I won't unjustly defend myself and say that I didn't know what I was doing. I won't tell myself that it was all instinct, that it was an automatic reaction, a lapse in reason brought on by my frenzied frame of mind, and that frame of mind brought on from the firefight. I'd be able to get away with saying such things, with Daniel and Teal'c and maybe even Hammond. But I won't say it because I won't lie. And because I wouldn't get away with it with Carter.
The others think they know me. Maybe they do, maybe even Daniel has forgotten about the kind of man I was when we first met, a different man, a dark and angry and ruthless man. Maybe my newfound sense of humor has stripped away all memory of that... that creature. Maybe they do know me, maybe they all realize the change that has taken place since I realized that Sara and Charlie weren't my entire life, that I had permission to live again, and a purpose to live FOR. But I can't help feeling that they're wrong in their assumption of me as the blissfully ignorant, often laughable, sometimes downright passionate man they've come to know.
I'm a soldier. More than that, I'm an officer. I've been around, and I've seen a lot of interesting places and met a lot of interesting people and I've killed some of them. Not because I like that type of thing, mind you, not because I'm some kind of adrenaline junkie and get off on death and destruction. More often than not, I don't enjoy what I do, even when I'm doing it to snakeheads, even when it's for the good of my country and my team and the people I love.
So how does that translate to what I just did?
How do I reconcile the man I was with the man I've become, with the person that I AM, deep inside, in that place that's impossible to transform? How do I allow others to see me as the capricious guy who likes hockey and dogs and little kids with the man who just committed murder... not in personal defense, not in the preservation of my country and family and friends, but for the benefit of a people I've never met? That my actions resulted in the death of an unarmed man who was asking me for asylum in return for help against the Gou'ald? Damn it, how do I explain all of that to Hammond at the briefing, and Danny and Teal'c, as they watch me with confusion, and Carter. Sam Carter, staring at me with those brilliant, soulful eyes, expression unreadable, almost locked in a trance, lost in it. She's looking at me differently, she must be, because I once told her I hadn't been myself until I came here, and met her, and now she sees it's true. THIS is the real me, and this time, I've reverted back to it without conscious effort.
I TOOK sides, and then I SWITCHED sides.
I can still hear the last sound Alar ever made, a tinny sound, not nearly so resonant a boom because this iris is made of sterner stuff than our last. A tiny tic, that's it, that's all, and unlike the others, I knew it was coming. I knew HE was coming, and I went and I played God and I ended a man's life. With Carter, with those three 'volunteers', it was different: an accident, a precaution she made for care and safety. An ACCIDENT, a mistake. Not like this. Not like me. I knew, and so did she.
So why doesn't she say anything? Why does she do nothing more accusing, incriminating, than drag her eyes from my weary face and turn away, wordlessly walking past Hammond and Daniel and Teal'c and out of the room. Away from me. As far away as she can get. To do what? Ruminate on my actions, on the wrongness of them? Draft a report to Hammond on the cold-bloodedness of her C.O.? I can only imagine: what she must think of me now, how solidly her opinion of me must be shaken, even shattered. If I feel this way about myself, God, how must she see me? How would the others see me, if they knew?
How WILL they see me, WHEN they know?
The last sound Alar made... gone before he knew it... his passing recorded as an electronic whir, and only Sam and I were truly awaiting it. Only we could have stopped it. Only we could have done it.
The ever-present question of who claims the locker room first is answered for us because SG-11, a co-ed team, has returned not long ago. Control of the showers has fallen into the hands of the enemy: that is, the hands of Lieutenant Angelina Andrews and Captain Valerie Perkins. Carter's gear is piled on the bench just beyond the door.
The rest of us retire to the staging area. Daniel and Teal'c stash their clothes and appropriate rigging back in their designated cubicles, neatly, considerately, for the sake of the lackeys that had to come in here and clean up after us. Silently, I dump all my crap on the ground, not in the mood for niceties.
"Jack... are you okay?"
I glare venomously at Daniel, though he doesn't take it offense any more than he usually does. There's real concern on his face, every emotion on his sleeve as expected, feeling and thought clear upon his face. Open, guileless... Daniel reminds me of a child sometimes, a child with a Ph.D. Other times, I only see in him the man I'd like to be: considerate, compassionate, unable to hold a grudge against all but the most corrupt of tyrants. The angry words that passed between us earlier no longer taint the air, and I can't laud my brisk apology for all of it. Daniel has a rare gift: the gift to be both a guy and to have a clue.
When I don't answer, he does it for me, methodically hanging his jacket on its hook. "I know. I KNOW. I... was just as eager to help as you were. I'm just... not military. I dunno... maybe that gives me a little bit of an edge."
I sit down hard on the bench. "We should've been more careful with them. We should've... started asking questions earlier on."
"The road behind is always clearer than the road ahead," quips Teal'c, cocking his head in appreciation of the phrase. "We can only be thankful that we caused equal damage on both sides of the battle, minimizing our impact on it."
"Not equal, Teal'c," I mutter. Equal... what a pun. In this situation, what a joke. The looks Alar and the others had given Teal'c, their insistence that he was unlike us, their hesitancy to interact with him. Sometimes I forget that his being a Jaffa isn't the only way we're different, that there's that minor issue of race... but I hadn't seen it. I was so damn eager to save the world again, it would have taken a swastika to make me see it.
The three volunteers... the 'enemy' bomber I had destroyed through Alar's most impersonal technology... the unmanned craft I'd driven into the guts of my 'ally's' base... all the people bottled up, awaiting the war's end... the kids that Carter and I had nailed down in our escape... the Eurondan commander himself...
How could my zeal overcome my reason as it did, blinding me to everything except what I wanted to see?
How many people have died today that didn't have to?
How many died because we took sides?
I can't defend myself. I can't. I can't sit here and tell myself or my friends that there had been no peaceful way out. I can't lie and claim that I rationally thought this mission out every step of the way, considered what implications taking sides would have on this nameless war. Yes, I can say that I hadn't expected the 'enemy' bombers to be manned because Alar's weren't, because I assumed both sides would use comparable technology. And yes, I can say that Carter and I didn't 'kill kids', we covered our asses in a strategic retreat from the field of battle, minimizing casualties where we could.
And I can say that Alar, though unarmed, wasn't as helpless as I've made him out to be. He was charismatic, and apparently powerful enough in word and spirit to convince his followers that different meant evil. That colors and shapes and sizes that were unlike their own were signs of impurity and pollution. A man that could do that, and with such conviction, was as dangerous as a man with a nuclear bomb in each pocket.
P.O.W. or otherwise, this world doesn't need another Hitler.
And now THAT world has one less.
I just wonder if anybody else will see it that way.
The water stops running, and a gaggle of female voices trail away from the locker room. I dumbly follow Teal'c and Daniel inside, in a trance of my own now, locked in a state you'd presume would keep me from thinking too much, but in fact only traps me in this same old nightmare. I've killed before. What's so different about this time, this planet, this people, that it's affected me so solidly?
The other two head for the showers, not seeming to notice my disinclination to follow, buoyantly chatting about whatever topics an archeologist and a Jaffa can find common ground on.
I'm not ready to strip down, not ready to lay myself bare like that, not when ghosts might still roam the premises.
I open my locker, stare blankly into its jumbled depths, and then slam the door shut with more force than intended. I'm so confused... SO confused, I think, slumping down onto the bench that bisects the row. If I feel this sick and immoral and disconcerted by my own actions, then what will the General say? How will he react when he finds out... finds out that I knew?
A few rows down, a locker door hangs open, the metal cabinet left foolishly unlocked, a prime target of an airman's practical joke. BDU's frozen in blocks of ice, shaving cream in the shoes, clothes simply stolen, the cupboard left bare... I've seen them all. But it isn't the opportunity that draws my attention, it's a colorful rectangle diagonally adhered to the inside of the door: a bumper sticker. Red writing on a blue background, no doubt a source of amusement to the locker's owner, a bit of militant inspiration after every shower.
"Some people are alive simply because it's against the law to kill them"
A sad, sick, cynical statement, but one that rings true in me, without the slightest hint of even the darkest humor. What does that say about me, that I can look at something like that and agree with it whole-heartedly, without even the smallest of sarcastic smirks?
Was Alar one of those people, the kind who needed to die? Not for vengeance, not for punishment, but because common decency required it? Or was what I did - slamming the door in his face, ending his life - nothing more honorable than sinking to his level?
That "pesky moral stuff" just won't go away.
My trained ears pick up the soft sound of light footsteps, the whisper of fabric, but I choose not to look up to my right, toward the approaching footfalls, toward Carter, because it can only be her. If Daniel carries a sense of honesty with him, and Teal'c an aura of strength, then Carter brings with her all of those things, not in such powerful quantities, but with intelligence to boot. Maybe it's only my subconscious recognizing the pace of her gait or the cadence of her breath, or some undeniable scent, but I always know when it's Carter.
Silently, she takes a seat on the bench to my right, facing the opposite row of lockers, sitting beside me but still turned away. Carter's posture testifies to her mood: rounded shoulders, elbows on knees to hide her bowed spine, hands clasped, chin resting on her knuckles. To see her expression, I'd have to lean back and face her, and I'm not ready for that yet.
"I guess we should get our stories straight," I stutter ineffectually, the statement not coming off as darkly amusing as I'd intended, because of COURSE I was kidding...
Carter sucks in a deep breath. "I'll tell them what you want me to, sir," she uneasily pledges.
Her words are enough to make me sit straight from plain amazement. This... submission, coming from Sam Carter? It makes me uncomfortable, knowing what she means, knowing that she would lie for me, but it also stirs a second emotion, one that keeps its identity a secret. "I'm going to tell the truth," I say sharply, because lying to save my own ass will only compound my sins. "I just... hope Hammond understands," I add, less certain now, because I don't know precisely what it is I want him to comprehend, what I want him to forgive me for, what I can't seem to forgive MYSELF for.
"I'm sure he will," says Carter solemnly, after a pregnant silence that stretches a few seconds too far. Though I force myself to stare ahead, at the edges of my vision I can see her turn her head towards me, beads of water at her hairline, the collar of her black tee darkened damp.
I shrug, not altogether willing to accept her assurances, and lean forward on my knees.
Peripherally, I watch her raise her left hand, pull back in hesitation, and then reach out with determination, closing her fingers around my upper arm. It isn't an angry or irritated grasp, but neither is it a feather-light touch of sympathy and commiseration. The warmth of her skin seeps through the fabric of my sleeve, leaching away the numb, fatigued indifference that had stolen over me as the iris grated shut. The desire for solace urges me to sit back and look at her, to meet her eyes and prove to myself that she doesn't hate me, doesn't shun me. But I can't, I can't, I seem incapable of making that small gesture, of bridging that gap, of allowing myself the most paltry comfort.
A room away, water sluices through pipelines and makes music against tile, against flesh.
"I understand what you did," she avows, each word infused with an intensity that makes me believe her. "And... I guess I even agree with it. If I didn't, if I hadn't, I would have..." Her words trail off, but her grip only tightens, becoming more secure, her arm slipping through mine and looping around it. "I'm just... disgusted at how quickly it got out of control, how easily we've been... reduced to this... making mistakes, taking sides. Back when I asked to be put on one of the SGC teams, I never really imagined that it would lead to this, you know? After the Gulf, I thought I was done with war for good, or that if I'd be fighting anybody, it would be the Gou'ald. An alien enemy... so I wouldn't have to worry so much about the morality of what I was doing... so I wouldn't have a choice, about whether or not to fight."
I stare blankly into the wall of gray metal before me. Her words - the words of another soldier, a sentiment more like mine than Daniel's could ever be - ring painfully true with me. It's easier to kill an enemy when danger is imminent, when your life is hanging in the balance, suspended by a thread, when it's the only choice you can make. But when the peril is more long-term, too far to be clearly seen, only sensed, then it's harder for one to justify one's actions.
Carter continues, her voice hypnotic, even rhythmic, seeming untroubled by my continued silence. "But just think of all the people who'll live because we didn't make a deal with the Eurondans... everyone who'll be spared Alar's idea of 'purity'. Just think of what would have happened if Alar had taught his technology to the NID... in ten years, how many of our best pilots would be vegetables?" I feel Carter's weight shift, and curiously I pause as she leans toward me, into me, as though for subconscious protection from the notion. "I guess it's true. In these kind of situations, there aren't really any GOOD choices. There's just a few that are... marginally better than others."
Sometimes I'm so caught up in differences in age and gender and appearance and background and intellect... that I forget how much Carter and I do share. The things we're taught in training, experiences on the field of battle... it links me to her in ways it seldom does in the others. Like our entwined arms, it's an anchor, fastening me to her reasons and her rationale, to things I can't agree with now but that I could see myself one day accepting.
One more mission... one more nightmare... let the smell of gunpowder drift away, let it all fade into the amalgamation of choices spurred and mistakes made. Let history decide who the heroes and villains are... focus on yourself and those around you, those you've given your life to, those you'd give your life for.
In that wisdom I finally uncover the courage to look into Carter's face. With difficulty, I find my way into those sober, discerning eyes, the same gaze I squirmed beneath not long ago, imagining the accusations with it. The face of a woman, the face of a soldier, the face of a friend. And when I look into it, I realize something: part of my self-torment had nothing to do with the moral - or immoral - decision I made, the lives that I ended both here and on Euronda.
I force the words into existence with great effort; my sensibilities as a man and as a commanding officer greatly protest, but I grind them out, I say them, I say them because if I'm ever going to be like Daniel, I've got to learn how to say them.
"I... just want to know... that we're going to be okay."
Carter lifts her head from my shoulder - only now do I realize that she'd let it fall there - and loosens her grip on my arm. At first I'm filled with panic, thinking that I've misjudged her, that although she understands my actions she doesn't forgive me, how could I have ever been so arrogant as to assume she would...?
But then she smiles at me, tamping down quickly on the expression as she remembers the solemnity of the hour, but still retaining an mien of... of gentle humor. Of tender, thoughtful hope.
"We're always going to be okay," she affirms, and then, as an almost embarassed afterthought, adds, "Sir."
And then she stands, and leaves the room as wordlessly as she entered it, because the sounds of water have ceased, and because... Well, because we're O'Neill and Carter, that's why. Colonel and Major. We don't look to the other for comfort and consolation, we don't let anyone think we can't stand on our own, and we don't have heart-to-hearts in the men's locker room.
With newfound vigor, I stand, reopen my locker, and shrug out of my clothing. I won't lie at the briefing. As I promised Carter, I'll tell the truth because that's what I should do... my reasoning is no more complex then that. And I won't unjustly defend myself, either. If I owe Alar and the other Eurondans anything, it's that.
But neither will I sit and wait and hope that the others understand, that they won't condemn me for doing as I thought was best, for picking the marginally-better course of action from a handful of bad choices. Because I owe my friends and myself something as well. I owe the chance to show that I'm a different man now, a separate person, unrecognizable from my old self, a better person deep inside, in that place that's impossible to transform.
Once more, I have to take a side. This time, it's the right side.
It's my side.