Reaching the crest of a steep incline, Ronon held his hand up, stopping the group following him. He squatted behind an overgrown piece of dead-fall and surveyed the land opening up below. Down the hill behind him, the group held silent.
Dawn had come an hour before, spearing sunlight down through the trees and brightening the land around them. The light of morning had stolen their cover, but it had also opened up their vision. In front, the land sloped down into a shaded valley before rising to a taller, craggy hillside that was half rock, half scrub brush. The escarpment stretched out for miles in each direction, claiming the landscape like a large grey wall.
Repeated check-ins with Sanchez and Browne were proving more difficult the further they moved from the Stargate. The com's still worked, but they carried an unusual echo, repeating each person's words several times before fading.
The lack of clear communication concerned him, but since the men reported no change in activity at the gate-no visitors incoming or outgoing, Sheppard pushed them forward towards the village.
“What do you see, Chewy?” Sheppard knelt beside him.
Ronon pointed to a pair of shadow shapes cresting the top of a ridge on the far side of the valley.
The Colonel pulled a pair of binoculars from his vest. After a quick look, he handed them to Ronon. “Two. Armed. Coming this way."
Ronon confirmed Sheppard's assessment. Two men carrying rifles were heading in their direction. They wore common clothes, faded with use, and carried weapons that at the distance looked to be more for hunting game than soldering.
They could be villagers looking to kill dinner, or they could be a security patrol, looking to kill intruders.
Ronon bet on the second, and told Sheppard as much as handed back the binoculars.
John turned to the others, passing on the information. "Until we know what's going on, let's avoid an altercation," he said, ending with a pointed look at Ronon.
Ronon snorted. He would make no promises.
Sheppard gave Sanchez and Browne a heads up. If the two men did reach the gate, they were to be disarmed, questioned, and detained.
"Got something!" Rodney called out, drawing everyone's attention. The scientist lifted himself to his knees and held the scanner in the air. Then he shook his head and frowned. "Okay. Well, I had something."
"What did you see?" Sheppard asked.
"A transponder signal," Rodney replied. "But it's gone."
"The Doc?" Evan asked hopefully.
"She'd be the only one here besides us..." Rodney quipped.
"Are you sure?" Ronon questioned, burying his concern beneath the confirmation that she was here.
"I'm sure." Rodney held the scanner above his head, then lowered it when nothing changed. "I think."
"Is she in the village?" Evan asked.
Rodney shook his head. "The signal was somewhere to the north. Or...south." He held the scanner behind him, then moved it back to his front. After making an adjustment he pointed to the ridge across the valley. "According to this, there is a wide vein of xermalancite running just below the surface of that escarpment. It circles around to a point thirty-four kilometres directly behind us."
"Xermalancite?" Teyla asked, pronouncing the word delicately.
"Highly reflective metal compound," the scientist answered, lowering the scanner. "Explains why our coms are echoing. The signals are bouncing back and forth between them."
"So, once we get past it, the signal will clear up?" Lorne asked.
"Should," Rodney nodded. "Once we get to the top of that ridge..." He pointed to the barren rock face the two villagers were cresting, then looked at Sheppard.
"I sense a but coming..." John frowned.
"But," Rodney scratched the side of his neck. "It may also mean the radios won't work at all once we're on the other side."
"Because of the reflection?" Evan clarified.
Rodney nodded. "It's like a ball bouncing between two walls. There's no place for it to go except between the walls."
"We'll deal with it when we get there," John announced climbing to his feet. "But first we have to get there. Keep going," he ordered. He turned to Ronon. "Stay off the path."
Anxious to be moving, Ronon waited just long enough for the two men across the valley to descend as far as the treeline before continuing forward once again.
The sun was high above the trees when John halted the group just out of sight of the village. Keeping to the heavy shadows provided by the thick forest, he moved everyone in as close as he dared.
They'd avoided three more sets of patrols since the initial pair had passed them on the way to the gate. All three were armed, but instead of the direct, purposeful steps the first two had taken, these three pairs were moving randomly, poking through the underbrush while calling out for someone named Calara.
John would have liked to have warned Sanchez and Browne about the other villagers, but McKay had been right about the signal loss. As soon as they'd crossed the escarpment they'd completely lost contact with the two men at the gate. At Rodney's direction, they’d gone back far enough to reach Sanchez and give orders for Atlantis to have Zelenka jury-rig a signal relay which the Captain would then need to hike to the top of the ridgeline. Best guess they'd be out of communication for a good four hours.
Plenty of time to find the Doc.
John dropped to one knee and pulled out his binoculars. Whatever was going on around the village, was also going on in the village. Lids were being ripped off barrels and the contents searched. Two men overturned a cart filled with bushels of produce. Another stepped into a small shed then stepped out again, shaking his head. Several more were forcing their way in through the narrow doors of the homes, only to return again a few moments later empty handed.
"They're raiding their own town?" Rodney asked.
"They're searching for something." John responded.
"Someone," Evan corrected. He pointed to the left of the main square. “At your ten o’clock.”
John shifted focus. Through the rows of double storey dwellings, a group of men approached the square, each one forcefully escorting one or two of the village women.
John scanned the gathered females. All the right age, but none had the shock of blonde hair he hoped to see. He didn't comment on Evan's agreeing sigh, but continued to watch as the men half-dragged the women towards the elderly lady standing near the well in the middle of the square.
The old woman strode in front of the gathered housewives and townswomen like a general inspecting the troops. She waved her arms in anger, berating several of the women who looked confused, afraid, or near to tears. The old woman shook her head, shouted something intelligible at the men. The village men released their hold and ordered the women away.
The parade of women continued, each making the old woman angrier. From the opposite side of the square, another man approached the old woman, tugging a curly haired blonde girl with one hand, and a curvy, redheaded woman with the other.
Teyla placed a hand on John’s shoulder, drawing his attention. He lowered the binoculars. She handed him a dog-eared photograph with heavy lines creasing the center where it had been folded and re-folded multiple times. The image was a brown and white snapshot of a family of four-mother, father, and two siblings, all smiling for the camera.
The young man jumped out at John immediately. Daro. The Genii boy who'd lost his sister.
Teyla placed her index finger on the young girl in the photo, then pointed to the village. "The woman with the red hair."
John lifted the binoculars and concentrated on the young redhead who was comforting the child as they hurried away from the square.
"Daro's sister," he said, lowing the binoculars once the two women were out of sight behind a building.
Teyla tucked the photo back into the pocket of her vest. “Daro gave me this before we left. I made no promises but did tell him I would keep my eyes open for her.”
"Looks like you found her."
“It would seem so.”
John wasn’t sure which emotion was pulling him more—anger that she was being manhandled around by some dirty handed farmer, relieved for Daro that his sister had been found, or excitement that they were on the right track. If Daro’s sister was here, and she’d been taken by the same old woman—probably the one calling the shots—then there was a hell of a good chance that Jennifer was here, too.
But that still didn’t explain what was going on in the village.
He glanced up at Ronon, who was studying the scene in the village from the shadow of a wide tree trunk. Ronon turned before Sheppard to put words to the thoughts tumbling through his mind.
Men patrolling the woods looking for someone.
The old hag dragging the town's women out of their homes.
The village being torn apart to find something hidden.
And no transponder signal.
"You think?" John posed, asking Ronon the question without need for detail.
"Yep," Ronon answered.
"McKay, where did you see that transponder signal before it disappeared?"
Rodney glanced down at his scanner with a frown. He blinked, then tipped his head in acquisition. "That way," he answered, pointing to his left.
John gave Ronon the nod. The Satedan was off before Rodney finished arguing with himself about the affects of signal loss and planetary geology.
"Where's he going?" Rodney stopped mid-explanation.
"To find the Doc," Evan answered, tucking his binoculars into his vest and standing.
An excited energy began to flow through the group as the others came to the same conclusion. Jennifer was here, and she’d given her captors the slip.
Now all John had to do was find her before the crazy old woman and the shotgun farmers did.