To distract himself from the brooding darkness pressing in all around him, he counted his footsteps – measuring the passage of distance – and rechecked the stars. He was unfamiliar with this world's constellations or what they had called them here, but old habits still drove him to fix the 'gate's position in his consciousness and memorize landmarks to guide him to it from anywhere he had managed to wander. When the sun had set earlier that evening, he'd re-marked the 'gate by the stars that were popping out behind it.
The skills of a runner came back so easily to him, if, in fact, he could say he'd even left them behind. He still traveled warily, still marked the 'gate, still had several knives hidden on his body at all times. But lately, he'd grown rather used to traveling with companions. And he rather liked having a friend at his back when things did get sticky. It wasn't something he'd thought about for a while, but running alone, now, brought the painful absence into sharp contrast.
He was finally feeling his limbs limber up at the steady motion when the sound of P-90 fire crackling in long echoes over the empty fields suddenly jolted his heart into his ears and brought him skidding to a frozen standstill. Damn! He'd made it barely a kilometer before Sheppard had to deal with the bugs! He'd optimistically been hoping that perhaps he could make it back before the real fighting began, with or without the Marines.
Ronon stood motionless, torn in two. Every instinct in his body was pulling him back towards Sheppard, knowing the man was alone and boxed in. Every sense of duty that had ever been pounded into his skull demanded he complete his mission and alert the damn cavalry – whatever that was – as he'd been asked. The sudden silence as the gunfire stopped was a living thing, mocking him with its secrets. A thousand images of imagined horrors flicked through his mind…
The radio clicked. "Why are you just standing there?"
Ronon's heart started again and only his instinct to remain silent kept him from laughing out loud. Sheppard and his damn scanner. He started towards the Stargate again and tapped his ear, trying to force the relief out of his voice, "Are you OK?"
"Yeah," Sheppard sounded out of breath, from exertion or exhilaration Ronon couldn't tell. "Know a good dry cleaner around here that can get bug guts out of a jacket? This stuff's going to stain…"
"I'll look into it after I finish my other errands."
"Funny. You're almost out of range. I've got 2 on my scanner around here, which means there are 3 or 4 still out your way. Be careful. Sheppard out."
Ronon resisted the temptation to reply, realizing the impulse came from simply wanting the reassurance that Sheppard was still there. He jogged on.
The fencerow he was following in roughly a westerly direction finally ended at a wide dirt road that Ronon knew led between the village and the Stargate. Off to his right, a stately row of tall trees had been planted, lining the road and creating a shadowy tunnel towards the houses and markets of the deserted town. To his left…
Ronon quickly crouched low, quivering with adrenaline and the rage he allowed to surge through him – just enough to use, not enough to blind. Three grotesque figures were stalking just into view, walking together but in no organized formation. They were foul creatures, roughly man-like, but hunched in grotesque parody. Their hard, beetle black shells were slick and shiny, reflecting even the dim starlight. Distortions of human that they were, their intelligence was still limited to understanding only the simple commands they were given, depending on their brute strength, hunting instinct and vicious claws rather than skill or strategy. Or so Ronon had observed on Michael's planet.
He didn't know how keen their sense of smell or sight was, however, and he knelt, watching them for a few moments, trying to decide the best way to attack. Sheppard had told him to get to the 'gate, to bring help. But he hadn't told him NOT to engage the beasts if he had the chance. Perhaps he could even up the odds a bit for Sheppard…
Slipping stealthily into the waving field of wheergrain – Sheppard had called it Mutombo wheat – Ronon thumbed the power level on his bulky energy weapon up to full power and slowly moved towards the bugs, paralleling the road within the cover of the 7 foot tall, nearly ripe, grassy stalks. The slight breeze rustling the entire field covered what little noise he made as he worked his way closer.
A faint hissing and clicking grew louder over the sound of the moving plants and Ronon licked his lips, a feral grin spreading them. He heard the clicking draw up next to him, he could almost see the beasts on the path as he translated their sickening noises into a tactical layout of where they stood. The sudden crackle of more distant gunfire drew sharp hisses from the creatures and Ronon leaped onto the path, using the distraction and his own worry-fueled fury to time his ambush.
The creatures froze for a moment as Ronon burst from the edge of the field and pumped 3 rounds of deadly fire into the vulnerable midsection of the closest bug. But a moment of surprise was all he got. Even before the first creature had crumpled, its companion turned with startling speed and lunged at Ronon, swiping for his face with knife-like claws.
Ronon ducked and rolled, and the claws raked down his shoulder instead. The howl of pain escaped as a war-cry of fury and he came up from the roll smoothly drawing his short sword and swinging. The beast was already reaching for another swipe with its other arm offering Ronon an easy target. The creature shrieked and waddled back a few steps, stupidly looking at its severed stump.
Sword in one hand, gun in the other, Ronon still only had enough time to fire a couple of glancing shots into the third bug before ol' one-arm screeched and lunged at him again. Ronon pushed it back a step with more glancing shots, then backed off a step himself as the 2nd one charged once more. Ancestors be damned, they were fast! And he'd forgotten how damned tough the shells were, shot after shot simply sparked or ricocheted away. They'd learned to turn their bellies away from the dangerous bolts, and were swaying between lunges and hits.
Yet another blast bounced away, the creatures kept coming and Ronon recognized a stalemate when he was on the wrong side of one. Turning on his heel, he dove into the wheergrain and ran. Stalks of brittle grain whipped past, some slapping against his shoulders and cheeks as they were whipped about in his wake. The clicking and hissing on his heels urged him even faster, and his concentration narrowed to the exclusion of everything but the next step under his foot. The ground was powdery and even, but a single misstep would be fatal. A single misstep would have those bugs on his back faster than a thesta on an eggbird.
The clicking grew so close that he heard the crunch of crushed grain joining the bugs' revolting vocalizations and in desperation, Ronon planted his heel and took off at a right angle from his initial course. The damn things were fast, very fast, but they weren't very agile. He heard their hiss of frustration and forced his tiring legs into another burst of speed. He wouldn't simply be able to outrun them, he thought, growing panicky. Damn, he never thought he'd miss Sheppard and his quirky plans.
The ground below him grew firmer and he had another two steps to pull up short, digging his heels and windmilling his arms before the field abruptly ended at the edge of a steeply sloping ditch. Ronon recognized the irrigation channel as the same one that passed under the road about a klick from the 'gate. He flung his gaze to his right and saw the road a few hundred yards away.
Behind him, he heard the scuttling creatures' hissing grow louder as they caught up.
Quickly holstering his weapons, he took two steps back the way he'd come, then propelled himself with all his might towards the ditch. Planting a foot on the very edge, he leaped towards the other side, as far as his strength could carry him. He landed heavily on his toes and hands against the opposite slope, and scrambled to its top, throwing himself into the next waving field beyond.
Panting and trembling with exertion, he crawled on his belly to peek out at the bank of the ditch he'd just left. His arm stung with the deep scratches scored by the bug's gory claws, and the tender flesh twinged as he flexed his shoulder slightly, testing the damage. The wounds were still sticky and oozing, but the muscle underneath seemed unharmed. He idly pressed powdery dirt into the scrapes while he watched.
One bug, then two, stalked out of the grain, following Ronon's path of destroyed stalks. They weaved their heads back and forth over the ground at the ditch, then ran back and forth for a moment, as if confused by the magical disappearance of their prey. They seemed unwilling to descend the steep slope into the ditch, and after another few moments of scuttling and hissing, they turned and vanished back into the field.
Back towards Sheppard.
The brief moment of relief at shaking off the beasts was quickly overshadowed by gut-gnawing worry. He listened briefly for ongoing gunfire, but the silence was again keeping its secrets.
Standing quickly, he turned into the field and decided he'd keep to its protective cover rather than the exposed road. Setting a risky pace, he hurried again towards the Stargate and tapped his earpiece twice. If Sheppard were listening and was free to reply, he'd open the channel.
Ronon was again counting his footsteps so he knew it had only been a couple dozen paces before the radio finally clicked to life, but it felt like an eternity of anxious waiting.
"What do you want? I'm busy." This time Sheppard's voice was breathy and tight.
"Doing what?" said Ronon, gulping again with reserved relief.
"Working on…plan B…" There was a grunt, then Sheppard went on, his voice less constricted, "You at the 'gate yet?"
"I'm a klik away. Ran into some friends. I got one; two are headed your way."
"Understood. I got three, so that makes: four down…two more to go. Scratch that – four more to go. Two just showed up on the LSD coming from the village." His voice sounded tight again.
"You said there were five or six!"
"I said six or seven…or eight."
"Let me know when you're at the 'gate. It'll…it'll help."
"They want me alive, Ronon. I'll be ok. Sheppard out."
Small comfort, Sheppard.
So now it was a race. Ronon ran faster, throwing all caution to the wind, keeping his course straight and true despite the tall grain that rose up before him and folded behind him such that he felt as if he weren't moving at all. Occasionally, he would reach up and slap apart the grain above him and check the stars. Like the moon, they, too, were sliding into the west. The sun would be appearing in the East soon, but there was no blush in the sky, yet. Only the coldest, darkest, deepest part of the night remained around him, and his breath fogged up in great steamy gusts with each forceful exhale.
He didn't think he'd ever run so fast in the dark, or so hard, or been so tempted to turn around and put the safety of the 'gate behind his back. He'd never run so hard for someone else before, and the anxiety was tenfold what he felt when running for himself. He didn't have to run for himself anymore. Sheppard had saved him from running. Sheppard had come for him when he'd been caught again. And despite being a pig-headed, lazy son of a, immature, not at all funny…STANG! Ancestors hang him, he was as close to a brother as Ronon had left in this galaxy.
Finally, the ground under his pounding feet hardened again and, this time aware of the implications, Ronon pulled up, gasping, to peer out of the field before he left its protective cover. The grassy lane before him separated the wheergrain from a field of low, sprawling Tava beans and he could see for miles ahead and in either direction.
The road was still a few yards to his right, and the Stargate sat glowing in a shrub-rimmed meadow a few more yards further on.
Hard pressed to control the anger that was threatening to pass controllable boundaries, Ronon watched the active Stargate disgorge more hunching, hissing, armored beasts from the wrong side of the underworld. Quickly counting, he came up with 8 more and watched 5 of them speed swiftly away down the road in a clicking, disorganized pack. Three were left milling around the meadow and the DHD once the 'gate shut down.
Sheppard was screwed.
The sound of very faint gunfire drifted on the breeze to where Ronon crouched in seething despair, so distant that the sharp cracks of the powerful weapon sounded like a child's celebration crackers. Roaring with sudden, overflowing fury, Ronon charged out of the grain and descended on the three creatures at the 'gate.
Unfazed by the demented approach, the bugs clicked to each other and bunched together in their eagerness to seize the intruder. Ronon fired wildly, his sword back in his other hand, and managed to score a lethal hit. The unlucky creature fell twitching to the ground, but served as a cautionary tale for the others who immediately began turning their bellies, even as they grabbed and clawed at Ronon.
Step by step, inch by inch, Ronon drove them away from the DHD and worked himself closer and closer to it, his weapon beginning to heat his hand from the constant fire. When at last he stood next to his destination, Ronon hesitated. It was taking his entire concentration to simply keep the hissing creatures at bay, how the hell was he going to dial?
Stalemated again for a moment, he suddenly shifted his grip on the sword and threw it to land in two graceful arcs through the middle of the nearest beast. It shrieked and fell backwards to flail with kicking legs and arms. Ronon quickly pumped a dozen short bursts into the shell of the remaining creature, missing any vital shots, but warming the thick armor into painful heat.
While the thing raged, scuttling about in random circles, Ronon slammed his hands into the symbols and slapped the glowing orange globe that would initiate the wormhole. He had his GDO out of his pocket even before the reaching initialization wave splashed back into a gurgling puddle.
The hissing beast stopped raging and shook itself like a dog shaking off a smack to its nose. It then locked its dim, beady eyes on Ronon, simple revenge clear in its primitive posture. Ronon touched his earpiece, his own eyes also locked on the enemy.
"Sheppard! I'm at the Stargate. I've made the connection, I'm switching channels now to request backup, then I'll join you until they get here! There are five more headed your way."
Ronon had no intention of going through the 'gate himself, not once he was freed from his orders and could damn well sit beside Sheppard's lazy ass and shoot bugs for him until the Marines showed up! He hastily flicked the dial on the radio transmitter in his pocket and touched his ear again.
"Atlantis, this is Ronon requesting an extraction force and Jumper air support. Code Alpha 6-niner. ASAP. As many as 8 hostiles are going for Colonel Sheppard who is taking cover in a nearby cottage."
At that, Ronon had to focus on the remaining bug again as it lunged at him, swiping with both, knife-sharp claws. Ronon circled around the DHD and put the Stargate at his back. He fired into the beast, and again the beast paused to shudder at the heat.
"Ronon, this is Atlantis. Acknowledged, strike force is being mustered. ETA 15 minutes. Are you coming through now?"
Hell no! Ronon wanted to say, but the creature lunged yet again and he danced again out of the way. The heat from the weapon in his palm was almost scalding and Ronon got two more blasts off before the gun made a sputtering sizzle, whined pitifully then went dark under his fingertips. His sword lay embedded in the other beast 10 steps away.
The bug clicked happily, sensing its prey's sudden panic. Ronon took a reluctant step closer to the flickering event horizon, pulled out a hidden knife and flung it at the monster. It bounced away harmlessly, deflected by tough chiton. The bug scuttled a few steps nearer, hissing it's foul breath, but hesitant -- remembering the scalding fire. Ronon also took a step backwards. He had only one place left to go.
"Atlantis. Lower the shield. I'm…coming through."
Despite knowing that he had no choice – that he was weaponless and backed into a wall – Ronon still hesitated on the threshold, watching as the bug monster took small, testing swipes at him. His eyes drifted to the black horizon, and he ground his teeth in helplessness. He changed the channel again and touched his ear.
"Sheppard. I'll be back. I've got to go to Atlantis for more ordinance."
The receiver in Ronon's ear clicked then crackled with interference – they were at the far end of reception range.
"S'OK. Go. I've got a plan." Sheppard's voice was barely audible over the static. The radio went silent.
A bright-white flash lit the fields and landscape for an instant, then flicked to black again just before the muffled boom rolled over the horizon. Ronon blinked, then sucked in a startled breath. "Sheppard?!" There was no answer.
The creature finally gathered its courage and with a shriek lunged at Ronon's midsection. Ronon simply fell backwards into the Stargate, the orange after-image of the flash burning into his eyelids.
What the hell did you just do?