Unfit For Command

 

by

 

Doc

 

 

Part 1

 

 

“Damn! Don’t get stuck on me now!” She’d have to do something about that lock. At some point. When she had time … Time! There was a joke and a half ...

 

At least for the moment swearing seemed to cure the problem, and Dr Samantha Carter, Major USAF, pushed into her apartment, flung her bag into a corner of the hall, and slammed the door behind herself. Home. Safe. Alone … Bath! Always assuming that, by some mysterious quirk of fortune, her landlord had got round to fixing the hot water tank while she’d been away. “And pigs can fly”, she muttered to herself, making for the bathroom.

 

She was stopped by the red light on her answer phone rapping out a little gigue. Sam rolled her eyes, and then checked the calls anyway. Maybe he’d finally - … Daniel. There was a surprise. And Daniel. More Daniel. And, who would have guessed? Daniel again. The message was essentially the same each time: “Call me!!! It’s urgent.” Sure, Dr Jackson. So’s my bath.

 

Three days ago, Dr Fraiser had cleared her for light duty, and she’d been sent to Washington, to discuss possible defence applications of her particle accelerator with some NID committee. It had been a singularly successful exercise in futility. Military intelligence, indeed! Talk about a contradiction in terms … Sam was still fuming. Not surprisingly, they’d lacked the necessary scientific background and were, in their vast majority, less than thrilled to be lectured by a woman. The 14.3% who didn’t gripe had tried to come on to her, and she still couldn’t make up her mind about what was worse. When the meetings had finished at last, Sam was more than glad to catch a plane back home to Colorado

 

… only to spend the better part of the flight silently cursing the sadistic jerk who had designed the standard economy aircraft seat. Presumably some Goa’uld system lord with an axe to grind, seeing that the seats clearly weren’t meant to accommodate human anatomy, except as a form of slow torture. Sam groaned. Oh yes, she definitely needed a bath!

 

Piping hot water! Whatever next? Sam poured in a liberal dollop of scented bubble bath and left the taps running as she went to undress and put a CD in the stereo.

 

What is there that strips you of your pride

There is nothing left of you inside

If you would reach for me

If you would reach for me it could be

Something real …

 

Uh oh. Bit close to home … She shook her head and returned to the bathroom.

 

Catching her reflection in the mirror, her gaze lingered on the angry red scar across her side. Too bad. It would put paid to that sweet little tank top number after all … Oh no, Carter, don’t go there, don’t even think there! Abruptly, she turned away and climbed into the tub, slid back, stretched, closed her eyes.

 

When your faith has left before the morning

Someone there softly breathing

A body to awaken

When time comes to tear you

A cruel enemy

You could hold on to me …

 

Unbidden, the memories started flooding back. They’d taken it for granted. The easy, trusting working relationship SG-1 had established had seemed so much a given, something that would always be there. Until it wasn’t. It had been Daniel of all people, gentle, ever-forgiving Daniel, who’d proved intransigent when their trust was shaken. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it wasn’t all that surprising. Daniel dealt in absolutes, and the orphan in Daniel refused to forgive what he perceived to be betrayal by his best friend …

 

And who do you think you’re fooling, Carter? Sam’s face flushed hotly, and it wasn’t the bath. She knew she was hardly blameless. She’d dismissed Colonel O’Neill’s awkward attempts at apology with at least as much skill and hostility as Daniel had. She’d wanted to hurt him back. And in the midst of all this had come their next assignment. It was supposed to have been a routine mission. As if …

 

 

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

 

 

A scheduled return visit to P4X 535. Ostensibly harmless, early colonial society whose citizens had just discovered the joys of the flintlock. Which, in turn, had given rise to a nasty little outlaw-problem. SG-1 had helped to sort it out, and now they were supposed to check up on how things had been going since. Three days there in a settler village they’d visited before, home-baked bread, home-brewed beer, and stories by the fireside.

 

Coming barely a week after Colonel O’Neill’s undercover stint with Maybourne’s renegades and the new rifts it had caused, the mission obviously was designed to be some therapeutic ‘Let’s get SG-1 reacquainted’ exercise. Sam wasn’t entirely sure whose bright idea that had been, but she was willing to put her money on Dr McKenzie. Trust a shrink!

 

Of course, it didn’t work that way. Mistrust and resentment had been hanging over the team since the Colonel’s apparently less than enthusiastic return from Edora. The lies and deception that followed hadn’t helped. So, SG-1 had stood in the embarkation room, waiting for the stargate to surge into life, furtively shifting glances, lest eyes met accidentally. General Hammond had looked on like a concerned uncle who’d just found out that his favourite niece and nephews had been caught ram-raiding. Or something. Things got worse from there on out. That day, for the first time since SG-1 had become a team, they’d stepped into the event horizon like four tired strangers on the six o’clock commute into work.

 

When the ‘gate had catapulted them out onto the densely forested world of P4X 535, Sam had actually found herself yearning for one of the Colonel’s quips. Trees. Trees. And more … trees! She had almost allowed herself to smile at the recollection, but stubbornness and hurt feelings had won. The quip never came, anyway. Instead it was: “Move out. Teal’c, take point. Keep your heads up.”

 

With that, he had fallen back to take the rear, and they’d marched the fifteen clicks to the village in stony silence. Daniel and Sam sulking, Jack O’Neill retreating further into himself with every step he took, and a somewhat unnerved Jaffa gaining first-hand experience with the time-honoured Tau’ri tradition of playing piggy-in-the-middle. Shortly before nightfall they’d reached the compound, and the reunion with the villagers had brought welcome relief from the tension that had settled over the team like some noxious fog.

 

On behalf of the village, Zeb, local surgeon and alderman, had invited them to a feast in the barn, the one structure large enough to host all the families and their guests. For the most part, it had been pleasant. Stories were swapped over dinner, and after the meal an impromptu string band had struck up. The children had tried to teach Teal’c a reel, much to the amusement of the adults, and one by one, people had joined in the dancing. With the exception of the Colonel. He had been withdrawn all evening, picking at his food, and eventually their hosts had given up on getting him to talk. Then one of the children had tried to drag him onto the dance floor. O’Neill had declined tersely, risen and made for the door. Sam had started after him, when Daniel grabbed her arm.

 

“Forget it”, he said loudly. “We’ll have a better time without him.”

 

The Colonel had heard it, as he was meant to. He never broke stride, but Sam saw him flinch as though he’d been hit. Shoulders tensed, he slipped out through the barn door. Suddenly she was furious with Daniel … and with herself.

 

“For God’s sake, isn’t it about time you … we … cut him some slack?! How long do you want to keep this up?” Sam realised she was shouting and lowered her voice to an angry whisper. “Do you want to break him? He’s our friend, dammit!”

 

“No, he isn’t. He said so himself. And anyway, nothing breaks Jack.” Daniel’s face was a mask of pain and confusion, contradicting the venom of his words.

 

“Oh, come off it! You know exactly why –”

 

But Daniel had disappeared into the crowd. Sam threw her hands up in frustration, and after a moment she, too, decided to rejoin the villagers.

 

 

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

 

 

‘I should have gone after him’, she thought for the hundredth time. ‘Chances are, it’d never have happened …’

 

It was ironic, really. Supposedly, Jack O’Neill was their resident expert on self-reproach, out-regretting even Daniel, and she was beginning to understand how he felt. But it was too late now, too late to do anything, except kick herself for not recognising the signs.

 

Sam sighed and casually started listening to the new track.

 

Have you been the broken one

Lying by the side of the road

Waiting for a good Samaritan

But noone has the time to ask

Why are you bleeding?

And are you going far …

 

Noone had asked, noone had looked beyond their own grievances …

 

 

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

 

 

Eventually the candles had burnt down and everyone had retired to bed. Like the last time, SG-1 set up camp in the barn’s hay loft. Back then a good-natured, giggly hay fight had broken out after a few pointed observations from the Colonel, regarding hay fever and archaeologists. This time the mood was sombre. O’Neill hadn’t returned yet, and Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c crawled into their sleeping bags, sullenly mumbling “Good Night”. Sam had slept fitfully for a few hours, when she was woken by a rifle shot. “What the …?!”

 

“SamanthaCarter. O’Neill may require our assistance.” Teal’c. Did he ever sleep? Belatedly, Sam realised that their CO obviously hadn’t been back to the barn at all, but there was no time to worry about that now. As though to confirm Teal’c’s words, several more shots rang out. And Colonel O’Neill was out there unarmed.

 

“Teal’c, Daniel, climb up to the roof and cover me. I’ll go find the Colonel.” She picked up her own gun and O’Neill’s MP-5, slid down the ladder and, after a quick scan through the door, dashed across the road to take cover behind a stack of firewood.

 

70 yards down and ahead of her she could make out ten men, all armed with long rifles, covering another group, some of them busy driving the villagers’ horses from the paddock, others flinging lit torches onto the roofs of houses and storage sheds. The settlers were fighting back now, and new shots erupted as muzzles began to appear in the windows.

 

Suddenly a door flew open, and a child, the boy who had tried to get Jack O’Neill to dance the night before, ran out into the street and towards the paddock. “That’s my foal, mine! You leave my foal alone”, he yelled.

 

“Get down! Oh God, get down!” O’Neill. Sam looked over to the left and spotted her CO sprinting out of the doorway of a burning cabin opposite, trying to reach the child.

 

“Shit!” Sam watched helplessly as one of the raiders aimed and fired. The boy, hit in mid-run, tumbled and fell like a rag doll. With a scream of pure rage and despair the Colonel dived to the ground next to the small body.

 

“Sir!” Finally, Sam had a clear line of fire, and she loosed a burst at the attackers, driving them into cover before she tossed O’Neill his H & K. “Daniel and Teal’c are covering us from the barn. Get back into that doorway, sir!” He’d caught the MP, but he wasn’t listening, Sam could tell. He sat up, clicked the safety off the weapon and started firing.

 

The next few minutes were sheer chaos. The air roiled with the low bellow of flintlock rifles, the hiss of staff blasts, and the relentless chatter of machine gun fire coming from the barn roof, Sam’s position, and from the solitary figure that knelt in the middle of the road. Eventually the surviving outlaws retreated, and little by little the shots died down, until everything was silent. Then a wail rose. The boy’s mother.

 

Sam had stepped out from behind the stack, watching the Colonel put down his weapon and gently wipe the dust from the dead child’s forehead. At last he looked up, focussing somewhere beyond her, and slowly came to his feet. He stood in motionless expectation, and for the first time Sam could remember, his expressive, nervous hands were completely still. Instinctively, her gaze travelled along his line of vision, and then she spotted the barrel.

 

“Colonel!” Even as she shouted the warning, Sam knew that he had seen the sniper and was waiting. “No!” She spun around and ran. A moment later the shot fell, and Sam had lunged into the path of the bullet. At the same time a staff blast lanced from the roof of the barn, killing the sniper.

 

She awkwardly slumped to the ground, her hands clutching her side. With detached curiosity she stared at the blood trickling from between her clasped fingers. Then the pain set in. It hurt. Holy Hannah, it hurt! She drew a sharp breath and looked up.

 

The Colonel’s face, ashen against the overcast sky. “Carter! For cryin’ out loud …” A hoarse whisper, rough with shock.

 

“Sorry, sir”, she wheezed. “Couldn’t let you … ”

 

Gradually, the stunned villagers had filed out into the street, gathering around the sad tableau of the dead boy, the injured woman, and the man still rooted to the spot. Then, from the direction of the barn, Daniel and Teal’c came running, pushing their way through the onlookers and into the centre of the circle.

 

“Dammit, Jack, don’t just stand there! What the hell is wrong with you?!” With that, Daniel had dropped to his knees next to Sam and eased her onto her back. “Easy now, Sam, it’ll be okay, you hear? Easy … Zeb! Where’s Zeb?”

 

“Here, Daniel!” The crowd had parted to let the surgeon pass. Zeb knelt by Daniel’s side and began examining Sam.

 

“My fault … my fault … my fault …” Murmuring under his breath, Jack kept repeating the two words like some awful mantra.

 

Teal’c, whose hearing was sharper than most, looked at his friend, head slightly cocked. “O’Neill, it would seem that it was the outlaw who injured SamanthaCarter. Therefore this cannot be your fault.”

 

“You … don’t understand”, Jack stammered tonelessly. “She knew …”

 

“You are not well, O’Neill. Perhaps you should come away from here. SamanthaCarter is being attended to.” Teal’c reached out and took Jack’s arm.

 

The physical contact finally shattered Jack’s trance. “Don’t touch me!”, he shouted, shaking off Teal’c’s hand. “Please.” His voice had dropped to a whisper again. “Please … it’s bad luck …”

 

“As you wish.” One puzzled eyebrow raised, Teal’c took a step back, hiding his concern.

 

Zeb rose. “We must bring Samantha inside and make her comfortable.”

 

 

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

 

 

They had taken Sam to Zeb’s house and put her in the bedroom. The surgeon had pronounced her unfit for transport. She’d rapidly developed a high fever, drifting in and out of consciousness. At one point Sam heard raised voices from the next room. The Colonel and Daniel arguing. Again.

 

“Why should you want to stay? You don’t give a damn about her, about any of us, for that matter! For all I know you’re responsible for what happened out there today. At least leave her with a friend! I’m not going, Jack, and that’s my last -”

 

“Daniel! Pack your gear. You and Teal’c are moving out. Get back to the SGC and get me Fraiser here. Now!!!”

 

“I’m a civilian, Jack! And I just quit! You can’t order me about! Save it for the jarheads!”

 

“DanielJackson, I fail to comprehend how this discussion contributes to the improvement of SamanthaCarter’s condition.”

 

“Daniel … please … I promise you won’t have to listen to me ever again, just follow my order, one last time. Please.” The Colonel again, sounding tired to death.

 

 

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

 

 

When Sam came to, it was dusk. The house was quiet and on the bedside table a candle had half burnt down. Her vision blurring, she tried to get her bearings. Bedposts. Wardrobe. Fireplace. Armchair by the window. Dark shape huddled in it.

 

“Sir?” It came out like a croak. Her mouth was parched.

 

“Carter.” He had risen and stepped into the small sphere of light cast by the candle. “How’re ya doin’?”

 

“You look like hell … sir”, she replied incongruously, then added, “I’m thirsty.”

 

“You don’t look so hot yourself, you know.” The merest shadow of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “And you’re not allowed to drink. Doctor’s orders. This’ll help.” He had taken a linen napkin, soaked it in a bowl of water, and carefully dabbed her lips. “Better?” he asked, placing the napkin back into the bowl.

 

“A little. Thanks.” She tried to catch his eyes, but for some reason the floor seemed to require his intense scrutiny. “Sit down, sir. Please.” He gingerly sat on the edge of the bed, his weight shifting the mattress. Sam gave a yelp of pain but gripped his hand before he could move off again. “Stay.”

 

“Bad?” He still wasn’t looking at her.

 

“Worse.”

 

“I’ve already given you a shot, but we’ve got some morphine left …”

 

“No. Not just yet.”

 

“Janet and her merry men’ll be here soon. Then we’ll get you home.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

The silence between them deepened. Holding on to his hand, Sam could feel his fingers straining. “Colonel …”

 

“Carter?”

 

“I’m sorry.” That had done it, Sam noted with vague satisfaction.

 

He stared at her now, his eyes wide in amazement. “You’re sorry?!”

 

“We’ve been giving you a pretty rough time lately -”

 

“Nothing I didn’t deserve. I blew it.”

 

“You didn’t. Not your fault.”

 

Her answer provoked a small, joyless laugh. “No, nothing ever is, or so they tell me.”

 

The bitterness in his voice startled her. ‘And anyway, nothing breaks Jack’ … Daniel had said it only last night. “Way, way off the beam, Danny”, she mumbled to herself.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing”, she said.

 

“Carter? … What happened out there? When -”

 

“- did I notice that my CO had come up with a new and interesting way of killing himself?” she asked bluntly.

 

“Don’t go beating about the bush on my account, Major.” That infuriating laconic mask of his.

 

He was trying to retreat behind his armour again. Sam had known clams that were more eagerly forthcoming. But he hadn’t denied … it. “You honestly expected me to stand by and watch and do nothing?”

 

“You’ll have a better time without me.” He repeated Daniel’s words like a statement of fact.

 

“That’s bullshit … Colonel! And you know it!” Anger had made her sit up, a move she immediately regretted. “Ouch! Bad idea”, she gasped.

 

At least it had made the mask slip. “Shh, Sam. Don’t!” He helped her lie back down on the pillow and checked the bandage. The wound had started bleeding again. “I’d better get Zeb”, he said.

 

“No. Janet’ll be here soon. You said so yourself.” Sam shook her head.

 

His fingers lightly brushed her cheek. “I know what I said, Carter, but -”

 

“Please.” Sam’s hand trapped his. “I need to know … why …?”

 

“Not now. You’re -” He’d pulled away.

 

“Yes, now … if it was us … me -”

 

“Sam, is that what you’re thinking? … No -”

 

“Then why? … Jack?” Using his first name under these circumstances was next door to blackmail, and Sam knew it. She also knew that this would be her only chance to make him talk. Besides, all is fair in … well, in war, anyway. “Why?”

 

Jack slowly, wearily rubbed his face, before he looked up. “It wasn’t you, Sam. It wasn’t Danny. Although that … did hurt …” He gave a helpless little shrug. “What gave me away, anyway?”

 

“Your hands.” She smiled when she noticed his confused look. “Your hands were still.”

 

“Oh.” Self-consciously, O’Neill gazed at his fingers, which, as usual, had developed a life of their own, drawing spidery little circles on the blanket. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Oh.”

 

“Yeah, ‘Oh’”, Sam echoed. “Don’t change the subject.”

 

There was a pause, then, “The kid … watching the boy die was the last straw, I guess … too dumb, too slow to save him … like I didn’t save Charlie …” At the mention of his son, a flicker of grief and self-loathing swept across Jack’s face.

 

Sam winced at the pain she saw, a brief glimpse of a private hell he normally kept well hidden. She reached out and tentatively touched his arm.

 

He looked at her, holding her gaze. “The last straw … I can’t even remember making any decision … It was like slamming into that massive wall, again, and thinking ‘Enough!’ … I’m just so tired of being … so damn tired all the time …” A wistful, lopsided grin.

 

“Tired of what?”, Sam prodded.

 

“Failing people … losing people, because I fail them … losing myself … being so afraid of it …”

 

 

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

 

 

Mission after mission testing his limits, undermining the precarious stability the original journey to Abydos and Daniel’s friendship had given him after Charlie’s death. A harrowing tally of what every loss, every death had cost him. All of it capped by the drug-induced nightmare on Netu. The never talked-about legacy of Iraq, not merely physical scars of beatings and torture, but mental and emotional scars inflicted by men who knew how to rob their victim of his very humanity. Memories that underscored everything that had happened to him since, rendering him acutely vulnerable behind brittle defences.

 

Sam suddenly recognised the raw fear she’d sometimes seen in his eyes: fear of losing his friends, losing control, losing himself, time and time again. The effects of the Ancients’ visor, Machello’s device, infinitely worst of all: the Goa’uld … Being left behind, again, on Edora, literally losing his whole life, only to have it all handed back to him some three months later, just as he’d finally found a semblance of peace. Coming home at last and being forced to gamble and lose the one thing that had held him together all this time: the trust of his team, his friends. And then, this morning, another child had died …

 

 

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

 

 

“… everything, everyone I touch gets hurt … or killed … like some kind of curse -”

 

Voices outside, and a sharp rap at the front door resonating through the house. Daniel and Teal’c had arrived with Janet Fraiser and the medical team.

 

Sam practically could see the shutters crashing down. It was as though he noticed only now what he’d been telling her, just how far he’d opened up. He scrambled for cover. “Hey, Carter! If Florence Nightingale was here I’d get my butt kicked! I forgot the morphine …”

 

It was lame by his standards, but she played along. “Don’t worry, I’m fine. ‘Peachy’!” she said with a conviction she didn’t feel, and was pleased when it coaxed a small smile from him. “Sir?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“About what happened?”

 

“Yeah?” He sounded wary, bracing for a blow.

 

“Nobody’ll hear it from me. It was an accident. But promise me we’ll talk about this.”

 

“Sam, I -”

 

Footsteps racing up the stairs.

 

“Promise!” she hissed. She’d sat up again, and her whole body was taut with pain.

 

“Alright. I promise!”

 

He looked utterly defeated, but he’d given his word. With a sigh of relief Sam sank back onto the pillow, not knowing that events would overtake the promise. The last thing she saw before she passed out again was the door being pushed open and Janet stepping into the bedroom.

 

 

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

 

 

The days in the infirmary had seemed endless. From the moment she had been wheeled out of the OR, Daniel and Teal'c had taken turns staying with Sam, and General Hammond had dropped by occasionally. The Colonel remained conspicuously absent. Except the first night, when Sam had woken up in the small hours to find him sitting by her bed. He’d brusquely ordered her to go back to sleep and left.

 

According to Teal’c, the mission debriefing that morning had ‘calmed up’ considerably. Colonel O’Neill had officially tendered his resignation which General Hammond had officially rejected, before tearing into him for being melodramatic in his mission report, specifically where it came to his claiming direct responsibility for Major Carter’s injury. Daniel had seen fit to put his oar in at that point, insisting on an enquiry, and things had got out of hand for a while. In the end the General had put SG-1 on indefinite stand-down, to be reviewed once Sam had fully recovered and been cleared for ‘gate travel. Until then, he’d announced with a murderous look at O’Neill and Jackson, they were well advised to stop arguing like fishwives and sort out their differences. Dismissed! Daniel had stormed out; Jack had declared he was going nuts, AWOL and fishing, in that order; and Teal’c had come to the infirmary to report to Sam before departing for the Land of Light to visit his family.

 

At the end of the week Sam was released. Daniel, clucking over her like a mother hen, had taken her home. Eventually she had managed to get rid of him, and as soon as he’d gone, she’d phoned the Colonel. The fact that he’d wanted to retire worried her more than she cared to admit, even to herself. Especially to herself. She got the answer phone, left a brief message. Over the next couple of days Sam attempted to contact him several times, always with the same result. Finally, she drove to his house. When noone answered the door, she tried to persuade herself that he had gone fishing after all. The alternative didn’t bear thinking about.

 

At least SG-1’s enforced inactivity was almost over. Tomorrow she’d have her final check-up with Janet Fraiser who’d hopefully give her a clean bill of health, and then, maybe, they could start working on getting things back to normal.

 

 

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

 

Part 2

 

 

The doorbell rang. “What the …? Do you know what time it is?” Sam asked noone in particular, realising at the same time that the CD had long run out and her bath water had gone tepid. The bell rang again. “Oh, well …”, she muttered, climbed out of the tub, wrapped herself in a towel and ran into the hall. “Coming”, she shouted, colliding with Daniel.

 

“Holy Hannah! Daniel! Do you mind?!”

 

“Uhm … sorry. You … uh … left your keys in the door”, he said, dangling the evidence under her nose.

 

“Great. So you just let yourself in!” She snatched the key ring from his hand.

 

Daniel shrugged. “Look on the bright side: I could have been a burglar.”

 

“And I could have been in bed with Maybourne.”

 

He pondered that for a moment, then offered his considered opinion. “Uh … nah.”

 

“Thanks for the vote of confidence”, Sam giggled. “So, what’s so important that you come jumping into my bathtub? On second thought, can you save the explanations till I’ve put some clothes on? Help yourself to a drink!” she finished, dashing into her bedroom.

 

“You didn’t answer my calls!” Daniel shouted from the hall.

 

“I was away!” The sweatshirt she was struggling into muffled Sam’s reply.

 

“You were in the bathtub”, Daniel stated as she re-emerged from the bedroom.

 

“Keeping tabs on me now? So, what’s so urgent, anyway?”

 

“Uh … Jack.”

 

Suddenly, Sam felt winded. “What about him? He’s gone fishing, hasn’t he? Hasn’t he?!”

 

“Hey, are you okay? Wanna sit down?” Daniel looked concerned.

 

“I’m alright. What about him?!”

 

“Well, either a gang of delinquent skunks has moved into his house and trashed the place, or Jack has changed his plans and gone on a bender instead.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“I … uhm … left some of my stuff at his place … thought I’d better go get it tonight before … uh … he came back. Jack’s given me a spare key a while ago …” He trailed off, then added defiantly, “I just didn’t feel like another shouting match, alright?!”

 

“And whose fault would that be?!” Sam snapped, but before Daniel could reply, she asked, “What happened?”

 

“Well, I got into the house, and it looked a mess. Smelt like it as well. Blinds drawn, enough empty bottles to keep a recycling plant happy for a year, furniture overturned … the works. He must have gone berserk in there.”

 

“What about the Colonel?!” Sam asked impatiently.

 

“Passed out on the landing.”

 

“So? What did you do?”

 

“What do you think I did? Found my things and got out!”

 

“You left him there?! Dammit, Daniel, sometimes I just don’t believe you!”

 

“Come on! He’s legless. What was I supposed to do? Hold his head when he tosses his cookies? Besides, I called you, didn’t I? Hell, Sam, he set me off all over again! We’re supposed to have that review meeting with General Hammond first thing tomorrow … correction: this morning, and Mr Responsible is so smashed he probably won’t regain consciousness for a fortnight … What are you doing?”

 

Sam had walked past him, grabbed a jacket from the coat rack and opened the door. “Shut up and drive me over there, Daniel. Now!”

 

“Aw, come on, Sam -”

 

“Now!”

 

Daniel gave in and sulkily trotted after her.

 

 

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

 

 

For the first few minutes they’d driven in angry silence. Then Daniel stole a brief glance at Sam, noticed her tightened jaws, hands balled to fists in her lap.

 

“You’re worried about Jack.” It was a statement, not a question.

 

“Yep”, came the clipped reply.

 

“Me too”, Daniel mumbled reluctantly.

 

“Got a funny way of showing it.”

 

“Look, Sam …” He was groping for words. “It’s not that I don’t care … maybe that’s what makes me so mad! … I care about Jack, despite the stunts he pulled … he’s hurt you as well, don’t say he hasn’t! … I want to believe he’s my friend, and I can’t …”

 

The anger had evaporated, and Daniel sounded miserable. Sam looked at him. “Daniel?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Daniel, a guy who tries to comfort you while you’re waving a loaded gun in his face is your friend. Trust me on this.”

 

“But then, why -”

 

“Because he had to. He had his orders, and there was bit more at stake than hurt feelings. Did you ever stop to ask yourself how he felt?”

 

Daniel’s uncharacteristic reticence was answer enough.

 

Sam sighed. “If it’s any consolation, you weren’t the only one. I didn’t either. We just took it for granted that he’d somehow hold the team together, somehow make things alright, always … and before you ask, no, it’s not in the job description. Not like this, anyway. I know the difference, believe me. I’ve served with enough COs who couldn’t give a damn. Colonel O’Neill isn’t like that. He cares. Too much, in fact … he can break, Daniel …”

 

 “I didn’t mean what I said.” Daniel blushed violently.

 

“Neither did he.”

 

 

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

 

 

They bolted out of the car and to the door. Daniel fumbled with the keys, dropped them. “Sorry.”

 

“Hurry up, will you?!” Sam was on edge.

 

“Here we go.”

 

Sam pushed past him and stepped inside. “Gee, Daniel, I’ll give you one thing: your skunk-theory has some merit … Do us all a favour and leave that door open for now.” She flicked the light switch. Nothing.

 

“It’s a floor lamp”, Daniel said. “He must have knocked it over. I’ve got a flashlight”, he offered.

 

She took it and switched it on. “Where is he?” The beam crisscrossed the living room.

 

“Up there, last time I looked.” Daniel vaguely gestured towards the stairs. “Mind your step, the place is a tip.”

 

“No kiddin’. Looks like a bomb’s gone off in here …” Sam carefully navigated across the floor. Surveying the bottle collection, she muttered, “Beer, scotch, claret … wow! All major food groups.” In amongst assorted trash she noticed a few stray pages of O’Neill’s mission report for P4X 535. So that’s what happened … She reached the bottom of the stairs. Above her, face down on the landing, lay the Colonel. Sam ran up the steps, crouched next to him and turned him on his back. He looked dreadful, smelt worse. “Of all the idiotic things to do, sir …”

 

Sam pushed away a wisp of hair plastered to his forehead, started when she noticed how clammy his skin felt. “Daniel!”

 

“What?” Daniel had come up behind her and leaned over her shoulder.

 

“Something’s wrong. He’s too cold -”

 

“Stay with him. I’ll phone Janet.” Daniel ran back down the stairs and disappeared in the den. A few minutes later he returned. “She’ll be here in half an hour.” He reached down and touched Jack’s face. “Whoa! You’re right. He’s freezing … tell you what, let’s get him in the shower. Two birds with one stone: he’ll be presentable by the time Janet arrives, and it’ll warm him up … Sam? Sam!”

 

She sat on the floor, her face slack with fear, and was rubbing Jack’s icy hands between hers. “You promised! Dammit, sir, you promised …”

 

“Sam! Are you listening? You’ve got to help me here! … Promised what?!”

 

“Nothing … nothing”, she whispered.

 

Daniel grabbed Sam’s shoulders. “Sam, listen to me! Sam? I need you to give me a hand. Let’s get him into the bathroom. You up to that?”

 

She nodded and got to her feet.

 

They hoisted Jack’s limp frame up between them, dragged him to the bathroom, and eased him back onto the floor.

 

“I don’t know”, Daniel said, flicking on the lights. “Last time we had to haul his ass out of some mess, he seemed a lot heavier …”

 

Sam was fighting to pull the Colonel’s T-shirt over his head and didn’t reply. Once she’d peeled it off him, she gasped. In the harsh glare of the bathroom lights his ribs stood out sharply. He’d always been lean, fit, but now he was thin. Too thin.

 

Daniel, who’d started the shower running, heard her and turned around. He stared down at his friend in alarm. “Jack! … Jack, what are you doing to yourself? When the hell did you last eat …?”

 

Together they got him out of his jeans. Daniel cleared his throat. “Look, I can manage the … uh … rest … by myself. Why don’t you make his bed and find something clean for him to wear?”

 

Obediently, Sam padded into the bedroom. It looked pristine. If he had been sleeping at all, it hadn’t been up here. She changed the sheets, and got a pair of boxer shorts and a T-shirt from the wardrobe. Then she wandered back to the bathroom, knocked at the door. A bedraggled Daniel opened, and the sight of him made Sam laugh despite herself. “You look like a drowned rat!”

 

“Oh, thanks! You know, Jack can be one almighty pain in the mikta at the best of times, but this just takes the cake. It’s like handling a stoned octopus!” He wiped his glasses, took the clothes from Sam. “And now I get to wrestle him into these. Great! I’ll give you a shout when he’s decent.”

 

 

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

 

 

They’d manoeuvred Jack into his bed. He was stirring now, his breathing less ragged than it had been. Sam stood by the bed, softly murmuring. “Stupid, sir. Really, really stupid …”

 

A shout from downstairs. “Hello! Anybody home?!”

 

“Up here, Janet!” answered Daniel.

 

“Shut up and go away!” came a slurred growl from the bed.

 

Daniel whirled around. “My God! It speaks!”

 

Just then a disgruntled Janet Fraiser gusted in. “Obviously a swell party! If you dragged me all the way out here to dispense Alka Seltzer, so help me, I’ll -” She stopped herself when she caught sight of Jack. “What …?!”

 

“Hangover. Go home”, O’Neill croaked helpfully.

 

“Hangover, my ass!” Janet had taken his wrist. “Pulse is fast and irregular. For starters, I’d say his electrolytes are at a record low. How long has he been like this?”, she asked.

 

Sam shook her head. “Don’t know, Janet. We found him just before we called you. Looks like he collapsed. Janet, he -”

 

“Major. Doctor. He is awake, touched by your concern, and he would like you to leave him alone”, Jack spat. “He can look after himself!”

 

“The hell you can, Jack!”, snapped Daniel. “Look at the state you’re in! He obviously hasn’t been eating, Janet, we don’t know for how long …”

 

With a sharp glance at Daniel, Janet flung back the blanket. “Impressive, Mahatma! What were you trying to do, Colonel? Kill yourself?” She covered him.

 

“No! … Carter, I …”

 

Okaaay.” Dr Fraiser looked from Jack’s haggard, anxious face to Sam who had gone white as a sheet, and her eyes narrowed. Then she turned her attention back to the Colonel. “You’ve been hitting the bottle alright, but mostly you’ve been neglecting yourself. You’re malnourished, dehydrated, and I doubt you can keep anything down at the moment. I’ll have to set up a fluid IV. Some calcium won’t hurt, and a mild sedative. You need sleep.” With that Dr Fraiser set to work.

 

 

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

 

 

While Janet had taken care of her surprise patient, Sam and Daniel had begun cleaning up the mess downstairs. The doctor had left hours ago, and Daniel had gone shopping to stock up Jack’s fridge. Sam was on her own, sitting curled up in a tall wicker chair, watching her CO.

 

He’d pleaded with Janet not to give him a sedative and fought its effects for as long as he could before falling into an uneasy sleep. He was restless, muttering and moaning incoherently. Sam had known for a long time that he suffered from nightmares. On missions she, Daniel, and Teal’c more than once had had occasion to ask themselves what demons haunted his dreams. Ever since P4X 535 she had a fair idea. Even so, she wasn’t prepared for the agonised outcry that tore from him now.

 

“Sam! NO!” He’d sat up abruptly, reaching out and almost pulling the IV line from his hand.

 

Without thinking, Sam had rushed over to the bed and taken him in her arms. Holding him tight, rocking him like a child. “Shh. Shh. It’s alright. Just a dream. It’s just a dream. I’m here.” She couldn’t get through to him. His body was rigid, he didn’t respond, didn’t stop shaking. At last, she let go, cupped his face in her hands, and barked, “Colonel! Look at me! That’s an order!”

 

His eyes flew open, and for a moment Sam saw stark terror. Then he focussed, recognised her, slowly relaxed. She dropped her hands.

 

“I outrank you, Major”, he mumbled, closing his arms around her and nestling his head at her shoulder.

 

“That’s okay, Colonel, just as long as you follow my orders.”

 

“Sam”, he said softly. “Please hold me.”

 

Tightening her embrace, Sam rested her cheek against his head. “I’m here, Jack. I’m holding you.”

 

When Daniel returned with the shopping half an hour later, he found them still in the same position. Jack was fast asleep.

 

 

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

 

 

He had slept until the early evening. Just before dinnertime, Dr Fraiser had returned to check on her patient. She’d removed the IV and allowed O’Neill to get up. She’d prescribed some light food, too, and Daniel had obliged by rustling up a bowl of chicken soup which Jack had eaten. Under protest, but he had eaten.

 

Later they sat in the living room, talking. Daniel, racked with guilt, was trying hard, too hard, to be the life and soul of the party, keeping things light and carefully avoiding the touchy subject of this latest episode. The Colonel seemed fine. ‘Seemed’ was the operative word. Sam felt grudging admiration for his skill in putting up a nonchalant front. What was going on underneath was anybody’s guess, but Sam was positive that it couldn’t be pleasant. Every now and again she caught a sudden, inadvertent tightening of his mouth, a shadow of distress in his eyes. She kept watching him surreptitiously, unable to shake a sense of worry and helplessness. When her unease threatened to turn into open fidgeting, Sam rose and walked out to the deck, staring into the night. After a while she heard a light footfall on the planks, and someone leaned on the railing next to her.

 

“I think the boys have to sort out some things between them, so I figured I’d make myself scarce”, Janet said. “How are you holding up?”

 

“I’m okay.” Sam turned her head to look at her friend, tried a grin.

 

“Sam. This is me. Janet. Talk to me! I’m your friend, remember? Coincidentally, I’m also your doctor, and as such I’m anything but happy with whatever it is that’s putting this kind of pressure on you.”

 

“Nothing’s putting pressure on me, doc. I’m just a bit tired.”

 

“Tell me something, Sam. Do you and the Colonel hold private competitions to see who can bottle up the longest and cause the most damage whilst doing it?” When she got no reply, Janet continued, “Look, I’d like to help. I can only guess at what’s been going on, but it’s obviously more than meets the eye. You’ll have to talk sometime, you know. General Hammond will -”

 

“The General!”, groaned Sam. “I completely forgot … What did you tell him?!” There was a trace of panic in her voice.

 

“I didn’t go into any detail, just told him that Colonel O’Neill wasn’t well.” Janet eyed her suspiciously.

 

Sam slowly exhaled. “How did the General … uh … take it?”

 

“He wasn’t exactly jumping for joy, if you know what I mean …” Janet sighed. “Sounded like he urgently wanted to talk to the Colonel. I’ve calmed him down for the time being. But he’s rescheduled the review meeting for three days from now, and he’ll want the full story. I suppose the only one who’s in any way pleased by the news is Teal’c. It buys him some more time with his family.”

 

Sam nodded. “Thanks.”

 

“Don’t mention it.” The doctor shrugged. “Smooth move, by the way.”

 

“What?”

 

“Changing the subject”, Janet said archly. Her tone became gentle again. “Come on, I know you know what’s going on, and I can see it scares the hell out of you. Me as well, by the way. Dammit, Sam, don’t you realise that Colonel O’Neill might have been in serious trouble if you hadn’t found him?”

 

“For Pete’s sake, Janet, give me some credit!” Sam’s fist had struck the railing. She looked at it in surprise, flexing her fingers against the pain. Then she said in a small voice, “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Janet … it’s just … I don’t feel I’ve got the right -”

 

“Sam, ever heard of doctor-patient confidentiality? I couldn’t tell anybody, even if I wanted to. The Colonel needs help. You need help. So, let me help!”

 

Sam drew a deep breath, and slowly said, “Okay, Janet … you win.” She pushed herself away from the railing. Pacing the deck, she recounted the events on P4X 535 in her best debriefing voice. Clipped, cool, controlled.

 

“My God”, whispered Janet. “You knew, and you deliberately …”

 

Sam interrupted her pacing, came to a halt. “What was I supposed to do? Watch him … die …?” The disciplined façade had crumbled. She choked on the word. “I’d rather be … I … I need him …”

 

“That’s one way of putting it”, the doctor muttered wryly. She took Sam by the arms. “Sam, listen. I think I know what this is. And I can help. I’m only amazed that it hasn’t happened earlier … Anyway, I need to look into this -”

 

“If he finds out I told you -”

 

“He won’t. In the first instance, it’ll be a ‘routine’ blood test, except I’ll check for -”

 

Janet was cut off by loud clatter and a thud from inside the house. “What the …?!”

 

She ran into the living room. Sam followed. They were greeted by a sight that stopped them dead in their tracks. On the floor sat Colonel O’Neill and Dr Jackson. Jack was holding his chin, Daniel was massaging the knuckles on his right hand, and both stared sheepishly at the two women.

 

“We were only …”

 

“We’re just …”

 

They’d started speaking together, looked at each other, then finished in unison, “… talking!”

 

“Uhunh”, said Janet. “I can see that. And may I ask what precisely you were ‘talking’ about?”

 

Jack blinked. “Uh … we were discussing a little … philosophic difference of opinion Daniel seemed upset about. You know, black ops and need-to-know and stuff. I told him to hit me, if it’d make him feel better.” He squinted at Daniel. “If I’d known you pack that kind of punch I wouldn’t have offered!”

 

“Jack, I’m so sorry!” Daniel had turned a startling shade of crimson. “I guess I really was mad at you …”

 

“Ya think?!”

 

Sam bit her lip. “Doctor, is it true that the gene for stupidity in humans is located on the Y-chromosome?”

 

Janet nodded severely. “Oh yes! I distinctly remember reading it in some medical journal.”

 

“Hey, no sexist jokes, please”, Daniel managed.

 

“It wasn’t a joke!” snapped Janet. “Dr Jackson, God help you if I ever catch you hitting one of my patients again, no matter how mad you are at them. And as for you, Colonel … ah! Why do I even try? Get out of here, the pair of you!”

 

They scrambled to their feet and slunk past Sam and Janet who stood either side of the door, fighting to keep their faces straight while the men escaped out onto the deck.

 

“Uh … Jack?” Daniel tapped Jack’s shoulder. “Jack?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I lied about drawing straws.”

 

Sam smiled. The ludicrous little scene had had a feel of normalcy to it that she had been missing for months. And Daniel and the Colonel were talking again. As opposed to shouting at each other. Maybe everything was going to be alright after all.

 

 

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

 

Part 3

 

 

Three days later SG-1 had assembled in the briefing room, waiting for General Hammond to arrive. Jack was edgy, fiddling with a pen, letting it twirl around his fingers. Finally he took aim and launched it at the water pitcher that stood at the other end of the conference table. The pen gracefully spiralled through the air and, with a delicate ‘plop’, landed in the pitcher and sank.

 

“Bull’s eye”, Colonel O’Neill said drily. Then, “This is like being back at school, waiting for exam results when you know you’ve screwed up.” With a nod at Sam he added, “Not that you’d be familiar with the experience, Carter.”

 

“Don’t jump to conclusions, sir.” She grinned.

 

Teal’c, the obligatory eyebrow arched, inquired, “Why would results of which you are cognizant already cause you nervous anticipation, O’Neill?”

 

“Hope, Teal’c!” exclaimed Jack. “Hope in the face of disaster!”

 

“I see”, Teal’c said gravely, making it perfectly clear that he didn’t.

 

At that moment, General Hammond stormed into the briefing room like the proverbial bear with the sore head. Followed by Doctors Fraiser and McKenzie, and Lieutenant Colonel Samuels, of all unwelcome guests. As SG-1 stood to attention, Sam cast a questioning glance at Janet who replied with a tight-lipped, angry shake of the head. Trouble.

 

The General nodded curtly, and sat down. “At ease, people.”

 

There was shuffling around the table as they all took their seats.

 

Without preamble, the General said, “Your last mission has caused waves in certain quarters at Washington, which accounts for Lieutenant Colonel Samuels’ presence here today. It was felt that an investigation into the events on P4X 535 is called for.” He stared down Daniel who cringed. “I believe this coincides with the recommendation Dr Jackson made at the time of the debriefing.”

 

Ignoring Daniel’s apologetic look at Jack, Hammond continued. “However, Colonel O’Neill has since revised his report for P4X 535.” He glowered at O’Neill. “Colonel, obviously you haven’t just resumed your eccentric little habit of doctoring mission reports, but you’ve encouraged Major Carter to engage in some creative writing of her own.”

 

Too late, Sam grasped what those crumpled pages she’d found in the Colonel’s living room had been all about. He’d re-written the report. She rose. “With respect, sir, that was my idea. If there was any encouraging done, it was by me! Sir!”

 

“Shut up, Carter, will you!” groaned Jack. “And sit down!”

 

Samuels muscled in. “With your permission, General. Major Carter, what concerns me and my superiors is not the question of who encouraged whom to do what. That is hardly relevant at this stage. What is relevant, however, is that in your original reports neither you nor Colonel O’Neill cared to mention some minor, but vital details … such as the fact that you, Major, were injured while preventing your commanding officer’s suicide!”

 

Daniel virtually erupted from his chair. “That’s … that’s the biggest load of bull I’ve ever heard in my life!” he shouted, spluttering. “It’s ridiculous! That Brylcreemed ferret over there has had it in for Jack from the word ‘go’, but this is idiotic even by Samuels’ standards. It’s –”

 

“Daniel! Calm down!” Dr Fraiser’s voice cut through his tirade like a whip lash.

 

“Calm down?! Calm down and do what, Janet?! Listen to more of this garbage? I’d like to know what’s going on here …”

 

Daniel, Janet, and General Hammond kept yelling, McKenzie kept drumming an annoying tattoo on the table, Samuels kept smirking, Teal’c kept quiet. Sam tuned it all out and gazed at O’Neill. He sat, grey-faced, his eyes closed, clutching a pencil so hard that his knuckles had turned white. The only movement she saw was the slight tremor of his hands. This was the last thing he needed. Why hadn’t Janet warned them? Why did the General allow this to happen? And why the hell hadn’t the Colonel told her that he’d changed his mission report? They could have talked to General Hammond in private. Anything would have been better than this circus.

 

The pencil snapped in two. “Daniel.” O’Neill had spoken softly, but his tone held an urgency that got their attention. He looked up, found Daniel’s eyes. “It’s true, Danny.”

 

In the ensuing hush, Daniel sluggishly sat back down. “Why, Jack? … Dammit! … Why?” he stammered.

 

Before Jack had a chance to say anything, Samuels barged in again. “I think that’s a very apposite question. Colonel, would you care to enlighten us? I’m sure everyone here -”

 

“General! Please! This is not the time, nor the place, nor the company!” Janet glared at Samuels.

 

He wasn’t deterred. “With respect, General! This is the time, the place, and the company. I was sent here to investigate what’s beginning to look like … well, frankly, the worst dereliction of duty I’ve ever come across in my career. I am obliged to find out what motivated this man!”

 

“Lieutenant Colonel Samuels!” Hammond roared. “You will refer to Colonel O’Neill by his rank! As for his motives, I can personally guarantee that he will discuss them. But I couldn’t agree more with Dr Fraiser: not here, and not now.”

 

Samuels opened his mouth, but the General anticipated him. “This is final! And a word of advice, mister: if I had a yellow streak a mile wide, I’d think twice before accusing a fellow officer of ‘dereliction of duty’! Do we understand each other?”

 

Amazingly, Samuels had the decency to blush. He tried to cover his embarrassment and poured himself a glass of water, focussing on the open mission report in front of him. “Very well”, he said at last. “In view of General Hammond’s decision, I would like to ask Major Carter to give us her version of events. The correct version, please, Major”, he couldn’t resist adding.

 

It was the juncture Sam had been dreading since she’d realised where this meeting was going. Her CO was being crucified, and they were asking her to supply the tools. The Colonel’s eyes met hers, and he nodded almost imperceptibly. Sam shook her head just as slightly. He frowned, about to speak.

 

Samuels chose that precise moment to take a sip of water and proceeded to spit out a pen.

 

Teal’c, who had had been watching with interest, announced palpably disappointed, “My wish was that it should asphyxiate him.”

 

A noise like a strangled sob came from Daniel’s end of the table, and Janet coughed discreetly.

 

“It’s ‘I was hoping he’d choke on it’, Teal’c”, corrected O’Neill. He looked at Sam whose mouth had started twitching. “Go on, Carter”, he said gently. “That’s an order.”

 

Instantly, the precious glow of amusement faded. Sam pulled herself together. Just as she had a few nights ago, she gave a brisk, outwardly unemotional account of what had happened on P4X 535, omitting only what the Colonel had told her that evening. It was all she could do to shield him, and she already knew that it would be woefully inadequate.

 

When she had finished, Samuels stared at her appraisingly. “So, let’s recapitulate, Major”, he said after a brief pause. “You became aware of your commanding officer’s intent when you noticed both the sniper and the fact that Colonel O’Neill had seen him. And instead of ensuring the safety of the other two team members, you, the second-in-command, decide to leave them leaderless in order to … What? Save your lover?”

 

“Excuse me?”, Sam breathed.

 

“Oh, come on, Major”, retorted Samuels, “spare us the histrionics. I think we’re all only too aware of the rumours.”

 

Before anyone could react, O’Neill had slammed Samuels into the wall and clamped his forearm across the man’s throat, pinning him up like an insect. “You’ve just accused my 2IC of a court-martialable offence, you son of a bitch”, Jack whispered. “I don’t give a damn about what you do to me. But. You. Will. Not. Harm. My. Team.” His voice was perfectly calm, but with each word he increased the pressure on Samuels’ larynx.

 

“Leave him alone, son”, Hammond said very quietly. “Go and sit down.”

 

Slowly, Jack let go of Samuels and turned around. He was struggling for control. Sam could see confusion in his eyes, shock and disbelief. She was startled herself. This wasn’t like him.

 

“Yes, sir”, O’Neill said at last and unsteadily walked back to his seat.

 

Samuels, still gagging, slicked back his hair, and gave a faint, triumphant smile. Sam was the only one who noticed. Her mind was racing. Suddenly she understood that this had been part of whatever game plan Samuels was following. It wasn’t really about what happened on P4X 535. That was merely an added bonus, making the job easier. Whoever was behind this was gunning for the Colonel. Oh God, sir! You played straight into the bastard’s hands! You did exactly what he’d hoped you’d do …

 

“General, I rest my case”, grunted Samuels. “Colonel O’Neill is clearly unfit for command! I demand -”

 

“Lieutenant Colonel!”, the General cut in. “Apart from idle gossip, do you have any hard evidence that officers of my command have been violating regulations?”

 

“No, sir”, Samuels said.

 

“Then you will apologise to Colonel O’Neill and Major Carter.”

 

“Sir! I -”

 

Now!”

 

“Colonel. Major. I apologise”, Samuels mumbled, then raised his voice. “General, I insist that you hear me out. I appreciate your loyalty to your officers, believe me. But even you have to admit that Colonel O’Neill’s behaviour, both on this last mission and just now, proves that he is a danger to himself and to others. He is not fit for command, sir, and I assure you I have the backing of my superiors when I demand he be relieved from duty and detained.”

 

There it was. General Hammond had no grounds to refuse. The Colonel himself had effectively destroyed that option. No way out. Looking around the table, Sam studied the other faces, hoping for some reassurance. Teal’c, stoic Teal’c, was rattled. The General defeated and knowing it. Samuels gloating, predictably. McKenzie fascinated, furiously taking notes. Incomprehension and grief in Daniel’s eyes. The Colonel’s face drawn and unreadable. Janet … defiant?

 

“General, if I may”, spoke up Dr Fraiser. “Colonel O’Neill is showing clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Looking at SG-1’s missions and the Colonel’s own experiences over the past months, that’s hardly surprising -”

 

“My heart bleeds!” Samuels snarled. “He’s a professional soldier. Unpleasantness comes with the territory! I’m not going to mince words: Colonel O’Neill has gone insane. You’ve all witnessed his attack on me.”

 

Sam thought she heard Daniel muttering. “If anything, that’s proof positive of his sanity …”

 

“Given the stressors of even a single mission, it’s a small miracle something like this hasn’t happened sooner”, Janet continued doggedly, ignoring the interruptions. “But we’re dealing with a physiological response that causes mental side-effects, not a mental illness. The Colonel’s latest blood sample has tested abnormally high for norepinephrine, which is fairly typical. It’s the body’s way of triggering a fight-or-flight-response. Point is, suicide attempts can be linked to raised noradrenaline levels, and that would explain what happened on P4X 535. Other symptoms include anxiety, heightened aggression, sleeplessness, emotional withdrawal, and substance abuse, alcohol in this case. Not pretty, granted, but treatable -”

 

“Dr Fraiser, with the greatest respect”, McKenzie spoke for the first time, cutting off Janet. “You’re the CMO, not a psychiatrist. I’d appreciate it if psychiatric evaluations were left to me. In return I promise not to perform any appendectomies in your OR. The symptoms you listed allow for any number of diagnoses. I regret having to agree with Mr Samuels: Colonel O’Neill is unfit for command, and I strongly recommend he be placed under my care -”

 

“No way!!”, yelped Daniel. “That’s the best guarantee that he’ll end up mental!”

 

“- for further observation and treatment”, McKenzie finished.

 

“Thank you, Dr McKenzie. I respect your frankness.” Samuels oozed complacency. “However, considering that Colonel O’Neill is something like the SGC’s golden boy, I’m afraid that misplaced sympathy in diagnosis and treatment might have an adverse effect on his chances of recovery. I believe that in the long run it’ll be far better for all concerned if he is taken to a secure institution to be assessed and treated independently.”

 

“Out of the question!”, General Hammond snapped.

 

Janet made a last attempt. “Dr McKenzie! You know a safe, familiar environment is crucial -”

 

“In treating post-traumatic stress, PTSD, and related disorders. Which we don’t know that we’re dealing with here!” McKenzie was stonewalling, obviously determined to win his private little turf-war at any cost.

 

The General had risen. “Lieutenant Colonel! Doctors! Right now I couldn’t care less about your respective opinions. Last time I checked I was still in command of this facility, and I’m saying Colonel O’Neill stays right here.”

 

“General”, Samuels replied. “Why don’t we let Colonel O’Neill decide? If I could have a word with him? Alone?”

 

Hammond stared at him with contempt. “I’ve no objections. Except, if the Colonel should feel like finishing the job he started I, for one, won’t stop him. In fact, I’ll probably cheer him on.” He turned to Jack who’d been silent through all of it. “You okay with this, son?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Alright. Everybody else, please step outside.” The General led the way.

 

 

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

 

 

Sam couldn’t actually remember leaving the room. She felt drained. Cold. So cold. Leaning back against the wall, she hugged herself. McKenzie had departed. Good riddance. Janet was anxiously whispering to General Hammond who seemed to be only half-listening, if at all. Teal’c stood with his eyes closed, meditating who knew what. Daniel, incessantly muttering to himself, was wearing a groove in the concrete floor. A morbid parody of a maternity ward’s waiting room. Sam snorted, and they all stared at her.

 

“What?!” hissed Daniel.

 

“General?” Sam asked slowly, tiredly. God, even speaking hurt! “That kangaroo court in there? Would you mind explaining? Letting us in on the agenda?”

 

“I’d love to, Major”, Hammond replied. “But I haven’t got it. Near as I can make out, that … what did you call him, Dr Jackson? … ‘Brylcreemed ferret’ is just the messenger boy. Someone else is pulling the strings, and it looks like they have a hell of a lot of clout. P4X 535 gave them an opening and they pounced. Tactics 101.” 

 

“Well, can’t you do anything?” Daniel urged. “Like, call the President?”

 

The General grimaced. “Why do you think I was late, Dr Jackson? The President is currently unavailable … Seems to be doing that a lot lately, whenever it hits the fan”, he added, vexed.

 

“So, we just sit around like a bunch of lemons and let it happen? Dammit, do something, sir! You owe him. We all do!” Sam was shouting. Shouting at a two-star general. Sweet, Carter! That’ll help heaps … And why did she keep hearing the Colonel’s voice, anyway?

 

“Major!” Hammond sounded less annoyed than he should have. “I don’t need reminding, believe me. But the fact remains that my hands are tied. Even if Colonel O’Neill hadn’t lost it in there. I bet the outcome of this charade was decided long before Samuels got anywhere near Cheyenne Mountain. And I gotta tell you, Major, it might have helped if you and the Colonel had come clean in the first place.”

 

“I know, sir. I’m sorry.” Sam blushed. “But why …?”

 

Daniel had resumed his pacing. “Aw, come on, Sam! Wake up! Smell reality! They’re military, they don’t need a reason!”

 

“No, they’re not, son”, Hammond said. “They’re civilian, and the air is very thin wherever they sit. That much I do know.”

 

The door to the briefing room opened, and Samuels strutted out. “General? If you’d be so kind as to arrange for an escort to surface level, where my people are waiting. Colonel O’Neill has agreed to come with me.”

 

“If he has agreed to come with you, you won’t need an escort!” the General replied coldly.

 

Jack O’Neill stood in the doorframe, eyes fixed on the opposite wall. “Request permission to accompany Lieutenant Colonel Samuels, sir.”

 

Nooo!” Daniel howled. “You can’t, Jack! It’s -”

 

“Are you sure about this, Colonel?”, the General asked.

 

“Yes, sir. With your permission, I’d like to get some things from my quarters.”

 

“Go on, son.”

 

Jack started down the hall without looking at anyone, Samuels tagging along at his heels.

 

Hammond exploded. “Lieutenant Colonel Samuels!”

 

“Yes, General?” Samuels had skidded to a startled halt.

 

“You will respect the Colonel’s privacy. Mr Teal’c, Dr Jackson. Show this officer to the mess hall. You can wait there for Colonel O’Neill.” With that, Hammond went into his office and slammed the door.

 

“I suggest you obey General Hammond’s request”, Teal’c observed serenely, when Samuels tried to say something. “I must inform you that I would not have shown as much restraint as Colonel O’Neill, had you placed me in the same predicament.”

 

Samuels opened and shut his mouth several times. Finally he nodded, and they left for the mess.

 

When they’d turned the corner, Janet asked wearily, “Now what?”

 

“Now I go talk to the Colonel”, Sam said. “He can’t do this!”

 

 

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

 

 

“Come.”

 

Sam entered and shut the door. O’Neill was at his desk, with his back to her, packing a bag.

 

“Hi, sir”, she said uncertainly.

 

“Got the short straw, Major? … What can I do for you?”

 

Sam frowned. He was in full, obnoxious ‘Colonel Mode’. Not good. She took a deep breath. “Don’t go, sir.”

 

“Major! Why is it that I have to debate each and every one of my decisions with you? Anyone ever talk to you about chain of command?” He’d spun around, facing her angrily.

 

She glared right back at him. “Sir! It’s a trap! You were set up!”

 

“I know, Carter! I may be a few shells short of a depot, but I’m not that stupid!”

 

Marginally better. The Colonel calling her ‘Carter’ was definitely … better. Maybe she was getting somewhere. “You’re anything but stupid, and you’re not crazy, either, sir. So why do something that’s both stupid and crazy?”

 

“’Lunatic fringe’, remember, Carter?”

 

Oh yeah. She’d been wondering when he’d dig up that one. But the glower had wavered just a little. “Don’t do it, sir. Please!”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “Hey, Carter?! You going mother hen on me?”

 

“Why break the habit of a life-time, sir?” Sam smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

 

Jack sighed. “Carter! Come here!” He grabbed the collar of Sam’s shirt, led her to his bunk and sat her down. Then he slumped on the bed next to her.

 

“Carter, I screwed up. You should know that better than anybody. Okay, so maybe Doc Fraiser has a point with what she says about my doo-dahs being out of whack. But … and believe me, it goes against the grain having to admit this … Samuels has a point, too. I should have handled whatever was happening to me, and I didn’t. Ah! … Ah!” He raised a finger when she tried to interrupt him. “Listen to me! Why do you think I revised that mission report? When the General didn’t accept my resignation, I had to own up. I put you in danger. Ah! Don’t say it! … Hammond would have given me a fair hearing. But suddenly Samuels turns up and throws a curve ball. Which means that, unless I go along with him, I’m finished. Dishonourable discharge and all the rest of it. So, I’m gonna be a good little soldier and do exactly as I’m told, until they say I’m cured.”

 

“What if they don’t say it?”

 

“Then I’m not coming back, Carter. Simple. Doesn’t take an astrophysicist to figure that one out.”

 

“Sir -”

 

“Besides, somebody out there wants my ass in a sling. Things like that tend to make me kinda cranky. If I do what Samuels wants me to, I might be able to find out who it is and shut them down.” He rose and went back to packing.

 

“You’re a lousy liar, Colonel. What did Samuels say to you in there?” Sam had gone after him and gripped his arm. “You’re in no condition to play hard-ball with these guys, and you know it. They might mess you up for good, and you know that too, but you’re still going. Why? Talk to me! Dammit, sir, I’m worried sick about you!” Oh, hell! Now she was fighting back tears …

 

“Carter …” He pulled her close, put his arms around her. “Hey … Sam! … Majors don’t cry -”

 

“Yes, they do. ‘Mulish CO insisting on doing damn-fool thing’ is Number 3 on the list …”, she mumbled, returning his embrace.

 

“Touché …” A soft laugh. “I’ll be fine. I promise. Now get out of here, I’ve got to finish up!” He’d let go and opened the door, looking at her. “Go, Carter. Out!”

 

Sam detected something distressingly familiar in his eyes. The Colonel’s patented I know this is probably real bad for me, but it’s better for you look she’d learned to hate in Antarctica. There was no reasoning with him now, and she knew it.

 

“Yes, sir”, she said and left.

 

Halfway down the hall it dawned on Sam how elegantly he’d avoided answering her question. For someone who so thoroughly distrusted anything starting with ‘psych’, O’Neill was very adept at it.

 

 

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

 

 

Samuels got his escort after all, albeit different from what he might have expected. Without having discussed it, Daniel, Teal’c, and Sam had all converged on the elevator when the time came for O’Neill to be taken away. A fretting Samuels at his shoulder, Jack, in none too polite terms, had tried to persuade them to stay behind. It was one argument he’d lost.

 

When they reached the ground level lobby, they realised why he had been so adamant. Samuels’ goons were standing by. Only the Colonel’s wry look stopped Teal’c from permanently damaging US military personnel when Samuels ordered O’Neill to be straight-jacketed.

 

“Told you. Now behave, kids! I don’t want to hear any complaints.” With an entirely unconvincing grin at his team, Jack turned and let the MPs tie the sleeves behind his back. They shoved him through the door, out into the parking lot, where a van was waiting, engine running already. Jack tripped as he tried to climb in and, unable to use his hands to steady himself, almost fell. The MPs roughly pulled him upright and pushed him into the van. They got in after him, followed by Samuels. The doors closed behind them, and the vehicle sped off.

 

Daniel, Teal’c, and Sam watched until the van disappeared round a bend in the tunnel. In a small, helpless voice, Daniel asked, “He’ll be alright, won’t he? He’ll come back?”

 

Sam put a reassuring arm around his waist. “’Course he’ll be alright, Daniel! They’ll get so sick of his forever kicking up a fuss, they’ll send him back in no time!” If it hadn’t been for the terrifying murmur in her head that kept telling her the exact opposite, she could almost have believed her own lie.

 

Later she’d tried to analyse the avalanche of emotions that threatened to bury her. Good old-fashioned rage, check. Numbing sadness, check. Complemented by hefty side order of pure fear, check. Something that shouldn’t be there at all, check … Check?!

 

 

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

 

 

A week went by without any news. At first, Sam had been telling herself every time she came on duty that today would be the day: there’d be a message, he’d be back even. After a few days that hope had worn thin. What was left of SG-1 had ceaselessly badgered the General to tell them O’Neill’s whereabouts at least, but Hammond had kept hedging. In the end he’d had to admit that this particular piece of information, like so many others, had been withheld from him. If Sam had needed convincing that something was badly wrong, that revelation, or rather lack thereof, would have done the trick.

 

Then General Hammond had called them in for a briefing. Perhaps there were some news at last, good news, preferably. One look at his face as they filed in persuaded them otherwise. With him in the briefing room was a freshly scrubbed Air Force Colonel in dress uniform, complete with moderately impressive salad bar.

 

“Take a seat, people”, Hammond said, apologetically almost. “Now, I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been trying to place Major Carter in temporary command of SG-1. However, in view of recent events, Washington decided to send us one of their own. As of now, Colonel Carl Delaney is in command of SG-1.” He paused and added pointedly, “Until the return of Colonel O’Neill, that is.”

 

The General uneasily scanned the faces around the table, as though expecting a palace revolt. There was none. The fight had been knocked out of all of them. Even Daniel, who not so long ago had gone ballistic when Makepeace had taken over SG-1, just nodded dejectedly.

 

Teal’c was the only one who spoke up. “Have you received tidings of O’Neill’s situation, General?”

 

“No, Teal’c.” Hammond shook his head. “I’m sorry … Well, if there are no further questions … SG-1, you ship out to PJ2 778 in twenty-four hours. It’s a routine survey. Mission briefing at oh-seven-hundred tomorrow. Dismissed.”

 

 

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

 

 

The kindest thing that could be said about Delaney was that he kept himself to himself. Otherwise he loathed female officers, thoroughly despised civilian scientists, and was a card-carrying xenophobe. Ideal command profile for SG-1, Sam found herself thinking more than once. It was immeasurably worse than serving with Robert Makepeace who at least had made some effort to accommodate their somewhat unorthodox team. Well, mostly, anyway … And while the Marine had never been an avid fan of Jack O’Neill’s, he’d shown a healthy dose of respect for the Colonel.

 

Not so Delaney. Of course he knew what had happened. Who didn’t?! His digs about ‘Colonel O’Nuts’ were unending, and when he realised how it affected Teal’c, Daniel and Sam, they became increasingly spiteful. Until Teal’c had lost even the last remnant of his infinite supply of patience and flattened Delaney. After that Delaney watched his mouth, and he’d never reported the incident, knowing full well that he couldn’t expect any support from General Hammond.

 

That night they’d thrown a party at Sam’s place, with Teal’c as the guest of honour. Sam smiled at the memory. Contrary to his usual habits, Teal’c had been ‘prevailed upon to imbibe’, as he chose to phrase it, and for reasons best known to itself his symbiote seemed to have been inclined to join the party. The results had been nothing short of spectacular. After the third bottle of beer he’d felt compelled to treat them to a Jaffa war song that sported some sixty-four verses and sounded deceptively like a mastodon’s funeral dirge. Janet had looked poised to check everybody’s hearing right there and then. Daniel, drunk but linguistically functional, had picked up on the words with fatal ease and joined in the chorus. Unfortunately, the astonishing array of Dr Jackson’s talents didn’t include musicality, and he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Not that it had mattered much in the overall scheme of things …

 

“You’d have loved it, sir”, Sam said.

 

No, no, no, no! Stop it, Carter! He’s not here! You’re at home, it’s twelve o’clock at night, and tomorrow you get to go on another merry jaunt with Delaney. Won’t that be fun?!

 

It had been nearly a month now, and they still didn’t know where or, more pertinently, how the Colonel was. When General Hammond had run into one wall after another with his enquiries, Sam had begun to contact former colleagues from her time at the Pentagon, getting them to do some creative snooping. They’d tracked down a plethora of candidates with any number of ‘l’s, all in precisely circumscribed locations and in the pink of health, but came up completely empty on one Jonathan ‘Jack’ O’Neill, with two ‘l’s and a sense of humour.

 

Then, three days ago, it had ended. General Hammond had received an irate phone call from a creditable source in Washington, informing him that Major Carter’s persistent and ill-advised attempts to find Colonel O’Neill would only impede his speedy recovery.

 

The threat, more than the uncommonly harsh dressing-down she’d received from the General, had prompted Sam to call off the search immediately. She still hadn’t told Daniel and Teal’c … hell, she’d barely told herself. Confronting it would mean to confront the fact that they’d lost, that there was nothing else they could do … that they had to leave Jack O’Neill behind. And she wasn’t ready to let it come to that. Not yet, not now, not ever. Yeah, right! Top marks on determination, Carter! And what exactly are you doing about it?

 

“Squat! Squat! Squat!”, Sam yelled in frustration, hurling her coffee mug at the wall. Too late she realised that it had been the much-loved, unbelievably tacky Wizard of Oz mug the Colonel had given her last Christmas. She ran across the room to where it had fallen and picked up two of the shards. Staring in disbelief at the pieces in her hands, she slowly slid down the wall, until she sat in a puddle of coffee on the floor.

 

Funny, she thought … A shattered mug had achieved what four weeks of anguish, foundered hopes, and missing him hadn’t … Dorothy, the Lion, and the Tin Man were grinning inanely from the shard in her right. The Scarecrow had broken off. And Sam had finally broken down.

 

She clutched the small piece in her left as hard as she could, barely noticing that it cut her palm. “Dear Scarecrow”, she whispered between sobs. “Dear, dear Scarecrow …”

 

The phone rang. Kept ringing, ringing. She hadn’t switched on the answerphone. Sam struggled to her feet, wiping her face with the back of her hand, holding on to the shard. She stumbled to the phone, picked up the receiver. “Yes?”

 

“Major Carter?” The voice sounded familiar, but Sam was just that fraction away from placing it.

 

“Speaking. Who is this?”

 

“At a guess, your least favourite person, Major.”

 

Suddenly it clicked. Sam tried to think of some suitable invective to shout at him before she hung up but failed to unearth anything quite obscene enough.

 

“Please, Major, don’t hang up. This is important! I’m risking my neck by calling you.”

 

“I’m … listening!” she said cagily.

 

“Major, I need to see you.”

 

“You’re kidding, right?”

 

“I wish to God I were, believe me, Major, and I’m not calling for a date. This concerns a mutual acquaintance. Someone who … left town a while ago.”

 

Sam held her breath. “Where? And when?”, she asked at last.

 

“There’s a truck stop on the I-25 about 20 miles south of Colorado Springs. Can you be there in an hour?”

 

“I’ll be there.”

 

She hung up, grabbed her car keys, and raced out of the door. As she got into her car, Sam noticed that she was still clutching the Scarecrow. She smiled and carefully slipped the little shard into her shirt pocket.

 

 

 

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

 

Part 4

 

 

Sam sped down the Interstate, telling herself that this was flying in the face of all common sense and rules of safety. If it was another set-up, Samuels could make her vanish and nobody’d ever be any the wiser. Truth was, she didn’t care. If he could tell her anything at all, it was worth the risk.

 

There, up ahead, that had to be it. A neon flourish advertised Crazy George’s. She giggled. Too right. A certain George S Hammond would sure as hell go crazy if he had an inkling of what Major Carter was up to now!

 

As she pulled in, she scanned the parking lot. A couple of battered trucks, a jeep on the brink of losing several wheels, including the spare, and a beige sedan that hollered ‘Government issue’. So, Samuels was early. Bad field craft, Lieutenant Colonel.

 

Sam parked her car next to the sedan, got out, and warily walked to the door and into the truck stop. The place was deserted as a church on payday. A few lone punters dotted about at the tables, and over in the farthest booth a middle-aged slob in a tracksuit … Whoa! … Cute, Samuels! Got a gift for camouflage, have we?

 

He rose when he saw her approaching, gauchely motioning her to take a seat. “Thank you for coming, Major.”

 

She sat down and eyed him skeptically. He looked like a deer in the headlights, scared out of his wits. No, this definitely wasn’t a set-up. Samuels was capable of a thing or two, but he couldn’t act to save his life. “So”, she said at last, “what was it made you grow a spine, Samuels?”

 

“This.” He slid a CD case across the table.

 

Sam threw a glance at the cover. “Dolly Parton. Yeah, definitely invigorating, I can see that. Cut the crap, Samuels. Where is Colonel O’Neill?”

 

“I don’t know. I swear I don’t … Look, in there is the copy of a DVD I was asked to deliver to the people I work for. It’s … it’s not pretty … oh, hell, it’s … I never meant for anything like this to happen …” He ran a hand through his hair, shook his head.

 

“What exactly is … ‘this’, Samuels?” Sam asked reluctantly. Oh please, don’t let him be dead …

 

Samuels ignored her question, unwilling or unable to answer. “You have to believe me, if I’d had any idea, I wouldn’t have … no matter what you think, I’m not a total swine … it’s no secret that I never cared much for O’Neill. When they told me he had to go, be removed from the SGC, hell, I volunteered for the job! I mean, three years ago the arrogant bastard just waltzed into the assignment I wanted … couldn’t set a foot wrong, until P4X 535 … We hadn’t dared to hope for an opportunity presenting itself that quickly … Talk about a Godsend! … You can tell your Dr Fraiser she was right, by the way, we’d suspected post-traumatic stress from the start. All I had to do was push his buttons, make it look like he’d gone over the edge, the rest was easy … I thought, perfect, tour in the nuthouse for him, then discharge, and there’s an end to it … If I’d known …”

 

“Dammit, Samuels, what happened?!” Sam shouted, sick of the man’s rambling self-pity.

 

“Keep your voice down, Major, for God’s sake!” Samuels nervously stared at the other guests, but noone paid any attention. He turned back to Sam. “O’Neill disappeared from the hospital I’d been ordered to check him into. No trace. There wasn’t even a record of admission. When I asked what was going on, they told me to mind my own and forget the whole thing.”

 

“Who are those people you work for?”

 

“No idea, Major. I don’t have any names, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t give them to you. All I can tell you is that it’s some very black, very influential political group -”

 

“The people behind Maybourne’s little souvenir hunting operation”, Sam breathed. “We know the Colonel made someone very high up very unhappy when he closed that one down … This is about revenge?”

 

“That’s not the half of it. When O’Neill’s sting was successful, they realised that they’d never stand a chance of achieving their goals without actually infiltrating the SGC at top command level. One of the biggest stumbling blocks was O’Neill, so they made him … go away, in order to get one of their own men in.”

 

“Delaney.”

 

“Yes. But there’s something else. About four weeks ago, the same time that O’Neill disappeared, your friend Harry Maybourne was sent back to his old stomping grounds. Bit of a coincidence, isn’t it?”

 

Sam’s eyes widened. “You’re saying that Colonel O’Neill may be held at Groom Lake?”

 

“Being ‘held’ is a euphemism, if I ever heard one.” Samuels squirmed. “And I already told you I don’t know where he is. It’s an educated guess, nothing more. Point is, according to this” - Samuels tapped the CD case - “somebody’s trying their damndest to get some kind of specific information out of O’Neill. Apparently without success, so far … which is the only reason why they’re keeping him alive, I reckon.”

 

Sam picked up the case and opened it. The small iridescent disc inside looked so innocuous. “So, what’s on there?”

 

“Major, don’t pretend to be naïve! What do you think it is? It contains ‘interrogation’ records, taped two days ago. Believe me, I wish I’d never laid eyes on it. But what do you know, I got curious … Made me sick. I don’t like the man, never have, but this … wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Anyway, I decided you should see this. I made a copy, flew down here, and called you. Take it, do with it what you will. Maybe you can find a clue to his whereabouts somewhere on there. I don’t want anything more to do with this … I’d better get going.” He rose.

 

Sam felt the blood drain from her face as she finally allowed herself to comprehend what Samuels was talking about. She carefully closed the lid on the CD case, blinking at the absurd impropriety of Dolly Parton’s gleaming smile. “Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel”, she said tonelessly.

 

“One more thing, Major.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“It’s about Delaney. They don’t intend to have him stay 2IC of the SGC forever, if you catch my drift …”

 

“But General Hammond -”

 

“Major, you still don’t get it! Either Hammond goes voluntarily, or he goes feet first! He’s laid himself wide open already, making all kinds of extremely unhealthy enquiries about O’Neill. Tell him to watch his back!” With that, Samuels turned to go.

 

“Lieutenant Colonel! One more question, please?” Sam was pleading, hating herself for it.

 

“What?”

 

“How did you get Colonel O’Neill to come with you? What did you tell him?”

 

Samuels laughed. “You mean he hasn’t said anything to you? My, my, chivalry isn’t dead after all …” He leaned on the table, bringing his face within an inch of Sam’s. “Major, I told O’Neill he’d either agree to come with me, or I’d have you up on charges for dereliction of duty. He took some convincing, but eventually I got him to believe that we could make it stick … It’s ironic, don’t you think, how you can make a man’s loyalty work against him?”

 

Sam didn’t answer, didn’t even notice that Samuels had left. She sat at the table, staring blindly, unable to gather a single coherent thought, except one: she had caused this. Suddenly a savage wave of nausea hit her. She grabbed the CD case and stumbled to the ladies’ room. Kneeling in the filthy cubicle, she started retching, throwing up until nothing but bile came. At last she got up, her teeth chattering, and painfully made her way into the restaurant.

 

The barmaid smiled at her with practised sympathy. “Been ditched, babe?”

 

“What?! … Oh … yeah … no …” She had to get out of here. Out, out, out.

 

Somewhere in her mind Jack O’Neill’s voice began echoing. “Think of something!”

 

 

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

 

 

“Open the door! Daniel! Open, or I’ll kick it down. Daniel!!!” Sam’s fist was pounding the door to Jackson’s apartment.

 

Daniel’s neighbour stuck his head out. “Can it, lady, will ya?! You got any idea what time it is?”

 

Thump-thump-thump. “Daniel! Wake up, dammit!” Thump-thu-

 

Her last blow nearly decked Daniel who’d opened, squinting at her bleary-eyed and drowsy with sleep. “Sam …?”

 

“You know this … lady?” the neighbour groused. “Figures! Maybe you explain to her that at this time of night people are asleep, normal people, anyway -”

 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah …”, Daniel muttered, pulled Sam inside and closed the door on the man’s complaining. He switched on the lights and with one look at her came wide awake. “Jeez, Sam! What’s the matter? You look like you’ve been to hell and back!”

 

“Not yet”, she mumbled. “So far I only kinda got the brochure …” She steadied herself against the wall. “Daniel, can I just sit down, please? I’m not feeling so good …”

 

“Sure … come on.” Daniel led her to his cluttered living room, where he burst into some frantic cosmetic tidying. “Uh … sorry … meant to clean up -”

 

“Daniel! … It’s fine. Doesn’t matter. Okay?” She sat on the sofa, burying her face in her hands.

 

Daniel stood in the centre of the room, unsure of what to do. “’kay … I’ll get you some water”, he said at last and disappeared into the kitchen. A minute later he was back, sat down next to Sam and held out a glass. “Here …” He nudged her.

 

Slowly, she reached out to take the glass, wrapped both hands around it and drank in deep gulps.

 

Daniel watched her. “Want to tell me what brought you here at three o’clock in the morning?” he asked gently.

 

“I talked to Samuels.”

 

“That’s enough to upset anybody … And?”

 

Sentence by hesitant sentence, Daniel wormed the whole story out of her. Almost the whole story. Sam didn’t tell him what Samuels had revealed to her at the end.

 

When she had finished, Daniel leaned back, closed his eyes. “Oh, shit …”, he whispered. “So, now what?”

 

“I don’t know …”

 

“Sam, we’ll have to check out that DVD.”

 

“What for?! To watch him being -” She couldn’t bring herself to say it. As long as she didn’t say it, didn’t see it, she could pretend it wasn’t true.

 

“Stop it, Sam! This isn’t like you!” Daniel was implacable. “You’re a scientist, so face facts. Jack is being held somewhere. From what you’re telling me, he’s being tortured. Yes, Sam! Tortured! Running away from facts isn’t going to help anybody, least of all Jack.” He picked up the DVD, held it up to her face. “This … Look at it! … This is evidence. What do we do with evidence? We examine it! And with any kind of luck, it’ll tell us where he is, and then we can go and get him out … Sam, if Jack were here, what would he say to you?”

 

“Easy.” She smiled a little. “He’d say, ‘Think of something!’”

 

“Exactly! You can start doing just that while I go change into something more publicly acceptable than pyjama-bottoms. Then we drive to the base. We need Teal’c, and we need the lab equipment there.”

 

Sam nodded.

 

 

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

 

 

When they reached Teal’c’s quarters, he was sitting on his bunk, apparently expecting them, alerted by whatever sixth sense Jaffa seemed to have for danger. Sam filled him in on the details, and then the three of them stole through the deserted corridors into her lab.

 

She switched on her computer, and with trembling hands clipped the DVD into the drive, pushed it shut and clicked ‘Play’. A date mark scrolled down the screen.

 

“That’s two days ago”, Daniel stated the obvious. “It says ‘Session 4/Day 2’ there … what’s that mean?”

 

“How should I know? Shut up!” Sam replied irritably.

 

The picture spread from the centre of the screen, establishing gradually. It showed a water-filled, enclosed space, grey-in-grey, so much so that it was virtually impossible to tell where the water ended and the walls began. There was no visible light source. The place was mired in a diffuse, dull gloom. Floating on the water, face-up and motionless, the figure of a man in a grey wet-suit.

 

“It’s Jack!” Daniel whispered excitedly.

 

“Shush!” The meaning of the image was hovering just beyond the fringes of Sam’s consciousness, and she didn’t want to be distracted. In the upper left-hand corner she could make out two divers, moving carefully and without causing so much as a ripple on the water’s surface. At the bottom of the screen appeared a data bar, reading ‘Subject 14A’, followed by a graph and a sequence of numbers that looked familiar.

 

“Those are vital stats! … Heartbeat is fast, thready … Blood pressure is up …”, Sam said, mostly to herself. Then, “Turn up the volume!”

 

Teal’c answered. “It is turned up, SamanthaCarter.”

 

“Can’t be. I’m not hearing -”

 

She was interrupted by the sudden sound of a female voice, obviously coming from outside the grey chamber. “Diving team, diving team! Another episode is imminent. Stand by to sedate and retrieve subject if pulse and blood pressure reach critical levels.” On the screen both divers cocked their heads, listening to the message on their earpieces, then gave a thumbs-up.

 

Sam’s eyes strayed from the image to the data bar and back again. Finally, she understood. “No!”

 

“Sam?” asked Daniel. “Sam, what is it?”

 

“It’s a sensory deprivation tank!”

 

“What is a -” Teal’c began.

 

Sam explained. “A place where you can’t hear anything, see anything, taste or smell or feel anything, hardly even your own voice or your own body. It’s sometimes used in therapy, but a therapy session lasts maybe a couple of hours, and obviously you know what’s happening to you. But just suppose you don’t know that, you’ve been sedated and wake up in a … a nothingness! If you stay there much longer than an hour or two … your mind starts folding in on itself, because it has none of the input it’s used to. You’d start hallucinating, having brutal panic attacks, eventually you’d die …” She trailed off, as she remembered something she’d read on the screen. “’Day 2’ … My God, he’s been in there for two days …”

 

And then Jack started screaming. An inhuman, heart-rending scream, filled with unspeakable horror. Sam staggered back from the screen, where a tiny, grey figure floating on grey water suffered a violent seizure. The readings on the data bar spiked, then the heart monitor went flat. The anonymous voice yelled, “Retrieve, retrieve, retrieve!”

 

An instantly recognisable voice shouted, “Major! May I ask what’s going on here?!”

 

Reflexively, Sam hit the ‘Pause’ button and spun around to face the General. “Sir! We …”

 

She ran a hand over her face, shivering … He can’t be dead … I’m thinking too much! … But Samuels said they’d kept him alive … Stop thinking! For God’s sake, stop thinking …

 

“Sir, we found out what happened to Colonel O’Neill … I believe you ought to see this … it’s just … it’s not pretty”, she stammered, unconsciously repeating Samuels’ words. Then, for the third time on this dreadful morning, Sam recounted what she’d learnt from Samuels. The story didn’t gain through iteration.

 

Hammond, pale with outrage, listened attentively. Waving a hand at the screen, he asked, “And you think … this … may somehow confirm that Colonel O’Neill is at Area 51?”

 

“We’re not watching it for the entertainment value, sir”, Sam replied bitterly.

 

“I know that, Major. I’m sorry.” The General nodded at her. “Well, an extra pair of eyes and ears won’t hurt. Let’s see what we can find out. Carry on.” He pulled a lab stool towards him and perched on it.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Sam was about to restart the DVD, when she heard Colonel Carl Delaney drawl, “I wouldn’t do that, Major. See, if I were you, I’d take that there disc out of the drive, nice and slow, and hand it to my buddy Carl.”

 

He stood in the doorway, training a silenced handgun on them. “Major! The disc. Now. I don’t like having to say things twice. Hold it right there, freak”, Delaney barked when Teal’c made a move towards him. “You so much as twitch, you can kiss the General here good-bye. Same goes for you, Jackson. No disrespect, General, but it’s about time you took retirement. Hurry up, Major!”

 

Sam opened the drive and removed the DVD.

 

“That’s it. There’s a good little girl! Put it in the case and bring it over, nice and slow, remember.” His eyes briefly flicked to Sam, then he concentrated on the three men again. “Interesting gizmo, that tank. Fascinating what it can do to a man. And doesn’t leave a trace on his body. The geeks back at the facility couldn’t wait to try it. Your Colonel O’Neill surprised them, though. They’d figured 24 hours’d be the limit. First time round he lasted three days before his system began shutting down. Quite impressive. And you thought he was losing it …” Delaney chuckled. “Bad call, General! Mind you, on the session you just saw, they nearly overdid it. Eight minutes of CPR before they got his heart started again. Cracked his breastbone in the process. And the dumb son of a bitch still doesn’t cooperate. Probably likes it or something …”

 

As slowly as she dared, Sam inched towards Delaney. He was overconfident, talking far too much. Good, she thought. Keep talking, make me even angrier. And keep your bead on the boys, moron. They’re guys, so they’re dangerous, right? I’m the good little girl. No harm in letting me come too close. In his bigotry, Delaney was making a fatal mistake. He underestimated his opponent. She was almost within reach now. Almost there …

 

It was as though Daniel had heard her thoughts. Without warning he leapt at Hammond and knocked him off the stool, effectively pushing him into cover on the floor behind a lab bench.

 

For a second, Delaney was diverted, and that second was all Sam needed. She jumped him, slamming his gun hand against the doorframe and sending the weapon flying, then followed up with a vicious kick to the groin. Delaney doubled over, and Sam’s elbow to the side of his head brought him down. She straddled his stomach, pinning his arms to the floor with her knees. And then Sam Carter began pummelling him with all the boundless rage that had been building inside her.

 

A large, strong hand grasped her raised fist. “SamanthaCarter. It would be unwise to kill this man. He knows where O’Neill is. I will speak to him”, Teal’c said.

 

The red haze faded, and Sam clumsily climbed off Delaney. She stared after Teal’c as he dragged the man away. The rush of adrenaline gone, she felt dazed and exhausted … and embarrassed. She’d lost it, and that was inexcusable.

 

Hammond walked up to her and patted her shoulder. “Feeling better now, Major?”

 

“Not really, sir.”

 

“Didn’t think so. It doesn’t help, usually. By the way, Major, could you do me favour? Whenever necessary, remind me not to get you mad at me.”

 

Daniel had found the DVD on the floor, where Sam had dropped it, and brought it back to her. “Hey, Sam, there’s one bit of good news: if Delaney really knows where Jack is, we won’t have to look at any more of this.”

 

 

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

 

 

Some ten minutes later, Teal’c returned. Alone. “I have secured Colonel Delaney in a holding cell, General Hammond. I hope this is acceptable.”

 

The General bit back a grin. “Perfectly acceptable, Teal’c. Well, did he talk?”

 

“I have persuaded him to share his knowledge with us. He is awaiting questioning”, Teal’c stated. “At the present time, he has confirmed that your Area 51 is indeed the place where O’Neill is imprisoned.”

 

“And you think Delaney was telling the truth?”

 

“I am positive, DanielJackson. I discouraged him from lying to me”, Teal’c answered modestly.

 

“We’d better keep this under wraps, people”, Hammond mused. Then he fixed his gaze on Sam. “Alright, Major. Shoot! What do you need?”

 

“Excuse me, sir?”

 

“Major, I take it the idea was to find out where Colonel O’Neill is so that you could go and get your CO back. It’s a mission now, and you’re in charge. What do you need?”

 

“Oh! Yes, sir! …” Sam started pacing, her mind sifting through possibilities and givens. “I want to go in on my own first, undercover. I need a transfer order, preferably not from here and not from you, sir. No offence”, she added.

 

“None taken. I’ve got a few contacts I can trust. What’s your ID?”, the General asked.

 

“Well, going by what we’ve seen, I’m assuming that they’ve started up some sort of twisted psych section. How does a doctoral candidate in psych with a specialisation in memory retrieval grab you, sir? Make me a lieutenant, second grade, and find me a name … Dorothy … Something”, Sam said, feeling for a small shard in her shirt pocket. “And then I’ll have to cram …”

 

“You got it. What else?”

 

“Bottle of chestnut hair-dye and brown contacts?”

 

“Goes without saying. What else?”

 

“I want Daniel, Teal’c, and Dr Fraiser on stand-by to help me get the Colonel out whenever I give the word.”

 

“Alright. What else?”

 

Daniel interrupted. “How are you planning to get Jack out? Walk past the guard post and say ‘Never mind us, guys, I’m just borrowing him for a while’?”

 

“Nice thought, if a little impractical. He won’t be walking, I daresay”, she retorted grimly. “Sorry, Daniel. You told me to face facts.” Suddenly she grinned. “Daniel! All the stuff you drag back from the planets we go to eventually gets sent to their Delta-Storage, right?”

 

“Yeah. Most of it. Why?”

 

“Did you send them anything that was, say, 15” high, 2’6” wide and 6’2” long, and of absolutely no defence value?”

 

“What?! … Let me think … uhm … well, there was a fragment of a really old Salish totem pole that was still carved from wood, not made of trinium … yeah, that’d fit the bill. Why?”

 

“General, sir, Dr Jackson urgently needs that bit of totem pole back for further study.”

 

“He does?” asked Hammond.

 

“I do?” asked Daniel.

 

“Absolutely! I want an order for the guys at Groom Lake to release that pole, I want a truck, and I want Sergeant Siler to build a container in which a valuable antique of these dimensions can be safely transported. I’ll give him exact specifications.”

 

Daniel and the General looked utterly confused.

 

“SamanthaCarter”, Teal’c remarked, “I do not believe that O’Neill will appreciate being referred to as a ‘valuable antique’.”

 

“Teal’c. I don’t give a damn!” For the first time in weeks, Sam burst into genuine laughter.

 

General Hammond growled, “Clearly you and Teal’c know what’s so funny. Care to let Dr Jackson and me in on the joke?”

 

“Well, sir, it’s like this …” Sam started explaining.

 

 

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

 

 

Three days later, a dark-eyed brunette by the name of Lieutenant Dorothy Fenwick showed her ID and transfer orders to the guard post at Area 51, nervously pushing a pair of horn-rimmed specs up her nose. She had Daniel to thank for the mannerism.

 

“Okay, Lieutenant. Staff parking is up there to your left. Stay clear of spaces reserved for the brass. Then go to main reception. They’ll get someone to give you the grand tour and take you to your section.”

 

“Thanks”, she said, smiling sweetly, and put her rental car into gear.

 

 

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

 

 

The ‘grand tour’ was less comprehensive than the name suggested, leaving out the top secret areas where artefacts … ‘rocks’, she thought sadly … and specimens obtained through the Stargate programme were analysed. Captain Williams, her guide, eventually took Sam to a new building in a remote part of the complex. “Well, here we are. Crackpot Central. It’s all pretty recent, which means you’re lucky, because the accommodation’s above standard. Living quarters are in the wing over there, by the way. They’ll assign you a room. Make sure you give me the number.” He leered at her, and Sam suppressed the urge to slap him.

 

Williams walked up to a set of locked double doors. “Haven’t got the entry code. It’s authorised personnel only”, he explained and pushed a buzzer. Above their heads a security camera swivelled and focussed on them. Then Sam heard the faint click of the door lock releasing. He held the door open for her. “After you, Lieutenant.”

 

She took a deep breath and walked through the door. This was it.

 

They were met by a tall, striking redhead in a white lab coat. “Lieutenant Fenwick! Welcome to Groom Lake! I’m Dr Harriman.”

 

It took every ounce of Sam’s self-control to return the greeting. The woman’s dark, cultured timbre was unmistakable. It was the voice they had heard on the DVD.

 

 

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

Part 5

 

 

Dr Harriman had shown Sam to her quarters. Sam had unpacked, found the commissary, and after dinner had gone for a reconnoitre of the immediate vicinity. While out on the grounds, she’d made a brief, terse call on her cell phone, to let Daniel, Teal’c, and Janet know that she was in. She lay awake most of the night, going over every detail of the plan, making changes, filling in blanks from the information she had gathered during the day. It would be difficult … but they’d expected as much.

 

In the morning, Dr Harriman came to pick her up. Over breakfast, ‘Lieutenant Fenwick’ was introduced to another newcomer, Captain Julia Sheridan, and lab technician Tim Freeman, a Sergeant in his late fifties. While Sam thought that under different circumstances she might warm to Freeman, Sheridan looked like another Samuels in the making. Sam instinctively distrusted her. After breakfast, Harriman took them to the sub-basement.

 

“We’ve got our experimental section down here. Needless to say, the work is highly sensitive”, Harriman explained. “At the moment, things are pretty quiet, though. We’re under orders to drop all other research for the time being and prioritise this subject.” She opened a heavy steel door that led onto an observation gallery, not unlike the one at the SGC infirmary.

 

Sam looked down into the sterile white and metal glare of the lab below, and her heart flipped. She’d found him. Strapped to a slab in the centre of the room, cocooned in IV lines, tubes, ECG and EEC wires, lay Jack O’Neill … Oh God, sir! If it hadn’t been for the laboured rise and fall of his chest, discoloured by a massive, livid bruise, Sam could have been staring at a corpse. She remembered what Delaney had said. They’d fractured the Colonel’s sternum, trying to resuscitate him -

 

“Lieutenant Fenwick? … Lieutenant Fenwick!”

 

She started. How long had Harriman been talking to her? Nice job, Carter! That kind of thing can get you killed. And him! She looked up and smiled apologetically. “Sorry, Doctor. I was admiring the equipment. State of the art …”

 

Dr Harriman didn’t know whether to be annoyed or flattered. “Yeah, well. Lately we’ve had a lot of funding. As I was saying, Fenwick, subject 14A should be of interest to you. You’re specialising in memory retrieval, aren’t you?”

 

“Uh … yes … I am”, Sam responded. “You’re saying you’re working on … 14A along these lines?”

 

“Yes and no. It goes beyond mere memory retrieval. According to our sources, roughly a year ago 14A’s brain function suddenly increased by approximately 900%. 14A then disappeared for a brief period of time. Upon return the subject was reported to have ‘lost’ the use of expanded brain function. I don’t need to tell you that this just isn’t possible. No memory or ability is permanently lost, unless there has been severe cerebral trauma of some sort or another, which isn’t the case here. Our job is, quite simply, to get 14A to do it again and find out how it works. So far we haven’t been very successful”, Harriman added. “The protocol was slightly unusual. We ruled out conventional truth drugs and hypnosis, because the subject has had Special Ops training and would know how to minimise their effects …”

 

Again, Sam tuned out Harriman’s voice, reeling from the implications of what she’d heard. The good doctor could carry on tearing apart Colonel O’Neill till Kingdom Come without finding anything. There was nothing to be found. The Asgard had done what Harriman said couldn’t be done. They’d erased that knowledge, that ability, from the Colonel’s mind before it destroyed him.

 

Sheridan was getting curious. “So, who is this man? What’s his background?”

 

“That’s classified. You don’t need to know any background.” Harriman glared at her. “And I’d like to warn you at this point, both of you. You will be asked to do or witness things you might find disturbing. Some of the procedures we try on 14A will cause him severe discomfort. On the upside, if we succeed, the benefits to our country could be immense.”

 

Sam never took her eyes off the still form in the room below. Don’t throttle her, Carter! It’s a giveaway. You’re here to get him out … She turned to Harriman and asked, “Has … the subject … divulged any information so far?”

 

Dr Harriman frowned, eventually she said, “It’s in the files. I’ve got copies for you both. Have a look, tell me what you think. At this juncture we’re very open to suggestions …”

 

Julia Sheridan’s eyes lit up.

 

 

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

 

 

Sam sat at the desk in her quarters, studying the files she’d picked up from Harriman. He’d been put in the tank four times, duration ranging from one to three days. The files documented every scream, every panic attack, right down to the episode that nearly had killed him. Each time he’d been retrieved from the tank, Harriman had tried to question him. As far as Sam could make out, the most pertinent piece of information the Colonel had offered was a list of last year’s NHL scores. Involuntarily, she grinned: it was so like her … mulish CO … at least he still was in there somewhere, fighting …

 

Her smile faded. In minute detail, the next pages charted his deterioration. Periods when he was disoriented and incoherent had become longer and more frequent, at times he was catatonic. His dependency on his interrogator had increased dramatically. That husky voice represented the only form of human contact, the only stable, palpable reality in the universe of Jack O’Neill. Harriman had managed to sustain the effect, although she no longer dared to put him in the tank. Instead, they’d begun experimenting with psychoactive drugs, inducing states of massive anxiety. On the rare occasions when he was conscious, he was kept in limbo even now, outside stimuli reduced to a bare minimum. Fed and medicated through tubes and IV lines, not touched or spoken to by anyone. If direct contact was necessary he would be heavily sedated. Stimuli were only allowed as a reward for information given. So far there had been no such rewards.

 

Heartsick, Sam closed the folder and looked at her watch. They were to meet with Dr Harriman in the conference room in ten minutes, supposedly to review ‘suggestions’ … Sam groaned. The one suggestion she was dying to make to Harriman was not only anatomically unfeasible but would also undermine the image of the meek junior officer and scientist Sam was hoping to maintain.

 

 

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

 

 

Having taken a wrong turn in the labyrinth of identical corridors, Sam arrived late. “Sorry. I got lost …”

 

“Lieutenant Fenwick! How nice of you to join us”, Harriman said coolly. “Colonel, this is our latest acquisition. Lieutenant Dorothy Fenwick. Fenwick, Colonel Maybourne.”

 

Sam felt like she’d somehow lost the ability to breathe … Please, don’t let him fire up his brain cell and recognise me! … She managed a shaky salute in Maybourne’s direction. “Colonel.”

 

“Lieutenant. Sit down.” He eyed her uncertainly. “Fenwick? … Have we met before?”

 

“No, sir, not that I’m aware of. I’m sure I’d remember, sir.” Sam took a seat.

 

Maybourne shrugged and said, “Captain Sheridan, if you’d like to carry on …”

 

Sheridan had obviously decided that this was a career move. ‘Impress the Brass’ time. “Well, Lieutenant, I was just explaining to the Colonel, Dr Harriman, and Mr Freeman that, based on the records I’ve seen, I strongly advocate ECT. The subject seems stable enough, and we should start as soon as possible in order to -”

 

“Captain”, Sam cut in, unable to contain her horror. “ECT has been reputed to have some therapeutic value in the treatment of amnesia. The efficacy of the treatment is far from certain, as you should know. Besides, I don’t think the subject is suffering from amnesia -”

 

“Oh, I absolutely concur, Lieutenant”, replied Sheridan. “He refuses to cooperate. Therefore I’m proposing a change of protocol. Instead of removing all stimuli, I’d like to introduce a strong negative stimulus: electric shocks … and let’s make sure he’s awake.”

 

“Torture, in other words”, Sam said coldly. “Primum non nocere ring a bell, Captain? You did study Latin, I presume, and I trust you heard of Hippocrates?”

 

“Lieutenant!” Maybourne barked. “We may not like what we’re doing here, but the end justifies the means. I’m sure Dr Harriman has explained the guidelines to you. Unless you have a better idea, I’m inclined to go with Sheridan’s proposal. We start tonight. Thank you.” Maybourne nodded a greeting and left, followed by Sheridan and Freeman.

 

Sam was rising to go, when Harriman stopped her. “Lieutenant Fenwick. You’ve come here to do experimental psych. What did you think this was? A paediatrics ward? If your credentials weren’t so good, I’d turf you out right now. As it is, I’m willing to give you another chance. Sort out your attitude! Am I making myself clear?”

 

“Yes, doctor. I’m sorry. It just takes some getting used to.”

 

“Get used to it quickly. I expect to see you in the lab at 1900 hours.” Harriman rose and flounced through the door, leaving Sam behind.

 

Sam leaned heavily on the table and closed her eyes … No, please! … The roller coaster she was on must have just taken a dive … The Colonel had ended up here because of her … Someone, anyone, get me off this ride! … Her objection had prompted Maybourne to go with Sheridan’s proposal … Of all the smoking Charlie Foxtrots, Carter! Haven’t you done enough damage already -

 

“Hey … you alright?”

 

Sam turned and saw Freeman’s head poking through the door. “No!” She turned away again. “I will be in a bit.”

 

“Don’t worry about Harriman. She always finds herself a newcomer to pick on -”

 

“Look, Freeman, I don’t want to be rude. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but -”

 

“You’d rather I butt out.”

 

“Yeah. Thanks …” She looked at him.

 

“Don’t sweat it. If you want to talk, just give me a shout.” Freeman winked at her, and his head disappeared.

 

Talk?! If she rated the things she didn’t want to do on a scale of 1 to 10, talking to Freeman would roughly earn a 6. On the other hand, having to be there at the lab tonight, now that was a clean, unequivocal 11 … and she would be unable to stop them …

 

 

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

 

 

When Sam arrived on the observation gallery, they’d already prepared the Colonel. Electrodes were taped to his temples, and he’d been taken off the drugs. He was drifting awake, stirring softly … Don’t wake up, sir! … Don’t! … Please … Suddenly Sam saw his eyes widen in fear. He knew … Oh God! … He knew what was coming …

 

“Lieutenant Fenwick?”

 

Sam looked at the woman. “Yes, Dr Harriman?”

 

“Do me a favour, would you, Fenwick?” Harriman gave her a cloying smile. “I’m staying up here with Sheridan to watch. I’d like you to join Freeman in the control room and ‘throw the switch’, so to speak. Nothing to worry about. The ECT unit is computer-controlled, and we’ve programmed the whole cycle. All you have to do is push the button whenever I give the word.”

 

No! Anything but that! … Don’t think, just do it, you’ve got no choice. “Of course, doctor”, she said quietly and left the gallery … Autopilot, Carter! If you refuse, you blow what little chance you have of getting him out … I’m so sorry, sir … I’m so, so sorry …

 

She entered the control room, and Freeman acknowledged her briefly. He turned back to the computer, then stepped aside for her. “All yours, Lieutenant.”

 

Tentatively, she moved in front of the console, read the figures on the screen. The settings made her retch. She’d been right … as though she needed proof. This had nothing to do with ‘therapy’ or ‘research’.

 

Harriman’s voice came over the intercom. “Stand by, control room. On my mark …”

 

Sam forced herself to put a finger on the button. Don’t think, just do it … Don’t think, just do it … Don’t think, just do it …

 

“Three … Two -”

 

Don’t think, just - … Freeman had pulled away Sam’s shaking hand, placed his own on the red disc. “Don’t do this to yourself, honey”, he murmured, “and don’t tell anybody, either.”

 

“One … Mark!”

 

Freeman pressed the button. Sam heard the high-pitched whine of the unit loading. Then it discharged.

 

Outside in the lab, beyond the tall windowpane, Jack O’Neill’s body went into convulsions, the tight restraints brutally containing the arching of his back and breaking the skin at his wrists and ankles. At last, he relaxed, lying there dazed and motionless. A thin trickle of blood and saliva ran down his chin.

 

Suddenly Harriman’s voice filled the air. “Jonathan”, she purred. “I want to help you. But I need you to help me first. Show me how your mind works, and I can make them stop. Help me to help you, Jonathan!”

 

“… can’t … sorry …”

 

For the first time in weeks Sam heard his voice. It was barely more than a hoarse moan.

 

Harriman came back. “I’m disappointed in you, Jonathan. They’re disappointed in you. You know what that means, don’t you?”

 

“… please … no … please …”

 

She’d never known the Colonel to beg. Not like this. Sam’s fists clenched until her nails dug bloody crescents into her palms.

 

The intercom clicked back on. “Fenwick! Stand by! … Three … Two … One … Mark!”

 

That dreadful whine, the crackle of the discharge. Louder this time. This time he screamed, convulsing so savagely that the restraint on his left wrist gave. His hand flailed against the edge of the slab, and Sam heard the sharp snap of breaking bone. Mercifully, he lost consciousness.

 

“Shit”, Harriman shouted over the speaker. “Somebody! Wake up the subject!”

 

Freeman got on the intercom. “Doctor! The stats we’re getting are not good. Pulse is weak and erratic. I wouldn’t recommend another try. You might lose the subject.”

 

Harriman gave an impatient snort. “I’m coming down!”

 

“Hey, Lieutenant!” Freeman tapped Sam’s shoulder. “She’s on her way down, honey. Look ship-shape.”

 

Wiping the blood from her hands and fighting an overwhelming nausea, Sam stammered, “I … I didn’t say thanks.” Her voice was quavering. “Thanks.”

 

He gave her an encouraging grin. “Don’t mention it. Literally!”

 

“Why are you helping me?”

 

Harriman burst into the room, walked over to the monitor and studied the readings. “Damn! You’re right! … Well, there’s always tomorrow … Fenwick!

 

“Yes, doctor?” Sam surprised herself by sounding absolutely calm.

 

“Go in and stay with 14A. Observe the subject. Pupil reflex, stats, the usual, and see what you can do with that wrist. Anything out of the ordinary, you let me know. We might have got through with this last one. Well done, by the way. That wasn’t so hard now, was it? … Oh, as soon as the subject shows signs of coming round, put him back on the sedative, and get out of there. Clear?”

 

“Clear.”

 

“Good.” Harriman nodded at her. “Freeman! Come with me. I want to discuss results with you and Sheridan.”

 

 

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

 

 

The air in the lab reeked of ozone, a lingering reminder of what had taken place here. Hesitantly, Sam walked over to where her CO lay, still unconscious, cold sweat glistening on his face. He was so pale, his skin seemed translucent.

 

“Here we go again, Colonel”, she whispered, carefully beginning to clean and set his broken wrist. “At least it isn’t your leg …”

 

Putting on the splint she’d brought from the storage room, she was working quickly and skilfully. After the last time, she’d asked Janet to teach her how to do a proper splint … Sam concentrated hard on her task, trying to shut out everything else, any thought of how the injury had occurred, of the fresh burn marks on his temples. It took some time until she realised she was being watched. She looked up.

 

Unbelievably, he was awake. A pair of deep brown eyes followed every move she made. Then he found her eyes, held her gaze. “Love the specs … Sam …”, he breathed.

 

“Shh. The name’s Dorothy …”

 

He gave a tiny, painful chuckle. “Dorothy? … Dorothy’s come looking for the Scarecrow …”

 

“What did you expect, Scarecrow …?” She lightly ran her hand over the soft, short stubble that was left of his hair. They must have shaved his head when he was brought here …

 

“Thought … thought Teal’c be the only one … weird enough … to try that …” He seemed to have read her mind.

 

Sam’s fingers traced his forehead and along the side of his face, until her hand rested on his cheek. He closed his eyes and turned into her caress, starved of kindness. “You’re … real”, he murmured. “My God … you’re real …”

 

Sam stroked his face. “I -”

 

Freeman’s voice came over the intercom, and she felt the Colonel tense. “Fenwick, you’ve got to get him sedated. They’re on their way back!”

 

“I have to put you under, sir. If they find out -”

 

Hissing at the pain, he clasped her hand with his injured left. “Don’t go …”

 

“I have to! I’ll get you out of here. I promise!”

 

“Soon … Dorothy … ‘fore they scramble … what’s left of the Scarecrow’s little brains!”

 

“Tomorrow night”, Sam whispered. “We’re going back to Kansas tomorrow night.” She started the IV.

 

Within moments his eyelids began to flutter. Sam’s lips softly brushed his cheek, and she pulled her fingers from his grip. Somewhere above her she heard a door shut.

 

 

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

 

 

As soon as Harriman had dismissed her, Sam had left the psych building. Now she was running down the main avenue to the staff car park with the long, economic stride of the regular jogger. Freeman had come after her, shouting something, but the older man couldn’t match her speed, and eventually she’d lost him. The steady, soothing rhythm of physical exertion helped calm her down, clear her head. She’d made a promise to the Colonel, and she was going to keep it. First of all, she needed to meet the others and set up tomorrow night’s operation.

 

She found her car, got in, and drove off, flashing her ID at the checkpoint. A mile or so outside Groom Lake she pulled up, phoned Daniel and arranged a meeting at some clapped-out bar far enough away from Nellis and Area 51 that base personnel were unlikely to frequent it. Thirty minutes later she reached Calhoun’s. Sam got herself a beer, went back out to what passed for a porch and perched on the railing. Before long she could make out the headlights of a van bouncing along the winding dust track.

 

Car doors slammed, footsteps crunched on gravel, overly loud in the warm night air. Sam smiled when the threesome materialised from the desert darkness and walked towards her. God, it was good to see them! Janet, Daniel, Teal’c … a sturdy little bastion of sanity.

 

Daniel and Janet hugged her, Teal’c graciously bowed his head. “I am pleased to find you well, SamanthaCarter.”

 

The doctor frowned. “I’m not so sure about the ‘well’ part, Teal’c … You look awful, Sam … What happened?”

 

“Hold it”, said Daniel. “Before we launch into this, let me get some drinks. My mouth feels like a sandpit, and Sam looks like she could do with a top-up.”

 

Five minutes later he was back with a pitcher of beer, some water for Teal’c, and glasses. “Okay. What’s up?”

 

“We’re getting the Colonel out tomorrow night”, Sam stated matter-of-factly.

 

Daniel spilt half a pint of beer and glared her. “Gee, thanks for the notice!” he snapped, but back-pedalled immediately. “Look, Sam, I want to get Jack home as badly as you do, but don’t you think we should hang on a couple more days, gather more … uh … intel … and stuff?”

 

“You’re absolutely right, we should”, Sam nodded. “But we won’t. Tomorrow night. That’s non-negotiable.”

 

“Is it correct to assume that there is a reason for your haste, SamanthaCarter?”

 

She studied her boots. “Yep. There’s a damn good reason, Teal’c. Good, as in: if we don’t get him out tomorrow, we might not get him out at all. Not alive, anyway …”

 

“Sam”, Janet probed, “it would help if I knew what I’ll be faced with …”

 

Slowly, Sam raised her head. She’d carefully schooled her features into a neutral expression. “Tomorrow night, doctor, you’ll be faced with one fractured sternum, which you’re already aware of; plus one broken left wrist; plus multiple lacerations to wrists and ankles; plus third-degree burns on both temples; plus probable cardiac trouble. I think I’ve left nothing out.”

 

“And … this … happened tonight …?” Dr Fraiser put two and two together. “You were there, Sam, weren’t you?”

 

“Oh yes …”, Sam breathed. Then she told them. Everything, except what part she’d been prepared to take in it. When she had finished, there was a long, seething silence.

 

Then Daniel asked, “Okay, Sam, what’s the plan?”

 

“I want you to time it so that you arrive at Delta-Storage no later than 0015. You’ve got all the necessary paperwork and IDs, so you shouldn’t have any problems getting in. Take the container with you, load the totem pole, lose any guards or workers there may be. I’ve calculated fifteen minutes for that. We’ll be with you in the loading dock at 0030, 0040 at the latest. If we haven’t shown by then, you leave.” Sam saw Daniel open his mouth. “That’s an order, Daniel!”

 

“You sound like Jack”, he grumbled.

 

“Thanks”, Sam said, grinning faintly. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

 

“What will you be doing, SamanthaCarter?” Teal’c enquired.

 

“I’m going back now. I have to find our route to Delta-Storage. It’s a long way away, but the good news is that there will be a network of tunnels connecting the psych lab building to the rest of the Area 51 complex. Hangover from the Cold War”, she explained. “I need the tunnel for us to get out safely … lugging the Colonel across Groom Lake in the open might raise an eyebrow or two …”

 

“Okay, so you find your tunnel. Then what? How are you going to bust him out of the lab?” Daniel again.

 

Sam shrugged. “That’s the easy part. There are practically no guards down there during the night. All I need to do is some reprogramming on the vital monitors and surveillance system and get him out.”

 

“How? You said yourself that Jack won’t be able to walk, and something’s telling me that this tunnel idea and a gurney kinda clash …”

 

“I know, Daniel.” She sighed. “Janet, I hate doing this, considering the state the Colonel’s in, but I don’t think we’ve got any other option. Can you give me something that will keep him vertical and moving for about twenty-five, thirty minutes?”

 

“PCP”, Janet growled. “Sorry, bad joke … If you want my professional opinion, I don’t like the odds of shooting him up with anything like you’re suggesting … then again, we’re talking about Jack O’Neill … Wait here …”

 

Dr Fraiser jumped off the porch and ran in the direction of the van. A minute or two later she returned and handed Sam a small vial and a syringe. “Only use it if you absolutely have to and on no account give him more than 5 mil IV. It’s enough to keep him going. Anything more’ll make him jumpy as a cage of monkeys. You’ll have to watch him closely.”

 

“Thanks”, said Sam. “What is it?”

 

“Hasn’t got a name yet. I’ve developed it from the bark samples you brought back from PR4 988. Kinda like adrenaline, but less aggressive …”

 

“Good …” Sam tossed the vial in the air and caught it again. “I’d better get going. I’m scheduled for a spot of spelaeology … see you tomorrow.” She smiled at her friends and headed for the car.

 

 

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

 

 

An hour later, she’d changed into black jeans and sweatshirt and was sneaking through the maze of concrete cubicles and corridors in the sub-level below the lab. Most of the doors were unlocked, and there didn’t seem to be any surveillance cameras, which was a relief. Obviously, the assumption was that no intruder would get through the security measures on the levels above. Sam opened another door and crept into the room, when someone grabbed her from behind and clasped a firm hand over her mouth.

 

“Don’t scream! It’s me. Freeman!” He carefully let go of her.

 

Sam spun around, furious, mostly at herself for having been caught. “Are you insane?! You nearly gave me a heart attack! What the hell are you doing down here?!”

 

He laughed. “I could ask you the same thing. Then again, it’s a fair bet that you’re looking for this.” Freeman jerked a thumb at an unmarked door on the other end of the long, narrow room. “That’s the one leads into the tunnels.”

 

She relaxed a fraction, crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Right. That’s it, Freeman. We got interrupted the last time I asked, but I want an answer now. Why are you helping me? Better yet, why should I trust you? For all I know, this could be part of some elaborate Good Psycho/Bad Psycho routine …”

 

“Okay, Lieutenant … if that’s your rank”, grinned Freeman. “With the mouth you’ve got on you, I’d hazard a guess at two things: a) you’re way higher up in the pecking order, and b) you’ve been serving with our friend upstairs for a while.”

 

Sam’s jaw dropped. “Yes … and yes”, she stuttered weakly. “You know him?! How on earth …”

 

“Gulf War”, said Freeman. “O’Neill and his team turned up at our base one fine day. Did a few ops out of there. Just so happened that we came back from a fouled-up recon mission a few men short. My CO had decided to cut his losses, left some of our men behind. O’Neill got wind of it, tore the guy a new a- …” Freeman cleared his throat. “You get my meaning. Then he went out there on his own, and got three of them back, including my best buddy. Anyway, I never forgot, and when he was brought here -”

 

“You tried to help”, Sam supplied.

 

Freeman grimaced. “For all the good I did. I knew who he was alright, but I had no idea where he’d come from or whom to contact. With a set-up like this, contacting nobody’s a hell of a lot smarter than contacting the wrong people … best I could do was manipulate vital stats to buy him a little more time between … well, you know. Until you showed up. Caught the look on your face when you saw him. You’re trying to get him out, right?”

 

Finally she smiled and extended a hand. “Major Samantha Carter. I’m Colonel O’Neill’s 2IC.”

 

“Well, I’ll be …” Freeman shook her hand. “So, Major. What can I do?”

 

Sam filled him in. Freeman led her through the dimly lit tunnels to Delta-Storage and showed her the shortest way to the loading dock there. On the way back they marked the turn-offs in the tunnel system.

 

When they reached the cellars under the Psych Lab again, Freeman asked, “Anything else?”

 

Sam nodded. “Access to the main control units for the vital monitors and the surveillance system. I need to fool the computers into believing he’s still there when he isn’t.”

 

“No problem. Any time tomorrow evening you want to do it, just come and find me.”

 

“Okay. I will. Well, I suppose that’s all for now … Good night, Sergeant, and thanks again.” Sam turned to leave.

 

“Major! … Hey, Major!”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“You go by ‘Sam’?”

 

“Yeah. Why?”

 

Freeman gave a sly smile. “Figures …”

 

What figures?” Sam was tired and in no mood for cryptic hints.

 

“He keeps asking for a ‘Sam’ … G’night, Major.”

 

Dumbfounded, Sam watched him amble down the corridor … Go to bed, Carter!

 

 

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

 

 

The next twenty hours were a protracted nightmare. Sam hadn’t slept a wink, and, by the looks of them, neither had Harriman or Maybourne. When the previous night’s ‘interrogation’ still hadn’t produced the hoped for results, they’d started to get cold feet. Apparently someone in Washington was running out of patience and putting on the pressure. They’d called a mid-morning meeting, in the course of which Maybourne had declared the gloves were to come off and he wanted to drop any pretence of ‘research’. 14A was to be relocated to an undisclosed location and given a ‘good old-fashioned going-over’, as Maybourne put it.

 

Harriman and Sheridan had seen their turf threatened and protested out of injured professional pride. A terrified Sam had backed them up for her own reasons. But it had been Freeman and his blessed forged vital stats that had won the day. When he wanted to, the Sergeant could talk the hind leg off a donkey, and he’d convinced them that 14A wouldn’t survive transport. And while Maybourne was desperate, he wasn’t desperate enough to risk losing the subject.

 

It was to be a temporary reprieve only.

 

 

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

 

Part 6

 

 

Around eight o’clock that evening, Freeman came barrelling into the library where Sam had been relegated. The Sergeant’s confident demeanour had all but evaporated, and Sam had to shout at him before he started making sense.

 

Finally he told her what was going on. Maybourne had had a change of heart. He’d ordered the subject to be taken off sedation and sent in two of his goons to ‘talk’ to 14A. By the time Freeman had managed to stop them, the Colonel’s breastbone, which had barely begun knitting, was newly broken, and his wrist definitely would need setting again.

 

“I’m sorry, Major … I was too late … Major …?”

 

Mechanically, Sam corrected him, “Lieutenant, remember!” … It wasn’t fair … Her fingers found the little china shard with the Scarecrow she’d been carrying around in her pocket for days now. Absentmindedly she stroked it … How much more pain …? It wasn’t fair … Yeah, yeah, yeah, Carter! Life’s a bitch and then you die. Do something.

 

“Sorry …” Freeman said again. “They’ve left, but I don’t know for how long. I … I put him back on the sedative for now. Figured that way he won’t hurt too badly …”

 

Sam forced herself to think logically. This changed everything. They would have to move earlier.

 

“Does Harriman know about this?”

 

“I don’t think so, M- … Lieutenant.”

 

“Good. Go find her, Sergeant, tell her. Sheridan as well if you can. Get them steamed up nicely and set them on Maybourne’s trail. That should keep them occupied for a while. Then meet me in the lab.”

 

“Yes, ma’am!” Sergeant Freeman practically jumped to attention, grateful to be doing something.

 

“Before you go, Sergeant …”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Describe to me exactly where the controls for the monitors and the surveillance system are.”

 

“Easy, ma’am …” He told her.

 

When he’d left, Sam made a phone call. It was a risk, but now the whole operation hung by a very fine thread anyway. So did Jack O’Neill’s life … She pushed away the thought.

 

“Daniel? … Don’t ask any questions, just listen. There’s no time. We’re moving everything up to 2200 hours. Latest rendezvous time 2230. Be there.” She cut the connection.

 

 

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

 

 

Unobserved, Sam slipped into the control room. She reset the computer of the surveillance system to show a continuous loop of the images recorded in the lab over the last half-hour. That done, she reprogrammed the vital monitor controls.

 

Only then she ventured into the lab. She’d braced herself for a shock, but one look at the Colonel made her heart contract painfully. “Poor Scarecrow …”, she breathed. His chest looked as though Maybourne’s heavies had stood on it, and the broken bone clearly had shifted. His wrist was grossly swollen, there was no way of resetting it now.

 

Swiftly and carefully Sam disconnected all tubes, wires, and IV lines, took off the restraints, and finally put the splint back on the Colonel’s wrist, if only to protect it from further damage. She checked her watch. Quarter to nine … If his disappearance remained undiscovered for another hour, they might be in with a chance. If the sedation wore off alright, if she could get him through the tunnels, if everything went well the other end … Too many ‘ifs’ altogether … It was a lottery … Sam sighed and took his good hand in hers, ran her fingertips across it … He had the most beautiful hands she’d ever -

 

“How’s he doin’, honey?” Freeman had come in silently, obviously having recovered his cool.

 

“Dammit, Sergeant! Will you stop making me jump out of my skin?! What is this? A hobby of yours?”

 

“Sorry … ”

 

“Never mind. Any joy?”

 

A wide grin crinkled his face. “Oh, that … reckon the harpies are having old Harry for dinner just about now … We finally had a bit of luck! He’s actually over at Nellis, so they had to go after him. I told them not to worry, I’d stay right here and guard ‘the subject’ with my life. I’d do it, too …”, the Sergeant added seriously.

 

“Thanks, Freeman. Good job!” Sam gave him a grateful smile.

 

He winked at her. “Right. You see to your … uh … CO, Major, and I’ll go discourage anyone who comes by and looks nosey.”

 

“Buzz off, Freeman!” She shook her head. Oh boy …

 

Sam bent over the Colonel and shook his shoulder. “Sir? … Sir? … Time to wake up, sir. Time to go home …”

 

He flinched at being handled, shrunk from her touch. “… No …”, he moaned, his face twisted with fear.

 

Should have thought of that, Carter! … Sam was torn between the irrational impulse to take him in her arms and hold him till the hurt had gone away, and the need to bully him into action. “Sir! It’s me … Carter … we’re going home … Colonel, please, look at me!”

 

Drowsily, he opened his eyes, blinking at the glaring lights.

 

“Hey, sir”, she whispered. “Recognise me?”

 

“Sam … Dorothy …” He shifted a little, winced. “Hurts …”

 

“I know, sir, I know. But you have to get up.”

 

“… jokin’ …”

 

“’Fraid not, sir … we’ve got to get you out of here.” Slowly and gently, so as not to startle him again, Sam slipped an arm under his neck and helped him sit up.

 

“… hurts …”, he said again.

 

She sat next to him, her arm supporting his back. “You’re doing great, sir. Just take it easy for a moment, then we’ll think about standing up, okay?”

 

“’kay”, Jack breathed, resting his head against Sam’s. “You mind … mind if we wait till the room’s stopped … spinning …?”

 

“Just say when, sir.”

 

“This time … next … year …?”

 

“Sorry, Colonel. Not acceptable.”

 

“Knew you’d say that, Carter … okay … ‘when’ …” He cautiously manoeuvred himself towards the edge of the steel slab, until his toes touched the floor. “You … sure about … this?”, he asked miserably.

 

Sam slid off the slab and stood in front of him, trying to look encouraging. “Look at it this way, sir. If you keel over, I catch you, we both hit the deck, and you get to be on top.”

 

“Like the … plan, Carter!” He laughed a little and promptly started coughing. “Ouch …”

 

“No giggling, Colonel, please …”

 

“… my line, Major! … Alright … here goes.” Jack waved her closer and put his good arm around her shoulders. And then he stood, heavily leaning on Sam, but he stood. “Sorry …”, he gasped, “… haven’t done this in … what? … three weeks?”

 

“Five”, she stated, looking up at him. If he went any more pallid, he’d start to glow in the dark. Sam clamped down on a surge of anger. Stop it! He doesn’t need you angry … “You’re doing great”, she repeated. “Now, there’s the door. Let’s go!”

 

Tiny rivulets of sweat were running down Jack’s face. “I can’t … Sam … I can’t …”

 

“You have to, sir. No ‘Plan B’. You’re coming with me … or I’m staying!” If she knew anything about the Colonel, that threat should achieve the impossible. It did.

 

 

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

 

 

Freeman met them outside in the hall. Eyes shining with something suspiciously akin to hero worship, he snapped a salute at Jack. “Colonel O’Neill, sir! Last time this happened, the guy’s name was Lazarus. Sir!”

 

“Don’t …!” Jack wheezed. “Don’t … make me laugh, Sergeant … Freeman?!”

 

The older man’s face lit up with pride. “Jeez, sir! Didn’t think you’d remember. It’s been a few years …” Freeman turned to Sam. “How about letting me take over for a while, honey?”

 

Jack frowned. “Sergeant! … You always callin’ female officers … ‘honey’?”

 

“Sorry, sir!” The Sergeant said soberly, hiding his grin. “Here, put this on, Colonel. It’s a bit chilly where we’re going …” Freeman helped Jack into a cotton jacket he’d kept tucked under his arm. “Not much, but it matches the pants … With respect, sir, pea-green really ain’t your colour …”

 

 

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

 

 

By half past nine they were over halfway through the tunnels, just beyond the point where the corridor from the Psych Lab connected to the main tunnel network. The burly Sergeant had all but carried Jack for the past ten minutes, and Sam was getting anxious. High time for a break.

 

They found an old storage box, and Freeman let the Colonel sit down.

 

Exhausted, Jack leaned against the wall, closed his eyes. “Next time … you take me hiking, Carter … can I bring my boots?”

 

“Stop talking, sir”, Sam ordered. “Save your breath!” The fact that the Colonel obeyed her without repartee spoke volumes. She sighed.

 

The Sergeant pulled Sam aside. “Major?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I think I should go back and guard your six, just in case our playmates get an attack of the clevers … You be alright?”

 

Sam nodded. “Sure. Good idea. And Freeman?”

 

“Yeah, honey?” He winked at her, almost getting a smile.

 

“I’ll come back for you. Be outside the lab building and ready to jump into a moving car at 2250.”

 

“No, ma’am! You can’t take that risk!”

 

“Nobody gets left behind. 2250! That’s an order, Sergeant!”

 

“Yes, Major!”, Freeman conceded unhappily and disappeared down the tunnel.

 

 

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

 

 

Sam went back to check on the Colonel. He was drenched in sweat and struggling for air in fast, shallow gasps. With the injury to his chest, even the simple, everyday act of breathing had to be agony. She took out the vial and syringe, and drew 5 mils of the medication Janet had given her. This wouldn’t be fun for either of them …

 

Sam crouched by his side and lightly touched his knee. “Hey, sir … we’re nearly there …”

 

“You think … there’ll be a bus … maybe?” He looked at her, then noticed what she was holding in her hand. Immediately, he tensed, eyes filled with the shock of betrayal. “No … Sam … Sam? …”

 

She’d expected him to react like this, but that didn’t make it any easier. “Shh. Colonel? Listen to me! You have to trust me, sir. I know the last thing you want is being stuck with another needle, but without this you’re not gonna make it. Give me your arm, sir, please …”

 

He slightly shifted his arm towards her. The little gesture held such resignation and hopelessness, it illustrated all too clearly how used he’d become to being controlled by others. Asking this man to trust anyone right now was asking the inconceivable, and Sam knew it. She would have given anything to spare him this. As tenderly as she could she straightened his arm, pushed up the sleeve over his elbow, and bunched it into a makeshift tourniquet … Please, let me find the vein, don’t make me frighten him even more …

 

There! … A little plume of dark blood billowed through the clear liquid. Sam emptied the syringe, pulled it out carefully. She felt for his pulse, intently watching his face. Within minutes his colour improved, and his heartbeat steadied. “Better?” she asked.

 

He exhaled slowly. “Sam … I … One of the few things I could count on was people injecting me with stuff. I kept tripping … bad … bad trips. When you … I -”

 

“I know. You don’t have to explain. I know, sir.”

 

“Thanks …”

 

“Don’t … Ready to go, sir?”

 

Jack managed to get up on his own, then put his arm around her shoulders. “So, Carter … where’s that mountain you wanted me to climb?”

 

 

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

 

 

They’d been walking for five minutes perhaps. Sam checked her watch again. Ten to ten. Not long now … not long at -

 

Somewhere behind them in the tunnels a shot rang out. She froze. When the echo had faded, Sam heard running footsteps, closing fast. “Shit!”

 

Pulling Jack along with her, she kept moving, suddenly spotted a niche, half-hidden in the gloom. One corner was piled with building debris, pipes and rubble, the other was clear. “Stay there, sir!” she whispered, pushing Jack into the free corner. “Don’t move!”

 

“Carter -”

 

“Quiet!” Drawing off their pursuers was the only chance she had … the only chance the Colonel had.

 

Sam ducked into a side tunnel and continued walking, talking to herself, making as much noise as she could. The footsteps kept coming closer, closer. She caught snatches of hushed conversation. They had to be off the link tunnel and past the niche by now … Thank God! … She found another corridor veering off sharply to the left, turned the corner and pressed herself against the wall. The footfalls had slowed, sounded very near now. A minute later she saw the muzzle of a 9mm automatic appearing from behind the corner. Sam held her breath, waited for the gun hand to follow, then the forearm. That’s right, be careless! Keep your weapon away from your body! Makes it so much easier for someone else to … Sam’s hands grabbed the wrist, and she pulled for all she was worth, swinging around her opponent. Sheridan stumbled and slammed face-first into the wall next to Sam, lost her gun and fell to the ground, out cold. By the looks of it, her nose was broken … Gee, I’m sorry, Captain! … The gun. Where was the gun? Sam knelt next to Sheridan, shifted her body, one hand groping underneath for the SIG. She sensed the movement behind her a split-second before a small, cold ‘o’ made contact with the base of her skull.

 

“Hello there, Dorothy”, said Harriman’s pleasant voice. “Or should I call you Samantha, Major Carter? When we found the lab empty, Maybourne finally remembered where he’d seen your face before. Sharp as a beach ball, our Harry!” The doctor tutted. “Major, didn’t anyone ever tell you the winner is always the one making the second-but-last mistake? No? Too bad. Well, time to say good night, but don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll find Colonel O’Neill somewhere nearby …”

 

“Looking for me, doctor?” Jack enquired politely. Harriman made her last mistake. Instinctively, she turned toward the voice. Sam felt the pressure of the gun in her neck lessen and dropped flat. The next sound she heard was the impact of something solid on skin and bone and a sickening crunch.

 

Groggily, Sam came to her feet. The Colonel stood over Harriman’s body, clutching a piece of lead piping. “Second-but-last mistake, doctor … I win”, he whispered. Then his knees buckled, and he slumped against the wall.

 

“Stay on your feet, sir! For God’s sake, stay on your feet!” Sam rushed over and steadied him.

 

He hid his face at Sam’s shoulder. “Never liked her much, anyway”, he murmured. “Kept calling me ‘Jonathan’ … mom called me that when she was mad at me … called me ‘Jonathan’ most of the time …”

 

“You know, much as I sympathise with your mom … Jack … just for once I’m really glad you never do as you’re told … You be alright here for a moment?”

 

He nodded.

 

Sam checked on Harriman. She was dead, her skull shattered. The thought of the depth of pain and hatred the Colonel had to feel to have struck the woman with such devastating ferocity made Sam ache … but he’d saved both their lives. Then she noticed that Sheridan had begun stirring. She pulled the belts from the Captain’s pants and lab coat and tied her up securely. Nearby on the floor, Sam found the automatic, safed it, tucked it in her waistband, and stood.

 

Jack had moved a few shaky steps away from the wall, awkwardly knelt to pick up something, and slipped it in his breast pocket. When he saw her approaching, he held out his hand.

 

She helped him up. “I’d better check your pulse, sir. Janet said the stuff I gave you would keep you moving, but she never mentioned anything about going out to bat … Bit fast, but otherwise okay … We’ve got to go, Colonel.”

 

“Okay … By the way, Carter? How the hell do you plan to get me out of here?”

 

“Oh … I had Siler build something. Special container for transporting valuable antiques …”

 

“’Valuable -’ … Carter!! …”

 

 

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

 

 

They reached the Delta-Storage loading bay with two minutes to spare. Apart from the SGC team, the place was deserted. Something had actually gone according to plan. Incredible!

 

Daniel, Teal’c, and Janet had been waiting impatiently, getting more concerned with each passing minute. When Sam and Colonel O’Neill had limped out to the loading dock at last, impulsive Daniel had raced up to them, arms wide, ready to wrap them both in a bear hug. Thankfully, one look at Jack had made him think better of it.

 

The effect of Janet’s medication had worn off. O’Neill was white as a ghost and barely conscious anymore. Without a word, Teal’c lifted him up and carried him to the container. Its side panel was open, revealing a hidden compartment, large enough to conceal a man, below the one that now held the Salish totem pole. Slid out from the compartment was a padded wooden sheet like a makeshift stretcher. The huge Jaffa gently eased his friend onto it and stepped back to make way for Dr Fraiser.

 

Over the years, Janet had more or less come to expect members of SG-1 to be wheeled, carried, or dragged to her infirmary half-dead or, at the very least, distinctly frayed around the edges. In spite of all this, she blanched when she saw just how bad a shape Jack was in. Sam sensed her extreme concern … If Janet was this worried … Again she banished the thought.

 

As they pushed the stretcher into the container, Jack stirred. “Carter … ?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“You’re going back … down there …?” he mumbled, his eyes closed.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Be careful … Dorothy! If … you see Maybourne … throw water on him …”

 

“You bet … See you in Kansas, Scarecrow.”

 

“… no place … like …” He lost consciousness.

 

Daniel and Teal’c closed the compartment, wheeled the container onto the truck and locked the castors. They secured the rear flap, fastened the tarpaulin. Then they and Janet climbed into the cabin, and the engine roared to life. The truck rolled down the long, straight stretch of road to the checkpoint. It stopped, a guard stepped out of the gatehouse, inspected the documents and then waved the vehicle through.

 

When the truck was swallowed by the darkness outside the gate, her immediate relief was so enormous, Sam almost staggered. Get real, Carter! … It’s not over yet. Not by a long shot … Hang in there, sir! … Please, hang in there! … Sick with fear, she left the loading dock and returned into the tunnels.

 

 

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

 

 

Jogging along, Sam rapidly covered a distance that had seemed to be interminable only such a short while ago. As she came past the side corridor where Harriman had died and Sheridan lay hog-tied, she heard faint cries for help. The Captain had a bit of a wait ahead of her, but somebody would find her. Eventually. Probably.

 

The ground was rising now, and Sam knew she was approaching the Psych Lab. She slowed to a wary trot. There was no telling who’d fired the shot they’d heard, and someone might still be down here, waiting for her. Suddenly she came to a halt. She’d caught a shuffling noise beyond the next corner. Step by cautious step, Sam moved towards the bend.

 

A yard from the corner she stopped, listened. Muffled gargling, and a grumpy voice telling the gargler to shut up. Freeman! She poked her head around the bend. The sight before her rivalled Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in lyrical charm: Maybourne, trussed up like a Christmas turkey, a gag in his mouth, his face the colour of fresh beet root. On the floor across the corridor sat Sergeant Freeman, engaged in taking a sip of water from his canteen and otherwise ignoring his CO. Sam laughed until she started hiccupping and tears streamed from her eyes. At last she calmed down and wiped her face, still gasping.

 

“’Bout time”, Freeman stated. “I was wondering if I’d have to strike an officer …”

 

Maybourne harrumphed fluently and eloquently from behind his gag.

 

“Harry’s saying I’ve already done that”, translated Freeman. “Far as I’m concerned, calling that” - he jerked his head at Maybourne - “an officer is an insult to people like you and Colonel O’Neill … He alright?” the Sergeant asked, suddenly anxious.

 

Sam bit her lip. “He’s … okay for now …” Then she spotted the tourniquet below Freeman’s right knee. “What happened to your leg?”

 

“Ah, no big deal! Went clean through. Reckon Harry was shooting to kill …” He winked at Sam, and Maybourne gave another outraged grunt.

 

She couldn’t help giggling. Maybourne’s ‘marksmanship’ was legendary … had to be one of the reasons why he preferred flying a desk. “We’re moving out, Sergeant”, she said, serious now. “You able to walk?”

 

“I’ll race you, Major!” He came to his feet easily enough.

 

Sam stepped over to Maybourne, removed his gag. It was like opening a bottle of soda that had been left lying in the sun for too long. He spewed a barrage of over-pitched babble that finally slowed to an intelligible pace. “You bring O’Neill back here or you’re finished! I’ll have you court-martialled. I’ll -”

 

“No.” She stared down at him. Her voice was icy, barely above a whisper. “I don’t know who got you out and let you keep your rank into the bargain. But this time, you’ve had it. Kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, and torture of a fellow officer … I don’t think ‘conduct unbecoming’ quite covers what you’ve done. They’ll slam you so hard, you won’t know which way is up. It’ll be a cold day in hell before you see the outside of a jail again -”

 

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with, Major! Don’t for a second believe you’ve won. You’re dead. So is O’Neill. When I get him back, and I will get him back, make no mistake, he’ll pay -”

 

“Maybourne, will you listen to yourself? What do you think your bosses will do when they realise that we went in, found a man who officially didn’t exist anymore, and snatched him from your top-secret facility? You’ll be lucky to end up in prison …” She forced the gag back into his mouth. Maybourne’s eyes bulged, and suddenly Sam was struck by a thought. “Freeman?”

 

“Yes, ma’am?”

 

“Your canteen? Full?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” Freeman handed it to her.

 

Sam grinned, unscrewed the lid and poured the contents over Maybourne’s head. “Compliments of Colonel O’Neill … Pity … I was hoping you’d melt … Okay, let’s go, Sergeant!”

 

Gmmfff”, said Maybourne.

 

 

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

 

 

Three quarters of an hour later, Sam and Freeman had driven past the guard post and were speeding away from Nellis and Area 51. The Sergeant told her what had happened.

 

He’d just reached the end of the tunnel below the psych lab when he’d run into Maybourne, Dr Harriman, and Sheridan. Maybourne had fired, wounding Freeman, and then sent Harriman and the Captain after the fugitives, while he was questioning the Sergeant. Freeman, less badly injured than he’d led them to believe, had managed to disarm and subdue Maybourne. “Like taking candy from a baby”, he commented gleefully.

 

Sam merely nodded, not saying anything. Now that they’d got away, delayed reaction hit her with the force of a freight train. She started shivering, feeling chilled to the bone. “Freeman, there should be a blanket on the b-backseat …” She clenched her jaws to keep her teeth from chattering. “Can you get it and put it round me? I’m c-cold …”

 

The Sergeant did as she asked, eyeing her with concern. “Want me to drive? You look a bit peaked, honey …”

 

“I’m fine.” She fell silent again, trying to concentrate on the road rather than the abiding image in her mind. The Colonel’s face, still and drawn, as they’d slid the stretcher into the compartment and closed the side panel. That damned container had looked altogether too much like a coffin …

 

 

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

 

 

About forty miles further east, Sam turned off onto a side road and from there onto a dust track. After about 300 yards she stopped. In the headlights they could make out a large blue van.

 

“Stay here till I tell you to come”, Sam said to Freeman. She grabbed a torch, quietly got out of the car and walked over to the van. The van’s side door opened, and a petite woman jumped out. “Janet!”

 

“Sam! Where the devil have you been?! I was beginning to think you’d had an accident …”

 

“Sorry, Janet. I got delayed picking up another patient for you … It’s alright, Sergeant, come on over”, she called back in the direction of the car.

 

Janet rolled her eyes. “Oh great, and there was me worrying I’d get bored … By the looks of you, Sam, you’re next on the list anyway. Feeling a bit shock-y, are we? … Get into the van, go on! Be quiet, though. Colonel O’Neill’s in the back. Daniel and Teal’c have already left with the truck.” She shooed Sam into the vehicle.

 

On a mattress in the rear of the van lay the Colonel, still unconscious. He was hooked up to a compact cardiac and blood pressure monitor, an IV line ran to his hand. Obviously, Janet had managed to jury-rig her own little EMS unit back there.

 

Sam looked at him, her shoulders sagging. “How is he, Janet? I mean, how is he really?

 

“Really?” Dr Fraiser sighed, uncharacteristically despondent. “I can’t say, Sam. I wish, I could. The best I can do for the moment is try and keep him stable, but it’s a cakewalk. He’d have to fight to beat this, and right now I don’t know if he wants to … I’m sorry, Sam …”

 

“He’ll fight, Doc, he’ll fight.” Freeman had appeared in the door. “Some guys never learn to call it quits, and he’s one of them.”

 

Sam could have told him otherwise. Instead she said, “Janet, would you take care of the Sergeant’s leg? Then we go home.”

 

 

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

 

 

She’d been driving for five hours, and finally Janet threatened to use a tranq-gun on her if she didn’t take a break of her own volition.

 

“No stops”, Sam declared off-handedly. “You think Freeman could drive?”

 

“Can’t see why not”, Janet replied and clambered through to the back of the van, where the Sergeant was snoring delicately.

 

A few minutes later, Freeman had taken over from Sam, who now made her way to the rear to join Janet. Dr Fraiser was checking the Colonel’s temperature.

 

“How is he doing?”, Sam asked.

 

“Better, which is nothing short of a miracle”, Janet answered drily. “I’ve been reading those files you brought with you … he should be dead by rights. Your friend, the Sergeant, may have a point: he doesn’t know when to call it quits. He’s actually sleeping now, as opposed to being unconscious … If he makes it through the next four hours or so, he’ll be okay, I reckon.”

 

“Get some rest, Janet. I’ll stay with him. Anything changes, I’ll wake you.”

 

“No way, Sam! When did you last sleep? Stay back here, by all means, but you’re gonna lie down. I can make that an order, Major!” Janet Fraiser was wearing the Do as I say or I’ll give you an enema face Daniel was so fond of and threw Sam a spare pillow.

 

 

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

 

 

Sam complied wordlessly, stretching out alongside the mattress, wrapping herself in a blanket. She didn’t go to sleep, though. In the sodium-orange bands of light that hopped in through the windows she studied the Colonel’s face. Relaxed in sleep, it looked open, vulnerable. Impossibly young. Sam had only rarely seen him like this. With children, sometimes. It occurred to her that this must be what he’d looked like fifteen years ago maybe, before Special Ops, before Iraq, before he lost everything he’d ever loved, long, long before … Suddenly, with the terrible plausibility of guilt, she thought that she, of all people, had no right to see him like this. Not after having been the cause … not after what she’d been about to do. She turned away, staring into the darkness until exhaustion and the monotonous rumble of rubber on tarmac finally lulled her to sleep.

 

 

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

 

Part 7

 

 

Someone was holding her hand … this couldn’t be right. Because currently she was running along a gloomy tunnel that telescoped further into infinity with every step she took. Harriman, her head horribly misshapen, was closing so fast, and if Harriman got to Jack before Sam did … “No!”

 

The hand holding hers squeezed her fingers, and there was a voice to go with it. “Carter! … Wake up! … Carter!”

 

Sam blinked. Definitely no tunnel. Sunlight filtering through blue blinds. Noise. Engine. The van. She was in the van. Someone was holding her hand. She turned her head, looked straight into a pair of tired brown eyes.

 

“Anyone ever tell you that you’re one hell of a noisy sleeper, Carter?” the Colonel said.

 

“Hey, sir … How’re you doin’?”

 

“Okay … as long as I don’t try to move … That dream, Sam? Bad?”

 

She should be the one asking this question. Except for him, it hadn’t been a dream. It had been real enough almost to kill him … Freeing her hand, Sam sat up, hugged herself. “No … just … uh … you know …”

 

“No … I don’t, Carter”, he said with a puzzled frown, then changed the subject. “Where are we?”

 

“No idea, sir. Hang on.” She knelt, reached over him, and lifted the blind. Blond, lazily undulating wheat fields, as far as the eye could see. “Holy Hannah …!”

 

“Carter?”

 

“You’re not gonna believe this, Colonel … We’re in Kansas.”

 

Jack caught her hand again. “Thank you, Dorothy.”

 

“No, sir! … Please, don’t …” She tried to pull away, vehemently shaking her head. Oh God, sir, don’t look at me like that! … You have no idea … No idea of what I would have done … Don’t thank me, sir …

 

He wouldn’t let go. “Sam? What’s wrong? … Sam?”

 

Janet saved her. “Hey, you two! What’s with the racket at the back?! You annoying my patient, Sam?” She came climbing over the seats.

 

Sam fled.

 

 

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

 

 

Just before seven o’clock that evening they arrived at Cheyenne Mountain. Daniel and Teal’c were waiting, and so was General Hammond. Dr Fraiser and a team of medics rushed Jack to the infirmary. Sam followed with Teal’c and Daniel.

 

On the way down to the SGC, she wearily submitted to her friends’ questions. They’d arrived over six hours ago, having taken the direct route. Despite Janet’s protests at the time, Sam had insisted on going east first, where they were less likely to run into roadblocks. Now, Daniel told her the truck had been stopped and searched twice by MP units from Nellis who, much to their chagrin, found nothing but one perfectly authorised totem pole. She’d made the right call, but it brought her little satisfaction.

 

After hovering in the corridor outside the infirmary until the Colonel was taken care of and had gone back to sleep, Sam left for her quarters. She desperately wanted to go home and hole up there, be alone with her nightmares, but General Hammond had scheduled a debriefing for 1000 hours the following morning, and ordered Sam to remain on base until further notice.

 

The debriefing had taken three hours. Copies of her, Daniel’s, and Teal’c’s reports, as well as Delaney’s statement and all evidence from Area 51 were sent to the President. SG-1 was on leave, pending Colonel O’Neill’s full recovery, and Sam could go home at last.

 

 

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

 

 

She’d taken a bath, sorted her laundry, and stood in the kitchen, waiting for the coffee to brew. Absentmindedly, she opened a cupboard, took out a mug … Mug! … Where was it?! … Where the hell was it?! She ran into the bedroom, tipped over her laundry basket and went through every pocket in every piece of clothing she could find. It was gone. She’d lost the Scarecrow. Surrounded by a heap of dirty laundry, she buried her face in her hands. The cosmic irony of it … Oh, get a grip, Carter! And cancel the coffee …

 

By the time Janet called, Sam was drunk. She sat on the floor in the hall, listening to the message. “Sam? … Sam? Pick up if you’re there … Sam? … Oh, well, looks like you’ve gone out. Just wanted to check in with you, haven’t seen you all day … Colonel O’Neill’s doing alright. I fixed his chest this afternoon, and he came through it fine. Thought you’d like to know … uh … I’ll try again tomorrow, or you call me … Take care.”

 

He was okay … He’d come back … She struggled to her feet and stumbled to the computer.

 

The day after Sam had posted the letter, she got a phone call from the base. General Hammond wanted to see her immediately.

 

 

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

 

 

She’d taken the stairs. The thought of being stuck in the elevator with, say, love-sick Lieutenant Simmons trying to make conversation for the entire length of a 28-level-journey, was positively terrifying. It had worked … almost. The exit from the staircase brought her out onto a corridor near the infirmary. And Janet would have to choose 1536 hours precisely to go on an errand … Damn! Sam tried to blend in with the walls, hoping Dr Fraiser would somehow overlook her. No such luck.

 

“Sam? … Sam! Wait!”

 

She stopped but didn’t turn.

 

Janet caught up with her, grabbed her arm and turned her around. “Sam! Where have you been? Why didn’t you answer my calls? What -” Janet finally registered that Sam was in dress uniform. “Where are you going?”

 

“Meeting with the General”, Sam answered curtly, desperate to get out of this. “I’ve got to go, Janet.”

 

“Sam … the Colonel’s been asking for you -”

 

“Is he alright?” The question was out before she’d even realised.

 

“He’s doing fine. Considerably better than I’d hoped … I would have expected him to have a far more difficult time of it, emotionally. I’ve treated torture victims before … normally, there tends to be a lot of anxiety, and that’s putting it mildly. He’s either doing a frighteningly good job of hiding it, or -”

 

“He’s slain the dragon”, Sam offered pensively.

 

“What?”

 

“He killed Harriman, Janet. He killed his bête noire.”

 

“He did what?! … I always assumed that you …”

 

“No. At the time I was kneeling on the floor with Harriman’s gun to my neck. The Colonel hit her over the head with a lead pipe … saved my life. Both our lives. He knows she won’t be coming after him …”

 

“Well … that would explain it … some of it. By the way, they’ve arrested Maybourne and that Sheridan woman. And the President has informed General Hammond that, thanks to some inspired bureaucratic callisthenics, nobody seems to be able to find Samuels’ investigation report on the Colonel … Poof!” Janet’s hands briefly fluttered above her head, and she winked at Sam. “Colonel O’Neill will be back on duty as soon as I clear him … Look, Sam, when are you coming to see him?”

 

The question jerked her back to the present, to what she’d come here to do. “Janet, I really haven’t got time. Later …” She left the doctor standing.

 

“Sam …? Sam! …”

 

 

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

 

 

General Hammond was hopping mad, to say the least. “Care to explain this, Major?” His flat hand slapped Sam’s letter that was lying on the desk in front of him.

 

“With respect, sir, I think it’s fairly self-explanatory …” She rigidly stood to attention, focussing on a point slightly left of and above the General’s ear.

 

“It says you want a transfer for personal reasons. I’d like to know what those reasons are. I’d also like to know whether you’ve discussed any of this with your CO.”

 

Sam blushed. “No, sir”, she whispered.

 

“So, you’re proposing just to cut Colonel O’Neill out of the loop?”

 

“Yes, sir. Colonel O’Neill wouldn’t agree with my request, and -”

 

“Too right, he wouldn’t! Hell, I don’t agree with it! I don’t want to lose you, Major. If there’s anything -”

 

“No, sir. It’s got nothing to do with SG-1, with you, the work. It’s … Sir, it’s to do with what happened at Area 51, and I think Colonel O’Neill would have a hard time trusting me -”

 

“Major, you saved his life! He’d be a fool not to trust you, and a fool he ain’t -”

 

“Sir -”

 

“I haven’t finished, Major. I want you to take some time to think this over. And I want you to discuss it with your CO. That’s the only way you’ll get me to approve this transfer. Dismissed.”

 

“Sir! -”

 

Dismissed!”

 

Sam saluted and left.

 

 

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

 

 

Daniel stood guard outside the General’s office. No! The grapevine in this place worked like the clappers … No, no, no, no! Sam squared her shoulders, ready to brush past him. She should have known better.

 

Daniel blocked her way. “Sam! What the hell is going on with you?! You don’t answer anybody’s calls, you haven’t been to see Jack who, coincidentally, is worried sick about you, you just breeze in here without even saying hello to anyone … What’s wrong, Sam? Dammit, talk to me!”

 

“Daniel … Daniel, please …” She pushed him aside. “I can’t … not now … I … I need some time on my own. I’m sorry …”

 

Sam ran all the way to the elevator.

 

 

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

 

 

Damn the General! Why couldn’t he just let her go?! What difference did it make? The SGC was a plum assignment, they’d find someone else quickly enough … Oh, please, don’t let Janet turn up, or Daniel … at least Teal’c didn’t venture off-base unless he absolutely had to … Sam was packing frantically, throwing anything that looked remotely like she might need it in a bag. She had to get away, go some place where they wouldn’t find her. Daniel wouldn’t give up, neither would Janet. Just as well the Colonel was in the infirmary, else he’d join the club, too. They’d be round sooner rather than later, and they’d want her to talk. What was she supposed to say? Nothing she could tell them would change things.

 

Sam zipped the bag, rushed out of the apartment and downstairs to the car. On the run again, from her friends this time. Her brother owned a cabin north of Denver, and he’d told her long ago it was hers to use whenever she wanted. She’d hide, be on her own, try and sort out the mess she was in. Piece o’ cake, Carter …

 

 

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

 

 

The sunset was glorious. Broad, bold brushstrokes of pink, orange, purple thrown across the sky by some larger-than-life Monet or Matisse … She strolled along the shore of the little lake below the cabin. It was beautiful. Peaceful. A place to stay … Get real! You have to go back sooner or later. You have to confront what happened … Sam was no more ready to do that now than she had been two weeks ago. She kicked the pebbles in frustration. Following a sudden impulse, she picked up a flat, smooth stone and, with a sharp flick of the wrist, sent it skipping out onto the lake. One … two … three … it sank. Used to do better than that, Carter! Again. One … two … Now that’s really pathetic! Choosing the next stone carefully, she tried a third time. One … two … three … four … Her stone was overtaken by a second, elegantly skimming the surface and skipping … two … three … four … five … six … seven … eight … Eight times?!

 

“It’s in the angle … You gotta keep it flat …”

 

Sam froze. She’d have recognised that voice anywhere.

 

“See …?” He’d come closer, level with her now, and flung another stone. It leapt across the lake, leaving little rings on the water, like a string of pearls.

 

Eleven. She watched the ripples dissolve.

 

“Hi, Sam”, he said at last.

 

She still didn’t move, didn’t speak, only risked a quick, sidelong glance. He was looking out over the water. Now that he had invaded her sanctuary, he seemed willing to give her the time and space she needed. Another, longer glance. His hair was growing back. A light cast on his left wrist … Must be driving him crazy, she thought, almost with a smile. On his temple, a fading scar … she looked away.

 

“How are you, sir?” Her voice sounded funny, rusty, Sam realised. It hadn’t had much use since she’d come here. There was a faint crunching of pebbles. She lifted her head.

 

Jack had turned towards her. “I’m fine … really.” He gave an impish grin. “Okay, to be honest, the Doc refused to let me go. Had to bribe Freeman to smuggle me out and drive me up here …”

 

“Sir …!”

 

“Carter! … I’m fine!”

 

“How did you find me?”

 

“Rather than contacting your dad and getting the Tok’ra up in arms, I figured I’d try conventional long-distance first. Called your brother … For cryin’ out loud, Carter! You scared the crap out of me! What the hell did you think you’re doing?!”

 

“Trying to live with myself!”

 

 

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

 

 

Her anger had matched his. Now she was racing up the flight of stairs to the cabin, taking two steps at a time. She was halfway there, when she heard him gasp her name. Reflex made her turn. He was on his knees, doubled over at the bottom of the stairs. She rushed back, crouched next to him, hands clasping his shoulders. “Sir? … Sir!”

 

Sam never saw it coming. In the blink of an eye, Jack had twisted from her grasp, pushed her on her back and was holding her down. “Sorry, Major. I’m not fit enough to outrun you just -”

 

“Dammit, Colonel! You frightened the life out of me!”

 

“We’ll call it even, then … Now, shall we carry on our conversation?”

 

“Let me go, sir!” She didn’t dare to fight for fear of hurting him, and he knew it. “Sir!”

 

“No. What are you running away from?”

 

“Of all the pig-headed …! Let me go!”

 

“Sam, please!” His eyes had softened, he was pleading with her. “Time to stop running, Sam. Talk to me. What’s wrong?”

 

She was well and truly trapped. The Colonel wouldn’t give in until he got what he wanted, and if that meant sitting on top of her all night, so be it. Sam closed her eyes in defeat … Time to stop running. “Samuels told me why you went with him …”, she whispered.

 

“Ah.”

 

“It was my fault. Don’t you see, sir? … What you went through was –”

 

“The fault of the people who did it to me. Sam, you’re smarter than that! How could it be your fault? It’s not like you did … any of these things –”

 

“But that’s exactly how it is! Do you understand?! Do you understand now, Colonel? The night they tried their version of ECT on you, Harriman had ordered me to –”

 

“But you didn’t”, Jack said with calm finality. “Freeman told me what happened, Sam.”

 

She shook her head, crying at last. “That’s beside the point, sir. I was going to do it … I was going to do that to you …”

 

“Shit”, Jack muttered under his breath. He let go of her. “Carter! Look at me! Look at me, Major!”

 

Sam sat up slowly, slowly turned to him, her face wet with tears.

 

“Good. Now, let’s have a recap on basic tactics, shall we? … Okay, Cadet. Assume we got ourselves one of those pesky little scenarios we all know and love so well. Outcome of the mission depends on the next move you make. Move 1: morally admirable and gets you and your CO killed. Move 2: leaves said CO unusually crisp around the edges, but otherwise intact, and opens up a possibility for escape. Which option do you choose, Cadet?”

 

“Two, of course.”

 

“Thank you, Carter! Of course, two! You had me worried there for a moment … Sam, there was nothing else you could possibly have done. What you did saved my butt … And speaking of tactics, Carter?”

 

“Yes, sir?” She saw an ill-concealed glimmer of mischief dancing in his eyes.

 

“The number I pulled just now? Oldest trick in the book. Can’t believe you fell for it …” With a quiet chuckle, Jack wrapped her in his arms, rested his chin on her head. “Hey, Sam? … It’s alright … You did good …”

 

 

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

 

 

He’d held her until she’d stopped crying. The sky had faded from a pale lilac to indigo, by the time they walked up to the cabin. Sam felt drained, but calmer than she had in a long time. “Can I get you a drink, sir?”

 

“Anything, as long as it isn’t chamomile tea”, Jack replied with a grimace. “I swear Fraiser bought a catering pack of the stuff and is wildly determined to inflict it on the ailing masses …”

 

Smiling, Sam darted inside. She put on a CD and went to fetch a candlestick, a couple of glasses and a bottle of Chardonnay. When she returned to the porch, the Colonel was leaning against the banister, stargazing. She lit the candle and took him a glass of wine before curling up on the swing. Music was drifting from the cabin, in friendly competition with the rhythmic serenading of crickets and frogs.

 

Would I die for you? I live for you

You know I do You know I do

 

And though you never will be mine

I will live to know that you have touched me

Once upon a time

 

You are all I am …

 

Somewhere in Sam’s mind a hidden door opened for the briefest of moments, and she knew with perfect clarity why seeing this man hurt was so unbearable. With a little gasp she slammed the door, shutting out the forbidden thought. When she raised her eyes, she found him looking at her, a strange expression on his face. He held her gaze for a second, then turned away like a schoolboy caught with his hand in the jam jar.

 

“Sir?”

 

“Sam, we’re in the middle of nowhere, nobody here to hear us … You worried you’ll spontaneously combust if you use my name every once in a while?”

 

“Jack?”

 

“Yeah …”

 

“How are you? Really? I mean … inside …?”

 

He gave her a wry look. “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine, or something?”

 

“Or something. You promised. Fair’s fair.”

 

Jack was staring at the candle, seemingly mesmerised. After a long while he spoke, his voice soft and hesitant. “They’ve messed with my head so much I don’t actually remember a lot of things. Something to be grateful for, I guess … I remember fearing that woman’s voice and at the same time hoping she’d talk to me … nobody else would. I remember being terrified, all the time, of what they’d do to me next. I remember hating myself, because I wanted to please that voice more than anything, just so I could stop hurting for a bit … I also remember waking up trapped inside my mind … which is not a good place to be in at any time … I thought I’d died and desperately wanted to live, which is kinda ironic, considering what happened on P4X 535 … But I do, you know? … Want to live. I know that now …” He smiled wistfully, his eyes briefly straying to Sam, then back to the candle. “I … I remember thinking of you. That’s what kept me sane…  And I remember waking up, and you were there …” He trailed off. Finally, he looked at Sam again. “I dream about that place. I’m back there and it starts all over again. But it’s nowhere near as bad as it could be, because … every time … you come for me …” There was a long pause, then he whispered, “So, yeah, I guess I’m okay … That’s why I want you to stop beating up on yourself, Sam. You definitely saved my life, and you probably saved my mind, for all that’s worth … And it wasn’t the first time …”

 

“But -”

 

“No ‘but’. I’d be either dead or barking mad or both, if it hadn’t been for you. And you put one over on Harry, which means I definitely owe you.”

 

Softly, slowly, Sam started laughing. “He didn’t melt, Jack!”

 

“What the hell are you talking about?”

 

She told him how she’d found a neatly gift-wrapped Maybourne in the tunnels and baptised him from Freeman’s canteen, as per the Scarecrow’s orders.

 

Jack’s eyes went wide, and he nearly dropped his glass. “You did what?!”

 

“You told me to throw water on him.” Sam shrugged.

 

“Aw, that’s not fair! I wish I’d seen it … Throw water …” Laughing, he collapsed on the swing, sending it into alarming gyrations, and pulled Sam into a hug. “Thank you, Dorothy …” Suddenly, he let go and began searching the inside pocket of his jacket, finally producing a little parcel. “I nearly forgot … I brought you something.”

 

Sam took the parcel. “What is it?”

 

“Open it!”

 

She untied the ribbon and tore away the paper, staring at a small piece of porcelain. He’d had it mounted and framed. “The Scarecrow …”, she breathed. “How …?”

 

“You dropped it in the tunnel. I found it …”

 

Sam studied the little shard, lost in thought. “Dorothy loved the Scarecrow best”, she whispered.

 

“What?”

 

She looked up at him with a start, unaware that she’d said it out loud. “Nothing, sir … Thank you!”

 

“You’re welcome, Dorothy.”

 

Holding each other, they sat on the porch until dawn.

 

 

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

 

Fin.