Daniel’s thoughts were interrupted by the first sliver of dawn appearing on the horizon. With no clouds to block its light the rays cut like golden knives through the darkness. Daniel gratefully removed his night vision goggles and rose to wake the others up. After a quick breakfast, without the according to Daniel essential ingredient of coffee, SG-1 continued their journey towards the ruins. They didn’t have far to go and before noon they reached the outskirts of the city.
They halted a few yards away from the first ancient, and partly sand-covered, buildings while Sam dug out a scanner from her backpack. It had been modified specifically for this mission to pinpoint the source of the energy signature. She pushed a few buttons and dials to turn it on.
“This way,” she told the rest of the team when a little green dot showed up on the display, pointing them down what seemed to be the main street.
“Stay alert, kids,” Jack ordered and brought up his P90 to ready position.
With a nod that said “Yes, sir”, Sam unlocked the safety on her weapon and positioned one hand on the handle; her other hand currently occupied with the scanner. To the untrained eye Teal'c would have seemed not to respond at all to the colonel’s order, but his team could tell by the slightly altered grip on his staff weapon that he was prepared to fire it within a fraction of a second. Even Daniel, who once had been utterly averse to handle any kind of weapon, now expertly readied his gun. He still always strived to talk first and shoot later, but over his years at the SGC he had reluctantly learned that with some people shooting was the only way.
There was something eerie about the silent ruins. The only sounds to be heard was their own footfalls on the sand-covered road, and the wind sweeping through the hollow carcasses of crumbling buildings. The wind played tricks on their ears, bringing forth ghostly whispers as it drove a thousand little grains of sand through the gaping openings of windows and doors. Daniel found himself repeatedly spinning around, expecting to catch a glimpse of someone who had made the whisper, but each time he turned the voices winded away and around him with another gust of dusty air. It’s all in my head, he thought, with Jack’s commanding voice for extra weight. Still he was unable to shake the feeling of being watched.
As they got closer to the city centre the buildings were less rubble and more houses. For the last fifteen minutes Sam had stopped often to readjust their course, until Daniel was pretty sure they were walking in circles. He knew that Jack must have noticed too, nothing really got past the colonel despite how dumb he might act, but for the moment at least he chose to hold his tongue and not point out that they were lost.
Finally Daniel couldn’t help himself. When they stopped for the third time on the same street, which he was quite convinced they’d been on two times already, he stepped closer to one of the buildings and peaked in through the doorway. The roof was still mostly there and the walls seemed intact too. Since he stood in the doorway, what little light there was came through a single small window, but what it fell on immediately caught Daniel’s attention. He quickly dug out his penlight from a vest pocket and hurrying forward he added its cone of light to the illumination.
The walls were covered with paintings, elaborate and detailed works of art, depicting a lush green forest. The painter must have been a real master, Daniel thought as he held his light over his head and took a step back to appreciate the mural in its entirety. The effect was immediate and surprising, the flat brush strokes on the clay wall suddenly transforming into three dimensional depth. The relative coolness in the shadowy room added to the illusion that he had been instantaneously transported deep into a forest. He keyed his radio and called with an excited voice.
“Guys…I think you might want to see this.”
A few minutes later his three team members had joined him in the small building. Daniel had brought down his pen light to not reveal the magic of the painting at once. Now he held it back up high to let the light reach as much of the painting as possible.
“Yikes!” Sam exclaimed with awe in her voice. Jack on the other hand seemed hesitant as he stepped closer to the wall. He carefully laid his hand on the flat surface, no doubt testing its solidity and making sure it held no nasty surprises. Teal'c stood statue-still as always but his eyes were systematically taking in the scene in front of him. One by one they all switched on their torches and soon the room was bathing in light, making the painting’s effect more intense with each added beam.
“I’d swear this room was no more than nine feet across,” Sam mumbled to herself as she stepped forward and let her hand slide along the wall. The touch reaffirmed her that the wall was still there but the illusion constantly and repeatedly convinced her eyes to not agree. “This is incredible! I wonder how it is done...”
“Well kids,” Jack interrupted her astonished speculation, “as much as I enjoy some random art appreciation, we’re on the clock here and we still need to find this energy source. Hammond only gave us three days before we’re due back and the return trip takes at least a day, remember.”
Trust Jack to not be swayed from the objective even at such an extraordinary discovery, Sam thought and reluctantly put away her flashlight. At least the objective is finding some interesting tech.The prospect of a new alien gadget to play with appeased her disappointment, and she picked up her scanner and turned it on. The green dot was still there, cheerily blinking and placing the alien technology not far away. As soon as she ducked out into the street however it recommenced its elusive dance, leading her a few meters in one direction before turning her around and repeating it all over again.
Frustrated she stopped and just barely bit back a stream of expletives just begging to be spit at the scanner. As she was staring angrily at the small display she realized something was different about it. The green dot seemed to be brighter than before. When she left the little building with the paintings she had thought it was a trick of her eyes brought on by the relative darkness inside, but even in the intense sunlight the little light was definitely stronger.
She hurried back to the others, who were still – more or less – eagerly studying the forest mural. That is, Daniel was excitedly examining every inch of it under lights held by a reluctant colonel and an unreadable Jaffa.
“What you got, Carter?” Jack asked, more than happy to be interrupted since it gave him an excuse to lower his upheld arm.
“I’m not sure what it means, but the signal is stronger than before.” She cast an eye on the scanner. “And I think it’s stronger in here than outside. I think this room is somehow linked to whatever is emitting the energy signature.”
“But why is it stronger now than before?” Daniel asked. Jack merely nodded his agreement with the question.
“It must have to do with the light. Something happens with the paintings when the light hits them, right? And the more light we add, the bigger the effect. So if the paintings are linked to the energy source, we shining light on the paintings made the device – or whatever it is – more active.”
Daniel nodded and pensively eyed the paintings.
“But why? What is it for?”
“And how do we find it?” Jack’s interjection left Daniel’s questions hanging as Sam answered her CO.
“If the device is linked to the room we should be able to find the link and follow that.”
“Does that mean I’m turning into a light fixture again?”
Sam nodded sympathetically, while Daniel turned towards the wall to hide a smirk. Jack and Teal'c took a flash light in each hand and held them up over their heads to give as much illumination as possible to their teammates’ search. The more light the faster it should be right, Jack thought hopefully.
Daniel and Sam searched systematically; from the left side of the door and all around to the other side. The three dimensional forest constantly played tricks on their minds, and it took immense amounts of concentration to ignore it and study the flat wall beneath. Before long they had to resort to feeling their way across the surface with their hands. It was a slow process, but when they finally reached the end of their circuit of the room they wished they’d had longer to go.
“There’s nothing here,” Sam admitted disappointedly as they both rose to stretch their legs.
Daniel pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose; a gesture that told his friends that he was quickly developing a headache. Jack lowered his lights and dug out a power bar from his vest. It was one of the high-caffeinated ones that Daniel usually brought for himself to compensate for the frequent lack of coffee on their missions. Despite the fact that he seemed to stuff them into every available pocket Daniel never seemed to have enough of them, so Jack had long since begun to bring extra to supplement him with when he ran out. Now he pressed one into Daniel’s hand, who gave him a crocked smile in thanks.
The power bar soon had its desired effect. The caffeine was like fuel to Daniel’s workaholic brain, and just after a few bites he was already staring at the wall in front of him with a new and thoughtful gaze.
“Maybe we’re going about this all wrong,” he mused, as he began to pace back and forth in the room.
“What do you mean?” Sam’s asked.
“We’re trying to see through the effect of the paintings in order to find the device connected to them, right?”
Sam nodded. “Yes. We need to find out how they’re connected, so we can follow the link back to the device.”
“Yeah, but what if they aren’t just connected.” Daniel was in full excited-genius-mode now, gesturing with both hands while he talked. “What if it is the device that is creating the effect and the paining is in fact there to help us find it.”
“Instead of looking behind the forest we need to look at it.”
By now Jack was lost – but if he was honest that was his usual state when the two scientists on his team talked nerd. And, as usual, Daniel acted on whatever it was that Jack hadn’t understood yet before he could stop him. He grabbed his penlight and spun around to face the painting again. For a moment he just stood there, intensely studying the forest. Without warning he stepped forward, so suddenly and fast that Jack thought he was going to slam right into the wall. Instead he seemed to melt into the painting, first becoming smaller and then disappearing between the trees. Too late, Jack reacted and ran forward, only to himself slam into the wall as he had thought Daniel would.