Cost of Living
TITLE: Cost of Living
CATEGORY: Adventure, H/C, S/J UST, Angst (thrown in for good measure …)
SPOILERS: Major spoilers for Entity, also D&C, WoO, Jolinar’s Memories/The Devil You Know, probably more, but I kinda lost track …
SEASON / SEQUEL: Season Four, after Entity
CONTENT WARNINGS: Language (as usual ...); equal opportunity whumping, although Jack still manages to draw the short straw (how does he do it???); sexual situations implied, nothing graphic, though (erm … no … it’s still not what you’re thinking!)
SUMMARY: Major Carter goes missing while on loan to SG-9 for a research assignment. The S&R mission takes a wee bit longer than expected (be warned: this is a loooooong story!), not aided by the fact that Colonel O’Neill contrives to get misplaced as well (how does he do it???) …
DISCLAIMER: Negotiations have failed, and I still don't own them. I’m now working on persuading someone to let me direct all of Season 7 ... Anyway: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. I have written this story for entertainment purposes only and no money whatsoever has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. Not to be archived without permission of the author.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: After being saddled with this tale of woe for some five months, my computer kindly decided to help things along by developing a hugely entertaining fault in the display unit (for warranty purposes I’m categorically denying a causal connection). In other words, I’m posting before it’s shipped off to be fixed, because chrisbod would throttle me if she had to wait another 10+ days for this … chrisbod, say ‘Thank you’ to George Frederick!
ever, many, many thanks to
Malinne stretched under the sleeping skins, languidly extended her arms over her head, and let the night-cold air in the hut tingle her awake. A muffled grunt next to her told her that Lonna was still asleep, or half asleep at least, and in no way inclined to wake up any time soon. Well, he would have to, like it or not. Through the window she could see the Barrier Wall in the far distance turn rosy with the early morning light. It promised to be a good day for the Hunt. Maybe even a good day for a skirmish with Harrane’s clan, whose territory began a morning’s ride upstream.
Strains of a song drifted in from the well. Malinne recognised the brittle, wispy soprano: Shamille, her Grandmother. Which wasn’t strictly true. Shamille wasn’t Malinne’s real Grandmother. The goddess only knew what had happened to her. But Shamille had taken the younger woman under her wings for as long as Malinne could remember. Life was a struggle, and there was no place for the weak, no time to nurse the sick. Shamille had nursed her anyway. Likely as not, the matriarch had saved Malinne. But since then, Malinne had proved her worth, and she was glad not to have disappointed her adoptive Grandmother. For various reasons. The old crone could be fiercely vindictive when her bidding wasn’t done, and Malinne had been at the receiving end of her ill temper more than once. But Shamille also had taught her the customs of the clan, taught her the use of weapons, taught her to fight. Malinne had proved to be a gifted fighter, and now was respected in her own right, not merely as the matriarch’s ward. Most of all, though, Malinne was genuinely fond of her Grandmother, despite the woman’s cantankerous streak.
Lonna grunted again, and Malinne rolled onto her side and gazed at him. He was hers now. Her mate, with his broken nose, wary green eyes, short, sinewy frame and knotty muscles. And he was hairy all over. Like something you’d catch in a trap in the jungle. Like a small kol’raq. All black pelt and feral snarl, ready to claw you. Come to think of it, that was pretty much how he behaved. Malinne giggled to herself. Her very own kol’raq. But he was strong, a good worker, and he could give her children, should she choose to have them. She wouldn’t. Not Lonna’s children. Lonna shared Malinne’s bed, but he didn’t share her body. It had nothing to do with her friend Lissele’s endless jokes about how fair Malinne and swarthy Lonna would produce chequered or striped offspring. No. Lonna was her first mate. There would be others in time, and it only seemed prudent to wait. For a first mate, Lonna wasn’t bad at all, but he was dull and sullen and devious. Malinne had no intention of mothering a brood of little kol’raqs who, like their father, would ask no questions, would fail to be awed by the nighttime skies, would never understand the soft grace of gentleness and laughter. No.
Lissele had made fun of her and said that those must be Outlander customs. Nobody waited, nobody cared about mind and heart and soul. If a mate had a good strong body, he would father good strong children, and that was all that counted. Anything else was foolishness. If everybody thought that way, the clan would have ceased to exist many, many seasons ago. Mind and heart and soul. Lissele had laughed so much, she had dropped and broken her best maniak’ka bowl. It had made her upset with Malinne, and in the interest of friendship they’d avoided the topic ever since.
Shamille’s singing had stopped, and Malinne knew the old woman would hobble into the hut any moment now, clamouring for her morning meal and upbraiding her granddaughter for idling under the skins. Malinne raised herself on one elbow and blew in Lonna’s ear. He cursed, tried to swipe at her, and she threw him out of bed. His abrupt tumble sent him rolling straight in front of Shamille’s gnarled feet, and with one look at her and a startled yelp he scrambled out of the hut on all fours.
“What was that?!” cawed Shamille.
“A kol’raq, Grandmother. It’s afraid of you.”
“A kol’raq …!” The matriarch cackled, and Malinne chimed in with a peal of laughter. At last, Shamille said, “You’d better go and catch your kol’raq, child, and tell it that it’s to work the maniak’ka mill today. And then bring me my gruel and get ready for the Hunt.”
“Off-world activation”, the tannoy blared, as though the klaxons hadn’t made that crystal clear already. General George S Hammond heaved his bulk from the chair and hurried to the control room. By the time he got there, they’d probably have received an IDC, or one of their more mystifying galactic acquaintances would have opened the iris like a backyard gate left on the latch, or they’d hear a couple or three thuds. Bugs on the windshield, as Jack O’Neill had so colourfully put it once.
“Receiving SG-1’s iris code”, Sergeant Davis announced.
Speak of the devil, thought
The event horizon rippled, and the subject of General Hammond’s speculations stepped from the wormhole and onto the ramp, followed by Dr Jackson, Teal’c, and Captain Hancock. All four of them were soaking wet, looking like drowned rats, with the exception of Hancock, who even from a distance looked like a suicidally depressed drowned rat.
The General sighed and got on the intercom, cursing himself for a coward. He was merely postponing the inevitable. “Welcome back, SG-1. Go have a shower and warm up. We’ll debrief at 1400 hours.”
Upon return to his office,
“SG-9 back yet, sir?” he asked.
“I thought I’d told you to take a shower, son. Do I need to make it an order?”
“SG-9 back yet, sir?”
It was all the General could do to swallow
a groan, as another gem from the O’Neill Anthology of Aphorisms crossed his
mind. ‘I retired. You wanted me back.’ In moments like this George Hammond
found himself squirming at the undeniable truth of the statement. He had wanted
him back, and at the time he’d thought that, between what the files told him
and what he’d seen for himself, he had the measure of the man. Four years on,
“Not yet, Colonel.” General Hammond fought the somewhat childish impulse to hide under his desk.
“They’re overdue, sir. Permission to -”
“Go and take a shower, get your post-mission check-up, turn up for the debriefing. Permission to do all of the above, Colonel!”
“General! They’re twenty-four hours late. I -”
“I’m aware of that. Which is why SG-6 is getting ready to gate to P9R 954 as we speak. You are going to clean up, debrief, and take SG-1 on a diplomatic mission to P5W 807 tomorrow. And this time it is an order! Do I make myself clear?”
“Good. Now get out of my office, Colonel. You’re ruining the carpet.”
Leaving a trail of wet footprints, Jack
O’Neill slunk out. He reminded
The ride had been long. Long, but rewarding. They had slain two kol’raqs, and a small herd of sil’peq. The clan would have kol’raq furs to trade and enough to eat for at least half a moon, and that was good. Shamille would be pleased, and she would be proud of Malinne. But the ride had been long. Long, despite the fact that dusk had fallen early. You could tell that the rains were soon to come. The air tasted of moisture, and although it had been hot and humid from mid-morning, now that the sun had set there was a prickly freshness to the evening winds which idly stole from the Outlands into the basin.
On a sheltered clearing above the river they sat around the campfires and told stories. Lissele’s elder daughter Korrene lay on the mat next to her mother, moaning. Malinne smiled. It had been Korrene’s first Hunt. Malinne remembered her own well enough. You felt miserable, when you finally slid off your sir’loq and tried to move on two legs after spending a full sun in the saddle. Tomorrow, after the ride home to the village, poor Korrene would feel even worse.
“Be glad you haven’t got a mate yet, Korrene”, Malinne said smugly, and Lissele burst into raucous laughter.
“True enough”, she gasped at last. “You want to ask Shamille what happened after one of her first Hunts.”
“Oh?” asked Malinne. “What happened?” This was a tale she hadn’t heard, and Shamille stories always were fun. They had acquired the status of legends among the clan and consequently had been blown all out of proportion. At least that was what Shamille claimed.
“Ah, back then Shamille was with her first
mate. A man built like … like a mat’naq, they say … In every respect -” Lissele
playfully cuffed her daughter, when Korrene forgot about her burning backside
for a moment and started giggling. “It was a long Hunt. Suns and suns and suns
they rode, across the river and all the way past the
Malinne chuckled. This she could believe. Apart from the ice statue on the far side of the Barrier, that was. But the rest sounded like Shamille alright. Malinne would have done the same. Perhaps, she thought suddenly, this was why the old woman had taken to her. Perhaps Shamille had recognised a kindred spirit.
Lissele gave her friend a swift, mischievous glance, then winked at Korrene. “Of course, Malinne doesn’t have to worry about any of this. Not with the mate she’s going to win …”
“Watch your mouth!” Malinne really didn’t want to go into this, certainly not within earshot of the other women. Lissele was incorrigible. If she had a little too much palm wine, she’d just go on chattering forever, and the Ice Storms may take promises and confidences. It was Malinne’s own fault. She shouldn’t have said anything. It was a mere fantasy, anyway.
Lissele was on a roll, and wouldn’t stop. “Listen, Malinne’s new mate’ll have a heart and a mind and a soul, not just a body. So what’ll he clutch when the river washes him up on the other side of the Barrier, Malinne?”
“Nothing!” she shouted over the hysterical laughter of the women. “Because I wouldn’t have to throw him in! I’d take him hunting with me!” That had shut them up. They stared at her aghast.
“You’d better not mention any of this to Shamille”, Famekke, one of the elders, said and covered her eyes with her left, the fingers of her right splayed to ward off demons. “That’s Outlander talk. Outlander custom. The goddess forbids it!”
“Stop calling me ‘Outlander’”, yelled Malinne. “I’m not! I’m not an Outlander!”
She ran off to the cliff and climbed down until she’d found a small ledge where she could sit comfortably. Dangling her feet above the water, Malinne angrily shook her head. It had been stupid. She never should have said it. Not what she’d admitted to Lissele, not what she’d just been goaded into telling the other women. She never should have said it. Especially not in front of Famekke, who’d always disliked her. Taking a mate hunting. Where had that come from, anyway? Such a thing was unheard-of. No wonder they kept calling her ‘Outlander’. She certainly behaved like one of the barbarians from beyond the Barrier. Maybe she did come from there after all … No. No! The Outlanders and their ways were an abomination. She was clan. Shamille had drummed that into her good and proper. She was clan.
Somewhere below her, near the edge of the water, a kri’liq started its nocturnal chant, honking a challenge, and before long others answered, hidden beneath succulent, dew-laden fern fronds that cascaded over the rock face. Gazing up at the stars, Malinne felt the tight coil of anger inside her uncurl, and suddenly she laughed with delight. The moon hadn’t risen yet, and the display above was dazzling. The others believed that, once the goddess rose, the lesser spirits retreated in trepidation. Malinne knew it couldn’t be so, but this was another thing she’d better not speak of to the women. The moon was closer and therefore seemed larger and brighter, that was all. The stars simply were outshone, just as the flame of an oil lamp would burn unnoticed in broad sunlight. There were so many of them. So many stars. What if there were other clans out there? What if she had hailed from one of those? Straight down and bang! there she was, a misfit in poor old Shamille’s unsuspecting lap, and a thorn in Famekke’s side. Again, Malinne laughed.
Jack O’Neill was bored. Jack O’Neill was so bored, it defied description. Approximately an hour ago he’d unobtrusively removed the last of a hundred and sixty-nine motes of dust from the lapels of his dress uniform, and he’d happily have sworn to the fact that he’d counted each and every one of them. Maybe he should check if the next lot of motes had settled yet. Nope. No such luck. His shoes were too tight. His shoes were way too tight. Maybe he should liven up proceedings by taking them off and cavorting across the parquet in his socks. If they asked politely, he’d throw in a back flip, just for the heck of it. Maybe he should tickle Teal’c again. It hadn’t worked before. Teal’c had cunningly retreated into a deep state of kel-no-reem that rendered him immune, not only to his CO’s tedium-engendered puckishness, but also to the unending, monotonous drone in an obscure dialect of Yadda-Yadda, which nobody spoke, except of course Dr Daniel Jackson. For cryin’ out loud, how long could it take to negotiate a goddamn galactic commerce treaty?! For some new-fangled type of cellulose, no less. Things couldn’t possibly get more riveting. Daniel and his co-conspirators were in their sixth hour of drivel and still going strong. Jack stifled a yawn. He’d tried the meditation trick himself, after he’d finished Operation Mote, but he must have taken a wrong turn at some point, because he’d managed to doze off. Standing up. Apparently their prospective trading partners were of the opinion that chairs provided too much of a distraction. He’d slowly canted to port until he’d bumped into Hancock. Who had jumped, jolting Colonel O’Neill awake and causing Daniel to favour the pair of them with a disapproving stare. Maybe he should glower at Hancock for a bit …
No. Belay that. The kid was scared enough of him already. Captain Hancock was not a happy camper. Then again, the same could be said of Jack O’Neill. When they’d gated out to P5W 807 with orders to adorn some treaty room for an unspecified amount of time, SG-6 hadn’t been back yet, and there’d still been no word from SG-9. That made SG-9 a minimum of thirty-six hours overdue. Dammit, Carter! You know I hate to be kept waiting. What’s going on?
He shouldn’t have accepted her transfer request. Pure and simple. But General Hammond had argued that it was temporary, and Dr Fraiser had said it would be a good way of easing Major Carter back into the swing of things, and Colonel O’Neill had been typically reluctant to confront a whole witch’s cauldron of mixed feelings. Oh yeah, he’d done the right thing. He’d done what was necessary and expected. Whether or not it had yanked the rug out from right under him was irrelevant. At least the General had had the good sense of not citing him for the heroic attempt to kill Sam Carter. He’d shot her. Point blank and twice, like a rabid dog, and for all he’d known at the time, his second shot had been fatal. The godawful thing was that he couldn’t be sure if he hadn’t steered the situation all along, hadn’t contrived somehow to be the first one there, the only one to fire, simply to prove a point. She’s a very valued member of my team, sir, and no, thank you very much, big badass O’Neill has no need for the backdoor you so adroitly opened for him. You’ve read my file. I care about her a lot more than I’m supposed to, but see if that’s gonna stop me, sir. And the damnable truth remained that she knew, she’d been there, instrumental when that confession was pummelled from him, kicking and screaming. He should have played dumb, should have let Anise lobotomise him or whatever it was that Tok’ra doohickey did. That way nobody’d ever have been any the wiser, least of all Carter. Of course he hadn’t talked to her about it. They’d agreed to leave this in the room, hadn’t they? And he sure as hell hadn’t talked about how fun it had been to pull the trigger on her. Oh no. He’d chickened out and okayed Carter’s transfer request without so much as discussing it. Because the last thing he needed to hear from her was that she didn’t trust him anymore. She couldn’t possibly trust him anymore, but he didn’t need to hear it.
Two months, they’d told him. Two months with SG-9, to get that pesky research station on P9R 954 up and running. Rumour had it that the planet did some fancy seismic footwork, so somebody had decreed it warranted in-depth investigation. Doc Fraiser had called it a quiet, low-stress mission and ideal to monitor any potential after-effects of all that to-ing and fro-ing of Carter’s mind and heart and soul between the Entity and that jury-rigged computer environment and Carter herself. Not to mention the after-effects of being shot by her commanding officer. What was he to say to that? No? They’d made it so easy for him. Say yes, and do Carter a favour, do yourself a favour. Give things a chance to settle and yourself a chance bury yet another sin and become yet a notch more callous in the process. Two months was plenty of time for that. Then two months had turned into three, and now it was three months, one week, five days and counting, and Jack had started taking his frustration out on Captain Hancock, as though it was the kid’s fault that he wasn’t Carter. Three months, one week, five days, and SG-9 was overdue.
What? His name in amongst a garble of Yadda. Strange how you always managed to pick out your name. Daniel was looking at him. Well, what do you know?! Already time to put his three crosses under that groundbreaking piece of cosmic negotiation skill? And they trusted him to wield a pen rather than simply requesting his paw print? Great. Now can we go home? Oh. Not before another helping of Yadda. Celebratory Yadda. Not that you’d be able to tell the difference. And SG-9 was overdue. Yeah. Let’s friggin’ celebrate.
When the Hunters returned to the village the following evening, Shamille blasted between them like a bolt of lightning. The old woman all but dragged Malinne off her sir’loq and into the hut. Lonna was cowering by the hearth, a smirk on his face, and Malinne instantly knew what this was all about.
“You! Go and stable your woman’s sir’loq!” Shamille croaked at Lonna. “Go on! I shouldn’t have to tell you! Move your ugly bones!”
He ducked his head, suddenly less confident, wiped sweaty palms on his trousers, leaving sooty smudges across threadbare thighs, and as soon as he’d scuttled through the door, the matriarch turned on Malinne.
“He says you will not mate”, she stated with customary subtlety, slapping Malinne’s face for emphasis. “Tell me he’s lying!”
“He speaks true!” Malinne narrowly avoided another slap.
“Why? Why?! Are you trying to bring the wrath of the goddess down on me, after all I’ve done for you?! Do you know what it cost me to place you in the fight for this one? He should have been second or third mate to someone. Do you know what kind of first mate befits a youngling? An Outlander youngling?”
“I’m not an Outlander!”
“Then stop behaving like one!”
“At least I didn’t throw him in the river!”
Shamille wheezed, pale grey eyes bulging a little, and suddenly she started crowing. “So they told you, did they?”
“Yes, Grandmother.” Malinne felt it was safe to risk a grin.
“Child, child, child … What am I to do with you? What is this about? There’s nothing wrong with your Lonna. I made sure of that, believe me.”
She would have. “I believe you. There’s nothing wrong with him. But there’s nothing right with him, either”, Malinne said simply. “He’s not for me. I’ll wait for another.”
“Another, eh?” The old woman bristled. “And where will another come from? Do you think the clan will let you fight for a man again, if it becomes known that you just take mates and make no use of them?”
“I’ll find another. Don’t trouble yourself. Now, what shall I get you for evening meal, Grandmother?” And with that Malinne indicated that she considered the subject closed.
For once, Shamille gave in. The argument couldn’t be won. The child was too much like her, could have been her own flesh and blood, rather than a foundling. But she would have to be watched. She would have to be taught caution. Shamille had seen the hatred in Famekke’s eyes tonight.
“Sorry I’m late, General!” Major Levine came storming into the briefing room, moderately dishevelled, a large folder in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. “Doc Fraiser’s check-up took longer than expected. Williamson’s got a nasty case of frostbite …” He petered out, realising that, much as everyone might sympathise with the plight of Lieutenant Williamson, it wasn’t really what they were here to discuss.
“Sit down, son. No harm done. SG-1’s only just arrived as well.”
That was an understatement. General Hammond had collared Colonel O’Neill, Dr Jackson, Teal’c, and Captain Hancock at the ramp, as soon as they’d returned from the treaty negotiations on P5W 807, and herded them straight to the briefing room. Apparently, post-mission routine could wait.
“I take it you all know Major Levine?”,
Levine cleared his throat and launched into his report. The S&R operation on P9R 954 had not been pretty. Or comfortable. The planet was locked in an ice age and, as far as surveys could ascertain, virtually the entire surface was covered by glaciers. They’d reached the research station eight hours into their mission. No trace of SG-9, the three scientists who’d gone with them, or Major Carter. In fact, it looked like work on the compound had been abandoned weeks ago. Some of the habitats hadn’t even been erected yet. SG-6 had set up camp in the derelict station, and the next morning Levine had divided his team and ordered an initial search within a two-mile radius around the compound. Late in the afternoon, whilst scouting the banks of a river that cut deep into the ice, Sergeant Peters and Lieutenant Williamson had come across the badly mangled bodies of the scientists. Their first assumption that they’d frozen to death was shattered when they discovered evidence of blunt trauma among the damage evidently done by scavenging carnivores. A few hundred yards downstream they found three more corpses, in a similar state. Members of SG-9, among them Colonel Roberts, their CO.
“I’ve done a preliminary examination of the bodies”, continued Levine. “What with the temperatures on 954 it’s very difficult to be certain, sirs, but in my opinion these people died weeks ago.”
“What about Sam?” Daniel’s voice sounded flat, compressed, as though an invisible rope were constricting his throat.
“We haven’t found any trace of Major Carter or the fourth member of SG-9. Which may be good news. The reason why I’m saying it is this.” Levine passed around a set of photocopies. “Now, these are some of Major Carter’s notes, which we’ve found in her lab. From what I can make out, there are anomalies in the planet’s magnetic field, and she wanted to take a closer look at the source of that. This is the last entry, and it’s dated just over three months ago. It’s possible that she and Captain Johnson of SG-9 left the station before the attack or whatever it was occurred. They may still be alive.”
“MajorLevine”, said Teal’c, “was not this world supposed to have been uninhabited? Who would have carried out such an attack?”
“Yes, I was getting to that. The blunt trauma on the bodies is consistent with clubs, wooden or bone, and those, in turn, would be consistent with this.” Levine walked over to the VCR and started fast-forwarding a video. “This is footage from a security camera set up at the station perimeter.” Ten minutes into the tape he froze and enhanced the image. It showed a group of about thirty fur-clad men, armed with cudgels.
“They’re Neolithic!” exclaimed Daniel. “Stone Age men. If you look at the physique, the brow ridges … They’re thought to have hunted in large groups. I mean, even though SG-9 were well armed, they’d just have been overrun …”
“Yeah, that’s our take on it as well”, Levine agreed. “Looks like they never knew what -”
“General!” O’Neill spoke up for the first time. Both Daniel and Teal’c knew him well enough to recognise the edge of carefully controlled anger under the quiet tones. “Just how long exactly has SG-9 been out of touch?”
“Excuse me?!” The anger had leapt to the surface, tinged with disbelief. “And that didn’t strike anybody as weird? A tad off? Worth looking into, maybe?”
“The last time Colonel Roberts made contact, he asked to have the mission extended. He also said they were experiencing severe difficulties with the MALP relay, probably due to atmospheric disturbances. The station is a day’s march from the stargate, and the terrain is difficult, dangerous even. Roberts requested my permission to cancel all further scheduled contact. There was no reason for me to deny his request. According to our data the planet was uninhabited, and Colonel Roberts was an experienced officer.”
“And now he’s a dead experienced officer!”
“We’re well aware of that! I’d prefer it if
you confined yourself to constructive comments, Colonel!”
“No!” The Colonel let out a slow breath. “No … I’m sorry, sir. No blame. For what it’s worth, I’d have made the same decision.”
Major Levine took this as his cue to continue. “In my opinion there is a chance that Major Carter and Captain Johnson are still out there, but I didn’t have the resources to conduct a search of that scale. Basically they could be anywhere by now.”
“So you’re going back?”, Jack asked softly.
“Yes, sir. And I’ll need all the manpower I can -”
“General, request permission for my team to join SG-6.”
“Permission granted, Colonel. Major Levine? SG-units 3 and 12 will be joining you as well.”
“Thank you, sir.” O’Neill and Levine had spoken in unison.
They’d gated out to P9R 954 two hours
later. It had taken them a day to reach the station, where they’d split up into
three teams. Following the river, alternately travelling in a rubber raft and
scouring the banks, O’Neill, Teal’c, Levine, and three of his men headed for
the coordinates Sam had jotted down in her notes. On their second day out,
twenty-five miles downstream from the station, Teal’c discovered the body of
Captain Johnson. Like all the others, he showed the marks of bludgeoning under
extensive flesh wounds. Slowly, the big
Johnson’s eyes were half open, and Teal’c
found himself staring into the milky irises, as though the answers they sought
were hidden behind a dead man’s lids. At last he tore his gaze away and looked
up at his friend. O’Neill’s face was rigid, blank. The likelihood of
MajorCarter having encountered the same fate as the Captain had increased
manifold, and O’Neill had understood it, too. This was a time to violate his
strict code of ethics, the
“I am certain that MajorCarter has survived the attack, O’Neill”, Teal’c said, rising. “Perhaps she has parted company with CaptainJohnson prior to the assault.”
“Yeah.” The Colonel saw through the white
lie and fought down a strange mix of annoyance and gratitude. Teal’c had been a
witness when he was forced to own up to his oh so inappropriate feelings. But
Major Levine landed the raft and came running with two of his men. Together they bagged Captain Johnson’s body, then carried him away from the water and up the bank to a cave in the ice.
“Let’s bunk down here for the night.” Jack wearily slipped the backpack off his shoulders. “We need to talk about what’s gonna happen next.”
Occasionally casting surreptitious, uneasy glances at the ominous body bag, Levine’s men busied themselves setting up the cooking gear, while Teal’c kept watch at the mouth of the cave.
Levine slumped onto a small rock. “To be honest, sir, I’m not sure it makes sense to continue the search. I don’t need to tell you what Major Carter’s odds would have been, even if she’d managed to evade our friends with the clubs … I mean, stranded in this place on her own, without any supplies to speak of, no firewood. Besides, if she’d been alive, she’d probably have tried to get back to the stargate. The other two groups are looking in that direction now, and Dr Jackson radioed in twenty minutes ago. He and SG-12 haven’t found anything either … I’m sorry …”
“I don’t wanna hear it, Levine!” hissed O’Neill. “It’s not how I do things. We keep looking until we’re sure. One way or the -”
“That’s final, Major! If you want me to pull rank, I will. I’m not leaving any of my people behind.”
“Yessir!” Like everyone else at the SGC, Levine had heard a rumour or two about the origins of O’Neill’s obsession with always bringing home everyone on his team. He stood a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning this debate. On a good day, the Colonel could lend a whole new meaning to intransigence, and this wasn’t a good day. Not by any stretch of the imagination. “So what do you propose we do, sir?”
“Tomorrow we’ll continue downriver until we reach those coordinates. It’s not far now. We can make it there and back in a day. Leave the body here, go and see what we can see, and then return, send a couple of your men back in the raft with Johnson, while we check further inland. Next time he radios in, I also want to have a word with Daniel, find out what the chances are that one of those Neanderthals slung Carter over his shoulder and dragged her back to his cave.”
“Well, if one of them was insane enough to try, good luck to the poor bastard”, Levine muttered and added somewhat hastily, “No disrespect to Major Carter, sir. It’s just … I’ve seen her in unarmed combat training …”
To Levine’s surprise it brought a fleeting grin from O’Neill. “Don’t apologise, Major”, he said. “I know what you mean. I’ve seen her in action …”
“She never has ridden Guard!!” Shamille stood on the dais in the council hut, one arthritic hand clutching the carved bone handle of her cane, her small bent frame shaking with outrage. “You know it is against clan law to send a youngling to ride Guard on her own! The goddess forbids it!”
The old woman was so incensed that Malinne feared for her health, but she knew better than to interrupt. It was not her place. If she flouted the laws again, it would turn the women against her even more. Silently she studied the crowd in the chamber. When the drums called the hastily convened meeting, normal morning routine had come to a standstill, but most of the women had still found time to deck themselves in finery befitting the occasion. Intricately woven, voluminous shirts and woollen boleros, richly pleated skirts and trousers, buckskin vests trimmed with copper or silver painted the room in a riot of earthy green and yellow, indigo and russet, and suggested a cheerfulness that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The reek of ill will hanging over the assembly belied the lavish gaiety.
Famekke laughed in the matriarch’s face. “So who is to say which of the laws apply to your Outlander and which don’t? Are you to be the only one to claim that right, Shamille?”
“She is not an Outlander! She is clan! Therefore clan law applies to her!”
“Oh, but it doesn’t, does it?! It doesn’t apply when Malinne refuses to mate and give the clan children. It doesn’t apply when Malinne speaks heresy. It doesn’t apply when Malinne talks of taking a mate on the Hunt. It seems the law only applies when it suits you and Malinne. I say it is time that Malinne disobeyed the law for the good of the clan, not for her own good. Who is in favour of Malinne riding Guard?”
She had to act. Famekke had been busy over the past few suns, and her poison had spread. The women regarded Malinne with suspicion and resentment, and even Lissele was avoiding her. If it came to a vote now, Shamille would lose, and it would dangerously undermine her position in the council. She might even lose her status as clan leader, and that could be a death sentence. The clan had little food to waste on the old and infirm who served no purpose.
“Wait!” Malinne rose. “I shall ride Guard. If only to prove you wrong, Famekke. I’d never do anything to harm the clan. I am clan.”
An astounded hush fell, and in the silence Famekke’s gasp of disappointment and anger could be heard clearly. Malinne forced herself not to grin. Famekke hadn’t expected this. Neither had the women. They had been told the cowardly Outlander would try to hide behind Shamille’s skirts. But they could hardly be blamed for believing it. Riding Guard was a deadly game, especially now that Harrane’s clan was looking to extend their territory. And if it wasn’t Harrane’s warriors you ran into, it could be a stray kol’raq, or even a raiding party from beyond the Barrier. Every woman had to ride Guard, because the safety of the clan depended on it, but only the most seasoned fighters ever went alone. Malinne hadn’t realised that Famekke hated her quite so much.
“Child, you don’t know what you’re saying!” Shamille pleaded, and for the first time since Malinne had met her, the old woman looked frail, looked her age.
“I do know, Grandmother. Do not fear. Tomorrow at dawn I’ll ride out, and I’ll be back by nightfall, and you’d better have cooked your sil’peq stew for me.” Malinne smiled.
With a grave nod, the matriarch said, “It is decided then. Malinne wishes to ride Guard tomorrow, and so she shall.”
As Shamille clambered down from the dais, the other women began flocking around her and Malinne, faintly embarrassed. Lissele sought her friend’s eyes in a silent apology, and Malinne put an arm around her shoulder. Together, the women exited the council hut, leaving Famekke to simmer in her defeat.
The assault came less than thirty minutes after they’d left camp, and they counted in excess of twenty attackers. It seemed incredible that such a number of men could move with absolute stealth. Even Teal’c, whose instincts and hearing were far sharper than those of his Tau’ri friends, never spotted them until it they were practically on top of the search team. Levine’s men in the dinghy tried their best to fend off the raiders with sniper fire, but between the impossible task of holding the raft steady in the river’s rapid current and the continual risk of hitting Colonel O’Neill, Major Levine, or Teal’c, they didn’t make much headway.
On shore, Teal’c had more success in
holding the enemy at bay. Their attackers were terrified of the bolts of fire
that spewed from the
He went in over his head and in his shock inhaled a lungful of ice water. It was cold. Bone-crushingly, cuttingly, searingly cold, cold enough to paralyse him, cold beyond anything he’d ever experienced. Cold all around him, inside of him, everywhere, and there was no escape from it. Dammit, Jack! Swim! It’s just water. Very cold water, but just water. You made of sugar, flyboy?! Swim! Flailing sluggishly he struggled to the surface, wheezed for air as his head broke from the water, and immediately was racked by a coughing fit that almost sent him under again. The banks were speeding past at the rate of knots. He realised then that he didn’t have a prayer of making it ashore. Not against that current. Who told you to stop swimming, Jack?! Nobody, actually, except he couldn’t feel his fingers or toes anymore. The vicious ache of cramping muscles made him gasp, and he swallowed what felt like a bucket of water. If he kept going at this clip, he’d have drunk the river before it could drown him. Bobbing on the waves ahead was a good-sized floe. That’s it. That’s got your name on it, Jack. Swim!
He had no idea how he ever contrived to heave himself onto that chunk of ice, and he really didn’t care. The one coherent thought that bounced through his mind with irritating persistence was, ‘Six of one, half a dozen of the other.’ Rather than drown, he now would freeze to death. He’d freeze stiff before then, though. Sweet Jesus, the water had been cosy by comparison! Maybe he should just drop back into the drink and let the river do its thing … Shivering uncontrollably, he tried to lie down. Even crude motor skills were hopelessly short-circuited by the cold, and he hit his head, yelped as another blinding stab of pain ricocheted off the insides of his skull. When it had ebbed away at last, Jack decided to push his luck by curling up into a tight ball, hoping to save what little warmth he’d left for as long as he could. Strangely enough, that manoeuvre came off without a hitch, for all the good it did him. There was no warmth to be saved. The cold was enveloping, pervasive, and it claimed him mercilessly. His vision seemed to be going, too. He vaguely noticed the light getting dimmer and dimmer. The ice walls were growing closer and closer. Funny. Dimmer and closer … The river getting faster … Dimmer, faster, closer … Motto of the P9R 954 Summer Olympics … Dimmer … Applause for Jack O’Neill, champion of the cross-country freezing marathon … Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s have a replay of the river-swallowing section of this consummate feat of sportsmanship … Please note the inimitable style … Closer … Yes, the jury agrees, a perfect 10, with bonus points for the double head-bash … Faster … And the crowd goes wild … Dimmer … Dark …
Despite her Grandmother’s dire prophesies, it had been quiet so far. Malinne had ridden towards the sun until she reached the eastern fringes of the clan territory. There she had turned south, following the border markers, and entered the rain forest. It was like intruding into a warm, brooding, musty womb, everything around her, even the decay, bearing witness to an abundance of life, a constant cycle of birth and death and rebirth. Faint specks of sunlight dappled the ground and mighty boles, picked out blossoms bursting with colour, growing, like cheap, gaudy baubles, on climbers that would go on thriving until they strangled these tree giants and died themselves. High above her, sheltered in the vast green hammock of branches and vines, stirred unseen birds, reptiles, mammals in constant motion, breeding, feeding, and being fed on, weaving a blanket of eerily funny noises.
Malinne stuck to the narrow, barely recognisable path other riders had taken before her, starting occasionally as filaments of hanging moss would brush her face like the fingers of a ghost. This was the most hazardous stretch of the Guard, because this was kol’raq land. Far too many women had been surprised and killed here. The kol’raq was cunning, a lone, stealthy hunter, devious and savage. Again, Malinne felt herself reminded of Lonna, and she grinned wryly. Sooner or later she would have to invite a fight for him. Sooner. She didn’t want him around anymore. He resented her for denying him what was not within his rights to demand, and his resentment was making him dangerous. She had to invite a fight. As soon as she could. A sudden silence around her called Malinne’s attention back to her surroundings. The invisible creatures had stopped their chattering. Kol’raq. It had to be. You always could trail a kol’raq by what you didn’t hear or see. Very smart, Malinne! Get eaten by a real kol’raq while wondering what to do with the one you’ve got in your bed.
Calmly, she slipped the bow off her shoulder, reached behind her back to pull an arrow from the quiver, nocked it carefully, and waited. Time to find out whether the feather fletching she’d come up with would work as well as she expected it to. Lissele, predictably, had laughed at the strange diagrams Malinne had sketched in the dust one evening. Her sir’loq was stirring anxiously, and she gave a soft, soothing purr deep in her throat. The animal had felt it, too. The kol’raq was close. Malinne knew she’d only have one shot. You only ever had one shot with a kol’raq. All senses alert, she tasted the air. You couldn’t see a kol’raq, you couldn’t hear it, but, by the goddess, you could smell it. Even if it was downwind from you. She immediately thought of Lonna again and almost giggled, then banished the distraction. Not now. Nostrils flaring, she waited for the scent to hit. There. The thicket over to her right. Now that she had a rough location, she knew what to look for. And there it was. The stiff, straight lancets of a large trel’ka bush trembling ever so slightly. It was moving in. Any moment now it would pounce. Malinne exhaled and drew back the bowstring slowly, steadily.
In a roaring flurry of fur and fangs and rustling leaves, the kol’raq attacked. Front paws extended, claws unsheathed, it hurtled through the air. Malinne let it reach the zenith of its leap, then released the arrow. The kol’raq shrieked, coiled up in a stricken heap and, carried on by its momentum, came limply tumbling to the ground, less than five feet away from Malinne’s sir’loq. It gave one or two weary twitches, a wet, rattling breath, then it lay still. Malinne watched it for a little while longer, until she could be sure it was dead. Small cadaver birds came hopping from the undergrowth, sharp beaks gaping greedily, and that was the safest harbinger of death. Her arrows worked. They were faster and more accurate than anything the women used.
Smiling, she slid off her sir’loq, pulled a hunting knife from her belt and approached the kol’raq. It was huge. Its pelt would be worth a fortune, and it belonged to Malinne. What was caught on the Hunt belonged to the clan, what was caught on Guard belonged to the rider. One of the oldest laws of the clan, and the reason why women were willing to ride Guard on their own. If you survived, you were rich. Oh Famekke would be dancing for joy! Malinne grinned, then told herself that she hadn’t survived yet. She had to get back to the village first, and the way there led along Harrane’s territory. Which meant she’d have to skin the kol’raq here and now. It would be unwise to lumber herself with a travois to drag home the whole carcase.
She sighed and set to work, her nose crinkling in revulsion. If there was one thing she despised, it was skinning cadavers. But it had to be done. Before long her arms and front were slick with blood. It was disgusting. Clenching her teeth and doggedly hacking and pulling away, Malinne consoled herself with the thought that she’d reach the river shortly after mid-sun and would have a chance to re-humanise herself.
“O’Neill!!” Teal’c’s warning had come a
fraction of a second too late, at the precise moment that the Colonel had lost
his footing and plummeted from the cliff. Torn between the desire to aid his
friend, a warrior to whom he owed his life and freedom many times over, and the
duty to defend those who relied on his support, the
With three long strides, the
“MajorLevine. Are you unharmed?”
Levine coughed and spat out a glob of blood and phlegm and a tooth. “No idea yet, Teal’c. Hell, I really don’t know what’s worse: ending up under a stack of Stone Age fullbacks on steroids, or that zat-gun of yours … But thanks, anyway.”
“You are welcome, MajorLevine.”
“Where’s Colonel O’Neill?” The Major looked around drowsily.
“O’Neill was struck by one of the attackers and fell into the river.”
“Shit! … My men gone after him?”
“I do believe so, MajorLevine.”
“Good.” Levine sat up, wincing. His snowsuit was torn in places, and he began to check a few sore spots on his arms and legs. “Will you look at that?! The bastards bit me!! … Think you could give me a hand, Teal’c? I wanna go down to the bank and wait for my guys.”
“As you wish.”
Major Levine’s men returned fifteen minutes later, without the Colonel. They pulled the raft ashore, and Sergeant Wilson bleakly delivered his report.
“Sorry, sir. We lost him. He definitely was alive when he went in, though. Peters saw him climb onto a floe, but coupla bends further down the river gets a lot narrower and the current’s so strong we couldn’t risk going after him. Wouldn’t have made it back with that toy engine, and there’s no place to land down there. Looks like the river’s going underground, too. Some kinda tunnel. Could be he came out the other end somewhere, but …” With an apologetic shrug at Teal’c, he added, “I couldn’t take the men in there on spec, sir …”
“How do you intend to proceed, MajorLevine?” asked Teal’c, bringing the Major’s mind back on track.
Levine stared up at the towering walls of
ice and rock around them, and suppressed a sigh. In his opinion it was
hopeless, but he knew that, where it came to leaving people behind, the
“Listen up”, he announced, rubbing his face. “From what the Sergeant here’s saying, going down in the raft isn’t an option. Not if we plan on coming back. So we’ll hike. We gotta get to the other end of that tunnel. But I’m telling you right now, Teal’c, don’t get your hopes up. If we find Colonel O’Neill, and that’s a big ‘if’, odds are he’ll be dead. Drenched to the skin in these temperatures? I’d give him an hour. Less than that …”
“I see.” Teal’c nodded. He already had arrived at the same prognosis.
“Okay, just as long as we’re all clear on
that … Alright.
As the sun climbed in the skies, the heat rose, too. Malinne had skinned the kol’raq, rolled up the pelt and tied it behind the saddle. Now she was spurring on her sir’loq, eager to escape from the sweltering oven that had developed under the dense canopy of the jungle. Besides, she had to make up for lost time, and the river beckoned.
The mere notion of diving into clear, cold water and washing off this awful stench seemed like bliss. Her own sweat had mixed with the gummy, congealing blood of the kol’raq, and Malinne knew for a fact that she reeked like a slaughterhouse. The pong probably would scare off anything or anybody likely to cross her path. She had a mental image of a group of gagging clan-women, scrambling for cover at her passing, and chuckled. But it wasn’t a laughing matter. Any warrior worth her salt would smell Malinne as easily as Malinne had smelt the kol’raq. And over there, less than a stone’s throw away, lay Harrane’s territory. She reined the sir’loq to a gentle, swaying trot, and the animal’s hoof falls became almost inaudible on the thick padding of rotten leaves and moss. Silent and watchful, Malinne skimmed the border like a shadow, until she finally broke from the forest, gave her sir’loq the reins and galloped across the deserted shore to the river.
She tethered the animal to a stunted nok’ka tree and flung herself into the stream. The icy water winded her, as it always did, but Malinne fought past it, let herself drift and began scrubbing the vile, stinking glaze from her arms and jerkin. Scanning the banks beyond the border, she suddenly noticed something strange. Just a little way further upstream, stranded at a flat, sandy shelf that jutted out into the river, lay a half submerged body. Of course, the body was on another clan’s land, and she should leave it at that. But noone else was around, and Malinne was nothing if not inquisitive. It had got her cuffed by Shamille on countless occasions. She swam over, climbed ashore, and cautiously approached the peculiar piece of flotsam she’d discovered.
It was a man. Lying on his stomach, long legs still trailing in the water, fingers dug into the sand, head turned to one side, almost as though he were sleeping. Going by the chalky face and the bluish tinge of his lips, he wasn’t. He looked dead. Without thinking, Malinne reached for his neck, fingertips searching until they felt a faint, unsteady flutter. Not dead, then. How had she known that? Shamille had taught her to listen for the breath. Malinne shrugged it off. Whether Shamille had taught her or not, she knew that little flutter spelt life. Barely. Carefully, she placed a hand on his cheek, starting when she realised how terribly cold he felt. He had to have been in the water for a long time. Far too long. His clothes were torn and frayed, revealing scores of cuts and bruises underneath, and there was an ugly, bleeding gash at the side of his head. This was the doing of the Outlanders, no doubt about it. So the river had brought him. It had carried him through the Barrier Wall and down the rapids, which explained the state he was in. But he wasn’t an Outlander, no more than Malinne was.
Now what? If she were to obey clan law, she’d walk away. She shouldn’t even have set foot here. This was Harrane’s territory, which meant that, dead or alive, he rightfully belonged to Harrane. Which also meant that, one way or the other, he’d die. It merely was a question of how and when. Impatiently, Malinne shook her head, cutting off the internal debate. Nobody need ever know that he hadn’t been found on Shamille’s land. There was no way she’d leave this man behind.
By the time she reached the village, it had long gone dark. Her Grandmother had been waiting at the door, worried out of her mind and commensurately furious when Malinne finally showed up.
“Where have you been?!” screeched Shamille, a smart blow from her cane falling across Malinne’s calf and startling the sir’loq into a timid little hop. “I have been standing here since dusk! … The stew is burnt!” she added accusingly, unwilling to admit that she’d never hoped to see the child again.
“I’m sorry, Grandmother. I truly am” Malinne said, dismounting. “I was delayed. I found something, and I need your help.”
“You don’t need anybody’s help. Never did”, the old woman groused sulkily. Then curiosity got the better of her. “So what is it you want?”
Malinne smiled. “Your herb lore.”
“Are you hurt? Where? What happened? I knew this was madness!! You come inside now! You -”
“Not me, Grandmother!! Him!” She pointed at a large bundle, wrapped in a kol’raq pelt and strapped into the rickety travois that was harnessed to her sir’loq.
“I shall have to teach you how to build a proper travois …” Shamille grumbled and limped closer to take a look. “So you’ve slain a kol’raq … Well done … But what did you bring him here for? Likely as not he’s somebody’s mate who ran away. He’s no better off than he should be”, she stated drily.
“He’s hurt, Grandmother. I found him in the river, in the pool below the rapids. And he’s nobody’s mate. Not here, anyway. He … he is like me”, Malinne said softly.
“Like you, eh?” The matriarch stared at Malinne, frowning. “Will he be as much trouble, I wonder? … Go and get that tame kol’raq of yours. It’ll have to help us carry him inside.”
“Don’t thank me yet. Looking at him, I’m not sure I can help …”
They took him into the hut, peeled him from the fur, and laid him on Malinne’s bed, so the old woman could examine him. Lonna had been ordered to stoke the fire and obeyed, glowering at the stranger for as long as he dared, before turning away at last and spitting into the flames. At last Shamille pulled a cover over the man, then turned to her granddaughter.
“I have to fetch remedies. Meanwhile, wash him. There’s too much dirt in those wounds already. He’ll get a fever during the night. I’ll do what I can. You there!” she barked at Lonna. “We don’t need you in here. Healing is women’s work. Go make yourself useful, wash that kol’raq hide and put it on a frame to dry, and don’t come back here before morning.” With that she left, and Lonna scampered after her, dragging along the pelt.
Malinne poured a bowl of water from the kettle in the hearth and scraped some flakes of soap into it. Sitting on the bed, the bowl at her feet, she soaked a clean linen cloth, wrung it, and began cleaning his face. Boyish somehow, although the lines around his eyes, the steep furrow between his brows, the grey hair told her that he was older than he looked, had seen and felt things nobody should have to see or feel. Long, dark lashes, high cheekbones, his nose just a little short, a soft, generous mouth. Malinne gently turned his head so she could reach the gash above his ear. It was deep, not pretty, and the area around it was badly bruised, but she didn’t think that the blow had broken his skull. She rinsed the cloth, and as she washed his neck, she discovered a jagged scar snaking down from the nape. Haltingly, she traced it, confused by the dark images it stirred. As surely as though she’d been there, she knew that whatever had caused this had been evil. Not wicked like the demons the women believed in but cold, calculating, malignant, and very real. She looked back at his face, wondering who he was and where he’d come from ... It could wait. It could wait. Let him get well first.
After a moment’s hesitation, Malinne pulled away the cover and was struck by the same strange feeling she’d had when she’d taken his sodden clothes off on the shore. A sense of awkwardness, inappropriateness, of something forbidden even. She couldn’t explain it. It was downright absurd. After all, she’d seen Lonna naked dozens of times, and this was no different. Well, yes, it was. Unlike Lonna, he had the lean, strong, supply muscled body of a fighter, smooth, lightly tanned skin, a feathering of hair on his chest.
She wetted the cloth again and touched him almost reverently, cleansing away dust and grime, dabbing angry slashes from where he’d been thrown against rocks, drawing small, tender circles across his chest, his stomach, to his loins, carefully, delicately, so as not to hurt him, not to wake him. She was caressing him and acutely aware of it. Again and again she rinsed the cloth, traced a collarbone outwards from the hollow of his throat, cleaned his arms, graceful, slender hands, rolled him onto his side and held him, his head nestled against her, to sponge his shoulders and back, trailed down at last, more slow, gentle loops to wash his hips, his legs. When the cloth stroked the soles of his feet, he twitched, muttering softly. She smiled. She hadn’t known he was ticklish.
“Better built than your Lonna, is he?” a brittle, amused voice squawked behind her.
Malinne nearly jumped. She hadn’t heard her Grandmother return and gave the old woman an irritated stare.
Shamille was impervious and surveyed the man’s body like a seasoned connoisseur. “Definitely better built than that kol’raq of yours … Makes me wish I were forty seasons younger.”
“Oh I was considered a beauty, I’ll have you know …”, the matriarch declared with a mischievous grin. She couldn’t resist it. Nor would she admit that she’d been watching for far longer than Malinne suspected, had recognised the profound longing in her tenderness. The child seemed to have found what she’d been looking for. Except it wouldn’t be as easy as all that. There’d have to be a fight. First of all, though, Shamille would have to see that he survived the night. “Did you actually wash him, or did you just sit there, gawping?”
“Of course I washed him!”
“Good. Hold the lamp for me. I need to be able to see what I’m doing.” The old woman set to work, probing, poking, feeling for broken bones, applying salves and poultices. Finally she covered him and looked up. “Your foundling’s been lucky. He came through the rapids without breaking a bone … But the head wound is ugly. Too wide to heal on its own. I shall have to seal it. Bring that stool over here and put the lamp on it, so that you have your hands free. You may have to hold him down.”
Malinne watched as her Grandmother took a tiny bundle of thin, wiry nok’ka spines and a jar of clear, acrid smelling ointment from a satchel. Shamille drew a spine from the bundle, dipped it in the ointment, and leaned over the man. Brushing his hair aside with one hand, she deftly threaded the spine through his scalp with the other. He jerked away, and for a moment his eyes flew open, dark and disoriented.
“Hold him!” the old woman snapped.
“Shh …” Malinne took his face between her hands, and turned his head again, so Shamille could tend to him. Her Grandmother strung the spine through the other edge of the wound and firmly twisted the two ends together. Another spine. A third, and a fourth. He had stopped fighting her, but Malinne could tell he was in pain. His fingers clenched and unclenched slowly, tensely, every time Shamille threaded through a new spine.
At last, the old woman seemed satisfied. “You can let go of him now, child. I’m done. He’s still too cold, but that’ll change soon enough. Here”, she gave Malinne a handful of dry, pungent leaves. “Brew a tea from these. Do it now. Once he gets feverish, make him drink it. It’ll help. And keep him warm.”
“Yes, Grandmother. Thank you.”
Shamille nodded and left.
Dr Jackson and SG-12 had arrived at the cave just before nightfall, tired and disheartened. SG-3 and Captain Hancock still were in the vicinity of the ‘gate, searching for Sam Carter, but since the discovery of Johnson’s body hope dwindled with every passing hour. Losing Jack had been the last straw. Daniel knew as well as anybody here what Jack’s chances of survival were. ‘Lousy’ sprang to mind, closely followed by ‘none’, but Daniel refused to go there just yet. Major Levine had radioed him en route with a list of requirements, and so they’d taken a detour to the station to collect the requested supplies. Peters and Wilson helped them haul the raft ashore and unload. His backpack slung over one shoulder, Daniel grabbed a storage container and trudged into the cave, where he came under Teal’c’s concerned scrutiny.
Dr Jackson blinked, his mind rapidly translating high-Jaffa back into Tau’ri slang. “Uh … Teal’c, I think what you’re after is ‘Take a load off’ …” He saw the fractional incline of Teal’c’s head and an amused spark in half-hooded eyes, and realised that Teal’c must have decided to maintain some sense of normalcy by picking up where Jack had left off in the lame jokes department. With a grateful little grin Daniel patted his friend’s shoulder. “You don’t look so hot yourself, Teal’c, you know …”
“That is not surprising, DanielJackson. I do, in fact, feel unpleasantly cold.”
Daniel surrendered and broke into a chuckle. “Okay, you win. Let’s grab a seat, hunh?”
Major Levine was sitting by the fire, studying a batch of aerial photographs. When Teal’c and Daniel approached, he looked up. “Dr Jackson. Glad you made it. Teal’c … Sit down.”
“So, what exactly happened, Major?” asked Daniel, crumpling into a cross-legged heap next to Teal’c. “Sergeant Wilson only told us the bare bones on the radio.”
Levine heaved a glum sigh. He’d have to
“But we’re still gonna go after him, right?!” Daniel demanded.
“Of course we are. Why do you think I ordered a full third of this travelling circus to join us up here?” Major Levine shrugged. “As a matter of fact, I think I’ve found something that might just brighten prospects a little. I stress ‘might’ … Here, check this!” He tapped one of the UAV pictures. “That’s us. Now, beyond those mountains here, which is where the river goes underground, there’s a pretty large, roughly circular area … uhm … I’d say about 150 square miles … where the UAV gives us nothing but low mist and haze. So, that’s gotta be some kind of depression. But the interesting news is the mist. Those pictures were taken in -”
“Can’t see what’s so interesting about mist …”, Dr Jackson began, then refuted his own scepticism with typical zeal. “It’s warmer!! For moisture to evaporate it has to be warm!”
“Got it in one, Doctor.” Levine’s smile was gone as quickly as it had appeared. “But … and believe me, I hate to rain on everybody’s parade here! … it could mean one of two things. One, it actually is a valley or a basin, and for some bizarre reason the weather’s nicer down there. In which case Colonel O’Neill might stand a chance, provided he made it down the river in one piece. Two, it’s a very large body of water, not cold enough to freeze, but still cold. I don’t need to tell you what the Colonel’s odds are if that’s the case … Besides, there’s nothing to say that this is where the river ends up. O’Neill could be floating around on some subterranean lake right now. We won’t know until we actually get there.”
Teal’c raised an eyebrow. “If your first assumption may be the correct one, MajorLevine, is it not advisable that we make haste?”
“You haven’t done much mountaineering, have
you? There’s no such thing as ‘making haste’ in this kind of terrain, Teal’c.
We’ll take it nice and easy, keep our heads, and make damn sure we get every
step right the first time. That’s gonna be the quickest way to get there, I
guarantee. And now I suggest we all get a good night’s sleep. We’ll move out at
He was burning up. As Shamille had predicted, the fever had set in, and it had hit fast and hard. Malinne had fetched a cup of the tea, shaken him awake, if it could be called that, and tried to make him drink. Delirious as he was, it still had taken him only a sniff and a small sip to spit out the tart brew, pulling faces while he was at it. In the end, she’d poured a generous helping of palm wine into the herbal infusion. It was the only sweetener she could think of. Probably not what her Grandmother would have recommended, but it had been worth a try. This time he’d drunk it. So he wasn’t just ticklish, he had a sweet tooth as well.
Another violent shudder racked his body. Malinne held him close, still troubled by the diffuse sense of wrongness that had plagued her all along, but absurdly convinced that, if she let go, he’d die. The shivering abated at last, and she lightly stroked his face resting at her shoulder. He’d drifted back into an uneasy sleep, moans punctuated by an occasional soft outcry. Whatever else his dreams might be, they weren’t happy ... Who was he? It could wait. It could wait ... Malinne’s last fantastic thought in the strange delusional no-man’s-land between waking and slumber was that she already knew him, mind and heart and soul.
At dawn loud clatter from the hearth woke her. She’d felt him flinch at the sound and was relieved when he seemed to settle back to sleep. Carefully, Malinne extracted a numb arm and shoulder from under her foundling and rose.
Lonna had brought in a bucket of water and continued to make as much noise as he possibly could, watching her furtively. When Malinne approached him, he bared his teeth in a grin, avoiding her eyes. “Sorry … Didn’t mean to wake your Outlander, woman.”
Why had the goddess seen fit to land her with a kol’raq?! Not for much longer. She glared at Lonna, until he finally met her gaze and squirmed. Malinne never touched him, she couldn’t bring herself to do that now, not even to hit him, much as her fingers were itching for the release.
“Get out!” she whispered coldly. “Get out and don’t come back!”
Something in her voice made Lonna shrink and scarper from the hut more readily than he’d probably intended to. Malinne called herself a fool. She’d made a cardinal mistake. You never treated a kol’raq with contempt. It would kill you for your pains. Shrugging, she turned around.
He was awake and looking at her, deep brown eyes still bright with fever, but lucid. Malinne smiled and knelt by the bed, gently feeling his forehead.
“Carter …?” he breathed.
Abruptly, almost as though he’d struck her, she withdrew her hand. That word meant something to her, she knew it did, but the meaning stayed stubbornly out of reach, and it frightened her, frightened her like the fact that this stranger should know her better than she did herself. She shook her head, staring at him in alarm, and at last understood that it had come as a blow to him as well.
A tired blend of uncertainty, regret, resignation swept across his face. “I’m sorry, Carter”, he murmured with a wry, bitter smile and fell asleep again.
Jack slowly let himself float towards awareness, trying to assess what exactly had happened. The attack. Teal’c? Levine and his men? He’d been hit by something. Fallen. Cold. Wet. The river. Gin & Tonic. Lemon slice. Lemon slice bobbing among ice cubes. And just why did he hurt so much? … Good little lemon slice, sitting on his ice cube … Until he was catapulted from it when the floe flipped down a waterfall. He’d gone bodysurfing in some pretty impressive rapids … After that he couldn’t remember a thing. Apart from some really weird dreams. On a par with mining naked. Being given a sponge bath by Xena the Warrior Princess who looked exactly like Carter … Jack, you’ve got the fantasy life of a teenage dork! … But he’d seen Carter. Seen Carter … He’d talked to Carter … Who’d stared at him like she fully expected him to draw a gun and shoot her … And why doesn’t that surprise us, Jack? … God, I’m so sorry, Sam …
He risked a glimpse and found himself squinting at a hollow-cheeked prune of a face, framed by white hair. So much for having seen Carter. “I know you”, he rasped. “You’ve been poking things in my head last night …”
The prune opened its mouth and cackled. “You should be thanking me, my boy”, it said. “Your conk may be thicker than most, but that gash would have killed you in the end.”
“Thank you, ma’am”, Jack replied obediently. “But your tea sucks …”
The prune succumbed to hysterics. “By the goddess, you were right, child! He is like you!”
Another face appeared behind the prune. Carter. So he hadn’t been dream- … Oh! … He drew a sharp breath, and Carter immediately looked worried.
“Grandmother?” she asked. “Is he alright?”
“I think he’s just a little surprised to see you.” The old woman returned her attention to Jack. “Malinne found you and brought you here.”
“Thank you …” Either Grandmother’s diagnosis of his head injury was off by a mile, or he was crazed with fever. He concentrated so hard his headache came back with a vengeance. The woman standing by the bed was Sam Carter. Except, she apparently wasn’t. “Sam?”
She frowned, as though desperately trying to recall something, and Jack finally grasped that she didn’t recognise him or herself. For a moment he was ridiculously glad about it. She’d forgotten what he’d done to her.
But he wished to God he could forget what she’d done to him, slow, soothing hands on his body, how achingly good it had felt, even through that numbing haze of pain and cold and drowsiness.
Come early afternoon, they were three quarters of the way up a steep, narrow ravine that led from the edge of the river to whatever lay above. There were twelve of them now, including Levine, Daniel, and Teal’c. Teal’c, for one, began to appreciate why Major Levine had insisted on a measured pace. The terrain was treacherous, and some of the group had had little, if any, previous experience with the conditions. Personally, Levine would have preferred to have everyone on ropes, but it wasn’t an option. If another attack came, and it almost certainly would at some point, they’d sit there like goats on a tether. They reached a ledge of sorts, and Levine called a brief halt, for everybody to take a sip of water and catch their breath.
Jenkins, who’d volunteered to go ahead scouting and had been gone for hours, came slithering towards them carefully and expertly among a peppering of small pebbles and lumps of ice. “Major Levine?! Think I’ve found somewhere for a bivouac. I’ve actually been all the way to the top. No go. First of all we wouldn’t make it before nightfall, and secondly it’s wide open. Be an invitation to the thugs. But about an hour up from here there’s an outcrop that’s easy to defend and large enough for everybody and their aunt to bunk down. No en-suite facilities, though …”
“What are you saying, Sergeant? You didn’t dig a latrine while you were up there?” Levine grinned. “Thanks, Jenkins. Good job. Take ten and join up with Peters. He’s bringing up the rear.”
“Yes, sir. Thanks!”
Having caught snippets of the conversation, Daniel clambered over to Major Levine. “You only want to keep going for another hour? I mean, we’ve got loads of daylight time left, and -”
“And if we all fall over ourselves to break our necks it ain’t gonna do Colonel O’Neill any good, Dr Jackson. I promise you, by the time we get up there, you’ll be tired enough to kill for a rest. I’ve told Teal’c yesterday, and I’m telling you now: easy does it. It’s the quickest way. Trust me!”
Daniel nodded, not entirely convinced. If he followed his instincts, he’d keep going through the night; on the other hand, he had a keen recollection of the numerous uncommonly diverting places his instincts had led him to. Several of those he’d barely made it out of alive, and in one or two of them he’d actually been killed …
Jenkins’ estimate had been overly optimistic. In the end it took them another ninety minutes, and by the time they’d set up the bivouac and had posted sentries, dusk was falling. Daniel was forced to admit that Levine had been right: he couldn’t have walked another step if his life depended on it.
Over dinner, if the MREs deserved such a euphemism, Teal’c, Daniel, Harper, and Levine discussed plans for the following day. Major Levine had pulled out a flashlight and was poring over the aerial shots again. There was no other map.
“So you definitely want to make it across that snowfield tomorrow?” enquired Major Harper.
“Yeah”, Levine said. “I want us back under cover before it gets dark.”
“I concur”, stated Teal’c. “Being out in the open during daylight will be of advantage. We will be warned in advance of any savages intending to attack. But at night we should retire to a more defensible position.”
“Long trek …” Harper mumbled dubiously.
“I know. Can’t help it.” After the day’s march, Major Levine was beginning to get a feel for the scale of the aerial photographs and could judge distances more easily. They still were a long way away from their goal, the mountains having forced a circuitous route on them. All day long they’d actually been moving away from the river, and they would continue to do so for a while yet before they could turn north towards the basin.
“How long?” Daniel asked suddenly.
“Oh, about fifteen klicks, maybe -”
“No, I mean how many days in all?”
“To the rim of that basin or whatever it is?” Levine blew up his cheeks and let the air escape with a little pop. “Four days, possibly five … and then we’ve got to find a way down, and then we’ve got to find the Colonel …”
Daniel groaned, and an uncomfortable silence settled over all of them.
There was a small, hard lump in the
mattress, and it had begun to dig a large hole in his back. Jack took this to
be a sign that it was high time to wake up, get his act together and try to
find his team. He had no clue if Teal’c and Levine had made it out of there
alive. From what he remembered, he wouldn’t have given two cents for Levine …
Okay, here goes. Grandmother wasn’t around, so she couldn’t give him the evil eye, and Malinne … Carter! … had gone somewhere or other to do something or other. Jack gingerly levered himself to a sitting position, tentatively put his feet on the floor and realised three things. The room was doing approximately 90 RPM, he was butt-naked, and Carter had just come back in. Sweet.
“What are you doing?!”
Her patented Excuse me, Colonel, are you cracked? tone. Yeah, he’d figured she’d love the idea. He steadied himself against the headboard to prevent the room from whisking him along into orbit. “What’s it look like, Carter? Where are my clothes?”
“My name is Malinne … Your clothes were ruined. I took them off.”
“And anyway, you mustn’t get up yet”, she continued. “You’re not well.”
“I’m fine. You’ve done a great job, Grandmother’s done a great job, and I’ll go nuts if I stay in bed any longer.”
“So what’s keeping you?” She’d identified the problem and started giggling.
Yep. Definitely Carter, whether she knew it or not. Jack felt himself blushing and gathered yet more of the cover over himself. “Uh … clothes would be really, really … helpful. Please …?”
“I’ll see what I can find. In the meantime, drink this.” She handed him a cup.
“Aw … More tea? Come on, I told you I’m -”
“No tea, no clothes!” With that she ran off.
Jack would have killed for a potted plant within reach. There was none, and even if there were, she’d probably suss it if he poured away the tea. Scrunching up his face, he downed the vile concoction as quickly as he could. He was still fine-tuning a spectacular grimace when she returned, brandishing a coarse linen shirt, buckskin pants, and some undergarments. His eyes widened. Which one of the Munchkins did she think he was?
“Stole them from Lonna …” She grinned and, with an appraising glance, added, “They’re probably gonna be a bit short …”
“Ya think? … Who’s Lonna?”
“My mate. I don’t like him”, she stated matter-of-factly, as though that explained it.
“That’s good to know …” The relief was short-lived when he realised that her not liking the guy didn’t necessarily mean ... Don’t ask, Jack! None of your business. “Uhm … Carter? … Would you mind leaving or turning around or something?”
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Jack.” Although you’d rather play nice with Maybourne than get caught calling me ‘Jack’ … But he couldn’t very well say ‘sir’, could he? Oh boy … This would make for one hell of an entertaining report. He’d so enjoy filling the General in on the details … “Carter? … Please?”
Shrugging, she turned. “Why do you call me that?” she finally asked the wall opposite. “Why do you call me Carter?”
“Because it’s your name”, Jack replied, halfway into one trouser leg. “Your name’s Sam Carter.” He finished dressing, vaguely grateful that she’d decided against a game of No, it isn’t/Yes, it is. Pushing himself off the edge of the bed, he stood. The room was gaining take-off velocity. “Whoa …”
She spun around and grabbed his arm to stop him from falling. “Are you okay?”
“I will be … Just give me a minute here …”
When she felt him steady, she let go and took a step back to look at him. The corners of her mouth started twitching helplessly.
“What?!” Jack stared down at himself. The trouser legs ended four inches below his knees and the sleeves of the shirt weren’t much better. “Cute, Carter”, he groused. “Really cute. I look like something out of Little House on the Prairie on its way to Sunday school …”
A surge of giggles told him that she’d understood the reference. She must have noticed it, too, because her laughter ceased abruptly, and there was bewilderment and fear in her eyes. “My name is Malinne”, she said with quiet emphasis. “I am clan.”
“Clan …? What does that mean?”
“I belong here.”
“She doesn’t”, came a spiteful voice from the door. “Malinne is an Outlander, and I see she’s bringing other Outlanders.” The speaker was a tall, middle-aged woman. Long dark hair shot through with silver, she was soberly, almost puritanically dressed in a brown skirt and a leather vest that revealed thin, stringily muscled arms. The look on her face suggested that she’d just taken a hearty bite out of an unripe lime.
Didn’t anybody ever knock around here? Carter had moved in front of him, and Jack could sense tension radiating from her, saw it in the squared shoulders and stiff neck. To say she distrusted her visitor would be putting it mildly.
“You’re not wanted here, Famekke!” she snapped. “This is my home, I do belong here, and I will stay, whether you like it or not. So will he!”
Oh he will, will he? Thanks for letting him know. He was planning on going home, actually …
“No need to be rude, Malinne. I just came here to give you a friendly warning. Don’t grow too fond of him. There will be a fight.” The intruder smiled, the lemony expression sweetened by self-righteous glee.
“Fight?! What fight? Carter?!”
“Teach him to keep his place, Malinne!” the woman remarked casually.” If you don’t, one of us will, and we might just be a little more … persuasive.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, ma’am! Just who -”
“Jack, be quiet. Please!” Reaching behind her, Carter had clasped his wrist, her unexpected touch effectively interrupting a harangue. “What fight, Famekke?” she asked. “Why should there be a fight? What is caught on Guard belongs to the rider. He is mine. Mine.”
“So Shamille hasn’t told you.” The mystery guest broke into an ugly hoot. “My, but the old hag is losing her touch. She should have taught her Outlander better ... You can keep your kol’raq hide, Malinne, never fear. But the law doesn’t apply to such as him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ask Shamille!” Still chortling, the woman left.
Jack pulled his hand from Carter’s grip. “Who the hell was that?!”
“You don’t need to know!”
He stared at her in shock. “Major, do you have any idea …” Dumb question. Of course she hadn’t. And what was he going to do, anyway? Bring her up on charges for insubordination? Not likely.
Later in the evening Malinne loitered outside the hut, waiting for Shamille. The setting sun hunkered on the rim of the Barrier Wall across the river in a blazing turmoil of reds and oranges, but for once the spectacle failed to delight Malinne. Through the window she could see Jack pacing restlessly, picking up utensils from shelves, playing with them, putting them back, finding some other thing to toy with, putting that back, picking up the first one again. Like an impatient, sulking child.
Malinne sighed. She’d lectured him on how not to interrupt while women were talking, and he’d shot her an outraged, incredulous look and started arguing with her. That man was as stubborn as an old mat’naq. He wouldn’t accept that, to all intents and purposes, he was a prisoner of the clan, and he hadn’t believed her when she explained that he couldn’t leave, and that escape was tantamount to suicide. By the goddess, he’d never even get as far as the border markers if he tried. Not alive, at any rate … She’d have to teach him caution. Shamille had been right. He was trouble, and he’d get himself hurt if Malinne didn’t look out for him. He’d also pressed her about Famekke and about the fight, wouldn’t let it rest. She knew as much as he did, and she was too worried to speculate. Famekke had relished this far too much, and it had triggered a vague fear Malinne didn’t want to acknowledge. It came on top of the fears and uncertainties Jack had provoked by his very presence, by the disjointed, incomprehensible snatches of memory he stirred, by his refusal to call her by her name.
At last, Shamille came hobbling down the path, returning from her evening stroll. Obviously she’d guessed why Malinne was waiting for her, because she pretended not to have seen her granddaughter and steered towards a trail that led behind the stables. Malinne ran after her and easily caught up with the old woman.
“Grandmother! Famekke came to see me.”
“She did, did she?” Shamille was hedging.
“Don’t act as though you didn’t know! Famekke said there would have to be a fight.”
“Famekke is right.”
“But how can she be?” Malinne angrily stomped her foot. “You told me yourself. What is caught on Guard belongs -”
“To the rider. I know the law!” The matriarch’s own temper began flaring, and she underlined her words by repeatedly stabbing a crooked finger into Malinne’s chest. “What makes you think I told you everything, eh?! What makes you think you know better than I do?! This is different!!”
“How is it different, Grandmother? And why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because there was no need. No man from outside the Barrier has been brought into the clan in living memory.”
“So when were you going to tell me?! … Will I be entitled to fight?”
“You are required to fight, child ...” Shamille studied the handle of her cane as though it were the single most fascinating object she’d ever clapped eyes on in her long and eventful life.
“Good!” In her anger, Malinne overlooked the old woman’s uncharacteristic furtiveness. “Who has come forward? Tell me, Grandmother!! Whom do I have to fight?! Famekke? I’ll put her in her place once and for all!”
“Watch your mouth, youngling!! This is a clan elder you’re speaking of! And you will not be fighting her. You will not be fighting any of the women.” She finally met Malinne’s eyes. “You will be fighting him.”
“You heard me, child!”
“I won’t. I won’t fight him!”
“You have to!” Shamille’s voice lowered to an urgent hiss. “If you decline, I won’t be able to protect you. You’ll both be taken beyond the Barrier, and you know what that means!”
“Sit down, child.” The matriarch lowered herself onto a flat rock by the path and motioned Malinne to sit next to her. “Hundreds of seasons ago, before the Ice came, the Outlanders were not what they are now. They were a great people. They had great and powerful cities, and the clans would cross the Barrier to wage war on them. In those times, many of our mates were Outlanders. If a woman vanquished an Outlander in battle and deemed that he had fought well enough to be a worthy mate, she was within her rights to spare his life and bring him home into the clan. He would be hers. With you it was different. You didn’t do battle with your foundling, you dragged him out of the river. But we cannot ignore the law. The fight is necessary to decide whether he will be a good mate, and whether he deserves the protection of the clan. If he fails to convince us …” Shamille shrugged, but her meaning was obvious. He’d die.
“Who decides? Famekke?” spat Malinne. “Because if that’s the case, we won’t need to fight.”
“All the women decide. Because it concerns all of them. And I told you to watch your mouth.”
“What if he wins?”
“Then he is free to do as he pleases. He can stay or leave. If he chooses to leave, he can take you with him.”
“I don’t think he’ll fight me, Grandmother.”
Shamille looked at her sharply. “You’d better persuade him then. If he wants to live, he’ll have to fight you.”
“Two suns from now.”
“But he is ill!”
“He’s well enough, child, and you know it. Go back. Tell him.” She shoved Malinne to her feet and waved her off.
Malinne trotted home, desperately trying to think of a way around this. There was none. They either fought or they died. It was as simple as that and as ugly as that, because either one of them could still get killed. In the end, she made up her mind to tell him about the fight, but not about his opponent. A hazy, incongruous shard of memory warned her that he’d be perfectly capable of doing something very foolish if he knew in advance.
When she got back to the hut she found him conducting experiments with a bulging leather pouch he’d found on a shelf. He was flipping it upside down, shaking it, squeezing it, all with an air of intense concentration. Malinne watched him, surprised by this glimpse of playful curiosity and innocence, suddenly understanding something she’d known without knowing ever since Shamille had spoken to her. She would let him win, even if it meant losing him, because she couldn’t hurt him, and she certainly couldn’t take his freedom from him. Put this man in a cage, and his soul would die … She gasped involuntarily, and he threw her a quick sidelong glance.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Leave it. Put it down. I need to talk to you.”
Naturally, he did nothing of the sort. Instead he started poking at the seal, still squeezing the pouch, until suddenly the seal gave and a spattering of fermented sil’peq milk exploded into his face. There was moment’s stunned silence, then they both burst into laughter.
Eventually, he dabbed a splotch from his forehead, stuck it under her nose and said, “So ... What is it?”
“Yoghurt.” Without a thought she licked it off his finger, tasted it. “You spoilt it. It wasn’t quite ready, yet. But it’ll do …” Hesitantly, she reached up, gathered a bit from his cheek and gently brushed it across his lips. “Try it …”
He kissed her fingertips in a slow, gossamer caress that betrayed such yearning it left her breathless. Until a rush of anguish twisted his face, and he grabbed her wrist, pulled away her hand. “Sam, for the love of God, don’t … please, don’t …”
“I am Malinne.”
“No, you’re not!” His voice cracked with tension. “You’re Major Samantha Carter, and this …” He’d let go of her wrist and fled to the hearth, crouched by the bucket, angrily sloshing water into his face.
“I don’t understand.”
Rocking back on his heels, he leaned against the wall. “I know you don’t. You can’t understand, because you don’t remember. You and I … it’s … wrong … It’s wrong”, he murmured wearily, rubbing his eyes. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
During the second night they lost Sergeant Jenkins and SG-12’s Lieutenant Joanie Severs. Nobody could say with any kind of certainty how or when exactly it had happened. The two team members simply were missing in the morning. After a short-lived boost on the previous day, when they’d accomplished the long, exhausting trek across the snowfield without incident, morale dropped to a new low. Major Levine knew better than to start an inquisition. Besides, there was no question of any of the sentries having trundled off for a snooze while noone was looking, even if Dr Jackson seemed to have convinced himself that he was solely responsible for the disaster and all but volunteered to lay his head on the block. Levine was beginning to wonder how Colonel O’Neill had ever managed to deal with this apparent excess of caring. Either the man was inured to the point of ossification, in which case it remained a mystery how he’d earned the unswerving loyalty of someone like Teal’c, or he cared more than the lot of them put together. There was a lesson to be learnt here, but Major Josh Levine hadn’t quite decided yet whether it told him that he was better off staying detached, or whether it was an encouragement to take a leaf out of O’Neill’s book. He shook his head, postponing these musings and their outcome to a later, more appropriate date.
“Snap out of it, Daniel”, Levine said more gently than he had intended. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault, and it certainly wasn’t yours.”
“I concur with MajorLevine”, declared Teal’c. “These people proceed with extreme stealth and dexterity. At the time of their initial attack I was unable to perceive their approach until it was too late.”
“But surely -”
“But nothing, Dr Jackson. If anyone’s to blame, it’s me because I should have been more aware of the little detail Teal’c just mentioned and beefed up the watches.”
Major Harper and two of his men returned to the group. They’d been following the trail the raiders and their victims had left. “We lost them a little further up”, said Harper. “They crossed into a field of boulders … No tracks from there on out.”
“Damn!” Levine cursed feelingly. “I’m sorry about Severs, Major. Best we can do is go on spec, see if we can pick up their trail somehow. Okay, people!” he shouted. “Major Harper and his two guys are on point. Teal’c, you’re with me, we’re bringing up the rear. The rest of you, stay between us and, for God’s sake, stay together. Move out!”
Two hours later they found Jenkins and Severs. They were in the same state as all the other bodies, with one exception: Lieutenant Joanie Severs was still alive. The freezing temperatures had helped to reduce the bleeding, else she would have died hours ago. Even so, it only was a matter of time. There was nothing they could do to help, apart from administering morphine. Major Harper, her CO, tried to make her as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. As he examined her, she woke up long enough to whisper something. They watched Harper turn pale, but nobody asked any questions while he took the dying woman in his arms and held her. Within minutes it was over. Harper laid out her body in the snow, then he rose and wordlessly disappeared behind a boulder. Seconds later they heard retching noises, and Levine went after him.
Shakily, Daniel suggested, “Maybe we should bury them …”
The others nodded, and fanned out to collect small rocks to build mounds over the corpses. Daniel began arranging the stones around and over the bodies, trying hard to ignore the deep, ragged wounds that disfigured them and failing. Suddenly he realised something that made his blood run cold. Now he knew what had prompted Major Harper’s reaction.
“Teal’c!” he shouted, his voice strangled. He felt as sick as Harper must have. Or perhaps for Harper it had been even worse, hearing it from Joanie Severs herself. Daniel had talked to the young Lieutenant only a few times, but he’d liked her gumption, her good humour, her optimism. What had been done to her and the others was unspeakable. And the thought that the same thing almost certainly had happened to Sam and, possibly, to Jack as well was enough to drive him out of his mind. Mercifully, Teal’c interrupted the ghoulish images that were sashaying through his head in a valse macabre.
“How can I be of assistance, DanielJackson?”
“Teal’c, have a look at this”, Daniel croaked, pointing to where a chunk of flesh was missing from Jenkins’ side.
Teal’c’s left eyebrow climbed a notch. “I do not understand, DanielJackson.”
“Those weren’t made by animals. The bite marks are all wrong. Wrong size, for starters, too rounded, and the teeth aren’t right. Not pointed enough. The bite marks are human, Teal’c.” Dr Jackson fought down a wave of nausea, which, according to the anthropologist in him, he shouldn’t be experiencing since it merely reflected a Western taboo. A vast number of tribal cultures, past and present, were cannibalistic, and he’d read all about it. Which, of course, was somewhat different from actually seeing the aftermath of a feeding frenzy and having known the people who’d ended up as dinner. “Those cavemen? They’re cannibals.”
Daniel felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up. Levine had returned. The Major was white as a sheet.
“God help us”, he whispered. “Harper says that, from what Joanie told him, they were eaten alive. He wants to keep it from everybody. He’s afraid it’ll cause a panic. I’m not so sure …”
Teal’c gazed at him. “Is it permitted, MajorLevine?”
“Sure, Teal’c.” Levine waved him on tiredly.
“I believe it would be best to inform your people and allow them to arrive at their own conclusions. The Tau’ri have a saying, do they not? Forewarned is forearmed?”
“For what it’s worth, Major, I think Teal’c’s right”, Daniel added. “We’ve got to let them know.”
“Yeah ...” Josh Levine nodded at them, smiling weakly. “Listen up, people!” He watched Harper close his eyes and shake his head in tight-lipped resignation, waited until everybody had gathered round. Then he told them how Jenkins and Joanie Severs and all the others had died. Finally, he said, “You know the risks involved now. I’m not going to order anybody to continue with this mission. Anyone willing to go on, please -”
Levine was cut off by nine determined people, including Major Harper, taking the time-honoured step forward.
“You know how it is, sir …” muttered Sergeant Wilson, his face dark. Jenkins had been his best friend. “Colonels to rescue, scores to settle, caveman-ass to kick …”
“Right …” said a stunned Major Levine. “Let’s bury them. And then we’ll move out!”
If it had been possible he would have tried to comfort her. But short of throwing that mate of hers out of bed, which wasn’t an option given the circumstances, he couldn’t even get near her. She’d lain huddled against the wall, with Lonna snoring, in what Jack could have sworn was triumph, on the outside of the bed.
It had been his fault. Proud of yourself, Jack? ... He’d spent the evening trying to stay on the other side of the room from her, which hadn’t exactly dispelled the mutual discomfort. She’d told him about the fight, he’d refused, they’d argued again … God, how come Carter felt compelled to argue with him in any incarnation? Then again, she’d been known to argue with herself, too … By the time he’d finally been ready to concede that he was a prisoner, that he hardly had a choice but to fight, and that winning was his only ticket out of here, it was very late.
“I’ll sleep on the pallet by the hearth”, he’d announced, cringing when he saw the jolt of rejection in her eyes. She’d left without a word, only to return a little later with what looked like a shorter, hairier, uglier version of Samuels in her wake. The mate. Lonna. Jack had grasped then what form precisely the object lesson was going to take. He’d curled up on his pallet, facing the wall, helpless, racked with regret and guilt and, yes, pathetic jealousy, stopping his ears, still hearing Lonna’s grunts and later Carter’s quiet sobs.
In the morning she hadn’t so much as looked at him. After she’d sent Lonna off on some errand, Jack had tried to talk to her, to explain. She’d taken a swipe at him, missing deliberately, and told him to keep his mouth shut. She was going out, she’d said, and he wasn’t to set foot outside the hut. And so he’d sat there in totally atypical submissiveness, desperately searching for a way to make this right again. Which was how Grandmother found him two hours or so later.
“Where’s that kol’raq?!” she demanded peremptorily.
“Excuse me?” he said.
“That sorry excuse for a man, that Lonna?!”
“Car- … Malinne sent him out earlier. He hasn’t been back here …”
“Did they mate last night?”
“Are you deaf?!” She actually cuffed him.
“Ow!” You’re not supposed to hit old ladies, Jack, even if they’re shamelessly prying and hit you first!
“That’ll teach you to answer the first time. Did they mate last night?”
“Yes.” Jack discovered that the beaten dirt floor was far more interesting than he’d given it credit for.
The old woman sat down at the table. “Why did you let it happen, boy? Why didn’t you stop it, eh?”
“I had no right to stop it.” The tabletop was pretty enthralling, too.
“Maybe not. But Lonna had no right either. He broke clan law. Malinne had sent him back to live with the Unmated and invited a fight for him after she’d found you. He had no right to come here.”
“She fetched him!”
“Oh …” She stared at him curiously. At long last, she stated, “You refused her. Was that it?”
Surprise made him look up. The old baggage was too sharp by half. “How did you know?”
She shrugged. “It had to be that. Malinne never mated with Lonna. She doesn’t like him, never did. So she had to be trying to hurt you. And now you’re both hurting, and what’s the good in that, I ask you? Why did you refuse her?”
Okay, that’s it, Jack! Name, rank, serial num- … “Ouch!!” If she did that one more time, he would hit back.
“Why did you refuse her?” she repeated.
“Because, where she and I come from, I’d be breaking … clan law if I didn’t.”
“You’re not there anymore. She needs you, you need her. Some laws should be broken.”
“Not this one … What’s your name?”
“Shamille. Why do you ask?”
“So I know what to call you.”
“You might as well continue calling me ‘Grandmother’, boy”, she said with a wicked chuckle. “I like you.”
Was there anything this woman didn’t know? “Okay … Grandmother ...” He smiled faintly and decided to steer the conversation into less embarrassing and more constructive waters. “How did you find … Malinne? What happened?”
“She came here much the same way as you, nearly four moons ago now. She was in a boat, though, so I didn’t have to thaw her out for days. But her head injury was worse than yours … It’s what the Outlanders do. They stun their prey, and then … Anyway, you’ve both been very lucky. Only, when she finally woke up, she didn’t know who she was or where she’d come from. She never remembered. So I gave her a name and took care of her.”
Jack gently put his hand over Shamille’s arthritic claw. “Thank you.”
“If you want to thank me, go talk to her.”
“She told me to stay here.”
The old woman burst out laughing. “Who do you think you’re fooling, boy? You don’t strike me as one who meekly does as he’s told! Go find her. If she asks, say I sent you.”
Malinne had ridden her sir’loq into a lather, gone for a swim, and come back to the clearing the women used for archery practice. Her aim was off by a mile, and one arrow after the other barely grazed her target, a bulbous nub of wild maniak’ka that dangled from a tree at the edge of the glade. Funny how physical exertion could make you tremble … And when exactly will you stop lying to yourself, Malinne or whatever your name is? She’d wanted to hurt him back, and by the goddess, she’d succeeded. Happy now? Oh yes, she was trembling for joy.
She couldn’t remember further back than the last four moons, not very clearly at any rate, but she was fairly certain that taking Lonna to her bed last night had to have been one of the grossest stupidities she’d ever committed in her life. It had been childish, worse than that, it had been cruel. Jack hadn’t noticed, but she’d watched him, if only so as not to have to look at the sweat-beaded face of Lonna over her, revelling in unexpectedly having got what he wanted. She’d watched that figure by the hearth, turned to the wall, hands clasped over his head, trying to shut out what she was doing to him. She’d watched him until she couldn’t bear it any longer, and even staring at Lonna’s contorted visage seemed easier somehow.
Another arrow missed ... She’d cried herself to sleep. Then, in the morning, instead of being angry, as she’d expected him to be, Jack had tried to apologise to her. For what? She’d been too ashamed of herself to meet his eyes, so she’d forbidden him to speak, and in the end she’d fled the hut. Just so she could add cowardice to her list of achievements.
Oh, we’re making progress! Her shot had actually clipped the nub and set it swinging. Malinne nocked the next arrow and took aim, only to see another whiz past her and spear the maniak’ka fruit off the tree. It hit the ground with a heavy thwack, and she whipped around. He was standing a dozen yards away from her, slowly lowering her spare bow.
“Don’t do that!” she shouted, rushing up to him, furiously snatching the bow from his hands.
He cringed. “You don’t have to be afraid … I wouldn’t harm you … not again …”
“I know that ...” Malinne looked at him in puzzlement, confused by the raw self-hatred in his voice, and put a shy, comforting hand on his arm. “You haven’t been listening very well, have you? Men aren’t supposed to use these. If anyone had seen you, you’d be punished. I don’t want to see you hurt …” She broke off, choking on the irony of what she’d just said.
“Oh …” Shoulders slumping in relief, fingers twitching uncertainly now that they had nothing to fiddle with, he mumbled, “Look, Malinne …”
There was something almost frightening about this keen vulnerability, and she realised with a start how very easily she could break him, if she hadn’t already. Mind and heart and soul. “I thought you said my name was Carter ...”
It brought a minute, lopsided smile. “Yeah … Carter, I’m sorry … sorry about last night. I shouldn’t have -”
“No! … You did nothing wrong. I knew it wasn’t … allowed. I’ve known all along and decided to ignore it. But you wouldn’t let me …” Again she trailed off.
“It’s okay …”
“So am I …” He let out a breath he seemed to have been holding forever, and a sudden flicker of impishness began dancing in his eyes. “Just tell me one thing …”
“What’s he got that I don’t?”
Laughing, he’d skipped from her reach, and Malinne had chased him all the way across the clearing, through a narrow stretch of woodland down to the river and into the water, where she’d finally caught up with him. He’d pretended to beg off, only to grab her and dunk her, and she’d yanked his feet out from under him, turning the tables and not letting him back on shore until they were both shivering. It seemed to have washed away any lingering regrets about the night before. Now they were sitting on a rock, drying off in the afternoon heat.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“Yeah …” He gave a wry shrug. “Didn’t feel like breakfast ...”
“Wait here. I’ll come back.” Malinne ran off into the forest.
She’d discovered the spot a short time after she’d arrived in the village and, with a transient pang of guilt, had kept it to herself. She knew full well how much Lissele liked dil’ka berries. After all, Lissele had introduced her to them. But it’d had little to do with not wanting to share and everything with not wanting to lose her refuge. She came here when the women’s strange rules and laws became to oppressive, when she needed to escape from Lonna’s skulking presence, when she sought respite from Famekke’s bigotry. The place was hers, and she wasn’t ready to allow anyone else into it. Not Lissele, not her Grandmother, not even Jack. The dil’ka bush she’d found here was huge and ancient, bristling with thorns and laden with fruit. Malinne gathered the hem of her shirt and filled the makeshift pouch with berries. At first glance they looked poisonous, a sickly purple sphere the size of a quail’s egg, but you only had to peel off the leathery skin to get to the sweet, juicy flesh inside.
Little later she was back by the river. “Here. Breakfast”, she announced, kneeling in the sand.
Jack eyed the off-putting little globes doubtfully and picked up one of them, rolling it between thumb and index-finger. “You eat those? Just how sick do they make you?” he enquired and was about to pop it into his mouth, clearly against his better judgment.
“No! Not like that! … Here!” Malinne handed him a berry she’d peeled. “I promise they won’t make you sick. Not unless you eat a lot. They’re almost like lychees.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Lychees, eh?”
“Lychees. I remember lychees…” She looked at him in surprise. It was true. She did remember, not that she had any idea why or how. Just as she remembered him, in an indistinct, disjointed way. “I really do know you, don’t I?” she murmured at last.
“A little.” It sounded evasive, and he wasn’t looking at her.
Malinne derived the distinct impression that she knew him better than just a little, but that any discussion about it would land them both in hot water. She changed the subject. “These are small, really. You should see the ones that grow across the river, near the Fire Spouts. They’re huge.”
“Cracks in the ground that spout fire”, she explained helpfully and with a smug little smirk. “Fire and molten rock. There are warm springs as well.”
“Volcanic activity … Is that why it’s so hot down here?” he asked. “Everywhere else is buried under ice …”
“It’s probably part of it. I’m not really sure, but I think it has to do with the Barrier Wall as well.” Malinne pointed at the inhospitable range of rock and ice that encircled the valley. “I think somehow it traps sunlight … haven’t quite discovered how it works yet …”
“You mean, like a parabolic mirror? Focussing refracted light at the centre …?” Jack grinned when she stared at him blankly. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, right?”
The grin broadened.
“Nothing … Just getting my own back”, he stated cryptically and left it at that.
Obviously, and for some reason she couldn’t recall, he was inordinately pleased with himself. Malinne decided that another change of topic was in order. “Were there others with you?” As soon as the question was out, she wished she hadn’t asked. His smile died.
“Yeah”, he said softly. “We were looking for you when we came under attack …”
“If you mean a swarm of fur-clad brutes with clubs, yes, Outlanders.”
“We were surrounded. I saw Levine go down, turned to help him, and ran smack into a blow upside the head. Idiotic, really … Should have known better. I lost my footing and fell into the river. Idiotic … I don’t even know if the others are still alive!”
This she remembered clearly. His staggering talent to blame himself for things that couldn’t conceivably be his fault. “There was nothing you could have done. You and your friends never stood a chance. Not against the Outlanders in their own territory …”
“You said if I win that fight tomorrow, I’m free to leave?”
“Yes …?” Suddenly she understood. “Don’t even think of it! You wouldn’t last a day! You don’t know what the Outlanders are …”
He shook his head. “I’ve got to find my team.”
Malinne could have screamed. One little sentence had changed everything. She couldn’t allow him to go through with this, and there was only one way to stop him. He had to lose the fight. It would lose him his freedom, it would subject him to the judgment of the women, it might mean his death, but it still was better than letting him be killed by the Outlanders. Not that. Anything but that ...
After their horrific discovery on the previous day, they’d kept walking doggedly, if only to escape from the images that were haunting everyone. Any hopes of finding Major Carter or Colonel O’Neill in a state other than the one they’d all seen once too often by now had been more or less abandoned. But there still was a tacit agreement that they at least had to make it to the rim of the basin to see what lay beyond. According to Major Levine they would reach their goal by nightfall.
To add insult to injury, the weather had turned bad, and it began snowing heavily, reducing visibility to less than fifty yards. Single-file they were crawling through cold white silence, halfway up the eastern flank of a 10,000 foot mountain. Teal’c, who’d been on point with Sergeant Peters, fell back to let Levine catch up with him.
“Hi Teal’c. What’s on your mind?”
“MajorLevine. Perhaps it would be more beneficial if I took rear guard. I also recommend that everybody be equipped with zat’nikatels. The natives seem to be apprehensive of those.”
“You’re worried they’ll creep up on us?”
“Indeed. Present weather conditions would appear to be most suited to their tactics.”
“Okay.” Levine called a halt and issued new instructions. Finally, he said, “Remember, if we run into trouble, don’t bother with your sidearms or MPs. Use the zats and don’t be shy, either. Just make those guys go poof. Teal’c here thinks they get kinda freaked out by their pals disappearing into thin air. From what I recall he saved my butt that way, and that’s good enough for me. Move out, stay together, and keep your heads up!”
“Take Peters and check if everybody’s present and correct. Anyone injured reports to Harper or me. Hurry up. We need to clear out of here, in case they decide to come back for more and bring their big brothers along.”
This time they’d lost noone, and injuries were confined to an assortment of cuts and bruises from roughly swung clubs, and one broken wrist, which belonged to Daniel. Sergeant Peters had found him kneeling in a snowdrift, an interesting shade of green around the gills and cradling his arm. Next to him lay one of the attackers, stunned by a single zat-blast. Peters tied up the caveman and then shooed Dr Jackson downhill to where Major Levine had set up a makeshift dispensary. Levine’s medical training had kicked in once he’d seen the bodies of the scientists and of SG-9. When SG-6 returned to P9R 954, he’d packed a full paramedic kit, complete with saline bags and IV gear, just in case. It didn’t look like it would be used on this occasion, but as far as Josh Levine was concerned, he’d rather bring it in vain than need it and not have it.
“I’m fine, stop fussing! It’s just a sprain!” muttered Daniel, trying to shake off the solicitous Sergeant Peters.
“How about letting me be the judge of that, Doc?” Levine started his examination, and between Dr Jackson’s yelps and the way bones shifted under his fingers, he arrived at the correct diagnosis quickly enough. “Sprain, eh? Just as well that you’re a doctor of archaeology, Doctor … I’m gonna put a splint on this and dose you up with painkillers. We gotta keep you mobile. What happened?”
“Uh … The guy jumped me, I guess … He was waving a club”, Daniel ground out between gritted teeth. “As they do … Figured I’d better try not to get my head bashed in …”
Levine grinned. “Slick move … Okay, this’ll hurt …”
“Told you it’d hurt …”
“What’ll you do with the captive?”
“Leave him here.” The Major shrugged. “To tell you the truth, I couldn’t care less about what happens to the guy …”
“You can’t mean that!” Daniel stared at him. “He’ll die! There’s no way they’ll come back for him, they’re scared out of their minds … He’ll freeze to death. Oh come on! He’s barely more than a kid!”
“A kid who probably had Severs and Jenkins for breakfast!” spat Levine, fastening the bandage around the splint slightly more vigorously than he absolutely had to. “I’m doing him a favour by letting him freeze to death. If I really held a grudge, I’d turn Major Harper and Sergeant Wilson loose on your juvenile cannibal …”
“You can’t blame him for that. It’s part of their culture! It’s like condemning one of us for having cornflakes for breakfast. I’d like to talk to him. Find out more about them -”
“What do you hope to learn? Recipes? …
Look, let me ask you something,
“Uhm … Jack would listen to my arguments, and then he … uh … would agree with me.” At least Daniel had the decency not to be surprised when his audacious claim was greeted by a roar of mirth from Levine.
“Right”, the Major gasped eventually. “So
O’Neill’s got the patience of a Buddhist monk but manages to hide it really
well … Does it say ‘Sucker’ on my forehead,
“Okay, he’d probably argue with me for half an hour, then he’d yell at me, and then he’d give in under protest. And if anything went wrong, which it probably would, just to prove Jack right, he’d ask Sam to remind him to harm me severely …” a slightly embarrassed Dr Jackson admitted.
“Sounds marginally more credible …” Levine snorted, stuck the last bit of tape on the bandage, and handed Daniel two pills. “Here, take those! They’ll keep you from wanting to holler in time with every step. And use the sling! … Tell you what, Doctor. We’ll take him along for a while, so you can try and do your communication thing. Maybe he knows something that’s of use to us … First sign of trouble, though, I’ll dump him in the nearest snowdrift. Deal?”
“Deal”, nodded Daniel. “Thanks, Major.”
After Dr Jackson’s wrist was taken care of, they moved on, Daniel now under the stoic and downright implacable care of Teal’c, who steadfastly denied trying to emulate the legendary social charms of Miss Florence Nightingale. Sergeant Peters trotted along behind them, keeping a wary eye on the captive. In the end, the ambush had boosted morale. When Levine’s team had first seen the grisly evidence of the cavemen’s handiwork, virtually everybody, with the possible exception of Teal’c, had secretly imbued the natives with almost mythical qualities, creating some kind of superhuman adversary in their minds. Man-eaters who moved and attacked like phantoms seemed to belong into the realm of Marvel™ comic books. But here the nightmare creatures had come alive, triggering an atavistic terror. This latest assault and the prisoner Daniel had taken shattered that illusion. Albeit clever, the enemy wasn’t invincible, and close up and with his hands tied behind him, he looked practically harmless.
As Major Levine had predicted, they reached the rim of the basin by late afternoon. The snowfall had ceased in the course of the day, and the clouds were breaking. Daniel, Teal’c, Levine, and all the others stood at the edge of a vertical rock face and stared down into the lush valley that spread 1,500 feet below.
“Oh shit …” said Daniel.
“Second that”, Levine muttered. “Damned if I know how to get us down there …”
The village square around the arena was packed, despite the pouring rain. Since the early morning a carnival atmosphere had set in, and it was becoming more and more grotesque. Among the milling, jostling crowd were travellers from far-flung clans and even some clan-less rovers, outlaws from across the river. You could pick them out easily. They were dressed all in black, their heads were shaved, and the villagers gave them a wide, suspicious berth. Clan-people and rovers mixing peacefully was unheard of, but none of them had ever had a chance to witness a fight like this, and curiosity and excitement had forged a precarious truce everyone abided by. Children were running riot in the lanes, acting out mock-fights with wooden knives; peddlers sold strips of dried sil’peq meat and palm wine in mugs fashioned from leaves; jugglers, beggars, and thieves vied for people’s attention.
Malinne stood at the edge of the arena, nervous, sickened by it all. One of those increasingly frequent flashes of recollection told her that Jack would loathe being the prize exhibit in this menagerie. A group of elders, among them Famekke, had come to the hut at dawn and taken him away to prepare. She’d worried that they’d reveal who his opponent was, until she found out that noone was allowed to talk to him before the fight. He wouldn’t know until it was too late. Rainwater was dribbling into her eyes, and she blinked it away, feeling for her hunting knife. She’d toyed with the idea of using the knife he’d had on him when she found him in the river, half believing the women’s superstition that a well-kept knife would never harm its owner. In the end she’d decided otherwise, mostly because it was shorter, and against his longer reach she needed any advantage she could get. Malinne groaned softly. How could she be thinking like this? Famekke’s warning, although delivered in ill spirit, had been apposite. She’d grown too fond of him. Too fond to let him win. Which was why she had to think like this.
A shrill, ululating cry went up on the other side of the square, and the sea of rapaciously expectant faces parted. It was time. Malinne watched as Jack was ushered into the arena by Famekke and her cronies. They’d painted tattoos on his face, and for a brief irrational moment Malinne’s sense of foreboding assumed an intensity that made her heart stop. The archaic symbols that trailed from his brow and down to his jaw like a tiny amethyst vine were familiar. She’d seen them on the weather-worn, ancient monoliths deep in the forest, in the dark old place of hecatomb only the orthodox like Famekke visited anymore. A fresh bruise across his cheekbone, evidence of Famekke’s brand of ‘persuasion’, betrayed that he must have objected to being marked for sacrifice. There was a strange gaucheness to the way he moved, and Malinne knew she’d been right. He detested it. If there’d been a hole anywhere, he’d have hidden.
Lissele appeared by her side, dressed in her best attire like everyone else, the finishing touch to the finery being a lavishly embroidered ochre jacket Malinne hadn’t seen on her before. “How do I look?” Lissele noticed the stare, grinned and gave a little twirl. “This is new. I bought it especially for the occasion. Cost me a whole kol’raq skin. Do you like it?”
“It is perfect!” Malinne snapped, gripped by a sudden, savage hatred for the woman, for all these women who behaved as though death was a pageant. “Blood will show up nicely on it. Whose would you prefer? His or mine?”
“Forgive me ...” The childish joy on Lissele’s face withered, and she gently touched Malinne’s shoulder. “Not yours, this much is for certain … Are you ready?”
Malinne shrugged off her friend’s hand, and slowly walked towards the centre of the small muddy round where Jack was waiting, looking almost lost, unsure of what was supposed to happen next. Malinne’s other hunch had been correct, too. As soon as he understood whom he was meant to fight, he froze. If she left him any time to think, it would be over, for both of them.
She dropped into a fighting stance, feinted. Bereft of choice, he parried half-heartedly and retreated a few steps. Malinne kept coming. By the time he’d allowed her to chase him twice around the arena, the onlookers were jeering. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she grasped that they were here for one reason, and one reason only: they wanted to see blood, see a kill. And they were beginning to feel cheated. The mood was about to turn very ugly, and Jack was going to bear the brunt of it, unless he stopped holding out. Malinne came straight at him, ducked under his guard and knocked him flat on his back. Kneeling over him in the ankle-deep mire, she heard the crowd clamouring for her to kill him. And he would let her, too. He lay there, raindrops trickling over his face, eyes closed, motionless, in abeyance.
She grabbed the front of his shirt, shook him. “Damn you! Fight! They’ll kill you if you don’t!”
“I won’t fight you!” he hissed.
“I thought you wanted to win. I thought you had to go and look for your people. So fight!”
Whatever she’d expected, it wasn’t this. With an inarticulate scream he pushed her away, rolled to his knees, groping for the knife he’d dropped. For a long moment he looked at her, indefinable sorrow in his eyes, then he came to his feet and attacked.
It had happened so quickly, his knife had nicked her arm before Malinne had time to parry. He backed off with a gasp, and she knew he was allowing her to rise. He shouldn’t have, he wasn’t playing by the rules, but the crowd had fallen silent now. Warily, she circled him, trying to judge his reactions. Even on the mud-slick ground he was incredibly fast, but somehow she couldn’t shake the suspicion that he still was holding back. He launched into a swift sequence of feints, swipes and parries, which she almost intuitively anticipated at every turn, and all of a sudden she realised that he was leading her through a choreographed fight routine. They’d done this before, and he was relying on her to remember, if not in mind, then in body. He was fighting to win now, and at the same time protecting her the only way he could think of. In her head she mapped out his next moves. If he stuck with the routine, it’d be two more feints, a swipe, another feint, and then he’d thrust rather than swipe, an unexpected tactic in a knife fight, and one that had literally left her disarmed every single time. He probably was counting on it to work this time, too. Well, it wouldn’t. He wouldn’t get that far. She mustn’t let him win.
Two feints. Yes, he was definitely going down that road. Permitting herself a small grin, she parried the swipe, pretended to buy into the next feint, but flung herself forward, pre-empting the thrust she knew would follow. And then she slipped in the mud. Instead of moving into a controlled attack, she found herself hurtling at his knife hand, saw the alarm on his face a fraction of a second before he opened his guard so as not to hurt her, and felt herself collide with him. The moment he went down under her, she knew what she’d done.
“Colonel!?” Among the ecstatic cheers of the spectators, Sam rolled off her CO, sat on her haunches, trembling. The fact that she remembered now was no consolation. Her knife was buried to the hilt in his side. “Colonel?”
“Carter? That … you?”
“Carter … your timing stinks …” He tried to sit up, which resulted in a groan.
Sam clasped his shoulders and gently pushed him back. “For God’s sake, don’t move, sir! And don’t talk …”
The injury looked bad. Very bad. He was going into shock, bleeding profusely, and Sam really didn’t care to think what would happen once that knife came out. How far to the ‘gate? Too far, not that they’d ever make it, anyway … Panicked, she scanned the crowd for Shamille. The only familiar face she spotted belonged to Lissele, who was watching with a mixture of elation and awe. “Lissele! Bring me a cover, a fur, anything! Now!!”
As Lissele ran off, Sam saw Famekke and her entourage coming towards them, followed by a throng of women. Wonderful! Just the kind of support she needed. Instinctively, she put herself in Famekke’s path. “What do you want?”
“Malinne! It seems I misjudged you. I thought you’d dote on your pet too much to give us a good fight.” Famekke smiled benignly. “The goddess has decreed you should finish it. It is a great honour.”
“You’re lying! And even if it were true, it’s not the goddess’s decision to make!”
The smile slipped. “You’re trying to defy me, Outlander?!”
“No. Not trying. I am defying you. You’re a liar! Where is Shamille?”
“The old woman can’t help you. Or him. He belongs to the goddess. Noone can change that. Not Shamille, not a blasphemer like you, Malinne. If you won’t do it, I will! Behold her power!” Suddenly there was a dagger in Famekke’s hands.
In a ghastly, twisted way everything made sense to Sam now. The woman’s hatred of her, the mad ramblings, those damn markings on the Colonel’s face. All along Famekke had been staging her own little fundamentalist coup. A female Ayatollah! Whether or not she actually believed in her own gospel was irrelevant. The motivating force was power, and with a rapt audience waiting to be converted, Famekke needed a little blood sacrifice to underline her point. Well, Sam Carter had news for her. Today’s uprising of the self-righteous was cancelled. Due to rain. She felt the handle of Colonel O’Neill’s knife under her toes and made a show of reluctantly bowing to Famekke. With a sudden, smooth move she dipped even lower, stepped aside and retrieved the weapon.
“Don’t even think of it, Famekke! Lay one finger on him and I’ll kill you!”
It could have worked if Sam hadn’t been hopelessly outnumbered and cut off from anyone who might have been inclined to help. Several of Famekke’s attendants disarmed her and held her down. Powerless, thrashing against clinging, grasping arms and hands, Major Carter watched as Famekke knelt over the Colonel and raised her dagger. The woman began singing, in a low throaty voice, and one by one bystanders picked up the chant, horrid fascination in their faces, bodies swaying from side to side, feet stomping in time, until it spread across the square like ripples spread across a pond when a stone is thrown into the water.
And then a hoarse bellow cut through the throbbing din. Sam looked up to see women snap out of their trance and, from long ingrained habit if nothing else, clear a path for their matriarch. Shamille was furious.
“What do you think you’re doing, Famekke?” the old woman shouted. Her cane struck Famekke’s hand and sent the knife flying, allaying any potential uncertainty as to who was in charge. “You there! Let go of Malinne before I send the lot of you beyond the Barrier! If you wish to be judged by the goddess you can be there!”
Famekke went pale. “I was merely trying to do the goddess’s bidding.”
“You were trying to forestall the decision of the clan for your own ends. The women have decided, and you know it. They have decided according to the law given to us by the goddess, and you know that too. He lives, if he can. Go! There’s no place on the council for the likes of you.”
“You are fools! All of you!” Famekke shrieked, her face distorted with hate. “Don’t you see? Shamille cares more for the Outlanders than she does for you … The Outlanders have to die, or the goddess will punish us all!”
“That’s enough Famekke!” rose a voice from the edge of the arena. Lissele. “If we were to be judged by your actions, anyone would say there’s more honour among Outlanders than there is among us. You heard Shamille. Go!”
Her call was echoed by more and more women. “Go!”
Lissele came running with an armful of furs, in her wake Korrene, who carried a board that would do for a stretcher. Sam took the covers and carefully spread them over the Colonel.
“Grandmother?” She looked up at Shamille.
“Bring him to your hut as quickly as you can. But don’t move him too much. I’ll see what I can do …”
His breath came short and shallow by the time they lifted him onto the bed. Shamille had been expecting them, having brought her whole hamper of mysterious herbs and potions. The old woman looked worried, and Sam’s heart sank ... Later. She’d have all the time in the world to blame herself. Later.
Shamille took Jack’s hand and stroked it lightly. “You’re a good fighter, my boy. Which means you should know better than to drop your guard like that … And she should know better than to change a fight routine without telling her partner!” she added with a stony look at Sam.
“You … knew”, he whispered.
“Boy, I’ve lived too long and fought too much not to notice. You had the others fooled, though, so never fear. Nobody’ll hear it from me. I told you, I like you. Now you’ve saved Malinne’s life, so I suppose I’ve got be grateful to you as well … Let’s take a look at this now. Brace yourself. It will not be comfortable.” She peeled back the furs and winced. “It has to come out slowly, else the bleeding will get worse. Lie still, if you can.”
She removed the blade tug by tiny tug, to avoid further damage. It seemed to take forever, and by the end of it Jack was ghostly white and drenched with sweat. With one quick rip, Shamille tore his shirt, so she could examine the wound. Blood had started welling up again, now that the injury was unobstructed. She took a piece of linen, folded it into a thick pad and pressed it down on the gash. Jack gasped.
“Come here, child!” the matriarch said. “Keep it pressed down. He can’t afford to lose much more blood.”
Sam did as she was told, while Shamille went to scrub her hands in a bowl of hot water, then crushed some sharp smelling leaves between her palms and rubbed the paste all over her hands.
“Kat’ta leaf. It helps prevent the fever”, the old woman explained, returning to the bed with a small basket. “And this is hau’uli moss. It will staunch the bleeding, but it has to go inside -”
“Inside the wound?! But it’ll get infected … it’ll start the fever!”
“Not this, child. Trust me. It’s never started a fever in the fifty-odd seasons I’ve used it, but it’s saved some lives. If it works, I’ll be able to close the wound tomorrow.” Shamille pushed Sam aside and kept a hold on the linen pad. She gazed at Jack, almost with pity. “Now, you listen to me, my boy. I’d give you a tea to make you sleep through this, but we haven’t got time for that. You haven’t got time for that. I won’t lie to you. It will hurt. Now what I want you to do is put your left arm across your chest, so Malinne can hold it … That’s it. Won’t do if you knock me unconscious in the middle of this. And you’ll want to, I can promise you that much. I’ll be as quick as I can … Hold him still, child! I don’t care what it takes, but hold him still.”
Arms tightly wrapped around the Colonel, Sam felt his muscles tense to the point of spasm each time the old woman packed another patch of moss into the wound, heard him suck in ragged gulps of air through clenched teeth, wished he’d at least allow himself the release of screaming. She knew he wouldn’t. When his control slipped at last, every new foray of the matriarch’s fingers prompted a soft whimper. Sam shifted her weight a little and looked at him, half hoping he’d finally lost consciousness. His eyes were open and glazed with pain.
“Dammit, sir! Can’t you just pass out?!”
“Tryin’ to …” he breathed. “Hurts … too … much …”
“I’m almost done”, came Shamille’s reassuring voice. She shoved in a last wad of moss, and he buried his face at Sam’s shoulder, while the old woman put a fresh linen pad on the wound and tied it in place with a bandage. “There now”, she said. “You’re not just handsome, my boy, you’re brave as well. But by the goddess, I hope I won’t have to do this ever again.”
“Me too …” A muffled little croak from somewhere beneath Sam’s collarbone.
Shamille cackled and patted his leg. “Is there anything that’ll make you hold your tongue, boy? You can come out now. It’s over. You need to sleep. I’ll give you a tea.”
Sam could have sworn she heard him mutter something about ‘infamous tea torture’. Still cradling his head, she raised herself carefully. If he’d been pale before, he was translucent now, the smudged symbols on his forehead and cheeks standing out in stark contrast, deep lines of exhaustion etching his face. She reached for a damp cloth and gently began wiping off paint and sweat.
“Guess I … lost …”
“Kinda …” Sam gave a wry smile. “Don’t worry about it, Colonel. We’ll find them. Together.”
The matriarch returned from the hearth, carrying a cup of tea. “Here, my boy. Drink it. It’ll make you sleep. I promise you’ll feel better when you wake up.”
For once, Jack didn’t argue. He just drank the tea and was asleep within minutes.
“Come here, child”, said Shamille. “Let me see to your arm.” Sam climbed from the bed and watched, while her ‘Grandmother’ cleaned and bandaged a nasty cut on her forearm. “All finished”, the old woman murmured at last. “Now, get him washed. He dragged half the village square in here with him.”
Sam blushed violently, suddenly remembering the last time. “Uh … maybe …”
“Don’t worry, child. Nothing’ll wake him now.”
“It’s not that … it’s just …”
“What do they call you, child?” Shamille asked in an apparent non sequitur.
“You know my name, Grandmother.”
“I know the name I’ve given you. What’s your real name?”
“Samantha.” There was a flicker of sadness in the old woman’s eyes. “You will leave, won’t you?”
“Yes, Grandmother. We will leave, if we can. We have to go home. I’m sorry.”
“No need to feel sorry. It won’t be for a few days yet, he has to get better first. And you should go home, to your own clan and its strange laws. But -”
“What strange laws, Grandmother?”
“You and he know better than I. Don’t interrupt me, child! When you go home, take good care of him. He is your … leader … yes?” the matriarch asked, without a doubt finding it difficult to wrap her head around that bizarre concept. When Sam nodded, she said, “He’s a good leader. One that’d rather die than let harm come to his people. But I think you already know that. He has what you want, child. Mind and heart and soul. Too much of it for his own good. You need him, and he needs you more than you permit yourself to see. Take care of him.” Shamille winked. “I said I like him, and I mean it. If you don’t treat him well, I shall come and cuff you … Now go and wash him. Don’t be afraid. He won’t notice this time …”
“Da-ni-el.” Dr Jackson said for the eleventh time, patted his chest, and cocked his head eagerly, wishing his young captive would complete the introductions. No such luck. The youngster cowered in the snow, vacantly staring into the middle distance and not saying a word. He hadn’t spoken since he was captured, and Daniel was beginning to think that, perhaps, his culture hadn’t quite evolved to the level of verbal communication yet. Then again, other attempts at establishing some form of rapport had failed as well. Daniel had handed him a ration bar and declared and subsequently demonstrated that, while not exactly a gourmet meal, this was edible. The kid had taken a tentative bite and immediately spat it out again, thus indicating that his idea of food differed dramatically from Daniel’s. The performance was observed by Major Harper and several other members of the team, and their take on it was only too obvious and didn’t bode well for the tribesman.
Teal’c, Levine, and Wilson returned from a
reconnoitre along the edge of the cliff, their faces long or, in the
“No joy”, grumbled Major Levine. “I reckon that basin down there must be the bottom of a volcano, and what we’re standing on is what’s left of the shaft. The walls look like obsidian; they’re glassy and so smooth, even a fly would skid. No chance of getting down anywhere around here. The only thing I can think of is trekking along the rim to the other side and try there. But that’ll be another five days at least …”
“Have you succeeded in obtaining any information from the detainee, DanielJackson?”
“No, Teal’c. I’m not even sure he can speak … Dammit, he might just know a way down there, if only I could get through to him!” Daniel glanced back at the captive who was watching them apprehensively.
Levine sighed. “Alright. We don’t have to decide here and now. Light’s going, and we’d better set up camp, get some food cooking. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving ... Peters! Grab a few men and secure the perimeter!”
They dug out shelters for their tents, and Harper and two of his men attempted to turn the MREs into something remotely palatable. The bivouac ready, they gathered around the field cookers for warmth.
“Grub’s up! Come and eat before it gets cold!” Major Harper finally announced with a display of lip-smacking and belly-stroking that left everyone convinced that tonight’s offering was bound to be more than usually foul. The invitation provoked a panicked howl from the prisoner. Ten heads flew up, everyone stared at the young native.
At last, Daniel recovered from his shock and crouched next to him. “Hey … it’s okay. Nothing to worry about. Nobody’s gonna hurt you!” He squeezed the kid’s shoulder, but he either didn’t understand what Dr Jackson was saying or refused to believe him.
Eyes so wide that his irises were ringed with white, he shook his head in stark terror. “No eat …”, he stammered. “No eat me ... No eat ...”
The surprise of hearing him speak literally knocked Daniel on his rear. He sat in the snow, blinking nervously and pushing his specs back up to where they were supposed to reside. “Uh …” he replied eloquently and suddenly grasped what had frightened their captive into talking. “Uh … We’re not gonna eat you. We … uhm … don’t do that. You don’t have to be -”
“We just might”, snarled Sergeant
“Shut it, Sergeant!” Levine barked, then turned to the prisoner. “What’s your name?”
The kid glowered at him sullenly, lips compressed to a tight line. “I no speak to you ... I speak to … Da-ni-el”, he mumbled at last, pointing at Dr Jackson.
With an exaggerated bow to Daniel, Major Levine said, “All yours, Doctor. Make sure you keep me posted.”
As the others wolfed down their dinner, Daniel sat quietly talking to the captive, asking questions and getting a number of rather unexpected answers. Eventually, he rose and returned to the team, wedging himself into a little gap next to Levine. Teal’c handed him a bowl.
“I have saved this for you, DanielJackson.”
While Daniel took the bowl and tasted a cautious spoonful of the nondescript
“Bouillab- … hrrmpph!” Dr Jackson managed to confine the spray of purported Bouillabaisse to the three people sitting directly opposite, before succumbing to an alarming coughing fit and finally doubling over, giggling hysterically. The Sergeant, meanwhile, turned an appealing shade of vermilion under the disbelieving scrutiny of his CO.
“Peters!” Major Levine said sweetly, doing his level best to conceal a massive grin. “Peters, I had no idea you volunteered to stand two watches tonight. Very considerate of you. I’m sure Teal’c will appreciate an uninterrupted night’s sleep. And you might use the time to recap on French cuisine …”
“Yes, sir!” muttered the mortified Sergeant. “Uh … Sorry, Teal’c … no offence …”
The reply shot Levine’s admirable self-control to pieces, and he howled with laughter, somewhat to Teal’c’s bemusement. At last he calmed down, wheezing, “So, Dr Jackson, what did your tame savage have to say for himself?”
“His name is Korok”, Daniel answered pointedly.
“Korok?! What kind of a name is that? … Sounds like a belch! Which is fitting, I suppose …” Major Harper’s remark elicited chuckles from some of the men.
“Cut it out!” snapped Levine. “I want to hear this.”
“He says they had a thriving culture until the onset of the ice age. When the glaciers overran their cities, the survivors took refuge in the mountains … Gets a bit hazy after that, but as far as I can make out, they gradually reverted back to a kind of Stone Age culture. One of the determining factors being a shortage of any kind of food, which eventually pushed them into cannibalism.”
“Would they not have been wise to repair to the basin, DanielJackson? Conditions appear to be more clement there”, Teal’c asked.
“According to Korok, they’re being kept out of the basin by the civilisation living down there.”
“Can’t say I blame the folks in the basin …”
“Dammit, Harper!” Levine frowned. “Shut up! … So, who are the guys that live down there?”
“Uhm …” Daniel gave him an awkward look. “Actually you should ask who are the gals that live down there …”
“Seems what we’ve got in the basin is a solid, warlike matriarchy … Amazons, to you and me.”
There was a strangled snort from
“Anything to add, Sergeant?”
“Uh … not really, sir … It’s just … Couldn’t help picturing Colonel O’Neill’s face when they fished him out of the river …”
Major Levine’s mouth started jerking again. “Well, yes … Thank you for that, Sergeant …” He turned serious. “Let’s stick to ‘If they fished him out of the river’ for the time being. Anything else, Doctor?”
“Korok says he can show us the way down there.”
t was past midnight, and Sam was still sitting by the bed, unable to sleep. The infection she’d dreaded hadn’t set in, and maybe it never would ... She’d almost killed him … They’d have to take back a sample of the moss and have it analysed. Obviously it didn’t just have coagulant properties but also acted as a natural antibiotic … She’d almost killed him … Maybe those kat’ta leaves were worth a closer look as well, not to mention Shamille’s enormous selection of teas for all occasions. This last one apparently was a sedative … She’d almost killed him … And there was the one that prevented - …
It wasn’t working. However hard she tried, she always came back to that moment. Tumbling towards him, knowing even then what would happen, until the knife point had slid into his body with perverse ease. For a split-second he’d looked at her in surprise, and then she’d felt him buckle under her weight. Coming down on top of him, unable to break her fall, driving the blade in even deeper. And in that instant, she’d remembered. Remembered who she was, where she’d come from, who he was, and how this seemed to be such a morbidly fitting conclusion to months of twisting the knife. Followed by the supremely selfish thought that now she might never get a chance to tell him she was sorry.
Sorry for the incredible arrogance with which Dr Samantha Carter, theoretical astrophysicist and half-baked prodigy, had swept aside her CO’s reservations and all but told him to take his claymores and go play outside like a good boy, while she and her superior intellect were having a chat with an artificial intelligence that had demonstrably tried to destroy the SGC, perhaps the whole planet. Sorry for abusing his trust when she’d manipulated General Hammond into countermanding his orders, just so she could have her way, and never mind that she made the Colonel look like an idiot in front of his commanding officer. Sorry for placing him in an untenable position, sorry for forcing him to resurrect that part of himself he hated most, sorry for the wrenching grief she’d seen in his eyes when he had no choice but to shoot her. Sorry for being too much of a coward to face him afterwards, for making her transfer a fait accompli without even trying to explain or apologise.
Just when had she started to respect him so little? Daniel had told her how he’d justified his decision to undergo the procedure that had killed Lieutenant Astor. The Colonel’s argument had shaken her, because he obviously believed that her life, her mind, were worth more than his. But with everything else that had happened that day, she’d almost forgotten about it, and that was unforgivable. Was this how she made him feel? Worthless? Expendable?
At every juncture it had been about what she thought was right. And she’d done it again here. Sam Carter knows best. She’d been incapable of accepting his need to go and find Teal’c and Levine and the others, so much so that she’d never even done him the courtesy of discussing it. She’d simply decided to stop him, no matter what. And then she’d held him while Shamille saved his life, felt his body convulse with pain and learnt what her knowing best cost him.
“I’m sorry, sir … I’m so, so sorry …”
“It was an accident, Sam … not your fault.”
She started. “You’re supposed to be asleep, Colonel …”
“I’m cold …”
Only then Sam realised that the fire had gone out a long time ago, and the hut was chilly. “Sorry”, she said again. “Hang on …” She fetched another cover and spread it over him, relit the fire and returned with a cup of Shamille’s tea. “Better, sir?”
“Yeah … Thanks …”
In the dim glow from the hearth she could see his face, still drawn, but not as pale as he’d been before. She placed a hand on his forehead. “No fever …”
“That’s good …”
“It’s great …” Sam gave a tiny smile. “It deserves another cup of tea.”
“Do I have to?”
“’Fraid so, sir … Come on …” She slipped an arm under his neck and gently lifted his head. “It’ll help you go back to sleep.”
He finished half of it before pushing the cup away with a grimace. “It’ll do.”
“Alright.” Sam put the cup on the floor next to her stool and eased him back onto the pillow.
“I’m not going anywhere, sir.” Hesitantly, she slipped her fingers around his. “Okay?”
Clop-tock. Clop-tock. Clop-tock. Clop- … The rhythmic chomping from what Jack had learnt was a maniak’ka mill … And just what, pray, was maniak’ka? … finally woke him. The DEA probably would look none too kindly upon that tea, but saying ‘No’ hadn’t really been an option, not between Carter and Grandmother determined to force it down his throat. And to be perfectly honest, he’d probably have drunk it anyway. Shamille’s little number with the moss ranked high on his list of things to be consecrated to oblivion. He gingerly touched the bandage over the wound and was rewarded with a twinge that complemented a similar faint pang from his healing head injury. Checking that, he realised that the spines were gone and finally recalled a spell of semi-consciousness early in the morning, when he’d seen Grandmother fussing over him, removing wads of moss and doing needlepoint on his side. She must have pulled the sutures from the head wound while she was at it. Carter had been hovering in the background, troubled and distant.
Raising himself on one elbow, Jack looked around the hut. No Carter. Grandmother stood at the hearth, brewing something that he hoped, against all dictates of experience, wasn’t tea. On the other hand, experience also told him that he should be hurting a lot more than he actually did. In all likelihood his blessedly anodyne state could be chalked up to the effects of Shamille’s concoctions … Sam swept back in, carrying a basket of firewood.
“Hi Carter”, he said softly, so as not bring the Wrath of Grandmother down on himself.
She froze for a moment, then deposited the logs by the hearth. “I … I forgot something …” she said to noone in particular and dashed out the door again. Shamille’s head snapped around, and she snorted, then set off after Carter.
Oh yeah, that’s right … She remembered now. She remembered why she’d requested a transfer, why she didn’t want to be anywhere near him. Jack sank back, facing the wall, pretending to be mesmerised by the intricacies of its wattle and daub structure. In truth he was unable to stop the continuous replay that had been running through his mind ever since he’d fired that zat-gun for the second time. You will not destroy this one. This one is important … Oh yes … The Entity had committed the idiotic blunder of expecting him to act like a human being. And Carter, trapped inside her own body, would have expected the same. Of course, Carter hadn’t read his file. Otherwise she’d have known that trusting him was the kiss of death. He invariably destroyed what he … This one is important. God, this one is so important, and you just watch me destroy this one …
Jack heard shuffling, the noise of two people returning, the legs of a wooden stool scraping across the floor as it was shoved to the bedside, a thump and a muffled ‘ouch’, and finally Shamille’s voice. “Sit!”
He didn’t react to any of it, which was a mistake. In the course of repeated and thorough inspections of his anatomy, the old woman had had plenty of opportunity to ascertain just which parts of his body were safe to hit, and now the handle of her cane rapped sharply on his funny bone. “Ow!!” he hollered, turning around and glaring at Shamille. “What the hell was that for?!”
Grandmother stood there, hands propped on the cane, glaring right back at him. “You! And you!” She jerked her head at Sam. “Talk!”
That order was followed by astonished silence from both Colonel O’Neill and Major Carter, but Shamille was not to be discouraged. She stared from one to the other, her right foot tapping impatiently. Carter seemed to have found something utterly entrancing stuck to her toes, which earned her another cuff.
“Look at him!” the old woman growled. “You want him to heal, yes? Talk! Both of you!”
Sam’s gaze slowly travelled up, until she met his eyes at last. She seemed acutely uncomfortable with the whole situation, and Jack couldn’t blame her. It made two of them. At least she could get up and leave if she wanted to. Then again, God only knew how Grandmother would respond to that. With a bucket of tea, probably …
He grinned a little. “Hey, Carter? … You know, we should take her home and introduce her to General Hammond … Match made in Heaven …” It actually made Carter giggle … Oh yeah, we’re off to a great start here! … He might as well say what he had to say, while he still had the guts to say it, and before she ran out on him again. “Look, Sam, I -”
“Sir, I -”
Stalemate. They’d started talking at the exact same moment. Carter blushed, cleared her throat, mumbled, “Sorry, Colonel. Go on, please.”
Nice and formal. Impeccably formal. Great. She’d jump to attention in a minute. Jack really wanted to scream. Instead he said, “Major, I can see how you wouldn’t want to be on a team with me anymore, but you don’t have to transfer, you know … I’ll leave.”
She stared at him agape. “With all due respect, sir … Are you crazy?!”
“Nooo ... Bit of a bump to the head, maybe, but I don’t think that qualifies …” It didn’t work this time, and Jack sighed. “Major, if you can’t trust your CO, it kinda screws up the team dynamic, don’t you think? And under the circumstances it’s only fair if I’m the one to go.”
“Colonel, what on earth are you talking about? Why shouldn’t or wouldn’t I trust you?”
“Dammit, Carter!! I - … Ow!!” Jack had sat up, which wasn’t the most intelligent idea he’d ever had. On reflection, his blood pressure probably wasn’t what it ought to be. His head swam, and his side hurt like hell all of a sudden.
Grandmother gave him a censorious scowl and energetically pushed him back on the pillows. “Down, boy!”
Biting his lip, he watched Carter turn bright red and bury her face in her hands. Then she looked up, and as they made eye contact, they both smiled.
“Sir? … Why? Why shouldn’t I trust you?” she asked quietly.
“For cryin’ out loud … Carter, I tried to kill you! That sort of thing tends to put a crimp into most relationships. Work or … Don’t pretend it doesn’t.”
Her eyes went wide. “Colonel, you had no choice.”
“There’s always a choice!” he snapped, for some reason stubbornly clinging to his misery. “It didn’t have to be me … I could have let someone else -”
“Since when do you let anyone else make the tough calls, sir?” Sam grinned wryly. “There was no telling what I … what It … would have done, how much damage It would have caused. You had no choice, sir. Apart from anything else, it singled you out, because it thought it had spotted your weakness.”
Jack grimaced. The less said … “Which is why it picked you in -”
“Or it could have picked Daniel or Teal’c or any of us. Don’t even try to tell me you’d have acted any differently, or that it would have been any easier. I know you better than that, Colonel. You care, and if that’s weakness, personally, I’d rather have you weak … The only reason why I’m sitting here, having this argument with you, is because of what you did and who you are … You saved my life, sir -”
“Which obviously is why you felt you had to get off the team”, he said bitterly. “Come on, Carter, give me break. I know I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I’m not that dense!”
“Don’t say that!” She was shouting at him. “Just because I’m big-headed enough to treat you like you are, doesn’t mean you’re stupid.”
Whoa! Which button had he pushed now? Jack blinked. “Carter? … I am a bit dense, see … Care to explain this?”
“I was the one who got us into that mess. If I’d listened to you in the first place, none of it would have happened. But I knew better, didn’t I? … Dammit, sir, I even got the General to reverse your order!”
“So that’s where the transfer comes in? Oh crap … Carter, listen to me! The day I want you or any member of my team not to have an opinion, shoot me! Do you honestly believe I’d have let you get on with it, General or no General, if I could have been certain you were wrong? You say you know me. Think! … You made a judgment call, you got it wrong. It happens. Take it from the expert. Remember that orb?”
“Yeah ... If you hadn’t saved my butt and everybody else’s that day, I’d have blithely wiped out the whole planet. Judgment call. I got it wrong. Getting things wrong is something I excel at. Which is why I need you. Face it, Carter, you are way smarter than I am … Even if you hide it pretty well sometimes … If you still want off the team, I won’t stand in your way. But please don’t tell me that your inability to be my Yes-man … uh … woman … is the reason.” At the risk of being disciplined by Grandmother who’d shown commendable restraint up to this point, Jack resumed his scrutiny of the wall. Suddenly he felt a hand in his and held on like a drowning man.
“I don’t want off the team, sir … I don’t think I’d blend in with Griff’s Marines, somehow …”
“Rather stay with the other misfits, hunh?” He gave a crooked grin, still not looking at her.
“Purely for the entertainment value, sir. Best show in the galaxy …Colonel? Do you think, maybe, we could agree that we both behaved a bit stupidly here?”
“Ya think?” Jack didn’t dare to turn back. If she merely was exercising her bedside manner, he’d see it in her eyes, and he wasn’t really ready to find out whether or not she was humouring the patient.
“Sir, look at me, please!” Sam left him no choice in the matter. Her hand cupped his face and gently coaxed his head around. “I do trust you … And I need you. I knew that much even when I had no idea who you were. I broke clan law rather than leave you behind.”
Shamille cut off Jack’s reply. “What did you do, child?!” the old woman grated.
“He was on Harrane’s land when I found him, Grandmother”, whispered Carter. “I wasn’t going to tell anybody … I couldn’t leave him there. You know what they -”
“I know. Don’t lecture me!” hissed the matriarch. “Listen to me, and listen carefully! I understand why you’ve done it, but I couldn’t condone it. Therefore I shall pretend I haven’t heard you. If you value his life, you will not repeat this to anyone while you’re still here. Do you understand me, child?”
“Yes, Grandmother.” Inadvertently, she’d clasped his hand again, as though afraid of losing him.
Lonna sat back on his haunches, chewing on a strand of hair and thanking the goddess for his luck. Famekke would be pleased. She’d surprised him. One sun after Malinne had sent him back to the Unmated, Famekke had challenged for him. No other woman had come forward to fight for Lonna. So Famekke had taken him as her third mate. He wasn’t overly pleased with his new attachment. Famekke was too old for him, soon she wouldn’t be able to bear children anymore. Still, it was a good match, or could have been. But then that vicious old hag Shamille had dishonoured Famekke. So his new woman instructed Lonna to spy on the Outlanders. He knew she’d hoped the male would die during the night. But there he was, alive, immortal like the demon he was. So Lonna had been apprehensive about going back to Famekke and telling her what he’d observed. She had a foul temper and a hard hand.
But then the Outlanders had begun talking. So Lonna had decided to stay. They called each other by strange names, Outlander names, and he had understood little of what was being said. No woman had ever talked to a mate the way Malinne talked to the Outlander. It was not right. Famekke said the goddess forbade it. So Lonna had almost grown angry enough to give himself away. But now he was glad he hadn’t. Clever Malinne had made a mistake. Clever Malinne had broken the law to save the male. And Shamille had heard it, but Shamille would not punish them. That Lonna had understood.
Famekke had said the goddess would grant Lonna a reward if he brought back good news. So Lonna knew this was good news. News that would achieve much of what his new woman desired. So Lonna desired it too. Now Famekke would destroy the Outlander male. Now Famekke would regain her place in the council. And Lonna would be rewarded. It had been promised.
Noiseless like a kol’raq, Lonna backed away from the hut, out onto the path and behind the stables. He’d better saddle Famekke’s sir’loq. She would want to travel south to Harrane’s village before evening. Famekke would be welcomed there, and Lonna would be by her side. There would be negotiation and palaver. Secrets and crimes would be revealed. One sun from now Harrane and her escort would come here. Harrane would lay claim to the male. She could not be denied. By law, the male was hers, not Malinne’s. Harrane would lay claim to Malinne as well. To punish her.
“Make good use of your mate, woman. You’ll only have him for two more suns”, Lonna breathed.
Two suns from now Lonna would teach Malinne the price of shaming him. The price of her wanting the Outlander in a way she never would have wanted Lonna. It was his reward. It had been promised. Anticipation and the memory of the night he’d spent with her struck a sudden fierce ache in his groin. Soon. Two suns. He could wait two suns.
Sergeant Peters looked slightly the worse
for wear. He’d stood first and fifth watch and hadn’t slept too well in between
or after. Ever since he’d got up,
“Grand café noir”, he said, grinning. “À la vôtre.”
Peters took one sip and his eyes popped. He was convinced he’d just ingested a lethal dose of caffeine. “Jeez, Doc!! What the hell do you call this?!”
“Coffee”, Daniel said innocently. “As opposed to the Ersatz Kaffee you guys drink.”
“Hasn’t he ever tried this on you, Peters?” Major Levine joined them, chortling. “First time I had a mug of Dr Jackson’s coffee, I stuck my spoon in it and it stood upright. The good doctor here thinks coffee’s a food group and should be chewy. Drink up. You look like you need it.”
The previous evening Teal’c, Daniel,
Levine, and Harper had had a drawn-out debate, as to whether or not Korok’s
offer to take them into the basin was to be trusted. Major Harper remained
firmly entrenched with the ‘Nay’ faction, and Levine knew better than just to
brush aside his reservations. There was no guarantee that the kid hadn’t lied
in order to save his skin or wouldn’t lead them into an ambush at the first
opportunity. At last the
Harper saw him approach Josh Levine and followed. “What’s the verdict, Teal’c?”
“You were correct, MajorHarper. This Korok
is not trustworthy. He will attempt to betray us if we slacken in our
Levine mulled this over for a while. Despite Teal’c’s recommendation, his first instinct was to leave their prisoner here, take his team, and try to find the entrance on his own. Dr Jackson would have a word or ninety to say about that, but if Colonel O’Neill could survive it with his sanity intact, so could he. Ultimately it was a safety issue ... He found his thoughts refuted from an unexpected quarter.
“Well …”, growled Harper. “Much as I’d like
to leave the little bastard to his fate, I don’t think we can afford it. We’d
probably end up traipsing through Winter Wonderland till the cows come home,
which ain’t gonna be much help to anybody. Besides, I’d like to have him where
I can see him rather than on the loose somewhere at our sixes. I say, we bring
this Korok fella along, let Teal’c keep an eye on him … If that’s okay with
you, Teal’c?” The
Major Levine was as surprised as anyone, but he had to admit that Harper’s argument made sense. Especially the bit about Korok getting up to no good at their sixes … “Okay”, he said. “Dr Jackson? Teal’c? Go tell our guest we accept his offer … As long as he behaves himself, that is. I want to get going in fifteen.”
In the end it took a little longer than that, thanks to a disturbing piece of intel Korok had denied them up to that point. When Teal’c had cut the plastic strip that bound Korok’s ankles together, their captive had twitched, and the tip of Teal’c’s knife had accidentally broken the skin. The kid had flown into a panic, screaming for them to stem the bleeding. Daniel had tried to calm him down, explaining that they couldn’t waste precious medical supplies on a little nick like that.
“Don’t be scared, Korok. It’ll stop on its own in a few minutes.”
“You not understand. They catch scent! They come for me!” Korok wailed.
“Who’ll come for you?”
“Kultak’s tribe. They smell blood. They know I not tribe. I prey!”
“Are you telling me your people can smell blood over great distances?”
Their prisoner seemed to realise the importance of the information he’d just given up, pressed his lips together and shook his head. He’d said enough.
Teal’c begged to differ. “Unless you answer DanielJackson’s questions to his satisfaction, we shall not tend to your injury. We shall, in fact, inflict others. Furthermore, we shall leave you here.”
“Teal’c! You can’t do that!” Daniel was
shocked that the
“DanielJackson. As O’Neill would say, we will do this my way. Korok is aware that his kind can track us by the scent of our blood. He chose to withhold this information for a purpose. We must determine what this purpose is.” Teal’c turned back to the prisoner, louring like some mobster out of an MGM B-pic and demonstratively toying with his knife. “Why did you not reveal this to us?”
Korok took one look at him and cracked. “My tribe follow your wounded. We find you this way. We find prey this way. My tribe find you, my tribe find me. My tribe close”, he added smugly.
Daniel blanched. Both Sergeant Jenkins and Lieutenant Severs had sustained minor injuries from falling rocks when they’d climbed the upper part of the ravine to reach the snowfield on the second day. Neither of them had bothered to bandage what they’d considered to be harmless grazes. But these Stone Age people clearly operated like sharks. Their olfactory systems must have adapted to circumstance, and the scent of even a trace of blood could lead them to their victims. And Korok had banked precisely on this. Chances were that the only thing preventing an attack during the night had been the tribesmen’s fear of the zat’nikatels.
“Teal’c, stay with him. Major Levine needs to know about this”, Daniel said at last.
Not surprisingly, Levine was less than
happy about the revelation. “Knew we should have left the little shit behind
…”, he muttered darkly. Catching Dr Jackson’s guilty look, he added, “My call,
Doctor. Don’t go blaming yourself. None of us could have known … Right. Here’s
what we do …
They spent an hour checking everyone, including Korok, for cuts and grazes and put band-aids even on the most innocuous shaving nicks. By the time Major Levine pronounced himself satisfied, they were running low on band-aids, and the team smelt like a pharmaceutical company.
“Okay, people. Let’s move out!” Levine shouted. “Peters, take point!”
“Yes, sir! … Now all they gotta do is pick up the trail of disinfectant …”
“Pe- …“ The Major’s reply died on his lips when Teal’c took out a knife and cut his own hand. “What the hell are you doing, Teal’c?!”
“I shall attempt to lay a false trail, MajorLevine. I suggest you continue as planned, while I shall head away from our route and rejoin you as soon as my symbiote has healed this injury, which shall be shortly.”
“Teal’c, that’s way too dangerous!” Daniel protested. “What if they find you?”
“I shall have to make certain that the primitives do not locate me, DanielJackson. Please do not concern yourself.”
“Alright …” Levine saw Dr Jackson take a deep breath and cut in to terminate the impending debate before it had a chance to erupt. “I don’t like it much either, but it’s a good idea. Watch your six, Teal’c! … And thanks!”
“You are welcome, MajorLevine. And I fully intend to guard my posterior.” With that Teal’c set off, away from their path, and quickly disappeared around a point.
Everybody else warily followed Korok who led them westwards along the rim of the basin, back towards the range where the river tunnelled through the mountains. He’d claimed it was safer than retracing their original route and shorter, bringing them to their goal in three days’ march, but they took both with a grain of salt, never losing their suspicion of him. Josh Levine kept consulting the aerial pictures, set to change their course at the slightest hint of foul play and trying to anticipate where exactly their captive was leading them, and what descent he’d choose once they got there. Every so often Korok would stop and sniff the air, and occasionally a glint of recognition in his eyes betrayed the presence of others nearby. Each such halt would cause zat-guns to be readied, but no assault ever happened, and eventually those breaks became few and far between.
For hours they saw neither hide nor hair of
Teal’c, and between the thought of losing him as well and the persistent pain
from his injury, Daniel was beginning to feel distinctly sick. He used it as a
subterfuge to slow down the team as much as he dared, assuming that, the
farther they got, the more difficult it would be for his friend to pick up
their trail. Inevitably, Dr Jackson felt like an ass when he’d crossed a steep
ridge at snail’s pace, the Major behind him cursing his parentage and
extraction for the entirety of the climb, only to find one bewildered
The relief of having Teal’c back safe and
sound lightened everyone’s mood, and even Levine forgot the rotten temper
Daniel’s antics had put him in. The
Major Carter was lugging two buckets of water from the well back to the hut, still racking her brains to find a way of getting the Colonel and herself safely beyond the Barrier Wall and back to the stargate. She’d been kicking around the problem for most of the day, and so far she’d come up with precisely squat. They had no weapons, or at least none that would prove effective against a hunting party of Outlanders. The only chance of making it there on foot would be with a sizeable escort, and even that was no guarantee. Besides she didn’t want to endanger the women. A trek to the ‘gate would spell loss of lives for them. At one point, she’d contemplated the feasibility of building a hot air balloon and had been halfway through a complex calculation of just how many kol’raq skins it would take to achieve the required buoyancy before seriously questioning her mental health. Apart from anything else, the prevailing winds blew in the wrong direction. The one safe route was the river, but paddling upstream against the current was impossible, and even if she somehow managed to construct an engine in the primitive smithy, it’d probably be heavy enough to sink an ocean liner, not to mention one of the fragile coracles the women used. Sam snorted in frustration. If they wanted to get home, she’d have to do better than that. But for the moment the wisest move seemed to be shelving that task for a while, lest she came up with more addle-brained ideas.
Sam quietly set down the buckets in a corner and wandered over to the bed. The Colonel was asleep again, which didn’t come as a surprise after this morning’s adventure. He’d been feeling better and, typically, insisted that he was going to get up. Shamille’s counter-strike had been unconventional but stunningly successful. Instead of arguing with him, she’d stood there placidly, arms crossed, and replied that, by all means, the boy should try. The old woman’s unwonted complaisance should have warned him, but the boy had tried regardless and promptly passed out. Sam had barely been able to catch him before he collapsed on the floor and had hung on to an armful of Colonel, while Shamille had chuckled merrily and remarked, “That’ll teach him.” It had, too. When he’d come round, there’d been no further mention of getting out of bed. Maybe she should give Janet Fraiser a heads-up …
His need for sleep was only one more indication of how much blood he’d lost. Shamille’s medicines were doing their job, and overnight some colour had crept back into his face, but he still was pale. He seemed almost frail, and the ruffled hair made him look startlingly young. Sam smiled at the thought of how appropriate Grandmother’s grudging term of endearment was. The boy ... A soft noise told her that Shamille had slipped into the hut, and she turned around. There was an air of nervousness about the old woman, the novelty value of which immediately set Sam on edge. She’d never known Shamille to be anything other than unflappable and acerbic.
“Grandmother? What’s the matter?”
“Not here, child. Come outside.”
She grabbed Sam’s arm and dragged her from the hut and to the rock by the path where they’d sat a few evenings ago. It was wet with rain, but Sam had a pretty good idea why this was the chosen place of parley. Nobody could get close enough to overhear them, not without being seen.
“Lissele spoke to me just now.”
“She says Famekke has disappeared.”
“Good riddance!” Sam said sharply. “Don’t expect me to miss her.”
“Don’t be a fool, child!” The old woman angrily smacked her thigh. “Listen to me! They’ve found tracks leading south.”
“South …” Now Sam understood why Shamille seemed so troubled. “You think she has gone to see Harrane? But why?”
“How can you be sure of that? I haven’t told anybody else!”
“I told you not to play the fool! She’d have to have a very good reason to risk riding into Harrane’s territory. She’d have to have something to bargain with, something important enough to ensure her safety.”
“The Colonel …” murmured Sam, feeling cold all of a sudden. “But how could she have found out?”
“That kol’raq of yours is gone as well.”
“Lonna spied on us, is that what you’re saying?”
“Likely as not.” Shamille shrugged. “Apparently Famekke took him as a mate. ‘Match made in Heaven’, the boy would say.”
An involuntary grin flickered across Sam’s face and died. “Why didn’t Lissele tell you sooner?”
“Because Lissele only put two and two together when she and Korrene spotted the trail. They were out for hunting practice and returned straightaway, but there’s no telling when Famekke has left … It’s lucky they’ve found the tracks at all. A little later the rain would have washed them away.”
“So, what’ll happen, you think?”
“Harrane will come, make no mistake. She’ll claim what’s hers. You and the boy will have to leave. Lissele and some of her friends have agreed to take you beyond the Barrier to where you need to go.”
“No!” Sam resolutely shook her head. “Grandmother, it’s too dangerous. I don’t want to see Lissele or anyone else get harmed for our sakes. Besides, he’s not well enough to travel. You know that!”
“He’s strong. He’ll always have the strength to do what has to be done, even if it kills him. He’ll need another good night’s rest and more of my tea. As for Lissele and the women, I didn’t ask them. They offered. They think highly of you, though the goddess only knows why, you impudent pup!” The old woman harrumphed in mock indignation and then continued gently, “Have the grace to accept their gift, child! You will leave at first light tomorrow.”
The weather had turned bad again, but just before the clouds closed in for good, they’d made out a train of riders leaving the village west of them and eventually moving north along the river.
“Looks like our Amazon girls are off to visit the neighbours for the weekly sewing circle”, Peters quipped.
Teal’c’s response was a disapprovingly arched eyebrow. “Some of the fiercest warriors I have encountered were females, SergeantPeters. I believe your health would be at grave risk if you repeated this in MajorCarter’s presence.”
Levine snorted and left Dr Jackson to drive home the point. “You know, Peters …” the archaeologist added with a wicked smirk, “According to legend, Amazon warriors tore off their left breast because it got in the way of drawing back the bowstring …”
“Yikes! Thanks for the image, Doctor!”
They’d been ascending steadily through a stifling blanket of dense, icy
mist, but by mid-afternoon they’d finally climbed above the clouds, some 4,500
feet over the basin. To everyone’s surprise,
“… niner … -knowledge … Sierra Golf Three Niner, come in … -sition … Over.”
Major Levine grabbed
There was a burst of static, but suddenly the frequency cleared and they could hear Major Griff’s voice. “Hey! That you Levine? Been trying to reach you for days. Apparently whatever’s screwing up transmissions round here has taken a break. Over.”
“Nice to hear your dulcet tones, Major. Receiving you five-five now, so don’t move. Over.”
“What’s your situation, Levine? The General’s been asking, and he’s getting a bit antsy. Over.”
“We’re on our way back to the river, moving west towards the tunnel where Colonel O’Neill disappeared. Picked up a native along the way, and the guy says he knows the way into what looks like a valley or basin down there. Over.”
“You’re assuming the Colonel’s still alive? Over.”
“There’s a chance. The climate in the basin’s a darn sight friendlier than out here. Found any trace of Major Carter? Over.”
“No. Not a whisker. We’ve been searching the whole area between the station and the ‘gate. Sorry. Any estimate on how long you’re gonna be? Over.”
“Our little savage says it’ll be another one-and-a-half days to the basin entrance, but my estimate is nearer two. And then we’ve gotta find O’Neill if he’s still alive. Over.”
“Want us to come and join you? Over.”
“Negative, Griff. The natives are cannibals. Fair enough, once they catch your tang they might think twice about nibbling on a Marine, but I don’t want you to risk it. You haven’t got the manpower to cope with those guys, take my word for it. We’ve already lost two people. Stay where you are, dig in and keep the door open for us. Over.”
“Roger that. Although I’d like to point out that Marines are sweet-smelling gourmet food compared to you flyboys! Over.”
“In your dreams, Griff. Watch your sixes, and keep the General posted. If we can make further contact, we will. Over and out.” Levine could tell by the looks on Daniel’s and Teal’c’s faces that they’d overheard the news about Sam Carter. “Sorry, guys”, he muttered. “Come on, let’s move. I’d like to cover another three klicks before we bunk down.”
Teal’c nodded and pulled a reluctant Korok to his feet. The young native
had hit the ground in terror, babbling incoherently about ghosts and demons,
when he’d heard the disembodied voice emanating from a little black box. But
the voice was silent now, and the
The team followed silently, sullenly almost. Griff’s news, or lack thereof, had come as an unwelcome reminder that what they were doing here might be futile after all. But at least he hadn’t relayed the one order they all dreaded: General Hammond’s decision to call off the search. Daniel plodded on, tired and dazed, trying to ignore the ache from his broken wrist, trying not to think of Sam and what had happened to her, and not doing very well on either count. He caught himself acclimatising to the idea that they might not find Jack, or at least not find him alive, and stubbornly banished the notion, only to have it bounce back again and again at five-minute intervals.
At dusk Korok led them into an abandoned cave where they set up camp for the night.
“Carter! Will you please step outside so I can put some clothes on?! And take along the rest of the ladies while you’re at it!” Colonel O’Neill glared at Grandmother and Lissele who stood by the hearth, giggling. “Joining this little pow-wow in my unmentionables just doesn’t feel right, okay? So humour me. Please!”
He’d been sitting in bed, clutching the blanket with one hand and flapping the other in a fruitless effort to shoo the tree women away. Eventually Sam had taken pity on him. She’d grabbed Shamille and Lissele and herded them out of the door. Now they were standing in the pouring rain, and Lissele, as was to be expected, found the whole thing outrageously funny. Once she’d recovered enough, she proclaimed at the top of her lungs that she considered it a sad waste if such a fine-looking specimen of a male felt the need to conceal his physique from the discerning observer, and if Malinne … uh … Samantha knew anything about handling mates, she’d wean him out of it, double-quick. By the time they returned indoors, Major Carter sported a hectic blush, and her complexion was mirrored by that of her CO, who sat on the bench by the table, fully dressed and a subtle shade of scarlet around the ears.
Naturally, Grandmother wasn’t about to let it rest. “I’ll have to remember that”, she muttered approvingly, inspecting him. “Seems it cures pallor … That’s the most colour you’ve had since I met you, boy. Well done!”
“Just as long as one of us is happy …” he ground out, cringing, and Lissele burst into another fit of giggles.
The women joined him at the table. Lissele, gravely aware of her sudden importance, turned serious and contrived to resemble the chairman of a multi-national at the annual shareholders’ meeting as she recounted what she and her daughter had discovered earlier in the day. Occasionally Shamille cut in and added the odd explanation for the boy’s benefit. Once the younger woman had finished, the matriarch began detailing the plan for the following morning. When she got to the part about Lissele and several other fighters accompanying them, Jack, who’d unconsciously slipped into briefing mode and forgotten about his surroundings, shook his head.
Sam saw Shamille’s scowl, knew what was about to happen and tried to stop him before it was too late. “Uh … Sir …?”
He completely misread the signs. “Out of the question, Carter. I’ve seen those guys in action … It’s a death sentence. I can’t let you do that”, the Colonel said to Lissele, who gawked at him, mystified. “We either go into hiding somewhere around here, or we -”
“Hold your tongue, boy!” the old woman snapped.
Colonel O’Neill’s face made his 2IC wish for a camera. It was a goldfish impersonation to die for. At last he realised where the problem lay, wrapped his hands around his elbows to shield at least his funny bones from imminent attack, and softly said, “Ah …”
Still glowering, Shamille simmered down a little. “This is not your decision to make! No man tells us what to do! We know the risks better than you ever could. But the danger to the clan will be far greater if you remain nearby. Harrane’s warriors will find you, and they’ll take their revenge on us. And I don’t want to be responsible for your deaths by sending you away on your own. I’ve spent too much time and effort on keeping the pair of you alive. Lissele and her friends have offered to protect the clan by taking you to your stargate, and I have accepted their offer. There is nothing more to say. Do you understand?!”
“Sir! Yes, sir!” Jack mumbled, attempting to look duly chastised and continuing under his breath, “We definitely should introduce her to the General …”
Hiding a grin, Sam chimed in before Grandmother could take further exception to his mutterings. “I don’t like it either, Colonel, but Shamille is right. We’ll leave at dawn tomorrow. The tricky part will be avoiding Harrane and her escort. They’ll be on their way here by then, but they’re bound to come along the river, so if we stick to the forest trails - … What?”
Without ceremony or invitation, Korrene had burst through the door, and Shamille’s expression grew positively thunderous at this new interruption. She was about to tear into the girl, but Lissele had jumped to her feet, staring at her daughter. “What is it? Korrene? What happened?!”
The child, wide-eyed and pale, tried to catch her breath and stammered, “Forgive me, mother … Shamille … Forgive the intrusion. They’ve come. Harrane has come. She’s asking for him.” Korrene pointed at the Colonel.
A leaden hush sank over the room. They heard the gentle tapping and gurgling of rain on the thatched roof of the hut. In the bushes outside a bird started singing and suddenly fell silent again. Quiet evening sounds were overlaid by far-off shouts and then by the muted clomping of hoof falls that cleared and grew louder as the riders were approaching.
“We’re too late … Famekke must have left much sooner than I thought … I am sorry …” Shamille rose, limped around the table and put a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, my boy!” she murmured.
“Don’t worry about me. You take care of your people.”
“Didn’t I warn you not to tell me what to do?” She gave him a little pat and hobbled over to Lissele. “Go, girl. Take Korrene with you. Do whatever you have to, but stop them from coming here. Tell them I shall meet Harrane in the council hut. We will talk.”
“Yes, mother!” Lissele took her daughter’s hand, and they rushed off.
After a moment, the old woman gazed at Sam. “Stay here with him, child! Don’t set foot outside, either of you!” Reluctantly, Shamille turned to leave.
Sam followed her. “What are you going to do, Grandmother?”
“There is not much I can do now. You know that. I will try and persuade Harrane to stay the night, invite her to a feast and pretend to smooth out our differences. If we’re lucky, I can buy the boy another night here. He needs rest. If they took him now, he wouldn’t last the trek to Harrane’s village.”
“I have to go with him.”
Shamille frowned, about to reply.
“Can the heroics, Carter!” Unsteadily, the Colonel had navigated his way towards the door. “You stay put. That’s an order, Major!”
“Sir, you’re in no state to get through this on your own. You need me.”
“The hell I do! What’s wrong with you, Major? This Amazon bug catching or something?! I gave you a direct order.” Colonel O’Neill started swaying, groping for support. “Oh crap”, he whispered. “Kinda spoilt the effect, didn’t it?”
“Kinda, sir … You’d better lie down.” Sam slipped an arm around his waist to steady him and looked back at Shamille. “Grandmother?”
The old woman nodded. “I’ll do what I can, child.”
Smoke swirled up from the open fireplace in the council hut and collected under blackened rafters. Together with the heat from the blaze it turned the air in the hut into a smothering, almost unbreathable mass. Somewhere a zither was being strummed, the thin strains of music all but drowned out by hoots of laughter. Two men crouched by the fire, basting a sil’peq roasting on a spit. It was the second one of the evening, and a third was already being prepared in a nearby hut. Stacks of maniak’ka bread and vats of palm wine were passed around and vanished almost as quickly as the mates could dish up. Harrane and her warriors descended on the food like a plague of locusts.
Harrane stared over into the corner where the two Outlanders were cowering and cackled softly as she recalled how unwillingly Shamille had brought them here. Not without reason, of course. For a decrepit witch she was surprisingly shrewd. More than that, Shamille was afraid, which held a certain originality for Harrane. She hadn’t thought the old hag was capable of fear, and of course it had only piqued Harrane’s curiosity. Never taking her eyes off the corner, Harrane took a draught of wine. The woman was trying to coax the male into drinking some water. Shameful conduct. Nobody would catch any of her women serving a male. Outlanders and their barbarian customs! Well, they’d be reunited with their kin soon enough ...
The male was unusual, exquisite even, and Harrane could understand what had prompted the female to commit the theft. Taller than the specimens in the basin, or any Outlander she’d ever seen, built like a warrior, and proud. By the goddess, a proud male! And his eyes were intelligent. Harrane’s fingers had been itching to hurt him, just for the thrill of seeing those dark, gentle eyes cloud with pain. This would be so different from tormenting the insensate animals she usually had at her mercy. She’d controlled the urge. No good making a spectacle of herself in front of Shamille and her cronies. There’d be time for it tomorrow night. She’d take him to her bed afterwards. Then he’d go beyond the Barrier, and it wouldn’t matter anymore.
Goddess, what was that hellish noise?! Harrane dizzily tried to focus on the source of the disturbance … Ximarre. Who else? How many times would she have to beat it into the girl to stay clear of wine? Ximarre, her current favourite, pretty but tedious. The little pet had become jealous when Harrane had shown an interest in the female and headed straight for the nearest pitcher of palm wine. Now she was singing what sounded like a dirge. With an angry wave of the hand, Harrane ordered a guard to remove the drunken woman from the hut and recommenced her contemplation of the Outlanders.
The female. As beautiful as she was brazen. Under any other circumstances, Harrane would have considered her a desirable addition to the clan, but her effrontery had to be punished, lest others be encouraged by her example. Far wiser to have her die with the male. Harrane was surprised that Shamille had all but offered to surrender her. According to that hidebound viper Famekke, the old crone was besotted with the female. But maybe Shamille had realised that holding on to the woman was less important than the safety of her clan. That runt Lonna, whom Famekke had brought with her, had been the female’s mate. No wonder she had sent him away after she’d found the Outlander male …
She should have struck the female harder! She knew she hadn’t broken her cheekbone, as she could have. Well, that could be mended. Famekke had promised Lonna he would have the female. Perhaps he would, perhaps he wouldn’t. Perhaps Harrane would not let Lonna have the female and instead forego a more intimate experience for the pleasure of letting the woman witness the male’s suffering. Or perhaps both. There was time to decide on it. Harrane would have the whole ride back to decide. Now it was time to enjoy Shamille’s hospitality. She took another swig. It didn’t matter. She’d dispose of the female, of the runt, and of the traitor Famekke. Harrane cast another glance in the corner. It seemed a waste to kill the male. Perhaps, perhaps not. There was time to decide on it.
Major Carter woke before dawn. Someone was nudging her shoulder. It’d been barely three hours since Shamille’s ‘guests’ had stopped drinking and bawling, and Sam allowed herself to drop into an uncomfortable, wary slumber. Jack O’Neill crumpled by her side, his head resting on her shoulder, she’d kept watch for as long as Harrane was still awake, and she had no intention of giving up on sleep just yet. But the nudging wouldn’t cease, and she finally opened her eyes. In the dying light from the embers she saw bodies littered all over the council hut. The air was stale, redolent with bad breath, released by the grinding buzz of snores. A gnarled hand stopped her from moving. Shamille’s face hovered above her, and Sam noticed the glittering trails of tears on the old woman’s cheeks.
“You’re up early, Grandmother ...”
“Wisht! Don’t wake the boy!” whispered Shamille. “I came to say farewell. I won’t see you again. None of us will be there when you leave. It was agreed that way. I also brought you this.” She set a leather satchel and a small vial on the ground next to Sam and tapped the vial. “This you must give him before you reach Harrane’s village. He will sleep. Nothing will wake him. Promise me you will, no matter how wayward he gets?”
“Good. There’s madness in Harrane. Her eyes are crazed. She will try to harm him. If she doesn’t get discouraged when he’s not awake to feel it, at least he won’t be in pain. The powder in the satchel will keep him going. If he gets too ill, this will help. Pour some of it in water and let him drink.”
“Thank you, Grandmother.”
“Don’t thank me, just do it, child … When they take you beyond the Barrier tomorrow, wait until Harrane’s people are gone, and then move upstream as fast as you can and as stealthily as you can. If the weather stays as bad as it is, you may be able to avoid the Outlanders … It’s all the help I can give you. I wish I could have done more for you and the boy …”
“You’ve done more than enough, Grandmother.” Sam touched the old woman’s face. “I love you.”
“You should tell him that, and soon”, Shamille replied gruffly. “I have to go. Harrane’s guards mustn’t find me here. Be safe. And take care of him. You promised.”
Quiet as a shadow, the matriarch stole from the council hut. Sam felt a wrenching pang of sadness at the thought of never seeing her again. She did love the old woman, and she’d miss her. All she could do now was follow her instructions and hope for the best. Except, given the circumstances, ‘the best’ in real terms still would be far from pleasant or safe. They’d have to tread very carefully. Harrane was dangerous. Just how dangerous had been obvious in the way her entourage jittered around her. It had reminded Sam of some absolute monarch surrounded by a court of wound-up water spaniels who never knew whether they’d be stroked or beaten. There was greed there, an overwhelming thirst for power, and yes, madness. She’d noticed that look, too, and was as scared as Shamille of what Harrane might do to the Colonel …
The only thing that had kept him upright when they were brought to the hut last night was a combination of bravery and outright mulishness. At least he hadn’t done anything stupid when Harrane had hit her, although his laudable restraint might have been aided by the fact that Grandmother’s cane had been firmly planted on his foot at the time. Once they’d been relegated to their corner, Lissele had materialised from nowhere and handed her a mug, saying that the matriarch thought the boy might require some water. Sam had known then that it had to be laced with something. Sure enough, he’d been out cold within half an hour of drinking it … She lightly ran her fingers through his hair, then caught herself, and withdrew her hand. Touching him had become far too easy during those past few days.
“Don’t stop …” he mumbled drowsily. “Got a headache … helps …”
Sam grimaced. “Sorry, sir … Didn’t mean to wake you …”
“You didn’t … I heard talking … Don’t stop … That’s an order …”
Yeah. Right. Smiling, she complied. “How’re you doing, sir?”
“Peachy …” He shifted a little, looked at her, and gently brushed her cheek, which had turned a dark purple. “How’s this?”
“Not immediately fatal, sir. I’ve had worse.”
“So … was that a really crap dream, or did the Lollipop Gang get to meet the Wicked Witch of the West?”
She swallowed a chuckle. “Shush! Don’t make me laugh, sir! … Last thing we wanna do is wake them. They’re all gonna be hung-over and cranky as hell …”
“No dream then … This sucks ...” Having thus delivered a remarkably succinct sit-rep, Colonel O’Neill dropped back into a heavy, drugged sleep.
A few hours later, Sam found herself grateful for every last ounce of rest he’d got that night. The guards had escorted them out onto the square, which was deserted, except for Harrane’s people. All around shutters were closed, huts seemed abandoned, and a graveyard silence hung over the village. Even the rain fell noiselessly now, had eased to a warm, pervasive drizzle. The only sounds were occasional calls between guards, and the echoing cloppety-clop of hooves as steeds were led from the stables. Harrane’s women had assigned Sam a sir’loq, but they expected ‘the male’ to walk. She’d made the mistake of pleading with Harrane, which had resulted in another blow to her already bruised cheekbone, and then Harrane had given her a rope and charged her to tie the Colonel’s hands in front of him. At the brink of refusal, she’d caught his look. He’d never said a word, but the order came across loud and clear. So she’d bound him, as loosely as she dared under the expectant stare of Harrane.
Harrane had taken the free end of the rope, secured it to the harness of Sam’s sir’loq, and told her to mount and follow the women. Then she’d ridden off towards the river and the southern trail. Sam had had no choice but to obey, and she couldn’t even begin to fathom how he’d kept up for the first three miles or so. At least the pace had slowed to a lazy trot after that. Still fast, but he didn’t have to run any longer. She hadn’t looked back. She didn’t have to. She knew perfectly well that every step hurt, and that, by now, he had to be too worn out to walk. Each time he stumbled, the rope stretching across her thigh tightened a fraction. Each time it tightened, she flinched. She’d been flinching a lot during the past hour. Suddenly there was a sharp yank and the rope painfully cut into her leg. He’d fallen. She was dragging him. To hell with orders! He couldn’t order her to kill him.
Abruptly, she reined the sir’loq to a halt and slid from the saddle. Harrane came galloping towards her, shouting, furious, but Sam simply didn’t care anymore. Enough. Glaring at the woman, she firmly said, “I’m going to untie him now, give him water, and take him on the sir’loq with me. You have a choice. You can either let me do this, or he’ll be dead long before we reach your village.”
Harrane’s eyes narrowed as she considered her options, and at last she hissed, “If you must. Be quick about it, and don’t think I’ll forget!”
He lay on his side, soaked with rain and sweat and trembling from fatigue. His wrists were chafed and bleeding, and no matter how careful she was untying the rope, Sam knew she’d hurt him. When it finally came off, he blinked at her and croaked, “I thought I gave you an order …”
“Yep, and we’ve already established how good I am at following those …” Sam unhooked a water flask from her belt, took off its cap and poured some powder from the leather satchel into it.
“Something Shamille gave me for you.”
“Great … instant tea …”
“Don’t argue, sir. Grandmother’s orders … you’ll feel better …”
Getting him onto the sir’loq was less difficult than she’d feared. Now he sat in front of her, ramrod-straight as though he was hoping to win a tournament, and Sam gently slapped his shoulder. “Stop it, sir! You’re not doing Olympic dressage. Apart from anything else, I can’t see a thing …Pretend I’m an armchair. Slouch! Get comfy!”
It was a lot easier said than done, and Sam was only too aware of it. Holding him against her, she could feel him wince with every hoof fall. Harrane noticed after a while, smiled, and spurred her animal to a sharp, jolting canter, compelling everyone to keep pace. He took it silently for an impossibly long while, but at last a first soft moan escaped him, and Sam tilted her head to get a look at his face. He was ashen, eyes screwed tightly shut, a fine film of sweat on his forehead, jaws stubbornly clenched now, to stop himself from making another sound. Damn that woman! She checked the position of the sun, calculated the time of day, the distance they’d have to go. They hadn’t even reached the spot where she’d found him a week ago, which meant that they were barely halfway to Harrane’s village. Another four hours at least. No good. It was far too soon to risk giving him Shamille’s magic potion.
“Hang in there, Colonel … not long now …” Sam whispered, trying to sound encouraging, hating herself for the lie.
This mountaineering lark was getting old at the rate of knots, Dr Jackson had decided. How people could actually enjoy climbing Mount Everest or K2 or even El Capitan time and time again, regardless of any risk to life and limb, was beyond him. Way beyond. Swiss Alps, okay, nice warm cabin, cosy fire, mulled wine, yeah, alright, he could plump for that. There’d still be snow, though … No, all things considered he’d rather be on the Giza Plateau. No mulled wine, but loads of camels, and it was hot, and there’d be interesting - … He walked into Sergeant Wilson’s broad back and yowled when his broken arm became sandwiched between himself and the Sergeant, sending a flare of pain all the way up to his shoulder.
“Quiet!” snarled Wilson.
Daniel scowled. The military really ought to work on this sympathy thing. He poked his head over Wilson’s shoulder to see what had caused the column to throw in an unannounced halt … apart from the urge to annoy Dr Jackson, that was. Somewhere to the right, a little off the trail, Sergeant Peters and Fowler from SG-12 were flat on their bellies, crawling upwind towards a brace of what looked like a larger version of snow geese, hunkering in a drift about fifty yards away. Dinner, by the looks of it. Oh yeah, he’d forgotten to mention: no supermarkets around here either … Jeez, Jackson, snap out of it! You’re starting to sound like Robert Rothman, requiescat in pace … They might as well pick up the scraps this glorious planet tossed them because, slowly but surely, they were running out of MREs. Not that MREs were that much of a culinary delight, but they still were better than the ration bars they’d be reduced to in a couple of days’ time. Those things had the taste and consistency of ice hockey pucks … Hey, ice hockey pucks! Gotta ask Jack about - … Jack … No, let’s not go there … Anyway, now it looked like they were having roast goose for dinner. Just as well. No, scratch ‘roast’. Couldn’t roast a quail on the field cookers. Goose stew, more like.
The two men pounced, flinging their jackets over the geese, there was a flutter of wings and feathers swirling, and then they wrung the birds’ necks. Eventually Peters and Fowler returned with their bag. “’kay, we’ve done the hunting, someone else can do the cooking.”
“Hey guys, get this! Monsieur Bocuse here is chickening … or should that be ‘goosing’? … out on us!” Wilson smirked, and Peters shot him a foul look.
“Give him a break, Sergeant! After all, he’s brought something to stuff your big ugly gob!” Levine said, grinning. “Okay, people, keep moving! I spot a four-star ledge up there. En-suite facilities … not!” His smile faded when he realised that he’d just cracked the same joke Jenkins had two days before he died.
Two hours later, goose stew was bubbling over four field cookers, under the supervision of Major Harper, who apparently was something of a hobby chef and had volunteered for cooking detail. Korok had become agitated when he saw chunk after chunk of meat disappear into the pots, and it had taken Daniel a while to figure out what was going on. In the end it proved to be obvious, really. Hunger had finally made Korok eat the MREs, but he wasn’t going to touch any cooked meat if he could help it. Dr Jackson had salvaged the last raw drumstick, and now the kid sat gnawing away gratefully after having informed them that normally he preferred live meat.
Harper glowered at him with what wasn’t merely the chef’s insulted pride and muttered, “Gee … Hannibal the Cannibal …”
The moniker was to stick, because Daniel’s reply got pre-empted by a shout from Peters. A short time ago, the Sergeant had grabbed his binoculars and wandered over to a vantage point to have a scan of the basin.
“Hey, the girls are coming back!” he hollered and then corrected himself with a quick glance at Teal’c. “I mean, the Amazon ladies …”
Teal’c and Wilson joined him. The clouds had broken a little, and the shafts of evening light piercing through illuminated a long train of riders trotting along the river and beginning to turn east towards the village.
“Lemme have a gander … Hey, get it? Goose … gander …” It provoked an indignant growl from Peters, and Wilson snatched the binoculars and adjusted the focus. “Yikes! Will you look at the one in front … Yeah, I bet an axe would draw sparks on your little face, cutie-pie … Norman Bates’s momma, are you …?”
“Who is NormanBates?” Teal’c enquired.
He never got an answer. “Holy Mary, Mother of God!” The Sergeant jumped straight up in the air like a startled cat and might have toppled over the edge if Peters hadn’t clutched his collar. “Major!! Major Levine!! Jeez …!”
Levine came running, Daniel on his heels. “What the hell is going on, Wilson? You trying to start an avalanche?!”
“Take a peek, sir!” Sergeant Wilson thrust the binoculars at him. “Sixth horse or whatever it is from the point.”
The Major obliged. “Holy Cow … That’s Colonel O’Neill!”
“What the blazes did they do to him? … He looks half dead …”
“What!?!” Daniel again.
Wilson butted in. “Check the woman behind him, sir … Seem familiar?”
“You bet your sweet ass, she does!” Josh Levine grinned. “Well, gentlemen, looks like we’ve found ourselves Major Carter as well.”
“You know, Jackson, for a linguist you’ve got a shockingly limited vocabulary. Here, see for yourself.” Levine handed him the binoculars. While Daniel and Teal’c took turns seeing for themselves, the Major began rapping out orders. “Wilson?!”
“You found ‘em, you get to relay the news. See if you can raise SG-3 and let Major Griff know. His guys should get word to the General. With any kind of luck, we’ll be on our way back with Colonel O’Neill and Major Carter the day after tomorrow. Uh … they might as well ask Hammond to have a medical team on stand-by.”
“Supplies and ammunitions tally. Now!”
“Dr Jackson! … Dr Jackson!!”
“Uh … yeah?” Daniel was still staring after the riders who were now disappearing into a forest.
“Dammit, Jackson, quit ogling the girls! Go and have another chat with Dr Lecter over there. I want a precise estimate of how long it’s gonna take us to get down there tomorrow. No caveboy guesses and wild speculations, I need precise. Talk him through it step by step, if you have to.”
“Okay … uh … his name’s Korok …”
Levine wasn’t listening anymore. “Harper! Hey, Harper, stop pretending you’re Wolfgang Puck and let somebody else twirl the spoon. You and Teal’c and me are gonna take a little stroll back over the ridge down there and eyeball that village. Carter and O’Neill didn’t look like they were going to a baby shower, so we’ll have to think extraction. Come on, Teal’c, let’s go!”
By the time everybody finally had a chance to settle down for dinner, their goose was well and truly over-cooked. Not that they minded. Teal’c and Majors Harper and Levine had come back from their recon having already decided that they were going to attempt a rescue the following night. The forest ended about half a mile from the village, which sat on open terrain, which in turn rendered any stealthy approach impossible during daytime. Under cover of darkness it would be easy enough, though. There were no palisades or other discernible defences, implying that the denizens were either supremely confident or foolishly trusting. General opinion among the team tended towards the latter being unlikely.
Daniel, stuttering with excitement, delivered his report. Korok had given solemn assurances that it would take them the equivalent of seven hours to reach the river from tonight’s camp, and then another hour from the river into the basin. Levine grumbled a little, along the lines of believing it when he saw it, but he had to confess that the youngster’s calculation tallied with what he himself had estimated from the aerial shots. At last he grunted and said, “Right. Hit the sack, people. Long day ahead tomorrow. We leave at first light.”
Whatever had been in Shamille’s potion, it worked like a charm. Once they’d turned away from the river and onto a narrow trail through the forest, Sam had known it couldn’t be far to the village. By then, the Colonel was so exhausted that he complied wordlessly when she asked him to drink the contents of the little vial. Minutes later she felt his body relax for the first time in hours, and she sighed with relief. No matter what else might happen, for the moment all she cared about was that, finally, he wasn’t in pain anymore. In fact, he grew downright cheerful. Before long it dawned on Sam that he was high as a kite.
“Trees …” he giggled, much to his 2IC’s consternation. “Yoo-hoo … Trees …”
Sam groaned. Next he’d discover that the monkeys up in the canopy were more gifted conversationalists and start chattering back at them! That’d be all she needed. “Shut up, sir!”
Colonel O’Neill wasn’t impressed in the slightest. “Trees … Kree! …”
“Shush!” Getting desperate, Sam clamped a hand over his mouth. He gave a happy little snort, bit her, and passed out.
“Holy Hannah!” muttered Major Carter, adjusting her grip around his waist and attempting to shift the bulk of his weight from her right arm to her chest. Jeez, the man weighed a ton. You’d never believe it just looking at him … And somebody should have a word with Grandmother, regarding the use of narcotic substances. Sam couldn’t really say what she’d expected, but a spaced-out CO hadn’t been among her top three guesses.
At least nobody seemed to have picked up on the unlikely comedy routine he’d thrown. Bird-calls and the shrieks of those infernal monkeys must have masked most of it. Besides, the path forced them to ride single-file, and the guard ahead had never bothered to look back. A heavy drop of water, dislodged by its own weight from a twig above, struck the Colonel’s face with an audible ‘plop’. Sam gently dabbed it off, knowing somewhere in the back of her mind that it merely was an excuse to touch him, to make sure he was okay. He’d taken about as much as he could today, but he was well out of it now, and she hoped to God things would stay that way until morning. All she had to do was to try and keep him safe, get him through tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that …
Their train reached Harrane’s village at dusk and came to a halt on the central square. Villagers had turned out in force, lining the place, most of them carrying pitch torches that cast an anxious sallow glow over figures and faces. They appeared well fed, well clad, much more extravagantly than Shamille’s people, and yet something didn’t sit right. Sam couldn’t put a finger on it, until she realised that the tremulous anxiety she’d sensed wasn’t caused by flickering torches. These people exuded fear, sweated it, exhaled it. It was everywhere. In the eyes of women, children, men. They were here because they had to be, not because they welcomed the return of their leader. The subdued gaggle of mates in a remote corner of the square practically genuflected. She scanned their faces again and suddenly spotted Lonna among them. Lonna who perhaps was the only one who didn’t seem afraid. In fact, he seemed satisfied, just like he had … Sam grimaced and guiltily looked down at the unconscious man in her arms. The horrendous taste that night had left in her mouth was second only to Jolinar’s memories of Bynar. And her reasons had been nowhere near as admirable as Jolinar’s …
Harrane had leapt off her sir’loq and climbed onto a stone dais at the centre of the square. Instead of drawing in closer, the bystanders shrank away, as though there lay danger in whatever she might have to say. If she noticed it, she didn’t seem to care. Arms spread in an expansive gesture worthy of the second understudy of Eva Peron in an amateur production of Evita, Harrane launched into her oration.
“Women! I have retrieved those that have violated our laws. Tomorrow they will be taken beyond the Barrier to face the Judgment of the Goddess. If she deems them innocent, they will escape her wrath and may return to us. If not, it will be proof of their crimes. Behold those that would challenge the goddess!”
Throughout this moving little speech, the women responded with the appropriate noises of approval or anger, and their collectively accurate timing spoke of years of practice. This kind of summary trial and condemnation seemed to be a regular occurrence. The smell of fear gradually lifted somewhat, now that they’d been assured that it wouldn’t be any of them going to their deaths. The danger had passed. Their leader’s malice was diverted onto victims nobody would have to mourn.
Harrane bellowed an order, startling Sam out of her musings. Two of the warriors motioned her to dismount and then hauled the Colonel’s limp frame off the sir’loq and in front of the dais. The moment they let go of him, he sagged to the ground like a floppy toy.
Smiling thinly, Harrane stepped from the platform. She bent down, turned him on his back and pulled up his shirt, exposing the stab wound. “He seems to be tired. Perhaps I can wake him …” Straightening up again, she addressed her guards. “Take away the female. Not too far, though. I wish her to observe and learn.” She waited until the guards had pulled Sam aside and, without warning, spun around and delivered a savage kick to the Colonel’s side.
Sam knew she’d screamed. She couldn’t remember it, but the ghost of her outcry still hovered over the square, offsetting the onlookers’ timid silence. He’d never even twitched, and Harrane’s eyes widened in surprise and dismay, but that was hardly any consolation. Sam watched helplessly as the woman kicked him again and a third time with mounting fury.
All at once, Harrane gave up. “Put him in the cage!” she rasped, her face twisted with disappointment.
They dragged him towards a barred enclosure at the edge of the square, while Sam kept bucking in the guards’ grip. She stared after him, vaguely relieved for a second or two. It was over for now and, incredibly, the wound hadn’t reopened. Then relief was drowned out by her worry about just how badly Harrane had injured him. Somehow or other she had to get into that cage, she had to - …
“You should have obeyed me, Outlander. It would have been kinder to kill him when I told you to”, a voice whispered in her ear. “Now he will have to suffer the ire of the goddess.”
Sam’s head whipped around, and she found herself face to face with Famekke. Famekke wasn’t gloating. It was far more terrifying than that. She seemed pained, genuinely saddened that blasphemous obduracy had forced this course of action on her. Sam couldn’t even think of an answer. Reasoning would have been fruitless, anyway. The lunatics had taken over the asylum.
“As the goddess punishes those who defy her, she rewards faithful servants who do her bidding”, Famekke intoned sententiously and turned to the guards. “Come with me, and bring her.”
The women hesitated, nervously looking around for Harrane who’d disappeared. Clearly this hadn’t been part of any instructions they had received from their clan leader, and for a brief instant Sam hoped they’d refuse. She didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to be taken anywhere, except the cage.
Then Famekke became aware of their indecision and hissed, “You dare to disobey the will of the goddess?! Come with me!”
They followed her into a tiny hut on the outskirts of the village. Impassively she ordered the guards to force Sam to the ground, tie her hands to the wooden post that supported the roof, and leave. Once they were on their own, Famekke crouched by Sam’s side, smiling. “As the goddess punishes those who defy her, she rewards faithful servants who do her bidding”, she droned again.
Major Carter had no idea what this was all about until the door opened to admit Lonna.
There’d been an interminable moment when she was tempted not to resist. This wasn’t just about her. If she was killed here tonight, chances were that Colonel O’Neill would die, too. He was in no shape to make it to the ‘gate on his own. That thought was worse than the thought of Lonna … Then she felt Lonna’s groping hands on her, trailing down over her stomach, pulling at her shirt, and, together with a wave of insane revulsion, instinct and training kicked in. She couldn’t take it willingly. Not again. She’d just have to avoid getting killed.
Grunting, Lonna heaved himself up to unfasten his belt. The next thing he knew was Sam’s right shin crashing into the side of his skull. The impact knocked him over, and he howled in rage and shock. Apparently this hadn’t been part of the goddess’s reward as advertised. Then the belt was in his hands, and he lashed out at her, leaving a burning welt across her face and the inside of her left arm. She ignored it. That she could cope with. But she had to prevent him from getting close enough to pin her down. If he managed to do that, she’d be defenceless. Famekke stood in a corner of the hut, eyes closed, chanting, the same ode, lament, hymn she’d sung that day in the arena. The situation was so unimaginably grotesque that Sam would have laughed if it hadn’t been for Lonna’s belt slapping down on her in time with the chant. If he thought he could beat her into submission, he had another thing coming. Her body folding like a switchblade, she snapped her legs up and both her feet connected with Lonna’s face. He dropped the belt, clasped his hands over his nose for a second, and with a roar of fury flung himself on top of Sam. She managed to knee him in the groin, but she knew then that she would lose. One hard, bloodied hand closed around her throat, and while her head began swimming from lack of air, Sam felt his other hand, groping and squeezing again. Hot, stinking breath on her face, and he was saying something, and she couldn’t hear beyond the pounding and rushing of blood in her ears … Don’t pass out! If you pass out, it’s over! … Black blotches, all she could see were spinning black blotches, and that other hand pushed at her legs, and that body squirmed and ground on top of hers …
Suddenly there was a crash and shouting voices, surreally loud. Moments later the pressure on her throat disappeared. Dying shrieks of a kol’raq, the squirming and grinding stopped, and the body melted into a limp, dead weight. Sam snatched a deep, sobbing gulp of air, and as her vision cleared she saw a knife blossoming in Lonna’s back like a lethal flower. How? Blinking, she looked up, and steaming red wetness spattered in her face. Famekke, on her knees, held up by two guards, blood spurting from a slit throat. A sacrifice to the goddess. The thought took hold for an instant, then dissolved in a swirl of sickness. More guards, more hands, and the ties on Sam’s wrists were cut. Snatches of conversation. Dispose of the traitor. Dispose of the runt. Not a rescue. A trap. Trap for Famekke and Lonna. Dispose of the female. Now they would kill her.
They hadn’t. They’d dragged her out from under Lonna’s corpse, pulled her to her feet and out of the hut. A trek through the village, back to the square. Creaking of metal bolts, groaning of hinges. Somebody pushed her, and Sam tumbled into the cage. Its bottom was a good two-and-a-half feet below ground level. After a while she sat up awkwardly, her body stiff and sore, shuddering. But it could have been worse, so much worse. He’d almost … Something brushed against her hand, and she instinctively recoiled. The thought of being touched by anything or anybody was unbearable. Then she heard soft skittering and high-pitched little squeals. Skret’naqs. Oh God, skret’naqs …
“What the fuck else?!” Sam Carter roared.
The outburst made her feel better somehow. Anger. No. Cold, boiling rage. Drizzle had turned into a steady downpour, and the ground had become slick and muddy. She was getting drenched. Good. Anything to wash away Lonna’s stench, Famekke’s blood, Lonna’s blood. Like she’d washed away the blood of the kol’raq in the river, the day she’d found - …
Colonel O’Neill! Dammit, what was she thinking of?! Where was he? He had to be in here somewhere … The guards had set a small lamp outside the cage, just within arm’s reach, its puny flame guttering in the rain. It wouldn’t burn for long, and surely they hadn’t provided it out of the goodness of their hearts … Never mind. Fingers fumbling, Sam angled for the lamp, grabbed hold of it at last, and turned around. He lay on his stomach, a mere three feet from the door, and it was sheer dumb luck that she hadn’t fallen on top of him when they’d thrown her in the cage. And now she knew why the lamp had been left. They’d wanted her to see him like this. Skret’naqs were crawling all over him, huddling in little clumps, feeding.
“Leave him alone!” Another bout of rage shook her, burning fury at what had been done to him, and she grabbed a fistful of the thimble-sized rodents and crushed them. They died with shrill shrieks, like Lonna had, filling her with a satisfaction so intense it terrified her. Revolted, she dropped the small carcases, wiped her hand on her skirt and began sweeping away the remaining skret’naqs. The animals scuttled to their burrows with squeals of protest.
He was bleeding from dozens of tiny bites, the bulk of them concentrated on his lower back and legs, where shirt and trousers had ridden up, exposing bare skin. Sam knew it looked worse than it actually was, but the thought didn’t help much right now. Unlike rats, skret’naqs didn’t chew off your limbs. They were too small, for starters, and they weren’t scavengers. They were vampires, leeches in rodent-form. Disgusting, yes; a nuisance, yes; but they weren’t dangerous. Sometimes the bites would get infected, but mostly they bled and hurt, for hours to come. Which clearly had been the point of the exercise.
Cursing, she put down the lamp, sat next to the Colonel, and checked his pulse. He’d be fine. Bitten, soaking wet, cold, but he’d get through this. She gently rolled him on his back, lifted his shoulders and cradled his head in her lap. Distractedly stroking his face, Sam kept watch. Sleep wasn’t an option anyway. Much better to take care of him than to get trapped in nightmares. As long as she took care of him, she didn’t feel quite so helpless. Helpless. Useless. If those guards hadn’t busted up the party, Lonna would have raped her, and there wasn’t a damn thing Major Carter, USAF, could have done about it. Useless. She laced her fingers over Jack’s chest. Holding him close gave her a vague sense of safety and purpose.
Sometime after dawn he began stirring, and slowly reached for her hands.
“Hey, sir …”
“That’s the last time I go on vacation with you, Major …”
It actually made her grin. “I was thinking of writing to the tour operator myself … How are you doing, sir?”
Sam didn’t believe it for a second. She still had her water flask and Shamille’s powder. Just as well that Lonna hadn’t - … Not now, dammit! … “Think you can sit up, sir?” she asked, and after a moment’s deliberation emptied the whole content of the satchel into the container.
He pushed himself up shakily and would have toppled over again if Sam hadn’t steadied him. “Hangover”, he muttered, squinting at her. Suddenly his eyes widened in shock. “Carter? What happened? And don’t tell me I should see the other guy!”
“The other guy’s dead, sir. Drink this!” Sam handed him the flask, and he took two, maybe three sips. She thought she heard him gag, but he kept the water down, which was good news. “Have some more …”
“In a while … If memory serves correctly, I think I asked you what happened, Major.”
“Harrane happened”, she replied tersely. “She got annoyed when she lost her date for the evening, roughed you up some …”
“Dammit, Sam! Not me! You!”
“I’m fine, Colonel.”
Not long after sunrise the local charm school graduates had returned, released him and Carter from the cage, and taken them on a morning stroll, escorted by about twenty warriors on foot, with Harrane riding in front. Compared to the day before, the pace was leisurely, and Jack hadn’t thought he’d ever be so grateful for anything. About two hours into the march, they’d reached the river and turned south, upstream, walking towards the rock face of the Barrier Wall. It looked like a great, big ‘No Exit’ sign to Jack, but you never knew. Maybe the girls were planning on crawling up the waterfall, or treating them to a spot of free-climbing. Which could be interesting, to say the least, considering the state he was in.
Carter had insisted on checking him over. Complete waste of time. He could have drawn her a map of where exactly the bruises were, without even peeking. Much to his delight she’d discovered the cracked rib … could have drawn that one into the map, too … but he’d managed to conceal the rest of it, partly because, by now, he was more or less inured to the constant soreness. No point in letting her know that it’d deteriorated to the power of ten. The vicious stinging of the bites those little critters had left paled by contrast. At any rate it might have been far more useful if he’d checked Carter over. Except, her reaction when he’d proposed to do just that technically qualified as insubordination … She looked like hell, and there was something she wasn’t telling him. ‘I’m fine, Colonel’, said Colonel’s ass!
Jack tripped and gasped at the pain clawing through his side. He’d been feeling light-headed when he woke up, and since then the dizziness had moved up to a textbook case of nausea. The nausea had just got four notches worse. Cold sweat. Oh God, he loved cold sweat! Always a good sign … Snap out of it, Jack! … Carter’s hand settled on his arm.
“I’m okay … Gotta watch where I’m going …” Kinda tricky when you’re seeing double … Some disgruntled higher power rewarded his white lie with another stumble, and this time he doubled over and started retching. Carter’s hands again, lightly rubbing his back. It didn’t help much, but her touch somehow anchored him to a world outside this gelatinous bubble of sickness.
“Colonel? Colonel! … We’ve got to keep moving …”
Her voice came from a galaxy far, far away and sounded urgent. With reason. If he took any longer over losing his non-existent breakfast, the natives would get restless, especially Hatchet Face in front. The water flask floated into view, and he drank, not sure whether anything would stay down, but it was worth a try, if only to get rid of the taste in his mouth ... Carter, draping his arm over her shoulders, slipping hers around his waist, and then he was walking … staggering … whatever … again towards this wall of rock that got steeper with every step he took.
He shouldn’t be feeling so cold. Sometime around dawn it had stopped raining, the clouds had broken, and in the morning sun their sodden clothes had dried quickly enough. Now it was getting on towards noon and, rationally, he knew it had to be hot. Unfortunately, his body didn’t subscribe to that theory … Carter was trying to pull his arm out of its socket … That’s probably a court-martialable offence, Carter … You gotta be kidding! … Climb up there? … Don’t wanna climb up to where Hatchet Face is waiting … For cryin’ out loud, pull yourself together, flyboy! … No, caves suck! … Especially when they’ve got Hatchet Face in them … Besides, caves are cold … It’s a cave-y thing, trust me on this, Carter … God, she looked awful! Something in her eyes … ‘kay, if it makes you feel better, I’ll climb … Awful … Sam, what is it you’re not telling me? … Oh come on, Carter, don’t make me drink water again … ‘kay, if it makes you feel better …
It wasn’t a cave. It was a tunnel. A long tunnel. An endless tunnel. And it was getting colder by the second. Genuinely cold, this time. He could tell, because Hatchet Face and the girls had upped the pace. They were getting cold, too. The ground was smooth now, and he still was stumbling. Something was wrong. Really wrong. He’d felt a little less queasy after he’d had some more water, but it was beginning to wear off. Carter was bracing him again, clutching him so tight that his side screamed blue murder. She was getting cold, too … Scared … Sam, what’s wrong? … Light? There was light up ahead …
The tunnel spat them out not far from the point where Jack had started on his travels a few days ago. Snow and ice and rock, and it was every bit as freezing as he remembered. More stumbling, no idea how far, along a path by the river, merciful warmth where Carter’s body touched his. And then there were steps hewn from the ice, and they were herded up, up, up … Oh God, he really, really didn’t want to climb anything ever again … At least Carter wasn’t doing the arm-pulling-thing … She was still there, beside him, warm … A ledge, a boulder, a metal ring set into it … Wonder if that can be classed as an artefact? … Daniel would know … Hatchet Face shouting. Somebody brought out ankle-irons and chained Carter and him to the artefact. The look in Carter’s eyes changing to stunned and hopeless, like a new picture appearing when you turned a kaleidoscope … Something wrong, Sam, what’s wrong? … If only he didn’t feel so woolly-headed … He couldn’t for the life of him figure out just what was so bad about not having to move anymore …
Hatchet Face holding a knife all of a sudden … Yep, that would qualify as ‘bad’ … She seemed to have trouble deciding whom to start on, judging by the way she was staring from him to Carter, back to him, back to … Move, Jack! Move, dammit! … Stay the fuck away from her! … Oh yeah, throwing a punch at the woman had been refreshing. Shame it hadn’t connected … She’d side-stepped, he’d ended up face-down in the snow, yelping … Mission accomplished … He was the target now. Strong fingers around his wrist, twisting his arm to breaking point, the tip of a knife slicing all the way down from his elbow to where those fingers clutched. Perversely, this entirely new source of pain cleared his head a little. He wanted to ask where the next tattoo would go, but Hatchet Face and the charm school girls upped and left …
They were alone now.
She crawled over to him. “I blew it, sir … Useless …”
Major Levine’s team had broken camp at some unspeakable time of night and got underway at daybreak. After about an hour’s march they turned south, away from the basin at last, and began their slow descent towards the river. Between his aching wrist and the relief of knowing that Sam and Jack were still alive, Daniel hadn’t been able to get much sleep. Notwithstanding, he felt like running, but he knew better than to give in to his impatience. Levine probably would tether him to Teal’c at the first sign of undue friskiness. So he tried to adjust his pace to that set by Korok and the Major in front and to think of something engrossingly tedious. Cataloguing Bronze Age pottery shards from East Anglia seemed to do the trick. Much like counting sheep, except pottery shards didn’t leap over fences … Dr Jackson became so fascinated with the image of crumbly, russet bits of earthenware vaulting across lattice-work and bah-ing that he forgot to watch where he was going, slipped on a sheet of ice, and tobogganed down the hill on his backside until he collided with Levine.
Rolling his eyes, the Major helped him up. “Just out of curiosity, how does Colonel O’Neill handle your youthful exuberance?”
“With great difficulty and much forbearance, MajorLevine”, came a smooth, dark voice from behind.
Dr Jackson did a double take, but the Jaffa’s expression remained inscrutable. “Couldn’t have put it better myself, Teal’c”, he grumbled, suppressing a grimace at the little avalanche of throbs the tumble had shaken loose in his arm. If he let on, it’d only earn him a chorus of I told you so’s. Not undeservedly, but still, he could do without it. Once nobody was looking, he’d take an aspirin. Or seven. “Can we go on now? Korok’s gonna be out of sight in a minute.”
Levine cursed. “Teal’c, catch up with Hannibal, will ya? Jackson, try to stay with me, alright?”
“His name’s Korok”, groused Daniel.
Around mid-day they reached a thin outcrop, almost like a balcony, and took a short break. For the first time they had their goal in sight. Five hundred feet below them churned the river. From there on out the descent became taxing and dangerous, as the slope dropped off steeply into a gully. Struggling to keep up with the Major, Daniel staggered and slithered along, gritting his teeth, periodically reminding himself that, in the event of another nose-dive, bracing himself with his dodgy arm would be a very, very bad idea. He concentrated so intensely on his footing that he never noticed Teal’c who trailed him like a mother hen, poised to prevent the younger man’s fall, should such a calamity threaten to recur. When the claustrophobic chasm between icy walls finally sloped off and opened out onto a rock-strewn shore, Dr Jackson felt like he’d never again in his life be able to walk another straight step. Just when had his inner thighs turned to wobbling, burning Jell-o?
The team assembled around Levine, and for a few moments they all gawked at the river with a mixture of excitement and dismay. It had been a week-long, all but gratuitous fool’s errand; they’d lost two good people along the way, and now they’d ended up barely a mile from where they’d started. As far as sorties went, this one had been one murderous, prolonged, platinum-plated bitch.
“There!” Korok pointed at a cleft in the rocks, a few hundred yards downstream, near to where the river was swallowed by the mountains. “Cave is there. You enter cave and follow. You come to women.”
“We come to women, sunshine!” Major Levine informed him. “We! Because we don’t wanna risk you sending us to where your buddies are waiting, do we now? Come on, Hannibal!”
“Korok”, Dr Jackson corrected stubbornly, frowning.
Levine grabbed the kid’s arm and pushed him ahead. Korok gave a low grunt in the back of his throat, a sound that they’d learnt to interpret as a sign of profound displeasure or fear on his part, and grudgingly moved on. Suddenly, he stopped, his head snapped around, and he sniffed the air.
“Blood”, grinned Korok. “Smell blood!”
“That’s nice”, Major Harper growled. “Now let’s move! We don’t wanna disturb your canni-pals while they’re getting eaten!” He set off in the direction the kid had indicated.
“Not mine. Yours.”
Major Levine had had enough. They’d have to get going in order to be in position for the rescue by nightfall. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Shift it! Next you’re telling us that -”
“Wait!” Daniel stared at the captive. “Hannib- … uh … Korok. What are you saying? One of us is bleeding? Somebody hurt themselves?”
“One of you.” Then Korok jerked his head at the group. “Not one of you!”
“Where?! Show us!”
“No. Not go. Holy place. Others come.”
By then Teal’c had grasped what Daniel was driving at, joined them in two strides and gripped Korok by the scruff of the neck. “You will show us! Without delay!”, he boomed, shaking the young tribesman like a not quite housebroken puppy.
“I show. I show.” Korok seemed to consider a bunch of hungry man-eaters to be far less hazardous to his health than one irritated Jaffa. Eagerly, he wiggled from Teal’c’s grasp and loped off upstream, Teal’c and Dr Jackson on his heels.
Levine stared after them, open-mouthed. “I’m guessing we follow”, he said at last and waved the rest of the team to do just that.
Their prisoner ran past the gully they’d climbed down to reach the river and then took a sharp turn up a neighbouring ravine, Daniel and the Jaffa still in his wake. Five minutes later they rounded a bend, and a quarter of a mile further into the rift they could see a winding flight of stairs, clearly man-made. Korok refused to go on. Pointing upwards, he whined, “Holy place.”
“Alright, alright, Korok. I hear you. Holy place”, Dr Jackson muttered and headed towards the stairs in the ice.
With a rapid, somewhat less than elegant lunge, Teal’c caught a fistful of Daniel’s jacket. “DanielJackson. I advise you to await reinforcements. And I advise you, savage, to cease moving”, he added without even looking back. Korok froze, abandoning his escape attempt. Teal’c turned around. “I would surmise that the people in what you call ‘holy place’ are of your tribe. Am I correct?”
The kid grunted, evidently assessing his chances of outrunning this towering nemesis who could taste lies. “My tribe come there. Yes!” he spat at last. “Powerful tribe. Women know. Women come and bring food. My tribe come and eat food”
All of a sudden, Daniel felt his stomach knotting with fear. “They have brought … food … today?”
“My people there. Food there”, Korok answered with a satisfied sneer.
“Teal’c, we have to -”
“What the hell is going on?!” Levine and the others had finally caught up, and the Major was not impressed. “Have you two lost your minds?”
“Korok said it was one of us, but not one of us, not of the team, in other words”, Daniel burst out. “Which means, it’s either Sam or Jack or both … And they’re not alone up there … We’ve got to -”
Almost reluctantly, the Jaffa interrupted, “MajorLevine, I suggest we proceed with extreme vigilance. Korok has attempted to lead us into a trap in order to augment his tribe’s meal.”
“So who’s to say that he hasn’t been lying about any of our people being up there? For all we know, O’Neill and Carter are safely in the basin, and Korok’s guys set up a cosy little ambush upstairs.”
“What if he’s telling the truth?! Dammit, Levine, you’ve seen what they do!”
“I have, Dr Jackson”, snapped the Major. “One damn good reason not to go running off like your pants are on fire! We’ll do this by the numbers!” He turned around to the men. “Peters, grab a couple of Harper’s guys and stay with Hannibal. Sit on him if you have to, but make sure he doesn’t get any ideas about warning his buddies. Harper, you, Wilson, and the rest of the men, find a way up along the side and secure our flank. Jackson, Teal’c, you’re with me. Use the zats if you have to and keep your heads up. Clear?”
They nodded, and Levine signalled his team to move out.
Sam had kept repeating the two syllables under her breath, the bass line to a tune of rage and frustration she couldn’t control any longer. End of journey. She’d dragged the Colonel up here through two days of pure misery, stupidly clinging to the belief that, once they got beyond the Barrier, they’d have a chance, however slim, of making it home. Instead they’d die. And they wouldn’t go out with a bang but with a drawn-out whimper. Of course Harrane hadn’t taken any risks. Of course she’d made sure that the ‘Judgment of the Goddess’ truly was a death sentence, and clan law be damned. And for all her oh so brilliant mind, Sam Carter had been blind to the possibility.
“Useless!” She was saying it out loud now, tearing at the chains as she had for the past ten minutes, knowing there was no hope of breaking them without tools, knowing that she was losing it and unable to stop. “Useless! Useless! Useless! Use -”
“Can it! Now!” Colonel O’Neill had pushed himself to his feet, leaning against the boulder, trying to shout. It amounted to nothing more than a hoarse croak. “That’s an order, Major!”
“I blew it …”, she breathed.
“Yeah, I got that part, Carter. Now can we start considering options?”
“No options, sir.”
“Nonsense …” His legs gave, and he started sliding sideways.
Sam steadied him and carefully lowered him to sit, letting his back rest against the rock. It probably would have been wiser to make him lie down, but the ground was freezing. He shivered, and she took off her jacket and tucked it around his shoulders, for all the good it would do. “Sir, I know it’s cold, but I’d like you to drink what’s left of the water.”
“If it makes you feel better, Carter …”
“Yeah, it does …” It was the last of Shamille’s medicine. No more defences. No more remedies. No escape. It was over. Time to stop fighting. She watched him drink and knew he’d understood it as well. “Sir? Before long the Outlanders … the furry guys with the clubs … are gonna be here.”
“So they’re gonna hit us …”
“They won’t have to. We can’t run. They’ll just have dinner.”
“Damn … Didn’t bring my tux … Think we’ll be invited?”
“Definitely … We are dinner, sir.”
“Oh … Guess it’ll be nice and warm in that pot …”
“No pot, sir … More like … sushi …”
“Oh …”, he murmured again. “Sam? … I’m cold …”
She wrapped her arms around him and held him, listened to his laboured breathing, gave in to an unreal, almost peaceful sense of time standing still, while images lazily tumbled through her mind. Her father, comprehending that he would live; Daniel, tripping over his own words in the thrill of discovery; Teal’c, allowing himself a rare smile; Jack … Jack, right here, right now, life relentlessly ebbing from him. Infinitely gently, she tightened her embrace, and felt his fingers close around hers.
Suddenly they were there. Without a sound, without warning, they’d crept onto the ledge like ghosts, gliding out of nowhere. Halting for a while, they stared, animal eyes in human faces. A bone club hit the frozen ground with a dull thud. Then another. Then another. Thud-thud. Thud-thud. Drumming, hollowly, rhythmically, like heartbeat. They were purring now, tongues softly clicking as they began drawing closer. Twenty of them, maybe more, circling greedily, swaying, inching their way towards the boulder, towards the prey. Click-click. Thud-thud. Click-click. Thud-thud. Click-
With a strength she hadn’t thought he possessed anymore, the Colonel broke from her hold, pushed her over and rolled on top of her, pinning her down, covering her body. For a brutal, absurd moment of panic, Sam was back in the hut, stiffened in terror. Then the haze lifted, and it wasn’t Lonna above her, it was Jack, pale and determined, trying to protect her the only way he could.
“No, sir …” Sam hadn’t meant for it to come out like a sob.
“Don’t move, Carter … please … it hurts …”
The thudding had stopped. They’d retreated when their prey had stirred. All motion suspended, as though a film had stalled, they waited, tongues clicking nervously, animal eyes fixed and staring. Then a club fell, and a foot moved. Thud-thud. Purring. Purring, and they were closing in again. Click-click. One step. Click-click. Another. Thud-thud. Sniffing excitedly. Thud-thud. Click-click. One of them darted forward, snarled, and poked the prey.
A light puff of breath stroking her neck. He had gasped when probing knuckles dug into his side. Other fists and fingers followed, getting confident. Poking. Searching. Sam heard slow, wet, faintly rasping noises. Tongues on skin. She felt him shudder, knew they were licking blood from the cut to his arm and the wounds the skret’naqs had left on his back. Fabric ripping. Abruptly his body tensed, and a cry of agony was squashed against her shoulder.
Two steps at a time and as quietly as he could Levine negotiated the steep flight of stairs, Teal’c and Daniel right behind him. Two dozen or so paces from the top, the Major slowed to a halt, raising his hand. Someone was above them, no doubt about it. They could hear it now. Humming and clucking, muffled drumbeat, bounced into thick, pulsating texture by the echo in the ravine.
“Ambush?” mouthed Dr Jackson, eyebrows arched halfway up his forehead.
Major Levine glared daggers at him and broke into a rapid sequence of hand signals. Not for the first time, Daniel was glad that Jack had drilled this sign language into him until they’d both been slightly frayed around the edges and about a hair away from contracting RSI. What he gathered of the tactics now revealed that Levine had discarded the ambush theory. Teal’c gave a minute nod, fell back behind Daniel, and the Major started moving again. They crawled towards the top as though the steps were made of Limoges china, Levine on point, Dr Jackson next, scanning the mountain above them for lookouts, and the Jaffa bringing up the rear. To the casual observer their slow-motion pas de trois up the stairs would have looked like tai chi gone seriously pear-shaped.
His head about to crest the last step, Levine signalled another stop. Daniel and Teal’c froze in their tracks. The drums and hums and clucks had become louder, more frenzied, more greedy. Whatever was going on up on the ledge, it didn’t sound like it was going to be over any time soon. Millimetre by millimetre, the Major raised his head and sneaked a glimpse over the edge of the stairs.
Without warning, Levine jerked back, sickly white, and Daniel thought he saw him suppress a heave. “Major? Wha-”
A scream of utter terror, and the voracious cacophony of drums and stomping snapped off.
It answered Daniel’s question. Both he and Teal’c had recognised the voice.
Trembling with shock Sam had yanked her arms free and managed to roll both of them over to the side. Snow melting through her vest, the bitter sting of ice on her bare skin, her fingers snatching at the coarse weave of Jack O’Neill’s shirt, wet with blood, cooling fast, his body still warm, still, still, too still, dead or unconscious, unconscious or dead, she couldn’t say, couldn’t say, couldn’t hear him breathe under the din of clubs and tongues and feet.
Leap back. Stare, watch. The prey had moved. Watch, stare. Their circle widened and shrank again, like the living organism it was, spinning drums and clicks and shuffles, widening, shrinking, never ceasing, growing louder, growing restless with anticipation. One broke from the round, lurching in time with the clubs, clicks, shuffles, grunt-grunt, click-click, probe, poke, bite, feed, kill.
The thing extended its paws to touch the Colonel, and Sam screamed, lashed out blindly. The back of her hand connecting with bone, the thing yelping. And silence. A slow, collective expulsion of breath. The harsh moan of a monstrous animal. And silence. And a club striking the ground, another, another, another, starting all over again. Time. So much time. They had all the time. Clicking, stomping. Keep hitting the thing. Keep hitting it. The thing impervious, purring, clicking, its fists locked in Jack’s hair, around his arm, pulling, tearing, and she couldn’t hear him breathe, body still warm, dead, dying, she couldn’t say, out of time, hold on to him. Don’t let him go. Don’t let go.
And then a hole burst open in the thing’s forehead, red and round like a tiny mouth, soundlessly shrieking.
An as yet embryonic thought told Josh Levine that he’d just as soon forget what he’d witnessed seconds ago. As it was, he had trouble deciding whether Colonel O’Neill was hopelessly brave or hopelessly stupid. Panting to keep down endless ripples of nausea, his mind cart-wheeling like a flight of inebriated bats, the Major struggled to clear his head. The drumming resumed, planting him firmly back in the situation and its contingencies. Daniel Jackson staring at him, questioning, eyes like bruises in a terrified face. Teal’c, outwardly unaffected, that eyebrow raised in query, expecting his orders, ready to act. The drumming continued, growing louder. Levine had counted about twenty cavemen, none of whom had paid any attention to what was transpiring on the stairs behind them. It was about the only advantage he, Daniel, and Teal’c had, and they’d better use it now if they were hoping to stop this. He gave a slight nod, and the Jaffa started sliding up the stairs, a tall, looming shadow.
They’d fanned out onto the ledge, assessing the situation. Huddled against a boulder, Sam Carter was fighting a losing tug o’ war against one of the cavemen who tried to drag O’Neill away from her. The whole class of cannibals looked on in fascination, their percussion section tireless in providing the musical accompaniment. It was now or never. Levine raised his sidearm, knowing it would leave him at a disadvantage, but the discharge from a zat-gun would travel through the intended target and into the Colonel, and right now the shock might kill him. If he was still alive ... At that moment Levine heard the report of a 9mm automatic, thunderously loud a mere ten feet away from him. Dr Jackson had had the same idea and fired. Carter’s adversary broke to his knees. A staggered look spread across the archaeologist’s face, as though he’d never hoped to hit the boulder, let alone the man. The Major gave an involuntary, fleeting grin, and then all hell broke loose.
As howling cavemen whirled around and hurled themselves at the intruders, strings of blue energy from Teal’c’s zat’nikatel spun over and around the first two assailants who came flying at Major Levine and Dr Jackson. The men went down, pole-axed, buying Levine the few seconds he needed to ready his own zat. From the corner of his eye, he saw Carter putting herself between Colonel O’Neill and the mayhem around them. So she’d kept her head. Good, let her take care of him. One less thing to worry about. The Major took out a smartass tribesman who’d tried to blindside Teal’c, and Jackson despatched another, missing a third by about a mile. Never mind. Daniel had been bang on target when it counted. Where the devil was Harper?! On cue, Harper’s group appeared over a crest and opened fire on the cavemen who skittered back and forth on the ledge like headless chickens. Daniel clocked the arrival of reinforcements, took off and made a bee-line for his friends, heedless of Levine’s shouted warning, by some miracle avoiding to get hit in the crossfire.
Within minutes, it was over and most of the cavemen dead or disabled. A few others had fled. Harper and his men saw to it that those merely stunned were tied up. Teal’c and Levine joined Dr Jackson, who knelt at a fair distance from the boulder, trying to talk to Major Carter.
When he saw them approach he came to his feet, a confused, troubled crease between his eyebrows. “I don’t think she recognises us. She won’t let me anywhere near her … and she went berserk when I tried to touch Jack.”
Sam sat on the ground, hugging the Colonel’s lifeless form to her like a doll, rocking him gently.
Slowly, and at an arm’s length away from her, Teal’c crouched and waited out the eternity it took her to look at him. “MajorCarter. Do you know who I am?”, he asked softly, as though he were speaking to a child.
“Will you say my name?”
“I am indeed.” He inclined his head, knowing the familiar gesture would soothe her, and smiled a little. “Then you must know that I would not harm you or O’Neill. Is that not so?”
It earned him another nod, but at the same time she was tightening her hold on the Colonel. “He’s dying, Teal’c”, she whispered.
“Perhaps not, MajorCarter. Will you permit MajorLevine to examine O’Neill? I give you my word that he shall not be harmed.”
She pondered that for a few moments. “Nobody’ll hurt him?”
“I give you my word. MajorLevine is a trained paramedic.”
“I shall unfasten your chains. Please do not be alarmed.” Teal’c rose and primed and fired his staff weapon twice, separating the chains close to the ring that connected them to the rock. Then he turned back to Sam. “Will you permit me, MajorCarter?”, he asked again.
Finally, Sam loosened her grasp, and Teal’c picked up his friend. He carried him to where Sergeant Wilson had spread a couple of thermal blankets and cautiously set him down. Levine went to work, unbuttoning Colonel O’Neill’s shirt, blanching at the lurid display on his torso. First things first, though. The Major rolled him over, grimacing, to get to the injury on his back. It was a deep, shredded bite wound, like the ones they’d found on the others’ bodies. Tissue was torn and missing, and Levine fought down a burst of fury at the thought of having been too late to prevent it. He could only cling to the vague hope that O’Neill had already been unconscious … and that the son of a bitch caveman had choked on it! Cursing quietly, he disinfected and bandaged the wound, aware even then that this probably wouldn’t be enough. Human bites were notoriously prone to infection. With Wilson’s help, he turned Colonel O’Neill over again and examined his chest and side. A swelling just below the ribcage made him frown, and he reached for a small electronic BP scanner.
Sam stood by, never taking her eyes off the Colonel, or Levine for that matter. Teal’c knew better than to try and keep her away. Instead he went to fetch another blanket and carefully draped it around her.
Levine looked up at them. “Major, I need to know a few things. You up to answering some questions?”
“Yes … Major …”
“Okay. Good. Now this here, what I presume to be a stab wound, looks alright. Whoever took care of it did a crack job … I need to know when that happened.” He pointed at the bruises that mottled the area around the injury.
“Yesterday”, Sam said.
“Can you be more specific?”
“Yesterday … late afternoon … He’s got a broken rib”, she volunteered suddenly, her features faintly animated at last, as though she were gradually emerging from a stupor.
“I noticed, Carter, but that’s nothing to worry about. This is the problem.” Levine nodded at the contusions again. “Looks like whatever caused that also injured the Colonel’s spleen. I don’t think it’s a severe rupture. If it were, he’d be dead by now. But he’s haemorrhaging, and has been for quite some time.” He gazed at Major Carter, talking to her calmly, taking his cue from how Teal’c had handled her. “See, Major, one of the things that’s happened is his blood pressure dropped pretty badly. It means, right now I have to get him on fluids to stabilise him. It also means poking him with needles -”
“It’s … it’s okay …” Sam blinked. “Do what you have to, Major … I’m sorry, I -”
“Hey, don’t apologise, Carter. Tell you the truth, if I’d been in your shoes, I’d probably be screaming for a week …” Levine realised that he’d meant every word of it. He tried to blank out the vivid memory of human teeth tearing at human skin and muscle. “Okay, let’s do this.”
Fifteen minutes later, they had the Colonel on an IV, his injuries were bandaged, and he was being tucked into a sleeping bag to keep him warm. Sam had been watching throughout, clutching a mug of hot coffee somebody had rustled up from a thermos. Daniel hovered near her, wary of approaching.
Levine rose. “Major Carter, I’d like to have a look at you as well. You don’t -”
“No! … We haven’t got time for that. I’m fine. We’ve got to get the Colonel out of here.”
A blind man could see that she was far from fine, deeply in shock, and the angry welts and bruises on her face and arms proclaimed that she’d been badly beaten, if not worse, in the none too recent past. Major Levine was still struggling to persuade her when he got help from a source he’d have voted the least likely without so much as batting an eyelid.
“Dammit, Carter …”, a barely audible voice slurred from the sleeping bag. “Do as he … says … ’s an order …”
She jerked to life like a marionette whose strings had been pulled, a bright smile pasted on, rambling, her voice agonisingly cheerful and a trifle too loud. “Hey, sir. You won first prize: you get to be carried out. The rest of us have to walk. Don’t worry about me, sir. I’m great. Hey, we’ll be home in a bit. And guess -”
“Drop the act, Carter … doesn’t work on me … I invented it. Let Levine check you out … Levine?”
“Colonel? … Look, sir, you really shouldn’t be talking -”
“I can …walk …”
Sensational, thought Josh Levine. Another one. As though Major Carter alone wasn’t ornery enough already. “With all due respect, sir. Cut the crap! You’re in no shape even to sit, never mind walking, and I don’t give a damn about your pride. Sir! Whether you like it or not, Teal’c’s gonna carry you, and I suggest you don’t fight him. You’ll lose!” Here goes your record, airman … He sighed and waved Sam along. “Carter? You heard the Colonel. Over here.”
O’Neill’s gaze settled on Daniel. “Who … who put him in charge?” he whispered.
“The US Air Force, Jack.” Daniel gave a small grin.
“What? … Him too? … Hey, Danny … What happened to you?”
“Banged my arm a little. You know what I’m like … Nice to see you, Jack, but you shouldn’t talk.”
“I am here, O’Neill.”
“You’re not gonna do … as he says … right?”
“I shall indeed.”
“For God’s sake, will you shut up, Jack?!”
By the time Major Carter’s injuries were taken care of, Jack O’Neill had shut up. He’d passed out again. Levine breathed a little sigh of gratitude and took Major Harper and Sergeant Wilson aside.
“Listen up, guys”, he murmured. “I didn’t want to mention this in front of Carter, because she’s shaken up enough already … There’s no way Colonel O’Neill’s gonna survive a trek to the ‘gate. So we’ll move upstream to that cave where we left Johnson, which shouldn’t be far from here. From there I’ll grab the rafts, Peters, Teal’c, and Dr Jackson, and take O’Neill and the Major back to the research station. There’s a good stash of medical supplies there, including antibiotics, a small blood bank and oxygen, and the Colonel can do with the lot of it. Which means you, Harper, and the rest of the guys will have to stay in the cave overnight until I send the rafts back to pick you up. You okay with that?”
“Good. Oh, and Harper? When you leave here tomorrow, let Hannibal go, alright?
“Let him go?! After the stunt that little bastard tried to pull?!”
“I’m not ecstatic about it either, but what do you want to do? Take him home for trial? Apart from anything else, I’d like to avoid a situation where Carter or O’Neill come face to face with caveboy … After what they’ve been through, either one of them’s liable to react badly, if you know what I mean.” Harper nodded, and Levine turned to his Sergeant. “Wilson, I want you to contact SG-3. Have Griff get in touch with the SGC. I don’t mind how they do it, strap a rotor to her for all I care, but I want Dr Fraiser at the station by the time we arrive. Tell them it’s a bust spleen, and that the Colonel’s vitals are about as lousy as it gets. Fraiser’ll know what’s needed.”
The waves chopped and sucked at the bow of the rubber raft with a sharp slapping sound, jarring even over the strained drone of the engine. Darkness had fallen quickly in the gorge where the river ran, and in the beam of a flashlight mounted to the stern Sam could just about make out the second raft, carrying Daniel and Teal’c and Sergeant Peters. Major Levine hadn’t argued when she’d insisted on staying with the Colonel. He’d probably have preferred to have Peters with him, but he’d put up with it as he’d put up with all her other eccentricities.
She switched on her flashlight and checked on Colonel O’Neill for the hundredth time since they’d set off two hours ago. They’d put a thick padding of blankets in the bottom of the raft to ward off the creeping cold from the water, and he lay stretched out on top of those. Levine had given her the IV bag to hold, knowing that she needed to do something. At the end of the day, it was as futile as her attempts to protect the Colonel now that there was nothing he needed protecting from. She should have made more of an effort when it counted … Sam shivered again, despite being wrapped up in a spare X-large snowsuit Teal’c had found for her in the cave where they’d stopped briefly before travelling on upriver.
“How’re you doing, Major? Warm enough?”
“Yeah … thanks.” She turned off the flashlight, trying to retreat into the safety of darkness and silence.
Levine wouldn’t let her. “Want to tell me about it? … I need to know, Major, and it saves you going through it all tomorrow. Besides” he added lightly, “we’ve got another two hours to kill …”
Somehow, Sam knew that he would have accepted ‘No’ for an answer and not bothered her anymore. Which was why she told him. It was judiciously edited version of events, but she really saw no need to disclose certain things that had occurred while she still believed herself to be Malinne of the clan of Shamille. He interrupted occasionally, asking the odd question, but for the most part just he let her talk. Finally, she mumbled, “You shouldn’t have come after me … It wasn’t worth it. None of this need have happened …”
“You picked the wrong CO for that, Carter”, Levine said with a soft chuckle. “To be honest, at one point I suggested we call off the search, and O’Neill nearly ripped my head off. For what it’s worth, I believe he was right. I also believe you saved his life. I saw what happened up on that ledge, Major … So stop blaming yourself! I bet that interesting old lady you mentioned would agree with me ...”
The observation startled her. It was true. Shamille would agree, and then she’d cuff her and tell her not to be foolish, child. But right now, Sam wasn’t able to listen. In the dark she felt for the Colonel’s hand and carefully, so as not to snag the IV line, wrapped her fingers around his.
An hour later they came ashore about four klicks from the research station. Daniel, Teal’c and Sergeant Peters secured their raft behind them, and they moved out for the compound, Peters taking point, with Daniel following behind. Teal’c was carrying Colonel O’Neill, and Sam stayed glued to him like a shadow. Bringing up the rear, Major Levine prayed that Dr Fraiser would be there, and that, unlike Korok’s relatives, their friendly neighbourhood cavemen weren’t into nocturnal frolicking.
Away from the water the air became dry and bitingly cold, and before long their lungs began to burn with every breath. At least the path between the station and the river was well trodden and free of obstacles. Barring any surprises they should reach their goal quickly enough. After about thirty minutes there was a muted cry from Peters. He’d climbed a small ridge ahead, and in the beams of their flashlights they could see him pointing excitedly. Once they’d caught up with him, they knew why. The research station was lit up like a Christmas tree. Somebody was at home.
Janet Fraiser had arrived a mere half hour before them, and Sergeant Peters was kind enough to ascertain how that miracle had been achieved by bumping into a large, painfully unyielding metallic gizmo parked outside the station’s main habitat. On closer inspection the metallic gizmo turned out to be a small hovercraft. There were four of them in all, and the crafts had conveyed Dr Fraiser, one of her medics, SG-3, and several containers of medical supplies to the compound in just over five hours.
The doctor was waiting by the door and herded them to a lab that had been promoted to treatment room and potential OR by virtue of containing a stainless steel table and reasonably good lighting. Collins, the medic, had set up three portable heaters, cranked them up as high as they would go, and the room temperature actually was above freezing.
“Teal’c, can you set the Colonel down there, please?” Janet pointed to the table. “And then get out, all of you! … Uh … Not you, Levine. I want a word with you. Get scrubbed, just in case.”
Teal’c and Daniel left obediently, knowing that defying doctor’s orders would make their next physical a great deal more unpleasant than it absolutely had to be. Sam didn’t budge.
Janet cast a quick glance over her shoulder. “Sam? That includes you. Come on, you know the drill!”
“Carter?” Levine said gently. “It’s okay, I promise. Hey, I got him here in one piece, would I lie to you? You trust me, don’t you?”
She nodded and slowly started moving. The Major quietly closed the door behind her.
“Major?” asked Dr Fraiser, helping Collins to unwrap Jack O’Neill from a cocoon of blankets and sleeping bags. “I’m assuming there’s a perfectly good explanation?”
“I was late”, Levine muttered angrily. “By the time we found them, the cannibals had started dinner. Carter thinks it was her fault, because she didn’t stop them single-handedly. She hasn’t let the Colonel out of her sight since …”
“I’ll talk to her … As soon as - … What the …!” Janet had started examining Colonel O’Neill, reeling off a string of colourful expletives under her breath. Eventually she looked up. “Good call, Major. Not easy to spot … Gentlemen, we’re gonna have ourselves a splenectomy. He‘s running a slight temperature already, and I can’t afford to wait until it gets worse.” Turning to Collins, the doctor added, “Heart and BP monitors, oxygen, start a blood transfusion … I’ll prep him. Levine, any clues as to how the hell this happened?”
“According to Carter some maniac kicked the shit outta him …”
Just over two hours later, Dr Fraiser left her staff in charge of the patient and emerged from the makeshift OR with a headache and a monstrous caffeine craving. The line-up in the corridor reminded her that both would have to wait. Still wearing that ridiculously large snow suit, Sam cowered opposite the door, head resting against the wall, eyes wide and luminous with fear. Teal’c had taken post near her, effectively blocking the hall between Sam and everybody else. ‘Everybody else’ included a fidgeting, distraught Daniel and assorted members of SG-units 3 and 6.
The doctor took one look at them all, sighed and broke into the standard up-beat medical bulletin. “Okay, everyone. It got a bit dicey there for a while, but the Colonel’s stable now. Provided there are no complications, he’ll be fine. And no, Daniel, you can’t see him before tomorrow lunchtime at the earliest. Go and grab some sleep, people. I can make that an order if I have to.”
One by one, they filed down the corridor. Sam had sagged into a little heap, and Janet crouched in front of her. “No good sending you to bed, eh? … Tell you what, I’ll cut you a deal. You get to see him for a minute, if I get to examine you. How’s that? Deal?”
For a fraction of a second she hesitated, then murmured, “Deal …”
She rose and followed Janet into the lab. Levine gave her a little wink, and at a nod from the doctor he and Collins retreated into a corner, allowing them some space. Jack O’Neill lay on a cot, close to one of the heaters, an oxygen canula snaking across his face, IV and transfusion lines running to his arms, cardiac and BP monitors beeping steadily. Almost instinctively Sam reached for his hand again, as though she didn’t trust the machines, had to feel for herself that he was still alive.
“You know it always looks worse than it is, don’t you, Sam?” Janet asked softly. “We’ve had to remove his spleen. His immune system’ll take a little knock because of it, but that’s nothing to worry about too much. There’s lots of people running around without a spleen and doing just fine. He’s lost a lot of blood, though, and we won’t be able to move him for a few days yet.”
“We’ll see about that.” As soon as she’d said it, Janet knew it had been a mistake. Sam Carter was as close to panic as the doctor had ever seen her.
“Okay. Okay … You’ll stay. But now I’m gonna take a look at you. We have a deal, remember?”
Sam let herself be ushered into a cubicle next door, which Dr Fraiser had requisitioned as her office. She was nudged onto a cot by the wall, and the doctor swiftly ran through the preliminaries, pulse rate and pupil reflexes. Eventually, Janet said, “Sam, I think it’s about time you took that spacesuit off … I know it’s a bit chilly, but it won’t be for long. I’ll get you some BDUs as soon as we’re finished here …”
If the bruises on Sam’s face were anything to go by, the rest had to be bad. The suit came off, inch by inch, then the blood-stained clothes Sam was wearing underneath. As carefully as she could, Janet examined her. At last she snapped her gloves off, covered Sam with a blanket and rocked back on her heels, suppressing a sigh of relief. Yes, it was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as she’d feared. Whoever had done this to Sam hadn’t had a chance to finish the job. “Right. There’s nothing broken and no internal injuries. We’ll do a tetanus booster, to be on the safe side, and I want you to take an anti-inflammatory for a few days. You’ll be fine.”
“Sure, I’ll be fine …” Sam’s face contorted in an appalled grimace. “Useless”, she rasped.
“I blew it, Janet. It should be me lying in there, not the Colonel …”
“What do you mean?”
“I almost killed him in the first place, and then, instead of protecting him, I -”
“You saved his life.”
“No!” Sam started thrashing about like an angry child.
Dr Fraiser clasped her friend’s arms. “Stop it, Major!” she said sharply. The command tone brought the expected result. Gasping, Sam regained control of herself, and Janet continued more gently, “You’re exhausted, Sam, and you’re traumatised, and you’re not thinking straight. I want you to rest now, and I’m gonna give you a sedative. And tomorrow we’ll talk about this.”
Major Carter nodded listlessly. “Useless”, she said again, softly repeating the word until the sedative took effect.
Early the following afternoon personnel were preparing to return to the ‘gate. Dr Jackson, being injured, found himself scheduled to go home. He’d been pleading with everyone, from Sergeant Peters to Dr Fraiser, and the answers he kept getting were so analogous that he was beginning to wonder whether they’d been scripted. Perhaps there was a standard brush-off in some military manual, for cases such as his. Up to a point, he had to concede they were right. P9R 954 wasn’t safe, and anyone unable to look out for themselves posed a risk to the others. Still …
Daniel was worried about Sam, and he was even more worried about Jack. He’d managed to motor-mouth Janet into letting him sit with Jack for a little. All of five minutes. Jack showed no signs of coming round, and Daniel could tell that the doctor was even less pleased with him than usual. Something wasn’t right, but Daniel’s persistent questions only achieved his relegation to what passed for the commissary. Now he sat muttering into his coffee and didn’t notice Sam until she stood by his table. She still was pale, making the bruises on her face leap out like screams, but her eyes had lost some of the haunted look they’d held the day before.
“Hi, Sam! Wanna join me?”
“Daniel, I’m sorry …” She wouldn’t quite meet his gaze. “I didn’t mean to act so … crazy … yesterday. I … I didn’t hit you or anything?”
“If you did, I can’t remember. Which probably means you didn’t inflict any permanent damage.” He grinned, craning his neck until he found her sightline and she was forced to look at him. “Come on, Sam, forget it! It’s not like I didn’t know what was going on up there. How’re you doing?”
“Better, thanks. ” Smiling wryly, she slipped onto a chair. “What happened to your arm?”
“Nothing serious. Just a break. You know how Jack keeps telling me off about never ducking fast enough? Well, I did get my head out of the way this time … uh … Speaking of … Have you been to see Jack?”
“Not since last night. Janet said to come back later. Why?”
“Dunno … Just a weird feeling that Doc Fraiser isn’t telling us everything, and that’s a bit scary … He still hasn’t woken up. I was with him just now, and he … well, he looks awful … I wish I didn’t have to go!”
Sergeant Wilson came barging in. “Yo, Dr Jackson! Your bus is leaving! You’d better get your skates on!”
“What the hell would I need skates for if I’m taking the bus? Tell me that, Wilson!”
The Sergeant groaned, and Sam giggled a little. “Take care, Daniel. We’ll be back soon.”
“Hey … You look after yourself, okay?”
“I will. Besides, Teal’c’s staying as well, and you know what a mother hen he is. I’ll be pampered out of my mind. So will the Colonel.”
“Yeah …” Daniel nodded and stood, his good arm flapping a little, faltering.
Momentarily, Sam was confused, then she understood his problem and gave him a hug. “It’s okay, Daniel. I’m not afraid of you. Now get going, before the Sergeant busts something …”
She’d seen him to the door and watched as the hovercrafts sped off across the ice plains. The research station, which had seemed crowded during the brief hour between the arrival and departure of the men that had remained in the cave overnight, was almost deserted again. Teal’c was staying, so were Wilson, Peters, and Collins, the medic. Majors Griff and Levine, together with two of Griff’s men, would return in about ten hours, after having taken the others to the ‘gate. Shielding her face from a gust of freezing southerly wind, Sam went back indoors and decided she might as well use the time and catch up on some of the work she had left unfinished over four months ago.
Her small lab showed traces of a hasty search, probably by Levine’s team on their first visit, and she set about organising notes and instruments and booted up her laptop, which, much to her surprise, willingly sprang to life. Graphs and diagrams slowly rotated on the screen, hypnotic almost, and Sam sat gazing at them impassively. What Daniel had said bothered her. She knew that he tended to overreact, especially where it came to members of his surrogate family, but somehow she couldn’t shake the feeling that this time his suspicions were right on the mark. Something was wrong. Abruptly, she rose and went in search of Janet.
The doctor was in the makeshift infirmary, Teal’c and Collins by her side, stacking ice packs around the Colonel. There were defeated, tired lines around Janet Fraiser’s eyes.
Sam’s throat tightened. “Janet?!”
“Dammit, Sam, you shouldn’t be here!” Dr Fraiser scarcely acknowledged her.
“Janet … please …”
“He’s got an infection, I’m guessing from the bite wound, and it doesn’t respond to antibiotics.” Janet turned around at last. “His temperature’s spiking. We’ve got to cool him down, and fast. The ice’ll do the trick, but apart from that I don’t know what to do. The broad-spectrum antibiotic I’m giving him isn’t working … Which is to say that, whatever bug is causing the problem, we probably haven’t got it on Earth, and he can’t wait for me to isolate the organism …”
“How long?” Major Carter barely recognised her own voice, high and reedy, like that of a very small, frightened girl.
“I can’t say for sure. One day, maybe two, unless I get a handle on it, or he’s able to fight it off himself …” The doctor’s voice became distant, muffled.
Useless. I blew it. Useless. Drumming, a heartbeat rhythm, like the beeping of the monitors, that seemed to swell to a maddening volume. Useless. Useless. Over the din in her head, Sam struggled to comprehend what Dr Fraiser wasn’t saying, or at least not saying outright. He would die.
She backed out of the room, unnoticed by Collins, Teal’c, or Janet Fraiser, and stole into the cubicle next door. Crumpled in a corner lay the snowsuit. Sam grabbed it and crept to the men’s quarters. Three minutes into a frantic rummage she found what she’d been looking for. She tucked the zat’nikatel into a backpack that leaned beside a cot and still contained a few ration bars and a reasonably well-stocked medikit. Then she rushed down the hall to the entrance, stopping suddenly when she heard voices. Peters and Wilson were in the mess. The windows of the room faced inland, so they wouldn’t see her. Sam donned the snowsuit, strapped on the backpack, and sneaked outside and away from the station.
It had taken her thirty minutes to reach the river. Which meant she must have come close to running the Miracle Mile. The first few hundred yards had been the worst. She’d been racing down the path, expecting any second to hear shouts for her to wait. The shouts never came, and then she’d crossed the ridge and knew that she was safely out of sight from the compound.
Sergeant Wilson had said that he’d left the two rafts refuelled, but Sam checked anyway, just to be sure. The tanks were full, bless him! The onboard storage cases contained flashlights, a set of small paddles, and lines. Perfect. She’d have to take both rafts. One would be lost if everything went according to plan, and she’d need the other one to make it back in time. Besides, with the rafts gone, nobody would be able to follow and stop her, at least not until Levine and the others returned with the hovercrafts. By then she’d hopefully be out of reach. The rafts tied together, she started the engine and cast off. Once she’d made the middle of the river, she opened the throttle and sped downstream.
For the first time since she’d set out, Sam began to believe that she might get away with this lunacy and relaxed a little. What she’d just done wasn’t exactly SOP. She’d run off like a spoilt kid. Worse, Major Samantha ‘By the Book’ Carter had misappropriated US Air Force equipment. General Hammond would have her hide … if Janet didn’t get to her first. But there was no way on earth they would have let her go if she’d requested permission. At the very least, Teal’c would have insisted on coming with her, weakening the station’s already feeble defences. It merely would have meant endangering more lives. She had to do this on her own. It was the only way, and it was faster, safer, and easier for any number of reasons.
Three hours later Sam landed the rafts near the cave. She pulled the second one ashore, as high as she could. Originally, she’d planned to remove the engine from its fastenings and hide it in the cave, but after the fifth or sixth attempt to lift the heavy outboarder, she gave up on the idea. The best she could do was belay the raft securely and hope that none of the Outlanders decided to start up a little river cruising operation. Speaking of whom, she’d better get out of here before they showed up. Dusk was falling. She pushed her raft back out into the river, jumped in and continued her journey downstream.
The river carried her around another bend, and Sam could see the mouth of the tunnel up ahead. Better get ready. With any kind of luck she’d reach the other side before nightfall. Having some daylight left would help in the rapids. A flashlight clamped between her teeth, she stopped the engine and tilted it up on its hinges. It was of no use anymore, and she didn’t want to risk denting the screw on a rock. Then she grabbed a paddle, hooked her feet under the strap that ran across the bottom of the raft, and let the tunnel swallow her.
“Perhaps you should take a rest, Dr Fraiser”, Teal’c suggested. “I shall stay with O’Neill.”
“Thanks, Teal’c, but no thanks. I’d better keep an eye on him … You could do me a favour, though …”
“Please name this favour.”
Janet Fraiser smiled despite herself, taking a little comfort in the Jaffa’s unwavering politeness that never seemed to desert him, no matter how bad things got. “Will you go and look for Sam? She’s putting on a brave front, but I’m worried about her …”
“I shall indeed.” Teal’c disappeared quietly.
She looked after him for a moment and then crouched by the cot. “You know, sir, I don’t mean to sound like a spoilsport, but I really could do without these aptitude tests you guys are throwing me on a weekly basis …”
The only response was the deceptively regular beeping of the vital monitors, not that she’d expected anything else. Colonel O’Neill was holding his own, just, and that was all she could hope for at the moment. Maybe, just maybe, if he could hang in there for long enough … Angrily, Janet shook her head. She was fooling herself, and she was the last person who could allow herself that luxury. One day, two at most …
Dr Fraiser rolled her bunched, aching shoulders, blew into icy hands for warmth. There was something to be said for the more rustic medical tricks. With the help of the ice packs, the Colonel’s temperature had started falling, but ultimately it was nothing more than symptomatic relief. She knew well enough that it wouldn’t last. Before long they’d have to remove the packs, and the fever would snap back. One day, two at the most, unless she got a handle on this, or he was able to fight it off himself. Chances of the latter happening were next to nil. She knew it, Collins knew it. Over the past hours she’d found herself searching the medic’s eyes, looking for the glimmer of accusation, condemnation that would confirm a fatal mistake. In the end she’d been unable to bear it anymore and sent Collins to take a break, get some sleep, whatever, just as long as he was out of her sight.
She kept telling herself that her judgment had been right, that Colonel O’Neill would already be dead if she hadn’t operated, but that was hardly any consolation. Under ideal circumstances, the extent of the injury wouldn’t even have warranted a complete removal of the spleen, but he’d been far too weak to try anything else. Janet had taken one look and decided to keep the surgery quick and uncomplicated. A splenorrhaphy, the partial resection of the organ and mending of burst blood vessels was neither, but if she’d risked it anyway, maybe this wouldn’t be happening. If they’d been back at the SGC. If it had been Dr Warner instead of her. If, if, if … Stop it! It isn’t helping. You had no choice.
The sum of her fears was contained in a silly-sounding acronym: OPSI. Overwhelming Post-Splenectomy Infection. Mortality rate: between 50% and 75%. Potential causes: any infection left untreated. Or an infection on which antibiotics didn’t work. She was looking at it right now. Looking on as the fever slowly killed him, looking on as fluid slowly filled his lungs. He’d either burn up or drown, a mile and a half away from the nearest body of water. Janet felt helpless. Which was a feeling she detested above anything, barring the loss of a patient. Especially this patient. She’d patched up this man, physically and emotionally, more times than she cared to remember, and somewhere along the line he’d become a friend.
“Come on, Colonel, don’t do this to us … How about fighting a little? What do you say, hunh?” The Jaffa’s return jolted her out of her monologue. “Teal’c? Where’s Sam?”
“Dr Fraiser. It appears that MajorCarter has left the station.”
“What?!!” Janet just about stopped herself from shouting.
“MajorCarter is nowhere to be found, and SergeantWilson’s backpack is missing. There also is one zat’nikatel unaccounted for. SergeantWilson and SergeantPeters have gone in search of her. CorporalCollins and I have agreed to remain here for the time being, so as not to leave you and O’Neill without protection.” A minuscule shift in Teal’c’s expression made clear that he would have preferred to be out there with Wilson and Peters.
“What on earth is she playing at? … God, she’ll die out there!”
“I do not believe that this is MajorCarter’s intention. If it were, she would not have armed herself.”
Dr Fraiser wasn’t entirely convinced, but she had to admit that the Jaffa had a point. “So, what do we do now?”
“We wait, Dr Fraiser.”
Gee, thanks, Teal’c!
Eventually, Wilson and Peters returned with worrying news. They’d taken their gear and boots off, came sneaking into the infirmary and hovered by the door. “Hey, Doc”, Wilson whispered and, with a nod at the Colonel, “How’s he doin’?”
“Could be better”, Janet replied brusquely. “Let’s go outside.”
“Doc, Teal’c …” The Sergeant waited until the door had closed behind them. “Looks like the Major’s gone boating. The rafts are missing.”
“Are you saying that MajorCarter has taken both vessels?” Teal’c enquired.
“Yep”, Peters chimed in. “Either she wanted to make sure we can’t follow her, or she figured she’d need both. No idea for what, though. Beats me!”
“So, what are you planning to do?”
“Not much we can do, Doc. We don’t even know which way she’s gone, although my money’s on downriver into the basin. We’ve got to wait until Major Levine comes back with the hovercrafts … Hate to tell you, but we’re stuck here.”
“Dr Fraiser. Is it possible that MajorCarter’s amnesia has recurred and that she is attempting to return to the place she considers home?”
“No, Teal’c, I don’t think so. It’s not completely impossible, but it’s very, very unlikely. I mean, yes, trauma can trigger memory loss, but if that were the case with Sam, it’d have happened immediately after the … traumatic event …”
“I see. As soon as MajorLevine arrives with transport, I shall travel downstream and endeavour to find her.”
The waterfall had come as a bit of a surprise. The last time she’d had that kind of sinking feeling was when she’d taken her nephew on the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. Thankfully the cascade here wasn’t quite as high, and there was no animatronics T-Rex to bawl at you and just about land in your lap before the ground disappeared from under your seat. She grinned. Mark jr had thought it ‘cool’, and her sister-in-law had nearly suffered a heart attack. The common denominator was the fact that on both occasions she’d got soaked to the skin. As it was, Sam had just about managed to keep the raft from capsizing, and now she was hurtling towards the rapids. Should be a piece of cake, after the waterfall. She felt a strange sense of elation. Finally at last, she wasn’t sitting in a hut, a cage, chained to a rock, in the station, waiting for the other shoe to drop, powerless, useless, unable to help herself or the Colonel. And maybe, just maybe …
There they were. The fine spray that rose from the churning river and always lingered above the rapids was hard to make out in the twilight. Sam decided to stick to the main channel and hope for the best. With her puny paddle she couldn’t do much more than minimally stabilise the raft, but least water levels were pretty low. You could actually see the rocks before you ended up splattered against them, which made things a little less chancy … It was like piloting a sports plane in bad turbulence, only much, much wetter. Buffeted, battling seemingly huge swells, trying to stay clear of boulders that appeared out of nowhere, she made it through by the skin of her teeth. She wouldn’t win any marks for style and was ankle-deep in water, but the raft was still the right way up, and she’d lost none of her gear. Grinning, Sam lowered the outboarder, started the engine, and set off on the last stretch.
Shortly after ten she came ashore near the same bend where she’d used to swim. She slung the sodden backpack over her shoulder and headed for the village. As she reached the first outlying buildings, Sam noticed light pouring from her hut. So someone else had moved in. They hadn’t lost much time … An abrupt, illogical wave of resentment swept over her, and she felt herself drawn to the place, if only to obey an equally illogical need to unsettle the interloper. Quickly she came closer and stepped through the door. Hunched over the kettle in the hearth stood a familiar figure.
Shamille never so much as blinked. “I thought I’d taught you better, child! You made more noise than a mat’naq in heat.”
For the first time in days, Sam laughed. “I’m sorry, Grandmother … I guess I was a bit annoyed that someone had taken my hut.”
“Someone had to take care of it, seeing that you left it in a muddle.” The old woman finally turned around and threw Sam a sly glance. “I always said you were trouble! I really don’t know what I’ve done to make the goddess send me the likes of you, child!”
“I’m glad to see you, too, Grandmother!”
“You are wet! Go and put some dry clothes on!”
Dutifully, Sam dropped her pack and got a linen shirt and loose trousers from a storage chest. The matriarch watched her change and gave a slight hiss when she saw the bruises.
“Wait, child!” She came closer and examined her ‘granddaughter’. “Who did this?”
“Lonna. You warned me never to treat a kol’raq with contempt. I should have listened …”
“A kol’raq strikes as and when it will. You’re not to blame … Is this all he did? Don’t lie to me. I’m not a fool!” the old woman snarled tersely, one hand raised to strike the second she sensed an untruth.
“Yes. I swear, Grandmother, I swear”, Sam rapped out her answer, knowing Shamille’s habit of masking concern with abrasiveness. “He … he did try, though …”
“And you fought him. That’s why he beat you?”
“Yeah … But he would have won in the end ...”
“Because you were afraid of the beating?”
“Because I was tied up.”
“Then you were brave to fight him at all. I am proud of you, child.” The knotted, dry old hand had long fallen to rest on Shamille’s hip, and her voice had softened. “Tell me what happened.”
Proud of her? There was nothing to be proud of. Sam shook her head. “It’s not important, Grandmother. It’s over.” Saying it out loud, she felt it was the truth. Mostly. “He’s dead, anyway … So is Famekke. She won’t cause any more mischief in the clan.”
The matriarch’s scant eyebrows leapt up in a mannerism so unmistakably purloined from ‘the boy’, Sam could have cried. “But they didn’t die by your hand”, Shamille stated at last.
“No … Although, sometimes I wish they had …” That was the truth, too. It wasn’t over, was it? Not as ‘over’ as she would have liked it to be.
“I’ve lived for a long time, child, and in all that time I’ve never once seen revenge heal a wound. I’ve only ever seen it carve new ones.”
“If I took revenge, it wouldn’t be for me, Grandmother …”
Shamille eyed her curiously. When no explanation was forthcoming, she shrugged. “Sit down! You might as well share the evening meal with me, now that you’re here.” The old woman waited for Sam to slip onto the bench and set a bowl of stew in front of her. “Eat! And then tell me why you came back. And where is the boy?”
The question made Sam go cold ... Useless. I blew it. Useless. Heartbeat drumming seemed to fill the entire hut. Useless ... “He’s why I’m here, Grandmother. If you can’t help him, he’ll die.” Staring at the crudely carved spoon in front of her, she told Shamille what had happened.
“You’re not to blame”, the matriarch repeated when Sam fell silent. “You did well to keep him alive.”
“But I didn’t, did I?! He’s dying now! I should have -”
“What?! You should have what?! For once in your life you did as I asked you to do. Do you blame me?”
Abruptly the old woman grabbed Sam’s wrists and made a show of studying her hands. At last she said, “I’ve heard nothing to make me think these hands have done harm. So stop being foolish, child! Eat! And in the morning you will take me to the boy.”
She’s done what?!” Josh Levine had had a long tiring day, and at the precise moment that Major Carter finally dug into to a bowl of sil’peq stew, he was as close to spitting tacks as he’d ever been. Since the object of his ire was currently unavailable, he vented on Wilson and Peters. “And you two clowns just let her go?! Were you asleep? Soused? Stoned? What?! Dammit, how difficult can it be to keep an eye on things? You let her slip out from right under your noses!!”
Sergeant Wilson tried to get a word in edgeways. “I’m sorry, sir, but we assumed she -”
“Assumed?! You assume things, Wilson, you make an ass out of u and me!!”
“MajorLevine. I believe I am more culpable than SergeantWilson and SergeantPeters”, Teal’c interjected reasonably. “I should have been familiar with MajorCarter’s prowess and ingenuity.”
“We all should have been familiar with it”, growled Levine, gradually winding down. “So where the hell has she gone?”
“Uh … We think she’s probably gone back into the basin, sir”, Peters offered. “I mean, she’s taken the rafts, and there’s nothing to be gained by going upstream. That just leads nowhere …”
“Oh dandy … I’ve been gagging to visit the place and meet the girls … Any theories as to why she’d decide to go back?”
“Colonel O’Neill isn’t doing very well, Major”, came Dr Fraiser’s hesitant voice. “He’s dying, and Sam knows it.”
Levine expelled a long, frustrated breath. “Damn … Any more uplifting news, anybody? … So, you reckon she ran away because she couldn’t handle it, Doc?”
“I don’t know … It’s not like Sam to do something like that …” The doctor shrugged wearily. “On the other hand, what with everything else she’s been through … I really don’t know ...”
“Okay …” Major Levine sighed. “Tomorrow morning, I’ll leave Griff and his boys here with you, Doc. Teal’c and I are gonna go find her. Wilson, Peters, get two of the hovercrafts clear and ready to go. You’re coming as well. Maybe you’ll learn how to keep your eyes peeled … Griff?! … Yo, Griff, where are you?!”
Sam and Shamille had set out at first light. They couldn’t have left earlier, and they couldn’t have ridden faster. It still felt too late and too slow for Sam’s liking, but she also knew that this was an impatience born out of anguish. She’d woken up in the middle of the night, drums and clicks pulsating in her ears, animal eyes staring from the inside of her lids, clutching fists trying to drag her life from her. Afraid of her dreams, she’d been unable to sleep after that, her conversation with Grandmother replaying over and over in her mind. Rationally, she had to concede that the old woman was right. It hadn’t been her fault. Emotionally, she was nowhere near as certain.
They’d come as far as the flood plain at the foot of the mountains and actually began to hope they’d slip through unnoticed, when they were spotted by Harrane’s scouts. Within seconds her hunting party had surrounded them. Shamille had warned that there would be a chance of this happening, and part of Sam had dreaded the meeting, hoped to avoid it at any cost, but another, much larger part now felt a throbbing, feral joy.
“You have returned …” The woman’s voice was laced with apprehension and something akin to awe. The fingers that held the reins of the sir’loq were clenched, their knuckles bloodless. As was the woman’s face. She urged her steed back a few steps.
“I challenge you”, Sam intoned softly. “By the goddess, I challenge you. You have broken clan law, you have defied the goddess, you have harmed me, you have harmed what I cherish. I challenge you.”
A gasp went up from the guards when the challenge was uttered for the third time and thus became immediate and irreversible.
Grandmother had taught her the words, just in case, and had made her repeat them over and over again, riding south, riding into Harrane’s land. It had become a mantra, and Sam realised that the grave, ancient formula helped her to keep her guilt and anger in check and remain focussed … You have harmed what I cherish. I challenge you.
As the guards withdrew to clear a space for the fight, Harrane slowly slid off her sir’loq and walked to the centre of the ring that had been created. Sam dismounted, drawing a knife from her belt as she went to meet her opponent. Colonel O’Neill’s knife. She’d found it in the hut last night, and using it now only seemed just.
“So you’ve returned from the dead, Outlander woman … You should have known better than to come back here.” Harrane hefted her blade, began circling. “Where is your mate, Outlander? Dead? Killed by your own kind? Tell me, how did you feel when they tore his body apart? Did he scream? Did he beg you to kill him? What was it like to know that nothing you did could save him?”
Sam watched her closely, blotting out the woman’s venom. Without warning she feinted, gauging Harrane’s reaction. The clan leader was fast, but not fast enough, not nearly as fast as the Colonel had been … was … and she favoured her left. Good. Sam could work with that. Make her run, make her tired, let her talk. As long as she was talking, she wasn’t concentrating on the fight. Retreating rather than attacking, Sam made Harrane do most of the footwork, let her prattle and taunt, until she was sure of her opponent’s rhythm. Harrane was confident. Too confident. She wasn’t expecting the unexpected. It was time.
Sam smiled and abruptly launched her attack. Jack O’Neill’s madcap manoeuvre that had gone so disastrously wrong on the village square. Two feints, a swipe, another feint, and then a thrust rather than swipe. Harrane never saw it coming until her knife sailed away, and by then it was too late. She was on her back, straddled, a blade at her throat.
Fear. There was pure fear in the woman’s eyes. The feel of skret’naqs squashed in her hand, tiny bones breaking, tiny squeals sounding, black blood oozing from tiny bodies. “You have harmed what I cherish”, Sam whispered, choking with rage.
“Samantha!” Grandmother’s voice, reaching her, barely reaching her. “Do not become what she is, child!”
It penetrated the trance. Shivering, Sam slid off Harrane, turned her over, twisted her arm and lightly dragged the tip of Jack’s knife from Harrane’s elbow to her wrist, leaving a thin trail of blood. “He is alive, Harrane. He is still alive”, she breathed.
At that moment, Shamille was with her and pulled Sam to her feet. “Enough, child! You have carved the wound. Enough. Let her live. It is more of a punishment now. You!” She turned to one of Harrane’s guards. “What is your name?”
“Ximarre, mother”, the woman replied, clearly terrified.
“You have witnessed the goddess’s decision. Will you defy it?”
“Good!” The matriarch pointed at Harrane. “Pick that up, tie it, and take it to my village. Bring it to Lissele. She will know what to do. You understand me?”
Wordlessly, Ximarre motioned several of the women to dismount. They tied Harrane, heaved her onto a sir’loq, and at last set off in the direction of Shamille’s village. The matriarch looked after them until they disappeared in a cloud of dust and finally turned back to Sam.
“We must go, child. The boy can’t wait.”
“You really think they’ll do as you told them to, Grandmother?”
“They will. Harrane wasn’t a good leader. She was feared, not loved. Her clan will breathe more freely now. So will mine!” Suddenly Shamille laughed. “You have done me a great favour, child. Greater than you know! I might actually die in peace now.”
“You won’t die for many seasons yet, Grandmother! You’re far too curious to do that …” The remark earned her a smack, and Sam grinned. “I missed that …”
“Help me onto my sir’loq, you impudent pup!”
Sam did as she was asked, then checked her watch. It was early afternoon. The business with Harrane had cost them about an hour. But it wasn’t far to the tunnel now. Besides, Sam acknowledged that it had been unavoidable in more than one way. The challenge had been their only escape, Shamille had told her that from the start. They couldn’t have won an open skirmish, but the outcome of a one-on-one combat had to be respected. Even by Harrane’s people. The challenge, the words more so than the actual fight, also had shown Sam a glimpse of truth. Now it was over. Truly over. And now the thought of how close she’d come to killing the woman in cold blood horrified her. All she’d seen was Harrane booting a defenceless man half to death. You have harmed what I cherish. Just like those skret’naqs. And it would have been just as easy to kill her.
“Thank you, Grandmother”, Sam murmured.
“What for, child?”
“Reminding me of who I am.”
Wilson had been the first to spot the large grey lump among the boulders. They’d throttled back the hovercrafts and glided to a gentle halt next to it. The raft was expertly secured to a rock high on the shore and covered with a tarpaulin.
“Well, the Major hasn’t lost the damn thing by accident, that much is for sure …”, said Peters.
“… which probably means she’s planning to come back”, Wilson completed the thought.
Levine groaned. “Jeez, you two are getting more like Thompson Twins every day!”
“What is a ThompsonTwin?”
“Long story, Teal’c”, grinned Josh Levine. “I’ll lend you the comic book.”
“I shall be obliged, MajorLevine.”
“So, any thoughts on this?” Levine asked.
“Uh … looks like she’s taken the other raft downriver, knowing she can’t bring it back up”, Sergeant Wilson mused. “That’s why she left the spare.”
“Right … Let’s find that access tunnel and go after her. Better than hanging around here, waiting for Korok and Co …”
“I concur, MajorLevine.”
Half an hour later they discovered the tunnel entrance at the end of the narrow gap Korok had pointed out to them two days earlier. They parked the hovercrafts at the mouth of the cleft, and warily filed down the path.
“Listen up”, whispered the Major. “From here on out keep your heads up. This place is tailor-made for an ambush, and I don’t think it’ll make much of a difference whether it’s cannibals from behind or Amazons from the front. Just be careful! Teal’c, take point!”
Levine fell back to the rear, and they cautiously ventured into the dark opening that was barely wide enough for two people walking side by side. After a while the air began smelling musty, and the only sound apart from their own footsteps was the tinkle of water trickling over jagged rock. They couldn’t use flashlights, in case someone else was in the tunnel, but once the entrance was out of sight and their eyes had adjusted to the darkness, they noticed that the walls were coated with patches of bioluminescent algae that gave off a faint, greenish sheen.
“That’s enough to scare off anybody”, Peters murmured, placing his cheek against a wall and letting it catch some of the pale glow. “Makes us look like zombies!”
“Shut it!” Levine snarled.
They continued in silence, until suddenly Teal’c’s hand flew up, bringing them to a halt. The Jaffa had spotted something and slowly backed up to the rest of the group, who’d retreated behind a bend in the tunnel.
“I believe to have heard voices”, Teal’c announced almost inaudibly. “There are natives coming our way.”
If Teal’c ‘believed’ he’d heard voices, smart money was on the fact that there were voices, this much Levine took for granted. “Okay”, he breathed. “Blend into the rock, people, and get ready to jump them once they’re past us. Unless they make us first.”
Flattened against the walls, they waited, and eventually even Major Levine began to wonder whether Teal’c hadn’t been mistaken this time. Just as he was about to signal his team to move on, a pair of shimmering green masks came flying, shrieking, flailing around the bend. Levine, winded by the end of a stick that had, with deadly accuracy, landed in his solar plexus, heard Teal’c groan and realised that the Jaffa was down. A mechanical whine from Peters’ and Wilson’s position told him that one or both of them had readied their zat-guns. The next thing he heard finally floored him.
“Major Carter?!” Levine roared in disbelief, ignoring the pain in his midriff. “What the f-”
“Sorry, Major …”
A flashlight came on, and Levine shut his eyes against the painful brightness. “Dammit, Carter!! You tryin’ to kill us?!”
“Sorry”, she said again, rubbing off the fine layer of algae that covered her face and made her look like something that had escaped from a ghost train. “We had no way of knowing it was you guys …” Only then Major Carter became aware that she was astride one very uncomfortable Jaffa and clambered off him as quickly as she could. “Oh hell, Teal’c … I’m so sorry … Caught you in the pouch, did I? … I’m sorry … You okay?”
“I shall recover shortly, MajorCarter”, Teal’c answered and added grudgingly, “You are to be congratulated on the stealth of your approach and the efficacy of your tactics.”
Another voice suddenly piped up. “Are these of your clan, child?”
Grandmother? The beam of Carter’s flashlight illuminated the speaker, and Levine grasped, somewhat to his dismay, that he’d just been taken out by a little old lady. The Major tried to assume an upright position and cleared his throat. “Uh … Ma’am? … You must be Shamille … Carter told me about you …”
“So she should have”, came the dignified reply, leaving Josh Levine at a loss for further pleasantries.
“Grandmother, meet Major Levine. Over there, that’s Sergeant Wilson and Sergeant Peters.”
“Thompson Twins”, Levine muttered under his breath, shaking his head.
“And this is Teal’c”, Sam completed the introductions.
“I am pleased to meet you”, the Jaffa announced solemnly, which earned him a gracious nod from Shamille.
Then the old woman scrutinised them again, and Levine, Peters, and Wilson automatically came to parade ground rest, as though she were a three-star general inspecting the troops. “They’re all males”, Shamille observed at last.
“Most of the warriors in our clan are men, Grandmother.”
“And you win fights?”
Sam bit back a giggle. “Occasionally.”
“Strange clan, strange laws”, the matriarch declared, revealing an unanticipated philosophical streak. “We must hurry, child. There’s no time to waste.” With that she set off, Sam in her wake.
“Major Carter! … Hey, Carter! …” Levine motioned his men to follow and ran after the twosome, finally catching up with Sam. “Care to fill us in on what this is all about? It might come as a surprise to you, but you scared the bejesus out of everybody at the station!”
“How is Colonel O’Neill, Major?”
“Not good, but Doc Fraiser says you already know that. He was still hanging in there this morning when we left, but … Dammit, Carter, what’s going on?!”
“Shamille might be able to help him.”
“Help him? … Wait a minute … She the one who did that nifty bit of basket-weaving on his side and stitched his head injury?”
“Why the hell didn’t you let us know?”
“Would you have let me go?”
“Dammit, no! But that’s beside the point.”
“Not for the Colonel, it isn’t! It had to be me. It would have taken you guys too long to find the village, not to mention that Shamille wouldn’t have come for any of you. And I had to go by myself, because your men and Teal’c were needed at the research station.”
“You could have waited for me to come back.”
“No. Colonel O’Neill’s running out of time, Levine, and you know it. Besides, you’ve found me.”
“Yeah, I guess we did …” Major Levine conceded the argument, not least because Sam Carter, although still bruised and mightily scruffy, suddenly seemed a far cry from the terrified, traumatised woman they’d rescued two days ago.
At nightfall their little group, minus Sergeants Peters and Wilson, approached the station. The ‘Thompson Twins’ were taking the raft back and still would be a while. Shamille had reacted with healthy suspicion when she beheld the noisy contraptions Samantha’s clan chose to travel in, but Sam had convinced her that, firstly, they would be a great deal drier than the equally noisy if less peculiar raft, and secondly, they were fast enough to outrun any adventurous Outlanders. Before long the old woman sat enthroned in the bow of Levine’s hovercraft, like Cleopatra cruising down the Nile, doing her level best not to let on that she was enjoying the ride. Sam had been entrusted with her bag of medicines and crouched behind her.
The craft swung into the compound, and Levine brought it to a stop outside the main habitat, jumped off, and helped Shamille dismount. Teal’c pulled in behind them just as the door flew open, and a petite figure burst through.
“For God’s sake, Sam, what -”
“A woman!” Shamille exclaimed with evident relief.
Sam had climbed off the hovercraft and joined her. “Grandmother, this is Dr Fraiser. She is a healer.”
“Good. Where is the boy?”
Dr Fraiser looked confused. “The … uh … boy?”
“Yes, woman! The boy. More heart than common sense, never keeps his mouth shut, stubborn like an old mat’naq. Trouble. The boy.”
Janet didn’t have the faintest clue of who or what a ‘mat’naq’ might be, but otherwise it was as pithy a description of Jack O’Neill as she’d ever come across. “He isn’t … well”, she offered carefully.
“That’s why I’m here. Samantha thinks I can be of use. So where is he?”
“How’s he doing, Janet?” Sam asked cagily. The doctor’s despondent little shrug said all she needed to know. “Let’s go …”
Dr Fraiser led them through the corridors and to the infirmary. Curious like a young bird, Shamille tripped along, amazed by this strange, sprawling hut that had tunnels and doors that didn’t lead outside and no hearths. At last, Janet pushed open another door and waved them in. Sam froze. Even if she hadn’t been told, she’d have known that she was looking at a dying man. He seemed impossibly fragile, as tough the slightest touch would break him. The only colour in the strained, gaunt face came from the bluish smudges under his eyes, and he was struggling to breathe, despite the oxygen.
“Aiee”, moaned Shamille, and that quiet sound of distress scared Sam more then anything.
“Whatever it is, it’s incredibly aggressive”, Janet explained tiredly. “He’s developed pneumonia on top of everything else … I’m not even sure anymore that it’s bacterial. It might be viral, in which case the antibiotics wouldn’t have helped anyway … I nearly lost him last night.” Turning to Shamille, she said, “I can’t help him. If you can, just tell me what you need …”
“I’ve seen this before … You must be a good healer, else he wouldn’t be alive.” The old woman had wandered over to the cot, staring with mild disapproval at the array of machinery that surrounded Jack. Hunkered down, she stroked his forehead, chiding him gently. “What’s this, my boy, hm? You’ve stopped fighting? Don’t for a moment think I’ll let you get away with it. Since when do you give up, eh? … Let’s see what we can do.”
Shamille looked up and her gaze fell on Teal’c and Corporal Collins who were standing by the door. “What are you two doing here? Healing is women’s work, so go away!”
Collins opened his mouth in protest and shut it again with a snap when he clocked the woman’s imperious scowl. An unobtrusive nod from the CMO confirmed his hunch that this might not be the time or the place to initiate a debate on equal opportunities versus gender discrimination. Besides, he had a feeling that his smattering of college forensics might not hold up to what the old crone was liable to throw at him. She was wielding that cane like an offensive weapon … Returning Dr Fraiser’s nod, the Corporal left the room.
Teal’c was less accommodating. “In my clan healing is men’s work. I wish to aid”, he stated unperturbed, holding the matriarch’s stare. “O’Neill is my friend.”
Perseverance and friendship were things Shamille could relate to. “Men’s work, eh?” she cawed, a flicker of grudging respect creeping into her eyes. That big, surly male had braved her for the sake of the boy. “Fine. In that case you can boil me some water.”
“So I shall.” The Jaffa bowed slightly and disappeared on his task.
“Don’t just stand there, child! Bring me my bag!” Shamille snapped at Sam. Then she glanced at Janet, grinning. “You! Little Healer! I like you. You’re my size. Come here and show me what has caused this. There is a wound, yes?”
Dumbfounded, Janet Fraiser complied. “A wound? There’s several … I understand you’ve taken care two of them, so we don’t have to worry about those. But I think I know what you’re looking for. Help me turn him, would you?”
With Shamille’s assistance the doctor carefully rolled Jack on his side and peeled the bandage off the bite wound. The old woman moaned again.
“Oh God …”, whispered Sam. She’d seen a few hideously infected wounds, but this was worse.
“I must ask you to forgive me, child.”
“Forgive you, Grandmother? For what?”
“I should have allowed you to kill Harrane … There is a small grey flask with a wax stopper in my bag. Hand it to me! … You, Little Healer, find me some linen”, Shamille said to Dr Fraiser.
Janet reached for a wad of gauze. “Here … I’ve tried to cauterise it …”
“I can see that, my girl. If you hadn’t, he’d be dead. But there’s only one thing that helps.” Shamille took the gauze, cocking her head in surprise. “You use this instead of linen? This is good … Can you let me have some?”
“A whole crate full, if you can help him”, Dr Fraiser promised.
“Ah. I shall have to help him then … Have you found the flask, child?”
“Good. Take off the stopper and pour some on this … What do you call this? … Gauze? … Pour some on this gauze. It will burn, but he won’t feel it now.”
It was a dark green, sharply caustic smelling tincture, and Sam watched as the old woman slowly and fastidiously dabbed every inch of torn, inflamed tissue. “What’s that?”
“Do you remember the hau’uli moss, child?”
As though there were any chance of her forgetting that in a hurry … “Yes, I remember.”
“This is an extract. Much stronger than the moss itself, but difficult to distil. I shall have to use every drop of it … I knew the boy would be trouble! …”
By the time Shamille was finished, Teal’c had returned with two kettles full of hot water. He set them on the table, looking at her expectantly. “What do you intend to do with these, Healer?”
“I intend to tell you how to brew a tea … Listen carefully!”
It took Dr Fraiser a while to grasp the principle, but in due course she understood that anything hot, wet, and involving herbs of some description was ‘tea’ to Shamille. For simplicity’s sake. The brew Sam’s strange friend instructed the Jaffa to cook that night smelt heavily of eucalyptus and lilac, which wasn’t an altogether happy combination. Once it was steeping, Shamille demanded linen sheets. Unquestioningly, Teal’c ferreted out a few bed covers, which she deemed satisfactory. She soaked the cloths in the steaming liquid, wrung them out, left them to cool, and, with Janet’s and Sam’s help, wrapped the Colonel in them. It would make him sweat, break the fever, she explained. Thus had begun twenty-four hours none of them would have cared to relive. They lost count of how many times they boiled more water, fetched fresh sheets, changed the wrappings, all stopping suddenly sometimes, when a hiatus in Jack’s breathing made them hold their breaths in turn, as they waited for the next agonised gasp, dreading that it might never come.
Eventually he’d regained consciousness. In a manner of speaking. Delusional with fever, frightened because he could barely move, he resisted them every way he could, crying out for people neither Sam, nor Teal’c, nor Janet had ever heard of. Only when they recognised Frank Cromwell’s name among the anonymous cast list of Jack’s nightmares, they realised where he believed himself to be, and that nothing they could do would help him. The only one who remained impassive throughout was Shamille. Again and again she swabbed the festering bite wound and stolidly spooned potions and teas into ‘the boy’, never for a moment rattled by his feeble attempts to stop her. If Janet Fraiser ever harboured misgivings regarding the method of treatment, she didn’t voice them. Jack O’Neill was still alive, a possibility the doctor had categorically discounted prior to the old woman’s arrival.
When he calmed down at last, Janet couldn’t be sure whether it was from sheer collapse or because his condition had indeed improved. His breathing had eased, which was just as well, seeing that he’d been perversely successful in stripping off the oxygen canula time and time again. Chary of trusting the monitor readings and full of apprehension, the doctor felt Jack’s forehead and broke into the first genuine smile since he’d been brought to the station.
“His temperature is almost normal …”, Dr Fraiser stammered, staring at the old woman in awe.
“You didn’t doubt me, Little Healer, did you?” Shamille smirked from the table where she was stirring yet more tea over a Bunsen burner Teal’c had rigged for her. “We have a contract. The boy gets well, and I get some of that gauze of yours.” She chuckled, and beckoned to Sam. “Here, child. Make him drink this. Then let him rest.”
Sam took the cup and crouched by the cot, carefully threading an arm under the Colonel’s neck. “Come on, sir. Nice cup of tea. Grandmother made it for you”, she murmured, grinning a little when she saw him frown.
“I know, sir. Tell you what, though, you drink this, and then you can go to sleep. How’s that?”
Obviously Colonel O’Neill considered it to be the best deal in town, because he drank the tea without the battle they’d all come to expect over the past eight hours or so. Minutes later he was sleeping soundly.
“Well done, my boy”, mumbled Shamille and turned to her nursing staff. “Now you, children. Sleep, all of you. Especially you, Little Healer!” she ordered when a swaying Janet tried to protest. “He won’t be wanting you until he wakes, and that won’t be before the coming sun. Sleep!”
“I will …” Dr Fraiser, who hadn’t so much as dozed in almost four days, wasn’t happy to leave her patient, but she also knew that, in her current state, she’d be about as useful as a hole in the head should he need her. Defeated, she edged towards the door, pulling along Sam who was as unwilling to go as Janet.
Teal’c remained rooted to the spot.
The matriarch glared at him, her tapping cane signalling an impending storm. “So, healing is men’s work in your clan. Do they also teach you to disrespect the wishes of your elders?!”
“On the contrary, Healer”, Teal’c replied solemnly. “They teach us to esteem our elders and to pursue their best interests. I therefore must insist that you rest. I do not require sleep, and I shall keep watch over O’Neill in your stead.” During this speech, which was lengthy by his standards, Teal’c had deftly circumnavigated the cane and its bristling owner and steered the grousing old woman to a spare cot in the corner. “You must rest, Healer. You have my word that I shall wake you, should any contingency arise.”
For once in her life, Shamille was at a loss for words, fatigue and outrage competing within her. This male ordered her about like an unruly child. She’d give him a piece of her mind. Once she had rested.
He had come home at last. Eyes half shut, Korok leaned against the polished rock inside the main cave and studied the familiar surroundings as though for the first time. Over by the flue that climbed all the way to the top of the mountain, a group of wives stoked the small fire that gave heat only to those close by. Wood was precious, more precious than food sometimes, and a tribe that had stored even a small supply was considered wealthy. Fires burned rarely, and this one had been lit in honour of Korok’s return. A great distinction, and one only awarded to the bravest of warriors. Korok smiled proudly and inhaled the pungent, musky aroma of the lamps that dotted the cave. Flickering in carved bone vessels, their dim flames were fuelled by the tallow of his name animal, the korok, the ferocious giant of the mountains, whose fur and fat warmed the tribes and from whose tusks cups, bowls, and jewellery were made. And like the korok, he too would protect his tribe. Better yet, he would feed his tribe. The boy Korok had gone hunting, the man Korok had returned. His rite of passage had taught him the thirst for vengeance.
The Prey People had let him go. More proof of their stupidity. The only one among them who obeyed his instincts and truly could outwit Korok was the huge dark demon, the one they called Teal’c. Teal’c was a good name. Almost as good as Korok. It was a warrior’s name, and Korok found it all the more surprising that a Demon Warrior should run with the Prey People. But it seemed to be his choice. Perhaps they sacrificed to him.
This Teal’c had gone with those who had ferried away the food on strange stone-coloured floes that could travel upriver. The Prey People had attacked the tribe and stolen the food, and that was an unspeakable sacrilege. You never, ever disturbed a tribe that was feeding, no matter how much animosity you bore them. Even blood feuds had to rest. Feeding was sacred. Feeding kept the tribes alive. Not merely the tribe that had won the food, but ultimately all tribes. Feeding was life, and life was holy. The Prey People had disregarded the most basic commandment of the Tribes. The Prey People were lawless and foolish. They had left Korok alive to bear witness to their heinousness. They’d even set him free.
Korok had followed them upriver. Secretly and stealthily as his mentor Fuktuf had instructed him. Korok had followed them and seen where they’d taken the food. When he had seen the place he had understood. Almost five moons ago now, rumours had spread from tribe to tribe that upriver there was a herd of Prey People who had built caves on the High Plains far south, where noone ever hunted. Many tribes had gone to seek the fabled herd. Tallat’s tribe had found it and its caves at last, but they’d never revealed the location. His tribe had fed, Tallat had said, and there was no food left. Korok knew different now. Korok knew better. Tallat had been lying. The caves were still peopled. Korok would lead his own tribe there, to punish and to feed.
Once Korok could be certain that the Prey People would remain near their caves, he had begun the journey back. He had travelled fast and without pause, knowing that he had to keep moving to evade other tribes, knowing that he had to feed soon. When he’d reached the home caves at last, the watchers had almost killed him. His scent had become impure during his captivity, and at first they hadn’t recognised him. Korok had bitten the ball of his left hand and drawn blood. The smell of blood was unalterable, unique, and Korok had been accepted back into the tribe. He had been brought before the leaders, to hear what had happened at the feeding place.
Korok’s mentor Fuktuf had been murdered by the Prey People. Fuktuf had been consecrating the food when he’d been slain. The few who had escaped told of how dignified the ceremony had been until that moment. The food had been weak. Some of the survivors said the male had had the stench of death about him. But he had succumbed willingly. Fuktuf had been pleased and decided to honour him by taking him first, as he had wished. Then the Prey People had intervened, and Da-ni-el, the Talker, had killed Fuktuf, the Priest.
Throughout Korok’s own tale, the leaders remained suspicious. Korok could smell it. He had spent time with the Prey People. He had eaten of their unclean food. He had shown them the paths of the tribes. But when he revealed that he’d discovered Tallat’s secret, the leaders’ scent changed subtly. Now they smelt of pride and triumph. Korok knew where the herd of Prey People lived. Korok had become a hero, and a fire would be lit for him.
There was to be more council, and then the march would begin. Korok would lead his tribe to the Prey People’s caves. The tribe would avenge the sacrilege and their dead. The tribe would feed.
Jack risked a glimpse and found himself squinting at a hollow-cheeked prune of a face, framed by white hair. His response was a soft sigh and a tiny disgusted shudder. Malachi was at it again. He was looping. Had to be. All things considered, he preferred the last time. If you had to loop, you wanted to loop in a physical state that was by and large pain-free and allowed you to juggle, throw pots, dip Carter, and drive golf balls through the ‘gate in an insane record attempt. Although, if truth be told, he hadn’t done it for the sake of breaking records. Hammond’s face upon discovering the ostensible abuse of American taxpayers’ money by Colonel O’Neill and Teal’c had been so remarkable that Jack had felt compelled to restage the spectacle several times ...
He blinked. The prune was still there, aiming a loaded cup of tea at him. Yep, he was looping. Any moment now Carter would pop out from behind the prune and inform him that she wasn’t Carter. Except, on that last loop his head had been on the verge of exploding. This time it was just about the only part of his anatomy that more or less behaved itself. Jack decided that he’d gladly put up with a headache, provided it would induce the rest of his body to stop giving him grief of this magnitude. If this was progressive, he’d take a rain check on the next loop … Just what the hell had he done to his back?! It felt like a congregation of Tom Thumb prospectors were madly pickaxing away in a doomed bid to strike oil … Wonder if they’re wearing pointy hats … Hey-ho, hey-ho, off to work we - …
“Are you going to say something, boy, or are you just going to lie there gawping?” the prune enquired.
“Grandmother?” squawked Jack. Something was wrong with his voice. It sounded exactly like that of ‘Animal’ Merriweather, Jack’s drill instructor, after Cadet Jonathan O’Neill, majorly peeved at the time, had seasoned the Animal’s ritual tuna sandwich with a tablespoon of pile cream. Not pretty ... Let’s try this again. “Grandmother?” Better.
“I heard you the first time. I’m not deaf”, Shamille announced agreeably. “How are you feeling?”
He was going to give the standard reply, remembered his much-abused funny bone, and settled for something approximating reality. “Not so good …”
“That’ll teach you to let yourself be bitten by an Outlander!”
Grandmother’s laconic observation hit him like a slap, bringing memories of cold and fear and … teeth. Tongues. Teeth … “Ouch …”, he said quietly. Somehow he hadn’t expected it to hurt quite so badly. But as he recalled, he hadn’t had much opportunity to think or expect anything, except a very unpleasant demise. Death and … “Carter?! … Where’s Carter?!” He tried to push himself up, and the Lilliputian pickaxe swingers in his back redoubled their efforts.
“Dammit, Colonel!” Somebody popped out from behind the prune, and this time it really wasn’t Carter. “Sam’s next door, sir, she’s fine, and she’s sleeping”, Janet Fraiser said firmly. “And now I suggest you stop trying to fall out of bed, else I’ll sedate you into next year.”
“Doc?” Gradually Jack adjusted to the idea that he might not be looping after all. In his experience there were no radical re-casts between loops. “Doc Fraiser?”
“The one and only.”
“Where did you hail from?”
“South. That’s where they keep the ‘gate in these parts … Major Levine figured you didn’t look so hot and had me make a house call.”
“Oh … Sorry …”
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world”, retorted Janet. “How’s the pain, sir? … In real terms, please.”
“My hair doesn’t hurt”, Jack offered after some deliberation. “And there’s a spot just next to my left heel that feels pretty okay …”
“That good, eh?” The doctor’s expression had softened, her momentary fit of pique forgotten in the light of his distress and her own relief. She’d argued with Shamille over administering analgesics, and in the end the old woman had grudgingly relented, bowing to the Little Healer’s opinion that a fever of such severity might cause brain damage, and that they had to make sure first. But so far the Colonel seemed his obstreperous self. “I want to run a couple of quick tests, sir, just to be on the safe side. After that I’ll give you a painkiller. Alright?”
“Tea?” he asked with an elegiac glance at the cup in Shamille’s hands.
Janet bit back a grin. “Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of morphine, sir. If that’s okay with you.”
“Sweet …” He winced. “Don’t let me stop you … What’s Grandmother doing here?”
“Helping me out … Can you open your eyes, sir?” While she was checking pupil reaction and peripheral reflexes, Dr Fraiser muttered, “The only reason why you pulled through is Shamille, Colonel, so don’t knock the tea.”
Jack shot a sideways glance at Grandmother. “Thank you, ma’am … But your tea still sucks …”
“And you’re still going to drink it, boy”, the matriarch forecast gleefully.
It was 0445 hours precisely. Or a quarter to five in the morning, if you weren’t of a military bent. Which Dr Daniel Jackson wasn’t. He was a scientist, as Jack O’Neill never ceased to remind him. He also was extremely jittery. Barely daring to breathe, Daniel crept down C corridor on Level 26 and towards storage room C26/12. Alphanumeric codes. You gotta love ‘em! One of these days the US Air Force would inform him that henceforth he’d go by SG-1/03/DJ … if he lasted that long, a proposition that appeared doubtful, to say the least. He’d be out on his ear after this … Suddenly Dr Jackson came to a dead halt, flattening his frame into a doorway. After a few seconds, he cautiously scanned the hall and started walking again. His stop-and-go progress was prompted by the need to evade the lazily panning security cameras. Jack would be proud of him …theoretically. In practice he’d probably jump down Daniel’s throat. If he could. Much as Daniel resented the classic high-octane O’Neill lectures that crashed down on him periodically, right now he’d gladly have his butt chewed off and be grateful for it.
Early the previous evening, Sergeants Peters and Wilson had arrived through the ‘gate, with orders to deliver a blood sample Janet urgently wanted a PCR analysis on, and to update the SGC on the situation planet-side. That done, they were to return PDQ, bringing the test results, sundry supplies, and orders from the General, should he have any. Dr Jackson had been there for the debriefing and was sickened by the news. True, he’d had a bad feeling when he left P9R 954, but he’d never for a second imagined Jack’s condition to be as hopeless as it looked now. Colonel O’Neill was in a fever coma, the Sergeants reported, and Dr Fraiser and the little old Amazon lady Major Carter had recruited were fighting a losing battle.
Predictably, Daniel had asked for permission to return with Wilson and Peters, an appeal which General Hammond, equally predictably, had denied. Forestalling a dispute, Hammond had moved on to the next item on the agenda, which revolved around a Supply Sergeant’s repeated request for a team, any team, to take a crate of equipment back to the research station. The crate contained an apparently essential shipment of footstools and had been sitting in C26/12 for several months. Meanwhile the Supply Sergeant was filing increasingly bombastic admonitions that, unless the above was duly delivered, he would be unable to tick, in triplicate, the appropriate boxes on some form that sported a catchy alphanumeric label. General Hammond, who had one or two more critical concerns, was anxious to see the last of the wretched crate and its custodian, and as there was sufficient space on the hovercraft, he ordered Wilson and Peters to eliminate that particular nuisance from his life. At which juncture a shrewd plan had started budding in Daniel Jackson’s capable brain ...
Ancient Nuktun, sire of Fuktuf, had cursed Korok’s council. It was a disgrace to the tribe and an insult to the memory of his son, Nuktun had wailed, smelling of contempt. Nuktun was the eldest and most respected of the men. Never had his wishes been disregarded. Until now. The leaders had voted, and they had voted to heed Korok. Keening with fury and shame, Nuktun had pulled out his last remaining teeth. He would starve to death. But the tribe would live.
In the morning the men had sought the scent of Tallat’s people, found their caves, demanded parley. Tallat was surprised. Tallat listened. Tallat was dismayed. His tribe’s secret had been uncovered. Tallat ridiculed the strange proposal. Tallat agreed. So did all the other leaders of his tribe. Korok had felt like laughing. The own foolish ways of the Prey People would bring about their downfall. He would never have thought of it if Da-ni-el, the Talker, had not told him how the Prey People joined other herds to fight their enemies. It was a sign of weakness. A tribe had to stand on its own, because a tribe that didn’t stand on its own had to share food, and a tribe that had to share food died.
Back in the home caves, blood oozing from his mouth, Nuktun had burbled that Korok was asking his tribe to show the same weakness in bonding with Tallat’s people. The old man hadn’t understood. This was different. This was trade. Tallat’s tribe would gain Korok’s knowledge of the Prey People, Korok’s tribe would gain Tallat’s fighting men. There was no weakness in that, only cunning. The tribe would live. And ancient Nuktun would starve to death.
When the trade had been solemnised, Tallat’s fighting men had gathered their weapons, and together they’d begun the long march to the Prey People’s caves. The Ice Season was approaching fast, and their journey was tiring and dangerous. At this time of year noone hunted far from the shelter and safety of the caves, and for good reason. Storms could hit quickly and without warning. Sometimes you couldn’t even smell them. But even if the storms spared you, the sun would thaw snow that bitter night frosts turned to glistening ice. Fur boots would steady your stride only for a while, then the fur itself froze, and you started sliding, ice on ice. Korok was proud not to have lost anyone, but three of Tallat’s men had slipped. They’d tumbled from the path into a ravine, so far out of reach that their flesh couldn’t be salvaged. Secretly, Korok rejoiced. He was hungry, very hungry. All the men were hungry. Hungry enough to feed on dead flesh. But their hunger sustained their purpose.
Not much farther now. This night they would rest in a mountain cave, sacrifice wood, light fires to dispel the cold of starvation. In the morning they would cull the herd and feed on living flesh.
“Where the dickens have you been?!” roared Major Levine, hopping up and down outside the station’s main habitat. By the time Peters and Wilson had finally deigned to put in an appearance, they’d been six hours overdue.
“Sorry, sir”, said Sergeant Wilson, his head ducked like a pinscher expecting a clip around the ears. “We tried to radio in, but …” He petered out and cocked a thumb at the softly crackling aurora that lit up the nighttime sky. “Those test results Doc Fraiser wanted were late. Some gizmo or other in the lab broke down, and the guy whom they needed to fix it was on leave … took a good few hours to get him back to base.”
Peters nodded vigorously and wide-eyed, and Levine fought the urge to laugh. “Right”, the Major growled half-heartedly. “Fair enough. Get your butts inside and warm up! You look like a pair of icicles! … What in God’s name is that?” he asked, staring at the large crate that was strapped to the hovercraft.”
“Sir! Footstools, sir!” the Sergeants barked helpfully and in unison.
“Foot- … I don’t think I wanna know! Take it to the mess for the time being, and then grab a shower and something to eat.”
The ‘Thompson Twins’ saluted a little sloppily, heaved the container from the vehicle and followed Levine inside. Halfway down the central corridor, Wilson decided that it was probably safe to ask a question. “Uh … Major?”
Wilson’s query was interrupted by a distinctly wobbly apparition clinging to an IV tree, turning a corner, and weaving towards them at best possible speed, which didn’t amount to much. The apparition was trailed by an arguing Dr Fraiser, who was trailed by Carter’s li’l ol’ Amazon lady, who was trailed by Major Carter and Teal’c. Major Griff and Corporal Collins momentarily poked their heads out of the mess door and immediately took cover again when they saw the doctor’s face.
“Don’t fear, Little Healer”, the Amazon lady said placidly. “He’ll fall over by himself. He’s done it before.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of!” snapped Janet. “Dammit, sir! That’s enough!”
“Grandmother said I could get up”, the apparition protested with the petulance of a five-year-old who was being sent to bed before the end of his favourite TV show.
Sergeant Wilson dropped his end of the crate, and in the general commotion noone heard the muffled groan emanating from the container. “Jeez, sir! Is that really you?! We thought you’d -”
“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, Sergeant”, gasped Colonel O’Neill, bringing the IV tree to a standstill and clutching its pole a little tighter.
“Jack?!” croaked the crate, and this time they’d all heard it. Sergeant Peters let go with a start, and the container crashed to the floor.
“Ouch!” said the crate.
“Footstools, eh?” The out-and-out unmilitary truth behind this ventriloquist’s act gradually dawned on Josh Levine. “And of course neither of you geniuses took it upon himself to check the cargo … Open it, Peters!”
The Sergeant complied, and the rising lid revealed one cramped, blue-lipped, shivering, sheepish archaeologist.
“Howdy Houdini!” Major Levine tried very hard to keep his scowl in place.
“I d-don’t th-think I c-can m-move”, jabbered Daniel, who’d recently completed his twelfth hour in the crate and by now was convinced that there had to have been an easier option. Wormhole travel in a crate was nothing short of shooting down Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Teal’c obliged by extracting Dr Jackson from the container and unceremoniously dumping him in front of his CO. Jack looked ill, unshaven, some fifteen pounds lighter than he ought to be, a little shaky, and monumentally angry. He also looked unquestionably alive, and Daniel broke into a broad, disarming smile. “Jack! Oh m-man, am I g-glad to see you!”
Colonel O’Neill, who’d been gearing up to deliver the tirade to end all tirades, forgot a full ten minutes’ worth of whimsical invective. “Daniel”, he hissed, losing his grip on the IV tree. “Daniel, I’ll …”
Between them, Levine and Teal’c caught him before he hit the deck, and Shamille nodded sagaciously. “See! I told you, Little Healer. The boy fell over by himself.”
“Collins!” Dr Fraiser yelled.
Five minutes later the usual suspects had been rounded up and despatched to the infirmary. The Colonel was back in bed, and Dr Jackson was being treated for hypothermia. Watching with interest from his corner of the room, Jack grinned contentedly when Grandmother thrust a steaming cup at the younger man.
Daniel sniffed it, wrinkled his nose, and asked, “What’s that supposed to be?”
“Tea”, said Jack, his face the picture of sincerity. “Drink it. It’s good for you. And you deserve it. Every drop of it!”
“Uhunh …?” Thoroughly suspicious now, Daniel took a tentative sip and chewed it with the air of a sommelier sampling a dodgy vintage. “Uh … Jack? … You’re right. This is nice … Thanks ...”
“Oh crap …”
The souls of the ancestors had danced in the sky at night. Korok recognised the good omen. The ancestors approved of his plan, and they would protect him in the fight that was to come. Staring into the frozen, pre-dawn darkness outside the cave where they’d rested, he willed daybreak to arrive and gave a wild howl when the first tendrils of light bled through a frost-black sky. It was time.
Distempered snarls rose from inside. The men were stirring, woken by Korok’s cry. Soon they would join him on the ledge outside, and they would see what he had seen. It was time. Korok would lead the largest hunting party anyone had ever beheld. Korok would lead them to the heart of the High Plains, where the herd lived. When the sun had fully risen, the tribe of Korok would take back what was theirs, and they would feed before the sun had reached its zenith.
One by one, warriors filed from the cave, and gazed at the dawn in wonder and expectation. Korok greeted each of them, as it befitted a leader on the morning of the cull. You could not be certain if you would greet them again the following morning, and so it was proper to show your respect while you could. When Tallat emerged at last, Korok knew there were no more men left in the cave. It was time.
Silently, the tribes of Korok and Tallat became one with the shadowy snowfields.
Ryder and Avery of SG-3, who were standing last watch, never got a chance to raise the alarm. Both had been taken out by vicious blows to the head, and the only reason why they were still alive was the fact that the raiders had more pressing business to attend to before breakfast. The men were dragged inside and left under guard, and seconds later some fifty tribesmen noiselessly slipped into the main habitat.
Sam woke gagging, hazy remnants of a nightmare irking her. Muted light from the hallway filtered in through a glass rectangle high in the wall, and in the semidarkness she saw Shamille sitting on her cot, bolt-upright, breathing soundlessly, staring at the door of the tiny cubicle the two women shared since Janet Fraiser had given up her ‘office’.
“Wisht!” the matriarch hissed only just audibly. “They are here!”
Outlanders. Sam knew it without having to ask, because she’d realised what had woken her. It was the smell. The same stomach-churning blend of sweat, old blood, half-tanned pelts, and breath fouled by a diet of raw meat that had all but stifled her during those endless minutes on the ledge. She felt her whole body tingle with fear and started retching again, until she finally managed to silence the tremulous voice in her head that kept bawling at her to run and hide. Stiffly, she crept out of bed, hooked her fingertips on the sill below the window, and pulled herself up until she could see down into the hall. Eight of them, slowly converging outside, nostrils flaring, sniffing. Sniffing … Oh God, they could smell her and Shamille in the room! … Fear wanted to rush in again, somewhere at the back of her mind rhythmic noises, thud-click, click-thud, grew louder, louder, louder with her every heartbeat … Sam let go of the sill, landing lightly and silently on bare feet, moved to the door and locked it. The only other exit, the connecting door into the infirmary, was blocked by Shamille’s cot at night. There was no guarantee that the Outlanders weren’t in there already but, one way or the other, it was the only escape route now. And Corporal Collins slept there, and he slept with a gun under his pillow … One measly gun … They’d have to find a way of reaching the weapons locker, to raise the alarm, before everyone else got surprised in their sleep … but they wouldn’t be killed in their sleep ... She remembered noticing a flashlight on the small shelf at the foot of her bed, took it, tested it. It worked.
“Grandmother, stand up, please!”
The old woman rose and began helping her to shift the cot. Suddenly she stopped, misshapen, still strong hands tearing at a metal leg until the joint gave and it came off the frame. “Take it! You might need it. I’ll rely on this.” She raised her cane.
Involuntarily, Sam grinned. At least one of them seemed to be enjoying herself. “Quiet now”, she warned, opened the door to the infirmary, and warily stepped into the darkness of the room. All she heard was soft breathing. Collins, Daniel, the Colonel. No other sound. Inhaling deeply, she switched on the flashlight. No surprises. Sam motioned Shamille to join her, closed and locked the connecting door, and stole over to where Colonel O’Neill was sleeping.
“Sir?” She shook him gently. “Wake up, sir, please.”
“Go ‘way … I’ll tell Doc … Way outside vis’ting hours …“ Something snapped him awake. He looked at her, and for a brief instant Sam saw a reflection of her own barely controlled terror in his eyes. “They’re here, aren’t they? … I can smell them”, he whispered hoarsely, struggling to sit up.
“Eight outside my room, but there’s no telling how many in all, and there may be some in the hall outside the infirmary … Sir, I think that smell thing is mutual, except their noses are better than ours … They found Shamille and me by scent.”
“Do you mind?!” came a grumpy, groggy voice from the direction of Dr Jackson’s cot.
“Shush yourself, Jack!”
The Colonel ignored him. He’d fumbled for his IV line, detached it, clambered out of bed, and unsteadily padded across the room. Barefoot, and in pants and a shirt several sizes too large for him, he looked like a famished, belligerent scarecrow. “Collins!”
The man shot up, bleary-eyed and disoriented. “Yessir?!”
“Rise and shine, Corporal! And grab that gun of yours … Daniel! Get up!!”
“Do you know what time it is?!”
Dr Jackson found his levee vastly accelerated when twelve tribesmen burst into the room. Collins got off three rounds, taking out two of the attackers in as many seconds, before a club struck his arm, sending the gun flying. Five of them thronged after him, forcing him further and further towards a corner. Then some hefty blows from Major Carter’s metal bar caught their attention, and Sam and the Corporal ended up back to back, surrounded by cavemen. Daniel had tumbled from his cot, seized a lab stool with his good hand, and swung it wildly at his assailant, confusing rather than intimidating him. The remaining four closed in on Colonel O’Neill, who was unarmed, slowly driving him around a lab bench, trying to corner him. Furious like a bear whose cub is threatened, Shamille went after them, a powerful swipe with her cane crushing an Outlander’s larynx. Before they had time to react, the Colonel lunged for the centre of the lab bench and the collection of glass bottles that sat there. He snatched one of them and hurled it at the group that circled Collins and Carter.
“Don’t breathe and run like hell when it hits!” he shouted.
The bottle bounced off of one of the raiders, crashed to the floor and shattered. Almost at once, a biting stench made Sam’s eyes water, but the effect on Outlanders was far more dramatic. They gasped for air, inhaling more of the fumes, doubling over, clutching their throats and faces and keening.
“Run …”, O’Neill wheezed again, pushing Shamille towards the door, past the writhing cavemen.
Daniel and Sam dragged Collins from the room, slammed the door and locked it.
“What the hell was that?!” spluttered Dr Jackson, his eyes streaming.
“Brilliant, that’s what it was!” Collins yelped, carefully probing a cut on his forehead. “What made you think of it, sir?”
“Had to write a science report once … effects of ammonia on the mucous membranes … 8th grade chemistry … detention …” O’Neill trailed off awkwardly, trying to avoid the fascinated stares.
“So you figured that those guys and their overdeveloped sense of smell might just be more susceptible …” Suddenly Major Carter grinned. “Uh … what exactly did you get detention for, sir?”
“You don’t wanna know, Carter …”
Sam noticed his pallor, and her grin faded. “You okay, Colonel?”
“Peachy. Let’s go!” Colonel O’Neill turned towards the end of the corridor.
“Sir? … Weapons locker is that way …”
“Take point, Carter.”
The rough layout of the main habitat was simple enough, but Jack had never really had an opportunity to check it out properly. An oversight that was being mended now. Crossing the central hallway at right angles was a ladder of smaller, narrow corridors. In between corridors lay a patchwork of labs, offices, and sleeping quarters, mostly interconnected. Carter was leading them through this dimly lit labyrinth of cubicles, keeping off the hallways as much as possible.
O’Neill had fallen back to the rear, partly because he liked to see for himself that everyone was still present and correct, partly because it saved him from Grandmother’s scrutiny. He didn’t need her disapproving frowns to remind him that he’d much rather be sitting down right now … That’ll teach you to dive onto lab benches, boy! … He’d crashed into the bench top trying to grasp the bottle, and something had snapped somewhere. It felt like that cracked rib had gone visiting places it wasn’t meant to visit ... Don’t even think of it, Jack! You sit down, you’ll never get up again …
They’d come up against a closed door, and Carter signalled a halt. He limped over to her. “Major?”
“The weapons locker’s round the corner, ten yards down to the right.”
“What are we waiting for?”
“We’ve got to get past the mess door, sir. They may be in there.”
“Ah ... Let’s go and find out, shall we?”
Making sure that the others followed him, Jack slipped out into the quiet corridor, sliding along the wall. Actually this was a relief. Now he could lean against something without anyone noticing. Carter’s hunch had been right, he’d known that much before he even reached the junction. The smell was a dead giveaway. He risked a quick glance around the corner. The door to the locker stood open. Someone had been there, hopefully armed themselves, hopefully got away. Then he heard them. It sounded like … Oh crap!
They were pouring from the mess, coming his way, sniffing, fifteen of them at least. They looked kinda dumb. Maybe they were dumb enough …
“Carter! The locker’s open. Go for it as soon as the hall’s clear.”
Daniel blanched, and Collins’ whimper was silenced by a muted thwack Major Carter recognised from months of experience. Before anyone could stop him, Jack O’Neill had stepped out into the central hallway, stood there for a moment before he spun around, almost losing his balance, and started running awkwardly down the corridor, drawing the Outlanders after him, away from the weapons locker, away from his team.
Colonel! Oh God, sir … The sounds of the chase became muffled. Sam took a peek. The hallway was empty. He must have led them into a side corridor, perhaps into a suite of rooms. Perhaps he’d find a place to hide. Perhaps he could outrun them. Perhaps the Earth was flat. He didn’t have a prayer, and he’d known it ... And you can’t afford to deal with it now! Use the chance he’s given you! ... “Daniel, Collins, Grandmother! Quickly!” Her face didn’t betray anything.
She ducked around the corner, past the mess door, and into the weapons locker. Two zat’nikatels and a H&K assault rifle were missing. Someone had been there, hopefully armed themselves, hopefully got away. Sam passed out zats to Collins and Daniel, took a third and fourth for Shamille and herself, and turned. The old woman had vanished. “Grandmother …!” gasped Major Carter. “Where did she - …”
The corridor ahead erupted in howls, screams, gunfire, and the repeated discharge of a staff weapon. After the eerie quiet of the attack so far, the deafening noise felt almost liberating. The morning suddenly lost its distorted, phantasmal quality, solidified somehow. Janet Fraiser and Major Griff came stumbling towards them. Griff was practically reeling, hauled along by the petite doctor, who sported a bleeding gash over one eyebrow and looked absolutely furious. Teal’c, half-naked still, was covering the pair, slowly backing down the hall, keeping a throng of cavemen at arm’s, or staff’s, length. All of a sudden Dr Fraiser’s eyes went wide, and she shouted a warning.
Sam whirled around to see another pack of Outlanders approaching from behind. Their bloodshot, swollen eyes told her that this was the group that had been locked in the infirmary. They were in a bad mood. “The mess! Get in the mess! Daniel, cover me! Collins, help Dr Fraiser!”
She laid down cover fire for Teal’c, until the Jaffa had reached the shelter of the room. Collins closed the door in the nick of time, and together he and Teal’c pushed a cupboard in front of it. They were safe for the moment. Janet had deposited Major Griff on the floor and knelt hunched over him, performing a brisk examination. Daniel sat on a chair, staring at the cupboard that concealed the door as though he expected the Colonel to appear through it in a puff of smoke.
“Teal’c? What happened?”
“The odour roused me from kel-no-reem before the savages became aware of my location, MajorCarter. I escaped from my quarters and tracked the group you encountered. They had apprehended Dr Fraiser and MajorGriff”, Teal’c added.
Which was the extent of the Jaffa’s report, but the bite marks and bruising on his arms and back told their own story. He’d freed Janet and Griff on his own. Sam forced a smile. “Good job, Teal’c. Did you see Levine, Peters, and Wilson anywhere? Avery and Ryder are missing as well.”
“I did not see anyone else.”
“Okay. Let Dr Fraiser take care of those bites.”
“That will not be necessary, MajorCarter. My symbiote will heal the damage.”
“Why don’t you let me by the judge of that, Teal’c?” The doctor had finished her examination of Griff and joined them, talking while deft fingers gently probed the Jaffa’s injuries. “Major Griff’s got a nasty concussion. He’ll live, though. He isn’t exactly fighting fit, but he can walk … This isn’t pretty, Teal’c. I wish I had you in the infirmary … Junior’s taking care of any potential infection, I presume?”
“He is indeed, Dr Fraiser.”
“Speaking of not fighting fit … Where’s Colonel O’Neill, Sam?”
Major Carter assumed an oddly rigid stance. “I don’t know, Doctor … But he won’t be joining us.”
Janet’s face fell. “Sam …?”
“I said not now!” Abruptly, Sam turned away. “Teal’c! Collins! See to it that everyone’s armed. I have a spare zat if we need it, and I want everyone geared up and out of the window in five minutes. We’ll double back through the main entrance and try to find the others. At least three of them had weapons, and they may still be alive.” Her voice threatened to crack, and she swallowed hard. “Let’s go.”
They were dumb enough, alright, but there also was no doubt as to the winner of today’s Stupid Contest. On the other hand, he’d succeeded in drawing them off, and if … when … they caught him, there’d be no great harm done. Tactically speaking. It wasn’t like he’d be able to contribute much in a fight.
They’d almost had him five seconds from the blocks. At the last possible moment he’d skidded into a side corridor and from there into a suite of cubicles. The leading pursuers had overshot, doubled back and collided with the rest of the gang in the bottleneck of the door. It had bought him a precious advantage, and one he was losing fast now.
He was playing dodgems with the furniture, soaked with sweat and sobbing for breath, staggering along, fingers trailing over tabletops, the backs of chairs, anything, groping for support, until he stumbled out into another passage. The nearest door was fifteen yards along and across the hall, and he managed almost three quarters of the distance before sagging against the wall. End of the line.
His feet felt icy, he realised incongruously and pushed away the thought. No matter what Doc Fraiser had told him, catching a cold was the least of his problems. He wouldn’t live long enough to sneeze. They’d piled into the corridor after him, stood staring, relishing the sight. No need to rush. Another group was creeping up the hall behind, cutting off an escape route he couldn’t have taken anyway. The prey had been brought to bay. A club thumped the floor, and Jack resigned himself.
And then a small figure barrelled through the door. How she’d found him was beyond Jack. She had to have the senses of a homing pigeon. A suicidal homing pigeon.
“Get out!” he rasped. “Get out, please!”
She ignored him. Impossibly nimbly, Shamille hobbled towards him, past him, and with a shrill cry confronted the mob of hungry Outlanders. They stared for a split-second longer, then they began closing in.
Not thinking, just moving, in an absurd and pointless act of chivalry Grandmother surely wouldn’t thank him for, Jack doggedly shoved himself off the wall and somehow coaxed his failing body into a run, focussed on one thing, and one thing only: reaching the big brute in front. He caught the movement from the corner of his eye and too late.
The old woman’s cane had whipped down, perfectly placed, perfectly timed, and tripped him. “Too much heart for your own good, boy”, he heard her say, as he flew into an uncontrolled tumble, and the blow intended to stop him struck Shamille instead.
Jack hit the ground with sickening force. For a few seconds he just lay there, waiting for nausea to flare and ebb off again. Then he saw her. Crumpled like a toy someone had carelessly flung against the wall. “Grandmother …?”
On the third attempt he managed to push himself to his hands and knees and started crawling. Someone stepped into his path, blocking Shamille from his view. Jack looked up into the face of a young man, barely more than a teenager.
“Now we feed”, the youngster said calmly, and a cudgel came down.
The pain was crushing, flooding through him, white and indomitable, with the violence of a tidal wave. Jack collapsed, a remote corner of his mind grasping that the precision of the blow hadn’t been accidental. His back, that spot on his back ... Sprawled on the floor, retching, he tried to control the pain, the trembling, until he sensed, rather than saw them circling, heard the soft, slow thudding of clubs getting louder and faster. Thuds and clicks, their volume soaring out of all proportion, piercing shouts and blasts, shrieking and screeching. Noise, unbearable noise, weighing down on him. Clamour exploded into silence.
The terror he’d kept locked in until now broke free and pounced. Eyes closed, he lay rigid with fear, helpless, knowing what was to come and waiting. Waiting for hands, grasping and probing.
Sam’s team found Lieutenant Avery and Sergeant Ryder within minutes of returning into the habitat through the main entrance. She had split the group reluctantly, but time was of the essence if they wanted to retrieve the missing men before they were overrun. Griff and Collins were with her, Drs Jackson and Fraiser had gone with Teal’c.
The sour stench had hit her as soon as they entered the building, and she’d followed it through three or four labs, while Teal’c’s group took off along the central hallway. Collins was the first to spot the intruders. He’d taken point and cautiously peered around a doorjamb, only to jerk back immediately, retreating before five cavemen. The double report of gun shots, whining of a zat. Three of them fell. Sam stunned the remaining two, and scanned the adjoining office for further attackers.
The room was a cul-de-sac, easily defensible and empty, apart from the two men lying on the floor, unconscious, but otherwise unharmed. Why they hadn’t been … attacked further was a mystery to Sam. It was almost as though the Outlanders had been waiting for something else to happen, before they … She turned away, her mind seeing someone else lie prone, encircled by clicking, purring, greedy things, and noone there to help … The din of a fight erupted somewhere in the habitat. Get a grip, Carter!
“See what you can do for Ryder and Avery. Major, help me tie up those … men.” It took three minutes and a few lengths of electrical cable to bind the Outlanders securely. She looked at Griff. “Think you and Collins can hold this place if they return?”
SG-3’s team leader nodded. “Sure. We pick ‘em off as they poke their ugly noses through the door. If they poke their ugly noses through the door.”
“Okay. I’ll go and see if I can find Teal’c. Sounds like he or whoever else is out there could use a hand. Try not to zat me when I come back.”
“Not if we can help it.” Griff gave a crooked smirk. “Hey, Carter? … Thanks … And watch your six!”
“I’m planning to.”
Teal’c had perceived the faint whispers long before his companions did and reduced his pace. The source lay ahead of them, in a chamber to the right. Silently, the Jaffa glided along the passage. He halted in close proximity of an entry. The voices in the chamber desisted. I their place he noticed the secretive sounds of an ambush about to be sprung: furtive footfalls and the inadvertent scraping of metal on metal.
“I am aware of your presence”, Teal’c called quietly. “Do not attack, MajorLevine!”
There was a muffled whoop and a “Shut it, Wilson!”, then Levine stuck his head out, grinning in relief. “Teal’c! Glad it’s you … We accidentally let a whole bunch of caveboys out of the infirmary. Good thing they couldn’t see too well … You got a count on them?”
“I do not know their exact number, but there are many. MajorCarter gave orders to find you and return to the main entrance. I presume you were the ones who reached the weapons locker?”
“Yep.” Levine held up an MP5 and waved Wilson and Peters into the corridor. “Let’s go, people … Hey, Jackson! Still think those guys should be a protected species?”
Daniel turned a shade paler than he already was and didn’t answer.
The Major stopped short. “What happened? Daniel? Teal’c?”
“Shhhh! Can you hear that?” Janet Fraiser had taken a step forward and stood with her head cocked, listening intently.
“Shit!” said Peters. All five men were familiar with the soft rhythmic thudding that echoed from a side corridor halfway down the hall. “They’ve got someone.”
“Jack …”, whispered Daniel.
Levine stared at him for a second, then he started running. “Teal’c, with me. Peters, Wilson, take the rear. Fraiser, Jackson, stay behind me and Teal’c and cover us. When you have a target, don’t ask questions.”
They raced along the corridor, turned the corner and found the passage ahead choked with a swaying, throbbing, grunting throng of Outlanders.
“Korok!” It was a howl, and Teal’c had come to a dead halt. A young tribesman whipped around to gawk at his nemesis in fury and disbelief, and 240-odd pounds of livid Jaffa charged.
For one unconscionably flippant moment, Daniel was reminded of a bowling alley. That fast, heavy ball hurtled down the lane with lethal momentum, and the pins toppled … Toppled? Blew sky-high ... He heard Levine yell, felt his feet moving almost of their own accord, as they followed Teal’c toward a heaving mass of people.
Sizzling discharges from the zat’nikatels and the hiss of staff blasts mingled with shouts, clubs swung aimlessly against bolts of energy and bullets, feet tripped and stumbled, raw voices shrieked and screeched … And suddenly, shockingly, there was silence. Most of the Outlanders, among them Korok, had fled, scattered throughout the building, those that remained were dead or disabled. The corridor was littered with bodies. In their midst lay Jack O’Neill.
The doctor pushed past Daniel and Teal’c and knelt next to him. If he was aware of her, he didn’t show it. All of a sudden, a violent tremor shook his body, and Janet instinctively grabbed his shoulders. He gave a hoarse moan and tried to move away.
“Dr Fraiser. Perhaps it is best not to touch O’Neill.” The Jaffa gently removed her hands, crouched, and in low tones began talking to his friend.
When Major Carter reached the central hallway, deadly silence had fallen. Momentarily she froze, feeling sick again, not wanting to guess what it meant and guessing anyway, and then set off in the direction Teal’c and his team had taken earlier. Several times she thought she saw movement in the shadows of a room or passage. Each time she checked, each time she came up empty. Finally, she heard muted voices.
They were in a side corridor, huddled in a tight cluster, Levine and his men, Daniel, Teal’c, and Janet Fraiser. Around them prone bodies. They saw her, someone pointed at her, and Janet rose and broke from the group. The doctor’s face was drawn, a beaten look in her eyes that Sam recognised. Her father had had that look when he’d told her that her mother wouldn’t be coming home. She forced herself to keep walking, to ignore the bitter, grey fist of agony that had begun pumping somewhere inside of her and slowly floated up until it closed around her throat.
Janet’s hand landed on her arm, lifted briefly when it sensed muscles twitching, settled to stay. “Sam, I’m so sorry …”
“Where is he?” The words seemed to have been spoken by someone else, sounded improbably calm.
Sam moved past her down the hall. A curled-up form on the floor. Daniel standing over him, arms akimbo, flushed with guilt and shock. Teal’c hunkering, softly, soothingly murmuring. The Colonel, hands clenched to mask their trembling, his face taut with pain … alive. Alive. For a moment the relief was so overwhelming that her legs threatened to sag under her. She took an uncertain little step and noticed Levine. Levine, very still, gazing at a small body.
The old woman lay slumped against the wall, her neck craned at an impossible angle.
“Grandmother? … You won’t die for many seasons yet, Grandmother! You’re far too curious to do that …”, Sam heard herself whisper, waiting for a wispy voice to call her an impudent pup, not realising that she was crying at last.
Judging by the extent of reaction he was getting, his question might as well have been sucked into a black hole. General George S Hammond looked at the people assembled around the table: Dr Fraiser; Major Levine and his two Sergeants; Major Griff, together with Ryder and Avery; and SG-1, minus their CO, who was still in the infirmary and probably strapped to his bed, if the CMO’s threats could be trusted. Morale was lousy. It had been a long, thorny mission, with severe losses, escapes that had been way too narrow for comfort, and very little gain. These people weren’t glad to be back; most of them felt at fault for having been the ones to survive more or less unscathed.
They’d returned five days ago, rag-tag and battered. George Hammond had steeled himself for bad news when Lieutenant Simmons confirmed SG-1’s IDC. Dr Fraiser had burst from the event horizon, looking distinctly the worse for wear, and he could have sworn he’d heard her holler for a medical team before she’d even materialised. Hot on her heels followed Corporal Collins and Teal’c, both looking fairly normal, although the definition of ‘normal’ was still open to debate where it came to the Jaffa. At Teal’c’s side and propped up by a strong arm, hung Jack O’Neill, looking barely alive. Then again, a barely alive 2IC beat the hell out of a dead one, which was precisely what Hammond had been led to expect. Griff had appeared next, looking as though he’d tried to tackle the Halls of Montezuma head first and through the brickwork. Behind him came Avery and Ryder, looking exactly like their CO. Evidently a Marine thing, the General decided. Bringing up the rear were Sam Carter, looking capable, stricken and withdrawn, and … Hammond had done a double take, accompanied by a sudden horrible vision of orphaned footstools cluttering a storage room on Level 26 … Daniel Jackson, looking every bit as uncomfortable as he ought to. Determined to watch his blood pressure and save the Footstool Affair for later, the General had summarily dismissed them into the capable hands of Dr Warner, with orders not to let any of them out of the infirmary for at least two days ...
The debriefing had started at 0800 hours. Now it was 1115 hours and the end was finally creeping into sight. Not that he didn’t find it captivating ... Well, ‘captivating’ wasn’t quite the word perhaps, but any more accurate description involved the use of language Mother Hammond would have frowned on ... He was beginning to tire of the fact that some of the information could only be extracted through persistent questioning one step short of the third degree. The main culprits on that score were Dr Jackson and, uncharacteristically, Major Carter. Hammond would have bet his last shirt on the fact that there were sizeable holes in her story of Colonel O’Neill’s week-long sojourn at that Amazon village on 954. She’d owned up readily enough to accidentally skewering her CO, and that made the General wonder just how ‘captivating’ the undisclosed items were. Eventually he had given up probing, mostly because Sam Carter was clearly distressed by the death of the woman who had ‘adopted’ her. From the little she’d said Hammond derived the feeling that he would have liked the old lady, too … Besides, he always could find out from Jack O’Neill … There’s a happy thought, George! If debriefing Carter was like pulling teeth, debriefing the Colonel would be like bashing one’s head against a concrete wall …
Hammond’s question had been, for the eleven hundredth time that morning, ‘So, then what happened?’ In response to which Dr Jackson eventually condescended to mumble something totally unintelligible.
“Excuse me, Doctor?” George Hammond was losing patience, fast, and it coloured his tone.
“Jack drew them off!” Suddenly, and for the first time since the beginning of the debriefing, Daniel Jackson’s eyes relinquished the scrutiny of his notepad and met the General’s. “Jack drew them off, sir, and they got him, and it was my fault. If I hadn’t persuaded Major Levine to take Korok along instead of leaving him where we’d found him, it wouldn’t have happened. Korok led the raid, sir. By the time Teal’c and the Major got to him, he was about to have Jack for breakfast. Literally … It was my fault”, he blurted again.
“Bullshit!” replied Major Levine.
“Excuse me, Major?”
“With your permission, General: Bull! Shit!” Levine glowered at Dr Jackson, oblivious to Hammond’s less than thrilled expression. “If I hadn’t listened to you, Jackson, both the Colonel and Major Carter would be dead, because we’d still be playing ring o’ roses round the rim of that basin. And apart from anything else, it was my call, so if anyone’s to blame, it’s me!”
“I don’t see any cause for blame ... And kindly lower your voice, Major! If there’s any shouting to be done in this room, you can be sure I’ll take care of it.”
Levine cringed. “Sorry, sir …”
“So, then what happened?”
“Then Major Carter ordered immediate evacuation. We didn’t know if they’d regroup, and Colonel O’Neill was looking a bit rough … We took the hovercrafts and made for the ‘gate as quickly as we could … Uhm … there was no time to try and secure the facility, sir.”
The General waved an impatient hand. “Forget that, Major! Equipment can be replaced.”
“Yes, sir … Well, the rest you know …”
Didn’t he just?! The ‘rest’ involved his 2IC winding up in intensive care for thirty-six hours. George Hammond winced. “Dr Fraiser? How’s Colonel O’Neill doing?”
“All things considered he’s doing alright, sir. That broken rib shifted, but thankfully it hasn’t done much damage. His back’s begun to heal, and apart from a couple of stitches that must have popped when he fell there have been no more … uh … shall we say: ‘post-op complications’? No reason why he shouldn’t make a full recovery … I’m thinking of releasing him day after tomorrow. Provided the Colonel can control his urge to go whizzing around like a yo-yo …”
“Good.” The General was genuinely relieved. “Well, if there’s nothing else, people -”
“Sir, I need to go back to P9R 954.”
“Come again?!” Hammond hoped that, for some perverse reason, Major Carter was joking. There could be no question of anyone going back there right now. In fact, he was about to declare the planet off-limits altogether. Unfortunately, Carter didn’t look like she’d start laughing any time soon. Which only left room for the assumption that this whole amnesia thing and the traumatic events that followed had addled her otherwise immaculately ordered mind. “Major, that’s -”
“Sir, I need to take Shamille home to her village. We left her body at the station, locked up, so the Outlanders couldn’t get to her, but I need to take her home. She deserves … deserves a proper funeral. I owe her that much. We all do …” Her voice had gone very soft and caught. “Please, sir. I need to …”
George Hammond had been there when Sam Carter’s mother was buried. Twelve-year-old Samantha had shown that same brittle determination not to fall apart, had kept her face just as studiously blank, and had been just as unable to fool anybody. Not that the General would ever dream of telling her. “Major, I can see your point … I’ll take it under advisement. That’s all I can promise for now.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“GeneralHammond.” Teal’c had risen and clasped his hands behind his back, thus indicating that whatever proclamation he was about to make had to be of grave import. “I also desire permission to return to the planet. The Healer Shamille has done us great service and has fought bravely. I do not wish to dishonour her memory by denying her the funeral rights she is entitled to receive. O’Neill will concur.”
Oh that’s right! Go and drag O’Neill into it, why don’t you? If Jack caught even a whiff of this, his penchant for pesky moral stuff would go into overdrive, and he wouldn’t just make Hammond’s life a misery, but they’d have to post guards on every single transport crate in the facility, lest the Colonel follow Dr Jackson’s shining example. Which reminded the General … “As I said, Teal’c, I’ll take it under advisement. And I strongly suggest you do not mention any of this to Colonel O’Neill. Dismissed … Dr Jackson? A word!”
A week later, General Hammond informed Major Carter and Teal’c that their request would be granted. He hadn’t had much choice in the matter. Upon perusing the mission reports, someone at the Pentagon had sniffed major pharmaceutical advances, and the SGC was ordered to continue exploration and to cement their contact with the matriarchy in the basin. The General was to await the arrival of a Dr Teresa Villiers, a pharmacologist, and send an appropriately strong escort to accompany her to P9R 954.
The orders from the Pentagon had thrown up a twofold problem. Firstly, Jack O’Neill had, by necessity, been apprised of them, seeing that two members of his team would be part of the escort. Released from the infirmary and back on light duty, he seemed to have made it his sole ambition in life to badger Hammond into letting him return to 954. Secondly, General Hammond’s pen pal in Supplies had somehow got wind of what had happened to his precious footstools and renewed his correspondence. As the Stargate Command and its frivolous personnel couldn’t be trusted safely to deliver Air Force property, the Sergeant wrote, he would despatch one of his own men to supervise the shipment.
The night after Dr Villiers had descended on Cheyenne Mountain, George Hammond dreamt of a vociferous and excruciatingly embarrassing encounter in the men’s room between himself, one incommodious Colonel, and a Supply Sergeant clutching a thesaurus. Hammond woke up sweating and half-strangled by sheets and promised himself to get the mission underway within the next twenty-four hours, in the hope that this would shut up the pair of them. His final decision comprised a qualified ‘Yes’ to the footstools and their chaperone, and the ninety-third emphatic ‘No’ to Colonel O’Neill.
Early the following afternoon, Teresa Villiers and her babysitters, among them Major Carter, Teal’c, and Major Levine had assembled in the ‘gate room, waiting for the wormhole to engage. Daniel was there to see them off, sulking a little because he was excluded from the mission, despite an eloquently expressed interest in Amazon culture. Together they’d watched as a crate containing the infamous footstools was loaded onto a hovercraft that already held some of Villiers’ equipment, as well as the Supply Sergeant’s envoy. Muffled in a fur-lined hood and balaclava, snow goggles prophylactically in place, the man slouched by his crate, dour and anything but pleased at the prospect of trundling off into a glacial wilderness, where his talent for inventory and statistics would be of no earthly use whatsoever.
As the wormhole engaged, Dr Jackson snorted under the whoosh of the event horizon. “Jeez! You sure you don’t want to take me along instead?!”
“Can it, Jackson!” hissed Major Levine. “Just for your information, the General made me promise to throttle you if you get any bright ideas …”
“Suit yourself”, Daniel grunted. “But -”
He was interrupted by a stern voice from the control room. “You have a ‘go’, people. Good luck!”
The craft glided up the ramp and vanished through the ‘gate, a twelve-strong team in its wake.
They made it to the compound just before dark. It was deserted, all traces of the Outlanders gone, even the bodies had disappeared, a fact which provoked some grimaces from those who’d had first-hand experience of P9R 954 and could well imagine what had become of the corpses. Sam relished the idea of spending another night at the station as little as Levine or Teal’c, but it couldn’t be helped. Besides, she’d asked to be allowed back here. On her own, not wanting anyone to join her, she’d entered the storage room where they’d left Shamille. Grandmother had looked as though she was asleep, her body preserved by the freezing cold. Biting her lip, Sam had straightened out the old woman’s garments, gently placed a hand on a cold cheek.
“Tomorrow you’re going home, Grandmother. I promise …” She left, silently closing the door behind her, faintly embarrassed when she found the entire team assembled in the corridor outside. Time to get organised. “Levine, get some people to unload what needs to be unloaded and have somebody carry cots and heaters into the mess. We sleep there. All of us.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Levine sent Teal’c and a few men to take care of the gear, and led the rest of the team down the hall to the mess.
Airman Footstool stiffened and looked like he was going to mutter something in the negative. Throughout the journey, he’d diverted anyone who’d listen with whinging complaints, re: the cold, the company, and his sciatica, to the point where Teal’c asked, politely but firmly, whether it would be culturally acceptable to disembowel the man.
Major Carter was absolutely not in the mood for antics and began to wish she’d given Teal’c the go-ahead. “This means you, mister!” she barked. “Drop the attitude! Move your grumpy ass and make yourself useful!”
Footstool shrugged glumly and began trudging down the corridor, apparently fighting another twinge of sciatica and tugging off the hood and balaclava as he went. Sam glared after him and was just about to go outside and check on the others, when he absentmindedly ran a hand through the unkempt chaos he called hair.
“Colonel …!!” It was a squeal roughly an octave and a half above Major Carter’s natural pitch.
The counterfeit Airman halted in mid-stride and delicately placed a suspended foot back on the ground. At last he turned, gaining about four inches in height as he did. “Move my grumpy ass, Carter?”
If his eyebrows climbed any higher, they’d be airborne, and if Sam ever was going to acquire the skill of seeping into floor cracks, now would be the perfect moment. She felt a blush rising from the tips of her toes and stammered, “Sorry, sir … No disrespect … I … uh …-”
“Grumpy ass?” Colonel O’Neill said again, trying to look menacing and failing.
It had given Major Carter the two seconds necessary to regain her composure. “What the devil do you think you’re doing, sir?! The General’s gonna kill you when he finds out. He’s gonna kill me, and he’d be right … You’re going back tomorrow. There’s no way I’ll let you -”
“Carter, please … I’ve got to do this …” He’d gone serious, a trace of anxiety and defeat in his eyes. “I … I know, technically you’re in command of this mission, and if you order me to, I’ll go …” Suddenly an idea struck, and he brightened up. “You could tell Hammond I pulled rank …”
She wasn’t buying. “Colonel, it isn’t me I’m worried about. It’s you! Dammit, sir, you very nearly died on us, and right now all that keeps you ticking over is pigheadedness and band-aids … I can’t let you do this!”
When he finally spoke, his voice was so soft, she could barely hear him. “Sam … I … If it hadn’t been for me, she’d probably be alive. She died trying to save my sorry butt … And I couldn’t even thank her … Please …”
And how was she going to argue with that? He’d never talked about what had occurred in the corridor that morning. In fact, he’d hardly talked at all. Now Sam was beginning to understand why. “What happened, sir?” she asked softly, holding his gaze.
“She came after me … Stubborn … God knows how she found me … She would have taken them on single-handedly. I tried to stop her, and she tripped me with that damn cane of hers … Sam? … The blow that killed her had been meant for me ... I’m sorry …”
“Sorry for what? Being alive?”
“At that price? Yes!”
“You’re wrong, sir! Grandmother would have -” A door slammed at the end of the hall. Someone was coming, and this would have to wait till later. “Sir, if I don’t ship you back, chances are that Levine will, no matter what I say … Just how were you planning to avoid being recognised in the mess? Sleep in that balaclava?”
“I always could say I’ve got really bad eczema … or something …”
“Or something …” Major Carter sighed. “What did you have promise the guy in Supplies to get him to play along with this anyway?!”
“Oh that … Nothing. I wrote the memos to Hammond.”
“You did what?!” The footsteps kept approaching, and Sam made up her mind. “You know the room next to the infirmary, where I and … where I used to sleep? Bunk down there, I’ll make your excuses.”
“Get out of here, sir.” She watched him hurry down the corridor, just as Teal’c and his men walked past with the equipment.
The Jaffa hung back, regarded the receding back with thoughtful curiosity and enquired discreetly, “MajorCarter. Do you wish me to guard O’Neill’s room tonight?”
His eyes watering from the icy gale, Josh Levine grunted and put his snow goggles back on. 21st-century science was capable of catapulting man across the galaxy, but it still hadn’t produced a cure for steamed-up goggles … At least the sun would be up soon. Not that it’d get appreciably warmer then. He found himself yearning to reach the basin and, by ways of a change, to sample the more balmy climes of this hellhole of a planet. The riverbank was as chilly and inhospitable as it had been two weeks ago, but somehow the surroundings suited the mood that threatened to overwhelm him every time he looked at his craft’s cargo. The old lady had deserved better than this. A lot better. At least they’d be taking her home now.
Dr Villiers, Major Carter, Teal’c, and he were going to raft down the river. Waterfall and rapids notwithstanding, it was by far the safest route into the basin. The rest of the group would return to the research station, hold the fort overnight, and the following day travel to the mouth of the tunnel by hovercraft to pick up Villiers’ escort. Provided the women’s council agreed, the pharmacologist would stay at the village for a month.
Carter’s craft was already being unloaded, and some of the men were busy inflating the new raft they’d brought along. The Major came plodding towards him through the snow. “Hey, Levine. Teal’c and I are gonna take off in the first boat as soon as we’ve got everything stowed. That way we can scout the shore and give you a heads-up if we run into trouble.”
Levine nodded. “Good idea, Carter. We’ll follow as soon as we’re ready. About thirty minutes, I’d say. Just be careful, you hear?”
“Oh we will be. Don’t worry.” She flashed him a slightly strained grin and turned to the Supplies guy, who was standing around like a lemon, taking up space. “You! Come and help Teal’c carry the body.”
The fur-lined hood bobbed briskly, and he broke into an ungainly lope to join the Jaffa. Levine looked on as Carter clambered into the boat ahead of the two men. The three of them gently placed the old woman at the bottom of the vessel and covered her ... Damn, but he hated jobs like this! As if having to write that letter to Jenkins’ widow hadn’t been bad enough. I regret to inform you … For once hadn’t minded the standard lie. ‘Training accident’ didn’t sound half as harrowing as ‘eaten alive’ … He’d lain awake most of the night, replaying that entire last mission, searching for things he should have done differently, things that could have saved all those lives. It had been a fruitless exercise, of course. All it had brought him was leaden tiredness now. Then again, it probably was a fair guess that nobody had slept particularly well ... Mid-yawn he realised that Airman Footstool had untied the lines and cast off. The raft was on its way downstream.
“Yo! What the fuck do you think you’re doing, idiot?!”
The idiot straightened out of the terminal stoop he seemed to be afflicted with and pushed back the hood. “Wanna rephrase that, Major?!” he shouted.
“Oh shiiit …” groaned Major Levine.
“Are you alright?” Dr Villiers asked, slightly concerned.
“Oh fine … fine … My career’s over, but I’ve been thinking about taking up landscape gardening anyway. Anyway, I don’t wanna be there when he gets back to the SGC.”
George Hammond swore, genteelly under his breath. No need to broadcast the fact that he’d been taken for a ride by his 2IC. A batch of reports in one hand and a batch memos of in the other, he checked the signatures again, just to make sure. He wasn’t a graphologist, but even he could tell that one set was in Colonel O’Neill’s handwriting, while the other … was in Colonel O’Neill’s handwriting. Okay, so it read ‘Sergeant Rasputin F Clamshell’ (or words to that effect: the Colonel’s scrawl was a disgrace), but that was beside the point. The author undoubtedly was Jack O’Neill. As to the whereabouts of that officer and gentleman, well, one didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out. Contrary to what he’d claimed when requesting three days’ leave, he sure as hell wasn’t bass fishing in Minnesota.
Ultimately the paperwork just confirmed a niggling suspicion Hammond had held since he’d watched Villiers and her escort gate out to P9R 954. The Colonel’s impressive comedic flair notwithstanding, something about that whiner from Supplies hadn’t quite sat right. General Hammond was a keen observer and, to use a cliché, the devil was in the detail. Subconsciously he’d recognised an all too familiar restless pair of hands but, as it happened, two plus two had only added up to four the morning after the team had gone through.
George Hammond swore some more, not so genteelly. Technically, with what he had here, he could get O’Neill drummed out of the Air Force faster than he could say ‘insubordination’. The Colonel wasn’t a fool, he’d been fully aware of it. And he’d risked court-martial to do what he had to do. The beauty of it being that the decision of how to deal with the not so juvenile delinquent rested solely in Hammond’s hands. Nobody else knew. At least nobody else who’d be willing to get Colonel O’Neill into trouble.
“Son of a bitch!”
If it had been anybody else, Hammond would have inferred a gamble on the fact that he wouldn’t, after all, start disciplinary proceedings. However, this was Jack O’Neill, who was many things, cataclysmically annoying being one of them, but he wasn’t, and never had been, calculating. Which, coincidentally, was one of the reasons why the General trusted his officer implicitly. As a rule, Jack followed orders, in his own creative way. On the few occasions when he’d blatantly ignored them, he’d followed his conscience. And that was the crux, wasn’t it? … In short, George Hammond was loath to come crashing down on the man like a ton of bricks simply because he’d tried to do what was right, or what he felt was right. On the other hand, this was the Air Force, not the church social club, and there had to be some consequences …
Hammond’s eyes rested on the latest of a plethora of service circulars that cluttered his in-tray. Officers’ Job Development. Some pencil pusher suggested temporary exchanges between departments, to broaden personnel’s horizons. Needless to say, the average member of the SGC needed their horizons broadening like penguins needed fridge-freezers ... Hang on …
A blissful smile spread over the General’s face, making him look like an inordinately jolly, if rather mature Baroque putto. He picked up the phone. “Put me through to Supplies!”
After having assured the Sergeant that his footstools had been delivered, and by a full colonel, no less, Hammond broached the subject of Officers’ Job Development. It was greeted enthusiastically and verbosely.
“Six weeks, you say, Sergeant? … No, not too long at all. In fact, it’s perfect … Yes, I’ll send him over … uh … day after tomorrow? If that’s convenient? … It is? Oh good … What? You’ll be starting the annual inventory? … No, not a problem at all. On the contrary. I’m sure Colonel O’Neill will be thrilled …”
The way the women received the small, shrouded body Teal’c had carried into the village came as a surprise. It was as though they’d known, as though they’d never expected to see Shamille again, dead or alive. They’d never even asked questions. There was a calm matter-of-factness about it that seemed to baffle Carter, and left Jack O’Neill aching. Was that it? Had Grandmother’s life been so inconsequential? He was too brutally honest not to acknowledge that part of the reason why he’d risked everything to come here was a faint hope that he would find … he didn’t really know what. Some way of repaying her, some way of doing penance, some way of laying her to rest that would exorcise his demons. A valid answer to why she’d had to die, while he’d been allowed to live on. Yet again.
Several of the clan elders had silently relieved the Jaffa of his burden and disappeared. The rest, led by Lissele, had invited ‘Malinne’ and her ‘mate’, Villiers, Levine, and Teal’c into the council hut and laid on an impromptu feast. O’Neill wasn’t Irish for nothing, and he recognised a wake when he saw one, but for him the place signally failed to conjure up any good memories. Unbidden, his mind had wandered back to another feast, peopled the room with shadowy, hostile figures who’d been allowed to trespass here, to make a mockery of Shamille’s hospitality, for his sake. All because of him …
His trip into the potholes of memory lane had been disrupted by a young voice, bright and eager. “Are you going to invite a fight for the big one, Malinne? I need a mate.”
Korrene had ogled Teal’c appreciatively, and the Jaffa had raised a questioning eyebrow at Carter, while Lissele called her offspring to order. “Her name is Samantha. And you need a mate when I tell you, girl!”
The whole hut had rocked with laughter, and it gave Jack a chance to steal away, finally to give in to a craving for solitude.
The rain that had been lashing down earlier had ceased, and the day’s residual heat raised ghostly vanes of mist from the puddles on the ground and the riotous abundance of plant life that had enveloped the village since he’d last been here. He aimlessly drifted across the square. It was quiet. No shouts, no jeers, no throngs, forcing him into a fight he’d never wanted, howling for blood to be spilt, his or Carter’s, it hadn’t mattered. Lives were a dime a dozen, weren’t they? ... At least he’d managed to please the crowd. That must count for something, mustn’t it? A little bit of titillation, a couple of cheap laughs?
There were a few women scattered about, not invited to the party or for some other reason unable to join. He sensed their stares, appraising and intrusive, and it made him feel even more uprooted, more out of place. For a brief moment he wondered whether Carter had felt like this when she’d first joined the boys’ club of the Air Force. Perhaps not. She’d probably had a fair idea of what was heading her way ... But it was more than just having had his male ego dented. He’d been a pawn in somebody else’s chess game all along, and the more he’d struggled to regain control, to make things right somehow, the less he’d been able to. Helplessly shunted from pillar to post, all he could do was watch events overtake him time and time again, until that final disaster. Hell of a leader you make, O’Neill! … Jack caught his reflection in a puddle and winced. The Man Who Should Have Died ... Sounded like the title of some cheesy 50s movie melodrama, starring Joan Crawford and Dana Andrews ... Scurrying clouds, rapidly changing patches of blue sky shone in the water, grew indistinct, seemed to metamorphose into other faces, faces of those who should have lived. His son, Kawalsky, Frank Cromwell, Grandmother - …
“Don’t you have any work to do, male?!”
Jack whipped around and in doing so broke the scry. She’d never called him that. Others had, using the word as an insult, but never Shamille. Of course it wasn’t her. Couldn’t be. The speaker was merely another wizened, impatient old woman.
“Go! Go away! Set about your chores”, she hectored, and he involuntarily took a step back, out of her way. The crone limped on, muttering. “Worthless lout!”
Which was one way of putting it, Jack thought bitterly. The one thing he’d ever shown true talent for was killing people, intentionally or otherwise. And he’d go on killing people, because he’d be ordered to do so, or simply because he was too stupid to avoid it. His son, Kawalsky, Frank Cromwell, Grandmother. And the list didn’t end there … Grandmother, had she lived, would have gone on healing people. Talk about a pitiful trade … What price life?
In the persistent manner some old people have, the woman turned back. “Worthless lout!” she shrieked again, provoking a round of hoots from the onlookers at the edges of the square.
He fled the village, wishing he could run away from himself or at least find one single grain of sense in what had happened to Shamille.
Dusk came and went, and at moonrise one of the elders had fetched them from the council hut. The path to the river was lined with torches, casting a warm amber light that seemed to enhance the scent of jasmine that heavily hung in the night air. Nobody spoke, and down by the shore rose the beat of drums. Not the harsh, pulsating thud Sam had come to dread, but the lulling, almost melodic tones of calabashes covered with soft sil’peq skin. The entire clan had assembled on the beach, women, children, and men lined up in a semi-circle, outside another row of torches. At the edge of the water sat a coracle.
The women had washed her, dressed her in her finest robes and laid her out in the small vessel. How tiny she’d been, Sam thought. Grandmother’s feet barely touched the stern, and the longbow lying her side was nearly her height. Somehow you’d hardly ever noticed while she was alive, her spirit so much larger than the body that had contained it ...
Death held a different meaning for the women, less finality, more hope. … that much Sam understood at last. When an old woman felt her time approaching, she would go on the ‘Journey’. She’d sail down the river and beyond the Barrier Wall. The clan would come to the shore to bid her farewell, and two friends would be chosen to guide the boat into the stream and set the traveller on her voyage. To be chosen meant to be given a pledge of friendship beyond the ‘Journey’ ... Grandmother had done more than that. She’d taken Sam along for part of the way. Shamille had left the village that morning to go on her ‘Journey’, never expecting to return, although, as in everything, she had elected to do things on her own terms and in her own way and had travelled by land, upriver instead of down.
Swiping at tears, Sam tore her gaze away and scanned the crowd for familiar faces. Korrene hovered next to Teal’c, dwarfed by his towering frame, still fancying her chances. A little further up the shore stood Teresa Villiers, who’d been welcomed warmly as Lissele’s ‘apprentice healer’. Levine was close by, a little uncomfortable, as he had been ever since the women pegged him for Villiers’ mate. Only Colonel O’Neill was nowhere to be seen, and worry began gnawing at her. She’d watched him leave the council hut, debated going after him and decided against it, because he’d looked as though he could do with breathing space. But he’d been gone for hours now, and - …
The drums fell silent, and the low murmurs that had sprung up here and there hushed. Slowly, regally almost, Lissele walked down the path and across the beach to the coracle. She, and whoever she asked, in Shamille’s name, to aid her in the task, would push the little reed and tar vessel out into the river so that Grandmother could continue her journey. Lissele turned to the assembly, her eyes seeking and meeting Sam’s. Her gaze wandered on, searching the faces around her, until she frowned in puzzlement. “Jack? Jack, where are you?”
He was betrayed by a ripple of sudden movement, as the crowd parted from the back. Left without choice, Jack O’Neill slid from the shadow of the trees, stepped through the gap that had been cleared for him. One look at him told Sam that, whatever he’d been up to during his absence, it hadn’t helped.
“Jack”, Lissele said earnestly. “Shamille needs your help.”
The words made him flinch, but she’d already taken his hand and led him to the coracle. The little boat between them, they waded out into the inky water until they reached the current. A gentle nudge set Grandmother free. Drums started calling again, buoyantly, expectantly, and Sam stared after the coracle, until it glided from the reach of the torches and at last dissolved in darkness.
Singly or in little clumps people began drifting home towards the village, and the beach cleared, torches burnt down, silence settled. Kri’liqs started their chant. Slowly, Sam came out of her trance, and she looked around. The Colonel was still standing where he’d released Shamille’s boat.
He started, took a step, clumsy against the pull of the water, stumbled, and almost fell.
“Colonel? You’re not planning to stay in there forever, are you?”
Mechanically, he staggered ashore, and in the stark chiaroscuro of the moonlight she could see him shiver. Which didn’t exactly come as a surprise. Sam knew well enough that the river was icy. Janet Fraiser would throw a fit if she ever found out …
“We’d better get you into some dry clothes, sir …”, Sam said softly.
He gave no indication that he’d heard her, stood staring downstream again, hugging himself against the cold and the demons.
“Did you ask Lissele to do that?”
“Pick me to …” One hand had relinquished its hold and fluttered insecurely.
“No, sir ... It means -”
“I know what it means, Carter! … She was wrong.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re entitled to your opinion!” he snapped, turning to stalk off.
Sam grabbed his arm and physically forced him to face her. “But your playing catch with a bunch of Outlanders is alright, is it, sir?! No harm done? Who cares whether you live or die?! Well, I’ve got news for you, sir, I care, and so do Daniel and Teal’c! And that’s just for starters!”
“That’s completely different, Major, and you know it!”
“No, it isn’t! Grandmother did exactly the same thing you did, and with as much justification.”
“That blow was aimed at me!” It was almost a shout, crackling with raw pain.
“And she took it because she didn’t want to see you killed. Like you drew off the Outlanders because you didn’t want to see us killed. Try and explain the qualitative difference, Colonel!”
“The price was too high!”
“And just who gave you the right to decide that your life is worth less than anybody else’s?”
He shrugged, suddenly deflated, endlessly tired. “I didn’t have to decide. It’s … there. It’s history. One more reason why Lissele shouldn’t have … That charming old girl I met this afternoon called me a ‘worthless lout’. She’s got a point …”
“Oh hell, sir!” Sam couldn’t help it. She did the one thing she’d have considered least likely a mere two seconds ago and burst out laughing.
“So you’ve finally met Gamunne, have you? She’s a bit confused. And she calls everybody a ‘worthless lout’. It’s just about the only thing she ever says these days.” Sam tried to swallow another giggle, without much success.
“It’s not funny, Carter” he mumbled, sounding a little injured, but not entirely convinced.
“Yes, it is, sir … Tomorrow you’ll agree.” She smiled wryly. “Tell me something, sir. Did you trust Shamille’s judgment?”
“I did ... Yeah, I did.”
“She thought you were worth it.”
“She thought I was trouble.”
“Which only proves that her judgment was sound. She also said you had too much heart for your own good.”
“I know …” He looked stricken. “She told me … The last thing she ever told me …”
Sam hesitated, wary of venturing onto that particular territory, knowing it would hurt him, but also knowing that it was the only way of making him see. A little. Perhaps. “Sir, Grandmother loved you … like a son. She would have paid any price not to see you die ... You, of all people, should respect that choice.” She held her breath, waiting for the storm. It never came.
A flare of pain and shock swept across his face, then all fight seemed to drain from him, leaving him utterly vulnerable. “Yes … I should, shouldn’t I?” he whispered, confused and uncertain. “I’m not sure I deserved it, though …”
“You did, and you do. As much as the rest of us, maybe more. Grandmother knew”, Sam said, just as quietly … Mind and heart and soul. If only he learnt to hate himself a little less ... “Come on, sir. Let’s get you somewhere warm. You’re shaking.”
“And I was just beginning to enjoy the evening …”
She grinned. The joke hadn’t been that good, but it was a start. “Consider it an order, Colonel. We’ve got an early start tomorrow. It’s a long way home.”
“Yes … yes, it is …”
The last thing Korok saw were the devilish machines roaring along the riverbank, carrying the Prey People and their Demon Warrior, mocking him by their very presence. His defeat had cost him dear. The tribe did not take kindly to broken promises. The tribe did not take kindly to the threat of starvation.
Korok had returned to the home caves, without his warriors, without the food, and he had prostrated himself before the leaders. They had shown mercy. They had not culled him. They had given him a chance at living. They had exiled him.
Korok had roamed the mountains, cautious and hungry, a hunter no longer, but prey himself. He had been drawn back to the river, drawn back towards the scene of his defeat, his crime, and it had been his downfall. Tallat’s people had caught his scent, and Tallat’s people had seen no grounds for mercy. Tallat’s people were hungry. Tallat’s people had surrounded him. Tallat’s people were moving in for the cull.
Staring down into the gorge, so as not to have to watch the club fall, Korok saw the male look up as though he had sensed the observer’s gaze. Korok imagined that he once more looked into his eyes and wondered what set this one apart, him who was protected by old wives and Demon Warriors.
The club fell. The price was too high, Korok thought.