back to Atlantis as possible before their radios got taken. Lorne didn't know how much the Gaorgi knew about their radios -- they hadn't known anything when Lorne's team had visited -- but he knew that Sheppard's team no longer had access to their own.

As they walked, Lorne listened to Cardejo and Cerney update Polito and Hanzis; Weir was undoubtedly listening in but contributed nothing. Surrounded by Gaorgi, Lorne couldn't openly participate to any real extent, but he could manage a few one-word answers without drawing attention. There wasn't much he had to say, though -- Cerney's tracking their movement through the city and reports on guard placement and strength was of greater use to the marine commanders.

They were taken to a building on a corner, at the edge of a cul-de-sac. It was easily defensible on its own as well as superbly positioned to choke off entry to the dead-end beyond. Sheppard and his team were in one of the buildings at the head, Cerney said, which was not surprising. The Gaorgi may have bitten off far more than they could chew by taking on Atlantis's marines, but they weren't complete fools.

Inside the corner building, which may have been a meeting-house or government building when the town wasn't occupied, Themal and Ivnel were sitting at a large table. They stood when Lorne entered, not out of respect but to make themselves seem larger. Both men were tall and sturdy, more bulk than exceptional conditioning, and had enjoyed the subtle (and not-so-subtle) expressions of that advantage when they'd been on Gaorg. The marines had been offended on his behalf and not unopposed to acting on the matter, but Lorne had found it more laughable than intimidating. After getting the big man/little man treatment from armored and armed Jaffa for a few years, a couple of husky guys in homespun cloth really didn't rate.

Nonetheless, he kept that thought to himself here and now, choosing to strike a pose that was neither impressed nor dismissive; this negotiation was going to be all about egos and the longer he could go without offending Gaorgi leadership or impugning the capabilities of the Gaorgi military, the more time the marines coming in from Atlantis would have to set up before things turned ugly.

"I'd like to see Colonel Sheppard and his people before we negotiate," he said, not missing the weapons ostentatiously displayed on the heavy wooden table. Three P-90s, an M9, Ronon's blaster, and some knives; obviously, they hadn't done a thorough search of Ronon's person. Both Ivnel and Themal were wearing M9s tucked into their belts like bandits.

Ivnel chuckled darkly. "Who said that we are negotiating?"

"Should I leave?" Lorne asked, keeping his voice even, making it sound like neither a threat nor a promise that he'd have to back up. He knew that getting out wouldn't be easy and he didn't want to give anyone a chance to point that out. "I'm not trading weapons for corpses."

This was the key moment -- if Lorne was here to be killed, then proof of life was pretty much unimportant. They could slaughter him and his team and then repeat the demands to Atlantis.

But Themal only nodded once. "Gotar, have the prisoners brought here."

Gotar, who turned out to be the guy who'd met them at the town's edge, clicked his heels together and left with a small guard.

Over the radio, Lorne heard Radner tell Cardejo to sever the connection so that Atlantis could dial in and start moving marines on to the planet. Polito was probably leading the assault force -- this was a Charlie kind of mission.

"It is a shame that only violence leads you to reason," Ivnel said in the thick silence. "We had hoped for an alliance between our two peoples. True warrior cultures are rare and should be nurtured, not set upon each other like wild animals."

"Something you maybe should have thought about before you opened fire on your world," Lorne said simply. Not that the Gaorgi had really had any chance at an alliance with Atlantis before then; Atlantis wasn't so desperate that they needed to hook up with a culture as creepy as what Lorne had seen on Gaorg. It had been part Sparta and part Caligula and more than enough to have had everyone anxious to leave.

"It was a test," Themal said, as if their past meeting had ended with something minor and not pitched combat that would have cost him many men. "We have never seen fighters as proficient as you and your men. And your weapons.... We had hoped to convince you to reconsider our offer for them, but instead we found ourselves with both a less pleasant situation and a better trade."

"For you, at least," Lorne said.

Themal smiled. It wasn't pretty. "Only a fool fails to take advantage of a fortuitous situation when it is presented so neatly."

Behind Lorne, Yoni muttered something. Thankfully, it wasn't in a language anyone else understood.

In his ear, Polito was saying they were on Cudor and ready to start moving toward the city.

"Zelenka's hooked up our scoopy beam to Eriksson's jumper, sir," Polito said. "We don't have a lot of fine control with it, but it may be useful for a messy rescue. Time to Objective Ren is five minutes and we should be at Objective Stimpy inside fifteen."

Objective Ren was the first checkpoint and Objective Stimpy was near where Gotar had been waiting for them, the edge of the tree line near the top of the mountain where the forest broke for good.

"We'll make the exchange close to the stargate," Lorne told Themal, since it was the most effective way of telling Polito that he didn't want the marines trying to enter the city. "Unless you plan on occupying this planet for any duration. It'll allow you to move your 'bounty' more easily to your home world."

A dubious look from Ivnel, who was clearly the bad cop in this scenario.

"We'd need a lot of men to carry that much weight in firearms up here," Lorne said easily. "If you'd like to invite them into the city, that's your prerogative. But I'd like to get my people and get out of here in one piece and we're both better served by conducting our transaction near the stargate."

A reply from either Ivnel or Themal was not forthcoming as the door opened suddenly and Teyla and McKay were pushed through followed by Sheppard and Ronon. All four were bound and bloodied and dirty and glad to see friendly faces.

"Major," Sheppard drawled, stumbling a little as one of the guards pushed him from behind so that he could close the door again. "Nice of you to come for us, sir."

Lorne froze for a moment at the use of the honorific and looked at Sheppard, who was looking straight back at him. Right. Of course. No reason for anyone to assume that "Colonel" was a higher rank than "Major" -- half of the time, people on other worlds thought their ranks were their names anyway. And if Sheppard wanted them to pretend that Lorne was the superior officer, then he presumably had a reason.

"Everyone all right, Colonel?" Lorne asked, coming close to biting his tongue because, after all this time, 'sir' was a reflex. It was a reflex for the marines as well, but the only people affected by the switch in stature were him and Sheppard. Nevertheless, he could feel them watching and wondering.

"The welcome was a little rough," Sheppard replied. "And the accommodations pretty much suck. And the food--"

"--we don't know about since we haven't been given any," McKay interrupted and that, more than anything put Lorne at ease since if McKay was bitching about being hungry, then they couldn't be that badly off. "This has been a very disappointing captivity thus far."

"We are well enough under the circumstances, Major," Teyla said, sounding worn. Behind her, Ronon just looked annoyed and frustrated; understandably, he did not handle captivity well. Lorne knew the effort required to keep Ronon from acting out would have probably taken all three of his teammates, especially in a situation such as this where the power discrepancy wasn't great and Ronon would have proposed fighting their way out, even unarmed.

"Why don't we have Doc here look you guys over just in case," he suggested. "We can drop our bargaining position one rifle per bruise."

He looked over at Themal, who nodded agreement, and then at Yoni, who arched an eyebrow meaningfully. They'd brought extra radios and trackers, but it would be up to Yoni to see if they could be hidden on anyone's person.

Yoni glared in annoyance at the Gaorgi guards who tried to intimidate him as he crossed the crowded room to where Sheppard's team stood.

Over the radio, Lorne could hear Polito confirming that they'd taken Objective Ren. The guards at the checkpoint had been neutralized -- captured, not killed -- and that left nothing to warn the Gaorgi that the marines were there. Now all Lorne had to do was get everyone to the ambush site.

Yoni had unslung his pack and was pulling out alcohol swabs and bandages. "Staff Sergeant, come here please. I need an extra set of hands."

Lorne didn't think Yoni actually needed help -- they'd all seen him function just fine in more inconvenient circumstances. But he could tell as well as Lorne could that the marines wanted to do something and this little bit would probably be enough to take the edge off of their inactivity. It allowed them to 'protect' both Lorne and Yoni on one hand and then Sheppard's team on the other -- it got a rifleman on to the other side of the room, which would let Suarez and Reletti ramp it down a notch.

Ortilla crossed the room, practically daring the Gaorgi soldiers to try the same intimidation routine with him. Wisely, they didn't.

"So is this where we agree to your ransom and conclude this sordid business or is this where you start going on about the exigencies of war and double-cross us?" Lorne asked Themal. It was risky to be so cavalier, but the Gaorgi were a little in awe of them and probably wouldn't be letting them treat their wounded if they were just going to shoot them all. He hoped. Although considering the 'test' on Gaorg, maybe they just wanted to see how good Lantean health care was before asking for that, too.

"You are impudent, Major," Ivnel warned.  

"I'm also outnumbered and outgunned and you've got my people bound and defenseless," Lorne said, as much for Ivnel as for the marines listening on the radio. "You'll excuse me if I'm less than gracious."

Ortilla ripped open swab packets and got rid of garbage as Yoni carefully moved Teyla's hair from her face so that he could clean a cut that was leaving a slow trail of blood down her cheek.

"We have heard tell that there is a bounty on your head, Major," Ivnel said, as if just remembering it. "And that one--" he pointed vaguely at Reletti, "--and your colonel. A generous one."

"And me," McKay piped up, but then shrunk a little when both Sheppard and Ronon glared at him.

"There was," Lorne admitted. This wasn't the first time it had come up, but the timing was a little random here and he didn't like it. "But we took care of that more than a year ago. Nobody'll be paying for our scalps should you try to collect."

"We heard that, too," Ivnel said, nodding. "As we have heard of Malthusa. Which, when coupled with your actions on our world do leave me to wonder why, exactly, you have chosen to simply acquiesce to our demands. Or have you?"

Lorne felt himself teetering on the edge. Either this was a genuine question or it wasn't. A good lawyer never asked anything he didn't know the answer to, though, and Lorne got the sinking feeling that this entire exercise had simply been an elaborate trap. "What do you want me to tell you, Ivnel? That I've got men waiting to see if you live up to your agreement before they bring this place down around you?"

"It would be closer to the truth, wouldn't it?" Ivnel asked gesturing to one of the soldiers by the door. He opened it and Lorne could see more soldiers waiting outside. "We have a messenger overdue, Major. He was supposed to come and tell us that there was nothing waiting for us by the Ring, that you had not brought men with you. He hasn't arrived."

"Maybe he lost track of time," Lorne offered, aware that the trap had been sprung and they'd all been caught. Now the challenge was minimizing the damage and keeping everyone together and safe until the marines got them free. "It's dark and you're no more familiar with those steps than we are. Maybe he fell and hurt himself."

"Maybe he had help doing so," Ivnel said, warming to the subject. "His comrades perhaps didn't hear him call out for aid. Maybe they were sleeping."

Polito had figured out from context that they'd fucked up, that they hadn't had enough time to realize that the guards might check in if too long went between messages from above. Over the radio, he asked if they should send one of the prisoners forward now, issuing enough threats to ensure that he said the right things.

"I think we're just going to have to ride the horse on this one," Lorne said. Ivnel and Themal weren't the only ones giving him confused looks; Sheppard and McKay were looking at him liked he'd spoken in Swahili.

Polito, however, knew what he meant. "Understood, sir," he said. "Eriksson'll be waiting overhead in case there's a chance for a snatch-and-grab and your codeword for radio silence is 'George.'"

Objective Horse was the building where Sheppard's team had been held and Lorne was establishing it as an active mission target and calling off the mountainside ambush.

"I think I would have preferred the exigencies of war speech," Lorne said to the Gaorgi leaders, since they were still waiting for him to say something they understood and he didn't want to make it obvious that he'd been talking to someone not present. Not that there was anything he could say that would keep the situation from crumbling around them, but if they could buy some extra radio time, then it was a win.

It was probably only a draw, however. Things went down pretty much as Lorne had expected they would -- they were stripped of their weapons and radios (although not before Lorne could use the George code to warn the marines that they'd have to change frequencies) and all nine of them were herded out the door and down the narrow street toward the end of the cul-de-sac, surrounded by exultant Gaorgi soldiers with raised rifles. It was dark -- not pitch black, but well past sunlight -- and they were moved in a loose cluster to accommodate the poor lighting, spread apart only enough so that they were unable to take any advantage from proximity. Lorne didn't know what kind of fight Sheppard's team had put up upon their capture or whether it was because of the way his own team had held off the attackers on Gaorg, but here and now the Gaorgi were showing a lot of respect if the soldiers-per-prisoner ratio was an indicator of anything.

Nonetheless, that respect didn't translate into impervious boundaries between the prisoners. Lorne found himself standing near Sheppard as they were stopped halfway down the road. The lamps in the building the Gaorgi were using as a prison needed to be lit.

"Who's waiting?" Sheppard asked.

"Charlie," Lorne replied. "I was kind of hoping that this would go better."

The warning about Delas should have reaped a richer reward, he thought. He wasn't sure how, but the feeling of failure, of being unable to capitalize on a key bit of intel when they so rarely got any advance warning, sat ill on his shoulders.

"I was, too," Sheppard said, giving him a half-grin. "But I think you did pretty well with what you had. And, besides, this'll be all sorts of fun for the boys to get us out of and they like it when we owe them one."

Lorne smiled back weakly. It didn't take the edge off, but it was a little comforting to know that Sheppard wasn't disappointed in him -- and that he wasn't too worried. "I think I'd rather have let them invade G-2 again."

This morning's shenanigans felt like a year ago.

"Next month," Sheppard said as they watched the guards try to order Ortilla and Ronon further apart. "We can--"

Sheppard stopped speaking suddenly, tilting his head as if he heard something. A moment later, in the space of a breath, part of their group disappeared and the well-ordered scene devolved into chaos.

The Gaorgi started shouting and dragging them away, confused but thinking the Wraith had come even though they hadn't heard the whine of a Dart and the Wraith ships rarely came alone.

It had been Eriksson and the jumper, so Lorne dug in his heels, made himself hard to move so that Eriksson had targets for his next pass. Near him, Sheppard did as well and he could hear Teyla as she fought to free herself. But they were still outnumbered and then even more soldiers came to corral them and, since they were already close enough to their destination, they were all swept inside in a panicked, tumbled heap.

Ortilla, Ronon, Suarez, and McKay were gone, presumably with a handful of Gaorgi soldiers, and Lorne felt only relief at that even as he wouldn't have minded the missing muscle.

In the chaos of the mad dash for 'safety', Reletti had managed to get his hands on one of the Gaorgi shotguns and he cocked it now, aiming it at the head of one of the soldiers. But there were half a dozen rifles aimed at them, including one pressed up against Teyla's chest.

"Sergeant," Sheppard said. "Drop your weapon."

Reletti did, getting clocked on the side of the head with the reclaimed shotgun by the soldier he'd threatened. He swayed with the force of the blow but kept his balance, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. He spat defiantly at the feet of the closest soldiers and looked ready to escalate things should the Gaorgi be willing.

"AJ," Teyla said, both warning and plea. Reletti stilled.

After some more threats and rough treatment meant to cow them into submission and obedience, they were left alone.

"Who was driving?" Sheppard asked, holding out his wrists as Lorne undid the knots in his bindings. Either out of lingering confusion from the disappearances or simple cockiness, the soldiers hadn't bothered to tie up Lorne or Yoni or Reletti.

"Eriksson," Lorne said. Sheppard nodded as he inspected his wrists in the light from the lamps on the walls; he'd heard the jumper or maybe he'd just felt it. Lorne had seen Reletti turn to look at an inbound jumper before anyone else had known it was there.

"That was our handiwork?" Teyla asked, surprised. Yoni was still kneeling in front of her, examining the re-opened cuts on her face. Reletti tended to his own bloody face by wiping it with the back of his hand.

"The Colonel's the only one who can fly the dart," Lorne explained, gesturing with his head toward Sheppard. "The scoopy beam doesn't work perfectly with the jumper yet, but it'll get our guys back safely and whatever hostages they brought with them, too."

The scoopy beam didn't work through walls no matter what it was attached to, which was normally a positive thing in terms of avoiding capture by the Wraith, but here was actually an impediment.

"Do you think they'll swap the soldiers for us, sir?" Reletti asked. In addition to the blood by his mouth, he was cut on his forehead and there was a bruise forming on his temple. Reletti had a hard head and Lorne wasn't worried about concussion -- his team tended to joke that it'd be hard to tell when Reletti was dazed anyway and Yoni would have forced an examination if he were worried about anything.

"Probably not," Sheppard said. "They want the rifles. I just don't want the brig turning into a long-term residence again."

Which is what would happen if they were rescued by the marines and not ransomed back to Atlantis.

Lorne looked at his watch; it had already been more than half an hour since they'd been taken prisoner (again). This would probably be a fairly short captivity -- they had a company of marines already on the ground, air surveillance, and chance for immediate rescue if they could get out in the open. So far there'd been no torture, no beatings apart from some mild roughing-up intended more for intimidation than revenge, and they'd already gotten half of their people free. For a situation that had started out so fraught with bad memories and crappy intel, this was turning out to be pretty mild. Not that Lorne was willing to say anything to that effect aloud -- no reason to jinx it.

Reletti got up and started looking around, nearly tripping over Yoni's legs as Yoni moved out of the way at exactly the moment Reletti went around him.

"Nothing to work with, sergeant," Sheppard told him as they watched Reletti pace the floors and feel the walls. "They cleaned this place out thoroughly and there's no back door."

Even the windows weren't windows per se, instead wide slits that ran near the top of the high walls. Lorne wasn't sure how comfortable this place was in normal circumstances; he suspected it wasn't meant to hold people -- maybe a storage room of some fashion. He wasn't sure what you did with lettuce when you didn't have a fridge with a vegetable drawer.

"All due respect, sir," Reletti said as he continued to look and feel his way around the room, "but I'll feel better after I poke around on my own."

There wasn't any furniture in the room, so Reletti ended up climbing the wall itself, finding footholds on the uneven stone wall to the left of the door and effectively doing a pull-up once he was close enough to the slit near the roof.

"Don't show off, Sergeant," Sheppard chastised mildly. "We had to get Ronon to hold Teyla up."

Lorne looked over at Teyla, who smiled back ruefully. "I could not brace well with my hands bound," she said, holding up her welt-covered wrists. "I am afraid that I did not see much."

Lorne suspected it was the lack of height as much as the inability to hold on -- the ceilings were very high and Teyla, even standing on Ronon's shoulders, was not very tall.

"They're staying out of the square," Reletti reported, voice a little rough from the strain of holding his body up by his arms. "I can see eight in doorways around the circle, but there's probably more out of the light."

He dropped down heavily, flexing his fingers and then his elbows before crossing the bare room back to where he'd been sitting. He paused by Yoni's legs and grinned expectantly, but Yoni just glared at him and so Reletti went around.

"Could we burn the door down?" Teyla asked, gesturing toward the sconces on the wall.

The door was heavy wood, probably treated judging by the glossy sheen that reflected the small torches.

"We'd be overcome by smoke before that happened," Yoni said. He was sitting a little apart from everyone else, which wasn't so unusual that Lorne thought anything of it. Yoni in captivity was pretty much like Yoni in Atlantis. "There isn't a lot of air circulation here and the windows are not wide. We also don't know what they used on the wood; if it's toxic, then it will work faster than the smoke."

"So that'd probably be a 'no,'" Sheppard told Teyla. "Good thought, though. We may just have to wait for the marines."

Resigned to doing just that, they spent the time exchanging notes and observations and strategies, including why Sheppard had tried to reverse status with Lorne ("Didn't want them realizing what they had or else the ransom would have gotten too steep to even play along as far as you did. Keeping McKay quiet was the hard part.") Lorne heard from Sheppard and Teyla how the original capture had gone down and Lorne, in turn, explained how its revelation had hit Atlantis. Reletti climbed up every once in a while to look out, but there wasn't a lot going on.

While they occasionally heard the soldiers in the circle outside call to each other or pass on orders, it was an hour until they heard the first sounds of real disruption, explosions and gunfire and faint shouts in the distance that were indecipherable except for their tone. All five of them stood up and Reletti climbed back up to the 'window.'

"They've got six... seven in the circle," Reletti said. "Can't see beyond that. They're starting to put out the street lamps."

"Good for our guys," Sheppard said as Reletti dropped back down.

Almost fifteen minutes later, the door to their prison swung open. It was not marines, however, but Gotar and a passel of soldiers.

"Come with us," he said as the soldiers filed past him to fill the room to provide enough of an escort to dissuade even the most ambitious escape attempt.

It was unwarranted as they all followed peacefully and without resistance. Being out in open air gave Eriksson another chance -- if he was out there -- and allowed Cerney and Cardejo to verify that they were essentially unharmed; the life signs detector in the jumper could only tell that their hearts were still beating and where they were. Because of the latter, it didn't really matter where the Gaorgi tried to stash them next -- so long as they weren't dead, the good guys would know where they were and be on the move to getting them back. Even dead, Sheppard's and Teyla's beacons would guide the marines to their corpses, but that wasn't a thought Lorne wanted to entertain.

Oblivious to their captives' amenability, the soldiers were bullying and impatient as they herded the Lanteans along. Unused to the darkness after being in the lit room, Lorne didn't need the help tripping and falling over. He was yanked back up only to nearly fall again when they stopped short. They could hear the rat-tat-tat echo of automatic weapons fire and the deeper, less rapid boom of the Gaorgi shotguns. It was still muffled with distance, but Lorne couldn't places the aural landmarks with any precision; Cudor wasn't that big, but the stone building materials made everything echo oddly. The marines were definitely in the city, however; whether they did a door-to-door search or tried to follow them electronically was up to Polito.

They were led back up the neck of the cul-de-sac to the building they'd been in before and then shoved inside. Themal was alone with his guards, Ivnel nowhere around, and looked distinctly less pleased to see them than last time. Not that he'd been overjoyed then.

"You should probably let us go and cut your losses," Sheppard told him. "If this plays out, you won't have enough men to use your own rifles, let alone ours."

"I have faith in our army," Themal said shortly, clearly annoyed that the time in captivity hadn't dampened the defiance of his prisoners. "We have never lost to another."

"First time for everything," Sheppard replied with an easy shrug. "Or maybe a second if you want to count failing to get what you wanted on your world."

Gotar took a swipe at Sheppard's head from behind. "Restrain your tongue."

"Seriously, Themal," Sheppard went on, unperturbed as he combed his hair back into place with his fingers. "If five guys could hold off your forces back on Gaorg, what's going to happen when your boys face a dozen times that?"

As Sheppard talked, Lorne kept an eye on Reletti, who was getting jostled by a couple of the soldiers, presumably in hopes that he would strike back. Reletti had enough discipline to withstand what was really more irritation than actual abuse, but only so much and then there would be no more and Lorne didn't want it to get that far. Yoni was closest to Reletti, but whether he'd be close enough to step in if things escalated was not clear.

"You have made brilliant advances in weapons technology," Themal said, as much to Lorne as to Sheppard. "But you will not share what you have learned. They are not for sale, they are not for study, and thus they do not benefit anyone but yourselves. And yet you accuse my people of greed."

This could be a lecture, but it could also be the ass-backwards start of the next round of negotiations and while Lorne could respond to either possibility, this wasn't really the time for rational, reasoned discourse. If the Gaorgi didn't appreciate the etiquette of not running down your visitors and trying to steal their shit when they wouldn't give it to you, then explaining how it wouldn't be a good idea to trade weapons to people who would turn around and use them on the sellers was probably also too subtle a point. Besides, the bargaining positions were different now. The devolution to open warfare meant that the Lanteans were going to win and Lorne didn't have to bargain from a position of weakness anymore, but he couldn't be too cocky about that. There was a still a decent risk of the practically guaranteed Lantean victory turning out to be a pyrrhic one if both he and Sheppard (and their teammates) were killed in the process because Themal or Gotar or one of their flunkies decided that negotiations were futile.

"You should just let us go," Sheppard said again, sounding almost resigned. "You're going to lose your army here and then what's going to happen to your homeworld? Who's going to be left to defend it?"

Themal shook his head. "We have always been able to fight off those who violated Gaorgi soil."

"So you can hide from the Wraith and fend off the villagers with bows and arrows, but what about us?" Sheppard asked. "Our people know you're here, know who is holding us. How much of your army is left to defend your homes when we come for revenge? We have only a fraction of our forces here. We can send many times that to Gaorg."

"You bluff, Colonel," Themal accused, but he didn't sound sure to Lorne's ears.

"Do you really want to take that risk?" Sheppard asked, sounding genuinely curious. It was this casualness that was so scary, Lorne thought. When he had to issue threats, he always suspected his distaste at the prospect of having to carry them out (not that he would actually renege) was evident in his face and in his voice. But Sheppard always sounded so calm when he promised dreadful things, the ease with which he spoke more dangerous than any bravado. "Five men held off how many soldiers, Themal? Imagine what a hundred men could do. Or two hundred. Or more."

Lorne could see that Themal was imagining it. But he could also see that it probably wouldn't make a difference. The Gaorgi were bullies and if they knew how to step down, they weren't about to employ that knowledge.

"Why would you destroy your entire society, lose people for the sake of weapons?" Teyla asked. Implored, really. Crushing wars between peoples still was a little beyond her ken and, for all of her warrior prowess, she was still more diplomat than soldier. "The Wraith take so much, why must you deprive your people of more?"

"The Wraith will take all if we do not act," Themal said angrily, the first time Lorne had seen real frustration out of him. Defeat wasn't an option and that was probably why Themal wasn't interested in ending things before they got out of control. "They grow hungrier every year. It is better to die honorably in the pursuit of means to save our people than to wait helplessly to die by the Wraith's hand."

Lorne shook his head. They'd seen this before -- the Genii most notably, but other places as well, albeit less well-supplied. Passivity was dominant in Pegasus when it came to the Wraith, but those who chose to fight tended to be ruthless to a terrifying degree. There was no price too high for them, no sacrifice too great. It had happened back in the Milky Way, too -- peoples who'd do anything to live in peace, be it a peace free from Goa'uld interference or merely choosing to be subordinate to the Goa'uld of their choice. Hell, it happened on Earth. But negotiating with the fanatics never got anyone anything except burned.

"You will not do what the Wraith will," Themal went on. He looked straight at Lorne. "You will take your revenge, but you will not slaughter my people. We have eaten together, spoken together. I know that you consider yourselves a fair and generous people, obligated by your success to protect those who are otherwise fodder for the Wraith. You have the strength of many, but you are the lesser of two evils. We will take our chances against your arms and against your conscience."

"Don't give us too much credit," Lorne said, since he couldn't confirm that Themal had pretty much nailed them. "The only way 'strength beyond challenge' works is if we crush all who try to test it."

Somewhat to that effect, the battle of wills was still going on to his right. For the entirety, Reletti had been enduring jabs to his arms and torso, bumps and provocations that Themal had obviously seen and had no intention of stopping. "Sir?" Reletti asked plaintively, annoyed and frustrated and very obviously asking for permission to make the problem go away.

"Sorry, Sergeant," Sheppard said, even though the request had been aimed at Lorne. "We know you could take them, but embarrassing them is not going to help our cause right now." He turned toward Themal. "I'd get them to stop, though. He looks cute and harmless, but he's really not."

Themal's answer was cut off by the door exploding open behind them revealing Gaorgi soldiers led by an officer in a red sash. "We must go to the tunnels now, Themal," the officer said harshly.

Lorne didn't remember there being anything in the files on Cudor about tunnels, but that there were some, presumably to hide from the Wraith, didn't surprise him. It probably wasn't something the Cudorians advertised, although the Gaorgi were past the point of asking nicely for that sort of information. Or maybe you just had to know the Cudorians longer than Atlantis had.

Themal started, but recovered quickly. "What of Ivnel's--"

"Ivnel has fallen and his plan has failed," the officer cut him off. "We must go now."

Lorne looked over at Sheppard, who looked back with interest. Ivnel being either killed or wounded in action could mean that things were wrapping up or it could not; the Gaorgi didn't have trickle-down authority, but they could still have a smooth transfer of power and whoever inherited the job would not want his first executive decision to be offering surrender.

"Take the prisoners," Themal said curtly.  "And be wary of them."

The five of them were herded back outside, surrounded by a phalanx of Gaorgi soldiers with Themal and Gotar close behind them. It was full dark now and the only lights were from fires in the distance. Lorne could hear gunfire and shouting, louder than before, but he couldn't see anything between the darkness and the taller men surrounding him. They were heading northward, away from the cul-de-sac, which wouldn't bring them closer to the marines coming from the east.

They were pushed and pulled, kept separated from each other and moved with only curt commands and rough yanks on collar and arm to guide them.

"This is like the end of The Blues Brothers," Sheppard said loudly as they were hustled down an alleyway.

It really wasn't, Lorne thought. Except for the mob scene and the fact that a tunnel was going to be involved. He wondered if this was possibly Sheppard making a suggestion and he was fairly sure he didn't like the odds of it working if it was.

"One of your crazy exes would be welcome now," Yoni retorted from somewhere to Lorne's left. "They all know how to ascend."

They were moving across a square now, still moving north if the fire-lightened sky to the right was any indication. Lorne wondered if Cerney and Cardejo were above or if Polito had brought other jumpers through or if they were on their own. The longer they were in motion above-ground, the better the chance was that someone in a jumper could find them before the tracking signals were lost. He didn't think there was any efficient way to slow down the rushed parade; every delay was met with physical and verbal coercion to move on. More importantly, he didn't know if the tunnels were just places to hide or if they went anywhere; he'd prefer the latter -- if the Gaorgi thought that they could escape to the stargate, then Lorne was pretty sure they'd wind up walking directly into the marines stationed there and he had faith in their ability to tell friend from foe in the dark.

Down streets and around corners, under an overpass of sorts and Lorne's internal compass was thrown off by the inability to consistently see anything past the surrounding bodies. He could count left turns (two) and right turns (four) and whether the gradient and surface of the road changed (it did, from cobblestone to dirt and then back), but he was aware of how relatively useless the knowledge was.

On the other hand, it seemed like the Gaorgi weren't doing much better. Lorne heard the grumbling from the soldiers first and then more clearly as arguments between Gotar and who Lorne guessed was the sashed officer -- they were having trouble finding the tunnel entrance. There were supposedly more than one and they had been scoped out during the day, but the darkness and the unfamiliarity and the fog of war was screwing up everyone's sense of direction, it seemed. Lorne could only laugh and hope that they accidentally found themselves near the marines; the gunfire was getting louder and closer and even though Lorne didn't think that they had been moving closer to the combat, he knew that the combat would be moving closer to them.

It was, but not in the way that Lorne had hoped or anticipated. After backtracking up one curved street and across another, the front of their group, what had once been the rear, came upon some Gaorgi soldiers. Who, scared, unused to urban combat, and unable to see into the shadows that extended past their meager light, mistook them for the enemy and fired.

Lorne was forced down to the cobblestone ground as the volley grew from trickle to avalanche and he made himself flat to avoid the crack of the heavy Gaorgi bullets flying too-closely over their heads. Even over the deafening noise, he could hear bullets impacting on flesh and stone. There was shouting everywhere, both in anger and in pain -- the Gaorgi drilled too often to miss at this distance. He felt naked and exposed and helpless; there were dead, dying, and wounded all around and Lorne fervently hoped none of them were his people.

Themal and Gotar screamed to identify themselves and to declare the incompetence of the attacking unit's leader, yelling over the pain-filled cries of the wounded and the barked commands of the still-attacking Gaorgi. Lorne tried to pull away from the bodies near him, hoping to take advantage of the confusion to find Sheppard and the others and get free. He dropped down and played dead when one of the soldiers came past, was able to jerk free from a slippery hand on his naked arm, and low-crawled on the cobblestones until there was space between him and everything that moved.

Something like a brawl had broken out, the Lanteans versus the Gaorgi in a muddled mess of humanity. Lorne kept to the periphery, fighting off anyone who tried to grab at him as he looked for his people. He certainly didn't try to attack; he could defend himself, but that was where his abilities ended. Yoni, Reletti, and Teyla were all experienced in unarmed combat and if Sheppard wasn't at their level, then he at least had a size and weight advantage that Lorne did not.

Suddenly a shot rang out and everyone stilled, unsure who had fired or where it had been aimed. It was dark and the cobblestones were getting slippery with blood and it could have been an accidental discharge or it could have been murder, attempted or accomplished.

"Stop!" Themal's voice rang out. "Men of Gaorg, stay your hands."

The rest of the soldiers, the ones with the lanterns, had drawn close and so when the bodies in front of him cleared, Lorne could see Reletti holding Themal in a sleeper hold while Sheppard had a Gaorgi shotgun aimed at his head. He looked around to see Yoni and Teyla both winded but upright.

"Thank you," Sheppard drawled. "Now here's what's going to happen. We are going to take Themal for a little walk. You are going to stay here and count to a thousand. If we hear the patter of your little feet before the magic number, the good citizens of Cudor are going to be washing your leader's brain matter off of their stoops for months. Everyone clear?"

Gotar, near Yoni, looked to protest.

"Gotar," Themal half-wheezed. "Act, do not react."

The large man nodded truculently, but said nothing.

Lorne gestured for Teyla and Yoni to cross over to him, since he was closest to Sheppard and Reletti. Yoni picked up a pair of shotguns as he did so, but Lorne was more concerned with the fact that the side of Yoni shirt was dark with blood. In the crappy light Lorne could see that everyone was painted with the stuff, he himself had bloody handprints on his arms, but Yoni's shirt was soaked and he moved like he was injured and trying to hide it. What kind of luck would it be if their doctor got shot?

Yoni handed one of the shotguns to Lorne and kept walking, not pausing long enough for Lorne to ask him how he was and not making eye contact. Which in Yoni-speak was as good as a confession. Teyla did find his gaze and gave him a worried look.

They moved slowly down the street, hampered by the awkwardness of Reletti having to half-drag Themal and everyone else having to keep their shotguns aimed at either Themal or the Gaorgi soldiers. But they eventually made it around a corner and then they could turn around and face forward with only Teyla watching their rear.

"How bad is it?" Lorne asked Yoni as they walked quickly -- running was out of the question with Reletti still holding Themal in a rear naked choke hold.

Yoni didn't lie about his health and well-being the way Reletti would, but he didn't volunteer anything unless asked, either. ("I promptly informed the team doctor of my condition and he decided that there was nothing to be done about it until our return to Atlantis," Yoni had told him the first time Lorne had bitched him out about not disclosing injury.)

"It's not my blood," Yoni replied. "The man nearest to me was shot in the sternum."

"That doesn't answer the question," Lorne said, since it didn't. Now that he could see, he could tell that the blood on Yoni's shirt wasn't spatter, or at least wasn't all spatter. He wondered if Yoni had tried to save his captor or just taken it for the advantage it was.

"Maybe a cracked rib," Yoni admitted. "I'll live."

It was better than a gunshot, but not exactly what Lorne wanted to hear.

They moved down an alley -- Sheppard was in front and Lorne didn't think he had any idea where they were going -- and then stopped halfway.

"This is your stop," Sheppard told Themal, gesturing for Reletti to push him up against a door. Reletti did, smoothly shifting choke moves so that Themal couldn't risk striking out.

Having a hostage was useful, especially someone as powerful as Themal, but he was slowing them down and it was more important that they find the marines than have collateral for a future trade. If they ran into Gaorgi soldiers again, they'd just lose their prize anyway.

"You're going to go inside and stay there," Sheppard went on, gesturing behind Themal's head. "And if you stick your head out before we're gone, Sergeant Reletti here will blow it off. You've already chosen to save your neck once, so you'll be wise to do it again."

With that, Sheppard tried the doorknob and it opened; either this was an unoccupied building or the Cudorians didn't believe in locks. Reletti shoved Themal inside and pulled the door closed again, holding on to the large metal knob in case Themal tried to open the door.

Sheppard gestured silently that they should head toward the end of the alley and then make a left and then wait. Lorne handed his shotgun to Reletti -- he didn't like going unarmed, but Reletti was a better shot -- and then followed Yoni, who seemed to be able to run unhindered. Teyla was the first to join them in the doorway Yoni had chosen as a waiting point, then Sheppard, and then finally Reletti.

"Can you figure out which way to go?" Sheppard asked Teyla in a whisper.

She nodded. "We must go that way," she said, gesturing to a point behind Reletti. There was faint light on the horizon there, probably from fires caused by the fighting. The gunfire they heard was sporadic and distant and Lorne couldn't place its location, if it was even only one.

Reletti covered their rear and they moved, staying clear of the walls and out of the largest spots of light from the moon and the occasional lamp near an uncovered window. Cudor wasn't on a grid, but from the overhead pictures it had been obvious that while the outer streets were curved to reflect the fact that the city stood on top of a mountain, the center of the town was more or less straight. They'd been traveling on curved paths earlier, but now they were able to see one end of the street from the other, so Lorne guessed that they were heading toward the center if not already there.

Teyla stopped them suddenly. A moment later they heard voices, harsh and angry, nearby and drawing closer. They pressed into the shadow created by a recessed building to stay out of sight. Reletti cocked his shotgun but kept it aimed at the ground. The blast would draw attention they didn't need and Reletti knew it. They waited, crushed together with Reletti on the outside and Teyla pressed into the stone corner. Lorne, next in after Teyla, tried his best to balance himself so that he didn't smother her.

The Gaorgi soldiers stopped almost directly in front of them, not five feet away. Through the tangle of bodies, Lorne could feel the shift in balance as Reletti raised the shotgun.

"Start searching the houses," one of the soldiers said. "Two guards on the street."

So much for hoping to get back to safety before anyone realized that they were missing.

The soldiers broke up into smaller groups, bitching about who searched and who stood watch but going about their business without actually stopping to argue.

Lorne counted to a hundred twelve before he felt Sheppard and Yoni move, allowing him to stand up without bracing around Teyla. When he turned around, he saw that the two guards for the street were down at the other end and the house searches were starting there as well. The voice of Cudorians upset with this further invasion could be heard.

"Anyone got a radio hidden anywhere?" Sheppard asked quietly as everyone separated. "I know our guys know where we are, but we'll be better off if we know where they are."

Lorne knew Sheppard already knew the answer to that question, so he didn't say anything. "Do you want to keep going or hole up until the marines find us?" he asked instead. He knew which one Sheppard wanted to do, which one he himself would prefer to do, but they had to put the other option on the table.

"Is that yours?" Sheppard asked Yoni, gesturing at the mess on his side.

"No," Yoni said.

"Then let's keep going," Sheppard said to Lorne. "We've got no real firepower and I don't like our chances of fighting our way out of a room if we get trapped. The marines can intercept us, especially if they know we're headed for the stargate."

"They won't be the only ones," Lorne said, but he nodded. Keeping in motion would make it more likely the Gaorgi would find them, but it also made it more likely that they'd survive the encounter.

"Let's go," Sheppard said to Teyla, who nodded. After first checking to make sure neither the guards stationed on the street nor the house-searchers were close enough to see them, she led them up the street they'd been traversing, then on a gradual stepladder path south and east that Lorne thought would be more easily extrapolated from above than on the ground. Unencumbered by their hostage and with the moon having risen enough to be of help, they progressed quickly and quietly. They saw two more patrols and one group of Cudorian civilians, but none came as close as that first group had.

Teyla halted them at the edge of a large open space, possibly a market square of some variety, with seven streets leading in and out of it. The moonlight allowed them to see that there was precious little hiding space even along the edges of the square, but the bigger problem was that there were Gaorgi soldiers at the mouths of all four of the streets that led out of the square in the direction they'd been traveling.

"Crap," Sheppard sighed. Something must've shown on Teyla's face because Sheppard grinned. "Don't think this gets you fired. You're still playing guide dog."

"Could we double back and try to bypass this place entirely, sir?" Reletti asked, looking over Lorne at Yoni, who was leaning against the wall, eyes closed and clearly in a lot of pain. They'd been running and dodging and cramming into hiding spaces for the better part of an hour without stopping. Depending on how badly the rib was cracked, Yoni had either been doing more damage or simply riding out endless reminders of the original injury.

"We'll have to," Sheppard said.

There was no point in waiting, so they didn't. Yoni pushed off of the wall with a bitten-off grunt and they went back down the street they'd come up. Teyla got there first, but did not look behind her and indicate to the rest of them that it was safe to proceed. Instead she held up her fist to call a halt.

"There are soldiers," Teyla said when they joined her, gesturing to her left with her shotgun. "Many of them."

Sheppard peered out and quickly pulled back. "Yeah, that's not really the direction we want to be going in," he sighed.

"Can we go to the right?" Lorne asked.

"They've got the intersection covered," Sheppard said with a shake of his head. "We won't be able to cross it in any direction."

"Fuck," Reletti sighed.

"Perhaps we can use one of the other streets that lead away from the square," Teyla suggested. "Not straight across, but off to the side."

They trotted back up to the entrance to the square and Lorne looked out first. The closest adjacent egress from the square was to their right, heading off at an angle that was sort-of where they wanted to go, but would require some course correction. Which was better than a gunfight with only a couple of shotguns and no spare shells, so it won by default.

The problems were still two-fold, however. First, they couldn't see if there was anyone in the alley. Second, there was no covering between where they were and where they wanted to go; all any of the soldiers at the far end of the square had to do was look over and they'd be seen.

"Sergeant," Sheppard began, "Go see if there's anyone waiting for us."

"Aye aye, sir," Reletti said, then slipped past Lorne to the edge of the shadow protecting them from sight. He watched the soldiers across the square, most of whom were not facing this direction, for a long moment and then took off without warning. He ran in a crouch, quickly and silently. Lorne held his breath, half-expecting a shout or -- even worse -- gunfire. But there was nothing and he exhaled slowly once Reletti had disappeared once more into the shadow.

Reletti's head appeared five endless minutes later, blond hair glinting in the moonlight, followed by his hand gesturing thumbs-down. He returned a few moments later, half-diving in to their alley-turning-jail.

"It's a dead-end, sir," Reletti reported to Sheppard as he stood up. "It's about two hundred yards to a wall that's maybe fifteen feet high and it's too smooth to scale without a rope. There are two doorways between the mouth and the end, but they're both locked. I can break them down, but it'll cause a ruckus and there's no guarantee they get us anywhere."

Sheppard nodded. "Good work anyway."

They were quiet for a few minutes, resting their bodies and racking their brains for a possible solution. Lorne looked back down the alley they were currently in. It had six doorways, but there was no more of a guarantee that they led anywhere, either. They hadn't spent enough time examining the city planning for him to know if there were back doors or back yards or any way through or around.

"Do we want to try our luck running that gauntlet?" Lorne asked Sheppard, gesturing to the far end.

"They're too close," Sheppard replied with a frown. "I'd rather try our chances in the square. Maybe we can scoot around to the next one over--" he gestured with his thumb to the opposite direction from where Reletti had gone, "-- and hope for the best. If not, then we can hole up until the marines find us. It can't be that long now."

"It'd be right about now, sir," A voice came from somewhere above them. The buildings along this alley were all three stories high.

"About damned time," Sheppard called up in a loud whisper.

"Sorry, sir," the anonymous marine called down. "Been busy. How about we get you guys out of there?"

The plan, such as it was, was for the marines to take care of the Gaorgi blocking their path to the rear and then Teyla would lead them back out and to the left for two blocks and another left -- a giant u-turn to circumvent the square. Polito and his command element were six blocks up but would move west to close the gap. Staff Sergeant Chu, the marine speaking to them, and his team would keep overwatch from the rooftops for as long as they were able.

"We'll have y'all out in a minute," Chu promised and then headed off.

Reletti headed over to the end of the alley, not far enough to be seen, and peered out. Lorne followed behind with the others. Yoni was still moving easily, but there was no hiding the pinched expression on his face. Lorne knew better than to ask how he was doing.

He was expecting a flurry of gunfire, but that wasn't what happened. Single shots, then three-shot bursts and the answering Gaorgi shots, but never escalating to the fury of sustained fire. The tinkle of brass casings falling from the rooftops was nonetheless almost right on top of them and Reletti stepped back a little to make sure he didn't get hit by the hot metal.

"Go, go, go!" came from above and they ran, mindful that the Gaorgi from the square -- and any others nearby -- would have come running at the sound of rifle fire.  There were bodies littering the streets and Lorne tried not to look at their faces as he kept to Sheppard's rear, finally seeing for himself how close they'd been to being discovered. They made their u-turn and headed up the parallel street, running at full tilt. Six blocks until they would join up with Polito, less if he were coming toward them.

They never made it. At the second intersection, they were met with a hail of gunfire from their right, a small, well-orchestrated volley that had them diving to the cobblestone-covered ground as the bullets cracked near their ears. Lorne felt the heat as one passed dangerously close to his cheek. The firing stopped immediately and shouts to get up began as soldiers converged. Lorne was yanked up by his elbow and with an arm around his neck and pulled backward before he could regain his footing. He wasn't able to breathe with the vise-like grip around his neck and clawed at his captor even as he tried to get his feet under him, finally doing so and gasping for air.

"Stop!" Yoni shouted and everyone stilled. It was then that he saw Sheppard lying motionless on his side, facing away from where Lorne stood coughing.

"John!" Teyla cried out. She was being practically carried away from Sheppard, squirming to get back to the ground.

"Let me go," Yoni growled, pulling free from his stunned captors with no regard for his own injuries. He was at Sheppard's side in a flash, evading his pursuers' grasping hands. Lorne watched, heart in his throat, as Yoni worked, oblivious to the rifles aimed at his back.

The sound of approaching marines could be heard in the distance -- they would have heard the ambushing volley -- but Lorne didn't look up or away from where Yoni knelt. Sheppard was alive, his legs were moving, but Lorne knew Yoni's body language and, even with Yoni's back to him, he knew that this wasn't good. Sheppard himself was obscured from the thighs up, but Lorne couldn't hear Sheppard talking or even moaning in pain and while Sheppard was a stoic on many fronts, he wasn't a quiet guy in a crisis -- he'd crack stupid jokes rather than say nothing.

"Teyla, come here," Yoni barked. Back on the ground, Teyla peeled her jailers' hands off of her arm with brute strength and ran over, dropping down on Sheppard's other side. "Put your fingers here and squeeze. Don't let go."

Lorne tried to extricate himself from the hands that held him, but they squeezed tighter and Lorne didn't press. They were letting Yoni work and that was the important thing. He looked around to find Reletti, who was on his knees on the cobblestones, hands behind his head as three soldiers held their weapons trained on his chest.

"It's a gut shot," Yoni said loudly. "We need to evacuate him now."

"You will not leave."

Lorne looked up once he recognized the voice as Gotar's.

"He'll die," Yoni said, not looking up from whatever he was doing.

Gotar shrugged. "Many of our men have died tonight. Such is war."

"But you can stop adding to the tally," Lorne said heatedly. Gotar looked at him as if he'd suggested something obscene.

It was probably only a minute or two but it felt like an eternity until the marines arrived. They halted at the edge of the intersection, everyone's rifles up -- marines and Gaorgi -- and ready to resume the battle.

"Sir?" Polito called, then "Corpsman up!" once he saw what was happening.

The corpsman, Jacardi, pushed through the marines to stand next to Polito, then jogged over to Sheppard once it was clear that he wasn't going to get shot doing so. He dropped down next to Teyla, pulling off his packs and supplies, and Yoni started issuing terse commands that Lorne couldn't quite make out but had Jacardi scrambling for supplies and Teyla shifting to get out of the way while still clamping whatever she was holding together.

Lorne pulled himself free, the Gaorgi now more interested in keeping their rifles trained on the marines than keeping him in place. The game had changed with the marines' arrival and he needed to take advantage of that in order to get Sheppard -- and everyone else -- to safety as soon as possible.

"Call in a jumper for an evac, Captain," he said. Polito tapped his radio and did just that. "Sergeant, on your feet."

Reletti stood cautiously, since the rifles were now pressed against his belly.

"You will not leave," Gotar repeated and the soldiers who had been holding Lorne resumed their grip and there was a rifle aimed at his head.

"I wouldn't do that, sir," Polito called out, starting to cross the intersection, his marines hurrying to close the gap behind him. The Gaorgi soldiers trained their rifles on him, but Polito didn't slow. "There's been enough bloodshed tonight, sir. Your men have fought honorably. There's no shame in saving their lives."

Lorne kept his eyes on Gotar, who had obviously taken over for either Ivnel or Themal or both.

"Let us go, Gotar," he said calmly, not fighting the too-tight grips on his biceps and not paying attention to the rifle still aimed at his forehead. "This is over and you have more to think about than who has won or lost. You have Gaorg's fate in your hands, not just ours."

He knew that Gotar had relatively little to gain by letting them go -- capturing them had been a gamble in the first place, one that had not panned out. The Gaorgi had probably already lost so many men that their ability to fight the Wraith would be greatly hampered, P-90s or not. Gaorgi culture being what it was, Gotar might actually be better going out in a blaze of glory than trying to rebuild Gaorg with the remnants of his forces.

"Sir, I'm begging you," Polito said earnestly. "Let us take our people home or, as God is my witness, we will destroy your civilization so thoroughly the Wraith won't bother visiting Gaorg for millennia."

Gotar said nothing.

Lorne sighed, shifting enough to loosen the grip on his arms. The marines who'd chased after Polito had caught up and the Gaorgi were less inclined to be grabby when they were so thoroughly outnumbered. "This is over," he repeated, forcefully but not unkindly -- there was still a rifle near his temple. "This is over and now we have to get down to discussing terms."

"We still have you," Gotar said, "And we still have your people. You'd rather Colonel Sheppard live than me die. We can hold you until he does die and then you will have lost no matter what punishment you extract from my people."

A cry of pain from Sheppard and bitten-off commands from Yoni and they all turned. A couple of marines were holding red-filtered flashlights over Sheppard's body and Lorne could see a growing pile of blood-soaked bandages and cloths near Yoni's thigh.

"Major!" Yoni called over. "Now."

"Gotar, please," Lorne said, "order your men to stand down."

"If you'd rather die than go home empty-handed," Polito said quietly, "then line up against the wall and we'll oblige. But you need to understand something: the Major here is the nice one, the one you have a chance with to be reasonable and make something work. Me and mine, we're just the killers and we are very good at our jobs. If you let Colonel Sheppard die, we're not going to negotiate. We're just going to slaughter you and we'll do it in a fashion so that you have no dignity in death and no honor in this plane or the next."

Overhead, a jumper uncloaked and Lorne could feel the down wash, closing his eyes against the dust it drew up. The Gaorgi looked up in surprise and those that weren't sheltering their eyes raised their rifles to aim at it.

Polito put one hand to his ear, then looked behind him. "First Sergeant, set up a perimeter so that the jumper can land, please?"

Backman, who had been hovering nearby with a handful of marines because he knew well that Polito was very prone to diving into situations headfirst, started barking at marines to move here and there. That in turn forced them to jostle with the Gaorgi and Lorne was thankful that most of the latter seemed more concerned with the jumper landing on them than interested in escalating the stare-down with the marines.

The jumper landed and two corpsmen and a kevlar-clad Doctor Metzinger came running out with a stretcher. Lorne wanted to be over there, wanted to see Sheppard for himself and hear what the doctors and medics were saying -- even if he only understood part of it -- but he couldn't. Going over there now would flaunt Gotar's impotence and possibly make him think that Lorne intended to leave with the injured Sheppard and that would be forcing his hand one step too far considering that Gotar hadn't yet formally acquiesced or even given up his weapon. He knew that Gotar knew that there was only one way for things to play out -- the Lanteans were going home -- but it still had to be played out the right way. Getting Sheppard home now was the important thing; if it took an extra half-hour, an extra hour, an extra six hours for the rest of them to end this without another bullet getting fired, then that would be fine.

When Sheppard was transferred to the stretcher and the corpsmen lifted it off the ground, the Gaorgi stirred, looking to Gotar to see if they should protest the fast progress to the jumper.

"Let them go," he told his men. "Not the other prisoners."

Lorne exhaled slowly in relief, even as Yoni angrily batted away the rifle aimed at his chest. Teyla stood where she was, next to Jacardi and a pile of blood-soaked bandages and cloths. Her hands were blood-covered and so were her pants and while she looked pale with worry, she didn't look weak or unsteady.

The jumper took off, not bothering to cloak as it sped toward the gate.

Lorne turned back to Gotar after the jumper disappeared over the horizon. "How do you want this to go?" he asked. "Do you want to collect your dead?"

Gotar looked at him angrily, still unwilling to accept the finality of things.

Lorne let him have his moment of empty defiance. He didn't want to humiliate Gotar, that would only make things worse, but he didn't want there to be any room for interpretation of what was happening here. He didn't want the Gaorgi having any chance to think that they'd done anything but lose decisively, didn't want Gaorg becoming some kind of weird Weimar Republic that started thinking that if they only got a 'fair' crack at the Lanteans, they'd win.

"Diran!" Gotar called out and one of the soldiers by Reletti stood forward. "Collect everyone for a movement formation. Now."

Diran looked angry and hateful, but gave the strange Gaorgi salute and turned to go. Go where, Lorne wasn't sure. He had no idea where there were marines in the city or where the Gaorgi were holed up or still fighting. He couldn't hear gunfire, but that may have been a recent thing; he hadn't been listening for it since Sheppard had gotten shot.

Polito radioed his platoon commanders to tell them that the Gaorgi were staging a strategic withdrawal and to help them out without making things worse.

"What's the butcher's bill, Captain?" Lorne asked.

Polito gave a half-smile, half-grimace. "Four, sir, none too critical. Carr got his femoral nicked, but he was near to a corpsman when it happened so it was more messy than anything."

Lorne nodded. This, too, was part of the negotiations -- no deaths and a small injury count versus the presumably grievous losses the Gaorgi had taken. He could see in Gotar's face that the other man understood this tally had a direct effect on his own situation just as Sheppard's condition did; the low number reported reinforced the Lanteans' prowess and got him off the hook for more damning debts. Just as Sheppard's death would bring the cost up beyond what they might be able to pay.

In the background, Reletti and Teyla and Yoni were getting aid and comfort -- in the form of canteens and handiwipes and granola bars -- from the marines Polito had brought with him. Teyla and Yoni were both trying to clean Sheppard's blood from their skin while Reletti simply wanted to wash his own from his mouth. If Jacardi knew that Yoni was injured, he wasn't saying anything.

From their left, a small commotion as Gillick and his marines came running into the intersection. The marines already there turned their rifles on the Gaorgi, who had reacted as might have been expected at the sudden arrival of enemy soldiers. Lorne watched and waited to see if he had to force Gotar to stand down his men, but the marines seemed to have everything under control. With just Polito's group, the power situation had been a bit murkier -- about equal in number, it didn't really matter that the Gaorgi were vastly inferior fighters. But with most of a platoon added to the mix, Lorne got his elbow room to start treating the Gaorgi less as 'partners in peace' and more as the subordinates they had become.

"Good to see everyone safe, sir," Gillick said after he jogged over to where Lorne was standing.

Lorne knew that Sheppard's status would have been all over the radio net and that Gillick really meant 'everyone else.'

"Thanks," he said. "Why don't you have your boys start collecting the Gaorgi's weapons. I don't want any accidents."

Gillick looked Gotar over, but said nothing except to give Polito a subtly questioning look -- Lorne was still surrounded by armed men -- but Polito shook his head slightly and so Gillick jogged off again.

Lorne turned back to Gotar as a marine took Gotar's weapon as well as those of the soldiers who had been holding him. "Where are the Cudorian leaders?"

Gotar snorted derisively. "They went back to their homes when we told them to," he said with a sardonic smile and a shrug. "Who could ask for better allies?"

"We could," Lorne said. "Captain, could we get one of the platoon commanders to dig them out of their hiding places, please?"

"Of course, sir," Polito replied, then radioed for Patchok to track down anyone who might be in charge. "Knock politely. It's the middle of the night and they might be sleeping."

It was sarcastic, but Lorne would allow him that. The Cudorians hadn't done much to recommend themselves here today and tonight.

The collection of the Gaorgi troops didn't take very long -- there weren't that many of them and the marines, linked by radio and aided by Cerney and Cardejo up above, had already found them all. Gotar looked a little surprised at how few were lining up in the street and Lorne let him walk and talk among his men. Some of them were injured and being helped along by comrades; more than a few had corpsman-applied bandages and other signs of Lantean first aid.

"What do you want to do with them, sir?" Polito asked during a lull in his coordinating of land and air actions. "What kind of punishment doesn't leave them as fodder for the Wraith?"

"A careful one," Lorne replied, not quite sure of what such an example would be. They couldn't not punish the Gaorgi -- it was the only language they would understand and, frankly, Lorne was not above demonstrating how fucking pissed off he was at the entire situation and these stupid, desperate people and their rash plans. Sheppard might already be dead, both of their teams had been imperiled, and for what? Chests worth of rifles that wouldn't solve any of the Gaorgi's problems because the P-90s were just tools, accessories to an instrument far more proficient than anything Gaorg could produce -- the marines were more deadly than any human fighting force in this galaxy even without their rifles.

"Short term," he went on, because Polito was still waiting for a more concrete answer, "we need to make sure they understand that they lost and that they're not in any position to raise a ruckus. They go home without their weapons; I'm sure they've got plenty at home to defend their planet. Longer term... we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

The solution he might have preferred -- a post-WWII sort of set-up with Gaorg allowed only enough to defend themselves -- would be difficult to enforce and Atlantis had intentionally tried not to set themselves up as galactic policeman in addition to galactic defender. But it might be necessary here and, he suspected, it would probably also be temporary. Without a Marshall Plan, the Gaorgi would be in rebuilding mode for a while and a couple of reinforcements of Lantean power might be enough for a permanent course correction. He'd have to run everything by Weir anyway, so a decision here didn't necessarily have to be set in stone.

"I'm sure the Ipetians would love a few of those shotguns, sir," Polito said with a nod. He was going to say something else, but Gotar was stalking toward them.

"We send our dead to the Ancestors through flame," Gotar said, ignoring the two marines behind Lorne who were giving him the stink-eye. "We have earned that privilege."

"You've forfeited that privilege," Lorne said. "Along with many others. We'll wait for someone from here to tell you if there's a good spot."

Gotar's nostrils flared. "You cannot--"

"Cannot what?" Lorne asked, trying to maintain his patience but feeling it start to slip. "One of those privileges was the right to make demands, Gotar. All you can hope for is that we are more honorable than the Gaorgi. You took on the wrong people and now you and your world will have to deal with the consequences."

Gotar said nothing. He turned sharply on his heel and stalked away past the marines, back toward where his rump army was forming up. Themal, Lorne had noticed, was not one of the ones rounded up and he told Polito to make a special search for either him or his body.

"Be glad to, sir," Polito said, then gestured toward Gotar. "Think he'll listen?"

Lorne shrugged. "He knows what we did to the Genii, so if he doesn't, if they don't, then they have only themselves to blame."

Supervising the Gaorgi collection of bodies and the setting up of funeral pyres would be a task for Polito and the marines of Charlie Company. With a course of action already decided upon, Lorne didn't fight the suggestion that he take his team back home; he was exhausted and still not sure if he would be interim military commander until Sheppard recovered or until his replacement was named. While waiting for Patchok to produce something that passed for Cudorian leadership, they'd gotten a radio transmission from Atlantis -- Sheppard was in surgery and their people had been recovered from the scoopy beam; the Gaorgi prisoners were currently in the brig and everyone else was fine.

Weir had suggested Lorne return home via jumper, but he demurred. There was nothing in Atlantis that absolutely couldn't wait for him to return by foot and he wanted the time it would take to walk so that he could process the day's events. Once he got to Atlantis, he would have to answer a lot of questions and make a lot of decisions right away and he needed time to figure out what the hell he wanted to do and what he thought Weir would do. Teyla and Reletti looked like they wouldn't mind and if Yoni preferred to amble along in pain, then Lorne wasn't going to fight with him over it.

They were escorted back through the city and down the steps of the mountain by marines. It was a quiet walk; Lorne wasn't the only one who needed the peace to collect himself.

Weir was waiting when they returned to Atlantis, the gate room bathed in fiery early-evening sunshine that stung his eyes after so many hours in the dark. Radner was up in the control room and they exchanged nods; Lorne would find him as soon as possible after he'd dealt with the more immediate concerns.

"Welcome back," Weir said, relief and concern in her voice and on her face as she looked them over. "Before you ask, he's still in surgery."

Lorne nodded; he hadn't expected anything different -- if there'd been a change, they'd have been radioed.

"Why don't we get you four to the infirmary," Weir said, eyes glued to Yoni's blood-soaked clothes. "A check-up can precede everything else."

She gestured for them to start walking and Teyla took the lead, followed by Reletti. Weir fell into step with Lorne behind Yoni and he took the opportunity to explain what orders he'd left with Polito.

"It's anything but straightforward," she agreed as they arrived at the transporter. "Asking for something like an Article Nine will render them helpless and we'd have to re-arm them anyway."

Pretty much all useful conversation ceased the moment they stepped into the infirmary. They were all bloody and dirty, but Yoni had been soaked in blood before he'd started working on Sheppard. Lorne hadn't really taken a good look in ample lighting before and, yeah, he could maybe appreciate the reaction. The fluorescent lighting probably didn't help.

"Jonathan!" Clayton cried out alarm. She crossed the room, a bemused Abelard trailing behind, and pointed imperiously toward one of the private exam rooms off to the side. "Into Exam One. Now."

"Quit the hysterics, Clayton," Yoni snapped back. But he complied, heading off without a backward look, and Lorne and Reletti ended up exchanging raised eyebrows because that was positively docile as far as Yoni went.

"He said it wasn't his blood," Lorne said to Clayton, feeling a little guilty for not having hounded Yoni more. "Said he thought it was a cracked rib."

"It probably isn't his blood," Clayton agreed, still aggravated but not at him. "He wouldn't be upright if it were. But he's pale and he's sweaty and he's obedient and we both know what that means."

Next to Lorne, Weir coughed.

"I'll take him," Abelard said, gesturing with his head toward Exam One. Then he looked over at Reletti. "Sergeant, do you need us to call Doctor Klass?"

Klass was the head dentist.

Reletti had stopped whatever he was doing to his mouth by the time Lorne looked over. "No, sir," he replied with not a little alarm. "I'm fine."

Everyone but Lorne followed Clayton and Nurse Andersen to the larger Exam Three; he wanted to find out how the other casualties from Cudor were faring first. Nurse Reilly gave him a brief rundown -- everyone would be RTDed within a couple of days except for Carr, who'd need at least a week for his leg wound to heal.

Exam Three had several beds and only a set of rolling curtains for privacy. It was where Lorne's team usually ended up post-disaster and he knew it well. He settled in to his usual seat at the foot of the exam bed closest to the door and told the waiting Clayton to take care of Reletti and Teyla first; he was less banged up than either of them. Weir was sitting in one of the seats near the sink.

"Do you think the Gaorgi have the potential to become to us what the Genii did?" she asked after Clayton and Andersen had disappeared with Teyla. Reletti had gone over to one of the other beds and sat down; it kept him out of line of sight of Teyla and gave Lorne and Weir the pretext of privacy as well.

Lorne shrugged. "Are they going to end up our enemies? I don't think they're going to be too inclined toward us after this," he said. "But how much of an issue that will be for us, I don't think we can tell yet."

Sheppard would probably be the first person to admit that the Lantean problem with the Genii was not that they'd pissed the Genii off, but instead that they'd underestimated them for too long. They hadn't known about the spy networks until far too late in the game, let alone the amount of resources the Genii had at their disposal and their willingness to use them. A threat assessment of the Gaorgi would not be so arrogant; it was not a mistake they could afford to make twice.

"How much of their army was involved, do you know?" Weir asked after a long pause.

"Probably a good portion," he answered. He suspected it might be almost all, but he didn't want to say. "We took out some back on Gaorg and there were a lot on Cudor. Their population wasn't huge to begin with and we're only sending back a couple dozen men or so."

Weir nodded. "So there's a chance that this was civilization-level suicide," she said thoughtfully. "Maybe there's an underlying cause."

"Ma'am?" Lorne prompted, not sure what she was getting at.

"Who is going to support their industry or tend to their crops or assure another generation of Gaorgi children?" Weir asked. "If we've wiped out the prime of their male population, what is left for them to build on?"

It was something Lorne had considered, but not in the context of it being a cause of the Gaorgi actions, just an unfortunate effect.

They sat in comfortable quiet after that. The door to the rest of the infirmary was open and Lorne listened, although there wasn't much to hear. Most of the beds in the 'ward' area were empty and, except for the fact that he military commander of the expedition was currently in emergency surgery, it would have gone down as a good week. Hopefully it still could be.

"Next!" Clayton called as Teyla emerged from behind the curtain, doing the last of the ties on her top.

Reletti had been lying down on the bed, but he rolled smoothly to the ground and headed over to the curtained area without prodding. For once.

"Doctor Clayton said that it would be many more hours until Colonel Sheppard is out of his surgery," Teyla said as she joined them, leaning against the counter near Weir. Her wrists were lightly wrapped, but otherwise she seemed fine.

"It's a complicated area of the body," Weir said, sounding like she'd been told to be patient a few too many times. "But I have faith in Doctor Keller and Doctor Metzinger."

Teyla smiled, but it wasn't really a happy smile. "What will become of the Gaorgi, if I may ask?"

"We're still working on that," Weir told her. "Part of it depends on how Colonel Sheppard fares, I should think."

There was silence than, not an entirely easy one, and Lorne was about to say something probably stupid about Sheppard's remarkable ability to survive, but was saved when Weir suddenly held her hand up to her earpiece. "I'll tell him," she said into the microphone. "Thank you."

Lorne, who still hadn't gotten a new radio, waited.

"Captain Polito says that the Cudorians have allowed the Gaorgi to cremate their dead outside of the city and that they've found the body of Themal. Strangled, it seems."

"Hunh," Lorne chuffed, surprised. "Not one of ours, then."

The marines were perfectly capable of strangling an opponent, but that was a method that required proximity and usually was only used when silence was a factor. The first wasn't desired and the second wasn't necessary and Lorne had been expecting the marines to have found Themal dead by gunshot. Either theirs or the Gaorgi -- urban night fighting was very difficult even when trained and equipped for it; he didn't think for a second that they had been involved in the only friendly fire incident among the Gaorgi.

"Perhaps there was a citizen of Cudor who disapproved strongly of the Gaorgi occupation," Teyla suggested.

Themal could have been fragged by one of his own people, but Lorne didn't think it likely.

"Hopefully, they'll elect him mayor," he said sourly. Cudor was not high on his list of places to be charitable about right now.

Andersen emerged from behind the curtain and headed toward one of the shelves of supplies, a shirtless Reletti trailing behind.

"Stop showing off, Sergeant," Lorne called over. The marines were a little shameless at times and there weren't any cuts on Reletti's torso that needed dressing.

Across from him, Teyla and Weir both stifled grins.

"Don't take away my fun," Clayton called from the curtained-off area. Reletti smiled and Teyla and Weir stopped pretending that they weren't doing the same.

Andersen ended her fishing expedition in one of the plastic bins with a handful of small packets she gave to Reletti. "Rinse your mouth with these three times a day."

"Yes, ma'am." Reletti pocketed his goodies and put his shirt on.

"Your turn, Major," Clayton said from the open 'doorway' to her space.

"Excuse me," he said to Weir and Teyla, sliding off of the exam bed.

"I'm going to go back upstairs," Weir said, standing herself. "See if I can get some work done. You'll check in with me later?"

"Of course, ma'am," Lorne promised.

Lorne's exam was very short and uneventful; scrapes not worth treating and a couple of bruises. By the time he emerged -- fully dressed -- from the enclosed area, Teyla and Reletti were gone as well.

They hadn't gone far, however. Teyla was over at the nurse's station talking to Reilly and Reletti was standing next to the empty Exam One. Lorne wasn't surprised to see Ortilla and Suarez, cleaned up from before, standing against the wall. Both of them were dressed in their cammies even though they had probably been put off-duty for the day. They gave him the once-over, which he was touched by but ignored since that's how these things went.

"Where's Doc?" he asked instead.

"Still in the Ancient X-Ray with Doctor Abelard, sir," Suarez replied, gesturing toward where the body scanner was housed. "He's okay, right?"

"Yeah," Lorne replied, since Suarez had a look on his face that made Lorne suspect that Suarez was speaking of Yoni and thinking of Sheppard. "He'll probably just be extra cranky for a while."

And, possibly, unable to go on missions for a while, depending on the severity of his injuries.

"That's okay, sir," Suarez said, nodding. "We know he doesn't mean it."

"Keep telling yourself that, Sergeant," Clayton said as she passed by.

Lorne would have liked to have stayed and waited for Yoni to return, wait for news about Sheppard, but he couldn't. Instead, he told the marines to be nice to Yoni when he returned and headed out of the infirmary suite, stopping by the nurse's station to ask Reilly to have someone send updates. Reilly accepted the completely unnecessary request for the concern that it was and assured him that he'd know as soon as they did. Teyla walked out with him.

"Ronon is in the gym," she said when Lorne asked where the rest of her team was. If his marines knew that they'd gotten back, then certainly McKay knew and probably Ronon as well. "I expect he is finding... outlets for his apprehension."

He grinned despite himself. "Marines'll be happy to be stress toys," he said.

Teyla grinned back, but the smile did not reach her eyes. "Doctor McKay is in his lab," she went on. "Nurse Reilly said that he had been calling very regularly and they'd asked him to stop."

Reilly was only a little smaller than Ortilla and a former marine; Lorne could only imagine how that 'request' had been framed.

They parted at the transporter; he let Teyla go first so that she could return to her quarters to clean up and rest. He wasn't sure how much rest she was going to get and neither was she, but that's what Clayton had told her to do and so she would. He had been given similar instructions, but Clayton had not even bothered to pretend that they would be followed. He did go to his quarters, but only to shower and pick up his earpiece and the holster he wore around the city. After that, it was the armory to sign out a new M9 -- his would probably be returned to him along with the rest of the rescued munitions, but he didn't like going without one with the city still in crisis mode -- and then over to the control room.

"It's all over but the shouting, sir," Radner said when he entered. "Granted, there's still a fair bit of shouting going on."

Cudor was completely under Lantean command -- the Cudorians were apparently hesitant to do much of anything with the Gaorgi still around. The Gaorgi were probably going to be there another few hours; theirs wasn't a task you could really speed up that much. But Radner hadn't been exaggerating. All of the Gaorgi weapons had been collected, all of the Earth weapons recovered except for one M9, and Ronon's blaster would come home in the next shipment. All that the Gaorgi could do was shout.

"What do we want to do with the fellows in the brig, sir?" Radner asked.

Lorne sighed. The keeping of prisoners was a distraction and an annoyance; he had read the notes on Atlantis's imprisonment of Sora of the Genii and understood perfectly why Sheppard had no desire to repeat the exercise. Maintaining guards and providing the prisoners with food, clothes, and medical care was at best a pain in the ass. The Gaorgi had nothing Atlantis wanted in terms of ransom, or at least nothing they wouldn't get by marching the rump of their army back in shame.

"We'll toss 'em back to Cudor when Charlie's ready to walk the bad guys home," he said. "No point in making a nuisance for ourselves."

He told Weir the same thing when he checked in with her.

"I suspect Gaorgi prisoners are not a commodity that will appreciate with time," she agreed ruefully.

He was back in the control room by the time Abelard called him to say that Yoni had been released into the care of their marines; the final tally was two slight rib fractures, some bruising, and a twelve-stitch cut. "He's got painkillers, which he won't take, and instructions to eat and sleep, which he won't do," Abelard reported. "But getting the front-row seat for Keller tearing strips off of him tomorrow for lack of compliance will almost make up for today's frustration. It was like trying to bathe a cat."

Lorne couldn't really defend Yoni on that front, so he didn't. He thanked Abelard instead and asked if there was any news on Sheppard. There wasn't, although Abelard made sure to tell Lorne to take time to eat and rest himself.

Not quite on cue, his stomach rumbled. The last time he'd eaten had been the breakfast picnic on Baratha, which felt like a lifetime ago but had only been about sixteen hours. He wasn't sure he felt like eating now, but coffee wouldn't be a bad idea. He told Radner where he was going and headed off to the commissary.

He wasn't surprised to see his team there. The marines knew what Yoni would or wouldn't eat and Ortilla could pull off both the imposing glare of a drill instructor and the implacable patience of a father. When Lorne showed up with his own tray, Yoni was on the receiving end of a combination of the two, picking over a fruit cup with no real interest and ignoring a roll and a yogurt and a slab of cheese.

"Mouth's not bothering you?" Lorne asked Reletti, who was tucking in to a large slab of lasagna.

"No, sir," Reletti answered, mouth half-full.

They ate in companionable silence; countless meals together over the years and they didn't need to talk to communicate. Their relief and their concerns showed through clearly enough. The quiet had the added bonus of keeping everyone else away -- it was still busy in terms of the dinner hours in Atlantis and Lorne was happy to let their silence be misinterpreted by the gawkers.

Ortilla, with help from Saurez, goaded Yoni into putting a good faith effort into eating and Yoni was most of the way through his food when McKay showed up at their table.

"Can I?" he asked, gesturing with his tray.

Reletti shifted one way and Suarez the other and they made space at one end for McKay. This wasn't the first time something like this had happened, but it didn't happen often. Often enough, however, that they understood that McKay wanted the shelter from curious onlookers without having to snarl his way to extra space and he wanted the company of the only people in Atlantis outside of his own team who understood.

"I was reading about abdominal trauma," McKay began quietly, dragging his fork around in his mashed potatoes.

"Don't," Yoni said sharply, but without heat. "He was lucky and it will hopefully save his life."

McKay almost visibly tripped over the lack of definitive assurance; Lorne suspected that McKay, who would have only had heard about Sheppard after the medevac back to Atlantis, had been hoping that Yoni would promise a complete recovery.

"The bullet was a ricochet," Yoni went on, not looking up from where he was positioning bits of cheese over chunks of pear. "It didn't do as much damage as it could have and contamination was controlled quickly. They're taking so long now because his odds skyrocket if we don't have to open him up again later on."

McKay nodded, a little relieved if not quite at ease.

Lorne finished his sandwich and apple and most of his coffee before getting up, gesturing for the marines not to bother standing for him. "I'm going back to the control room," he said, somewhat unnecessarily. He exchanged a silent look with Ortilla, who nodded to indicate that he'd keep an eye on both Yoni and McKay, and then he went to go dump his tray. He stopped at the coffee station to get a new cup and one for Radner as Dave probably hadn't left his post since Polito had gone through the gate almost eight hours ago.

"Polito says that they should be ready to walk the Gaorgi home by 2200 AST, sir," Radner said after his first sip. He had been genuinely and appropriately grateful for the caffeine; First Sergeant Wrubelski had brought him food a couple of hours ago, but the coffee urns had been empty at the time. "We were thinking you might want to be part of the escort."

Lorne hadn't really been hankering for any such thing, but he understood why the marines were making the suggestion: the problems with the Gaorgi had started with him on Gaorg and so they should end with him on Gaorg. It was tactically sound, but it was also a challenge -- to the Gaorgi and maybe a little bit to him, too.

"Tell the other two that I'll be ready if they want me," he said.

The call that said that Sheppard was out of surgery came around 1945 AST. He went down to Medical with Weir and McKay and Ronon and Teyla, both to congratulate Keller and Metzinger as well as to see Sheppard. The latter wasn't happening -- nobody could see him yet -- but the early indications were positive. Keller and Metzinger both seemed cautiously pleased and emphasized more than once just how lucky Sheppard had been with how little damage, relatively, had been done.

Yoni was also there, stopping by to pick up something for his wounds and staying because he wanted to know what the end results of the treatment he'd started were. He looked crappy, but an exhausted kind of awful and not a 'bleeding internally for half a day' kind of awful. He went off with Keller and Metzinger and Lorne went back to keeping an informal eye on Sheppard's team, all of whom managed to look simultaneously relieved, very much aware that this was only the beginning of the road back, and used to having to sit around and worry about Sheppard. Especially Teyla and McKay.

Eventually he got back to his own office. Where he promptly fell asleep in his chair with his notes open. He was woken up by the phone ringing, Radner telling him that they were almost ready to get going to Cudor.

Still a little groggy from his unintended nap, Lorne swallowed the rest of his cold coffee and went to go get kitted out. He arrived in the gate room in time to see the parade of Gaorgi prisoners coming up from the brig. The seven men were hooded and cuffed -- Weir had thrown a shitfit, apparently, when they'd been led to the brig in hoods, but Hanzis had politely told her that keeping them from seeing Atlantis was more important than worrying about potential rights abuses. All the more so considering that envy was the cause of the entire situation. They hadn't been kept in the hoods, had in fact been treated very well for the duration of their captivity, but they'd been re-hooded for the trip to and through the gate room. Weir, while still obviously displeased, did not comment.

Suarez, Reletti, and Ortilla were there, dressed and armed. They were being returned to duty, even if that duty was just walking to Gaorg and back, and would rejoin their platoon on Cudor.

"Ready to go, sir?" Lieutenant Murray asked. His platoon was escorting the prisoners; they'd hook up with Charlie on the other side of the wormhole, then turn around and go to Gaorg together.

Cudor was already at nautical dawn, the sun still too low to blind them as they came through. They were greeted by marines as Charlie Company had already assembled down near the gate.

Murray's marines unhooded the prisoners and they quickly moved to join the relatively meager ranks of the Gaorgi military. Charlie Company had the survivors surrounded and bound with flexicuffs, something that did not go unnoticed by anyone who'd come from Atlantis.

"A couple of them had trouble accepting reality, sir," First Sergeant Backman explained with a grimace when Lorne found him. "Skipper figured it'd be easier to just cuff 'em than explore the alternatives."

Lorne knew he should ask for specifics, but the Gaorgi were docile and Gotar didn't start griping at him when he saw him, and he was entirely too tired -- of the situation and in general -- to care. "As long as they can walk," he said.

"We took 'em down the switchback instead of the steps just to be careful," Backman confirmed, his tone of voice making it very clear that he didn't give one whit about the safety and comfort of men who'd so recently been shooting at his men. The first question from Backman's lips had been about Sheppard and the four injured marines.

Polito was starting to look like he'd been up all night managing urban combat; Lorne congratulated him on a job well done, answered his questions about the wounded, and asked his own about what was going on up in Cudor.

"They're washing their cobblestones and pretending that they haven't spent the last two days cowering in fear, sir," Polito said, pursing his lips in disgust. "They want to negotiate some sort of protection treaty with us... Permission to speak freely, sir?"

Lorne nodded.

"They're a fifth-rate Argos to these fourth-rate Spartans," Polito said, gesturing to the Gaorgi prisoners. "And I'm not sure a lifetime's supply of free lettuce is worth sacrificing a marine's life to keep such a craven society comfortable when they have no desire to save themselves through their own efforts. We'll gladly die protecting those who can't help themselves, but I'm not sure Cudor qualifies."

Lorne sighed, unsurprised. "So noted, Captain," he said. "And while I'm inclined to agree with you, certainly this morning, the decision ultimately doesn't rest in my hands. I'll make sure Doctor Weir knows that there's some... reluctance to expand our treaty with Cudor."

At Lorne's signal, Sergeant Horton dialed Gaorg and they filed through.

The walk from the gate to the city on Gaorg was quiet; it had been enough time since that first pitched battle that most of the signs were gone, although Lorne stepped on a few casings as they progressed. They walked in open fields, not bothering to hide themselves in any fashion; this was all about being seen and making a show of force. It was quiet at first, but as they drew closer to the city, there were signs of life, faces and forms visible from the trees as the Gaorgi watched the return of their military as something most definitely not victors.

The marines watched both their surroundings and their prisoners, prepared to deal with any action from either side, but there wasn't any. Lorne walked with Polito and Backman at the front of the parade, wondering what he'd say and who he'd end up saying it to.

By the time they walked in to the city proper, there were crowds following, whispering and murmuring and the occasional cry of anguish as someone realized that their husband/father/son/brother wasn't coming home.

Lorne halted the procession in the main square, told Polito to release the men, and watched as the marines cut the cuffs off of the shamed soldiers.

A woman came forward, a sturdy, Teutonic-looking woman who wouldn't have been out of place herding cows on some meadow. "What is this?" she asked in a loud voice. Lorne thought she might be Themal's wife, but it had been a while and under far different circumstances than these.

"This is what happens when you try to take what isn't yours," he replied. "For your own sake and for the sake of your people, I'd suggest you choose your battles more wisely."

Gotar, freed, walked to the woman and made the Gaorgi bow. When he stood up, she slapped his face. Hard. Behind Lorne, some of the marines snickered.

"You've made yourself one helluva enemy, ma'am," he went on, "We're not going to be as merciful the next time."

With that, he signaled for the marines to about face and start walking. They knew they were on display, knew that this was a bigger dick contest and they'd already won, and while the swagger stayed on the safe side, it was there. But they'd earned it, so Lorne just watched the show along with everyone else.

Returning back to Atlantis was a little anticlimactic. It was close to midnight and there was only a skeleton crew in the control room, although Weir's light was on and she was still at her desk. She came down to greet them, saying all the right things and updating them on Sheppard's condition (unchanged, which under the circumstances was good news). The marines, exhausted from combat and then the post-action activities, trudged off toward the gate room exit to deposit their own weapons as well as those taken from Gaorgi. Lorne followed, but was called back.

"A word, Major," Weir called and Lorne stopped in his tracks, gave Polito a farewell pat on the arm, and turned back.

"Ma'am?" He tried to keep his own exhaustion from his voice, but probably didn't do as good a job with his body language if Weir's apologetic expression was any indicator.

"What is your instinct regarding Gaorg?" she asked.

He rolled his neck, wincing as it popped loudly. "I don't know if I put the fear of God into them," he said, thinking back to the woman who may have been Themal's widow. "But I don't think we have to worry about them for the time being. We'll still have to do a thorough assessment, but they look like they understand just how much work they have ahead of them to get back to where they were before yesterday."

Weir nodded. "Thank you," she said. "Now go get some rest. We're both going to be very busy for the foreseeable future."

"Goodnight, ma'am, " he said with a grimace, then jogged from the gate room before anyone else -- either Weir or Kagan up in the control room -- could come up with anything else.

By the time he got back to his quarters, the fact that he'd been up for thirty hours, had been captured, escaped, been chased, been re-captured, and had to oversee in part the liberation of one city and threaten another had made itself manifest in many ways. He ached, he was hungry, he was too tired to shower again and too unwilling to go to bed without doing so, and by the time he did make it to bed, he was unable to clear his mind of all of the crap that was waiting for him to start work in the morning. Eventually, however, exhaustion, like gravity, won out.

"Are you supposed to be doing that, sir?" Lorne asked, not looking up from where he was still typing.

After any crisis came the collating of paperwork. In addition to the AARs, which read like treatments for a Bruckheimer movie, and the related briefings for the IOA and SGC, there were inventories of the Gaorgi weapons to record (thankfully, that was a task that fell to the sergeants over in Ordnance), enemy casualty counts (accurate because the Gaorgi were doing the counting, although still remarkably high), friendly casualty counts (all but Sheppard were already RTD), munition expenditures (including the form for the still-missing M9), and all of the mission-related paperwork from the marine officers as well as his own written orders (some of which hadn't quite been written down at the time).

"Umm," Sheppard hemmed, half-shuffling in from the doorway. "No. Don't tell Keller."

Lorne finished his sentence and looked up. "Doctor Keller is only one of the many people who will be displeased to see you wandering around."

Sheppard, still pale if not looking as weak and frail as he'd been before he'd been given permission to take brief walks, stopped and grinned. "Well, don't tell Doctor Weir, either."

Lorne could point out that Sheppard had been granted the freedom of the hallway that ran between Medical's suites, would probably have been allowed to wander into the research area if he'd really pleaded, and on good days was allowed to go sit by the window next to the transporter. Beyond that required a wheelchair and an escort. Beyond the fact that escaping to Little Tripoli by foot was not only not permitted, it was also not going to pass unnoticed.

"There's water for tea," he said instead, since Sheppard knew all of that as well as he did. And he was maybe a little pleased for the visit. This wouldn't be the first or the fifteenth time Sheppard had fled here to avoid trouble, but that was part of why -- it was something else returning to normal after weeks of it being anything but.

It also meant that everyone knew where to look for the fugitive patient first. If he wasn't hiding here, everyone in Atlantis knew Lorne would either know where he was or be able to find him.

"They seem to have removed part of your creativity when they resectioned your intestines," Yoni said to Sheppard, walking into Lorne's office without knocking first. Lorne was completely unsurprised that they'd sent the muscle first. "This was the best you could come up with for your big escape?"

Sheppard, who was carefully leaning against the wall next to the electric kettle that had somehow found its way into the office over the years, looked unsurprised. Unrepentant, but unsurprised. "It was worth a shot," he said easily. He gestured toward Yoni with his cup. "I thought you weren't supposed to be doing any heavy lifting yet."

Yoni wasn't and, surprisingly, had been fairly good about following doctor's orders on that score. The inactivity was making him tetchy, however, which in turn made everyone around him that much more eager for him to heal quickly.

"I have no intention of lifting anything," Yoni replied, then turned back toward the hallway. "Reilly!"

Nurse Reilly appeared a moment later with a wheelchair. With the size differential, it looked like he was pushing a doll's stroller.

"Get in," Yoni ordered, gesturing at the wheelchair. "Or he will carry you back down to Medical. And then next time someone chases you down, it'll be Tomita."

Tomita, pound for pound, was maybe the scariest person in Medical. Yoni was careful to stay on her good side. Most of the time.

"Can I take my tea?" Sheppard asked.

Yoni stared at him and Sheppard shuffled over to the wheelchair. With his cup. Tomita wasn't an idle threat but Yoni had earned his reputation, too.

"Next time," Yoni told Lorne, "Don't indulge him."

Lorne wasn't sure if Yoni actually expected him to listen or not. Or whether he would. But he did make sure to look chastened, which earned him a snort of derision.

Word of Sheppard's flight from Medical had made it through Little Tripoli and the normally quiet hall outside Lorne's office was suddenly an impromptu parade route if the chorus of greetings was any indication. Judging by how long it took for the noise to die down, it also sounded like Yoni was letting Sheppard linger before returning him to Medical.

"I shall return!" Sheppard called out before being wheeled into the transporter, a declaration that both energized and entertained the whole of Little Tripoli as the story spread. In no small part because everyone knew -- in a way that maybe they hadn't before the jailbreak -- that he absolutely would.

feed me on LJ?

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2 October, 2007