Chief Master Sergeant Walter Harriman briskly exited the brand new control room via the conference room, trying to give his trainee a complete tour of the new Gamma Site facility — a replica of the Cheyenne Mountain facility — still under construction. He maintained a constant chatter as he walked, pointing at this or that, as thorough in his role as temporary Control Room Instructor for the Gamma Site as he was for his challenging role of Control Room Supervisor and Right Hand/Indispensable Man to General Landry at the SGC. He was almost done with his temporary off-world assignment, much to his wife's delight, and he was more than ready to return to Earth where he could watch all his favorite TV shows and play poker with the guys on Saturday nights.
The new colony's Stargate facility now held P4X-234's gate and dialing device, he was explaining to his last trainee. They regularly used the Ancient dialing device, but they still had available the dialing computer designed — and newly improved — by Dr. Carter and Lt. Colonel O'Neill as back up. The young man walking by his side just nodded as he attentively listened to Walter's every word, still walking on cloud nine after being informed only a few weeks ago that he would be one of the technicians assigned to man the control room of Earth's first colony in space. Twenty-seven-year old Ryan McMurphy had beaten scores of other Air Force technicians for the position, and he was determined to make a good impression and earn the trust and respect of the facility's leaders.
He had been generally briefed about the new off-world site and its top officers, but he was sure there was a lot more information that he didn't know and that he would learn during today's Orientation Program. He knew that newly promoted General Jon O'Neill was the CO of the facility and "young" for the position, but indisputably the most qualified officer in the Air Force to hold such an important job. He also knew that his wife, also newly promoted Lt. Colonel Melora O'Neill, was not only young, but also the genius behind a lot of the technology on the base. She was also the head of the Research & Development facility currently working on some of the alien technology that had already been moved from Area 51 in Nevada. The Second-In-Command of the facility was Colonel Louis Ferretti, a veteran of the SGC and father of four children currently living with him and his wife in the temporary living quarters of the base.
Earth's first colony was an unusual mix of U.S. military and international civilians. Most of the civilians were scientists and their families. Many of the military also had their families living on site. There were three SG teams from other countries — Russia, England and China — designated "Gamma" teams to differentiate them from the teams from the SGC. These three teams, along with other U.S. Gamma teams, continued to explore the still hundreds of unexplored gate addresses in the galaxy. Now that the Goa'uld had been vanquished, the Replicators destroyed, and the Ori successfully blocked from leaving their region of space, the only remaining threat Earth still faced were the Wraith. The war was not yet over, but the enemy had suffered such severe losses that they had chosen to retreat and hide — for the time being. The Atlantis facility kept a close watch on the Pegasus Galaxy, and any Wraith activity was quickly detected and effectively snuffed before they could even think of attempting to reach the Milky Way again.
New technology, when discovered by the SG and Gamma teams, passed through the R&D department and was either worked on here or sent to Area 51. Levels ten and eleven were dedicated to the offices and labs designated for this purpose. Planets rich in naquadah, trinium and other exotic metals were investigated and tagged for mining, all managed from level seven where the geology teams were located. They had recently found a planet rich in gold, diamonds and other much-coveted minerals, which had made the Gamma Site an instant international hit with Earth's governments. Funding had ceased to be an issue since then, and they had tagged that planet as the possible site for the next colony, since it was uninhabited as well as free of large predators, much as P4X-234 was.
Sometimes treaties had to be negotiated with the native population, and the anthropology and linguistic teams were heavily involved in these cases, working closely with the negotiators. Sometimes the planets were home only to ancient ruins, much to the delight of the archeology teams housed on level nine. In many ways, the Gamma Site operated much like the Stargate facility under Cheyenne Mountain, with the notable exception of what the military considered the eccentric and much too relaxed management style of General Jon O'Neill. The calm and happy yet totally professional personnel McMurphy had come across so far — now numbering close to 1,200 in the facility — seemed to disagree with the top brass.
Everyone still lived cramped underground in levels fourteen to twenty-two, since this was the only completed building, deep inside the highest mountain of the small continent, yet they all seemed quite content with the temporary circumstances. A housing complex was already under construction on the gentle slopes of Hammond's Peak, named after the first SGC Commander, General George Hammond, now retired in Colorado Springs. As mountains went, this one wasn't a tall one, and it was still fairly close — about a one-hour jeep drive — to the beach site where the planet's Stargate had originally been situated. Moving it inside the facility, for security purposes, had been tricky and one of the first objectives, along with building a reservoir and securing hundreds of miles around the facility.
Just as the handsome young man was about to ask Walter a question about the security protocols of the Gate, housed on level twenty-eight, a door abruptly opened in front of him, and a tall, slim blond girl of no more than twenty hurriedly stepped out, almost running into his trainer. "Oh! Sorry, Walter," she grinned at the older man; then she turned huge, blue-gray eyes on the suddenly frozen young sergeant and disarmed him with a friendly, blinding smile. "Good morning, Airman," she casually greeted, hardly pausing as she continued down the hallway, evidently in a hurry.
Walter amusedly watched Ryan's open-mouthed admiration as his eyes helplessly followed the gorgeous female walking away at a brisk pace. The trainee took in every detail of her: the slim hips, the rounded bottom, the full breasts, the long, white arms free of sleeves — the girl was wearing one of the sleeveless black tops preferred by Gamma Site's personnel — and the long legs hugged by blue fatigue pants that Ryan was sure could not be within regulations, but probably were. "Damn, she's… incredible!" he finally uttered, not fully conscious or caring that Walter was within earshot.
The veteran technician leisurely took a step closer to Ryan and commented softly, "And she could probably kill you with her bare hands in a matter of seconds."
He had meant that as a warning, but Ryan barely glanced at him for a second before returning his heated gaze to the young woman disappearing around the corner. "That's such a turn-on!" he finally responded. Now that the girl was out of sight, he looked at Walter and noticed that the man was enjoying his dazed attitude. Then he suddenly heard a "Hrrmph!" behind him as someone loudly cleared his throat.
Ryan hastily turned to face a tall, athletic-looking young man in his early twenties casually standing by the open door from which the girl had exited. The youth was handsome in a rugged way, not a pretty boy like Ryan, who had soft, hazel eyes and reddish-brown hair crowning a finely featured face. The officer's broad chest and muscular arms were encased in a black t-shirt, and he wore the same blue fatigue pants that the girl had been wearing. No nametag or insignia of any kind were on him, so the airman had no idea who this was, but the bearing of the dark-haired man automatically made him straighten up respectfully.
"She's kind of distracting, isn't she?" the youth commented, his piercing, deep-brown eyes focused on the airman standing next to a suddenly fidgeting Walter. Despite his obvious young age, the intimidating man's eyes were dark with wisdom born of painful experience.
"Yes, Sir! I mean… no, Sir!" Ryan responded, not knowing whether to agree with him or not and wondering why this man suddenly made him feel physically threatened. Who the hell was this guy anyway? He acted like an officer, but he was too young to be more than a precocious lieutenant.
"Good morning, Sir," Walter greeted respectfully. "This is your newest gate technician, Technical Sergeant Ryan McMurphy. He's part of the new group of recruits starting today." The trainee noticed Walter's deferential treatment of the young man and he instantly knew who this was: Brigadier General Jon O'Neill! They had said he was young, but this was ridiculous! He started to mentally kick himself as the unsmiling General nodded at Walter in acknowledgment, then turned his dark, intense eyes to the new recruit again.
Before Ryan could do or say anything, O'Neill addressed him in a soft but steely voice, "Just keep in mind that that distraction is a co-lo-nel, Sergeant. And that she also happens to be-My-Wife," he enunciated carefully, his face getting closer to the wide-eyed sergeant's.
"YES, SIR! I apologize, Sir!" Ryan responded, sharply saluting and going very white at the same time. "I meant no disrespect, Sir. It will never happen again, I assure you, Sir!" Of all the stupid, clumsy things he could have done on his first day at the Gamma Site, he had chosen to do the most detrimental… ogling the top officer's wife! `Way to go Ryan! Why don't you just pack up and go back home while you're still intact!' he thought. The young sergeant's self-flagellation was disrupted by what he thought sounded like a barely concealed snicker.
Walter's lowered head did not manage to hide his amusement as Jon turned to look at his trainer with a suspiciously mischievous expression on his face. When the Chief Master Sergeant looked up, they both busted out laughing, turning to the frazzled airman with merry eyes. "I was just fooling with you, Sergeant! Welcome to the Gamma Site… and relax!" Jon slapped Ryan's shoulder as he chuckled. "I just can't help myself, right, Chief?" he asked his sniggering old friend.
"Yes, Sir," Walter agreed, still chuckling as he rolled his eyes and casually saluted the young General goodbye. "It gets them every time, Sir!" He then started down the hallway as Jon, still smiling, disappeared inside his office and closed the door. Walter was intent on continuing with the tour, but he stopped when he noticed that a very pale Ryan still stood rooted to the floor. The young technician turned distressed eyes on Walter as his shaky hand still hovered over his brow.
"What…?" the young man started to ask, still trembling from the disturbing encounter.
"That…" Walter expounded, indicating the closed door, "…is General Jon O'Neill, one of the most extraordinary individuals you'll ever meet. Now that you're here, you'll be completely briefed on your young leader's history, as well as his wife's. You're not gonna believe it!" Walter assured Ryan as he pulled a sluggish young airman down the hall. Then he paused briefly, looked at the still shaking Sergeant McMurphy and added, "Oh, and… you should know that he was only half joking."
Sgt. Ryan McMurphy's mind was still reeling from the information imparted by the series of speakers he'd heard throughout the day. He'd wrongly thought he'd been completely prepared for the exciting adventure of working in the first Earth colony in space, on a distant planet previously designated P4X-234 and now officially called Alter Domus — Dr. Daniel Jackson, the archeologist who was still part of SG-1, the notorious team that had discovered the paradise planet years ago, had named it thus. Ryan remembered hearing that it meant something like "second home." It was a fitting name, even if it sounded a little exotic to his ears.
As he tossed and turned on his cot, too excited to fall asleep in his quarters, shared with other snoring airmen who had also attended Orientation today, he fondly remembered his favorite presenter, the dazzling Lt. Colonel Melora O'Neill. Despite knowing that the youthful nymph was mentally and emotionally a woman in her forties and a clone of Dr. Samantha Carter O'Neill — wife of the famous Major General Jack O'Neill, Head of Homeworld Security, and a legend in her own right — he couldn't prevent his body from reacting to the memory of the beautiful young woman. Her striking looks and soothing, sexy voice as she explained to the new recruits the ins and outs of the R&D facility, currently occupying levels ten and eleven of the facility, had prevented Ryan from properly concentrating during her speech.
Her non-regulation, shaggy blond hair had been carelessly pinned away from her face in a charming style that left her long bangs loose and framing her classic features. Her sparkling blue eyes and her stunning smile had frequently made his insides quake as she talked, oblivious to his open admiration and the dazzling effect she'd had on most people in the room. She had donned a perfectly shapeless blue fatigue jacket for the presentation, but the fluid and graceful, yet almost boyish way in which she moved, had been way too distracting to pay attention to what she had been saying. And judging by the smitten looks of the other airmen in the room, he suspected he had not been alone in his dilemma. Now he'd have to spend hours reading the orientation materials to make sure he had not missed anything important.
The first presenter, Dr. Chloe Felger, a cute and also blond little scientist who kept pushing her glasses against her nose as she spoke, had explained how Melora and Jon O'Neill had come to be. When she had first shared that the leaders of the Gamma Site were clones of Major General Jack O'Neill and Dr. Samantha Carter O'Neill, people had laughed, thinking it was a joke meant to relax them, but they had soon discovered that this was just one of the many astonishing revelations imparted during the day. Dr. Felger had explained that, six years ago, then Colonel Jack O'Neill, CO of SG-1, had unwillingly been cloned by a rogue Asgard named Loki. The Asgard were one of the alien races now allied with Earth and the source of much of the alien technology incorporated into the Earth vessels currently in use, both in the Pegasus Galaxy as well as the Milky Way.
The little Asgard had produced a young version of the colonel while trying to experiment with O'Neill's DNA. He had failed in attempting to age the clone to the colonel's current age, and the younger version had eventually been allowed to remain on Earth, first as a high school student, then as a college student and operative of the CIA in L.A. Three years later, Dr. Samantha Carter O'Neill had convinced her husband to request that their Asgard friend, Thor, make a clone of herself so that Jon O'Neill did not remain isolated by his unusual circumstances, a forty-something-year old inside the body of a teenager.
Ryan remembered with amusement the predictable reaction of the women in the room, who had sighed audibly and dreamily at the romantic story. Dr. Felger had proceeded to explain how the married clone couple had then been offered the opportunity of leading the new colony, given their unique and extraordinary knowledge and experience. Melora O'Neill had requested that their military credentials, as well as their educational achievements, be recognized. The Air Force had made never before heard of outrageous exceptions for the couple, allowing them to serve together as a team and giving them both back their military ranks — and promotions to boot. Ryan suspected it had not been as easy as Dr. Felger related. He could only imagine the negotiations involved. But, apparently, the Air Force valued these two individuals greatly. Of course, he was sure that having the Head of Homeworld Security on their side had helped.
As Ryan McMurphy lay awake in bed on level fifteen, wondering how life was going to change now that he had joined such an amazing enterprise, on level twenty-two, where the top officer's apartments were located, the O'Neills were also in bed, gasping for breath as they attempted to recover from their recent bedroom acrobatics.
"You're one bendy woman, my dear Colonel," a breathless Jon teased as his young wife rested on his heaving, sweaty chest, her eyes closed and her body humming with exhausted pleasure.
"I'll take that as a compliment, my dear General," she purred back, smiling against his hairy chest.
"Oh, it's most definitely a compliment," he replied with a satisfied smile and a playful whack on her cute, naked bottom. His hand remained there, softly stroking her tender skin, while his other hand came up to bury itself in her hair. He loved how her hair felt, always so soft between his calloused fingers.
"I'm happy to please," she murmured back, feeling tired and pleasantly relaxed after their lovemaking session and a hard day supervising R&D's still rather new operations, orienting newly arrived individuals, and running after a precocious two-year old with the energy of six kids put together.
As if reading her mind, Jon asked, "Did you have any trouble putting Duncan down tonight?"
"You mean aside from having to read him three stories and listen to his detailed account of how he `saved' Karie from coloring the dragon green, when everyone knows that dragons are purple?" she smiled, remembering with tenderness her two-year old's precocious vocabulary delivered in the sweet accents of a baby. He still did not pronounce his R's very well, and used words like "weady" instead of "ready." Hearing him sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" was hysterically funny.
"I hope he was more diplomatic this time," Jon chuckled, knowing that his son was a handful, just as he'd been as a child. "Last time he tried to force Karie to do something, she smacked him hard enough to make him bleed." Jon remembered the terrified eyes of Major Stevens' little girl when she'd realized that an offended, but dried-eyed Duncan was bleeding through his nose after she'd hit him in exasperation. Jon couldn't really blame the six-year old. His son was a domineering little thing, and despite being the youngest child in the facility's school, he kept correcting and bossing the other children around.
Jon softly stroked Mel's silky hair and firm body as they both got lost in thoughts of their first and still only child, despite their continuing efforts to bring into being a brother or sister for him to terrorize. Duncan had already informed them that a sister would be okay as long as she had "gold" hair like Mommy's, but that a brother had to meet a lot of other requirements, the first one being that he had to listen to him, the older brother.
Duncan was turning three in a few weeks, and when Jon had asked him what he wanted for a birthday present, the child's brown eyes had taken on a speculative look that had scared the heck out of his father. Worrying about explaining how he could not have a pony or go "buy" a live dragon, one of his latest obsessions, Jon had been relieved and tickled to death when his son had finally, with a typical Carter-look on his face, asked for a microscope. They were studying insects in his first grade class, and he often got frustrated with their size, claiming that they were too little to observe properly.
Despite the boy's indisputable brilliance, an obvious contribution from Mel, he was his father's spitting image, with long-lashed brown eyes and light brown hair that'd probably turn as dark as Jon's. He frequently, however, reminded the young general of his wife when the boy was deep in thought or when he learned something new. He had his mother's natural inquisitiveness and dogged determination when his interest was piqued.
Thoughts of his beloved son, as usual, led him to remember the one he'd lost so long ago, in another life. Charlie's playful blue eyes and happy smile were never too far from his mind when he thought about children. The bitter taste of guilt had abated with the years and with the love and support of the woman now resting peacefully in his arms, but he still missed his first little boy.
Mel, her eyes closed, was also immersed in her own "Duncan" thoughts. She wistfully remembered their son's earlier, innocent words as she tucked him in and kissed him goodnight. "Wemembe' to tell Daddy that my bwothe' can't have my Oweo cookies unless I let him." It had become a ritual. Every night Duncan would come up with a new requirement his would-be brother had to fulfill. And every night a pang of concern would hit her as she turned off his bedside lamp, wondering if she'd ever get pregnant again.
As soon as Duncan had turned one, Jon and Mel had tried to conceive again. But for some reason it wasn't happening. There was nothing physically wrong with either of them, and given the ease of the first conception, the physicians had just encouraged them to keep trying. They had been assured that it would happen sooner or later. Despite Mel's worry, she was relieved to know that they still had many fertile years ahead of them. Her thoughts then languidly drifted to her "other children."
Little Janet and Jake, Jack and Sam's four-year old girl and three-year old boy, were close to her heart despite living so far away on Earth with their parents. They were both as intelligent as Duncan was, and they looked almost like twins. They had the same Carter-features and were the same size, but where little Janet was a brown-eyed blond beauty, Jake was a blue-eyed, dark-haired angel. Their personalities were rather different, Janet being spirited and determined where Jake was rather quiet and sweet, but they got along even better than twins. Janet was very protective of her kid brother and was constantly hugging him and kissing him. Jake, in turn, had the patience of a saint with his often-overbearing older sister.
Due to the fact that Janet had been gestated by her surrogate mom, "aunt" Michelle, a friend of Sam's, and Jake had been conceived even before the little girl's birth, there was only a four-month gap between the two siblings. Duncan loved his "cousins," who were really his biological brother and sister, and constantly asked when he could play with them again. They had just spent two wonderful vacation weeks on Earth during the Christmas holidays, and the three cousins had spent almost every waking moment together. Duncan had missed them sorely and had been thrilled with seeing them again. Now he kept asking when they'd visit Earth next.
Mel and Jon had spent almost two years living both in Colorado Springs and Nevada while Mel worked as one of Area 51's lead scientists. Jon had, by then, been granted back his Air Force credentials and had joined the SGC. He had been extremely busy working on the planning and construction of the Gamma Site, constantly traveling to Alter Domus to supervise things. Mel had given birth to little Duncan during this time and had dealt well with both her job and Jon's frequent absences due to the demands of his project.
It had not been easy for the parents, but their son had been able to grow close to Janet and Jake, the three spending most of their time together under the close supervision of one of the two mothers, Mel or Sam, or Mrs. Benton, Sam's hired nanny. They had thrived under the loving attention of Aunt Cassie, Aunt Michelle and Uncles Daniel, Jonas and Teal'c. But Duncan's absolute favorite person in the galaxy — after his own parents — was Uncle Jack, who always showed up on weekends to spend time with his now large family. Jack spent most of his time in DC but tried to come back home to Colorado Springs — where Sam worked as the SGC's Head Scientist — as much as he could.
Sam and Mel had been a very effective team, balancing motherhood and work, sharing the responsibility for both Area 51 alien technology projects and the SGC's Science Departments, but those had been stressful years.
"I love you, Mel," she suddenly heard Jon's soft whisper against her hair.
"I love you, too," she whispered back, dropping a sweet kiss on his chest and eliciting a smile from her drowsy husband. "Now go to sleep, General. You need to be up bright and early tomorrow, and you haven't gotten enough sleep lately."
"Yes, Mommy," he answered teasingly, but tightened his arms around her further and closed his eyes, ready to sleep. Tomorrow would be another busy day in the life of Gamma Site's Commander, Brigadier General Jon O'Neill, husband to Lt. Colonel Mel O'Neill, father to Duncan O'Neill, uncle to Janet and Jake O'Neill, and the luckiest, happiest man in the whole galaxy.
"But I want you to come wif'us!" Duncan pouted, his dark eyes making it clear he was displeased. Mel smiled and knelt before her son, her soft hands firmly grasping his tense little shoulders.
"I know you do, baby. But you know that I have an important job, and I'm very busy today. Besides, Miss Chelsea is coming along, and I know that you like her very much. You have been looking forward to this field trip all week, sweetheart. Don't let anything spoil it for you. I'll be right here when you come back, and we'll have Oreos and milk together for snack, okay?" Mel's sweet but firm words left no doubt that no amount of whining was going to change matters, so Duncan just sighed, rolled his eyes at her and gave up.
Mel barely contained her laughter at her son's very "Jon O'Neill" reaction and gave him a hug, followed by a quick peck on his forehead. "Remember to give Miss Chelsea a flower when you find one. She likes that!" she whispered to him conspiratorially as she stood up. She then waved goodbye as she departed the classroom.
Duncan still frowned in displeasure and disappointment, but he started to wonder which flower would best please his favorite young teacher. A group of six first graders were heading out to the reservoir in search of interesting bugs so that they could discuss them later in class. Duncan was the youngest, but he was able to keep up with the rest of the class due to the physical attributes inherited from his father. He was a tall and strong boy and did not seem to realize that his age could be a disadvantage. He surreptitiously looked at Karie, his favorite and very blond classmate, and idly wondered whether a flower would also please her.
In the meantime, Sergeant Ryan McMurphy observed the routine operations of the control room on level 27. He had spent some time as a trainee at the SGC under Chief Harriman's expert supervision, so he was already familiar with the technology involved, but he had to learn all the local protocols and familiarize himself with the current missions and personnel. He almost got a kink in his neck when he swiftly turned toward the sexy voice of Colonel Melora O'Neill as she entered the control room. "Good morning, Walter. How're things going so far?" she asked the senior technician standing in the middle of the room.
"Everything's running smoothly, Ma'am. Sergeant Vergara is doing a wonderful job, and Sergeant McMurphy is itching to take her seat as soon as her shift is over," Walter happily reported. When Mel looked at him with expectant eyes, he added, "Oh! Sergeant Ryan McMurphy, meet Lt. Colonel Melora O'Neill," he formally introduced.
"Pleasure to meet you, Ma'am!" the nervous Sergeant saluted sharply, and Mel replied by bestowing on him one of her brilliant smiles.
"Welcome to the Gamma Site, Sergeant. I hope you'll be happy working here," she responded politely.
"I already am, Ma'am!" Ryan assured her with a dazzled smile. Walter rolled his eyes behind him and Mel's smile got wider. So this was Sergeant McMurphy! After last night's dinner, Jon had made a point of mentioning her latest admirer, and she'd taken secret pleasure in the undisguised mixture of jealousy and pride in his voice. He always pointed out to her the many men — and occasional women — that seemed to have a crush on her. He insisted it was important for her to be aware of her impact on these people, given her young appearance contrasted with the important position she held at the Gamma Site.
Mel usually thought that Jon saw more than there really was in most cases, but she noticed that in Sgt. McMurphy's case, he wasn't mistaken. She was experienced enough to notice when someone was infatuated with her. Her smile faded guiltily when she heard her husband's voice behind her. "I see you've met our newest technician," he commented nonchalantly as he strolled in, his presence suddenly filling the control room.
"Yes, Sir," she answered. Although Jon didn't like it, she insisted on calling him "Sir" while on duty, supposedly as an example to everyone else who might forget with whom they were dealing, given his physical youth. She really did it, however, to remind herself that he was her boss even as he was also her husband. She had gotten so comfortable in her relationship with her former SG-1 CO that she sometimes found herself arguing with him or dismissing his orders when she didn't agree with him. She also didn't want to give the top brass any excuses to change their minds regarding their unique situation as husband/wife and CO/subordinate. It had been hard enough to get to where they were.
"Isn't Gamma Six overdue for a check-in?" Jon asked Sergeant Vergara, a pretty, hispanic young woman recently transferred from the SGC.
"Not for another sixteen minutes, Sir," she responded readily.
"All right," he answered, his eyes trailing to his wife's face. "And what are you doing here? Weren't you supposed to be accompanying Duncan on a field trip?"
"I had to back out," Mel explained. "Sam sent a message last night requesting that we look at a piece of Ancient technology that they're having trouble with at Area 51, and it should be arriving shortly. Seems to be a communicator, but they haven't been able to activate it. She asked for you to help me with it, by the way. She thinks your Ancient gene might make the difference. Jack is in DC this week, and no one else with the gene at the SGC or at Area 51 has been able to help."
"What makes her think I'll be able to?" he asked.
"You know that you and Jack seem to have more luck than anyone else with this kind of thing. Only John Sheppard is as `naturally' gifted as you two are, and we don't want to have to bring him all the way from the Pegasus Galaxy, do we?" Mel asked teasingly.
Jon mockingly glared at her, knowing that she loved to tease him with John. She had hit it off with the military commander of Atlantis since the very first time they'd met about two years ago, and the last time he'd been on Earth they'd had a great time teasing and joking, until she'd noticed that Jon wasn't happy with her familiarity with the handsome Colonel. Her husband had later admitted, during a rare and angry argument, that John was way too good-looking and charming for his taste. That meant, Mel knew, that he was uncomfortable with the man's attention to his wife, even if it was just as a friend.
Mel had learned to recognize Jon's little insecurities and dealt with them carefully, not wanting to threaten their relationship with undue stress. They'd spent too long waiting and yearning for each other, and she didn't want anything to dampen their happiness. She had, however, gotten angry with Jon when he had complained about her easy bantering with John Sheppard. She had felt offended by what she'd perceived as his lack of trust. But after a spirited disagreement over the matter, and the subsequent "making up" session, Jon had apologized for his unwarranted jealousy. So now she challenged him teasingly every time John's name came up, a reminder to him to keep his jealousy under control.
The intimate, flirty look between the two Gamma Site leaders was abruptly interrupted by the activation of the gate. "Unscheduled gate activation," Sergeant Vergara announced. Then she quickly added, "It's the SGC, Sir."
"Let them through quickly. I don't want the gate busy when Gamma Six tries to check in," Jon ordered. He stood patiently by his wife as the iris opened and an airman emerged from the puddle carrying something in his right hand.
"That must be the device that Sam talked about," Mel informed him.
"Bring it up here, Airman," Jon ordered through the speakers.
"Yes, Sir!" the young man responded, and a minute later he was standing in the control room, handing over the alien device to Mel for inspection.
"Thank you, Airman. You may return as soon as Gamma Six checks in. Thanks for the delivery… and at ease," Jon thanked the eager young man standing at attention, turning to Mel with a roll of his eyes identical to the one she'd observed in her son earlier. She softly chuckled, then immersed herself in the strange object in her hands, not aware that the new arrival couldn't take his eyes off her, the reason for Jon's eye rolling.
"From what Sam said, this button here seems to be the power button. It's either broken or extremely picky in detecting the Ancient gene. We should probably go up to the lab before you handle it," she suggested thoughtfully.
"Oh, for crying out loud, how `picky' can it be? What I'd like to know is what the thing does before I press any buttons," he responded.
"We don't know for sure. But I agree with Sam. It seems to have the same shape and color as other Ancient communicators we've seen from the outpost ruins we found on 5XP-997 and N6X-331. Those were broken." When she didn't hear him comment, she looked up to find all the men standing around her staring at her in undisguised wonder.
"What?" she asked, frowning at them.
"How the hell can you remember these designations off the top of your head?" Jon asked gruffly. Mel just smiled in response and shrugged her shoulders, not answering the same question he'd asked and she'd answered a million times already. She then turned to leave the room to head to her lab, knowing that he'd follow. However, she hadn't heard a technician coming up behind her, and she accidentally bumped into the approaching man hard, losing her balance.
As the embarrassed technician apologized profusely, Jon automatically reached out to steady her, unknowingly touching the device in her right hand. Sam's eyes immediately flew to her hand, where she felt an unmistakable vibration. She then noticed that the device was starting to get gradually warmer in her hand. "Did you touch this, Sir?" she asked in mild concern, looking into his inquiring eyes.
"I don't think so… why?" he asked.
"You must have. It feels different," she explained; then she started to leave the room again.
"Unscheduled gate activation!" Sgt. Vergara suddenly announced. It was still a few minutes too early for Gamma Six to check in, and the young woman frowned as she looked at her computer screen. "It is NOT Gamma Six, Sir," she warned.
"Close the iris! Where's the signal coming from?" Jon asked, grateful for the fine-tuned technology — courtesy of his wife and Dr. Carter — that allowed them to determine the address of incoming wormholes.
"I… don't know, Sir. It's not one of the gate addresses in the system, not even an unexplored one," the technician answered in concern. "The system is still acquiring the gate address," she added as she navigated screens of the computer.
"Keep the iris closed!" Jon ordered, coming to stand next to the technician. Mel also stood by her shoulder, inspecting the information coming up on the computer screen. Walter and Ryan stayed out of their way but looked ready to jump into action at the first word from Jon.
"Colonel, there is an unusual buildup of energy hitting the iris," the technician announced, looking up at Mel in consternation. Mel noted the monitor to which the young woman was referring but was baffled by the unusual energy signature. Then, all of a sudden, a slow-moving wave of blue energy started to emanate from the gate, punching right through the iris.
"Oh, my God!" Mel whispered; then yelled into the microphone, "Evacuate the gate room! Shut the blast doors!"
The armed airmen standing in the gate room quickly ran out as the blast doors were lowered. Mel noticed that the blue energy wave seemed to gradually pick up speed just as the blast door blocked her view of the gate room. The tight knot in her stomach was due to the knowledge that, if the iris had not been able to stop that alien energy wave from entering the gate room, no one was safe behind the blast doors either.
"What do you think it is, Mel?" Jon asked swiftly, concern darkening his brown eyes.
"I have no idea, Sir, but I think we should get the hell out of here," she answered, the alarm in her eyes making him start barking orders.
"Start evacuation procedures. Everyone out of the base! NOW!" he commanded. Sam was now looking at another monitor, trying to determine the nature of the alien energy invading the gate room.
The emergency evacuation alarm started to blare as Mel anxiously perused the information on the screen, Jon standing uneasily behind her. Then something else caught her attention. What they had believed to be the "power" button on the Ancient device in her hand was glowing blue. "Jon!" she exclaimed, holding the gadget at arm's length.
"Drop that!" he shouted, swatting the object out of her hand and making it clatter to the floor. It seemed unaffected by the fall. They were both staring at it when the glowing blue wave quickly approaching them through the glass of the control room captured their attention. They both watched in horrified fascination as, in fractions of a second, the two technicians sitting closest to the window were suddenly engulfed and seemed to freeze, unable to move.
Jon instinctively turned to Mel and wrapped his arms around her protectively, knowing that it was too late for anyone in the room to try to outrun the quickly encroaching energy wall. Mel cringed and wrapped her arms around her husband's waist, believing that these might be their last moments together, and then felt the energy envelop them, making her skin tingle and her muscles freeze. She could feel, but her other senses failed her and she couldn't move. She was grateful to note that she was able to breathe and that her heart kept beating, so she quickly determined that the paralyzing effect of the alien energy was limited and hopefully not fatal. She could also feel Jon's arms around her and his heart beating against her cheek, so she knew he was similarly affected.
Later she'd wonder how long she'd been frozen in the arms of her husband while the wave increased in speed and quickly overtook every single individual at the Gamma Site, just as they were in the middle of the evacuation. All technology also froze. Nothing moved, as if time had stopped inside the energy bubble. She'd had no sense of time. She only remembered the steady beating of Jon's heart, and the primal terror its sudden absence provoked within her.
Little Duncan had spent enough time looking for bugs, he decided. Making sure that Miss Chelsea was busy with other children, he dropped his box full of critters and strolled away, looking for flowers. He'd decided to give Karie a pink one and Miss Chelsea a purple one, but was frustrated to see none that met his requirements in the immediate vicinity.
Miss Chelsea, the pretty first grade teacher — popular among the single men on the base due to her long black hair contrasted with her white, flawless skin and large, blue eyes — was busy trying to explain to little Janet, Lieutenant Wells' little girl, that the bugs they'd found so far were harmless, but to try to refrain from picking them up with her fingers anyway. They were still alien bugs and some could prove to be dangerous. The other adult in the group, a young, geeky-looking entomologist who'd accompanied the group to screen the bugs and make sure they didn't get into trouble with unknown species, smiled at the young teacher in approval as he also answered some questions for other children. A strange, distant flicker of light briefly caught the teacher's attention, but then she dismissed it as little Janet asked another question. She patiently answered the little girl's inquiry as she kept an eye on the other children in her group.
She smiled when she saw little Duncan approach his friend, Karie, with a large, beautiful pink flower in one hand. He held a purple one in the other hand but kept it behind his back, clearly not intending to give that one to her. She was wondering where the boy had managed to obtain such rare, beautiful flowers when her attention was diverted by Janet's frightened little voice.
"Miss Chelsea, look!" the little redhead exclaimed, pointing at something behind the teacher. Her large, brown eyes were wide with alarm. The young woman turned in time to see a strange, blue wave of light speedily approaching them but had no time to gather her students before they were all overcome. All she could feel, as she stood paralyzed and blind in the middle of the wooded landscape, were Janet's little arms tightly gripping her waist, her little face pressed against her stomach.
No one could determine exactly how long, but some time later, the blue wave receded and disappeared back into the Stargate. Only one airman was able to testify that the wave had returned through the gate, due to the fact that he had been unable to clear the gate room before the wave had overcome him as the blast doors had lowered. He had been the first one and the last one to be affected by the alien energy, and he'd clearly seen it go back through the puddle before the wormhole disconnected.
Mel's first thought was to look for Jon. He had been in her arms the whole time, she was sure. But now he was not. He had disappeared! "Jon?" she called with barely contained panic in her voice. She turned around 360 degrees and only found the still terrified looks of Ryan, Walter, the airman from the SGC, and the technicians in the control room.
"He… he just vanished, Colonel," Walter stammered. The wave had cleared him only a fraction of a second before it had released Mel from the paralyzing effects, but he thought he'd seen Jon there one second, and then nothing.
"Oh, my God!" she whispered, clearly frantic. But even in despair, she remained calm. "Let's check to see if there are any other people missing! Have all the departments check in!" she instructed, and all the technicians in the room began placing calls and checking computer screens as Mel rushed out of the room, instructing Walter to also contact Colonel Ferretti.
Within seconds, three more people had been reported missing. They had all been there, surrounded by their colleagues when the blue light had overcome them, but then had disappeared by the time it had relinquished its hold on the base. All three people were scientists working in the R&D department. Dr. Sebastian Kaeser, a gifted, middle-aged German physicist working directly under Mel, had vanished from his lab. Dr. Heli Makkonen, a Finnish chemist who had been in the middle of evacuating the mess hall with the rest of the people still at breakfast, had also vanished. And Dr. Savita Hawass, a young American nuclear engineer of mixed ancestry had disappeared right in front of the lead physician's eyes as she submitted to an overdue physical.
This information was swiftly gathered and reported to an anxious Colonel Ferretti as a frantic Mel reached the surface, intent on finding her son. What she found as she emerged through the elevator doors made her stomach drop. Lt. Simon Wells was rushing into the front seat of a Jeep, his face white with fear, when he spotted her. "One of the kids disappeared! Miss Chelsea just radioed in, but she was hysterical. We couldn't catch who's missing, so I'm on my way to meet her group," he explained, his eyes betraying his barely contained anguish. As every parent in a similar situation, he was praying that the missing child was not his own, and the unavoidable guilt that accompanied this thought was clear to Mel. She knew she probably looked the same way. Without thinking twice, she quickly jumped in the passenger seat and ordered, "Let's go!"
Less than five minutes later they stopped by the small group of children, all gathered tightly around their sobbing teacher as they headed back to the base, trailed by a worried young man that still looked slightly dazed. Darling little Karie, Duncan's special friend, was crying loudly and holding a large, pink flower in her little hand.
Mel jumped out of the vehicle and approached the group, her panicked eyes frenetically searching and quickly determining that the missing child was her son. She then numbly met the teary eyes of the weeping teacher, whose face was white with worry and fear. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry… I don't know what happened!" the young woman kept repeating as Lt. Wells quickly gathered her and had her sit down in the passenger seat of the Jeep.
Mel vaguely heard the rumble of two more vehicles, announcing the arrival of other worried parents, and the small group of children was swiftly loaded and taken back to the base. She could hear Karie crying for Duncan as the little girl was taken away. Lt. Wells, his daughter, Janet, and Miss Chelsea worriedly waited in the first Jeep for Mel, who stood frozen in shock, too stunned to think as she uselessly scanned her surroundings, still looking for her missing little boy.
Jon's first reaction, as he suddenly found himself cognizant of his surroundings again, was to tense up and take in everything his senses allowed him to, almost crouching in his automatic readiness to face danger. He knew he wasn't at the Gamma Site any longer. He'd felt Mel's body melt away as he'd felt himself transported. He'd been physically transported by various technologies many times before, and he knew what it felt like. The voice of his son right behind him made him turn around in shock, half relieved and half dismayed, as he saw Duncan run toward him to throw his little body into his arms.
"Daddy!" the almost three-year old called out, his large, dark eyes wide with fear. "Where are we? Where's Karie?" the little boy inquired, his arms tight around his father's neck. His little hand was still clutching a large, purple blossom.
"I don't know, Duncan. But don't worry, we're going to be fine," Jon tried to reassure his son, firmly picking him up and holding on to him as he looked into the alarmed eyes of three scientists he recognized from Mel's staff.
One of them, a young, dark woman with exotic looks, was half-naked. She frantically gripped the surgical robe lightly wrapped around her, trying to keep herself covered as she turned around, looking at her surroundings with trepidation. Her name was Savita Hawass, he remembered, and he figured she'd been in the infirmary at the time she'd been transported. The older, tall man next to her was the German guy, Dr. Sebastian Kaeser. Mel had been thrilled when the scientist had accepted the position as head of the Physics team at the Gamma Site. The man was not only a genius in his field, but also happened to carry the Ancient gene.
This thought triggered something in Jon's mind that made him narrow his eyes in speculation. As he noticed who the third person in the alien room was, Dr. Heli Makkonen, a chemist, and also one of the very few that naturally carried the Ancient gene, he realized why they were the only people now standing alone who knows where, but certainly far away from the Gamma Site. Dr. Kaeser, Duncan and himself were the only other natural carriers of the Ancient gene besides the two women before him. Everyone else on the base that carried the gene was a carrier due to the gene therapy developed by Dr. Beckett in Atlantis, including Mel.
"Where are we?" Dr. Makkonen finally asked in a shaky voice, her fair countenance even paler under the white lights illuminating the barren room. The blond, thirty-something woman was turning around cautiously, examining her surroundings with open fear, as a gentlemanly Dr. Kaeser removed his lab coat and offered it to Dr. Hawass with a calm smile.
Aside from the Stargate — which Jon noticed was of the most recent design, identical to the one in Atlantis — there was nothing around them in the huge space except tall, blank walls and an equally smooth ceiling. Before Jon could speculate, not that he had any idea of where to start, a small platform rose from the shiny floor in the middle of the room and a trap door opened, releasing a floating orb that hovered about eight feet above the platform. The ball was made of glittering black metal, rather smooth except for a dark hole at the bottom. It hummed with a peculiar, annoying pitch that made the occupants of the room gather around Jon in apprehension.
Before the astonished gazes of the five people in the room, a human-looking figure suddenly appeared below the floating device. Jon immediately determined that it was a hologram due to the fact that the detailed shape of an older man was slightly transparent. He was tall and fair, with long white hair carefully pulled back into a ponytail. He wore cream-colored pants and a long, loose tan tunic threaded in silver. Despite his rather simple attire, he looked imposing and regal, with light blue eyes and a patrician nose above thin, straight lips.
"Who's that?" Duncan asked innocently, staring up at the old man with open curiosity. As if in response, the figure spoke.
"My name is Efrat," he said in a deep, old voice. "Welcome to your new home."
Jon's alarm at his words was only obvious to his son, who felt his arms tense around his body as he held him against his broad chest. "What do you mean `our new home?'" the young general asked immediately.
"We have been expecting you. Your birthright is waiting. You are the last hope of our race, and as such, this is all yours," the man called Efrat answered, extending his hands to indicate his surroundings. It was obviously an interactive hologram, unless this man was just projecting his image from somewhere else.
"Not that I'm trying to sound ungrateful or anything," Jon answered sarcastically, "but `this' isn't much!" He indicated the room with a sweeping gesture, one arm still holding his son tightly.
"Follow me," Efrat answered, and the orb started to move, carrying the projected image with it. A door suddenly opened on what previously appeared to be a blank wall, and the device hovered by it, waiting.
Jon looked at the others, his eyes conveying a silent order to follow his lead, and he remained motionless. "What if we're not interested and just want to go back home?" Jon asked.
"This is your home," Efrat stubbornly responded.
"No, it isn't! Our home is the place from which you took us, and we want to go back," Jon responded in a hostile tone of voice.
"Your home is here. You have a destiny to fulfill. The survival of your people depends on you. You will join the others and perpetuate our race when the time comes," Efrat answered, the orb hovering above his head.
"We want to go back home!" Duncan yelled at the annoying old man from the safety of his father's arms, tightening his little arms around his neck, just in case.
"That is not possible. Follow me," Efrat ordered.
Jon turned to the other three adults in the room who, up to that point, had been watching and listening, not daring to speak. The three sets of eyes met his anxiously, ready to listen to his orders. "I don't see a dialing device. We have to follow this thing and see what we can find. Just stay together and don't touch anything," he mutedly instructed, then turned around and proceeded to cautiously follow the floating device.
The five people emerged into a long, wide corridor and followed the orb as it approached another door. Jon recognized the distinctive designs on the glass door as those of Ancient origin. If he didn't know better, he'd bet he was in Atlantis. The previously dark corridor was suffused with bright light as the apprehensive humans entered. When the door at the end of the corridor opened, Jon realized that they were stepping into an "elevator," a transporter very similar to the ones in Atlantis. They gathered tightly together under the orb in the confined space, and the doors closed silently.
When the elevator doors opened again, Jon and his group followed the orb into a large, dark room that started to light up as they entered. It was almost circular, except for one flat wall on the opposite end of the elevator wall. There were about three dozen glass doors lining the rest of the walls, one next to another, roughly eight feet tall and three feet wide. As Jon got closer to inspect one of them, he turned to frown at the other three people behind him. There was a compartment behind the glass, but it was empty. "Why are we here?" Jon asked the hologram suspiciously.
"We have to sleep and wait. We are not enough yet," Efrat answered calmly. Jon didn't like the sound of that at all.
"What do you mean? Wait for what?" Jon asked, his tone of voice louder with imminent anger.
"For us to be enough," the old man answered.
"Enough for what?" Dr. Kaeser dared to ask.
"Enough to procreate and perpetuate our race. We are not enough yet," he explained.
"I don't understand. How many do we need? And where are the others?" Jon asked, not wanting to believe what his mind was telling him regarding the precariousness of their situation. In response to his question, several of the compartments lit up, and the three scientists standing behind him gasped in shocked surprise. But their curiosity was more powerful than their fear, and they cautiously approached the lit chambers to inspect their contents.
In each of the compartments that had suddenly come to life, a human body rested as in sleep. There were men and women of different ages, all dressed in clothes similar to Efrat's. There were even a couple of teenagers in two of the chambers. Jon felt something cold and heavy settle in the pit of his stomach. He suddenly understood what the orb had in store for them.
From what Efrat had shared so far, they were meant to enter these chambers and remain in hibernation for God only knew how long until enough "Ancients" could be gathered to start and maintain a genetically diverse population. It sounded like a plan gone horribly wrong. How long had these people been frozen here?
"Please enter the stasis chambers," Efrat politely requested. At the same time, five empty chambers opened up, and the group, as one, gathered up and retreated to the farthest point in the room.
"We're not willing to become part of your project, Efrat," Jon informed the orb as his eyes frantically searched for a way out other than the elevator, as well as anything he could use as a weapon to disable the Ancient device. He doubted they'd be able to reach and use the elevator before the orb did something to stop them.
"That is not acceptable," Efrat calmly responded.
"Don't the Ancients respect free will? It doesn't sound very enlightened to force human beings to become part of your population against their will," Jon argued, trying to buy time as the group slowly inched toward the elevator door they had exited earlier, the only exit they could find.
Suddenly, Efrat's old countenance morphed into the soft features of a beautiful woman. Her chestnut hair was long and braided intricately around her head, and her large, brown eyes conveyed a gentle personality. "Efrat's original intention was to ensure that enough of us survived the war against the Wraith to begin anew in our original galaxy. However, most of our people chose to ascend or return to Earth instead. Not enough supported his idea of an Ancient rebirth. We've been sleeping for a long time, waiting for more of us to eventually join these waiting. You are the first to answer our calling in millennia."
Jon listened carefully but at the same time seemed to recognize the face of the woman. He frowned and slowly returned to his previous spot, realizing that the woman in the hologram was the same as the one standing frozen and sleeping behind one of the chambers. He took a few more curious steps and found himself face to face with Efrat, sleeping peacefully in his own compartment. "Are you awake, or is this a computer speaking?" he asked impatiently.
"I am a program devised to communicate with new arrivals. I am also a composite of the different thoughts and images belonging to your brothers and sisters. You must not fear your destiny. Our people will survive, and our civilization will continue." The woman remained silent, now seemingly waiting for the group of new arrivals to enter the compartments.
"We decline your offer. We choose not to participate in your… idea of rebirth. Thanks, but no thanks," Jon answered, and he took a step backward, wondering if just saying "no" would be enough. He doubted it, and wondered how the program would try to force them to participate.
Suddenly, the image of the woman changed and became that of a young girl. Jon noticed that it was the young blond teenager sleeping close by. "Please, help us rebuild our civilization. Don't let us lose it all. We beg you, enter the chambers and join us in our endeavor," her sweet, young voice pleaded.
Jon looked at the other scientists in wonder, and Dr. Makkonen promptly opined, "The program is adapting. It is using every means possible to make us accept its demands."
"We've got to get out of here before that thing decides to force us somehow," Dr. Hawass urged, her hands holding tightly to the oversized lab coat now covering her.
"We're in agreement there," Jon whispered to them. "The only way out of here is through that elevator, unless there are stairs hidden somewhere on this floor. Do you see anything?"
"Daddy, look!" Duncan suddenly pointed. His little finger was aimed at the previously blank wall opposite to where they stood, in front of the closed elevator door. The wall had become a giant screen, and views of a beautiful Ancient city sitting in the middle of a verdant valley started to flash by.
"This is your home," the teenager coaxed. "Stay with us, please!" she continued to entreat, her small hands joined as in prayer.
"Sorry, but we have homes and loved ones elsewhere. We can't join you. Please, let us go," Dr. Kaeser answered, thinking of his wife back at the Gamma Site, his eyes then meeting Jon's. The younger man shrugged. They might as well try asking nicely first, right?
The program reverted to the stern figure of Efrat. "You must enter the chambers. When you awaken again, you will be more than you ever were. Meet your destiny," he demanded, his eyes severe. Jon's response was to look at Dr. Hawass, the one closest to the elevator, and she understood his silent command immediately. Her hand touched the control pad next to the doors. All of them had spent some time in Atlantis in the recent past, working on projects in their different areas of expertise, and they were not unfamiliar with how Ancient technology operated.
The doors promptly opened, but before any of them could move, the orb's annoying pitch got louder and the image of Efrat vanished. Instead, the blue light that had brought them to the Ancient facility spilled from the orb again, and everyone was frozen in place.
Jon wasn't sure how long they were frozen. To him it seemed instantaneous. One moment he was standing by the elevator, holding Duncan in his arms, and the next he was inside one of the chambers, the glass cover firmly in place, his son no longer with him. He threw himself against the clear barrier, starting to pound on it, screaming for his boy, but he doubted any sound escaped his prison. Before he could think of anything else to do, a warm breath of energy enveloped him and he felt he was falling into a black void from which he knew he could not escape.
"I don't care!" the frustrated young voice of Melora O'Neill suddenly snapped, cracking like lightning in the briefing room at the Gamma Site and abruptly silencing the previously discordant crowd. Mel had finally yelled in complete exasperation, and now everyone was looking at her in fretful shock. She had been strangely subdued since her return to the base, seemingly lost and despondent with the loss of her family. But now she was determined to go in search of her husband and child, and she was done listening to the myriad objections.
Her first meeting with Colonel Ferretti had determined that the SGC had to be contacted so that Dr. Carter could join her and try to determine what had happened. Mel had conjectured that the Ancient artifact sent by Dr. Carter for research was responsible for the disappearance of their personnel. She had also quickly determined that the five people missing from the base, including her son, intrinsically carried the Ancient gene. No one else had been affected, not even those who had been treated with the Ancient gene therapy. The strange energy wave had apparently used more than just the Ancient gene to target its victims.
Dr. Carter had quickly arrived from the SGC, and both women had determined that, indeed, the communicator was still functioning and had probably sent a homing beacon to its originating planet, and that the planet from which the light had originated was not one currently in their system. A MALP had been immediately sent to investigate the new gate address, but after a brief glimpse of a barren, darkened room, the probe had gone on the blink. The only readings they had been able to obtain had informed them that the atmosphere was breathable and that the machine had definitely been indoors.
Colonel Ferretti's concern was palpable when he gently addressed the distressed lieutenant colonel. "Mel, we can't send people there blindly. The MALP was attacked by something the moment it arrived. We don't know what's waiting for us on the other side," he explained, his eyes begging a troubled Dr. Carter's help in dealing with her adamant clone. A shake of her head told him in no uncertain terms that he was wasting his time.
"I'll go with you," Dr. Carter offered instead, prompting Colonel Ferretti to glare at her with wide, hysterical eyes. Both Carters would be going on this mission over his dead body! He was not about to put himself in the position of having to explain to Jack O'Neill, of all people, how he'd lost both women.
"No! You have to think of Janet and Jake," Mel instantly responded, and Col. Ferretti sighed with relief. "I'm going alone. Either I'll get my family back or…" she didn't finish. Dr. Carter understood, and she lowered her head in acceptance. She knew she would do the same thing.
"I can't authorize this mission; I'm sorry!" Colonel Ferretti almost shouted.
The angry eyes of the young woman seated across from him dared him to stop her. "You'll have to throw me in the brig to stop me, Sir. We're talking about my husband and child, as well as three valuable members of my team. I'm going to go find out what happened to them and try to bring them back. We don't leave people behind, remember?" she challenged, knowing that Lou Ferretti believed in leaving no one behind as much as Jack and Jon O'Neill did. She was hitting him where it hurt.
The colonel's grim face finally relaxed, and he sighed in defeat. He sat back in his seat and looked around the table. The anxious eyes of Dr. Carter, Sgt. Harriman, Major Lucia Mendez and her team, Gamma Seven, and the steely blue gaze of Lt. Colonel O'Neill waited for his next, reluctant words. "Fine. I'll ask for volunteers from among the available teams to accompany you," he agreed.
"Not necessary, Sir," Major Mendez, a tall, bulky woman with brown hair and eyes and a voice almost as deep as a man's — but with the cheery smile of a child or the determination of an angry bull, depending on the circumstances — readily answered. "My team and I are available and ready for this mission."
"I'm not inclined to order anyone to undertake this mission, Major. For all we know, it could be suicide. It has to be manned on a volunteer-only basis," Ferretti warned the major.
"I understand, Sir. The reason why we asked to be present at this meeting is because we've already discussed the possibility of a rescue mission and we've decided we want to go. If someone's going after General O'Neill and the rest of our people, then that will be us. You'd have to recall the other teams from ongoing missions, and we can't afford to waste any time." Her brown eyes then moved to Mel's blue ones, and the blonde nodded in silent gratitude.
"Well, if that's how you want it…" Lou Ferretti finally agreed. "Then gear up and get ready to accompany Colonel O'Neill. Be back here in two hours."
Sam watched a defeated Lou Ferretti retreat into his office to coordinate the mission as Gamma Seven slowly departed the room. Sgt. Harriman's concerned eyes met hers, trying to convey his fear for the young woman still sitting stonily in the room. He silently begged for her to do something.
"Mel," Sam called, interrupting her clone's deep thoughts and watching her suddenly focus on her face, as if awakened from a dream. "I know you have to go, but we need to think of what you could be facing over there. Let's get you geared up with everything we can think of," Sam encouraged, deeply concerned about the woman's naked despair. "And you have to snap out of it and focus," she strongly suggested, blue eyes meeting across the table and silent words exchanging in one long, anguished gaze.
"I'm fine," Mel softly responded. "Let's go," she said as she stood up, ready to follow Dr. Carter.
Sam, however, first directed her attention to the worried sergeant still sitting at the table. "Walter, please return to the SGC and call Jack. Tell him what's going on, and stay there so you can be my liaison with him on this. I also want you to get me these things and send them back to me as soon as possible." She handed the man a piece of paper. "I'm staying here until they come back from this mission," she informed the Chief, who nodded in understanding.
Neither Sam nor Walter missed Mel's look of gratefulness for their faith and support. She nodded appreciatively; then she hastily left the room. Sam followed her clone with a last glance at her trusted old friend, who nodded at her encouragingly as he got out of his seat.
Two hours later, Lt. Colonel Melora O'Neill, Major Lucia Mendez, Lt. Marcos Campos, Airman Kent Singer and Lt. Joanna Matsuo were ready to embark on a dangerous, blind mission through the puddle in search of their missing people. Dr. Sam Carter O'Neill, Colonel Louis Ferretti, Sgt. Ryan McMurphy, and a few other concerned technicians and airmen watched the final chevron lock and the illusion of water jump into the Gate Room, everyone eerily silent.
"Good luck, everyone! Bring them back safely," Colonel Ferretti wished them through the microphone, giving them the go ahead with all the encouragement and enthusiasm he could possibly muster under the grim circumstances.
Mel looked up and nodded. She was loaded with her usual equipment, plus a few added pieces of technology that Sam Carter had obtained from the SGC. One of them was the "kull blaster" she and her father had designed, which worked differently than a zat gun or a Micro 16 — still her preferred weapon since she'd switched to it from the P90 — but could be just as deadly. The other piece of equipment was the most recently obtained — and the most valued — "doohickey" from the Tollans, a "phase-shifter," as a thrilled Jack O'Neill had baptized the coveted gadget. This is what the Tollans use to pass through solid matter by basically "shifting" mass into another dimension and then bringing it back to the current one at the push of a button. Mel was wearing this on her left wrist, wishing that everyone on her team could have one. But the Tollans had given them only one, willing to let their Tau'ri friends investigate the technology and reproduce it if they were able to do so. They felt that, if the Tau'ri could not retro-engineer the technology, they were not ready to have it. The final gadget in her arsenal, worn by the rest of the team as well, was the anti-gravity belt that they had obtained from the Asgard.
Sam had not asked for authorization when she'd sent for the Tollan piece of equipment. She didn't want to be turned down, and she was determined that Mel would be equipped with everything that could give her an edge during her mission. She wasn't willing to allow Jon, Duncan and the three scientists to be lost. Every extreme measure would be taken, and for that, every advantage needed to be brought into play. She'd face the consequences later, if she had to. And she knew that she'd be able to coax another one from the Tollans if this one was lost.
She exchanged a last, meaningful look with her clone through the glass separating the two rooms, and then Mel purposefully started up the ramp, leading a mission into the unknown.
Lt. Colonel Melora O'Neill exited the wormhole ready to do battle, but all she found was a large, dark room barely illuminated by the puddle from which her team quickly jumped, taking position around her. When the gate went idle, the lights in the room suddenly came on, and the group automatically crouched and took a defensive position, facing back to back. No one spoke, silently taking in every detail of the barren space in which they were standing. The disabled MALP was there, just sitting next to the Stargate, and Mel immediately noticed that there was no dialing device.
When she finally straightened up and took one step further into the room, a trap door silently opened and a hovering black orb exited from the floor. All weapons were automatically aimed at the device, but no one fired, waiting for the colonel's instructions. Her hand went up to prevent them from any further movements, and before she could do anything else, a figure appeared under the orb.
Efrat's stern gaze was directed at the obvious leader of the group, and Mel immediately realized that they were facing a hologram. "You are not welcome here. You must return to your world or be deemed a threat," were the unyielding words delivered by the image of the old man before them. Everyone was aiming G36s at the orb — everyone except Mel, who was using the smaller "Carter Special," as Jack had christened her Micro-16 years ago — but no one made a move.
"We're not here as a threat. We're trying to locate five people who were recently transported here," Mel attempted to reason.
"You must return to your world or be deemed a threat," the old man repeated, ignoring the young woman's words. The colonel exchanged looks with Major Mendez and then directed her attention back to the orb.
"And what will happen if we are deemed a threat?" she asked, surreptitiously looking around as she spoke, stalling for time as she'd learned to do from her CO. Her trained eyes quickly detected an almost imperceptible door to her right, and she looked at the major again, making her look toward it. The major caught sight of the door and nodded.
"Threats will be eliminated," Efrat dangerously warned.
"But we're not a threat. We mean no harm and we want to be friends. I'm Mel. What's your name?" Mel continued to engage the hologram, now channeling Daniel Jackson as Major Mendez made some hand signals to her team, readying them for a possible confrontation.
"My name is Efrat. We are not ready to greet friends. You must return to your world or be deemed a threat," the image of the old man repeated inflexibly. At the same time, the gate suddenly came to life and the team had to jump clear of the wave as the wormhole was established again. Mel assumed the gate had dialed the Gamma Site, but she couldn't be sure.
"We will not return to our world until we are able to determine whether our people are…" Mel started to respond, but a beam of energy suddenly spurted from the orb to land at her feet, leaving a smoking hole where it had hit. She quickly jumped back and raised her hand again to prevent her team from responding to the attack.
"You must return to your world or be deemed a threat," the old man repeated, and Mel mentally made a decision.
"All right, we will go," she responded. "Major Mendez, send the GDO code," she instructed the leader of Gamma Seven as she turned her back to the orb to face her, her eyes urgently conveying a contradicting message. She then silently mouthed the words, "I'm staying, buy me time," as she started to walk back to the gate. The major nodded surreptitiously and ordered her team to retreat.
Mel's right hand went to the device strapped to her left wrist and she prepared to sprint. She whispered toward Major Mendez, who was slowly retreating toward the gate, "On my mark." As the other three members of her team reluctantly backed into the puddle, knowing something was about to happen, Mel yelled, "NOW!" and Major Mendez started firing at the orb with her G36.
As the major saw Mel take off toward the concealed door on the wall, pressing her wrist device and smoothly running through it as if it weren't there, she also noticed that only the first few bullets had hit the orb. The device had quickly erected an energy barrier that deflected the rest, and Lucia Mendez, being no fool, quickly jumped back and sank into the event horizon as the orb fired a beam aimed at her.
Major Mendez landed heavily on her back, bouncing down the ramp as she screamed at the gate technician to close the iris. Once she stopped rolling and finally looked up at the concerned faces of her team members, she groaned in pain from the clean, burning hole through her left shoulder. Her team was instantly helping her up as she gritted her teeth in agony and struggled not to pass out. Medics were soon forcing her down onto a gurney, and the anxious eyes of Dr. Carter were suddenly on her, asking in a commanding voice, "What happened? Where's Colonel O'Neill?" as Colonel Ferretti stood by her side, an identical look of distress in his eyes.
"She stayed," Major Mendez managed to answer with a gasp of pain. "She ran clear of the threat, at… at least for now…" the officer struggled to report, her face gray and her eyes managing to remain focused on the concerned blonde hovering over her.
Sam took a deep breath and pursed her lips in alarm, but then only nodded and ordered the medics to proceed. "Take her. I'll talk to her later." She then turned to stare at the closed iris, wondering what was going on with her clone on the distant planet from which Gamma Seven had just returned.
Colonel Ferretti did the same, his heavy hand coming to her shoulder in an unconscious gesture of encouragement and support. "Let's debrief, people. We can't wait for Major Mendez. We'll get to her later," he instructed as he left the Gate Room and headed for the upper level, trailed by the rest of Gamma Seven. Sam stood rooted to the floor for a few more moments, lost in thought, but eventually sighed and turned to follow.
Mel frenetically ran through the corridor leading from the alien gate room, artificial lights suddenly turning on as she ran, no doubt activated by the artificial Ancient gene that allowed her to operate most of the Ancient devices they had encountered so far. There was only one way to go. The door at the end of the corridor beckoned, and she instantly recognized it as an elevator door, identical to the ones in Atlantis. She paused briefly to open it and then quickly stepped in as she saw the black sphere appear at the other end of the corridor, clearly in pursuit.
"Hah! Not able to go through walls?" she mocked as the sphere raced toward her, and the elevator doors closed barely in time to stop a beam directed at her. She crouched and heard it hit the door, but before it could penetrate, she was already elsewhere. Mel quickly took the time to check her weapons and ready her trusty Carter Special; then she cautiously stepped into the room to which the elevator had taken her. It looked like the main control room in Atlantis, but on a much smaller scale.
She quickly stepped toward what she recognized as the main console, the device coming to life as she touched it. It was covered in thick dust, but that didn't seem to affect its operation. Mel knew she didn't have much time. The sphere would be joining her soon via the elevator, and she had to find where her people had been taken. She pressed the necessary controls to bring up the schematics of the facility and was happy to see that this one was much smaller than Atlantis. Her brain quickly absorbed enough information to determine that she was on the floor above the gate room, which was at the bottom of the building. She also noticed that the dialing device was in the next console, and that it was identical to Atlantis' dialing device.
The schematics indicated that there were six more floors above her, all round in shape, a total of eight not so large floors in the whole building. The structure was built like a cylinder, with another central cylinder in the bottom three floors. She had no idea what was outside the outer walls. She started to press more controls in order to find out, but the sound of the elevator door opening stopped her, and she quickly ducked behind the console.
The black orb swiftly flew into the room, searching for her with an annoying whine that bothered Mel's ears. She hid behind the device in the middle of the room and spied the set of stairs behind her. If she could not reach the elevator again, the stairs were still an option. She knew she wanted to go up, but she had to try to disable the threatening sphere first. As she heard the orb hover closer, she suddenly jumped up and started firing at it. The orb took two hits that seemed to cause no damage and then surrounded itself with a visible force field that deflected the rest of Mel's attack. "Crap!" she shouted as she started to run toward the stairs. She was almost there when she felt something hit the outer part of her left arm, burning her flesh and the sleeve of her blue fatigue jacket. "AHH!" she involuntarily screamed as she lost her footing.
Mel felt her body fall and tumble down the hard stairs, landing at the bottom painfully, but thankfully unhurt. She grunted with superhuman effort to immediately jump to her feet and start running, knowing that the orb would follow to finish her off. She was now back on the Gate Room floor, but in the outer cylinder of the building, she was sure. She had to find the elevator!
`Okay, Micro-16 is no good. Time to switch,' she was thinking as she ran while dropping her weapon on the floor, not having time to put it away as she retrieved her zat gun from her holster. She almost cried out in relief when she found an elevator door just as she heard the orb getting closer. She jumped in, and this time she pressed the necessary controls to go up two levels. She needed to explore another floor but wanted to be able to go back down to the main control room to further investigate the building schematics and try to dial Earth. The game of tag she was playing with the murderous orb was going to make that difficult.
She hoped the alien device would have to trail her wherever she went and not be able to determine where she was unless it followed her. If not, she'd be dead soon. She quickly exited the elevator the moment she arrived on the third floor, trying to ignore the burning pain in her left arm. She realized she was standing in a lab. She couldn't immediately tell what kind of lab it was, but she really didn't care. She ran to one of the computer interfaces against one wall and started to press controls to access the building's schematics. She soon determined that she couldn't do it from that one, so she moved on to the next. This one proved to be more cooperative, and she was able to peruse the schematics for a few more moments before she heard the eerily familiar whining as it exited the elevator. Mel did not hesitate. She aimed and fired her zat gun at the approaching orb, making it waver and falter in the air momentarily. Mel also thought she saw a few sparks fly out of it and hoped she'd damaged it enough to slow it down. The force field flickered on and off, evidently affected by the electrical blast.
The young colonel shot at it a few more times in an attempt to disable it further, but the orb just hovered still, seemingly absorbing the energy. `At least it's not shooting at me,' Mel thought as she turned and ran toward the set of stairs behind her, headed back to the main control room. She knew where the computer was located there, and she still hadn't been able to determine where her family was being held. She realized her reprieve was over when a beam struck the wall next to her head as she reached the top of the stairs, making her duck as she ran down, taking them two and three at a time. The orb had evidently recovered.
Mel landed on the second floor, but she was not in the control room. She was in a corridor that curved around, and she assumed the room she wanted was through the wall, in the middle of the building. It was a risk, but she had to take it. She pressed the Tollan device on her wrist again and she took the necessary steps to walk through the hard surface. She sighed in relief when she found she'd been right and happily realized that the orb would take a little longer finding her this time since it couldn't go through solid matter as she could. She went back to the main console, still showing the building schematics, and she realized that the top three floors seemed to be mostly large, circular rooms, and that the equipment on those floors was drawing most of the energy from the building. It was worth checking them out.
But before she did that, she dialed the Gamma Site without activating the power. She pulled out her remote, a recent upgrade to the gate technology graciously given to them by the Asgard, and set it so that all she had to do was press the necessary command to activate the Stargate on the floor below. Then, before the orb could find her, she headed back to the elevator and pressed the necessary controls to take her to the top floor. She prayed she could find something useful as she cautiously stepped out of the elevator and lights came on in a large, white chamber.
There were a total of thirty cells embedded in the walls, all covered by a thick, opaque glass that made it hard to see what was inside. She then realized that there was a control panel on one of the walls, between two of the cells, and she directed her attention to the device, trying to figure out what it was. Mel quickly pressed a command that she thought read "lights", and the cells lit up, making it possible for her to look into them.
She gasped when she realized that every one of them held a human being, standing frozen as in sleep. They were all of different ages, mostly Caucasian, but some with darker skin and curlier hair. Both sexes were equally represented, and they were all dressed in plain, neutral colored tunics of different designs. The women wore long ones, with intricate embroidery and lighter fabric. The men wore shorter tunics over loose, comfortable looking pants. Everyone wore boots that seemed to be made of a soft but sturdy material. Some wore gorgeous jewelry while others wore none. Some had long, loose hair. Others had their hair made up in complicated, braided hairdos. None of the men wore beards. She also noticed that ages varied between people in their teens and people in their fifties, with most of them falling in the twenty-something category.
As she walked along the perimeter of the room, hastily but carefully taking in details as she examined the cells, she determined that her people were not here. But she knew there were two other similar floors, so she headed back to the elevator, intent on reaching the next. First, counting on having some time yet before the orb found her, she paused and holstered her zat gun securely. Then she took off her pack and took out the "kull blaster." She had to try something new next time. She had no doubt that she'd be facing the dreaded robot again. She also took off her jacket, which now felt too hot to wear. She reached for her med kit next. After swiftly applying some antibiotic cream to her burned arm, which also helped to alleviate some of the pain, she picked up her pack again and left the jacket on the floor. With the "kull blaster" in her right hand, she pressed the elevator controls and headed to the seventh floor of the building.
Sam had tried to avoid this conversation, but she'd known that she would have to have it sooner or later. Jack was furious but trying not to show it. She'd been able to read his features for years, and his image, coming clearly through the open wormhole, told her he was NOT happy. She knew that deep down he understood, but he still didn't like it. "You should have stopped her, Sam." His tone carried that edge she knew so well, the edge that said, "For cryin' out loud, how could you've been so stupid!" She'd heard it many times before, but never aimed at her.
"Jack, there's no point arguing about that now. She was determined to go, and you can't blame her for that. I would have done the same thing, and so would you! We would have had to confine her to prevent her from going after her family. You know as well as I do that she and I can disable this facility and take a trip through the gate whenever we want to, and that all we'd need for that is a laptop." She couldn't believe she'd just said that, but she knew that Jack was not unaware of what both she and her clone were capable of. "Listen, can we just agree that we have to get to this planet? I already figured out where it is. If we ask the Asgard, we could be there in hours. Our vessels are all busy elsewhere and would take too long to get here. Thor will do this for us, I know it!"
The silence at the other end lasted for a few seconds that seemed like minutes, and she almost growled when his response was, "You should have thrown her in the brig until she could think straight."
"She WAS thinking straight, Jack! So was I! For us, there was never going to be another option!" Sam was honestly done with trying to convince him, so she switched the topic again, "Would you please contact Thor?" she asked, trying to soften her tone. "Please, Jack," she urged with an almost sob when he wouldn't answer right away.
"I just wish that you'd talked to me about this first. Maybe we could have gone there with the Asgard to begin with. There was no need to risk Gamma Seven and Mel's life," he still argued, but the anger was no longer present in his tone.
"Jack, we didn't know how much time Jon, Duncan and the others had before something happened to them," she justified in a softer tone of voice. "We have no idea why they were taken. We had to move right away. Please, honey, stop arguing with me and call Thor." Sam had her eyes closed in exasperation, her foot tapping the floor nervously.
"I already did," he finally admitted grouchily.
"Oh! You… you…" she wanted to strangle him, but then her relief won, "you're wonderful!" she finished with a sigh.
"He'll be there within a day," he informed her, ignoring her compliment. "He was also busy, but he's coming as soon as he's able. He's very interested in the technology that you described, by the way. He confirmed what you thought. He thinks that it's Ancient."
"Thank you, Jack," Sam smiled in relief, knowing the battle was over.
"I just want you home as soon as possible," he admitted, "and our family back safely." His gut twisted with distress at the thought of never seeing little Duncan again. He had to admit to himself that he was also deeply worried for Jon and Mel. He'd learned to think of them as young siblings, and Sam's younger version was not very different from his wife, so she secretly occupied a special spot in his heart. "This phone call is costing a fortune, so we'll talk later when Thor arrives."
"Okay, Jack, talk to you later," she chuckled, knowing that the "phone call," as he called it, was indeed expensive, since they had to keep the wormhole open the whole time.
As soon as the gate shut down, she called, "All clear, Colonel!" Lou Ferretti then opened the door to the control room and allowed the technicians to come back in, his eyes questioning.
"Thank you for the privacy, Lou," she thanked him sweetly. "He already called Thor, and our little friend is on his way. He should be here within 24 hours, so we have some mission planning to do," she reported.
"Is he pissed at me for letting her go?" Colonel Ferretti winced. Sam knew he was referring to Jack, his old friend but still current CO. She was quick to reassure him.
"He's more upset with me. He knows you had no chance at stopping us, really," she smiled at him. The man sighed and nodded, admitting to the truth.
"I don't know how he does it," the colonel remarked, walking back to his office.
"Does what?" she frowned in puzzlement, asking his retreating back.
"Puts up with you!" he threw over his shoulder. Sam was stunned for a moment; then she turned around when the muffled snickers from the technicians in the room reached her ears.
"Well… he's no picnic, either!" she justified grumpily as she huffily walked out of the room.
Meanwhile, light years away, Mel stepped onto the seventh floor of the Ancient facility, making sure that no floating orbs were ready to pounce. Just as the eighth floor had, this floor contained the same number of cells. She went straight for the control panel on the wall and lit up the stasis chambers, quickly walking along the wall and looking into each of them, searching for a familiar face. Nothing! There were a few empty chambers, but most contained more of the exotic-looking Ancient specimens, all sleeping peacefully. She had finished surveying the room and was back at the control panel when the elevator door suddenly opened and the nasty black orb flew in. If Mel hadn't known better, she'd have sworn it looked pissed! She, however, did not hesitate and aimed at it with the "kull blaster."
The first shot missed the device, which quickly moved out of the blast's way. This surprised Mel, who had never seen it try to avoid her shots. It must have adapted its programming when the last shots from the zat gun had affected it. Or maybe it was because it no longer had a shield! Mel couldn't see it anymore. She didn't have time to speculate longer because the orb started shooting at her, hitting the control panel behind her and making sparks fly as she ducked. Mel threw her body on the floor and rolled away, seeking refuge that did not exist. She repeatedly shot at the orb, hitting it a couple of times and making it falter. Then she made a difficult decision. She still didn't know what was behind the walls, but she had no choice. She pressed the Tollan device and ran through the one containing the still sparking control panel.
Mel couldn't suppress the scream of terror that left her throat as she found herself falling through warm, humid air. She saw green vegetation quickly rush at her as she fell toward the distant ground and realized that she'd jumped out of the building and was about to go splat! Without a fully conscious thought, her right hand let go of her weapon and pressed the large button in the middle of the Asgard belt around her waist. With only a few feet to spare, Mel suddenly stopped falling and her body started to float like a bubble.
The terrified young colonel let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding when she realized that she wasn't going to die after all. She gently floated over dense undergrowth that seemed to cover everything around her, growing over tall walls and barely visible structures in what seemed to be an abandoned Ancient city. `Thank God for the Asgard!' she thought, trying to catch her breath and wondering what part of her brain had been working when she had managed to press the appropriate control as she fell to her death.
Once she'd completely recovered her wits and was able to properly breathe, she pressed the control button that propelled her gently forward and she slowly started to survey her surroundings. It was definitely an old city, practically buried by the surrounding vegetation. This planet obviously had four seasons; otherwise the city would have been completely obliterated during all the years that must have passed since an Ancient being had treaded here. She looked up and realized that the building from which she'd fallen was one of many, and not very tall. She kept her eyes open for her fallen weapon but was unable to locate it. The greenery below her had swallowed it.
Mel slowly maneuvered her suspended body until she found a fairly clear spot where she could touch down. She guessed she was standing on what had been an old, wide road. Buildings covered by vines and trees loomed over both sides, none of them very tall. She kept walking for a while, intent on not losing her bearings so that she could return to the building she believed still held her family, but her curiosity encouraged her to keep exploring. Her experienced eyes noted a recognizable shape at the end of the broad road, in the far distance, close to a mile away. She pressed the control on the Asgard belt again, and she quickly propelled herself toward the familiar round shape, easily covering difficult terrain by flying over it. A while later, standing before the structure, she was able to confirm that it was another Stargate, set up on a high, large platform. It was an old one, not like the one inside the building. The dialing device was probably close by.
It took two hours to locate and dig out the dialing device. It hadn't been hard to find. They were normally located below and to the right of the Stargates, but getting rid of the vegetation that had overgrown it had been an arduous task. Her hands were sore and bleeding, and her knife was now blunt. She knew that with more than one gate, one would take precedence over the other one for incoming wormholes. She also knew that she couldn't use her remote because she'd already set it up to control the other Stargate. But this one should work just fine in dialing out now that she had access to the dialing device. It was time to test that theory and find out whether she could count on this gate as an option for escape. She entered the chevrons for the Gamma Site and readied her radio, hoping to confirm her destination before she reported in and hopefully sent for help. As soon as the wormhole was established, however, she heard the recognizable whine of the fearsome orb rush at her from behind. The damned thing had left the building and was determined to kill her!
Mel turned to see it quickly approaching her, still far but gaining on her rapidly, and she pulled out the zat gun. Knowing that the thing was now good at evading her shots, she ran for cover. The Asgard anti-gravity device was convenient, but not fast. So she attempted to hide instead of trying to outrun the orb. She chose a particularly thick patch of growth and ducked behind trees as the killer device chased her, firing at her constantly. Mel blindly ran through the brush, limbs and thorns snagging her clothing and scratching her skin as she desperately looked for a place to hide, and wondered whether the thing was tracking her vital signs, heat signature, or movement. She cried out when she felt one of the beams hit her back. It really hurt, but she kept running, realizing that her backpack had taken most of the hit and had probably saved her life. As she desperately and repeatedly ran and ducked, she finally spied a large hole in a tree and decided to try her luck. She jumped in and curled into a ball, knowing that the orb was close behind but couldn't have seen her take cover. Her zat gun was ready, aiming at the opening. She knew this would only buy her seconds of life, but she also knew that she just couldn't outrun the device.
She almost immediately heard it fly by, straight past the large tree in which she was hiding. She was trying to slow down her breathing and not make a sound, curled up tightly inside the dark hole. When twenty minutes had gone by and she hadn't heard the whining sound again, she slowly started to emerge from her safe haven. She eventually, slowly and cautiously, made her way back to the Stargate, looking out for her nemesis. The gate was silent now, and she decided not to take her chances again. Activating the gate had probably told the orb exactly where she was. Mel also realized that it was getting dark. Night was approaching, and she had to find a place where she could eat and rest before she ventured again into the building to which she knew she had to return.
The exhausted young woman started to walk toward her destination. On her way she noticed a large, wide structure that could have been a gothic church on Earth. It had a wide, open area that provided some cover in case it rained, but still allowed her good visibility. She found a cozy corner, cleared it as much as she could of plants and debris, and curled up against the wall, out of sight. She then pulled out a power bar and started to munch on it. The food was followed by some water and an analgesic for her throbbing arm and back. The murderous object had, indeed, managed to shoot her, but the backpack and its contents had stopped the beam from killing her. She could tell, without looking at it, that the burn was a nasty one. The pack was now unbearable to wear. Mel finally decided to close her eyes and rest for a while, waiting for darkness to fall and cover her return to the Ancient building that held her husband and child.
"The wormhole originated from the planet, there's no question. That probably means that she's alive and trying to contact us. It's been sixteen hours since Gamma Seven returned. The question is why she didn't even attempt to send a radio signal." Colonel Ferretti was briefing Dr. Carter on the unscheduled gate activation received while she'd been getting something to eat.
"Maybe she was interrupted. If what Major Mendez reported is correct, she's probably looking for our missing people while trying to avoid the sphere," Sam answered, anxious about their inability to dial the planet. "Have you kept trying to dial in?"
"Every fifteen minutes. Something is still blocking the outgoing wormhole. We just can't get a lock," he answered with a sigh of frustration.
"We have no choice, then. We just have to wait for her to try us again, or go to her with Thor," Sam admitted, rubbing her eyes.
"Sam, go get some sleep. I'll call you if anything happens," Lou Ferretti coaxed.
"Thanks, Lou. I think I'll do that. I want to be rested by the time Thor gets here," she answered, tiredly standing up.
"Ahemmm, about that," Lou started to say uncomfortably. "Jack sent orders." At this, she stood by the table with a wary look on her face.
Sam knew what was coming, but she braced herself for it anyway. "And?" she prompted, tensing up against her will.
"You're not to go on the mission. We're sending SG-1 and Gamma Seven. Major Mendez wants to go back, and her team's the only one that's been there. Colonel Mitchell, Dr. Jackson, Teal'c and Captain Hailey will be arriving by morning. Sorry, Sam."
"Oh, for cryin' out loud! I don't even have to go down to the planet. I could stay on the ship!" she complained.
"That's what I said, but Jack said there was no way to make sure you'd do that once you were there," the colonel smiled sheepishly at her. "I guess you've been sort of insubordinate since you left the military, and those were not his exact words. I'm sugar-coating it."
"Insub…! Me? I've been… I can't believe he said that!" Sam blustered, standing up and waving her hands in the air, wishing she had her husband within choking distance. Lou smiled at the Jack O'Neill mannerisms the formerly sedate doctor had acquired.
"His exact words were: `Now she thinks she can do whatever the hell she wants. It's up to me to make sure she stays safe, for the sake of the kids.'" Colonel Ferretti offered, looking her straight in the eye and knowing that his boss was probably right.
Sam opened her mouth to protest further, but then she sighed, let her shoulders slump and covered her face with her hands in exhaustion. "Whatever!" she replied, turning around and leaving the room, headed toward her temporary quarters. She knew Jack was right. She had to think of her children first, and sometimes she forgot about that. At least she knew that SG-1 and Gamma Seven would do a topnotch job. She had no doubt of that.
As Sam thought of new and evil ways to make Jack suffer, Mel suddenly jerked awake and looked at her watch. She'd slept for a few hours, and her body was screaming with aches and pains from her cramped posture in her secure corner. It was very dark, but the three distant moons of the planet offered enough light for her to make her way toward her destination. She downed more painkillers, ate another power bar, drank some water, and hung her now much lighter backpack from her left shoulder. She'd gotten rid of unnecessary weight, made sure her Beretta and her blunt knife were handy, and then gripped her zat firmly in her right hand.
It took a while to make her silent way back to the building she remembered. She'd had to use the Asgard belt numerous times to avoid large obstacles in her way, but she'd been pleased at not having to face the homicidal orb yet. She was also pleased by the apparent peacefulness of the planet. She could hear critters moving in the night, but no loud, scary growls. It was probably devoid of large predators.
Once she was facing the building, she tried to remember the schematics to figure out the best access point. But she couldn't be sure of what floor she'd be going into, although she thought it should be the fourth floor. She'd decided to try to finish exploring the top three levels, where she'd found the sleeping Ancients. She'd try to reach the sixth floor so that she could continue her meticulous search. So she pressed the control on the Asgard belt again and let herself float. No need to try to climb over the obstacles in her way. When she was high enough, she then pressed the Tollan device on her wrist and propelled herself forward through the fašade of the building, emerging into a curved corridor similar to the one she'd been in before. The lighting immediately activated and she muffled a curse under her breath. If the orb hadn't noticed her entry before, now it knew exactly where she was. She had to move fast!
Mel ran down the long corridor looking for an elevator door. She found it soon enough and jumped in, pressing the controls for the sixth floor, still not sure of what floor she had been on. She had no idea where the orb was, so she had to be especially careful. When the doors opened, she was almost flat on the floor, her zat gun pointing up. But there was nothing awaiting her, so she quickly jumped to her feet and entered a room that looked exactly like the ones on the seventh and eighth floors. The bright lights immediately activated, and she was staring at thirty stasis chambers. She rushed toward the control panel on the wall and turned on the lights inside the cells. She then started to quickly survey the contents, starting to despair when she found the first ten chambers empty.
Just as she was about to start screaming in frustration, she came face to face with the peacefully sleeping countenance of Dr. Sebastian Kaeser. Mel couldn't hold back a cry of relief as her hands instinctively flattened against the cold surface of the glass. She hurriedly continued walking and found Dr. Hawass and Dr. Makkonen in the next two chambers. She held her breath as she approached the next chamber, and her face lit up with joy when she beheld the small, jean-clad form of her son, looking tiny and vulnerable inside the large space. He was slightly pouting and he held a lavender blossom in his little fist. "Baby!" she whispered, tears coming to her eyes. But she quickly recovered and rushed to the next chamber, finally able to gaze at the sleeping face of her husband.
"Jon!" she cried out. Not wanting to waste precious time, she rushed back to the control panel and started to navigate her way to what looked like the on and off commands. She wasn't sure of what she was doing, but she didn't have time to waste. So she went with her gut and pressed the command to open and deactivate the chambers, praying she wasn't doing something lethal to the sleeping people inside. As the chambers slowly dimmed and the glass doors silently slid open, Mel walked toward the chamber holding her husband, dreading to find him dead. Instead, she found a blinking Jon slowly coming to his senses. He stared at her for a few moments before he gasped, "Mel!" as she threw herself at him, hugging him with a barely suppressed sob.
"Oh, thank God!" she sobbed against his neck, holding him so tightly that he could barely breathe. Just as suddenly, she abruptly let him go and stepped away, rushing to the next chamber and kneeling down to receive a confused little boy into her wide-open arms. "Baby, come here!" she called with a bright, teary smile, and Duncan ran into her arms.
"Mommy!" he cried out, holding tightly to her neck as his father also knelt and looked him over, making sure that he was all right. He noticed that his son was still holding on to a large, purple flower, which he promptly dropped to hug his mother. Jon also warily noticed the rest of the people slowly stepping out of the chambers. The three scientists had quickly come to his side and were also guardedly watching the rest of the men and women walking slowly out of the cells and looking around in perplexity.
"No!" Duncan suddenly screamed as he fairly jumped within his mother's arms with fear, pointing at the old man whose attention had quickly been snagged by the strangers among the Ancients.
"Calm down, baby! You're safe. We won't let anything happen to you," Mel quickly reassured her son, her eyes flying to Efrat as he cautiously approached them.
"There were supposed to be no children among us," he observed in puzzlement as he looked at his fellow Ancients with questions in his eyes. Jon determinedly stepped in the older man's way, his eyes dark with menace. "I don't mean you any harm!" the old man assured him, stopping with his hands up in the air.
"You've done enough already!" Jon growled.
"To what are you referring?" the man asked in a dignified tone.
"You abducted us and kept us here against our will. Your experiment failed, Efrat. You've been sleeping for a very long time," the young general informed the baffled old man.
"I would never abduct anyone!" Efrat defended himself in an affronted tone.
"Jon! We can't have this conversation now! The orb will be here any second," she urgently warned her husband, picking up her son in her arms. "We have to go! I'm surprised it's not here already. Maybe it's still outside."
"Outside?" Jon asked.
"Yes! It chased me all over the city! It's probably still looking for me! It's shooting to kill, Jon!" she warned him. Only then did Jon seem to notice her wounds, the holes in her black t-shirt exposing a raw burn on her back and one on her arm, which was red and puffy with cream slathered over it.
"What is trying to kill you?" Efrat asked anxiously, his brow creased in concern. The other Ancients looked at each other in alarm, also looking confused.
"The robot orb that takes care of this place. The computer program you must have created to keep you sleeping while it gathered enough people to repopulate your planet," Jon tried to explain from the little he'd been able to gather.
"Jon, we have to go!" Mel insisted, pulling on his arm and heading for the elevator with her son clinging to her. "Let's try to get to the Stargate inside the building before it's too late!"
"You're right!" Jon agreed, following her and waving his arm at the three scientists standing close by, ordering them to follow. "Let's go! Let them find their own answers!"
"Wait! Please don't go!" the beautiful dark-haired woman Jon had seen through the hologram begged. "It will be all right! There is no danger!"
"Tell that to my wife! Have you seen her arm and back?" Jon snapped at her, jumping into the elevator behind his people. Before the woman could respond, the doors closed.
Mel anxiously stood in the middle of the group, looking up at Jon with naked fear in her eyes. Now that she had her son in her arms, she'd fully realized how vulnerable all of them were. "Jon, you take Duncan. He's already too heavy for me," she justified lamely. "I'll cover you with the zat. It's the only thing that seems to work… some." She placed her son in her husband's arms and stepped to the front of the elevator, pushing the others behind her and facing the doors, not giving the general a chance to protest.
The moment the doors opened, she shot at the open space in front of her. But thankfully, there was nothing waiting for them. She swiftly left the elevator and started running down the empty and brightly lit corridor, heading toward the door that led to the gate room as she pulled out her remote and kept it in her left hand. Jon was close behind, carrying his son tightly against his chest and taken aback by his wife's obvious terror. He wondered what she'd been through before she'd found them and freed them, but then decided he'd worry about that later. He could hear the labored breathing of the fearful scientists behind him and felt the tight grip of Duncan's little hands on his neck. Priority number one was to get the hell off of the planet and back home! Answers could wait.
Mel reached the door to the gate room and paused. She ordered the scientists to flatten themselves against the wall on one side of the door and she pushed her husband and son against the other side, her left hand hovering above the locking mechanism on the wall as her right hand aimed straight in front with the zat, ready to fire. Just as she was about to open the door, Dr. Hawass cried out, "NO! Don't open it! It's there, waiting for us!"
Mel looked at her staff member with incomprehension; then she looked at Jon with a question in her eyes. Dr. Makkonen's voice echoed her colleague's, "She's right! It's in there! I can… feel it!" She looked just as shocked by this revelation as Mel and Jon were. The general looked at Dr. Kaeser questioningly, but the older man just shrugged his shoulders in bemusement.
"The Stargate is in there!" Mel stated. "Are you sure?"
"Yes!" both women answered at the same time. Before more words could be exchanged, the door unexpectedly opened and Sam instinctively fired her weapon, hitting the looming orb dead on. The device faltered and wavered in the air, but then seemed to re-energize itself.
"Down!" Jon screamed as he pressed the locking mechanism and the door started to close again. Before it finished closing, two lethal beams sneaked through the opening, hitting the floor behind a crouching Mel. If she had been standing, she would have been killed. But she didn't hesitate or think twice. The instant the door finished closing, she shot the locking mechanism with her zat gun and picked herself up from the floor.
"That should slow it down some, but I'm sure it has some other way to get out! We have to go to the other Stargate!" she was screaming as she ran back to the elevator, Jon and the scientists on her heels. Duncan was screaming in fear, his face buried against his father's neck.
"What other Stargate?" Jon asked, yelling over his son's panicked screams and rubbing his hand soothingly over his back as he ran behind his wife.
"There's an older Stargate outside, in the city! We may be able to reach it before the orb can get out, but we have to hurry!" Mel answered as she closed the elevator doors behind the last scientist. She pressed the control to go directly to the fourth floor, the one she guessed was at street level, based on what she remembered from the schematics. She wasn't sure, but it seemed right.
"Give me the zat gun, Mel. You take Duncan and I'll cover your backs," Jon ordered, but his wife's eyes met his unwaveringly.
"No, Jon. You carry Duncan. That thing has decided that I'm a threat, and it's trying to kill me. It could hit Duncan by mistake," she explained in a firm tone. Nothing, he knew, would change her mind. So he just nodded and followed her lead. She seemed to know what she was doing, and he felt like he had just woken up from one nightmare and jumped right into another one.
The last thing they expected to see as they emerged on the fourth floor were the astonished and appalled faces of the people they had left behind on floor six. They were standing by a large, wide open door, looking out on what used to be their beautiful city, some crying while others were numb with shock. There were many of them now, and Mel figured that the people on floors seven and eight had been awakened as well.
Efrat turned to look at them with the saddest look Jon had ever seen on anyone's face. But he had no time for compassion. "If you all want to live, you better follow us!" he severely advised, then he stepped past them, with Mel by his side, and resolutely walked into the greenery surrounding the building, the first rays of the rising sun already dissipating the morning mist.
Thor never understood why, when given an option, humans always preferred to do things in groups. He traveled the stars by himself and never felt much need for companionship, although he had to admit he did, occasionally, enjoy listening to his friend O'Neill talk. It amused him like nothing else did. Maybe humans found each other amusing. That must be it, he decided. The Asgard ally, however, kept his thoughts to himself as he led the eight people he had just picked up from the Gamma Site through the ship and into the quarters he had generously provided for the trip.
"Thanks, Thor. We appreciate the hospitality. How long before we get there?" Dr. Daniel Jackson asked, fidgeting impatiently.
"We will be there in exactly eight more hours. You have time to rest, if you wish," the little alien responded patiently.
Colonel Mitchell jumped in, "Yeah, we'll take turns. Jennifer, take the bunk; I'll take the floor. Teal'c, do you wanna sleep first?" Cam seemed to reconsider.
"I do not," Teal'c replied, turning around and leaving the room assigned to SG-1.
"Didn't think so! And you're waaay too nervous to sleep, so just wake me when you're ready for a nap!" Cam pointed at Daniel, who just nodded and also walked out.
"Why are you so anxious, Daniel Jackson?" Teal'c asked the archeologist calmly as the two teammates strolled the empty corridors of the Asgard ship. Thor had returned to the bridge, happy to be alone, and Gamma Seven had decided to spend some time playing cards on the floor of their room while a still achy Major Mendez took a nap on the only bed.
"I don't know," Daniel started to lie, then looked up at his friend and decided to come clean. "Okay, Oma has been whispering in my ear."
"Oma Desala whispers to you?" Teal'c asked, his eyebrow rising in concern for his friend's sanity.
"Not exactly, but… it's like when you have a psychic connection to someone, I guess. I feel she's near. Something's going on with the Ascended, and I think it has to do with what's going on with Mel and Jon on that planet. Don't ask me how I know. I have no clue!" Daniel admitted with raised hands.
"If what you say is true, maybe your ascended friend will be able to assist us," Teal'c suggested, not believing it for a second. The ascended beings had been notoriously absent during their most trying moments.
"Hmmm!" was Daniel's non-committal response. "I just want to get there already and pick up our friends. I have a bad feeling about this."
Teal'c looked at Dr. Jackson in concern, knowing that the man truly had some kind of connection with the ascended Ancients, being a favorite of the one called Oma, and believing that he was probably right.
Still light years away, and trudging through the overgrowth covering the remains of the once beautiful but small Ancient city — too slowly for Mel's peace of mind — a column of cheerless people headed for the Stargate situated at the far end of the main road, looking over their shoulders in apprehension. Mel was desperate to pick up the pace, but the going was tough, the terrain too difficult to walk through quickly. Dr. Kaeser and Jon had been taking turns carrying Duncan, who was currently dozing in his father's arms. Efrat had made a point of coming up to Jon and discussing their situation, and they had been talking for a long time.
In words dripping with regret, Efrat had confirmed that some of the people of his city, called Pallura, had decided to support his idea and try to survive the war against the Wraith by hiding in slumber and later repopulating the Milky Way galaxy, far away from their foe. Of course, he hadn't called it the Milky Way, but Jon had helpfully corrected him when he'd referred to it by using some weird combination of Ancient letters and numbers.
The old man was confused by what Jon and Mel had related of their encounters with the orb. He explained that it was nothing but a computerized security system programmed to protect the sleeping people and offer direction to others that might wish to join them, but being in existence for so long, it could have degenerated in some way. Their programs were normally adaptive to situations, and this one had apparently decided to take extreme measures in fulfilling its mission. The long column of heartbroken Ancients following the five Earthlings was composed of a total of sixty-nine beings. Mel noticed that they were mostly couples, with very few exceptions. They were still too few to repopulate a whole planet, let alone a galaxy. Their plan had failed, and now they felt lost, gaping at their overcome city with devastated grief.
It was now late morning, and they were close to the Stargate. Mel had not fully appreciated how much help her Asgard belt had provided the night before, when she'd been able to traverse the same distance in a fraction of the time it was taking them this morning. She was exhausted and in pain, but she tried to keep up with the conversation between Efrat and Jon, paying attention to potentially important details.
"I was wrong. We were wrong. We should have followed our brothers and sisters into ascension. Returning to Earth would have been too difficult. Conditions there were too primitive," Efrat finally admitted.
"Some of you did, anyway," Jon replied. "Some made a difference there."
"I imagine they would have. There were quite a few adventurous souls among us. But most of us chose another realm. I just wasn't ready to give this one up," the man sighed. Suddenly, his light blue eyes rounded up in alarm, and his head turned toward the distance from where they had come. "The orb is coming! We have to run!"
"How do you know?" Jon asked suspiciously, not able to see anything moving toward them.
"He's right, General! I can feel it coming, too!" Dr. Makkonen agreed, her nervousness mirroring the ripple of concern he immediately noticed go through the sixty-nine people following them.
"Let's go! Mel, you go first! Use the damned belt if you have to, but get away from that thing, you hear?" he ordered.
"I'll go to the Stargate and start the dialing sequence!" she agreed. Immediately, she started to hover and to move swiftly to cover the remaining hundreds of meters to the gate.
Jon watched her go in relief, but then he heard it. That whiny sound was fast approaching, and the murmurs of concern among the people intensified. "Let's pick up the pace, NOW!" he ordered, not wanting to be too far behind his wife.
By the time he could see the orb approaching, they only had two hundred meters to go, and Mel had already established the wormhole to the Gamma Site. Jon could not hear her, but he could see her talking into her radio as her countenance grew more intense and fearful. Duncan was now fully awake, covering his ears with his little hands and starting to whimper in fear. "Daddy, the ball is here!" he started to cry.
"We're almost home, son! Don't pay attention to it!" his father encouraged, but the little boy watched the malevolent machine fly over his head, pass them up and stop smack in front of Jon and Efrat at the head of the column of people. The old man's hologram then suddenly appeared and, in an almost heated tone, dangerously warned, "You must return and sleep until we are enough."
Efrat looked at Jon in shock, but then attempted to correct the machine. "The undertaking has failed. We do not need to sleep any longer. You may disengage," he carefully instructed.
"The mission is not complete. You must return and sleep until we are enough." The orb was not letting them pass, and it shook and faltered strangely. Mel's shots had probably damaged it, Jon thought, otherwise it would have transported them back to the building already. As they all watched in frustration and apprehension, the device was suddenly hit by an electrical discharge from behind. Mel was shooting, kneeling down with both hands steady on her zat gun. The orb's whine got louder and it shuddered in the air, but instead of shutting down, it suddenly turned and started to fire wildly toward Mel's position, avoiding her next shots easily. "Threats will be eliminated," it kept repeating as the beams flew toward the now vulnerable young colonel.
"Mel, get down!" Jon screamed at her, hastily handing over his son to a frozen Dr. Kaeser and starting to run toward the orb gone berserk. He had not taken many steps when he saw his wife get hit, heard her cry of pain as she fell backwards, and watched her body disappear in the greenery surrounding her. "MELLLL!" he screamed, frantically jumping over obstacles and rushing to her side.
Another scream joined Jon's. "MOMMYYY!" Duncan shrieked, suddenly going wild in Dr. Kaeser's arms and practically jumping to the ground. The little boy ran, jumped, climbed and kept running to his mother's side, screaming the whole time, "Mommy, Mommy!" The rest of the people were frozen with fear, not knowing what to do as the orb continued to shudder and float over their heads, no longer firing but repeating, "Threats will be eliminated. You must return and sleep until we are enough. The mission is not complete," over and over again.
"Mel… baby!" Jon called to his wife softly as he picked up her limp body from the spongy ground, cradling her in his arms and shaking her lightly, begging for her to open her eyes. "Please, Mel, come on!" he kept begging, tears in his eyes. He knew, the moment he had seen her face, that she was dead. Her eyes were semi-closed and she was not breathing. There was a still smoking hole in the middle of her chest, and his hand could feel another one on her back, hot to the touch. The beam had gone right through her.
He didn't know how long he'd been holding the inert body of his wife in his arms — it seemed like long minutes, but he knew it couldn't have been for that long — when he felt the little hands of his son on his back, trying to reach his mother. "Mommy! Wake up! Mommy!" he kept yelling frantically, and Jon snapped out of it. He had to take care of Duncan.
"Duncan, buddy, calm down," he coaxed in a soft tone, forgetting all about the still threatening orb hovering over the group of people only meters away, only concerned for the sanity of his son. "Mommy's hurt. She can't hear you," he tried to explain as his son hugged Mel's body, crying out for her to wake up.
"NOOO!" the boy suddenly screamed at the top of his lungs as he jumped up and turned around, his irate eyes going to the floating orb that still continued to repeat the ominous words that kept the column of people immobile. "YOU HU'T MY MOMMY!" he yelled at it as if possessed. Jon's heart lurched at the sight of his maddened son, and he tried to reach him, still holding on to Mel. His concern, however, was suddenly interrupted by an ear splitting, terrifying screech coming from high above, and when he looked up, he couldn't believe his eyes.
The people still frozen meters away from Jon suddenly started screaming in terror as they saw the impossible creature swiftly coming at them, screeching ominously as its huge, flapping wings created gusts of wind that rushed over them. The monster had a long snout lined with long, sharp teeth, clearly visible as it shrieked on its way toward the beings cowering on the ground. Its body was long, muscular and scaly, ending in a thin tail with a lethal looking talon capable of piercing through hard metal.
Jon frantically looked around trying to find the zat gun Mel must have dropped as she fell, but he couldn't see it. Instead of continuing to search for it, he grabbed his son's arm and determinedly pulled him against his chest in a vain attempt to protect him from the beast that was almost upon them. To his shock and surprise, however, the flying reptile, glittering violet in the morning sun, swept by them, opening its large mouth and smoothly swallowing the intimidating orb in one gulp, not even touching a single being on the ground. Then he watched the… dragon? `Yeah! It could be described as a dragon!' he idly thought. He watched the dragon fly away — clearly not interested in anything else once it'd swallowed the orb — while gaping people watched in stunned wonder as it disappeared behind the taller buildings of the city.
Everyone was frozen in place, still disbelieving of what they had just witnessed. They were no longer threatened. The dragon had taken care of that and disappeared. Jon's spell was broken when he felt his son disengage himself from his arm and turn to his mother, clearly indifferent to the recent visitation, calling to her as he sobbed with his babyish accent, "Mommy, please, wake up. The ball won't hu't you anymo'. Mommy, please!" The little boy clung to Mel's neck, weeping against her face and patting her gently on the cheek, trying to awaken his mother.
Jon's tears flowed freely, but he didn't notice them. He watched his son weep for his mother, and he had no idea what to do to alleviate his sorrow. He just continued to hold Mel as his hand went to Duncan's back, stroking it gently as the boy kept begging his mom to wake up. The people previously cowering on the ground slowly stepped up and approached the grieving family, stunned and mournful. They respectfully surrounded them, and the three Tau'ri scientists knelt around their three friends, not knowing what to do to comfort the grieving husband and son.
Some time later, Jon vaguely realized that they were surrounded by a bright light. Through a haze of tears, he looked up to see a number of illuminated spheres with long tendrils that seemed to flap in the wind. He'd seen that before, and he clearly remembered where. Oma Desala had looked like that. Daniel had looked like that as well. These were ascended Ancients, hovering softly above their brethren, who now looked up at them as if entranced. No one said a word. The hands of the scientists joined in apprehension and they slowly stood up, forming a link around their general, but the formerly terrified and grief-stricken Ancients were all smiling in rapture.
Before the five humans' very eyes, the sixty-nine people standing as if in ecstasy only meters from them suddenly melted away and became blinding streaks of light, swiftly flying up and joining the hovering spheres, leaving behind nothing but empty clothing and jewelry. "They came for them," Jon remarked distantly, not really too interested in what had just happened. His heart felt too heavy with grief.
"Yes, I could hear them," Dr. Kaeser agreed, focused on the energy beings as he watched them go higher and higher in the sky, until they couldn't be seen anymore. "Their ascended brothers and sisters welcomed them into their realm," the man confirmed, his face lit with understanding.
"Well… good for them," Jon mumbled morosely, his hand still on his son's back as the little boy looked up at the sky, also distracted by the lights that had come to visit.
"Jon," the general heard a voice call, and he knew it wasn't a voice he'd heard before. To the others, he looked like he was in shock, deeply grieving his wife, his eyes unfocused and distant as his little boy clung to his dead mother again. "Bring her back. She doesn't want to join us. She wants to be with you."
"Who are you?" Jon asked in his mind, both surprised and comforted by the gentle female voice in his head.
"Oma Desala, your friend," she responded.
"Of course… who else?" Jon replied, bitterness overwhelming his senses again.
"She wants to stay with you. Bring her back," Oma repeated.
"How can I do that?" Jon asked, knowing she was referring to Mel but not having a clue as to how to do such a thing.
"You can do it. You can make her whole again. You both can. The power is within you," she replied. Jon was taken aback by the revelation, but he nodded. He'd try anything to bring Mel back.
The three scientists watched Jon snap out of it, take a deep breath, and grab his weeping son's arm, gently pulling him away from Mel's neck. "Let's make Mommy well again, Duncan," he simply said. The little boy looked at his father for a moment, but then nodded as if he had just been invited to play. His lips tentatively smiled and he held his dad's hand in his. Then his other hand, tiny against his mother's chest, covered the lethal hole as his eyes closed. Jon gently buried his face against his wife's neck, inhaling deeply and concentrating, his lips lightly kissing her cold skin as he felt heat coil within him and slowly drain out from his body, directed to the limp one in his arms.
"Oh, my! Look!" Dr. Hawass exclaimed, watching the astonishing sight before her. Dr. Makkonen covered her own mouth in shock while Dr. Kaeser actually smiled, immediately understanding what was happening.
A bright light shone beneath Duncan's little hand, spilling out and blinding the three scientists standing around him. Jon was shimmering, energy flowing out of his whole body and disappearing into Mel's, warming her skin and repairing torn flesh and broken bones. Everyone was eerily silent, witnessing the unbelievable feat, until a deep, sudden gasp left Mel's mouth, a desperate need for air overwhelming her as she came back to the land of the living. Duncan's eyes glittered with happiness as he watched his mommy's eyes flicker and open fully, looking around and searching as if blinded, then focusing on the little face beaming at her.
"Baby!" she whispered with a smile, and her hand reached for the boy's hair, her fingers disappearing in the light brown locks. Jon's eyes opened as he pulled back from her neck, a smile on his lips and relief flooding his eyes. "Jon," she croaked, still feeling weak as she tried to sit up.
"Don't move," Jon stopped her, holding her still and letting go of Duncan's hand to stroke his wife's face tenderly, his lips lowering slowly to lightly kiss her still cold lips, deeply grateful to Oma. He clearly heard the ascended being whisper in his ear, "She wasn't ready. She's still yours." Then he felt her leave, and he beamed at his wife, holding her tightly as his son hugged her, giggling with joy.
At the same time, in the Asgard ship, Daniel Jackson suddenly awoke from a nap and smiled. He sat up on his bunk and looked at the Jaffa silently meditating on the floor. When his friend opened his eyes with a questioning eyebrow slowly rising high, he grinned at him with delight, "We can turn around. They're fine," he declared, and he jumped up to inform the others.
Mel was in heaven, comfortably leaning against her husband as they were both sprawled on the soft grass surrounding their favorite spot in the whole galaxy, the lagoon where they had shared a sweet, passionate kiss as Samantha Carter and Jack O'Neill many years ago. She fondly remembered those nine, dream-like days that Jack, Sam and Teal'c had been stranded here right after the destruction of the Beliskner and their first encounter with the Replicators. They had done nothing but hunt, play, and swim in the ocean or in this very lagoon — around which Duncan and Karie now searched for bugs — as they had waited for the Beta Gate to be installed back on Earth so that they could return.
Mel smiled at the fond memory of that first, forbidden kiss. They had both been shocked and thrilled at the same time, realizing that they'd shared the same feelings they had been keeping secret from each other and everyone else. They had also come to their senses and agreed to wait. And they had waited a long time, almost losing each other on many occasions, and had suffered much since then. But here they were, young, healthy and in love, watching their precious son play with his favorite friend and enjoying each other's physical contact without any fear of repercussions.
It had been four weeks since their return from Pallura, as Efrat's planet had been named. There were now numerous Gamma and SGC teams regularly traveling to and working in the newly discovered Ancient city. It held a wealth of history and technology that Earth was eagerly investigating, and they had been able to locate yet another ZPM powering the city in one of the main buildings. They were hoping to find more.
Thoughts of Pallura brought Mel back to that moment when she had awakened in Jon's arms to find her son beaming at her in relief and happiness. Jon had still had tears in his eyes, his face wet with them, and Mel had reached for him and hugged him, knowing that something extraordinary must have just happened. Dr. Kaeser had been grinning from ear to ear, and both Dr. Makkonen and Dr. Hawass had also been crying despite the wide smiles they wore.
Jon had lifted Mel from the ground and they had all returned to the Gamma Site, where a frantic Colonel Ferretti and an anxious but calm Sam Carter had been waiting since Mel had dialed the Stargate from the planet. She remembered radioing a message, letting them know that the six of them, plus the sixty-nine Ancient refugees, were trying to reach the Gate. She also remembered using the Asgard belt to rush back to her family and try to disable the orb that stood in their way. And she remembered getting hit, the intense pain in her chest brief but agonizing… and then nothing. She had absolutely no memory of having talked to Oma Desala, as Jon insisted she must have done.
Jon, Duncan and the three scientists had filled in the gaps during the astonishing debrief back on Gamma Site. Sam had been weak with relief, hugging Duncan as if the little boy would disappear again. Upon their arrival, Colonel Ferretti had immediately contacted Thor's ship and had surprisingly found out that Daniel Jackson had been in the process of convincing them to call Gamma Site to confirm the fact that they no longer needed to reach Pallura. They had contacted Jack next, who had been typically terse and sarcastic but obviously relieved. He had then ordered his wife to come back home and Mel, Jon and Duncan to report to the SGC for a personal debrief with him as soon as they were able. Sam had smiled at this, knowing that it was his way of making certain everyone was really okay.
Mel suddenly chuckled when she heard Karie squeal and slap at Duncan's hand, trying to get away from an apparently gross bug. Duncan was laughing and chasing her with it. "He's a little you," Mel commented, shaking her head and looking up at her husband's face when he also laughed at the little kids' antics.
"He has more of you in him than you know," was Jon's response, leaning his chin on Mel's head and hugging her tighter against his chest. She leaned back more comfortably and closed her eyes, relishing his arms around her body.
"Hmmmm… it feels so nice here!" she purred, immensely enjoying their down time away from base. They had been working very hard, and Mel had insisted on a break. So now they were on a picnic, having traveled by Jeep to the ocean site close to where the Stargate had been found on this planet. "It was nice of Ron and Sandy to allow Karie to come along with us. Duncan really enjoys her company," Mel added, referring to the little girl's parents.
"He thinks she's hot, that's why," Jon replied playfully.
"Jon, for crying out loud! They're babies!" Mel slapped his arm, still chuckling at her husband's outrageous comment.
"So? She's cute! Look at her! Green eyes, blond, curly hair to her waist, and pretty as a button! She looks like a fairy. You can't blame the boy!" he insisted, pointing at the giggling girl being chased by their son.
"Whatever! You're such a male!" Mel gave up.
"That I am… and you're a female… and you're conveniently handy," he growled in her ear, his hands starting to roam over her stomach.
"Stop it, Jon!" she giggled. "The children are near."
"Too bad. There are things I'd like to do to this body right now. This place brings back hot memories," he admitted, his hands still stroking her middle.
"You've done plenty to this body during the past few weeks, Mister! You can't complain. What you need is a break from sex!" she threatened.
"You don't scare me, Colonel. I know you'd be begging for it waaay before I break," he teased.
"Really? Maybe we should place a bet," she teased back, noticing that the kids had found something interesting on the ground and were crouching low, intently observing it as they chatted. As she watched her son, memories of what had transpired on Pallura came back to her again, and she abruptly changed the subject. "Jon, do you think he made the dragon appear?" she asked.
As Jon debated whether to answer that question truthfully or make a joke about it, Duncan was trying to touch the soft wings of the butterfly he and Karie had found. The little bug was calmly standing on a yellow flower as the children examined it, and it didn't flutter away or seem disturbed by its audience. "You shouldn't touch it, Duncan. You could hurt it," Karie was advising. He didn't look at his friend but pulled back his little finger and didn't touch the insect.
"It has plain wings. White is not a very pretty color," Karie commented.
"What colo' do you like?" Duncan asked, frowning at the little girl.
"I love blue butterflies. They are the prettiest!" she declared as she stood, her hands on her waist. Then she looked at Mel and Jon and waved at them with a beautiful smile. Duncan, looking up at her from his spot on the ground, dreamily wished that the little sister in mommy's belly would be as pretty and blond as Karie. Then he thought he should probably tell Mommy and Daddy about his sister. They didn't seem to know about her yet.
Jon's sudden tension after Mel's unexpected question was obvious to her in the way his arms tightened further around her. They had not voiced the possibility, but they had both suspected the same thing as they'd wondered, along with her three scientists, where that dragon had come from. Upon their return from Pallura, all six of them had undergone a series of tests, given their amazing new capabilities. Mel had been unchanged, but she had theorized that the stasis chambers in which the other five had spent time had done something to enhance the latent Ancient powers inherent to the gene they naturally carried. Jon and Duncan had brought her back from death. Mel had not only survived, she didn't even have scars from the three wounds inflicted by the orb. And the three scientists on her staff now seemed to have empathic powers. They "felt" things that others couldn't. They didn't have to see or hear people coming or standing near to know exactly who they were and even what their current mood was. Jon had admitted to sensing some of this as well, but his talent seemed to be focused on healing.
Since their return from Pallura, Jon had relieved her aches and pains with a quick, soft rub down or a simple caress. She'd been extremely weak since her near death experience, but with her husband's daily ministrations, she'd quickly recuperated completely. Duncan seemed to have the same talent, but they had refrained from giving it too much attention, not wanting to freak him out or make him feel different. The dragon, however, had been a mystifying topic of conversation between the scientists and the few people that had knowledge of the details of their adventure. The mythological being had appeared from thin air and disappeared just as quickly once it had saved them from the orb. The fact that it had shone with purple scales had made Duncan's parents suspicious of their son's involvement with the whole episode. But there was no real way to be sure. No one had seen anything even close to a dragon on Pallura ever since. When they had asked Duncan if he'd called the dragon, he'd just shrugged and said he'd just wanted something to hurt the ball that had hurt his mommy.
"I think he did, unconsciously," Jon finally responded. "It's scary to admit, but…" he hesitated. Then he cupped his wife's chin and pulled her face up to ask, "What do YOU think?"
Mel hesitated to answer, but then she closed her eyes and sighed, "I think he did, Jon. And you're right. If he could do that… it's scary."
"Remember I told you that Efrat's hologram had said that we would be `more than we were' when it was trying to make us go into the stasis chambers. Maybe Duncan's age made him more susceptible to whatever it was that changed us," Jon theorized. He'd been thinking a lot about this lately, and he had some definite theories. He was, however, afraid for his son. He didn't want others to consider him a freak, or to try to study him like a lab rat, so he had kept his mouth shut. He hadn't even discussed the topic with Mel very much.
"Jon, I never said anything to you, but now that this happened, it seems important that you know. Even before Pallura, Duncan might have had some of this power to make things happen or materialize. I can't be sure, of course, but there were times when I was looking for something I'd misplaced and he'd just hand it to me, as if it were just sitting right there, next to him. Then remember we kept finding candy in his room, when you know that we don't allow any in our quarters. Where did he get it? And it was always his favorite, cherry lollipops. He never could tell us how he'd gotten them."
Jon nodded, watching his son from afar and worrying about how this could affect his future. "We'll have to watch him and try to figure out exactly how much he can do. He'll have to learn to control it. But let's keep this between us for now, okay?" he suggested, his voice deep with concern.
"Okay. Let's just… oh, look! Isn't that pretty!" she suddenly exclaimed. Jon looked up to see what she was pointing at and smiled.
Duncan and Karie were giggling as they ran in circles, surrounded by thousands of pretty blue butterflies that shimmered in the sun like jewels. Their happy laughter was contagious, and Jon and Mel stood up and ran down the hill to join them, looking up as the butterflies hovered around them, almost as if they, too, were having a great time playing with the two beautiful children.