The Weather Outside

 

by

 

Doc

 

 

Part 1

 

 

A breeze has sprung up, pulling the sting of the afternoon heat. The low sun etches out furrows in the sand and sprinkles a ribbon of fool’s gold across the Pacific. Pa-ci-fic. Latinate. Peace-making. Peace-inducing. Right now it is. To humanoids anyway. A soft surf sweeps in, obeying its own obscure rhythm, soothing said humanoids. Different ballgame altogether for the oyster-catchers, which seem to shy from getting their claws wet. And so, like affronted maiden aunts, they scurry from the veils of foam that sidle up the beach.

 

Water played around his toes. The cool wind stroked his bare arms and chest and made fine hairs stand on end. He shivered. Fingers splayed, he pressed his hand into the sand, watching as the rising tide slowly, inexorably eroded the imprint. Time and tide waiting for noone. Everything was ephemeral, nothing was written in stone, loss was inevitable. True and trite at the same time, and either way he didn’t like the thought. He’d lost far too much to relish waxing philosophical over it. Another gust, another brief shudder. He rose and walked back to his towel.

 

On the sand, tracks cross back and forth, meandering evidence of earlier visitors, terrestrial and extra. A pair of five-toed, one-heeled size nines accompanies the three-pronged patter of a diminutive ET. Or a sea fowl.

 

He collected his things, pulled on a bleached-out black sweatshirt, and made his way to the rickety stairs that lead to the top of the bluff. Narrow, elegant feet slipping in hot sand. He was feeling cold again.

 

 

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

 

 

Ooooh, the weather outside is friiiightful -”

 

The caterwauling was drowned out by a pained chorus of “Danny! Shut!! Up!!!”, “Holy Hannah, Daniel …”, “DanielJackson, I entreat you to desist”, “Dr Jackson, please …”, “Jackson, put a sock in it!”

 

Colonel Jack O’Neill, Major Samantha Carter, Teal’c, Dr Janet Fraiser, Major Louis Feretti, and the offending Dr Jackson sat around a table in the SGC’s commissary, midway through the fourth hour of a Scrabble tournament. The main challenge of the game so far had consisted of stopping O’Neill from cheating outrageously. A short while ago this had culminated in a drawn-out argument between him and Daniel about whether or not ‘Chulak’ was a geographic name. The Colonel had had his sights set on triple points for the ‘k’ and pulled rank on the archaeologist. Whereupon a vengeful Daniel had proceeded to demonstrate to everyone within earshot that he did indeed know a song that got on their nerves. Daniel singing was trying. Daniel singing a capella was traumatic. Daniel singing a capella and being on the fifteenth encore of the same verse was enough to bring Teal’c out of an advanced state of kel-no-reem.

 

“Alright … alright”, said Daniel, raising his hands. “Calm down. It’s just a song …”

 

Meanwhile, Jack had used the distraction to sneak in ‘pizeria’ and leaned back, his face a cross between Cheshire Cat and pure Pollyanna.

 

“Jack!!! I’m gonna … start singing again! ‘Pizzeria’ is spelled with two ‘z’s!”

 

“Not in Chicago, it isn’t!”

 

Sam giggled. “Really, sir …!”

 

“Carter! …”

 

“Colonel, may I remind you that you’re due for a physical soon?” Dr Fraiser asked sweetly.

 

“Aw …” Muttering, Jack removed four letters, leaving a puny ‘pie’ on the board.

 

It was Feretti’s turn next, and he put down ‘bagels’.

 

“Ha!”, said Sam and topped them with ‘sausage’.

 

Janet offered a triumphant ‘sandwich’.

 

Teal’c was arranging his letters into ‘coleslaw’, a Tau’ri delicacy he had become partial to.

 

Jack groaned. “Anyone else feeling hungry?” He shot a baleful glance at the food counter, where offers were down to mint-flavour protein bars, lime Jell-O, and a strictly rationed stash of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. At lunchtime, lengthy negotiations and a fair amount of grovelling to NORAD kitchen staff had yielded one measly jar of pickles, which they’d emptied in record time. They’d be on MREs next …

 

It was the worst blizzard to hit Colorado in decades, and the storm showed no signs of abating. Nothing and noone was going into or out of Cheyenne Mountain, including food supplies. To all intents and purposes the SGC had been crippled since the power failure two days ago. Emergency generators supplied sufficient electricity to keep environmental systems and computers on-line, but produced nowhere near enough energy to power the stargate. Missions and UAV and MALP surveys had been cancelled or postponed, and most personnel, among them SG-1, had been cooped up on base for the past seventy-two hours. For once, even Jack O’Neill was up-to-date with his paperwork. Boredom was rife, culinary satisfaction remote, and slowly but surely everybody was getting stir-crazy.

 

A dreamy look in her eyes, Sam broadcast her latest deprivation-induced stream-of-consciousness. “Pizzeria … pizza … there’s this great little Italian restaurant round the corner from my place … they do a fantastic Fiorentina … spinach … egg … garlic … loads of garlic … and -”

 

“Uh-uh”, Daniel chimed in. “Give me a nice lasagne, dripping with béchamel sauce …”

 

“What is a lasagne?”

 

“Oven-baked pasta, Teal’c”, explained Janet. “Mince, mozzarella, tomatoes, thyme -”

 

“For the love of God, Doctor! Stop it …” Feretti begged, salivating like Pavlov’s dog.

 

“Let’s see if they’ve got anything hidden away under the counter”, Sam proposed hopefully. “You coming, sir?”

 

“Nah”, said Jack. “I hate protein bars …” He gave the Scrabble board an impatient shake.

 

Sam, Daniel, Teal’c, and Janet initiated a cunning flank attack on the food counter. O’Neill, chin propped up on his fist, rummaged through the jumble of letters on the board and lovingly spelt out ‘Fiorentina’. “I wonder if Carter’s Italian place does deliveries …”

 

“Sure”, grinned Feretti. Give’em a week or two. They’ll shovel a track up here!”

 

“Reckon take-out’ll be quicker, then?”

 

Feretti looked at Jack, his eyes narrowing. “No way, sir. You’re not gonna get through.”

 

“Wanna bet?”

 

“Uhunh. Fifty bucks says you won’t make it, Colonel.”

 

“Watch me.”

 

 

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

 

 

The jeep inched a path through the snowstorm, which was about to turn into a full-fledged whiteout. Jack was going on instinct, unable to make out any landmarks, more or less guessing where the road might be, and hoping he guessed right. This probably hadn’t been such a shit-hot idea after all … Still, it’d be worth it, just for the pinched look on Feretti’s face when he had to cough up fifty bucks. Not to mention - … Uh oh! Where’s the road gone? Seen the ground, anyone? Terra firma?

 

His vehicle had given an uncontrollable lurch. Now it idly pirouetted down a steep slope … Get out of the damn car, Jack! Chances are, you’ll be airborne in a second and end up with your innards splattered all over the foot of a cliff … He was struggling with his seatbelt when the jeep hit a strategically positioned tree. The Colonel’s last thought as his head impacted on the steering wheel was, ‘Carter’s gonna be so pissed off …’

 

 

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

 

 

Carter wasn’t pissed off. Carter was fuming, fuming, and, oh yeah, had she mentioned ‘fuming’? She clung to her anger for dear life. The longer she stayed angry, the less time she had to worry about that impossible overgrown elf someone had seen fit to stick into a colonel’s uniform … Jeez, sir! Of all the cretinous ideas …!

 

“Feretti, you’re an idiot!”, she shouted. “How on earth could you let him go? For a stupid bet!!”

 

When Colonel O’Neill hadn’t returned after two hours, his partner-in-crime had started having second thoughts and owned up. At the moment he was bearing the brunt of the combined wrath of SG-1 and the CMO and looked more contrite by the minute. Daniel was practically bouncing off the walls, periodically threatening to do unprintable things to Feretti’s privates, while Teal’c seemed to be contemplating whether to have the Major’s liver, fried, with fava beans.

 

Finally, Janet suggested, “I say we go look for him. He probably didn’t get very far. And when we find him, so help me, I’ll … I’ll run every test I can think of!!”

 

 

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

 

 

Jack had come to with a prize-worthy headache and small trickle of blood tickling his forehead. He wiped his face on the sleeve of his jacket, then wiggled the rest of his anatomy, to see if there was any further damage. Apparently not … Now that was a novelty! But considering the mood Doc Fraiser would be in, it was just as well if he didn’t give her too many excuses to poke him … By his watch he’d been out for half an hour, and the interior of the jeep was getting cold. Freezing, actually. He put the gear into neutral and tried the ignition. Surprisingly enough the engine started … Yes! … O’Neill cranked up the heating, checked the fuel gauge. Plenty to keep the motor running until Feretti came and rescued him … hopefully … Shame about Carter’s pizza, though …

 

Ten uncomfortable minutes later it dawned on him that, far from getting warmer, the temperature in the car was dropping rapidly. While the engine had survived the crash, the heating system obviously hadn’t … Go figure! … Oookay. Time to take a hike! He turned up his collar, pulled a beanie hat over his ears, and clambered out of the jeep … Whoa! The wind-chill was brutal. And he still couldn’t see a damn thing … Well, he’d come down the hill, so up probably was a good direction to take. Should have brought gloves … Hands tucked under his armpits, he started walking … No. Make that ‘wading’ …

 

 

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

 

 

One of the MPs who stood guard topside confirmed that he’d seen Colonel O’Neill leave the facility, “about … uhm … one-and-a-half, two hours ago? He said he needed to get something from his car -”

 

“And naturally, it never occurred to you that something might be wrong when he didn’t return”, snapped Sam.

 

“No, ma’am.” The hapless young man blushed, at a loss to understand what his buddy Graham found so attractive about this vile-tempered Major. “Sorry, ma’am … I guess, I wasn’t thinking …”

 

She wasn’t mollified. “Try it some time. Works wonders for your -”

 

“Sam!” Daniel put a hand on her arm. “Ease up. It’s not his fault.”

 

“I know … Let’s go!” Sam shook him off.

 

Janet, Teal’c, Daniel, Feretti, and Sam, all armed with flashlights and bundled up in snowsuits, heavy boots, and an extravagant collection of hats, trotted along the road to the mouth of the tunnel. Outside the blizzard continued to rage with undiminished force. The snowfall was so heavy that footprints would be indistinguishable after all this time, but the tracks of a jeep … Well, there was a slim chance. They fought their way to the perimeter gate.

 

Suddenly Teal’c’s voice boomed over the din of the storm. “SamanthaCarter!”

 

Brushing snowflakes off her goggles, Sam squinted to spot what the Jaffa was pointing at. The beam of her flashlight carried less than three yards. She stepped closer. Then she saw it too: faint, parallel indentations, barely visible in the swirling white-in-white night, leading through the gate. Tire tracks.

 

“Feretti! Teal’c!” she yelled against the wind. “Take point! Stay on the tracks.”

 

Sam rounded up Janet and Daniel and herded them on to catch up with the two men. As quickly as they could they began following the trail of the jeep down what had to be the road.

 

 

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

 

 

It was painfully slow going, and O’Neill had no idea how far he’d been climbing. That stupid slope couldn’t have been that high, could it? He harboured a nasty suspicion that he’d been walking in circles. Up or down made no difference, really. The madly eddying flurries of snow disoriented him, and half the time he could barely tell whether he was moving or standing still. In places the drifts came up to his waist, and he’d long ago given up on the notion of keeping his hands warm. More than once he’d had to dig himself out of a hole … At least it makes a change from forever digging yourself into a hole, Jack! … God, he was cold! And so sleepy … Don’t even think about it! Don’t lie down! … Maybe just for a minute … A minute can’t hurt … Carter’s gonna be so sore! … Maybe two … or three … just to rest a little …

 

He sank into a snowdrift and curled up. Within seconds he’d fallen asleep.

 

 

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

 

 

With Teal’c pitting his bulk against the storm like an icebreaker, they’d made good time down the mountain, despite the weather. At least on the way up they’d have the wind at their backs, Sam observed grimly as another violent gust snatched the breath from her mouth. How anyone could survive out here for any length of time … Oh, great, Carter! Keep those positive thoughts coming, why don’t you? …

 

Abruptly, the Jaffa stopped.

 

“What is it, Teal’c?” Sam padded to the front of their little column.

 

“I seem to have lost the trail. Perhaps we should retrace our steps, SamanthaCarter.”

 

She nodded and motioned the others to turn back. Five minutes later Feretti picked up the trail again. The tracks veered off the road and over the edge of a slope. “Shit!” he said feelingly.

 

“Shit!” echoed Sam and plunged a few yards down the hill before pausing to let her team catch up. If she remembered her topography correctly, the bottom of this slope fell off into a ravine … Eyes straining, she still couldn’t make out anything but white. She was beginning to loathe that colour with a rare passion. Teal’c, Janet, and Feretti slid and skidded to a halt around her. Sam pointed downhill. “Let’s go! But stay to-”

 

Daniel came bumbling past them in a gangly, gravity-driven gallop.

 

“-gether … Daniel!! Be careful!!!”

 

Bang on cue, Daniel tripped, turned a tidy forward somersault, and vanished in a spray of snow. Teal’c went after him and dragged him out of the drift he’d landed in.

 

“Hey, Jackson!” yelled Feretti. “We’re not off-world now. No need for your usual search behaviour!”

 

“Shut it, Major!” Janet said. “Come on, let’s go.” She and Feretti joined Teal’c who was busy dusting off Dr Jackson.

 

“Hey! Hang on a sec …” The howling wind made Sam’s shout fizzle, and they didn’t hear her, but she was too preoccupied to care. Daniel had tripped over something. Okay, so he wasn’t the most coordinated person alive, but usually even he had to have a reason to stumble. A root, a rock, or … The odds were astronomical, but she’d better check. Sam staggered over to the spot where Daniel had launched into his acrobatic display, and started digging. Moments later she’d uncovered a shoulder, the SGC insignia on a sleeve … My God! … She kept shovelling snow with both hands, until she’d cleared the Colonel’s head and neck, tore her gloves off with her teeth, and felt for his pulse … Dammit, sir! … Don’t you dare … There! A tad slow, but nice and strong. She almost cried with relief. Then her anger resurfaced.

 

She pulled him up and shook him, none too gently. “Colonel! Wake up! ‘nough played, sir! Time to come home for dinner … Janet!!” she hollered at the top of her lungs. “Janet! Up here!”

 

“Oh, for cryin’ out loud! Stop shouting in my ear, Carter!” O’Neill croaked. “What the hell …?”

 

“My thought precisely, sir.” In the beam of the flashlight, she examined his face.

 

He blinked at the light. “Carter, do you mind -”

 

Uh oh. She recognised those telltale white blotches on his skin. “Permission to strike a superior officer, sir …” Sam slapped him. Twice. Hard.

 

“Ow!! … Major! I know you’re mad at me, but -”

 

“Sorry, Colonel. Your face is getting frostbitten. Best way of kick-starting circulation. Besides … you deserved it! Sir!”

 

The others were ploughing their way back up the hill, following Sam’s shouts. Dr Fraiser was the first to arrive.

 

“Thank God! … You okay?” she gasped.

 

“Peachy, apart from getting beaten up by my 2IC. Anyone else want a go?”

 

Janet glared at him. “Don’t tempt me, Colonel!”

 

Jack pulled his hat over his face.

 

 

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

 

 

In less than an hour they were back at the SGC and had escorted a shivering Jack O’Neill to the infirmary. Ignoring his vociferous protests that he was p-p-perfectly f-f-fine and all he needed was a b-b-bed and a hot w-w-water b-b-bottle, Dr Fraiser gave him a thorough check-up. To noone’s great surprise, she found that he was hypothermic and mildly concussed. Then she treated his hands and face for minor frostbite and sutured the gash on his forehead.

 

“Okay, sir. I’m keeping you in overnight, for observation”, Janet announced and scribbled a few notes on his chart. Without even looking up, she continued, “No use giving me that Aw, mom! look of yours. You’re staying. But if you want to argue the point, we always can let General Hammond decide …”

 

“Aw, mom! … Carter started it!”

 

“Colonel!” The doctor grinned. “A personal favour, please? Try acting your age, not your shoe-size!”

 

“Doc-”

 

“Good Night, sir.”

 

 

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

 

 

During the night, the blizzard blew over at last, and in the early morning hours the first snow ploughs and supply trucks reached Cheyenne Mountain. By mid-morning, external power had been restored to the complex. Gradually, life at the SGC returned to normal. Whatever that meant.

 

Sam stood in the control room, supervising the preparations for a MALP survey of P2W 873. The probe sat on the ramp, ready to go, and the stargate was spinning up.

 

“Chevron 5 encoded”, Lieutenant Graham Simmons called out. “Chevron 6 encoded. Chevron 7 … locked.”

 

The watery cascade of the event horizon leapt out into the embarkation room and retreated, settled into the familiar luminous membrane inside the gate. The device rolled towards it, into it, and disappeared.

 

“Tracking the object. Object will reach destination in four … three … two … one …” Simmons switched on the video and audio monitors, and punched up environmental data on the computer.

 

“Morning, Carter!”

 

Sam turned around and watched the Colonel saunter up the last few steps into the control room, spilling coffee from the two mugs he was carrying. “Morning, sir. How’s the head?”

 

“Better. More than can be said for my jaw … Where did you learn to hit like that? Ah! … Don’t tell me, I know: Level 3 Unarmed Combat …”

 

She bit her lip. Maybe should have pulled your punches a bit, Carter? … “Sorry, sir …”

 

“Forget it. As a wise woman said at the time, I deserved it … I … uh … Sam, I … Here!” O’Neill thrust a mug of coffee at her. “First batch, fresh from the machine. Peace?”

 

Knowing her CO well enough to interpret this, correctly, as abject apology, Sam took the mug, grinning. “Peace, sir. Thanks for the coffee.”

 

“You’re welcome … And no, Simmons, it’s not what you think, whatever it is you’re thinking”, Jack said in the direction of the Lieutenant who’d listened to their conversation with his mouth hanging open. Then the video transmission from the MALP caught O’Neill’s attention. “So, what have we got there?”

 

“Live footage from P2W 873, Colonel. The General has just scheduled a team to assess the feasibility of mining operations. Preliminary surveys have shown that the planet is rich in naquada and other rare ores and minerals, sir”, replied Sam.

 

“And by the looks of it, it’s also the home of a new species of yak, Yeti, and the Abominable Snowman. Who are the lucky guys to win a trip to this permafrost theme park?”

 

“Uh … SG-1 … sir.”

 

Jack choked on his coffee, coughed, and spluttered, “No way, Carter! … I … I’m allergic to snow!”

 

 

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

 

 

“… so, people, your primary mission objective is to ascertain whether or not there is an indigenous population on the planet and, if yes, to find out whether they’ll be amenable to mining operations. We don’t want another Salish incident, if we can at all avoid it. Also, we need you to survey and chart areas with promising naquada deposits. Which means you’d better count on at least five days off-world.

 

The mission briefing for P2W 873 was winding down, and General Hammond was summarising details. “Any questions?”

 

“Yes, sir. How about sending SG-2 instead?” Colonel O’Neill asked brightly. “I hear Feretti has a scientific interest in snowdrifts …”

 

Sam hid a smile.

 

“Unfortunately, Colonel, Major Feretti is otherwise engaged. He’s shovelling snow in the parking lot, which should cool his betting fever at least temporarily. However, if you’d like to join him …”, the General offered deadpan.

 

“No, sir. That … uhm … won’t be necessary.” Jack sneezed. “Sorry, sir! Uh … Allergies …?”

 

Daniel snorted. “Bless you!”

 

There was a knock at the briefing room door. An Airman entered and quietly conferred with General Hammond.

 

O’Neill scanned the faces of his team, scowling. “Right!” he said in a low hiss. “Who spilled the beans?! … Teal’c? … Daniel?! … Carter …?”

 

The only response he got was barely suppressed laughter from both Sam and Daniel, and a blank look from Teal’c. “Beans, O’Neill?”

 

“Very funny …” Jack sneezed again.

 

Gesundheit!”, said Daniel.

 

The Airman saluted and left.

 

Struggling to maintain a stern face, the General stared at O’Neill. “If you’re looking for the stool-pigeon, Colonel, try a mirror. With the ruckus you caused yesterday, I’d have to be deaf and blind not to know what’s been going on. Personally, I think the less said about it, the better. Besides, I take it that Major Carter has already … hmph … conveyed everybody’s opinion of your little excursion.” His gaze wandered to Sam, whose ears had taken on a flattering ruby tinge. A moment later Hammond was serious again. “Airman Guttridge just informed me that your guest has arrived. So, if I could ask you to stay for a few more minutes …”

 

“Guest?” Daniel mouthed, and Sam shrugged her shoulders.

 

Teal’c arched an inquisitive eyebrow.

 

“Guest, sir?” asked Jack, unconsciously mimicking Teal’c’s expression.

 

The General cleared his throat, very ill at ease all of a sudden. “Yes. In view of the strategic importance of finding a viable source of naquada, Washington has requested that you take along an expert. Caroline Farrell studies geology -”

 

“Excuse me, General, but didn’t I just hear you say ‘expert’?” Daniel cut in, semantically astute as ever. “So, what’s it to be? An expert or a student?”

 

“- and is training to be a mining engineer”, Hammond finished with a withering look at Dr Jackson. “And, yes, it is irregular and, no, under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have agreed. However, Senator Farrell, the young woman’s father, happens to be the vice-chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a close personal friend of the President … which pretty much explains how I got railroaded into this. The long and short of it is that she has presidential authorisation to accompany you on this mission. Do us all a favour and make her happy, make her father happy, and make the President happy.”

 

“Ah … General?”

 

“Colonel?!” Hammond’s glower dared Jack to object.

 

Weighing his options and deciding on a tactical retreat, O’Neill looked down and began doodling on his notepad. “Never mind, sir … It’ll keep.”

 

“I thought so, Colonel … Please, people -”

 

The door opened, and Airman Guttridge ushered in their ‘guest’. “Sirs, ma’am. Miss Farrell.”

 

 

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

 

 

If Caroline Farrell was aware of the somewhat reserved reception, she never showed it. She was tall and in possession of a rich auburn mane, sleeked into a French braid; high cheekbones; the soft, liquid eyes of a doe; and a sensuous little pout of a mouth. She was stunning and impeccably turned out. She also was articulate, self-assured, and obviously undaunted by her surroundings.

 

Well, if you’re used to calling the President of the United States ‘uncle’ and popping round to the White House for dinner every so often, a mere room full of brass, geeks, and aliens at some top-secret facility would leave you cold … Sam watched curiously as Miss Farrell, yet another scientist, weathered Colonel O’Neill’s scrutiny.

 

A few years ago she herself had walked into this same room and come up against this same mocking mask, comprised, at even parts, of coldness, arrogance, and condescension. God, she’d been so green by comparison! Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and oh so green … Caroline Farrell acquitted herself more elegantly than Sam had at the time, countering borderline rudeness with suave charm, instead of issuing an invitation to an arm-wrestling match. Then again, Farrell missed out on the considerable pleasure of seeing the Colonel’s jaw drop a fraction, just before a glint of amused respect crept into his eyes …

 

 

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

 

 

When the briefing had concluded, Sam took their guest to the locker room to help her assemble her gear. “Don’t worry about Colonel O’Neill, Miss Farrell, he -”

 

“Oh, please, call me Caroline”, the geologist replied. “And rest assured, Doctor … or do you prefer Major?”

 

“Sam”, offered Carter.

 

Farrell broke into a grin. “Sam. Rest assured, the Colonel doesn’t worry me in the slightest. On the contrary. Makes a nice change from those simpering, sycophantic preppies that waddle around campus … He’s an interesting man. Quite a challenge. Knows what he wants and how to get it, I’d say. I respect that. I’m the same. I guess, Colonel O’Neill and I have more in common than -”

 

“We’d better hurry. We’re due in the ‘gate room in ten”, Sam said brusquely, nipping that particular conversation in the bud. She’d rather eat Feretti’s boots than get into a discussion about the compatibility of the Colonel and Miss Farrell. And she’d have his socks for dessert before investigating why such a discussion should bother her that much.

 

 

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Part 2

 

 

A winding road through the mountains. Craggy slopes gape to reveal a vista of infinity, kissed to blushing point by the evening sun. Hill crest upon hill crest recedes into gauzy haze, impossibly sharp colours and outlines dissolve to contour-less pastel and finally to the mere idea of hills unravelling in the distance.

 

He pulled over and got out of the car, started climbing towards the pass, fully aware that it was futile. Even if he sprouted wings, he’d never reach that distant, delicate silhouette that looked like peace itself. Need overcame reason, so he kept walking. Walking in that peculiar gait of his, which she would have recognised instantly, had she been there to observe. Seemingly always at the brink of breaking into a run, a slight bounce accentuating each long stride. He slowed down at last, came to a halt at the top of the ridge.

 

The ocean wind gripped his hair, tousled and tugged at it, without leaving any visible effect on what already and always was your basic crow’s nest. Now that he saw the valley spread below him, he couldn’t fathom what had driven him up here. It was beautiful, but he viewed it as through a glass pane, incapable of reaching out and touching it or letting it touch him.

 

Without noticing, he hugged himself. He was shivering again. Escape from the cold was what had brought him out here in the end. Escape from the cold and fulfilment of a self-imposed duty he would have given anything to avoid.

 

 

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

 

 

The binary suns of P2W 873 shone down on a breathtaking mountainscape, and their light refracted on glaciers and snowfields in myriads of prismatic sparks. The ‘gate stood in open terrain on a ridge between two peaks, overlooking a deep, shadow-cloaked valley. Apart from SG-1 and their newly acquired geologist, there wasn’t a soul in sight.

 

“Great!”, Jack muttered acerbically, adjusting his sunglasses and glaring at an innocent forest that clung to the mountainside several hundred yards below the ‘gate. “My life is complete: snow and trees! Who’s a lucky boy, th-” He sneezed.

 

Salud y pesetas!Daniel exclaimed happily.

 

“Daniel … !!”

 

“Just being polite, Jack”, sniggered Daniel.

 

“Don’t be!” The Colonel unloaded a pair of skis from FRED, stepped into the bindings, and shouldered his pack. “Come on, kids! Let’s go. We haven’t got all day!”

 

Aided by Sam, Teal’c put on his skis and doubtfully eyed the appendages on his feet. “O’Neill? Are you certain that walking on boards is the type of locomotion appropriate for this environment? I understood that it was an ancient naval diversion.”

 

O’Neill looked at the Jaffa in momentary confusion, and suddenly the corners of his mouth started to twitch. “That’d be ‘walking the plank’, Teal’c, and that’s not what were doing. This is called skiing. See?” He propelled himself into the slope and performed a series of fast, narrow turns before coming to a sharp stop, laughing as a cloud of powder snow settled on him.

 

Even from the distance, Sam could detect a rare glow of joy on the Colonel’s face. “Having fun, are we, sir?” she whispered under her breath, smiling.

 

Caroline Farrell had skied over to Sam, watching O’Neill with the air of a connoisseur. “Not bad. Be interesting to see if I can beat him. I hope you don’t ski as well as he does, else I’ll develop an inferiority complex.”

 

Fat chance of that ever happening, Sam thought.

 

The Colonel was getting impatient. “What’s taking you so long?! … Carter? … Daniel? …Teal’c? Come on, Teal’c! It’s easy! Just keep your legs bent! …”

 

Grim determination in his eyes, Teal’c planted his poles in the snow and levered himself into the slope.

 

“Teal’c!! Wait!!!”

 

Daniel’s warning came too late. Two-hundred-odd pounds of Jaffa, legs duly bent, were on their way down the mountain, rapidly gathering momentum. In a ruler-straight line Teal’c thundered past his CO and towards a jagged rock that stood directly in his trajectory.

 

Jack went after him. “Teal’c! Turn! Dammit! You gotta turn!”

 

Upon analysis of the situation, Teal’c concluded that the wisest course of action would be to sit down. Which he did, in the process creating a sizeable trough in the mountainside, before shuddering to a halt within a yard or two from the rock. Moments later the others caught up with him.

 

“Teal’c? You okay? How’s Junior?”

 

“I am in satisfactory condition, O’Neill, and so is my symbiote”, Teal’c growled, his pride being the only casualty of the little escapade. “I had not anticipated the degree of skill this … skiing … requires.”

 

“Yeah, well … You’ve gotta learn how to turn … I’ll teach you …” O’Neill cast a wistful glance at the alluring expanse of virgin powder snow and gave a little sigh of self-denial.

 

Sam opened her mouth, but Daniel was quicker. “Look, Jack … Let me! I’m not that keen on this off piste, knee-deep-in-powder lark. You guys go and enjoy, and I’ll give Teal’c a skiing lesson.”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Yeah. Buzz off!”

 

“Cool … Meet you at the bottom!” O’Neill traversed back towards the steepest part of the slope. Suddenly he stopped and turned around, grinning broadly. “Hey, Danny?! … Thanks!”

 

“Uh … Daniel?” Sam tapped Dr Jackson’s shoulder. “Not keen on this off piste lark??”

 

“Shh. Don’t spoil it for him … When’s the last time you saw him look this happy …?”

 

“Oh?” Caroline Farrell waited for an explanation.

 

Daniel frowned. “Uhm … Okay, Teal’c. You ready?”

 

“I am ready, DanielJackson.” Teal’c had examined the contents of his backpack for any breakage. Now he awkwardly came to his feet and slipped on the pack.

 

Clearly not used to having her queries deflected, Farrell gave an angry frown of her own and skied off to join the Colonel.

 

“Hey, Carter!? Any time this century’ll be fine …”

 

“I’ll race you, sir!”

 

“In your dreams!” Jack shouted, put his cap on back to front, and set off, leaving Farrell standing.

 

Oh, yeah? You’ve got another thing coming, sir! … Sam started after him, losing herself in the rhythm of her movement. The only sounds were the hiss of metal edges on icy crystals, the rustle of dislodged crests of snow flying away in her wake, and her short, steady puffs of breath in the crisp air. Oh, yeah! This was fun! Sam gave a soft little laugh. Shift, turn, shift, turn, sh-

 

Farrell cut across her path, close enough almost to scrape the tips of Sam’s skis and breaking her flow.

 

“Dammit!!” … Shift … Wrong. She’d wrong-footed herself. Instead of gliding into a turn, Sam toppled over the edge of her bottom ski and sailed out of the slope. A moment of weightlessness, then she began falling out of control, tumbling head-over-heels down the mountain, past Farrell, past the Colonel, every now and again hitting the ground, only to rebound … Get on your back, Carter! Get your arms and legs out of harm’s way! … When she realised that it wouldn’t happen, she started panicking, hyperventilating. Her left ski tore off, clipping her leg as it ricocheted away. Where are my gloves? … Someone’s punched your ticket, Carter! … Why the hell doesn’t that binding release?! … What a totally dumb-ass way to die! … Totally, totally - … Her right ski bit into the snow, twisted inward, and with a final forward roll she came to rest in the hollow that had broken her fall.

 

For a few long seconds Sam just lay there, savouring the miraculous absence of motion. At last she sat up, dazed and disoriented, brushing snow from her face and digging it out of her collar. The glacier stuck in her underwear would have to melt on its own. Her pack was gone, and so were her hat and shades. And the poles. But she was still alive … You’d have to be alive to feel that sick … And something hurt like merry hell! Wow!! Oh, wow … She panted against the pain and dimly recollected how, during that last nosedive, she’d felt something snap in her ankle.

 

“Sam …?”

 

Now, why did the Colonel look so damn green around the gills? After all, he hadn’t gone down the hill like a tumbleweed on acid. Sam went back to straightening herself out … Boy, this hurt! Wonder where that other ski’s ended up …

 

He’d cast off his skis and skidded down to her. “Carter! … Are you alright? … Dammit, Major, I asked you a question!”

 

“I’m fine”, Sam mumbled, trying to get to her feet. “Ouch!” She slumped back into the snow, cackling hysterically.

 

“Uhunh. ‘Fine’. Right.” Recognising shock when he saw it, Jack opted for a practical approach. He crouched and removed her ski.

 

Sam yelped, and the manic laughter stopped.

 

“Sorry, Carter. You with me now?”

 

“Yes, sir. Sorry… This hurts!”

 

“I know, Carter. It’ll hurt some more in a minute. Feel free to scream at me, Major …”

 

She didn’t, but it was a close call. He’d stripped off her boot and sock and gently manipulated her foot. Between clenched teeth, she spat, “That’s great, Colonel! Now it’s cold and hurts … Ouch! What the hell is it? A break?”

 

“Don’t think so. Much more entertaining than that. Looks like a torn ligament …” He slipped the sock back on her foot. “In a few hours your ankle’ll be the size of a pumpkin … more colourful, though.”

 

“Can’t wait!” She started shaking.

 

Jack took off his jacket and draped it around her. Then he pulled her close, rubbing her back and arms to keep her warm.

 

 

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

 

 

They’d made camp on a sheltered ledge in the forest, below the overhang of a cliff. By the time they’d finished rigging the tents, both suns had set, and the temperature had sunk well below freezing. Teal’c and the Colonel had gone to secure the perimeter; Farrell was in her tent, checking equipment; and Daniel was searching the packs in the forlorn hope of unearthing macaroni cheese MREs that didn’t taste of chicken.

 

Wrapped in a thermal blanket, Sam sat by the campfire and inspected her foot. The Colonel had been right. The ankle had swollen to a spectacular size, and its colour display could compete with a parrot in mating plumage. Under her breath she muttered a curse that would have startled a Marine. As soon as she’d said it, she was annoyed with herself for even remembering the phrase. It had been one of Jonas Hanson’s choice expletives. To be sure, she’d heard it often enough … And what on earth had opened up that old can of worms? Leave off, Carter! The man’s dead. Has been dead for over two years … She shook her head as though to dispel the memories.

 

A loud sneeze made her turn. By the sounds of it, the Colonel and Teal’c had completed their rounds of the perimeter. Sam grinned. “Skål!”, she called, drawing a dirty look from O’Neill and an indignant grumble from their resident linguist whom she’d pipped to the post.

 

Daniel wasn’t about to be beaten at his own game. “Skål, that means -”

 

“Good Health”, Teal’c supplied obligingly and to Daniel’s dismay.

 

Jack sneezed again. “Ah! … Nastrovye! That means: Shut up and go away!”

 

With a chuckle Daniel wandered off to sort out dinner, while Teal’c disappeared into his tent, presumably for a sane, sensible colloquy with Junior.

 

“How’s the ankle?”, asked O’Neill, warming his hands over the fire.

 

“I’ll have to borrow a spare boot from Teal’c”, Sam replied. “If it’s all the same to you, sir, I guess next time round I’d prefer a common garden-variety fracture. This sucks …”

 

“Believe me, I know.” He sat down next to Sam. “‘Far as I’m concerned, the only thing worse is a dislocated shoulder …”

 

“Been there and done that, sir?”

 

Jack nodded.

 

“What did you do?”

 

“Nothing. It was done for me.” From one moment to the next his face had become closed, impenetrable.

 

Inadvertently, they’d blundered into a no-go area. One of the many … Sam recalled Farrell’s remark, ‘an interesting man’, and almost laughed. It didn’t even begin to describe him. ‘Walking minefield’ might be more appropriate, as full of contradictions as an NID report to the Joint Chiefs … God only knew what this was all about. Iraq? Possibly … Experience had taught her that it would be pointless to ask. He’d talk when he was good and ready or not at all, and judging from the current expression on his face, ‘not at all’ was the more likely scenario by far. Whatever it was, he certainly hadn’t been a willing participant … Sam found she absolutely, positively hated that thought. Her jaws tightened.

 

O’Neill misread her reaction, deliberately perhaps. “You want to keep that foot up. Hurts less that way.” He carefully lifted her leg and placed it across his lap. Suddenly he grinned. “I hope you realise that I’m the most highly classified footstool you’re ever gonna use …”

 

“And the noisiest … So, what’s the prognosis, sir? Am I gonna run the miracle mile any time soon?”

 

“I wouldn’t count on it … What actually happened, Carter? I mean, how -”

 

“Uh … Colonel O’Neill? … Sam?” Caroline Farrell was watching them from across the campfire. “I want to apologise … I’m afraid what happened was my fault. It was meant to be a joke … If I’d thought for a moment it’d throw you, Sam …” She winced at the unintentional pun. “I’m really sorry. I should have acted more responsibly -”

 

The Colonel exploded. “Dammit, Farrell, who the hell do you think you are to -

 

“Sir! Don’t. Please …” Sam had placed a hand on his arm in a subtle warning. O’Neill got the message and backed down reluctantly. She turned to Farrell. “Forget it, okay? It happened. I’m fine. Mostly, anyway. Just keep in mind that this is not a skiing holiday and that mountain rescue’s half a galaxy away.”

 

“I really am sorry, Sam. I didn’t mean any harm. It’s just that I tend to assume that, simply because I can do something with ease, other people can as well …”

 

Sam suspected she’d been insulted, but the insult, couched in what seemed a sincere apology, could have been accidental … Yeah! About as accidental as Farrell cutting across her on the slope … Oh, for Pete’s sake, Carter! Pull yourself together! How paranoid can you get?!

 

Still fighting to control his temper, O’Neill said softly, “Just for the record, Miss Farrell: if it were up to me, I’d send you home with Major Carter. As it is, I suggest you blend into the background for the next few days!”

 

“I’m sorry”, Farrell mumbled. “I -”

 

“Uh … Sir?”

 

“What?!”

 

“Home?”

 

“Tomorrow morning we’ll take you up to the ‘gate and send you back, Carter, so Janet can take care of your foot”, he stated, his tone declaring Sam’s return a foregone conclusion.

 

“No, sir.”

 

His eyebrows shot up.

 

“I know it says ‘Colonel’ somewhere on your uniform, sir, but, as it happens, you’ve got only one expert on naquada running around in this place. And that’d be me. You need me -”

 

“’Running around’?”

 

“Alright, hobbling around. I’ll be okay, sir.”

 

There was a long pause. Finally he sighed. “I’ll probably regret this, but I’ll let you stay. For the time being. That ankle gets any worse, you’re going home. And Major?”

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

“Do something about that following-orders-thing of yours …”

 

“Yes, sir!” She grinned.

 

Caroline Farrell walked away.

 

 

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

 

 

Sam had insisted on standing … alright, sitting … watch as she normally would. Eventually, the boys had given in, on the condition that she took first watch and got some uninterrupted sleep afterwards. Everyone had gone to bed, and she was back on her perch by the fire, listening to the night sounds.

 

The eerie silence was broken only occasionally. Small furry hunters or scavengers tiptoed through the undergrowth, sometimes loud cracks echoed from the mountains. At first they’d mistaken the noise for the report of gunshots, until they realised that it was the sound of crevices bursting open on the glaciers. They’d seen no signs of human life at all. Then again, it was early days. There might be a native population further down in the valleys. Somehow Sam doubted it. No place inhabited by humans, however remote, could exude such barren loneliness … Involuntarily, she shuddered. Just as well that she was due to be relieved in little over half an hour.

 

She heard a sudden, faint rustle from the direction of the tents, and started. Footsteps squeaking in the fresh, freezing snow. Someone approaching her. Her fingers curled around the gun.

 

“Hi”, said Caroline Farrell. “Mind if I join you? I couldn’t sleep and thought I’d keep you company for a while.”

 

“Be my guest.” Sam waved a hand a the log beside her and shifted uncomfortably. She felt no inclination whatsoever to make small talk with Miss Farrell.

 

Farrell sat and gazed at the flames. It was her turn to fidget. Hesitantly, she began, “I did it again, didn’t I? I upset you.” She looked sidelong at Sam. “I didn’t mean to patronise you or to infer that you’re a bad skier. It just came out wrong …”

 

“Don’t sweat it”, mumbled Sam. “I’m more thick-skinned than you might think.”

 

“No, I feel I should explain. See, growing up the way I have doesn’t exactly hone one’s social skills. I’m an only child. Fairly old, very rich parents who thought everything I did was sensational, who indulged me like you wouldn’t believe. Even now, anything I want, I get. This jaunt is a case in point. Christ! I shouldn’t even know about all this, let alone be here … Dad dropped an unguarded remark, and I kept probing until he told me about the programme. In the strictest confidence, of course.” She gave a brief laugh. “Once I found out, I wanted to go, obviously. I mean, who’d go stumbling through swamps in Venezuela, prospecting for oil, when you can do this? It’s the future of the mining industry, and I intend to be at the forefront of it! … Anyway, it took another week of pestering dad until he finally said he’d talk to uncle -… to the President. And here I am. Got what I wanted, yet again … I’m a spoilt brat, Sam. I know that. But I’m trying, I really am … I just don’t seem to be very successful …”

 

Wow! Cheers and applause for the Poor little rich girl routine … Sam settled for a non-committal reply. “So?”

 

“I’d very much like for us to be friends … if you can put up with me …”

 

“Caroline, it’s not a question of putting up with you, it’s -”

 

“So we’re friends?!”

 

Jeez! Nobody can be that naïve, least of all you! … But somehow Sam didn’t have the heart to tell Farrell that they hardly knew each other, and that, in all probability, any form of friendship would be even more unlikely upon closer acquaintance. Instead she said, “Sure.”

 

 “Oh, I’m so glad … After today, I didn’t think you’d even want to speak to me! I don’t have many friends, you know …” Farrell beamed at her.

 

Terrific, Carter! Here we go again! … ‘Healer of the emotionally wounded’ … Oh, damn you, Jonas! But perhaps that was the connection. She had that old, familiar sense of being pushed into doing something, being something she didn’t want to do or be … Sam wearily massaged her temples, trying to banish the ghosts of the past and a dull throb that promised to blossom into a roaring headache.

 

Oblivious to Sam’s strained silence, Farrell was on to a new topic. “Colonel O’Neill is very angry with me, isn’t he?”

 

With a sigh, Sam raised her head. “He’s responsible for his team’s safety, and he takes that very seriously. So, yes, he’s angry.”

 

“Sam? Can I ask you something?”

 

“You can try.”

 

“You and Colonel O’Neill … Are you … you know … an item?”

 

“Hell, no! Whatever gave you that idea?!”

 

“Well, you seem … very close …”

 

“We are. We’re team-mates. End of story.”

 

“Oh …” Farrell smiled. “So, you wouldn’t mind, if I … I fancy him, but I wouldn’t want to step on your toes, you know …”

 

Fancy him?! … Sam’s headache erupted to full glory, just as she heard herself say, “No. I don’t mind.”

 

Yes, I do. Don’t. Do, too … No, you don’t mind, Carter! You couldn’t mind, even if you wanted to … You! Don’t! Mind! … God, her head hurt! Had to be from the fall …

 

“That’s great!”, chirped Farrell. “Just thought I’d ask, you know, get things straight and out in the open. By the way, any hints you can give me would be much appreciated …”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Oh, like, what to do to get him interested … You could tell me a bit about him … You’re all so secretive!” Farrell nudged Sam. “Like, what did Dr Jackson mean when he said he hadn’t seen Colonel O’Neill this happy in ages? What was that all about? … He wouldn’t say”, she added accusingly.

 

Sam pinched the bridge of her nose. She’d thought her headache couldn’t possibly get any worse, but it had. “Look, Caroline, if  -”

 

“Hey, Carter!”

 

She looked up and saw the subject of this absurd conversation coming towards them. Of course. He had second watch … Ten to one that this was the real reason why Farrell was out here! … “Hi, sir!”

 

He ambled up to the fire, running both hands through his hair in an effort to undo the aftermath of what had to have been a pitched battle with the pillow. Sam smiled. How on earth did he manage to do that? … She struggled to get up and was punished by surges of pain from opposite ends of her anatomy. “Shit!” she gasped, staggering.

 

The Colonel caught her. “Whoa! Steady on! …” With a quick glance at Sam’s pasty face he said, “You look like death on toast, Major! I’m not gonna tell you I told you so, but I told you so. Bed!” Unceremoniously, he picked her up and carried her to her tent.

 

He all but tucked her in. “Get some rest, Sam …”

 

“I will, Colonel.”

 

“You know, for a minute there today I thought …”

 

As his voice trailed off, Sam felt his fingers tentatively brush her forehead. “Still here, sir”, she whispered, catching his hand and giving it a quick, reassuring squeeze. “Night, sir.”

 

“Night, Carter.” Quietly, he left.

 

Falling asleep, the last image in Sam’s mind was the ugly flare of fury she’d seen racing across Caroline Farrell’s face as the Colonel had carried her away from the campfire … Get a life, Farrell! …

 

 

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

 

 

Between her ankle, the headache, and Farrell’s odd behaviour, Sam hadn’t slept too well. In the morning she was woken by angry shouting.

 

“Dammit, Daniel!! How many times do I have to tell you?!”

 

“I’m sorry, Jack, I -”

 

“If you can’t hack it in the real world, Jackson, why don’t you go back to some cosy museum and gather cobwebs?!”

 

Holy Hannah! What the hell was the matter with the Colonel? This wasn’t just your average O’Neill Had a crap night so stay away from me early-morning-grump. This was serious. Sam crawled out of the tent just in time to see him stalk away, leaving behind a dismal looking Daniel who slowly crumpled onto a log and began stoking the fire.

 

“Oh! Rise and shine!” intoned a jaunty voice. “How are you this morning, Sam?”

 

Farrell. What else could go wrong before breakfast? … Caroline Farrell seemed pleased with herself, and Sam had a strong hunch that Caroline Farrell pleased with herself was not a good thing … Oh well. At least she looked friendlier than last night. “Morning”, Sam said. “I’m better, thanks. What was that all about?”

 

“Dr Jackson left his sidearm lying in the snow. I think Colonel O’Neill was a bit put out …”

 

A bit put out?!? Yeah, you could call it that, if you were of an incurably cheerful disposition. The outburst had been a wild overreaction to Daniel’s peccadillo. It had been designed to hurt, and that was very unlike Jack O’Neill. Sam limped over to Daniel, discovering along the way that, although her ankle screamed, it didn’t scream quite as loudly as it had the day before.

 

“Hey, Daniel. Care to tell me what’s going on between you and the Colonel?”

 

“Hi, Sam … uh … Looks like Jack’s contrived a way of getting up on the wrong side of a sleeping bag …” He attempted a smirk and failed miserably. “Whatever’s bothering him seems to be confined to me, though. Teal’c he treated like a normal human … uhm … Jaffa being …”

 

Over breakfast they found out that Daniel’s assessment wasn’t entirely accurate. Whatever was bothering Colonel O’Neill clearly extended to Sam. He was civil to Teal’c, made a point of talking to Caroline Farrell, and completely ignored Sam and Daniel.

 

Eventually he announced, “Okay. We’ll look for the natives, if they exist. Any naquada or other interesting rocks you stumble across, chart the position, and we’ll explore it later. Invalids with me, everybody else with Teal’c.” He rose, signalling that it was time to move out.

 

Sam swallowed a sharp reply.

 

 

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

 

Part 3

 

 

He had been in this place before, hiding in the cold comfort of an empty soul, not touching, not being touched. Until first Daniel, and later Sam and Teal’c had matched his own stubbornness refusal for refusal, forcing him into a radical reappraisal of his sense of self-worth. The notion that he might deserve friendship, kindness, caring had appeared alien beyond belief. But with acceptance had come recovery.

 

If it could be called recovery. Who said it wouldn’t have been wiser not to let them breach his defences? Wiser to have stayed where he’d been, not feeling, not caring, not being alive, ultimately? He had re-learnt how to feel, care, live, and had laid himself wide open to being hurt again.

 

A reluctant sun creeps towards the ocean, giving a gilded farewell to the hilltops. Shadows rear from the valley, and gradually the landscape’s vibrancy is dulled. Here and there in the dusk, lights emerge like pointless stars, trapped in deadening twilight.

 

Physical pain he could deal with. He’d known times when he’d greeted it as an old friend, because it was the one iron-clad assurance of having cheated death for another hour, another day. But this, this hopeless void where a face had been, a smile, a voice always arguing with him, always being infuriatingly right, this he couldn’t bear. Cold. He felt so cold.

 

 

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

 

 

Teal’c’s group had gone north, descending into the valley below their camp, while Sam and the Colonel had headed west, snaking along the lower reaches of the glaciers to see what lay beyond. Nothing much, so far. They’d been walking for almost three hours at the brisk clip set by O’Neill. He hadn’t uttered a word since they’d left.

 

Initially, Sam had promised herself that, if he didn’t slow down of his own accord, she’d say something. That had been nearly an hour ago, and she’d changed her mind in the meantime. She was plodding on doggedly. Two could play at this game. If he expected to wear her down, he’d got his facts wrong in a big way. Ah, Farrell could have him, foul moods and all! … Damn, but she wished she knew what had got into him!

 

They climbed down to the mouth of a glacier, a wide dome of translucent, unreal blue, arching over a clear stream that issued from deep within the ice. The descent was murderous. Finally, blessedly, the Colonel stopped in the field of boulders that stretched away from the cavern and lined the stream. Sam stifled a gasp of relief.

 

O’Neill spun around. “As I recall, Major, yesterday I offered to send you back. You insisted on staying. So don’t complain now.”

 

“And as I recall, Colonel, I didn’t complain!”

 

“No, you just slowed me down for the past three hours!”

 

“Then, with respect, sir, you should have said something!” She’d had just about enough of this, and to hell with insubordination. “Dammit, sir! At least have the courtesy of telling me what I did to piss you off like that! What the devil’s the matter with you?!”

 

“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know that?! So that you can run to Miss Farrell again and have another intimate chat about your CO’s personal problems, I presume?”

 

For a second or two, Sam just stood there, shell-shocked. “What on earth are you talking about, Colonel?” she whispered at last.

 

“I’m talking about you discussing me with the nearest stranger!” shouted O’Neill. “I’m talking about a breach of trust, Major! That’s what I’m talking about!” His voice carried a fierce edge of disappointment.

 

As it happened, Sam knew exactly how he felt. “How dare you, sir?! How dare you for a moment assume that I would do something like that? Or Daniel? I suppose that’s why you tore into him this morning?”

 

“What did you expect me to do? Congratulate you two?!” His defiance was crumbling ever so slightly.

 

“Colonel, please! Is it really so difficult to believe us rather than that little witch?!”

 

He stared at Sam, arms tightly folded across his chest, as though to protect himself. “Right now I don’t know who or what to believe, Carter.”

 

He could be so irritatingly obstinate! What does it take, sir?! … Ouch!! That foot hurt! And she was feeling sick again … Ignore it, Carter! Think of something else … That rock formation over there looked kinda funny … Naquada? Maybe … What the …?! Oh no, Colonel! You’re not going to walk away from this! No way!

 

“Sir, listen to me, please!” The urgency in her tone made him turn back. She carried on. “Sir, yesterday, on the slope, Daniel said something about how he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen you look this happy. Farrell overheard it, asked Daniel to explain. He ignored her. Then, last night while I stood watch, she tried to pump me for information. I was about to tell her to mind her own business, when you turned up. That’s all. I don’t know what she said to you, but I swear to God it’s either pure conjecture or she’s got it from someone other than us. Can I sit down now, please, sir?” Sam swayed.

 

Jack grabbed her arm and eased her onto a flat rock. “For cryin’ out loud, Carter! Why didn’t you say something?!” The look she gave him made him wince. “How the hell do you put up with a pig-headed idiot like me?”

 

“Oh, I don’t know, sir … As far as pig-headed idiots go, you’re quite endearing …”

 

“I’m sorry, Sam …” He stood there, restlessly bouncing on his toes, unsure of what else to do or say.

 

“It’s okay … For God’s sake, Colonel, sit down, you’re making me nervous!” She patted the rock next to her and he sat. “You mind telling me what Farrell said, sir?”

 

“Oh … We got talking, well, she did, mostly, and she … she was kinda vague at first … she kept dropping hints …” He shook his head impatiently, forcing himself to voice what needed to be voiced. “With what she was saying, Farrell made me think you or Daniel had told her about Charlie.

 

Oh, boy! Sam sighed. No wonder he’d been in such a state. It had taken him years to even begin to come to terms with his son’s death … You had to admire Farrell’s instincts. She’d zeroed in on his weakest spot. And she’d succeeded, however temporarily, in undermining the Colonel’s trust in his team, isolating him, making him vulnerable. What on earth was she playing at?! … “What did you do, sir?”

 

“Told her about Charlie …” Jack grimaced. “To set the record straight, I suppose. Normally I’d never … not to somebody like that …

 

Sam felt an overwhelming desire to throttle Caroline Farrell. Which obviously wouldn’t help the Colonel right now. She took a deep breath. “You’ve been suckered, sir. Next time the fair’s in town, remind me to take you to a clairvoyant’s booth. They’ll show you how it’s done. You throw some pretty general bait and wait for the other person to bite and supply the details.”

 

“Why, Sam? Why would she do that?”

 

“She’s got a crush on you.”

 

“She what?!”

 

“Last night she asked me for pointers on how to get you into bed with her …” Oops, Carter! Care to rephrase that?

 

The Colonel didn’t miss a beat. “And which method did you recommend, Major?”, he asked, looking the picture of innocence.

 

“I … uh … skirted the issue, sir.” Sam blushed.

 

“Well, that’s never gonna get you anywhe-”

 

God, the whole place was dancing before her eyes! … The roof of the dome caved in and crashed into the water. Only then Sam grasped that, this time, it wasn’t she but everything else around her that was swaying.

 

A split-second later a strong arm had clasped her around the waist. She was dragged away from the boulders that drunkenly reeled and lurched and toppled everywhere. Through the deafening rumble she heard a shout. “Shift it, Carter! Run!!”

 

They made it back up onto the ice, where at least there was no immediate risk of being squashed by a rock the size of a delivery truck. Sam limped along, supported by O’Neill, both of them struggling to maintain their balance amidst the heaving of the quake. Suddenly, a buzz rose from the glacier, and without warning the Colonel let go of Sam’s arm. She whirled around just in time to see him fall and slowly slide over the edge of a crevice that was tearing open next to them. “Sir! …”

 

“Carter! Don’t move!!”

 

Dropping flat on her stomach, Sam snatched his right wrist. He managed to grip her free hand with his left, and they hung on for what felt like an eternity until the tremors had ceased at last. Jack found a foothold, then another and, with Sam pulling, hauled himself out of the fissure. They lay in the snow, hands still clasped.

 

“Dammit, Major”, he breathed, gazing at her. “One fine day you’ll actually follow an order, and with my kind of luck I’ll probably miss it …”

 

Don’t you dare cry, Carter! … Sam didn’t notice that her teeth had begun to chatter. The Colonel was alive and grousing at her, and that was all she cared about for the moment.

 

“Hey, Sam?” He gently squeezed her fingers, and she raised her head. “Still here, Sam …”, he said with the tiniest trace of a smile. “Still here …” Abruptly, he let go of her hands and stood up. “We’d better get back to camp, see if the others are okay … Carter?”

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

“Thank you.”

 

 

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

 

 

“Hi, guys!” Colonel O’Neill carefully deposited his 2IC on a log by the fireside, before slumping down next to her.

 

“O’Neill. SamanthaCarter. I am pleased to see you unharmed. We were concerned for your safety.”

 

Daniel, similarly excited as Teal’c, wrapped Sam in a hug. When he let go, he cast a wary glance at Jack. “Glad to see you back …”

 

Farrell cut off O’Neill’s reply. Wrapping a proprietary arm around his shoulders, she sat down between him and Sam. “Jack, I was so worried! I -”

 

With a sneeze, the Colonel slid away from her, tipped over the side of the log and hit the ground. “Well?” he said into the pregnant silence that followed, looking at Daniel.

 

“Well, what?”

 

“Well, do I get to pick the language?”

 

Santé, mon colonel!”, Daniel said with a huge grin and extended a hand. Peux-je toi aider en lever ton derrière?

 

“Twenty-three languages, and that’s the best you can do?” Jack let himself be pulled to his feet and joined Daniel on another log, at a safe distance from Farrell. “Danny … uh … I -”

 

It’s okay, Jack.”

 

“No, it’s not okay. I behaved like a complete shit this morning, and I’m sorry! … Now, will you tell me what happened to your face?”

 

“Oh, that …” Gingerly, Dr Jackson touched a deep, nasty scratch that ran from the corner of his eye down the length of his cheek. “I … uh … kinda hugged a tree when all hell broke loose this afternoon …”

 

Teal’c’s team had been caught out by the earthquake much like O’Neill and Carter, except they hadn’t had the advantage of being in fairly open terrain. Nor had they discovered any signs of civilisation. It had been an all-round bad day: no ruins, no artefacts, just rocks of the flying variety, and more of those than they’d bargained for. The only encouraging news came from Sam who announced that there probably was a naquada deposit near the stream they’d found.

 

“And I suppose you didn’t feel like telling me while we were there, Carter?”

 

“We were kinda busy at the time, sir …”

 

“True … Miss Farrell?”

 

Caroline Farrell hadn’t said a peep since Jack had snubbed her. Now she looked up with pathetic eagerness. “Yes, Colonel?”

 

“Anything you want to add about this quake?”

 

“It looks like this place is tectonically unstable …”

 

“Ya think?!”

 

“Well, I’m a geologist, not a seismologist, so you’ll have to take this with a grain of salt … It’s difficult to say without the proper equipment, but I’m as certain as I can be that the quake was tectonic, not magmatic -”

 

“Meaning what?”

 

“These mountains represent the edges of two continental shelves. The shelves are pushing against each other, the edges rise, and that’s what causes the tremors. Pretty much like the fault line in California, Colonel.”

 

“I get that, Farrell. But what brought it on now, as opposed to last week or next month?”

 

“I don’t know. See, the bad news is that tectonic quakes are unpredictable.”

 

“Sweet. What’s the good news?”

 

“The chances of us getting caught in a major volcanic eruption are next to zero.”

 

“Oh, that’s reassuring … So, how does all this affect the viability of mining operations? I guess, what I’m asking is if there’s any point in staying and looking for naquada?”

 

“Absolutely. Mining won’t be a problem. We definitely should keep looking!” Farrell put considerable aplomb behind her last statement.

 

O’Neill studied his hands, wondering whether he could trust her motives … Don’t be an ass, Jack! … “So we stay …” He looked up. “Alright. What’s for dinner, kids?”

 

 

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

 

 

Minor tremors had recurred throughout the night, too weak to do any serious damage, but strong enough to keep everyone from getting a good night’s sleep. Tiredly, Sam heaved herself from her sleeping bag, put on her boots … well, her left and Teal’c’s right … and crawled out of the tent. Colonel O’Neill was up already, and so was Farrell, not surprisingly.

 

Farrell’s face was long and her greeting a lot less chirpy than it had been the day before, Sam noted with a small surge of satisfaction. Obviously, she’d been read the Riot Act … Pitching a sunny “Good Morning” in Caroline’s direction, Sam hobbled over to the Colonel.

 

“Morning, sir!”

 

“Hi, Carter! Take a look at this!” Jack pointed at the two suns that stood above the peak east of the ‘gate. “Notice anything?”

 

Sam frowned. “Seems like they’re closer together …”

 

“A+, Major. You may sit down.”

 

Suddenly, she understood what he was driving at. “Gravitational pull, sir? You think that’s what brought on the quakes.”

 

“You’re the astrophysicist, Carter.”

 

“It’s possible, sir. It also means that, if you’re right, the quakes are gonna get worse the further the suns move into alignment …”

 

“Morning”, groaned Daniel, joining their little group.

 

Jack turned to him and froze. “Whoa! Danny!! ‘Quasimodo’ mean anything to you?!”

 

“That good, eh?” Half of Daniel’s face was bloated, and his left eye was swollen shut. Overnight the scratch had become infected, and he seemed to be suffering a severe allergic reaction on top of it. “I don’t know … Maybe I should stay away from trees today, hunh?”

 

Teal’c, who’d been following Daniel like a momma bear her cub, proclaimed, “DanielJackson has a fever, O’Neill.”

 

Daniel shot him a one-eyed lour.

 

“Oookay”, said the Colonel. “This just keeps getting better and better. I love this place … Teal’c!”

 

“O’Neill?”

 

“You and I, my friend, are going to take Daniel up to the ‘gate and post him back to Fraiser. I don’t know what he’s got, but it kinda looks like it’s beyond herbal remedies.”

 

“But, Jack …!”

 

“Daniel! … This is not open for debate. Do I make myself clear?”

 

Daniel nodded dejectedly.

 

“Thank you! … Carter?”

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

“It’s your decision, but if you feel up to it, go back to that stream and see if your hunch about the naquada is correct.”

 

“I’ll go, sir. No problem.”

 

“Okay. Be careful, though. And take along Farrell … A little diversion might cheer her up”, he added, ignoring Farrell’s furious glare.

 

Gee, thanks, sir! Just what I needed … But Sam couldn’t risk going on her own, and it was obvious that it would take both Teal’c and the Colonel to lug Daniel up the mountain and to the stargate.

 

 

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

 

 

From her resting point at the far end of the second glacier, Sam took a last look at the three men on their steep march back to the ‘gate. They were about halfway there by now. Count your blessings, Carter! Trekking across comparatively flat ground, even with a sulking Caroline Farrell in tow and an unknown number of tremors ahead, was better than having to make that climb … Her foot ceased complaining. She started moving again, down a little ridge. When she reached the bottom, she received a push in the back that almost knocked her over. “What the hell …!”

 

“You lying bitch!” Farrell flew at her, screaming and flailing. “How dare you?! Do you have any idea of who I am?! You bitch! I’ll -”

 

“I know, you’ll tell ‘uncle’!” Sam recovered enough to stop Farrell’s onslaught, dropping her with a deft throw. She pinned her down by the shoulders. “Now, let’s get a few things straight, Caroline. First of all, you watch your mouth, or I’ll wash it out personally. That’s not a threat, that’s a promise. Secondly, I never lied to you. You, on the other hand, go around telling lies about me and a team-mate to my CO -”

 

“Your ‘CO’!!”, hissed Farrell. “Don’t make me laugh! I know exactly what you two got up to yesterday while you were too ‘busy’ to check out if there was naquada by that stream! God, it was so obvious!! He couldn’t even look at me when the two of you came back! And the things he said to me this morning … You bitch!! You set me up! You jealous bitch!”

 

“I warned you!” Sam took a fistful of snow and shoved it in Farrell’s face. “Not that I have to justify myself to you, Miss Farrell, but if you have to know, yes, I was busy as hell! Busy undoing the damage you’ve done. Whatever it was the Colonel said to you, I reckon you deserved it! And now I suggest you start acting like a grown-up, and do what we’ve come here to do!” With that, she got to her feet and stomped off.

 

“Oh, I will!” Farrell yelled after her. “And I’ll make you regret this!”

 

“Sure you will”, muttered Sam … Holy Hannah! Farrell wasn’t just spoilt, she was seriously disturbed. Like Jonas … The ranting, the fury, the need to control, to manipulate, so like Jonas … Jonas, in the throes of irrational jealousy, using the Colonel as a pawn to force Sam into obedience … God, she hated this!

 

 

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

 

 

Jack had watched Carter and Farrell disappear down the little ridge and a sudden sense of unease rippled through him. The scene this morning had been ugly. He’d stood last watch, and Farrell had turned up halfway through it. She'd practically thrown herself at him … Might have known it, Jack! Carter warned you … Not at his diplomatic best at that hour of the day, he’d resorted to telling Miss Farrell a few home truths. Slick move! Hammond’s gonna be leaping for joy when Farrell Senior gets back to him on that one! Worse still, Caroline Farrell had pegged Carter as the enemy … Dammit, Jack! You should have sent her home while you had the chance … Nah! … Carter could handle black holes, obstreperous Maybournes, and dyspeptic Goa’ulds. Hell, Carter could handle him! … It was the quakes that really worried him.

 

He ran uphill to catch up with Daniel and Teal’c.

 

 

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

 

 

Sam and Farrell made good time. At most, it would be another half-hour until they reached the stream. Sam had given that near-fateful crevice a wide berth, and was approaching the mouth of the glacier from further below, following a rocky outcrop that jutted from the ice. Farrell lagged behind, cloaked in resentful silence. Just as well! … Ahead, she could see the fringes of the glacier, and the boulders by the stream.

 

She heard the rumble moments before she felt the quake. The ice began to moan and twitch under her feet in a mad cakewalk. Stones shook loose from the ledge above and peppered her. Sam ducked and raised her arms to protect her head, but kept walking. With a sharp crack, a crevice split open in front of her and was pushed shut almost immediately. Farrell squealed. Sam whirled around and saw her stumble and hunker like a cornered rabbit. She staggered back, pulled her up. “We can’t stop here! Too dangerous! Move!”

 

Verifying that Farrell was behind her, Sam made for the stream. It had to be over soon! None of the other tremors had lasted this - … Searing pain at the back of her head. A stab of nausea. Knees buckling. Black.

 

 

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

 

 

By the time they dialled up Earth, Daniel was too ill to launch even a feeble protest. In fact, he had been dangerously docile all along, and that scared Jack more than anything … What would it take, once, just once, for a mission to go according to plan?! … His fruitless line of questioning was interrupted by the stargate whooshing into action. He punched the iris code into his GDO, then helped Daniel stand up.

 

“Come on, Danny. Doc Fraiser’s waiting: nice warm bed, nice big needle in your butt, no trees anywhere in sight.”

 

Daniel collapsed, gasping for air.

 

Jack and Teal’c picked him up, carried him the few steps to the ‘gate, placed him into the vortex, and watched him disappear.

 

“SGC, do you read me?”

 

“Go ahead, Colonel!”, came Hammond’s voice over the transmitter.

 

“Have Dr Fraiser standing by, General. Daniel’s coming home, and he’s in bad shape.” In the background, Jack heard shouts of ‘Medical team to the ‘gate room, stat!’.

 

The General again. “What happened, son?”

 

“Dr Jackson fought a tree and lost … uh … We’re having a little earthquake-problem here, sir. Nothing too critical at this time, but it could get worse. I want the lab guys to look at those survey data again. Carter and I think there might be a solar alignment in the offing, and we’d like to know how that’ll affect seismic activity.”

 

“Consider it done, Colonel. Where is Major -” Hammond broke off briefly, then came back on-line. “Dr Jackson just arrived. Unconscious, apparently. Dr Fraiser is taking care of him.”

 

“Thank you, sir. Carter and Farrell have gone back to a site we found yesterday. Could be a naquada deposit.”

 

“Good work, son. How’s Miss Farrell doing?”

 

“Having her nuisance value defined. Frankly, General, she’s a pain in the neck …”

 

“Colonel, kindly keep in mind who and what her father is!”

 

“I’m thinking of nothing else, sir!”, Jack snapped angrily.

 

“That’s enough, Col -”

 

At that moment a new quake began rocking the ‘gate, more violent than anything they’d experienced before. “Uh … General? Things are getting a tad dicey around here … I’ll make contact again in an hour.” The event horizon flickered and dissolved.

 

Once the tremor stopped, O’Neill sat down heavily … Hope Danny’s gonna be okay … The kid had looked awful, struggling to breathe, his face a swollen red and purple lump. Jack furtively clenched his hands to conceal their trembling. “Well, we’ve got an hour to kill, Teal’c. How about a nice game of ‘I Spy’? I spy with my little eye something that is … white!”

 

Teal’c wasn’t fooled for a second. He cocked his head, gazed at his friend. “DanielJackson will be restored to health, O’Neill. Dr Fraiser is most reliable in that respect.”

 

“Yeah, Teal’c. I know.”

 

 

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

 

 

The news they received sixty minutes later weren’t good. General Hammond informed them that, according to the lab team, it wouldn’t be a mere solar alignment. It was going to be the whole nine yards: a full planetary alignment.

 

“Syzygy”, said Jack and whistled through his teeth.

 

“That’s right, Colonel, syz - … How do you know?!”

 

“As Major Carter would advise you, sir, I don’t have a telescope on my roof just to look at the neighbours … General? How is Daniel?”

 

“Not terrific, son. He’s on antibiotics, plus antihistamines and oxygen, to counteract the asthma attacks he’s having. Dr Fraiser is working on it. I’m sorry.”

 

“Thanks, sir.”

 

“Colonel. Our people predict that seismic activity will increase massively. I want you and Teal’c to get Major Carter and Miss Farrell and come back immediately. That’s an order!”

 

“My pleasure, sir. We’re on our way back to camp now. O’Neill out.”

 

 

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

 

 

Dodging aftershocks and small avalanches caused by them, Jack and Teal’c reached camp just over an hour later and found Caroline Farrell by the ashes of the fire. Alone.

 

“Farrell? Where’s Major Carter? … Carter?! Carter!!”

 

Farrell raised her head. On her face stood the blank look of shock.

 

Oh no … No! … Don’t be ridiculous, Jack! They’ve had words, and Carter’s gone into the woods to cool off …

 

“Farrell. Where. Is. Major. Carter?”, he asked again, slowly, carefully, stressing every syllable as though that would conjure up the answer he wanted to hear.

 

Farrell pointed west, across the snowfields. “Out there”, she whispered.

 

Panic hit him so abruptly and so brutally that Jack struggled to bring it under control. When he spoke at last, his voice sounded deceptively even. “Where, Caroline? You’ve got to show me. You’ve got to show me the way.”

 

“No!!” A wail fraught with terrified hysteria. “I can’t!”

 

“Yes. Yes, you can. You have to. We’ll get Sam, and then we’re going home.” He took Farrell’s arm. “Come on. Let’s go.”

 

Following Farrell, they practically ran along the track the two women had laid earlier in the day. Leaden clouds were pushing over the mountains, bulging with snow and obscuring the tallest peaks. The first tiny flakes began to fall, settled on Jack’s face, melted with a soft tickle. He had a spontaneous memory of Carter digging him out of a snowdrift, yelling, her voice high with anger. The tone she reserved for, With respect, sir!, telling him off when he’d committed something especially moronic. When had that been? Two days ago? Three? It seemed like a lifetime … Oh God, let her be alright! … Please, let her be alright …

 

They had to be near the stream now. O’Neill recognised the points of interest, like that delightful grouping of rocks over to the left … Sure enough, Farrell was slowing down, turning indecisively, and finally extending an arm. “There”, she mumbled.

 

Oh no. No can do, Farrell! You’re wrong. I don’t see Carter. Farrell, you’re wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong …

 

Teal’c walked in the direction Farrell indicated. “O’Neill!”

 

Mechanically, Jack followed the voice. He came to a halt by Teal’c’s side, gazing into a half-closed crevice. Four or five yards down lay Sam’s backpack, partly trapped between the walls of ice, straps torn. The snow next to it was stained dark. Blood.

 

“I was scared of the quake, and she came back for me”, Farrell stammered. “We walked on. Sam led the way. Stones flying everywhere. One of them must have hit her. She stumbled, then the crevice opened, and she was gone … Like the ice swallowed her … When I got there, it had begun to close again. All that was left was the pack … I couldn’t reach it … Sam never even called out …” She was sobbing now.

 

Wordlessly, Jack shrugged off his backpack and made ready to climb into the fissure. A firm, unyielding hand grabbed the collar of his jacket.

 

“Let me go, Teal’c! Dammit, don’t you get it? Sam’s down there!! Let me -”

 

With immense kindness, the Jaffa murmured, “According to the beliefs of the Tau’ri, SamanthaCarter is not down there anymore. It would be futile to risk your own life. We must go back, O’Neill.”

 

Jack never knew that the pitiful scream he heard had come from him.

 

 

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

 

Part 4

 

 

Swiftly, silently, completely, darkness falls. Westwards, inky blackness blots out all trace of colour. Beyond the hills to the north, a man-made orange blister of city lights inflates, smothering infant stars that struggle for ascendancy and lose.

 

Trembling with cold now, he turned and began his descent, step by step feeling his path through the dark. Tomorrow morning he would do what he’d come out here to do.

 

 

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

 

 

General Hammond, Dr Fraiser, Lieutenant Simmons, and the usual complement of SFs and medics had assembled in the embarkation room. The initial relief on their faces was replaced by concern when they realised that SG-1 had arrived without their second-in-command.

 

“Colonel! Where is Major Carter?! I thought I’d made myself clear!”

 

Colonel O’Neill fought to stand to attention. “General Hammond, sir! I regret to -” His legs gave and he nearly fell. Steadied by Teal’c, Jack pulled himself upright again. “Carter’s … not coming back, sir”, he whispered. “I’m sorry. I should have -”

 

Hammond gently interrupted him. “Not now, son! It can wait. Dr Fraiser? Take care of SG-1 and Miss Farrell, and keep me posted on how they’re doing.”

 

A brace of medics guided them through the corridors to the infirmary. As though we didn’t know the way, O’Neill thought wearily, trying hard not to weave from wall to wall. Fraiser had stayed beside him, silent and protective. The sight of beds, curtains, and medical equipment brought the sudden, guilty recollection of Daniel … Oh God, Jack, you selfish bastard! What kind of a friend are you?! … “How’s Danny?” he asked softly … Please, Janet, no more bad news …

 

“He’s out of the woods, Colonel. I’ll discharge him tomorrow.” Janet gave a small, forlorn smile. “It was touch and go for a while, but he’s awake now, and he knows you’re back. He’ll want to see you all …” She trailed off, biting her lip. “Sit still now, sir. Let me have a look at you.”

 

Fraiser had the good sense not to ask him how he felt, and Jack was grateful for it. She was bound to have a fair idea, anyway. Sam had been her best friend. He patiently submitted to the doctor’s prodding, not saying another word.

 

At last, Janet seemed satisfied. “Okay, Colonel. Nothing a few days’ rest wouldn’t cure …”

 

Jack flinched. Wrong, doctor. No amount of rest’s gonna cure this …

 

She caught his reaction, cringed. “Sorry, sir”, she mumbled. “You can go and visit Daniel now, if you like. He’s down at the far end, where it’s quiet … Colonel? I wouldn’t tell him yet!”

 

Naturally, that strategy had lasted all of three minutes. It hadn’t been for want of trying, but even drugged and exhausted, Daniel was nothing if not perceptive. Jack had no idea that it was his very control that had given the game away. Daniel had seen that studiously impassive façade one too many times.

 

 

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

 

 

Two days of fatality reports and debriefings. While they were taping his, Teal’c’s, and Farrell’s statements, Jack had caught himself searching for the first stirrings of confusion. Caught himself begging for the same glimmer of uncertainty that, during those dreadful days when they believed they’d seen Daniel burn to death, had alerted them to the fact that he might be alive after all. This time, however, no doubt arose. By the end of it, the Colonel had repeated the words “Major Carter was killed in the quake; we were unable to retrieve her body” so often that, somehow, it sank in. Sam was dead.

 

The more inescapable that truth became, the more Jack shut himself off. Cold, crippled, desperately wounded, terrified of going home and getting drunk enough to allow himself to feel, he stayed on base, spending hours over paperwork, obsessively crossing ‘t’s and dotting ‘i’s. Anything to stop himself from thinking, from feeling, from confronting the loss.

 

On the third day after their return, he insisted on going over astronomic and seismic survey data for P2W 873 and stood poring over the charts with Daniel and two technicians. One of them pointed out a rat’s tail of mathematical formulae and launched into a convoluted discourse. “The figures here represent the overall increase in gravitational forces caused by the syzygy versus the gravitational pull exacted by a regular planetary constellation. From that we’ve extrapolated a probability estimate by which -”

 

“For God’s sake, speak English!” barked O’Neill. “Daniel? Somebody? Go and get Carter in here, I need her -”

 

He stopped himself, turning white as a sheet. The technicians froze in embarrassment, but Daniel looked at him with boundless compassion, and that was more than Jack could take. He ran from the lab and stormed down the halls with nowhere to go. In his wake he left a score of rattled personnel who’d already been given the sound advice that, these days, the safest place to be was as far away as possible from Colonel O’Neill.

 

Eventually he holed up in a deserted storage room. Sitting on the floor, shuddering, knees hugged tightly to his chest, he stared into the darkness … Don’t let it happen, Jack! Keep it down, bury it, don’t let it out. It’ll hurt too much if you let it out. Don’t let it happen … He closed his eyes and started rocking gently … Bury it … Bury it … Bury it …

 

Which was how Daniel found him half an hour later. He knelt beside his friend and carefully touched his arm. “Jack? … Jack, it’s -”

 

Jack clutched the front of Daniel’s shirt. “Danny … she’s dead … Sam’s dead …”, he whispered, shaking with pain.

 

“I know, Jack. I know …” Daniel took him in his arms.

 

Finally at last, Jack wept.

 

 

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

 

 

That night, he decided to drive to San Diego to see Sam’s brother. He owed it to Sam, owed her more than an official letter to her family that started I regret to inform you … Mark Carter would never know the truth about how or why his sister had died, but the least Jack could do was to tell him the fact of her death face to face.

 

And he needed time on his own, away from the SGC, away from the cold, away from that cursed heap of snow that was Cheyenne Mountain. If he never saw snow again for the rest of his life, it’d be too soon.

 

The first night of the trip he’d spent in a run-down motel in some godforsaken town in Utah. He’d been too afraid of his dreams to go to sleep, so he’d lain awake all night, missing her, missing her, missing her, trying to picture her face when all he could see was bloodied snow and an abandoned backpack, straps torn …

 

The following afternoon he’d ended up on a remote little beach in Southern California, and in the evening he took a detour through the mountains.

 

 

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

 

 

Just before lunchtime the next day, Colonel O’Neill rang the doorbell of a suburban house on the outskirts of San Diego. A man opened, and the strained smile he’d been wearing changed into a mask of hostility as soon as he saw the tall grey-haired stranger in uniform. “What do you want?”

 

“Mr Mark Carter?”

 

“Yes. Who the hell are you, and what do you want?”

 

“I … come about Samantha …”

 

“We got the letter, so you might as well take a hike.”

 

Letter? Had to have come from the General … “Mr Carter, I’m here because … I felt that Sam’s family needed more than just a letter   I served with her -”

 

“Well, isn’t that dandy? Then maybe you can elaborate on how anybody can get killed in a training accident while doing research on deep-space radar telemetry?! Go on, say your piece. A few more lies won’t matter now. Sam’s dead, in case you hadn’t noticed!!”

 

Oh, I’ve noticed alright … every minute, every second … ‘training accident’?! For cryin’ out loud, General, couldn’t you have come up with something convincing at least? … Jack couldn’t possibly tell the truth, couldn’t confirm that he deserved every last ounce of the bitterness and loathing he heard in Mark’s voice because he’d allowed Sam to stay on some planet that didn’t even have a name. “Mr Carter, I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Sam …”, he said quietly, inadequately.

 

“What’s going on out there?” Jacob Carter appeared in the door behind his son. His face lit up a fraction when he recognised the visitor. “Jack! Good to see you. Come on in!”

 

“Jacob …”

 

“Dad, this is my house, and I don’t want him here!”

 

“For God’s sake, Mark! He was a friend of your sister’s! Come on, Jack …”

 

“No. Jacob, please! I understand.”

 

In the end, he and Jacob went for a walk in a nearby park. After a long while, Jack turned to Sam’s father and broke the silence. “When did you arrive?”

 

“Yesterday. George Hammond contacted the Tok’ra, and they sent me back. He told me … what happened. Then I flew out here straightaway. Mark’s taking it badly. In a way, he holds me responsible. Again … How are you holding up?”

 

“I’m fine …”

 

Jacob smiled briefly. “Sam always said you were a lousy liar … I have to agree, you know…”

 

“For what it’s worth, Jacob, I wish to God it had been me … It should have been me. It was my fault.”

 

When the reply came, Jack looked up in surprise. It was the resonant voice of Jacob’s symbiote that answered. “Samantha would not want you to blame yourself. She cared greatly about you.”

 

“I should have sent her home, Selmak. She was injured.”

 

“She decided not to go, and for good reason. Do you blame her?”

 

“No!”

 

“Then do not blame yourself.” Jacob’s head dropped, and when he lifted his eyes again, their glow had faded, and his voice was his own. “Selmak is right. It wasn’t your fault. And about the other thing, too: Sam thought the world of you.”

 

“I … I miss her, Jacob … God, I miss her …”

 

 

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

 

 

Two days later, O’Neill was back at the SGC, marginally calmer, marginally more approachable, but still not knowing where to turn or what to do. The funeral would be held in a week, and they’d be burying an empty coffin. General Hammond had tactfully attempted to broach the subject of Sam’s replacement, and Jack had simply stood up and walked out on him. He wasn’t ready even to think about anyone taking her place, and he very much doubted that he’d ever be.

 

Powerless to act differently, Jack watched himself still driving people away in a self-defeating attempt to protect them from his grief: Teal’c, Janet, Feretti, Hammond. The only one to keep coming back with typically dogged tenacity was Daniel. Daniel who guessed why Sam’s death was so soul-destroying, even if Jack never admitted it. Daniel who, having lost one friend, dreaded the prospect of losing another. Daniel who saw to it that Jack ate, slept, breathed, sometimes even talked.

 

Daniel who, four days before the funeral, tore into Jack’s office, without knocking as usual and with Teal’c in tow.

 

“Jack, we need to talk!”

 

O’Neill winced. Jack, we need to talk! was Jacksonese for Let’s have an argument!, and he sure as hell didn’t feel up to that. “Can’t it wait?”

 

“No, Jack. Check this out!” Daniel planted a GDO on the desk in front of Jack.

 

“It’s a GDO. So? Am I to be amazed or bewildered or thrilled or what?”

 

“It’s Sam’s GDO.”

 

“’Was’, Danny”, Jack replied automatically. “Past tense. You’re the linguist, you should know. It was Sam’s GDO …” He picked up the small device, turned it in his hands. It was Sam’s GDO. There was the tiny crack in the casing from when he’d come crashing down a flight of stairs on P3X something-or-other and landed on top of her. Jack smiled. She’d been pulling his leg for days after - … Abruptly, as though it had scorched his fingers, he set down the GDO. “I repeat: So?”

 

“Dammit, Jack! Use your head! What’s it doing here?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Teal’c found it among the gear you guys brought back with you from P2W 873. How did it get there? Sam never … never! … took it off. You know that!”

 

“Maybe she did take it off that time.”

 

“Yeah, sure! I can see it! She takes it off, hands it to Farrell for safekeeping, and then jumps into the crevice … Don’t be wilfully obtuse, Jack!”, Daniel spat.

 

His brutality was rewarded by a timid trace of hope creeping into Jack’s eyes. “You’re saying that Farrell’s been lying to us?”

 

“Even if Sam had left it off accidentally, which I don’t believe for a second, you didn’t go back to the camp, right? Which means the only way Farrell or anyone else could have got that GDO is directly from Sam. You bet I’m saying that Miss Farrell is lying.”

 

Teal’c spoke up for the first time since entering Jack’s office. “I concur with DanielJackson, O’Neill.”

 

Jack clenched his hands … Oh God, kids, I know what you’re thinking. It’s written all over your faces. For your own sakes, don’t go there, please! … “Teal’c, you’ve seen that crevice. So have I”, he whispered. “The chances of Sam being alive -”

 

“In other words, you’ll do nothing, except sit here, feeling sorry for yourself!” burst out Daniel. “Are you really such a coward, Jack?! Are you really so afraid of hope?”

 

Oh yes, Danny, I really am such a coward   I’m scared stiff of hope … I can’t lose her all over again …

 

“I never said I’d do nothing, Daniel. But the fact that Farrell’s lying can mean any number of things. It could mean that Sam didn’t fall but was pushed … I’m going to find out. And if I find out that Caroline Farrell is in any way responsible for Sam’s death, then God help her!”

 

“What do you intend to do, O’Neill?” Teal’c enquired.

 

Jack shrugged. “I’ll get on a flight to DC and pay a visit to Miss Farrell.”

 

“Can I be of assistance?”

 

“Uh … Thanks, Teal’c, but no, thanks. I need to do this on my own … Well, actually, there’s one thing you can do. Both of you. Don’t breathe a word of this to Hammond. If he finds out that I’m gonna gate-crash the Farrell mansion, he’s liable to lose the rest of his hair …”

 

“Indeed, O’Neill.”

 

“Sure, don’t worry.” Daniel gave a faint grin. For a moment there, Jack had sounded like Jack again.

 

Colonel O’Neill requested and was granted two days’ leave and caught the red-eye flight to Washington, DC.

 

 

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

 

 

The flight had been delayed, and it was mid-morning when he arrived at Reagan National Airport, having spent another sleepless night. The flight attendants had been giving him funny stares as he staggered aboard the plane, and again when he disembarked. The funny stares continued at the rental car counter, eventually prompting Jack to inspect his physiognomy in the nearest men’s room to see whether he’d come out in a green rash.

 

Oh! … Not quite, but close enough. His face was drawn, he hadn’t shaved in he’d forgotten how long, and his eyes were bleary, from lack of sleep and … yeah, well … “Yuck!” he mumbled at his reflection, deciding to buy some shaving gear and a tooth brush and freshen up before he went anywhere near the Farrells’ home. In his current state he’d probably be shot on sight by the butler.

 

A shave and a wash had improved things somewhat. Maybe should have worn uniform after all … Then again, if his little scheme went wrong, he’d be up shit creek without a paddle, and he’d rather be there in civilian clothes. He left the terminal to pick up the car he’d rented.

 

Taking a few wrong turns along the way, O’Neill finally found the FarrellsGeorgetown address. After a quick drive-by, he cancelled the idea of dropping in on them right there and then. In this neighbourhood one didn’t make social calls before lunch … Lunch. And maybe get some sleep. Might as well use the waiting time productively. He didn’t feel hungry at all, but he hadn’t had anything on the plane … and before that? Anybody’s guess, really …

 

Jack had no idea where or what he’d eaten. Some diner, some burger … It didn’t matter, just as long as it kept him going. Tired as he was, he didn’t sleep, though. Every time he closed his eyes, he was back on the glacier, staring into the crevice. So he sat in the car, trying to relax and not to think of Sam. Sam’s frozen body, shrouded in blue ice … With a low moan, he bolted from the car and started running. Sprinting at full tilt until every gasp of breath threatened to sear his lungs and his muscles ached so much that he’d scream if he took another step.

 

Panting, he looked around to get his bearings and realised that he’d ended up only about a block away from the Farrell mansion. He checked his watch. Just before three o’clock. Show time.

 

 

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

 

 

The Farrells didn’t have a butler, they had a housekeeper, and she was unarmed, Jack was pleased to see. Then again, with the glare the woman had on her, she probably didn’t need a gun. She killed on contact.

 

“I’m here to see Caroline Farrell.”

 

The housekeeper stared at him as though trying to determine just how many species of wildlife he concealed on his person. “I don’t think Miss Farrell -”

 

“My name is Jack O’Neill. Caroline knows me. Will you tell her I’m here? Please?”

 

She slammed the door in his face.

 

Five minutes later it was flung open again by an outraged Caroline Farrell in a clingy little shift of a dress, her long legs bare. “Colonel O’Neill! I am so sorry! I can’t believe Jenkins left you standing outside. Please, do come in.”

 

“Hi, Caroline”, he said and entered. So the gargoyle was called Jenkins. Wonder what her first name is … Ethel? Charity? … Charity’s good. Charity stood in the rear of the entrance hall and scowled disapprovingly … Fly back to your cornice! Shoo!

 

“Jenkins, we’ll be in my suite. Bring us some coffee. And lighten up!” Miss Farrell ordered, taking Jack’s arm. “I’m so glad you came. I was about to get in touch with you, see how you were doing … Let’s go upstairs.”

 

O’Neill followed along, fighting something so close to physical revulsion, it scared him … Hathor … Oh yeah, that train of thought is really helpful! … Don’t lose it, Jack! Tossing your cookies won’t do … Please, Sam, help me out here! Sam holding him after he’d come out of cryo, after he’d killed Hathor … Better, even if the memory hurt beyond belief.

 

Farrell ushered him into a large, bright sitting room on the second floor, installed him on a sofa, and bided her time until Jenkins arrived with the coffee. She sent the housekeeper on her way, poured, handed him a cup, and sat down next to him. They made small talk for what seemed like ages, until Jack thought he must be going insane.

 

Finally, Farrell came to the point. “So, Colonel, what brings you here?”

 

“Jack … the name’s Jack”, he said, taking her hand. “Caroline, I think I need to explain something to you. See, what happened between us that morning … I didn’t have a choice …” He left it hanging, waiting for Farrell’s reaction. In the back of his mind he heard Sam’s voice again, filled with a mix of concern and anger: ‘You’ve been suckered, sir … You throw some pretty general bait and wait for the other person to bite and supply the details.’

 

“Jack, I know. I’m not blind. I could see how unhappy you were all along. It must have been so difficult for you … You don’t have to worry anymore. It’s over. All over now …” Farrell tilted her head, smiling at him.

 

Jack’s lips touched hers, and she wrapped her arms around him, pulling him down with her … I’m sorry, Sam … Farrell bit him. He flinched, and she deepened the kiss … Oh God, he hated this! Hated it, hated it, hated it … At last she came up for air. Jack forced himself to look at her. “Wow! Caroline -”

 

“Shh. You don’t have to say it.” She put a finger on his mouth. “I know I’m good, Jack. I’m good for you. She suspected it. That’s why she was so jealous. What do you think … shall we take this to the bedroom?”

 

I’d rather die! … Not now, not ever! … “Caroline, maybe …”

 

“Jack, there’s nothing to be afraid of. She can’t come back. I’ve made sure of that …”

 

So it was true! He drew a sharp breath and tried to control his trembling, praying that she’d mistake it for the thrill of arousal. “How?” he murmured softly.

 

Farrell giggled. “I took her code-thingy, whatever you call it. You know, the one that gives the signal to open the iris …”

 

“But why? I mean, she was dead, anyway …”

 

“Oh no. I hit her with a rock and she passed out. I thought about killing her … You should have heard the things she said to me! … But then I thought, no, why not leave her where she can’t get in anybody’s way ever again? … All I had to do was stage a tragic accident … Jack?”

 

He’d backed away from her, pale as death.

 

“Jack, what’s the matter?

 

“I have to go … I …” His voice cracked.  “I have to go … bring home a friend … If she’s still alive …”

 

It took Farrell a few seconds to understand that he’d tricked her. “You son of a bitch”, she hissed. “You miserable bastard! By God, you’ll regret this, you hear -”

 

Unsteadily, he rose to leave.

 

Caroline Farrell started shrieking like a banshee. Within moments the door flew open and the gargoyle flew in, followed by a distinguished-looking elderly man who pointed the business end of a 9mm Beretta at O’Neill. Obviously, Jenkins had conveyed her misgivings to the master of the house.

 

“Who are you, and what the hell are you doing in my daughter’s rooms?” roared Martin Farrell.

 

Jack slowly raised his hands.

 

Before he could say anything, Farrell had flung herself at her father. “Oh, daddy! Daddy! It was awful!” she sobbed. “Daddy! He … he tried to rape me …”

 

Wha-”

 

“Shut up!” the Senator barked at O’Neill. “One word out of you and I’ll shoot you like a dog, I swear!” He turned to Jenkins. “Call the police, Charity!”

 

Jack’s eyes widened. Amidst the bouts of nausea that shook him, he felt an impossible, perverse urge to burst out laughing. But Farrell Senior looked way too trigger-happy to argue with, and so he bit his tongue while Miss Caroline supplied the lurid details, fictitious but hugely imaginative.

 

 

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

 

 

By the time the police arrived, the Senator had been informed about who exactly O’Neill was, and things started getting really interesting. While Miss Farrell made her statement to the officers, her father was on the phone to the President who, undoubtedly, would make General Hammond his next port of call.

 

Jack was Mirandized, held at the Georgetown police precinct and questioned. He was tempted to rap out his name, rank, and serial number, and take the Fifth where it came to the rest, but he knew that alienating the officers wouldn’t do him any good. Apart from categorically denying Miss Farrell’s allegations, he could tell them little enough anyway. He couldn’t even bring a counter-allegation against Farrell for the attempted manslaughter of one Dr Samantha Carter, Major USAF, seeing that the whereabouts of the intended victim were not only difficult to explain, but classified. So he gave them what he could and insisted on his phone call.

 

As was to be expected, General Hammond hit the roof when he heard who was at the other end of the line. “Have you completely lost your mind, Colonel?! I’ve just come off the phone with the President, and Senator Farrell’s been ranting at me for half an hour before that. Do you realise what you’ve done?! Do you -”

 

“General! Please, listen to me! I didn’t touch that woman, I swear! … Well, we had a smooch, but that was consensual, at least on her part -”

 

“I don’t want to hear it, Colonel! Whether or not you tried to rape Miss Farrell is for a court-martial to decide -”

 

“You can’t honestly believe I’d do something like that … Dammit, sir!”

 

“With the state you were in when I last saw you, I’d believe anything. You told me yourself that Miss Farrell was ‘a pain in the neck’. Your own words, Colonel. Went and sorted her out, did you?”

 

No!! … General, please -”

 

“Apart from anything else, you’ve compromised this facility. It’ll be next to impossible to keep this out of the media. Do you have any idea of what’ll happen if they get wind of what we’re doing here?”

 

Nerves and tiredness finally got the better of O’Neill. “Oh yes, sir! I have a very good idea. The last poor bastard who got wind of it died in my arms. Sir! And I did not compromise anything. You did that, General, the President did, and Senator Farrell, by allowing an unhinged, spoilt little girl to go on a classified mission!”

 

“That’s enough, Colonel! You’ll be picked up by military police in half an hour. They’ll bring you back here, where you’ll remain in custody.”

 

“Gen-” Oh well done, Jack!

 

Hammond had hung up.

 

 

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

 

 

Colonel O’Neill and his watchdogs took a transport plane from Andrews Air Force Base and reached Colorado Springs in the small hours of the morning. Jack still hadn’t slept and was at the point of getting delusional with fatigue. The craft had been buffeted by turbulence throughout the entire flight, and he’d huddled in his seat, yanked between hope and despair, his mind bucking and reeling with the plane. Sam had been alive, and he’d left her behind on a planet that showed all signs of shaking itself apart … If she’s dead, you’ve killed her, Jack!

 

Upon arrival at Cheyenne Mountain, O’Neill was escorted to Hammond’s office. The General and Dr Fraiser were expecting him. General Hammond’s mood hadn’t improved since their telephone conversation eight hours ago. Now he glared at his 2IC who was a sorry sight. Dirty, haggard, and drowsy from exhaustion, the Colonel struggled to stand upright, his 6’2” frame listing towards the pint-sized MP whose wrist he was handcuffed to. The man’s hands had duly shot to the seam of his pants when he’d clapped eyes on the General and had unintentionally forced another high-ranking officer into a lopsided little bow.

 

“Proud of yourself, Colonel? Being a bit of a loose cannon is one thing, but this time you’ve really outdone yourself! Senator Farrell already has as good as promised that from now on we can go look for funding elsewhere. That possibility ever cross your mind? No, obviously not! You’re feeling bad over Major Carter, so why not bring the whole place down around you? Was that it, Colonel?! Was it?!”

 

“General!” O’Neill wished he could stop swaying. At least the MP stood at ease now, and he didn’t have to genuflect anymore. “I’ve got to go back to P2W 873. Please! Carter may still be alive -”

 

“Oh, spare me!”

 

“I mean it, sir! That’s why I went to Washington. Caroline Farrell’s been lying to us, and she’s lying now. I’ve got to -”

 

Jack was interrupted by a worried Janet Fraiser. “General, this is enough! Colonel O’Neill needs rest. Five minutes more of this and he’ll collapse right here at your desk. And, for God’s sake, can we get rid of those?!” She pointed at the cuffs.

 

Hammond gave an impatient wave. “Fine. It can wait. He’s not going anywhere in the near future. Lock him up in a holding cell. You can look after him there, doctor.” A nod from the General prompted the MP to remove the handcuffs.

 

“Thank you!” The Doctor put an arm around O’Neill, supporting him. “Come on, Colonel. Let’s go and get you to bed.”

 

The MP on their heels, Fraiser led Jack to a cell and, once there, gave him a quick check-up. She was about to administer a sedative, when he suddenly grabbed her wrist.

 

“Janet, you’ve got to help me!” he breathed. “I didn’t do what they say I did, I swear. You’ve got to get me out of here. I have to go back to that planet. Hammond doesn’t believe me, but Caroline Farrell’s been lying … Sam … Sam was alive when we left!”

 

“Yes, sir …” Janet sighed, her hand covering his. “And now, I want you to lie down and let this stuff do its job. You need sleep …”

 

Jack heard the pity in her voice, knew with a jolt of anguish that she didn’t believe him either. “Dr Fraiser! Look at me!! … No, bad idea … Don’t look at me! I probably look like homicidal maniac … Janet, I’m not mad, and I’m not hallucinating. Close maybe, but not quite there yet. Go and talk to Daniel and Teal’c. Tell them what I told you, hear what they’ve got to say. Then come back to me and let me know if you still think I’ve lost it.”

 

Janet did look at him. Searching his haunted eyes, she finally nodded. “Okay, Colonel. I’ll do it. I promise! But you must go to sleep now. If you don’t get any rest, you’ll be in no state to help anybody.”

 

She settled him down, gave him the sedative, and watched as he fell asleep at last. “Good God …”, she mumbled, and went to find Dr Jackson and Teal’c.

 

The MP locked the cell and took his post outside the door.

 

 

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

 

Part 5

 

 

Now, if somebody stopped that little dude with the sledgehammer from thrashing about inside her skull, she might just be able to open her eyes … A scream had woken her, but she couldn’t say how long ago that had been. And she couldn’t recall anything before that scream … You gotta find out what happened, so how about getting up, Carter? … Probably shouldn’t, but my butt’s freezing to the ground … She’d heard that one before … In another place with too damn much ice around … The Colonel … Screaming … Sir? …

 

Sam attempted to sit up and discovered she could barely move. She also discovered a nasty, fuzzy thing in her mouth … Yuck! What the hell was that, apart from a gag? Feretti’s socks sprang to mind … Oh, please! … Okay, Carter. You’re hog-tied, you’re gagged, your head’s been cracked open: the evidence suggests you didn’t end up here of your own volition … Farrell! … Farrell, slapping Sam awake once she’d been trussed up, telling her with vicious enjoyment that she was in for an extended stay on this planet … Well, tough shit, Miss Farrell, it ain’t gonna happen! The Colonel won’t leave without me.

 

She flexed her wrists to check the give of the tie. Not much. Trust Miss Caroline to have been an upstanding member of the Girl Scouts. Probably won a knot-badge or two … And it was decidedly wiser not even to try and stretch whatever was cinched painfully around her ankles … Hell, it hurt! Cut right into the swelling … She had to get her hands free! The sharp bit of rock currently digging into her ribs might do, if only … Wriggling like a caterpillar, she heaved herself around, doing her best to ignore the sledgehammer going on the rampage again.

 

After a good hour of fretting and tearing her wrists across the edge of the stone, the rope came apart. Minutes later she’d untied her legs and removed the gag … Jeez! It was a sock! Not one of hers, though … Oh well, Miss Farrell’s feet would get a whole lot colder before this was over, that much Sam could guarantee. Only now she became fully aware of her surroundings. A large cave in the ice. Most likely close to where she’d passed out. Farrell couldn’t have dragged her far. Supported on one side by solid rock, the cave seemed stable enough, but it still might be a good idea to get out of here before the next quake. The tremors had been getting more severe, and she didn’t want to push her luck.

 

Carefully Sam stood up, gasping when a wave of dizziness washed over her. Once it had passed, she took another look around. None of her gear was here. What on earth had Farrell done with it? … Forget it, get moving, Carter! … Steadying herself against a wall of ice, she hobbled to the mouth of the cave. Outside it was snowing, and the light was beginning to wane. She must have been out for at least three hours. If she wanted to reach the campsite before nightfall, she’d better hurry.

 

Shortly after, Sam stumbled upon the trail she’d made in the morning and found other tracks leading to a nearby crevice and returning … So they’d come here. What for? … The tracks branched off a little further along, heading uphill … Odd … Never mind now, keep going!

 

When she approached the campsite at last, she understood that something had to be wrong. It was practically dark now, and she should have been able to see the shine of the fire. Sam actually ran the last few hundred yards, only to find the camp deserted. Farrell’s geological equipment was there, so were the tents, sleeping bags, and skis, but all the backpacks were gone.

 

Groggily, she sat down. She remembered the tracks leading away from her trail, up the mountain, towards the east, towards … the stargate?! He couldn’t have … Wouldn’t have! But even if he had, she’d gate to Earth in the morning, and give him a piece of her mind! Unconsciously, Sam clasped her left forearm … The GDO! Shit! Shit!!! Where the hell was it? … She must have overlooked it, lost it in the cave. She’d have to go back. No point in trying the ‘gate without it. All that would achieve was Sergeant Siler spending a few hours scraping her sub-atomic particles from the iris, and some technician perhaps concluding that Major Carter had come knocking at the front door at an inopportune time … Oh well, a few miles more tomorrow wouldn’t matter now. At least with all the sleeping bags still here, she wouldn’t freeze to death during the night … Dammit, sir! How could you?! What happened to ‘Nobody gets left behind’?!

 

 

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

 

 

Sam spent the night thinking progressively uncharitable thoughts about her CO. Her anger at him rose proportionally to the new heights the quakes achieved on the Richter Scale. By God, she’d castrate him with a teaspoon when she got back home!!

 

She left camp at first light, cold, hungry, and exhausted. Yesterday’s snow clouds had drifted away, and the sky was clear once more, promising a bright day. “Be thankful for small favours, Carter!” she muttered to herself. “More snow’s the last thing you need!” While searching for the GDO, she might as well check whether her sunglasses were there, or whether Farrell had dumped them somewhere with the rest of her gear.

 

Five hours later, half of which she’d wasted turning over every stone and chip of loose ice in the cave, Sam finally had to face the fact that her GDO was gone. So were her shades, coincidentally. She emerged into the sunlight, momentarily closing her eyes … Now what, Carter? Dig in and hope for the best. Wait for them to return. Could at least have pinned up a note, Colonel: ‘Back before you know it - Godot’! … Despite her rage, she knew he wouldn’t have left her here without a damn good reason. She just couldn’t think of one right now … Okay, back to camp, then.

 

Passing the trampled area near the crevice again, she decided to have a reconnoitre and find out what could have been so fascinating about a gap in the glacier … After all, she had time now, didn’t she? She didn’t have much else, but time, yeah, there was loads of that! … The tracks led right to the edge of the fissure, and she followed them, coming to a halt where they did, taking a look down … Well, what do you know? Her backpack… Her back - …

 

“Oh, damn!” It all made sense now. Farrell had been far cleverer than Sam had been willing to give her credit for. The bloodstains were good, but the torn straps betrayed a touch of genius. Malevolent genius, but genius nonetheless … There was one reason, and one reason only, why Colonel O’Neill would leave her or any other member of his team behind: He’d have to be convinced they were dead. And this was nothing if not convincing.

 

Sam sank into the snow, numb with shock. Suddenly she understood what that desperate scream had meant. “Oh God, sir”, she whispered. “I’m so sorry … I should have known better …”

 

And then the next realisation hit home. He wouldn’t come back for her. Nobody would. There’d be a nice funeral in absentia, moving speeches, a few tears, and then, eventually, life would go on. Because Sam Carter was dead. Well and truly dead.

 

 

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

 

 

She’d sat by the crevice for ages, wrestling with the terror that had gripped her at the thought of being marooned on this wobbling wasteland of a planet. What frightened her more than anything was the knowledge that she was completely and utterly alone. Robinson Crusoe’s island had been crowded by comparison!

 

At last, Sam forced herself out of her stupor. Moping wouldn’t help. Here she was, here she’d stay, so she’d better set about surviving. Someone had to come back eventually. She’d seen the figures and prognostications for the naquada deposits. They were too promising to give up on this place just yet. Hammond would try again, wouldn’t he? Next month, next year, in five years, ten years … Stop it, Carter! … Her eyes were burning. Had she been so close to tears all this time? … Sam rubbed her eyes, which, if anything, intensified the pain. She rose, squinting at the suns. Early afternoon, by the looks of it.

 

She’d have to get that pack. She needed it. There was a small medikit in it, some rations, some cooking gear, matches, and a Swiss army knife. Possibly an extra pair of gloves, but she couldn’t say for sure.

 

The gap was narrow enough for Sam to wedge herself in and ‘walk’ down. Up would be slightly more tricky, encumbered by a ruined backpack, but she’d cross that bridge when she - … Oh hello, sir! Definitely been spending too much time around you! Sam smiled. She reached the pack and, with her feet pressed against the opposite wall of the crevice for hold, began pulling. It came free surprisingly easily, and that was the first positive thing to happen since she’d got up this morning. Clutching it to her chest with one arm, she slowly, laboriously worked her way back to the surface. Ten minutes later she flung the backpack onto the ice and hoisted herself over the edge, panting. So far, so good.

 

Back to camp, to have another, more thorough look around there and see what could be of use. Sam slung the pack over one shoulder and drudged off across the glacier, blinking at the relentless dazzle of reflected sunlight as she limped along the path she’d already trodden once too often for her liking.

 

This time the tremor came practically without warning. Jolted off her feet as the world around her erupted into savage motion, Sam fell. She rolled over the precious backpack to protect it and lay spread-eagled, digging her fingers and toes into the ice, praying that it wouldn’t gape beneath her and make Farrell’s scenario a reality after all. When the shaking petered out at last, Sam heard a rumble, quiet at first, but steadily increasing in volume. She pushed herself up, never letting go of the pack. The rumble had grown into a roar by now. Then she saw it. The whole mountain seemed to be on the move. A massive avalanche had torn loose from the slope opposite the stargate and came shrieking towards the valley, the forest, the ledge, the camp … The camp! “No!” she howled, weeping with frustration and despair.

 

She still went back to the site, hoping against hope that there would be something, anything, she could salvage. The camp had been razed to the ground, wiped away as though it had never existed. All around lay broken and smashed trees, with snow, rocks, and chunks of ice caught between them. Sam followed the trail of devastation, moving further down into the valley, dreading another quake. But she had no alternative. If rocks and ice could get jammed between the trees, then maybe, just maybe … After an hour of clambering across fallen trees and debris, all she’d found was a lone sleeping bag caught in some branches. Well, better than nothing, anyway. With a dispirited sigh, she rolled up the bag, and started the long climb up. She’d have to spend the night at the former campsite. Logic dictated that the chances of a second avalanche in the same place were slim. There was nothing much left on the mountain to feed one.

 

Night had fallen when she reached the ledge. Sam lit a small fire under the overhang at the back. At least she wouldn’t have any trouble finding firewood for a year or five … Once the fire burnt steadily, she unzipped the sleeping bag, wrapped it around herself, and huddled against a rock. Too tired to feel hungry, she saved the MREs for another day. Sleep. She needed sleep. At the brink of dozing off, Sam’s eyes suddenly popped open again. She recognised that scent. Of all the annoying coincidences! It was Farrell’s sleeping bag … Wonderful, Carter! Now you’re gonna go traipsing around this king-sized iceberg reeking of L’Air du Temps! … Always loathed that smell. Suits Farrell, though: Too sweet by half! … Why couldn’t she have found somebody else’s sleeping bag?! The Colonel’s … I’m gonna miss you, sir … I miss you …

 

 

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

 

 

She woke late the next day, shivering with cold and covered in a white fluffy layer. The sky was overcast and it was snowing heavily, but Sam was grateful for the respite it gave her face. If she went on squinting for much longer, the crunched-up look would become a permanent fixture. So what? Does it matter? … Sam sighed. About time you considered your options, Carter!

 

If anything, this last night had proved that she couldn’t stay camped out on the ledge. She had to find some sort of shelter. The valleys were out of the question for as long as the quakes persisted … if they ever stopped. Who said they weren’t simply part of the furniture in this polar bear’s paradise? Colonel O’Neill. But if his theory was correct, then things would get a lot worse before they started getting better. Either way, the fact remained that on high ground she’d be safer than down there, where half a mountain could drop on her at a moment’s notice. Not exactly spoilt for choice, Sam decided that the cave Farrell had left her in would be the least dangerous out of a number of lousy possibilities. The cave it was then.

 

The first thing the move required was firewood, and lots of it, because she really could do without having to make the trek over here every other day. Sam began to collect armfuls of broken branches and piled them into the sleeping bag. With any luck the pungent aroma of resin would overlay the stench of Farrell’s perfume! … Among the debris she discovered a pair of small rat-like creatures, crushed by a fallen branch. She flung their frozen little carcases into her pack. “Dinner”, she snorted with a disgusted grimace. “Yum!” Her MREs wouldn’t last forever, and before long she’d have to start hunting for food.

 

Slowly dragging the bulky bag behind her, she reached the cave at dusk. It had withstood twenty-four hours of increasingly frequent tremors, and that at least looked promising. Sam installed herself near the entrance. This way she might have half a chance of escape if worse came to the worst. She’d skinned and gutted the rats and roasted them over the open fire. Their meat tasted oily, putrid, but she forced it down, plagued by tantalising visions of Giuliano’s Pizza Fiorentina. During the night she dashed outside, retching and heaving, to throw up what little she’d eaten. So much for rodent à la mode … It continued snowing.

 

Sam had to dig her way out of the cave the following morning. Smart call, Carter! At least four feet of new snow … She wouldn’t have survived another night on the ledge. The clouds were parting in places, revealing blue skies and glimpses of the twin suns, now almost overlapping. Her eyes had started burning again as soon as she’d stepped from the cave’s shadows. Conjunctivitis, Sam thought, wiping away the tears that ran down her face. Her head was thudding with pain, her ankle throbbed along in time. Add to that the heaves that still racked her, and it seemed a good idea just to take the day off.

 

 

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

 

 

In fact, she took several days off. Lying near the fire, too ill to move, Sam was trapped in a no-man’s-land of feverish dreams and nightmares. Caroline Farrell’s gloating face, describing to Sam what would happen … ‘I fancy him … So, you wouldn’t mind?’ … Yes, I would! God help me, I would! … Jonas, breaking another promise  ‘I’m having a moment here’ … No! … Don’t kill him, Jonas! I’ll do anything you want … Sir? Please, can I come home now, sir? … ‘Please, Jack, don’t leave me here’ … Occasionally she woke up just long enough to throw fresh wood on the embers, sip some water, swallow a painkiller, eat half of a precious ration.

 

On the sixth day her supply of firewood was almost used up. Sam was feeling better. Not much, but the fever had dropped, and she was hungry. She knew she had to go and fetch more wood, perhaps even find some native food she’d be able to keep down. Groaning, she dragged herself out of the cave, trailing the sleeping bag behind her. At least the weather was fine. And the suns had parted company. Maybe the quakes would be coming to an end soon …

 

Too weak even to consider taking the long, well-worn route across the glaciers, Sam attempted a shortcut across gently sloping snowfields that brought her out a good two hundred yards below the old campsite. There was plenty of wood there. No food, though …

 

Early in the afternoon she started walking back towards the cave. The suns stood high in the west, the snow throwing back their light in brilliant flashes. Sam squinted, trying to keep her eyes shut as much as she could. The horrible stinging had returned, and it was getting more intense … Never mind! You’ll be home soon. ‘Home’! There was a comforting thought! …

 

She looked up to get her bearings. Something in her eyes exploded. Sam doubled over and slapped her hands over her face, keening in agony … Oh God, what was this? No conjunctivitis she’d ever heard of did that! … Gradually, the worst of the pain ebbed away. She dropped her hands and opened her eyes a fraction … No! Please, not that! Not that … She couldn’t see.

 

 

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

 

 

On her hands and knees, still pulling the sleeping bag with the firewood, Sam felt her way along the trail she’d left earlier that day and finally found the cave again. Fumbling for wood and striking far too many matches, she managed to relight the fire and curled up next to it, blinking. There was a dim glow, bizarrely distorted shapes, blurred beyond recognition, and a whole lot of dark. And that was it. That was it. Without sight she had no hope of survival. A few days from now it would be over. She would die. Of starvation or cold or plain loneliness … I’m sorry, sir. I did try …

 

 

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

 

Part 6

 

 

Knocked out by the sedative and sheer exhaustion, Jack had slept for fifteen dreamless hours and woke to find General Hammond standing in his cell. He sat up with a start, hitting his head against the top bunk. “Ouch!”

 

Hammond gave a long-suffering sigh. “I was going to ask how you felt, but I suppose that’s redundant …”

 

“It’s the thought that counts, sir …”, mumbled O’Neill, rubbing his head. “How long have I been out?”

 

The General told him.

 

Colonel O’Neill swore. “Sorry, sir …” With a pleading look at Hammond, he continued, “General, you’ve got to let me go -”

 

“Hold your horses, son. Dr Jackson’s been giving me an earful while you were asleep, and so has my CMO. Hell, even Teal’c got loquacious. Kind of. I’m inclined to believe that there’s something to what you’re saying, but that that doesn’t change the overall situation, Colonel. You’re under arrest. However -” Jack had opened his mouth, and the General silenced him with a stare. “However, Colonel, I’ve sent SG-3 to have a look-see. They’ve shipped out to P2W 873 five hours ago. We’re expecting them back shortly. In the meantime, why don’t you go and grab a shower and a change of clothes? You’ll be under guard, though.”

 

“Thanks, sir.” He meant it. All things considered, Hammond had just cut him an unreasonable amount of slack. And he’d decided to look for Sam … What more could you ask for, Jack? … Sam alive …

 

“Don’t mention it.” General Hammond knocked at the door and was let out of the cell.

 

MP Pint-size had long been relieved by a sturdier colleague who now entered with a neatly folded set of fatigues for O’Neill. “Shower, sir?”

 

Jack nodded. On the way to the locker room he idly speculated whether his escort had orders to strip and join him in the cubicle. As it turned out, he was granted a full ten minutes of hot shower on his own. Not that he was complaining … And clean clothes, too!

 

Feeling slightly more human, the Colonel let himself be locked up again, and spent the next two hours bleakly staring at the concrete walls, fighting to keep his impatience in check. His agonising fear he didn’t want to acknowledge, but it kept punishing him regardless. This was taking too long. Far too long … Maybe SG-3 had found Sam, and that was why they kept everybody waiting. Maybe she was injured and had to be carried. Maybe she was dead and had to be carried … If she’s dead, you’ve killed her, Jack!

 

When he heard the door lock release, he jumped to his feet. It was Janet Fraiser, a hopeless look on her face.

 

“What?!”

 

“SG-3 just came back, sir. They got into a pretty bad quake, but they’ve been to the campsite … It’s gone, Colonel. Makepeace said it looked like an avalanche had gone through there days ago. He thinks that, had Sam still been alive, she’d have come back there, and … They’ve found no trace of her.”

 

“Dammit, Fraiser! Makepeace couldn’t find his own butt with both hands if you lit it for him!! … He didn’t look anywhere except the campsite, did he?”

 

She remained silent.

 

Did he?!”

 

“No, sir. He said he’d been worried about risking his team if there was another quake, and -”

 

“I’ve got to go back myself … Janet, I have to see for myself … Please … Please, help me …”

 

“What the hell else do you expect me to do, Colonel?!”

 

“Get me out of here.”

 

Dr Fraiser shook her head, at the brink of tears. “You know I can’t. Besides, General Hammond has decided that P2W 873’s off-limits for the time being. It’s too dangerous.” She left.

 

“Janet! …” Half mad with frustration and despair he thrashed the door. The MP’s face briefly appeared in the window and retreated.

 

Jack threw himself on his bunk and turned against the wall.

 

 

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

 

 

Some time later the door opened again to admit Lieutenant Colonel Samuels. “Colonel O’Neill. I’ve been assigned as defence counsel for your court-martial …”

 

Dumbstruck for once in his life, Jack rolled over and stared at the visitor.

 

“Colonel, as I said, I’m your defence counsel, and obviously I’m delighted -”

 

“I bet you are, Samuels. Who assigned you? Senator Farrell?” O’Neill had found his voice again.

 

Samuels’ chest puffed up by at least two inches. “No, Colonel. Actually, my orders came from the President.”

 

“Same difference”, Jack muttered. “Look, Samuels, thanks for the concern and all, but why don’t we skip this? I don’t pass ‘Go’, don’t collect my $ 200, and march directly in front of the firing squad or whatever else Farrell and his buddy the Prez have lined up for me.”

 

“No need to be so despondent, Colonel. Yes, the charges look serious, especially in view of the identity of the victim … alleged victim. However, there is a way around this.” Samuels planted himself on a chair.

 

Oh, swell! Get comfortable, why don’t you? … O’Neill closed his eyes. “This may come as a disappointment to you, Samuels, but I don’t give a damn about the charges. I. Don’t. Care. If you want to make yourself useful, get me out of here.”

 

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Colonel. But the good news is that, if you follow my advice, this whole thing will be over within a week. My understanding is that Senator Farrell and his daughter are willing, very generously so, to forget about this sordid affair. Provided that you face up to what you’ve done and apologise. You’d have to leave military service, I expect, but you’d be a free man …”

 

For the second time that evening Jack hit his head on the top bunk, which did nothing to assuage his temper. “Samuels, you can tell Senator Farrell and his deranged vamp of a daughter that hell’s gonna freeze over before I admit to, let alone apologise for, something I haven’t done!”

 

“Colonel, this isn’t helping!”

 

“Too right it isn’t.” Jack walked over to Samuels, pulled him to his feet and to the door. He banged against it. “Room Service!”

 

The MP’s face filled the window, apprehensively gawking at Lieutenant Colonel Samuels who was squirming in O’Neill’s grasp.

 

“Open the door! Counsel wants to leave.”

 

The face disappeared, the lock released, the door swung open.

 

Jack shoved Samuels out into the hall. “See you in court.”

 

“Colonel, you have forty-eight hours to think about it. Don’t be …”

 

The rest of Samuels’ sentence was drowned out by the slamming of the cell door. Jack was on his own again. Desperate to vent his pent-up anger and restlessness without damaging himself or the sparse furniture, he launched into a gruelling string of push-ups.

 

… 77 … Farrell’s clever … 78 … gotta to hand it to her … 79 … maybe daddy’s idea … 80 … false confession … 81 … would stop me … 82 … no more awkward questions … 83 … 84 … 85 … better yet … 86 … with me out of the picture … 87 … noone else … 88 … would ask questions … 89 … or look for proof … 90 … or look for Sam … 91 … somebody find her … 92 … help me … 93 … find Sam … 94 … 95 … Sam … 96 … Sam … 97 … Sam … 98 … Sam … 99 … Sam … 100 …

 

“Shit, Carter! Why can’t you ever just follow an order? … And why the hell do you let her get away with it, Jack?” He dropped on the floor, cradling his head in his arms. “Because she’s way smarter than you are”, he whispered … Past tense, Jack … Maybe … Maybe not …

 

 

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

 

 

The guard outside O’Neill’s cell had changed, and MP Pint-size was back on duty. At about 2230 hours he was approached by an enormous soldier with a funny golden squiggle on his forehead. Whopper of a tattoo, that! Pint-size had seen Eagles, he’d even seen himself a Grinning Seal once, but this beat them hands down.

 

“Airman”, bellowed Teal’c.

 

“Yes, sir.” The MP gulped and stood to attention. The guy wore no rank insignia, but had the SGC logo on his sleeve. One of the weird bunch that did God knew what umpteen levels down in the belly of the mountain. The Colonel he was guarding was one of them as well, and look what he’d got himself into  “What can I do for you, sir?”

 

“Major Feretti wishes to see you immediately. You will find him in his quarters on Level 16. I suggest you make haste. I am under orders to guard the prisoner during your absence.”

 

MP Pint-size didn’t have the faintest idea who this Major Feretti was. What he did have, however, was the distinct impression that arguing with the mountain of a man before him might entail dire consequences. “Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!” He sped off down the corridor.

 

As soon as he’d turned the corner, Drs Jackson and Fraiser materialised from the other end of the hall.

 

“Hi, Teal’c”, said Daniel. “Did he buy it?”

 

“Yes, DanielJackson. I believe he has purchased it.”

 

“And you’re sure Feretti knows what to do?” Janet asked nervously.

 

Daniel grinned. “Feretti invented a whole new Prisoner Transport Report Form: USAF/MP/GT-01. They’ll spend an unforgettable hour filling it in.”

 

“Oh … okay … What’s the ‘GT’ stand for?”

 

“‘Gullible Twerp’, I think … Uhm … The coast is clear, let’s do it.” Daniel punched the access code into the security key pad by Jack’s cell, opened the door, and entered.

 

O’Neill was still lying on the floor where he’d crumpled after working himself into a lather with his push-ups. Totally disinclined to find out what this latest intrusion was all about, he didn’t even turn his head … God, this place was busier than Grand Central Station. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?! Time, Sam’s time, was ticking away, and there was nothing he could do about it.

 

“Uh … Jack? … Dropped something?”

 

Now, that voice did pique Jack’s curiosity. He rolled on his back and sat up, grateful for the fact that, by ways of a change, the top bunk was well out of reach. “Danny?! Who let you in? I thought you guys weren’t supposed to -” He noticed Dr Fraiser and Teal’c hovering by the door. “Doc? Teal’c? What’s going on?”

 

Janet grinned. “Yeah, well … Where it comes to doing things we’re not supposed to do, we learnt from the master, Colonel. I had a word with Daniel and Teal’c, and -”

 

“We have come to liberate you, O’Neill”, Teal’c informed him solemnly.

 

It took Jack one look at their faces to know that, whatever the current plan was, it hadn’t been sanctioned by General Hammond. “Guys, are you sure about this? … If Hammond finds out -”

 

“Don’t fret, Jack”, Daniel said with engaging confidence. “If everything works out according to plan, he’ll never know you’re gone.”

 

Hammond miss something? On his base? You had to envy the kid’s optimism … “Yeah, that ‘If’ would be what kinda worries me … What is the plan, anyway?”

 

“Well, we’ll … uh … swap you for one of Janet’s medics -”

 

“Oh, that’s brilliant, Daniel! Nobody’s ever gonna notice that!”

 

“Will you shut up, Jack?! I haven’t finished! In about thirty minutes the fake Colonel O’Neill will be struck down by a mystery disease, and Dr Fraiser will see herself compelled to rush him off to the Air Force Training Hospital. Under guard, naturally, but with an oxygen mask on his face and a bevy of hassled nurses milling about the gurney, you can bet your ass that nobody’s gonna notice.”

 

Jack had to concede the point. “Okay … Then what?”

 

“Is it correct that you wish to return to P2W 873, O’Neill?”

 

“Yes, Teal’c.”

 

“I see. In this case we will proceed to the embarkation room.”

 

“Just like that?!”

 

Daniel sighed. “Jack, we’ve got it covered. Sergeant Siler’s conducting operational tests on the stargate tonight. They’re dialling up all manner of addresses. We’ll just slip in the one we need. Siler and his boys won’t say anything.”

 

O’Neill scrambled to his feet. “What are we waiting for then?”

 

A grey-haired medic, roughly of the Colonel’s build, entered the cell, pushing an emergency trolley. “You wanted to see me, Dr Fraiser …”, he said, trailing off in confusion when he realised that, on cursory inspection, everyone seemed remarkably healthy.

 

“Aw … You can’t be serious, Doc! That guy looks nothing like me!”

 

“This isn’t the time for vanity, Colonel” the doctor retorted with a brief smile, then turned to the medic. “Thanks for coming so quickly, Carson. Can you just find the epi for me?” The man bent over the trolley, and Janet jabbed him with a hypo. Within seconds he collapsed, out cold. “He’ll thank me if this ever gets out … You still here, sir?! Get going! You’re the one kept pestering me to get him out of here, aren’t you?!”

 

“Janet, I …”

 

Fraiser looked up at him. “Save it, sir. Just bring her back, alright? Go!”

 

“Thanks!” He rushed through the door, Teal’c and Daniel on his heels. O’Neill came to a dead stop, and they overshot. “Ah! Gentlemen! I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’re staying here. I’m not gonna risk your lives as well. Is that clear?”

 

Daniel nodded placidly. “’Course, Jack. We’re just coming along to the ‘gate room, in case you run into anybody. Won’t do if you’re caught wandering around base on your own.”

 

“Uhunh.” Jack eyed the archaeologist dubiously. A compliant Daniel Jackson was a menace of the first order. His gaze wandered to Teal’c, but the Jaffa’s expression was inscrutable. That at least could be classed as normal. O’Neill shrugged. “Fine. Just as long as we understand each other. Let’s go.”

 

When MP Pint-size returned half an hour later, after a thoroughly unpleasant session with Major Feretti and his PTRF: USAF/MP/GT-01, Dr Fraiser was about to wheel the prisoner out of his cell. “Wha- … Excuse me, Doctor, what’s going on here? And where’s the guy that relieved me?”

 

“Mister, I’ve got no time for explanations now, and neither has my patient. You’d better come along, I’ll tell you in the ambulance. Hurry up!” She rushed past him, a bevy of hassled nurses milling about the gurney.

 

Pint-size followed them. Sick or not, the prisoner would have to remain under guard.

 

 

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

 

 

After a quick detour to Dr Jackson’s quarters, for Jack to change into a snowsuit and pick up the gear Teal’c had put together for him, they reached the blast door outside the embarkation room.

 

O’Neill motioned them to a halt. “Daniel”, he whispered, “if they’re running the ‘gate, somebody has to be in the control room. Had you thought of that?”

 

Daniel looked hurt. “You don’t trust me at all, do you, Jack?”

 

“Not if I can help it … That was a joke, Daniel!” he added when he saw Jackson’s face. “Who is it? And how am I gonna get past them?”

 

“It’s Simmons, and you won’t have to get past him. He’ll be only too pleased to see me …”

 

Jack raised a puzzled eyebrow. “Why?”

 

“You don’t wanna know, Jack.”

 

“Daniel?! … What did you do to Simmons?”

 

Dr Jackson pushed his specs up his nose, a sure sign that he was embarrassed. “I put a hefty dose of laxative in the coffee I brought him a while ago, okay?”

 

“What is a laxative?”

 

“Not now, Teal’c. Daniel’ll explain it later …” Jack couldn’t suppress a mischievous chuckle. The thought of the shy, overly correct young Lieutenant caught in the quandary of either abandoning his post or crapping his uniform was downright beatific. “Uh … Danny? Maybe you should go and relieve Simmons, hunh?”

 

Daniel nodded sheepishly and left. A minute later O’Neill and Teal’c heard hectic footsteps hurrying away through the corridor.

 

Shortly after, Dr Jackson returned. “Okay. I’ve set the coordinates. It’s dialling up now.” Then, in the direction where Simmons had disappeared, “If I’m not mistaken, that’ll be a new record …”

 

“Daniel, you’re evil!” the Colonel said, still with a wide grin on his face. “Okay, let’s get this show on the road.”

 

The blast door slid open, just as the wormhole established. Jack’s glee faded in an instant. This was it.

 

He turned back to his friends. “Thank you. Both of you.”

 

Then Colonel O’Neill ran into the ‘gate room and up the ramp, past a startled Sergeant Siler. “This never happened, Siler!” he snapped and flung himself into the event horizon.

 

Even before he’d fully disappeared, Daniel raced through the door and dived under the ramp, retrieving the pack and snowsuit he’d hidden there hours ago.

 

Teal’c followed suit, grabbed his gear and loped up the ramp towards the vortex. “Sergeant, you will not recall my presence!” He too vanished, and Siler nodded in resignation.

 

Next, Dr Jackson dashed past. By now the Sergeant was operating on the assumption that SG-1 had come up with a new parlour game. “I know, Doctor, I know: I’ve never even met you …”

 

Daniel leapt through the stargate, a split-second before the wormhole began to destabilise.

 

 

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

 

 

Five days after she’d lost her sight, Sam’s firewood had run out. It had lasted a day longer than the MREs. At first she’d forced herself to get up, feel her way around the darkness, move, get her circulation going, get warm for a little while. She’d lost track of how long she’d been trapped in the cave, trapped on the planet, so she didn’t know when she surrendered to the relief of having had the decision of life or death taken away from her. She stopped moving, stopped fighting. Lying by the ashes of the fire, she stared into distorted darkness, listening to the voices in her mind, sometimes talking back to them: Jolinar, her father, Cassie, Janet, Teal’c, Daniel … the Colonel.

 

He’d be so very angry with her for giving up. He always was the one who bullied them into surviving. Sometimes it seemed they survived simply because they were afraid of what he’d do to them if they didn’t … ‘Where there’s a will there’s an or’ … Not this time, sir. Fresh out of ‘or’s … Not just a bad day … Bad fortnight … Probably been that long … Won’t be much longer … Night, sir.

 

 

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

 

 

Jack’s second arrival on P2W 873 was somewhat more explosive than the first. Not only had he thrown himself into the wormhole at twice the recommended speed and therefore came hurtling out the other end in a graceless jumble. To top it off, approximately five seconds after he’d landed face-down on the planet, he suddenly felt like the planet had landed on him … Oh for cryin’ out loud! You’re getting old, Jack! Ten years ago you’d have seen this one coming from a mile off! Compliant, my ass … He groaned.

 

“Daniel! Teal’c! One of you should take his boot out of my nostril, and the other one should stop digging for my kidneys!”

 

 “I apologise, O’Neill …”

 

 “Sorry …”

 

The offending items and actions disappeared and ceased, respectively, the weight that had pinned him down lifted, and Jack pushed himself up. He was livid. “Dammit! Did you two hear a word of what I said?! As far as Daniel is concerned, I’d be worried if he hadn’t tried, but you, Teal’c, you really surprise me! I told you I was going on my own! Now, get up, dial home, and get the hell out of here! That’s an order!”

 

“No!” The refusal came in stereo.

 

“Daniel! … Teal’c?!”

 

Daniel’s jaw took on the stubborn cast O’Neill dreaded. “We’re a team, Jack. A team. You, Sam, Teal’c, me: team. That means if one of us is in trouble, we stick together, we’re all in it together. Stop trying to go it alone!”

 

“Daniel, you know what this place is like! You remember that much from last time, don’t you? You might get killed, Teal’c might get killed -”

 

“Only you can set things right, isn’t that true, Jack?! And if it kills you, so be it. You don’t deserve help, that’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?! Because you’re convinced you’ve done to Sam what Frank Cromwell did to you in Iraq, and it’s tearing you apart.”

 

The Colonel inhaled sharply. With merciless accuracy Daniel had just pinpointed what had tormented Jack ever since he’d found out that Sam had been alive. His voice became deadly quiet. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Daniel. And even if you did it’d still be none of your business -”

 

“You are incorrect, O’Neill.” The Jaffa sounded final, peremptory. “It is our business. It is my business. Had it not been for my actions, you would have investigated the crevice and you would have discovered then that CarolineFarrell had not been speaking the truth.”

 

Much as Jack would have wanted to argue with that, he couldn’t.

 

Daniel piped up again. “Can we go now? It’s gonna be dark soon.”

 

He and Teal’c pulled on their snowsuits, and then the three men began their descent towards the valley and the old campsite. They spent the night there.

 

 

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

 

 

Jack hadn’t been able to sleep and rose early. Daniel found him poking around by a rock at the back of the ledge, where he’d cleared away the snow so carefully it would have done an archaeologist proud.

 

“Hi, Jack. What have you got there?”

 

“Incontrovertible proof that Robert Makepeace is an ass! … Look at this. Tell me what you see!”

 

“ … Uh …”

 

Teal’c had joined them, peeking over the Colonel’s shoulder. “It would appear that these are the remains of a fire that was lit after the avalanche had occurred, O’Neill.”

 

“Thank you, Teal’c.”

 

“Oh”, said Daniel. “So …?”

 

“So, Sam definitely wasn’t killed in the avalanche.”

 

“Then where is she now? And why didn’t she make contact with SG-3?”

 

“How the hell should I know?!” O’Neill was edgy and in no mood to answer questions he didn’t have an answer for. The ashes looked old, at least a week, maybe more. A lot could have happened in a week, even though the quakes at least had become few and far between. He blinked at the suns … Yeah, they were well apart again … Dammit, Sam, where are you?!

 

They decided to search towards the glaciers first, to try and find the trail Sam and the Colonel had first laid two weeks ago, but they soon realised that nobody could have come along there for a while. A thick, undisturbed layer of new snow had made the path unrecognisable, and there were no fresh tracks. The only remaining option was down, further into the valley. The going was difficult here. They had to fight their way through branches and over fallen trees and rocks.

 

It was Daniel who stumbled onto the first tracks in a little clearing amidst all the debris. “Jack! Jack, over here!”

 

O’Neill and Teal’c came running. “What?!”

 

Daniel pointed out the boot prints at his feet. “Has to have been Sam. Unless one of Makepeace’s Marines has taken to prancing about in a tiny left boot and a Teal’c-size right …”

 

 “Wouldn’t put it past them, Danny, but we know they never came this far down …” Jack flashed him a quick grin, his relief evident. Something at last … “Let’s see where this leads!”

 

It led up a short incline and across a vast snowfield and was accompanied, sometimes overlaid, by another trail, which looked as though she’d been dragging something heavy. O’Neill, Teal’c, and Daniel had followed the tracks for about an hour when they reached a spot where the snow was flattened and disturbed. After that point the trail looked different.

 

Jack’s face tensed. “She fell”, he said tersely. “She’s been crawling from here on out.”

 

Neither Daniel nor Teal’c contradicted, and for once O’Neill wished they had. He set off again, at a fast trot now, getting ahead of his friends. Finally he came to a halt by a rocky outcrop.

 

Teal’c and Daniel didn’t see it until they’d almost caught up with him: the trail led into a cave, its entrance camouflaged by deep shadows. They also understood why Jack just stood there rigidly, not moving a muscle: there was no sign of a fire in the cave, and no tracks came out of it.

 

Teal’c was about to step past the Colonel and enter, when Daniel placed a restraining hand on the Jaffa’s arm. No matter what lay ahead, this was one thing that Jack had to be allowed to do by himself.

 

 

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

 

Part 7

 

 

The interior of the cave was dark, cold, quiet. So quiet that Jack could hear himself breathing. Too quiet. Too cold. Too dark. As grateful as he’d been to Daniel for allowing him to face this on his own, now he wished he weren’t alone. Too cold. Too dark. Too quiet. The beam of his flashlight glided over a still, curled-up shape. She looked as though she were sleeping. Too quiet. Too cold. He’d lost her all over again. Drawing a ragged breath, he took a step closer, tripped. Sam, please … Please, don’t leave me alone … Too dark.

 

She stirred, sat up clumsily. Face turned in the direction of the noise she’d heard, head tilted so as to listen better, she whimpered with fear, feebly trying to crawl away like a scared little night animal scuttling from the light.

 

Oh God, Sam, don’t be frightened … Not of me … Never of  me

 

It had taken long, confused seconds, but he understood at last. She couldn’t see him. He stopped moving. “Sam?’

 

She froze at the sound of his voice, a flash of almost childlike delight, and then sudden, utter distress chasing across her face.

 

Smooth, Jack! Real smooth … “Sam?”, he said again, edging towards her carefully. When he was close enough, he crouched, slowly extending a hand. “Sam, it’s real. I’m gonna touch you, okay? Don’t be afraid … and don’t bite me!”

 

He slipped his arm around her and saw something he hadn’t believed he’d see again. Just for a moment, she smiled. She groped for his hand on her shoulder, found it, held on to it. With her left, she haltingly reached for his face, touched his cheek.

 

“… you’re crying …” It was barely a whisper.

 

“Allergies …”

 

“… lousy liar …”

 

“So you keep telling me … ” Finally pulling her into a hug, he felt her huddle against him. Frail as a bird, her breathing too rapid, too shallow, her face too thin and blistered by the sunlight, she was alive. She was alive. She was alive. He closed his eyes, stroked her head.

 

He had no idea how long he’d been sitting there, just holding her, softly murmuring to her, but eventually he heard footsteps from the entrance. He squinted when the glare of a flashlight hit his eyes. “Danny? Teal’c?”

 

“Gee, thanks for letting us know, Jack!” grumbled Daniel, but clearly his heart wasn’t in it.

 

“How is SamanthaCarter?”

 

“She’ll be fine, Teal’c! … She’ll be … just fine”, he repeated gently, as much to convince himself as to convince her.

 

Daniel, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced. But whatever was wrong, it could wait. “Look guys, I don’t want to rain on your parade, but … uh … maybe we should get out of here before the three-o’clock-quake arrives, hunh?”

 

“Yeah”, nodded Jack. “Let’s go.”

 

He cautiously let go of Sam and rose. When she started and began to feel around her to find out where he’d gone, Daniel realised. So did Teal’c. Neither of them said a word, while Jack wrapped the sleeping bag around her and lifted her up. It could wait. First of all they had to get Sam home.

 

 

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

 

 

 

The klaxons started blaring, and on the tannoy a tinny voice announced, “Off-world activation!”

 

General Hammond had been contemplating the ramifications of the fact that he’d seen neither hide nor hair of Dr Jackson or Teal’c in nearly eighteen hours, a time frame which just happened to coincide with the duration of Jack O’Neill’s mystery illness. The conclusions he’d arrived at were … well … inconclusive.  Now he shot out of his office and into the control room.

 

Through the large window he watched as chevron after chevron on the stargate lit up and shed a reddish glow. The seventh chevron locked, the wormhole engaged, and the ‘gate room swarmed with SFs, all armed to the teeth.

 

“Who’s due back?” the General asked Lieutenant Simmons, knowing full well that none of his teams were.

 

“I’m getting a code signal, sir!” Simmons shouted excitedly, then fell silent in astonishment.

 

“Lieutenant?! I’m waiting!!”

 

“Uh … yes, General! Sorry … uh … Sir, that’s impossible: it’s SG-1’s code …”

 

General Hammond knew better than anyone just how impossible that was. For starters, the team leader was a) under arrest, and b) in hospital … So, the thing they’d been dreading for months had finally happened: someone had got access to an SGC iris code. “Close the iris!” he yelled, and was about to run down to the embarkation room, when Sergeant Siler’s voice came over the intercom.

 

It had taken Siler all of two seconds to decide that his career wasn’t worth three, possibly four lives. “Belay that order!!” he bellowed. “Do not close the iris!! It’s SG-1!”

 

Hammond winced. Several pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place. “You heard the man …”

 

Simmons, whose finger had been hovering uncertainly over the key, took away his hand. “Yes, sir!” he replied.

 

The General already was on his way downstairs. He got there just in time to see SG-1 step from the event horizon. All of SG-1. Colonel O’Neill was carrying his 2IC down the ramp, followed by Dr Jackson and Teal’c. They looked tired, cold, filthy, and apprehensive.

 

Jack found Hammond’s eyes. “General Hammond, sir. Permission to take Major Carter to the infirmary? … After that you can lock me up again, sir.”

 

“Permission granted, son. See that she’s taken care of. We’ll … uhm … debrief … in 60 minutes.”

 

 

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

 

 

Dr Fraiser had practically ripped Sam from the Colonel’s arms and shooed everybody out of the infirmary, threatening to anaesthetise anyone who dared to get in her way. Reluctantly, Jack, Teal’c, and Daniel had gone to shower, changed into fresh clothes, and then had hurried to the briefing room, where the General was already waiting for them.

 

“Take a seat, people”, said Hammond. He waited until they’d sat down and continued, “Sergeant Siler’s been filling me in on the details as far as he knows them. Which isn’t very far, above and beyond the fact that he saw the three of you gate out to P2W 873, something he obviously was under orders not to have seen.”

 

“General, the whole thing was my idea. I’m responsible -”

 

“Oh I’d bet my last shirt that you are, Colonel, but that’s not what I’m interested in. I made a mistake: I didn’t listen to you before. I’m listening now. The whole story, son. From the beginning.”

 

O’Neill, Teal’c, and Daniel filled him in, from the moment SG-1 had first arrived an P2W 873 to their return through the stargate an hour ago. Sam hadn’t been able to tell them anything yet, but even without her side of the story, it didn’t make for an edifying tale. By the end of it, the General was furious, a large part of his anger directed at himself.

 

At last he said, “I’d better call the President and -”

 

“Sir! If I may?” Jack’s fingers were nervously drumming on his writing pad, occasionally stopping to flick away and recapture a pen. He became aware of what he was doing, clasped his hands. “Call me a cynic, but you advise the President now, the whole thing gets swept under the carpet … Miss Farrell’s gonna deny everything and she’ll get away with it.”

 

“So what do you suggest we do, Colonel?”

 

“In roughly … uhm …” - O’Neill checked his watch - “twenty-six hours, seven minutes, and thirty-two seconds, ‘Counsellor’ Samuels’s gonna come shimmying into my cell, sir. He’ll be bursting to hear whether I’ve changed my mind. How about I tell him that I have, and that I’m going to kow-tow to Farrell and Miss Caroline, provided I can walk away from the charges?”

 

“You want to do what?! What’s that gonna achieve?” Daniel seemed to dislike that particular plan.

 

Jack grinned like the cat that had swallowed the canary. Then he explained it to them. When he’d finished, Hammond’s expression matched his, Daniel was pacified, and Teal’c looked pleased. By his standards.

 

“Alright, Colonel. We’ll go with your idea … By the way, how on earth did you three ever get past Simmons?”

 

“Uh … Daniel’s probably the best person to clarify that point, sir … Oh, and sir? I think someone should let Jacob and Sam’s brother know.”

 

“I’ll do that. Dismissed … Not you, Dr Jackson!”

 

 

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

 

 

Not waiting to catch the foul glare Daniel undoubtedly had given him, Colonel O’Neill had bolted from the briefing room and to the infirmary. Dr Fraiser seemed to have a sixth sense for members of SG-1 descending on her domain. She headed him off at the door.

 

“Shh! Be quiet, sir. She’s asleep. And yes, you can go in and see her”, she added, answering the obvious question. “Just don’t disturb her.”

 

“How is she, Janet?” … Don’t you dare and tell me anything I don’t want to hear, Doc!

 

“It looks worse than it is, sir, I promise”, the Doctor said, gazing at him. “In a nutshell: Sam’s weak, and she’s traumatised, and she’s got a pretty nasty concussion. Her ankle could have done with surgery, but it’s too late for that now. It’ll sort itself out eventually, though. She’ll be just fine in a couple -”

 

“What about her eyes?”

 

“Her - … Oh God, I thought you knew! Colonel, she’s snow-blind. That’s all. Basically it’s a sunburn on the cornea. A bad one in Sam’s case, but it should go away in a few more days, together with the burns to her face. She’ll be fine”, Janet said again, holding the door open for him. “Now, go on in, I’ve got reports to write!”

 

For a moment or two he hesitated, like a child who’d just got a complicated new toy for Christmas and didn’t have a clue of what to do with it. Then he stepped inside, the door silently shutting behind him.

 

Oh boy, thought Fraiser. When the hell are you gonna realise it, sir? … She shook her head and rushed off down the corridor.

 

 

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

 

 

Sam slowly drifted awake to beeping noises, the acrid smell of disinfectant, and the fact that, for the first time in ages, she didn’t feel cold or sick or in pain … Home. She was home. They had come back for her. It had been the Colonel back in the cave, not another morbid trick her mind had played on her. She gave a contented little sigh and snuggled under the covers.

 

“Sam?”

 

God, he sounded so tired! How long had he been sitting there? Dumb question, Carter. For however long you’ve been lying in this bed … She smiled. “Hey, sir. Hasn’t Janet told you to get some sleep?”

 

“Only about five million times. I don’t think she really means it … How’re you feelin’?”

 

“Warm.”

 

“Good.” A smile in his voice now.

 

Sam could have sworn she actually heard his smile fade in the silence that followed. “What, sir?”

 

At last he answered, speaking so softly she could barely hear him. “When Frank Cromwell left me behind … I …  I hated him … hated him so much I could taste it … I could understand if you felt that way about me … I -”

 

“Sir! Don’t!! I saw that backpack. Jeez, if I hadn’t known any better, I would have believed I was dead! You never left me behind, sir. You brought me home.” She waited for a reply. Something. Anything. “Are you listening to me? … Jack? … There’s nothing to forgive.”

 

Sam reached out, trying to touch his arm, missing by a mile. “Sir? … C’mon, at least say ‘hot’ or ‘cold’. My vision isn’t exactly 20/20 these days, you know -”

 

The fingers that closed around hers were trembling. “Janet says not to worry. It’s a sunburn. Your eyes are gonna be okay. And you’re not missing much. The décor hasn’t improved since the last time you were here, and I look like hell anyway …”

 

So you can talk, sir. And yeah, I bet you look like hell … Aloud she enquired, “Thinking about changing your beautician, Colonel?”

 

That got a small laugh. Then there was another pause. Suddenly, gruffly, he said, “Don’t ever do that to me again …”

 

“Do what, sir?” She smiled.

 

“You know …”

 

Sam felt his head nestle in the crook of her arm and lightly ran a hand through his hair. “Get some sleep, sir.”

 

“’kay …”

 

When Dr Fraiser arrived some time later to check on Sam, they were both asleep. Jack hadn’t shifted from a position that would have filled a contortionist with envy, and Sam’s hand was still resting on his head. She sighed. “You guys gotta stop meeting like that”, she murmured. “Any more of this and I’ll end up having to refer you to a chiropractor, Colonel …”

 

 

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

 

 

That afternoon, a suspiciously buoyant-looking Colonel O’Neill was back in his cell, suffering from nothing more than a slight crick in his neck. MP Pint-size, ordered back from the hospital, stood guard outside the door, trying to put two and two together and consistently coming up with five. This doomed exercise in mental arithmetic was interrupted by the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Samuels. Pint-size snapped to attention, and let him into the cell.

 

“Well, Colonel, I suppose you’ve had time to cool down a little?”

 

“Hi, Samuels. Nice of you to stop by. Grab a chair. What can I do for you?”

 

Samuels was visibly taken aback. O’Neill being civil to him was so much of a novelty as to be suspicious. “Uhm … I hear you’ve been ill”, he said, sitting down. “Still feeling … uh … a bit under the weather, are you?”

 

Jack had clocked Samuels’ reaction and mentally kicked himself. Lousy time to get careless, Jack! Keep up the insulted brute act, it’s what he expects. “Cut to the chase, Samuels. What do you want?” Better.

 

Samuels relaxed, regaining his air of self-righteous superiority. “Your answer, Colonel. Are you going to accept the deal Senator Farrell has offered, or do you want to risk a court-martial? Let me remind you that -”

 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah … Spare me the reminders. I accept, alright?! So you can run back to Miss Farrell and tell her I apologise. Now, can I get out of here?”

 

“Uh … It isn’t quite that easy, Colonel -”

 

“Oh for cryin’ out loud!” Jack had risen and started pacing. “What else does she want?! My head on a platter?”

 

“Something like that.” Samuels’ eyes followed O’Neill’s path, tick-tocking back and forth like he was watching the US Open Finals at Flushing Meadows. “You’ll have to understand two things, Colonel. Firstly, the apology will have to be made in person and, secondly, it will have to be as public as we can make it under the circumstances -”

 

“Great! Do I get to wear a feather boa and tap-dance?”

 

“I daresay it won’t matter what you wear, as long as you apologise, Colonel. General Hammond who, quite frankly, is appalled by your behaviour, has suggested a meeting on base, in the presence of Senator and Miss Farrell and the President. The General is very keen to impress on both the Senator and the President that there won’t be any shenanigans and that you will be dishonourably discharged after your release.”

 

“Yeah, I bet he is! Won’t do if he lost a dime or two out of his precious funding, will it? So when’s that circus gonna take place?”

 

“Provided that the Farrells and the President agree to the venue, it’ll be arranged for Monday. Two days from now, in other words.”

 

“Can’t wait. Well, if there’s nothing else, don’t let me keep you, Samuels.”

 

Samuels rose, walked to the door and knocked. “Well, good luck, Colonel.” The door opened, and he left.

 

Jack smiled. “One down …”, he whispered.

 

Fifteen minutes later the General entered. “Sorry it took so long, son. I had to see Samuels off.”

 

“Don’t worry, sir … How did he take it? He seemed a bit depressed to me. I think he was looking forward to my court-martial.”

 

Hammond bit back a grin and ignored the comment. “I’ve already spoken to the President. According to him, the time and place will be convenient. Looks like we’re on, Colonel … Let’s get you out of here!”

 

General Hammond and Colonel O’Neill amicably strolled out of the cell and disappeared down the hall.

 

Contrary to what Pint-size had been taught at elementary school, he now was convinced that two and two did indeed make five, and he wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see a low-flying pig whirring through the corridors.

 

 

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

 

 

At 1530 hours the following Monday, all base personnel, including every SGC team currently on-world, were ordered to assemble in the ‘gate room. A few knew why they were there, others had only heard rumours and were speculating wildly. Apparently, Colonel O’Neill had really screwed up this time. And what was that buzz about Major Carter not being dead after all? Major Feretti was taking bets, although nobody could quite figure out on what. When the blast door slid back to admit the President, the Farrells, and General Hammond, the hum of conversation ceased, and they all stood to attention.

 

“At ease”, Hammond said.

 

The President was bewildered by the sheer mass of people in the room. “Was that really necessary, General? All things considered, you might have been better served by keeping it … well, more private.”

 

“Mr President. The integrity of my command has been brought into question by the actions of a single individual. Every man and woman here has been affected. Any apology being made here today therefore needs to be extended to all of them as well. They have a right to be here, sir.”

 

Martin Farrell spoke up for the first time, obviously sharing the sentiment. “I commend your decision, General. Maybe I have judged you too rashly -”

 

“Daddy, can’t we just get this over with? I really don’t want to be here any longer than necessary! My memories of these people aren’t altogether pleasant, if I may remind you.” Caroline Farrell, dressed in a demure black suit befitting the occasion, was fiddling with a handkerchief.

 

Hammond turned to Miss Farrell, avuncular concern on his face. “I’m sorry that you feel that way, my dear, but I completely understand.” Nodding at the Airman posted by the door, he said, “Guttridge, ask Colonel O’Neill to come in.”

 

Guttridge disappeared. Moments later he returned, followed by the Colonel.

 

Caroline Farrell froze. Her father gripped Hammond’s arm. “General, this man should be under armed guard! Why isn’t he?”

 

“Senator, I assure you there is no need for a guard”, Hammond replied, freeing himself. Farrell wasn’t ready to back down yet, but a look from the President silenced him.

 

Jack slowly walked to the centre of the room and saluted, first his Commander-in-Chief, then the General. His face inscrutable, he acknowledged the father and daughter last. “Senator Farrell. Miss Farrell.”

 

“Well, get on with, boy, we haven’t got all day!”, Farrell Senior snapped.

 

A shocked murmur spread through the room. The consensus seemed to be that the last person to address Jack O’Neill like that probably didn’t exist. Not anymore, at any rate. Jack himself never so much as twitched, he just stood and waited for the drone to die down.

 

The President had reached the end of his patience. “Colonel?! An apology. Now! We’ve been waiting too long.”

 

“Oh, I agree, sir”, Jack said quietly. “An apology is definitely overdue.”

 

Senator Farrell would have struck him if the blast door hadn’t reopened at that moment to let Major Carter enter. Still having difficulties with her sight, she was led by her father. Jacob guided her to O’Neill’s side. Sam crisply saluted the President and turned to the Farrells. “Hi, Caroline.”

 

Caroline Farrell blanched. “Daddy, I want to go … Please let’s go! … Now!!” she screamed.

 

“Shh, Caroline”, Farrell put a hand on her shoulder. “Remember what we’re here for. You’ll get what you wanted.”

 

“General Hammond! Who is this officer, and what is the meaning of this charade?!” the President demanded.

 

“Mr President, I need to inform you that I’ve committed a grave error of judgment -”

 

“I should think so!” Senator Farrell cut in. “Who the hell are you, miss?!” he barked at Sam.

 

“Major Samantha Carter, sir.”

 

“Bullshit! There’s no way Major Carter could have returned, so who -” The Senator broke off in mid-sentence.

 

“My God! You knew all along …”, Sam gasped. “She told you! And you would have wrecked Colonel O’Neill’s life and left me to rot on that godforsaken planet, just to protect your daughter? What kind of a man are you? You know she’s -”

 

“Don’t say it, missy! I forbid you!”, Farrell roared. “Caroline is worth twenty of you! What do I care if you die? What do I care about the life of some snotty flyboy who comes into my house and tricks my little girl into telling him what she’s done? You should have given Caroline what she wanted, and there wouldn’t have been a problem. But no, you had to have it your way, didn’t you? You’ll regret this, all of you! I’m gonna shut you down, you hear me? You hear me, General? I’m gonna shut down your precious SGC! … Come on, Caroline, we’re going!”

 

“I don’t think so, Martin.” The President had regained his composure. With deep sadness he looked at his friend, then at Hammond. “General, it wouldn’t have taken quite as many witnesses to convince me, but I can appreciate your motives … Please see to it that Senator Farrell and his daughter are placed in custody.”

 

Farrell blustered, trying to say something, but the President cut him off. “Martin. Caroline. It’s over. I’m sorry.”

 

The whole room watched in silence as they were led away.

 

At last, the President cleared his throat. “Ladies and Gentlemen, you’ve come here to hear an apology, so you’re gonna get one. The gravest error of judgment in all this has been committed by me, and it has compromised the safety of this facility and its personnel. I deeply regret what has happened, and I offer my sincere apologies to Major Carter and Colonel O’Neill.”

 

“Uh … Thank you … uh … Sir!” Sam was fumbling for words. It isn’t every day of the week that your Commander-in-Chief bothers to apologise to you if you’re but a humble Major.

 

“It’s okay, sir. Just don’t do it again”, said Jack.

 

General Hammond groaned.

 

“What?!”

 

 

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

 

 

Jacob had taken his leave, and Sam was whisked back to the infirmary. Daniel and Teal’c had sat with her for a while, until they’d been turfed out by Dr Fraiser who’d decided that her patient had had enough excitement for one day.

 

It was just after ten o’clock at night when Colonel O’Neill sneaked into the infirmary in fine commando style. All that was missing was the camouflage paint on his face. To make up for it, he had a sports bag slung over his shoulder. “Hey, Carter? You asleep?”, he whispered.

 

“Yes!” She grinned.

 

“You’re not supposed to lie to your CO, Major. Why aren’t you asleep?”

 

The grin faded. “Guess I’m afraid to wake up -”

 

“- back in that cave”, Jack finished for her. “Won’t happen, Carter. But if it happens, I’ll come and get you. Promise … Now, Doc Fraiser tells me you haven’t been eating properly. That true?”

 

“Doc Fraiser talks too much.”

 

“She was under duress. I pushed her into a corner and tickled her until she cracked.”

 

Sam giggled.

 

“Stop it, Carter. This is serious!” Jack unzipped the sports bag, took out a cardboard box, and placed it in front of her on the covers. “Can you see this?”

 

“Kinda. What is it?” She raised the top end of the bed to sit up comfortably.

 

“Dinner. Open it.”

 

Sam did, and suddenly her nose crinkled. “Smells good … Smells like … Oh! Is this what I think it is, sir?”

 

“If you think it’s a concert grand, the answer’s ‘no’.” He smiled.

 

She’d torn off a slice of pizza and sunk her teeth into it. “Mow!! Isha Fiorentina”, she mumbled indistinctly.

 

“Didn’t Jacob ever tell you it’s bad manners to talk with more than seven ounces of pizza in your mouth?”

 

Shorry!”

 

“And, yes, it’s a Fiorentina. Delivery got delayed, though.”

 

“What do you mean, sir?” Sam finally had swallowed and looked at him curiously.

 

Jack shrugged. “Well, I got lost in that blizzard, didn’t I? … The bet was Feretti’s idea. I’d have gone anyway.”

 

Her eyes went wide. “You never mentioned anything, sir!”

 

“You’d still have hit me.”

 

“True. But maybe not as hard   Look, sir, I can’t possibly eat this on my own. You gotta help me out here.”

 

“I was hoping you’d say that, Carter”, he replied, grinning, and sat next to her.

 

 

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

 

 

“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Not again!”

 

Dr Fraiser, doing a quick last round of the infirmary before going home, had stumbled on a scene that somehow looked familiar. At least this time the Colonel was sitting on the bed, legs stretched out on the covers, one arm wrapped around Sam who’d curled up against him.

 

Quietly, so as not to wake them, Janet removed the empty pizza carton from the bed and put it in a bin, making a mental note to have a word with Colonel O’Neill in the morning. His idea of the dietary requirements of Janet’s patients obviously was in need of some serious adjustment. Well, at least Sam had eaten for a change …

 

With a little yawn, Dr Fraiser dimmed the lights and left.

 

 

Fin.