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Sleight of Hand

By Cathook

Adventure / Scifi

Chapter 1

A pale sun climbed slowly from the alien horizon. There was a chill in the air and it pulled tendrils of mist from the high grass around the Stargate, like ghostly fingers stretching towards the grayblue sky. In reality it wasn't a particularly spectacular sight. It was far from the most beautiful sunrise Colonel Jack O'Neill had ever seen. However, the fact that it was not Earth's old familiar Sol he was watching inch its way up the sky always did its part to make the view a little more special. He allowed himself another moment before he turned his attention to his team, noting how their first actions on this unfamiliar ground spoke clearly of their respective characters.

Daniel Jackson – his best friend and PhD times three – stood a few steps away, watching the sunrise as well. His eyes shone with childlike awe and curiosity, his entire being visibly itching to explore a fresh new world. Jack smiled. Like a kid in a candy store.

His eyes shifted to his second in command, Captain Samantha Carter. She was hunched over the MALP, the reconnaissance vehicle that had been sent before them through the Stargate. No doubt she was checking and memorizing data that may become useful, or – God forbid – dangerous to them later. She was a scientist, just like Daniel, but the two were in reality quite different. An important part of her was also a soldier, a fact that had made it easier for Jack to accept and respect her.

Speaking of soldiers, if there ever was one to embody the word it was the fourth member of the team. Teal'c stood statue-still atop the Stargate platform, scanning the distant forest edge with his eagle sharp dark eyes. In many ways the jaffa looked deceptively human, but it didn't take anyone very long to realize that he was not. For one thing, he had the patience of a glacier. He could stand as still as he did now, on silent sentry watch, seemingly forever. Yet, when necessary he could whirl into action with the speed and destructive force of a tornado. He was a man Jack was more than glad to have covering his six.

It was Teal'c's unwavering gaze that first spotted the natives. With a low voice he called Jack to join him on the 'gate platform and pointed towards the forest. At first Jack saw nothing; after all, the forest itself was to him little more than a line of darker green beyond the lighter field of grass. Regardless he would never admit to envying Teal'c's superior sight. It's probably some positive side effect of having a vicious snake curled up in your stomach. Not worth it.

"I count five," Jack said when he could make out the figures approaching through the grass.

Teal'c bowed his head in agreement. He was a man of few words, but Jack had found that only adding to his respect for him. It made people listen better when he did speak.

Jack hopped down from the platform and tapped Daniel on the shoulder, alerting him to the welcoming committee. The archeologist/linguist/anthropologist was the team's diplomat and it was usually best to leave the first off-world contact to him. Jack knew by experience that he at least was not the man for it himself.

Daniel sprang into action as if Jack's tap had pushed his 'on'-button. At a half jog he hurried to meet the five men who were just stepping into the little clearing in front of the 'gate. He was all smiles and his hands were spread in a peaceful greeting.

"Hello," he began and proceeded to rattle into a speech that was quickly becoming tradition on these outings. "My name is Daniel Jackson. This is Colonel Jack O'Neill, Captain Samantha Carter and Teal'c. We are peaceful explorers from a planet called Earth. It is very nice to meet you."

Silence fell as the natives considered his words, and the two groups took the time to take a closer look at each other. Jack's outwardly careless gaze danced over the natives, registering every detail to assess whether they were a threat. They were all dressed in plain wool pants and shirts. Each of them wore some kind of shawl, a piece of plaid fabric thrown over the left shoulder. They carried large broadswords in their belts but had so far made no move to draw them. Jack adjusted the MP5 on his shoulder and kept it hanging casually. He was ready, but not about to make the first hostile move.

Eventually one of the men stepped forward. He had no distinguishing marks, but from his initiative Jack assumed he must be the leader of the group.

"Greetings," the man said. "I am Aifric of the Coimeádaí clan. Have you come to meet with our Ionadaí?"

Daniel shot a sidewise glance at Jack, asking permission, and Jack answered with a shrug. Go ahead.

Aifric led the way across the field and into the forest, which proved to be little more than a thin line of trees. Beyond lay a small city, nestled in a valley between high cliff walls. A large stone keep dominated the scene, perched on a hill like a mother hen watching over the settlement that fanned out around it. Halfway between the tree line and the keep rose a lone tower, like a huge milestone hewn from tanned sandstone.

A gentle slope led them down between the first buildings. From within the city the keep's towering presence was even clearer. All the houses were low and no matter how narrow the streets the keep was always there at the edge of the peripheral field. It gave Jack an itching feeling at the back of his head, like someone was watching him from just out of sight.

They stopped in front of a building barely a block into the city. It was no different from the surrounding houses, except for a large banner that hung over the door. There was a silver silhouette of a bird on it, flying over a black background.

"You may wait in here," said Aifric as he showed them inside. "I will tell Ionadaí you have come." He gave a curt bow and disappeared out the door, leaving SG-1 alone in a big torch lit room.

They settled in for the wait, each in their own way. Teal'c simply steadied himself into that stance he could hold for as long as necessary, while Sam sat herself down on one of the low benches arranged in a circle around the room. Daniel discovered that the walls were covered in bright tapestries that drew him in like a moth to a flame. He would not be getting bored any time soon.

Jack didn't like waiting around on missions. It made him restless and, according to Daniel, fiddly. He sat down beside Sam, but his eyes were soon drawn by a waist high pillar at the centre of the room. Atop it lay a velvety black cushion, and on top of that a ball barely the size of his fist. It was smoothly polished and glistened in the flickering light like a big stone marble.

He stood up and walked over to take a closer look. The ball was actually quite plain, like a polished rock, but strangely mesmerizing all the same. He reached out his hand. From over by the wall he heard Daniel's voice.

"Don't touch that, Jack."

He ignored it, and picked up the ball. It was heavier than he had expected. High density, Sam would probably say, and he would pretend to not understand. He lobbed the little object into the air and caught it with his other hand. Daniel spoke again, this time closer and quite a bit more irritated.

"Jack! Put it down!"

He ignored him again and let the ball fly back to his right hand.

"Jack…!" Daniel's voice was even closer now, and taking on a different tone that Jack couldn't classify just yet. He tried to ignore him and launched the ball into the air again.

Daniel's hand shot into his view and grabbed it.

"Jack!"

This time his name came hissed between clenched teeth, right into his ear. Jack turned to face his insistent friend and belatedly realized – he really shouldn't have touched the ball. In the open door behind Daniel stood Aifric. His eyes were fixed on Jack and they burned with scorching anger. He stepped inside and half a dozen men filed in after him to surround SG-1. Their swords were drawn and they looked more than ready to use them at the first sign of opposition.

"You have sullied the orb of Morrigan," Aifric said. "You will die for this crime. Bring them!"

The swordsmen moved closer. The flaming torches glistened on their bared steel and Jack saw Teal'c adjust the grip on his staff. His own hands sought the trigger on the rifle. He was not going to let his team get executed for a silly little rock.

"Wait!"

Daniel jumped out in front of him with his hands spread open. Jack wasn't entirely sure if his exclamation was directed to him or the enemies. Probably both. He curbed his trigger happy finger and waited to see what his friend would do next. Maybe he could get them out of this without a fight.

"It was a mistake. Jack didn't know he wasn't allowed to touch it. If we could just speak to your superior I am sure we can work this out."

Daniel pleaded with earnesty, taking step by step closer to Aifric as he spoke. Jack held his breath when he moved well within the range of the sharp swords. Unarmed as he was he would have no chance if the men decided to strike.

Aifric's eyes rested on Daniel, unforgiving. The tension in Jack's limbs felt like tightly wound wires on the verge of bursting if the man didn't give a response soon. The gaze passed to Jack, and as a remission to Daniel he tried to look apologetic. Aifric made a grimace of reluctant agreement.

"Very well", he said. "You will not be executed until the Ionadaí has heard you. But you must surrender your weapons and peacefully come with me."

He made a gesture to his men, who advanced on them again. If they were going to fight their way out, it was now or never. Jack glanced at his teammates, considering the split second decision. Sam made a barely noticeable gesture to her weapon, the question in her eyes. She would follow his lead whatever he chose, and judging by Teal'c's stance he would do the same. Daniel on the other hand… Their eyes met, and Daniel's gaze held a silent plea. He really thought this could still be cleared up.

I sure hope so, Jack thought and forced his muscles to relax. With a nod to Sam and Teal'c to do the same, he unsnapped his weapon and handed it over to the nearest swordsman.

As soon as they were unarmed Aifric's men became less cautious. They grabbed the team's backpacks and started searching them for other weapons and equipment. One man reached for Daniel's glasses but he managed to hold on to them by handing over his wristwatch instead. It took all of Jack's self control to not intervene and lay the man out flat.

At last Aifric gave a command and they were ushered out of the building. The street outside was busy now, full of people out on their afternoon errands, and their guards hurried to enclose them in a close formation. There was no escape now even if they had wanted it.

Jack felt the gazes of the crowd as it parted before Aifric like the sea before Moses. He heard whispers of chock and speculation.

"Who are they?""Where did they come from?""What did they do?"

The murmur of news spreading went like a wildfire before them through the streets and soon there was a crowd gathering just to see them go by.

At first Jack thought they would be taken to the keep, but it soon became clear they were headed to the tall sandstone tower they'd seen from the tree line. They moved quickly despite the crowds and soon they stepped out onto a big plaza. At the centre, deliberately far from the other buildings, rose the tower.

Jack heard a gasp beside him and he guessed Daniel's eyes were probably glowing with excitement on a goa'uld possession level. He didn't blame him. The tower was a remarkable sight. It was a smooth stone cylinder that reached at least ten stories into the sky. Built from big blocks of suntanned sandstone it was almost brightly yellow in contrast to the gray of the surrounding buildings. The walls seemed perfectly featureless. There was no door as far as Jack could see and no windows either. But what's the point of a tower without a way in?

He planted an elbow in Daniel's ribs and hissed,

"What is it?"

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