Title: Small Mercies

Author: Lorr

Genre/Rating: Drama

Characters: Weir, Sheppard, McKay, Teyla, Ronon, Kate Heightmeyer

Disclaimer: Stargate Atlantis and all therein belong to people not me. I just came to play.

Spoilers: Two small references to Trinity, but otherwise, I don't think there are any spoilers. I apologize if there is. This takes place any time after that episode.

Background: A trip to a slightly darker side. I hope you enjoy it. Reviews are most welcome so that I know I am doing justice to the wee universe that is Atlantis.

John Sheppard, Rodney McKay and Ronon Dex waited patiently across the square from the well in the center of the village. Teyla Emmagan was at the well, helping an elderly woman draw water to fill a clay jar. They talked quietly as they worked. All of the villagers they saw were dressed in roughly woven garments. All exuded the air of the stunted crops growing in their parched fields. A drought had burned this part of the planet for several years and there had been too many days of physical toil with little reward. It had been a very long time since this place had seen better days.

Teyla bent low and spoke quietly to the woman, who replied then walked away with her jar of water, leaving Teyla to return to her companions. Without a word, the team left the village and headed for the Gate. Once out of earshot of any of the inhabitants of M4R-273, Teyla began to tell the others what she learned.

"Yes, it has happened here as well." She answered Sheppard's unspoken question. "Three men came through the Gate several weeks ago. The descriptions of two of them were the same as before. They promised farm work elsewhere, claiming that anyone who followed them would earn enough to take care of their families until the drought ended. About thirty able-bodied men and women left and have not been heard from since."

"Variations on a theme." Sheppard commented as they neared the Gate. "That makes over a hundred and fifty people we know about so far."

"Yes, yes, but what for, slavery? They may have just gone to another planet to work and are too busy to come back right now." McKay frowned, looking at Teyla and Ronon. "Have you ever heard of people being taken from other planets and used as slaves?"

"Yes, but it is the first time I have heard of this kind of enticement." Teyla answered.

"Usually, they just go in and round up everyone they can and haul them off. They don't give anyone the choice." Ronon glanced back at the village as he spoke.

"Any idea where they went?" Sheppard asked Teyla.

"No, the destination was not mentioned and no-one saw the dialing sequence." Teyla shook her head. "The loss of these people will probably mean the end of everyone here. They do not have enough manpower to work the fields now."

As McKay dialed the Gate, Sheppard turned and looked back, deep in thought.

----------

"Do you really think it is a slave trading ring?" Elizabeth Weir could not hide her revulsion. She looked around the conference table.

"The lure isn't the same as the others, but so far, the pitch has been for farm work, construction and clearing land. It looks like they're changing the story according to the targeted community." The Colonel shrugged. "Don't know, but I doubt that these people are from an intergalactic temp agency."

"The descriptions of two of the men are too similar to be a coincidence." McKay conceded. "Maybe they've just decided it's easier to get the strongest people this way. No fuss, no muss."

After throwing McKay a sideways frown, Elizabeth asked a question to which she already knew the answer. "There's nothing we can do, is there?"

"No-one has seen the Gate address dialed by these men." Teyla answered.

"There's nothing to do unless, and until, it happens again and we get an address." Sheppard shook his head to reinforce the answer.

Elizabeth thought for a moment. "But, could this be a coincidence? Could it be that the missing people are working somewhere and just haven't gone home yet?"

"It is possible, but very unlikely." Teyla answered first. "The villages these people come from are close knit communities. Family ties are very strong."

Ronon agreed. "Yeah. Maybe some of them wouldn't go back, but not all of them. Most of left families behind."

"This whole thing smells bad." Sheppard absent-mindedly rubbed his jaw with the back of the fingers of his right hand. "Three planets in two months. That we know about."

"Well, like you said, we can't do anything without more information right now." Elizabeth closed the cover on her PDA. "John, have all teams going off-world keep their eyes and ears open."

Sheppard nodded. "Already done."

Teyla, Ronon and McKay left the room, but Sheppard didn't move. He seemed lost in thought.

Elizabeth looked at him, puzzled. "John, what is it?"

He frowned. "It could be Wraith worshippers, rounding up humans for their masters."

"Humans rounding up humans for the Wraith?" She was shocked. "Do you think that's possible?"

He looked at her and shrugged. "Very little surprises me any more. The worshipers I saw on the Hive ship seemed to be both terrified and slavishly devoted to the Wraith. It's possible."

"God, I hope not." She shuddered at the thought.

-----------

Three weeks later, Sheppard was walking quickly up the corridor from his quarters towards the mess. His team returned from a mission only a couple of hours earlier. They were checked over in the infirmary and debriefed. It had been a long day and he was looking forward to getting dinner.

"Sir? Do you have a minute?" Lt. Simmons trotted to catch up to his commanding officer.

Sheppard slowed his pace and glanced back as Simmons caught up. "What's up, Lieutenant?"

"I think we have one, Sir." He drew next to the Colonel. "A Gate address for the missing people, that is, Sir."

Sheppard stopped, all of his attention now on the young man. "Give me the highlights."

"Yes, Sir. We were on P4M-597. Day before yesterday, four men came there and talked about forty men and women into going through the Gate with them. Promised them work that would pay well. The description of one of them matched one from M4R-273."

"Tell me you got the Gate address." Sheppard held his breath.

Simmons nodded, smiling. "Yes, Sir. One of the village elders didn't like the sound of it, so he had his grandson scurry up a tree and watch the dialing sequence."

Dinner almost forgotten, Sheppard grinned and clapped the young man on the shoulder. "Good man."

----------

Sheppard, Teyla and McKay sat around Elizabeth's office. Ronon leaned against the door.

"We've gone back to the other three planets in the last couple of days, and there's still no sign of the missing people." Sheppard watched Elizabeth expectantly. "I'd be surprised if this is where those folks are parked, but you never know. We should at least see if there is any indication of where they've gone."

"This may be perfectly innocent, you know." McKay chimed in. "Maybe they are just working somewhere."

Sheppard nodded an acknowledgement. "Yes, maybe they have. But I'd like to know one way or the other."

Elizabeth looked around the room. "So would I. You have a go."

Teyla and Sheppard stood and left the office with Ronon. McKay grimaced in anticipation of what might be in their immediate future as he followed them out.

----------

An hour later, fourteen men and women waited at the foot of the stairs in the Gate Room. Lorne, Garcia and their teams were joining Sheppard's on the mission. A couple of extra Marines were along for the ride.

McKay nervously eyed the extra weapon carried by Sheppard for this mission. The M40A3 slung over the Colonel's shoulder was the latest Marine sniper rifle. It held a maximum of five rounds, but was deadly accurate up to a thousand yards. A couple of his vest pockets were packed even more rounds.

The ammunition was not quite the AA11 normally used with this weapon. Sheppard and Ronon had worked for weeks with the ordnance specialists on Atlantis to make them lethal enough to bring down a Wraith with one shot. The trade off was the range with the greatest degree of accuracy was reduced by fifteen to twenty percent. It was well worth it.

"I don't like the idea of going there without a Jumper." McKay hung back a little.

"You don't have to come, Rodney." Sheppard adjusted the rifle. It was heavy and a little awkward with the attached bipod, but he didn't mind the effort if it was needed.

"No, no. I'm coming." McKay glanced at the distinctly odd looking weapon again as he feigned courage. "I'm just saying that we should take a Jumper. We're going to be completely unprotected out there."

"Yeah, completely. Look, there's not much room to maneuver a Jumper near the Gate." Sheppard looked around at the firepower assembled in the Gate Room as he spoke. He raised his voice. "Let's go."

The teams walked through, weapons and life-sign detectors at the ready.

----------

It was late on a cold, gray afternoon on M5R-192. The clearing around the Gate was no more than twice the size of the Gate Room in Atlantis. It was surrounded by a thick forest. An obvious trail disappeared to the right through the trees at about a sixty degree angle from the plane of the Gate. A less obvious one headed off to the left of it.

As the wormhole shut down, Sheppard motioned to Lt. Garcia to stay at the Gate. He and his team of two men and one woman were all still fairly new to Atlantis, but had shown themselves highly capable on several missions.

He approached the young man and spoke softly. "Keep out of site if you can. If this is the place, we don't know when these guys are going to bring more people through the Gate. I don't want to spook them until we know what's going on."

"Yes, Sir!" The young man whispered back.

Sheppard and Lorne's teams fanned out and entered the trees either side of the trails. Lorne took the wider trail on the right. Each of them had one of the extra Marines. They slowly worked their way through the trees, keeping an eye on the life-signs detectors. Dead foliage underfoot crunched softly with each step and little puffs of steam rose with each breath.

"Tell me again why we couldn't bring the Jumper?" McKay complained soon after entering the trees. He was shivering. "We'd be able to search a lot faster and we'd be cloaked, so no-one would see us. And, we'd be warm."

The Colonel scowled at him. "A lot of these trees are well over a hundred feet tall and the canopy's too dense. We don't know if we could land where we need to. Go back and wait with Garcia if you want to. Otherwise, keep it quiet."

"I was just saying…" McKay fell quiet, but continued with the team.

The paths, and routes the two teams took, veered away from each other. A couple of hundred yards in, Lorne's team came across multiple life-signs on their handheld detector. He halted his men and tapped his earpiece.

"Col. Sheppard?" The Major whispered.

"Go."

"We have life-signs ahead, Sir. Close to a hundred, from all the blips." Lorne frowned at the multitude of dots on the screen.

"Okay, see if you can get closer and find out what's going on."

"Copy, Sir."

----------

Ronon immediately took point when they left the Gate clearing. He stayed well in front of the team, silently ranging from side to side in a wide arc. Several minutes after Lorne's communication, he dropped back to find Sheppard. The waning light caused the shadows in the forest to deepen. Only movement allowed them to distinguish tree from human.

"The forest ends up ahead." Ronon almost whispered. He pointed straight ahead then swept his hand to the left. "Doesn't look like anyone's around, but something's wrong."

Sheppard glanced at the life-sights detector. "Wraith?"

"They're not there now, but they've been here."

"Great." Sheppard tapped his earpiece. "Lorne?"

"Sir?" The response was barely audible.

"Anything?"

"It looks like there're about a hundred and twenty people, Sir. They're just camped out. I can't tell if any of our targets are among them."

"What're they doing?"

"Nothing, Sir. Looks like they're just waiting."

"Well, be careful and stay out of site, the Wraith could be involved."

"We haven't seen any, Sir." Lorne's voice conveyed nothing.

"Neither have we, but, it's possible, probable." He thought for a moment. "We're going to check out the edge of the forest about a thousand yards from the Gate then work our way around to you. We'll be there in about fifteen."

They crept closer to the clearing and stopped inside the tree-line to cautiously survey the area. It was empty, but even in the poor light, they could see that ships had been landing there. Shrubs and young trees had been crushed and the ground was scorched in places.

Something made Sheppard turn back toward the Gate. He peered into the now dark forest then up to the sky, but could see nothing. When he looked at his team again, they were still watching the open ground. He hoped he wasn't just getting jumpy over nothing, but was more worried about the alternative. After a couple of minutes, he motioned for the others to move out to join up with Lorne's team. They hadn't gone more than fifty yards when their transceivers crackled softly.

"Col. Sheppard?" Garcia's voice was barely audible.

"Go."

"Sir, a bunch of people just came through the Gate. About thirty men and women, and they're headed in Maj. Lorne's direction."

"Were they armed?"

"Don't know, Sir. There were a couple of guys leading them, but we didn't see any weapons." Garcia paused for a second then added. "No sign of any Wraith, either."

"Okay. Sit tight."

Sheppard motioned to Ronon to take point again. He had absolute faith in Ronon's ability to track and avoid danger if necessary. The man had an uncanny awareness, could find his way and sniff out the Wraith in just about any conditions. They moved out quietly.

Even McKay seemed to understand that silence was essential. Either that or he was just too cold and nervous to say anything. He kept close behind the Colonel, his eyes nervously darting back and forth. He strained to see in the darkening evening. At one point, he bumped into Sheppard when the latter slowed to check on Teyla, who was on their six.

"Colonel?" Lorne's voice sounded in their ears.

"Major?"

"Looks like the bunch that came through the Gate are entering the encampment."

"What are they doing?"

"Stand by." There was a long silence before Lorne spoke again. "Seems like they're settling down for the night."

"What about the escorts?" Sheppard asked softly.

"They're off to one side talking to a couple of men. Everything's quiet. I think we've identified the ringleaders."

"Good, we're almost there." Sheppard and his team froze when they heard a vaguely familiar whine coming in low. It was coming in at such an angle and direction as to be difficult for anyone in the encampment to detect it.

"Oh, God." McKay whispered next to him.

"Sir?" Lorne was concerned.

"Crap. It's a Wraith ship of some kind." Sheppard whispered into his comm. He motioned to Ronon who nodded and loped off back in the direction they had come then began to move quickly, nudging McKay toward Lorne's position. "Get close to the encampment, but stay out of sight. If the Wraith sensors pick you up, they'll think you're part of the crowd. We'll be there in a minute."

McKay whispered urgently. "We need to get out of here. Now"!

"Come on!" Sheppard hissed back as Teyla grabbed McKay's arm to hurry him along. Sgt. Yoshiro brought up their six.