Go And Catch A Falling Star

 

by

 

Doc

 

 

 

Part 1

 

 

They’d listened to the sonorous, distorted voice with a mixture of shock and incredulity. The kind of No way! response elicited by the more distasteful entries in the Guinness Book of Records: some nutcase, say, who’d swallowed ten live goldfish and regurgitated them through his nostrils in fifteen seconds flat. Only more so.

 

But then the Colonel had put down his weapon, very slowly, very deliberately. They’d still refused to believe it, even when he’d turned to them with a crooked grin that couldn’t conceal the fear in his eyes and said, “See ya, guys …”

 

Daniel’s paralysis had given way to a helpless, horrified stammer. “Jack, you can’t …! He’ll kill you …”

 

“If I’m lucky.” Hands raised over his head, he’d walked out of the dilapidated shed they’d hidden in.

 

It was the last they’d ever seen of him. The Horus Guards had surrounded him immediately.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Dr Samantha Carter watched as the long, thin line of fire almost leisurely streaked across an ink black sky. ‘Running stars’ they called them out here. She liked the name, preferred it to ‘shooting stars’, most certainly preferred it to ‘meteorites’. That word brought with it a tug of long-forgotten sorrow, and she chased away the memory. It didn’t matter anymore. She should make a wish. But the only wish worth making would remain unfulfilled, so why bother? Without even knowing it, she’d closed her eyes and wished anyway.

 

A sudden squall swept in from the water. “Christmas Winds”, Sam murmured, pulling the cardigan tighter around her. Christmas Winds. Storm season. Looking out towards the Drake Channel, she could see the lights of Tortola and there, right at the edge of the horizon, a faint glimmer that had to be Virgin Gorda.

 

She heard footfalls behind her on the veranda but didn’t turn. It would be Vernon, her … What was he? Dr Vernon Everett, Head of the English Department, colleague, and fiancé. He’d proposed two months ago, on the occasion of a weekend trip to Cane Garden Bay on the other side of Tortola. Sam, tipsy from one too many Daiquiris or Painkillers or whatever the local poison was, had accepted, but shrunk from setting a date. Vernon was gracious and patient and continued to court her in his shy, awkward way, never once pressing for an answer.

 

Now he placed a hand on her shoulder and softly recited,

 

Go and catch a falling star

Get with child a mandrake root

Tell me where all the past years are

Or who cleft the devil’s foot

Teach me to hear mermaids singing

Or to keep off envy’s stinging -

 

“And find what wind serves to advance an honest mind”, Sam finished gently, looking up at him. “John Donne, right?”

 

He laughed. “You sure you don’t want to come over to our camp, Professor Carter? Your grasp of Renaissance poetry clearly exceeds that of about 99.6% of my students.”

 

“Fluke.” She shrugged. “I always liked Donne. I like the way he doesn’t play by the rules, used to remind me of -” Sam broke off.

 

“Remind you of what?”

 

“Nothing …”

 

“You should come inside, Samantha. It’s getting cold. Besides, it’s Christmas, we’re having a party, so come on in and -”

 

“Socialise”, she said with a strained smile. Bless Vernon, but if he told her to ‘socialise’ one more time, she’d scream. Inwardly, she cringed with the guilty recollection of how they’d sometimes steamrollered the Colonel into ‘socialising’, knowing full well that he wasn’t in the mood. Now she understood how he must have felt. “Go on ahead, Vern. Don’t wait for me. I’ll be along in little while.”

 

Obediently, Vernon Everett left her alone.

 

Sam reverted to stargazing. She loved the nighttime sky out here, the velvety blackness, the heart-stopping profusion of stars, large as silver dollars and almost close enough to touch. Like so many things she’d never asked him, she hadn’t asked whether he’d ever seen this. Too late now. She wondered if one of the lights up there was P7X 774. “Merry Christmas, sir”, Sam whispered.

 

It had been just over a year now, and she’d resigned herself to never feeling whole again. The raw, savage agony of losing him had transformed to something dull, hollow, persistent, no less painful in its own way. Part of her was missing, and the wound stubbornly refused to heal. It shouldn’t have affected her like this. They’d always known that they lived on borrowed time, that the odds were stacked against them, that one day the inevitable would happen. But somehow she’d never in her worst nightmares imagined it would be him. She’d never allowed herself to imagine that.

 

He’d been the bond that had held SG-1 together. Without him, the team had fallen apart, and Sam had run away before she was suffocated by memories. She’d accepted the first job offer that came along, and had ended up on the Virgin Islands, teaching math and physics to undergraduates. So she was sensationally overqualified, so what? It was a million miles away from any former life she’d had, and it was safe: here, no unbidden memories could leap out at her, unless she permitted it.

 

Christmas. They’d decided to organise a Christmas party at the SGC. Daniel had decided, to be precise, and initially the Colonel had bah-humbugged the whole notion. Until Dr Jackson, somewhat overconfident, had promised he’d talk General Hammond into appearing as Santa Claus. True to form, Jack O’Neill had declared that, should Danny-Boy succeed, he’d turn up as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

 

A few days later they’d been on the way to the embarkation room, ready to gate out to P7X 774, when Daniel casually announced that the General had rented his costume, and had Jack tried on that pink tutu yet? Sam smiled. His face had been a sight to behold …

 

“Uh … I don’t know, Danny … I mean, I’d hate to let you down, but … but Doc Fraiser swears I’ll never get rid of that … uh … rash if I wear organdy.”

 

“That right, Jack?”, Daniel had asked, smirking. “Funny, I can’t recall Janet mentioning anything to me, except perhaps that you’re perfectly capable of letting yourself be captured by a Goa’uld just to get out of this.”

 

Daniel being Daniel, he’d never forgiven himself for the remark.

 

 

**********************

 

 

P7X 774 had been Daniel’s idea, his ‘baby’. The images and data returned by the UAV and MALP probes had sent Dr Jackson into a tailspin. For days he could be observed prowling the corridors or pacing his lab or digging through the sheaves of paper he carried everywhere, frantically tugging at his spectacles and spouting arcane fragments of Archaeologese.

 

Colonel O’Neill had looked on, never commenting but finding it increasingly difficult to hide what was quickly becoming a permanent grin. This in and of itself should have made Daniel suspicious, but the young archaeologist was so immersed in tomes and documents, he would have missed Armageddon. When the appointed time for the P7X 774 briefing arrived, Daniel managed to be ten minutes late and hurtled into the conference room all guns blazing, a rainbow of post-it notes fluttering behind him.

 

“General!” Dr Jackson panted, shoving a videotape into the VCR. “You have to see this, before you come to any decision -”

 

“Ah, Daniel! Welcome! We were just about to send out a search party”, Jack quipped for the sake of keeping up appearances.

 

“Dr Jackson …”, General Hammond began, not getting very far.

 

“No, no, no, General, please hear me out. Jack’s probably been arguing against going to P7X 774, but this is very important!” Daniel pressed the ‘Play’ button, and the image of two very strange but decidedly Egyptian-looking people appeared on the screen. They were seated beneath a circle. From the circle radiated lines like rays of sunshine, ending in protectively cupped hands. “That’s part of the MALP footage. Now have a look at this!” He passed around a huge illustrated volume and held his breath.

 

“Wow, Danny! This is remarkable.” O’Neill nodded with professorial dignity, pointing at a picture in the book. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this would be 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC, probably from El-Amarna, and representing Akhenaten and Nefertiti receiving the blessing of Aten, right?”

 

Sam choked back a squeal, Teal’c’s left eyebrow climbed to unheard-of heights, and General Hammond gave a fair impression of somebody undergoing root-canal treatment.

 

Daniel was oblivious to it all. “Precisely!” he exclaimed. “And we get the exact same iconography on P7X 774. Now, this is fascinating, because we don’t really know what happened to Akhenaten. At the Amarna burial we’ve found a mummy, which may or may not be Akhenaten. We can’t tell, because all the royal cartouches have been defaced. Basically, he seems to have fallen off the face of the planet after … uh … wha- … what? … Jack?!!” Obviously, it had percolated through at last. A piece of accurate historical information had just been delivered by completely the wrong person.

 

The Colonel tried to look innocent. “Daniel?”

 

“Jack, this isn’t funny! This could be one of the most important discoveries -”

 

“Dr Jackson-”

 

“General, I’m not gonna take ‘no’ for an answer! When Akhenaten became pharaoh, he actually abolished the cult of Ra and introduced the earliest form of monotheism we know of. He left Thebes, built a whole new capital, Akhetaten, which is now known as El-Amarna, and worshipped Aten, a sun god that predated Ra. In fact, he claimed that … get this! … Aten spoke through him. The Theban priesthood didn’t like it much, because they lost all their power and influence in one fell swoop. So they ganged up on Akhenaten, and eventually he was overthrown and simply disappeared. The priests found themselves a more tractable pharaoh, Tutankhamen, as a matter of fact, and everything went back to the status quo ante. However, the Amarna Period is unique in that it was characterised by peaceful endeavour, with a strong focus on -”

 

“Uh … Danny? …”

 

“Dammit, Jack, let me finish! General Hammond, I believe that Aten was a Goa’uld, and that Akhenaten was his host, and that he was opposed to Ra, and that, when the coup happened in Amarna, he may have evacuated Akhenaten and his followers to P7X 774.”

 

Daniel had to pause for breath, and Hammond took the golden opportunity to slip a word in edgeways. “Dr Jackson, as per Colonel O’Neill’s request of three days ago, SG-1 is shipping out to P7X 774 at 0800 hours tomorr-”

 

“General, don’t you understand?! If I’m right, we’ve found ourselves a Goa’uld who actually might be willing to help the good guys for a change. It could mean - … Excuse me?”

 

“Danny. We’re going. Alright? 0800 tomorrow morning.” O’Neill was grinning broadly now.

 

Dr Jackson frowned. “Jack, you mean to tell me you knew all along and still let me go through with this …?!”

 

“Didn’t want you to feel you’d done all that painstaking research for nothing.” The Colonel ducked just in time to avoid the comprehensive genealogy of the 18th Dynasty, scrunched up into a paper ball and aimed at his head. From below the table he asked, “Teal’c? Ever heard of a snake-head with philanthropist leanings called Aten?”

 

“Indeed, O’Neill.” The Jaffa cocked his head, so as to ascertain what his CO might be doing stuck under the table. “Aten’s name is not to be spoken among the Goa’uld, but I have heard tales nonetheless. He appears to have been a minor system lord, benevolent towards the Tau’ri, who fell into disgrace after plotting to destroy Ra.”

 

“Ah.” Jack had resurfaced, keeping an eye out for further projectiles. “And I assume it wasn’t the plotting part he got disgraced for, but the failing part.”

 

“That is correct, O’Neill. Some legends state that Aten was executed by an Ashrak in the service of Ra, others claim that he and his loyal servants repaired to a new home planet.”

 

“P7X 774”, Daniel whispered excitedly.

 

 

**********************

 

 

They gated out on the 17th of December, exchanging wintry Colorado for the arid desert heat of P7X 774.

 

“Daniel”, O’Neill murmured with a disbelieving stare at the reception committee that had lined up around the stargate, “I don’t mean to interfere, but maybe you shouldn’t give them your usual spiel. These guys look like they already had four peaceful explorers from the planet Earth for breakfast. Try telling them we’re lean, mean fighting machines, and they’d better not mess with us or we’ll bite their kneecaps, alri-”

 

He was interrupted by a rapid volley of words that sounded vaguely Arabic. Daniel stood and listened in open-mouthed wonder, then replied at length.

 

“Daniel …?!

 

“Oh! Sorry, Jack …” It was obvious from the expression on Dr Jackson’s face that, as far as he was concerned, Christmas had come a week early, and that his personal stocking promised to be brim-full with anthropological and linguistic goodies. “Uh … they’re speaking an ancient Egyptian dialect similar to Abydonian …”

 

“That’s nice, Danny. What did he say?!”

 

“His name’s Tye, and he’s asking if we ran away from home.”

 

“Come again?!”

 

“Well, apparently we’re the … uh … size of their average adolescent …”

 

“No argument from me”, Sam muttered, looking up at the man mountain standing next to her. At roughly 7’6”, he was well over a head taller than both Teal’c and the Colonel.

 

“Anyway”, continued Daniel, “They wish to know whether we come in peace. If we do, we’re welcome to accompany them to their city, to enjoy their hospitality and to trade information. What should I tell them?”

 

“The usual spiel might be good …”

 

 

**********************

 

 

The city, Nefru Aten, was impressive. It lay at the heart of a sprawling, abundantly green oasis, irrigated by a complex system of canals, sluices, and waterwheels. Residential areas were made up of neat rows of two-storied, whitewashed stone houses with unglazed windows, courtyards, and roof terraces. Nearer the city centre they came across large open squares, framed by monumental stone buildings, temples and palaces. According to a ceaselessly enthusing Daniel, who darted up and down ramps and around pillars like a yo-yo, art and architecture closely resembled that of Amarna.

 

The Colonel was rather more preoccupied with the question of what would happen if they got on the wrong side of several thousand seven-and-a-half-foot giants. But so far the natives, albeit disconcertingly tall, were amiable enough and behaved within acceptable parameters of first-contact-etiquette, in that they’d offered to take SG-1 to their leader.

 

At last they reached another square, another palace. This, explained Tye as they crossed the vast entrance hall, was the home of the Akhenaten, The One in The Service of Aten. The walls were painted with frescoes of brilliantly vibrant colour, sparkling like jewels. The sign of Aten appeared everywhere: the protective light of the sun. Dr Jackson gave the kind of furtive twitch which indicated that he was about to canter down the nearest available corridor on a quest for further marvels.

 

“Daniel! … Heel!” hissed Jack, recognising the signs from long, frequently disastrous experience. One of his earliest memories of Daniel was the kid bouncing across the dunes of Abydos, one foot caught in the harness of some spectacularly smelly and surprisingly nimble beast of burden …

 

Tye led them into an audience chamber, decorated in the same splendid murals as the other parts of the building. At the far end of the room, on a dais, stood a man. Like everyone else they’d seen, he was tall, long-limbed, with a strangely elongated head, and clad in a white, ankle-length skirt. His torso was bare. His eyes glowed.

 

Sam started having that sinking feeling. If the guy said ‘Kneel before your god’, there’d be trouble. She noticed how the Colonel squared his shoulders, how Teal’c clasped his staff weapon tighter.

 

“My God …”, breathed a wide-eyed Daniel. He’d seen this face before.

 

With a reverential bow of the head, one hand swiftly and elegantly touching his chest and brow in greeting, Tye made a short, unintelligible announcement.

 

The figure stepped forward, smiling. “Do not fear”, he said, his voice gentle, even through the unmistakable, alienating rasp of the symbiote speaking. “You are from the Tau’ri, yes? All of you, except him.” He bowed to the Jaffa. “You are the Shol’va, Teal’c. Welcome.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Over the next two days, they talked, listened, and learned. Daniel couldn’t contain his excitement. Every time he looked around him he was spellbound. What had begun as a short-lived utopian experiment, thousands of years ago back in ancient Egypt, had flourished and come to fruition on P7X 774: a peaceful, prosperous society, dedicated to science, art, and philosophy.

 

His theory was proved beyond Daniel’s wildest dreams: the Akhenaten was a direct descendant of … well … the Akhenaten. Aten himself was Goa’uld, and in the strictest sense of the word he could be called Tok’ra, ‘Against Ra’, even if he’d never had any desire to join the Tok’ra resistance. The role of host to Aten was considered an honour and had been handed down from father to son through dozens of generations. As had a congenital defect that caused gigantism, and since the original Akhenaten was the common ancestor of virtually the entire population, this explained their extraordinary size.

 

While Daniel spent his time in libraries and archives, Sam and Teal’c, guided by Tye, visited masons’ and carpenters’ workshops and smithies. Like the irrigation system for the city and oasis, the work showed an incredible degree of accuracy and sophistication, achieved by almost primitive means. When Sam asked why they hadn’t used their scientific knowledge to advance methods rather than results, Tye laughed. The answer was as simple as it was crucial for survival. The Goa’uld were scavengers, and so the Akhenaten and his people had kept their heads down and resisted the temptation of applying the highly advanced technology they could have developed. They’d never even used the stargate, and the Goa’uld had never shown an interest.

 

The Colonel, meanwhile, had started up something of a little league team. On their first evening, a young boy had crept into the room where they’d dined with the Akhenaten. At hardly less than Sam’s height, the child had to be about nine or ten years old. He’d stood, half-hidden behind a drape, studying the visitors with huge, dark eyes, until the Akhenaten had taken notice and introduced him as his son, Tuya. O’Neill had grinned at the boy, and from that moment on the child had trailed him like a shadow. By the following afternoon, the Colonel’s personal entourage had expanded to about ten children, friends and playmates of Tuya's. Finally growing weary of playing Twenty (or twenty thousand) Questions, all of them in sign language, Jack had found a scuffed leather ball and some sturdy sticks and initiated his troops to the good old Tau’ri pastime of baseball. As the lessons progressed, he gamely allowed himself to be run out, time and time again, by towering fifteen-year-olds whose legs were a good three inches longer than his.

 

Sam had watched them play, quietly aching for him. He must have been a wonderful father.

 

 

**********************

 

 

On the morning of the third day, two members of SG-1 were to be honoured in a solemn ceremony on the square outside the Akhenaten’s palace. It had been unavoidable that someone, somehow, would reveal who precisely had brought about Ra’s downfall. Neither of the two honourees was especially keen on the distinction. Daniel was simply embarrassed, and Jack wasn’t exactly proud of that particular episode in his life. Beside himself with grief and guilt after his son’s death, he’d accepted only too eagerly when General West proposed the suicide mission to Abydos. If it hadn’t been for Daniel, he’d have blown up himself and some five thousand Abydonians together with Ra. There wasn’t much he deserved to be honoured for. The Akhenaten, however, insisted.

 

Sam had got up at the crack of dawn and gone to join the men in the communal room of their quarters. She burst into giggles the moment she walked through the door. Daniel sat at a table, looking sheepish; Teal’c stood at a safe distance, looking non-plussed; and her CO was waving a sample of native men’s wear at the both of them, looking desperate.

 

“No way. No. Way. I’m out of here. I’m leaving town, vamoose, scramble, get the hell out of dodge. I didn’t want that stupid ceremony in the first place, and I’m not gonna wear this! … Carter! Get me out of here! That’s an order!”

 

She had a spontaneous recollection of Shavadai ladies’ fashions, baby blue muslin and improbable headgear, and couldn’t suppress a facetious grin. “It’s you, Colonel. Definitely, absolutely. You’ll look … uh … lovely, sir! Besides, anthropologists do it all the time”, Sam added with a sidelong glance at Daniel.

 

“Major …!!”

 

“Sir?”

 

“I’ll -”

 

The sartorial crisis was interrupted by the entrance of the Akhenaten, and everyone tried to behave in a suitably dignified manner. The only one who succeeded was Teal’c.

 

“It is almost time, my friends”, their host announced, then became aware that his guests of honour were experiencing difficulties with their ceremonial robes. “Ah! How negligent of me! I shall assist you.”

 

The Colonel’s face sagged, and Major Carter fled the room before she disgraced herself and her team by rolling around on the floor in fits of laughter.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Half an hour later, Sam had recovered enough to join Teal’c on a balcony overlooking the palace gate. The news had spread fast, and along the sides of the square thousands of people thronged and cheered as the small procession filed out from the building and down the ramp. Several priests, among them Tye, led the group, followed by the Akhenaten. Bringing up the rear were Daniel Jackson and Jack O’Neill, both wearing white, ankle-length skirts and not much else.

 

You had to admire the Akhenaten’s powers of persuasion. In fact, the Colonel carried it off with considerable grace and style, unlike Dr Jackson who kept tripping over the hem. Sam made a mental note not to share that particular observation.

 

The procession came to a halt on an intricately paved circle at the centre of the square, and the Akhenaten raised his arms. A hush fell over the crowd, and from somewhere high above them rose a single alto voice. Plaintive, beckoning, almost unbearably sweet, the singer seemed to call to the sunlight, seemed to coax the sun itself over the horizon. Captivated by the alien harmony, the throbbing, slowly accelerating rhythm, Sam wished she could understand the words. The song ended on a joyous, soaring trill, a sound of greeting, the moment the sun had fully appeared.

 

Aten began to speak, the crowd drawing closer. “My friends! We have come together to give honour and blessing those who -”

 

“O’Neill!” Heads turned towards the balcony at Teal’c’s cry.

 

Like everyone else, Sam tried to make out what the Jaffa was pointing at. Squinting against the blinding sunlight, she saw them: scores upon scores of death gliders, swarming out of the low sun like hornets, almost within firing range.

 

“Take cover!! Now!!!” the Colonel yelled, pushing Daniel in the direction of the palace gate and unceremoniously shoving the Akhenaten, Tye, and the priests after him. Then he set off across the square, looking like a crazed dervish as he ran flat-out, dodging the first blasts. With a last headlong leap he reached Tuya and the little leaguers who cowered in a corner on the far side.

 

Frozen in horror, Sam looked on as a grisly spectacle unfolded. Already the square was littered with dying and wounded, and the gentle giants who never so much as exchanged harsh words wandered and died among them, incapable of comprehending the carnage or defending themselves. And the gliders kept coming, to the hauntingly delicate strains of the singer who had resumed her solitary chant, imploring a god who couldn’t or wouldn’t help. Then that voice, too, was silenced.

 

Teal’c touched Sam’s arm and directed her attention to the main road leading onto the square. In close ranks they were marching in. Hundreds of them. Huge metal birds of prey. This at last galvanised her into action. Her eyes darted to Jack O’Neill who was driving the children back towards the palace, using what little cover the walls afforded. They had no chance of making it before the Horus Guards arrived on the square.

 

“Teal’c! Find Daniel. I’ll get our gear. We’ve got to reach the Colonel before he and the kids get cut off from us. Meet me at the gate!”

 

Minutes later, the three of them raced across the square, already drawing fire from staff weapons. Colonel O’Neill and the children were crouched below the entrance ramp of a massive building, and he clearly was not a happy man.

 

“For cryin’ out loud, Carter!! Have you lost your mind?!” he shouted as he saw them running towards him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

 

“No time, sir!” panted Sam, throwing him his H&K. “Gotta get out of here … Hide … They’re coming!”

 

“Who’s coming?!”

 

“Them!” croaked Daniel and cocked a thumb at the Horus Guards fanning out on the opposite side of the square.

 

“Oh crap … Daniel, ask Tuya if this temple or whatever it is has a backdoor!”

 

“Actually, Jack, it’s a planetarium …”

 

“Daniel!!”

 

There were hurried whispers between Tuya and Dr Jackson. At last, Daniel said, “It’s got a rear exit leading into a walled garden. I don’t know how much help that’s gonna be …”

 

“Walls can be scaled. Teal’c, Daniel, take the kids up the ramp and into the building. Carter and I’ll cover you.”

 

They slammed and bolted the gate behind them just in time before the first Guards came crashing over the top of the ramp. Rounding up the terrified children, the Colonel led them through the planetarium and out into the garden.

 

When he saw the walls, his shoulders slumped. “Carter, see if you can find some ropes. We’ll -”

 

“Sir?”

 

“What?!”

 

Without a word, Sam nodded at the irrigation canal that ran through the garden and under the wall.

 

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” O’Neill grinned faintly. “Okay, let’s go for a swim!”

 

 

**********************

 

 

They swam and waded along the canal for about an hour, until they’d left behind the city centre and reached the outskirts of the residential areas and the green thickets of the oasis. A little way down the road to their right were stables and sheds, to the left a row of houses. Sam climbed out of the water, crossed the wide dirt road and searched a nearby home. It was abandoned, apart from the bodies of the previous occupants, an elderly couple that seemed to have been surprised in their sleep. At least they had died together … The merciful side of genocide, she thought bitterly. Fighting back tears, she pulled the sheets over their faces. Then she went outside, secured the road, and waved the rest of their little group into the house. The children were blue-lipped and shivering after their extended bath, and they herded them into the little courtyard at the back to dry off in the sun.

 

Sam opened her pack and pulled out a couple of sets of BDUs, dripping wet like everything else she had on her. “Uh … Colonel? I know, dry would be better, but I thought …”

 

“Thank God somebody’s got their head screwed on …” O’Neill took the clothes, tossed one set to Daniel, and the two men disappeared indoors to change. A few minutes later they were back, looking marginally relieved. Jack sat on the ground next to Tuya and ruffled the boy’s hair. Tuya snuggled up to him, trying hard not to cry.

 

What would happen to these children? They might well be the sole survivors of their entire civilisation. Sam sighed. “So, what’s the plan, sir?”

 

“We get the kids out of here, and then we come back and kick some Goa’uld ass.” The Colonel clenched his teeth, putting an arm around the boy.

 

“I believe we should not attempt the latter part of your plan without considerable reinforcements, O’Neill.” Teal’c, circumspect as always.

 

“Thank you, Teal’c! … Who are these bastards, anyway?”

 

“It’s Heru’ur!” Daniel spat with uncharacteristic vehemence. If it hadn’t been for Heru’ur, he would have succeeded in bringing Sha’re back to Earth while she was pregnant. Ultimately, he would have saved her life. “The son of a bitch’s always had perfect timing!”

 

As if on cue, they heard shouts of ‘Jaffa! Kree!’ from the road. A death glider made a low overhead pass. They could only pray that the pilot hadn’t spotted them.

 

“Dammit!!” snapped Jack. “Back inside the house. Move!”

 

They had the children lie down on the floor, so they’d be covered, and took post at the windows. About a hundred yards down the road a long column of Horus Guards approached, Heru’ur in the lead. Immediately behind him, bloodied, beaten, and pushed along by the Guards, limped several prisoners, among them the Akhenaten. Tuya, who’d sneaked up behind Jack to take a look out of the window, let out a shrill wail. The Colonel spun around and clasped a hand over the boy’s mouth, but it was too late. The column had come to a halt, and Heru’ur motioned four Guards to investigate.

 

“We have to draw them off”, O’Neill whispered. “Daniel! Tell the kids to go upstairs, lie low, and not move a muscle until we come back for them! I’ll go first and cover you. Then you and Carter, then Teal’c. Spread out, make as big a dent as you can, and meet up in that cow shed up the road. We can hold that for a while.”

 

Considering what they were up against, it was as suicidal as things could get, but the overriding concern now was the safety of the children. Initially, the plan seemed to work. By some marvel they all made it to the shed unscathed, taking down a dozen or so Guards along the way, which did indeed attract everybody’s attention. SG-1 managed to hold the shed for over an hour, thinning the ranks of the Horus Guards, until first the Colonel, then Sam, and finally Daniel ran out of ammunition and had to resort to their zat-guns. The only long-range weapon still working was Teal’c’s staff. It wouldn’t be enough.

 

Abruptly, the Horus Guards ceased fire. In the sudden silence, they heard Heru’ur laughing. “So, what will you do now, Tau’ri? Throw your knife?”

 

“Shit!” hissed Sam. “He knows who you are, sir!” She had an image of the Colonel’s bowie knife slicing through the pyramid chamber on Abydos, neatly impaling Heru’ur’s hand and with it the ribbon device aimed at O’Neill. She also remembered what Heru’ur had promised.

 

“So?” Jack shrugged. “If that snake-head thinks reminiscing about the good times we’ve had together is gonna save his butt, he’s wrong!”

 

“Sir -”

 

“Tau’ri! I have the children!” Heru’ur shouted. It was true. The kids were being driven from the house in a frightened little huddle, staff weapons trained on them. “I do not want these children, Tau’ri. I already have what I came here for: the traitor Aten. The children are worthless to me. So I will kill them. Unless you send me the one you call O’Neill. It is a fair trade. One man for ten worthless children! And the rest of you can go, Tau’ri!”

 

They listened to the sonorous, distorted voice with a mixture of shock and incredulity. Then the Colonel put down his weapon, very slowly, very deliberately. They still refused to believe it, even when he turned to them with a crooked grin that couldn’t conceal the fear in his eyes and said, “See ya, guys …”

 

Sam held his gaze. If there was one thing he’d never again accept, it was what the military coyly called ‘collateral damage’. And so he would go to save the lives of ten children. It was an insanely brave thing to do, and it was the right thing to do, and she couldn’t bear it. She drew a breath, about to speak, and he barely perceptibly shook his head.

 

“Bring them home safely, Major”, he whispered.

 

Teal’c briefly placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder in a silent gesture of respect.

 

Daniel’s paralysis gave way to a helpless, horrified stammer. “Jack, you can’t …! He’ll kill you …”

 

“If I’m lucky.” Hands raised over his head, he walked out of the dilapidated shed.

 

It was the last they saw of him. The Horus Guards surrounded him immediately.

 

 

**********************

 

 

They watched as an immense shadow darkened the oasis and the smoking ruins of Nefru Aten, watched as transport rings appeared and disappeared, watched as the Goa’uld vessel gained orbit, trailed by the death gliders.

 

Finally, everything was quiet. Deadly quiet. Daniel stayed with the children, while Sam and Teal’c returned to the city in search of other survivors of the massacre. There were none. On the main square, near the Colonel’s improvised baseball field, they found Tye’s body. They carried him back with them and buried him on a clearing in the oasis, representative of the thousands they couldn’t bury, of the one they couldn’t bury.

 

Sam, Teal’c, Daniel, and the children reached the stargate early in the evening. As they dialled home, the sun was setting.

 

 

**********************

 

Part 2

 

 

Jack had come to with a pounding, wrenching, nauseating migraine. The mere act of turning his head had made him retch, so he stayed still and concentrated on breathing steadily until the heaves subsided. Unlike Daniel, who seemed to have a predilection for it, he’d never been at the receiving end of a ribbon device in brain-sucking mode. He’d have to talk to Danny about it. This kind of thing couldn’t be healthy.

 

Daniel. Teal’c. The children … Carter. Had they made it out of there? No idea. All he remembered was being surrounded by way too many Horus Guards. To which he’d unwisely responded by muttering ‘ten hut’. This had earned him a sublimely well-aimed blow in the kidneys, and then they’d dragged him before Heru’ur who’d looked altogether too pleased for Jack’s liking. He hadn’t got a chance to comment, though, because Heru’ur had proceeded to teach him the finer points of headache. The next thing he knew was that he’d woken up here.

 

Slowly, carefully, Jack risked a look. He had to find out where ‘here’ was. The décor clearly tended towards minimalism. In fact, you could easily mistake the place for a prison cell on a Goa’uld mother ship … “Shit!” he gasped, sitting up. Which was not a good idea. His head threatened to explode, and his stomach conveyed its displeasure by promptly redelivering his last meal, whatever and whenever that had been.

 

He groaned and crawled away from the puddle, ready to sell his soul for a sip of water. There wasn’t any. Jack reached the wall, and leaned back against a metal girder, trying to ignore the acidic taste in his mouth. A ship. He was on a ship. Well, where the hell did you expect they’d take you, Jack? Disneyland? If truth be told, he hadn’t expected anything beyond saving his team and the children. He’d been scared to death, clinging to the minuscule hope that he might be taken some place where he could be located and therefore bailed out. Maybe. It wasn’t gonna happen. Live with it. Die with it, more like. If he was lucky … You wanna work on that hero routine, Jack! Nobody’s gonna buy it if your teeth chatter.

 

The door slid open and four Horus Guards trooped in. Four?! Who’s afraid of the big bad Colonel? They pulled him to his feet and hauled him through endless corridors, and finally to the ship’s command deck where Heru’ur was waiting. Behind Heru’ur stood his First Prime, holding an ornate urn.

 

“Kneel before your god!”

 

Ah, yes. Jack closed his eyes and started counting back from ten. He got to seven before a staff weapon struck the back of his knees. How on earth did the bastards know? He fell, biting back a moan. This must be what it felt like if somebody tried to remove your kneecaps with a crowbar. He stood up. Ten. Nine. Eight. Se- … Bingo! Funnily enough, it didn’t get any more comfortable the second time round. Again. Ten. Nine. Ei- … Oh God! Get up, Jack! Get! Up! He struggled back to his feet. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two … What the …?

 

Heru’ur was laughing. “You are proud, Tau’ri. Are you not aware that it is rash for a man in your position to be proud?”

 

Jack whole-heartedly agreed. He’d learnt that lesson the hard way, ten years ago. It was more than rash. It was unadulterated masochism. But he’d seen the urn, knew what it contained, knew that his safest option lay in making somebody mad enough to shoot him to a pulp before Heru’ur got the opportunity of putting a lodger in his attic. Come on, Jack, say something! Piss him off. It’s easy. You’re good at it. You piss people off all the time. “Fuck you, snake-head!” Pithy, Jack. Pithy.

 

“My preferences do not go that way, Tau’ri. But you amuse me. I shall enjoy breaking you.”

 

Jack’s eyes flicked to the urn. He clamped down on a surge of panic.

 

“Oh no, Tau’ri. It would be too easy. It would not be amusing. When we meet again, you will grovel to me. You will want to serve me. Of your own free will.” Heru’ur turned to his First Prime. “Take good care of him until we reach the home world. Then sell him!”

 

 

**********************

 

 

“Bring them home safely, Major”, she murmured, wondering again and for the thousandth time if he’d known that it had been the one order, request, plea that could possibly have prevented her from following him. If he’d known, it begged the question of just how well he’d known her, and if he’d known her that well, had he known …? If he’d known, he might have known.

 

Not quite in the same class of clincher as cogito ergo sum. Sam laughed despite herself. So much for the attempt to unravel matters emotional by deductive reasoning, Dr Carter! Welcome to the Wonderful World of Science!

 

The sky had clouded over. It would start raining soon. Time to go inside. Maybe time to spoil Vernon’s party by telling him that she did not, nor ever would, love him. Or perhaps she could sit on it for another week, save it for a New Year’s Eve surprise, Sam thought sadly.

 

She hadn’t been drunk enough on Tortola not to be perfectly aware of what she was doing when she accepted the proposal. It had been a knee-jerk reaction worthy of her father. She needed to go on living, somehow, anyhow. She needed to forget what she couldn’t change. When Vernon had offered what seemed like a solution, the alcohol had lent her just enough of an edge to simply go for it. That night she’d had the dream again, always the same, always those last moments, always those frightened, determined eyes, silently pleading with her not to make things more difficult than they absolutely had to be.

 

With the dream had come the sense of having betrayed both the Colonel and herself. Which was irrational. Firstly, betrayal presupposed an … understanding between two people, and there had been no such understanding. Not of that kind, anyway. Secondly, he was dead. Well, she hoped he was dead, and not … Either way, she had to move on, no matter how much she missed him. She had to try at least, before it drove her insane.

 

Over breakfast she’d almost retracted, then dithered over the date, and she’d been stringing Vernon along ever since. It had been a mistake. It was a mistake. She should have seen it, even if Vern hadn’t. He didn’t know her, never would know her like - … Fat, lazy, generous drops began to fall. In a minute or two it’d turn into what the islanders described as rain is comin’, which usually meant the climax of a heavy downpour. Sam rushed indoors.

 

Dozens of people in the lounge, chattering, flattering, doing the interdepartmental two-step over a sip of Veuve Cliquot. By the fireplace a select group had assembled around Dr Martell, the Dean, and his wife. So they’d actually turned up. Bully for Vern. Sam winced at the thought of having to go and say hello. She felt hopelessly at sea where it came to university politics. Probably a side effect of having spent too many years in the company of a man who’d honed the principle of Open Mouth, Insert Foot to a fine art. He’d loathed politics.

 

“… Now’s the season to be jolly, falalala-la-lala-lala …” Holy Hannah! Somebody please switch off that stereo!

 

Shaking water off her hair, Sam scanned the crowd for Vernon. A couple who’d been sprayed by the droplets briefly acknowledged her with that Oh dear, a scientist! look members of the English Department reserved for Sam’s ilk. Then they commenced a learned debate on the divergent image clusters in Shakespeare’s Pericles. Yeah well, that would be because half the damn play wasn't written by Shakespeare, you pathetic poseurs! Sam’s mental diatribe was interrupted by Dr Everett who came towards her, carrying a glass of champagne.

 

“Samantha! You look like you could do with a cup of hot cocoa rather than this”, he held out the glass to her, smiling. “What have you been doing out there all this time?”

 

“Thinking …”

 

“About anything in particular?”

 

There was a glimmer of hope in his eyes, and Sam averted her gaze. “No. Nothing in particular”, she said, taking the champagne.

 

“Well, in that case, let’s go and pay our respects to the Martells.”

 

Right. That would cheer her up to no end. What on earth was she doing here? Dr Martell had spotted them and was waving. Vernon waved back, and Sam tugged at his sleeve. “Do we have to?”

 

“Oh for cryin’ out loud! The Martells -”

 

“Don’t ever, ever say that again!!” Sam whirled around and ran back out into the rain.

 

 

**********************

 

 

They’d come home, silent and defeated, with ten traumatised children in tow. Word had spread like wildfire. Bad luck had finally caught up with SG-1. The worst thing during those first days were the looks. Nobody knew what to say or how to say it, so people stared, quietly, uncomfortably, some eyes full of sympathy, some full of reproach. Why hadn’t anybody done something? It was those looks that hurt the most.

 

Sam stumbled through debriefings and reports in a trance, and she was grateful for it. Once that protective cocoon of numbness cracked, as it would have to, there’d be hell to pay. No, sir, there has been no indication of an impending attack. No, sir, there has been no other way of saving the children. No, sir, we do not know how Heru’ur has managed to find P7X 774. No, sir, we do not know where Heru’ur has gone. No, sir, we do not know whether Colonel O’Neill has been killed. Yes, sir, it is possible that Colonel O’Neill has been taken as a Goa’uld host. Unless he’s been lucky …

 

For the sake of the children, they decided to go ahead with the Christmas party in spite of everything. Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c had started a collection among SGC personnel. Clothes, old toys, anything people were willing to part with, they were willing to accept. SG-3 had volunteered to wrap the presents, and when the General put that costume to use after all, Santa Claus was pursued into the commissary by a gang of solemn-looking Marines loaded with parcels. The sight was so incongruous, it coaxed smiles even from SG-1.

 

With much Ho-Ho-Ho-ing, Hammond had distributed the gifts. Although clearly confused by the idea of a noisy old man in bizarre garb who rode through the air on a vehicle drawn by shrub-headed animals, the children latched on to the concept of presents quickly enough. For the first time since the attack, they could be heard laughing as they played among heaps of discarded wrapping paper and ribbons, trying out or on their new possessions, occasionally with very interesting results.

 

And then Tuya walked up to Daniel, showed him his present, and asked something. Daniel blanched, stammered an answer. The boy thrust the gift into Dr Jackson’s hands and ran from the room, crying.

 

Sam found Daniel standing in the middle of the commissary, clutching a baseball bat, his face a rigid mask of sorrow. “Daniel?”

 

“Tuya asked when Jack would come and play with them”, he said, his voice trembling. “They don’t understand. They don’t understand what he’s done for them …”

 

“It’s better that way. It’s kinder on them.” She turned away, hugging herself.

 

 

**********************

 

 

The day after Christmas, General Hammond announced with deep regret that Colonel Jack O’Neill had been reported missing, presumed dead. Their allies had been apprised. All iris codes had been changed. There would be no search. Not for the Colonel, not for Heru’ur. Apart from the fact that it would place the SGC at unacceptable risk, they didn’t know where to start looking.

 

Daniel lashed out with the ferocity of a wounded tiger. The General, struggling to cope with his own grief, made the mistake of shouting back, and the following morning he found a letter of resignation on his desk. Dr Jackson had disappeared without a trace.

 

A week later Teal’c finally spoke more than two words in a row. “GeneralHammond. I respectfully request permission to return to Chulak.”

 

Hammond knew that he couldn’t make the Jaffa stay. He’d tried and failed once before. And so Teal’c, too, left.

 

The task of relocating the children fell to Sam. With the mediation of the Tollans, she convinced the Nox to take them. They would grow up on a world where they’d never again have to witness violence and senseless death, where in time, perhaps, they could heal.

 

After Lya had come to pick up the children, Sam was a given a string of on-base assignments. Dr Fraiser had as good as told her that, unless and until Sam was prepared to confront what had happened, she would not be cleared for off-world missions. Sam refused, unconsciously waiting for him to stray into her lab, bound up the stairs to the control room, stroll out of General Hammond’s office. Then, one day, she turned a corner, saw a tall, greying man walking down the hall.

 

“Colonel!” She ran after him.

 

The man stopped and quietly said, “It’s Sergeant Taylor, ma’am.”

 

Only then Sam understood that, like Tuya, she’d fully expected him to come back and play. She slumped against the wall, racked with sobs.

 

The cocoon had cracked. That day she retired.

 

 

**********************

 

 

The Guards took him back through the corridors, their footsteps echoing from the metal flooring. He hated that thud-thud-thudding noise. So, it wasn’t going to be Prize Number 1, the Goa’uld option for the discerning thinker. Jack couldn’t quite bring himself to feel relieved about it. He had an ugly suspicion that amusing Heru’ur was the last thing he wanted to do. On the upside, he still was himself and, for the moment at least, he still belonged to himself.

 

They marched past an open cell. Inside lay a crumpled figure, blind eyes staring fixedly, trickles of blood running from ears and nose. The Akhenaten was dead. Jack flinched. One of the Horus Guards hit him across the back, and he staggered on. Tuya. The boy would be devastated. If he was still alive. If Jack lived to tell him. Had Sam brought them home? If anyone could, Sam Carter could. They reached his luxury accommodation, and he was locked up again.

 

The next time he was taken from his cell, the vessel had arrived in orbit around the home world. Transport rings spirited them down to the surface. The place looked like something out of The Blade Runner after another century or so of unchecked pollution. Home Sweet Home. The Guards handed him over to a thickset, scowling man and his equally brutish minders, all armed with long crooks, the purpose of which Jack didn’t really care to imagine. Scowls’R’Us barked in Goa’uld. Where was Daniel when you needed him? Jack shrugged helplessly, which went over like a pregnant pole-vaulter. He saw it coming but was too slow to avoid the blow. The handle of a crook struck him across the knees, and he collapsed, groaning. “For God’s sake, find some other part of my body to hit, would you!” he rasped, and the crook-wielder happily complied. This time the thwack fell between his shoulder blades, which wasn’t exactly pleasant either. Still. Still …

 

They pulled him up, stripped him to the waist, and shackled him to a long line of wretched humanity. Other slave auction hopefuls. Suddenly he knew with sickening certainty that this would be Iraq all over again. Only worse. Much worse. Worse than Iraq. Don’t go down that road, Jack! If you do, you’ll never last the course. You’ll turn into a gibbering wreck. And they haven’t even started yet.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Sam had walked the three miles to her apartment, barefoot through the rain. She didn’t know what had got into her. Wrong. She knew exactly. That phrase. She’d heard him say it so often, sometimes deadly serious, sometimes in comic exasperation, his head tilted, eyebrows raised, hair straying in all directions, which had lent him the look of an unnerved chipmunk. The last time on that dreadful day a year ago, when she, and Daniel, and Teal’c had come running towards him across the square. ‘For cryin’ out loud, Carter!! Have you lost your mind?!’ Getting there, sir. Getting there. She didn’t realise she was weeping.

 

In the morning, Vernon dropped by. He let himself in and found Sam curled up in a deck chair on her balcony, where she’d spent the night.

 

“Samantha?”

 

She could tell that he was somewhere between worry and pure rage. As he had every right to be. “Hi, Vern.”

 

“Is that all you can say? ‘Hi, Vern’? I don’t expect an apology, but I sure as hell would like to know what’s wrong with you!”

 

“Nothing … Everything.” She rose. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

 

Vernon gripped her shoulders and spun her around. “No! I would not like a cup of coffee! I want you to talk to me! What? Is? Wrong?”

 

“I’m sorry, Vernon. I’m sorry. I … I -”

 

“Samantha …” He tried to pull her close, but she wouldn’t let him. He looked upset. “Please … If it’s anything I did -”

 

“No …”, Sam sighed, defeated. God, he really didn’t deserve this! “Vernon, a year ago someone I … cared about a great deal … died … I’m having a difficult time getting into the Christmas spirit, that’s all.”

 

“Samantha, I had no idea! Why didn’t you tell me?”

 

“Because it hurts! It still hurts like mad, and it hurts even worse when I talk about it. So, please … I’d really like to be on my own right now …”

 

He’d slunk off diffidently, as he always did when she asked him to. She went to the bathroom to have a shower, and ended up staring at her reflection in the mirror in disbelief. It wasn’t so much the dark circles under her eyes that made her look like a hung-over raccoon, but the fact that she felt she was gazing at a demented stranger. “Snap out of it! He’s dead! Jack O’Neill is dead!” The demented stranger remained thoroughly unimpressed, and Sam decided to get dressed and ask Dr Everett out for lunch, by ways of an apology.

 

She was on her way out when the phone rang. If this was a student asking if she’d already graded the term papers, she’d personally wring his or her scrawny little neck! “Yes”, she snapped into the receiver.

 

“Merry Christmas, Sam.”

 

She winced when she recognised the voice. Janet Fraiser. Was all the world conspiring to drag her back to a time and place she needed to leave behind? “Hi, Janet”, she said cagily. “Merry Christmas to you, too …”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Christmas was over, and the painful morass of memories it had dredged up was beginning to sink back to a place where it could remain hidden and undisturbed for another year. Vernon had been surprised and pleased when Sam had turned up at his house barely an hour after more or less throwing him out of her apartment. She’d made amends by finally agreeing to a date, and at the Dean’s New Year’s Eve party Dr Everett had been delighted to announce that he and Dr Carter were to marry at the end of May.

 

Spring Term was about to start, and Sam sat at the desk in her tiny on-campus office, grading the last of the previous term’s papers. Young Weller was a fool. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the subject matter, he assiduously refused to apply himself. Fine! If he was that keen on taking the course for a third time, she wasn’t going to stand in his way. She penned a hugely satisfying ‘F’ on the paper, embroidered it with a scathing remark, and leaned back in her chair. Make my day, punk!

 

God, she was glad that her life had slipped back into the safe routine of teaching, office hours, administrative duties, and committee work! Her father had been right, all those years ago. One day, she’d come home from school in floods of tears. Army brat and geek to boot, she’d been bullied again. He’d told her to ignore it. If she did, the bullies would lose interest soon enough. And besides, a Carter didn’t display his or her feelings for all the world to see. A Carter was tougher than that. It never occurred to Sam that, thanks to some not-so-gentle prodding from Selmak, Jacob Carter’s outlook would be radically different these days. Nor did she bother to recall that, despite her infallible father’s prediction, the bullying and the pain hadn’t stopped.

 

She closed the folder with the term papers, locked her office, and went home for a quick shower and change before she was off to Vernon’s for dinner. He’d invited some friends from the Music Department. Bartok and Boeuf Wellington. With Bordeaux. And bonhomie. Stop it. It’s probably gonna be Mozart and Mock Turtle Soup and Merlot, anyway. And murderous intent. Sam grinned wryly.

 

In actual fact, it hadn’t been any of the above. More like Shostakovich and Sushi. And Sake and sermons. It’d been okay, though. Safe. Now they sat in the lounge, nursing their brandies. Vernon was waxing lyrical over a planned poetry reading for which he hoped to gain the support of the Music Department. Despite her good intentions, Sam’s thoughts began to drift.

 

The doorbell rang, and Vernon went to answer it. Two minutes later he returned, a bewildered frown on his face. He was followed by a young man in Air Force uniform. Graham Simmons?!

 

“Samantha? It seems that the … gentleman … is looking for you.” It also seemed that Dr Everett was not best pleased.

 

“Major Carter!” breathed the Lieutenant with a blissful smile and a violent blush. He hadn’t changed a bit. Neither had his crush.

 

“Retired”, stated Sam. “What on earth are you doing here, Graham? Sit down, please!”

 

“Uhm … No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am. I’m -”

 

“Samantha, you know this guy?” Apparently, Vernon had recovered enough to start defending his territory.

 

“Yes, Vern.”

 

Major Carter?!”

 

“Retired, Vern.”

 

“Uh … ma’am. Sorry to interrupt …” Lieutenant Simmons was worrying the cuffs of his jacket. With a wary glance at Vernon Everett he continued. “I’ve got a message from General Hammond, ma’am. He would like you to accompany me back to the … uh … Colorado.”

 

“Graham, I’m retired. Tell the General thanks, but no, thanks.”

 

By now, Simmons was stepping from one foot to the other. He either was in a hurry, or mortally embarrassed by her recalcitrance, or he needed a toilet. “The General thought you’d say that, ma’am. He told me to tell you that it isn’t just him asking, but General Carter as well.”

 

“Gen- … Graham, my father’s retired, too. Runs in the family, you know.”

 

“Sorry, ma’am. But they said it’s urgent.”

 

She threw him a sharp look, at the same time slamming down an absurd hope. “Urgent? And I don’t suppose you know what it is that’s so urgent?”

 

“No, ma’am.” He shook his head.

 

“Okay. We’ll have to run by my apartment. I need to pack a few -”

 

“Samantha! You cannot seriously intend to - … At least do us the courtesy of explaining this!”

 

Sam rose. “I’m sorry, Vernon. I need to go, and I can’t explain. Do me a favour and let the science guys know that I’ll be away for a few days. I’ll phone you. I really am sorry. Graham? Let’s go.”

 

Two hours later she was on a plane back to the mainland, back to Cheyenne Mountain, back to the SGC. Back home. Home? To Sam’s utter astonishment, she felt relieved. Home. It had been, up until a year ago. A year ago …

 

 

**********************

 

 

They’d been herded into a building, down stairs and into a vault, the only sounds being occasional hoarse shouts from their warders, the clanking of metal against metal, and the soft padding of bare soles on stone, intermingled with the noisier boot falls of the guards.

 

Once in the vault, they’d been lined up and chained to a wall. What kind of a showroom was this, anyway? At least they could have worked on the window display. ‘Kree!’s and gibberish between guards. Jack had no idea what was being said, but it was being said with emphasis. Trying to talk to other prisoners hadn’t worked. Either he was the only English speaker in this solar system, or the others were too scared to talk. Scared of their owners. No. Not ‘owners’. Gaolers. Guards. Warders. Not ‘owners’. He refused to accept that term. Nobody owned him. Nobody.

 

He learnt the opposite in a hurry. Not a showroom at all. The fat guy with the iron had slowly worked his way along the prisoners. Slaves. Jack had found himself envying Poor Bastard Number 1 at the other end of the line from him. At least Number 1 never had twigged on to it until the moment white-hot steel touched his chest. As for Numbers 2 through 26, they had the added pleasure of hearing the screams and smelling the nauseating stench of burnt flesh and anticipating at leisure how much this was going to hurt. Number 24’s turn now. Jack was shivering, praying for it just to happen and be over and done with. Stop it! Stop it! They want you to be afraid. Show them you’re afraid, and they’ve won! Hey, when you get home you can write articles, give lectures before veterinary students on how, contrary to common wisdom, the trauma of being branded is vastly underrated. 25. He could see the small halo of hot, roiling air around the tip of the iron. Good. Concentrate on that. How many colours can you see, Jack? Count. How many? 1: red. 2: pink kinda orange. 3: rosy white. 4: brown, maybe. 26. Oh God! Don’t you dare scream, flyboy! Don’t - … He smelt his own scorched skin and muscle. And he screamed.

 

They’d been left in the vault overnight, still chained to the wall. Sleep remained a figment of the imagination, together with freedom, beach balls, the Simpsons, ice hockey pucks, and Sam Carter. Sam. Thank God he’d kept her from coming with him! He tried to shift his position and winced. He’d have given anything just to be allowed to sit. By the looks of it, this was going to be a bargain basement sale. If and when they were released from the wall, they’d probably fall flat on their faces. Not conducive to premium prices.

 

When they were unchained in the morning, he did in fact manage to stay on his feet, as did a surprising number of men, some of them obviously fighting to stand. Moments later, Jack understood why. Those who had fallen were killed. Of course. Customers might complain if they were sold defective goods. Better to test the merchandise beforehand and weed out the duds. It could have been so easy, he thought tiredly. All he had to do was fall. Too late now. You’re an idiot, Jack!

 

Two hours later Jack had been sold. He’d never found out the buyer’s name. It didn’t matter. Names were of no consequence in this place. What was of consequence, however, were rules. He’d managed to break several in the space of ten minutes. This in and of itself wasn’t remarkable, but the whole point was that, so far, he only had a very hazy grasp of what the rules were. Take the Physical examination through customer one, for instance. The buyer had wished to examine his mouth. Jack had clenched his jaws and informed the man through gritted teeth that he wasn’t a horse. Definitely against the rules. They’d yanked his head back and prised his mouth open, and then made the mistake of relaxing a little. He’d bitten the man hard enough to draw blood. Okay, so the Thou shalt not bite thy prospective owner rule had been fairly obvious. He actually recalled a similar one from play school, when he’d bitten the unbelievably annoying Mary Ann Ferguson, who’d been two years older and twice as wide as he. The Sisters hadn’t been pleased, either. Except, back then it hadn’t cost him a tooth. Oh, the sales staff hadn’t knocked it out. Not amusing enough. They’d wrested him to the ground and held him down, forcing his mouth open again. And then the buyer had straddled his chest and leisurely pulled one of Jack’s teeth. Hugely amusing. One rule he’d obey in future. Pain was a great memory enhancer.

 

Somebody please say that the kids were alive, that his team was alive. Somebody please say that this was happening to him for a reason.

 

 

**********************

 

 

“Major!” General Hammond was positively beaming.

 

Sam returned the smile. “Retired, sir.”

 

“I’ve heard that one before. Good to see you. It’s been a long time.”

 

“It has, sir. And it’s good to be back.” So it was. She hadn’t expected the welcome she’d received. It wasn’t just the General. Everybody seemed glad to see her. Like some kind of family reunion. Yes, there were members of the family missing. The most important members. But still, it felt like coming home.

 

“Take a seat, Major. How was your trip, by the way? And how’s university life treating you?”

 

She gave up on correcting him. Apart from the fact that you didn’t correct a General more than once in the same conversation, it felt right. Sam sat down. “The trip was fine, and university life’s boring the crap out of me. Sir!” That reply had come out of the blue, but suddenly she realised it was God’s honest truth.

 

“I was hoping you’d say that. About the trip, of course.” Hammond grinned.

 

“With respect, General, can we come to the point? What am I doing here? I take it this isn’t a social occasion.”

 

“Deja vu”, he muttered, giving her a strange look she couldn’t quite place. Without preamble he said, “The Tok’ra have invited you on a mission.”

 

Invited me?!”

 

“Yes. At the request of one particular Tok’ra.” Hammond waved a hand in the direction of the door, which had opened.

 

Sam turned around and jumped out of her chair. “Dad!”

 

“Hi, Sam. Long time no see!” Jacob hugged her, then pushed her at arm’s length to have another look at his daughter. “You’re too thin!”

 

“Stop nagging, dad!” She laughed. “We’re both too old for that!”

 

Jacob sat down. “Speak for yourself, young lady!” With a nod at Hammond, he asked, “Have you told her yet, George?”

 

“Not really. I thought I’d let you explain.”

 

“Leave the persuasion part to me, eh? Thanks a bunch, George! She’s as stubborn as I am, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

 

“Uh … Dad? General? If you don’t mind?”

 

Jacob briefly lowered and raised his head, and the next voice Sam heard was his symbiote’s. “I’m very pleased to see you, Samantha!”

 

“Same here, Selmak.” She smiled. “So, what’s this all about? I can’t seem to get anything out of Jacob or General Hammond.”

 

There was a merry chuckle. “Men! … Samantha, we have reports that one of the system lords has ‘set up shop as an arms dealer’, to quote Jacob. Goa’uld weapons technology, blueprints, parts, even whole gliders are being traded, for vast sums, to anyone who’s willing and able to pay. To a certain extent it’s been useful. The Tok’ra managed to stock up their armouries quite nicely. But now we’ve received hard intelligence that this particular system lord is using the proceeds to strengthen his forces, hiring mercenaries and enlarging his fleet. Before long, he’ll challenge other system lords. If he succeeds, we’ve got a problem at our hands. If the infighting among the Goa’uld ceases, for whatever reason, they’ll be free to dedicate their full attention to the Tok’ra, the Tau’ri, anyone else who opposes them. A consolidated Goa’uld force under one system lord we cannot overcome.”

 

“I agree, Selmak. But what’s that got to do with me?”, Sam asked softly, her face carefully blank. This wasn’t what she’d hoped against hope to hear.

 

“We know that virtually all of the arms that are being traded were manufactured on one planet. Shol’renak. We also know they’re brand new. In other words, there has to be at least one weapons plant there, maybe more. The idea is, in Jacob’s words, ‘to put a spanner in the works’, to stop them from making more.”

 

“And it’s a good idea, but I still don’t see -”

 

“Sam!” Jacob was back. “We’re planning a recon mission to gather the information necessary to sabotage that plant. Then we’ll go in and hopefully blow it sky-high. It’s my mission, and I need a second. I suggested you. Not because the Tok’ra don’t have anybody who could do the job, in fact, most of our people probably are more qualified.” He raised a placating hand. “No offence, Sam, but you guys have only just started dabbling with Goa’uld technology. I suggested you, because I thought you might like to settle a score. Shol’renak is Heru’ur’s home world, and he’s behind this whole arms trading thing. We’re going to hit the son-of-a-bitch where it hurts. Interested?”

 

“Do I get to kill him personally?”

 

“I take it that’s a ‘yes’”, Jacob said.

 

Sam nodded.

 

 

**********************

 

Part 3

 

 

It was a foundry.  As far as places went, it wasn’t bad. It was very bad. Together with two other men who’d also had the misfortune of being on the amateur dentist’s shopping list, Jack had been hauled through cavernous factory halls and past massive blocks of machinery to arrive here. The air was almost solid with soot and grime and sparks. Along the walkways ran channels, flowing, glowing with molten metal. And it was hot. So hot. He kept blinking, trying to stop sweat from trickling into his eyes. As long as he didn’t know whether there was a rule about wiping one’s forehead, he didn’t dare to. You had to hand it to the management. Compared to the local version of hell, Netu had been a holiday camp.

 

More stairs. Another basement. Hopefully, no more surprises. They were shoved into a large, low-ceilinged room. It already was packed with over a hundred other slaves, men, women, and children, none of whom seemed overly eager to share their patch of floor with any of the newcomers. Standing room only. Before long, Jack would learn that resting space, like food and water, was a commodity to be fought for. For the moment he only knew that, unless he sat down within the next few minutes, he’d simply topple over and end up on top of whichever sleeper happened to lie in front of him. For some reason, he couldn’t see that going down too well.

 

In the end he found a small patch at the back of the room, right next to what passed for latrines around here. The stink was overwhelming. Never mind. Ignore it. Carefully, he lowered himself to the filthy, wet ground. His knees hurt, his back hurt, his chest hurt, his mouth hurt, just as well that his butt didn’t, else it would have put paid to this sitting lark. Afraid of accidentally violating the boundaries of his space and thereby another as yet undiscovered rule, he hugged his thighs to his chest, resting his head on his knees. So, this was it. Final destination. With that thought came a black bolt of despair.

 

Over the coming weeks, he worked his fingers to the bone in the foundry, was punished on a regular basis, usually without knowing why, fought like an animal for scraps of food or the one flask of water they were allowed each day, slept when he could. He also learnt more rules, like the one about not being permitted even the most paltry kind of enjoyment. Once a week they were driven into a courtyard and hosed down in groups of fifty. As though that perfunctory excuse for cleanliness would intimidate the lice and God only knew what other species of vermin they hosted! In a sheltered corner of the yard he’d discovered a shaggy flower, so spindly that any self-respecting railway embankment would have been insulted to support that kind of growth. Jack started talking to it. It was his. It helped him stay sane. Until the day a guard observed what he was doing and beat him until he obeyed at last and tore it out, roots and all.

 

Somehow, this kind of punishment was worse than what happened when you breached the more obvious rules. In those cases at least you knew in advance and could brace yourself. Up to a point. It hadn’t taken him long to find out what the foundry was making. Raw parts for death gliders. Death gliders that would kill people like Tuya, like Daniel, like Teal’c, like Sam. Sam. Driven by some vestige of stubbornness he’d decided to do something about it. He’d discussed this at length with his flower, also explaining to it how the word ‘sabotage’ was derived from the French sabots, the wooden clogs labourers had once thrown into the cogwheels of some machine or other, to stop it working. The insurmountable problem with this procedure, he’d complained to the flower, was the fact that he suffered from an acute shortage of wooden clogs.

 

A month later a clog-free opportunity arose. They were ordered to haul several wing moulds to another part of the factory, via a distinctly antiquated overhead pulley system. Why invest in anti-grav devices or even basic hydraulics if you had slave labour? Jack was manning one of the lines, when he saw it. The whole system was so finely balanced that the mould would come down if even one man let go. He let go three times, destroying three moulds in the process. The first time, nobody quite understood what had happened, so the only upshot was a lot of shouting. The second time, someone figured that it had to have been him, which got him clouted for clumsiness. The third time round, the man on the line next to him told the guards what he was doing. The man was rewarded with an extra flask of water that night. Jack was flogged to within an inch of his life.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Sam and her father had left for the latest Tok’ra hideout only hours after the meeting with General Hammond. From there they travelled on in a cloaked transport vessel. Even in galactic terms Shol’renak was a long way away, and the duration of the journey was beginning to grate on Sam. Jacob had briefed her over days and in detail about the mission and her part in it. He would pose as an arms merchant, and Sam as his ‘assistant’, which in Goa’uld parlance could mean just about anything from kitchen scullion to lap dancer. Looking at the costume, her persona seemed to be geared towards the latter. It didn’t really matter. The point was that nobody would pay any notice to a woman in the service of a moneyed customer. She could be Jacob’s eyes and ears while he concentrated on haggling with the dealers. More importantly, she wouldn’t be expected to speak, except to her ‘master’, and that definitely was a plus. Sam’s fluency in Goa’uld left a lot to be desired.

 

Still, there were only so many times you could go over mission details, especially if they were as straightforward as these. The closer they approached Shol’renak and with it Heru’ur, the more restless she became. Sounds and images she’d spent a year trying to forget came rushing back, clear as a bell and in glorious Technicolor. A song cut off in mid-note. Utter terror in the faces of men, women, children. A lance of fire ripping to shreds a delicate mosaique. Astonished gasps turning to screams turning to moans. The wail of a boy who saw his father battered. A couple killed in their bed. An entire people wiped out for no other crime than simply existing. Blood and death and death and blood. And a man giving himself up to save ten children. Those frightened, determined eyes. It struck her as strange now, but up until that moment she’d never appreciated that, truly, courage had nothing to do with the absence of fear and everything with its presence.

 

“A penny for them?” Jacob had watched her pace for the past twenty minutes, and figured he’d better stop her before she wore a hole through the floor plates and possibly caused a hull breach as well.

 

Startled out of her reverie, Sam came to an abrupt halt. “What?!”

 

“A penny for them!” her father repeated.

 

“Oh … nothing important.”

 

“That’s not what it looked like from where I’m sitting!”

 

“Dad, did I ever tell you that you’re nearly as much of a nag as -” She fell silent.

 

“Jack?” It had been a shot in the dark, but Jacob could tell from her reaction that he’d just hit the 10-ring. “You miss him.” It wasn’t a question.

 

“He’s dead, and I’m over it, alright?!”

 

“And that would be why you ran away to waste your time at some provincial college, and why you got engaged to the first dimwit besotted enough to ask.”

 

Sam exploded. “How dare you?! You don’t even know Vernon! He’s smart, and he’s generous, and -”

 

“You don’t love him” , Jacob stated drily.

 

God, he was so damn good at rubbing your nose right in it. Always had been. She and her brother had resented it like mad when they were small. How had he guessed, anyway? “Dad, please … I’ll be fine. It’ll go away if I just ignore it …”

 

“Which moron told you that?!”

 

She blinked. “Uh … you did, dad.”

 

“Ouch!” Jacob grimaced. “The sins of the fathers … For what it’s worth, Sam, Selmak’s in hysterics, and I find it intensely irritating.”

 

It had the desired effect. Sam grinned a little. Then, “Look, dad, what’s the sense in tearing myself up over something I can’t change. Much better to move on.”

 

“But you haven’t moved on, have you? Going by your face, you’ve been back in that place a minute ago. Am I right?”

 

“Yeah”, she whispered. “You’re right.”

 

“Okay. So tell me about it.”

 

Without being aware of it, Jacob became the first person whom Sam genuinely talked to since she’d come back from P7X 774. It wasn’t a debriefing. It was a multitude of moments, tumbling from her helter-skelter. Two hours later he knew it all, except what she’d never have admitted to anybody. And he’d guessed that a long time ago. There was nothing he could say. As a father, he would have wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright. As a soldier, he realised that it wasn’t, never would be, that his daughter had lived what he only remembered through Selmak’s memories, and that any comforting platitude would insult both her intelligence and her professionalism. So, as a father and a soldier, Jacob held her and let her cry.

 

 

**********************

 

 

The following day they reached Shol’renak. Jacob had landed the craft on the outskirts of the planet’s main city, among the ruins of a derelict factory, where the risk of its being discovered and identified was negligible. From there, he and Sam began the long trek into town. On the way through the industrial areas and suburbs, Sam drew lewd stares from passing men. Both she and Jacob started doubting their assumption that she’d be able to go unnoticed.

 

Jacob frowned. “Now I recall why I resented having a beautiful daughter. Nothing but trouble with boys!”

 

“Thanks, dad! … I think.” She smiled and pulled her drab cloak tighter around her. Not that it made much of a difference. Mostly she’d done it in response to a subconscious impulse to keep this place out, keep it away from her.

 

Shol’renak was the first Goa’uld home world she’d ever had the dubious pleasure of visiting, and Sam already hoped it would be the last. She’d seen desolate wastelands before, but this was worse. Its desolation was deliberate, created with intent and over centuries, millennia perhaps. Buildings like inhumanly out-sized Gothic cathedrals, designed to dwarf and intimidate, to remind the potential dissenter, scurrying through the narrow streets as through the bottom of a canyon, that the false god who had built these shrines of corrupt power was there and watching and ready to punish transgression. Anything that could possibly distract from this message, trees, blue skies, sunlight, joy itself, had been systematically eradicated. If you looked up, you could see roofs disappear into a blanket of grey cloud. Colours spanned the spectrum from black to brown, and Sam was unable to tell whether this was due to the natural hues of stone, mortar, and metal or to the ubiquitous filth and grime. The air itself was dirty.

 

The closer they approached the centre, the more thronged the streets became. Hundreds of people hurrying, eyes downcast, heads ducked, desperate not to attract unwanted notice, scrambling to clear a path whenever Horus Guards would pass. At a large intersection the whole well-greased human machinery suddenly ground to a dead halt. An opulently gilded sedan chair was carried past in the street, escorted by about fifty Guards. One by one, bystanders dropped to their knees. It had to be Heru’ur. Kneel before your god. Heru’ur. Sam stared, transfixed, a taste of bile and hatred in her mouth, when a sharp tug at her cloak reminded her of whom she was supposed to be impersonating. She followed Jacob’s example and knelt until the procession had passed.

 

Rising, her father glared at her. “Dammit, Sam! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” he hissed. “Pull yourself together!”

 

He was right. Her lapse could have ended the mission there and then. “I’m sorry, dad. Won’t happen again”, she whispered.

 

“I know it won’t. I also know how difficult this is for you”, Jacob said more calmly. “I promise you, the best way of hurting the bastard is by doing exactly what we came here to do. I promise! Okay?”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Right. Let’s go find ourselves a room.”

 

They were directed to an inn near the centre, allegedly the best in town. Like everywhere else, the luxury establishment was cheerless and crowded. The innkeeper offered, for an outrageous price, to give them bunks in a communal sleeping area. Jacob shook his head and unobtrusively placed a small ingot of naquada on the counter. For a second, the man’s eyes lit up, then he palmed the ingot and vanished. Ten minutes later, he propelled a protesting middle-aged couple through the lobby and towards the communal quarters. Sam and Jacob had a room. It was tiny, but it gave them some privacy, and while the beds looked uncomfortable, the sheets were clean and, miraculously, smelt of disinfectant. Which presumably was why this clapped-out shack had received such glowing recommendations.

 

That evening in the dining room, Jacob casually put word around that he was interested in buying a large quantity of weapons, possibly even a couple of gliders or at least glider parts. It was a calculated risk. He believed that Heru’ur’s middlemen were more than likely to follow the Gecko Principle: Greed Is Good. As long as they sniffed a fat profit, they wouldn’t suffer sleepless nights over operational security. He was proved right.

 

Less than an hour after Sam had observed a lanky, tired-looking waiter slip from the room, the man shuffled back in, walked up to their table, and handed her father a note, grunting a few explanations. Then he left.

 

Jacob grinned. “Gotcha.”

 

“What?!”

 

“Our invitation to the party has arrived. The venerable Jolmark humbly requests the privilege of our company in his offices tomorrow morning.”

 

“How do you know it isn’t a trap?”

 

“I don’t. But my guess is that, if it were, we’d be dead already.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

A cart, drawn by a team of horse-like creatures with horns, came to collect them in the morning. Sam and Jacob were taken back to the industrial quarter. At one point, Sam spotted a line of thirty people or more, chained together, driven on by guards carrying long crooks.

 

Jacob noticed her look and murmured, “You didn’t think arms were the only commodity Heru’ur trades in, did you?”

 

She flinched, mentally adding another item to her personal list of damn good reasons for which to hate Heru’ur.

 

Eventually they arrived at a large factory complex. The cart rattled through the main gate and came to a halt outside an imposing stone building. A lackey appeared from nowhere and ushered them indoors, up a wide staircase, through gloomy corridors, and finally into the office of the venerable Jolmark.

 

The venerable Jolmark was a squat, balding, perpetually smiling monument to obsequiousness. He greeted Jacob like a long-lost relative and completely ignored Sam after having established, with one swift glance at her apparel, that she was not a wife, but a concubine at best and a mere slave at worst.

 

Sam was glad of it. She left her father to what undoubtedly was a barrage of flattery and studied her surroundings. The office was luxurious to the point of decadence, with Goa’uld-style gilded walls, plush furniture and a collection of antique art that would have made Daniel swoon. One entire wall was replaced by an enormous glass pane that opened out onto the factory floor. The contrast couldn’t have been more crass. Hieronymus Bosch would have recognised the vista, she thought. He’d painted such grotesque visions of Hell. Except here there was no hopeful promise of the Gates of Paradise hazily suspended somewhere in the skies. Here there were no skies. Here there were metal catwalks, suspended below a high, soot-blackened ceiling and manned by guards. Guards who saw to it that none of the hundreds of battered, filthy, dejected worker ants who crawled among machinery, flow channels, flues, and casting moulds stopped, slacked, or otherwise stepped out of line.

 

Sickened, she was about to turn away, when a sudden commotion outside the window caught her attention. A slave, a young girl, barely more than a child, who had been serving water to the guards, had tripped and fallen off the catwalk. Desperately clutching a railing, she now dangled above a huge basin of molten ore. The guards, less than fifty yards away, didn’t make a move to help. They were laughing, and judging from their gestures, Sam was fairly certain they were taking bets on how long the girl would be able to hang on. Then the expression on their faces changed to one of rage, and finally they snapped into action. From down on the factory floor, another slave, half starved, bearded, thick hair tied back in an untidy ponytail, had started up the narrow metal staircase, two steps at a time, and now was on the catwalk, racing to reach the girl before the guards could head him off. There was something achingly familiar about the way he moved. Slower, more laboured, but still that same casual grace and fluidity of motion. Sam bit her lip. Stop it. The man was nearly there now, and she found herself silently rooting for him, although, if the shouts of the guards were anything to go by, saving the girl could hardly be in his best interest.

 

By now, Jacob and Jolmark, too, were watching the race. For the first time since they’d entered the room, Jolmark’s smile had slipped and transformed to an angry sneer. The man had reached the girl, gripped her wrists, and pulled her up to safety. As soon as he let go of her, she scurried off along the catwalk, down the stairs, and disappeared. And then the guards were on him. He made no effort to protect himself. For a terrible moment Sam thought they were going to push him over the railing and into the basin. Then she heard Jolmark who’d dashed to his desk, got on the intercom, and barked an order that now echoed through the factory hall. The guards relented, and began shoving the man towards the staircase and the ground level, where an overseer was waiting.

 

“Damn, but that took guts”, Jacob commented under his breath. “Apparently he knew he wasn’t supposed to interfere.”

 

Sam looked at her father. “What’ll happen to him?”

 

“Don’t know. All I caught was that they’re not allowed to kill him. He’s a special toy of Heru’ur’s.” He winced. “Poor devil!”

 

The little convoy had reached the factory floor, and the man was made to kneel. One of the blows had opened a bleeding gash above his temple. Jolmark was still rapping out orders. The slave girl reappeared and handed the overseer a flask.

 

“Son of a bitch!” Jacob hissed. He’d kept eavesdropping on Jolmark. “It’s some kind of brine. They’ll make him drink it. With that and the temperatures out there, he’ll be gagging for water. Except, he won’t get any until tomorrow night. By then he’ll be mad with thirst. One thing those guys can’t be accused of is lack of ingenuity”, he added in disgust.

 

At that moment, Jolmark rejoined them. He seemed to apologise for the interruption and showed Jacob his finger, muttering something. For some reason, Jacob struggled to bite back a grin.

 

Outside on the factory floor, a guard grabbed the man’s hair, wrenched his head back, forced his mouth open. The overseer poured the contents of the flask down his throat. Then they held his mouth shut for what seemed like ages, while he shook with heaves. At last they pulled him to his feet. Only now Sam got a good look at his face. She very nearly screamed.

 

They’d sent him back to work. During the hour Jacob spent in discussion with Jolmark, she never took her eyes off him. Once, almost as though he’d sensed the watcher at his back, he did a little half-turn as he walked along an aisle, looking up and straight at her, then turned away again, never breaking his stride. It was this which convinced her that she wasn’t imagining things, like she had in the hall at the SGC. She’d seen him execute the exact same manoeuvre uncounted times, always with that same lithe elegance, and now as then it made her wonder how on earth he managed to pull it off without ever colliding with an obstacle.

 

She forced herself to stay by the window as though nothing had happened, ignoring what her every instinct told her to do, knowing that one false move would destroy her, Jacob, the plan of the Tok’ra, and Jack O’Neill.

 

 

**********************

 

 

On the way back to the inn, Sam huddled in the cart, not saying a word for the entire length of the journey. Jacob knew something was wrong and put it down to what they’d witnessed in the foundry. He wasn’t far off the mark. When they reached their lodgings, she ran upstairs to the room so fast he had trouble keeping up with her. By the time he closed the door, Sam was sitting on the bed, knees pulled to her chest, arms wrapped around shins, fists clenched so tight that her knuckles had turned white.

 

“Sam?” Jacob flopped on the bed opposite, gazing at her intently. Her face was ashen. “Sam! Talk to me! What’s up? Is it about the man in the factory?”

 

“Dad, did you see him? Did you get a good look at him?”

 

“God, yes, Sam, but you know as well as I that there was nothing -”

 

“No, dad!” She’d practically shouted and immediately lowered her voice. “No. I know that, and it’s not what I mean. Did you see him?” she asked again.

 

“Yes, of course I saw him”, Jacob replied, unsure of where this was going and worried about the state she was in.

 

“Well?”

 

“Well, what?”

 

“Did you recognise him?” Sam stared at her father as though trying to will him into an affirmative answer.

 

“Recognise him? Sam, I very much doubt that anybody could be recognised by their own mother after a couple of weeks in that place.”

 

“The way a person moves doesn’t change. Not fundamentally. Their eyes don’t change …”

 

“Holy Hannah, Sam! Spit it out! Who do you think you’ve seen?!”

 

“I don’t think, dad. I know. That man was Colonel O’Neill.”

 

“Sam, that’s impossible.”

 

“Why, dad? Why ‘impossible’? We didn’t see him die. All we know is that Heru’ur took him. We just never thought beyond the two obvious alternatives of his having been either killed or made a host.”

 

“Please, don’t get mad, Sam, but you’ve spent more than a year wishing Jack alive, wishing him back. I think that perhaps -”

 

“No. Although that’s exactly what I thought, too. Wouldn’t have been the first time it’s happened”, she said bitterly. “But this is different. I’m absolutely certain it’s him.”

 

Jacob shot her a long, hard look. It was obvious that she believed what she was saying. At last he asked, “So, what do you want me to do?”

 

Trick question. Sam took a deep breath. “I want you to find an excuse for going back there tomorrow. Down on the factory floor this time. And then I want you to see for yourself.”

 

“Okay”, her father said, and she looked at him in surprise. He gave a lopsided grin. “You see, something Jolmark told me makes me think you could be right. He’s got a pretty nasty scar on his right index finger. Says the guy all but bit it off when he tried to examine his teeth. Now, to me, that sounds like Jack alright.” Jacob figured he’d better not tell Sam what the punishment had been.

 

 

**********************

 

 

He’d been so sure that this time he’d finally done it, that this time They’d kill him. It hadn’t been his reason for saving the girl. That just happened, prompted by the small part of him that still thought and acted like Before. But death would have been a good enough reason. He had felt the top bar of the railing digging into the small of his back, felt himself at the brink of overbalancing, shifted his weight just a little bit more. And then the Owner’s voice had thundered through the hall, and it had been all over. Again. He’d understood two things then: One, that, no matter what, They wouldn’t kill him, because Their god forbade it. Their god didn’t find it Amusing. Two, he’d have to drink soup. Again. It was the punishment he feared most. The first time, he’d tried to remember what real soup tasted like, and found he couldn’t. So, this was ‘soup’ now. It tasted and smelt so foul, They had to hold you upright and clamp your mouth shut for a while, otherwise it’d come up twice as fast as it had gone down. Which would be counterproductive. Then, when the taste began to wear off a little, you realised that you were thirsty. You wanted water, needed water, more than air to breathe, more than soul salvation. But you didn’t get any. And when you got it at last, the following night, you’d be unable to control yourself and drink it all down in one go. And you’d promptly throw it up again. So, in the end, you’d have to lick it off the floor, because it was too precious to leave. But up to that moment, the thirst would get worse. And worse. And then still worse. As bad as it was now. And yet worse. Your throat hurt. Your lips cracked and bled. Your skin parched and shrivelled like dead leaves in autumn ... Dead leaves in autumn. What did they look like? … You stopped sweating, and the heat became unbearable. The air felt like liquid metal in your lungs. You hallucinated, and that was more agonising than the thirst. Because you almost always saw things from Before. Like the woman in the window. It had started so much sooner than usual. He’d seen the woman in the window. From Before. Sam. Looking at him. He’d looked back. When he’d looked again, she was gone.

 

Guards. Guards shouting. The flap. He had to pull open the sluice flap to the channel. He’d been drifting. Bad. Really bad. Mustn’t drift. The sluice flap. Mustn’t drift. Bad …

 

Jack didn’t notice that he’d dropped the hook with which to pull open the flap. He didn’t notice that his knees buckled, didn’t notice that he was falling, didn’t notice that Jacob caught him.

 

 

**********************

 

 

The morning after their initial visit, Jacob had sent a message to Jolmark, requesting a tour of the foundry so that he could convince himself that the glider parts produced there were up to specifications. The venerable Jolmark, sensing a bumper sale, had readily agreed, and early in the afternoon Jacob and Sam had returned to the factory. They’d been touring the premises for nearly an hour, before Sam finally spotted whom she was looking for. He’d been standing behind the large basin, supposedly working a sluice, but it was obvious that he had difficulty staying on his feet. The heat was oppressive, and he hadn’t had any water in almost two days. He was swaying sluggishly, barely conscious anymore.

 

Suddenly, Jacob started running. He caught the man, a second before he crashed against the red-hot wall of the basin. He also had the opportunity to take a good look at him. There could be no doubt. Jacob Carter couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt so appalled, so furious, and so helplessly sad. Sam had been right. It was Jack. Or what was left of him.

 

He barked something at Jolmark, who’d been watching in surprise. This kind of solicitude towards slaves was news to him. Now, Jolmark turned pale and began yelling at the guards. Jacob interrupted him, then jerked his head at Sam, adding an explanation.

 

Only guessing at what had been said, Sam hesitantly walked towards her father. He motioned her to sit down and gently lowered Jack to the ground, placing his head in her lap.

 

“Stay with him”, Jacob muttered. “I’ve told the venerable Jolmark that Heru’ur’s toy’ll die unless he gets water, so right now Jolmark’s a tad worried about pissing off the boss. When the guard comes with the water, I want you to give it to Jack. Don’t let him drink on his own. He’ll just binge and bring it all up again. Small sips, and take it slowly. Oh, and by the way, I told them you’re a healer, so if you feel like chanting to impress the natives, be my guest.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “Great, dad. Chanting definitely was the thing uppermost in my mind!”

 

Jacob gave her a ghost of a smile, then rose, presenting the very picture of the discomfited wealthy merchant, soiled by physical contact with a slave. He joined Jolmark, patted his shoulder and said something. From Jolmark’s fawning smirk, Sam surmised that it had to have been along the lines of brothers-in-arms-trade having to keep each other out of trouble, no matter how demeaning that turned out to be. The two men continued their tour of the factory.

 

It was a risk, it was unprofessional even, but her father had just bought her thirty minutes or so with the Colonel. She was grateful. She also knew there had to be an ulterior motive, although she couldn’t figure it out just yet. Jacob had always been shrewd, and his blending with Selmak had only enhanced that trait. There would be some form of quid pro quo.

 

A guard appeared and placed a pitcher of water and a cup next to her. Sam nodded her thanks and scowled at him, until he beat a retreat. And then she finally forced herself to look at the man who’d been her CO. Even seeing him the day before hadn’t prepared her for this. The distance had concealed so much. He was painfully thin, caked with dirt, and so dehydrated that the imprint Jacob’s grasp had left on his arm still hadn’t faded. His temperature was far too high, his skin completely dry. Sam pulled a handkerchief from a pocket, wetted it and carefully began cleaning his face. The cool, damp touch brought him round.

 

“Hi, sir”, she whispered.

 

It came and went so quickly, Sam nearly missed it. For just a split-second, there was recognition in his eyes, infinite relief, and something else. Then it was gone, foundered in a look of devastating emptiness. That look was worse than anything else.

 

Sam filled the cup. When he saw it, he reached for it greedily, and she gently pushed his hand aside. “No, Colonel. Let me.”

 

She helped him sit up a little and gave him the water sip by sip, as Jacob had instructed her. At first he flinched, almost in panic, every time she removed the cup, but eventually he seemed to trust her not to take it away from him altogether. She softly talked to him throughout, telling him anything that sprang to mind, that the children were fine, that she, and Daniel, and Teal’c were not so fine, but alive, thanks to him, that they missed him. The pitcher was nearly empty when Sam’s father and Jolmark returned. With a terrified glance at his owner, Jack struggled to his feet and fled back to his post behind the basin.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Jacob hadn’t been blind to the flash of shock on his daughter’s face as Jack had stumbled back to his chores. But then her expression had changed to one of stubborn resolution.

 

Inwardly, Jacob Carter had cringed. So much for the cunning plan. His reasons for letting her stay with Jack hadn’t been entirely altruistic. It seemed heart-breakingly obvious that there was very little, if anything, left of the man they’d known. That man was as good as dead. Jacob had hoped that, if Sam were given a chance to discover it for herself, she’d accept what had to be done.

 

“You’re wrong! He’s still there alright. God only knows how, but he’s there. I’ve seen it. Besides, you’ve watched him save that girl. What does that say to you, dad? That the Colonel’s dead? I don’t think so!”

 

They were back at the inn now, and Jacob reminded himself, for the umpteenth time and with a kind of grudging pride, that his daughter was a chip off the old block. Sam dug her heels in. And then some. If he was honest, he couldn’t blame her. The thought of not helping sickened him. Jack was a friend, the man he and Selmak owed their lives to. But there were other considerations. In the end, he let Selmak take over, relying on his symbiote to make some headway.

 

“Samantha, this mission is vitally important”, Selmak pleaded. “We cannot jeopardise it, as harsh as that may sound. The factory has to be destroyed.”

 

“Fine! You go ahead. I’ll try and get him out myself”, snapped Sam, venting her anger on a pillow, which began to shed feathers at an alarming rate.

 

“That would be unwise, Samantha. And futile. Trust me, it is better to complete the mission as planned”, Selmak said reasonably.

 

“How can that be ‘better’, Selmak? The mission parameters have changed. There’s someone here who needs our help. Last time I looked, that kind of thing was more important than sabotage!”

 

“Not in this case”, contradicted Selmak, finally using the argument Jacob hadn’t been able to bring himself to use. “You of all people should know, Samantha. On P7X 774 you’ve seen what these weapons can do. To thousands of people. One life cannot weigh more than that. Jack would agree with me. He agreed the moment he offered his life for those children.”

 

“If he really agreed with you, you’d still be sitting on Netu! What he did for those children was completely different, and you know it! You have no right to make that decision for him. You sound like a Goa’uld”, Sam spat, too angry to care whom she was insulting.

 

There was a long, fraught silence. At last, Jacob spoke. “That was uncalled for, Sam.”

 

“I’m sorry, dad. But neither you nor Selmak can expect me just to sit back while you two play God because you’re scared of altering a plan. I’m not saying abandon it. I’m saying change it!”

 

“What do you suggest, Sam?”

 

“At last! Thank you! … Who says we can’t do both? All we need is a little diversion before the main event. Use the confusion to get Colonel O’Neill out and then trigger the explosives. Nobody’s gonna be any the wiser.”

 

“We’d need more people to do that, Sam, and I can tell you right now that the Tok’ra won’t put any more operatives at risk.”

 

“Did I ask for Tok’ra operatives?” Sam shrugged. “I’ll bring my own team. Don’t worry.”

 

“What team?”

 

“SG-1.”

 

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Sam, but I was under the impression that SG-1 doesn’t exist anymore. Teal’c’s gone to Chulak, Daniel’s disappeared, and … well, we know what happened to Jack. And last I heard, his 2IC was a math teacher!” growled Jacob.

 

“SG-1’s been on stand-down for way too long. Teal’c will come back, and Janet’s tracked down Daniel months ago. I’ll go and get him”, Sam said simply. “As for the math teacher, she just quit her job.”

 

 

**********************

 

Part 4

 

 

They’d discussed it over and over again on the way back from Shol’renak. Neither Jacob nor Selmak were completely sold on her idea, but in the end they relented, perhaps because they both realised that Sam wouldn’t. The deal was that they’d go through with a combined sabotage and rescue mission, if Sam could persuade Teal’c, Daniel, and George Hammond, and if Jacob could persuade the Tok’ra High Council, specifically Garshaw of Belote, and if all that persuasion could be achieved within two days.

 

An hour after her return to the SGC, Sam had accomplished a third of her task. Once he’d overcome his initial scepticism, the General was only too willing to support her plan. He personally contacted Master Bra’tac on Chulak, who promised his friend Hammond of Texas to get word to Teal’c immediately.

 

Sam, meanwhile, caught a flight to Boston’s Logan International Airport and from there a connecting flight to London. According to Janet Fraiser, Daniel worked as archivist at the British Museum, a job for which he was as absurdly overqualified as Sam had been for hers. It might just help.

 

Now, 33,000 feet above the Atlantic, she was left without distraction for the first time in days. The film selection, a choice between Bull Durham and a plodding, sub-titled filme noir, was underwhelming, to say the least. Three rows behind her, an irate toddler was making his displeasure felt, although the howling child wasn’t half as annoying as his aggressively cheerful parents. The wine was warm, the coffee cold, and it had taken two hours and three Gin & Tonics to sedate her pathologically communicative neighbour in 35B, a first flyer from Tucson, Arizona, with a pending divorce, four children, nine grandchildren, a poodle mix and a Siamese cat, a passion for macramé, and a wayward octogenarian boyfriend in Inverness. Sam was exhausted and wide awake, and there was nothing to stop her from thinking.

 

Her anger at Jacob and Selmak had simmered down. She knew and, up to a point, understood the Tok’ra reasoning. Well, she understood its origins. The Tok’ra had been fighting the Goa’uld for thousands of years, while the inhabitants of Earth still believed the moon was a hare flung into the skies or that they’d topple over the edge of the world into the great abyss if they took their boats out too far. For the Tok’ra, everything was subordinate to their ultimate aim of one day defeating the Goa’uld. From millennia of sacrifice arose a natural conviction that the value of a single life was nothing compared to that of the greater goal. The Tau’ri concept of an individual’s God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness couldn’t have been further from their minds. True enough, the Tok’ra fought for precisely that right, but they could never permit themselves to consider it unalterable, let alone God-given. Not until they’d won. But understanding this didn’t mean that Sam had to agree with the Tok’ra way of thinking.

 

Still less she agreed with her father’s argument that, in all ways that counted, Jack O’Neill had died a long time ago. Even if it were true, it didn’t mean that they shouldn’t help. And it wasn’t true. Of that she was convinced. She’d seen it in that first, unguarded look. He’d never acknowledged her again after that, but once she’d got over the shock of it, she could understand this, too. Physically and mentally, the Colonel had spent more than a year in a place Sam couldn’t even begin to imagine. Although she’d caught a glimpse, it hadn’t been more than a postcard from hell, and there was no doubt that she hadn’t seen the worst of it. Not by a long shot. His withdrawal had been the instinctive reaction of a man for whom any surprise, any unexpected development that disrupted an already precarious routine, had come to mean only one thing: more pain. But she’d seen what she’d seen, and she knew that he had survived, although how and why and by what reserve of strength was completely beyond her comprehension.

 

“I’ll bring you home safely, sir”, she murmured.

 

“What was that, dear?” asked the first flyer from Tucson, starting out of a reverberant snore.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Within the strictly limited compass of what Jack still allowed himself to feel, he felt proud. It had been two days without punishment now. Two days, and no beatings or worse. That was good. He was learning.

 

He cautiously manoeuvred among the sleeping bodies in the confined vault, where he was locked up every night. You had to be careful not to touch anyone, even accidentally. Touching was bad. You could pass a weapon that way. You could pass food that way. They didn’t like that. And They were watching. Always watching. If They caught you, you were punished. They always caught you. They always punished you. So. Touching was bad. Almost as bad as speaking. Jack didn’t speak anymore.

 

He reached a corner of the room and the small, trampled patch of earth that was his. Everybody knew that. He’d nearly killed a man six inches taller and twice his weight for the right to inhabit this little speck of space. He sat down and leaned back against the wall, gingerly cradling his left hand. He’d been punished three days ago.

 

Sometimes They would take you to the Palace. To watch Their god eat. Their god thought it Amusing. You had to stand still. Just stand still and watch. He hadn’t learnt that yet. Standing still. He hadn’t concentrated, because he was hungry. He always was hungry. He hadn’t concentrated, and so the fingers of his left hand had started dancing. Thumb to little finger, ring finger, middle finger, index finger, and back again. And again. And again. He hadn’t concentrated, and so he hadn’t noticed. They had noticed. They had pointed at him. Their god had risen and approached and looked at him and laughed. Kneel before your god, Tau’ri. No. Kneel before your god. No. No was bad. Very bad. Their god had pushed him to the table and taken his left hand and placed it on the table and run a knife through it. He’d recognised the knife. It had been his. Before. Pinned to the table, he’d stood still. Jack didn’t fidget anymore.

 

He carefully flexed the fingers of his left and winced. The wound was infected. He had an unbidden recollection of a tiny, fierce doctor who’d be very angry about this. She would have helped. But that was Before. Lately, he’d been having too many memories from Before. Ever since he’d seen the woman in the window. He hadn’t been hallucinating. Hallucinations don’t give you water. Hallucinations don’t have names. Sam. He’d been so glad to see her, and he’d wanted to tell her. But that would have meant speaking. It was enough to know that she had brought them home safely. To know that there was a reason, that the bargain had been kept.

 

Clinging to that thought for dear life, Jack slipped into an uneasy, fitful sleep.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Sam had taken the express train from Heathrow Airport to Paddington Station, hoping it would bring her into London faster than a cab. The train had sat near a place called Hounslow for nearly an hour because of a power failure on the line, and by the time it had started moving again, she’d been ready to jump out of her skin.

 

Now she hurried along busy roads, dodging clumps of other pedestrians, unsure of whether she remembered directions correctly. She resented the bustling crowd for getting in her way, slowing her down. In fact, the masses of rushing, preoccupied people were an eerie reminder of Shol’renak. If only she could find the YMCA, she’d know her way from there. There. There it was. Two minutes later, Sam arrived outside the British Museum.

 

In the foyer, beneath an enormous Assyrian statue, she came across a museum guard who was amiable in a useless kind of way. A Dr Jackson? American accent? In the archive? After some deliberation his colleague, equally friendly and unknowledgeable but more resourceful, suggested that Dr Carter might want to ask one of cleaners. A woman called Sue usually did the archive. They took Sam on a quest for the elusive Sue, whom they eventually located dusting in the Rotunda.

 

At the mention of Dr Jackson, Sue’s crinkly face lit up. “I know ‘im. And a good lad ‘e is. You’ll be’er come with me, luv’, I’ll take you.” She ushered Sam through a door that said Staff Only, and into a confusing maze of corridors. “So, you’re ‘is lady-friend, then?”, she chirped as soon as they were out of earshot of the men, bright button eyes sparkling with curiosity.

 

Sam shook her head. “No. Just friend-friend.”

 

“Shame. ‘e’s a bit lonely, in’t ‘e? All them books, day in, day out, and no’ a soul to talk to. Shame.” Sue shook her head, tutting maternally. Finally, she pushed open another door, and Sam found herself in a dimly lit, musty smelling room, cluttered with shelves. To her left, over by the window, stood a desk. Hunched over the desk, rummaging through notes, stood Daniel Jackson.

 

“Thank you”, she whispered in the direction of Sue, and Sue, in a rare victory of tact over a native sense of drama, nodded, smiled, and left. As the door was closing, Sam wandered over to the desk. “Hi, Daniel.”

 

“Just a minute”, he mumbled distractedly. “Just let me finish this, and I’ll be right with you. Just a -”

 

Sam burst into laughter. It was pure Daniel. Some things never changed.

 

He looked up at last, surprised by this unwarranted bout of hilarity in the holy halls of the British Museum, and his jaw dropped. “Wha- … Sam! Wha- … What? Whoa! Sam!!”

 

“Hi, Daniel”, she repeated. “I take it you recall my name.”

 

“Of course I - … God, Sam, it’s good to see you!” He broke into a huge grin and pulled her into a hug. Abruptly, he let go. “What on earth are you doing here? How did you know where I was? I didn’t exactly leave a forwarding address …”

 

“You can blame Janet for that. She tracked you down. Don’t ask me how.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Daniel, I need to talk to you.”

 

“Oh”, he said again, frowning. “And there’s me, thinking this is a social call. More fool me!”

 

“I’m sorry, Daniel, but we need to talk. Now. Is there somewhere we can go?”

 

He took her to a little corner pub, across the street from the museum. While Sam secured a table, he got the drinks for them. Only when Daniel returned, proudly brandishing two small, peculiar-looking bottles and a couple of glasses, she remembered his penchant for outlandish brews. Sure enough, this was a thick, strong, sweet-tasting concoction that called itself Brown Ale and could have passed for coffee, provided you put enough sugar and cream in it. Beer it wasn’t, at any rate, not by any orthodox definition thereof.

 

He slipped onto the bench next to her and took a sip of his ale. “Wow! Great stuff, this!”

 

“Yeah.” Sam grimaced. “Great.”

 

“So, what’s so important that you have to come all the way to London to talk to me?”

 

“I found him.”

 

“Found whom?” he asked mechanically, then his eyes went wide. “Jack! You’ve found Jack?! Dammit, I knew it! I knew it!! I told Hammond a year ago, and he wouldn’t listen. I knew it …” Sam didn’t respond, and Daniel squinted at her suspiciously. “Why do I get the feeling that there’s a but?”

 

If there was a way of sugarcoating what she had to say, Sam hadn’t discovered it. Gazing into her glass at the viscous liquid that masqueraded as beer, she told Daniel the truth. All of it. Why she’d found the Colonel, where she’d found him, and how she’d found him. At long last she fell silent.

 

“When do we leave?” whispered Daniel.

 

Sam looked up at him. “So you’re coming?”

 

In reply, he rose.

 

They briefly returned to the archive to collect Daniel’s bag and then made for the airport. He refused even to go back to his apartment to pack, afraid that they’d miss their plane. With thirty minutes to spare, they caught the evening flight back to Boston.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Twelve hours later they arrived at Cheyenne Mountain. Sam realised that she wasn’t the only one who’d been missed during the past year. Dr Jackson received as warm a welcome as she’d had, and it left him shame-faced and tongue-tied. Finally, Sam managed to disentangle him from shoulder-slapping SFs, hugging nurses, and a bunch of hooting technicians, and she dragged him through the corridors to the briefing room. The first thing they saw as they entered, was a familiar broad-shouldered back, crowned by a shaved head.

 

“Teal’c! You’re here!”

 

The Jaffa turned, bowing graciously. “I am indeed present, SamanthaCarter, and pleased to see you and DanielJackson well. Master Bra’tac has relayed your message. I am ready to depart and retrieve O’Neill.”

 

“Thank you, Teal’c. Thanks for coming.” Impulsively, Sam flung her arms around him, to Teal’c’s mild consternation.

 

“How about me? Do I get a hug and a thanks?”

 

“Dad!”

 

“Hi, Sam.”

 

Her father looked happier than he had in days; the tense lines around his eyes were gone, and he smiled readily. Jacob seemed relieved, but Sam couldn’t yet be sure about what. “Dad? What’s the word?” she asked tersely.

 

“Well, Garshaw got pretty annoyed -”

 

“Annoyed?”

 

“Annoyed about Selmak and me considering anything but getting Jack out. Her precise words were, ‘I will not abandon my friend’. She must be getting soft in her old age …” Jacob grinned. “Do I get that hug now?” He did.

 

“Thanks, dad”, Sam said, knowing that it probably hadn’t been quite as easy as he made it sound, and recognising with a sudden pang of guilt what his and Selmak’s original decision had cost him.

 

General Hammond swept into the room, and Daniel, for the first time in anybody’s memory, leapt to attention like a raw recruit who’d overspent his weekend pass by about three days. “General Hammond, sir -”, he began.

 

“Dr Jackson”, exclaimed the General, beaming. “Good to see you!”

 

Daniel wasn’t going to be sidetracked. “Sir, I want to apologise. I think the last time we met, I … uh … said some things that … uh …”

 

“As I recall, son, my old mother wouldn’t have been proud of my choice of words either. We were both upset.”

 

“Uhm … I know that, General, but still … I shouldn’t have run off like that.”

 

“You’re here now, that’s what counts … So, for God’s sake: at ease, Doctor! You’re making me jumpy!”

 

Jacob started laughing, and it diffused the awkward tension. Daniel gave up on tying himself into knots, even managed a grin. They all sat down at the table, and for a moment, and but for the fact that someone was missing, it seemed and felt like any of a hundred briefings SG-1 had sat through in this room. Admittedly, it was longer than most, as Daniel and Teal’c had to be filled in on the exact layout of the factory, access and escape routes, the strength of prospective opposition, as well as the provisional plan Sam, Jacob, and Selmak had developed and discussed on the way back from Shol’renak. Any lightness of mood dissolved as Sam and her father retold their story. By the end of it, the collective rage was tangible.

 

At last, General Hammond stood. “SG-1, consider yourselves recalled to active duty. You have a ‘go’, and you’re shipping out at 2300 hours tonight. Major Carter is in command of the rescue mission. Jake, you’re running everything else.” He gave a tight smile. “One of my people is out there. Bring him home safely. Welcome back, SG-1, and good luck!”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Daniel found the interminable trip as unsettling as Sam had the first time round. He spent hours drumming maddeningly arrhythmic tattoos on consoles, shredding bits of paper, sitting down, getting up again two seconds later, pacing for miles, until Jacob, in an act of self-defence, banished him from the cockpit. Driven by expectation, memories, hope, guilt, Dr Jackson continued his nervous meanderings in the corridors and engine room.

 

In the end, Teal’c physically sat him down. With a rare flash of humour the Jaffa suggested, “Should you wish to complete our journey on foot, DanielJackson, it would be appropriate to disembark from this vessel. If you intend to remain on board, however, your exertions are aimless, and I recommend you cease.”

 

“I’m sorry, Teal’c. I can’t help it. This is taking forever. What if we’re too late? From what Sam and Jacob have said, Jack’s dying. What if we’re too late?”

 

“We are travelling at the best possible velocity, and we will arrive as soon as we can. Troubling yourself with eventualities that are beyond our control will not accelerate this craft, DanielJackson.”

 

And that was that. And Teal’c was right. But from then on, Daniel took to holing up in his cabin, emerging only for meals or when he was needed. They were worried about him, but there was nothing any of them could do. Sam, for one, knew that there was only one person who could have got through to Daniel, and he wasn’t there to help.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Heru’ur, too, was becoming nervous. The Tau’ri’s spirit had proved to be far more resilient than expected. Gallingly so. When the guards had pointed out that wreck of a man, Heru’ur had been pleased. Approaching him and seeing his fear, Heru’ur had been sure of victory. The Tau’ri would be the first of his race to be broken. But then the Tau’ri had refused to kneel. Again. It was a bad omen. In a scarlet fit of fury, Heru’ur had almost killed his toy. Which would have been unforgivably stupid. Heru’ur needed the Tau’ri’s knowledge if his plans were to succeed, but to relinquish that knowledge the man had to be weak. Being revived in the sarcophagus would strengthen him. Only with difficulty Heru’ur had reined in his temper and superstition and sunk the knife, that knife, into the man’s hand instead of his chest. Still, it had been an act of sublime retribution. An eye for an eye. A hand for a hand.

 

The Tau’ri had stood at the table for the remainder of the night, trembling with pain and exhaustion and not daring to move, because any movement would have aggravated the injury. It had been exquisitely satisfying. It had allayed Heru’ur’s earlier apprehension. The Tau’ri would be broken. One way or the other. If all else failed, Heru’ur’s counsellor Nephtis would need a new host before long, and Nephtis could reveal any information the man held. But that was a last resort. Heru’ur still had time before he was ready to launch his attack, and it would be infinitely more enjoyable to make the Tau’ri beg for the privilege of betraying his own kind. Perhaps the Tau’ri deserved Heru’ur’s personal attention. If nothing else, it would be an amusing diversion, and it certainly would calm Heru’ur’s nerves.

 

 

**********************

 

 

They’d finally reached Shol’renak and landed the cloaked Tok’ra craft in the same hiding place that Jacob and Sam had used before. Soon after, four strangers were on their way into town: a young woman, companion to a wealthy merchant, a tall black-robed man, obviously the merchant’s friend or colleague, and a shy, serious, bespectacled man, who appeared to be a secretary or clerk.

 

Sam and her father had simply adopted their tried and tested disguises. Finding a persona for Daniel hadn’t been too difficult either, but Selmak had voiced concerns that Teal’c might be recognised. A wig, a flowing cloak, which concealed a small arsenal, and a cowl, which all but concealed Teal’c’s face, took care of the problem. The first time they’d seen the Jaffa in full costume and make-up, even Daniel had chuckled and sputtered something that had prompted an elegantly arched eyebrow and the question, “What is a DarthVader?”

 

The innkeeper was delighted to see his generous clients again, and his enthusiasm grew rapturous when he discovered that they’d brought along two additional customers of equal largesse. An already familiar charade repeated itself, as four grim-faced, cursing guests unexpectedly lost their private rooms and found themselves ushered to the communal sleeping quarters. The rooms were reassigned to Sam, Jacob, Daniel, and Teal’c. Before they went upstairs, Jacob asked the innkeeper to send a messenger to the venerable Jolmark, informing him that he’d returned, ready to place a major order, and that he’d brought along an old friend, who also showed a keen interest in the merchandise.

 

During dinner the messenger returned, carrying a typically flowery note from Jolmark, who pronounced himself humbled by Jacob’s custom and his consideration in spreading the word. Provided Jacob hadn’t made alternative arrangements, Jolmark would be deeply honoured to receive him and his distinguished friend at their convenience the following day.

 

They all breathed a sigh of relief at the predictability of Jolmark’s greed. If he had baulked at admitting Teal’c and Daniel to the factory premises, their plan would have been thwarted.

 

 

**********************

 

 

As difficult as it was to wait, Jacob insisted they left Jolmark dangling until mid-afternoon the next day, in order to whet his appetite and thus to ensure his unquestioning cooperation. It worked. When they were led into his office, the venerable Jolmark displayed all signs of impending apoplexy, but as soon as he clapped eyes on Jacob, his complexion faded to a reasonable hue. The ingratiating smile returned at full force and remained strictly reserved for Jacob and his sombre, monosyllabic merchant friend.

 

The presumptive secretary/clerk, on the other hand, provoked a similar reaction as Sam had on their first visit, and, like Sam, Daniel couldn’t have cared less. After a cursory glance at the artefacts, he was drawn to the window. “And Jesus wept …”, he breathed, horrified by what he saw.

 

Sam gently placed a hand on his arm. “It’ll all be gone before tonight. That’s one of the reasons why we’re here.”

 

Daniel didn’t even hear her. “We left Jack in this place for a year … Oh God, I should have -”

 

“Should have what? There was nothing any of us could have done. We didn’t know where he was. We didn’t even know he was alive. And if it hadn’t been for that girl, dad and I could have come here and still not have found him. It isn’t your fault, Daniel!” Sam clocked Jolmark’s glare the same instant that Jacob snapped at her in Goa’uld. She realised that she’d raised her voice above the timid mumble appropriate for servants. Moving closer to Daniel, she whispered, “We’d better be quiet.”

 

“Where is he?” asked Daniel, still unmindful of anything but the scene outside the window.

 

“I don’t know. I can’t see him …” All at once Sam felt a tight, cold knot of panic in the pit of her stomach. What if Daniel’s fears were justified? What if they had come too late? She’d go back to doing precisely what she’d been doing this past year. Trying to ignore it, trying to forget it, trying to live with it, and failing. Except, knowing that she’d come so close to bringing him home and still lost, knowing that she’d left him to die in this nightmare, would make it unbearably worse. Vernon would be glad, though.

 

The three men rose from their seats, jolting Sam out of her thoughts. Jacob nodded slightly, indicating that things were going as planned. Jolmark had been persuaded to take Teal’c and Daniel on the grand tour of the factory, entrusting Sam and her father to their own devices. Under the guise of taking another look around the foundry, they would use the opportunity to locate the Colonel and to plant C4 and incendiary charges.

 

They followed Jolmark through the corridors, down the stairs, and out onto the factory floor. While Daniel and Teal’c were led to the assembly plant in an adjoining hall, Jacob and Sam entered the foundry. Sam carried the charges under her cloak, and she would have to decide where to place them. Instinctively, she set off towards the basin, Jacob on her heels. The basin was where she’d last seen Jack O’Neill, but the basin also was where the C4 would take its most devastating effect. The molten metal inside was enriched with naquada, which would exponentially increase the force of the explosion. It would literally rip the factory apart.

 

He wasn’t there. Someone else was manning the sluice. Sam strolled around the basin, until she was out of sight of the guards, and planted a charge behind a girder that supported the basin wall. She needed to place another one on the opposite side, but there she would be in full view of everybody. Jacob tapped her arm and motioned her to come with him. He’d had an idea.

 

As they emerged on the other side, he whirled around, mouthed, “Sorry”, and began shouting at her. Then he roughly pushed her to the ground, still yelling. Sam hid a grin and planted the second charge in a small niche at the bottom of the basin wall. She scrambled to her feet, muttering apologetically, and her father stalked off, leaving her to follow. Two charges down, four and the incendiary device to go.

 

Jacob and his daughter worked their way towards the back of the foundry hall. Half an hour later, Sam had only the incendiary charge left, and she still hadn’t found the Colonel. If she couldn’t locate him before they set off the first charge, chances were that he’d irretrievably disappear in the ensuing chaos. If he was still alive. “Dammit, sir, where are you?”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Unbeknownst to her or Jacob, the venerable Jolmark had had troubles of his own. The previous day, the Lord Heru’ur had announced his intent to visit the factory, unfortunately omitting to reveal the purpose of such a visit. While this kind of rude behaviour was the prerogative of a system lord, Jolmark found it decidedly disquieting. He was certain that his books were in order, that his substantial tithe had been paid, and that he was not culpable of any major or minor misdemeanours but, sadly, the Lord Heru’ur was not renowned for rationality, equanimity, or a sense of justice. And so, earlier this afternoon, Jolmark had looked forward to his master’s arrival with immense trepidation, only to shudder in gratitude when Heru’ur merely demanded to see his toy. Two guards were despatched to fetch the irksome Tau’ri who, as far as Jolmark was concerned, amply deserved whatever Heru’ur had in mind for him. The venerable Jolmark had been dismissed and fled to the relative safety of his office, there to expect his esteemed, but worryingly tardy customers.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Jack had been cleaning moulds at the back of the foundry. It was easy work under normal circumstances, but his hand had been getting worse, the wound wouldn’t close and kept suppurating, and he could barely move his fingers. Suddenly he’d sensed rather than heard a hush among the slaves around him and risked a furtive glance.

 

The others were staring at him. It could mean only one thing. They were coming for him. You always knew when They were coming. The others always knew where danger was headed, and the others always stared. That’s how you knew. That’s how you knew you were going to be punished.

 

Petrified, Jack had backed into a corner, for some reason recalling a long-forgotten fairy-tale he must have read to his son once. Before. So long Before. It was about a changeling-child, born with a caul that would make him invisible. He’d watched the guards approach, desperately wishing for that caul, anything, anything at all that would make Them walk past him, make Them pick someone else.

 

He remembered now. The caul only worked if you were born on a Sunday. He wasn’t. And so They saw him. And so They took him.

 

Shoved on by the guards, Jack had stumbled out into the main aisle, along the main aisle, not understanding what he’d done wrong, not daring to raise his eyes, not wanting to know, until he had to, what was in store for him now. One of the guards grasped his arm, pulling him to a stop. When he recognised the voice, he gave a soft, involuntary whimper of anguish.

 

“Kneel before your god, Tau’ri”, the voice said gently.

 

No. Jack couldn’t quite fathom anymore why it should be so important not to do as he was asked, but important it was, and so he refused. Shivering, dreading the punishment that was bound to come, he refused to kneel. A slap across the face made him bite his tongue, and his mouth throbbed with the coppery taste of blood.

 

“Kneel before your god, Tau’ri”, the voice repeated, even gentler than before, making it sound like a caress.

 

Inside his mind he heard another voice, the voice of what he’d become, wailing at him to obey. Bad. So bad. Kneel before your god. They will punish you. Your god will punish you. No. No. Not my god. Their god. Not mine. Not mine. No. Reluctantly, painfully, Jack shook his head. There was laughter, and he looked up at last.

 

Jaffa! Kree!” whispered Heru’ur, and one of the Horus Guards handed him an asbestos scoop. Heru’ur dunked it in a channel, observing raptly as it filled with boiling, liquid ore. He rose and walked towards the Tau’ri, holding out the brimming scoop. Savouring the hopeless terror in the man’s eyes, Heru’ur reached out with his free hand and stroked the Tau’ri’s chest. “Kneel before your god”, he crooned soothingly.

 

No.

 

Heru’ur smiled.

 

 

**********************

 

 

They’d been returning to the main aisle after having planted the incendiary device in a tall stack of boarding wood. Jacob had spotted the shoulder-to-shoulder line of Horus Guards a split-second before Sam had. He pushed her behind a block of machinery.

 

From their cover they watched as the Horus Guards opened ranks to let someone pass. Heru’ur. “Shit!” Jacob clutched his daughter’s shoulder with an iron grip to stop her from rushing into something they’d all regret.

 

He needn’t have worried. Sam’s attention was riveted on a group of people coming down a narrow walkway opposite, which led to the back of the foundry. She’d found him at last. Colonel O’Neill was being pushed out into the main aisle and towards Heru’ur by two factory guards. This wasn’t good. Couldn’t be good.

 

By now, Jacob had seen him, too, and his grip on Sam’s shoulder tightened. “Wait! For God’s sake, Sam, don’t do anything stupid now. Wait! We’ll get him out, I promise!” Privately, he didn’t quite know how, though. They had a problem. By virtue of its very unlikelihood, Heru’ur’s presence in the foundry was the one item they hadn’t factored into their plan. Jacob’s major concern was the fire power of the Horus Guards.

 

Sam looked on helplessly as Heru’ur delivered a savage backhanded blow across the Colonel’s face. Then he said something, and Colonel O’Neill shook his head. She gasped. Holy Hannah, sir, whatever it is the bastard wants, just do it! Please! He didn’t move. One of the Horus Guards gave something to Heru’ur. A ladle? A scoop? She didn’t understand until she saw Heru’ur fill it with molten metal. Sam watched him rise, approach his victim, touch the Colonel in an obscene parody of a caress, speaking again, bringing the scoop closer and closer to Jack O’Neill’s bare chest. And he still didn’t move. No, sir.

 

No.

 

Heru’ur smiled.

 

Then several things happened at once. There was a roar of outrage from somewhere across the main aisle. Daniel. At the same time, Teal’c’s huge, black-clad shape barrelled into Jack, knocking him out of harm’s way and causing Heru’ur to spill the contents of the scoop down his own front. Heru’ur’s shrieks were drowned out by a massive explosion at the back of the foundry. Jacob had set off the incendiary device and one of the C4 charges.

 

Within seconds, all hell broke loose. The Horus Guards formed a protective ring around their stricken lord, aimlessly firing their staff weapons. Slaves started screaming and scuttling towards any and all available exits, heedless of their guards’ shouts, until some brave souls turned on their tormentors, provoking an all-out revolt. It was pandemonium. Keening like animals, guards were thrown from overhead catwalks. Any overseers still on the factory floor risked being battered to death. Jolmark was swallowed by a sea of enraged humanity, driven beyond the bounds of endurance. Above it all rose the menacing hiss of flames, spreading rapidly. Smoke began obscuring the foundry like rolling banks of fog.

 

Coughing and wheezing, Sam broke cover and crept towards where Colonel O’Neill had fallen, ducking low, trying to keep below the Horus Guards’ erratic lines of fire. A Guard crumpled in her path, almost tripping her. Ahead and to the right, Sam could just make out Teal’c and Daniel crouched behind a winch, firing at the Horus Guards. A new detonation rocked the building. Her father had triggered a second charge, another one of the decoys they’d planted at the back, in the hope that those, together with the fire, would prompt an evacuation and minimise the death toll. None of them had wanted to destroy lives in order to destroy the factory. In a brief thought, Sam acknowledged the irony of Heru’ur unwittingly saving the Colonel. If he hadn’t been brought before Heru’ur, he might have been killed in the first two blasts.

 

The smoke became denser, and the metal in the channels had started burning. Secondary seats of fire sprang up all around. The remaining Horus Guards had picked up Heru’ur’s writhing form and began rushing for the main exit that led into the assembly plant and from there into the street. Their god’s flight finally achieved what the fire and explosions hadn’t. In droves, slaves and surviving guards thronged after Heru’ur.

 

Sam found herself fighting against a tide of bodies that threatened to sweep along her and everything else in its way. Liberally using knees and elbows, she struggled upstream to the junction where the Colonel had been. He was gone. Groaning with frustration and fear, she looked around, suddenly spotted Teal’c’s face floating above hundreds of other heads. “Teal’c!!” The Jaffa cleared a path for himself and Daniel.

 

“Teal’c, where is he?”

 

Teal’c looked confused. “O’Neill struck his head and lost consciousness when he fell, SamanthaCarter. He should be here.”

 

“Well, he isn’t!” Sam stared at the maelstrom of people in the aisle. If he’d woken up, joined them, walked past her in the chaos, it was over. They’d never find him in time.

 

“Sam!” Grinning slyly, Daniel was gazing over her shoulder, down the walkway behind them. “Sam, look!”

 

She spun around and stifled a sob. Huddled against a generator, half-hidden in the swirling smoke, sat Jack, watching them, head tilted, a look of uncomprehending wonder on his face.

 

Turning back to Teal’c and Daniel, she said, “Okay, let’s proceed as planned. You go and cover dad. Tell him to set the timers on the remaining charges for twelve and fifteen minutes. We meet up as arranged.”

 

The two men nodded and left in search of Jacob.

 

Sam hurried along the walkway to the generator and crouched next to the Colonel. “Come on, sir. We’re going home”, she whispered.

 

He drew a soft breath, and for just a moment it seemed as though he was going to say something. Wide-eyed and motionless, he stared at her, still unwilling to believe what was happening.

 

A fresh brace of explosions, none of the charges this time, but machinery that had become engulfed by flames and blown up. Sparks and bits of shrapnel came raining down around them.

 

“Sir, we’ve got to go, before this place comes crashing down around our ears. Come on! Please, sir!” Sam was getting desperate. She grabbed his hand, pulled him up and started running along the walkway, forcing herself to ignore his outcry. He was following, and that was all that counted.

 

The factory floor was deserted now, and within minutes they reached the door that led into the office wing. Sam slipped through, still towing the Colonel along behind her. Out in the corridor he froze, wouldn’t budge. She turned to him, saw him tense, silently, fearfully shaking his head. Wonderful. Obviously this part of the building was off-limits for slaves.

 

“It’s okay, sir. Nobody’s gonna know.”

 

Another violent shake of the head.

 

Sam sighed. She’d have to do this the hard way, God forgive her. “Move!” she yelled at him, yanking him to her side and pointing towards the end of the hall. “There’s the door, so move, dammit!”

 

He’d moaned, his fingers faintly straining against her unrelenting grip, but he started walking. Sam led him through the corridor and out a side door into an empty loading yard. Across the yard was a small wooden gate, set back in the wall. Earlier, Teal’c had made sure that it gaped an inch or so.

 

When they’d reached the gate, Sam let go of him, and took off her cloak. “You’d better put this on before we -” There was blood on her palm. Suddenly she understood and could have kicked herself for not realising sooner. “Let me have a look, Colonel.” He didn’t react, and she carefully took his left wrist, blanching when she saw his hand. “Oh God, sir, you might have mentioned it … I’m so sorry …” No need to ask who’d done this. The injury itself made a horrendous calling card.

 

Sam draped the cloak around him and stood on tiptoe to pull the hood over his head. She’d have given anything to hear him make the kind of flip comment this makeshift masquerade would have elicited a year ago. It didn’t happen. The rumble of a twin blast tore from the factory building. Two more charges had blown. They’d have three minutes to get away before the C4 at the basin detonated, which would flatten the entire complex. “Time to go, sir!” With that, Major Carter nudged her CO out into the street.

 

They’d put a block between themselves and the factory when the last of the charges went up. In a cataclysm of fire and raw energy Heru’ur’s weapons plant was reduced to rubble. At a corner, a few hundred yards down the road, Daniel, Teal’c, and Jacob were waiting.

 

 

**********************

 

Part 5

 

 

Shol’renak was shrinking to a small, dark ball of bitter memories. Jack was going home.

 

He still hadn’t said a word, and they were beginning to sense that bringing him back physically might not have been the hardest part of this mission at all. For the moment, however, practical considerations outweighed other worries, and the consensus was that a wash and a shave had to be about a year overdue. That task fell to Daniel and Teal’c, and it was bound to take a while. He was unimaginably filthy.

 

Sam wandered off and busied herself finding the clothes they’d brought along for the Colonel, as well as a medikit. His hand would have to be seen to. Armed with shorts, a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, socks, boots, and the kit, she returned and took post outside his cabin door, waiting for someone to call her in. She had to wait for a long time.

 

Eventually Daniel emerged, pasty-faced, starting when he saw her. “Oh …”, he whispered.

 

“What? … Daniel? You okay?”

 

Daniel fiddled with his specs, attempting to hide the fact that he was on the verge of tears. “I’m fine”, he said thickly. “No, I’m not. Not really … It’s just … it’s … once we got all that dirt off of him …”

 

The sentence was left unfinished, but Sam had a pretty good idea of what he was driving at. “Bad.”

 

“You have no idea how bad … I … I figured, I’d better leave before I lost it … me or any of us falling apart ain’t gonna help Jack … just be aware of it when you go in … I’ll be back in a while”, he mumbled, setting off down the corridor.

 

As Sam quietly stepped into the cabin, she heard Teal’c’s unperturbed voice. “Do not trouble yourself, O’Neill. I shall not attempt to shave your head.” Bless him.

 

Her CO sat on a stool, stock-still, a bath towel wrapped around his hips, while Teal’c was trying his hand as a barber. The Colonel’s long hair was brushed back, still damp. From it, little rivulets of water trickled down a cruelly scarred back. He’d been whipped, more than once. Some of the scars seemed recent, standing out against his pale skin in a garish red criss-cross. And he was covered in bruises. Daniel hadn’t exaggerated.

 

She gritted her teeth. Teal’c shot her a warning glance, and Sam forced a smile. “Hi, sir. I got you some stuff to wear. When Teal’c’s finished, we’ll take care of your hand, and then you can get dressed.”

 

Ten minutes later, the Jaffa was done and left to stow his shaving paraphernalia.

 

Sam’s turn. She knelt by the stool, placing the kit in front of her. “Alright, Colonel. Let’s check your hand.”

 

He looked at her curiously, probingly, and held out his right. Momentarily, Sam was taken aback, then she grinned. “Uhunh. I think we can agree that it’s not the best joke you’ve ever cracked, but it’s a nice try, anyway. Your left hand, Colonel, if you please.”

 

Relaxing a fraction, he gave her his left. Sam grasped that, in a way, he’d been testing the waters, trying to see what would happen if he didn’t do as expected. Dear God, what have they done to you, sir? Don’t you remember? You never do as expected. Then again, it probably was an encouraging sign that he’d tried at least. She kept the grin in place, masking her sadness.

 

His hand was in an awful state, swollen, angrily infected. It could have been worse, though. The knife had gone through cleanly, by some miracle leaving bones and tendons intact. But in order to heal at all, the wound needed stitching, both at the back of the hand and in the palm, and Sam didn’t feel qualified to tackle that. The best she could do was combat the infection, and the rest would have to be up to Janet.

 

She took a wad of gauze, splashed antiseptic on it. Raising her head, she found him still gazing at her, eyes huge in the thin, haggard face. “This is gonna hurt, sir, but we haven’t got much choice …” To Sam’s surprise, he nodded. “Whoa, Colonel! You getting chatty on me or something?” As gently as she could, she cleaned the wound, put some antibiotic salve on it, and finally bandaged his hand. “Okay. Done, sir. It should get better, but I’d recommend against sparring with Teal’c for the time being, so -”

 

Only now she’d noticed the scar on his chest. It came as a forbidding answer to her question. This was what they’d done to him. Someone had tied him up somewhere, someone had taken a white-hot iron and scorched that mark into his flesh, because to them he was a thing, a toy, something low that could be branded and owned and hurt.

 

Sam looked away, tears in her eyes, fighting the urge just to hold him, fighting a rage she hadn’t believed herself capable of. For the first time she understood the full extent of his ordeal, that even now it was damaging beyond belief, and perhaps always would be. For even if he somehow managed to live with those memories, live with himself, he would never be allowed to forget. The scar was an indelible reminder of what they’d taught him to be.

 

Her reaction shook him. Without meaning to, she’d driven home the point precisely. Cringing with shame, Jack tried to drape a shaving towel over his chest.

 

“No, sir.” She pulled the towel from his hands. “Please … I’m sorry. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, Colonel …”, Sam said softly, helplessly. Her words sounded empty. How was anyone going to heal this?

 

Just then, Daniel returned, immediately gathering what had passed. “Hey, Jack!” He grinned brightly, at least he hoped he did. “I got something for you.” From behind his back he produced Jack’s trademark baseball cap. “Thought you might want this. Indispensable part of military equipment and all …”

 

Sam could have kissed him. Instead she asked, “Where on earth did you find that?!”

 

“I kept it, okay?!” Daniel muttered a bit bashfully. “I kept it, when -”

 

With a little sigh of surprise, Jack reached for the cap, not quite touching it.

 

“Here, take it! … What? … Jack! … What?”

 

He’d withdrawn his hand so rapidly, he almost fell off the stool. Now he sat still again, hollow defeat and an ominous kind of expectation in his eyes.

 

Sam was slightly faster than Daniel in guessing what must have happened the last time the Colonel had tried to take something. “Daniel -”

 

“I know”, Daniel said through clenched teeth. “But he’ll have to unlearn it …” With that, he crouched in front of his friend, holding out the cap. “Take it. You listening to me, Jack? I know you’re listening. Take the cap. Don’t be such a baby! It’s yours. Take it!” he repeated harshly.

 

Jack had broken out in a cold sweat and turned his head, looking everywhere, except at Daniel. He was cornered. At last his gaze settled on Sam, in a desperate plea to stop this.

 

Oh please, sir … Telling herself that Daniel was on the right track, that sympathy would do far more harm than good, she whispered, “Take it, sir. It’s okay.”

 

There was a stifled groan, and all at once he gave up. Fingers shaking uncontrollably, he reached for the cap again, took it, closed his eyes in resignation, and waited. And waited. And waited. After what seemed like an eternity, he looked up at them, incredulous, relieved, and faintly apologetic. It was a minute victory, or could have been but for Jack’s chilling gratitude at having been spared.

 

“You didn’t think I was gonna hang on to it, did you? You know these things don’t suit me …” Daniel got up, reassuringly squeezing Jack’s shoulder. “Come on, I’ll help you get dressed … uh, Sam … I think Jacob wanted you …”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Chances were that Jacob hadn’t been wanting anything of the sort, but she was thankful for the opportunity to regroup. In fact, Sam wanted her father. She went up into the cockpit.

 

Jacob didn’t have to ask what was the matter. “You’re wearing exactly the same face as Daniel when he came up here half an hour ago, so I’ll tell you the same thing. Running around feeling sorry for Jack and pussyfooting around him like he’s made of glass won’t help. On the contrary. The quicker you start treating him as normal, the better for him. He needs his friends, not a gaggle of bleeding-heart nurses!”

 

“I know that, dad”, Sam murmured, “I just don’t see how he can possibly -”

 

“Bounce back?”

 

“Not my choice of words, but yeah.”

 

“Give him time, Sam. You were right, you know? He’s still there. Jack’s survived a year in that place. And he’s managed to stay himself, though God alone knows how. But he’ll need time to resurface, time to relearn that this is where he belongs, that you guys are his friends. Give him that time. He’s safe now, and I think he knows that.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

It wasn’t entirely true. Jack didn’t know that he was safe. During the past thirteen months, reality for him had been a chancy thing at best, and a painful one at worst. Now, thrown into a reality he’d been hopelessly dreaming of more times than he could count, he couldn’t decide whether it was real or a dream. He was disoriented, confused and, above all, afraid. If it was real, it meant he’d run away.

 

He’d tried that once, a long time ago. If you ran away, They caught you. And then They took you back and strung you up by the wrists in the brutal heat above the basin. As an example to the others. You were left there for however long your stolen freedom had lasted. He’d been lucky. He’d only been free for ten hours. Ten hours hanging by your wrists wasn’t enough to cripple your hands. Just. Even so, by the time They’d taken him down, he’d learnt that the hope of freedom wasn’t worth the price.

 

But if it was a dream, it meant he’d wake up. Jack amazed himself by realising that waking up from this would be more harrowing than any punishment They could inflict on him. And so he silently and apprehensively tiptoed through his dream reality of Before, looking and remembering and dreading the moment it would end.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Somebody was shaking her shoulder. “Go away”, Sam grunted drowsily. “Take an aspirin and call me in the morning.”

 

“Sam! Dammit, Sam, wake up!!” Daniel.

 

For Pete’s sake … “Go away”, she said again.

 

“Sam! Jack’s gone!”

 

“What?!!” Sam sat up with a start.

 

“I went to check on him, see if he was sleeping”, stammered Daniel. “His bunk’s empty, and he isn’t in his cabin.”

 

“Daniel, this is a ship. It’s not like he could have popped out to the Seven Eleven. He can’t be ‘gone’. Where did you look?”

 

“Nowhere yet, apart from the cabin. I thought I’d let you know …”

 

“Okay. Get Teal’c, start searching.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed and got up. “Just try not to make him feel like he’s done something wrong when you find him.”

 

Daniel nodded and went in search of Teal’c. Thinking about it briefly, Sam decided to have a look in the Colonel’s cabin. She had a hunch.

 

When she got there, the room was dark. Daniel had left the door ajar, and the light from the corridor outside spilt across the floor in a bright, sharply defined ribbon. She stood, listened. There. A barely audible intake of breath, and then nothing. Once her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, she scanned the cabin. No wonder Daniel had missed him. Jack sat on the floor, hidden in a gap between the rear wall and a tall storage box, clutching his baseball cap and watching her, not daring to breathe.

 

“Hi, sir”, she said softly. “You know, you’ll catch your death sitting on the floor all night …”

 

At the sound of her voice he exhaled. He hadn’t recognised her. All he’d seen was a backlit, anonymous silhouette, which he’d immediately interpreted as a threat.

 

“Mind if I come in and join you?” On her way to his corner, Sam grabbed the blanket from the bunk. “Can I sit with you?”

 

He shifted a little, making room for her by the box.

 

Sam crawled into the small space, sat next to him and wrapped the blanket around the both of them. “You know, this is getting to be a habit, sir …” He was trembling. Not knowing what else to do, she slipped an arm around his shoulders. “Colonel, it’s alright … it’s just me …”

 

Slowly, ever so slowly, Sam felt him relax, felt herself relax, and she kept talking. “You know we’re going home, don’t you? Everybody’s waiting for you, back at the SGC. The General … I think he misses arguing with you; the 2IC he’s got right now has to be the biggest bore alive. Wouldn’t know a good argument if it snapped him in the ass … Janet … well, I know Janet misses you making her life a misery whenever you’re in the infirmary; nobody else ever gives her a hard time, they’re all too scared of her … Cassie … Janet told Cassie you’re coming home, and she can’t wait; she promised she’d paint a picture for you … What do you want to do first when we get home?”

 

She paused, hoping he’d answer. Nothing. Not that she’d seriously expected it. But he seemed to be listening, and so she carried on. “Maybe a haircut wouldn’t be a bad idea … although I kinda like the raffish look … to hell with regulations, eh? Who cares anyway? …”

 

He tensed abruptly.

 

Daniel was poking his head through the door. “Sam? … Sam? You in there?”

 

“Hang on!” Sam was about to rise, when a hand clasped hers. She suppressed a laugh. He might not be talking, but he certainly made his presence felt. Good. “Sorry, sir … Should wait till I’m dismissed, shouldn’t I? … Uh … Daniel?”

 

“Where are you?” Dr Jackson stood in the doorway, squinting. “We haven’t found Jack yet.”

 

“I have. Everything’s fine. Just go to bed.”

 

“Oh … uh … Night.” Daniel vanished.

 

“Night.” She settled back. The hand was still there. “It’s alright, sir. I’m not going anywhere …” His grip tightened. “What?”

 

In the dim light, Sam searched his face. He was crying. Soundlessly, inconsolably crying. God knew he had reason enough, the question was whether he’d have tears enough.

 

“Jack …” She gently cupped his cheek, her thumb brushing away a tear. “Jack, I wish you told me how to help …” Finally obeying an impulse she’d felt hours ago, Sam took him in her arms.

 

A minor miracle occurred. He returned her embrace.

 

 

**********************

 

 

While Jack struggled to cope with this latest volte-face in his life, his friends struggled to cope with a man so severely traumatised that his reactions even to the most mundane of events remained unpredictable and, more often than not, profoundly disturbing. Their list of upsetting discoveries grew steadily. The unsettling game of hide-and-seek on the first night hadn’t been so much a case of Jack hiding, as a case of Jack trying to find a place to sleep. Then they found that no amount of persuasion could make him drink anything during the day, even when he was obviously thirsty. And they never knew whether or not he was eating, as he’d take his food, disappear, and eventually return with an empty plate. It went on and on.

 

The only way of guessing what he might be thinking or feeling was to observe him. The drawback of this strategy being that it once and for all proved the relevance of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Whenever Jack felt observed, and he almost always did, he withdrew even further into himself.

 

He adamantly refused to speak, and they were beginning to worry that he physically couldn’t. Until a howl of abject terror greeted Jacob’s insistence that Jack join them at the dinner table, thus disproving this particular assumption. Clearly, his vocal cords were in exemplary working order. Which was something of a relief, but it didn’t solve the rest of the problem. He had backed away from the table and stood pressed against the wall, motionless, watching as they sat down.

 

Without warning, Daniel stormed out, returned a couple of minutes later, carrying a notepad and pen, and planted himself in front of Jack. “Jack, look at me. Look at me!”

 

Eventually he did, simply because it was not humanly possible to ignore one mettlesome archaeologist hopping up and down a mere two feet away from him.

 

“Okay, Jack. I get the impression that talking’s a bit of a no-no here. You won’t talk. That’s fine. How about writing? Anything wrong with writing?”

 

A puzzled frown revealed that writing didn’t figure in the behavioural framework Jack had fashioned for himself, if only because the foundry hadn’t exactly been awash with stationery. Slowly, he shook his head.

 

That mean there’s nothing wrong with writing? Writing’s okay?”

 

An insecure nod.

 

“Great. Take this!” Daniel thrust the notepad and pen at him.

 

Like everyone else, Sam had forgotten about dinner and now held her breath in anticipation of another battle. It didn’t come. As gruelling as the lesson had been, the Colonel had accepted that taking things from Daniel was safe.

 

Daniel gave a grin, indicating that he’d been thinking along the same lines. “Cool. Let’s get a bit more comfortable, what do you say?” he suggested and demonstratively sat on the floor, legs crossed.

 

Jack was so perplexed that he followed suit, sliding down the wall until he sat opposite Daniel, gazing at him expectantly.

 

It seemed almost comical, but Sam, Teal’c, Daniel, and Jacob knew that there was nothing funny or droll or innocent about it. Any remnants of innocence Jack O’Neill might have preserved for himself up until a year ago had been tortured out of him on Shol’renak.

 

“Right”, said Daniel. “Here goes. I’d like to ask you a few things. Think you could write down the answers?”

 

Another nod.

 

“You’re kinda into this, hunh?  … Okay. You know what I’m gonna ask, don’t you? Jack, what’s with the not-talking thing?”

 

He shrugged, wrote down one word, and handed the pad to Daniel.

 

In Jack’s sprawling, generous hand it read: RULE. His handwriting hadn’t changed. What obviously hadn’t changed either was his propensity for being downright cryptic, so as not to say a pain in the mikta, where it came to disclosing any personal information.

 

“Oookay …” Daniel decided not to push the issue for the moment and switched tack. “What about sitting down at the table?”

 

This time the response came even quicker. Jack snatched back the pad, threw a line on it, and returned it, complete with a Bit slow today, Danny? look that was heart-stoppingly typical.

 

RULE

 

Dr Jackson began to appreciate that his idea was swiftly turning into the equivalent of giving birth to China, but he stuck with it. After all, it wasn’t drastically different from any number of conversations he’d had with Jack in the past. “What rule, Jack?”

 

THEY EAT. YOU STAND STILL. YOU WATCH. YOU STAND STILL

 

“Who are ‘they’?”

 

THEY

 

Of course. What was Daniel thinking? “What if you don’t?”

 

IT’S BAD

 

“Bad, how?”

 

YOU GET PUNISHED

 

Inadvertently, Jack’s gaze had dropped to his hand. Daniel saw it. “That what happened?”, he asked softly.

 

Jack replied by putting down the pen. Over and out.

 

But it had been a beginning. At least one of the riddles had been solved. Over the coming days, Daniel tried repeatedly, sometimes even with success. Little by little, they discovered how Jack was boxed in by a fence of capricious ‘rules’, absurd and appalling at the same time, designed to dismantle even the last trace of normal human reaction. He would reel them out stolidly. YOU DON’T SPEAK. YOU DON’T FIDGET. YOU DON’T TOUCH. The catalogue was endless, and the answer to what would happen if those rules were breached always the same. YOU GET PUNISHED.

 

When Daniel began probing into the whole tricky area of punishment, he ran out of writing implements in a hurry. Jack developed an uncanny knack for losing pens in inaccessible places.

 

His ingenuity was troubling, because they needed to know a lot more if they were going to break the conditioning. On the upside, Jack himself was taking tiny steps towards doing just that. Although he stubbornly clung to some rules, he made exceptions to others, most notably where it came to physical contact. He grew anxious every time Jacob would cross some unseen boundary, but from the start he’d allowed Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c to touch him, occasionally even touching them. It betrayed an underlying trust and need, so profound that no punishment had been able to eradicate it.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Whenever Daniel’s inquisitiveness proved too much, and it often did, Jack would seek sanctuary in Teal’c’s safe, patient silence, unaware of the inner turmoil he caused the Jaffa.

 

Ever since the rescue, Teal’c had been more than customarily taciturn, as he endeavoured to reconcile his guilt. It was futile. There could be no reconciliation. He had failed his friend and commander, and that was dishonourable beyond words. Teal’c should have prevented O’Neill’s surrender to Heru’ur, but he had omitted to do so. Had the roles been reversed that day, O’Neill would not have acquiesced. He never had countenanced self-sacrifice from Teal’c. Teal’c should have acted. They would have died well, and O’Neill would have been spared the slow, ignominious death of his soul … A soft noise interrupted Teal’c’s ruminations.

 

Jack hovered in the door, mute and uncertain, eyes pleading for permission to enter, and the sheer misery of it brought Teal’c to his knees.

 

“O’Neill, I beg you to forgive me …”

 

It was pure reflex. Confronted with a situation that went against everything he’d once believed in, and never even thinking about what he was doing, Colonel Jack O’Neill reacted the way he would have thirteen months ago.

 

“Teal’c! … Don’t!” And with that he’d pulled Teal’c to his feet.

 

“O’Neill …”

 

As quickly as it had happened, it was over. The two hoarse, laboured words had barely been uttered, when Jack’s hand flew to his throat, and he froze.

 

For long minutes he stood and waited. They did not come. They did not come and take him. They did not come and take him and make him kneel. They did not make him kneel and drink soup. Not this time. This time They had slipped up.

 

Instinctively grasping that he shouldn’t interfere, the Jaffa looked on as Jack fought his lonely battle against a nameless fear. Much later, when his friend seemed calmer, Teal’c solemnly said, “You will not be harmed, O’Neill. I give you my word.”

 

With the same quiet earnest, Jack returned his gaze and nodded.

 

Not this time. And next time? Speaking was bad. Bad. Mustn’t forget. Mustn’t forget.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Sam stepped from the event horizon and could have sworn that it wasn’t the 12th of February, but the 4th of July. Streamers, placards, banners, confetti, for God’s sake! All that was missing were the fireworks. Well, going by the rest of it, Sergeant Siler probably had contrived to rig some indoor pyrotechnics. Worst of all, the embarkation room was packed to the rafters with personnel. Well meant and totally wrong.

 

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! She should have called ahead. She should have stopped this. It just never occurred to her. When they’d reached the Tok’ra planet at last, the welcoming committee had consisted of Garshaw and nobody else. Thanks to centuries of grievous experience, the Tok’ra had known exactly what to expect and responded with remarkable tact. But this … Well meant and totally wrong. Just as well that she’d gone through first.

 

Sam raced down the ramp, barely avoiding a collision with General Hammond who stood at the bottom and looked happy as a clam. “General -”

 

“Welcome back, Major! Where -”

 

“Sir, for the love of God, get those people out of -”

 

Too late.

 

The Colonel and Teal’c came through the ‘gate and were faced with a cheering crowd that had started spilling up onto the ramp and towards them. Jack went white as a sheet and backed away abruptly, almost knocking Daniel, who’d been following behind, into the event horizon. Quick reflexes and a stylish pirouette saved Dr Jackson from an untimely demise in the disengaging wormhole.

 

Sharing a grim look, Daniel and Teal’c took Jack between them and tried to usher him to the blast door. It was hopeless. The crowd closed in, swamping them, and Jack, finding himself beset by shouting, shoulder-slapping, hugging people went into a full-blown panic attack.

 

Sam saw what was happening and instantly knew why it was happening. YOU DON’T TOUCH.

 

“Hi, Sam! Great to have all of you back!” A broadly grinning Dr Fraiser looped an arm around Sam’s waist.

 

“Janet! Thank God! We’ve got to get the Colonel out of here!”

 

“Why?! What’s the matter?!!”

 

Suddenly, the exuberant hubbub died down, metamorphosed into the low buzz of shocked murmurs. Colonel O’Neill had collapsed. Stunned people finally cleared a path for Teal’c, who was carrying his CO towards Janet.

 

“Dr Fraiser, I believe O’Neill requires medical attention.”

 

“I can see that, Teal’c. Can you take him straight to the infirmary?”

 

The Jaffa was on the move before she’d finished speaking, Sam, Daniel, and the doctor in his wake. The first thing Janet did when they reached the infirmary was to order out any and all medical personnel and to post two orderlies outside the door, with instructions to prevent anybody, irrespective of rank and service record, from entering.

 

“I don’t want him to come round to more gawking faces”, she mumbled, her explanation half drowned out by a heated argument in the corridor. General Hammond had just arrived and found the infirmary off-limits. Dr Fraiser frowned and looked up at the team. “Listen, guys, I need to do a thorough check-up on the Colonel now, and you’ll only get in the way. So do me a favour, go out there and talk to the General before he blows a gasket! Come back in two hours.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Exactly 1 hour and 59 minutes later, they trooped back into the infirmary. Jack was asleep, in bed for once, undoubtedly under sedation. Leaving Daniel and Teal’c to stay with him, Sam went to find Janet.

 

The doctor was in her office, comparing two sets of X-rays on the viewing screens.

 

Sam entered just in time to catch Dr Fraiser putting her fist through a screen. “Yeah”, she breathed. “I know the feeling, believe me …”

 

Blushing with embarrassment, Janet spun around. “Sorry, Sam. Didn’t realise I had an audience …”

 

“Sure, but how would you explain this?” asked Sam, pointing at the ruined screen.

 

“Tension cracks.”

 

Sam snorted. “One way of putting it, I guess … So, just how bad is it, Janet?”

 

“For someone who technically should be dead, Colonel O’Neill is doing brilliantly!” Dr Fraiser spat.

 

“Janet!”

 

“Sorry”, she said again. “It’s just that … I suppose I didn’t think that lightning would strike twice … although, compared to this, Iraq must have been a walk in the park.” Apart from the Colonel himself, who kept resolutely quiet on the subject, Janet Fraiser was the only one who had any concrete information about what had happened to him back in 1990. She had full access to his medical files. “Why him?!” she shouted suddenly. “Why the hell him?! Hasn’t he been through enough?!”

 

“Janet, I’ve been driving myself mad asking the same questions, and I don’t need to tell you that there’s no answer … Dammit, he did the right thing, because he cared, and obviously that’s what you get for caring. Where does that leave us morally? Ethically? The weird thing is, though, that he should know better than anybody, and he still cares. When he saved that girl, he must have had a pretty good idea of what they’d do to him. It didn’t stop him … It doesn’t make sense … I probably don’t make sense … All I know is that somewhere along the line, I’ve decided that those questions can wait. We have to help him first.”

 

“You’re right. You’re right, and I should be the one saying this to you ...” Sighing, Janet picked up an X-ray from the floor and clipped it next to another one on the intact screen. “But I can show you what I mean. Here, have a look at this. That’s the old one. Right arm, radius, ulna, and there’s an old fracture. Now check this!” Overlaying the old injury were two more fractures, badly healed, the bones out of alignment. “That can’t have been an accident. Somebody did that deliberately. And it’s not the only instance, although it’s the worst. Haven’t even started counting the broken ribs and fingers, or cataloguing the scars yet. Sam, what I’m telling you is that, during the last year, there probably hasn’t been a single day when he wasn’t in pain … That aside, he’s missing one of his back teeth, the wound on his hand’s about a hair away from going gangrenous, he’s severely malnourished, his kidney function’s lousy, he’s sailing along the brink of pneumonia, and I’m not desperately keen on what his heart’s doing … Need I go on?”

 

Sam shook her head. “Any good news at all?”

 

“That was the good news! Most, if not all, of these things I can fix.” Dr Fraiser grabbed the Colonel’s chart and wandered back out into the infirmary with Sam tagging along. “I had to sedate him before I could examine him; he wouldn’t let me anywhere near him … just as well I’d put the IV in before he came round. Anyway, the really bad news is that emotionally and mentally he’s a mess, and that I can’t fix. It’s more serious than anything I’ve ever seen, and believe me, I’ve seen it all. Well, I thought I had … Did you guys find out anything?”

 

“Not a hell of a lot, above and beyond the fact that he’s been conditioned into being all but dysfunctional”, replied Daniel who’d been overhearing the tail end of the conversation. “He doesn’t talk.”

 

“Yeah, and what else is new?” the doctor asked rhetorically.

 

“No, Janet, you don’t get it”, said Sam. “He doesn’t speak.”

 

“What?!”

 

“Long story -”, Daniel began and was cut off.

 

“SamanthaCarter is incorrect”, stated a reluctant Teal’c. “O’Neill did speak to me.”

 

“Jeez, Teal’c, and you didn’t think we might be interested to hear about this?!”

 

“It was a private conversation, DanielJackson.”

 

“Teal’c -”

 

“Daniel, keep your voice down!” hissed Sam. Noticing the Jaffa’s discomfort, she continued more gently, “Look, Teal’c, I do respect both yours and the Colonel’s privacy, but this is terribly important. We have to know why he talked to you. Please, tell us what happened. I promise it won’t go any further.”

 

There was a soft moan from the bed, and Jack shifted in his sleep. Janet went to check up on him, adjusted the drip on the IV. When she returned, she murmured, “Let’s take this to my office, shall we? I don’t want to wake him up.”

 

They nodded and followed her.

 

“Whoa! What’s with the breakage?” Daniel asked when he saw the broken screen.

 

“Tension cracks”, Janet and Sam snapped in unison, and Dr Jackson wisely refrained from pursuing the question.

 

Once they’d settled, Sam said, “Okay, Teal’c. Shoot … uh … I mean, tell us. From the start. What happened?”

 

And so Teal’c told his story. When he’d finished, they were feeling more than a little guilty.

 

“Holy Hannah, Teal’c! Why didn’t you talk to us? It wasn’t your fault ...” Sam shook her head. “Damn, you and the Colonel are as bad as each other!”

 

Teal’c just looked at her, and in its own way it was an answer. Under no other circumstances he would have confessed what he perceived to be his personal failure.

 

“Oh come on, Teal’c!” Daniel chimed in, mildly hypocritically. He was still beating himself up in exactly the same way. “Get real! You couldn’t have prevented it. None of us could have. When’s the last time you stopped Jack from doing something he felt he had to do?”

 

“To my knowledge, I never succeeded, DanielJackson …” One eyebrow rose meditatively. “I see … However -”

 

“That’s it!” Janet exclaimed. “My God, that’s it!!”

 

Three heads turned. “What?!”

 

“You can’t break the conditioning. Only the Colonel can do that. But he’ll have to want to. Which is where you come in. Make him want to.”

 

"How?” asked Sam.

 

Dr Fraiser grinned. “You already know how, Sam. You said it yourself. He’s never stopped caring. When Teal’c needed him, he cared enough to do something he’s obviously terrified of. He won’t do it for himself, but he’ll do it for Teal’c or any of you. Make him do it.”

 

“Uhm … Janet …” Daniel frowned sceptically. “I see your point, but you can’t seriously suggest we sit by Jack’s bedside looking miserable, hoping he’ll talk … uh … No offence, Teal’c …”

 

“None taken, DanielJackson. I do, in fact, concur.”

 

“Actually, that wasn’t what I meant to suggest”, replied Janet. “God help me, if it were anybody else I’d never even dream of considering such a thing … Anyway, I believe that, as soon as I can clear Colonel O’Neill physically, he needs to be put back in a situation where he can’t but care.”

 

Daniel’s eyes narrowed. “Janet, are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

 

“I guess so, Daniel.”

 

At last the penny had dropped for Sam. “You’re saying he should go on a mission?! … Janet, that’s … that’s crazy!”

 

“Maybe …” The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know, Sam … I don’t know …”

 

 

**********************

 

Part 6

 

 

Jack gradually drifted awake and began to realise that something was wrong. Not wrong as in ‘bad’. At least he didn’t think so. But you never knew. Something was wrong. Wrong as in ‘different’. Wrong as in ‘good’. No. Good it couldn’t be. Good, by definition, was bad. Jack settled for ‘different’. Different, how? It took him a long time to understand. When he did, his eyes snapped open in shock. He didn’t hurt.

 

“Morning, Colonel”, said a soft voice. “How’re you doing?”

 

There had to be some causal connection between the blurriness of vision and this magical absence of pain. He’d tried to look at the speaker and found it difficult. Several attempts later a face swam into focus. Brown hair, brown eyes, pixie smile. Pixie smile that concealed the fierceness. He knew her. This was Before. He was dreaming.

 

Dr Fraiser had been sitting by the bed for about an hour, blithely ignoring a heap of paperwork in her office. She’d wanted to be there when the Colonel woke up. He reached for her, and that came as a surprise after the previous evening’s performance. Careful to give him the option of changing his mind, Janet held out her hand and waited. Long, slender fingers curled around hers, clinging on as though he were drowning.

 

“I’m real, sir. I promise. I even can prove it to you. If you squeeze my hand any harder, I’ll squeal …”

 

His grip loosened a little, and he released a long breath.

 

“Thanks”, Janet grinned briefly. On to the hard part. She poured a glass of water from the bottle on the nightstand. “Okay, Colonel. I need you to drink this … Yeah, I know. Sam told me: no water before nightfall … Look, sir, you’re dehydrated and have been for a long time. Long enough for your kidneys to be about to fold. I’ve already got you on fluids, but that’s not gonna be enough. For the time being, I’d like you to drink four litres a day, minimum, and not even you can swig all that after six o’clock in the evening. I could make this an order, Colonel, but I don’t really want to. I’ll give you a choice instead: you can either do as I ask, or you can stay in here at least a week longer than you absolutely have to. So what’s it to be?”

 

There was a mix of indecision and dismay dancing across his face, but at last and with a withering glance at the doctor, Jack sat up, took the glass, and emptied it. Now he thrust it back at her defiantly.

 

Bull’s eye! Janet had had an inkling that this might work. Colonel O’Neill’s heartfelt aversion to being laid up in the infirmary was no big secret, and he seemed to be capable of breaking some ‘rules’ purely for his own sake after all. She refilled his glass, deciding not to remind herself that the mild sedation he was under probably had a lot to do with her success.

 

Halfway through Jack’s second glass of water, Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c entered, and their jaws dropped in beautiful synchronicity.

 

Eventually, Daniel cleared his throat. “Uh … Doc? … How did you do that?”

 

“Blackmail, Dr Jackson”, Janet answered sunnily. “Blackmail.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

The knife wound began to heal, Jack’s kidneys were starting to recover, antibiotics helped to stave off the pneumonia. Nobody ever found out by what devious means Dr Fraiser had convinced the Colonel that it was okay to eat in plain view, but convinced him she had, and he was gaining weight. Once she could be reasonably sure that he wouldn’t wander off to seek alternative sleeping arrangements, Janet took him off the sedative. By then, he’d achieved a tenuous sense of emotional security. The dream didn’t seem to want to end, and that was just fine by him.

 

There had been no more ‘private conversations’, neither with Teal’c nor anyone else, but Daniel now had an unlimited supply of pens and the doctor’s permission to continue probing, as long as he didn’t push Colonel O’Neill too hard. One foolproof indicator of that stage approaching was Jack hurling his pen across the infirmary.

 

Currently, however, they hadn’t progressed quite that far yet. In fact, given the circumstances, it had been quite a flowing dialogue, mostly thanks to Daniel’s decision to ease up for once. “So, what would you like to do, then?”

 

GO OUTSIDE

 

“What for?”

 

LOOK AT TREES

 

“Look at - … Jack, you’re joking, right?! You hate trees!”

 

NO I DON’T

 

“Yes, you do!”

 

DON’T

 

“Do!”

 

DON’T

 

“Do, too!”

 

DON’T. DON’T REMEMBER WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE

 

Daniel stared at him. Jack hadn’t been joking. Far from it. And it probably wasn’t just trees. It probably was just about any of the things people tended to take for granted, like blue skies, sunshine, joy itself.

 

“Oookay …”, said Daniel. “If that’s what you wanna do, I’ll ask Janet. It’s high time you got out and about a bit. You’re a cheap date, Jack, you know that?”

 

THANKS. ON BOTH COUNTS

 

Jack didn’t quite grin, but it was close. Daniel’s double take was cut short by the arrival of Nurse Whitelaw and a trolley.

 

“Lunch, Colonel” she said, taking a food tray from the trolley and placing it on Jack’s lap. “Smells nice, doesn’t it? Soup.”

 

If he’d been able to get away, he would have. But the tray and what was on it sat on his legs, weighing a ton, weighing him down. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.

 

They hadn’t slipped up. They’d waited until he felt safe. Then They’d come. They hadn’t slipped up. They’d come.

 

Fresh out of nursing college and on her first posting, Sandy Whitelaw hadn’t been told much about the patient’s background and assumed he was being difficult. “Sir! You know what Dr Fraiser said. You’re supposed to finish it!”

 

Daniel saw his friend turn deadly pale from one second to the next and knew Jack was in trouble, even before he began gasping for breath. As near as Daniel could make out, something on that tray had triggered it. He grabbed the tray, flung it on the trolley, spilling soup all over the floor. “Dammit, don’t just stand there!” Daniel hissed at the nurse. “Take that thing out of here! Now!!”

 

“But -”

 

“Don’t argue with me! Get out!!”

 

Nurse Whitelaw huffed and stormed off with her trolley.

 

“Jack? Jack, can you hear me?” Daniel sat on the bed, Jack’s face between his hands. “Listen, Jack, it’s gone. She’s gone. Everything’s alright. Come on, breathe! Breathe, Jack … Yeah, that’s it … Nice one ... You’re doing great …”

 

Half an hour later, Jack lay curled up on his side, with Daniel gently rubbing his shoulder. “Hey, feeling better now?”

 

There was a slight nod.

 

“Glad to hear it … You know, I’d rather you don’t do this again … It’s a bit scary … I don’t suppose you wanna tell me what brought this on …”

 

To Daniel’s surprise, Jack felt for the notepad and pen and scrawled a word.

 

SOUP

 

“Jack, why’s that so frightening?”

 

He gave the pen a little nudge, and it fell over the edge of the bed.

 

“Uhunh … so, for the moment, we’ll just say you don’t like soup, right?”

 

Jack nodded tiredly and curled up even tighter, shutting himself off, beginning to retreat into a place where nobody could talk to him, where nobody could intrude and fool him into believing that he wasn’t alone.

 

 

**********************

 

 

When Sam arrived later in the afternoon, Daniel headed her off at the door. “Hi Sam. Where have you been?”

 

“Sorry I’m late. Had to finish up some work in the lab. How’s the Colonel doing?”

 

“Not so hot. I think he’s asleep now, but we’ve had a bit of an upset over lunch.”

 

“Why? What happened?”

 

“Well, for all I can tell, he disagreed with the menu. Soup scares the hell out of him.”

 

“Soup …?” Sam’s eyes narrowed. “Daniel, did you, or whoever served it, actually tell him what it was? I mean, say the word?”

 

“Guess so. Yeah, as a matter of fact, the nurse did. Why?”

 

“You know what he’s like. When he doesn’t understand or remember a word, he settles on the nearest thing that sounds similar?”

 

“Yeah ... So?”

 

“Back when Jolmark ordered his thugs to make the Colonel drink that brine stuff … well, there was a word Jolmark used several times, and I recall thinking at the time that it sounded like ‘soup’. So, maybe …”

 

“So, maybe I should go find Teal’c and ask him what ‘brine’ is in Goa’uld.”

 

“Does Janet know?”

 

Daniel shook his head. “Janet left at about eleven this morning. Today’s some sort of parents’ day at Cassandra’s school, and she didn’t want to let Cassie down again. I mean, Janet’s practically been living in the infirmary ever since Jack came back. Dr Warner’s here, but …”

 

“I agree …” Sam smiled thinly. Dr Warner was nice enough, but a tad on the unimaginative side.

 

“Anyway, I thought about paging Janet, but eventually Jack calmed down, and he’s sleeping now. So, I reckon he’s okay.”

 

Daniel had made a mistake.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Sandy Whitelaw was having a bad day. First the fracas at lunchtime, which had got her shouted at by this Dr Jackson who wasn’t even a proper medical doctor, and now Nurse Philipps had called in and requested that Sandy take over his night shift. His mother was ill. Sandy knew for a fact that her colleague was exploiting Dr Fraiser’s absence, and that Philipps’ infirm mother was a pair of tickets for a concert in town. The CMO had denied Philipps leave when he’d asked the day before, saying that she’d be away herself and for that reason needed a senior nurse in charge overnight. Sandy had been relieved. Being left solely responsible for the welfare of a mysterious Colonel, whose silence intimidated her even more than his injuries, wasn’t particularly high on her list of desirable jobs. And now look what she’d got herself into. But she couldn’t very well say no to a Senior Staff Nurse, and she couldn’t go complaining to anybody either. Philipps would have her guts for garters if she did. So she’d pulled herself together and agreed, and then she’d called her boyfriend, a technician up at NORAD, to cancel tonight’s date. At least Kevin hadn’t been mad at her. In fact, he’d promised to sneak downstairs to keep her company, once he came off duty. Now her only worry was that Major Carter hopefully would be gone before Kevin turned up. Sandy had been round to check the Colonel’s stats and to bring dinner, and the Major had said just to leave it and let him sleep. Which was okay by her. She wasn’t gonna be shouted at again.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Sam sat with the Colonel until about half past ten at night. Even in his sleep he looked drained, tense, frightened, eerily still. At one point she’d begun wondering if he actually was sleeping, if this wasn’t something else, something altogether more sinister. She’d almost been tempted to shake him. Then she’d swept aside the notion, firmly telling herself that, after the scare he’d had, he was better off asleep. Besides, he was breathing regularly and easily. He just was very, very still. Sam remembered a time when Jack O’Neill would walk into a room and fill it with life, a warm, gentle light in his eyes, an energy that made him seem indestructible. She longed to have that back, more than she could say.

 

“Hey, sir. How about coming back to us? How about it? We need you, you know. I need you …”, Sam whispered, softly brushing a strand of hair from his forehead. Yeah, he was sleeping.

 

Looking at her watch, she sighed. She’d have to go and check on that sequence of tests she’d set up. For some reason she felt more than usually reluctant to leave him. Again she pushed away the thought. He was better off asleep. Quietly, Sam rose and sneaked out of the infirmary.

 

Sam had made a mistake.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Jack wasn’t asleep. He’d never been asleep. The incident at lunchtime had sparked off a process that sent him spiralling back down into the memories of Shol’renak and the foundry, solidifying those images, until they seemed far more real than anything around him. He was alone. Alone. Nobody could help him. All he could do was cower and wait for Them to come. And come They would. He knew that now. He’d broken all the rules, and he would have to be punished. Time to go home.

 

The infirmary had become the sleeping vault on Shol’renak. Jack crept out of a bed he’d had no right to lie in, left behind food he’d had no right to eat, water he’d had no right to drink, and carefully, so as not to touch the sleepers on the floor, made his way to the back of the cellar, where he knew there’d be space. Because the latrines were there, it stank, and you had to sit in the others’ piss and faeces. By breaking the rules he’d lost the right to his own, dry, safe little patch in the corner. He lowered himself to the ground, briefly reflecting that, for once, the manoeuvre hadn’t hurt. It didn’t matter. He would start hurting soon enough. They would see to that. They would teach him that noone could go back to Before. Before didn’t exist. He was alone. Jack hugged his knees to his chest, rested his head against the wall, and cried.

 

 

**********************

 

 

It wasn’t too bad after all, Sandy Whitelaw thought. After Major Carter had left, she’d done a quick round, found the Colonel still asleep, and had gone back to the nurses’ office to wait for Kevin. When he’d finally shown up, they’d become involved in a rather intensive and drawn-out match of tonsil-hockey, which had been both predictable and pretty good fun.

 

Suddenly her eyes fell on the wall clock. 1:20 am. Damn. Her last round was about an hour overdue. She pushed away Kevin. “Hold it, mister!”

 

“What?!”

 

“I’ve gotta go and check on the guy out there …”

 

“Oh come on! He better lookin’ than me?”

 

Sandy giggled. “No way. Actually, he looks like hell, but I’ve got a job to do, in case you’d forgotten. Just don’t go away.” With that she left the office. Half a minute later she was back and in a panic. “He’s gone! Shit, Kevin! He got out of bed and now he’s gone!! What am I gonna do? Dr Fraiser’s gonna kill me!! You’d think she’s married to the guy, the way she fusses over him!”

 

Kevin saw his chance to demonstrate masculine protectiveness. “Hey, don’t worry, babe! No big deal! How far do you think he’s gonna get, running around in pyjama bottoms? We’ll have him back in no time. Let’s go and have another look, eh?”

 

Sandy Whitelaw nodded helplessly, and let herself be ushered out into the infirmary.

 

It took Kevin all of ten seconds. “That your runaway?” he said, pointing at a dark shape on the floor by the storage cupboards.

 

“Shit! Yes! What’s he think he’s doing?!”

 

“Why don’t you go and ask him?!”

 

“Doesn’t talk.”

 

“He nuts or something?”

 

“Don’t know. Sure looks like it … Listen, can you give me hand? I’ve got to get him back into bed before anybody finds out.” Sandy already was on her way to the storage cupboards.

 

Kevin followed. He helped her pull the man to his feet, drag him back to the bed. “Jeez … Just look at that! He’s blubbering like some sissy …”

 

“Leave him alone, Kevin. Just help me make him lie down!”

 

It sounded easier than it was. They had to lift him into bed, because he remained passive as a sack of coal and weighed about as much, too.

 

“I probably shouldn’t leave him alone …”, Sandy thought aloud.

 

The second instalment of his tryst with Nurse Whitelaw was slipping out of reach, and Kevin didn’t like that one little bit. “Oh come on, honey!” he wheedled. “Let him sleep. It’s probably the best thing for him.”

 

“What if he gets up again?”

 

“Well, don’t you have those tie-things?”

 

“Restraints? I don’t know, Kevin … I’m not sure Dr Fraiser -”

 

“Well, your Dr Fraiser sure as hell won’t be happy if he goes AWOL again!”

 

This incisive argument clinched the case for Sandy, and she put Colonel O’Neill in restraints.

 

Kevin was watching and in the half-light spotted the scars on the man’s back and chest. “Will you look at that?” he said, tracing the ridges of scar tissue with his finger. “Reminds me of a dog my old pop used to have. Vicious thing, had to keep him chained up and give him a good whipping from time to time. One day the dog snaps, and pop decides to teach him a lesson and puts a steer brand on him …”

 

 

**********************

 

 

They’d come. He’d known They would. He’d hoped They’d give him more time. Fool. They never give you time. They never let you hope. Hope is a thing from Before. Before doesn’t exist. There were two of Them. There always were. Two. They’d taken him from his space. They’d dragged him back to the forbidden place. To show him where he’d broken the rules. He’d be punished there. He knew. Knew because They’d chained him. One of Them touched him like Their god had, talking of punishment. Searing metal to punish a dog. To punish him. Their god with searing metal in his hands.

 

The vision was so intense that Jack’s mind bowed to its own delusion. He physically felt the heat. The heat of the foundry, the inexorably approaching heat of the liquid ore in Heru’ur’s hands, the liquid ore that Heru’ur would let drip and trickle over Jack’s chest, the liquid ore that would make him scream in agony. Old pain coursed back, and with it came the horrible conviction that he’d been there all the time, that he’d never escaped at all. The dream of Before had been one long illusion, triggered by absolute fear in the short seconds preceding torture. And now that his mind had no defence against it, Jack’s body shut down.

 

 

**********************

 

 

When asked later, Dr Fraiser couldn’t explain what exactly had prompted her to drive back to Cheyenne Mountain in the middle of the night. Basically, she’d had a funny feeling. Her funny feeling saved Jack O’Neill’s life.

 

By the time Janet reached the infirmary, the Colonel was seizing. One look at him told her why. Nurse Whitelaw and an Airman she didn’t know were standing by the bed, gawking like witnesses at a car crash. Where on earth was Philipps? Never mind, there’d be plenty of time to kill them all.

 

“You! Get those goddamn restraints off of him!! Now!!” she bellowed at the Airman. “Move it, mister!! … Whitelaw! I need his blood pressure. And put an emergency call out for Dr Warner!”

 

With half an eye, Dr Fraiser watched the girl work, while she was trying to get a pulse. No such luck.

 

“60 over 40 … I think”, stammered Whitelaw.

 

“You think?!? … Dammit, get Warner! Then get ready for defib! I need 3 mil epinephrine, and 1 mil atropine on stand-by!” The seizure had stopped, and Janet still couldn’t find a pulse. “Out of my way!” She shoved the Airman aside and started CPR.

 

“Dr Warner to the infirmary, stat!” tinny speakers blared up and down the halls and throughout the facility.

 

Sandy Whitelaw came running with the defibrillator and the medication. She’d finally gone on autopilot and just did as she’d been trained to do. “200 Joules, charging!”

 

Janet grabbed the paddles. “Clear!”

 

“Clear.”

 

Dr Warner crashed through the door. In Warner’s wake followed Sam and Teal’c, who’d both heard the call and knew what it meant. Now they looked on as the Colonel’s body bucked with the first discharge.

 

Still no pulse. “Dr Warner, I want him on the heart monitor now.”

 

He complied quickly. The erratic squiggle on the screen wasn’t encouraging.

 

“300 Joules”, said Janet.

 

“300 Joules, charging.”

 

“Clear!”

 

“Clear.”

 

Nothing.

 

“Dammit, Colonel! Cut the crap! 360!”

 

“Charging.”

 

“Clear!”

 

“Clear.”

 

The line on the monitor spiked and then settled into a rhythm of sorts.

 

“Way to go, Jack! That’s it … Dr Warner? Oxygen and 3 mil epi IV, and then we’ll see …” Janet whirled around, eyes blazing. “Whitelaw! Get the hell out of here, before I shoot you. My office, 1000 hours sharp! And you, mister?!” She turned to the Airman. “I’ve got neither the time nor the inclination to ask what you’re doing here, but I want your name and the name of your CO.”

 

Kevin muttered a couple of names.

 

“Right, Mr Curran. Major Lucas is gonna hear from me. Now get out!”

 

Sandy Whitelaw and her beau scuttled from the room, and Dr Fraiser returned her attention to her patient. His pulse was stable, and the blood pressure 80 over 60. Not brilliant but better. “Dr Warner? Thanks. I’ll handle it from here. Thanks”, she said again.

 

“Any time.” He left.

 

Sam and Teal’c had inched their way towards the Colonel’s bed.

 

“Janet?” Sam croaked, her voice quavering. “What happened?”

 

Dr Fraiser looked up. “Sam … Teal’c … What happened?! That little goose put restraints on him … I think he was scared to death. Literally …”

 

“How will this affect O’Neill’s recovery, Dr Fraiser?”

 

“You tell me, Teal’c. You tell me …”

 

 

**********************

 

 

They got their answer, when he finally woke up mid-morning the next day. It was back to square one; square minus one, if that was possible. What little of himself Jack had allowed to surface during the previous weeks was lost, replaced by an emptiness Sam recalled only too well.

 

Janet had to keep him sedated in order to be able to treat him. He wouldn’t let anyone near, and this time it included Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c. He didn’t eat, didn’t drink, didn’t respond, and he would have slept on the floor, had he been able to. Nothing they tried could penetrate the shell that had snapped shut around him.

 

The only remotely hopeful development was the fact that he’d begun talking in his sleep. The first time it happened, it had come as a shock, not least because part of the anguished, ongoing dialogue was in Goa’uld. Teal’c had interpreted in hushed tones, and they understood at last. The constant threat, the constant fear, and Jack’s own hesitant, uncertain voice still doubting, still fighting, at every juncture battered into submission by the voice of what he had become, promising punishment and telling him that the thing he called ‘Before’ did not exist. It was then that they realised they were running out of time. The voice that spoke in Goa’uld was winning.

 

 

**********************

 

 

They were running out of time on another front, too. General Hammond’s impatience had been growing, but he’d held enough trust in Dr Fraiser and SG-1 to curb it. Until the disastrous setback. Now the General had reached the end of his tether. He had gone over his CMO’s head and called in Dr McKenzie to give a psychiatric evaluation; a situation they had tried to avoid at any cost. The meeting wasn’t going very well.

 

“So, what do you suggest we do?” Hammond sighed and ran a hand over his face.

 

McKenzie shook his head. “General, I regret to have to be the one to tell you this, but I don’t see any chance of improvement. In my opinion there’s no alternative to hospitalisation.”

 

There was a quartet of emphatic ‘No!’s from Daniel, Sam, Teal’c, and Janet.

 

A stare from the General silenced their protest. “Dammit, people, this isn’t helping! I know how you feel about Jack and, by God, if I could bring him back, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But it’s about time we faced facts and accepted what we can’t change. So -”

 

“With respect, sir, but that’s what you said last time. It’s what we all said”, Sam interrupted quietly. “I won’t make the same mistake again. I won’t give up on him. Sir, he needs our help!”

 

“Agreed. What do you propose, Major?”

 

Sam bit her lip. She’d known it would be the General’s next question, and she was fresh out of answers. “I don’t know, sir. But -”

 

“Major Carter”, Dr McKenzie said. “I can appreciate your concern, but have you ever asked yourself what’s best for Colonel O’Neill?”

 

Daniel had heard enough. “Does that mean you think it’ll be best for Jack to be locked up somewhere with people treating him like a vegetable?!”

 

“Dr Jackson -”

 

McKenzie’s reply was cut off by Teal’c, which was out of character for the Jaffa who usually tended to let others finish what they had to say. “SamanthaCarter. Is it not true that your recovery from the death of Jolinar was expedited, when O’Neill brought Cassandra to visit you?”

 

“Yes. What are you saying, Teal’c? That we should let Cassie see him?”

 

“No. I believe it would be beneficial for O’Neill, if he could see what his actions have achieved. Perhaps a visit by the boy Tuya would be of help.”

 

“Uh … General. Tuya’s the kid who -”

 

Hammond smiled. “I know, Major. Thank you. You -”

 

“General, you cannot honestly agree with such an infantile suggestion?!”

 

“Dr McKenzie, I’m sure Teal’c thinks very highly of your suggestion as well. And in future, please don’t interrupt me. As I was about to say, Major, you have my permission to do what’s necessary to get the boy here. Dismissed.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Two days later the klaxons went off, signalling an unauthorised incoming traveller. They converged on the control room, in time to see the iris opening of its own accord and Lieutenant Simmons going into a frenzy, because he was unable to close it again. Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c ran downstairs into the ‘gate room.

 

A solitary figure emerged from the event horizon. He’d grown by about two inches and sported a wild backcomb, extravagantly shot through with twigs and leaves, but it was unmistakably Tuya, who strolled down the ramp and gazed at them with the same dark, inquisitive eyes they remembered.

 

“Hi, Tuya”, grinned Daniel.

 

“Hello, Daniel. Sam. Teal’c.” He smiled shyly. “Lya said Jack was here.” And with this he’d made clear that, while it was nice to see them, they definitely weren’t the main attraction. He also raised a few eyebrows.

 

“Uh … Tuya … uhm … How come …?”

 

The shy smile widened to a grin. “Nefreu taught me your language. It is simple.”

 

“Of course it is … We’re very young …”, Daniel muttered.

 

Sam had wrapped an arm around the boy’s shoulders and sat him down next to her at the bottom of the ramp. “Tuya, what else has Lya told you?”

 

“She said that Jack is ill.”

 

“Yes. Jack is very ill, Tuya. But we thought that seeing you would make him feel a little better. Is that okay?”

 

The boy nodded. “Can I go and see him now?”

 

“Sure. Come on.” Sam rose.

 

When they entered the infirmary, Tuya shook her off and slowly walked up to Jack’s bed. He stood and looked at him for a long while and at last turned back to Sam. She saw the grief in the boy’s eyes and winced. How Tuya had intuited it was beside the point, the fact remained that he knew.

 

“Jack is ill, because he was hurt”, Tuya breathed. “He was hurt, because he helped us.”

 

“You’re right, Tuya. I wish you weren’t, but you’re right. Jack was hurt very badly. And he’s hurting inside, and we can’t help him. But you’re his friend, so maybe you can.”

 

“I will talk to him.”

 

“Tuya, he won’t speak.”

 

He shrugged. “We did not need words before.”

 

Which was true enough.

 

“Uh … Tuya …”, said Daniel, about to mention the not-touching problem.

 

“Perhaps we should not interfere, DanielJackson. I believe this is a private conversation”, Teal’c warned with a slight smile.

 

The child wasn’t listening anymore, anyway. He’d taken his friend’s hand. Jack had let him, and that was the first surprise. Tuya was whispering in his native tongue, and it was impossible to make out what he was saying. It didn’t matter. Because they hadn’t needed words before, and because Jack began reacting to the sound. When he finally looked at the boy, there was life in his eyes for the first time in over a week. Tuya stopped murmuring, smiled, and fell into the odd sign language he and Jack had devised an eternity ago. And Jack responded. Slowly, a little clumsily, but he responded.

 

Daniel, Sam, Teal’c, and Janet stood by the door, watching in disbelief. They had agreed that it might work, but they’d never really dared to hope. Now they couldn’t help wondering whether, in addition to a ‘simple’ language, the boy hadn’t picked up something else from Nefreu.

 

Much later, Tuya rejoined them. “Jack is tired”, he declared. “But I think he is feeling better.” At that moment, the klaxons sounded again. “Lya is coming for me.”

 

Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c took him to the ‘gate room. On the way, Daniel asked, “Tuya, just out of curiosity. What did you and Jack … uh … talk about?”

 

“Baseball.”

 

When they returned to the infirmary, Jack was asleep, fear and tension eased from his face for once.

 

Before did exist. He’d seen it. Maybe. He’d seen the boy. They had been lying. Before did exist.

 

 

**********************

 

Part 7

 

 

“How come it’s always us who end up pulling this kind of detail?”, Janet grumbled, yanking a rug back into place after having wiped the floor underneath.

 

“‘Cause we’re less evolved than our favourite Neanderthals and as yet lack the ability to come up with unconvincing excuses”, retorted Sam. Ugga-Ugga.”

 

“Mind you, maybe it’s just as well ... Last time our resident archaeologist took it in his head to try and operate a vacuum cleaner, I caught him kicking the thing through his office, thinking it was broken. Turns out he didn’t know what the switch was for. You know, the one that says ‘On’ …”

 

Sam giggled. Daniel and Teal’c had been supposed to be here and lend a hand, but then Daniel had pleaded unforeseen last-minute work on an unspecified but hugely important project, while Teal’c seemed strangely unable to come out of kel-no-reem.

 

In short, Sam and Janet were on their own, spring-cleaning Colonel O’Neill’s house. It still was his, if only by default. He’d never officially been declared dead, his will had never been read, and so everything Jack owned was exactly as he’d left it. A lot dustier, granted, but Majors Carter and Fraiser currently were in the third hour of a large-scale tactical strike designed to remedy the situation.

 

“You know, this reminds me that I should sort out things back in the sunny Caribbean …” Sam flopped on the floor, absentmindedly fiddling with a duster.

 

Janet sat on the rug opposite her. “You’re thinking of going back?”

 

“Hell, no! I mean, what’d be the point? The Colonel’s back, and General Hammond has reinstated SG-1 as a team … But my landlord’s probably screaming for his rent by now, if he hasn’t cut his losses and sold my stuff. And I reckon I owe the college an explanation … it’s not like they offered me a sabbatical or anything … I just took off.”

 

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

 

“What?”

 

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you leave a fiancé there as well …?”

 

“Oh that …” Sam plucked a feather from the duster.

 

“Hey! Stop it! That’s mine! … So, how does he feel about your not coming back?”

 

“Don’t know.”

 

Janet cocked her head. “Excuse me …?”

 

“You heard me!” Sam blurted out. “I don’t know, because I haven’t told him, and I haven’t told him, because I haven’t phoned him since we came back. I’ve had other things on my mind. I was worried sick about Colonel O’Neill … I’m still worried …”

 

“Yeah … So, are you telling me your guy hasn’t phoned either?”

 

“No. Vernon’s phoned alright. Left messages. I didn’t call back. Well, I phoned his office once and told them to let him know I’d still be away for some time … I just couldn’t face it …”

 

“Sam, you’re supposed to get married in … what? two months? … You should be busy sending out wedding invitations. Instead … Care to let me in on what’s going on here?”, Janet asked gently.

 

Sam was picking fluff from the duster, her forehead creasing with concentration.

 

“Sam?”

 

“It’s a mistake. Always has been. I don’t love him …”

 

“Then why, in the name of God, did you agree to marry him?”

 

More fluff came off the duster, and Sam gave a bleak little laugh. “I … I wanted to move on, and I guess Vernon was just … there … I tried. Honestly. I tried ... You don’t have to say it: it wasn’t fair …”

 

“Maybe not. But it’s understandable. You need to tell him, though. You can’t keep avoiding it.”

 

“I know!! I know … Hey, did we come here to clean or to chat? If you really plan on sending the Colonel home in a few days’ time, we’d better get cracking.” Sam rose and returned the duster to its original purpose with a vigour that clearly evinced her desire to close the subject.

 

Just over an hour later they were finished. Sam went home, took a shower, poured herself a stiff drink, and phoned Vernon Everett. It wasn’t an enjoyable conversation. Vernon didn’t take it well. Then again, she hadn’t thought he would.

 

 

**********************

 

 

“Thanks, sir … You can put that shirt back on.”

 

Dr Fraiser had just finished her final check-up. Physically, there were no compelling grounds for keeping Colonel O’Neill in the infirmary any longer. Emotionally, it was a different matter, but the doctor was the first to admit that there was little to be achieved by his prolonged stay, other than her own peace of mind. And medically speaking, that reason wasn’t good enough.

 

Since Tuya’s visit three weeks ago, Jack seemed to have gained a modicum of peace. Outwardly he’d rallied again, he’d even begun talking eventually, not often, not much, never without being prompted, and never about Shol’renak, but it was a start.

 

It also was a Catch 22. There was absolutely no guarantee that the setback they’d witnessed wouldn’t repeat itself, triggered by some ostensibly harmless everyday incident or item. However, if he was to have any chance of recovery, he needed to be allowed to settle into something approaching a normal routine.

 

It was this argument that had convinced General Hammond, who’d been more than reluctant to let him out of his sight. In the end, the General and Dr Fraiser had agreed on a compromise: Colonel O’Neill would go home, but a member of his team was to stay with him at all times. The duty rosters of Dr Jackson, Major Carter, and Teal’c were rearranged accordingly.

 

Now the Colonel sat on his bed, buttoning his shirt, expecting the verdict, looking like a delinquent schoolboy who’d been called to the headmaster’s office.

 

It could have been funny, but for the nightmare at the root of this odd docility. Janet suppressed a sigh. “Alright, sir. I’ll let you go home. But you know the deal. Sam or Daniel or Teal’c will hang around, just in case. It’ll probably annoy the hell out of you, and I’m aware of that, but that’s the way it’s gonna be, until I say otherwise. Is that understood?”

 

He nodded.

 

“I’d like to hear you say it, sir.”

 

“Understood.”

 

“Good. Now, just so you don’t get bored, I’m also gonna clear you for light duty, starting 0800 on Monday. I’m told there’s a landslide of paperwork in your office”, the doctor added with a wicked grin.

 

This time at least, the response was perfectly predictable. Jack shot her a foul look.

 

“Yeah, I figured that would cheer you up”, Janet laughed. “Okay, sir. Get out of my infirmary and try not to come back any time soon! Sam’s outside, waiting to take you home.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Sam had come to pick up the Colonel, while Daniel and Teal’c, in an effort to make up for their truancy earlier in the week, had gone shopping to stock up Jack’s kitchen. This arrangement suited her fine, because she’d had an idea. Well, to be honest, it had been Janet’s suggestion, and at first Sam had been dead against it, claiming it was too dangerous. Dr Fraiser had countered that it was like riding a bike, and physically there was no reason why Colonel O’Neill shouldn’t try. Sam had slept on it and finally drove up to Cheyenne Mountain in the Colonel’s jeep. Daniel would probably give her an earful, once they got to the house, but she wasn’t terribly bothered about that. Janet had a point. If things were going to go back to normal, they might as well start right here.

 

Sam pulled the keys from her pocket and held them out to him. “Your car, sir. You drive.”

 

Obviously someone else thought this was a good idea. He’d wavered for a second, then gave a minute smile and took the keys.

 

She grinned. “Right. Let’s go, Colonel.”

 

They were okay, until they got to the T-junction at the bottom of the mountain. He stopped the car, waited.

 

“It’s clear, sir. You can go.” When he didn’t react, Sam looked over. “What?”

 

“Which way?” he asked softly.

 

“Can’t you remember?”

 

“Which way?” It was almost a plea. His hands were locked around the steering wheel, knuckles white.

 

“Left, sir.”

 

It happened at every junction or intersection they hit, and Sam was getting scared. He couldn’t possibly have forgotten the way home. Something else had to be going on.

 

But then they’d arrived at the house and, as expected, Daniel had had a good deal to say about her letting Jack drive. Between Dr Jackson gradually running out of steam, Colonel O’Neill being plain startled at the realisation that this place was his, and Teal’c presenting his loot from the video store and expounding on an eccentric selection, which for reasons best known to himself included Attack Of the Killer Tomatoes, the remake of Little Women, and Abel Gance’s Napoleon, the whole episode slipped Sam’s mind.

 

 

**********************

 

 

On Monday morning, Daniel strolled into Major Carter’s lab. “Hi, Sam.”

 

“Hey, Daniel. How’d it go yesterday?”

 

“Fine … I guess. Jack seems to be sharing Teal’c’s taste in entertainment all of a sudden. If that isn’t disturbing, I don’t know what is …”

 

Sam laughed. “Where’s he now?”

 

“Who? Jack?”

 

“No! Genghis Khan!”

 

“Oh … Jack’s in his office. He went a bit green around the gills, when he saw all the paperwork, but he’s started tackling it … uh … Sam?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I let Jack drive up here …”

 

“Weren’t you the one who gave me nine kinds of grief over that on Saturday?”, Sam asked with a little snort.

 

“Sorry … Listen, Sam. On Saturday, when he was driving, did you notice anything … strange?”

 

“Strange? … No … Oh, wait! … He didn’t seem to know the way to his house.” She threw Daniel a suspicious glance. “Why?”

 

“Well, he obviously doesn’t know the way back, either.”

 

“What?!”

 

“I said, he -“

 

“Yeah, I got it the first time … Daniel, I don’t like this.”

 

“So, what do you suggest we do? Tell Janet?”

 

“No … not just yet. Let’s keep an eye on it. If it happens again, we’ll have a word with her.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

At about five o’clock that afternoon, Sam decided she’d had enough and wandered over to the Colonel’s office. It was time for him to call it a day, as well. Dr Fraiser’s instructions on that point had been unequivocal. When Sam entered the office, she let out a whistle of surprise. The mountain of paper, which by all accounts had been enormous, had practically disappeared. This was unheard-of.

 

“Uh … sir? No disrespect, but you didn’t feed that stuff to the shredder or anything?”

 

He shook his head, a little unhappily.

 

“Just checking. Ready to head home, sir?”

 

He followed her to the elevator, up to the parking lot, and to his car. Curious, and slightly apprehensive as to what would happen, Sam climbed into the passenger seat.

 

“’kay, sir. Your place.”

 

This time there was no hitch, and Sam silently congratulated herself on not having alarmed Janet.

 

Now, she was rummaging around in the Colonel’s kitchen, searching for something edible. The fridge showed all signs of having been plundered in the course of a boys’ weekend in. All that was left were five bottles of beer, three eggs, and a jar of raspberry jam. Great. Some omelette! The menu was beginning to look like pizza, pizza, or pizza. Well, maybe Chinese. Sam padded into the lounge. He stood by the window, fists jammed into pockets, staring out into the darkness.

 

The temptation to ask what he was thinking, feeling, rose instantaneously, as it always did, because the worry was always there. He was too quiet, too still, too bent on being invisible or, if he couldn’t be that, on pleasing.

 

Sam bit back the question, knowing that this whole situation would become insufferable for him, if he felt constantly scrutinised in his own home, if even that refuge came to be violated more than it already was. Instead she said, “Sir? I was thinking of calling a delivery service for dinner. Any preferences?”

 

He’d turned around slowly, a troubled frown on his face.

 

“Sir?”

 

“I …” Jack cleared his throat. “I don’t know …”

 

“Well, it’ll be a toss between Chinese and pizza … What do you fancy? I don’t mind much, either way.”

 

“I don’t know!” His voice held a tinge of helplessness and frustration. “Please … I don’t know …”, he whispered again.

 

She concealed a surge of unease. “Tell you what, sir. I feel like pizza … How’s that?”

 

“Pizza’s good.” The relief was palpable.

 

So, pizza it was then. On reflection, Sam refrained from asking him what kind. She couldn’t figure out what had just happened here, but she sure as hell didn’t like it. Perhaps she’d have to start asking questions after all. But not now. No need to push him now. She went to the phone and placed the order, two medium, with everything, except anchovies. He hated anchovies, although Sam never doubted that, at the moment, he’d eat them rather than complain.

 

Fifteen minutes later the doorbell rang. Sam was busy finding plates and cutlery. “Colonel? Can you get that, please?”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Dr Vernon Everett was in a bad mood. After Samantha’s telephone call, he’d gone into denial and diagnosed that she must be suffering from an early onset of pre-wedding nerves. Taking advantage of mid-term break, Vernon had decided to fly to Colorado and talk to her in person. Surely, he could bring her to her senses. He had to bring her to her senses. Personal considerations aside, Samantha was about to throw away a full professorship. Chances like that didn’t come around every day. Naturally, the domestic flight had been late and didn’t arrive until five o’clock in the afternoon. He’d called Samantha from the airport, only to get a taped message, informing him that she wasn’t going to be in tonight, but could be reached on the following number. Vernon took down the number, tried it, and listened to another tape, a man’s voice this time. “Hi. This is Jack O’Neill. Not in right now. Please leave a message. I’ll get back to you.” Dr Everett declined that invitation and instead proceeded to the information desk, where he requested a telephone directory. Eventually he found an entry for a J O’Neill that corresponded with the number. The address was somewhere on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. Vernon took a cab. He was in a bad mood.

 

The man who opened the door was tall, taller than Vernon, grey, slightly on the wrong side of slim, and he could have been handsome, if it hadn’t been for the drawn face and the dark smudges under his eyes. His hands trembled. Dr Everett, who’d spent the better part of his life among students and therefore deemed himself an expert, jumped to a conclusion: drugs. It certainly would explain Samantha’s aberrant behaviour.

 

Vernon dropped any pretence of civility. “Where the hell is she?! Where is Samantha?!” Pleased when he noted a flicker of anguish leaping up in the man’s eyes, he roughly pushed him out of the way and stormed into the house. “Samantha!!”

 

Sam had heard shouting from the hall. The second she recognised the voice, she’d started running and got there in time to see Vernon sweep through the door and past the Colonel. Jesus, sir, why didn’t you slam the door in his face?!Vernon, what the …!”

 

“Samantha! Get your coat! We’re leaving!” Dr Everett commanded haughtily.

 

For a moment, Sam was speechless. Then she noticed Jack O’Neill, slumped against the wall, looking as though he was trying to blend into it. Oh God, not again! Please, not again … No, sir! … She tried to get past Dr Everett and to the Colonel. “Vernon, I’ve said all I had to say and there’s nothing else, except: Get! Out!!”

 

“I know what’s going on. You’re coming with me.” He grabbed her arm.

 

The next thing Vernon Everett knew was a surprisingly strong hand closing around his wrist. When he looked up at the man’s face, any fear that might have been there seconds earlier was gone, replaced by a stare devoid of any emotion at all.

 

“You heard Major Carter”, the man said evenly, not unpleasantly, but somehow his tone carried a promise that Vernon didn’t much care for. “This is my house. Now, get out!”

 

Dr Everett, finding his wrist released, hurried through the door, down the driveway, almost ran into the delivery boy, and scampered off into the night.

 

Sam started giggling, bleeding off tension. “Sir, I suspect you made him pee his pants …”

 

“Ya think?” Jack risked a cautious little grin.

 

“Yeah, I do think …” Sam pointed at the pizza delivery. “Tell you what, Colonel, this one’s on me. By ways of a thank you for saving the damsel in distress.” In truth, it wasn’t that. It was the fact that she’d heard those two words again, and that, for just a few moments, he’d actually been back. She couldn’t very well tell him, though.

 

A few moments was all it had been, then he’d retreated into his silent compliance, leaving her guessing again. But Sam remembered a perhaps not so crazy suggestion Dr Fraiser had made, the night they’d brought the Colonel back to the SGC. She’d have to talk to her about it.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Most of the time, Jack knew that it was real, not a delusion, knew that Before did exist. But there were the dreams. Fuelled by his nightmares and by what had been beaten into him in the course of year, by the words he’d heard that night in the infirmary and kept hearing still, the fear had shifted subtly, insidiously. He was different, tainted, and attached to that was suffocating shame. Jack tried to be invisible the only way he knew how, by obeying. He did exactly as he was told, when he was told, so as not to attract attention. Free choice had long become an impossibility.

 

He’d tried to be invisible when that man had come to his house. Come to his space, like one of Them. Best to be invisible. But then the man had threatened to take Sam, and everything had changed. He’d heard himself talking with the voice of someone he no longer was, no longer had a right to be. Someone he no longer was had thrown the man out of his house.

 

It had been wrong to make believe. He couldn’t let that happen again. He had no right.

 

 

**********************

 

 

After receiving a gold-plated dressing-down from his CO, Airman Kevin Curran had pulled four weeks of special detail, which had been only marginally elevated from scrubbing the latrines at boot camp with his toothbrush. And all for a bit of nookie with that nurse and some harmless fun. How was he supposed to have known that the guy would go into a fit. The stupid bitch of a nurse should have known, and the stupid bitch of a doctor should have minded her own business. Was he pissed off? Hell, yes, he was! At least he’d found a way of getting his own back, with a bit of fun thrown in for good measure.

 

Courtesy of his CO’s tirade Kevin now knew exactly who that guy was. Hero, Kevin’s ass! Some hero! After he’d come off the detail, it hadn’t taken Kevin more than a day to figure out where Colonel O’Neill’s office was. And then the fun had started. Originally, Kevin hadn’t intended to do much more than spill ink over the guy’s paperwork or whatever, but when he’d stolen into the Colonel’s office for the first time, Sir had actually been there, and the look on his face had been priceless. So Kevin had concluded that something slightly more mature than spilling ink might be in order. Initially he’d been mouthing off, like he had that night. When no reaction came, he’d almost accidentally landed the first punch and found that he really got a kick out of that. Striking an officer with impunity, well, if that wasn’t a hoot, what was? Funny thing, though, that sissy hadn’t so much as gasped. Just given him a weird look. Kevin would see about that, though. He decided to make it a permanent arrangement. He’d developed a taste for it. Like his old pop had with that sorry bastard of a dog.

 

Jack never mentioned it. He couldn’t. A small part of him insisted that he could and should fight back, but every time he looked into the mirror, looked at himself, he saw a mark that confirmed what he was, confirmed that anyone could do to him as they pleased. Best to be invisible.

 

 

**********************

 

 

It took Sam, Daniel, Teal’c, and Janet a week to discover what was going on, and even then it was completely by accident. Sam and Teal’c had gone round to the Colonel’s office to persuade him to have a cup of coffee with them. His obsession with doing paperwork had reached unhealthy proportions. When they got there, the office was empty.

 

“There’s a novelty …”, Sam muttered.

 

“Perhaps DanielJackson has pre-empted us”, suggested Teal’c. “Do you wish to make enquiries in the commissary, SamanthaCarter?”

 

“Yeah, might as well … Maybe -” The remainder of Sam’s musings was cut off by muffled jeers and whooping from a storage room at the end of the corridor. “What the hell …?” She left Teal’c standing and started running.

 

There were three of them, pushing Jack around the room. A vicious shove sent him stumbling, and he was caught by an Airman Sam recognised. He’d been there in the infirmary that night.

 

The Airman cackled. “Hey, what do you say, sir? Let’s take your shirt off, see how those scars are doing, shall we?”

 

“I don’t think so, mister!” Sam’s voice was cracking with rage.

 

Kevin saw a woman and felt safe. “Uuuh, missy, you wanna play you pay admission, you -”

 

“Let go of Colonel O’Neill!”

 

“Uh … nah … We’re still having fun, aren’t we, sir? …” He twisted Jack’s arm behind his back, smiling at the soft hiss of pain. “So, missy, why aren’t you a good little girl and get lost? Then we can all pretend this never happened.”

 

At that moment, Teal’c burst through the door and did what Sam’s rank prohibited her from doing. The spectacle of a hopping mad Jaffa inflicting a lesson was nearly as gratifying as taking care of things herself. By the time Teal’c was through with them, neither Airman Curran nor his two buddies could fool themselves into believing that this had never happened.

 

The Colonel had shrunk from the melee, hugging himself, his face contorted with a depth of despair and self-loathing that took Sam’s breath away. She needed to get him out of here now, and if at all possible, she had to do it without making him feel as though he was being pitied. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together, and she didn’t at all care for the picture that emerged.

 

“Sir? Teal’c and I were going to ask if you’d like to join us for a cup of coffee. What do you say?” Not terribly convincing, however true it might have been, but it was the only thing Sam could think of under the circumstances.

 

It seemed to work anyway. He nodded, but he didn’t look at her.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Teal’c accompanied the Colonel to the commissary, while Sam made some excuse and went to find Dr Fraiser.

 

“They did what?!” The doctor had gone pale when Sam told her.

 

“You heard. And I don’t think it was the first time either …”

 

“The miserable little shit! I knew I should have shot him that night …”

 

“Don’t worry.” Sam grinned wryly. “Somehow I’ve got the feeling it’ll be a while before Mr Curran and his pals can even sit down, let alone walk upright. Teal’c was kinda … uh … upset …”

 

Janet briefly returned her smile. “Glad to hear it! … Look, Sam, can you get Colonel O’Neill in here? I want to do a quick check-up on him, just to be on the safe side.”

 

“On what pretext? ‘Oh, by the way, sir, seeing that you just let yourself be clobbered by the neighbourhood bullies, Auntie Janet wants to make sure you didn’t scrape your knees?’ No way, Janet. I mean, talk about rubbing it in.”

 

“Sam -”

 

“No. Absolutely not! He’s not stupid. He’ll know, no matter what you or I tell him … There’s one way, though …”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Well, you’d have to give him another check-up in order to clear him for ‘gate travel, wouldn’t you?”

 

“Sam, you don’t seriously suggest …”

 

“Actually, I don’t. You did. And I’m starting to think you were right.”

 

“Please, Sam!” Dr Fraiser sat down. “Get real! I know you want him back, Daniel and Teal’c want him back, but there’s no miracle cure. Look at him, for God’s sake! What happened this afternoon, doesn’t that tell you something? He won’t even defend himself, how’s he supposed to take responsibility for you guys?”

 

“He will.”

 

“You sound damn sure of yourself.”

 

“I’m not. I can’t be. But I honestly believe it’s the only way. You hit the nail on the head the first time. Janet, ten days ago when I was staying with the Colonel, he couldn’t decide whether he wanted pizza or Chinese for dinner, as per usual, but twenty minutes later he was perfectly capable of throwing Vernon out of the house, because he thought I was in trouble …”

 

Vernon?!”

 

“Yeah … long story. Not taking ‘no’ for an answer, and all … Anyway, you were right. He’s not gonna do it for himself, but he’ll do it for us. Just give him the chance, Janet. Please! You can’t let him go on like this!”

 

“Talk about not taking ‘no’ for an answer …” Janet rubbed her face. “Okay … Hey! Hold it!” she shouted, when Sam wrapped her in a hug. “Don’t get too excited just yet. I need to get this past General Hammond first.”

 

“Piece o’ cake. We’ll help you.”

 

“Uhunh. Right.”

 

Sam hurried back to the commissary. When she saw the Colonel, she momentarily doubted the wisdom of the whole idea. He sat at the table, desperate to avoid anyone’s gaze, staring into his cup, hands shielding his face. Teal’c was with him, a little helpless, and Daniel seemed to have just arrived.

 

“What happened?” Daniel mouthed.

 

“Later”, Sam mouthed back. Aloud she said, “Hey, sir. Just ran into Dr Fraiser. She’s talking about clearing you for ‘gate travel.”

 

That at least had some effect. He looked up, almost in shock. “Me? … But …”

 

“But what, sir?”

 

“Nothing”, he whispered and resumed his silent colloquy with the coffee cup.

 

 

**********************

 

 

General Hammond anticipated Dr Fraiser’s request to talk to him. He called her, Major Carter, Dr Jackson, and Teal’c into a meeting the following morning. Putting it mildly, the General was in a fractious mood.

 

“Take a seat”, he barked. They did, and Hammond continued. “Now, I’ve just had a phone call from a Major Lucas up at NORAD, who tells me three of his men had the crap beaten out of them by a Jaffa in my command. Well, the Major’s actual words were ‘by a guy built like a brick shithouse’, and that kinda rules out Sergeant Davis. Care to explain? Anybody?”

 

By his standards, Teal’c looked colossally uncomfortable, and Sam came to his aid. “Uh … sir? If I may? I was … uh … present … when the incident occurred.”

 

“Oh were you? And I gather you saw no reason to stop it, Major?!”

 

“No, sir! As a matter of fact, Teal’c was completely justified in taking exception to these men’s conduct towards an officer.”

 

“So that’s what I’m gonna tell Major Lucas, is it?” snapped the General.

 

“Sir, why don’t you tell him that it’d be my pleasure to take care of his men’s tetanus boosters”, Janet Fraiser proposed coldly.

 

Hammond’s jaw dropped. His people were stonewalling, which answered a redundant question, namely who the officer had been. And judging from the faces around the table, Lucas’ men hadn’t just neglected to salute. “Right. Let’s dispense with the bull, shall we? What happened?!”

 

They told him.

 

“I shall have to have a word with Major Lucas …”, General Hammond growled. “I insist on an enquiry.”

 

“Sir!”

 

“Major?”

 

“Please, sir, don’t! … General, making the incident public isn’t gonna do Colonel O’Neill any favours. He’s got a hard enough time coping with this as it is … And frankly, sir, Teal’c did a more than adequate job on those bastards.”

 

“Thank you, SamanthaCarter.”

 

There was a long pause. Then Hammond said, “Point taken, Major. I’ll square things with Major Lucas. Just don’t expect me to write out a commendation for Teal’c.” With a thin smile he added, “However much deserved … Apart from all this, how is Colonel O’Neill doing at the moment?”

 

Three pairs of eyes wandered to Dr Fraiser.

 

“Thanks, guys”, Janet muttered under her breath, then decided that prevarication was not an option. “General, I’m about to clear the Colonel for ‘gate travel. My recommendation is that he takes SG-1 on an off-world mission as soon as possible.”

 

Few people other than Jack O’Neill had ever managed to do what Janet Fraiser had achieved just now. General Hammond was dumbstruck. Eventually, he spluttered, “Dr Fraiser, have you taken leave of your senses?! I’ve read your reports. Do you seriously expect me to send out a team under the command of a man who, by your own account, couldn’t order his eggs sunny-side-up at the downtown diner?!”

 

To Hammond’s confusion, the reply came from Dr Jackson who very emphatically announced, “Of course not, General. I mean, no disrespect to your current 2IC, but obviously the guy can’t hack it off-world. What Dr Fraiser meant was that you let Jack take us to P3Y 444.”

 

“P3Y 444 …”, the General murmured weakly as his gaze travelled along Daniel’s line of vision.

 

Jack stood in the door, his whole body betraying that he’d overheard the exchange and hadn’t been fooled for a second. “I’m sorry”, he said almost inaudibly. “Dr Fraiser had asked to see me. I was told I’d …” He trailed off and turned to go.

 

George Hammond was confronted with a classic no-win-scenario. He had a fair idea of what Dr Fraiser was hoping to accomplish with this crazy notion. It might work. However, the odds were overwhelmingly against it. Which meant that, if he agreed, he’d quite possibly lose a man he considered a personal friend, perhaps he’d lose the whole of SG-1. The problem was that if he didn’t agree, he’d lose Jack anyway. He had read the reports. Hammond never was to admit it to a living soul, but ultimately it had been the look in Jack’s eyes that swayed his decision. He couldn’t let him go. Not like this. Not with the conviction that he wasn’t good enough anymore, that he was different, inferior somehow. Entirely unprofessional, entirely contrary to common sense and regulations, you understand, but if Carter, Jackson, and Teal’c were willing to take the risk, as they obviously were, who was George Hammond to argue? He was just the old man standing in the control room waiting for them not to come back ….

 

“Colonel!”

 

Shoulders seized, back stiffened, Jack braced for a blow. “Sir?”

 

“I don’t recall dismissing you! This is a briefing, son! So get your butt in here, sit down, and listen to what Dr Jackson’s got to say about P3 - … what?”

 

“-Y 444”, Daniel supplied gleefully.

 

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.” Colonel O’Neill quietly slipped back into the room and took a seat at the far end of the table, not believing a word.

 

The General nodded. “Dr Jackson? Please continue.”

 

Oh goodie, thought Daniel. The things I do for you, Jack! He only had the vaguest notion as to why P3Y 444 could potentially be interesting, apart from the fact that it had somehow been the first designation springing to mind. Must have been the treble 4 … Wing it, Jackson! Pretend it’s your viva!

 

“Uhm … yes, P3Y 444 … Now, surveys of P3Y 444 have shown … uh … remnants … lots of remnants that could be of … Minoan origin, but predating what we’ve found in the Land of Light …”

 

 

**********************

 

Part 8

 

 

As soon as the ‘briefing’ was over, Sam had scrambled to get the relevant survey data for the planet Dr Jackson had so obligingly pulled out of his hat. Daniel being put on the spot and spinning wild theories about labyrinths and minotaurs and threads and what have you, was one thing. It wouldn’t necessarily harm anybody once they went off-world, but where it came to such prosaic detail as breathable atmosphere, Major Carter preferred hard facts. Then again, she could hardly blame Daniel for what he’d done …

 

There. P3Y 444. Yeah, not bad. Actually, it was as perfect for their purposes as it could possibly be. M-class, which was nice to know, no apparent bio-hazards or chemical pollution, minute traces of naquada in the soil, Mediterranean climate, trees … that would keep Colonel O’Neill happy … signs of an ancient civilisation within a days’ march from the stargate … that would keep Colonel O’Neill really happy … presumably Minoan … smart guess, Daniel! … no human life detected. Exploration postponed indefinitely, because the place was phenomenally unpromising and … well … boring. The Goa’uld probably were afraid of going there: P3Y 444 looked set to put any intelligent life-form into a coma from sheer ennui. Just the ticket.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Jack had heard and understood precisely. He’d returned to the briefing room because he’d been ordered to do so, sat and listened because he’d been ordered to do so, never for a second believing that he would be put in charge of a mission. Not the freak who couldn’t order his eggs sunny-side-up at the downtown diner. He was worse than useless, he was a risk. With detached curiosity he wondered at what juncture he’d lost his capacity for anger, for shouting ‘unfair’ when something was, or for even recognising unfairness. The question was futile, because the assessment hadn’t been unfair. It was true, and Jack knew better than anyone. He lived it every day. But being aware of it and being able to fix it were two very different ball games. He couldn’t fix it. Before did exist, and it was as inaccessible to him as it had been when he was still trapped on Shol’renak.

 

And then General Hammond had given a ‘go’, Dr Fraiser had cleared him, Daniel had whisked him off to the locker room to change, and noone ever admitted that it was a hoax. To say that Jack was confused was an understatement. Having no alternative but to play along, he asked Teal’c to accompany him to the magazine. He would have to select weaponry, and the mere notion of choosing cowed him. The voice in his head, screaming at him that he was breaking the rules again, didn’t help. Eggs sunny-side-up.

 

The Jaffa never even batted an eyelid when O’Neill ended up with enough military hardware virtually to blow up P3Y 444, a world that, fifteen months ago, would have given him lock-jaw from yawning. Eggs sunny-side-up, boiled, scrambled, poached, pickled, fried, runny, raw, in powder-form.

 

With similar impassivity, Daniel and Sam had loaded the unlikely arsenal onto FRED. The stargate spun up, the chevrons engaged and locked, the wormhole established. Three faces turned to him eagerly, and Jack realised, with a nauseating bolt of panic, that this was Before, that he was in it, and that he had absolutely no idea of how to deal with it. Eggs sunny-side-up.

 

“Move out …”, he breathed, and it sounded like the question it was.

 

 

**********************

 

 

P3Y 444 seemed to be everything the files had promised. If there was such a thing as blanc-mange in planet form, this had to be it. It was warm, it was beige, and it was empty. There wasn’t even the constant chirping of cicadas one might have expected. The stargate was located halfway up a steep, stony hill, sparsely dotted with olive trees. They could see another range of hills to the north, and southwards ran a valley dense with cedars, but if Sam or Daniel or Teal’c had been waiting for any derogatory comments on the prevailing type of vegetation, they were disappointed. The Colonel stood on the platform in front of the ‘gate, looking like he’d be just about anywhere rather than in this place and in this situation.

 

Tough shit, Sam thought. You’re gonna get through this and out the other end, sir, and if I personally push you all the way. She verified that the DHD was in working order, that Daniel and Teal’c were kitted out as they should be, and retrieved her gear from FRED.

 

“Colonel?”

 

He started. “Yes?”

 

“Orders, sir?” Sam asked, secretly wincing. She saw his fists clench and the massive effort it cost him to speak at all.

 

“That site … Daniel’s site …”

 

They could barely hear him, but it had been an answer of sorts. There was a tacit accord to leave it at that for the moment. They knew well enough that nothing short of severe distress would have made Jack O’Neill settle for ‘rocks’. Besides, none of them could think of anything else worth exploring on this dust ball.

 

“Oh that! That’s south of here”, Daniel said brightly. “I guess we could follow the valley. At least it’ll be cool down there.”

 

Jack nodded, his relief at being off the hook painfully obvious.

 

They fell into a habitual marching pattern, with Teal’c taking point, Daniel following behind, and Sam and the Colonel bringing up the rear. On their descent into the valley they discovered that the planet supported animal life after all. There were flies. Masses of flies. Myriads of tiny flies with black, shiny carapaces that got everywhere. Sam, Daniel, and Jack went from spitting and coughing to swatting to a full-tilt gallop down the hill in a matter of minutes. Teal’c, ever concerned about dignity, had lasted longest in his endeavour to ignore the little pests, but eventually he came careening towards the shelter of the trees in a striking approximation of a St Vitus’s Dance. However, by the time he arrived, his sterling performance had lost all appeal for two members of his audience who were spellbound watching the third. Jack was laughing.

 

“Thank God for little green apples”, murmured Daniel.

 

Teal’c raised an eyebrow. “I believe they were flies, DanielJackson.”

 

“Never mind”, gasped Sam, unsuccessfully trying to keep a straight face. “I guess we should get moving, before they figure out where their breakfast went. Sir?”

 

“Yeah”, he said. “Let’s go.”

 

The rest of the trek was uneventful, in keeping with the thrilling profile of P3Y 444. Sam trotted along and amused herself by contemplating the inherent absurdity of traversing a galaxy, only to visit a planet whose outstanding feature was a bunch of uncommonly aggressive midget flies. But absurd or not, the damn things had made the Colonel laugh, and for that reason, if for no other, she wished them long and fulfilled fly-lives.

 

At dusk they reached the southern outskirts of the valley, sans further confrontation with the insect world or any other species of indigenous fauna for that matter. Daniel had begun to look forward to checking out the Minoan ruins and hoped they’d cover the remaining two clicks before nightfall and set up camp at the site. His hopes were thwarted.

 

To Daniel’s dismay and everyone else’s amazement, not least his own, Colonel O’Neill stopped and announced, “We’ll make camp here. It’s safe.”

 

That it was, as a matter of fact, but Dr Jackson had other ideas. “Oh, come on, Jack …!”

 

“It’s safe …”, Jack repeated, suddenly uncertain.

 

“You are correct, O’Neill. It is a good place”, confirmed Teal’c, his scowl a reliable hint that he was considering skewered archaeologist for dinner.

 

For once, Daniel got the message and backed down. “Yeah … you’re right … won’t be far to go in the morning, anyway …”

 

Later on they sat around the campfire, and for the first time since they’d been reunited, Sam, Teal’c, and Daniel had a chance to catch up on what the others had been doing during this past year. The Colonel listened wordlessly, and Sam saw a silent struggle going on behind his eyes. Daniel was in the middle of a blow-by-blow account of an argument he’d had with a curator at the British Museum over some artefact or other, when his tale was interrupted.

 

“Why?”

 

“Why what, Jack?”

 

“Why on earth did you leave? All of you?”

 

There was a hush. How could he not get it? For a moment all three of them fought the temptation of telling him to stop acting stupid, but it was more than evident that he’d meant it. They’d heard genuine bewilderment and something akin to exasperation in his voice.

 

At last, Daniel answered softly, “I can only speak for myself, but … Jack, I don’t think any of us could cope with losing you … Without you … there was no team left …” He wouldn’t have dreamt of lecturing Jack, of all people, on pain and despair, but it couldn’t hurt to acquaint him with a little bit of a simple truth. “We need you.”

 

Jack flinched. “No. No ... You’re wrong …” He rose suddenly and fled to his tent.

 

“What … what did I say?” stammered Daniel.

 

“The truth, DanielJackson”, Teal’c responded calmly. “It is not to do with what you have said. It is to do with what O’Neill believes.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Birdsong. So, something out there ate the little critters after all. So much for good wishes. The dawn chorus was insistent, and Sam opened her eyes. After a good stretch and a yawn, she decided that any attempt to go back to sleep would be doomed. She yawned again, slipped from the sleeping bag, put her boots on and crawled out of the tent. Daniel had last watch and was sitting by the fire.

 

“Jeez!” he said. “Is there any particular reason why you and Jack always get up in the middle of the night? You could have slept another hour!”

 

“And a very good morning to you, too!” Sam grinned. “Just checking if you’re awake, Daniel. The Colonel’s up already?”

 

“Yeah … Jack went down to the river a while ago.” He waved at a track leading to the little stream that ran along the bottom of the valley. “Actually, he should have come back by now. His ablutions can’t possibly take that long …”

 

“I’ll see if I can find him and get some water while I’m at it.” Sam grabbed a couple of canteens and set off in the direction Daniel had indicated.

 

Ten minutes later and two hundred yards downstream she spotted him. He was kneeling by the edge of the water, hunched over, scrubbing. Clearly, the morning ritual was more extensive than Daniel had anticipated. It also seemed to be surprisingly engrossing, because she got within a few feet of the Colonel without his noticing, which was very unusual.

 

“Hi, sir”, she said. “Sleep okay?”

 

He dropped his hands like a child caught doing something he shouldn’t have. Blood. There was blood.

 

“Sir!” Sam was with him in two steps, knelt, took his shoulders and turned him towards her. The brand and the area around it were raw and bleeding, skin torn and abraded. She knew then what he’d been trying to do, and she wanted to scream.

 

“It won’t go away …”, he muttered tonelessly. “It won’t go away … it won’t go away   it -”

 

“Stop it, sir! Stop it!!” She shook him. “You’re right. It won’t go away. Not like this, and you damn well know it! So stop running away and hiding! You gonna roll over and let those bastards win?! Over my dead body! Fight, dammit!!”

 

He blinked at her in shock, and something snapped.

 

“You’ve got no idea what the hell you’re talking about!” he shouted back, paradoxically too angry to note that he’d just found precisely the emotion he’d been looking for twenty-four hours ago.

 

“Too right, I don’t! So tell me, sir! For God’s sake, tell me!!”

 

“I can’t be who you need me to be.”

 

Whom do we need you to be?”

 

“Me! … I can’t be … me!”

 

He was shaking now. Still clasping his shoulders, Sam could feel the shivers run through his body. Very gently, she asked, “Who are you, sir?”

 

“Don’t know … don’t know anymore …”

 

“Yes, you do … I know you do. What’s your name?”

 

“No name … there were no names …” It was the first bit of information about Shol’renak he’d ever volunteered.

 

“You’re not there anymore. You know that. Stop hiding!”

 

“Not there anymore …”

 

“No, you’re not. What’s your name?”

 

“Jack.” An exhausted whisper.

 

“Yeah …” Sam took him in her arms, murmuring in his hair. “Jack, you’re not what they were trying to make you. I need you to believe this. I need you to believe me, not them. This won’t go away, unless you let it. You understand?” She felt a nod and sat quietly, holding him for a long time, until she heard Daniel calling for them. “Sir? We’d better go back, before Daniel brings in the cavalry. Okay?”

 

“’kay.”

 

Sam smiled and helped him up. She picked up his T-shirt, handed it to him. “Here. Put it on, sir. I’ll take care of this when we get back to camp.” Spotting the two abandoned canteens by the shore, she went to fill them. Coffee definitely would be in order after this.

 

Jack knew what she’d meant, and he was grateful. The last thing he wanted to face right now were more questions from Daniel. One good thing about black T-shirts: blood stains don’t show.

 

The full canteens slung over her shoulder, Sam returned. “Ready for breakfast, sir? Any special requests?”

 

He tilted his head, a tiny, wry grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Eggs sunny-side-up?”

 

Sam’s eyes widened in surprise, then she laughed. “You got it, sir! You got it, and if I lay them myself!”

 

Naturally, there were questions from Daniel after all, when he ran into them five minutes later and couldn’t fail to notice that they’d both been crying. Sam mumbled something about having had an argument, which was about as credible as the doctrines of the Flat Earth Society, and then shooed Jack into his tent, as soon as they reached camp. Understanding that, whatever had happened, it was best left untouched, Dr Jackson curbed his unease, while Major Carter bandaged her Colonel’s chest.

 

Teal’c, meanwhile, had been despatched on an errand that left him more than usually bemused by his Tau’ri friends’ erratic behaviour. Why would SamanthaCarter require eggs if they had a sufficient supply of MREs?

 

 

**********************

 

 

Once they finally got to the ruins, Daniel forgot about any earlier queries he might have had and extended unspoken apologies to a suddenly not so boring planet. A preliminary glance quickly brought him to the conclusion that this place not only predated Tuplo’s palace in the Land of Light, but almost certainly the palace ruins at Knossos, which piqued his curiosity. The Labyrinth of Knossos, the legendary abode of the Minotaur, had never been found, and the accepted explanation was that the rambling palace itself, with some 1500 rooms, had to have been the famous maze. Dr Jackson judged this to be a load of codswallop, invented by embarrassed tourist guides. The myth quite plainly stated that Daedalus had built the labyrinth beneath the palace. That aside, Daniel couldn’t for the life of him imagine why anyone would want a bull-headed, anthropophagous monster roaming free in their house, at the risk of its passing through the lounge during a dinner party or popping into the bed chamber at an inopportune moment. Of course, he didn’t necessarily believe in the existence of the Minotaur as such, but he’d seen an Unas in action, and that was close enough. But wouldn’t it be fantastic if they discovered a labyrinth here …

 

Daniel related all this in the form of an animated non-stop commentary, traipsing after Jack, Teal’c, and Sam while they did a reconnoitre of the area. “… Jack?! … Jack? I really wanna go back to the north wall. There was an inscription there that looked like Linear A, actually the layout of the plaque was like the Phaistos Stone and that’s sort of a maze in itself, so maybe if I translate that it’ll give us a clue … Jack? Are you listening to me? … Jack!!”

 

Colonel O’Neill came to a dead halt and looked at Teal’c and his 2IC. “I remember this”, he said pensively, rubbing his forehead with the ball of his hand. “He’s not gonna stop, is he?”

 

“Indeed, O’Neill, he is not”, corroborated Teal’c.

 

“That’s what I thought …” Jack concluded that he would have to make a decision, if only to prevent his incipient headache from detonating into a migraine. “Teal’c? Would you mind going with him?”

 

The Jaffa nodded, a slightly pained expression on his face. “I shall accompany DanielJackson”, he replied in funereal tones and chased after the archaeologist, who already was sprinting towards the north wall.

 

“I remember this …”, Jack repeated to himself.

 

Sam stifled a giggle. “Used to be your favourite part of the day, sir.”

 

“Yeah … How did I deal with it … before?”

 

“Pretty much the same way.” She smiled. “Noone gets past Daniel when he’s in discovery mode. Not even you, sir …”

 

“That’s … good to know …”

 

“Colonel? I’d like to take some soil samples, if that’s okay?”

 

“Sure, Carter. Knock yourself out …”, he replied absentmindedly and a second later frowned in bafflement at the words that had just come out of his mouth. This hadn’t sounded like him, or had it?

 

Jack sat down in a shady spot beneath a couple of broken pillars. He needed to get a handle on what had happened this morning. The sheer lunacy of it shocked him more than he cared to admit. Even while he’d been tearing at his own skin, he’d known that this was madness, that it would mend nothing, not the self-hatred, not what had been done to him, not the crushing weight of the demand that was being made of him now. Knowing all this, he’d still been unable to stop. He didn’t dare to think what he might have done if Sam hadn’t found him. Sam and the gift she’d brought. He hadn’t realised until much later that he’d become angry. Angry at the wrong person, but miraculously it had eased the pressure all the same. It had felt good. For the first time, Jack was beginning to suspect that somewhere, in a place still hidden from him, he’d locked up enough anger to eat him alive. Ultimately it had been the buried rage that had made him turn on himself, that had fuelled his monstrous exercise in changing the leopard’s spots. He delicately fingered the bandage under his shirt. Sam had been right. He couldn’t make it go away. Not like that. Much as he wished he could make this whole year disappear, there weren’t enough scouring pads in the entire galaxy to do that. It had happened, and he could either go on believing them and what they’d taught him to be, or he could believe Sam. Which was infinitely the more difficult option. His connection to the man he might have been once seemed strangely fragile, too fragile even to say whether he was still there. Sam said he was. So maybe, just maybe, it was worth it … Fight, dammit!! … Yes. Not just now, though. He was too tired. After Daniel’s disturbing admission last night he hadn’t slept a wink … Maybe, just maybe, they did need him, although he couldn’t imagine what he possibly had to give … Maybe …

 

With a large ‘Maybe’ on his mind, Jack fell asleep. It was a step up from ‘No way’.

 

 

**********************

 

 

If he hadn’t been sleeping, things might have turned out differently, but at the end of the day it was impossible to say.

 

Daniel had worked his way through the inscription at the north wall and he’d come to a puzzling result. He’d hoped it would be either a guide to the labyrinth or a warning of whatever lurked inside the maze. This turned out to be only partly true. The plaque did reveal that there was a labyrinth, and it gave the location of the entrance, but the rest of it was a challenge, a promise of great power to the one who solved the riddle and made it to the heart of the maze. What grabbed Daniel’s attention was the fact that this ‘great power’ was specified. The literal translation was ‘a mighty sword to smite the hideous gods’. Next to it was a typical representation of the Minoan Snake Goddess, arms raised, each hand clutching a writhing reptile. Jack’s preferred term of endearment for the Goa’uld immediately sprang to mind, all the more so as these ‘snakes’ unmistakably showed dorsal crests and spiky fins. The ‘mighty sword’ had to be a weapon. Possibly a weapon to destroy the Goa’uld, secreted away in the maze in order to protect it from its intended targets. If they could find it and make it work … Heru’ur headed Daniel’s personal Ten Most Wanted list, but he had a feeling that he might have to get in line.

 

“Teal’c, I think we ought to take a look at that labyrinth”, Daniel said.

 

The Jaffa knew exactly where this was going and didn’t approve. “O’Neill only authorised our studying the north wall, DanielJackson. I suggest you inform him of your plans and request his permission to explore the labyrinth.”

 

Well, can’t blame a guy for trying ... Daniel shrugged. “Okay, okay. I’ll let Jack know. Wait for me.”

 

“I shall await your return, DanielJackson.”

 

Dr Jackson had set out with the best of intentions. Impatient as he was, he’d never have premeditated going behind Jack’s back. When he found him at last, Jack was fast asleep, and Daniel was glad about it. He knew his friend hadn’t slept the night before. Total silence emanating from Jack’s tent was a dead giveaway. His recurring nightmares had been bad enough before Shol’renak, but ever since they’d brought him back, there hadn’t been a single night when he hadn’t woken up screaming. Daniel decided there was no way on earth he was going to disturb Jack when, for once, he actually seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Jack’s head was in the sun, and Daniel quietly rummaged through his pack, pulled out a blanket and draped it over the pair of broken pillars to give him some shade. Then he softly stole away again, fully intending to return to Teal’c, see if there were further inscriptions somewhere, and simply kill time until Jack rejoined the living.

 

As luck would have it, the path back to the north wall led past the spot where, according to the plaque, the entrance to the labyrinth should be. Daniel’s impulsiveness got the better of him. He didn’t normally suffer from any misapprehension about being Indiana Jones. For starters, Indy wasn’t a compulsive sneezer, and if Daniel ever tried that neat whip-thing, he’d probably end up garrotting himself … But the fact remained, the site of the entrance was right there, and so was Daniel Jackson. Who, just by coincidence, happened to have a MagLite on him. How dangerous could it be? The place was definitely deserted, and he had a pretty good idea that the layout of the maze would be like the one on the plaque or on the Phaistos Stone: a double spiral, and those were easy enough to crack. He’d long be back by the time Jack woke up, and nobody’d be any the wiser.

 

“Let’s go, Danny-Boy”, muttered Dr Jackson and vanished down a narrow flight of stairs that burrowed into the ground.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Sam had finished taking her soil samples and tested them, astounded to find that the naquada content was significantly higher than the survey reports had led her to believe. This was very odd. Unless it was a regional deviation, somebody in the lab back at the SGC would have to straighten out their act, and smartish. Amongst other things, this could indicate Goa’uld presence on a planet, unlikely though it might be here. With a frown, she packed up the test tubes, and ambled back to where she’d last seen the Colonel. He was still there, sound asleep, by the looks of it. The sun sail above his head had something distinctly Jacksonesque in the way its construction defied gravity and probably the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Trust Daniel … actually, it was rather sweet ... Sam smiled and noiselessly sat down in the shade, leaning back against one of the pillars, studying her CO’s sleeping form.

 

It terrified her that those unspeakable mechanisms were still so firmly embedded that, if there was noone there to hurt him, Jack would hurt himself. For the umpteenth time Sam wished she knew what was going on inside his head. Seeing him like this tore her apart, but unless he opened up, there was no way she or anyone else could help him. Jack O’Neill opening up … Yeah, that’d happen round about the day Hell froze over! He’d been reticent enough before, hiding behind a bulwark of arrogance, cynicism, and flippancy. Very few people had been allowed close enough to read his eyes and recognise the immense gentleness and vulnerability behind the mask. Sam was one of them. But now - …

 

He murmured something in his sleep, rolled onto his side, his hand brushing hers. Another murmur, fingers searching, and then he’d found her hand, holding on contentedly.

 

Sam tenderly stroked his fingers. I’m here, Jack. I’m here, and I need you, so don’t you dare leave me alone again. Do you realise I nearly married that pompous ass, Vernon? You didn’t even know him and threw him out of the house, so what does that tell you? I need you, Jack …

 

Suddenly she heard a distant call, looked up, and saw Teal’c hastening towards them. She waved, in an attempt to shush him, but it was too late. Old instincts kicked in, and the Colonel woke with a start at the sound of the voice.

 

“O’Neill!” The Jaffa had reached them.

 

“What?”

 

“I have misplaced DanielJackson.”

 

Misplaced him?!”

 

“DanielJackson went to obtain your permission to explore the labyrinth. He did not return.”

 

“He didn’t come here …”

 

“I haven’t seen him either”, offered Sam.

 

“O’Neill. I believe DanielJackson has entered the maze on his own.”

 

For the second time that day Colonel O’Neill realised that he could get angry. Very angry, in fact. He also realised that he was holding Major Carter’s hand and let go with a blush that would have made Graham Simmons envious.

 

“Dammit!! He should know better by now! … Where’s the entrance, Teal’c?”

 

“I cannot say with certainty, O’Neill. DanielJackson indicated the approximate area, but not a specific location. We shall have to search for it.”

 

“Great … Let’s go!”

 

 

**********************

 

 

By then, Daniel had made two discoveries: firstly, just because the plaque showed a spiral maze, it didn’t necessarily mean that the real labyrinth followed the same layout; and secondly, the received opinions regarding the Labyrinth of Knossos couldn’t have been based purely on invention. The maze on P3Y 444 consisted of a bewildering, seemingly unstructured jumble of chambers, corridors, cells, niches, staircases and halls, in all imaginable shapes and sizes and without any distinguishing marks. For all he knew, he could have come through this same passage for the fifth time already and not have noticed. Roughly at this point, Dr Jackson made a third discovery: he’d got lost.

 

“Uh-oh … Jack’s so not gonna like this …”

 

The battery on the MagLite began to dwindle, and Daniel was getting scared.

 

 

**********************

 

 

They found the entrance easily enough, once Teal’c showed them to the area Daniel had described to him. Daniel’s boot prints were clearly visible in the dust, and they led up to and down a small flight of stairs that descended into the underworld.

 

“Great!” the Colonel muttered again. Dr Jackson’s appraisal had been astute: Jack didn’t like this at all. “Daniel! … Daniel!! …”

 

“Sir, if he’s down there, he probably can’t hear us. Even if he can, I reckon he won’t be able to tell where the sound’s coming from.” Sam shrugged. “We’ll have to go after him, sir.”

 

“Okay. Carter? Teal’c? Our packs, ropes, torches, the whole nine yards!” Jack thought for a moment, then added, “And see if there’s some chalk somewhere.”

 

“Yes, sir!” Sam sped off after Teal’c, unable to conceal a monumental grin as she was running back to where they’d left their gear. This was more like it. More like him. Part of her wanted to smack Daniel for this remarkable triumph of asininity over common sense, but mostly she was grateful. Jack O’Neill had been thrown into the water and was about to find out that he could, in fact, swim. Way to go, Daniel! … Just give us some warning next time …

 

When they returned, the Colonel was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, gazing into the blackness beyond the doorway, fighting to control his impatience. “What kept you?”

 

“It was impossible to procure the chalk, O’Neill. SamanthaCarter believes this will be of use instead.” Teal’c held out a few lumps of charcoal they’d found in a crumbling clay oven.

 

“That’ll do. Thanks. Let’s go. We’ll stick to the main corridor for the time being.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Daniel had actually heard Jack calling, and it had come as an enormous relief. His little flashlight had dimmed to a dull orange glow, and even that would fade before long. But at least Jack, and Sam, and Teal’c had put two and two together and figured out where he’d gone. Teal’c must have shown them the entrance. Thank God. Daniel hadn’t thought he’d be listening … The MagLite died. Terrific. If there was one thing Daniel liked even less than heights, it was darkness. And this lent a whole new meaning to the word. He doubted very much that even night scopes would have been of use. After all, they were supposed to enhance residual light, and there wasn’t any. It was totally and utterly dark.

 

But he’d heard Jack, and in his alarm Daniel decided to move in the direction where Jack’s voice had come from, never for a moment considering that the acoustics of the labyrinth might have been designed to mislead. Following a faint echo, Daniel felt his way further and further into the maze.

 

If he’d stayed put, his friends would have found him forty-five minutes later.

 

 

**********************

 

 

The main corridor had soon unravelled into a multitude of rooms and hallways, some blind, some leading to chambers with half a dozen exits, some of them interconnected, some opening into other corridors. Jack had left charcoal crosses on the door frames, every time they took a turn, so that they could determine whether they’d already been through a particular door and, more importantly, find their way back. The idea was that, if you followed the route marked out by single crosses, it would lead you straight to the surface.

 

In a small chamber that had five exits, two of them false, Sam came across a discarded MagLite battery. “Colonel!”

 

“Yeah?” He turned back to her.

 

“Look, sir! Daniel must have been here! … And unless he’s brought a spare battery, he won’t have any light now … He can’t be far.”

 

“Any ideas through which door he can’t be far? … Why the hell didn’t he stay here?! … Daniel!!”

 

They stood and listened until the echo of Jack’s shout had faded, and then they listened some more. At last they heard a feeble answer.

 

“I believe it came from this direction, O’Neill.” Teal’c was pointing at the second exit on the left.

 

Sam shook her head. “No, Teal’c! I’m sure it came from there.” She cocked a thumb at the door opposite.

 

O’Neill closed his eyes. Of all the decisions to make … He let out a slow breath. “Right. We haven’t got much choice. We’ll split up.” He put a lump of charcoal in the Jaffa’s hand. “I’ll stick with the crosses, Teal’c, so find some other sign, circle, triangle, whatever. You know how it works?” Teal’c nodded, and Jack carried on. “Okay. Just don’t forget to mark your turns. It’s your only way back, and the only way for us to find each other, if we have to. Radios don’t work down here, and I’d rather not lose any more people if we can avoid it … Whoever finds Daniel goes and finds the others … Carter, you’re with me.”

 

Teal’c set off down the corridor on the left, Colonel O’Neill and Major Carter took the one on the right.

 

They’d been walking in silence for a while, when the Colonel suddenly declared, “You needn’t have worried, Carter. I wasn’t gonna go on my own. Not after what happened this morning …”

 

“I wasn’t worried, sir …”

 

“You had that look.”

 

“Which look?”

 

“The one that says, ‘Shit! I hope he isn’t gonna make me disobey a direct order!’”

 

Sam grimaced. So, that hadn’t changed. He still could pinpoint, with disconcerting accuracy, what she was thinking. “Sorry …”, she muttered.

 

“Don’t be”, he said softly and fell silent again.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Daniel had no idea of how long he’d been walking, or where he was. Fingers trailing along the walls, he suddenly noticed a difference. The walls had to be decorated now, he could feel ridges and indentations, lines and curves. Perhaps this meant that he was getting closer to the centre of the labyrinth, to the important part, where the chambers would be more ornate. Perhaps this was the place he’d wanted to find originally, but at the moment he’d have vastly preferred daylight to any riches or power potentially hidden down here. He continued following the wall until he stubbed his toes. Another wall? Hardly. If it were, he’d have hit his head. He reached out and his hand made contact with a smooth, flat stone surface. A table. An altar? Possibly. It was about hip-high. Slowly moving along the altar, he kept sweeping the table top with his hand, and eventually his fingers knocked into something metallic and painfully solid.

 

“Ouch!”

 

What the hell was this? He shook the ache from his fingers and felt again, more carefully this time. It was some kind of cradle. For what? Feeling his way to the top of the object, he discovered more metal, stretched across. Thin, long, rounded. A rod. How long? Oh, hello, gets thicker here, thin again, another cradle, more rod, large roughly tear-shaped metal blob at the end of it. Engravings. Wait a minute! This … Jesus, Jackson, do a refresher course on Linear A! ‘Mighty sword’, indeed …

 

It was a staff weapon. Yeah, it could smite the hideous gods alright, back in the days when the stupid thing had been put here, but Goa’uld technology had moved on a bit since then. The weapon was powerless against the force shields the Goa’uld used now. Cursing, Daniel lifted the staff weapon from its stand. The metal stumps of the cradles began to glow in a warm yellow hue. Momentarily, Dr Jackson was so stunned that he didn’t even think about the implications, he was just pleased to have a bit of light. His pleasure didn’t last very long, because all he saw in the agreeable brightness were massive stone slabs crashing down in front of the four doors to the chamber. Then the light faded again.

 

Wonderful! Welcome to the Temple of Doom, Dr Jones! Never suffering from a lack of imagination, Daniel envisaged spikes shooting from the floor to meet with their counterparts descending from the ceiling. Main course tonight: Daniel Kebab. After a while, he got a grip on himself and decided that, if the spike-thing was going to happen, it’d be over by now. Look on the bright side, Danny! … Oh yeah, Jack could have said that. The pun definitely was lousy enough … You’ve got a staff weapon, Jackson. Just blast a goddamn hole in the wall! Good thinking, except the relic didn’t work. In the hundreds of years it’d been gathering dust down here, it obviously had gone on the fritz.

 

And now Daniel was getting really frightened. He didn’t know how long the air would last, or if he could be heard outside the chamber, or if he ever would be found now. There was something else he didn’t know. In addition to the door mechanism, his taking the weapon off the cradles had activated a homing beacon.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Major Carter and Colonel O’Neill were losing all track of time. The search was tedious. Frequently they had to double back out of blind corridors or discovered that they’d returned, for the third or fourth time, to a room they’d already been in. They kept shouting, listening for an answer. There was none, and they were beginning to think that, perhaps, they’d only imagined hearing that first faint call in the chamber where they’d parted company with Teal’c. Eventually they reached a wide hall they hadn’t come through before.

 

“What time is it, sir?”

 

“Time to take a break, Major. We’ve been on the move for nearly eight hours … How many rooms did Daniel say that pile of rubble in … Gnocchi? … had?”

 

She smiled. “That’d be Knossos, sir … 1500.”

 

“That’s what I thought I’d heard … About 1378 more to go, but my count may be out … And there’s no guarantee he’ll stay in one place long enough for us to find him …” Heaving a sigh, he sat down, and let the beam of his flashlight trace the walls and ceiling of the hall. “I wish I - … Carter? Notice anything?”

 

“This looks … different …” Sam knew exactly what it looked like, but couldn’t bring herself to say it. She had a very bad feeling all of a sudden.

 

“Early Minoan, my ass!” Jack whispered. “More like Decadent Goa’uld. What on -”

 

The beam lingered on a name cartouche that stood out prominently from the ornamentation around it. Even if Sam hadn’t recognised it, the stricken expression on the Colonel’s face would have told her whose sign it was. Damn! That was all he needed …

 

“You alright, sir?”

 

“Oh yeah … Hell, why shouldn’t I be?! Just a few memories!” he spat bitterly, switching off the flashlight. Arms tightly folded over his shins, head resting on his knees, he’d instinctively assumed a position that for a year of his life had meant the onset of a few hours of respite and escape into dreams. “I just can’t get away from it, can I?! Oh God, Sam, it won’t let me go …”

 

“Sir -” Whatever Sam had been about to say was cut off by a low, harmonic rumble. The floor and walls began vibrating.

 

Jack sat up. “Carter?”

 

“Don’t know, Colonel … an earthquake maybe …”

 

“Maybe?”

 

“Hard to say. If it is, it’s a very minor tremor, but …”

 

“But what?”

 

“Well … it kinda feels odd …”

 

“’Odd’ … is that a technical term, Carter?”

 

“No, sir.” She grinned faintly. “I’m probably just imagining things.”

 

Finally the rumble and vibrations stopped, and they continued to look for Daniel, both of them eager to leave this place.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Less than fifty yards air distance away from them, in a small sealed-off chamber, Daniel had heard and felt the tremor, too. It was the first sound, other than his own breathing, he’d heard in almost six hours. Already spooked by darkness and claustrophobia, he was convinced it was an earthquake and curled up in a terrified ball, dreading its getting worse and perhaps burying them all.

 

Teal’c, investigating a distant part of the labyrinth, became aware of the sound and vibrations, and immediately identified it for what it was. He broke off his search, and started running. It was imperative that he found O’Neill. A Goa’uld mother ship was directly above them.

 

 

**********************

 

Part 9

 

 

Sam and the Colonel were just about to leave the hall when a pulsating hum made them spin around. This was a noise they both recognised, and Major Carter, for one, did not care to stay and see whom or what the transporter rings delivered.

 

“Your flashlight, Colonel!” Switching off her own, she grabbed Jack’s sleeve and dragged him through the exit, a split-second before the rings fully materialised.

 

Pressed against the wall behind the door, they held their breaths and waited till the hum of the transporter had died away. Then they heard the clanking of metal body armour and shouts. No doubt about it, there were Jaffa in the hall. The question was, which make and model. More shouts, and suddenly Sam felt O’Neill’s body go rigid.

 

“What is it, sir?” she whispered.

 

“Horus Guards … It’s Heru’ur …” He nudged her towards a little chamber several dozen yards down the corridor.

 

Sam let herself be herded along, her mind ticking over furiously. Horus Guards? Heru’ur? How? Why? It didn’t make sense. He had to be panicking, imagining things. “We haven’t seen them, sir. How do you know?”

 

“I’ve heard them.”

 

“So have I, but -”

 

“Major, I’ve done a one-year total-immersion course in Goa’uld. Guaranteed to boost even my linguistic abilities. Trust me on this. The consequences of not doing your homework were … memorable …”

 

She flinched, grateful that the darkness concealed her face. “I’m sorry, sir … I didn’t think …”

 

“Been practising while I was away, Carter?” For a second there was a hint of a chuckle in his voice, then it faded. “Believe it or not, it’s actually good to know that someone can forget …”

 

“Are you okay, sir?”

 

“No. No, I’m not. But I’m not gonna fall apart on you either. I promise.”

 

“What do you want to do, Colonel?”

 

“Meet up with Teal’c.”

 

“What about Daniel?”

 

“Carter, we’ve been running around in this rabbit-warren for hours without finding him. What makes you think they’ll do any better? What makes you think they’re even looking for anybody?”

 

“But -”

 

“But if they find him, our chances of getting Daniel and ourselves out of this are a damn sight better with Teal’c than without him.”

 

“Point taken, sir.”

 

“Okay. We need to get back to the other side of that room. Move out!”

 

They slipped out of the chamber and into a narrow passage that ran around the hall inside the walls themselves. Staying within earshot of the Horus Guards was a risk, but they both knew that, short of cutting across past the Guards, it was the fastest and most predictable route back to where they’d come from. They were roughly halfway to the other side, when the transporter rings sprang to life again. Jack discovered a small crevice in the masonry, and peered through into the hall. Abruptly, he shifted away from the crack.

 

Sam saw the thin line of light reappear. It was too dark to make out the Colonel’s face, but she heard him breathe in shallow, rapid gasps. “Sir …?”

 

His breathing slowed, and at last he wheezed, “I promised, Carter … I promised, remember? … He’s here … Let’s go!” With that, Jack hurried on down the passage.

 

Sam tagged along, trying not to dwell on the brutal self-control this must have taken and failing … Nine days’ hike out of enemy territory on a shattered leg. Back then, his wife had been waiting at the other end. Who was he doing it for now? How was he doing it?

 

Five minutes later they arrived in the room from which they’d first entered the hall.

 

 

**********************

 

 

In his lightless cell, Daniel heard the dry scraping of stone upon stone. He started, jolted out of a troubled, exhausted nap, to observe a slowly widening band of brightness appear under on of the stone slabs. Supporting himself on the otherwise worthless staff weapon, he scrambled to his feet and stumbled to the door.

 

“Jack! Thank God! I thought you’d never find me! … Jack, listen, I’m really sorry   Hey, come on, talk to me … I said I was -”

 

Daniel’s apology was interrupted by two pairs of metal shin plates scrolling into view. Those sure as hell weren’t standard Air Force issue. He backed away from the slab, which continued to rise into the ceiling and in slow-motion revealed two Horus Guards in full regalia. Should have kept your mouth shut, Jackson … Shouldn’t have come here in the first place …

 

The Guards snatched the staff from him, hauled him out of the chamber and into a large, now gaily lit room Daniel might or might not have come through on his travels. If he had, the Goa’uld décor must have gone straight past his fingertips. And then it gradually dawned on him that these were Horus Guards, and where there were Horus Guards, there was …

 

“Kneel before your god!” barked Heru’ur.

 

Somebody please write some new lines for that guy, Dr Jackson thought, just as he received a clout in the back that didn’t leave him much choice but to comply. He barely paid attention, though. Jack. Where was Jack? If Heru’ur found him … Well, Daniel wouldn’t be the one to tell Heru’ur who else was here.

 

A Horus Guard had handed the ancient staff weapon to Heru’ur. He weighed it in his hands and remarked conversationally, “So you would have sought a means to destroy me, like your forebears destroyed my mate? Imbecile! Know that the weapon is useless. I discovered the plot and baited the trap, and you will be punished for your insolence like your ancestors were.”

 

Ancestors? … Nick? … Get with the programme, Jackson! He means the people who built that palace city up top. So that’s how their civilisation had been wiped out ... Afterwards Heru’ur must have set up this nifty little snare to catch any potential survivors out for revenge … What was that?

 

“Where are the others?” Heru’ur asked for the second time, taking a swipe at Daniel with the weapon. He was toying with his prey. The blow glanced off Daniel’s shoulder, not doing any damage. Yet.

 

“There are no others.”

 

“You are lying! Surely you have not sprung from nothing. If you are here, then there must be others living here. Do not test my patience!”

 

“I’m telling you the truth! I don’t live here! I came through the Chappa’ai!” As soon as the words were out, Daniel knew it had been a mistake.

 

“The people of this world never learnt how to use the Chappa’ai! Who taught you?! Where did you - …” Suddenly Heru’ur broke off, one hand gripping Daniel’s face and turning it into the light. “You!”

 

Daniel recoiled, and Heru’ur let go and took a step back. “You are Tau’ri! You were with the ones who destroyed what was mine, who took what was mine. I want it back. Where is he? Tell me, and I let you go!”

 

Oh God, Jack, I’m so sorry … I’m so, so sorry … Play dumb, Jackson. Dumb’s always good. “I don’t know what you’re talking about … I’m on my own.” The dumb act probably hadn’t been convincing, and the backhanded cuff that followed loosened a couple of Daniel’s teeth.

 

“Where is he?” Heru’ur repeated.

 

 

**********************

 

 

They were hunkering next to each other in the antechamber, eavesdropping on the interrogation in the hall. Sam barely contained a groan when she realised that Heru’ur had recognised Daniel. Moments later she sensed the Colonel rise. No. Hell, no! He couldn’t possibly … She leapt to her feet. Wordlessly, Jack dragged her off to the rear of an adjacent room, where they could talk without being overheard.

 

“Carter, he wants me. He’ll let Daniel go.”

 

“Sir, you can’t! This is madness! We’ll get Daniel out! We’ll find Teal’c and get him out, like you said …”

 

“And what if Heru’ur decides to up and leave while we’re looking for Teal’c?”

 

“Okay, so we don’t look for Teal’c. We go in -”

 

“And get all of us killed. Not acceptable. There’s eight Horus Guards in there, Carter, and at least two patrolling the corridors nearby. Start thinking with your head instead of your gut! Dammit, you … you sound like me!”

 

“Sir … God, you know what he’ll do to you …” Sam hated herself for saying it.

 

“Which is why I know what he’ll do to Danny … How long do you think Daniel would last?” he whispered hoarsely. “Nobody gets left behind, remember?”

 

“What about you, sir?”

 

“Carter, if Heru’ur had asked for you, what would you do?”

 

He had her now, and Sam knew it. “I’d go”, she said helplessly. “Of course I’d go …”

 

“See …” Jack reached for her in the darkness, and pulled her close. “I need to ask you to do something for me, Sam. It’s not an order. I can’t order you to do it. So it’s a request to a friend … Don’t let him take me alive. Once I’m in there, and Daniel’s with you, shoot me.”

 

“No!” Sam tried to push away, but he wouldn’t release her.

 

“Sam, if you want me to beg, I will … As you so accurately pointed out, I know what he’ll do to me. I can’t go back there. Not again. Not knowing … Have you any idea of what happens to runaways? … I … I don’t want to have to die like that. Don’t make me … please, don’t make me … Sam?”

 

Not this. Not this. It was wrong. Had to be wrong. There had to be another way … She tried to think of something, anything, to contradict him, and came up empty. He’d decided to run and hide one final time, and if anyone had the right to make this decision, it was he. There was nothing more to be said. “Okay … okay. I’ll do it … I’ll do it, Jack.”

 

“Thank you …” He held her tight for the briefest of moments, and Sam all but felt the relief washing over him. Then he continued in a rushed murmur, as though afraid she’d change her mind if he gave her a chance to reflect. “Listen to me, Sam. It’ll have to be a headshot. It’s probably the only thing to stump that goddamn sarcophagus. You’ve done it thousands of times on the range. Nice, tidy double-tap … You’ll be doing me a favour, Sam. And then grab Daniel and run like hell! … Come on now. Time to go.”

 

Sam followed him, numb, cold, leaden. When they got to the antechamber, she touched his arm. “Sir?”

 

He turned around.

 

“Sir, it was an honour …”, she trailed off and tried to salute, but somehow her limbs refused to cooperate.

 

In the dim light that poured in from the hall, she actually saw him smile, and for the first time since he’d come back, it reached his eyes. “Work on that salute, Major … And yes, it was an honour.”

 

And then he walked out into the hall, hands raised above his head, just as he’d done so many months ago. Sam hid in the shadows behind the door, refusing to cry, knowing that it would affect her aim. She couldn’t let him down. She took out her side-arm, unsafed it, chambered a round, and waited, hoping to God she’d have a clean shot. She couldn’t let him down.

 

Daniel’s anguished outcry, the shouts of the Guards, Heru’ur’s laughter drifting out from the hall.

 

“You are a fool, Tau’ri!”

 

No, he isn’t a fool. He cares. He’s honourable. He’s honest. And yeah, maybe that does make him a fool. ‘And find what wind serves to advance an honest mind.’ None. None at all. Not even so much as a breeze. John Donne, of course, had come to the same conclusion almost five hundred years ago. The entire first stanza of that poem was about impossibilities ... Go and catch a falling star. Go and kill the man you … Oh God, pull yourself together, Carter! … Cautiously, quietly, she stuck out her head to take a quick scan through the door. He was standing with his back to her, and she had a clear line of fire. Sam took aim.

 

By the time she became aware of the faint rustle behind her, it was already too late. Something heavy and solid connected with the back of Sam’s skull, and the world and her roaring grief spiralled into in blackness.

 

 

**********************

 

 

“You are a fool, Tau’ri!”

 

This was Daniel’s fault. Nobody else’s. He had decided to take a stroll around the labyrinth, he had decided that he needn’t get permission, he had got himself lost, he had been unable to keep his paws off things he oughtn’t have played with, he had brought Heru’ur here, he was the reason why Jack now came towards them, hands raised in surrender. He had condemned his best friend to living hell.

 

Jack looked at him, and Daniel was aghast to see him smile, grimly, almost triumphantly. Heru’ur can’t touch me, that look proclaimed with impossible confidence. Daniel couldn’t even begin to imagine what trick Jack might have up his sleeve. He’d been through all the options twenty times over and had come up without so much as one winning scenario. True, Teal’c and Sam were still out there and armed, but even so …

 

Another Horus Guard, one of the patrols, entered the room, lugging with him a lifeless Sam. No Teal’c. So she’d been on her own. Daniel looked back at Jack to see naked despair sweep across his face, instantly obliterating the placid poise. This obviously hadn’t been part of any plan they might have hatched. And that bastard Heru’ur was laughing his head off …

 

“Are these your reinforcements, Tau’ri? You impress me.” Heru’ur slowly walked over to Sam, who lay prone where her captor had dropped her, and took the gun from her limp hand. “What was she supposed to do with this? Shoot me? Oh, but she would have known that she cannot.” He tossed the gun back at the Horus Guard behind the unconscious woman. “You would have known, Tau’ri. Shoot you? Was that it? You wanted her to shoot you? … Answer me!”

 

Jack never said a word, and Daniel knew then that those had been Sam’s orders precisely. He buried his face in his hands, unable to bear the desolation in Jack’s eyes any longer. Jack, I know you can’t forgive me, but please believe that I’m sorry …

 

Heru’ur returned to Jack, still carrying the staff weapon Daniel had found. “I asked you a question, Tau’ri! You answer! You are mine!”

 

With minute shake of the head, Jack closed his eyes and whispered, “Fuck you, snake-head!”

 

 

**********************

 

 

“You are mine!”

 

I am not yours. I am not. Nobody owns me. Never has. Never will. I am me. My own. You cannot claim me. You cannot. Nobody can. I. Am. Not. Yours.

 

“Fuck you, snake-head!”

 

Even while he was hearing Heru’ur’s screech of outrage, as loud as that other voice inside his head, howling at him to obey; even as the staff weapon swung by Heru’ur crashed into his rib cage, smashing bone, Jack knew that somehow he’d won. He’d had nothing left to lose but his death, he’d lost that, and he’d still won. Those three words had opened the floodgates and released a rage stronger than fear, stronger than pain, infinitely stronger than the wheedling, whining voice in his mind.

 

“No, Tau’ri! We will not start at the beginning! We do not have to!” Heru’ur tore Jack’s shirt, laughed when he saw the bandage underneath, then ripped that off, too. Fingers digging into the raw flesh around the brand, he hissed, “This is what you are!”

 

“No!”

 

“Yes! You are mine! You know it! That is why you tried to remove this. So you could deny. Fool!” Heru’ur’s fingers dug deeper, and he smirked at Jack’s sudden yelp of pain. “I told you. You are mine, Tau’ri! Kneel before your god!”

 

“No … No!!” The blow that greeted his refusal sent Jack staggering back into the wall.

 

“Colonel …!”

 

Steadying himself against the wall, Jack tried to make out where the cry had come from. Carter. She’d woken up, staring at him with a mixture of guilt and terror in her eyes. “’s okay …”, he mumbled around a split lip. “’kay … not your fault, Sam …”

 

So this was the man’s true weakness. He would protect his people at any cost. Heru’ur crossed the room to where Daniel was crouching, and yanked him to his feet. “Tau’ri!”

 

Jack still was disoriented, squinting to find his focus. There. Heru’ur. Holding Daniel. No. Dammit! Not Daniel …

 

“You will obey, Tau’ri! I know you will! Refuse and one of them will die!”

 

It achieved what no battering could have at that point. Jack physically crumpled, all fight draining from him.

 

“Kneel before your god!”

 

“Don’t do it, sir! Don’t -” The rest of Sam’s shout drowned in a scream of pain as the blast from a staff weapon grazed her thigh. One of the Guards had taken exception to her speaking out of turn.

 

Jaffa! Kree!” Heru’ur roared, letting go of Daniel, and whirling around in search of the offender.

 

The overzealous Guard froze in dismay as he saw his incensed lord storming towards him, but he didn’t live to suffer Heru’ur’s wrath. A staff blast killed him. It had come from the Horus Guard standing behind Sam, who now bellowed “DanielJackson!!” and threw the bewildered archaeologist a zat-gun, before taking out two more of his ‘comrades’ in quick succession. Signalling Daniel to cover him, he dropped to his knees.

 

“SamanthaCarter. Are you well enough to defend yourself?”

 

She grinned. “Cute costume, Teal’c. Give me my gun!”

 

Between them, Teal’c, Sam, and Daniel concentrated on the remaining Horus Guards.

 

It all had happened in a matter of seconds, and momentarily Heru’ur was too shocked to remember why he had become so furious in the first place: he’d been so close to crushing the man’s soul, and then the attack on the woman had rekindled the Tau’ri’s spirit.

 

Jack, however, hadn’t forgotten. Pushing himself off the wall for momentum, he lunged for the staff weapon Heru’ur was still clutching. He caught it somewhere in the top half, wrenched it from Heru’ur, and hit the ground, cuddling the weapon. On landing he felt another rib go, ignored it, rolled over, and came to his feet as fast as he could. He knew he was in imminent danger of getting his brains fried again. He also knew the staff weapon was no good, except for use as an out-sized club, but that suited Jack just fine. From the corner of his eye he saw the ribbon device lighting up, ducked low and shifted position before he rose again and brought down the staff on Heru’ur’s outstretched left arm. The crunch of fracturing bone would have told him that he’d been successful, even if Heru’ur’s wail hadn’t.

 

Heru’ur realised he was losing, fighting a man whose murderous rage he himself had helped create. He felt for the transporter controls on his bracelet, and again he was pre-empted. The Tau’ri grabbed his arm and, with the effortless elegance of a dancer, moved behind Heru’ur, twisting the injured limb on his back, bringing the controls out of Heru’ur’s reach.

 

“Not so fast”, Jack breathed in Heru’ur’s ear. “I wasn’t through yet.” In one swift, fluid motion, he flung one arm across his opponent’s throat, pushed against the back of his head with the other hand, and executed a quick, almost tender jerk. Heru’ur’s neck broke.

 

 

**********************

 

 

A double blast from Daniel’s zat-gun brought down the last Horus Guard, one of the patrols, whom Teal’c hadn’t been able to rout before, and who had taken cover outside the hall. Sam had hobbled through the passage inside the wall to his hiding place and managed to drive him back towards the central room. Daniel and Teal’c had been waiting in an antechamber, and the Guard had stumbled straight into their trap.

 

When they returned to the hall, they found Jack kneeling on the ground, pale with exhaustion, trembling, and still punching Heru’ur’s body over and over again, muttering with every blow he delivered. Sam quietly came up behind him and crouched, disregarding the pain in her leg. Finally she could hear what he was saying: “I am not yours.” Softly, breathlessly, again and again, like a mantra.

 

She caught him in an embrace and gently pinned his arms to his sides. “Sir, I think you can stop now. He isn’t gonna go any deader, you know ...”

 

Jack slowly relaxed and closed his eyes, letting his head fall back against her shoulder. “You really sure, Carter …?”

 

“Pretty sure. Let’s head home, Colonel.”

 

Rising a little clumsily, he helped Sam up. “How’s the leg, Carter? You be alright to walk?”

 

“No big deal, sir. I’ll live.”

 

“Yeah … yeah … we all will …”, he murmured, looking at her for a moment, then turned to Daniel. “Danny? Can I borrow that zat?”

 

Daniel handed it to him, unable to meet his friend’s eyes.

 

Gotta have a talk with Danny, Jack thought. Aloud he said, “I just wanna make … that … go away.” He aimed the gun at Heru’ur’s body.

 

Just then one of the transporter control buttons on Heru’ur’s bracelet lit up. “No time!” shouted Sam. “Somebody’s coming. We’ve got to get out, sir! Now!!”

 

“Teal’c! Help Carter! Daniel, you’re with me!”

 

They made it out of the hall just as the humming of the transporter started and began hurrying back along the route Jack had marked out. From behind them sounded confused and angry shouts, as the new arrivals discovered one dead Heru’ur and nine dead Horus Guards, the tenth having been stowed wherever Teal’c had chosen to leave the body once he’d stripped it of its armour.

 

There was no pursuit. Apparently, someone had decided that sticking Heru’ur into his sarcophagus took priority over a wild goose chase in the labyrinth.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Colonel O’Neill, Major Carter, Dr Jackson, and Teal’c had hidden in a chamber near the entrance of the maze, until a rumble and tremor indicated that Heru’ur’s ship was leaving at last. Jack and Teal’c gave it another ten minutes, then they cautiously ventured to the surface for a stealthy reconnoitre.

 

The area was clear. Dawn was breaking. It had been twenty-four hours since Jack had gone down to the river and ended up punishing himself, and it seemed a lifetime ago. He shook off the thought, descended the stairs to the labyrinth. “Daniel? Carter? Coast’s clear. Come on up!”

 

Forty-five minutes later they reached their camp and found it undisturbed. Nobody had been here. Sam was limping badly now, and the Colonel ordered her to let Teal’c see to her leg. Grumbling, she gave in. “Okay. But once he’s finished, I’m gonna have a look at you, sir, so don’t run off.”

 

“I’m fine, Carter. Peachy!” Jack escaped and went in search of Daniel, who’d vanished into thin air. He found him sitting by the river, not far from the spot Jack had fled to the day before. “Hey.”

 

Daniel’s only response was a tightening of the grip around his knees.

 

“Daniel?”

 

Still nothing. Jack fumbled through his pockets and finally fished out a crumpled piece of paper and the stub of a pencil. He held them out to Daniel. “You won’t talk”, he said quietly. “That’s fine. How about writing? Anything wrong with writing?”

 

There was a tiny twitch.

 

“I saw that! Don’t pretend you weren’t trying to grin!” He sat down next to Daniel and waited.

 

After a long while, Daniel whispered, “Jack, I can’t tell you how sorry I am …”

 

“It’s alright, Danny. It’s -”

 

“No! It’s not alright. I very nearly got you sent back to that place … or killed. Heru’ur was right, wasn’t he? You asked Sam to shoot you, once I was out of there.”

 

“Yes. And I’m not proud of it. But hey! It was the best plan I could come up with at short notice …” When he realised that the feeble attempt at a quip had fallen flat, Jack opted for the truth. “Danny, I couldn’t walk away, but I knew I couldn’t go back there either.”

 

“And I’m the one who put you in that situation! It’s not alright”, Daniel repeated hotly.

 

“If you want me to tell you that I consider your swanning off on your own the height of idiocy … Hell, yes, I do! And yes, it did piss me off. But you actually did me a favour.”

 

“A favour?!”

 

“There came a point down there when I understood that I could fight the son of a bitch, and that I was gonna be okay.” It was all Jack was prepared to divulge on the subject. There were aspects to this he’d never discuss with anybody. “I’m back, Danny”, he said simply, aware even as he said it that it probably wasn’t going to be quite as clear-cut. But in essence it was true. He ruffled Daniel’s hair. “So, yeah, it is alright … And the next time you go AWOL, I’m gonna kick your ass into next year!”

 

“Yes, sir!” Daniel replied and gave him a little nudge. It provoked a pained intake of breath. “Jack?! What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing”, he said through gritted teeth. “I’m fine!”

 

“Yeah. Sure! Jeez, you are back alright! Now all that nonsense’s gonna start again … Come on!”

 

“Daniel, I think I prefer you feeling guilty and depressed …”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Jack griped, but he let himself be ushered back to camp. His mood didn’t improve when he saw Carter expecting him, a medikit tucked under her arm. “I thought I’d asked you not to run off, sir!” she complained. “Your tent, please.”

 

“Carter, I hate to tell you, but I’m the one in charge of this outfit!”

 

“I’m glad to hear it, sir …” Sam flashed him a brief grin that died when she noticed his pallor. “And now, with respect, Colonel, your tent!”

 

Knowing when he was outnumbered, Jack did as she asked. Once they were inside, she sat him down and muttered, “Okay, I’d better re-do that bandage. Janet’s gonna have my head on a platter if I let that wound get infected … Mind taking your jacket off, sir?”

 

He complied, wincing, and as soon as it’d come off, Sam realised why slipping out of the jacket was such a problem, and why he’d insisted on keeping it buttoned up despite the heat. The left side of his chest was a spectacular shade of purple. She sighed. “Nice one, sir. How many?”

 

“How many what?”

 

“Dwarves with Snow White!Ribs, sir. Of the broken variety.”

 

“Two, I reckon. Maybe three”, Jack admitted grudgingly.

 

“Great! Why on earth didn’t you say anything?! … Nah, forget it. I know. You were afraid I’d try to put a splint on them …”

 

He grinned. “Will you?”

 

“No, but I’ll have to tape them. I’ll do the bandage first, though.” Sam worked in silence, as quickly as she could, pretending not to notice the furtive clenching of his fists. She knew it had to hurt like hell, and she knew as well that he’d refuse to take any painkillers. Eventually, she stated, “Right, that’ll have to do. You should be okay until we get back …”

 

Thanks  Sam?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Sam … Down there, in the maze? … I’m sorry … I’m sorry for pushing you into … that …” He gave an insecure little wave. “I shouldn’t have. I had no right to. It was just … God, Sam, I was so afraid … I was so afraid …”

 

“Don’t, sir”, she said softly, taking his hand. “Please, don’t. You had every right. And I would have done it. If Heru’ur had taken you … and if Teal’c hadn’t put my lights out first.”

 

He leapt at the change of topic she’d thrown him. “Yeah, I was wondering about that. What was he thinking of?!”

 

“Oh, he apologised profusely. I couldn’t shut him up …” Sam giggled when she saw the Colonel’s eyebrows jump to his hairline. “Quite … Well, he explained he’d anticipated your … request … and figured that, rather than ‘accosting’ me at the risk of my being startled enough to shoot you by accident, he’d whack me over the head and look all the more convincing with a prisoner in tow. To quote him, he decided to ‘avail himself of the opportunity to complete his accoutrements’ -”

 

“Hold it! Hold it right there, Major!” The corners of Jack’s mouth had started twitching. “So, if I understand you correctly, Teal’c knocked you out because he needed a fashion accessory?!”

 

“Uhm … basically … Yes, sir.”

 

“Ow … oh crap … Laughing’s not a good idea …”

 

“Sorry … Apart from the laughing-problem, sir … How’re you doing? …”

 

Jack glanced at her sidelong, lightly squeezing her hand. “I’m me. Kinda wonky still, but I’m me.”

 

 

**********************

 

 

“Sooo, Colonel … Care to tell me what happened there?” Dr Fraiser asked, having peeled off the bandage and examined the wound.

 

“Walked into a door”, Jack replied stonily.

 

“Uhunh …”

 

The doctor had a fair idea of what had caused the lacerations, but she knew she wouldn’t get confirmation from Colonel O’Neill or from any member of his team, for that matter. They’d closed ranks around him, fiercely protective and remarkably unforthcoming with regard to the events of P3Y 444. That was, apart from announcing with flagrant glee that he’d thrashed the living daylights out of Heru’ur. In Janet’s book, this was such brilliant news that she was prepared to overlook the mysterious injury and forgive him for a grand total of three broken ribs.

 

“Well, Sam’s done a pretty good job on this, so I’ll just clean it up a bit and bandage it”, she said. “I’ll also tape your ribs again. And yes, it’ll itch like mad before long, and it’ll drive you round the bend, and it’ll stay on for at least four weeks, so no need for you to pop in here every other day, moaning. Do I make myself clear?”

 

He glared at her. “Crystal!”

 

“Good.”

 

Half an hour later, Janet declared, “Okay. That’s it, sir … By the way, am I right in assuming that I won’t have to worry about you walking into doors in future?”

 

This at last brought a shy smile. “I’ll give them a wide berth, Doc. I promise.”

 

“Glad to hear it, Colonel … Now, didn’t you have a debriefing to go to?”

 

Jack let her drape the jacket around his shoulders, unwilling to go through the painful exercise of actually putting it back on, and slid off the gurney. Better to get out of the infirmary before Dr Fraiser’s uncharacteristic lenience wore off and she started insisting on answers after all. Besides, she was right, he did have a debriefing to go to, and if at all possible he wanted to clean up beforehand. Showering was a no-no, but a wash would be feasible. Just. He’d do that in his quarters, though. The locker room would only mean facing more questions. SG-3 had just come back from a mission as well, and it was a safe bet that they’d get curious about Jack O’Neill running around like a badly wrapped Christmas present.

 

Suddenly, unexpectedly, his world seemed to have slipped back into focus, back into place, and he still hadn’t quite come to terms with that. He knew he could function again, could start moving on, start living with the scars, but he couldn’t quite shake a nagging sense of insecurity, either. He felt vulnerable, and it frightened him, because he was unable to say with any kind of certainty whether some event or other, today, the next day, or the day after, wouldn’t throw him off-kilter again. Dammit! Stop it! Stop it! Great move, Jack! Always look for the worst-case scenario. If it happens, it’ll happen whether you worry about it or not, and you’ll deal with it, as and when.

 

Preoccupied with giving himself a moderately successful pep talk, Jack failed to notice that he was being watched.

 

 

**********************

 

 

Airman Curran had been hanging out on Level 19 on spec and couldn’t believe his luck when he saw that son of a bitch coming out of the elevator and strolling down the hall on his own. The big, mean babysitter with the weird tattoo was nowhere in sight. Kevin cringed with the memories. Memories? Hell, what was he saying? He still was black and blue, and one of his buddies had a broken collar-bone. Time to get even.

 

He sneaked down the corridor, cautiously checked the door, and found it locked. Too bad, but the guy couldn’t hide in there forever. It was just a matter of time till he came out again. And Kevin would be waiting. Oh yes, sir!

 

 

**********************

 

 

Jack had seen the door-handle move a fraction and, when no knock followed, past experience led him to the correct conclusion. So someone had let that piece of pond scum out of its cage, and now it was lurking in the corridor somewhere ... Suddenly he grinned. Seemed to be his day for surprises. And he’d just thought of a really nice surprise.

 

He took his time over getting cleaned up and finally struggled into a fresh set of BDUs, wishing the top came in two halves to be Velcro-ed together. Raising his left arm to any degree was no fun at all. Right, debriefing in fifteen, that would leave just enough time. A brief glance in the mirror reminded him that he’d better wipe that smirk off his face. Looking suitably diffident, Jack left his quarters and headed for the staircase. It’d probably throw the little shit for a moment, but Jack had a feeling that he’d give chase quite happily. A furtive check over his shoulder as he rounded the corner verified the feeling. Yep. Airman Pond Scum was tagging along. Show time. He slipped out into the stairwell and hid behind the door.

 

Kevin saw his quarry disappear into the staircase and for the second time that afternoon thanked his lucky stars. Just dandy. The staircase tended to be completely deserted most of the time. He burst through the door, and a second later found himself with his back to the wall, the lightning-fast movement of a hand stopping a fraction of a millimetre from Kevin’s nose. Airman Curran realised that, had the man’s control been anything less than perfect, his nose would now be lodged in close proximity to his cerebellum. But even more terrifying than this sudden revelation was the look in his opponent’s eyes. There was nothing there. Absolutely nothing. Whether or not he killed Kevin didn’t make a blind bit of difference to him. Roughly at the same time as his sphincter released, Mr Curran remembered a snippet of information, which he’d recklessly chosen to disregard: this man was a Special Ops Colonel.

 

What Kevin didn’t see was the huge amount of restraint it took Jack not to crack up. In as flat a tone as he could muster, Colonel O’Neill said, “We haven’t been properly introduced so far. Now, I can see how that may have led to certain flawed assumptions. It’s understandable, and I’m a reasonable man. Usually. I want you to listen to me, and listen very carefully.”

 

“Sir! Yes, sir!” Airman Curran sobbed.

 

“I’m told there is an exciting little weather station, just about 200 miles outside of Nome, Alaska. At 0900 sharp tomorrow morning I will call your CO. If he doesn’t tell me that you’ve requested a permanent transfer there, we’ll have another talk. Do you catch my drift?”

 

“Sir! Yes, sir!”

 

“Good. You’re smarter than you look. Now get the hell out of here, Airman. And for God’s sake, change your pants!”

 

Kevin Curran raced down the stairs like a man possessed. All he left behind was a bit of a smell, but Jack could handle that. He’d had worse. And he’d be late for the debriefing. Shit!

 

 

**********************

 

 

Colonel O’Neill barrelled into the briefing room five minutes late and slightly flushed. He’d been running all the way, and he knew what Fraiser’d have to say about that. Sure enough, she was looking daggers at him. Thankfully, General Hammond cut her off.

 

“You’re late, Colonel.”

 

“Uh … I’m aware of that, sir. Sorry. Got waylaid by an Airman who had a few questions regarding a matter Teal’c discussed with him last week. Bright kid. Wants a transfer to Alaska …”

 

Hammond came dangerously close to chuckling. “Apology accepted. Next time tell him to make an appointment. Take a seat, Colonel.”

 

“Thanks, sir.” As he sat down, he met Carter’s eyes, glittering with laughter. Jack grinned at her and gave a sheepish little shrug.

 

“Right, people. P3Y 444. Let’s start with you, Dr Jackson.”

 

Daniel launched into a convoluted and guilt-stricken tale, and within minutes Jack started drifting. After all, he already was acquainted with the highlights of the story. God, Fraiser still looked like she was gonna top up all his boosters in one fell swoop. If she ever found out what he’d been up to in his quarters, she’d probably make it an extra large needle, too … He hadn’t had a choice. He’d seen his reflection in the mirror, and the question needed answering. Carefully, Jack had stripped off the bandage and studied the brand. At last, his eyes had travelled back to his face. He’d known then. It wasn’t him. That scar was part of him, always would be, like all the others, like any nightmare, but it wasn’t him, didn’t define him, couldn’t terrorise him anymore. It wouldn’t go away, but then, neither would the memories, and he could learn to live with those. He’d done it before … It took Jack a while to realise that Daniel had fallen silent, and that everybody, including the General, was staring at him, big, dopey grins on their faces.

 

“What?!”

 

“I believe you are fidgeting, O’Neill”, Teal’c informed him gravely.

 

Jack’s hands had started dancing.

 

“Oh for cryin’ out loud …”

 

 

**********************

 

 

Fin.