Story Notes:

Title: Reason to Breathe
Author: A. Karswyll
Rated: K+
Words: 4,862
Summary: While exploring the ruins on a friendly planet Sam triggers a trap and is taken captive. Jack watches as time runs down and he is forced to face a question that steals his breath—has time run out for them?
AN: Written for neverendingimaginationfor GateWorld's Sam Carter / Jack O'Neill Ship Appreciation Thread Secret Santa 2013.

To neverendingimagination,
may you have a wonderful Shipmas!

Jack followed the shapely behind of Carter who was following the young native named Hemaka who had been assigned as their guide through the narrow canyon on P3R-247. Overhead in the cloudless blue sky the hot sun only promised to make the day hotter.

Contact had been made with this planet about six months ago by SG-5 and the discovery of a significant trinium deposit had led to a treaty with the native Untuit and the establishment of an SGC mining outpost. As the relationship had gotten more comfortable, the natives became more talkative and not long ago they'd told SGC about some ruins on their planet that were built by the gods.

News of that had fired up Daniel and all his rock people and they'd started pestering to go investigate said ruins. A convincing enough argument had been put forward to General Hammond so he'd put it on the mission roster and SG-1's had gotten assigned to it.

So here they were, trekking through the sparse trees and bush and heat to go look at some ruins. Really, the heat was the only thing worth complaining about. The terrain wasn't much different from back home in the Springs and the Untuit in their hundreds of years living here hadn't encountered anything bigger than their sheep—and the only predator was a solitary canine about the size of a terrier.

Plus the heat could have an upside of getting them to strip down to their undershirts if it got much worse. Behind the protective shield of his sunglasses, Jack's eyes lingered for a moment on Carter and how each step moulded shapeless fabric to feminine curves.

They rounded a bend in the narrow canyon and it opened up into a large valley with steep cliff walls. On their left, deep in the shadow cast by the cliff that overhung it was a roofless city of ruins with curved walls and cylinder towers.

"Behold," Hemaka swept his arms out to indicate the ruins, "the City of the Gods."

Jack had to admit it was an impressive set of ruins, unlike anything he'd seen offworld. Nothing like he'd seen in a National Geographic either. He could also see that as the natives lived in one-story mud huts why they would think that multi-storied buildings carved from stone were built by 'the gods.'

"Daniel?" He nudged the shoulder of the man who stood beside him as the team gazed upon the ruins.

Daniel didn't even take his eyes off the view of the ruins at the jostling. "Yes?"

"Got anything to say about these ruins? Usually your mouth is running a mile a minute by now."

He made a face but still didn't look away from the ruins. "I can't really say. I haven't seen anything like them anywhere. Some ancient cultures did build cliff dwellings which are usually constructed of blocks and mortar but this looks to be more like rock-cut architecture, cut from the cliff face. And I know of no culture that built or well, in this case, carved structures with curving walls and no right-angle wall joints. When we get closer—"

"Closer?" Hemaka squeaked.

Jack looked sharply at the young man to see the native looked very alarmed as he clutched at one of the many amulets that hung around his neck. That… was generally not a good sign. It could be plain old superstition that had Hemaka so nervous, but it could be grounded in something very real and very sensible. It was a city under a cliff. Maybe seismic activity had flattened a few cities of the gods already?

"Hemaka," Daniel began carefully, "when we spoke with the Elders they granted permission to see the ruins."

Hemaka nodded vigorously. "Yes, see. We see nice from here."

"Ah," Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose just beneath his glasses. "I get it, 'see'. They thought we wanted to look at the ruins, not explore them."

"So we came all this way for a nice view?" Jack sharply asked. Okay, maybe he would have something to complain about besides the heat. Translation… issues ranked way, way above heat on his scale of things to complain about.

"Just, give me a minute Jack." Daniel shot him an annoyed look. "Hemaka, can you tell me why we cannot explore the ruins?"

Hemaka clenched his amulet hard and looked torn. "It is not forbidden… but it is not safe! The City of the Gods is haunted by nehhem'nef."

"Nehhem'nef, it ah, means 'stealers of the breath,'" Daniel translated quietly. "Ghosts maybe, or just evil spirits of some sort."

"So what do these breath stealers do, exactly?" Jack asked.

"Nehhem'nef trap you within a room and then they take all the breath from you to kill you. And you never know which room is home to nehhem'nef so you never know who will die!"

Jack looked at his teammates in turn.

"I have not heard of these evil spirits before O'Neill," Teal'c contributed.

"It's not a term I'm familiar with either in the context of spiritual beings," Daniel furrowed his brow, "so I think this is mythology specific to the Untuit. Ruins can be dangerous places, as buildings can collapse, so maybe the tradition was established to discourage exploration?"

"Daniel's theory has merit Sir." Carter tapped the screen of the UTD she was holding with one finger. "My sensors aren't picking up anything unusual so I don't think the people who built the ruins were technologically advanced."

He nodded and gave Daniel a pointed look in regards to Hemaka. Daniel got the message and spent the next few minutes convincing their guide that it would be okay to get closer to the ruins. Jack figured in the end it was Carter and her 'magical device' that would warn of the evil spirits that convinced the nervous native to come with them.

"Magical device?" he fell in step beside her to murmur as they started across the valley floor to the cliff. "Tsk Carter, hoodwinking the natives."

She gave him a look like only she could. "You wanted to spend the next hour or more waiting for Daniel to convince Hemaka it was okay to explore the ruins?"

"No, no," he hastily reassured. "That's… okay, I mean, I'm glad you could convince Hamlet that everything is okay."

"Hamlet Sir?" she asked dryly.

"Yeah, Hamlet, whining about ghosts all the time."

Carter rolled her blue eyes at him but one corner of her lush mouth did twitch up a fraction.

Jack grinned in response, pleased to know he'd amused her even if it was only a little bit.

They finished crossing the valley in companionable silence and reached the base of the cliff face. Before them leading up to the ruins were steps carved into the stone that were wide enough for four people to walk side-by-side at the same time.

It was no surprise that Daniel was the first one to take the first step and start climbing. Teal'c dutifully followed and Hemaka was giving Carter an entreating look, so Jack waved her forward to keep the native company with a cheeky, "Go ahead, oh Magician. Keep Hamlet safe from the ghosts."

Jack brought up the rear and as he climbed he noted that the depth of the treads were a little awkward, being shorter than three comfortable strides but longer than two strides. A few steps later he shivered as he stepped into the shadow cast by the overhanging cliff and had to remove his sunglasses. It was quite a few degrees cooler here than in the heat of the valley floor.

After climbing up a dozen yards they reached the foot of the ruins. Before them the step pathway sprawled out into many winding walking paths through the rounded buildings with more of the same type of steps that had led them here, leading up to different levels of 'streets'.

Up close now Jack could see that the walls here, at the cliff entrance were made of stone blocks fitted together so tightly that you couldn't wedge a piece of paper between them. Further back, against the cliff rock, the buildings all looked to be carved right out of the cliff and probably had been.

"Hey, hold up Daniel!" he called out just as the man started to step into a building. "Carter, check it out would ya? Don't wanna run into any breath stealers do we now." He gave a pointed look to Hemaka.

"Ah, right." Daniel nodded vigorously. "Sorry Sam, I got a little carried away."

"Like that's a surprise," Jack muttered to himself.

"It's just, the masonry, the architecture… this place is unlike anything we have come across before!"

Carter smiled her understanding and then stepped through the oval shaped door into the building Daniel had just been about to enter with the UTD held in front of her. After a few moments she reappeared and stepped back onto the street. "All clear."

Daniel exclaimed his thanks and disappeared inside.

Jack looked to Teal'c. "Stick with him, will ya?"

Teal'c solemnly inclined his head and followed Daniel into the building.

"C'mon Carter, let's go clear the way." Jack moved up the street to the next oval doorway set in the block wall and from the side, cautiously peered inside the two story building. Inside the walls were as smoothly dressed as the outside and the single circular room was empty—well, empty of anything except a thick layer of dust on the floor. Looking up to where the second floor would be if it still existed, he saw the holes in the stone that had been for the second floor beams.

He gestured Carter forward with his hand and she stepped into the room. Her boots left crisp tracks on the floor while she scouted the room with the UTD and he figured that meant that there was only dirt on the floor. No potshards or anything so either the builders had cleaned out when they'd abandoned the place or else it had been picked clean by later visitors.

In minutes she was done and back out on the street and shaking her head. "Nothing again Sir."

He shrugged and they moved up the street, him doing a visual check on the interior before letting her in to scout with her doohickey.

Hemaka, after dithering over whether to stick with him and Carter or join Daniel and Teal'c, chose to trail behind them and after they'd reconnoitred a dozen buildings he even got brave enough to step up to the doorways and start peering inside while Carter scouted.

Jack looked over the next building they were approaching, a long one with a cylinder tower rising up from one end. Peering inside he saw that unlike the others they'd checked so far, this one had walls inside that divided the interior into rooms.

"Community building maybe?" Carter suggested as they looked inside. "And the others were personal homes?"

"Could be," he agreed. He gestured Carter inside and this time, he followed half step behind her into the roofless space. That apparently gave further courage to Hemaka who actually stepped into the room behind them. Considering what a nervous Nellie the guy was, Jack hadn't thought he'd ever get the guts to do that.

He and Carter covered the first room together and then approached the second. They progressed through the second room to the doorway of the third room, which was the base of the cylinder tower, and seeing it was clear inside he gestured her forward.

She stepped through the oval doorway and with a whumpf! the world exploded into a whirlwind of dust and screaming. A blast wave kicked him in the chest and he staggered backwards. He gasped for breath and inhaled dust and coughed and choked on the dirt that was blinding him, making him also rub and blink his profusely watering eyes to clear his vision.

The screaming was from behind him—and how the hell could Hemaka yell in this without choking?—and finally he was able to catch enough breath to breathe now. To breathe and to answer the guys' frantic hails on his radio. "Yeah, I'm here. Give me a sec! I got a face full of dust."

He let go of his radio to unclip his canteen and splash water into his eyes to clear them. The eyewash worked and he could see again. A quick check on Hemaka revealed the young man was coated in dust and balled up against the wall, his eyes tightly shut with his screaming mouth wide open as he held up his amulets in a warding gesture.

Jack's throat tight from more than just dust he looked forward, to the tower room, and had to blink some more just to make sure his vision actually was clear. Carter was standing just inside the doorway, clean as a whistle and not a hair out of place, looking very worriedly at him.

What the heck? he thought as their eyes meet.

Then as he watched, she gestured to the doorway and her mouth opened and closed like she was speaking but he couldn't hear a word—and it wasn't because of Hemaka's screaming.

"Carter, can you hear me?" he asked as he pointed to her and then himself.

She put her hand to her ear in the 'listen' hand gesture and shook her head.

His hand flew to his radio and he toggled the button, "Carter, do you copy?"

She looked at his hand on his radio and with a grimace, touched her own radio and shook her head again.

Crap. They were what, a few feet apart and not only could they not hear each other speak but their radios didn't work?

"Jack, what about Sam?" Daniel's worried voice came over the radio. "Where is she?"

"She's standing in front of me." Jack answered and then he stretched out his hand and grimly stepped forward. When his hand was precisely in the middle of the doorway he touched the invisible barrier that kept them from hearing each other. There were no fluctuations, or anything like there would have been with a goa'uld force field, there was just the feel of something smooth and solid and cool against his hand.

"What? If she's standing in front of you, why are you radioing her?" Daniel sounded confused.

"Because there's a frickin' force field between us! Get your asses here now!"

"We will be there immediately O'Neill," Teal'c assured.

"Good," he said shortly and started reconnoitering just as Carter was doing in her room. The dirt on the floor of this room had been blasted back from the doorway to reveal smooth stone but the floor in the tower room still had its layer of dust. If only there was writing or something on the walls—on any of the walls.

Teal'c was true to his word and within moments the two men were bustling into the room and Daniel's eyes were darting between the still screaming Hemaka and Carter standing in the tower room.

"Deal with him," Jack jerked his thumb at the native. "Or at least, get him to shut up so we can hear ourselves think!"

A few teeth grinding minutes later Daniel was finally able to get through to Hemaka and the ear-piercing screaming stopped although the hysterically babbling grated on Jack's nerves just as much. Thankfully before he was in danger of cracking a tooth Daniel got Hemaka out of the room.

"Suggestions Teal'c?" he asked of the man who was doing his own examination of the barrier. "I haven't seen anything in this room that could be a part of this—it's in the walls or in the tower room where Carter is." His gaze flicked to Carter was standing before the doorway again. "Doesn't look like Carter's got any leads on her end either."

"I have none O'Neill," Teal'c reported with regret clear in his voice as he ended his inspection. "I have not encountered a force field like this before."

"Teal'c, take a shot at it with your staff weapon." He signaled Carter to clear the doorway.

She gave him a quizzical look but when she saw Teal'c take aim she shrugged and stepped aside. The shrug said she knew it wasn't going to work but she obviously knew there was nothing that was going to stop them from trying.

Teal'c fired and the plasma bolt struck the barrier without a sound but lots of smoke and nothing happened. The invisible barrier didn't fluctuate like a goa'uld shield would when hit by something, especially by the beam of an energy weapon, and there was no scorch mark or any sign that the force field had been hit. And the fact that it was absorbing sound of things that hit it was new too.

Jack leveled his P90 at the barrier and fired off a few rounds. The bullets impacted without a sound, flattened, and then rained down the invisible surface to clatter on the stone floor.

"What are you doing?" Daniel demanded as he popped into the room. "You scared Hemaka into running off!"

Jack ground his teeth again. Damn. Just what he needed, a hysterical native getting more natives all hysterical. "Go after him. Talk some sense into him. Or at least, get there to reason with the Unthuties."

"Untuit," Daniel corrected automatically.

"Whatever. Teal'c you go with him too, get together a team from the mines and lead them back here."

"Why both of us? Can't we just radio for a team to help?" Daniel asked.

"We're underneath a cliff. A cliff that is in a canyon. We can't radio for help—the signal won't get through. Both of you are going because you, Daniel, have to smooth things over with the natives considering we apparently weren't supposed to explore this damn place and Teal'c is the best one to get to the mine base, and back here, ASAP."

"I understand." Teal'c turned to Daniel. "Come DanielJackson, we must catch up with Hemaka to ensure that no harm comes to him due to his fright. O'Neill will be sufficient company for MajorCarter as they await our return."

"Okay, all right," Daniel reluctantly agreed and with one last look at their trapped teammate, headed out.

"Hey Teal'c," Jack called out as casually as he could as he tapped the face of his watch, "be quick will ya? You know it's bad to keep a woman waiting."

Teal'c's looked over his shoulder to him, to Carter, and back to him again and his expression said he understood all too well the message that had just been delivered. Be quick—because they didn't know how much time she had. He bowed his head. "Indeed, I have been told this."

Jack waved them away and the relief he felt that Teal'c understood was fleeting, drowned out by the tension racking him tight.

Carter was trapped by a force field that didn't let sound travel through it, or radio signals, and therefore probably didn't let air through either. They really didn't know how much time she had.

How much air she had.

He turned back to Carter and their eyes met. The message in her eyes was a kick in the gut. She knew. She knew. Damn the woman and her too smart brain! He snorted to himself. Heck, while he'd been figuring out that there was a barrier she probably already knew about it and had been calculating the volume of air trapped with her.

She tapped the face of her watch and held up two fingers of her left hand and four fingers of her right hand.


Then she closed her hands and opened them again to hold up the same number count.

Twenty-four again?

She closed both hands again and this time held up a one finger on her left hand and four fingers again on her right hand.


Wait, first the watch and twenty-four plus twenty-four plus fourteen was sixty-two hours? Two days at least? He held up two fingers himself and said, "Days?"

She nodded and mouthed back—well, spoke back but he couldn't hear it—the word 'Days'.

His gut unknotted and he suddenly found it much easier to breathe. Two days. Not one minute and fifty-six seconds as a timer on a block of C4 set on a spaceship cooling system relentlessly counted down to the moment of detonation.

Suddenly there was fizzle sound, like baking soda dissolving in vinegar, and he was immediately on his guard with his weapon up. He saw Carter was in the exact same stance—but had she reacted to him or had she also heard the sound? And if she heard the sound, what did that mean?

More fizzling and Carter's eyes swept upwards. His gaze followed hers and the tension in his gut came back with a sick vengeance.

In the open space over Carter's head something that looked like the frost condensing on a window was creeping across what could only be the force field's invisible ceiling.

He looked to Carter just as she looked up from the screen of her doohickey and her expression said nothing good. Nothing good at all.

She lowered the device and her weapon and used her hands to signal again. She cupped her hand over her mouth and nose and swung her arm down into the 'move' motion.

The first one wasn't an actual sign but he figured it meant air. It was similar enough to the signal for gas and what most people would pantomime for air anyway. Air moving.

His eyes went wide as Hemaka's words came back to haunt him.

Nehhem'nef trap you within a room and then they take all the breath from you to kill you.

Not air moving, but air leaving.

The fizzing noise grew. He looked down to see the frost-like effect had started in the middle of the doorway barrier and it was spreading outwards, fast. Much faster than the ceiling frost. In minutes, he wouldn't be able to see Carter anymore.

Wouldn't be able to see her blue eyes and wouldn't be able to see the desperate message they conveyed.

She was out of time.

They were out of time. The faint sliver of hope that they clung to in the darkest of times, the faint hope of what might come when this war was over… was lost.

Their eyes locked and tried desperately to say all that they could. To say all that they hadn't let themselves say aloud before. To say what they couldn't say to each other now even if they wanted to because they weren't able to hear each other.

Her eyes gave him her last message. Then she snapped to attention, saluted, and the frost consumed the doorway.

No, no, damnit no!

Jack surged forward and pounded his fist on the frosted barrier that absorbed the sound of his enraged frustration.

No damnit.

He pounded and pounded and then the futility of it sunk in. His forehead dropped forward to rest against the barrier and he stood there, breathing harshly and shaking. His shaking got so bad that his knees gave and he dropped to his knees before the barrier. There he stayed and did his best to ignore the continuous fizzling sound.

And tried not to think.

Tried not to feel.

"Damnit Carter," he whispered and then lifted his head. He stared. Where his loosely clenched fist rested on the barrier was the image of a fanned out hand pressed into the frost just like a child would press their hand into a frosted window to melt the ice.

Carter's hand.

He could see her too, well notsee her but he could see the shape of her like a shadow through the barrier. He flattened his fist out, to match her gracile handprint with his own larger one and swore he could feel the heat of her touch through the cool barrier.

In that timeless moment they connected beyond anything that could stand between them.

Suddenly the shape of her outline vanished and he swore cold bit into his palm. Like she'd fallen away. Because she couldn't breathe enough anymore to hold her hand up.

"No!" he roared and a vise clamped down on his heart and his chest and it felt like he couldn't breathe anymore either. But that was okay, because why should he be able to breathe when she never would again?

There was a muffled pop sound and the fizzle hum began to quiet. In two minutes the only sound was his harsh breathing and the wind through the ruins.

A sharp crack!, like ice splintering on the cabin pond, cut through the air and Jack jolted. The frosted barrier vanished as if it had never existed and sprawled on the floor with closed eyes, still chest, and pale skin just inches from him, was Carter's body.

Praying hard he reached forward and almost let out a sob when his fingers passed through the doorway into the tower room. Not wasting a second he pulled her into his arms and staggered to his feet. Cradling her against his chest he took outside, onto the street and away from the room that had killed her.

In the street he dropped to his knees, ignoring the pain that shot up his knee at the blunt impact, and he carefully laid her down on the stone pathway.

He set aside their P90s and with gentle fingers he felt her throat for a pulse but didn't find one. His fingers were much rougher when they touched her vest. He jerked down the zipper, shoved the sides apart, and buttons popped off when he yanked open the jacket beneath.

Clothes and gear out of the way, he positioned her head and tilted her chin up, to clear her airway and pinched off her nose.

Bending down he sealed his mouth to hers and gave her his breath. He saw her chest rise in reaction as he gave her air and then he lifted his mouth to let her body breathe out. He gave her one more breath and after her lungs had relaxed, he felt for the bottom of her sternum and moved his hand up two finger widths to the proper position for chest compressions.

Stacking his hands together, Jack locked his elbows and used his weight to shove down. He adjusted his force when he heard a cracking sound, the sign he had pressed too hard, but didn't hesitate when he shoved down a second time. Damaged cartilage or cracked ribs were small prices to pay for one's life.

He counted off the compressions, three for every two seconds for a total of fifteen times, and then he breathed two breaths for her again.

He repeated the cycle of breathing and compressing four more times before he did his second pulse check. There was still none and he didn't dare think about how many minutes it had been since she'd been suffocated.

Breathe. Let her body exhale. Breathe—and breath was taken from him! He broke the mouth seal as his hand stroked her face and he urged, "C'mon Carter, c'mon! Breathe!"

Carter took a shallow breath and then a deeper one and then she choked and breathed again.

It was an effort to keep his hand from shaking as he touched his fingers to her pulse and felt the glorious rhythm of her beating heart beneath her skin. "God damnit Carter. You did it. Oh God. Keep breathing, come on Carter. You're doing great. Just keep breathing."

Her eyes opened and even though her blue gaze was unfocused, obviously dazed, they were the most beautiful sight in the world. For she was alive. She was alive and she would heal with each breath she was able to take.

Oh, it would take time. She'd be carried from the ruins back through the 'gate to the Doc and tests would be run and she'd be off duty for a bit—or a long bit if he'd cracked a rib or something—but the team would be off the mission router too as they waited for her to return to them.

Her mouth moved as if she was going to speak and he quickly laid his fingers against her lips.

"Shh, no talking." He said softly. "I know, no talking. Rest. Breathe. That's all you have to focus on right now." His fingertips caressed her lower lip, "I know Sam, I know."

Beneath his fingers her lips curved into a gorgeous smile and she breathed a deliberate puff of air against his skin. A kiss of breath.

She understood. He had gotten her message when they'd only been able to speak with their eyes and hear with their hearts.

As he sat beside her in the ruins of the abandoned alien city with his hand stroking over her head, the touch a pleasurable reassurance for both of them, he couldn't help but return her smile.

For now there was reason to smile.

Reason to breathe.


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