They were back.
Back to a place they'd never been.
The room, the people, the sounds and smells were vaguely reminiscent of something, but otherwise unfamiliar. And one thing was very obvious: they were underground. Again. There was the distinct feel of pressure, of weight, tons of weight above them, between them and the sky. Again.
A desperate need to see the sun, the sky, the stars, was like a physical pain, sharp and deep.
There were two bright spots in all of this. Firstly, this new place couldn't be any worse then the one they had just left; that was impossible. The taste of betrayal was sour; even the stale air of this new place was sweeter. Secondly - and this was the important one - they hadn't been separated. They were still together, even here. The intense rush of warm relief overwhelmed the burgeoning feelings of panic and pain. They were together. That's how it had started, that was how it would end.
Was it just me, or did General Hammond not look the least bit surprised as we stepped through the Stargate?
There was a hint of confusion on his face, probably directed at our horrid, yam-colored vestments, Carter's chopped hair, Daniel and my scruffy faces... our all-in-all unkempt appearance. And there was a flicker of concern for the similarly-mangy crowd that poured in through the Gate on our heels, clutching at each other fearfully, blinking in the relative brightness of the embarkation room, staring at the armed SFs and the techies and their technology with unqualified awe.
"Welcome back, SG-1" said Hammond, standing across the room.
Nope, not a bit of surprise at all.
Invincible SG-1. It was a kind of running gag at the SGC, and I didn't like it. Positive thinking was all well and good, but I had enough of a paranoid and - admittedly - superstitious side that it felt making a joke of our good fortune was like begging for it to end. That our words had the power to turn the gods - so to speak - against us. So it wouldn't hurt to have Hammond looking the slightest bit relieved at our good fortune. It was a way of showing appreciation for it.
"Thank you, sir," I boomed as the Gate shut down, wanting my new-found friends to see that the bald, short-sleeved guy and I were on good terms. "You didn't have to wait up for us."
The joke, if it could even be called that, was met with a good-humored snort; he knew what I was thinking. "The rescue team is prepping as we speak."
Well... good to know that he had dedicated at least a few resources to retrieving his favorite wayward team. "Sorry, sir... you know me and curfews."
I heard Frasier paged over the P.A., and saw Daniel sitting Brenna down at the foot of the ramp as Teal'c gently directed traffic around them. Carter was moving confidently through the dirty, sweaty, orange-and-black throng, assessing any and all injury and illness, offering a smile here, a pat there... even to Kegan. The dark-skinned woman, once abysmal, had changed drastically since the sunlight had touched her face, since she had seen the blue sky, the warm sun, the panoramic city-scape, since she had learned that there was a better life waiting for her on the other side of a big, glowing, blue puddle.
We'd all changed, hadn't we?
I smuggled a few glances at Carter while she was distracted, and I knew from the prickling of my scalp that she made a few circumspect peeks of her own... but as though by silent contract, direct eye contact was never made. Our friendship had evolved to the point that we didn't need words to speak to one another... and even 'saying' anything about It at this point would be a mistake. We'd said all that we COULD say about It: by law, by reason, by common sense. It had to be dropped, it had to be ignored... once more, we had to leave it in the room.
If this kept up, our entire relationship would be scattered, bits and pieces, in various rooms across the galaxy.
No. Scratch that. Carter and I did NOT have a relationship.
"Slave labor?" demanded Hammond.
"There may be mitigating circumstances..." I tried to tell him, but the venomous, liquefying glare Jack shot me stopped me in my tracks.
"In so many words," he said tersely, rapping his knuckles against the tabletop. "The people down there had absolutely no idea that there was this whole sprawling city above them. They thought that they were working to keep their people ALIVE, when they were just keeping them comfortable."
Hammond appeared distinctly ill at ease, although the cause wasn't immediately apparent. Was he disturbed at what he was hearing, or was it the barely-checked rage in Jack's voice that had him so on edge? True, Jack - and the rest of us - had every right to take this situation seriously and personally. After all, we'd been in that very predicament, believing that our long hours, hard work, and poor living conditions were things shared by one and all in a civilization desperately trying to eke out a living beneath a glacier. We could have DIED for that lie.
And yes, Jack had never been one to sit on his hands when he felt strongly about something. The 'pesky moral stuff' seemed to bother him especially; I could only attribute that to his long military history, perhaps a history that included some rather immoral, unsavory things. Did he equate this slavery with what Apophis and the other Gou'ald did, and the underground workers with the natives of Abydos and other enslaved peoples? That was perfectly normal, right? Sure.
But despite all of this, the unguarded, obvious vehemence in his voice didn't sit well with me. Or with the General.
For the moment, however, however, Hammond seemed inclined to put it aside. "You brought 163 people back from that planet with you, Colonel. Six of who are currently in the infirmary" -- he looked to Frasier for confirmation and she nodded -- "and the rest are scattered throughout the base. Would you mind explaining that in a little more... detail?"
It seemed to be a question Jack trusted me to answer, and he didn't interrupt my response. "They're a working class... a class very few people even have knowledge of, who have had very little experience in social situations other than the workplace... basically, General, they'd never be accepted in mainstream society. Wouldn't fit in. They wouldn't be welcome. Caulder knew it, we knew it, they knew it."
"SOME of them knew it," Sam countered me, hands folded calmly in front of her. She looked to Hammond. "This isn't all of the workers, sir. Not even close. We offered our help in relocation, but the majority were unwilling to take us up on it."
"They remained. They feel that they have an equal right to the city," Teal'c chimed in. "They see it as the fruits of their labor."
Jack nodded emphatically. "They're RIGHT. It IS. If I'd spent my whole life in that pit, powering that... metropolis... I'd feel the same way. Stage a revolt. Take back what was mine. As it is, I was only there a month or so, and I still feel like they owe me a paid vacation or something..."
At this brash comment I winced, and through my chagrin I saw Sam, sitting on Teal'c's left, briefly close her eyes. Way to go, Jack. Just what we needed. Another reminder for Hammond that we had irreversibly impacted yet another culture. No matter how good it had felt, it would still end up sounding less-than-heroic in an official report, and we didn't need Hammond stewing on it on top of that.
Most of the time, I enjoyed the post-mission wrap-up immensely. I showered, dressed, and then I got to go get everything out in the open. It helped organize the facts that had accumulated in my head. More than once, I'd had some kind of cultural or anthropological epiphany sitting at that long table, condensing it into a few scribbled notes while the others were talking. More than that, I enjoyed the familiar routines of it, the customary schedule that everyone abided to. I liked seeing Hammond's and sometimes Frasier's reactions to what we said, to what we did, to our otherworldly exploits and the adventure that they missed out on.
But in this case, at this report, I was nothing if not excruciatingly nervous. For some bizarre reason, I felt as though we were somehow lying to Hammond and the doctor, not so much lying as leaving out... forgetting to tell them something but not so much forgetting as MAKING ourselves forget, a kind of biological 5th Amendment. WHAT we were lying about, WHAT we were omitting, was something that I couldn't begin to fathom, but it bothered me more than Jack's sharp tone. There was a sense of impending doom suspended over my head, and perhaps the entire table. No comforting rigmarole could alleviate THAT.
Hammond glanced at Jack. "So we're talking another relocation?"
"Yes, sir. I was thinking P5R-722. Tropical. Beaches?" he prompted, looking first to me and then across the table to Sam for confirmation. Even as I nodded my acknowledgement, I noticed how... tense Therra's concurrent confirmation was. She didn't look at Jona, not even a little, and her calm hands tensed.
No, dammit, not Therra, not Jona -- Sam, Jack... Sam and Jack...
The bad feeling intensified.
Hammond began to talk about the relocation, what technology we could give to the workers, how long they would have to stay on base, which teams would do this and which teams would do that; I carefully tuned him out, letting my pencil trail inconspicuously across the yellow paper. The epiphany was small, but there it was:
'Carlan... Jona... Therra... Tor -- who are they?'
When I arrived back in the infirmary, Sam in tow, Dr. Warner was already done. The injured woman was lying in one of the beds, dressed in a thin gown, her arm artfully bandaged. She blinked groggily, half-heartedly struggling to sit up, weakly focusing on us through light brighter than what she was accustomed to.
"Therra? Is that you?"
Sam smiled tolerantly as she approached the bed; I got the distinct impression that she would do just about anything to get away from me. "Not exactly, Brenna."
The other woman shook her head, clearing it, and then nodded. "Sorry... I'm sorry, Major Carter. I DO know that. Your doctor... he gave me something for the pain and..." She laughed at her own bumbling speech, sobering quickly. "This is an amazing place you have, and so many amazing people... they've been so kind to all of us, and we don't deserve it. Especially not me."
"You DO deserve it," Sam pressed. "You're a good person, Brenna. You're not Caulder. You tried to help us escape, remember?"
She laughed again; it had to be a reaction to the painkillers, and I filed it away. "'Remember'," she echoed thinly. "Major, do you remember everything? About the stamping? When you were taken..."
Even someone who wasn't a medical professional would have picked up on the paling of Sam's complexion. She glanced at me quickly, knowing that I DID see, piquing my interest even further, before looking back at Brenna with a new apprehension. "No. Those memories haven't come back... yet."
The brunette let her head fall back on the pillow. "When you do remember... just keep in mind... I'm sorry."
Further color drained from Sam's face, but she nodded bravely, almost with assurance and confidence, and she let me pull her into the other room.
For some indecipherable reason, I was on guard, on the defensive, before I even had reason to be. As it turned out, I DID have a reason. I just didn't know it yet.
Janet pulled me rather unceremoniously into her office, gesturing that I should sit and settling into her chair on the far side of the desk. All at once I felt uncomfortable, like I was on a job interview, or that I'd been called up on the carpet by my superior, or something equally unpleasant. My palms actually began to sweat, and my stomach churned. When Janet began to speak, I could barely hear her words for the rushing of blood in my ears.
"What's the matter?" I interrupted instead, my voice too loud, too harsh. "You gave us our check-ups, you said everything was fine. What's wrong?"
Janet blinked, an uncertain smile on her face. "Nothing's wrong, Sam. I just wanted to talk to you," she assured me in the same gentle, cajoling tone she used with Cassie, with frightened patients, and then she turned to humor. "So... they have a barber shop down there in the cell block?"
The light-hearted joke only further twisted my insides, and one hand went automatically to my clipped locks. It was easy to forget how much time had passed on that planet, how I had looked the last time she and the others had seen me. How long I had been someone completely different. "Long hair is dangerous around the machines," I muttered. "It kept getting in my eyes. Jona cut it for me."
A smile slid quite easily across Janet's features. "Jona, hmm? Well, remind me not to go to him for style tips."
I opened my mouth to protest indignantly, but then my mind caught up and with a rush of hot blood to my face I realized... she had no idea who Jona was. Who he REALLY was. And now after the jest had been made, I couldn't see myself telling her that the snide remark had actually been directed at the Colonel.
Or had it? That was the part that had given me the real headache, that had chewed up my guts since the moment I'd realized that they ought to. Who was Jona in relation to Jack O'Neill? And how did Therra compare with Sam Carter? In a way, they were both me... as though I'd not only played a part but become it. But in another, very real sense, the woman named Therra was one unfamiliar, unknown, a complete mystery, because her particulars were unknown; somehow I had 'played' the character without really knowing a damn thing about her.
Which was what had lead me, along with Carlan's - Daniel's - persistence, to question her very existence.
Janet chatted on for a minute longer, fresh and bright, and I sullenly commented where it seemed appropriate. Though she was just being friendly, being herself, I couldn't help but see her amiable queries about the last mouth as lures for gossip. Or prods towards an answer she already knew, and knew I wouldn't give. For one stricken moment, I felt as though I was being tested, measured and found wanting.
Sleep was nearly impossible. I kept waiting for that damn buzzer to go off, jolting me out of a stark, comfy dream into the hot, grimy reality of the mines. If it DID turn out that this was all a fantasy, all in my head, I reasoned, I would, upon awakening, give myself full permission to flip out.
The workers had been shuffled into spare quarters, sometimes two or three per room, but not an utterance of complaint was made. They were certainly better conditions than had been found in the underground labor camp.
I rolled onto my back, staring up at the darkened ceiling and sighing hugely. There were so many questions I'd never gotten answers to. Why had those people been chosen as workers? What, exactly, had been done to them -- to us? How could such a majestic city be powered by a handful of slaves and a bunch of rusty junk that seemed as though it might explode at any random moment? How could an entire civilization as advanced as theirs had seemed allow that kind of impressment to take place? How long HAD it been taking place? Since the very beginning?
I let out an angry growl and rolled over in bed, beginning to acknowledge that the rest Hammond had ordered for SG-1 was simply not going to happen. There was too much going on in my head right now, too many thoughts bouncing around my skull, for my body to relax and for sleep to come.
Jona had never had any problem getting to sleep. Then again, he'd been a pretty simple guy, hadn't he? Work, eat, work, sleep, and work some more. Throw in spending as much time as humanly possible with Therra and...
The memory of her sent my mind into a little tailspin, and no matter how much I tried to think of NOTHING, SOMETHING kept rearing its ugly head. What had I done to piss off the universe that it... it persisted in tormenting me like this? Showing me gold and then snatching it away? Depicting how we could be together in every other reality, every other outrageous circumstance, except for this one.
It was just a fantasy, of course... 'being together'... it took two to tango, after all, and I wasn't even sure I still remembered how to dance. But that fantasy was reinforced by a hundred smiles, a dozen touches... a million words all taken in their own special context. The image of her head bowed over a computer keyboard and the residuum of the feeling of that head resting against my shoulder.
It wasn't really fair to think of Carter and Therra as the same person, was it?
Oh well. I did it anyway.
I hesitated briefly before knocking on the door of the room I knew was his. Our hosts had obviously indicated that we should get some rest - the lights were dimmed and the traffic in the hallways was non-existent - and it was possible that he was sleeping. Somehow, though, I doubted it.
And as expected, the light rap of my knuckles against the metal was answered almost immediately. He stood there, looking down at me, expression mostly blank and half-curious, shirtless, body half-hidden by the shadows of his darkened room.
I don't know what made me balk - the dark room, the puzzled look, or the bare chest - but I took a quick step back out into the hallway. "I woke you up," I began to apologize.
"I wasn't sleeping," he admitted, blinking in the meager light, regarding his own half-clothed state with some embarrassment. "Couldn't sleep."
Somewhere down the long, gray hallway a door opened and a chill draft blew past and through and between us. Crossing my arms against it, I confessed, "Neither could I."
"Homesick?" he teased.
I returned the wry smile. "Hardly. It's just so... different."
"Not if you think about it," he replied, leaning against the doorframe. "We're still underground, right?"
A hard lump of resentment congealed and hardened in my throat, as thick and bitter as day-old gruel. The liars. The damned liars... letting us work ourselves to death for a better tomorrow when that tomorrow already existed overhead. Letting us live like animals in a pen when they lived in that gorgeous city that was beyond anything I had ever dreamed of. Expecting us to give our lives, our happiness, for them. How many generations HAD? How many generations WOULD HAVE if it hadn't been for our rescuers, our hosts?
"I'm sick of being underground," I said suddenly, vehemently, casting aspersing glances around the corridor, and sneaking a brief peek into the undisclosed room beyond. "You think they'd mind if we went up to the surface?"
"I think we should ask first," was the nervous answer.
But I rejected that idea with a shake of my head. We weren't slaves here, right? We were free... THEY had freed us. And it wasn't as though we were going to go cavorting around their planet. I just... I just wanted to see the sky. And I wanted to see it with Jona.
"Go put a shirt on," I told him, not elaborating, not clueing him in on a specific plan because it would only make him worry.
At first I wondered if my tone had been too harsh, because for what felt like a long while Jona simply stood in the doorway, staring at me strangely. The automatic worry of nightsickness came flooding back... but there would be none of that here, would there? It was just another lie, right?
Eventually, he sighed, putting my fears to rest by pulling back into his darkened room. "I hope you know what you're doing, Therra," he said, and it was a heartfelt plea.
The dim, empty hallway gave me time and opportunity to dawdle; I took it gratefully. Now that the confusion and euphoria at our homecoming had worn off, I was exhausted - physically, emotionally - and unwilling to talk to anyone else about... what had happened. Hammond had wanted specifics, Janet had asked for details after being brushed off by Sam... but I'd put both of them off. Maybe once I was able to get it all straight in my head, maybe then I would be able to explain it to others... but not now. Not so soon.
I'd actually made it halfway to Kegan's room before chickening out. I knew I had to talk to her, that I had to straighten out what had happened between her and me... or the guy who hadn't really been me. I somehow doubted that she'd care much about our paltry friendship what with everything ELSE that had happened, but that didn't make a difference to me. I wasn't just doing it for her. It was important to me, too.
Not so much tonight, though.
I would grab my stuff from my room, I reasoned in a sudden fit of decisiveness. I would go home, and get some REAL food to eat, not the goop they served in the commissary, and sleep in a real bed... my own bed. I would set the alarm for noonish, come into work when I felt like it, and be a new man by midday.
New man... I gave a devious chuckle. Not quite.
I'd only just turned toward my quarters when I heard it. A laugh. From down the hallway... in the direction of the elevator. A response to the laugh in a deeper tone. Then the first voice again, fast approaching, soft and lilting, a familiar voice... Therra's voice.
No, I reminded myself firmly. Not Therra. There was no Therra. Sam. SAM.
"Stars," said Sam, sounding positively giddy.
Without knowing my reasons, without having much of a reason at all, I silently backtracked down the empty corridor and turned the first available corner, ducking into the shadows of the arc. Waiting, ears pricked, strangely anxious.
"It's hard to believe," agreed Jona's voice.
JACK'S voice. God, how long was it going to take me before I stopped attributing false names to people I'd known for over three years?
And more importantly... what were Jack and Sam doing?
Footsteps drew even nearer before slowing and then ceasing. I stiffened, shirking against the wall, feeling for all the world like I was hiding from some terrible foe, when all I was really doing was, well... eavesdropping on my two best friends.
Not that they made it easy for me. Sam's next words were pitched low, and I could only make out some of what she said. "...told you we wouldn't get in trouble... rules... don't care..."
And Jack. "I guess you're right... was nice... told you everything was going to be okay, didn't I?"
Sam chortled. "Yes. You did."
Silence lapsed momentarily, and then Sam sighed, and my hands started to sweat. There was the sudden urge to dare a peak around the corner, but it didn't last long. If I saw IT, then I would know IT for a fact, and I couldn't handle IT. Not now. Not on top of everything else.
"I'll see you tomorrow," said Jack at last, sounding regretful. Not 'we shouldn't be here' regretful. More of a 'I wish we could be here forever' kind of regretful. Not anything I was used to.
Sam's response must have been nonverbal, because without another word a set of footsteps led away, back in the direction from which they'd come. My sigh of relief came too soon, however, because at that moment Jack turned the corner. And stared at me.
"Hey," I said uneasily, the coward's greeting, not wanting to give him any clue about what I had overheard, what I KNEW. That was another confrontation I couldn't take.
"Hey," he replied, regarding me strangely.
I fumbled for words.
"Daniel... what are you doing here?"
Now it was my turn to look askance at him. No defensiveness, no suspicion, nothing in his manner that suggested he harbored any emotions towards what had gone on in the hallway just now. "Nothing," I said carefully. "What about you?"
Jack pondered the question quite seriously. "I'm hungry," he said finally. "Thought I might get something to eat."
'Liar' I thought.
"Well, good luck," I said.
And I got the hell out of there.
Maybe I wouldn't come in tomorrow at all.
"You know," I imparted sadly. "If it wasn't you, I probably wouldn't believe it."
Daniel didn't seem to take any kind of comfort or gratification from the comment; he merely slouched even further into his chair, into himself, and sighed. "I'm starting to wonder if I even believe it. I mean, I didn't see anything, I just picked up a few words, and it was late... maybe I misunderstood."
I ONLY it were that easy, I thought. "If this was anyone else, I would probably agree with you. But as it stands... well, honestly I can't say I'm all that surprised."
"You've been waiting for this to happen," observed Daniel.
I didn't answer immediately, staring down at my hands as though they might provide a satisfactory answer. It was late. I was tired. I'd spent most of the evening treating the people that SG-1 had brought back with them, prescribing antibiotics for infections and nutritional supplements for malnourishment, stitching up a laceration, resetting and casting a broken leg... and running the full series of tests on the members of SG-1 themselves. X-Rays and MRIs had turned up nothing out of the ordinary. Bloodwork was clean. Their memories, as far as they could tell, had returned... although, as Sam had illustrated earlier, there were still portions of their captivity that they couldn't recall. Aside from a few of the obligatory post-mission cuts and bruises, they were in good health... I'd discovered nothing a few days of downtime wouldn't clear up.
But as I'd run through my gamut of technology, drugs, and carefully-placed questions, I hadn't really stopped to realize that the real damage might not be physical or psychological. It might be emotional.
"You think they were together on that planet?" I asked softly, countering his difficult question with one of my own.
He didn't hesitate, or stall by asking exactly what I meant by 'together'. He KNEW what I meant, he knew damn well. "I'm not really sure. I never saw... anything. I mean, they wouldn't have really been all that public about it, but... what I do know is that they seemed very comfortable together. Even after she slipped and called him 'sir'. At the time, of course, I didn't really think all that much of it. They were Therra and Jona and if they wanted to be together... good for them. But as for if they were actually TOGETHER together..."
"You won't rule out the possibility?" I prompted.
"Nope. And THAT'S what's really driving me nuts... that is, if I'm right about what I heard. I KNOW I'm not Carlan. I don't even like the guy that much, I don't like who I was when I was him, and so it's easier to... separate myself from him. But what if Sam and Jack aren't doing that? What if they can't differentiate between who they were and who they are?"
"IS there even a difference?" I pushed.
He groaned. "Doc, it's too late to be getting that philosophical."
I snorted softly, nodding my head in agreement. I'd been all ready to head home when Daniel had burst into the infirmary, looking so wired and ill at ease that both Warner and I automatically assumed that he was in search of medical care. But no, it wasn't that, not really... he was just in a panic over finding out that his best friends' relationship was potentially a lot more intimate than he had assumed. "You're right. And you're right about that other thing, too. I HAVE been waiting for this to happen. I just thought... that it would take a little longer."
Seven'o'clock sharp the next morning found me in the briefing room, sitting at the long table, hunched over the constantly-revised and updated hard copy of known Gate addresses. Fifteen minutes later, so did Daniel As surprised as I was to see him there - Daniel was usually late for meetings, not an hour early for them - I was more surprised to see the state he was in. His hair was uncombed, his shirt rumpled and obviously slept-in. One untied shoelace trailed lamely behind one boot. He looked like a man who'd practiced perfect sobriety and still had awakened with a hangover: miserable and downright indignant about it.
I attributed it automatically to a rough night, bad dreams; I'd had a few of my own. Nightmares that weren't all make-believe, dark flights of fancy that contained half-truths. Waking up in the underground camp, completely, utterly alone. Stepping through the Stargate to find that the planet on the other side was pitch black... and my mind was utterly empty, without knowledge, without memory, with nothing but fear. Being restrained by faceless captors, forced to watch a spectacular sunset, knowing that light equaled knowledge, and what made me ME was fading further and further into inevitable dusk with every second passed. Terrible dreams that woke me in a sheen of sweat with the taste of bile present in my mouth. Horrible dreams that clung to me through the morning hours. Dreams that had pumped me full of adrenaline, which summarily suggested that I come in early and being the day's work ahead of schedule.
Daniel thrust his hands into his pockets and stared down at me dolefully. "What're you doing?"
I glanced from his face to the book and back up again. "Making a list of uninhabited words suitable to the workers' needs. I know we settled on P5R-722," I remarked, "but we also learned the hard way that it's not such a bad idea to have a back-up."
Daniel nodded slowly, still seeming dour. "Having any luck?"
"Some," I said quickly, and then added with greater truthfulness: "It's hard. Not knowing what they're expecting, knowing what little we can give them. I'm starting to see why so many wanted to stay behind and fight to be citizens. None of them will ever see a city like that again in their lifetimes."
"I suppose letting them just stay on Earth is out of the question."
I tapped my pen against the desk intermittently. "We can't keep them here. And we can't trust them to keep quiet about the SGC out in the real world."
His voice was accusing, I thought, but I braved the tone. "I'd like to think that we know all of these people, Daniel, that we trust all of them. Maybe at some point we did. We had to. But the fact is that these people are strangers. We don't know anything about them, or who they were, or who they've been programmed to be. We don't even know where they're actually from, why they were chosen to be stamped." He opened his mouth to comment, but I jumped in first, resolute. "I'm not saying we shouldn't help them. Of COURSE we should. It's the right thing to do and it's what we... what we owe them. I'm just saying we shouldn't necessarily trust them with this nation's greatest secret."
Daniel went silent then, which was odd. I'd expected him to start seething about that last harangue, or at least to indelicately broach some of my more diagreeable statements. But if he DID disagree - and I could tell that he did, he had to - he gave no real outward appearances of it... just circled the table and sat down across from me, staring at his hands, the wall, the flag... So I pointedly looked away from him and back down at my notes, jotting down a Gate address already on my paper, just so it would look like I was doing something. I didn't NEED to talk to him. I didn't NEED his friendship. I... I...
I didn't like this... this tension. It was like being back underground, distrustful of everyone, alienated from everything, drawn to but at the same time wary of the big, dark man and the pale, exasperated guy who seemed to be attached to Kegan at the hip. He wasn't that person any more. I wasn't that person. We'd gotten our memories back, so couldn't life just do the same? Go back to the way it was before? Couldn't we have our own selective amnesia, and forget this whole thing ever happened?
Because if we couldn't, if we had to live the consequences of what had happened...
I sighed explosively and turned the page.
My pen halted, poised above my notebook. Eyes still aimed at the tabletop, I prodded, "Yeah?"
"I... um... I was looking for you last night."
There was a tremulous edge to his voice that made me look up at once. "Were you?" I asked, still defensive, still waiting for him to jump down my throat, or maybe across the table at me.
"I couldn't find you," he said, simply.
I relaxed, and smiled, and went back to my work. If he'd been looking for me, actively trying to find me, he couldn't have been that upset with me, with the situation. Right? "I went home last night, Daniel. We all did," I reminded him.
I waited a moment for him to continue, not looking up, not needing to -- I knew his tone of voice that well. I ceertainly knew THAT tone of voice, the one that said that he disagreed, that he wanted to argue a point... that he thought you were lying... but that he couldn't bring himself to say it.
That reaction made no sense. Neither did his expression... that expression... like he was disappointed in me.
"I was tired," I said slowly, trying to get him to understand, trying to get those odd doubts out of his head. "I was tired of being underground, and I was exhausted. I went home and ordered in pizza, watched some TV and went to bed."
Once more, I bent my head to the book, scribbling down some nonsense furiously, single-mindedly ignoring him, mindful of the heat rising in my cheeks. I didn't have a clue, not an idea, of what in the world was wrong with him... but somehow, I DID know. I knew as well as I knew my own name that Daniel's discomfort stemmed in some way from the Colonel and I. With the weird dips and twists and turns my once-innocuous relationship with O'Neill had taken. With the way he had to know how we felt about each other.
HOW he knew, whether he had dragged the information from Janet or Teal'c, or if he had just been more observant than the rest of us... I didn't know that, either. But none of this was about knowing, was it? I KNEW that every day I felt this way about the Colonel, I put my team, my friends, in increasing danger. I KNEW the reasons for the regs, the horror stories, the tales of military terror and sexual harassment and court martial. I KNEW that this was wrong, so wrong, on oh-so many levels. But that knowing... it didn't change a damn thing. If anything, it only made that same damn thing stronger. More prepared to fight, to defend itself, against my logic and intellect. It sensed a danger it was ready to combat with stronger feelings, more dangerous emotion, more vivid daydreams and nightmares. It told me that our friendship had never been innocuous to begin with, that there had been something special there since day one, and since nothing ever stayed the same, that special thing would change, and grow, and continue to grow, until...
THAT, I didn't know.
I looked up, face burning, hand cramping around my pen, eyes hot and watery.
Daniel was gone.
"Did you really expect her to tell you the truth?"
"YES," said Daniel sharply, crossing his arms and stalking around my small office in what I could only refer to as a funk. "I mean, this is Sam we're talking about. She doesn't... lie outright to me like that. She just doesn't."
I perched my heels on the edge of my seat, folding up as tightly as possible and resting my chin on my knees. Daniel didn't need me to remind him that what he was saying was no longer true... that Sam HAD outright lied to him, that she had done so seemingly without remorse or hesitation. He didn't need me to remind him of what Airman Jeffreys had conspiratorially mentioned to me during his check-up this morning, that when he'd been walking in from the parking lot late last night, he had seen them - Jack and Sam - strolling along the road just beyond the fence, arms linked, heads together, staring up at the stars.
Thankfully, my arsenal of very large, very ugly hypodermic needles were enough to keep him from spreading the story any further... but rumors had a nasty way of slipping out of reach, of escalating to a fever pitch, of ruining lives.
And the truly terrible part was that I wasn't sure if O'Neill and Sam didn't deserve the consequences of their actions.
Daniel kicked despairingly at my garbage can. "It's not so much that they're doing this," he said, low and soft, eyes full of hurt. "It's the fact that they're lying about it. That they don't trust me enough to just... let me in on their little game. Come on, I know Sam thinks about him differently than she does with me, and I certainly can't expect Jack to just ignore HER... but it's always been about the team, you know?" he pleaded, not to me, not to anyone in particular, just to hear himself speak. "It's been all of us, and now it's just them, their own private little party, and... I don't like it."
"It's hardly a party," I pointed out, curling up tighter in my chair, staring morosely out the open door and thinking that, of all the medications and therapies and vaccinations, there was no way I could help my friends, nothing I could do to get them through this. "This has got to be hell for them both, Daniel. They either go against their feelings or the Air Force. It's a tough decision. It's a personal decision. When it all... it all happened... Hammond and I agreed. We felt that if the Colonel and Sam could keep it under wraps this long, if they felt like they could handle it, that it would be more detrimental to them and to everyone else to split them up."
Daniel's head snapped up, and I cringed. He hadn't even known that such a recourse had ever been discussed, that his whole family had quite nearly been split apart, AGAIN. What a way to find out. What a way to have to continue with what I was saying.
"But if the General finds out about this," I forced out, trying to believe that I couldn't make it all real just by saying the words. "He's not going to care that this all started while you all thought you were... other people. All he's going to see is that it's spilled over into who you actually are..."
"And that they're already lying about it," he finished, flatly.
"Right," I said soberly. "That's not a good sign."
Daniel completed another frustrated circuit of my office before dropping down into the chair across from my desk. "I could still be wrong about this."
I sighed. "I don't think..."
"No, Janet. Listen. I could. I mean it, sometimes it doesn't feel like Carlan's completely gone. Every now and then, I still feel like... like I'm thinking like him. And I was so out of it last night anyway. What if I was completely wrong about what I think I heard? What if Ray Jeffreys misconstrued what he saw, or if he's propagating a rumor... or if he's just messing with us? Granted," he modified, "It's not all that likely. But it's POSSIBLE. I think we owe it to them to find out if it's true or not before we take it to Hammond. Because that's what you're talking about, isn't it?" he accused. "You want to tell the General."
I sighed again and unfolded myself from the seat, feeling cold, unsettled... complicated. "It's not a matter of wanting. It's a matter of duty."
Resolutely, he planted his hands on my desk and leaned across it towards me, blue eyes as intense as I had ever seen them, mouth set in a firm line: the very picture of hold, cold determination.
"So is this."
From the doorway of the room, I watched O'Neill and found myself frowning at my observations. While he had always been a somewhat competent warrior, his strikes this morning seemed especially intense, exceptionally well-placed, and his brow furrowed over his eyes in profound concentration. This was not the countenance of a man enjoying a stress-relieving exercise. Something was not well with O'Neill.
Having come to that conclusion, I entered the room, careful to walk into his line of site so that he would not be startled by my pretence. He nodded at me in greeting but did not cease his activities, continuing to pound his padded fists - gloves, I remembered - into the flank of the hanging bag in a vaguely rhythmic pattern. Sweat beaded at his hairline, and he blinked at it but did not bother to wipe it away.
When this had gone on long enough, when the sweat began to accumulate at the tips of his nose and chin and his breathing was hard and rapid, I retrieved his water bottle from the table and offered it to him. Pointedly.
O'Neill took the hint, lowering his fists and removing the padding, finally taking the proffered bottle. "Hey, Teal'c," he greeted between thirsty gulps. "Care to join me?"
"We have a briefing in thirty minutes, O'Neill."
He shrugged and reached for a towel slung across the handlebars of the exercise bicycle, wiping his face with it. "We've got time," he insisted.
I refused to spar with the man, either physically or verbally. Memories of the previous night still sour in my mind; I 'cut to the chase'. "Something is wrong," I accused.
He swiped the towel across his neck. "No... nothing's WRONG, Teal'c. I'm just a little antsy, that's all."
I paused only slightly before realizing that his comment had nothing to do with insects; it was, at least in some part, the cause of his nervous behavior. I empathized. "You are not the only one."
O'Neill glanced up quickly, wariness passing over his features. "Rough night?"
"I had great difficulty reaching a state of Kel'no'reem," I admitted, reluctant to do so, even to my friend. It felt awkward to be discussing this problem, a problem I hadn't expected to have. Yes, at one point I had forgotten how to enter what the others referred to as 'meditation', but that had only been because I did not know who I was. Now that my memories had returned, I should have had no such difficulty.
"No kidding?" asked O'Neill, only his tone telling me that he was deeply concerned. "How bad is that?"
"Most of my injuries have healed," I reassured him. "However..."
"Yeah, I know... bad."
We both paused as a sweated-suited young man entered the previously-deserted room, heading for the hand-held weights. My gaze followed him as he traversed the gym, nodding in salutation as he glanced in our direction, and then I glanced back at O'Neill, intending to remind him that he had not answered to my observation. But he was staring off into space, mouth held in a hard line, eyes cast to some imaginary point in the air. Thinking, no doubt, of his own 'bad' things.
"Major Carter..." I began.
"This had nothing to do with Carter," he exploded, cutting me off in mid-observation, whipping his head around and glaring at me with tempered venom. "This wasn't about Carter. Her name was Therra."
Even as taken aback by his reaction as I was, by the vehemence in his voice and the anger apparent in his face, I was more concerned with WHAT he had said, rather than HOW he had said it. "Are you saying you do not hold yourself accountable for your actions?" I asked coldly, knowing he would take offense.
He did, but he did not recant his words as I had expected, or apologize for his statement. If anything, my denunciation of his actions only seemed to further agitate him. "I have to," he hissed, suddenly mindful of the young man across the room. "because if I don't say that it was Jonah, that it was all Jonah, I'm going to have to explain what *I* did. To Hammond. To the powers that be. Same with Carter... and I can't think of a faster way to throw her career off-track. Can you?" He wrung the towel fiercely in his hands. "You were THERE, Teal'c. You and Doc. You know what happened. You know how we... feel. And you should also know that... that it doesn't matter." He looked away from me, breaking eye contact in a dismissive way. "Okay? Doesn't matter. It was Jonah and Therra... had nothing to do with us."
He said it with such conviction that I wished that I could believe him. But there was too much self-doubt in his eyes, too much energy coursing through his body, for me to accept what he was saying. And O'Neill was correct: I HAD been there when his feelings for Major Carter - and hers for him - had been made known. And I had seen that the depth of their emotions were simply too great to be ignored, for sake of command or loyalty, and - I believed - to great to be covered up by any alternate persona.
Seeing the cut of the skin that marked my symbiote's home in my belly had been enough to incite me to remember. Was it so impossible, then, that upon spending time together, some small part of Jack O'Neill and Samantha Carter would have begun to surface in 'Jonah' and 'Therra'? Even if it was just a random feeling, an errant memory, it would be enough.
Or, in O'Neill's opinion, too much.
There was a large clang from the corner of the room, and I looked over quickly to see the young man stooped over one of the weights, which had slipped from his hand. His face was flushed red, and I found myself wondering if our 'quiet' voices had been quiet enough.
When I looked back towards O'Neill, eager to continue this conversation in a more private place, I found that he had taken the moment of distraction to slip away.
"You know, Sam's going to kill us if she finds out about this."
"Me. She's going to kill ME."
"How'd you get her key, anyway?"
"I could tell you, Daniel, but then I'd have to--"
"Shoot me, I know. Been there, done that."
"Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of tetanus shots."
"Feels about the same," I remarked, reaching for the light switch. Despite Janet's big words, I figured that the doctor simply had a spare of Sam's key, the same as I did for Jack and Teal'c. I'd never bugged Sam about getting my own copy; being of the opposite gender - it hadn't really seemed to matter to me. However, if it turned out that she'd made JACK a duplicate, I was going to have to start getting offended.
Then again, Jack having a duplicate would have all sorts of implications that I didn't want to think about.
The lights went on and I instinctively flinched, feeling like a criminal caught in the act. Sam was up at the morning briefing, of course, with Jack and Teal'c and Hammond, the same meeting I was going to be skewered for not attending. But it was the only time in the foreseeable future that we would know for a fact that Sam wouldn't come strolling into her quarters when we were rummaging through them, looking for evidence that she was in violation of some of the Air Force's most serious regulations.
Ah, yes... it was times like this when I really hated myself.
It wasn't like I was out to get my two best friends... it wasn't like that at all. And it wasn't even like I would be upset if I found out that they HAD started... something... on the planet. I'd reserved judgement in THAT case. But for better or worse, I had to know one way or the other. Were they doing this? Had they lied to me?
I sure hoped not.
"So what exactly are we looking for here?" asked Janet, carefully closing the door behind her and scanning the room with a practiced eye.
Good question, I thought wryly. Exactly WHAT would jump out at us as an indication of some kind of... sexual relationship? An open box of prophylactics? A love letter from Jack? An article of his clothing? Sighing deeply at my own swerve into cynicism, I daintily lifted the corner of the bedspread and peeked within. Janet went for the closet.
The moment held a surreal quality that only a scholar of ancient mythos could really appreciate. Every culture seemed to have their famous love story, their tales of lust and unrequited adoration. Sha're and I had had a romance like that: not fairy-tale but hauntingly mythological, a parable in its own sick way, a true tragedy in every sense of the word. What if Sam and Jack were just one more example of fabled, fated love... predestined to happen, doomed to fail? For God's sake, hadn't we been careening toward this situation since Edora, since Sam was forced to sit down and rethink everything she'd previously assumed about Jack? Since he'd returned and had had to have some sense slapped into him: Look at what she did for you. Look at everything of herself she gave to get you back, you ungrateful bastard.
After a moment of scrutiny, I let the coverlet drop and moved to the night table.
Hadn't there been an extra tenseness between them since the mission on Thor's ship, when Sam had - reportedly - gone against Jack's wishes, taken a gamble, convinced the General that her plan would work, and - along with Teal'c - joined him on board a spacecraft that was condemned to destruction? Two weeks on that planet after blowing the ship... just the three of them... and just the TWO of them if Teal'c decided to do a little communing with Junior. I highly - HIGHLY - doubted that anything... unmilitary... had gone on, but we'd never really know, now would we? And at the very least, it had added a new flavor to their relationship. It had changed things.
And hadn't things been even MORE changed since Martouf's death? The full story had never been gleaned - Janet had cowardly claimed doctor-patient confidentiality and Teal'c had refused to let anything slip. The only other source was Anise, and I would rather have another appendectomy than voluntarily engage in conversation with that woman. Besides, I wasn't stupid. We'd thought they'd lied, it had turned out that they'd merely left something out. If that something wasn't immediately obvious to everyone who'd ever been in a room with them both for more than five minutes, I didn't know my friends.
I REALLY hoped that I knew my friends.
I took a quick glance underneath the bed, glanced reluctantly at the bedside drawer... and breathed a sigh of reprieve as Janet called me over. Even if we DID find something here, something incriminating, something incontrovertible, I didn't want to be the one to be doing the finding. Although the rust-colored, quilted tunic that Janet pulled out for closer inspection didn't exactly qualify as a FIND, not in my book.
"This is what you wore back from P3R-118?"
"Yeah," I muttered, already distracted, turning my back to her and scanning the room again. Nothing SEEMED out of place...
"Why would she keep it?"
"I don't know," I admitted, finally spying something on the floor near the nightstand.
"Did you keep yours?"
I hadn't - why would I? - but I didn't bother to answer, lurching across the room, guts clenched in anticipation. I knelt on the floor, picked up my exhibit A, and studied it. "When was the last time it rained?"
"Has it rained lately?"
There was a moment of pause and the tinny clanking of metal hangers as Janet replaced the tunic in the closet and joined me on the floor. Kneeling beside me, placing one hand on my knee for balance, she frowned at the object in my hand.
A tennis shoe. A pair of innocuous, white tennis shoes. Well, almost white; Sam had obviously owned them for a while. But beyond the usual grease and grime, there was something else: dirt and grass caked onto the soles of both shoes... as though whoever had been wearing them had recently trod over moist and muddy terrain. There were also streaks of dirt on the floor, in the exact spot, so whoever had soiled them had done so somewhat recently.
"There was a storm the morning you guys came back," she said, sighing heavily. My shoulders slumped. It was only circumstantial, of course, because Sam had claimed to have gone home last night, and she could have at any point stepped in mud. But it did lend some credence to what Airman Jeffreys had said: that he had seen Sam and Jack together, walking arm-in-arm beyond the fence. There was dirt beyond the fence. Dirt that might have still been mud on a damp day after a storm.
"Let me put it to you this way," said General Hammond. "I want them off this base in 72 hours."
I surreptitiously glanced at Sam; her eyes bulged as she considered the logistics of this. "Sir... with respect, that's going to take some doing. What we're suggesting here is starting them a settlement - a civilization - from scratch. That's a big job. Now... even with a planet picked out and ready to go, it's going to take time. We can't just send them through the Gate and tell them to fend for themselves."
"Let me remind you that you brought back over one hundred refugees," Hammond snapped. Hammond hardly ever snapped, not this early in the day, and certainly not without a crisis or ten on hand. But he was tense; we all were. "Our facilities here are limited."
Carefully modulating her expression, Carter looked away, eyes filled with such frustration and distress that I almost jumped to her defense. Thankfully, Teal'c jumped first.
"We temporarily relocated the same amount when the Edoran population was displaced," he said, studiously not looking at me, as most people seemed to do when the subject of Edora came up. "I do not believe it is the number of workers that disturbs you."
Hammond scowled. Teal'c was right; even I knew the real reason. I planted my hands firmly on the tabletop, and the sudden noise started all three of them. "Come on, General, you can say it. You're not just concerned about the number. You're worried about THEM. Who they are. Who they were."
He regarded me evenly. "'Worried' is a little too strong a word, Colonel."
"But I'm right."
He sighed, seeming to give up any semblance of impartiality... if that was what he'd been trying to project at all. "You tell me their society doesn't have any unemployment or crime, and then you show me an entire populace of people who don't even know who they are..."
"So... Caulder and his people round up the occasional homeless person and wipe his memory," Carter contested. "That doesn't make them dangerous."
"Same with any supposed 'criminals'," I agreed. "Sir, they considered US criminals, for crying out loud. Caulder thought we deserved that kind of punishment... for 'judging' their way of life. If that doesn't tell you something about their system of justice, nothing does. Besides, underground... it was all fairly... civil. The only fights I ever saw... well, I started them!"
My strained sense of humor seemed to be lost on the General. "I understand that the three of you - and Doctor Jackson, wherever he is - underwent some serious physical and psychological trauma during this mission, and that you must have... bonded with the other workers. That's why I think you may not be seeing the facts of this situation objectively. Maybe the stamping process made them all perfect angels. Maybe they weren't even all that bad before. But we don't know. And I'm not afraid to admit that the unknown... worries me. If you were thinking clearly, and were considering the best interests of this base, you'd be worried too."
All of my impatient energy petered out; my hands slid across the table as I slumped back in my seat, feeling like a scolded child.
Was I thinking clearly? I wasn't sure. About twelve hours had gone by since Brenna had smashed through our chemical fantasies, announcing our names, our ranks, our lives... all so cavalierly, like it was no big deal to her. Like all the lies she had fed us didn't matter because now she was doing the right thing. Like trying to cover up a human being with another, foreign personality was nothing too be terribly ashamed of.
So, no - I'd just answered my own question - I wasn't thinking clearly. The ire that raised bile in the back of my throat whenever I thought about what had been done to us: that wasn't me and I knew it. Yeah, I was mad at Caulder. I was pissed, actually, about his society's lofty attitudes towards the worth and treatment of human life... that pesky moral stuff still bothered me after all these years, and for that I was thankful. But my conscious level of irritation and the wrath that burned through me at a deeper level was OFF. That was the only way I could put it. And I didn't like it. At all.
Not thinking clearly.
Frasier said we had checked out fine, that there were no funky chemicals still in our bloodstreams, that our brains weren't any more banged up than usual. But outside damage and inside wounds were very, very different. Of all people, I should remember that.
"Understood, sir," said Carter meekly. I dipped my head in agreement, not looking at any of them.
If we couldn't trust our own judgement, seemed we'd have to rely on everyone else's for the time being.
When we were alone, I stood, drifting across the room to the large window and staring out over a larger room. It wasn't so much the scope that continued to amaze me: it was the order of it all, the cleanliness, the comfort.. Their clean skin, hair, clothes... their freedom to come and go... that was alien to me. But their dedication to their work, to protect their home and the people they loved, was all too familiar. Everyone seemed to know where they were going, what they were going... in that way, it reminded me of home.
I looked over my shoulder. Therra still sat at the table, arms crossed over it, looking dejected... but still beautiful. I felt myself smiling, remembering the walk we had taken the night before, underneath an alien sky... I'd been in heaven, arm in arm with the best thing home had had to offer. The night had been brisk but wonderfully clear. Not a flake of snow in sight. Just gray wisps of cloud cover drifting lazily over patterns of shining dots - stars - that had seemed almost familiar. And Therra had been just as enchanting as ever, her energy and increasing penchant for risk thrilling; her eyes, reflecting moonlight and artificial light, had been mesmerizing.
Feeling my eyes on her, she finally stood, and joined me at the window. Side by side we stood there, staring out over the room, the people, the silent circle of stone, separated by a few respectable inches until her nearness was simply too tempting. Lowering my gaze somewhat, but keeping it focused ahead, I took my left hand from my pocket and let it rest against her lower back.
Her head snapped around, and she stared at me, expression revealing shock, fear... but only for a second. Then it seemed to melt away, draining from her face within seconds, replaced by that same matter-of-fact attraction I had come to know and love... and a sliver of coyness as well.
She sidled up against me, and my hand made its way across her body, curling around her waist.
"For the first time in our lives," said Therra, "we're going to be home. And it'll actually be our home, somewhere we're listened to, and appreciated, and accepted, and reap what we sow. Where we can see the sky whenever we want, and not be treated like tools by some administrator living in an ivory tower."
I smiled. "You make it sound pretty great."
"You're always excited."
She laughed. "I'm optimistic, too."
"Because... you think you can make a difference."
"You know me too well."
"No argument here."
She laughed again, a delightful, childlike sound, and turned in my loose embrace. "Feelings," she murmured, as though it was some random notion that had swept through her mind, and then she kissed me. Full-on, hard, and brief, but not so brief that it didn't take me back to another time and place where she'd bestowed her eager kisses. Where the dark shadows of the enclave had enveloped us, save the occasional spark of nearby flame that illuminated our tryst.
My feet pounded against the floor in time with the rapport of my heart against my ribcage. Stress and exhaustion, anxiety and urgency. Had to find them... had to talk to them... had to keep them away from everyone until this whole mess got figured out. Away from everyone. Especially Hammond.
I reached the threshold of the briefing room... and felt suddenly dizzy. I had no idea HOW dizzy until, stopping short, I felt my head knock painfully against the doorway.
They stood in front of the window - the window! For all to see! - wrapped in each others arms, staring into each others eyes, and as I watched in stunned acceptance, Sam raised her lips to Jack's.
Unquestioningly, he kissed back.
Choking on perfectly normal air, I stepped back out of the room, pulling the door shut behind me. My head hurt, but that was the least of my cares. Holy...
Hammond stood behind me, looking grim. Much too grim to simply be upset at my absence from the meeting.
If he'd been in his office, he could have seen everything, I realized. Through the star map or the open doorway, he could have seen the whole room. He could have seen THEM. I blinked and rubbed the aching bump on my head.
He HAD seen everything.
"Doctor Jackson," he said again, and I realized he was fighting for composure. "Why do I have the strangest feeling that you can explain this to me?"
Running my eyes over the computer printout for the third time, I realized that I wasn't any more likely to find the answer now then I had been during my first read-through... especially since I wasn't completely sure of what the answer WAS. I was looking for something out of normal, of course, but when one worked at a facility where one's patients routinely encountered and interacted with completely alien environments... "normal" could be subjective indeed.
All I could be certain of was that the Airman had been telling the truth when he'd spoken of Sam and O'Neill's rendezvous the night before, and that Daniel had been just as correct with what he'd overheard in the hallway later that same night. I believed them because I had seen with my own eyes the brittle layer of restraint that held the Colonel and Sam in professional bonds; it was professionalism and pride that kept them at arm's length from each other, nothing much else. Should that pride be removed, that need for strict conduct wiped away, would it really take much for them to act on the feelings they continued to pretend they didn't actually have?
That certainly explained how Therra and Jonah could have gotten close: drawn to each other perhaps not so much because of simple familiarity but because certainly not all things could be reprogrammed with a "memory stamp". I wouldn't have been the slightest bit surprised to find out that their two 'alternate selves' had established some sort of relationship, something just as meaningful but probably more physical then what they were allowed now. I might have even secretly welcomed such a fling, in the hopes that it would quell their appetites and satisfy their curiosity about one another... at least for the time being.
But if that hadn't happened, if in fact the opposite had happened, and O'Neill and Carter had been reluctant to give up their relationship as easily as they had their false personas...
That was it, though. They wouldn't do that. It wasn't like them.
So there had to be another explanation. There simply had to be. There was just no other satisfactory answer.
Whatever that answer was, however, it wasn't evident in their blood test results.
I inhaled to let loose with a terrific sigh, and choked on the intake of air as Hammond marched into the infirmary, Daniel hot on his heels and making panicked faces over the General's shoulder. My heart sinking, I slowly stood from the counter stool, clutching the unhelpful reports in one suddenly-sweaty hand, and made my way over to them.
Hammond was not a happy camper.
"Sir," Daniel was saying in that deceptively-forceful tone, the one that masked the fact that he was actually pleading, "I just think before you take any action... that we all might later regret... you should FIRST listen to what the two of us have to say." I glared at the man, but then again, he didn't know that my precious medical truths and certainties had, in these circumstances, left me utterly empty-handed.
Hammond was in that special place between shock and rage, hovering in limbo between being absolutely speechless and absolutely and - quite vocally - pissed. "You're asking me to believe that there's some good explanation for why Colonel O'Neill and Major Carter have decided to flaunt an obviously unprofessional relationship? Not a room away from my office? In plain sight of the embarkation room? Doctors, I'm warning you, this better be something a little more imaginative then "an alien virus"."
I winced, not so much at the General's harsh tone as at the realization that the worst had happened. The very worst. "Sir," I began meekly, forcing my words to pick up steam and certitude. "We're not trying to make excuses for them, or their behavior... whatever it may be. But I think you should know that we believe there's more to this situation then meets the eye."
Hammond blinked at me, glancing at Daniel and then back with an expression that said something like, 'I'd expect this from him, but not from you'. "How long have you known about this?"
"Just since today, sir," I answered. "In fact, I think... I'm fairly certain that it started during the mission to P3R-118... not at all before."
As I spoke, I glanced surreptitiously around the infirmary; the last thing we needed was some visiting airman or half-drugged patient to overhear and assist in the spread of rumors. But for once, the area was quiet and nearly empty. The injured members of SG-4 had gone home, and most of our visitors from 118 were patched up and languishing in empty rooms. Brenna's bed was beyond the curtain - despite my best efforts, her arm wound had still become infected - but when I had checked in on her only a few moments ago, she'd been so fast asleep I'd excused the guard who'd spent the morning watching over her.
"Remember," Daniel entreated, "we told you about the stamping process they used, the false personalities they gave us... Carlan, Therra, Jonah, Tor... Well, we were different people. And we all probably did things we aren't exactly proud of. That is, I... Jack and Sam..."
He stammered, looking to me for help. Hammond looked unimpressed.
"I mean," he continued, "every now and then even I find myself... thinking like Carlan. And it's hard to explain how that's different, but I... he was a weird guy, strange ideas of loyalty. He made some pretty big leaps of faith, of course, based on... on instant, but still..."
That was it.
I repressed a giddy laugh. My God, that was it.
I jumped into the conversation, garnering the attention of an ever-more-peeved Major General as I slapped the medical reports against my empty palm. "We don't have a stitch of actual biological evidence to back this up, sir... but I think we both know that some of the worst damage never shows up on paper."
Daniel squinted at me. "What are you talking about?"
"You said it yourself," I said quickly. "You find yourself taking on the role of Carlan now and then, in some... small way. Thinking, talking, acting like him?"
He squirmed. "I was incredibly rude to Sam this morning. I know... I know I have the capability to be incredibly mean as much as anyone, but still... I left feeling that... it wasn't me."
"Your bloodwork is clean," I pushed, "and your MRIs came back normal. But Carlan isn't completely... gone. You got so used to being him... that your mind hasn't been totally able to let him go."
Daniel's face brightened. "So you're saying that... even though the memory stamp has worn off, those... people are still there? In here? In our heads?"
I nodded eagerly. "You haven't been able to remember exactly how the stamp was affected, but I'd bet my medical degree that it was a chemical process meant to block off certain parts off your brains leaving other parts vulnerable to tampering." I paused. "Think of it as... water, running downhill through a channel. Block off that channel and the water will naturally find another path, the path of least resistance. It'll even create a new channel. Take away the block, and that new channel will continue to exist. Now, in this analogy, your personalities are the water and... the block was the memory stamp. By altering your memories, it created a new personality."
"Which still exists," Daniel concluded, looking daunted.
"So... my people are now schizophrenics?"
I looked at Hammond aghast; I'd completely forgotten that he was standing there, listening to Daniel and me brainstorm. He knew it, too, and looked so annoyed that I decided not to mention that schizophrenic wasn't really the correct term, that dissociative identity disorder was closer... but still not exactly right. The way things were headed, we'd probably be able to come with our own name for it. The Carter-O'Neill Syndrome did have a slight ring to it.
A door closed. Startled at the sound, I took a dizzied step backwards and opened my eyes. When had I closed them?
The Colonel stood only a few feet away, looking similarly disconcerted. I took a quick glance at the Stargate, just beyond the window, wondering if something had affected it to make the base - and thus the floor - tremble. But the great ring was still and silent, the Gateroom quiet and nearly empty, save a few technicians working on a MALP. One was looking up in my direction with an odd expression on his face.
Suddenly panicked, I took a step away from the window, a step away from O'Neill. My heart jack-hammered against my chest with a spasmodic lurch, and my body jerked around it.
Darkness blanketed my vision in less than the time it took to draw a breath.
Smoke billowed, and the dimness was full of shifting forms, moving bodies.
"Carter, get out of here!"
A hand latched onto my wrist, and another grabbed a handful of my jacket. Flailing my free arm behind me, my fist caught and fiercely backhanded the second man's jaw. He cursed wordlessly and released me, staggering back into the shadows. The terrible shadows. Creeping in on me like living, breathing THINGS.
The smell of sulfur and
Caulder's cold and disdainful eyes and
A flash of hot metal against a column of billowing, searing steam.
And the shadows.
The hand on my wrist was like a vise.
"No," I said again, but this time it came out as a whisper and not a scream as the shadows seized and instantly receded, sucking themselves back into bare gray walls and utilitarian furniture and... a concerned, unfamiliar face.
It was the hand attached to that face that held my wrist.
"Whoa! Are you okay?"
I blinked, and the last of the miasma faded, finally allowing me to recognize the man in front of me as Colonel O'Neill. One of the Earth people, the people who had brought us back here and who promised to find us a new home on another planet. Wondering what kind of mortifying display I'd just put on before him, I took a hasty step back. He dropped my wrist.
"I'm... fine..." I stuttered. "I'm sorry..."
And I left. Quickly. And went looking for Jonah.
Sometimes the mere act of siting behind my desk was comforting. I would see the medals on the walls, the accolades from various high-ranking officials, Presidents included. I would rifle through my drawers and see the myriad folders marked CLASSIFIED, and the weighty nameplate that proclaimed my rank, and the oft-used red telephone that connected me to higher powers... higher both figuratively and literally. Sometimes seeing all of that and remembering what it meant - my station, my position, all the hard workk over the years, all our successes in the face of overwhelming odds - would assist in a particularly horrendous command decision. Sometimes it was comforting. Sometimes it would help.
This was not one of those times.
Truth be told, this was actually one of those times when I would have liked nothing better than to lift the red phone from its cradle and place a long distance call. A secure call. A call to a man I was fairly certain I could trust with the well-being of this facility and its crew. How wonderful to have the responsibility on someone else's shoulders, to bring the matter to another's attention and leave them to deal with it.
But that wouldn't be fair to my people, and it wouldn't be right. It would be cowardice, I reminded myself, paging through the medical reports Frasier had given me to mull over. The utterly inconclusive, completely unhelpful medical reports. The decision of what to do now was mine in this situation more than any other. No matter how much I hated dealing with these finicky personnel issues, no matter how much I wanted to believe that the whole convoluted situation didn't exist, the Colonel and Major's fates at this compound were under my jurisdiction. It was my call. I couldn't afford to stick my head in the sand any longer, and this recent development proved that fact too perfectly.
The medals, the accolades, the papers hardly seemed comforting at a time like this. They only served to remind me where my true loyalties were supposed to lie. Not to the fine people who served under me day in and day out, willing to pay the greatest price in an era considered peacetime by most. No, the owners of my loyalties were those who funded us, supported us... and in some ironic cases, those who tried to pull the rug out from under us.
And so, I reflected, the decision that I made would have very little to do with what was best for these people and this base. It would have everything to do with what the higher-ups would think about my resolution.
At the sounds of footsteps in the hall I pulled myself together, calling out "Come in" no later than Jack's knuckles first rapped against the door.
When the Colonel entered, he did so with a mild wince already creeping up around the edges of his expression. Instantly I wondered if he'd already been warned by the doctor and Daniel... but then my mind flashed back to this morning's terse briefing. Goodness. Only this morning? It seemed as though it had all happened ages ago.
Time's fidelity was always called into question when your life, precariously balanced, started fraying at the seams. Sometimes it moved too fast, others too slow, but never at a pace appropriate to your current trauma.
"You wanted to see me, General?"
I marveled at the genuine confusion in his voice even as I suggested he take a seat. If he wasn't expecting a dressing-down for his behavior at the meeting, he probably thought the subject of the day would be no more contentious than what do to with the workers. He'd put everything else entirely out of mind. He was good at that. A little too good.
"I have a rather strange question for you, Colonel," I breached, figuring to at least give him fair warning. "But I expect an honest answer."
His forehead creased and his mouth turned down. "Of... course, sir," he said earnestly, staring at me strangely, probably wondering why my trust in him had just been called into doubt. I felt even worse.
Nonetheless, it had to be done. "Colonel... this morning, what did you do? After the briefing, I mean. When the rest of us left. Where did you go... what did you do?"
The frown deepened. "Well, sir, I just came from meeting with Sergeant Tucker. Um... concerning the supplies that are going to be necessary for relocating the--"
"No," I interrupted, more sharply that I had intended. "RIGHT after Teal'c, Doctor Frasier, Doctor Jackson and myself left the room this morning. What did you do?"
Jack, who had been leaning forward on his knees, suddenly sat back in the chair looking disturbed. "Sir... I'm sorry... did I do something wrong?"
My sympathy ebbed as I recalled exactly what had led to this little rendezvous: coming out of my office to see two of my best officers... now, what was the term my granddaughter used? Making out? Yes, that was it. Carter and O'Neill in an embrace that signified a lot more than your run-of-the-mill military camaraderie. Making out.
And the fact that O'Neill was sitting in front of me with his face full of puzzlement as I questioned him on exactly that time frame meant one of two things. Either he was a superb actor and was lying to me, and all the faith I had in him over the years was at the very least misdirected if not wholly misplaced... or else Frasier was right about this split personality thing and he honestly didn't remember. 'Blatant insubordination' versus 'serious medical condition'. I wasn't sure which one to hope for.
Jack fidgeted nervously at my silence. He shrugged. "I... was..." He blew out a breath of caged energy. "I wasn't in the best of moods," he admitted, watching my expression carefully. "Wanted a little time to gather my thoughts before I went to see Tuck. Um... Carter was there too. She could vouch for me."
Instinctively, my hands tightened into fists at the officer's name. Bad reaction. It belied the rotten feeling I had about this whole predicament. "And when did Carter leave the room?"
A brief shadow passed over his face, but it might have merely been an instant of strained recollection. "Just a few seconds before I did. Didn't say where she was going."
Knowing that Doctor Jackson had been sent to find the Major, I let the subject slide in favor for an even more horrible one. One of those talks you never wanted to have. One of those places you never wanted to find yourself in, with a rock on one side and a hard place on the other. And was there really any way to bring this up delicately? "I'm concerned," I said, a long-suffering sigh finding its way into my words, "about you and Major Carter."
Jack's face went through an impressive array of emotions before I could even draw breath. First continued confusion as to my reasons, then horrified realization, and then finally deep and anguished acceptance. "Oh. That." He looked down at his lap. "I was waiting for this axe to fall," he confided, glancing back up. "And just when you think it's safe to go back in the water..."
"You love her." Inwardly, I winced. Yes, it was an accusation, but I hadn't meant it to sound so... accusatory.
Jack flinched, his body rigid. "Okay... just to get something straight... the 'l' work never once passed my lips. I'm not even sure..." his voice trailed off, expression changing, becoming defiant. "You know what? Fine. I DO love Carter. Just like I love Teal'c, Daniel... even you... on your good days..."
"That isn't what I mean, Jack," I chided him. "And you know it."
His shoulders slumped. "Come on, General. The whole thing was recorded as surveillance video, right? So you've seen the tape. And Teal'c and Doc Frasier were even there for the live performance. I kept waiting for you to say something, to show up some day and find Carter reassigned to another team or chained to a desk... but it never happened. And I was like... 'yeah!. He still trusts us. Hammond knows that nothing has to change because of what Anise's little... machinations forced us to bring out in the open'. I was thrilled," he admitted, shrugging. "I was relived. And I don't understand why you're bringing this up now. You were right, sir. Nothing's happened... nothing's changed."
I wasn't sure how to react to this words. No one was that good of an actor, especially not this man. But to reconcile these strong words with what I had SEEN, with my very eyes...
"I realize that, Colonel," I grumbled, feeling a headache starting to form. "You're dismissed."
"Do I need to repeat myself?"
He said nothing, unfolding himself from the chair and bolting for the door. The look he shot me as he left was one of unadulterated bewilderment... and not a little fear.
It had happened. He denied it. But he wasn't lying.
'Serious medical condition' seemed to have won this round.
Even as my footsteps echoed in the corridor, Janet's words echoed in my brain. "I think we need to find them," she'd said when Hammond had asked her professional opinion on our next course of action. "And we need to keep an eye on them. But until we get any more evidence for my theory, supportive or otherwise, I also think that we should NOT mention our suspicions to the Colonel and Major."
"Why's that?" I'd asked, saving Hammond the trouble.
"Because I have exactly no idea how they would react!" she'd exclaimed, still smacking a sheaf of paper against her open palm. "For instance... Daniel: what if I was to tell you right now that fifteen minutes ago I saw you in the briefing room kissing Sam? What would you think of that?"
I'd wrinkled my nose. "Well, for one, I'd think you were insane."
Janet had made her 'you see?' expression.
I'd continued. "But I'm not Jack, either." Hammond had grunted in acknowledgement.
The doctor had abandoned that line of reasoning. "The human brain is simply not hardwired to safely support multiple distinct personalities. It's been known to happen, but only with extensive medication and psychotherapy, and it usually doesn't just come out of nowhere halfway through life. If the Colonel and Major actually are both bouncing between personalities at this point, chances are the two personas aren't even aware of each other's existence. But if they were made aware--" She'd caught Hammond's irritated expression then and quickly wrapped up her sermon. "Best case scenario, being aware that this other person was surfacing now and then might help them control it. Worst case scenario... psychotic break." A shrug. "Disconnection from reality. Paranoia. Brain damage."
Hammond's eyes had briefly closed. "What you're saying is that we're way over our heads here. We're not exactly on the most trusting terms, but what about talking to this Brenna woman? She has to know something about the process. What it entails. What the HELL was done to our people, since none of them seem to be able to remember!"
"Oh, I agree, sir. But the fact is that the woman in question is just recovering from a severe infection. Brenna's temperature is still dangerously high, and she's not what I would call lucid Even if you talked to her, no one would be able to guarantee that what she was saying is the truth. Certainly not Brenna herself."
So until Frasier's antibiotic cocktail latched onto the infection, or Brenna's own body fought it off, we were on our own. The only other opinion was going back to P3R-118 to look for Caulder or someone with knowledge of the stamping process... and no one was very keen on that idea.
Find Sam and Jack. Baby-sit them. Watch out for signs of emerging split personalities. Discourage any more public displays of affection.
Since when had THAT been in my job description?
I found Sam in her lab, and I breathed a massive sigh of relief. The Earth always circled the sun, the raisin bran in the commissary would always be soggy, and if you were looking for Major Samantha Carter chances were you would find her in her lab. It was a refreshing bit of normalcy, I thought, watching her sitting at the counter, a book of daunting thickness open before her, eyes darting left to right, left to right, like a typewriter across the page.
The door was open but I knocked on it anyway, flashing an easy smile.
Her head snapped up and she stared at me. The heavy volume closed with a snap. "Sorry."
I shoved my hands into my pockets. "Sorry about what?"
"For... for being in here. I'm not totally sure why; I found myself talking to Colonel O'Neill in one of the rooms by the... the, uh, the Stargate, and... I was trying to find my way back to my room, but I got lost, ended up here and..." She shrugged. "I just started looking at some of these books. They make sense to me, which was a little... startling..."
She continued to ramble on nervously, fingers tapping against the book jacket, but suddenly it became hard to keep listening. I'd been thrown off at first; there had been enough familiar words to lull me into a false sense of security. But finally her strange words caught up with me... and they scared the hell out of me.
Choppy blonde hair, blue eyes that reflected the world, frumpy green BDUs that tried to mask her identity as a woman. No change there. But there was something - the pitch of her voice, the way she shifted her weight, the anxiety creasing her forehead - that was like a warning klaxon to my trained eyes.
"Again... I'm really sorry. I just got lost."
And then there was that.
I was talking to Thera.
* * *
There wasn't enough room in the infirmary to properly vent, at least not without worrying the nurses, patients, and occasional passing airman. I therefore regulated myself to my office, where I could cross my arms, scowl into thin air, and express my frustration in relative privacy.
Even if my theory was right - and I was starting to wonder myself - we were still missing a crucial part of the puzzle. Or perhaps several pieces. Was this a random phenomenon that couldn't be regulated, and could spring to the forefront at any inopportune moment... including off-world? If that was the case, and this continued, SG-1 as it was now would be no longer, no matter what confessions had previously been made. Was it chance? Or was there some kind of triggering event that could be cleared up with enough psychoanalysis?
And why only Sam and the Colonel? Daniel hadn't even been to see the woman, Kegan, who he'd grown close to on the planet. And no one had noticed anything stranger than usual from Teal'c.
A technical sergeant came in holding his bloody hand in a piece of tarpaulin. As I cleaned and stitched the cut, I continued to think.
By the time SG-1 had returned - almost magically - to the SGC the day before, their memories had been almost completely restored. There was the occasional gap or spot of confusion, but with the exception of their abductions at Caulder's hands, everything was back where it was supposed to be. While the 'memory stamps' on the others workers were as solid as ever, SG-1's had seemed to deteriorate rapidly ever since hearing their own names spoken. According to Sam, it had actually happened long before that, in dreams and flashes of thought. Differences in brain chemistry might be blamed for that.
It had been so easy to imagine the false fronts of Jona, Thera, Carlan and Tor dissolving as Jack, Sam, Daniel and Teal'c returned. Melding back into the original and ceasing to be. But what if that wasn't how it worked? What if completely new people had been created through this alien chemical process, and what if we were unable to make these new people go away?
I sent the sergeant on his way and sighed, telling myself that I was getting worked up over nothing, letting my imagination run off with a hypothesis that wasn't even close to being proven. All the whys that flooded my mind would probably never need to be answered.
Then Daniel and Sam came into the infirmary, and I came face to face with a stranger.
* * *
"Doctor Frasier," I greeted politely.
Doctor Jackson, hanging too near my side for comfort, nearly jumped out of his skin. "You... you know her?"
"Oh course I do. We were all examined by her when we got here," I reminded him.
Only when I had seen the medical doctor before, her skin coloring hadn't seemed quite so pale, and I certainly didn't remember her staring at me like this. All right, so maybe compared with her crisp white jacket and the luster of her hair I looked rather dowdy, but that didn't seem to account for the strangeness I'd just been thrust into. At first I'd worried that I'd be punished for trespassing in sensitive areas, but now I wondered if these people were just... how had Jona phrased it? Wacko?
"I told Doctor Jackson I was sorry for being in the lab," I told Frasier, hoping she would understand and just point me in the direction of my room. "I'm not in any trouble, am I?"
"No," said Jackson hastily.
Frasier swallowed. "Of course not. In fact, I'm glad to see you. We wanted to ask you some questions... Thera."
So they knew my name? That couldn't be a good sign. "Is this about last night?" I asked, cringing inside but casually clasping my hands together before me. I'd undone myself with Brenna by appearing far too highly-strung, I realized that now. I had to be totally in control, or at least appear that I was.
The two doctors exchanged unreadable glances. "Yes," said Frasier. "That's exactly what that's about."
A sigh slipped out before I could stop it. "Again... and I know you're probably getting tired of hearing this from me, but I'm very sorry that we didn't check with anyone first. It was just so easy... and we wanted to see the sky so badly. No," I corrected myself sheepishly. "Actually, I wanted to see the sky. I just convinced Jona to come with me. I knew he'd love it too." I searched one face and then the other for understanding. "Jona was actually pretty happy back... back home. Even after we found out that it was all just a big lie," I added, my anger rising and becoming obvious. Quickly, I stuffed it back down. "I know it must seem like a very simple life, but sometimes simple lives work for people. In any case, I think it was hard for him to just give that all up, harder then for me. I mean, at least now I know why they never considered any of my improvements!"
I laughed nervously, and they both continued to stare at me.
* * *
"I think we have to consider it... we may end up going back to 118 after all."
"Hammond's not going to like that," said Janet wearily, now and then peeking past me and frowning. I knew who she was looking at: Thera. Or Sam. Or whoever she was, whoever she thought she was.
"*I* don't like it, either. But she's completely reverted back to being Thera now, and we don't know why, and we don't know how to stop it, and we don't even know if we can keep the exact same thing from happening to Jack. Hell, for all we know, it could happen to me and Teal'c, too! Maybe this is what's supposed to happen. Maybe the false memories, the fašade... maybe they have some kind of fail safe. Just in case someone does accidentally remember something, it's set to kick back in."
She gave a tired sigh, closing her eyes and keeping them shut for a few precious seconds. I knew how she felt; I was getting tired of facing a world that didn't seem inclined to give us a single break. "You're using technological terminology to describe a chemical, organic process. It just doesn't work that way, Daniel."
"WE don't have the technology to do it," I disagreed. "But we know little to nothing about these people, not to mention their science. There could be a very simple cure for this, but we're never going to know unless we go back to the planet." I raised a hand to ward off her objections. "I know Hammond's not going to like it. I know, okay? But this is SAM we're talking about here."
"Why don't you just ask me?"
I jumped and started, staring around the infirmary for the source of the disembodied voice, but it didn't phrase Janet for a second. Sighing, she walked a few feet to the partitioned area in the corner of the room and pulled the curtain back on its track. I followed and looked over her shoulder. "Brenna, I'm sorry we were so loud... I didn't realize you were awake."
The other woman struggled to lift her head from the pillow, shaking it vigorously. Her hair was matted to her skull with sweat, and her skin still held an unhealthy gray pallor, but the glassy glaze of fever was gone from her eyes. "I'm glad I did."
There were footsteps and I turned to see Sam - Thera - coming up behind me, worry and concern on her features as she saw Brenna... presumably for the first time since the planet. Or at least the first time as someone else. Brenna saw her as well, giving a tired nod. "Major Carter, hello."
I heard Janet suck in a sharp breath.
But the friend-turned-stranger merely gave a forgiving smile. "I think you're confusing me with somebody here. It's me, Brenna. Thera."
Brenna's expression sobered immediately, her eyes narrowing and then flashing across our faces, searching for an unspoken answer to this puzzle. "Thera," she repeated, brow still creased. "How are you?"
"Fine," she answered slowly, giving me thoughts of Sam and how she always tried to bury her problems... bury them and pretend they didn't exist. She looked at Janet and then at me, and I was chilled to see the gaze of a stranger looking at me out of familiar eyes... the same foreign mannerisms I'd noted for just a millisecond when I'd run into 'Jack' in the hallway the night before. Because it hadn't been Jack at all.
No. Definitely not in my job description.
As much as I liked being right, I vehemently wished that I had been wrong in this instance.
But everything told me that I had been pretty dead on. Hell, Thera had told me herself, walking in here with caution worthy of some unknown locale, addressing me formally, regarding me as an almost total stranger. And so I was forced to approach her in the same way. Not as Sam, my friend of more than three years, bound to me through gender, occupation, and of course though Cassie, but as Thera. The only thing we had in common was our reproductive organs. We didn't even share the same planet of origin... at least not in her head.
It wasn't as bad as the Jolinar incident. The person in Sam's body who wasn't Sam wasn't trying to kill us, wasn't taunting us, wasn't a security risk as far as we knew... and had nothing to do with the Gou'ald. That, at least, was something. But after getting SG-1 back in near-perfect condition when we had never expected to see them again, just one more miracle from that once-cursed, twice-blessed team, this kind of disaster was painful to swallow. Why couldn't something go off without a hitch, just once?
We honestly didn't know what to do with... with Thera. There was no reason to keep her locked up somewhere, no reason to think that she was a danger. Her quarters - make that Sam's quarters - would have been a good enough place for the time being, but she didn't know where they were. She would have to be escorted, and she would have to be escorted by either Daniel or me, as we weren't quite ready to make this official base knowledge, and the random airman would surely wonder why Major Carter couldn't find her own room. But at the moment, more than the security of Thera - and in Thera, the secret - was the reason behind her existence. If Brenna didn't know that, no one else on this base would.
Initially, the woman seemed more prone to apology than explanation. As soon as Daniel returned from situating Thera on a bed in an unoccupied corner of the room, Brenna gave a dejected sigh, closed her eyes, and shook her pillowed head. "I'm sorry."
Daniel glanced over his shoulder at Thera - out of earshot but within sight, still looking puzzled and somewhat bored - and then back. "Brenna, we already told you... we don't blame you for what happened," he said intently. "We blame... your society. People like Caulder who allowed this to happen. But you were the only one willing to help us, remember? You were willing to take the risk."
Brenna shook her head again, slowly, weakly. I reminded myself that before anything else, she was my patient, and vowed that I wouldn't let Daniel question her to exhaustion. "I know," she murmured. "I know that, Daniel. But I am to blame, for..." With effort, she raised her head, straining to see where Thera sat across the room, "for her being like that."
Despite my recent vow, my curiosity got the better of me and I demanded, "How so?"
Brenna let her head fall back. "I don't know the science of how the stamping works. I'm just a supervisor. I know the basics, I know the machinery, I know the rules... and I know my workers. I like to think that I'm a good judge of character."
I gave an encouraging nod to prod her along, noticing Daniel, standing across from me, doing the same.
"Daniel was easy to stamp," Brenna confided, and he wrinkled his nose slightly. "Even Teal'c was fine... at least we thought so until later. But they both responded to the sedative, the repression and the stamp, and were what the technicians call 'easy cases'. Major Carter and Colonel O'Neill, however... every time they thought they had succeeded in repressing their memories, the effect of the drugs seemed to... dissipate. Spontaneously. It was incredibly frustrating. They would come awake, raging in anger, demanding to be released, to be taken to their teammates." She blushed visibly. "At one point, there was a miscalculation. They were awake and lucid at the same time... something that's never supposed to happen." Her tone seemed almost pleading, her eyes searching our faces, back and forth, trying to get us to understand. "They heard each other from across the room. They were strapped down so they could see nothing except the ceiling, but... she called to him. 'Colonel'. And he called back. 'I'm here, Carter'. So afraid. SO angry. She said, 'Sir... God, I'm sorry', and he just told her 'It's okay, Sam. I'm here... you're here... we're together, we'll be fine. Okay?'. He kept calling to her, 'okay? Okay?', waiting for her to answer him, but they'd already sedated her again, and she couldn't. He asked anyway, and then they sedated him, too. And started over again." Her voice finally cracked, as it had been threatening to do all through her account of events, on the last word. There was a shocky glaze to her entire face. Finally starting to see the "workers" as PEOPLE, were we?
Daniel didn't even bother to disguise his hurt and revolt, his face screwed up in an expression of total and utter abhorrence, complete disgust. I hoped that I was masking my emotions - the same emotions - at least slightly better.
"At that moment," admitted Brenna, "I knew what had gone wrong. The thing that kept interrupting the repression was nothing more complex than the fact that we were trying to bury something that they themselves were trying to conceal." Her head bobbed for emphasis. "However it works, it doesn't work that way. The technicians would never actually admit it, much less the Administrator himself, but technology is no match for a determined mind."
Narrowing his eyes, Daniel prompted, "But how did you know?"
Brenna's brow creased as she winced. "You were... unconscious at this point. But when you were brought down to the station for your 'tour', ambushed and... and drugged, Major Carter got free. They simply... underestimated her and she escaped. Or she would have. She actually made it back to the entrance of the surface corridor. But... she stopped. Turned. She saw that one of Caulder's people, the one subduing O'Neill, had gotten more than little out of hand. There was a broken pipe, a machine component, on the ground, he picked it up... he was prepared to strike the Colonel, and it could have been a death blow. She screamed for him to stop, and he was so surprised that... that he did." Her eyes closed, and for a second I wondered if she was done with her story. "As I said, I consider myself a good judge of character. When I saw the look on her face, and the, the panic in her voice... I knew. I heard them call to each other and I knew the stamping would never work if it was absolute. Those... feelings were just too strong, too much a part of them."
"So you allowed... you allowed them to remember their feelings. For each other?" I surmised, finally starting to see where this was going.
Brenna nodded. "It was the wrong thing to do," she said solemnly. "Morally, I mean. Complete, total repression is the only way most of us can justify what we do, the only way we can trust the process. The idea that we're making a new, good, productive person out of someone without worth to their life. But I had misgivings from the moment I heard that your case was to be a matter of punishment without a specific crime. It was political, and the very idea made me sick. That was bad enough. But then to find out that we had to pick and chose personality traits to admit and repress, to go against all of our conventions just to make it work... I knew it was wrong. I just didn't think it mattered."
"I'm not following," confessed Daniel.
Giving an exasperated sigh, Brenna plunged on. "Retaining partial memories of each other allowed the stamp to succeed, Daniel. It gave them a sense of peace in their new lives. They had something familiar to cling to. The problem is, they're still clinging."
I shook my head in amazement, stuffing my hands deep into my coat pockets. "And maybe subconsciously they knew that there were reasons to prefer that lifestyle. Rules they didn't have to worry about anymore."
Brenna looked at me strangely, and I realized that I owed her an explanation of my own. Daniel had mentioned that romantic or sexual pairings between the workers on 118 had been somewhat discouraged, a slight taboo, but not a rule in and of itself. Not punishable. And rare. One had never known when they would be transferred to a different section, or sent back to "the mines", to never see their significant other again. All people yearned for human contact, of course, but creating close relationships had enough drawbacks that it was incentive for most people to remain alone. Therefore, the idea that the Air Force prohibited people who might normally 'get together' from doing just that would be alien to her... probably even pointless and unfair.
Not that there weren't drawbacks here as well. Someone you cared about could retire, get reassigned... or they could die. But even those motivations failed to convince some people.
Still looking at me with a perplexed frown, Brenna continued slowly. "At first, I didn't think it mattered, because I thought that the stamping would remain and they would always be Jona and Thera. But then Tor's... Teal'c's symbiote disrupted his stamp. He triggered your memories, Daniel, and from there on the outcome was... inevitable."
"What about the outcome now?" I demanded.
She lifted her chin at me appraisingly, still managing to make me squirm under an authoritarian eye even though I knew and understood that she was MY patient, and one confined to bed at that. "You say there are rules? They do not allow the Colonel and Major to have those feelings?"
Daniel blinked rapidly, seeming to have come out of a trance-like state. "They don't allow Jack and Sam to ACT on those feelings, no."
"Then that is your explanation," she said softly.
There was a moment of terrible silence before the moral of the woman's tale became clear. "Then you're saying this... relapse has nothing to do with the drugs themselves," I said, aghast.
"The drugs have been purged from their systems - you must know that - but they pathways that they created remain."
"And O'Neill and Sam are choosing to use them?"
Brenna nodded wearily.
Daniel looked back and forth between us. "What?"
My hands clenched inside my pockets. "Think about it, Daniel. The two of them can't be together. They can't even act like they want to be together. They can't let on; they have to pretend like it doesn't exist. So they denied it. And repressed it... until they were FORCED to admit it. And then... it just became scarier to them. Bigger, more of a threat."
"But they found relief in being someone else, didn't they?" mused Daniel, eyes becoming unfocused as he caught on and pondered what all this meant. "Release. People who didn't have to worry about... military regulations dictating what they felt. Who could just... I don't know. Be in love. And now they... they don't want to go back to the way things were."
And I couldn't blame them. "They liked being Jona and Thera," I concluded. "And so they're making some kind of unconscious decision to return to those personas."
Daniel gave a deep and shuddering sigh. "So I guess the question is... how on Earth do we make being Sam and Jack more appealing?"
I looked to Brenna again for confirmation, but the woman had drifted back to sleep while we had lobbied theories. It wasn't surprising - this was more activity than she'd done in some time - but it was frustrating. Damn it, we needed her help here. As much as it pained me to be relying on someone I didn't wholly - or even partly - trust, she knew more than any of us. This, after all, had been her life. It had been all of their lives, and now - good or bad - it was gone forever, leaving only a messy aftermath.
I looked at Daniel and found him standing, slump-shouldered, also staring at the sleeping woman. "You blame the society?" I found myself blurting.
He didn't look at me, but his features hardened. I wasn't the only one who was frustrated. "Don't say it."
The coarseness of his tone irritated me beyond reason. "I don't have to say it. You've said it yourself enough times. 'Who are we to judge the practices and beliefs of another culture?'. It was a way of life for them."
"It was wrong," he asserted.
I shook my head stubbornly. "It's not our place to decide that. You said it yourself, and if there's one thing I can't stand, it's hypocrisy." God, were these bitter words coming out of my mouth actually MINE?
Finally Daniel looked up, leaving me wishing he hadn't. His brow was lowered over his eyes and he glowered at me, face flushed and steam practically coming out of his ears; I had hit a sore spot. "Yeah, well, it's a little different when you're on the receiving end, okay, DOCTOR?"
"I understand that," I said softly, stoically, feeling that my irritation was better communicated that way. "I'm just glad you do too."
I left him standing there, alerted one of the nurses that I was taking a break, and escorted Thera to Sam's room.
My so-called office wasn't good for much, but it came in awfully handy when I just needed a little time and space to agonize over something. Private, closer than my quarters... and if someone came here looking for me, they might actually think that I was doing WORK. Unless, of course, they knew me.
I sat on my desk and I agonized.
The meeting with Hammond... what the hell had that been all about? Sure, I had been waiting for the axe to fall for some time now, what with everything that had gone into proving that Carter and I had NOT been brainwashed by snakes. In the process, however, we'd let something just as dangerous slip out into the open, and now we were so busy trying to tuck it back in before it was noticed that the rest of the world became a blur.
The last few weeks had most certainly been a blur, but I didn't think I could blame "feelings" for that. More like sheer stupidity. I couldn't remember exactly what had happened between Jack O'Neill turning into Jona something-or-other, but I did know that I had trusted Caulder when I shouldn't have. When I should have gotten my team back to the Stargate pronto, I had indulged the man, somehow failing to see his falseness, his almost snake-like sliminess. I had the vague notion that I just REALLY hadn't wanted to return to Hammond with another story of failure, and that I had been looking for some reason - any reason - to say that what these people were doing wasn't REALLY slavery, and therefore trade with them was okay by me. Caulder had taken advantage of that grudging trust, done so with more slyness than I had originally credited him with. I'd underestimated him. When was I going to stop doing that?
I'd underestimated Carter, and I'd paid for that with weeks of my life as well, every bit as much as her captive as I'd been Caulder's. Near-sleepless nights, depression setting in around the witching hour, those white nights that added up to ugly numbers and uglier conclusions. Waking up to find that the reasons I had given myself only hours earlier just weren't convincing enough. Living in a state of limbo, running in place, not able to go forward because we were Air Force and not being able to go back because we were human beings.
Not only had I underestimated Carter, I'd underestimated her effect on me. I'd made myself pretend it didn't matter because it couldn't matter, because making it matter would be making it an issue to be dealt with... and doing that would mean the end of SG-1. The configuration of the team was the only thing that would budge. The regs wouldn't. WE couldn't. So someone would get reassigned to another team, another department in the SGC, where burgeoning feelings wouldn't mean lives imperiled. Someone would get reassigned, but once again any forward motion would be stopped by the chain of command and we'd be back in the same damn situation... only worse off than before. If she was placed on, say, SG-4 or -7, how could I cope knowing she was out there among the evils of the universe without us, her family, there for her? If they stuck her with a lab job, how would I manage without knowing that she was there with me, watching my back, my talisman, my sure thing?
Since when had Carter been so damn indispensable?
Since when had she NOT?
I didn't want to answer that.
In the end, it didn't matter what I felt, what she felt, what we both knew the other felt. Nothing good could come of this situation we'd found ourselves in... at least nothing more than complete and utter happiness at the expense of everything else in the galaxy important to us.
In the end, we bottled it up, shelved it, went about our business as always... and inside we waited, cringing, waiting for our beautiful delusions to come to an abrupt and unspectacular end. Waiting for the axe to fall.
I sat there on my desk, too edgy to use the chair, too bewildered to pace, and wondered if it was already falling.
I wondered if I should make it real, make it matter, just for a moment... and warn Carter.
* * *
"Slow down for a second, Doctor... are you saying that Major Carter... doesn't EXIST anymore?"
I tried to imagine how I could possibly explain that one to the Major's father. 'Well, Jake, your daughter is MIA. Yes, we know where she is physically... she's right here. It's just her mind that's missing. No, no Gou'ald. No infestations. She's just been replaced by someone else who won't get in trouble for being in love with her commanding officer.'
To my great relief, Frasier quickly shook her head. "From what I understand - at least from what I got from Brenna - Sam's still IN there, sir. She's just..."
"Hiding," supplied Jackson.
I looked back at Janet for confirmation, and she shrugged. "Good enough metaphor."
Hiding. That didn't sound at all like the Major Carter that I knew, that I had gotten to know, trust, and care about over the course of these past years. Carter was someone who confronted problems head on, discerning their weaknesses and then beating them into submission. She was someone who could identify a flaw and fix it, hear a question and answer it, assuage a doubt with a smile and an explanation that had most heads spinning.
That was true for her professional life, of course, but I was kidding myself if I tried to believe that the same was true for those more personal issues. Because of my friendship with her father, I knew more about the Major than I knew about most of my people... the way Carter had dealt with the death of her mother, the relationship with her brother that remained strained even after so much time and so many attempts at reconciliation, and her short-lived engagement.
Hansen. If Jonas Hansen wasn't a perfect example, there WAS no perfect example. It had been more than just solar radiation that had contributed to his meltdown; there had been something deep-rooted that had planted the seeds of disaster on P3X-513. Carter had admitted afterwards that she had known about these seeds, that she had seen them in action during the time she and Hansen had been together, and in fact were the reason they were no LONGER together. But when he was assigned to the SGC, she had been thrust into a working relationship with him again... and rather than confront obviously painful memories she had hidden from them. Hadn't mentioned anything to anyone because she hadn't wanted to deal with it. And she still faulted herself for Baker and Frakes' deaths - and Hansen's - even now, blaming her weakness and fear for three men's lives. She'd expected to be reprimanded for not reporting her concerns when Jonas had first been transferred. I hadn't seen how that could be anything but counterproductive.
But this wasn't about Hansen; it wasn't about the past. Now that we knew where we stood, we had to know where to go. "Any recommendations, Doctor?"
Her lips tightened in that all-too-familiar expression of 'I don't want to tell you this, but I'm going to anyway'. She shook her head minutely, eyes drifting to the floor before returning to my face with new resolve. "This isn't Brenna's area of expertise, sir. She was able to help us... diagnose the problem, but I don't think she has a clue as to what to do to actually FIX it. Now... it's always possible that it doesn't NEED fixing, that given time this alternate persona will get old, useless... and Major Carter will come back. I think we all know what a strong person she is," Frasier added, glancing briefly at Jackson. "On the other hand, I don't have any evidence to back that theory up. Not intervening somehow could just as easily make the problem worse, giving Thera a stronger hold on her... something. Not to mention that the underlying problem - what we're guessing is the underlying problem, at least - won't be changing any time soon."
Daniel crossed his arms over his chest, not looking directly at either one of us but somewhere in between, facing a set of placards on the far wall. "I was thinking earlier that there has to be some kind of incentive for Sam to come out of her... well, her shell, so to speak. And... I'm not saying that she doesn't value her life, or her work here. But, I mean, isn't ignorance bliss? Right now, as Thera, she doesn't have any... responsibilities. Doesn't have to worry about saving the world, about losing people close to her. And she certainly doesn't have to worry about breaking any... rules." He looked at me, working his jaw, and then solemnly continued. "All her life is right now is... waiting for the nice Earth people to find her and her friends a new home where they won't be persecuted. Where they'll have a clean slate, where they can start over. Who wouldn't want that... that simple kind of life?"
"Sir," Frasier blurted before I could get a word in edgewise. "This is all speculation. But there's one thing we know for sure. Thera is very smart. She has an instinctive thirst for knowledge, and from what Daniel's told me she has quite the perceptive, analytical mind. But she's no Sam Carter. I talked to her on the way to her... to Sam's room. In her mind - pardon the pun - our technology is extremely advanced, far beyond her comprehension. For instance, she has no idea how an F16 works... she has no idea what an F16 IS. She also has no clue as to how the Stargate function. Astrophysics, time theory, quantum mechanics... the people on 118 just didn't need a worker in a power plant knowing any of that. So they got rid of it." She gave a helpless shrug. "Thera's not a scientist, sir. Not in the way Sam was... is. Not in the way we need her. And she's CERTAINLY not a soldier. Therefore sir," she summed briskly, "my professional recommendation to you, not as Sam's friend but as the C.M.O., would be that it's within the best interests of all concerned - Major Carter, this base, the Air Force, and probably this planet - to... to return to 118."
* * *
Sitting in the center of the luxurious bed, my knees drawn up to my chest, I surveyed my accommodations. Sparse, yes, but that seemed to be a constant in this place. Besides, this lack of decor was all I knew. Back home, life had been less than sparse; it had been brutal.
But at least it had been home.
I shook my head. My people had lied to me, used me, abused me, been willing to trade my life so that they could keep the lights on without getting their hands dirty.
But at least they had been my people.
I sighed and fell back on the bed, enjoying the springy sensation. For one indulgent moment, I imagined that I was not alone in this room, on this wonderfully soft contraption. I imagined that Jona had come to find me. He would sit next to me on the smooth fabric and tell me that the life we had left was nothing compared to the life that waited for us, that the strange Caulder person and his armies of liars weren't worth thinking about. He'd give me that funny smile and I'd laugh, and while I was laughing he would lean over and kiss me...
Swallowing hard, I contemplated the ceiling, admitting that I'd stepped beyond the realm of fantasy and into that of memory.
Why was it so painful to feel this way about him? As though it were a crime, a sin, to simply have feelings for someone! Ah, that was the word he'd used, too. Feelings. Sitting there together in the flickering light, he'd told me he had feelings for me. Or that he remembered having them. Remembered from what, I wasn't sure. Maybe that other life he was always talking about; it didn't matter. He had feelings, so did I, and the feelings only grew when we were together. And it felt... wonderful. Like it was something I'd been waiting for all my life, something I had almost lost, something more remarkable than I deserved. A heady sensation, a warm tickle in my stomach, the inclination to smile, the urge to touch him. All these things, these FEELINGS, they couldn't be bad.
The way his hand closed over mine with surprisingly tenderness.
The way his eyes seemed to look not at me, but inside me.
The way we seemed to be made to match.
The way he knew me - knew my fears, my desires, my body - even in absolute darkness.
Feeling flushed, I opened my eyes, wondering what had caught my attention. Nothing... silence... and then there it was again. Voices just outside the door. A young male invoking the name of Doctor Frasier, and an older man explaining quite simply that he didn't care. THAT was a voice I knew.
I sat up, feeling a smile playing on my lips, and hurried to the door.
"On whose authority?"
The airman fidgeted, looking surreptitiously up and down the hall for an ally or distraction. But the corridor was empty, and he was forced to turn back to me with a timid frown on his face. "Doctor Frasier, sir."
Frasier. Of course it would be Frasier. Usually when something seemed absolutely pointless, it could be traced back to Frasier.
Okay, so maybe that was a little unfair. But this, this made no sense. All I wanted to do was talk to Carter - a subordinate, a member of MY team - and even a simple knock on the door was being refused. What kind of sense did that make? If something was wrong with her, if this was some kind of quarantine, I should have been notified. "Do you know WHY?" I pressed the airman.
He stammered, and another terrible thought came floating up. For whatever bizarre reason, Hammond seemed to think that Carter and I were... up to something. There couldn't be any other explanation for me having just been called up on the carpet. But what if he had called her up first, come to some insane decision, decided that he had been right..?
Been right about what? What? Nothing had happened between us. Nothing. Between Jona and Thera, yes, but not between us. We weren't them. Weren't, weren't, weren't.
The airman stopped in mid-croak as the door he had been guarding suddenly opened, and Carter nearly leapt into the threshold.
For one second, and only one, I was utterly breathless. She didn't appear any different - same blonde hair that looked as though it had been cut with a rusty axe, same baggy BDUs and short-sleeved black tee. But there was also something very different about her, and that something knocked the sense out of me for at least a second. Maybe two. A vitality in her searching eyes, a pent-up excitement in the way she braced one arm, the fist clenched, against the half-open door. She even held her breath, held it in anticipation. Anticipation of WHAT, I didn't know, but it knocked sense even further out of reach. The airman didn't exist, Hammond's none-too-subtle warning had never happened, and I was blissfully ignorant of all the other things that conspired to keep us apart. All I knew was that I wanted her, wanted her more than I had ever wanted her since I 'woke up' to another spoonful of Froot Loops, the taste of Carter still lingering in my mouth, irrevocable time loops be damned...
Just for one second... maybe two...
And then the world came rushing back to me in a tsunami of embarrassment and self-recrimination. Carter's eyes landed on me and immediately lost their hopeful glint. The tentative smile that had been playing across her lips faded as well, replaced by a small frown of disappointment. The faint change of expression did terrible things to my insides, things I prayed didn't show on the outside. "Colonel O'Neill," she addressed me, and it was all she said.
When I was reasonably sure that I wasn't going to do anything stupid, I glanced towards the airman. The young man was standing against the wall, staring straight ahead, probably willing himself to disappear altogether. "What's with the guard?"
Carter stepped a little further back into the room, hand now open palm-down against the door. "I guess Doctor Frasier didn't want me wandering off again," she said sheepishly.
Frasier. So this was about her. And, true to form, it made absolutely no sense. "'Wandering off'?" I echoed, wondering if I was missing something big here, as seemed so often the case.
She blushed noticeably, not quite meeting my eyes, looking down towards the floor instead. The uncharacteristic gestures of nervousness rankled me... almost as much as her downcast expression when she'd seen who it was who'd come calling. Frasier, I thought again, and blurted, "You okay?" before I could think better of it. "This doesn't have anything to do with..."
Carter finally glanced up and kept her gaze there, locked onto mine. For the second time in the last two minutes, I felt the breath leave my body. It wasn't just the angle at which the overheads caught the color of her eyes, transforming their usual blue into a bruised, beguiling violet. It was the way she stared at me, intently, unabashedly. Had she ever looked at me like that before? Not lately, at least. A gaze like that told too much, gave too much away, and these days that wasn't only unacceptable, it was downright dangerous. Just look at how it was affecting me now. Pulling me in, pulling me back to a place where the shadows loomed in a deeper darkness; to where cold, conceited eyes watched on with smug pride as those dark shapes manhandled and browbeat my team...
The absolute horror in Frasier's voice was all that brought me back to myself, where Carter's eyes had once again dropped to her feet. Somewhere down the hall, a door or elevator opened on the floor, and a stiff, cool gust pushed around us. It felt especially cool on my face, and when I instinctively reached up to touch my cheek, I realized that I had broken out into a filmy sweat.
Disconcerted, I looked towards the source of the sound. At the end of the hall, Janet Frasier stood in the middle of the corridor, and there was panic in her eyes.
I glanced back at Carter just in time to see her slam the door in my face.
"Colonel," said Frasier again, hurrying to me as fast as her little legs would take her. "Are you alright, sir?"
Alright? Why would I not be? I'd been talking to Carter, not wrestling with her. "I'm fine," I said snidely. "In fact, I seem to be the only person around here who IS."
Oddly, Doc seemed to relax significantly at the outburst. "Good," she said, and then guardedly added, "I thought we might have lost you."
I still didn't know what the hell she was talking about, but just the solemn tone of her voice was enough to start me worrying again. "I'm not so sure you haven't."
Frasier cast an irked glance over my shoulder at - presumably - the airman, then turned on her heel, heading back down the hall and obviously expecting me to follow. "Come with me, sir, and... I'll try to explain."
At any moment I expected Jack's expression to change. To blank, like Sam's had, and be replaced by a visage so unfamiliar it could only be that of a stranger. I could tell that Janet was afraid of the very same thing. She knew that it was inevitable and impossible to prevent, didn't even bother to take him to the infirmary "just in case" of a spontaneous personality shift... but she still looked tense. Watchful. Watching for the catastrophic change.
Instead, Jack just looked confused. Which was to say... he looked like himself.
"But we GOT our memories back," he said for the fifth time. "I happen to know that Carter especially got her memories back. So what's the problem?"
I glanced at Hammond. He refused to meet my eyes.
Janet delicately clasped her hands together over the table and concentrated on them very hard. "Sir... Major Carter DID get her memories back. But Major Carter isn't the one interacting with us. She's completely submerged herself in this 'Thera' persona." She unlaced one hand, holding it up to ward off his protests. "Thera is acting as a individual who's very different and very separate from Sam. And Sam is letting her."
We'd already told him, of course, but he didn't want to believe it, didn't want to accept it... and was using 'the stupid act' to his advantage, hoping that we'd give him a different answer the second time around.
"As far as I can tell, sir," she said very carefully, keeping her voice neutral and her words clinically detached, "she's attempting to use Thera to escape any consequences, personal or professional, that might arise from, um, from her..."
She was doing great until right there.
"From her feelings for you," I finished loudly, too loudly, and the doctor gave an embarrassed nod of thanks. "These stupid military rules that you people treat like the Bible finally made her snap. She'd rather become a completely different person than DARE to tread on some archaic regulation."
Janet groaned softly.
Jack just narrowed his eyes on me. "They aren't stupid."
"They most certainly are not," said Hammond, but he said it so quietly I was inclined to think that it was just an errant comment that had mistakenly slipped out.
"Maybe not stupid," I amended, realizing that making everyone at the table mad at me hadn't been a part of my plan, "but, uh, in this case it hasn't caused anything but problems. How long have you two been torturing yourselves over this? And YOU almost let Anise scramble your brains because you were too afraid to admit that you... you cared about her. And now Sam is hiding out in Thera so she doesn't have to face up to it. I just wish someone would explain to me how regulations have done anything but hurt you?"
"I need you to understand something, Daniel," Jack responded instantly, fiercely, glaring at me like he had forgotten Hammond and Janet were watching us, that anyone else even existed. "I need you to understand that our personal FEELINGS, hell, our personal well-being aren't the most important things. We're all a part of a machine. Okay? All of us. Part of a big machine that has to stay working so that we can cavort around the universe and save the world. And we WORK. We've worked for years. So there's NO point in adding something that could change everything and screw it all up. That's why the regs are what they are. Not to make the individual cogs miserable. To keep the machine working."
"It won't be working very well with a piece missing, will it?" I retorted.
Then... it happened. The change of expression. But it wasn't what I'd been expecting, not exactly. There was no blankness followed by the stare of a stranger. There was only anger that melted into a surprising but not unfamiliar vulnerability. It was a flash of panic and sadness that must have reminded him of staring across a force shield at Sam, so close and so far away at the same time, knowing that he couldn't leave her to die alone. For the first time in the entire conversation he realized what we'd been trying to tell him... that Sam was gone, that Thera was no more Samantha Carter than I was.
"So what now?" he said gruffly, turning to look at Hammond. "Go back to 118?"
"That's the plan," answered the General, not seeming particularly flustered by this last interchange. "We're sending a MALP through first, of course, but unless there's some show of hostile... I'm sending SG-6... and SG-1 as it currently stands."
Jack flinched, but almost imperceptibly. "I'll tell Griff," he offered, not waiting to be excused before rising and leaving the room. Hammond gave Janet a small, exasperated nod, and she left in hot pursuit... apparently to make sure that Jack didn't become Jona on the way to the locker room.
The General and I looked at each other warily, only a few feet away from each other but miles apart where it counted. Maybe more than miles. Maybe light-years.
"He's right, you know," said Hammond.
"I'm glad somebody thinks so."
He sighed. "Doctor Jackson, I've never expected you to understand the way we do things around here, but I DO insist that you accept it. You aren't telling Colonel O'Neill anything he doesn't already know. You'll just make it harder for him."
"Harder for him to what?" I demanded, fighting to control my ire. "To become some emotionless automaton? A cog in the military machine? I thought you saw more in Jack than just his ability to fire an MP5."
He gave a humorless laugh. "Of course I do. I care about him as a human being... just like you. When I put on this uniform, things are different, things have to be black and white... but the uniform's not who I am."
Right, I thought derisively, it's just a colorful candy shell. "The uniform isn't who Jack is, either. Or Sam, for that matter. And MP5 proficiency notwithstanding, it's the 'human being' parts that have made the most difference."
I expected yet another rebuttal to that... but Hammond just smiled. There wasn't any more humor in the smile than in the laugh. There was only sadness. "I wish I could see it the way you do, Doctor."
I found myself mirroring the grimace. "Black and white getting a little dull for you, General?"
He didn't answer.
I stood to leave, but couldn't resist in getting in one more parting jab. "You've got a great soldier here. I just hope that's not all he is to you."
* * *
"Hey there, Teal'c. How ya doing?"
O'Neill's humor was forced, but that did not come unexpected. Doctor Frasier had only just told me of the awkward meeting with Daniel Jackson and General Hammond, after all, and I had been anticipating a sullen, morose, uncommunicative O'Neill awaiting me in the locker room. Instead, he was greeting me, smiling, and walking with a jaunty step. It only served to make me that much more worried. "Substantially better than you are, I am certain," I replied, only half-joking, as I lifted my booted foot to the bench and carefully tied the shoelace.
O'Neill stopped in front of his locker, glancing over his shoulder at me. "Ahh... now don't YOU get smart with me, too."
I traded one foot for the other. "I would never think of it."
My attempt at levity did not have the desired result. Instead of giving O'Neill the 'out' I was sure he desired, he managed to steer my words into a more hazardous direction. "You know, I've been doing that a lot lately."
One foot still raised on the bench, I looked up at him.
"Not thinking," supplied O'Neill, leaning against the side of the alcove.
"And what is it you have not been thinking about?" I queried, trying not to stumble over the language.
"Well... what do you THINK I haven't been thinking about?" he asked carefully. 'Testing the water'.
"Major Carter," I said bluntly.
Laughing bitterly, O'Neill leaned further back into the alcove, as though he might simply climb right in with his battle gear and stay there until the entire situation was resolved. "Nope. Well... yeah. Actually... ya know, kinda." He shook his head at his own indecision. "What I've been NOT thinking about lately is... my life. Where the hell it's going. Or NOT going, as the case may be."
I remained silent, not quite knowing what to say. It was not unusual for an individual, especially as they aged, to become pensive about their place or worth in life. O'Neill was no different. But for him to actually speak to me about it WAS unusual. Surprising at the least. Perhaps Jona was influencing him in some way after all.
He balled up a fist and gently knocked it against the wall behind him. "You know, Teal'c, when I joined the Air Force, I thought it was a great decision. Don't think I was really looking for 'meaning' in my life at that point, but it seemed... really cool. And it gave such a tidy little goal: rising through the ranks."
I cautiously nodded, afraid to interrupt O'Neill with my own input, but he hardly seemed to notice. I had known many Jaffa whose sole purpose in life was betterment of position. At any cost. Their goals had varied. Greed, power, ambition. Revenge. I had known many Jaffa like this. I had been one of them.
"And then one day I wake up to find myself wearing a pair of birds. Facing death daily... on alien planets." His brow knitted, gaze turning inward. "I'm not stupid, Teal'c. I know chances are there's gonna be a mission some day that I won't come back from. Easy as that. Not saying that's what I'd PREFER, but I've done the math. And even if by some miracle I live long enough to have my knees give out on me or something along those lines, and they stuck me back in retirement or... behind a desk..." He shook his head in disgust. "I could be a poster boy for the Air Force from here on out and still not have a chance in hell of ever becoming a General. I KNOW that. But it's like it doesn't MATTER anymore anyway. The whole rising through the ranks thing... just doesn't mean as much as it once did." He opened his mouth to continue but closed it on an afterthought, glancing up at me with something akin to embarrassment in his eyes.
Realizing he was unwilling to share further, I lowered my foot to the floor and straightened. "So... you have been thinking about Major Carter."
To my delight, a ghost of a smile spread across his face, appreciation for my understanding. "Actually, I've been think-- uh, NOT thinking about my life," he admitted, the smile souring. "And some point along the way, she became a part of it, yeah."
"Did she not become a part of it four years ago?" I prodded.
O'Neill's eyes seemed to become unfocused; he stared blankly into the air as he replied, "That's when she became a part of my team, yeah. But as for my life... that's different."
On instinct, I followed O'Neill's seemingly random gaze and found myself looking into Major Carter's locker. Her gear and the small nameplate within. A name that possibly did not apply to my friend any longer. A friend who possibly no longer existed.
A sharp rap at the entrance started us both; O'Neill grabbed at and then dropped his jacket as he turned to face Major Griff, standing in the doorway. "Can I help you, Major?"
Griff seemed oblivious to what he had just walked into. "My team's gearing up, sir. PLEASE tell me we can leave the mittens and snowshoes at home this time."
Giving a half-hearted snort of amusement, O'Neill nodded. "Until further notice. Far as I know we'll be staying inside the city."
Doing what? I wondered. Looking for the Administrator? So that we could wring answers from his scrawny neck like water from a dishrag?
It sounded like an acceptable mission to me.
Griff nodded his relieved thanks and departed. O'Neill gathered his jacket from the floor and prepared to follow him. He was almost out the door before I gathered the courage to say what I had meant to say from the moment he had walked into the room, and what was only more apparent to me now. "You are afraid that you will lose her."
O'Neill froze in the doorway. He did not speak, or turn to meet my eyes. He hardly seemed to move, and I knew that I had 'struck a nerve'. I almost wondered if I should apologize for my words... and then I got my answer.
"I'm afraid of that every day of my life," said O'Neill, still standing with his back to me. Before I could respond, he hastily left.
Fully geared up, decked out and armed, I stood in the control room and prayed this wouldn't end with me all dressed up and nowhere to go.
Fact was, we had left 118 in a pretty bad place. Brenna had led us to the surface and the workers had followed, growing angrier with every step, exploding into a weird kind of euphoric rage when we emerged into sunlight. They were happy, unbelievably happy, weeping at the sight of the blue, cloud-trimmed sky, drawing in shaky breaths of real air. I had understood that happiness, and the tiny part of me that was still Jona had even shared in it. But they were also furious, enraged to know that their happiness was misplaced, misguided, that they had labored under such a blatant lie. Jona shared in that, too, although his thirst for revenge hadn't been quite up to speed with the others'. He hadn't really been a very violent guy.
The workers had poured into the streets, there had been shouts, there had been sirens... and then SG-1 had left, and with us came Brenna and Kegan and the others who had decided equality on their home world hadn't been worth the fight.
And I knew, even before we received telemetry from the MALP, that there HAD been a fight. A power vacuum, revolution. It might be taking place on a different planet, but the situation was familiar. The denizens on 118 might not be exactly identical to humans, biological speaking, but they were similar enough.
"If we go back to that planet... we're going to be walking into trouble," announced Griff.
I cast the other man an irritated glower. It wasn't so much what he said that bothered me, it was that I had been thinking the exact same thing. Worrying over the very same predicament "Do you have a better idea, Major?" I asked, fighting to keep my voice neutral. From the look on Hammond's face, I failed.
Griff frowned at me. "I didn't say we shouldn't go, sir. Obviously it IS the only way to help Major Carter."
"He was just making an observation," supplied Daniel, trying to be helpful. Also failing.
The pictures from the MALP showed just what I had expected. The main street of Caulder's city, extending from the base of their Gate's ramp, was deserted. Not a single figure walked the pavement, not a single light was lit against the approaching twilight. Undoubtedly the doors of the buildings we could make out were locked, inhabitants hiding under furniture or perhaps peering fearfully out of windows. Many of these windows were broken, the yards before them trashed. Somewhere down the street I could make out the distinct flickering of fire, a wafting column of smoke rising into the darkening sky.
Unexpectedly I felt a twinge of remorse. The first time I had laid eyes on this street, it had been busy, bustling, full of life, but peaceful and carefree at the same time. I'd admittedly been jealous of the idyllic way of life. No crime, the Administrator had boasted. No unemployment.
Now we knew why, of course. If you didn't have a job, or if you were any kind of disruption to society, you'd get your mind wiped and stuck underground, a slave for the rest of your life. And if you were still a problem, even then? Judgment would probably be swift and vicious; you would be exiled from the domed city, tossed out into the bitter cold and left to die.
So were the changes we had prompted really been for the better, or the worse? Before us, life for these people had at least run smoothly. Although the citizens of 118 probably lived in constant fear of their government - and with people like Caulder running the show, who could blame them - they had developed incredible music, art, architecture. And science. Metallurgy and chemicals. And the technology to protect an entire city from an ice age... provided there was a big enough energy supply.
Before us, the workers had been somewhat happy. They had a purpose to their lives, drab as they were. They had companionship. In the horrible conditions of the underground camp, they had flourished, secure in the knowledge that what they did, day in and day out, was the most noble endeavor that anyone could ever hope to take part in.
*We're helping our people survive an ice age*...
Now they knew that was a lie. Now the city's dome was probably running on reserves, without diligent workers mothering the energy-producing machinery. Now the workers were certainly roaming the streets, looking for food and shelter, and maybe looking for revenge. The flames arcing down the street, seemingly unnoticed, were testament to the state this place had been thrust into.
The MALP transmission flickered in a familiar pattern, and all eyes turned back to Davis in anticipation. "Receiving a request for audio/visual link-up," the technician announced, confirming another of my expectations.
They were ready to talk.
The picture faded to dark, and for a moment there was a collective buzz of conversation; had we lost the uplink? Had something happened to the MALP?
"Colonel O'Neill," growled a voice, sounding tinny and petulant coming from the speakers.
I squinted at the screen, frowning as Administrator Caulder's face came into full view, only half illuminated by a soft amber light somewhere off camera. Behind him was the window, and I could make out the familiar arches and spires of the city, of the breathtaking view from his high-rise office. Through the glass, a harsh white radiance pulsed, making me think of a lighthouse. It didn't shed any extra light on the Administrator's face, though. Instead, it merely silhouetted his already-severe form in an eerie fashion. "That's my name," I returned pithily.
Caulder's lips twisted in a scowl; for once, he was in no mood for chit-chat. "Why have you sent another of your machines through to our world?"
I glanced at Hammond, received a rather reluctant nod of approval, and continued the dialogue. "Oh, just thought we'd check back in, see how all of you were dealing with, ya know, the TRUTH."
Caulder leaned towards the screen, so close that I half-expected for his ugly face to pop right out from the monitor. "Dealing? I'll tell you how we are dealing. This city is being destroyed. Systematically. The workers that you released into it are rogues and criminals, Colonel, vagrants and deviants. No innocent lives have yet been lost, but it is only a matter of time before their strikes against our government end in blood. Blood on your hands, Colonel! We-"
"Oh, CAN it," I snapped. "Spare me your self-righteous crap, Caulder. Those 'vagrants and deviants' are good, hard-working people whose lives YOU stole. If they WERE criminals, they don't know it. All they know is what you put in their heads, and they can't even trust that. You screwed them over and now you're paying the price and DON'T expect any sympathy from us."
"So you've returned to gloat, have you?" replied the Administrator, not missing a beat. "I find that repulsive, that you would delight in the suffering of innocents. Our people are peaceful. They have no weapons with which to defend themselves-"
"-and our law enforcement is not prepared to combat roving gangs of thugs with nothing to lose. We had one means with which to keep the peace, and you took that from us. Without workers, of course," he spat, "soon none of this will be a problem. Without power, the dome will not protect the city. The snow and ice will overrun us and we will all die." He gave a sickly smile, as though pleased to have placed further blame on my shoulders, even if it meant his death.
"You put yourselves in this position," I returned, proud at my restraint, my strategy. "And because of you, one of my team members is incapacitated."
Caulder's eyes narrowed in confusion. "You mean injured?" he queried, not without a tinge of glee in his voice.
"I mean the personality you stamped her with came back. You're going to fix that. You're going to undo whatever the hell you did to her."
The Administrator leaned away from the screen, lacing his fingers together and making no attempt to hide a smirk at this perceived turning of the tables. "Interesting," he purred, and through my anger I had to marvel at the man. His whole world was coming apart around him, yet he could still find pleasure in the misfortunes of others.
What an asshole.
"You do that," I continued, "and we might have a little deal for you."
The smirk faltered. "Deal?"
* * *
"Are you ready?"
I looked at Doctor Jackson and smiled gamely. "Well, I did it once, I guess I can do it again."
"I'm sure you can," said the Doctor soothingly, guiding me up the ramp, giving me a little nudge when I couldn't help but hesitate. "You just step through... and then you're on the other side. No big deal."
"Maybe for YOU it isn't," I informed him, staring up at the glowing puddle of water. It had seemed alien enough when I had seen it on my own planet, right in the middle of some kind of metropolis area underneath that glorious sky. Now, here, it was surrounded by clean grays and silvers, manned by people in tidy uniforms... and it was intimidating. "But this is all new to me."
Doctor Jackson smiled again, and gave me another nudge.
I licked my lips nervously as I watched the four strangers step into the puddle and vanish from view. The Doctor had introduced them to me - Major Griff, Captain Merrit, Sergeant Websster, and Lieutenant Baker - but I still couldn't help but think of them as strangers. People I was trusting only because I had to. Because Brenna had told me I could.
The man called Teal'c - a somewhat more familiar figure - stepped though next, leaving only Daniel, Colonel O'Neill, and myself. The Colonel stood sentry by the great blue mouth of the Stargate, watching each of his people file through. He watched me as well. And I watched back, unabashedly.
There was something familiar about him... I couldn't place it, but it irked me all the same. I was almost tempted to ask him if we had ever met before, but that was ridiculous. We were from different worlds, after all. How could we have ever met before now, before he and his people helped liberate us from a prison we hadn't even known existed?
* * *
"Sir... are you sure this is a good idea?"
General Hammond glanced sideways at me, looking vaguely incredulous. "Actually, Doctor, I think that this is a very bad idea. But you said it yourself. If we want to get Major Carter back, what choice to we have?"
I nodded - he was right - but that didn't make me feel any better. When I had stuck up for the plan to return to 118, I hadn't really taken into account the fact that it meant that Sam - Therra - would probably have to return WITH them. What I really would have preferred, after all, was to keep Therra in Sam's room - surrounded by all of Sam's things, her LIFE - in hopes that it would allow the Major's personality to naturally, if gradually, reemerge. And if that didn't work, we could try whatever miracle cure that SG-1 and -6 were sure to bring back with them.
But Caulder was on the planet. His technicians, the people Brenna had told us about, and their nightmarish machines were on the planet. It made no sense to bring that all back here for one person. Maybe it wasn't even possible.
But we never liked sending civilians through the Gate, and in every important way, Therra was a civilian. It was bad enough having Daniel trekking around out there, but at least he'd had some basic instruction; it wasn't enough to get him to follow orders, but for the most part it had at least kept him alive. Now here were two teams, eight people, seven seasoned Gate veterans and one woman trapped between personalities. It was her planet, yes, but she didn't know anything about it besides the mines. She didn't know how to defend herself from whatever 'roving gangs of thugs' that they might encounter out there. The others would have to protect her... and I didn't particularly like the position that put Colonel O'Neill in.
But what choice did we have?
When I arrived on the other side of the Gate, SG-6, Jack and Teal'c had already set up a kind of perimeter, fanning out around the dais and peering with squinted eyes down the long streets. 118 was unusual in that the Stargate wasn't a part of their mythology, wasn't a legend or object of worship. Instead, it was a scientific tool, much as ours was, used in scouting for possible colonies rather than staving off a brutal enemy. These people had never met the Gou'ald, but for a population in their position, this was a mixed blessing. After all, they'd never been to see the Abydos either, and this limited the number of Gate addresses they had on hand.
But even for a people who realized that the Gate was a machine, not an instrument of the Gods, they were still unusual. The Stargate had never been secreted away, hidden from the public by the government 'for their own good'. It was everyday knowledge among the populace, just one more piece of bizarre architecture amidst a city of it. A piece of architecture that might one day be their way off this freezing rock.
The sight of the Stargate standing boldly in this plaza - the DHD a few feet away on the edge of the dais - in full sight of anyone who might be passing by contrasted sharply with what we knew the government HAD secreted away.
The first time I had been to this planet, the sun had been shining; the welcome had been as warm as the weather. Caulder hadn't met us personally, but he had sent a convoy of representatives to escort us to his office. It hadn't occurred to me then that the offer of an guide wasn't as friendly has it had seemed. Of course, now there wasn't any kind of welcome, friendly or otherwise. It looked like a ghost town, full of alien ghosts.
Griff reported on the absence of any immediate threat and we moved off the dais to the smoothly paved street. Therra moved slower than the rest of us, glancing around her warily as though she thought Griff was mistaken, that an ambush was indeed waiting in the shadows. I looked over my shoulder at her, watched as she hovered uncertainly on the top step.
She looked so normal, so Sam, from her cap to her jacket to the boots on her feet. Seeing her standing there, the Stargate looming in the background, it was hard to believe that it wasn't actually HER.
Therra saw me staring at her, and rushed down the steps to join us. I discreetly corralled her into the center of the group, Jack and Griff up front, Teal'c, Merrit, and Webster at the sides, and Baker covering our rears. "Bringing back memories?" I asked quietly, aware that a loud voice would ricochet down the abandoned street. Even as I asked, I searched my own mind for any discomfort that Carlan might have felt. Now that I knew what had caused Sam's 'transformation' back to her alter ego, I felt a lot more comfortable about exploring my own.
Therra shook her head obstinately. "That's the problem, I don't HAVE any memories of this place," she griped, but her face was still lined with worry. "I don't... I don't understand why you're taking me back here. I didn't mean to trouble you... really, I'm sorry."
Griff glanced over his shoulder at us, and even though Jack seemed bent on ignoring Therra altogether, I could see his shoulders stiffen. I felt a dull ache settling in my stomach. "This isn't a punishment, Therra. We're not going to leave you here," I tried to explain, even though I couldn't bring myself to actually look her in the face. I was lying, after all. The whole point of this mission was to arrive with Therra... and leave with Sam. A prisoner exchange of sorts. "But... your people need your help."
"They aren't my people," she responded automatically, a petulance in her voice that made it somewhat easier to separate Therra from Sam. "They've been lying to me... using me my entire life. You don't do that to your own people."
"But if you DON'T help them, they could all die," spoke up Captain Merrit, her words halting as she jumped into a conversation she didn't know if she belonged in.
"They allowed US to die."
"But can't do that," pushed Merrit. "You're better than that... you're better than them."
Therra fell silent, shoving her hands into her pockets and walking silently along. I gave Merrit a nod of thanks, and she smiled back at me, giving a little shrug. Merrit had only been around a few months, and didn't have much reason or opportunity to spend time with Sam. As a result, the two didn't know each other well. It was probably easier for Merrit, then, to deal with Therra as a distinct individual than it was for the rest of us.
Walking in front of me, Jack still looked painfully tense. Of course, that might have been because it was almost deep night - the sun had set behind a ridge of ice and snow a few moments before we had arrived - and we were on our way to ask help from a man who had betrayed us, not to mention hundreds of his own people.
"The plans you gave Brenna for automating the power plant were destroyed in the riots," I explained. Not that I had believed Caulder when he'd told us that; I thought it was more likely that he had destroyed them himself. "Besides... at the time, no one thought that they'd be necessary."
"Right," Therra bitterly commented. "They had us to do everything. And if someone died because of a design flaw... well, what did it matter? We're just slaves."
I sighed. Therra was right, and her points were well taken, but this just wasn't the time. "You're not slaves anymore," I said forcefully. "But now you're in the same boat as everyone else." I gestured up, not towards the sky, exactly, but towards the bubble that enclosed us, protecting the bizarre towers and spires from mountains and peaks of solid ice. "This thing needs to be powered somehow, with minimal human supervision. And the city needs to be powered to support life. You're brilliant, Therra, and with Caulder's technology... I know you can do it. I mean, you're already halfway there, from what..." I paused, letting my brain catch up with my mouth and wincing. "From what Jonah told me, that is."
I was suddenly very glad that Jack was in front of us, that he couldn't see Therra's expression as it softened. Some of the anger went out of her eyes as she regarded me shyly. "You talked to Jonah?"
"About me?" Even in the fading light I could see that her face was flushed.
I considered how best to answer that and still remain truthful. Better to answer as Carlan, I decided; he'd asked Jonah about Therra once, out of curiosity... and suspicion. "Just one time, but yeah. He said you, uh, really knew what you were doing, but that you were a little, um, ambitious."
She actually laughed at that; it was a pleasant sound, if fairly unfamiliar. "He's very supportive. Not that he really UNDERSTOOD the plans I made, of course, but that didn't matter to me. It wasn't what was important."
I sneaked a quick look at Jack before prodding, "What was important?"
She stared at the ground and shrugged. "I don't know. It just... felt right. Like we were supposed to... be together." She looked back up at me with a pensive expression. "There were some things I couldn't remember, but him... I could remember him just fine. We met, and it was like I had known him before, somewhere. It was, um... it was comforting."
"Comforting?" I asked, well aware that everyone was listening to us. Everyone, maybe, except Teal'c, who seemed far too vigilant of our surroundings to be eavesdropping at the same time.
"Well, yeah. Everything down there was so on edge. Most everyone got along, but there were always people like Kegan who held grudges for no apparent reason and would try to make your life hell if they could. There was the constant threat of nightsickness. And the rules concerning efficiency were very strict... if they didn't think you were earning your keep, they would have no problems cutting your rations, or worse... even if you had good reason..." Therra hesitated, I raised my eyebrows, and she rushed on. "When I first got there, they sent me to the mines. Terrible place. It makes the power station look like a resort. The work was exhausting, the conditions were terrible. Little light, freezing cold, sooty air. I guess it wasn't surprising that I got sick right away, something in my lungs. I would have gone to Brenna but one of the other workers said that the hospital upstairs was only for people who were nightsick, and that if they knew I was ill they just might... get rid of me." She crossed her arms, obviously uncomfortable at the memory. "I worked for a few more days but there was one morning when I just couldn't get out of bed. I slept right through the second shift... they didn't notice me, maybe thought I was part of the first shift, I don't know. I couldn't get up the next day either. I just slept, and every time I woke up I thought 'any minute now, they'll realize I haven't been working, they'll come and get me and throw me onto the surface to freeze to death'. I'm sure you can imagine, it's a pretty horrible feeling. Well, I woke up the third day, at the start of my shift, and... someone had brought me food. And water. He was still there."
"Jonah," I guessed, although it didn't entail much guesswork at all. It was obvious.
Therra nodded. "At the time he was the foreman for the other shift. He'd brought me breakfast and had been sitting there, waiting for me to wake up. I was afraid, honestly I thought it was my last meal, but he said... he said that I looked a little better but that I should stay in bed for another day. He said he'd keep covering for me." She raised her eyebrows at me, making sure I understood the significance of this. "He'd been covering for me. On top of supervising his shift, he'd been mining during his sleep period and passing his load off to Brenna as mine."
"Wow," I replied, not quite sure what to say to that, "that was... nice of him."
"It didn't make any sense to me at the time," she confided. "It actually seemed very foolish of him to risk himself for a complete stranger." Therra shrugged, staring at the road again. "We both got transferred to the power station a couple days later; I heard there had been some kind of accident with the vents that had killed a lot of people. When I saw him again, I did recognize him... but not just from the mines. I recognized him from somewhere else, too. And that was when I realized that maybe we weren't complete strangers after all."
She lapsed into silence, her gaze far away, and I didn't make any attempt to recapture her attention. I had way too much to think about anyway.
It didn't take long for someone to fill the void of silence. Griff and Jack started bickering soon after; the fire we had seen from the MALP telemetry was actually a building that had been set aflame -- presumably by the newly-freed workers. Since we had arrived on the planet, the fire had spread to the buildings on either side, and also across the street to the structures there. For a moment we just stood and watched the wall of flame crisscrossing the street and the smoke rising into the air; Webster and Teal'c ventured a little further to check for signs that someone might be trapped inside the burning buildings, found none, and returned to the group. Even from a safe distance, the flickering light played over us like a giant's campfire.
"I think we should stop for the night, sir," Griff was saying. He looked to Merrit, Webster and Baker for confirmation, and I inwardly groaned. The last thing we needed was for the teams to start butting heads, ganging up on each other. Normally, I would never even consider it, but SG-6 HAD been briefed on the current situation... what if the Major thought Jack was too badly compromised to continue leading this mission? "This is the only road I know of leading to Caulder's place. This -" he gestured to the growing pyre, which was virtually the only light to be seen in the deepening night "- might have been left here as a warning sign by the workers, a message to stay out of the city. And even if it's not, we'll have to find a way around it. I don't advise doing that in pitch dark."
Jack repositioned his arms over his MP5, holding it against him like a child might clutch a security blanket. "Thanks for the advice, Major," he said tartly. "But the sooner we get there, the better."
Griff was doing an admirable job of keeping his voice and face neutral, but he didn't look ready to back down, either. "Well, sir, I figured that's why we left when we did, instead of waiting for morning." He glanced at Therra. "And I understand your desire to help Maj... er, Th... her. But with all due respect, Colonel, most of the time you spent on this planet, you spent beneath its surface. You got a perfunctory tour, that's it. On the other hand, my team and I were the ones searching this planet, including the city, for SG-1. Not to mention dealing with that bastard Caulder on a regular basis. And I believe there's too great a chance of walking into an ambush or some other kind of situation that we aren't equipped to handle."
Jack's face was turned away from me again, so I couldn't tell how well he had taken Griff's comments. "You say you know Caulder. Do you really think he's going to hold up his end of the deal?"
The Major appeared startled. "D-don't you, sir?"
"I think the longer it takes us to get there, the more time he's going to have to think of a way to get out of it."
"Well, sir, he'll have a lot more time to scheme if we NEVER get there."
Therra's arms were crossed again, and her head kept bouncing back and forth between the two men as though she were watching a tennis match. I didn't know how much of the discussion she actually understood, but from body language alone I could tell she sensed the tension in the air, as indisputable as the warmth pouring off the blazing buildings.
Just when I expected Jack to put up a fight, however, and make an 'executive decision' that would probably leave Griff and team questioning his sanity... Jack nodded. "Okay then, Major. You're right. Know of any place to set up camp where we won't get set on fire?"
With a grim yet somehow appreciative smile, Griff nodded, pushing back through the little crowd to double back the way he had came. Baker and Webster proceeded behind him, then Merrit, then Teal'c and Therra. I went to follow her... but stopped when Jack grabbed a handful of my jacket and gave it a rough little shake. "What are you doing?" he growled.
The burning buildings raged behind him, the roof of one collapsing with a hiss, and I swallowed hard. "Making conversation?"
He let go of me, although not without another shake. "You're making trouble," he corrected me, glaring again before pushing away and moving in the same direction as the others.
"Did it really happen?" I asked, scurrying behind him but trying to keep my voice pitched low. This was certainly a conversation that the rest of the group didn't need to hear.
Jack didn't even pause at the question, continuing to tromp away from me. "What are you talking about?" he barked.
I finally pulled up next to him, having to almost jog to keep pace and breathing hard. "The mines... Sam being sick, you taking care of her. Did that really happen, or was it just one of those false memories?"
This far from the fire, and turned away from its glow, I couldn't make out Jack's expression. But as it turned out, I didn't need to. "Her name was Therra," he muttered, almost to himself, and it was all the answer I needed.
"Mind if I join you?"
His head whipped up at the sound of my voice, surprise and - thank God - recognition registering in his face. "Bee my guest," he answered after a moment, gesturing to the empty patch of floor across from him before returning to his meal.
I gratefully took a seat, ignoring the spiteful looks I knew I was getting from those who had already turned me away. We were new, both just having been transferred from the mines, and the denizens here didn't seem to have much use for newcomers. At least not when it came to eating arrangements. I was relieved that this seemingly-solitary man hadn't brushed me aside as well; he seemed to rather enjoy being an outcast. I certainly didn't, and other than a need for companionship of some sort, I had something I needed to say to him.
He froze with a biscuit halfway to his mouth, stared at it for a minute and then set it back in his bowl, turning his full attention to me.
"My name's Therra," I offered when he said nothing more, increasingly worried that I was becoming an annoyance.
"I know," he answered, surprising me, measuring me with his eyes. "Jonah."
It set my own bowl of food aside, less interested in eating than I had been a few minutes ago. "I never got to thank you... for what you did. You probably saved my life."
Jonah didn't argue the fact, but he didn't graciously accept my thanks, either. "It wasn't a problem."
I narrowed my eyes, puzzled by his nonchalance. "But you must have gone for days without sleeping."
"What can I say... I have stamina," Jonah said with a little shrug, although I was sure I detected a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
I leaned back against the wall and picked up my dish, but made no move to eat from it. Likewise, Jonah retrieved his biscuit from his empty bowl but didn't bring it to his mouth. Several seconds passed before I realized that we were staring at each other, not suspiciously or with contempt, just staring into the other person's face with startling intent. I blushed and looked away.
I knew what I wanted to do... but I didn't know if it was right. For all his perceived innocence, it was possible that this Jonah was some kind of weirdo who had only helped me because what he thought it might get him later on down the road. And even if that wasn't the case - and I had a hard time believing it was - I surely didn't want to make my own reputation as one of those tramps who traded aid for sexual favors.
Jonah was the first to break the silence. "Why didn't you get any bread?"
I blinked at the abrupt topic change, glancing at the biscuit he still held in his hand. "The woman at the food line said there wasn't any more."
Jonah nodded to himself, and then unexpectedly leaned across and dropped his bread into my bowl. I opened my mouth to protest, but he shook his head and muttered. "I'm full."
I might have only been at the power station for a day, but already I could tell it shared some things with the mines. For one, no one was ever 'full'. Having enough to eat was an alien concept.
With a grunt Jonah pushed himself to his feet and looked down at me where I sat, still leaning against the wall and scrutinizing his gift of food. "So... I guess I'll see you... around."
My mind made up, I followed his lead and rose. Quickly, before he could make an escape, I took a step to cross the distance between us and planted a small, chaste kiss on his cheek. When I pulled back I couldn't help but giggle at the look of astonishment on his face. "Thanks again," I said, trying to sound as heartfelt as possible. Jonah gave a brisk and wordless nod, looked me up and down almost nervously... and beat a hasty retreat back into the heart of the station. I smiled as I watched him go. Someday --
I gasped aloud as I was jolted out of the dream - the memory - pushing myself up on my elbows to better make out my surroundings. This wasn't the barracks. The person sleeping beside me was a woman, an unfamiliar woman. Where the hell was I? And where was Jonah?
My questions were answered in a flood of sudden remembrance, and in relief I fell back onto my 'sleeping bag'. I was with our rescuers, not beneath the surface of a dead planet but ON the surface of a living, if slightly chaotic, one. The fabric walls of my abode glowed slightly from the light outside, and beside me Captain Merrit rolled over in her sleep.
What had awoken me?
No, it wasn't her.
I shook my head to chase off the internal conversation, rolling on my side and trying to make out shapes through the tent fabric. When we had left the humans' planet it had only been late afternoon, but Major Griff had suggested that, if we had to stop for the night, that everyone might as well try to get some sleep. Colonel O'Neill had agreed with this - which had surprised everyone else - and offered to take the first watch. Maybe the sound I heard had been him, trading spots with Major Griff or one of those others?
It wasn't him.
But I didn't know that for sure. I didn't even know that I HAD heard something.
Yes you did.
I frowned at the tenacious little voice insistently crowing in the back of my mind. Wake up Merrit and tell her, it urged me. Better yet, go get O'Neill or whoever else is on watch... they might not have heard it...
I ignored the siren call and slowly laid back down on the bag for sleeping. I was only imagining things, or if I wasn't, I certainly wasn't on par with these people. If I had heard a sound, either they had made it or they had heard it, and were investigating. They didn't need me, a provincial worker with no knowledge of the outside world... even though it was MY world.
Turning over on my side, I sighed. Through the fabric walls of the vent I could make out a faint, pulsing light. It wasn't nearly bright enough to constitute a flash - in fact, it was hardly noticeable - but it sent a strange resonance through me, seeming to fall into the same pattern as the beating of my heart.
* * *
Doubt smothered me like a thousand tons of ice and snow, chilling me to the bone, stealing my breath. It was wrong. Just... wrong. A person should never have their own identity put into question. A person should never have to wonder if everything they knew, everything they trusted, everything they believed... was wrong.
My memories - of my childhood, of the mines, working my way up to foreman - were undetailed, but they were there. They were all I knew. Was it possible that there was another way of remembering something, of remembering exactly? Unlike Therra and the other guy, Carlan, I wasn't so concerned about the fact that other people might be lying to me. Somehow the idea of people lying just seemed normal and understandable. What was really driving me insane was the idea that my own mind might be lying to me. My own brain, revolting against me. Betraying me through some technology even weirder than Therra was able to understand. It was a difficult concept to digest.
What if we weren't who we were?
I didn't want to believe it. I was a... simple man, really, and my ideal world was where everything else was simple also. Not that I couldn't think, not that I couldn't understand if I really wanted to, but things were so much nicer when they were black and white, everything neatly between the lines. Unmistakable and obvious. Simple was... nice. Unusual. Refreshing. There wasn't a lot in my life that hadn't been simple, I remembered that.
But did I just 'remember' it, or did I REMEMBER it?
I didn't look at Therra, but I could still see her, out of the corner of my eye and in my mind. Sitting there, framed by a billowing vent of steam behind her. Facing away, eyes distant. Thinking, no doubt, about her 'expression' from earlier. Sir. She had called me "sir", and just thinking about it twisted my insides. It felt wrong. But it also felt terribly right. Even in the mines, no one had ever called me 'sir'.
Finally I chanced the briefest of glances, as hungry for the sight of her as I had been during our first real meeting, during that meal period however long ago. Even exhausted, bedraggled and bewildered, she was still the most beautiful woman here... the most beautiful I could remember - 'remember' - ever seeing. Somehow, although covered with grime and still sporting my sad attempt at a haircut, she had a radiance to her. A careless self-confidence that made her... unattainable. A fresh, sweet, naive softness that made the attempt well-worth any sacrifice that might be needed. Ever since I had first seen her, laboring away in the mines even while stricken with a vicious sickness, I had felt compelled to know her, to make sure my life was a part of hers. Now, only a short while later, I couldn't imagine my life without her. The strange thing was, it didn't feel as though I had really tried. It had all come so easily. So simply.
"I remember something," I said finally, as though it had just occurred to me, as though I hadn't been trying to forget about it for the last few days, ever since Carlan started hanging around. Therra turned her head towards me slightly, and the mild gesture filled me with a warmth I strove to hide. "There's a man. And he's bald and wears a short-sleeved shirt, and somehow he's very important to me." Please, I prayed, let it be someone from the mines who I can't quite recall. Names and images flew before me in a strange kaleidoscope of memory. "I think his name is... Homer."
Therra turned towards me again and this time our eyes met. "It doesn't ring a bell," she said frankly, but with a sliver of longing in her voice. She wanted to remember, and for a second I was glad that I had at least tried... that I was making the effort to help, if nothing else.
"You?" I prodded.
"Just a lot of vague images," she admitted glumly, hands on her knees. I looked away, wondering if there was anything in particular that she was trying to remember... any particular reason that she had called me by a certain term, a term that didn't fit...
She suddenly shifted where she sat, tucking her knees against her and... and leaning against me, her head resting on my arm. Once again, opposing senses of rightness and wrongness flooded through me, finally canceling each other out and leaving me with a pleasant - if guilty - buzz. "You know, there are things about this place that I like."
Like? What the hell was there to like about this place? We weren't here because we WANTED to be, after all, we were here because of a lack of alternatives, because there wasn't any other choice if we wanted to live. "Really?"
She looked up at me, a half-smile on her face, a knowing glint in her eye, and the buzz escalated to a reverberating hum. It seemed to tremble through my entire body so strongly that I couldn't believe that she didn't feel it as well. I made a stifled sound of acknowledgement, a new feeling of importance and worth stealing over me, pushing aside the heavy blanket of doubt. There were some things, after all, that I truly did REMEMBER, that had been a part of me since that day in the mines, and later during that paltry dinner-for-two. I had wanted to say it aloud for so long, but I had been afraid to... afraid that she would think I was lying, that I was just using the situation to make advances on her, that I was one of THOSE kinds of guys. I really wasn't; those kinds of games seemed foolish, unnecessary, and way too complicated for my tastes.
There was something else... something I had remembered before Carlan, that I had been even less able to forget about. "Would it mean anything if I told you I remembered something else?" I said softly, turning my face towards her so that I was nearly mumbling into her hair.
What indeed. Not people, not places, not even a single object. Not something I could see, or feel, or taste, not something REAL in the sense of being tangible, but the one thing I was unequivocally sure of. "Feelings."
"Feelings?" she echoed, and in her voice was a note of... what? Caution? Skepisism? She certainly wasn't swooning over my pronouncement, but then again I hadn't really pronounced anything yet.
"I remember feeling... feelings." A whole huge rush of words was building up inside me, but I dammed up the torrent, determined not to scare her off. Keep it simple, stupid. Someone had said that to me once, jokingly. Carlan. No. Not Carlan, but someone who reminded me of him.
"For me?" asked Therra immediately, almost sounding as though she might chuckle. I would have given a lot to know what she was thinking about me right then... if her opinion of me was or was not plummeting towards the center of the planet. Nervous energy bubbled into my response. "No, for Tor."
She did laugh then, but it was okay, because it was such a welcome sound. I didn't let myself get wrapped up in it, though, but plunged ahead. "I don't remember much, but I do remember that."
Again, I had no idea what she was really asking. Wondering what I expected from her for my little admission? Or was she still back on the whole 'sir' thing, wondering how that and 'feelings' could both work at the same time? In either case, I realized, she was really trying to figure out where to go from here. I didn't have an answer for her, or for myself. "So... I'm just saying."
The faintest of smiles touched her lips, giving me new hope. "Well, then I feel better."
But I had to wonder if she was telling the truth. We sat there for what felt like eternity. Presumably she was lost in her own thoughts, thoughts about sirs and feelings and homers and maybe a life more worthwhile than this one. Me, I was past thinking. Between the warmth of her body against mine, however innocent and justifiable the contact, and the enigmatic words that had just passed between us, I was beyond thought. I was tired of certainties - names, dates, the meanings of certain letters. Too confusing, too complex. Suddenly, I knew that the only thing I could possibly EVER be sure of was the simplicity of feeling. An honest and indistinct truth. I knew I trusted it, but did she?
Not seconds after this strange epiphany dawned, Therra gave a shaky sigh. She lifted her head from my shoulder, but I couldn't bring myself to look at her. I knew what she was going to say, and I had the feeling I wasn't going to like it. Probably something like, 'let's just be friends'.
Tentatively, I raised my eyes to hers, surprised and confounded by the determination I found there. "Okay... what?"
She shifted on the floor again, this time moving to face me, hands resting on her knees. "If Carlan is right, if we're not really who we think we are... this may be our only chance."
Although her words were enigmatic, her tone and expression left no room for questions. The buzz-turned-hum was kicked up a few notches into a primal tremor that dared not hope but hoped anyway. "Therra..." She looked at me expectantly, and I swallowed hard. "Um... okay, I admit it; I don't know what to say to that."
Her exigency was tempered with a gentle smile. "You don't have to say anything."
"No... no..." I shifted as well, turning towards her so that we sat face to face, and our knees touched. "I do have to say something, because..."
"Because?" Therra asked, not ruffled in the least.
Because I want to know what you're thinking, I thought, almost growling aloud as words were formed and rejected. "Because... because there's no hurry. Geez... how long have we been here and you've never... said anything. Given me any idea that you wanted more... Why rush into this?"
"This isn't rushing," she insisted. "We've known each other... for a long time. Long before we met in the mines." I tried to protest, but she leaned across and grabbed my hand, and I fell silent. "I remember that, and I know you do too. And that's why... why we may never have another chance. What if we remember more? What if we remember the truth and things are different and we're NEVER able to be together?"
My saliva had actually cemented in my mouth. "I know," I crocked, peeling my tongue loose. "God, Therra, I know all of that. But isn't that also exactly why we shouldn't... you know? What if we do this and then we remember, and find out it was wrong? Okay, not wrong," I corrected myself quickly, more certain then I was of anything that THIS could never be wrong, "but... bad? Dangerous? What if one or both of us are already WITH someone else? What kind of risk are we talking about here?"
Therra continued to stare at me, INTO me, as she had during our first real meeting. It was as though she hadn't heard a word I'd said, or had dismissed it before it had fully lodged in her mind. "I'm willing to take the risk," she said, softly but with resolve. "Are you?"
Her hand on mine tightened.
"Of course," I whispered.
I hung back and watched Jonah make 'preparations', trying not to give into the sudden anxiety that had swooped down on me from the moment he had agreed to... this. A little nervousness was normal, I told myself, even if I had been the initiator, but still it made me uncomfortable. I wanted to be in charge for once, in control, and someone in control didn't tremble like a fractured pipe valve when she considered being with the man she loved.
Did I love Jonah? I wasn't quite sure, but as someone I'd known had once said - I wasn't sure who - it was 'close enough for government work'. That was to say, I did have doubts. I would have been lying to myself if I'd tried to make believe that there was no niggling worry chewing away at my resolve, like a worm or a snake in my brain. But while I did have doubts, I had no reservations, and even through my anxiety not once did I wish I could take the words back. Jonah was my life here... and what could my inexplicable infatuation with him be if not love?
No, I loved him. I did. Loved his charming awkwardness around me, loved his soft, irreverent humor, loved the way he looked at me even though I knew I wasn't much to look at. I loved the feelings he stirred in me, even though they often left me with more questions than answers about this supposed 'past life' of ours'.
I watched silently as Jonah closed the door behind us; the old, unused storage area had no lock, but the general consensus among the workers here was that a closed door meant an occupied room. At least, that was what Jonah told me. Mildly, I queried, "Have you ever been here before?"
He froze and gave me an appraising Look. The question's meaning was obvious; what I was really asking was: have you ever been here *with another woman* before? Had there been anyone before me? Apparently, whoever I was really was quite the glutton for punishment.
"No," answered Jonah, and I knew in my heart that it was the truth. "Everything I know about this I learned from Carlan."
"Carlan?" I repeated, annoyed by this information for some strange reason.
"Yeah," he replied. He'd swiped the blanket from his bed before coming here, and now he carefully spread it over the mattress laying on the floor. I'd already known that this place had been used for its singular purpose for generations - I'd even found it a little romantic in a terrible way - but knowing that Carlan had been one of our predecessors was almost enough to completely ruin the mood.
The small area was both chilly and dark; Jonah knelt beside the heater in the corner of the room. He turned the knob, banged on the lid, and smiled tensely as the flame sprung to life with a hiss. The shadows of the metal grate now played upon our bodies, and the shadows of our bodies stood ephemerally against the dirty, dusty walls. "Yeah," he said, rising, arrangements finished.
He looked a little antsy. I felt like I was about to come apart at the seams. The room wasn't large, not even twenty-five feet on each end, but we each stood nervously on each side of the mattress: an impassible distance. I wondered if we shouldn't have picked straws to see who 'went first'.
Thankfully, after only a few more embarrassing moments, Jonah - always the gentlemen - took a seat on the edge of the mattress. "There's no hurry," he said calmly.
I had... done this kind of thing before - I didn't so much remember this as KNOW it instinctively - but still the simple prompt set me at ease and I was able to sit down on the other end of the makeshift bed, maybe a foot away from Jonah. I kept waiting for him to ask for the hundredth time if I was okay with this, but he never did. Maybe he was afraid I would say no. I know I was.
"I was always a little afraid we would end up like this," I said softly.
He didn't seem to take offense. "What do you mean?"
"I didn't really trust you," I said bluntly. "I didn't know why you helped me back in the mines, why you were always so nice to me..."
"You thought I was just trying to get you into bed?"
I blushed, but nodded. "Yeah."
To my relief, he seemed to find that amusing. "I was worried about that."
And still somehow we had ended up here, together. It gave me a little shudder as I thought about it, about predestination and the unbelievable bond that I shared with him... and the two others. It made me more sure that ever that, even if I HAD called him 'sir', what we were doing was right and normal. The more we had remembered, about letters and numbers and shimmering vertical water, the more profound my feelings for him had become. Even if that emotion was accompanied by a slight sense of guilt, the fact that it didn't flag and fade away altogether proved - at least to my satisfaction - that it was real. That it was for keeps.
"But now... you're not afraid anymore?" prodded Jonah.
The warmth from the corner furnace was rapidly spreading through the entire room, and I basked in it. Sometimes working around the machines one would catch a hot draft, but all the residual heat seemed to be sucked directly into the cold walls. It felt nice to be really WARM for once. "No. Not afraid. I trust you."
Jonah pulled his feet up onto the mattress, edging closer to me, and like a magnet drawn to the pole I felt myself moving towards him. "Why do you trust me" he whispered, as though he feared someone might be listening in, "when I don't even trust myself?"
It seemed an odd thing to say, but even that strangeness didn't stop a pang of nervous excitement from racing through me. Destiny rushed at us, bewildering and impossible to halt. I knew, merely from the look in Jonah's eyes, that he felt as I did: the time for debating and reasoning away out own desires was over. The turn of the moon, the pull of the tide --
-- moon? tide? what were these things? ---
-- would guide us now.
Slowly, fluidly, with none of the awkwardness I had anticipated, I laid back on the mattress. Jonah looked down on me, his face passing through a dozen fleeting emotions before finally setting on unreadable.
Were we really both so afraid - afraid of consequences, afraid of the other, afraid of ourselves - that we were literally on the brink of walking away from this... this moment? Somehow I knew the answer was yes, and that it had always been that way for us. I thought wildly. Maybe the things we were remembering had nothing to do with repressed or false memories. Maybe instead they were memories of another life, a past life, coming back to haunt us. Perhaps we were ageless souls, cavorting from one pair of star-crossed bodies to another across time, always loving but being afraid to love, always ending up in this place, with one or both being too scared to that final step. Maybe we were doomed to play out this pattern for all eternity, until -
But such notion were driven out of my head without delay as Jonah seemed to make up his mind. With resolve... with determination... he pulled off his shirt, threw it aside with characteristic abandon, and leaned down to kiss me.
I went to the commissary, mostly to pass the time. I wasn't hungry and I didn't even feel like being around heaps of other people, but Hammond had kicked me out of the control room hours ago. I wasn't particularly needed in the infirmary, either; there were no outstanding injuries to any of our people or our guests that needed my personal attention, and Jenny, one of the nurses, had promised to let me know immediately if there was any change in Brenna's condition. So it happened that I found myself roving the cold concrete halls feeling useless and not a little anxious, and my wandering feet brought me to the doors of the commissary without asking permission from my brain.
The place was busier than usual, especially considering the pre-dinner hour. It took me a second to figure out why this was, and also why none of the airmen standing in the food line looked at all familiar.
It was the workers.
I stalled in the doorway, moving inside only when a group of raucous airmen pushed through after me. The workers had all been allowed to shower and put on clean clothes, of course, the standard blue bottoms and black tops -- I'd heard that Supply was still grumbling about the sudden demand. I had known this, I had even seen a few of the workers getting cuts stitched and abrasions disinfected by the infirmary staff, but for some reason seeing this sea of strange faces in our customary clothing threw me for a moment or two.
As soon as confusion dissipated, uneasiness set in. But something wouldn't let me back out the way I had came, and it wasn't the constant flow of traffic. Setting my jaw, as though stepping into battle, I walked resolutely into the room.
This wasn't all 163 of them; naturally, they would have been organized into three or four shifts. There was an abundance of guards positioned around the room as well, I noticed, although they didn't seem as paranoid and shifty-eyed as usual. The workers talked and laughed rather easily with each other, even engaging in conversation with the commissary staff and passing airmen, and I realized it was simply that no one saw these people as a threat. Otherwise, I reasoned, taking up a tray and sliding into line, they would have been served in their guest corners. The fact that they were here instead, mingling with their rescuers under watchful eyes, meant that either Hammond hadn't been inclined to have large-scale room service orchestrated, or that he had finally agreed with O'Neill and the others that these people weren't a danger to us.
Maybe it was wishful thinking, I contemplated, smiling obligingly to a handsome worker with biceps twice as big around as his neck. After all, if we told ourselves that these people were a potential risk, we would have to acknowledge that Sam, O'Neill, Teal'c and Daniel all had similar potential lurking within. I sighed to myself as I placed a salad and a slice of pumpkin pie on my tray. Not only that, but if Sam couldn't be 'cured', if Therra couldn't be removed... Well, we knew how the larger entities in our government responded to risks. They still monitored Teal'c's daily activities, after all, and it had almost been four years. Automatically I paid for my food, deep in disturbing thought. If Sam couldn't be 'fixed', couldn't she be taken away from us altogether?
Yes, I answered myself, slipping quickly into a chair at an unoccupied table. Yes, she could. And if the same... regression happened to the others? Damn. We could lose SG-1 to a quartet of imaginary people!
Still scowling, I pushed the sensible green salad to the side and started tucking away the pie.
"This seat taken?"
I looked up and into the dark eyes of a woman, the woman Daniel had referred to as 'Kegan'. The woman he had some kind of history with, too, if I'd read his expression right. For a dumbstruck moment I wavered on uncertainly, wondering why Kegan had picked this seat out of all others... and then nodded for her to sit as I realized that there really weren't many other vacancies.
Oddly enough, Kegan didn't look terribly out of place in military blue and black. She had a strong face with keen eyes, a solid if not muscular frame, and the same kind of unerring confidence I had noted time and time again from the off-world teams, SG-1 included. I'd decided that there simply had to be something about regularly traveling to other worlds that made a person feel as though he or she could take on this one.
Kegan murmured and thank-you and took her seat. On her tray was a glass of pink juice, a sandwich and a slice of cheesecake; the other woman sneaked a circumspect peek at my menu before reaching for her cake. I couldn't help but smile. "So... how have you and your friends been doing?"
She looked up at me, startled and discomforted, as though idle chatter over a meal was unheard of... and who knew, maybe for her it was. But she answered nonetheless. "Good. We're good, thank you."
"Everyone treating you well?" I pushed, suddenly grasped by the thought that talking to this woman might give me some insight on Sam and her condition. "Finding things to keep you busy?"
Kegan actually smiled at this. "One of the men taught a few of us to play a game called 'poker', and we've been instructing the others. It's very entertaining. Of course..." she hesitated. "You've all been so kind to us, but... Jo-- no, your Colonel O'Neill told us that you were going to send us somewhere, a whole new planet just for us. And I know it hasn't been all that long, but... do you have any idea when we'll be taken there?"
I was so absorbed in analyzing that fact that Kegan had been able to distinguish between O'Neill and 'Jonah' that I almost missed her question. "When... when, well, that's difficult to say." I was reluctant to speak a word of Sam's 'transformation'; the workers wouldn't have any knowledge of memory stamp. Besides, who knew what could happen? Mentioning false lives and bogus personalities could cause a chain reaction that would end with ALL the workers remembering who they really were... and none of us were sure that this was a good thing. After all, at present they were completely harmless. Who knew what the future - or more accurately 'the past' - could bring? "There's been one or two delays, but we'll get those taken care of in no time and then you'll be on your way." Kegan said nothing, and I continued, "I'm sure you're eager to... see the sky again."
"I never thought I would see it in my lifetime," she responded, poking at her cake rather disappointedly. So she realized just how half-hearted and vague my reply had been. "And really, I only saw MY sky for a little while, while we were walking to the Stargate. We all kept bumping into each other because we weren't looking where we were going, we were looking up at the sky. It was blue," she informed me quite seriously, awed by the notion. And the sun was... yellow almost. Yellow. Over the entire city was a kind of bubble, stretching between us and the sky, but it was so clear that we could see everything perfectly. The sky, the sun, the snow..." She trailed off and glanced at me, embarrassed. "I'm sorry."
"No reason to apologize," I said immediately. "I mean... I can only imagine what it must have been like for you."
Kegan merely shrugged, still downcast. "This... this isn't the surface of your planet, is it?"
I hesitated. Hammond had held a meeting with the guards and some of the usual crew about interacting with the workers, about what to tell them, and how much information to provide. Questions about our exact location hadn't been covered, but I thought this might be a valid concern, and probably harmless to answer. "No, we're underground."
"Thought so. Didn't see any windows." Kegan toyed with her fork. "Your surface anything like ours?"
"From what you've told me, it's very similar."
"There are snowy parts of the world," I agreed, "especially the closer you get to the north and south poles of the planet. But no, no ice age, if that's what you mean."
She nodded. "Then your city's pretty big?"
"We have a lot of cities," I chuckled, amazed anew at this whole concept of cultural relativism. To Kegan, the idea of a single city was new and bewildering. The idea that there could be multiple cities on the surface, exposed to the sun, made her eyes go wide.
"All those cities, and there's no room for us?"
Her words physically shocked me. I set my fork down on my tray and leaned back in my seat, surprised. I had never really occurred to me that the workers would have any interest in sticking around.
Kegan noticed my reaction. "We'd been talking about it," she rushed to explain, "just because you people have been so nice to us even though you got no reason to be, and you seem so settled down, but I didn't want to ask till I knew that... that there was more than just this place. I mean, it's nice and everything, very clean and calm, but it kind of reminds us all of... well, of where we spent our entire lives."
"But if you don't want us here... well, guess I can understand that. I mean, we wouldn't be any more use to you here than we would be back... back home." She was uncertain about the word. If it fit.
But certainly home couldn't fit Earth either. We'd already discussed this. Cassie was one thing, Nyan was another, but transplanting over one-hundred people into Earth society? When all they knew how to do - at least all they remembered doing - was hard labor? Plus expect them to all keep the secret of the Stargate and where they were truly from? No, no, it just wasn't possible. "It's not that we don't want you. It's just that... our people are set in our ways, and you in your's... believe me when I say that it just wouldn't be the right place for you."
Kegan frowned in consternation. "But how do you know some other planet will be the right place for us?"
I shook my head, mostly to myself. Giving the workers a fresh start, a second chance... it had seemed like a perfectly wonderful idea to Hammond and myself, and so it must have to O'Neill when he had come up with it. A clean slate, far away from the manipulation and dirty memories of a place where they had been used as nothing more than chattel. But when SG-1 had whisked these people away through the Stargate, had they really been thinking about what was best for the workers? O'Neill and Sam and Teal'c and Daniel's first impulse had been to get the hell out of that place, get home and fast, rescue as many as they could and give them the chance to start over. But the majority of the workers had refused to come. They didn't want a second chance, and maybe these people didn't want or NEED one either. What they wanted was a home. And despite Kegan's hesitation, there was only one home for these people.
I knew I had told Therra that there was no hurry, but I just couldn't keep myself from touching her any longer. I'd always forced myself to be so restrained and composed around her; I'd had this sneaking suspicion that if I started... I wouldn't be able to stop. It did lend credence to Carlan's insane theory. I felt that I had known Therra - that I had wanted Therra - for much longer than a few short weeks.
The room had warmed considerably, and on a wild - and maybe stupid - impulse I yanked my shirt off over my head, tossed it behind me, and leaned down to kiss her. My spirits - and my blood pressure - soared as she moved to assist me; her arms wrapped around my neck, and her lips met mine halfway. The rush of memory I was swept into just then was not always clear, not always pleasant, but it was there and it was just as real as the feel of her against me.
The first kiss was hard, hungry but brief -- a test, a wary experiment. My arms slipped beneath her and she let her hands trail down my shoulders, my back, almost to my waist before returning the way they had come, from my back to my neck, fingers combing through the short hairs there.
Unconsciously I slipped into a more advantageous position over her, stealing a second kiss, this one longer and more assured. We both realized simultaneously that I was now straddling her - I knew the instant I felt her sharp and sudden intake of breath - but there was an unspoken agreement that... it was okay. We weren't a couple of teenagers, no matter how much I felt like one just then. We were adults who were making a less-than-responsible decision for the sake of... well, of love, and we were ready to accept the consequences if they came. If only we could get past this notion that every touch, every sound, every nuance of this embrace was somehow wrong.
Between intermittent, almost shy kisses, Therra slipped out of her jacket-like top, leaving only a too-small black tank-top that clung to the curves of her breasts and stomach. By comparison, the baggy pants hanging tenuously to her hips looked like pajama bottoms. I half-remembered some wicked comment about tank-tops and filed it away for later. Much later.
I wasn't sure exactly when the pace escalated, but suddenly I was gasping for the breath stolen by every kiss, entranced by the feeling of her body full against mine, separated only by an irritating layer or two of clothing. Therra's slender frame quivered beneath me; she giggled as I tried to pull her closer to me and get rid of those ridiculous pants at the same time.
Although it was torture, I pushed myself away from her, just far enough away to see her face.
"Don't ask," said Therra huskily, raising a hand to swipe beads of perspiration off her temple. Between the furnace and our own body heat it had become decidedly WARM in our little nest; there was a thin sheen of sweat on her skin, and I could feel moisture accumulating on my body as well.
"Ask?" I queried.
"You were going to ask... if I was okay with this... AGAIN..."
Now it was my turn to chuckle. "No I wasn't."
She suddenly threw her arms back around my neck, pulling herself up against me and burrowing her face into my shoulder. "What's the worst-case scenario?" she asked fiercely, her breath cool on my damp skin. "We could... we could be enemies. Always hated each other, but always had some kind of, I don't know... some kind of fantasy..."
"No," I chided. "Enemies would be nothing... enemies I could deal with. Worst case scenario is... I'd the godfather of your and Carlan's children."
The idea was so outlandish that she laughed, and I laughed as well. It was almost macabre, certainly weird, to be laying together so tight, so close, and to be laughing. But it felt good, too, and it gave us the confidence to divest ourselves and each other of our remaining clothes, and to fall into each other once and for all. And every touch, every sound, every nuance wasn't a violation of some unspoken rule, but an undeclared promise of trust and understanding. If this was somehow wrong we couldn't make it right, we would never be able to justify this to ourselves or anyone else, but I couldn't imagine ever wanting to take this back. For all our hesitation and uncertainties, there had never been a question of whether or not we wanted this. It had always been about... was it worth the possible risk? Not of getting caught in the here and now, but paying for it later on?
Sometimes taking the high road was the best option out of a rotten few, this I remembered. Sometimes following the rules helped you sleep better at night, not as well as a warm body beside you, but well enough. It had its risks too, however, and when consequence was placed against consequence, one stood out as the more horrible possibility: the prospect of living out my life without being allowed to hold Sam Carter like this.
I came awake suddenly but by no means painlessly, alone in the tent I'd been sharing with Daniel, shivering violently despite the warmth of my dream. My memories.
God, Jonah had been so sure of himself. Hell, *I* had been downright cocky! So sure that nothing would ever be bad enough to make me regret that one time together, but this was something that no one had ever thought of. I'd prepared myself for losing Carter as a friend and maybe even a 2IC, but not losing Carter ALTOGETHER.
Jonah had loved Therra, yeah, but we weren't them. There WAS a difference, dammit, and I needed Sam back. Needed her now.
I growled in frustration, flinging an arm across my eyes, and at that very moment the alien night was pieced by a blood-chilling scream.
One moment we were surrounded by twilight, serenaded only by an occasional crash-clatter of breaking glass and irritating electronic sirens going off at odd intervals: this planet's version of car alarms. There was no real breeze, because the protective bubble over the city regulated ventilation down to the slightest puff, and no animal sounds because the parks and zoos were nowhere near here. Everyone had retired to their tents, except for Major Griff and myself, standing watch, gazing nervously down the ghost-town streets. There was only the rise and fall of my voice and Griff's as I provided him with a less anaesthetic version of the events of the last few weeks than he'd heard from his superiors. Maybe it wasn't technically my place to be doing so, and maybe Jack would have a few words with me if he woke up and overheard, but I needed a second opinion. Or would that be third, or fourth opinion?
"Now that's just weird," commented Griff.
I chuckled sadly. Weird it most certainly was.
"This Therra person, then," the major continued, "she's kind of like a Gou'ald? Using Major Carter's body?"
I was dismayingly quick to jump to her defense. "Um... I don't know if I'd say that. I don't think Therra realizes that there's another person there, any more than I was aware of being Daniel Jackson when I considered myself to be Carlan. I mean... she's just as much of a victim here as Sam. She never asked for this."
Griff thought this over, staring down on of the dark city streets, hands unconsciously clenching the strap of the MP5 resting on his knees. "Then..." he began slowly, "are they you? Or are they someone completely different?"
Instinctively I knew what he meant. I had found myself describing our alter egos in both terms. "Hard to tell," I said truthfully. "I mean, if it's memories who make up who you are, and those memories are taken away and replaced, I guess it makes sense that a totally new person would be created." And Caulder and his flunkies would have been playing God just as surely as though they'd been cloning living beings out of test tubes, I thought sourly. "And then, as our memories started to filter back, we'd gradually return to ourselves again." I shrugged. "All I know is, there was this nasty... shallowness to Carlan, and I'd really rather believe it was something programmed into me when I was him, and not... a part of the real me that I'm not aware of." I paused. "Does that make any sense?"
Griff smiled ruefully. "Doctor Jackson, the only reason I can answer 'yes' to that question is because I've been on Stargate teams for a long time." He arched his back, shifted slightly on the empty crate that he was using for a chair - I had simply settled on the paved ground - and frowned thoughtfully. It wasn't an expression I was used to seeing from him. "So how come Teal'c isn't this Tor person right now?" He nodded in Teal'c's general direction; he stood watch on the other end of our camp. "How come he and you and Colonel O'Neill haven't... regressed?"
I fidgeted. "Well for Teal'c and me, there's no reason for us to. There's nothing particularly... alluring about those other personalities. Not for us. But..." I closed my eyes briefly, wondering how to word this so that Jack and Sam didn't come off sounding like a couple of infatuated teenagers. "Jack and... and Major Carter have had to deal with some things lately that have been... difficult for them. Sam's withdrawing into Therra is... escapism, I think. From... guilt, from making decisions about... about..."
"About her and O'Neill bein' in love?" Griff suggested, voice lowering at the last word, sneaking a circumspect glance at the tents. I blinked in surprise and he shook his head at my ignorance. "Doctor Jackson, even you should know something about the Base grapevine. There's no stopping it. No controlling it. The brass thinks they can confine all the heavy stuff to the upper echelon, but they can't. There's always gonna be some lieutenant hanging around in the doorway, or an airman monitoring the surveillance feed who'll blab it to everyone else first chance he gets. Besides," he grunted and shifted his legs into a new position, "we're not just around because we know how to point and shoot. We're also pretty good at observation, evaluation. If I hadn't caught at least a whiff of what's been going on between those two for God knows how long, I'd be a pretty piss-poor excuse for a soldier, now wouldn't I?"
One moment everything was quiet, the only real sounds being my voice and Griff's as we discussed the base's knowledge of 'the Carter and O'Neill Thing'. In the next moment the screaming began, flashes of orange began to flutter around my field of vision, and a bright arcing light caught my eye. It was a flaming torch, and it landed beside the women's tent, quickly igniting.
* * *
I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the transparent star map partitioning my office from the briefing room, and I couldn't say I particularly liked what I saw: the unreasonable, unprofessional guilt that had been percolating through me since morning, shining through in my eyes.
First, when I'd had the unfortunate luck to see O'Neill and Carter... kissing... the guilt had mostly dealt with my own handling of the situation. I'd realized that I'd been fooling myself, thinking that Jack and the Major would be able to keep a lid on their simmering hormones when they were together, day in and day out, often thrust side by side into life-threatening situations. I'd wanted to believe it very badly, because I hadn't wanted to DO anything about it. Not when taking action would inevitably follow to the splitting-up of my best team.
That had changed somewhat when I'd found out that Carter and O'Neill hadn't exactly been themselves at that moment, but the guilt hadn't vanished, it had simply shifted. Suddenly I had found myself actually taking on the blame for Major Carter's retreat into this Therra personality. And why? Hard to say. Maybe because at the heart - or at least the logic - of this problem were the Air Force regulations delineating unprofessional relationships in the chain of command. And as the base commander and their commanding officer, it was my responsibility to advocate those rules - those and others - diligently, even more so than any other member of the SGC. It was my duty to see them upheld. It wasn't anything I should have even had to think twice about.
I frowned into the reflective material, and I thought vehemently, 'Get a hold of yourself, George. This isn't the first time something like this has happened and it won't be the last. You will NOT think that somehow making exceptions in this case is the right thing to do, and you will immediately CEASE feeling guilt about the matter. All you can do is what you swore to do. Now get a grip, man.'
It sounded fairly decent. Unfortunately, my reflection looked less than impressed. And I walked out of my office feeling no more resolute, no more determined, only that much more helpless.
* * *
"You did WHAT?"
The monitor poised above Brenna's bed was flashing warning signs at me - heart rate, blood pressure - but for the mmoment I ignored it and told Jenny "Have General Hammond paged."
Brenna cradled her healing arm against her as she continued to rant, not simply angry but also disbelieving. "I had the feeling that you people enjoyed risks, but I simply cannot believe..."
"We had to," I said sharply, interrupting her by sliding a thermometer under her tongue. Her skin was cool to the touch, the fever seemed to have broken, but after all she wasn't precisely human. And it gave me a chance to quiet her. "Major Carter is too valuable for us to just let all of her knowledge be lost under this false persona. And she's a friend, too. It wasn't an easy decision, or a safe one... but it's a necessary danger."
Brenna's eyebrows raised in incredulity, and her mouth fell open. The thermometer dropped, unnoticed, onto the bed sheets. "Whatever deal you made with the Administrator, he will never honor it. If nothing else he'll certainly find a way to shirk his end of the bargain."
"We're aware of that," promised Hammond, striding into the room with a swiftness that startled us both. "I was already on my way here," he explained, noticing my expression. To Brenna, he said, "and I agree with you. Administrator Caulder most definitely is not to be trusted. However, his people are the only ones with the knowledge to help Major Carter."
Brenna looked less than relieved. "You're just like him. You think you can control everything. The Administrator thought he could do it with drugs and technology... and threats. You think you can do it with your rules." She glanced at me and I winced.
A deep frown creased the General's face. "I was told you wanted to speak with me."
Brenna picked the thermometer out of her lap and toyed with it. "Yes. Before it was just a request, but now I'm afraid it's much more urgent than that. I spoke to Kegan not long ago, while she was getting a... check-up." She glanced at me to make sure the word was the right one, and I nodded. "And she has been talking to the other workers. General, they no longer wish to be taken to a different planet. They wish to go home."
*Home?* I hastily looked over at the General, moving away from him as I did so in expectation of a massive eruption. They all wanted to go back? After all we had done for them? After the pains SG-1 had taken to bring them here? I could only imagine what my expression must look like, but curiously Hammond's remained impassive. "You say it's urgent?" he intoned.
She nodded confidently. "If we could all go back through your Stargate, catch up with Therra and the others, they would have a much better chance of making it to the Administrator safely. From what Doctor Frasier has told me, the city is in chaos... not that that is surprising. If we returned, the workers would be able to gather their comrades and help organize them. And their first priority would be to accompany your SG-1 and to be sure that they are not..." Her brow furrowed. "What is the term Colonel O'Neill used? To make sure they are not 'screwed with'."
Hammond coughed, and I knew it was meant to mask a grim chuckle. "You understand that I'll have to give it some thought."
"Think quickly," demanded Brenna, and I reminded myself that she was used to taking an authoritative position with others, cowed only by Caulder.
The General gave a grudging odd, obviously not pleased at 'taking orders' from the woman, and motioned for me to follow him back out the door. I did so, but not before tugging the thermometer out of Brenna's grasp and whisking it back under her tongue.
"So they want to go back home now," said Hammond once we had stepped out into the hallway. He looked at me askance. "I don't suppose you know anything about this."
I lifted my chin. "I... might have talked to Kegan about it."
"Might or did, Major?"
"I..." Sighing, I shook my head. "Honestly, sir? I'm not completely sure. All I know is that she... expressed concerns."
"About P5R-722, or any other planet for that matter, being the right place for them," I corrected him. "Sir, I think we forgot something... that a large majority of the workers didn't want to come back here. They remained on P3R-118. I know we figured that they were just afraid to go through the Stargate, but sir, I think we need to give them more credit than that. These people... they're not just tired of waiting around here, sitting on their hands while we sort out our own problems. Well, they ARE tired, but it's more than that. I think they really do want to... fight for what's theirs. That's what it sounded like from Brenna, at least. If it took them a little time and distance to realize that, well, after everything they've been through in the last few days, it's hard to blame them."
Hammond acknowledged this with a nod. "You have to admit... it's a bit of a 180."
"You're suspicious of them," I observed, slowing as we neared the elevator.
He smiled wryly; it was an expression so reminiscent of Colonel O'Neill that it was eerie. "Doctor, considering the situation, about the only person I'm NOT suspicious of is you."
Even before the shouts registered in my mind I felt it: heat, brushing across my face, waking me in a panic. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the fire, like a living creature, crawling up the slanted side of our tent.
Merrit was already awake and shouting at me, cursing aloud, and finally grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the burning tent with her. I wanted to apologize for being so dull-witted, so slow to act, such a liability, but I couldn't talk any better than I could move. Everything seemed numbed, far away, like I was seeing it through someone else's eyes.
I spotted Daniel Jackson first, belly to the ground next to a packing crate. Major Griff was kneeling on the other side of the knee-high box, steadying his gun but not firing, seeming to be searching for a target.
I saw Merrit and Teal'c and the others all rushing around me, all armed and ready and knowing what to do... and I felt so helpless. I didn't even know what was going on, never mind what I could do to stop it. All I could see were figures running through the shadows of the surrounding buildings, some carrying torches, others carrying... something, maybe weapons like the one the Caulder man had shot Brenna with. They didn't seem to be headed towards the camp, they were just circling it, hemming us in. Maybe... waiting. Waiting for what? Who were they?
My question was answered almost immediately, but not in the way I wanted it to be.
* * *
A scream tore through the night like a knife rending flesh. Not a roar of anger or terror. A battle cry. No sooner had this registered with my sleep-drowsed mind then I heard other voices: my people. Griff shouting to get down. Baker calling for Teal'c. Merrit yelling... something.
I was outside my tent with gun in hand, instinctively hunching low, before I even realized that I had risen from my bedroll.
Darkness loomed over us like a low ceiling; it was storming again beyond the dome: heavy, matte, foreboding. And I could still make out the strange throbs of light, more easily seen now that night had totally fallen, although I couldn't make out the source. A small fire in the center of camp gave off the most illumination, but not enough for me to be able to see everything I needed to see. One of the tents had seemingly been lit aflame and now smoldered in a foul-smelling pile on the ground.
There were shapes, figures, people moving through the alleyways around us; what had seemed like a defensible position now had the flavor of a trap. They were on all sides, still shouting wordlessly... probably to throw us off, or intimidate us, or exaggerate their numbers.
The firelight caught a sudden flicker of color, and dreadful certainty congealed in my stomach.
I knew that color. Not orange, not brown. A strange shade of russet, like rusted metal.
Daniel and Griff had taken defensive positions behind an empty crate. Griff had his weapon peeking over the side of the box but our visitors were moving through the shadows so quickly and randomly that he couldn't get a bead on any of them. I spotted Teal'c and Webster crouched next to the third tent, on the shielded inner side, in much the same position. Teal'c was looking at me expectantly; I met his gaze and gave a terse nod.
He fired a shot into the amorphous darkness. It was impossible to tell if the burst of energy struck flesh or the side of a building.
Baker and Merrit were further towards the center of camp, standing in a somewhat stooped-over position, guns at the ready, scanning the circling mob. Looking for weapons. Or for someone rushing the tents. Even as I made a run for Griff and Daniel's shelter I had to fight off the strange thought that I was missing something... or that something was missing. Something was wrong.
Oh course it's wrong, you idiot, I berated myself. You're being attacked by the very people you just helped set free! The same people the SGC is expending serious resources trying to relocate.
I executed a controlled fall behind the crate where Griff and Daniel were concealed; they looked over at me with expressions both relieved and chagrined. The other side hadn't fired a single shot, hadn't made any outward attack other than setting fire to the empty tent, but the feeling of aggression was all-too obvious. So was the feeling of imminent danger.
Daniel's face was pinched with worry but also touched with sadness, and I realized that he had seen what I had. "They're the workers!" he told me, having to shout to be hear over the general ruckus.
Griff was annoyed. "What'd we do to piss them off? I thought you guys saved them!"
I saw Baker scrambling for cover on Daniel's other side, flinching with every step in anticipation of being gunned down. Originally, the workers had had no weapons, I recalled, and the same was true for the civilians. Even the police force had seemed lightly armed. But Caulder'd had a gun; he'd shot Brenna with it. Therefore logic dictated that there had to be weapons somewhere, and presumably during their angry raid of the city the workers had gotten their hands on some. Each and every one of us was just waiting to hear the sharp crack of gunfire mingling in with the other sounds of the night.
"We did!" Daniel answered. "But they might not realize it's us! They might think we're part of their government, or maybe they need supplies and figure we're an easy mark!"
From the corner of my eye I saw a female form dressed in fatigues skitter up next to me, joining this awkward, cramped conference behind the crate. "Well this is one case where circling the wagons isn't going to work. Carter, we need to clear a path out of here before the natives get any more restless. Do you think--"
I looked to my side then, at Carter, but it was Captain Merrit who stared back at me with wide, panicked eyes. Not panicked because I had called her by the wrong name. Panicked because, like me, she had just realized what was wrong. What was missing. WHO was missing.
How in the hell had we overlooked her?
"Carter!" I snapped at Merrit, wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. "Where's Carter?"
The captain aged ten years in five seconds. Her face was pale and lined with guilt and worry, and an idle part of my brain noted that I probably looked pretty similar. But to her credit she didn't shake, didn't fold, didn't even stammer as she answered, "Sir! They attacked our tent, we both made it out... but sir, I'm sorry, I was thinking of her as Major Carter, not Therra, and I left her. I knew Major Carter could take care of herself, but Therra..."
It was all I needed to hear. Too much, actually.
I grabbed at my radio and shouted into it: "Webster! Teal'c! Find Carter! They're here to get Carter!"
* * *
The man in the orange vest who grabbed me didn't know I could fight so well.
Neither did I.
But all the same, I fought. When he'd first grabbed me from behind, I'd kicked back and my foot connected with his shin so hard it jarred my teeth. I raced forward, knowing that the Earth people would help me, but there were three men there, ready to replace the one I'd incapacitated. Two of them took a hold of my arms. The third raced around in front of me, in case there was any trouble.
There was trouble.
I wasn't sure exactly how I did it, but after a few agile twists and turns and another well-placed kick all three of the attackers were falling away from me, various looks of pain on their clean-shaven faces.
But there were still more. The whirlwind of angry color seemed to fragment into a maelstrom of individuals, all intent on dragging me away from the fire and the tents and the Earth people and Jonah. Even with the help of my miraculous, yet to be explained fighting skills, I was no match for them.
I couldn't call out. Strange as it seems, I didn't even know what to scream. What name I should be yelling as I was half-pushed, half-dragged into one of the dark alleyways the others had so intently been watching. I was sick with rage and dread, but my captors didn't stop there. Like the mobs that used to arise at the food line, the throng of men pulled and shoved me forward, through the alley and into another street. I tried to turn around and go the other way, but it was like running into a hard jet of air. No matter what I did, I was moved inexorably in that one direction, towards an unknown destination.
There were just TOO MANY of them.
* * *
"They are retreating!" bellowed Teal'c, his voice reverberating across the open space like the sound of a gong.
"Like hell they are," I swore, knowing the others wouldn't hear me. There was only one reason the workers would be fleeing. Not because they all of a sudden got afraid of us. No, it was because they'd gotten what they had come for. I felt my features twist and curl and harden in hatred, and I turned to Major Griff. "Major, I'm putting you in charge of the remainder of this mission."
Griff's brow lowered in confusion. Over his shoulder, I saw Daniel's jaw drop. He understood.
I was glad somebody did.
I rose from the dubitable shelter and ran full speed through our ruined camp, towards the darkness, after the retreating force. As battle strategies went, it was unpopular --
"Colonel O'Neill, what the--"
-- but I heard them running after me, followwing me. I'd known they would.
We ran past the firelight out into the darkness and a congested alleyway. Several of the workers turned to combat us, to slow us down and prevent us from reaching Sam. They were empty handed, which was almost a disappointment. I wasn't sure if I could fire point-blank at an unarmed man. I couldn't just pump him full of lead and leave him dying in that alley without good cause. Maybe there had been a day when that wouldn't have bothered me... but I was better than that now. I had to be.
So I turned my P90 over in my hands and whacked a couple of them in the heads with the butt of the gun, instead. I made it through the first interceptors, but looking over my shoulder I saw the others hadn't been as lucky. They were still stuck back there, not in any immediate danger but still too far away for me to help them, or the other way around. Trusting Griff and Teal'c to do their duty, trusting Daniel not to get too badly beaten up, I turned back around and plunged down the dark alley.
A familiar sound. Too familiar. I threw myself against the side of a building, watching as a bullet struck the ground about three feet away from where I'd just been. Well, I didn't actually SEE the bullet, just a plume of dirt and cracked stone, but that got the point across fairly well. Some of them WERE armed, then. Good. I wouldn't have as much of a problem shooting THEM.
But I DID have A problem. It was the same problem our assailants had had when they'd descended upon our camp. They'd wanted Sam, and they had wanted her uninjured. They hadn't shot at us then because they'd been afraid of her getting caught in the crossfire. And here I was with the exact same problem. I could see the end of the alleyway not too far ahead, and a bunch of shapes huddled around the opening, but it was too damn dark to see who was who. I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Sam and the goons until I was a LOT closer.
And I had to GET closer without getting shot.
I seemed to be at the disadvantage here.
"Stop!" snapped one of the men, an aura of authority around him. "We'll run no further. We take care of these interlopers NOW."
One of the largest men held my arms behind me, pushing me behind a building, out of sight of the alley, and forcing me to my knees on the hard cobblestones where it would be harder for me to flail out. They learned quickly, I was forced to admit. They would not underestimate me again, unfortunately.
But would they underestimate my friends? That remained to be seen.
From the inner pocket of his vest, the man who had called out for the others to stop withdrew an object. For a moment my eyes only saw the vest. The color. The style.
He was like me. He was from underground, from the plant. What word had the Earth people used? 'Workers'?
His hair was cut short, right against his scalp, and his eyes were small and squinty. He didn't seem angry, though. He just seemed focused. I couldn't remember ever seeing him in the plant. But I had seen the object he now held in his hand, that he now pointed down the alleyway at a target unknown to me. It was a gun. He was trying to shoot someone in the alley. Trying to shoot...
Struggling with my captor was fruitless.
Small Eyes squeezed the weapon's trigger, and a CRACK! sound echoed through the streets.
* * *
Without conscious thought I peeled myself off the wall and ran further towards open ground, towards my enemy. The great chunk of metal I cradled in my arms was a comforting presence. I raised its nose towards the sky and pulled the trigger, releasing a salvo of warning fire.
The jumbled silhouettes in front of me scattered. Some dropped to the ground. Some just RAN.
Good, I thought contemptuously. Run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch me...
I reminded myself to save that bit of sardonic humor for when I was actually being chased by somebody.
Before I could reach the end of the alley, one of the men, one with close-cropped hair and a scrunched-up face, stood and took aim at me again. And again I threw myself against the wall. This time, I was lucky enough to find shelter behind a bag of trash someone had put out for pick-up... if you could call that lucky. But without that stinking heap of garbage, it would have been all too easy for the armed man to pick me off.
I peeked over the trash bag, saw the narrowed eyes of my opponent, and took a shot of my own, praying all the time that they'd been smart and put Therra safely out of the line of fire. A garbled male shriek followed the rapport from my gun, and when I took another glimpse I saw the close-cropped man writhing on the ground, holding his left arm. Sweet. Left worked. The gun had been in his left hand.
Now where was it?
Back at the other end of the alley, two forces raged. Griff and Daniel and the others were making progress, but only because their opponents weren't putting up a very inspired fight. They'd heard the shots and knew they had to get back here and help their orange-suited buddies. I knew that whatever was going to happen had to happen before those workers found their way up here.
Which meant I was probably going to have to do something stupid.
* * *
A horrible sound came from the alleyway, similar to the CRACK I had just heard but much more awful. Yet at the same time, it seemed familiar to me. Even comforting. In any case, while my abductors were panicked and frightened by the sound - and by seeing their leader drop to the ground, bleeding from his left arm - I was ready.
The man who had been holding me down abruptly removed his hands from my arms, and quickly I crawled away from him. Even though he was a huge man, larger even than the man Teal'c, he frightened and ran down the street. Several others followed his lead. I watched them in amusement... for about five seconds. Then I noticed that one of the workers, on the other side of the alley entryway, had recovered the wounded leader's gun.
Another man made a half-hearted attempt to grab me, but I pushed away, moving closer to the entryway, and none of them made a move to stop me. Where they'd been arrogant before, they were now wary... wary and very interested to see what my rescuer would do next.
Jonah. I knew it was him.
The leader, still lying untended on the ground, was still and silent. Dead? Or just asleep? The man who had retrieved his gun had taken up a defensive position on the other side, ready to shoot whatever emerged from that alley. I couldn't let that happen.
"Jonah!" I shouted, my eyes on the armed man. "Stay there! They've got a gun!"
"Silence!" The worker shot an annoyed look in my direction, but I was the least of his problems right now, and I got the feeling he didn't want to harm me. Still, his expression spoke his intent - 'I'll take care of you later' - and it startled me silent.
"Yeah, well I've got one too," snapped Jonah from within the alley, sending my hopes - and my pride - soaring. "Therra, get down and stay out of the way."
I should... but I couldn't. I was his eyes and ears on this side.
* * *
Standoff. Someone waiting for me at the mouth of the alleyway. Therra maybe being held hostage. And the reinforcements would be here soon. Strategy? There was no strategy. It was time for the stupid thing.
In one smooth motion, perfected in the Mid East no less, I blew out from behind the trash bag and crossed the alley diagonally in just a few quiet steps. Therra had done me proud, not so much with the warning, but by getting the guy with the gun to speak. At least, I could only assume that the "Silence" had come from the man who was armed, but I thought it was a good assumption. Good enough for a stupid stunt like this, anyway.
I moved quietly against the wall. Whoever was on the other side of the entrance would see me soon, and the worker with the gun was possibly just around the corner.
If only I had some kind of distraction.
* * *
I didn't see him approaching, not even his shadow on the ground. I didn't hear him either, not even the scuff of a boot against cobblestones. But in the expectant silence, I knew what he was doing.
I took a step to my side, slipping in right behind some unsuspecting 'worker'... and gave him a huge push. He was well-muscled, very solid, but I'd caught him by surprise. Maybe they had in fact underestimated me again, I thought, as he stumbled out towards the armed man.
It was the distraction Jonah would need.
* * *
Movement to my left! A feign. No, he was stumbling. Someone had pushed him.
Tripping over his own feet, the stumbling man saw me. But by then it was too late. I swung my gun around the corner, took less than a second to see the orange tunic and the compact gun pointed my way, noted the shocked expression of the man I was about to shoot... and shot him.
He never pulled the trigger of his own weapon, maybe he never had a chance to. Clutching at the meaty wound in his stomach, he let the gun clatter to the ground... and then he joined it. Joined the first man I had shot, who looked dead but probably wasn't yet.
I couldn't say the same for the second young man.
Young. They both were young. They were all fairly young, in fact. The weaponless, leaderless men suddenly fleeing the scene were not men but boys, running down the street like frightened children.
Numbly, I reached down and picked up the unfamiliar weapon. One gun. Only one. I jammed it into my waistband, dazedly turned, and found myself staring at Therra. Sam. Carter. The names jumbled together and became too confusing to be of importance. She had crossed the mouth of the alley and now stood only feet away.
Less than inches.
She was in my arms...
* * *
He didn't look exactly the same, but I would have recognized him anywhere.
* * *
It seemed that the sound of gunfire didn't agree with the workers. One minute we were fighting hand to hand, in close quarters, face to face... and then suddenly the orange-shirts were gone and the seven of us were left staring at each other in confusion.
Then we took off down the alley.
My heart seized up when I saw the two bodies sprawled on the ground, but it was Griff, out in front, who quickly called back that they weren't our people. Then we emerged back into open space, quickly noting that the area was devoid of workers - conscious ones, anyway - and then...
'Major, I'm putting you in charge of the remainder of this mission,' Jack had said, just before taking off after Sam and her abductors. Although I'd already guessed at his reasoning, it was now pretty clear to everyone why he had done what he'd done. He'd know this might happen. That he might change.
And he'd been right. Because it wasn't Sam and Jack I was seeing, folded up in each other's arms and looking fairly traumatized. It wasn't even Therra and Jack. It was Therra and...
"Jonah?" I said softly.
He turned around, saw us, and glared. "What were you people thinking? She could have been killed... or who knows what else they wanted with her!"
Merrit's reaction was automatic. "I'm sorry sir, it's completely my fault, I forgot..."
She trailed off. Jack - no, Jonah - was staring at her as though she'd grown a second head, and then turned his attention back to Therra. We weren't as important as she was.
Teal'c, one of the most patient men I'd ever known, looked about ready to throw down his staff weapon, sit on the ground, and wait for somebody somewhere to come in and fix things. Griff kept looking between all of us... and then he blinked, as though realizing for the first time that he was in charge.
Judgement call time, Major." Go back to the Gate and report to Hammond?" I asked quietly. "Or keep on to Caulder's?"
He looked between us one more time, his eyes lingering on Therra and Jonah, and then he gave a resolute nod, gesturing towards the middle of the city. "Merrit and Web, head back to the Stargate and report to General Hammond on our... situation. The rest of us... guess it's off to see the Wizard."
Turning away from the others, I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. I didn't want any of them to see what was probably a look of total defeat on my face. Not only did I want to keep my frustration from spreading through the group, I also didn't want Griff or any of the others to start worrying about ME, either that I was about to fold or that I was about to revert back into Carlan.
I sneaked a look back over my shoulder, towards Jonah and Therra. How strange it was for me to look at them and see the people I had known and grown with over the last three years, and then to remember with a sick sinking sensation that they weren't those people any more. In their current state, they weren't any more my friends than two random people I might meet on the sidewalk. Even worse: in their minds they were natives of this alien planet, the two of them alone against all odds, and if they didn't find us threatening at the very least they distrusted us.
No... actually, Jonah was the one who distrusted us. He had one arm looped around Therra's back, holding her against his side, speaking softly to her but often turning to glare indiscriminately at the rest of us. 'What were you people thinking?' he had cried. 'She could have been killed... or who knows what else they wanted with her!'
Captain Merrit was willingly taking the brunt of the guilt. She knelt on the ground closest to me, loading up her pack and watching the two of them unabashedly, her emotions plain on her face. Without shifting her gaze she seemed to know I was looking at her, and said quietly, "He's right, you know; this is my fault."
"It's nobody's fault," I responded, stooping over to help her. We were back in camp, packing up before the two groups would go their separate ways.
"It has to be somebody's fault," she said, matter-of-factly. "Trust me, when we get back to the SGC, it is going to BE somebody's fault."
"Then we should all share the blame," I said smoothly, zipping up one of the pack's smaller pouches. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Griff, standing over the stinking remains of the tent and slowly shaking his head.
"I should have--"
"You want to know the truth?" I asked, and the captain nodded tersely. I paused for a moment before beginning, taking the time to acknowledge that I wasn't telling Merrit this for her own peace of mind, I simply had to get the weight of knowledge off my shoulders. "What Jonah said wasn't directed at anyone but himself. Jack, I mean. Jack was - is - furious with himself for letting this happen. For not realizing... he did the same thing as you, you know. We all did. But this is Jack O'Neill we're talking about." I smiled ruefully. "He sees it as his job to protect us, all of us, and he takes that responsibility very seriously."
Merrit worked her jaw thoughtfully, finishing her packing and sneaking a look at Griff, who was deep in conversation with Teal'c. "So you really think that he was so upset with himself that he actually... retreated into this other personality?" she asked, incredulously. "I don't know the Colonel well, but that certainly doesn't sound like him."
"That's just it. It's not. But this whole thing is about what's easy. It's about escaping from their own problems into another persona. Another PERSON who doesn't have the same worries or constraints."
Swinging her pack over her shoulder, Merrit stood and I followed her lead. "In that case, why haven't we lost you as well, Doctor Jackson? Or Teal'c?"
I thought about what Griff had said... about observations. They made more sense to me now. "I don't know that I'm the right person to ask," I admitted. "But it seems like there's a triggering event or emotion, something that happens that makes the false personality look like refuge to the subconscious mind. Whatever mine is hasn't been triggered. Yet."
Before Merrit could reply there came an unexpected crackle and a familiar voice rising up from my lapel. "SG units one and six, this is General Hammond, please respond."
I saw Griff go for his radio, but I reached mine first, walking over to the Major as I spoke. "Jackson here, General. Everyone else is here with me." Maybe not in the mental sense, but close enough.
Griff was muttering to himself. "Good, at least this saves us the trip back to the Gate."
"Doctor," came Hammond's voice, sounding no less authoritative over the tiny speakers. "We've had an unusual change of plans. The workers we are accommodating here have decided to... return to the planet."
Griff and I shared a sideways glance, and he nodded that I continue. "Um, General... did you just say..."
"I just occurred to them," said Hammond dryly, "although perhaps with a little help from our Doctor Frasier, that the only place where they would truly be home is... their home planet."
Janet had had a part in this decision? Knowing how dangerous and difficult it would be for them over here, she had actually convinced them to come back? While I pondered over this strange new fact, Griff took up communications. "Major Griff here, sir. General, sir, you should know we've already had a run-in with some of the workers who stayed behind. They attacked our camp."
"Is everyone alright?"
"Physically, sir, we're fine. Just a few bumps and bruises. But... sir... Colonel O'Neill has also reverted. Back to Jonah," he clarified unnecessarily. Nervously.
There was a long moment of silence on the channel, during which time Teal'c, Webster, Griff and the rest of us all exchanged various anxious expressions. Sitting together on the crate that had once been our shelter, Jonah and Therra pretended not to notice our impromptu conference. Finally, Hammond came back on the line. "Understood, Major. The deal with the Administrator will simply need to be... amended. In light of what you've told me, I'd like to keep our visitors here until your situation is straightened out... but both Doctor Frasier and the young woman Breanna assure me that they WILL help you reach Caulder safely."
I jumped in before Griff could answer. "And you believe them, General?"
"I think I might," he answered, surprising me. "They'll be coming through the Stargate in approximately one hour, accompanied by Doctor Frasier. I'd prefer that you meet them there. How far are you from the Gate?"
"Not far at all, sir," answered Griff. "We ran into some roadblocks and... Colonel O'Neill decided to hold position until morning. Like Doctor Jackson said, we had some excitement but we're still here. We'll be there within the hour, sir."
Hammond signed off, and I knew down a few streets, around a few corners, the Stargate was disengaging and the MALP powering down. But even more easily I could imagine what had been happening on the other side of that wormhole: 163 people who had so narrowly escaped a terrible fate were ready to return to it. To fight against social wrongs and their own government and maybe even each other. It seemed noble but it also seemed very foolish. Why fight this good fight when there was an easier alternative within arms reach?
I found myself looking at Jonah and Therra again, and not knowing why.
"Come on," said Griff, waving us back towards the city's center. "The Wizard will just have to wait."
Therra pursed her lips together nervously. Jonah scowled and tightened his arm around her. But they both followed us, occasionally looking over their shoulders for signs that we were being followed.
At Major Griff's request I had taken the rear position as we made our return to the Stargate. I could tell that both he and Daniel Jackson were concerned that the workers might make another attempt to kidnap Major Carter.
After several minutes of listening to her conversation with O'Neill, however, it became apparent to me that what they had said was true; I had believed it, but I had not yet seen it so clearly with my own eyes: Major Carter was no longer Major Carter. And O'Neill was no longer O'Neill.
But neither did they seem exactly like the individuals Therra and Jonah that I had made acquaintance with during my time as Tor.
I did not mention my observation to anyone else for I could easily have been mistaken, and at this critical juncture only facts were needed, not speculation. But I did continue to observe, by watching the two of them and brazenly eavesdropping on their conversation. On Earth this was considered a rather rude practice, but in the underground camp it had been a part of everyday life, and as I suspected neither Jonah nor Therra seemed to mind.
They walked side by side, behind the others, close enough that their arms often brushed together, and they talked in concerned tones. At one point, Jonah inquired, "Why did they try to kidnap you?"
Therra shook her head slightly. "I don't know. They never said, never gave any kind of indication of what they wanted with me. What do you think?"
The man who looked so much like Colonel O'Neill, yet was not him, shrugged his shoulders in a very O'Neill-like manner. "You've got me. Odd thing was, I couldn't remember ever seeing any of them before... you know, down in the plant. Or the mines, for that matter, and I saw a lot of people in the mines. But not a damn one was familiar to me."
"We didn't know everyone, sir," Therra reminded him.
Jonah intentionally extended his hand a little further, letting his fingers entwine with hers. "Yeah, I know. Just seems like a coincidence is all."
They continued to walk, continued to discuss their situation, but I did not hear all that was said. I had stopped, frozen in my tracks several paces back, surprised into stillness.
Because of my suspicions, I had been waiting for it, but that did not mean I didn't find it startling.
Sir. Therra had called Jonah "sir"... and he had thought nothing of it. He hadn't even seemed to notice it.
I quickened my pace, hurrying to catch up with the group, turning my hypothesis over in my head at the same time. My notion -- that the people standing in front of me were not Colonel O'Neill OR Jonah, were not Major Carter OR Therra, but had in fact melded into some sort of hybrid between the two. That certainly seemed encouraging enough. And even though I was not a medical expert such as Doctor Frasier or an intellectual like Major Carter or Daniel Jackson, it also seemed possible. The Major's earlier 'reversion', as Daniel had called it, had apparently come at a time of emotional distress. The same could be said for O'Neill's apparent reversion during the ambush.
But Therra had remembered how to fight off a few of her attackers, knowledge Samantha Carter possessed but that Therra had not. Jonah's assault on those attackers had undoubtedly called into use some of O'Neill's military strategy and tactics. Their own instincts - instincts for survival, at this juncture - were being called into action, pulled to the surface of their minds... and they were bringing some of their REAL personalities up as well. That would explain some of Jonah's new confidence, a little of Therra's sudden deference and her use of 'sir'.
Strange, though, that they would continue to be so physically close. Presumably certain characteristics would reemerge before others.
Yet... they had all reemerged on their own. Was it possible that given the time Carter and O'Neill would eventually be returned to us as we knew them?
It was definitely something I felt I ought to mention to Doctor Frasier.
* * *
Gleaming slightly in the pre-dawn light, the Gate activated with Griff, Jonah, Therra and myself on one side of the vortex, and Teal'c, Webster, Baker and Merrit on the other. The members of SG-6 and Teal'c had their hands lying casually over their weapons. Therra and Jonah looked puzzled and interested, but not unduly troubled, like this didn't concern them.
As far as they could tell, they were just along for the ride. Wherever it might lead.
And then... people started coming through the Gate.
It was bizarre, like we were watching some mass exodus of Stargate personnel. The workers were all still wearing their SGC-donated clothing - blue bottoms and black tops - and most were fit enough that they could have been a nondescript herd of airmen. But I almost immediately recognized most of the faces as those of the 163 people we had liberated from this planet...
.. who now had decided to return to it.
That was a little annoying.
The stream of black and blue went on for so long that it seemed as though the wormhole would end up timing out and closing with some unfortunate souls still in transit, but in reality the onrush only took about five minutes. After shooting a few curious looks at us, the majority of the workers broke off into small groups and started quickly down the streets. I caught a glimpse of Kegan in the crowd, and I felt myself cringe as her gaze drifted towards me... and then past me. It landed squarely on Jonah and Therra, instead. Kegan frowned slightly, almost to herself, and then wandered off with another group. I saw Brenna as well, dressed like the others, her arm still cradled against her body in a makeshift sling. She saw us immediately and moved to the side, watching the workers stream down the main street with a watchful and even parental eye
Janet was the last person out of the wormhole; she turned on the dais and watched as it dissipated with a multidimensional whisper. Dressed in full gear - green instead of blue - she stood out sharply against the others.
"Everyone's okay?" she asked sharply, the question mostly directed at Therra. The others walked over to join us on our side of the platform, as did the Doctor and Brenna. With the two new additions we now made a strange, mismatched, and somewhat bewildered group of ten.
Griff adopted a casual I-have-everything-under-control pose, something I had seen from Jack more than once. Interesting to see that it was a commanding officer thing, not just a Colonel O'Neill thing. "We're all fine. Besides the obvious of course."
To my surprise, Jonah scoffed lightly at that remark. We all turned to stare at him, and he stared back, challengingly. Therra reached out and put a hand on his arm, like she was expecting having to restrain him from beating the crap out of the Major.
The Alpha Male behavior was nothing new, of course. What WAS new was that Jonah, to some degree, had seemed to understand what was going on. That he and Therra were a hindrance, were the reason we were here. He'd realized what Griff had meant by his remark, and he had been annoyed by it, whereas previously both of them had been too wrapped up in their own little world to analyze what was going on.
Not only that, but the scoff had sounded very... O'Neillish.
Teal'c beat all of us to speech. "Doctor Frasier, Daniel Jackson, could I please talk to you in private? You as well," he told Brenna, less politely.
Without breaking eye contact with Jonah, Griff asked, "Is this something I should be a party to?"
"I'll let you know if it is, sir," promised Janet.
Teal'c led us down off the Stargate platform and around the corner, not quite out of sight of the others but comfortably out of earshot. Sparing a brief glance down the street, I could see the last vestiges of blue and black fanning out through the otherwise-abandoned city, and hoped that that was one decision that wouldn't come back to haunt us. "What's up, Teal'c?"
He stood a little straighter, as though making an official report. "On the way here I closely observed..." He paused slightly, uncomfortable with the names he knew we had to use. "... Jonah and Therra. And I believe there is some progress being made."
"Progress?" asked Janet eagerly. I saw Brenna's brows come together in confusion.
Teal'c seemed to struggle a little with his description. "I believe... that they are acting more like themselves than they previously have. Their current personalities are neither those of plant workers or military officers, but something in between. As though they are stuck in limbo between the two personas."
All eyes went to Brenna, who looked exasperated by our attention. "I told you! I'm not an expert at the stamping technology. I only know the very basics."
"And the very basics are... what?" I asked, trying to keep my voice kind.
From the look on her face, I failed. "On our own people, stamps are more than 99% effective."
"They must break down sometimes," I insisted. "Kegan told me about escape attempts..."
"Sometimes the stamps DO... dissolve, for the lack of a better term. When it happened, we covered it up as best we could, claiming the person was 'nightsick', and we re-stamped them as soon as possible. As for why it happened... I've only witnessed a few cases. Usually it was because of an accident - that the personality they were stamped with was too close to their own 'real' personality, or because they came across someone they had known during their 'real' lives and related on some subconscious level."
"That's what happened to us," I pointed out.
"That's possible," Brenna acknowledged. "It was the Administrator's mistake, actually. You four should have been scattered throughout the mines and the plants more evenly. We could have made it so that you would never have met each other. But he wanted you all nearby, where it would be easy to get a hold of you if it was needed. And also... because he was arrogant," she added softly. "But the chain reaction of your memories and meetings was triggered by one thing."
"My remembrance," Teal'c pitched in.
"Yes. I can only assume that it was because your body is so drastically different from anything else our technicians had even encountered. Because of your... your..."
"Symbiote," offered Janet. "If the technology is based on the chemical makeup of the brain and body, that would make sense. If you had specific problems with Sam, too, it might have been because of the naqueda in her blood." The stanch medical practitioner in her flared up without warning. "You know, it would have made a lot more sense - not to mention safer - to run blood tests on your 'patients' before putting them thought this procedure."
Brenna had the good sense to look ashamed. "To the Administrator and the others who know about the workers, they are not 'patients'. They are living, breathing garbage. They are known as 'subjects', and they're not worthy of safety... especially when it comes with an extra expense."
Janet sucked in a sharp breath and opened her mouth to reply - sharply, no doubt - but she caught the look on my face and it stopped her. I took advantage of the hesitation to turn our attentions back to Teal'c. "You said that Therra and Jonah have been acting a little more... Sam and Jackish?"
"That has been my observation," he confirmed. "For example, she automatically referred to him as 'sir' and he did not question the meaning of the term or her use of it."
Janet's eyebrows went up. "Well... that SOUNDS like a good sign."
I nodded enthusiastically. "The question is, how good? Does this mean that given enough time we'll get Sam and Jack back? Does it mean... we could turn around and go home, right now, without worrying about Caulder stabbing us in the back? How sure are we..."
"You must be very sure," Brenna insisted. "The Administrator's ways, his thoughts, have not always been clear to me, but I do know this: He will not give you a second chance."
"You mean if we blow him off, figuring we don't need his help, and then later have to ask for it after all..." I prodded.
"He would not help you. No matter how much he is in need of your assistance. His pride would not let him."
Pride? I wondered. What pride? He was a sniveling little weasel who had only been able to stay in power because of the ignorance and mistreatment of others. On the other hand, he had an ego bigger than the dome city. If we stood him up, he'd never be able to get down off his high horse long enough to give us a second chance. And while we were all willing to do whatever it took to get Sam and Jack back to themselves, Caulder didn't seem to give a damn about anyone but himself. If by turning us away he ended up dooming his entire civilization... well, I certainly couldn't put it past him.
"And we're not THAT sure," I muttered. "But whatever we do, we have to get to safety before dark. Preferably before then. I don't want the workers pulling the same stunt they did last night."
Brenna looked confused. "Stunt?"
"The workers attacked us at our camp," said Teal'c, a little indignantly. "They attempted to kidnap Maj... Therra."
Brenna's eyes widened. "I don't believe it. The workers--"
"Believe it," I said sharply. "In fact, I could show you where it happened..."
She reached and touched my arm with her good hand. "Show me," she insisted.
"Well," said Daniel, "they're gone."
I observed the surrounding streets and buildings impassively, trying not to give any outward signs of how nervous I was. Everything was so quiet, so preternaturally silent, and sometimes when I glanced towards a doorway or window I got the distinct impression that there were eyes on the other side of the pane, watching us. "Who?" I asked, waiting for a band of orange-clothed thugs to jump out at me from the alleyway we'd just passed through.
Daniel and some of the others, Teal'c and Griff included, stood in a semicircle around a bit of ground in front of the alley. "Colonel O'Neill shot two of them," said the Major grimly, gesturing.
Looking closer, I could now make out a few spots of blood on the gray cobblestones. "And you just left them here?" I asked, trying to sound nonjudgmental. The others shared telling glances anyway.
"We didn't have the manpower, or the inclination, Doctor, to drag the two of them along with," Griff explained. "One was already dead and the other was getting that way pretty quick. We figured the sooner we cleared out, the sooner their buddies would come back and retrieve them and... do their thing."
I glanced down the alley again. "You don't think any of the people here are harboring the one who's still alive?"
Daniel looked confused. "I don't think they'd do that. The people here are terrified of the workers."
I looked over my shoulder to where Brenna, Jonah, and Therra stood, under the watchful eyes of Captain Merrit and Sergeant Webster, halfway down the alley. Sunlight was beginning to trickle in from the opposite end as the sun rose beyond great shifts of snow, and I could see Brenna's expression. It looked... angry.
Griff was the first to start down towards her, the rest of us following close behind. "'No'?" he echoed, in a voice that told anyone with a modicum of intelligence that he didn't trust her one iota. "'No' what?"
Brenna leaned down and picked up something from off the ground: an article of orange clothing. Jonah took it from her, turning it over in his hands, while Griff looked at me as though to ask if my patient had perhaps suffered a head trauma as well as a broken arm. Daniel merely shrugged. "It's just a vest," he said unnecessarily, and perhaps a little impatiently. "I wore one of them myself, when..." he paused "It must have been pulled off during the scuffle here, so what?"
Oddly enough, it was Therra who offered the answer. "It's too clean," she said, and wordlessly Jonah handed over the vest for Daniel to inspect.
"There's not enough wear and tear," agreed Brenna tiredly. "Clothing in the plant wasn't replaced until it was literally falling apart at the seams, or threadbare, or something else that would interfere with work. Upkeep of the workers wasn't the Administrator's chief concern."
"'Chief concern'?" repeated an angered Daniel, bunching the orange cloth up in his hands. "It didn't even make his list." He looked towards a puzzled Griff. "It's new. It doesn't even SMELL sulfury... like the plant."
"There is a storeroom where supplies, including clothes, are kept," Brenna told us. "And it's not anywhere the workers could have gotten to."
"You're sure about that?" asked Merrit.
"It's in the Administration building. One of the most projected places on this planet. A hundred guards or more."
"The place we're headed," Griff deadpanned. "So what are we saying here? That the workers who tried to kidnap Maj... Therra weren't workers after all? Then what were they?"
"Caulder's got a hundred guards at his disposal," piped up Baker. "Coulda been a handful of them."
"They did look awfully clean-cut to be a bunch of beat-on, underfed, scrounging refugees," Merrit added. Then she blushed and looked towards Jonah with a deferential cringe. "No offense, of course, sir."
"None taken," said Jonah dryly, not batting an eye at the 'sir'. I stared. Teal'c had been right.
Daniel took a few steps, face screwed up in a thoughtful frown, coming to a stop near the center of our group. "Wait... wait a minute. Do we know what we're saying here? That the workers weren't trying to kidnap Therra, that it was Caulder who was behind it? Caulder, who dressed up his people to look like the workers and sent them out here to attack us?"
The major looked grim. "In a strange way, it does make sense. We want something from Caulder. Therra is our bargaining chip with which to get it. Her knowledge is the only reason Caulder even agreed to see us."
"Well I'm glad to know that I'm so valued," said Therra waspishly, frowning when we all turned to look at her. "What?"
Griff continued. "If he kidnapped her..." He addressed Therra. "If he had kidnapped YOU, there goes all our leverage."
"She's more than leverage," Jonah said hotly. "She's a human being, for crying out loud."
The others looked exasperated, as they would have if this was Colonel O'Neill making a nuisance of himself, but I was enthralled. These two people were evolving right before our eyes! Teal'c had been right on the money, and from now on I was going to have a lot harder time calling them 'Jonah' and 'Therra'. Jonah and Therra, as they had been created by Caulder's amateur Dr. Frankensteins, no longer existed.
Now if only I could decide whether or not that was a good sign.
* * *
"A storm is brewing," said Brenna in an eerie voice.
I looked at her, looked skyward, and then back. As odd as it seemed, even though Brenna had been a co-conspirator of Administrator Caulder's and her hesitation in helping us could have been the death of Tor-Teal'c, I still found myself trusting her, wanting to make her proud of me. Almost like she was my mother, which was stupid because Brenna was younger than I was.
Mother. Did I have a mother? I probed though the dusty corridors of memory, every bit as dark and stifling as the mines I'd worked in, and found nothing. The other me definitely had a mother, though. She made chocolate milk and yelled when I got too close to the end of the pier...
Something FLASHED in my eyes and I blinked. When I opened my eyes, the pier was gone and I was looking up into the morning sky. A storm was brewing. 'Brewing' was a perfect description, actually. The way the clouds mixed and churned up there, beyond the dome, it kinda looked like the inside of a witch's cauldron. Bubble Bubble Toil and... something. Of course because of the dome there wouldn't be any rain, but somehow I knew without asking that the storm, if it came, would cut off all the natural light to the city, like someone pulling a shade over the window.
Just how did Brenna know what a brewing storm looked like?
"I used to live here, on the surface," she said, answering my unspoken question. Her voice was low, meant for only Therra and me to hear, but Tor-Teal'c was walking behind us and I had the feeling his hearing was better than he let on. "I wasn't allowed."
"Allowed to do what?" I asked.
"To exist. To be alive," she answered dryly, slowly allowing the volume of her voice to grow. She probably realized what I did, that this conversation would never stay private.
Doctor Frasier was the first to join the conversation; she was walking behind us, next to Tor-Teal'c. "The population here is very strictly controlled, isn't it?"
"Makes sense," said Carlan-Daniel somberly. He strolled along at my left. "When you can't expand, can't move, can't increase your resources, all you can do is try to keep the population from exploding."
"Only certain couples may give birth to children," Brenna confirmed. "My parents were not one of those couples. But it came to pass anyway, by accident. My mother tried to hide it, to protect her unborn child. Me. When I was born, she refused to go to the doctors for fear that I would be destroyed at she would be punished." Brenna hesitated, all the while seeming strangely calm and in control despite the horror of her story. I doubted that I could seem that unemotional. Yes, I knew what it was like to loose a child. "I lived. She died. My father was allowed to keep me. I lived in my mother's stead.
When my father died, years later, I had nothing. I was barely more than a child; I was nothing."
"They took you," said Therra in a haunted voice. "And they stamped you."
Brenna nodded. "For almost ten years - I think it must have been at least that long - I worked in the plant, doing much the same job as you, Therra."
"And then you got 'nightsick'," guessed Carlan-Daniel, impishly. "How? Did you see someone you knew?"
"Honestly, I don't remember what triggered it, although that's my best guess. All I know is that one moment, my name was Kali and I'd worked in the plant for my entire life, ever since my parents had been killed in the mines... and the next moment I knew my name was Brenna, I remembered my father, remembered growing up in the shadow of my mother's death, remembered when they stamped Kali onto me..."
She was looking at me as she talked; I squirmed a little and looked away. I couldn't help but feel that this was more than just making conversation... that she was telling this story for a reason, and that reason had something to do with me.
"Because I was the first failed procedure in generations, I was brought before then Junior Administrator Caulder and his superior, and they decided that as a worker I wasn't worth a second stamp. However, they did see certain qualities in me, most importantly youth. So they made me a supervisor, and the Administrator tried to brainwash me the old way. I was his project, his experiment, the failed stamp he thought he could make something of. A minion, a loyal follower. Someone who would do his evil for him without being drugged into oblivion. And the experiment worked," she said, "for far too long."
I swallowed, nervous for the first time since those bastards had tried taking off with Therra. Things were shifting. We were on the verge of something, and it was scaring me. My arm tightened around her shoulders as I looked up into the cloudy sky. I could make out that odd pulse of light still; the darker it got, and the further into the city we walked, the more apparent it was. The more disoriented I became.
Then we rounded the corner, and stopped, and I saw that the source of the light was the source of my fears.
A building, a huge building rising like an iron giant from the ground. At the top, at the very crown, was a revolving light. Like a lighthouse, the other me supplied. A warning klaxon, alerting the city to danger. A searing white spotlight spinning through the gray air, searching ceaselessly for some invisible target. FLASH! Like a heartbeat. FLASH!
"Carter, get out of here!" I shouted, searching for her face in the scalding steam. Daniel was down. Impossibly, Teal'c was down. But I had seen her break away. Yes, goddammit, she had broken away.
Out of the corner of my eye, a strange metal glint. The smell of sulfur. And Carter's voice. "No!"
Pinned down, strapped down, feeling panic well up in my throat. I couldn't see Carter but I could hear her, could hear her telling me that she was sorry, sorry for what I didn't know. And I wanted to tell her that I was sorry too, but nothing but empty reassurances dribbled from my lips.
My surprise was a shock to my system, as fierce as a punch to the stomach. No sooner had we turned the corner then I felt an unexpected fist of fear and hatred push me back, directly into Jonah. As he grabbed my arms - either to steady me or steady himself - I panted and gasped, vainly trying to recapture the breath that had been knocked from me.
God, the light. Pulsing in the bloated sky... like a living thing... like a carcinogenic mass of tissue, a tumor swelling and deflating with each beat of the heart. The light, incandescent, focused like one of Zeus' lightning bolts but originating from nowhere near heaven. No, the source of that unholy beam came from the ground, from the base of the hellish tower that thrust out over the city like an fisted arm, raised in angry protest. "We can't go there," I heard myself say, stammering. I grabbed at Jonah as he grabbed at me, looking up into his pale face before glancing at the others. They all appeared spectacularly confused, all but Brenna. There was compassion in her face, mixed with a sad kind of bitterness.
"What's going on?" asked the one named Griff.
"This is where it is," I blurted, beating Brenna to an answer, even though I had no idea what the answer meant. Fear was a poison in my body, making my temperature drop and my muscles tense as though in the grip of a seizure. My legs weakened and my stomach roiled, but I wouldn't allow myself the slightest show of weakness before that cursed structure. "That's where it happened, it'll happen again, we can't let it, we can't go there!"
"...this alliance and I want to make sure you understand. And to understand you must see," said Caulder, smiling broadly. The smile, I thought, of a crocodile. He was personally leading us down into the plant through a door on the floor level of the administration building, speaking profusely of his desire for this 'whole misunderstanding to be worked out' so that our alliance could proceed as planned. His words were as sweet and smooth as honey but his eyes showed too much of his true self for me to be able to believe him without reserve. Even his offer to prove to us that the underground workforce was well-kept seemed suspect.
We walked down the gently-sloping tunnel with Caulder as our tour guide, observing the mortared walls, the lacquered floor, the bell-shaped lights hung on a looping cord down the center of the hall, but most closely observing the man himself. I glanced at Colonel O'Neill and found him looking at me. He nodded minutely and turned back to Caulder. I'd been the only one to see the air vents, but he'd trusted and agreed with my interpretation. And if I'd also interpreted his nod correctly, he felt what I did: the rotten karma, the bad vibes coming from the far end of the tunnel.
Ambush... it had been an ambush...
I didn't have the luxury of feeling foolish; there was no time for it. Steam from one of the plant's many machines stung my eyes, and left a bizarre antiseptic taste in my mouth that reminded me of laughing gas. The smell of sulfur burned in my sinuses. Deftly I stepped out of the shadows of my attacker, looking for the lanky man who had so quickly disarmed me but finding only a larger specimen. He took a menacing step closer, his expression belying all the intelligence of a shovel.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Daniel thrown back against one of the steaming machines. His skull connected with metal. There was the reverberant ring of tempered steel and Daniel slumped to the ground as though boneless, unconscious.
I took a step away from the hulking man, towards Daniel, and the steam parted like a ghastly curtain. I saw them all: Caulder, his eyes cold and disdainful. Teal'c, still roaring and futilely lashing out at the black-suited men trying to restrain him. And the Colonel, fighting hand to hand with another man... falling to his knees repeatedly but rising again...
"Carter!" he yelled, catching sight of me through the chaos of flailing bodies and drugged mist. "Get out of here!"
My brain took far too long to process that command, although I was instinctively able to fight past a couple black-suits who had underestimated me. I swung out and my fist hit a man's jaw. He released me, stumbling back, and I tumbled in the opposite direction, towards the door.
I should have made it. I would have made it, but I looked back, and I couldn't run from what I saw. The Colonel had fallen dazedly to the floor, this time to stay, his drugged brain no doubt as disoriented as mine, but his assailant had not subsided in his attack. From the shadows he had brought out a long, thick tube of hot steal, and he poised it over the Colonel's head like a battering ram. "No!" I screamed, no more able to stop the cry then I could have stopped my heart from beating thunderously against my ribs. The would-be killer froze at the sound of my voice, sense emerging through bloodlust as he glanced shrewdly towards Caulder. The Administrator gave a disgusted sneer and, as Shovel-Face seized me in an unbreakable grip, the Colonel's attacker threw the pipe away.
"I don't know what you think you're doing," I spat at Caulder, wishing that he was close enough so I could actually spit ON him. But no, he smiled thinly from a safe distance.
"Soon," he said, "you'll know even less."
Cursing my captors was pointless. Struggling against my restraints was useless, but I did it anyway, even though I was so drugged I couldn't even remember my own name... even though the light suspended directly above my eyes flashed so brightly, so erratically, that it was hard to recall where I was and how I'd gotten here... I had to struggle. I had to fight. Hadn't I fought before? Fought everything, even when I didn't want to, fought him...
Abruptly and without warning or reason, I found myself close to tears. "Colonel!"
And he called back, his voice so desperate, almost needy, but it was him. "I'm here, Carter."
He was to my right, though I couldn't turn my head to see him. Probably he was in the same position that I was: strapped down on my back under a pulsing light, needles in my arm, vague shadows standing all around. I wanted to continue to curse, even to plan some escape strategy, but all I could come up with was "Sir..." and then pain struck me, not physical but every bit as sharp and dirty as those needles. 'Sir'. Goddamn it, why did it always have to be 'sir'? "God, I'm sorry," I gasped instead, not sure who I was apologizing to: God, the Colonel, or myself.
The shadows conferred amongst themselves.
"It's okay, Sam..." His voice bled in through the pain, sounding anguished, but it was the words and not the tone that I clung to. "I'm here... you're here... we're together, we'll be fine. Okay? Okay?"
I wanted to answer, but the numbness was setting in again, beginning in my face and spreading outward. My head lolled back onto the dark pillow of oblivion, Jack's frantic voice faded into the black mist, and the next time I was to hear it, it would be from an unknown man standing at my bedside as I burned with fever.
* * *
Caulder and three of his black-suited guards were waiting for us at the main door of the Administration building. I searched the guards' faces, hoping to recognize some of them as the men who had attacked our camp and consequently confirm Brenna's theory. But they were too clean-shaven and too nondescript, and I had been fighting them, not committing their visages to memory. "So many," he marked idly, his serpent eyes scanning our group, landing first on Brenna and then on Jonah and Therra. The two of them were still ashen with whatever panic attack had been triggered by this place, their eyes slightly glazed, but I couldn't let Caulder see me worry. "Are you expecting trouble?"
"Should we?" I challenged.
Griff shouldered his way up front, all but waving his gun in Caulder's face. "Lets just get one thing clear before anything else, okay buddy? O'Neill's way too friendly. You try any of the shit you pulled on him with ME, I'll blow your pointy little head clear off your shoulders." He glared at the guards. "Yeah, you heard what I said."
"We don't want trouble," I pressed.
Caulder watched Griff carefully, a rodent wondering whether it should bite and run, or merely run. "I'm perfectly capable of being a gracious host."
"You don't know the meaning of grace," said Jonah hollowly. "You're a playground bully. You're a small man in control of a small planet, Caulder."
His eyes glinted. "I'm in control of much more than that, my friend, although you don't know it."
"I'll tell you what you DON'T control," snapped Therra, still shaken and pallid but gaining strength and determination with every word. She looked back and pointed towards the sky. It rhythmically flashed, not with the lightning that often accompanied a storm, but with the warning klaxon from atop this very structure. "That." She turned back, a grim, smug smile playing on her pale lips. "Nature. The weather. And that's the problem, isn't it? Now that your workers are gone, the dome is losing integrity, and it fails even faster during a storm. Your people may never see the sun again, Administrator. It could fail at any moment and we would all die today."
I blinked, praying that she was bluffing. Did Sam bluff? Occasionally. Did Therra?
"You need me," Therra continued, standing a little straighter as Jonah placed a supportive hand on her shoulder. "Now let us inside and lets do what we came to do."
To our collective shock, Caulder immediately stepped aside and motioned for his men to do the same. Judging by the scowl on his face, the Administrator was no less surprised than we were by his quick capitulation. Griff and Baker stepped in first, scanning the ground-level room for signs of a trap. Finding none, they waved in Webster and Merrit, who repeated the process, and then the rest of us followed. The great room was lit only in a few places; emergency lighting, I guessed. Or the perfect place to position an ambush.
"I should have known that you..." Caulder hissed at Brenna.
"Let's get some light in here," barked Griff, his voice overpowering the other man's. "And then let's... let's do what Therra said, let's get to work."
Armed with enough lights to illuminate a black hole, the group pushed into the complex bit by bit, then down the stairway and then down a hallway, through the purple shadows, past amber lights dangling overhead, flickering like the horrible throbbing light outside.
For quite a while, I worried - like the others - that we were walking into another ambush, only this one more skillfully set. And this time, I was sure, Caulder would do more to his captives then beset them with an excessive case of amnesia. But with every step, my confidence grew, pushing the paranoia from the forefront of my mind one little nudge at a time. Caulder was accepting our help. He was taking our judgements, Griff's repetitive threats, and the indignity of having 'slaves' treading on his carpet because he didn't have any other choice. It wasn't even about him holding onto power anymore; when the people below came to their senses and discovered what the government had been hiding, there would be a revolt. I had to believe that if I was going to be able to believe that they were worth saving.
And saving was what we were here to do. Save any relatives of Brenna's that still lived. Save the ignorant, luxury-besotted population that had led to Caulder's kind of government. Maybe make this world better for our former comrades. Save... Caulder. Caulder and all his black-suited, black-eyed lackeys. At one time, herra'd had the knowledge that might have led to the saving of lives and equipment. Now that knowledge was supplemented by a Something Else that made those plans look rudimentary at best, and that Something Else would allow her to blueprint a system that could power the dome with minimal human assistance. Something she might have offered the Administrator weeks ago, but something he would have outright refused. Now something he had no choice but to ask for. Maybe Justice really was poetic. At the very least, she could rhyme.
We'd been adamant at first - we weren't going back down there, weren't, no way, they couldn't make us; they had no right to ask us. But then Carlan-Daniel had given me his patented 'be reasonable' look, and I'd accepted the facts. The plans of the plant Caulder had at his disposal might not be enough for Therra to draw from. And once our end of the bargain was fulfilled, there was the little matter of his end. And the 'device', as the Administrator had proudly referred to it, was down there as well, in a room in one of the upper levels of the underground facility. Some strange instinct told me that whatever the 'device' was, it would kill a part of me, but I wasn't afraid.
And so down we went, Therra and I none-too-subtly escorted by half of them, and Caulder and one of his guards even less-subtly 'escorted' by the others. Every word and motion seemed enormous in the vacant structure. The workers were, of course, no longer beneath the surface. The building's staff was home, holed up under their beds by order of the flashing beacon. The majority of the guards were probably out wandering the streets, trying to 'keep order' -- in other words trying to keep the liberated workers from telling their tale to any of the civilian population. Caulder's remaining guards were sullen and obviously daunted by the Earth folks' arsenal. Caulder himself... he was a pleasure to watch. He hated each moment of this, but he was... "choiceless".
As we walked, Griff informed Cauldr, "Oh, and the little stunt you pulled last night didn't win you any points either, buddy."
"Stunt?" spat Caulder, as though the word was dirty, beneath him.
Griff's scowl was apparent even in the dim lighting. No doubt the Major would have preferred to have the living, breathing piece of dirt in front of him squarely BENEATH his boot. "Dressing your boys up as the workers, having them attack us... oh come on, Administrator, you obviously spent some time planning out that little jaunt, don't get all modest on us now... tell, tell."
Stepping through a cone of light cast by an overhead bulb, I caught Merrit grinning at her CO's back. I looked at Therra. Her eyes were clear, focused.
It wasn't until the walk ended that I realized how much I had irrationally hoped that the slopping tunnel would go on forever. The panic that had caught me in its jaws outside threatened to reemerge, nipping at my heels, panting moistly on my neck. Therra reached over and took my hand, pulling me closer, cradling my arm in a loose embrace against her. Not in a needy way, I understood, graciously accepting the comfort. Not needy in the way the others would have defined it: fragile, clingy, weak. But it wasn't like that at all. We didn't merely need each other. Down here, we were two parts of the same. It wasn't weak or frail, it was just... natural. It was the way it was.
Arm in arm with Therra, we passed the open chamber where the 'device' was. Directly lighting flickered down from the low ceiling. In its sickly glow I saw four metal slabs, crowded with various other mechanical implements. Long struts of steel, extending over the tables like skeletal arms reaching out from their proper graves. My eyes landed on the vague forms of restraints, and I looked away, shuddering. Merrit and Frasier hesitated at the opening. The rest of us continued without pause.
We set up camp in Brenna's old office; Griff and his team quickly secured the small area while I looked from the railing, down at theabandoned machinery, the nonexistent food line, the cold fire pits, and up at a shattered skylight. Behind me, Therra was saying that she needed to go down there, down amid the dinosaur-dead equipment, to check vent and flow and pressure and a few other things I didn't catch... or understand. Griff quickly agreed, assigning Webster to accompany us. Therra balked. Teal'c offered. She maneuvered out of that with alluring grace, telling the men that I was all the protection that she would need, leaving the others muttering that I had shown the ability to protect her in the recent past. They gave me a strange, sleek, coiled-snake weapon, explained its use, all but patted me on the head and told us to run off.
No sooner had Therra and I started down the staircase than the tentative order above dissolved into ten people all trying to talk over each other at once. Frasier was demanding knowledge of the 'device'. Baker, obviously impressed by his CO's way with words, was quipping something about Caulder's "pointy little head". Griff was remarking to Daniel, in a quieter but still audible voice, "They are pretty damn good together, though, aren't they? In a way... it just seems a shame."
I paused on the stairs and Therra stopped behind me, placing one hand on my shoulder. I looked back up at the balcony where Griff and Daniel stood, not looking down on us, not even suspecting that we were still down there. Daniel seemed peeved. "They aren't... 'they', Major. They aren't them. They're Jack O'Neill and Samantha Carter. That's the reality."
Griff shook his head, looking slightly flustered. "No... no, that's what I meant. Carter and O'Neill, they're good together. I always thought it was kinda an aesthetics thing, but... it's a shame. A shame that it has to end like this."
"It has to," said Daniel quietly. "Therra and Jonah... they don't exist. They aren't even fictional characters in a book or movie that they're emulating. They're personalities that Caulder pulled out of a fie and stuck them with."
"Not all of it," said a new voice. Brenna. "Not the important part, remember?"
Oh, I remembered.
Reaching behind me, I took Therra's hand and guided her down the rest of the staircase, quietly, so that the others wouldn't notice our footsteps and worry about what we'd heard. We snaked our way though the dead machinery, and I stood quietly aside while she saw what she needed to see and made notations on a notepad Daniel had given her. Then she sat back against the now-cold steel, brow furrowing as the mind beneath raced through equations with painstaking devotion. I sat as well, and I watched her as I had that first day I had set eyes on her, and as I stared like the first time before that. There was nothing about her I didn't adore, nothing important, anyway, nothing that had needed to be edited out. Oh, many things changed but the crucial things were impossible to change. Mountains would erode and crumble and explode. Rivers would dry and swell. The grandest example of mankind's mind could be obliterated in a decade or a day, given the right tools. But the important things stayed. The intelligence in her eyes. The slim line of her neck below that dreadful haircut. The nimble quickness of her fingers. I sat there and I drank it in, like a man savoring a cup of water, knowing he will never again feel the cool wetness on his tongue. A shame. A shame.
Maybe an hour later, maybe two, she rose again without meeting my eyes, without motioning me to follow her. She didn't need to ask, and she knew that. As she had followed me the first time, I now allowed her to lead the way through the ghostly passages just as feebly lit now as they had been then. Soundlessly we slipped into the old storage room where a blanket prophetically awaited us on the sagging mattress, and hastily we started a adequate fire in the small heater. The firelight flickered through the grille like another light that had brought us to this place. Then we stood, regarding each other's aparel with nervousness akin to our first time in this place. The drab green, further dulled by the orange light of the fire, seemed as much a warning sign to me as any bright red banner.
Her mouth moved to form a word. A sound emerged, just a sibilant, and a wisp of one at that. She was trying to say my name. "J..." J. Funny, in a sad way, that that single letter was all I really had to cling to these days. J.
"Jack," she whispered.
The word unleashed a rush of emotions any poet would have sold his black beret to tap. It was a block of C4 in my soul, detonating in my mind, unblocking the dam that had built behind it.
Who reached for who first didn't matter. All that seemed in the least important was the feel of forbidden fabric beneath my stroking, clenching, fevered hands, and the demanding caress of her lips against mine. Sam's hands rose to frame my face, her skin cool against mine, confidently sweeping down my neck to my shoulders and tugging at the collar of my jacket. Rather than divesting myself of my own clothing, I started with hers, trembling hands triumphing over every fastener and catch and tuck of fabric until I was able to slide my hands almost reverently beneath her shirt. The contact of flesh made us both recoil, but we paused only long enough to murmur encouragingly to each other. My palms traced the curve of her waist and my fingertips played lightly up the unique bumps of her ribcage, all comfortably familiar and new at the same time.
As each piece of clothing hampered our re-exploration of each other, it joined the growing pile on the ground. Finally - with none of the first time's shoddy choreographing - we joined the strewn articles on the covered mattress, cradling each other close and feeling safe at last in the embrace. There was no reason for awkwardness, even though we weren't the same people now that we had been then. We weren't the same... we were better. IT was better, because it came with all the knowledge of reasons and causes and consequnces and was so much sweeter for the risk taken.
Her long, bare arms wrapped around my neck and her strong legs entwined with mine, bringing her even closer against me, bringing her lips to my ear. As we whispered each other's names - our real names this time - I spared a flicker of thought for poor na´ve Therra and Jonah. Comrades because they had been programmed that way, friends and lovers because of what no programming could undo, thinking that all the risk was worth it when it was really the risk that MADE it worth something. Happiness without sadness, pleasure without pain, is just a shadow of its possible glory. Success without the possibility of defeat is not real success, I thought, and then I gave myself over to the place that was no place, where there was no thinking, no worrying, no mission, no names, just us and only the truth between us. And then not even that.
* * *
My shadow cast a ghostly profile over the second of the steel tables, across the strong metal limbs and strapy restraints at either end. Suspended from the ceiling on a flexible wire, directly over the head of the table, was a dark bulb with a focused shade. The bulb, I saw, could be pulled down and positioned directly in the patient's face.
Not patient, I reminded myself. Subject. Of all the people who had lain on these cold tables, who had their personalities overwritten like a computer program, each one had been considered a 'subject' and nothing more. Including four of my closest friends and colleagues.
Turning, I saw Caulder standing in the doorway, watching me with mocking eyes. I could see Teal'c as well, standing across the hallway with his hands behind him, no doubt resting on the Zat tucked into his belt. I felt better seeing him there, but not by much. Caulder carried with him a dark presence, an evil so palpable it seemed to be a contagious pathogen. As though by remaining in his presence for too long, I was more and more likely to catch his strange disease.
"You sick bastards," I saidquietly, a mantra to ward off the presence. He was a weak man, I reminded myself, made weaker because of what SG-1 had done to him. But he had done awful things to them as well, I thought resentfully. Maybe no torture, maybe no pain... but even worse, he had violated their minds. Raped their souls.
"And what would you propose we do with the dregs of our society, Doctor?" Caulder asked in his too-pleasant tone. "Incarcerate them? We haven't the space or resources. Kill them? This society does not condone capital punishment."
"They don't condone this, either," I said softly, looking down at the hateful table. My hand rested lightly on it, but only for an instant, because it was as though I could feel all the obliterated memories and broken dreams seeping through the cold metal, into my warm flesh, chilling it. "They wouldn't if they knew. That's why you kept it a secret from them. But it's not a secret any more."
"Your people have caused our culture irreparable damage," snapped the Administrator, not half so friendly now. "And why? Because you believe that you are right and we are wrong? One would think that in your many travels through your Stargate that you would have come to understand... you are not the moral court of the universe, Doctor."
I shook my head. This was Daniel's territory, but I felt that I could navigate the more shallow levels. "We even have a word for it... cultural relativism. And yes, sometimes we have to accept the fact that just because we think something in wrong, that doesn't mean we can change it. But that also doesn't mean that we don't have the right to WANT to change it. What you had here was slavery, Administrator, and from where we come from, there are few things that are more offensive."
"Where YOU come from," repeated Caulder, sounding pained.
"And you were the one to bring SG-1 into your little operation," I reminded him. "You opened the door for them to make changes. You took that risk. And you lost."
Either Cauler was not used to debating such topics - at least without a speechwriter or spokesperson close at hand - or he didn't feel that I was a worthy opponent. In any case, he left the room without so much as glaring at me, stalking down the hallway. Teal'c followed, and only a few minutes later another figure appeared in the doorway. "You okay?"
I turned back to the table. It had magnetism; I was drawn to it in a way that frightened me. "Sometimes I envy you, Daniel."
His footsteps patted softly against the floor. "Me?"
"All of you. The offworld teams."
"Ah." He stopped a few feet away, on the far side of the first table. "I guess it would get a little tiring after a while... just patching up the damage after the real 'excitement' has already taken place somewhere else."
I sighed. "Don't get me wrong, I love my job. I think... I think that's something that all of us can agree with. We all love what we do. But when there's someone dying in front of me, sometimes the only thing I can think is... why didn't someone stop this from happening? I could have stopped this person from being shot, or from contracting some illness, or from accidentally harming themselves... It's not guilt, exactly. It's not even anger. It's stupid, actually." He said nothing. "But now that I'm here... I'm starting to finally understand something. I don't have... magic powers. If I had been here, with you, I couldn't have changed anything. They would have taken you anyway... done this to you. There's no control."
"There's never any control," he solemnly agreed. "God, look at Sam and Jack, they can't even control who they ARE any more. I was thinking about it on the way here, and... even if their real selves do eventually reemerge, with or without Caulder's help, who's to say that Jonah and Therra will never come back?"
It was an uncomfortable thought. I crossed my arms. "You mean in the middle of a mission. A battle, even."
"I mean... whenever." His eyes, like mine, ere drawn to the obscene tables; he kept looking back and forth between me and them. But he had a better reason than I did, I reminded myself. He had been strapped onto one of these platforms and had been stripped of everything that made him who he was. Replaced by an altered shell. "The temptation will always be there for them, won't it? Giving them a way out if they want it. That's the thing with temptation, you know. You can't will it away. It's there... always... waiting for that moment of weakness. It's relentless. It doesn't matter how devoted they are to the Air Force... or certain regulations."
"'Archaic regulation'," I reminded him with a slight smile.
He returned it, although the expression held more sadness then anything. "I just keep remembering Jack sitting there, telling me that he's... that you're all just cogs in a military machine. That your feelings don't matter worth a damn, whatever keeps the machine running." He narrowed his eyes at me. "Do you believe that?"
"Teamwork is teamwork," I answered vaguely, not sure enough of my own answer to tell him. "It makes sense that for a team, be it SG-1 or the entire base, to run smoothly, individuals may have to make personal sacrifices." I sighed. "If Colonel O'Neill really wanted to be with Sam so badly, he has every right in the world to just quit the Air Force."
"You know he'd never do that," Daniel said quickly. "Not with the war like it is, he wouldn't just abandon us for personal reasons. And Sam wouldn't let him. But," he continued, speaking over my protestations that such behavior was exactly what the regulations promoted. "That's just how they are. That kind of nobility shouldn't be forced upon anybody; that just isn't fair. And it doesn't address the problem at hand, either. What happens the next time Jack's injured on a mission? Or Sam's captured? Or anything along those lines? I saw it happen to Jack just a few hours ago, Janet. Sam was in trouble and he couldn't even admit to imself how worried for her he was, so he slips back into Jonah. Jonah who can hold her hand and say that he loves her and... well, whatever else they want to do."
I knew he wouldn't want to hear my answer, but I respected Daniel too much to keep the truth from him. "If that happens," I said quietly, "or if it's proven that it could happen, they'll take appropriate measures. At best, he'd be removed from SG-1. At worst..."
"They'd make him leave," finished Daniel. I nodded. "Leave. Retire." He sighed, staring at the godforsaken tables again. "Well, at least that would get rid of one problem..."
"They've been gone too long," Griff fretted. "Damn it, we should have sent someone along with them. Got another ambush hiding out there, do you?" he demanded of Caulder, stepping so close that the wiry little man actually hopped away. "Well, if you think you can orchestrate some kind of hostage exchange, buddy, you've got--"
"I assure you," Caulder simpered. "I'm as concerned about them as you are."
A collective snort went up from those of us assembled. "Oh yeah," I said ruefully, pacing the catwalk like a restless tiger in a cage, looking down on the plant for any sign of Jack and Sam. Jonah and Therra. Whoever. "Real concerned. Just like you're concerned about your peoples' well-being, right?"
"If Therra can't come up with those plans," Caulder continued, his voice icy but his eyes clouded with a proper amount of fear for his safety, "the dome will fail and we'll ALL die; it's that simple. It won't matter who is holding the gun when it happens."
Griff scowled, and I looked away. I wasn't military - as I was so often reminded - but I had a fair idea of what the Major was thinking. A man with nothing to lose is a dangerous thing, no matter what species you're from or what planet you call your own. If Caulder thought that we were purposely holding out on him, or that our reluctant help was going to come too late, who knew what kind of stunts he and his crony might try to pull. Caulder wasn't doing this for the good of his planet, for the liberated slaves OR the ordinary people who, until w came along, had no idea what was going on directly beneath their feet. Yes, the Administrator scorned and detested the workers; I had been a recipient of that scorn. But he didn't care for the ordinary man on the street either, any more than he had cared for Carlan or Jonah or any of the rest of us. He cared about himself, his own survival, and I knew that if he had any better plan for saving his own skin, he would have already implemented him. There was no one here who knew what Sam and Therra knew. She was his best chance. We were his last chance. He couldn't attempt to back-stab us any more than we could afford to blow him and his offer off.
"They've been gone too long," said Griff again, deliberately turning his back on Caulder and leaving the younger three-fourths of his team to make vaguely threatening gestures at the Administrator.
And then Teal'c announced, "There they are."
My head spun around, and Janet quickly walked around from behind Griff for a better view of the lower level. Caulder also took a interested step towards the railing, but was stopped by the Major, who was idly polishing the barrel of his weapon with his uniform sleeve.
And there they came, two green and flesh-colored forms moving against the burnt-out darkness, pace ponderously measured, expressions - from this distance - stilted and impassive. They worked their way around metal beams thick as tree trunks, cold fire pits, and random debris discarded when the workers had abandoned the place, crossed the open area, and started up the stairs. The way in which they walked struck me as odd: solemnly, silently, almost touching but not quite. Tucked underneath one of Therra's arms was the notepad I had given her, and as they joined us on the landing I saw that its front page was entirely covered with diagrams and her small, scratchy handwriting. Jonah hung back against the railing, silent and still except for his quick, darting eyes, but Therra walked boldly past Griff, up to Caulder, and shoved the notepad ito the Administrator's face. "Take it," she said shortly.
From his pocket Caulder produced a handkerchief with the same dramatic flair as a magician. Draping it completely over his hand he reached greedily for the notepad, never letting his skin touch it in the least. He glanced cursorily at the scribbles and diagrams and then thrust it behind him, to his crony, who was out the door and down the corridor like a shot before Griff could even open his mouth in protest. Instead, the Major scowled at Therra. "You know, you probably should have let ME have that," he said, an edge of frustration in his voice, and a wary glimmer in his eye as he exchanged a glance with me. That notepad had been our bargaining chip. Now that Caulder and his engineers had it in their possession, we had to rely that he would keep his word and help Sam and Jack.
Yeah. Like THAT was likely.
And as expected, Caulder's tense expression melted into a superficial smile. "Thank you," he told Therra with exaggerated graciousness. "Your old friends here would have made a great deal more fanfare, but... I can see... you're truly concerned about your comrades." He sniffed disdainfully at the rest of us. "A quality that WE instilled in you, I suppose."
Therra said nothing. Jonah said nothing. Brenna, however, had started grinding her teeth as soon as Caulder had begun his praise. Maybe she was remembering that not so long ago time when he had lauded such approval onto HER, in order to get inside her head, make her loyal. "What about your part of the deal, Administrator?" she said curtly, no doubt expecting the same thing we were. "Major Griff here is starting to look a little irate... I would advise not backing out of the arrangement."
He scowled at her tone, but the smug sneer wasn't gone from his face for long. "It's not so much backing out," he began, taking a step back into the office - Griff, his team, and Teal'c took a step forward - "as it is... dealing with reality." Looking from one face o the next, relishing the words, he added, "There's no way to undo the stamp."
* * *
A brief, stunned silent ensued, broken by Captain Merrit's throaty "Son of a bitch..." Her mouth snapped shut as soon as she remembered the company she was in, and she darted a guilty look at her CO, but Griff was too busy staring daggers into Caulder's skull.
I decided that I changed my mind. I didn't really want to go offworld more than was absolutely necessary. Seeing the end product was infinitely easier than facing these curveballs as they came at us.
Again Caulder stepped back, and again everyone stepped after him - everyone except for Jonah and Therra, who had drifted across the room and now stood together, watching it all as though they were spectators instead of participants. It was bizarre. It was almost comical. But it wasn't. It was deadly serious.
Here we had thought that Caulder's chief concern was keeping himself alive, that the fact this 'deal' would keep the rest of this planet alive was merely incidental. But Caulder had sent his flunky off, and now he stood here, undefended, vulnerable, but smirking rakishly nonetheless. Sure he wanted to live, I thought, but he also wanted to show us up. He hated that we had been able to hold ANYTHING over him, and now it seemed that if it was the last thing he ever did, he would smirk over the fact that he had mislead us.
Brenna's mouth had frozen into a small "o" of shock and surprise, and she looked at Griff and the rest of us with pleading eyes. "I swear, I didn't know..." She demanded of her former employer, "How can there not be a way to undo it?"
"Because workers aren't worth it."
It was the answer we had all been expecting from Caulder, but it came from behind us. And it was spoken by Jonah.
His eyes were hard, intense, as though for the last few moments he had been holding back all of his emotion and now it was erupting through in the face of this unfairness. "They're not, are they?" he fiercely asked Caulde, who looked as startled as the rest of us. "They're equipment, just like that." He gestured down at the second level. "And if one doesn't work, you eliminate them. Toss them out onto the surface. How many frozen bodies are out there, anyway? How many people have you killed, Caulder?"
"Oh, he hasn't killed anyone," spoke up Therra before the Administrator could muster a pithy reply. Her tone was scornful, and she stared at him as though he was something less than dirt. "He won't even come in contact with something a worker has touched. He'd never get his hands THAT dirty. He just... really enjoys giving the orders. What did you think about actually shooting Brenna yourself?" she asked contemptuously. "Actually pulling the trigger. Did it give you a thrill, Caulder? Do you think you could be a soldier now?"
Although Caulder was as surprised as the rest of us by Therra's taunting words and belittling glower, he also seemed to find her last statement humorous. "A soldier? I could be one easier than you, I think, Therra. And Jonah," he added, including him with a small, satisfactory nod. "You wouldn't raise a hand against anyone, would you? Unless it was for each other," he added with a simpering smile. "I have to admit, Brenna, your idea was a small bit of genius. 'Play on the feelings they already have,' you said. Honestly, I never thought about workers actually having real feelings like that."
"Just because you don't have human feelings doesn't mean no one else does," snapped Brenna, her voice trembling. Caulder was trying to make us angry at her, I realized, because it was effectively her brainstorm all those weeks ago that had trapped Sam and Colonel O'Neill in these cursed personalities. Brenna had already told us everything, but the slight tremor when she talked betrayed her very real shame at what she had done. "As a matter of fact--"
"Brenna," said Jonah softly.
She turned, as did the rest of us, and we found Jonah holding a folded sheet of paer out towards the woman. A sheet that looked like it might have come from the same notebook Therra had just handed Caulder. Brenna took it unquestioningly, but didn't unfold the page. "What is it?"
"It's what I left out of the plans I gave to him," said Therra, nodding at Caulder, who immediately screwed up his face in irritation. "The dome generator won't work without the modifications that are on THAT piece of paper. Actually, without them, it'll blow up."
And Caulder erupted in an unqualified rage, dashing across the office in two large strides and grabbing Therra roughly by the fabric of her shirt. Griff and his team leapt to ready positions, bringing up their guns with a series of metallic click-click-clicks, punctuated by the alien whir of a Zat gun uncoiling. But Caulder was too close to Therra by the time they had brought their weapons to bear, and so they simply stood with their target in their sights. He was unarmed, after all. Furious, but unarmed.
As Brenna backed behind Merrit, clutching the important paper protectively, Caulder shook Therra roughly by the arm; Jonah scowled, narrowed his eyes, but didn't move to help. "Therra!" yelled the Administrator in pure irate frustration, and there was such fury in his voice that for a second I worried that Therra would give into the intimidation.
But then she smiled, and belted Caulder across the face hard enough to make his jaw crack. Daniel actually let an automatic, sympathetic "Yowch" out under his breath.
"That's 'Major Carter' to you," spat Therra, standing with her hands on her hips as Caulder stumbled backwards with his hands held over his face. "And you couldn't be a soldier if you had the right personality actually *stamped* onto you."
There had been a lot of times over the years when I had been proud of my team, my 'kids' as I jokingly referred to them, even though they could all have easily bested me at something. I'd been proud of Teal'c every single time he had come to face his former God and walked away still his own man. I had been intensely proud of Daniel when he proved SG-3 wrong and actually passed the basic fitness test at the Academy, thereby winning me a bet or three. I'd been proud of Carter when she saved the world, of course, because who could not be proud of a thing like that. But I could honestly say that I had never felt the kind of pride for her that I did then, as she stared down Caulder with such an icy look that the temperature of the room seemed to drop a few degrees. I wanted to break out of my stoic fašade, throw my arms around her and grin and tell her she was wonderful. I at least wanted to put my arm around her and give her shoulder a supportive squeeze. But I did neither, because I was myself again, and that was how it had to be. We had made a deal of sorts, and this was how it had to be.
Caulder was bent over double, gingerly cradling his jaw as Baker openly sniggered at him. Frasier had a confused line between her eyes, Griff looked dizzy, but Daniel... Daniel got it, and he looked as though he might break into song and dance from sheer excitement. "Sam?" he stammered, as though she hadn't just announced her name, beaming exactly like I wanted to. Then he looked at me and asked, more cautiously, "Jack?"
"That's my name; don't wear it out," I said promptly, and from the corner of my eye I saw Merrit's pale, pretty face split in a relieved smile. "Daniel," I chided teasing. "Don't look so surprised. It's not like we weren't right here the whole time."
Smiling and catching my eye for only the slimmest of seconds, Carter turned to Brenna, who continued to hold the generator plans close to her heart. "That's your bargaining chip," she told the other woman firmly. "And it's also the way to make sure that HE doesn't get all the credit for saving the city."
"The credit goes to you," said Brenna a little breathlessly.
"But I'm not staying here," Carter reminded her. "So it might as well go to good use."
"The workers should be here soon," spoke up Frasier, checking the time on her wristwatch. "Give it to the engineers - or even Caulder - in full view of them and as many other people as you can," she suggested. "The workers will look to you for representation, and the rest of them just might listen."
"But they shouldn't," Brenna insisted, looking from face to face in that annoying way some people had of searching out reassurance. "Look what I did to you, I..."
"Caulder said it himself, Brenna," Carter interrupted, and even though she spoke softly, the other woman stopped protesting at once; pride, and something deeper, more poignant, flooded through me again, and I pushed back against the tide. "If the stamping hadn't worked at all he would have had us killed. You figured it out; you saved us."
"But what I did... it was WRONG."
"This whole place is wrong," I pointed out, shrugging, not saying everything I was thinking. This had all been wrong, yeah, because a good group of people had been used for manual labor and then cast aside like one might throw away an apple after only the core is left. It had been wrong, but what Brenna had seen and what had been pulled out and developed because of her was very, very right. It had been the only right thing.
* * *
Strange that I hadn't recognized them as soon as they'd come out of the shadows of the machinery. It seemed obvious now who they were; their every motin, expression, inflection was almost as familiar as my own face in the mirror.
We exited the underground plant via the gently sloping tunnel, Sam and Jack walking side by side like two warriors returning triumphantly from battle. Close but not touching. Jack looked straight ahead, eyes focused on the stooped, hunched back of Administrator Caulder who was being 'escorted' non-too-gently by Webster and Teal'c and still loudly complaining about a broken jaw. Sam's eyes would flitter from Griff and his team to Caulder, and I noticed that when the landed on me, they had the tendency to crinkle a little at the corners, like she was holding back a smile. "What?" I asked finally.
Finally she did smile, although wryly. "You're practically dancing, Daniel," she pointed out, and Jack looked over at me with a bemused glint in his eye.
"Of course I am," I protested, feeling embarrassment creep up as I realized I'd all but been skipping down the hall. "I didn't know if I'd ever see you guys again. Well, I'd SEE you, but, you know..."
"We know," Sam confirmed warmly. "Sorry we led you on for a few minutes there, but..."
"But you can just never pass up a chance to screw with a madman's head," Jack finished, raising his voice to be sure that Caulder would hear. "You never know when it might come again."
We reached the surface then, and with only a quiver of hesitation Griff motioned for Merrit and Janet to give Jack and Sam their weapons back. There was a vague uncertainty in Griff's face, one that Jack must have seen because even before he took the proffered gun he looked the Major square in the eye. "We're back," he said jauntily.
"Yes, sir," said Griff with a stiff smile, and then, looking uncomfortable, he motioned towards the door. There was a wan form of sunlight filtering into the lobby; the storm must have passed, and if the warning klaxon was still flashing, it was hard to tell. "I believe our welcoming committee awaits."
* * *
It looked like less of a wecoming committee and more like an army - unarmed but angry as hell - interspersed with a hundred or so puzzled civilians. It took me a second to remember that the men and women in blue and black were the very same people I had escorted back from Earth only hours before. And the others... they had to be natives of this world.
Most of them were gathered around the Stargate, looking up at it in awe and apprehension, but also interest. We had passed some of them on the streets on the way here. Some had darted ahead, some had followed behind; a few had actually walked alongside us, no doubt wondering if we were in any way related to the 163 folks who had been wandering through the neighborhood spreading weird stories of underground labor camps and liberators from another planet. The general populace knew about Earth, of course, from when SG-1 and later SG-6 had traveled through the Gate. But something told me that the whole story wasn't common knowledge. Or it hadn't been.
Before we'd left the SGC, we'd given Kegan and a couple others wristwatches, setting them to go off at a certain time. In fact, I could even now hear the continuous beep-beeps; not everyone had figured out how to turn the alarms off. But the important thing was that they had gone off, which was the signal for the workers to reassemble here, at the Gate, to bring as many 'regular people' along as they could convince to... that we would meet them here. Obviously, we couldn't do everything for the workers - and I didn't think they would want us to - but we could give them a send-off... and a good word.
Kegan and two of the male workers stood on the dais, and they spotted our group first. None of them even glanced twice at Caulder, but smiled at the rest of us and waved. Exchanging glances, Colonel O'Neill, Sam, Major Griff and Brenna picked up the pace in that direction, while the rest of us hung back. Caulder spotted two of his flunkies - including the one who had joined us down in the plant - and slunk over towards them. e let him go. We certainly weren't planning on bringing him back to Earth with us; the sooner he got used to obscurity here, the better.
"I just don't get it," Daniel muttered, watching our people ascend the dais.
"Colonel O'Neill and Major Carter, you mean?" asked Merrit, who seemed to be taking their 'recovery' as her own personal redemption.
But Daniel shook his head. "I mean the workers. I don't get it," he repeated, brow furrowing as he fought to understand. "The government here is in chaos right now, and the people are confused, but you know as well as I do... it won't be long at all before suspicion and hatred and discrimination starts getting the better of them."
"They won't have an easy time of it," I agreed. I could still see, in my mind's eye, the look on General Hammond's face when I'd told him of their desire to return 'home'.
"Hammond mentioned you had something to do with this," Daniel commented, seeming to read my mind. "What did you say to them to make them change their minds?"
"It wasn't me," I said quickly. "I talked with Kegan, in the commissary, and she told me what she and the others had been feeling for a while now. They weren't totally convinced that some other planet would be the right place for them."
"Why do they think this will be?" mumbled Merrit, looking away from us. I followed her gaze and found myself looking at a scowling ex-Administrator with a swollen jaw. Broken now, cowed now, but for how long?
* * *
Was it just me, or did General Hammond look the slightest bit relieved as we stepped through the Stargate?
Major Griff had, of course, radioed ahead with the news that those who belonged on the planet were remaining there, and those who belonged on Earth were returning. His way of phrasing it was quaint but inappropriate; he made it sound like Therra and Jonah were remaining on 118 while Carter and myself were returning, and that wasn't true. In fact, I would have called it an outright lie, but I couldn't really lame Griff. He didn't know any better.
But oh yes, Hammond looked relieved as we traipsed down the ramp. Carter beamed and I snapped off a half-assed salute to confirm it. "We're back."
Griff's team flowed around us, nodding to Hammond and acknowledging that the post-mission briefing would take place in an hour before leaving the room. Daniel stayed on the other side of Carter; Teal'c stopped at the foot of the ramp. Time and silence settled. I couldn't move from where I stood, and bizarrely enough I didn't want to.
For a long while, Hammond said nothing, merely scrutinizing first my face and then Carter's with the kind of frankness I had come to expect from him. I simply stared back at him, knowing that words were insufficient if not downright empty.
Finally, the General gave a terse nod and tight smile. "Welcome back, SG-1," he said.
There was a book splayed spine-up on the tabletop. I vaguely remembered leaving it there.
The chair was pulled out from under the counter. I pushed it back under.
This was my lab, exactly as I remembered it. So why did it feel like I was looking at everything through the eyes of a stranger? Why did everything feel so odd and alien when I touched it? Why was I so ill at ease here? Had I really forgotten what it was like to be me so quickly?
Airman Gregory watched me surreptitiously from the doorway. I considered being annoyed at his presence but decided against it. Everyone's prime concern right now was that I was going to have another 'relapse' of the personality kind. I'd assured them that I was fine, as had the Colonel. Still, we couldn't really blame them for not believing us. They'd believed us last time and look what had happened.
But this was different.
I glanced at my watch. The post-mission briefing was set to start soon, as soon as General Hammond was done speaking to Griff and his team. He wanted to see us separately, he said, and perhaps have a joint briefing tomorrow if he felt that it was necessary. We'd all squirmed a little when he'd told us that, like we were disobedient kids being taken aside for a private scolding. What did he want to tell us that he couldn't say in front of everyone?
My thoughts were evenly divided between the future and the past. What was going to happen to SG-1 now? We'd managed to circumvent Caulder's brainwashing on the planet, and we'd survived the return trip despite his best efforts, but that didn't mean that we would survive THIS. Not as a team, anyhow. Things had happened. I couldn't ignore that, not after seeing the consequences of that kind of denial. I couldn't expect the General to ignore it either.
* * *
I reached the briefing room just as SG-6 was leaving, and they all greeted me in too-loud, too-cheerful voices. "Hey Colonel," said Griff as he passed me, but he hesitated slightly and added, "Good luck," under his breath.
General Hammond moved from the head of the table towards his office, and waved for me to follow. "Colonel, I'm glad you're here." His eyes settled on a point over my left shoulder. "You too. Major."
"Sir," said Carter crisply, coming to a stop just behind me and to the side. I could have looked back at her, but I didn't.
Hammond addressed the two airmen who'd been tailing Carter and me - 'for our own safety' - "We'll be in my office. When Doctor Jackson and Teal'c arrive, tell them we'll be out shortly." He looked back at us. "Colonel... Major?"
We had no choice but to follow him in, and sit stiffly across from his desk as he closed the door and settled into his chair.
"We..." he said slowly, with an uncharacteristic pause, "have a bit of a problem here."
Carter stiffened, and only extreme self control kept me from doing the same. In the back of my mind, a little voice was shouting bitterly, 'no, no, no...'
Hammond seemed surprised at our silence. "Don't you think so?"
"I don't... think so, sir," I said cautiously, willing Carter to jump in at any time, but she didn't. "What do you think the problem is?" Make him spell it out, I decided, allowing a little of the other voice's bitterness to seep through. Make him come right out and accuse us of doing something we had no control over. Or if not that... something we didn't feel the need to have control over.
Narrowing his eyes slightly, the General folded his hands in front of him. "After Doctor Jackson and Major Griff contacted me from the planet, I... made a few calls, in the event that Caulder was unable or unwilling to help you." He waited for one or both of us to interrupt in surprise or indignation, sighed at our silence, and continued. "I lied. I said that... Jonah and Therra would still be assets to this command and that no transfers or... change of name forms would be needed."
I glanced at Carter automatically, and wasn't surprised to see her frowning slightly. I didn't like it either, but Hammond was right. It HAD been a lie. As Jonah and Therra, we would have been useless here. Sure, we could shovel ore and regulate flow valves and all of those other very important things, and yes, Therra had been a genius compared to everyone else down in the plant... but being functioning members of the SGC was a whole other ballgame. Therra and Jonah had not been meant to be scientists and team leaders, and frankly it would probably have been beyond their capabilities. Our capabilities.
So what would have happened to them... to us? If Hammond had admitted to the truth, we would have been shuffled off in the same direction as Nyan and Marty and all those other people who KNEW but weren't one of US. Only we would never have been given a moment's peace from the military... and the NID. We would have been a continuous security risk to them, a pair of potential leaks. The only upside was that we... they... would have been together through it all. Confused as hell, scared, but together.
That was what Hammond had wanted to save us from, and he'd actually lied to the higher-ups to ensure that we wouldn't be tormented. Lied and said that we could continue to function as a couple of Air Force officers despite the fact that we couldn't remember being Air Force...
Hammond recognized my flash of understanding. "Thankfully we don't need to call upon that contingency," he said carefully, directing most of his words to Carter now. "But it does open up an option for us. Or should I say... for you."
"Loophole," said Carter flatly, almost absentmindedly.
"As Therra and Jonah, it would be as though you came into this command in a preexisting relationship, and as I've explained to... certain individuals, there would be no benefit in terminating that relationship."
As though you could, I thought, feeling the perverse desire to smile as I put myself in my other self's shoes... just for a second. Given the choice between Therra and working at some strange alien instillation... there would have been no choice. Not for Jonah.
Not for Jack, either.
Hammond was still talking, looking increasingly uncomfortable with every word that passed his lips. And why not? He had lied to his superiors and was suggesting that we do the same. I understood why, but I also understood why this was so difficult for him.
We dealt almost every day of our lives with people who lied. People who had no honor. Caulder was as good an example as any, but he certainly wasn't the only one. Sometimes they were humans, born and bred on Earth. Sometimes they were from another planet, sometimes they were aliens. Sometimes they were our enemies and too often they were members of our own government.
Living that life could do one of two things to you. It could turn you into that kind of person, a Maybourne, a Makepeace, make you see the logic in 'the end justifies the means', frustrate you to the point where you demanded a level playing field. And that meant going down to their level. If you didn't want to fall down that path, the alternative was the other extreme: play by the rules, no matter how hard. Follow the letter, follow the spirit. Honor even your enemy. Go in with as clear a conscience as you can manage. Don't lie, especially to your own people, even if those same people would lie to you in a heartbeat.
So here we were, treading that lie, tiptoeing up to it and peeking over the other side. It was a sheer drop. I couldn't even see the bottom.
"Now naturally," said Hammond, "I can't guarantee that SG-1 would remain as-is." That jolted me back into the moment, and the General met my gaze squarely, dragging something from it. "But there would be no action taken against either one of you because of... events set in motion by Administrator Caulder."
We were silent. What could I say to that? What do you say to someone who's practically handed you everything you never knew you always wanted... but demands such a devastating sacrifice in return? Out of the corner of my eye, through the glass, I saw Daniel and Teal'c enter the briefing room. They looked around, spoke to Airman Clark, and then sat down at the table. Still no words were forthcoming, and that was a very strange feeling for me.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, Carter spoke up. Her voice held the same flat, toneless quality that it had earlier, but I could sense a wealth of emotion beneath the surface. "Sir... that's not what we want."
I turned sharply to face her - she didn't so much as blink - annoyed that she would think she spoke for me. And then I realized... she did. She was exactly right. I looked back at Hammond. "She's right, General. Breaking up SG-1, for whatever reason... that's the last thing we want."
I couldn't quite read Hammond's expression. Was he surprised that we weren't immediately grateful? Annoyed that his careful lies had been for nothing? Or maybe, like me, he didn't know what to think. "Jack... you should know, this isn't the first time I've considered reassigning one or both of you. It's been on my mind for a while now. Since before the whole incident with... Anise's armbands," he added, surprising me.
"But you haven't," protested Carter, a little indignation rising out of her modulated voice. "Sir," she tacked on, looking sheepish. "It's been... a long time since that's happened, and you haven't said anything before now."
"I'm dealing with circumstances as they come, Major. And this situation presented a danger I hadn't before considered."
"Sir," - more determined now - "there must have been a reason you've kept the team intact. Even after... the armband incident. You must have decided that there was some... benefit from it, or at least no real risk."
"And General," I jumped in, rescuing Carter from Hammond's inevitable response of 'dealing with unforeseen circumstances'. "You were right. There is a benefit."
Hammond wanted to believe me. It was written as plain as anything across his face, the eagerness in his eyes, the nervous set of his shoulders. There most certainly was a reason he hadn't had Carter reassigned as soon as Frasier told him just why we'd been mistaken for zanexs. The fact that I could see all this merely by looking at him across his desk worried me, but it also gave me new resolve. If Hammond wanted to be convinced, I would convince him... or humiliate myself and Carter trying.
"What kind of benefit would that be, Colonel?" prompted the General, his tone crisp. He knew that I'd read his body language, knew that he was transparent in this matter, and it bothered him.
There was no way to approach this delicately, but since when I had ever worried about that? Carter was ready to jump out of her skin, but she understood the situation as well as I did. These things would be difficult to say, they would feel more like an admission of guilt then confessing to Anise ever had, and if Hammond had ever had any lingering doubts that had let him turn a blind eye, we'd be giving him all the ammunition he needed. The simple fact, however, was that we really had nothing to lose, except for our privacy. And we were in the military... privacy was apparently a luxury we couldn't afford.
"The feelings we have for each other," I began, grinding out the words slowly, torturously, and resisting the temptation to break eye contact, "are the reason we're alive. I'm not just talking about being close as a team, either, sir, although I know that's part of it." God, I sounded hoarse. "Brenna told us herself. The stamp wouldn't work on Major Carter and I. They didn't know why. They'd try to wipe our memories but it wouldn't hold. Caulder said to hell with it and wanted to just toss us out onto the surface. Beyond the dome."
I paused to think, and instinctually, Carter took over. "Brenna decided that the only way the stamp would work on us was if we were allowed to keep some... semblance of who we were. Meaning our... friendship. And... she was right, it worked. Now... I admit things didn't exactly go uphill from there, but it kept us alive."
Friendship. Good word, so many definitions. I jumped on it. "And it helped us remember who we were, sir. It was a, a chink in the armor. Once we were able to consciously remember... friendship, other things followed. Including who we were and what we were really supposed to be doing."
Hammond remained impassive. The openness, the clarity from a moment ago had clouded over into the General's usual, contemplative expression. "And what's happened since you've been back..."
I shifted in my chair, glancing back out at the briefing room. Frasier had joined Teal'c and Daniel. Daniel. Daniel should be in here. Daniel could say it, WOULD say it. I couldn't. I couldn't very well tell the General that the return of Jonah and Therra was the Air Force's fault, although maybe that was a little melodramatic. We'd found safety in those other personas because as ourselves, as Air Force officers, we couldn't admit to... certain things. We couldn't sit down and discuss them and come to an understanding. Since long before the whole zenterc thing, we'd coped with our feelings by denying and ignoring them. We'd gotten good at that. Too good, actually. So good we'd completely blocked it from our minds and I'd almost gotten my brain fried by Anise's bug zapper.
Of course, we hadn't learned anything from that. Having everything come out in the open like it had only made us more paranoid, more eager to sweep it all under the rug and pray that it would be overlooked. But all that paranoia and sweeping and praying had taken its own toll, had built up the pressure inside us to a destructive point... and like the inner workings of that damn plant, Therra and Jonah had provided the perfect release for that pressure. And that release became the ultimate indulgence, one we just didn't want to give up.
"We needed to resolve things," I said solemnly, hoping that if I looked serious enough Hammond wouldn't press for details. "We needed to... accept some things."
Evidently he didn't WANT details. Just assurances. "And have you accepted them?"
The question had many layers. 'Have you accepted that you can't go running into another personality whenever you become overwhelmed?' 'Have you accepted that where you are in where you want to be?' 'Have you accepted that you can't have her, Jack?'
Unless we wanted to take Hammond up on his offer, the answers to all of those questions would have to be 'yes', for both of us. And to take up the offer would mean the end of SG-1. The team whose survival had become both a running joke and a good luck charm. The first good thing in my life after a long dry spell of good things. I couldn't destroy that, not even for Carter. Did she know that? Did she agree?
"Yes, sir," she said softly, as though having read my mind.
It seemed that she did.
"Yes, sir," I echoed. "We've accepted them."
"Can I come in?"
Janet looked up from her desk, concern - normally my voice in the infirmary was not a good sign - and then confusion flitting across her face as a once-over confirmed that I was healthy. She looked back at me leaning in through the half-open doorway and a small smirk let me know that a joke at my expense was about to be made. "I thought the general wisdom on this base was to stay as far away from me as possible?"
"Not you," I corrected her, as I took the comment as an invitation and pushed inside. "Just your... various instruments of torture. Jack's words," I added hastily.
"Love me, love my needles," she quipped, gesturing for me to take a seat across from her. "What's up?"
Hesitating, I finally noticed the file folders and official-looking papers covering her desk, stuff that looked a lot more important then standard medical forms. "I'm not bothering you, am I?"
Feigning exasperation - at least I hoped she was feigning - Janet closed one of the folders and pushed it aside, leaning forward with her full attention. "If you were bothering me, I would have told you to go away. Now what is it, or am I going to have to bring out my various instruments of torture?"
Exasperated or not, she probably wasn't kidding about that. "I figured it out. The thing that was bugging me."
She relaxed slightly, her expression turning solemn as she recognized the subject. "The workers?"
I nodded. "Yeah. It was driving me insane... it just didn't make any sense to me."
She smiled indulgently. "And you like things to make sense."
"Yes. Well... I don't expect military strategy to make sense, or astrophysics, or Gou'ald tactics... that's what Jack and Sam and Teal'c are for. But THIS... societies, cultures, the way people think and why they do what they do... that's my thing, that's what I do. And at first there wasn't any problem... I understood why they wanted to leave, their reasons for wanting to start over again. That made perfect sense."
"And then they decided to go back," Janet nodded along.
"It didn't make sense. We were completely willing to give them the easy way out, let them start over, to just have each other and not have to worry about anyone else. No Administrators telling them that they weren't good enough and couldn't do what they wanted to do. Wipe the slate clean. Take them away from an unfair fight."
"You think you understand that now?"
I found myself leaning forward in my chair. "After the briefing, after you left, Jack told me what he'd been talking about with Sam and Hammond." I could remember looking through the glass partition and seeing their somber expressions. Hammond so serious, Sam so anxious, Jack so sad. "He offered them a loophole. Gave them the chance to continue their work here, as Jonah and Therra." I waited for some sign of surprise from Janet and got nothing. "They'd be able to pick up where 'those two' left off without... any kinds of consequences. Besides SG-1 being split up, of course, but Hammond's apparently been considering it anyway." That wasn't exactly what Jack had said, of course... by the time I'd caught up with him he'd been ready to explode and evasive in the extreme. Considering that he'd just had a conversation with his CO about his relationship with his second-in-command, I couldn't find it in my heart to be annoyed. He'd mumbled a brief summary, enough for me to reconstruct the meeting, before vanishing into his quarters.
Elbows propped on her desk, Janet frowned slightly. "And?"
I shrugged. "They said thanks but no thanks. They even convinced him to keep the team together. You're surprised?"
She sat back in her chair, the frown deepening. "I guess I am. Not that I think they're selfish, it's just that... they've been through a lot. Because of..."
"What they feel."
"Yeah." She rested her chin in her hand, stared into space thoughtfully, and asked: "So what's that have to do with the workers?"
"Everything. Sam and Jack... the workers... it's the same thing," I answered promptly, still feeling the mild elation of having solved the puzzle in my mind. "They both had every chance in the world to start fresh. To give up their old lives and start over. To not have to deal with the restrictions people put upon them. Everything they wanted was right in front of them and they went for it." I paused, scanning Janet's face for a sign that she understood. "And then they realized that they'd made a mistake. They realized that running away from the problem isn't the same as beating it, and they wanted to beat it."
It was hard to put my whole... epiphany into words. Intuitively I understood the parallels, but I didn't know if I could explain them clearly enough. Maybe it was something you could only understand if you'd been presented with that choice yourself; maybe I would be better off lecturing to Teal'c.
But Janet had been the one to explain the workers' reasoning to me: they had realized that where they were from, no matter how impossible, how repressive, was home. The only real home that they would ever have. They had come to feel that simply leaving was letting Caulder win, that they were owed what they had helped create, and that if fighting, if violence was the only way to get what they deserved, so be it.
Sam and Jack, as near as I could tell, had made a similar decision. For a little while, they had run away from their problems of repressed and unprofessional feelings. They had given into the desire to be free of the restrictions, to be able to feel whatever they wanted without the fear or someone taking notes. But only temporarily. They had come back to us, because somewhere in their subconscious they had come to terms with the truth: that their escape wasn't real, wasn't permanent, and wasn't fair to themselves or each other. I believed that they would fight, too, not a physical struggle, no violence involved... only patience. Acceptance. The memory, the taste of how things could be, one day.
I looked up from my thoughts, meeting Janet's eyes and reading the understanding in them. Maybe she didn't get it like I did, but she knew. And she knew Jack and Sam. She had to be feeling the same concerned and compassionate pangs I was.
"I think in all of us," Janet said slowly, "there's a part of ourselves we don't like. I'm not talking about physical appearance, like wanting curlier hair or a straighter nose. I mean a quality, a part of our personality, a trait, a part of our makeup we'd like to get rid of. Our rudeness, our short temper, our focus... our feelings." She dropped her arm, folding her hands and regarding me carefully. "I can only imagine that, given the chance, it would be very tempting to shuttle that trait onto someone else. Someone whose actions you couldn't be held responsible for, like an imaginary friend."
I returned her sympathetic smile. "It would be tempting, yeah. It... it WAS tempting," I admitted. "But even those traits we don't like, the parts we hate, the things we want to get rid of more than anything... our faults are part of what make us US.. just as much as our strengths."
"If not more," Janet quipped, her smile widening. "You wouldn't be Daniel if you didn't wind up in here on a weekly basis, for example."
"I think that might be a slight exaggeration," I groaned, "but... yeah, you get the point."
"Yeah, I do." She leaned back in her chair, returning her attention to the papers on her desk; they seemed to have multiplied in the last five minutes. She pulled out a specific folder, opened it, and looked back at me. "Were you ever able to talk to that Kegan woman?"
Deciding the return of the folders meant that it was time to make my exit, I stood. "Umm... actually, I didn't. But I don't plan on losing any sleep over it, either. I don't think she even recognized me." Not that I could blame here. When I thought about who I had been when I'd been with Kegan... I wouldn't have even been able to recognize myself. Funny.
I left Janet's office with a little wave, but on a whim I stopped just around the corner, where I could still see her through the half-shuttered windows. She opened up the folder she had pulled onto her desk and picked up the contents, a small stack of those same official-looking papers. She stared into space for a few moments, smiled, tore the sheets into halves and then quarters, which she returned to the folder.
I smiled to myself, and left the infirmary before the nurses got any bright ideas.
They were back.
Back to a place they'd never been...
Only they had, and lying about it - to themselves or others - wouldn't change that fact for anyone. This was their home. It always had been. And no matter where they might eventually end up, this was where home would always be.
The stars seemed so clear, so close... but of course they were no closer then they had ever been.
He'd been out here for almost an hour. They couldn't leave the base together; that would send up every red flag in existence. No one quite trusted them. Not yet. It would be a while before people stopped looking at them and wondering if they were talking to whom they thought they were talking to. Every memory lapse, every moment of confusion would be treated like a national emergency. They would be walking on proverbial eggshells for a long time to come.
Which was why he'd been standing out in the cool night air, by himself, for almost an hour. Of course, he could have waited inside the cab, but it wasn't that cold. And it was easier to see the stars lying down in the bed of his truck.
He tensed when he heard the sound of a car approaching, relaxed and sighed when it passed on by.
And then one didn't pass.
He waited until he heard the crunch of tires on gravel, and then he sat up. She'd pulled in behind him, on the shoulder of the road. Their eyes locked through her windshield.
He slid forward onto the tailgate, legs dangling off the edge, as she got out of her car and closed the door. "Did it go okay?"
She stopped in front of him, hands shoved awkwardly into the pockets of her jeans, and gave a half-shrug, half-nod. "Janet said she was going to call my house in half an hour, and if I didn't answer she was going to have Hammond send the MPs over to my house." She smiled wryly. "What about you? Daniel make any threats?"
This time he was the one to shrug. "Nope. Guess they think I have more self-control," he said smugly.
She laughed. "I don't know who they think YOU are."
He smirked. They fell silent. The trees along the roadside rustled.
"Come on," he said finally, patting the tailgate next to him. "Pull up some truck."
She hesitated almost a full ten seconds before acquiescing, and even then her movements were slow and jerky. Eventually she hopped up onto the tailgate to his left, the tires bouncing slightly with the extra weight.
Sometimes he forgot how unflattering direct, utilitarian, government-designed lighting could be. In the starlight, she looked like... like an angel. Pale, thoughtful, unreachable. And the knowledge that Jack couldn't tell her that was like a physical pain, sharp and deep.
She looked at him quickly, sucking in a quiet breath through parted lips, looking both startled and pleased by the compliment. Her smile was faint and fleeting, though, vanishing as she met his eyes through the semi-darkness. "You know we have to... go away," she said, concentrating very hard on keeping the words even.
He glanced back up at the sky, composed himself, and looked back at her. "Yeah. I know."
"And the longer we wait, the harder this is going to be... for everyone."
He sighed. "Why do you always have to be so... reasonable?"
"Trust me," she laughed weakly. "I wish I wasn't, at least not this time." She swallowed, and her next words came out thickly, in a knot of emotion. "We were good together -- they could be."
He nodded, acknowledging this, but added, "Us... them... it's all the same."
Her expression softened. "True. Which means... I need to go."
He wanted to reach out, take her hand, keep her from leaving, even if only for a second. But he clenched his jaw, clenched his hand into a fist, and remained perfectly still. This had to be both of them. They had to both be willing to say goodbye, or this really would never end. Every time a doubt or a roadblock or a moment of danger came, they would find themselves teetering between reality and fantasy, and that was unacceptable. It was why they hadn't been able to accept Hammond's offer, and why they never could.
This had to end now.
She slipped off the tailgate, back onto the shoulder of the road, and after a reasonable pause he mimicked her. They didn't touch, but for a long moment he held her eyes, and she held his. A lifetime seemed to pass between them, a lifetime when they'd been real, when they'd had their own minds, their own bodies, their own love... not somebody's else's.
"Bye, Jonah," she whispered.
He couldn't answer, couldn't bring himself to say her name even this one last time. He nodded tersely; that would have to suffice.
And it did.
She walked back to her car, opened the door, and leaned on it for a moment, watching him. Finally, in a bolder, more confident voice then she had used in days, she called out, "I'll see you on Monday, sir."
And to Jack's surprise, the 'sir' didn't hurt as much as it had before. It didn't mean anything. It didn't change anything. How could it, when they'd been through what they'd been through, when they knew what they knew? 'Sir', 'Major'... it was all a formality. A necessary evil. Almost a joke. There was nothing left to worry about. They were together. That's how it had started, that was how it would end.
"See you Monday," he echoed, closing up the tailgate. He felt lighter, freer, then he had in a very long time.
He felt... like himself.