Entaillen 2

by Domenika Marzione

They move through the forest with grim determination and silent feet, pausing every hundred meters to leave marks visible by day (a subtle Satedan sigil) and night (a cross painted with the fluid from a chem light) so that they don't either double back again or leave a too-obvious trail for anyone but them to follow. Lorne tries not to think about the hundred different movies this could be (Predator keeps coming to mind) or how many times he has found himself in similar situations (not as many as might have been imagined), instead focusing on what comes before them -- both literally and metaphorically.

Check-in was fifteen hours ago and the fact that they haven't come across a single marine in that time has not been lost on any of them. Lorne knows the duty roster, knows that Doctor Weir doesn't take it lightly when both senior teams go out together and don't come back on time, and wouldn't be surprised if an entire company were sent out to look for them instead of just the ready-room unit. But, company- or platoon-sized SAR mission, the question is where are they?

In the meanwhile, Lorne's team (Teyla and Ronon being temporarily folded under that umbrella) move on. Camp was broken at first light, a little more than two hours ago. Dawn found them back where they'd been at nightfall the previous evening, muddling through a forest that seemed to be the size of New Jersey and just as easily negotiable. Ronon is in the lead out of deference to his abilities as well as his impatience; he didn't argue the logic of needing to find the stargate to find Sheppard and McKay, but Lorne isn't mistaking acquiescence for agreement. Nonetheless, he knows Ronon appreciates best how precarious their situation is right now.

They are being hunted.

It's nothing as overt as arrows flying through the air or other projectile warnings or even anyone they can see or hear, but it's there and they all sense it. Lorne has seen too much to believe in the sort of coincidences that would be required to make the events of the last hours naturally occurring. Days and nights of useless, cloudy skies can be waved off as a kind of Murphy's Law of Land Navigation and the way their compasses are growing more unreliable and their radios aren't able to pick anything up even for line-of-sight transmissions can maybe be explained by magnetic forces. But why their Ancient PDAs are shot to shit and yet their Earth electronics are fine is a mystery. It's not a good mystery because it's never anything but bad when Ancient tech goes haywire and Sheppard disappears. And even though Reletti (who has a stronger genetic affinity than either McKay or Lorne himself) is still here and not sensing anything odd beyond the vague doom that they all feel, the thought that this involves the Ancients somehow is on everyone's mind. Nobody says a word and yet Lorne knows; Ortilla isn't quite hovering, but everyone is watching him and Reletti.

(They don't speak about their time in the Genii prison any more than they have to, which pretty much boiled down to the mandated sessions with Heightmeyer and the debriefs. Reletti went through a miserable day of testing in Medical after they'd received a sample of the drug he'd reacted to so badly and other people mention how terrifying Yoni had been for the duration of their imprisonment, but that's mostly been it. And so neither he nor Reletti say anything. Because they all know and speaking of it won't change anything.)

They are maintaining noise discipline and so it is through hand signals that Lorne is summoned up to the front of the group. Ronon and Suarez are standing next to a tree that is thicker than the ones surrounding it, but it is not until Lorne draws up next to them that he can see why.

"It's not new," Ronon says in a quiet voice, crouching down next to Lorne, who looks over the skeletal remains of what was once a person with grim distaste. "Bones've been out in the air for a while."

Lorne doesn't ask what killed the man (probably a man); the top half of the skull is missing, smoothly cut away, and Lorne is sure that this lobotomy was ante-mortem even if there's no way to know for real without Yoni's input. He pokes gingerly at the tattered clothes and he hates that both Ronon and Suarez, who is standing at his left, know that it's just him checking to make sure that there's nothing he recognizes here. Because this is Pegasus and it's not out of the realm of possibility that this is the long-dead, exposed-to-the-elements corpse of either Sheppard or McKay.

If it is either of them, Lorne can't find any clue. He stands up slowly, ignoring the pop of his right knee, and nods to Ronon. "Let's get going."

They continue walking, the air getting warmer and the overcast sky brighter. They come across four more corpses, three skeletal and one rotting. Yoni estimates that the last one has been dead two months and it was probably death by a stun weapon, which brings everything back to the Wraith because this wouldn't be the first time or the fifth that they've stumbled into Wraith territory.

"I sense nothing," Teyla repeats as they take a break, sitting in an arrangement that is more suited to protection than conversation. Suarez is re-arranging the load in his ruck, but everyone else is combining physical lassitude with mental alertness and the effect is sort of a very tense bonelessness, at least for Yoni and Ronon. Reletti looks like he's dozing, but his head is cocked to listen and his hand is on his rifle and Lorne knows better.

"I don't think it's the Wraith," Lorne says after he looks at the shards of wheat snack bread in his hand. They are mostly picking at the side dishes and snacks from the same MREs they ate in the morning. Ortilla has his ever-present bag of pistachios out to share, but nobody is taking from it. They've seen enough streams to not worry about water, but their MRE supply won't last forever (or more than another day -- three if they ration) and none of them want to have to worry about hunting for food as they themselves are prey and so those nuts may end up as far more important than a snack. "Nothing about yesterday made us think it was them and nothing we've seen today has changed my mind."

Ronon grunts agreement. "Wraith don't climb trees."

Out of the context of Ronon's verbal shorthand, the statement is both funny and not correct -- Lorne is sure that Wraith could climb trees if they wanted to -- but today's not a day to be pedantic. Yesterday's attacks came from above and that's simply not the Wraith way of doing things.

"Could it be those Ewok people, sir?" Reletti asks, eyes still closed. "You know, the ones who had Colonel Sheppard's team up in cages in the trees?"

Next to Ronon, Yoni gives a lazy grin of remembrance. Ronon doesn't share it.

"Those people did not have stun weapons," Teyla answers. They never figured out what the real name of the planet was, so they ended up calling it Endor and the locals Ewoks and Lorne and Sheppard got a good laugh out of imagining the SGC's reaction to the AAR. It seems impossibly long ago, even though it was only been a few months. "And I do not think that there are enough trees here that are large enough to sustain the network of bridges and homes they used."

Yesterday's attack had been almost over before they realized it had started. Sauntering none-too-quietly through a world they thought uninhabited, nobody had thought too much of McKay's radio silence after he'd wandered off chasing an energy reading (the PDAs had been working then, or at least had been flaking out in a way that made it impossible to tell). McKay was known to ignore summonses when he found something more interesting. It was only when Sheppard, who'd gone after him, also failed to respond to radio contact that they got concerned and it was only when they heard the rustling in the trees, far too loud and forceful to be the usual sort of forest creatures, that they realized that something was going very, very wrong. By the time darkness had fallen, they'd known that Sheppard and McKay hadn't done anything so benign as fall down a trap door and they'd known that the odds were that things were probably not going to get better before they got worse.

They sit quietly, wary and weary and still not sure where the hell the cavalry is, until Lorne looks at his watch. "All right. Everyone get their boots back on."

Their endless combat patrol continues deep into the afternoon with no luck beyond the fact that they are all still together and in one piece. No stargate, no sign of either their missing teammates or anything that might lead to where they were taken. There are two more skeletons and nothing in the trees. Teyla is right -- the forest here isn't old and heavy enough to support a colony in the trees. Which leads them to wonder, silently, just how the hell they were attacked the day before.

"Oh, fuck," Suarez coughs out as Ronon yanks him back suddenly. Lorne jogs up to them, feeling the heaviness in his legs, and stops. There's a sharp drop off into a defile, the depth of which is impossible to tell because of all of the bones in it.

"Wonderful," Yoni spits behind him. "Genocide comes in so many flavors in this forsaken galaxy."

Teyla makes a small noise and Reletti ducks to hear what she whispers, then starts walking along the edge. Before Lorne can call after him, he drops to the ground, leaning over so that he can reach down. He finds whatever he's fishing for and grunts quietly as he pushes himself back up. In his hand is an old rifle.

"It's an old-school carbine," Suarez says as Reletti brings his prize back. "Like Old West kind of old-school."

Lorne, who knows perfectly well that Suarez can identify pretty much any modern firearm, cocks an eyebrow at Ortilla, who is oriented to look behind them, maintaining security. Ortilla, sensing the gaze, looks back with the same question on his face that Lorne has on his. Have they stumbled onto a battlefield?

"It is a Genii weapon," Teyla says, holding out her hand. Reletti gives her the carbine. She turns it over in her small hands, careful not to aim the barrel at anyone. "I remember these from when I was a child. They are very old. The Genii used them as hunting rifles."

"Not very accurate ones," Suarez muttered. "No range."

"Not the point," Reletti countered. "Whoever's got the Colonel and Doctor McKay knocked the fuck out the Genii at some point."

The Genii are not tactical geniuses, for all of their weapons savvy and superior numbers. It's entirely possible that a smaller, better-trained, better-armed force wiped them out. But, either way, if that same force is the one coming after them....

"We'd better go," Ronon says. "Too much standing around, too much noise."

Lorne agrees and they move on.

Dusk is approaching, or at least it feels that way with the breeze picking up and turning cool and the overcast sky darkening slowly. They haven't found any place as sheltered as the cave to set up an overnight camp and, all considering, Lorne is tempted to push through the night -- or at least until they can find a defensible position. Teyla and Ronon function well enough in the dark without NODs and it's better to be a moving target than a stationary one. There's more to this navigational confusion than the inability to take azimuths or measure by sun or stars, even before the inability to find the SAR unit went from curiosity to conspiracy.

They continue on long past when they can see the glowy stains on Ortilla's hands from the chem light fluid he's using to paint crosses on the trees with a muttered prayer in Spanish that they pretend not to hear. They don't need to slow down all that much -- they weren't going so quickly before. Teyla moves carefully, her natural grace not completely able to compensate for the pitch-black darkness (the ambient light is so poor that it's a little dark even with the goggles) and the marines all offer to give her their goggles at various points and she always refuses. Ronon pushes on, not saying anything except to pause and ask Yoni to treat a scratch on his forearm that is bleeding enough to leave a trail on the ground.

Three hours after full dark, Lorne calls a halt even though they are not anyplace where they can do more than set up a very small perimeter and hope for the best. But he's been looking for the last five hours and it's been like this the entire time. Nobody has any better ideas; they're all tired from more than just the hike. So they do just that, splitting in half for two overnight watches.

"It's like SERE," Lorne hears Reletti say to someone he can't see. He's already taken off his NODs; the headache from their weight hasn't yet begun to fade, but it's not bad enough to dig the aspirin out of his tac vest. "We're just wandering around in circles until we get caught."

"Way to be an optimist, dude," Suarez replies from somewhere to Reletti's right.

"Optimism's got nothing to do with this," Reletti sighs. He doesn't sound despondent or even particularly depressed. Just resigned to bad times ahead. "We're in some kind of maze and there's no right-hand rule that applies."

Lorne closes his eyes and hunkers down into a comfortable position. In hindsight, he'll come to rue the fact that he was unable to sleep on the night when nothing happened, but slept right through the next attack.
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26 December, 2006