Exactly thirty minutes later, McKay was sitting in the pilot’s seat. And he wasn’t happy. “Oh, you miserable piece of crap.” Standing abruptly, he went back to the access panel, adjusted the connection and returned to the seat to try again. “Shit!”
Ronon felt his heart sink at the thought that this wouldn’t work. He and Teyla were bracing Sheppard so that he wouldn’t go flying if the Jumper lurched violently like McKay had warned it might. Now that was something he was desperately hoping would happen.
“Rodney, what is the problem?” Teyla asked with the same disappointment Ronon felt.
“The connection has to be precisely right if I’m going to get the Jumper to respond. It’s going to take forever if I have to do this trial and error.” He sighed and scratched irritably at his growing beard as he shook his head. “I’m going to need Sheppard’s help to at least get the damn thing started.”
Sheppard had been asleep ever since he had all but collapsed thirty minutes early. Deeply asleep. In fact, Ronon wasn’t completely sure he’d call it sleeping or unconsciousness at this point. Teyla’s scowl at the news had McKay standing and throwing his arms wide.
“Look, I don’t like it any more than you do, but we could do this now and Ronon can hit the road or we can wait a few hours while I twink with it and get nowhere before waking him.”
Teyla didn’t argue, but she didn’t move to wake Sheppard either. Ronon, seeing that the other two were at an impasse, decided he had to cast the deciding vote. Squatting down, he gave their team leader’s good shoulder a shake. “Sheppard, wake up.”
Bleary eyes slivered open at the second attempt to rouse him. “Did I sleep through the briefing?”
Ignoring the confusion, he told the injured man simply, “McKay needs your help. Do you think you can sit up?”
The confusion changed to worry as he used Ronon to push himself up… with a great deal of help from Ronon. “What happened?”
“Colonel, I need you to start the Jumper while I manipulate the power cell connections.”
As if recognizing where he was once again, he nodded his head in understanding. “Ronon, do you think you could…” He hitched his head weakly toward the pilot’s seat and the Satedan hoisted him to his feet. Teyla fell into step on his opposite side, doing her best not to jar his wounded shoulder as she braced him when his knees wobbled precariously.
By the time he dropped heavily into the seat, John looked like he had just finished his typical five-mile run and not walked across the room. He started to reach for the controls and couldn’t manage it with his right hand. “Teyla, loosen the sling.”
As she did as he requested, Rodney instructed him, “Just concentrate, Colonel.”
“Relax, I could fly a Jumper in my sleep.”
When Sheppard’s head bobbed, Rodney pointed out dryly. “Let’s not put that to the test, shall we?”
“Rodney,” he warned a little breathlessly, “let’s stop wasting time.”
The scientist redirected his attention to the power cell, pointing out over his shoulder, “We’ll need to act quickly. Once you fire it up, you need to move her as far forward from our current position as you can.”
John swayed where he sat. “Power, McKay. Now.”
“Right.” After a quick adjustment he told him, “Try it now.”
Rodney cursed under his breath and tried again. “Now?”
There was no response. “Rodney.” Sheppard keeled a little further in his seat so that Ronon was actually propping him up.
“Okay, okay. This should be working.” He continued to fidget with the connections. “I have no idea why it won’t…”
The controls glowed to life and for a split second they just stared at one another in wonder, a slow, smug smile spreading across McKay’s face. And then Sheppard gunned it and the Jumper lurched forward, causing the others in the craft to grab anything they could to prevent being thrown to the floor. Outside, there was a loud snap as a tree gave way to the force being exerted against it. Then the power died almost as abruptly as it had started, throwing the passengers roughly forward. Ronon braced his hand against the front windshield to keep from falling. Judging from the relative distance of the trees on the other side of the clearing, he figured they had moved forward maybe five feet. Hopefully that would be enough.
Without waiting to be told, he stepped over McKay who was half lying, half sitting on the floor, and began to push on the back hatch. At first it didn’t want to budge, but then Teyla and McKay joined him and it started moving and within a few seconds they had it open far enough that they could squeeze out the back of the Jumper. Just knowing that they could get out brought a bright smile to Teyla’s face and Rodney mumbled a fervent, “Oh, thank God.” And Ronon could already feel the adrenaline building in anticipation of his trip to the gate.
They were able to push the door until it came to a stop approximately three feet off the ground and was resting on the mangled remains of trees the Jumper had crashed on top of. But it was more than enough and Ronon stepped out onto the edge and pulled in a lungful of air sharp with the scent of evergreens and damp earth before letting out a triumphant, “YES!” as he pumped his arms into the air.
Teyla laughed happily as she joined him, raising her face to the sunlight shining down through the branches. McKay looked around in an almost stunned silence, which didn’t last long. “It worked. I can’t believe it actually worked.”
Ronon pulled him into a rough hug then shook him cheerfully. “Of course it worked. We’re Fatman and Ronon; there’s no stopping us.”
“Technically, it’s Batman and Ronon,” McKay pointed out distractedly as he soaked in the vision of the open forest around them, “and you just gave me your gun. I did the hard part. But, oh my God, it actually worked!”
The three of them stood staring at the trees like they were the most amazing things they had ever seen in their lives before Teyla realized someone was missing. “John,” she called into the Jumper, “you must see this.”
Rodney jogged back into the craft to help him, with the other two fast on his heels. “Sheppard?” but his smile vanished when he didn’t get a response. “Sheppard?”
John was slumped in the pilot’s seat, eyes closed and out once again. But the hand McKay placed on his shoulder had him blinking awake. “Did it work?”
Rodney hitched his head with a small grin. “Come see for yourself.”
Sheppard leaned heavily against McKay as his team escorted him out of the Jumper for the first time in four days. “Goddamn, Rodney, it worked.”
“Of course it worked,” the scientist responded confidently before releasing an almost giddy laugh.
Ronon turned to gather his gear, slipping the vest on as Sheppard had ordered. “So, I guess it’s time for me to go.”
“You do know which direction to the gate, right?” The Satedan’s rolled eyes as he secured his sword sheath to his back were his only response to McKay’s question. “I’m just asking… because I honestly have no clue.”
“That’s why you’re staying here,” John pointed out with a shudder. “Not that I’m not enjoying the fresh air, but do you think I could sit down?”
Rodney took him back to his bench and Ronon addressed Teyla as he strapped on the Earth handgun. It was smaller than his weapon but actually heavier. “So you know what to do with Sheppard’s shoulder?”
“I know,” she promised. He nodded, finding himself in the odd predicament of being reluctant to leave now that he could. Teyla gave him an encouraging smile. “You should leave so that you can take advantage of the daylight.”
“Yeah,” he agreed with a sigh before saying more loudly. “I’ll be back in the morning.”
Sheppard raised a hand in farewell even as McKay helped him to lie back on his bed. “Are you still here?” the scientist demanded.
“I guess that’s my cue to go.”
After a final squeeze to his arm from Teyla, he hopped down from the hatch and made his way through the tangle of tree limbs and undergrowth before finally reaching the clearing and starting to run.
For the first three hours, he traveled through forest and the occasional open meadow before reaching the edge of a ravine he recognized from their original trip through the gate four days prior. He would have to cross the gorge that dropped a good five hundred feet to the running water cutting into the canyon floor below, and he spent the next two hours looking for a way down and another hour walking through the icy stream before finding a way out. Fortunately, the opposite side sat about three hundred feet lower than the forested side, so that although the trek out was steep, it was almost easier than the treacherous trip down. Once on the other side, the land opened into a terrain of bedrock that rose and fell in an almost wavelike pattern, producing a sinuous pattern of reds and browns littered with large boulders, spires and arches that were often twice his height. This was where the stargate sat, on this seemingly endless landscape of rock that soaked up the sunlight and reflected it back up so that the air seemed to flicker and undulate with the heat.
When the sun set, the temperature once again plunged, and Ronon came to the conclusion that it was lacking not only in heat, but also in illuminating the path. Patches of small pebbles that acted like ball bearings and caused his footing to slip dangerously were now hidden in shadow and he went down twice. His leathers were enough to protect his knees and arms but his hands were bare and scraped easily on the rough texture of the rocks. As much as he wanted to continue his top pace, he slowed, knowing if he broke something in a subsequent fall, he would do no one any good.
At dawn, he scaled one of the spires in order to get his bearings and ensure he was still on the right path to the stargate. Across the rocky expanse, reflecting the light of the rising sun, he could just make out the glimmer of metal. Distance was always difficult to judge in this sort of terrain, but he figured he was probably at least fifteen miles from the gate. But it was in sight and in grasp and he just hoped that his team would be okay when he finally got back to them in a few hours.
Climbing down, he heard his radio crackle. They were only set up for short distance communications, five miles was pushing the limit, but he hit the transmit button and called hopefully, “This is Ronon Dex, does anyone copy?”
Another stream of static was interrupted by what he thought was Lorne’s voice. “…Jumper 3…perimeter…search area…”
They were still searching. He should have known they wouldn’t give up that easily. Keying the radio once more, he tried again. “Lorne, this is Ronon. Do you copy?”
Another voice cut across the transmission. “…think someone…on this freq…”
He was already climbing back to the crest of the rock. “Atlantis Jumper, come in.”
They had heard him! Heaving himself up to the top once again, he couldn’t keep the smile from his face. “Lorne, can you read me?”
“Yes! Ronon, I copy!” A happy laugh came from the transmitter. “Where the hell are you?”
“South of the gate, about fifteen miles, standing on top of a rock.”
“We’ve got you on the sensors. We’ll be right there.”
By the time he had made it back to the ground, there was a Jumper uncloaking above him. When he entered the back hatch, Lorne turned from the pilot’s seat and gave him a broad smile. “Man, are you a sight for sore eyes.” But the smile wavered when he asked, “What about the others?”
“Alive when I left them yesterday. The Jumper was shot down and we were trapped inside.”
“We figured it must be something like that. One of the Jumpers searching for you was also shot down by the energy weapon. That’s when we started cloaking the ships.”
“We crashed in some trees and just managed to get out yesterday.” At Lorne’s quizzical look as to how after four days, Ronon told him simply, “McKay.”
The major nodded in understanding then asked. “Is everyone okay?”
“Sheppard was shot by an arrow and the wound’s infected. He needs a doctor. Soon.”
Another nod and Lorne called to the other search team, “Lawrence, head back to Atlantis and let Dr. Weir know we’ve found them and bring back a medical team. We’re heading on to the downed Jumper. You can lock onto our signal to find us but continue to maintain radio silence once we’re in range of the settlements.” At Ronon’s questioning expression he explained. “After the other Jumper was shot down we figured it would be best to not let them know we’re coming… just in case.”
Once Lorne had confirmation from the second Jumper, they let Ronon guide them back to the area of the crash. The major shook his head when he saw where it was. “We flew over this area twice; the last time was yesterday morning. We locked onto some larger life signs but when we saw a herd of animals, we just figured that’s what it was.”
That would have been the time when Ronon was feeding the animals to keep them around. “Look, could you do me a favor and not let McKay know that?”
“Sure, anything you say.” But the grin was a little mischievous and Ronon knew he was going to have to take it easy on the major the next time they sparred.
They set the Jumper down in the clearing in front of the downed craft and Ronon fully expected to see his team appearing. When they didn’t, he told himself it was just because they were probably still asleep. “Teyla?” When he didn’t receive a response, he broke into a jog with the marines close on his heels. “McKay? Sheppard?”
Climbing deftly over the bramble of branches, he noticed several pieces of their trash spread amongst the vegetation, which did nothing to make him feel any better. “Teyla?” And when he stepped up onto the open hatch and saw nothing but more gear spread haphazardly through the ship, he knew it would do no good to call the other two members of his team, because they weren’t there. No one was there.
“Holy crap,” Lorne observed of the mess in the craft and Ronon knelt and picked up a spent P90 casing from a pile on the floor.
But only one thing was running through Ronon’s head… they weren’t here, but at least they weren’t here, dead. It was obvious the locals must have come back and it shouldn’t be hard to track them. Because they took them… alive; that was the only answer he’d accept. There was no blood, there were no bodies, and that meant his team was still alive back in their village. And when one of the marines handed him a piece of paper he had found in the bathroom, along with a handful of shells from nine millimeter rounds, Ronon knew there was only one thing left to do.
“Let’s go find them,” he ordered grimly, already heading back out into the woods and in the direction that the trail led him.