By Rebecca Ratliff
DATE: December 2002
ARCHIVE: If I haven't submitted to your archive, please ask. (I'll say yes, I just like to know where it is.)
CATEGORY: Action/adventure, angst, romance (J/S) UST, (Jonas/other).
SPOILERS: Season 6, specifically the Tok'ra story arc episodes Allegiance & previous. Very brief mention of "Cure."
SEASON/SEQUEL INFO: Season 6, before episode 610 Cure. Series sequence: Abyss Novelization, Sirikat, Fields of Gold, A Nice Quiet Week in the Country.
SUMMARY: SG-1 spends a week's leave at the Alpha Site.
"Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Showtime/ Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. I have written this story for entertainment purposes only and no money whatsoever has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the authors. Not to be archived without permission of the authors."
Jonas Quinn looked around the alpha site, wondering exactly what he was supposed to do on leave here. Teal'c was planning to spend time with his son, and Carter, with her father. O'Neill had mentioned only some vague plans about catching up with old friends and maybe getting in some fishing. Quinn figured that mostly involved sitting around trading the kind of so-called gossip with Bra'tac and Jacob Carter that was really back room diplomacy on a galactic scale. That left him on his own to rest his shoulder, drink too much beer, and meet girls in a place where being an alien didn't matter because everyone was an alien. They all scattered in different directions.
O'Neill and Quinn shared a tent, which neither of them minded because they didn't mean to spend too much time there. It was just a good place to stow their rucksacks.
It was midmorning local time. Quinn decided to take a walk and check out the cabins that were springing up at the lower end of town. It turned out to be a fledgling Main Street. Most of the buildings belonged to crafters who bartered their goods and services. Most of the shopkeepers were Jaffa women, which made sense because the wives and mothers and sisters of the warriors here were the most numerous civilians. The Tok'ra were insular, forming relationships within their own circles and rarely bringing in outsiders. The Tau'ri were mostly young and unmarried, and the families they did have were generally back on earth. There were two Tau'ri businesses, though, a general store and a brewery pub, run by a couple of guys who had retired and decided to remain rather than go back to Earth.
In a dusty back corner of the general store, Jonas found a treasure trove of old books and scrolls. Most of the languages he had never seen before, but a couple looked similar to writing he had encountered previously. He found that American money was perfectly good here, as the man who ran the shop could spend it at the pub or on his infrequent trips home.
When he stepped back out onto the wooden sidewalk, it was still too early for the pub to open. A little way past the end of the sidewalk was a nice shade tree.
Jonas settled carefully against the tree trunk and opened one of the books. It was almost certainly derived from ancient Sanskrit. He hadn't had time to memorize too much material on that, but he was fairly sure he had all the references he needed. He had inherited most of his reference works from Daniel Jackson, so he had almost nothing on ancient Egyptian or the other languages that Daniel had spoken fluently, except what he had collected on his own. Unfortunately that included ancient Mayan, and the pictograms in the second book sure looked Mayan.
Jonas heard a splash and got up. His shoulder pulled and he wondered if he had really needed all those stitches. Still, a projectile wound that hadn't gotten infected.... Back home, an injury like this was often fatal for lack of a way to prevent or treat infection.
A steep riverbank led down to a sand bar. A Jaffa woman's robe lay on the sand. Its owner was out in the channel swimming against the strong current. He wondered if she was skinny dipping. Might be worth climbing down there to find out.
"Who are you and why are you spying on my sister?"
Or maybe not....He turned around to face a Jaffa girl who looked about sixteen.
"Jonas Quinn. I heard a splash and I thought someone fell in. I didn't know this was the old swimming hole. And I'm not spying. I'm right out in plain sight. So is your sister. I didn't know there were female Jaffa warriors." He indicated her staff weapon.
"There were few until we came here. Female system lords have always had a few, but they are individually trained assassins and bodyguards. When we came here, Master Bra'tac said that any woman willing to risk her life by being here should have the right to fight for her freedom if she wants. My sister was the first."
"My father told her that she could train if she could knock him down. She told him that she didn't need his permission, but that if he wanted her to knock him down, she would oblige. And she did. What he did not know at the time was that she had been watching the boys train and practicing in secret. She is very good. I am proud to follow her, but I doubt that I shall ever equal her."
Quinn sat back down, his shoulder was starting to bother him. "It isn't easy to follow in someone else's footsteps," he agreed. "It sounds like your sister is really dedicated. Like this is all she's wanted for many years."
"What's your name?" He asked.
"I am An'ac. My sister is Ren'auc. Were you wounded in battle?" She nodded towards his shoulder.
"Yes, as a matter of fact I was, but I'm not allowed to talk about it."
"I see. That is a shame, because I will wager it would make a good tale."
He grinned. "Well, that's one interpretation. My team leader says it's a damn good reminder to stay where the bullets aren't. Of course, he took one in the leg, so I'm not that awfully embarrassed."
A light bulb came on over her head. "Oh! You must mean O'Neill! You must be SG-1! I apologize that I did not recognize you."
"None needed. I've only been on the team for a few months."
An'ac sat on her heels. He couldn't see how she could be comfortable like that, but he could only envy her balance and grace. He could throw a punch, and take one for that matter, but even if he didn't have a hole in his shoulder, this kid could probably hand him his ass in a straight-up fight.
Presently he heard Ren'auc climbing the riverbank. She had been wearing something under her robe, a sleeveless minidress thing that was still wet enough to cling. What was more, she was giving him the same frank, appraising stare. He grinned when their eyes met.
"An'ac, are you going to introduce me to your friend?"
"This is Jonas Quinn."
"SG-1? I have heard Master Bra'tac speak of you. I hope my sister has not interrupted your studies."
"Not at all. I was just about to look for some lunch. Would you care to join me?"
Ren'auc inclined her head. "I, too. An'ac, do you not have studies of your own?"
Little sister wasn't happy about that, but she didn't dare be late to Master Bra'tac. She took off for the practice field. Ren'auc rubbed her short hair dry on her robe. "Do you mind if we wait for my shift to dry? I would rather not wear it wet under my robe all day."
"Not at all. Your sister was telling me that you were Master Bra'tac's first female student."
"The first to study with a male cadre, yes," she said.
Jonas shifted his weight to get his shoulder more comfortable. "I don't mean to ask a lot of dumb questions, it's just that I'm interested in your culture and how it's changing since you've come here."
"Everything has changed. We no longer throw our lives away in the service of false gods. Now we discover who we are, as warriors and as a people."
"How has that affected the lives of Jaffa women?"
"The course of our lives is no longer set by the needs of false gods. Beyond that, I can speak only for this Jaffa woman, JonasQuinn. I shall not be married off to spend my life bearing sons who will die for no good cause. If I marry, my husband will be a man that I love and respect. I will make my own name in battle. That is one thing that has greatly changed. I have choices now. Another is, that my next prim'ta will be of the Lady Sirikat's people. I will never need to foster another monster like the one within me now."
Jonas nodded. "I know from Teal'c what that means to you," he said seriously.
Ren'auc asked, "Do I remember correctly that you are not Tau'ri?"
"That's right. I'm from a place called Kelowna. It's technologically about sixty or seventy years behind Earth. There are a few minor genetic differences, enough that it's likely my ancestors were taken from Earth quite a while ago," Quinn explained, idly trying to adjust his sling as he spoke.
Ren'auc observed, "Your wound troubles you."
"Not too much, it's just the stitches pulling. I got off pretty lucky, all told."
"Yes, that could easily have cut an artery, or done a great deal of damage to your shoulder joint."
"So the doctor told me," Jonas replied.
"How do women on your world live?"
"There are three nations on my world. Women have had equality with men in Kelowna for about fifty years. In the other two countries, their status is pretty low. But then, those are dictatorships, and nobody has a very high status."
"And among the Tau'ri?"
"They're in the same situation as my world, except that they have a lot more countries so it's more complicated. There are still problems in the enlightened countries, and some bad situations in other places."
They became engrossed in conversation, and before they knew it, Ren'auc's shift had dried in the warm sun. She pulled her robe over her head and knotted her sash.
Jonas clenched his jaw when he moved, but got his feet under him and they walked the short distance back to camp.
"Do you like traditional Jaffa food?"
"What little of it I've had here, yes."
"Most of the Tau'ri here do not, unless we leave out the seasoning."
"I like Tau'ri chili," Jonas said.
"So do I, at that. Come with me. My mother always fixes enough for two families."
"Are you sure it won't be an imposition?"
"You would honor our tent."
He nodded thanks and followed her to her family's tent. An'ac wore a black eye and a cut on her cheekbone as a badge of honor, much to the envy of a gaggle of little brothers and sisters. Ren'auc introduced Jonas to her parents. An'ac told her sister excitedly, "Master Bra'tac picked me to spar with him today!"
"The seventh form and reverse?"
"How did you know?"
"I had that same black eye," Ren'auc explained. "He is fast with that reverse. Had it been a real battle rather than a sparring match, he would have followed through with a blast in the reverse rather than a jab. We would both have had our heads off. Think on that as you consider the best response to that particular attack, or any other sequence beginning with the seventh form, for that matter."
An'ac nodded thoughtfully.
Teal'c found Ry'ac drilling a class of six year olds in the first form. As he watched his son correct one child's hold on her practice staff, and patiently show another the proper step forward and strike at the dummy's midsection, Teal'c considered that in not too many years Ry'ac would be making a grandfather of him.
Bra'tac's class of older teens walked past on their way home to lunch. It was much different from Teal'c's youth, when they had to be prepared for the realities of life in the service of the Goa'uld. Advancement, often survival itself, depended on the betrayal of others. One was unwise to form close friendships under those circumstances. These young people grew up free of that.
Ry'ac released his class to run home to lunch and walked the hundred paces across the practice yard.
"You teach well, my son."
"I hope so. I trusted Master Bra'tac's judgment far above my own when he told me that I was ready."
"As usual, he was right," Teal'c said.
"It is good to see you. How long will you be able to stay?"
"We have a week's leave."
"Who was shot this time?"
"O'Neill and Quinn both. How did you know?"
"Because none of the SG teams ever get more than a twenty-four hour pass unless something has happened. For General Hammond to put SG-1 on stand-down for a week, I know that something is wrong."
"Indeed. I can tell you little. Let us just say that we kicked over a nest of sand-stingers and the General considered it best to let things settle with us well away from SGC headquarters."
"How badly are they injured?"
"But badly enough to avoid a swarm of angry sand-stingers?"
Ry'ac said, "I have patrol all afternoon this week, but there is someone here who will be pleased to see you."
"Who is it?"
Ry'ac grinned. "You'll see."
Teal'c was surprised to see the flaps of Ry'ac's tent tied back. He hadn't known that anyone else was living there. Ry'ac stepped inside. "Look what a surprise I've brought you."
Teal'c stepped into the dimly lit interior of the tent. A woman left off grinding grain and threw her arms around him with a shriek of joy. It was his sister Minal'c. He hadn't seen her in forty years, since she had married one of Lord Yu's Jaffa and left Chulak.
"Sister, how are you? And your family?"
"My husband and my son were killed in battle with that devil Ba'al's forces, may he and all of his house rot in Netu. Lord Yu gave my daughter-in-law and me leave to return to Chulak with my grandchildren. We met there with people who brought us here."
"I am sorry to hear of your loss."
Minal'c's eyes filled. "They died well, and in a cause worth dying for. The stories those who fought at their side brought back were terrible. Lord Yu leveled the place."
"You need tell me nothing of it. It was in part my doing that Lord Yu received the information about that place. One as dear to me as a brother escaped in the confusion of the battle."
"That is something, Teal'c. It is a comfort to know their deaths did some good that I could reach out and touch." She dabbed at her eyes. "It does these old eyes good to look upon you, brother. Now, sit and eat and tell me about these Tau'ri friends of yours."
Sam Carter went over to the Tok'ra side of camp. Someone had come by a set of tunneling crystals, and they were busy constructing a more permanent base here. Sam figured Selmac would be happy to have a real bed and a roof over their heads, even if her father was perfectly at home in a tent.
Carter saw Ti/Mira and Anise having trouble with a big crate that they were moving and gave them a hand getting it on a cart. "Is Dad around?"
Anise sniffed, "When has Selmac ever been around when there was work to be done?"
Mira laughed, "Oh, Anise, will you quit! Don't pay any attention to her, she's just in a snit because she has to move her own stuff like everyone else."
"My stuff is lab equipment, a lot of it, and it's heavy. Selmac is on a mission and won't be back until tomorrow."
"Oh, well, I'm here for a week."
"Good, you can help me move my stuff."
Carter swatted Anise with her boonie hat, but loaded a couple of smaller boxes atop the crate. Anise left Carter to unpack things while she and Ti/Mira went to get more boxes.
Carter hadn't asked about Selmac's mission, because she doubted that she had a need to know. She knew it had to be important. The Tok'ra were taking extreme care not to compromise the alpha site. They had run a few missions by way of Earth's gate to eliminate any chance that the coordinates to the alpha site might fall into the wrong hands. Both times, Tok'ra operatives and the people they had rescued had come running back through the gate with trouble on their heels.
Anise did have a lot of stuff to unpack. Carter wasn't sure exactly how the Tok'ra wanted to arrange her lab equipment, but she could identify nearly everything and there was a certain logic to placing things. All the reference manuals were in foreign languages, so she stacked them neatly for Anise to put them in order later.
After they got all the boxes moved in, they still had a lot of work unpacking everything, but time flew because they talked all the while they were working.
Anise was working on a naquada reactor similar to Carter's. Soon they were engrossed in a discussion that went over Ti/Mira's head. "I'm going out to the commons for dinner. If you miss out, it's your own fault."
O'Neill took a leisurely walk upstream of the camp, scouting out a likely fishing spot. On his way past the air strip, he noted that Jacob's cargo ship was gone.
A line of death gliders were new. As he walked by, a group of young Jaffa split into pairs and climbed into two of the craft. They spoke a different language but he had no trouble deciphering most of the hand signals that they exchanged with their ground crews.
After all these years, with a lifetime of choices that had led him in a radically different direction, he could never watch a jet roar off the tarmac without a double helping of jealousy. In perfect formation, they disappeared over the western horizon.
Sure enough, just past the air strip there was a wide gravel bar with a couple of feet of water over it. He didn't have to watch long before he saw a bright silver flash of sunlight reflected off shimmering scales. They would be biting in the early morning. For now, he was content to sit in the shade and watch the sun filter through the leaves.
O'Neill held onto the memory of sunlight filtering through the leaves and sparkling off the water rippling over the gravel bar. A cool breeze carried the scent of evergreens down the valley.
Fifty yards upstream, a herd of delicate, graceful creatures like small antelope came down to the gravel bar to drink.
A suspicious movement in the grass on the far side of the herd caught his attention. He sighted through his scope and picked out the tabby striped beige and brown fur of a cat. It was about the size of a bobcat. His hand was about to close over a stone when it occurred to him that the cat was probably a mother with a nest of hungry kittens somewhere. Mother Nature didn't need any help from the likes of him. That having been said, he wasn't a bit sorry when the herd's lookout spotted the cat and whistled a warning. The herd took off up the side of the hill, leaping from rock to rock as if it were flat ground. The cat squalled in frustration, but it wasn't long until the fish caught its attention. It crouched to crawl out along a fallen log, ears perked forward. With a sudden explosive movement the cat swiped its paw into the water and came up with a fat brown fish. Tail waving in victory, Kitty loped back upstream with dinner.
O'Neill found that he had been sitting there long enough for his wound to stiffen. He walked it off slowly, then headed back to camp. His rack was looking pretty good by the time he got there.
Jonas spent what turned out to be an enjoyable couple of hours at midday with Ren'auc, her parents and her noisy brothers and sisters. Military families were the same everywhere, he was beginning to see.
That afternoon, he got drafted or invited, he wasn't sure which, to join a mixed group of people their age on a patrol down to the test range and back. A hundred yards past the swimming hole, they got serious and cut out the horseplay. Jonas watched the easy-going but completely professional interaction between them. Ren'auc was clearly in command, and an SGC lab assistant named John Ray Parker was her 2iC. A young Tok'ra man named Zaren and his symbiote Bentac rounded off the team.
Jonas had never worked with anything but an elite squad before. These kids were good. They didn't make stupid mistakes. But they were green as gourds compared to SG-1. Jonas still thought of himself as the civilian, the new kid on the block, but he realized he was a seasoned veteran compared to these kids. Of them all, Ren'auc was the only one he expected not to freeze under fire.
If he was any indication, you didn't have to get into very many bad situations to cross a line between new recruit and warrior. Jonas hoped they never had to.
When they got back to camp, Ren'auc checked in with the Marine lieutenant who was officer of the watch and reported an uneventful patrol. After that it was back to overgrown kid mode and they headed for the pub.
The air turned cool fast when the sun went over the hill. "They allow weapons in the pub?"
John Ray replied, "Hell, no, you check it at the door."
"But they have a secure place to leave it? Because O'Neill's a holy terror on leaving a weapon lying around. Believe me, once was plenty for me to learn that the hard way. If they don't I'll have to sign them in with the Marines."
John Ray replied, "I hear you, that's cool. Rick locks everything up, and if you're drunk you won't get your weapons back until you show up sober. This place is okay."
Ren'auc said, "I have never felt out of place there because I do not drink alcohol."
The pub was crowded with twenty-somethings. An amateur DJ was playing loud music for a crowded dance floor. John Ray spotted his girlfriend and excused himself. Zaren asked a girl to dance. Ren'auc led the way to some quieter back tables, across the pub from the DJ's table.
"You handled yourself very well today."
"We must have been amusing to one who is a part of a true combat unit."
"No, I wouldn't say that. Ren'auc, you know what you're going to do with your life, and you're going to be damn good at it. You've been out there, haven't you? You know what it's like."
"There's a difference. A line you cross and you can't ever go back. I hope the guys never have to."
"As do I," Ren'auc said. "On my first trip through the Stargate, I came face to face with one of Osiris' Jaffa. He was my age, perhaps even a bit younger than I. He lost only a split second, perhaps because he was startled that I was a woman. Whatever the reason, only one of us could return to our family, and I was the one who did."
Jonas signaled for a beer. "We were down this corridor in some Goa'uld hole in the ground. This guy goes to clear a corner the same time I do, and I don't even remember firing. He just went down, blood all over hell. It wasn't the first time I ever fired my rifle, but it was the first time I was sure I fired the shot that took somebody out."
Ren'auc said, "There is no weakness in having regrets for the taking of an honorable enemy's life."
Jonas nodded. "Something seriously wrong with us if there was," he said.
"Was I wrong to drag you along with us? I only wished to spend more time with you, and I knew it was highly unlikely that your injury would endanger you or the rest of my team."
"I wanted to spend time with you, too," Jonas grinned. "I knew it was a milk run. I wouldn't have gone along, though, if I hadn't believed I could handle myself if it turned out not to be a milk run."
Sam came in and said hello, then sat at the bar to order a beer.
Ren'auc leaned over to whisper to Jonas, "Would it embarrass her to death if I were to tell her that my sister worships her?"
Jonas laughed. "Probably. I know it would embarrass An'ac, and since An'ac could probably kick my ass, I'm not going to tell her."
Ren'auc laughed too. They found themselves laughing a lot at the stories they told over a double basket of fish and chips.
Jonas was in no hurry to walk her home. "Will I see you again tomorrow?"
"If you want. I promised to pick berries for my mother. Meet me by the same big tree, we can go after I have my swim. I suppose you are not allowed in the water?"
"No swimming this trip," he confirmed. They had reached her family's tent by then. "Good night, Ren'auc."
"Good night, JonasQuinn."
Neither of them was forward enough to kiss on the first date. Especially with two little brothers spying through a peep hole in the tent.
Jonas walked back through the sleepy camp. He heard the stargate open and went over that way, just to be sure. About twenty or thirty other people did the same thing. It was a Tok'ra group returning on schedule. He went on back to his tent.
Jonas was a little surprised that Jack wasn't there, but that was really none of his business. He took a couple of pain pills and fell asleep dreaming about Ren'auc with her wet shift clinging to her body.
O'Neill woke up about 2100. It was dark, but there was still a lot of activity in the camp. He was hungry, and he realized that he had skipped lunch. He was also supposed to go by the infirmary and get his leg checked. He got up and dressed as fast as he could get his sore leg in his pants. The air had turned cold.
There was a nurse on duty in the infirmary. As she had no patients at the moment, she was sitting outside having a cup of coffee. "Good evening, Colonel."
"Ann Myers. May I help you, sir?"
"I need a dressing changed."
She set her coffee cup on her desk and switched on the light over an exam bed. He rolled up his pants leg and took his boot off. Myers snipped off the old dressing and commented, "Clean for a gunshot wound...no sign of infection." The new dressing was smaller. "I'll check it again tomorrow night."
"Can I tape plastic over it and take a shower?"
Good, no more catbaths. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, sir."
Next order of business was food. There was a large open area in the center of camp near the stargate that everyone called the commons. There was generally always someone there with a cooking fire, and if you had, you shared. There were some off-duty marines sitting around roasting hot dogs and drinking beer. They invited him to join them and he listened to some good natured complaints about how boring it was here. He asked about the fishing, and found out the general store sold bait and opened at 0500.
As he was heading back to his tent, he saw Carter and waited for her to catch up. "Is your dad away? I noticed his ship was gone."
"He's due back tomorrow," she said. For all that she tried to hide it, there was worry in her eyes.
"Want to go fishing with me tomorrow morning? I swear, there are fish there, I saw 'em myself."
Carter laughed. "I guess..."
"OK, meet me at the commons at 0500...."
"0500??!! Sir, you've got to be kidding. I am on leave, I'm not getting up at some godawful hour of the morning unless my rack is on fire."
"Well, then, just come up. There's a gravel bar upstream of the air strip. Bring your rifle, there are supposed to be some large predators. I haven't seen anything bigger than a bobcat, but I'm sure they're out there."
"OK, I'll see you in the morning then."
This was so not a good idea. If he hadn't just had three beers, he wouldn't have invited Carter out into the boonies, just the two of them. And if she hadn't just come from the pub, she wouldn't have agreed to it....Well, the hell with it, they'd both be sober as a couple of judges in the morning.
Teal'c was shaken from kel-no-reem sometime in the early morning by the ringing of a cell phone. A cell phone? Here? He looked up to see Ry'ac getting a phone from his pants. His son spoke into the device in a low voice. "Ry'ac....what kind of a....on my way." He flipped it closed and started gearing up.
"What is it?"
"A defense sat picked up something headed towards us. My unit has been ordered up to recon," his son answered in the mix of Goa'uld and English that the pilots used.
With an answering nod, Teal'c reached for his own gear.
Ryac's smile said that he was glad to have him along. "It probably is nothing but a small asteroid that matched the general threat profile. We have those at least once a week. Still we must investigate."
"Should I tell O'Neill?"
"Not until there is something to tell him, I would think. It is enough that I awakened you. I hardly want all of SG-1 angry at me due to a false alarm at 0200."
Teal'c nodded. Just as they left the tent, a humvee pulled up and they climbed inside with several other people.
Twenty-one pilots assembled on the air strip. Phoenix leader was a man that Teal'c knew briefly from SGC HQ, an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel named Henry Brandon. His RIO and six others were Tau'ri, two others were Tok'ra, and the rest Jaffa. Ry'ac asked, "Colonel, is it all right if my father fills in for Tarin?"
"Teal'c. Good to have you. Do you want to fly or shoot?"
Teal'c glanced at Ry'ac. "I am unfamiliar with your squadron's tactics. It would be best if I fly as RIO."
"You got it. We're Phoenix Squadron, you're Phoenix 7. Wheels up, people."
They climbed into their glider and for a few minutes they were busy with the preflight. Then Ry'ac signalled his readiness with a salute to the squadron CO. On Brandon's order, the planes hovered and extended their wings. They took their place in the formation and accelerated to escape velocity. Teal'c kept his eyes on the instrument display. Ten minutes later, he spotted the bogie at the same time as Brandon called "Tally-ho."
As they had expected, it was just an asteroid. Brandon radioed, "Phoenix Nest, this is Phoenix Leader, we have your unidentified flying rock, please advise."
"Stand by, Phoenix Leader."
There was a brief delay while the people on the ground analyzed the data that the squadron sent back. "It's big enough to hit the ground too close to the nest. Bust it up."
"Roger that, Phoenix Nest." He backed the squadron off to a safe distance and put a naquada-enhanced warhead into a crater near the asteroid's center of mass. There was an impressive explosion and the asteroid was reduced to rubble small enough to burn up in the atmosphere. "Scratch one large rock, Phoenix Nest. Would you like us to pick up a gallon of milk on the way back?"
There was laughter in the control tower and in the cockpits of the fighters. "That won't be necessary, Phoenix Leader. Bring 'em home."
The gliders reversed course in formation and headed back to the air strip. They turned their planes over to the mechanics. There was the kind of banter and high fives that Teal'c expected from the Tau'ri. The young Jaffa were quieter, more subdued, but they laughed and joked around with the rest in their own way. As few as they were, and as much as there was left to do, in this place his people lived free. Teal'c put his hand on his son's shoulder for a moment as they headed for the locker room and then home.
Carter dragged out at 0600. Ti/Mira had let her into her father's quarters. She left a note on the table in case he got back before she did, and headed up to the river, leaving most of her gear except for her rifle securely locked in the apartment. It was just past dawn and most of the camp was only now waking.
Sam looked across the air strip to where her father's ship would have been, even though she knew he wasn't due back yet. She stood at the fence for a while, watching the mechanics working around the gliders, backlit by the morning sun.
Carter followed the river up to the gravel bank. She didn't want to scare the fish, but she didn't want to sneak up on O'Neill either. One experience with landing on her back with his arm across her throat had been plenty.
She found O'Neill sitting on a rock near the water. The sunlight caught the graceful arc of the wet line as he cast and set his silver hair alight. Maybe there was something to be said for this fishing thing after all. O'Neill could pretend to be two left feet and all thumbs, just like he could play dumb to get a laugh or to deflect a line of conversation that he didn't want to pursue. When he didn't realize anyone was watching, though, he moved with a balance and grace that took her breath away. Don't go there, Carter.
"Good morning, sir."
"Carter." O'Neill indicated another rod and reel. She wasn't an expert, but she knew how to bait a fish hook. She just wasn't sure why the local worms needed to have so damn many legs.
Carter saw a likely spot and cast into a shadowed spot downstream of a rock, letting the current naturally carry the bait downstream. "Are they biting?"
"Stealing the bait. I think they're wise to hooks."
"Want to try further upstream?"
"In a while, maybe." He didn't seem to be in any hurry to move. Carter sat down on a rock a few feet away.
She could tell he was looking at her. She really ought to say something, do something to steer things back between the lines. But if she didn't say anything, that would mean she hadn't noticed, and if she didn't notice she wouldn't have to say anything. Sometimes words were just completely unnecessary.
Silence was especially appropriate in this still, tranquil place. There was music in the flow of water over stones, in the wind through the leaves. There was a sense of connection here. Something very old was very near the surface, near enough to touch. That must be an echo of Jolinar, because Carter was usually a lot more prosaic than that. Or maybe she was feeling Jolinar's spirit as she knew she sometimes felt Daniel's.
Nothing could come of this flirtation that wasn't. They could look but never touch, dream but never act, love but never, ever let it show. They could stand in the fire and burn but never acknowledge the flame. It was so hard sometimes to count how much was missing from her life, and to know all the time that everything she needed was standing right beside her. Unbearable, yet she stayed like a moth in the flame because the burning was all she had, as close to paradise as she was allowed to come. The answer to "how long" was "for the duration." This war had already lasted thousands of years. There were no promises that it would end in their lifetime. She would spend all her days within arm's reach of her heart's desire, yet never reach out to touch, until finally they would share either a bed or a grave. In that acceptance was peace. Nobody ever got cold standing in flame.
"Have you seen Teal'c and Jonas?" O'Neill asked.
"Not Teal'c, but then I really didn't expect to. Jonas was at the pub last night--with a girl."
"Yeah? Who? Not that it's any of our business...."
"He introduced us. Her name's Ren'auc."
"I hope he doesn't break some kind of Jaffa taboo and end up married or something."
She laughed. "Doesn't something like that happen to everyone sooner or later?" O'Neill laughed, as much at the two of them as at Jonas.
Jonas waited under the tree for Ren'auc to finish her swim. She had brought him a spare berry basket. This time rather than wait for her shift to dry, she had changed clothes before climbing up the hill and stopped only to put her boots on when her feet dried.
"Where are we going?"
"This way. There is a berry patch just on the other side of the hill."
"I'm probably going to completely blow my credibility here, but will you please wait up?"
She let him set the pace. "There is no hurry," she smiled. "Your ways are still strange to me, it is true, but I do not think the less of you for it. I know enough of the Tau'ri to have learned that strength that differs is strength all the same."
"Not all your people agree with you, do they?" Jonas asked.
"The universe changes all around us. Those who refuse to change with it are going to be lost in it. There is a mighty wind singing Freedom in every dark place. I mean to ride the wind and see how far it takes me. There are those who think change comes too quickly, but fast or slow, it is what it is. An'ac will be the last of my family to go through the prim'ta ceremony. From now on only some dire medical need would cause anyone to do such a mad thing. In a generation we will all be as Tau'ri, or perhaps no small few of us Tok'ra hosts. We will need to learn Tau'ri strengths, whether we all like it or not."
"Do you think that wind will blow you to Earth?"
"I hope so. Do you think SGC will have room for more than one Jaffa?"
"Well, aliens in general--they made room for me," Jonas said.
"Then you should not be surprised to see me someday--" Abruptly she came to a halt, listening intently. Jonas readied his rifle, watching their back trail, but he saw nothing.
After a time, Ren'auc said, "It seemed someone was watching us."
"Could your kid brothers have followed us?"
"They know they are not allowed outside camp without an adult. Small boys do such things...."
"I don't see anything."
"Neither do I. It was probably nothing." Still, they scanned the high grass and brush at the edge of the forest for a little while before they continued on their way.
Carter asked, "About how many worms do you think we've fed to these fish?"
"A few too many." O'Neill stood, stretching his sore leg. "I think you had the right idea in the first place. Let's see what's further upstream."
They gathered their fishing tackle. A couple hundred meters upstream of the gravel bar, a smaller stream joined the river, flowing swiftly through a narrow valley lined with pine trees. It seemed like there were pine trees on every other planet that they visited.
O'Neill didn't mind the climb, but wading across the stream and getting his dressing wet was right out. Here and there the stream settled into a deep pool below a large boulder. If there were fish up here, that was where they would be found.
O'Neill looked for the source of the sound. "Carter?"
She looked up the valley. A narrow steep path followed the stream. "I don't know, sir, it sounded like it came from up there somewhere."
They left the fishing gear and started to climb.
CRA-A-ACK A three meter tall boulder split in two and swung open, revealing an opening into the side of the hill. They backed up, looking for cover. There was a rustling in the deep carpet of pine needles.
A long brown root flailed out, throwing Carter against a rock. She struck her head and fell. O'Neill reached for her, but the roots and vines lashed around his wrists and ankles.
He saw movement back in the cave. Several three-foot-tall humanoids came out of the cave. They were covered with shaggy brown fur that was matted with mud and twigs. O'Neill yelled as one of them pulled a small, sharp stone knife and slashed his arm with it. Panic strength let him break the vine holding his wrist and he knocked the alien sprawling. More of the creatures were dragging Carter into the hole in the ground. O'Neill pulled his knife and sawed at his bonds, but almost immediately his head started swimming and his vision started to gray out. There must have been poison on that stone knife. The aliens grabbed at him. He stabbed one of them and it collapsed into a pile of dirt and sticks. More took its place. One of them beat his arm with a branch until he dropped his combat knife. By then, he was too dizzy from the poison to do much more than flail wildly at them. The aliens hauled on the vine around his injured leg and dragged him into the cave. The last thing he saw before he passed out was the rock closing back over the mouth of the tunnel.
Jonas popped one of the sweet red berries in his mouth as he worked. Ren'auc worked steadily, but every now and then she looked up, eyes searching the berry thicket. The third time this happened, she said, "I have had enough of this nonsense. If something is there, I am going to teach it a lesson." She put her basket down.
Jonas had her back, even though he had seen and heard nothing. He knew that Jaffa had keener senses, it was possible Ren'auc had heard or seen something that he could not. They hunted through the tangle of vines for several minutes. Now thoroughly annoyed, Ren'auc called, "Show yourself!"
Something did move. Jonas spun around, catching a glimpse of a small brown face and two dull black eyes and a mouthful of sharp teeth. Vines shot out at them. Ren'auc's staff blasted twice, and Jonas fired on more of the little creatures. A heavy tentacle of vines slammed into his wounded shoulder, knocking him off balance. He brought up his rifle, but Ren'auc was right there and he wasn't even sure what he was supposed to be shooting at. Ren'auc swung the heavy butt of her staff at something knee-high, followed through and fired a blast at point blank range. She hit something, they weren't sure what but soil and leaves and sticks exploded all around them. The writhing vines fell still and their small attackers fled deeper into the briar patch. Ren'auc dared not turn her back. "Jonas!"
"I'm OK," he said, catching his breath. The pain in his shoulder made his eyes water. "Seventh form and reverse?"
"Its own defense. Go on the offensive...keep the...business end...pointed somewhere else," he observed.
"You are right," she said. "I hope it does not take my sister long to realize that for herself, or she will have a very sore head before the lesson sinks in." She poked cautiously among the briars. "Jonas, they went down a hole here!"
He joined her. "We should get help."
"And tell people what? That the brambles came to life and attacked us? Who would believe two fools who have been out in the sun too long?"
"Yeah, you're probably right. I know I put at least two bullets in one right over here, but it's gone now. There's just this pile of dirt and stuff." They were far enough from camp that he doubted anyone had heard the shooting. "We'll need proof, because those things could kill somebody if we can't get anyone back at camp to believe us."
"Any proof lies down there," she indicated the hole in the ground. "It looks like something of a drop, but we should be able to climb back up."
"And those things are down there."
"That is the idea. I will go first and help you down. Do not worsen your injury."
"Here, take my flashlight." She clipped it to her sash, dropped her staff down the hole and jumped down after it, catching it up again and looking around. There was no sign of the aliens that had been spying on them. "Jonas, there is a cave down here."
"Catch!" He dropped his rifle to her and let himself down as gracefully as he could with one arm in a sling. Ren'auc steadied him. He took back his weapon.
"Y'know, maybe we should get some back-up. I doubt my radio will work down here. Teal'c might not believe us about the little guys, but he'll humor me."
Ren'auc nodded, putting common sense before curiosity. But the choice was made for them, as the hole closed before their astonished eyes like a Tok'ra tunnel. They stood in an inky blackness broken only by the small flashlight. Jonas switched on the light on his P- 90. In its more powerful beam, they could see the tunnel went down into the bedrock. There was no sound besides their own breathing and the distant sound of water dripping.
Ren'auc asked, "Should we try to dig out, or follow the tunnel?"
Jonas said, "There's no way we could dig faster than it could fill itself back in. I think there's only one way to go. This stopped being fun a while ago, by the way."
"Indeed. Some intelligence is behind this. If we find it, I will tell it so."
Jacob Carter's mission had been a success. He had been sent to recover a deep cover agent and had brought back two other people that the Tok'ra had given up for dead as well. To top it all off, he had returned to the news that Sam was onworld.
He found her note when he went in his quarters. Fishing? They should be back by now. If they hadn't caught anything by the time the day warmed up, they'd might as well forget it.
Sel'mac commented, +They're on leave. Who knows where they are.+
Jacob agreed. The one constant about the military life was routine. One of the best things about being on leave was the lack of a schedule. Sam and Jack would turn up. He and Selmac had postmission reports to take care of.
There was water dripping somewhere nearby. Carter's head felt like it had been split open and put back together with crazy glue. She wasn't surprised to find her hair matted and sticky. It was pitch dark. She heard a soft groan. "Jack?"
Well, that was always a really good sign, if she was scared enough to slip and use his first name.... O'Neill shook his head. It didn't seem like he was still sedated. Whatever drug had been on the knife was apparently pretty fast-acting. "Yeah, over here." Her hand contacted his shoulder. He asked, "Are you okay? I think I remember, you hit your head?"
"Yeah, it hurts like a son of a bitch. Have you got your light, sir? Mine's gone."
He found that pocket still snapped closed and pulled out the light. They were lying in a small rock cave. Nothing else was moving.
They took stock. Carter's head injury didn't really look that bad, but getting knocked out was never a good thing. His leg wound had got ripped open again, and then there was the cut on his arm. It looked nasty for something that really wasn't that deep.
The dripping sound was coming from a small grotto nearby where a pool of water had collected. He hesitated a long moment, he didn't know what might be in it. But he did know there had definitely been poison on that knife. Pain lanced to his fingertips and up to his shoulder at the slightest touch. He bit off an outcry.
Carter came over.
"Knife wound," he explained. "There was some kind of drug on it."
"Would you rather I--"
"Yeah, it's gotta be cleaned up." He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Carter had the good sense to let the icy water numb it before she started working. Even so, cleaning it up hurt a lot more than it should have. When she had dressed the injury, he flexed his elbow experimentally. This was all he needed, added to the leg injury, and Carter with a head wound. Common sense would be to stay put for a while, but on the other hand, just sitting there waiting for the aliens to decide what to do with them wasn't all that attractive an option.
"There's gotta be a way out of here." He got to his feet and tested his weight on his bad leg. It hurt but it stayed under him, that would have to do.
"Where is here, exactly, sir?"
"Did you see the little guys that dragged us down here? About so high?"
She shook her head, a mistake. "A...big vine knocked me into a rock?" She said, doubtful of her own memory.
"Yup," O'Neill confirmed.
"That's all I remember, sir."
"We weren't into the jarheads' hooch, were we?"
She laughed. That was another mistake. "No, sir, not this trip."
There was one way out, a tunnel barely high and wide enough for them to walk through. He had never been particularly claustrophobic, but the thought of getting stuck down here was suddenly terrifying. He thought of letting Carter take point, because if he did get stuck he'd trap them both. But if those little bastards wanted her, they were going to have to get through him first, and God help them in these close quarters.
Teal'c sat with Minal'c outside the tent. Forty years took a lot of telling. "Why do you think Lord Yu let you leave?"
Minal'c said, "In simplest terms, he took pity on two widows. It was not only that he gave us leave to go, brother, he gave me more than enough money to have settled us on Chulak. He said nothing and I did not ask, but I am sure that he meant for us to come here. He has been quietly resettling the small folk for a year now, a family or two at a time and always in different places. I know of this because he commonly had me or my women make these arrangements. There is a darkness coming. I have never seen fear in my lord's eyes before now. Do not look at me like that, brother, I am no fool. I know that he is not a god, and he knows it too. But he and his Jaffa prepare to make a hopeless stand for those of his people who have nowhere to go, and that has earned them all my respect. Were there anything I could do I would still be there. The best I could do was to be one less hostage to fate."
"Then let him stand with us."
"He will yet, I think," Minal'c replied. "I do not look for the Old Dragon to sell his life cheaply. But I do not think he sees any hope for any of us."
"If the darkness is coming then let it come, sister. Lord Yu does not stand against it alone, or without hope, though perhaps he does not know it yet."
An'ac came up and stopped a few feet away, saluted Teal'c with bowed head and arm across her chest. "Master Teal'c, may I intrude?"
"It is no intrusion. What would you ask of me?"
"My sister Ren'auc and your teammate JonasQuinn went to pick berries in the eastern valley this morning, and they have not returned. My mother sends me to ask if you have seen them."
"I have not. Are they long overdue?"
"Two hours, master. My sister may have chosen to spend the day with Jonas, but she would not have simply disappeared and worried Mother."
"That would be unlike JonasQuinn either. Perhaps O'Neill has seen them. I will find out."
"Our tent is by the armorer's shop. By your leave, master."
He nodded dismissal. She took one step backwards then turned homeward. Teal'c stood. "The camp is not so large that it should take me long to look for them. If our wayward children should come by here, tell Ren'auc to go calm her mother."
"I will, brother. Girl apprentices and my little brother a master. It seems only yesterday that you were stealing hot honey cakes from the hearth while Mother's back was turned and burning your fingers. Things have changed much."
"What a warrior you would have made. You were always the better of us."
"Go find those lovebirds, silly."
Half an hour later, Teal'c had no success in locating any of SG-1, but he found Jacob on the same errand when he checked O'Neill and Quinn's tent. "O'Neill and Carter are missing as well?"
Jacob said, "Yeah, and I'm starting to get worried. Sam asked what time I was due in, and she told Ti/Mira that she'd be back from fishing in plenty of time to meet me at the air strip. I got in a couple of hours ago. You don't think the trouble SG-1 stirred up back home could have followed you here?"
"I think not, but it seems strange that they have all disappeared at the same time."
Jonas scowled. "Do you know where to look for Jonas?"
"Yes, it is not far on the other side of the hill."
"I'm going to drag Anise out of her lab and have a look for Sam and Jack. Let me know when you find Jonas."
The battery in O'Neill's flashlight was starting to dim. Never meant as anything other than a backup for the light on his P-90, it wouldn't last long. He switched it off and they continued on by feeling their way along the stone walls to either side of them.
O'Neill just about jumped out of his skin when Carter's hand closed over his shoulder.
O'Neill took her hand, more reassured by the strong clasp of her fingers than he would ever have admitted to save his life.
"The tunnel is going down," Carter observed.
"It'll have to angle back up. This has to be the way they brought us in here."
O'Neill's foot came down on empty air. He caught his balance and braced himself in case Carter ran into him from behind. "Careful, there's a step here."
He switched the light on to see if it was just a step down or a drop off. It was more the latter, a sink hole into a lower level of the cave. It was the only way they were going any further, the tunnel they were following ended just a few feet past the hole.
Carter said, "Let me climb down there and take a look around."
O'Neill shook his head. "Negative, I don't want you hitting your head again if you slip." He handed her the light and made his way down. Carter clipped the light to her belt and followed.
Carter used a rock to scratch an arrow and the time on the wall. If someone came looking for them, they would know where to start looking.
Ren'auc stopped at a branch in the tunnel. "What now?"
Jonas said, "Turn right. If you always follow the right-hand wall, you'll eventually clear the whole place. If worse comes to worst, you'll end up back where you started."
"That makes sense. If we do not find one of those creatures soon, I am going to start blasting my own way out of here."
"Wait, do you have enough of a charge in that thing to do that?"
"No, that was an overstatement. On fully charged crystals, it could probably get through about eight to ten meters of stone, depending on how hard it was. I fired once or twice."
Jonas thought he heard movement. His rifle snapped up as he methodically cleared all the nearby crevices and shadowed corners that might have hidden one of the little aliens. There was nothing.
Ren'auc said, "Sound might carry any distance down here, but it certainly seems that we are traveling in the right direction."
"There is that."
The tunnel they were following gradually widened to about five meters wide and half again as wide. A ledge ran along the top of the right-hand wall.
They both definitely heard something move up there. Before they could really react, a heavy mat of vines cascaded over the edge and wrapped around Jonas. He screamed as hundreds of inch-long thorns stabbed into his flesh where ever they could penetrate his clothing. He ripped his arm free to protect his eyes and fired several bursts into the heavy mass above him. Ren'auc laid in a couple of staff blasts. After what seemed an eternity but really couldn't have been more than half a minute, the whole thing came down in an avalanche of dirt and debris. Jonas ran several panicked feet up the tunnel before Ren'auc caught up to him. "Stop, you may be driving the thorns in deeper!"
"Oh, gods! Ren'auc, it hurts!"
"We need to get them out."
O'Neill and Carter heard the shooting and headed that way. Ren'auc shouted as soon as she heard them, "Who is there?"
That was one of the few Goa'uld phrases that O'Neill understood. "O'Neill, SG-1. Identify yourself."
"Colonel, it's Jonas! Gods, I'm glad to see you!"
They stared at each other. O'Neill gave voice to what they were all thinking. "What the hell happened to you?!"
Both of them answered at once, but O'Neill got the general idea. They helped Jonas out of his gear. A couple of times he couldn't help crying out, and when they got his BDUs off, they could see why. There was hardly an inch of skin that wasn't marked by two or three thorns. Some of them had fortunately pulled out with his clothes, but hundreds remained, and they would all have to come out one at a time.
That was a horrible job. The damned things were barbed, so every single one hurt coming out. After the first few, Jonas managed for the most part to endure the pain in silence and to hold still to keep from driving the thorns in deeper. He could stand ten or fifteen minutes of it at a time, then they would stop for a while to let him rest. By the time they finished, Jack was as furious as they had ever seen him. While Carter picked through Jonas' clothes to remove the thorns, Ren'auc held him against a chill that left him shaking uncontrollably. O'Neill took the P-90 and climbed up the rock wall where the attack had come from. There was nothing up there to shoot, and for that matter, he couldn't figure out where it had come from in the first place. He got back to the others in time to help Jonas back into his clothes. Ren'auc's robe was covered with Jonas' blood.
Jonas could barely stand the weight of his uniform. There was no way he could endure his sling, so they just left it off. Ren'auc could see that she was the only one uninjured, but she could also see that O'Neill clearly would have none of it if she offered to take point. She helped Jonas along and watched their back trail. As she thought about it, another sneak attack was as likely to come from one direction as another.
They backtracked to the left-fork passageway which Jonas and Ren'auc had bypassed before. The tunnel sloped sharply downward and there was water flowing over the floor, making the rock slippery and hiding depressions in the floor that were just waiting for an unwary ankle. Carter dropped back to help Ren'auc with Jonas. By the time they got to the bottom of the steep section, they were all ready for a rest.
Jonas was chilling again and he had a pale, shocky look around his eyes. Ren'auc took her robe off and wrapped it around him like a blanket, leaving her wearing the shapeless, sleeveless dress that Jaffa women wore in hot weather. Seemingly oblivious to the damp and chill, she said something in a reassuring tone and he answered softly. Carter and Ren'auc settled on either side of Jonas, keeping him warm.
O'Neill sat opposite them, with the P-90 across his knees. They turned off all but the weakest pocket light, saving the one on the rifle for when they were moving. He let his head rest back against the cold stone for a moment. Just once, just one freakin' time....
O'Neill acknowledged the fact that he was tired. Bone-weary exhausted, to the point where he had let himself go into a shoot first and ask questions afterwards rage. Climbing the wall after that...whatever it was...had been just about the dumbest move he could have made. Could have got himself killed, drawn everyone else into a fight they very well might not be in any shape to win. The only thing he needed to be thinking about right now was getting out alive so they could come back in force and deal with whatever was down here.
The Alpha Site colony was fragile, vulnerable to just about any threat the universe decided to throw at them. They needed this place as a last-ditch refuge, and as a staging ground for the Jaffa rebellion which was key to any chance of defeating the Goa'uld. Whatever was doing this had to be neutralized. It was too dangerous and too close to camp. They first had to escape.
Jonas wanted water, but his canteen was empty. There was a stream of water right there, but after the experience they'd just been through with the well on P2X-947, he wasn't that thirsty yet.
Anise hadn't been happy to be dragged away from her studies to search for a couple of people who were probably so busy screwing in the great outdoors that they had lost track of time. Freya, her longsuffering host, liked to explore in the woods, so Anise left her to it and retreated inwards to work on her latest project. She wasn't a particularly likeable person, she knew it and she didn't care. She had important work to do, and people were always annoying her with trivialities.
The Cimmerian woman had learned years ago to just ignore her symbiote when she was in one of her don't-bother-me-I'm-doing-science moods. She could disappear for days and emerge with some new idea, half of which actually led to something. For now, Freya drew on her early training and followed the trail that Jack and Sam had left. The tracks clearly showed that the two had spent some time near the gravel bar, then traveled on upstream and along the branch that fed into the river there. Rough, rocky ground along the branch held fewer tracks, but the signs were still clear for her to follow. "They stopped along here too, Jacob. It looks like they were checking out some of these pools for fish. But they kept going."
They found the fishing tackle put down neatly, not cast aside. Freya followed the trail on up.
Signs of a disturbance were everywhere. Freya reached inside her jacket for her zat and held still, searching out with senses borrowed from Anise for the traces of naquada in Sam's blood. They weren't near enough for that.
She followed Jacob's gaze to a bloodstain on a rock and looked closer. A few short blond hairs on the rock told her what she needed to know. "It's Sam's blood, but there isn't a lot of it, and no significant spatter on the ground. She got a pretty good crack on the skull, but I don't think it would have been too dangerous." She examined the tracks. "Looks like something knocked her off her feet here, she flew a couple of feet before she hit the rock. Jack was...here. He tried to get to her, but...it looks like someone tackled him? There should be more tracks, whoever he was fighting with, but there aren't. And this dirt that's all stirred up. I don't see anything to explain that."
"What's this? Drag marks?"
"That's been Jack. He was putting up a fight, too. But the trail just goes up to this rock and stops."
"Rocks," Jacob corrected. "Look at this." He traced a very fine, almost invisible line. "Stand back," Selmac warned, taking control to aim her ribbon device. A bright blast of golden light hit the seam dead center, blasting chunks of rock.
Freya gave Anise a mental poke. +Wake up, we've got trouble here.+
Anise looked around and slipped her fingers into her own ribbon device, adding her strength to Selmac's. Enough rock shards started flying that they put up their free hands to protect their eyes. Shortly the rock cracked and finally shattered. They picked their way over the chunks. Anise asked, +Freya, are these more tracks?+
+Sure are. They're dragging both of them. Look at this little footprint, looks like a kid?+
+What's going on?+
+You tell me and we'll both know.+ Freya said aloud, "Selmac, we'd better radio for help before we go any deeper into this cave."
Selmac was dealing with Jacob's fatherly desire to find whatever had hurt his daughter and kill it slowly. Her host was lethal enough to scare the hell out of her on regular occasions, but right now he wasn't objective enough to have any common sense whatsoever. She finally yelled, +Jacob, if we barge in there and get ourselves caught, there won't be anyone to help Sam! Go outside and call for help!+
About the same time, Teal'c and An'ac reported finding the spot where Jonas and Ren'auc had disappeared. A couple of staff weapons made short work of reopening the hole in the ground.
Back in camp, things started happening. Bra'tac took a group of Jaffa to join Teal'c, among them Ry'ac, as well as Ren'auc and An'ac's worried parents. The Tok'ra headed upstream to reinforce Selmac and Anise. The Tau'ri, meanwhile, defended the camp, reinforced shortly by the two Marine teams from SGC.
After a reasonable rest break, O'Neill got the others on their feet and moving before Jonas had time to stiffen up too much. Jonas gave Ren'auc's robe back, and managed to pretty much walk on his own as long as the floor was reasonably even.
At least the floor stayed level, but they traveled far enough to use up the batteries in both of the pocket lights before they got to anything other than more of the same tunnel. O'Neill estimated they had come a kilometer or more since their last rest stop when the tunnel widened into a wide, low chamber that extended into darkness past the range of the P-90's light.
Ren'auc said, "I feel a draft. There is air getting in here from somewhere. We must be closer to the way out."
O'Neill said, "You're right, and it's coming from further up. Keep your eyes open, people."
Little scuffling sounds in the darkness informed them they were not alone. The P-90's light revealed a pack of the small aliens, surrounding them in the oppressive darkness. Jonas drew his Beretta and worked the action as Ren'auc activated her staff. The three of them formed a ring around Carter, who was armed only with Ren'auc's dagger. O'Neill warned, "Ren'auc, don't bring the ceiling down on us with a stray blast. Jonas, watch where your ricochets go."
They moved forward as a unit. The aliens circled closer, drawing their crude stone knives. It was a ridiculous mismatch at first glance, but the aliens had already proven they would attack in the face of certain destruction and all that had to happen to take any of them except possibly Ren'auc out of the fight was for one of the creatures to get close enough to strike home once with a poisoned dagger. He hoped her symbiote would be able to protect her if she was poisoned, but the substance had acted so quickly on him that he doubted there would be time. O'Neill wasn't happy with the resulting bottom line. He had about 20 rounds left in the P-90, and Jonas had a full 17-round magazine. Every shot would have to count. O'Neill switched to single shot and activated the laser sight.
At some unknown signal, the creatures charged, and all hell broke loose. It seemed the more of the little bastards they shot, the more of them came boiling out of the darkness. One got close enough for O'Neill to knock it flying with a sharp kick, but putting all his weight on his bad leg convinced him he'd better not do that again unless he wanted to end up on the ground. Ren'auc killed the creature with a blow from the butt of her staff before it could get up and try again with its knife. Everything fell silent, either they had got all the aliens or more likely the survivors had fallen back to regroup.
O'Neill signaled a cautious advance. "Jonas, how are you doing on ammunition?"
"Three rounds left," he replied. O'Neill knew he was in similar shape. The only question was whether there were enough of the aliens left to make another attack. Apparently not. There were two passages leading out of the far end of the chamber. One sloped upward sharply and the air seemed to be coming from there. They climbed.
At the top was another chamber. A beam of sunlight from a hole at the center of its high domed ceiling illuminated the room.
Against the back wall a larger version of the creatures they had been fighting stood half again O'Neill's height, surrounded by its army of little furry devils. Before their eyes, it budded off another of the creatures.
Jonas said, "Colonel, looks like we took a wrong turn."
"Ya think? Back out of here, we'll try the other tunnel."
No such luck. The large alien gestured, conjuring a mat of thorn vines over the exit. Jonas stopped dead, no way he was trying to get through that.
O'Neill centered the P-90's laser sight on the alien's forehead. "I don't know if you understand me or not, but unless you want to die, let us pass."
A rumbling reply came from all around them. "You desecrate my sacred hill with your foul delving and tunneling."
"You've been paying attention to us for a while, if you speak English. Why didn't you speak up before now and tell somebody they were on your property?"
"I have always been here. You are vermin, here only for the blink of an eye."
"Now where have I seen that attitude before? You don't have a hell of a lot of choices here. We're not going anywhere. If we have to fight, we will, even if we have to cave this whole place in on top of you to do it. You may not know it, but there's a war on. We can come to some kind of an agreement. The other side wouldn't be willing to offer that courtesy."
"You are bold, but you are overmatched. I can fill the whole chamber with thorn vines as swiftly as I blocked the passage, and flay the flesh from your bones at my leisure. You cannot even leave here."
"If you do that, you won't live long enough to watch us die," O'Neill replied. "Looks like we've got ourselves a good old fashioned Mexican standoff."
"You tire. Your wounds pain you. I have watched the seasons pass as if they were but the space of your minutes. Before I grow weary of waiting, nothing will be left of you but bones."
"I don't think so."
Jonas asked, "The Tok'ra tunnels? Is that what set you off?"
"What if they moved out and closed them up? What if you told us where your hill starts and we don't excavate any more tunnels on your land? Would that solve the problem."
"You can do this?"
"It's possible, but I can't speak for the Tok'ra. You could try talking to them instead of attacking like an idiot and getting yourself killed. There are a lot more than just the four of us, with a lot more powerful weapons, and if anything happens to us they are going to be royally pissed. They're going to come down here and kill everything that moves."
O'Neill put in, "You said it yourself, we're hurt and tired, but so far we've done a pretty fair job of kicking your ass and we aren't done yet by a long shot. Your decision, your funeral."
Carter chimed in with the carrot to match the stick. "You want to protect your land, live here in peace? If that's what you want, you'd be better off with us than against us. The enemy we fight will rape this world if they win. They'll strip it of all its resources, leave it a wasteland and move on. Look at how we've lived since we came here. We've respected the land and made sure we haven't polluted or done anything else to harm the environment. Who would you rather have for neighbors, us or them?"
The standoff continued for a long tense moment, then the alien reabsorbed its little servants and dispelled the thorn mat. In return, they lowered their weapons.
A few minutes later the two rescue parties found them at nearly the same time. O'Neill explained the situation to Thoran and unapologetically dumped the negotiations in his lap. Once he got the warring sides to the table to talk instead of shoot, his job was done, and he was more than ready to punch his time card for the day.
Jonas lay on an infirmary bed luxuriating in the comfort of some very nice drugs, which the doctor had given him while he cleaned and inspected the large collection of puncture wounds. There had been broken-off barbs in quite a few of them. An IV dripped antibiotics into his arm. Ren'auc was sitting beside him. She had stayed as moral support while he was being treated and now rested in a light kel-no-reem while her symbiote fixed up the assorted cuts, bruises and scratches that she had accumulated. Carter also had to stay in the infirmary overnight, but her concussion turned out to be a mild one. A couple of beds over, O'Neill was bitching about getting a new set of stitches in his leg, to match the ones in his arm.
Jacob, Bra'tac and Teal'c came back in to check on Sam. O'Neill asked, "How did it go with the Swamp Thing?"
"Pretty well, actually. It has a name, Stonesinger. Thoran worked out an agreement to let us keep the tunnels in return for rocks from other planets. Pretty reasonable after we convinced it we wouldn't extend the tunnels any further under the hill. That isn't a problem, we can always expand down the river valley if we need to. It never had anybody to talk to before, go figure."
Sam teased, "Sounds like you forgave it for knocking me out."
"Sure I did. Just as soon as I was sure you were okay," Jacob replied. His tone made it clear that if she had come to some serious harm, his actions would have been distinctly different.
"I guess we're not vermin any more," O'Neill said with his usual sarcasm.
"I guess not," Jacob grinned. "It's willing to work with us for common defense, and tell us about this planet. Hopefully we won't tunnel into anybody else's hill and get in trouble for claim jumping."
"Are there are more of them living here?"
"Yeah, but they have big territories. There aren't any more within a few hundred kilometers of here," Jacob replied.
"And somebody plopped a stargate in that one's front yard. I wonder if that was a coincidence."
"No, it wasn't. Stonesinger says the gate was already here, it was drawn to the energy it sensed in the gate."
The doctor finished up and O'Neill stood, testing his balance on his bad leg. "Looks like we got the job done," he commented.
O'Neill told Bra'tac, indicating Ren'auc. "That one handled herself real well. We're liable to take her away from you if you're not careful."
Bra'tac nodded toward Jonas. "I think you may already have done so, my friend."
O'Neill grinned. "Kids have no clue what they're getting into."
"A fortunate thing for the continuation of the species," Bra'tac said with that expressive half-smile so typical of Jaffa.
Jacob was thinking of Sam's mother. Those two kids had absolutely no idea what twists and turns, rough patches and wonderful surprises made up a lifetime. He thought about sapphire eyes and silky blonde hair, and hoped that they would be blessed enough to find out, if not with each other then with whoever that special person was meant to be. Then he gave Sel a mental hug. Lightning didn't strike twice in a lifetime too often. He was a luckier man than he deserved to be. "Let's get out of the doctor's infirmary so he can pack it in for the night."
At Bra'tac's nod, Teal'c joined them. The doctor was going over charts with the night nurse, essentially telling her about Jonas' meds and that Carter was under observation for a mild concussion. "Officially the Jaffa lady is a visitor and she can stay all night if she wants to, her injuries are superficial so you don't have to worry about her unless she asks for something...." His voice receded behind them as they went their separate ways at the commons.
That was enough excitement for a while, they were content to stay around camp and get some much needed rest. The next day, Teal'c introduced everyone to his sister and her family. There was a lot of translation involved since Jack spoke about a dozen words of Goa'uld and most of those weren't suitable for polite company, and Minal'c had never heard English in her life before she had come here. Soon-Xian, Minal'c's daughter-in-law, was even more at a loss. She spoke Goa'uld as a second language, having been born to the much-evolved Chinese dialect spoken on a planet whose name translated as Emerald Paradise. Ren'auc sat at Jonas' side, as if she were afraid something else would happen to him if she turned her back for a moment. Jonas wasn't complaining. Sam and Jacob were fashionably late, because she'd had to wait for the doctor to check her head injury before he let her leave the infirmary. She sat between Jack and Jacob. Ry'ac supplied them all with warm honey cakes and Soon-Xian brought around a fresh pot of hot, sweet, spicy tea. Sam took a bite of the honey cake. "This is delicious!"
Teal'c said, "My sister made them. I have not had them since our mother passed." His little grandniece was sitting on his lap, half asleep. Jack thought that, for all the crap the universe threw at them, sometimes it got things right. He knew as well as anyone that this was the calm before the storm, but today was all they were promised and these were the todays that you held onto.
Sam nodded to the Jaffa matriarch, crossing the language barrier with a smile.
The real reason for Teal'c's invitation was serious. Minal'c had a great deal to say about Lord Yu's actions in recent months and that took a lot of translation. It left them with a lot to think about.
Jacob asked Jack, "Do you think you should carry this back to George second-hand, or get him over here to talk to her himself? It would be a good thing if he and Bra'tac were to sit in on a council meeting."
"Yeah, it would. Maybe the two of us ought to make a run home when the party breaks up and tell him about it."
"Maybe we should," Jacob replied.
Hammond met them in the gate room. "Is there a problem?"
"No, sir, but there has been a development. Could we talk in your office?"
When the door was closed, O'Neill reported what they'd learned from Minal'c.
Hammond said, "Now that is interesting."
"Can the Tok'ra get an agent into Lord Yu's court?"
Jacob said, "George, I think you'd do well to ask the Council that yourself so that you can report back to Washington yourself," Jacob said.
Hammond leaned back in his chair. "Selmac, what can you tell me about Lord Yu?"
"He is one of the oldest of the System Lords. He followed his great grandfather onto the council only a few years after Egeria broke away. Since then, he and his people have kept to themselves, apart from Goa'uld society. The Tok'ra have never had much success placing agents in the Emerald Paradise. Their Tau'ri racial stock comes from your China, and they haven't mixed with other cultural groups as the rest of us have. We trade with them, but foreigners are restricted to the trade cities. I've visited there myself. Lord Yu himself is as great a mystery as his land. I have never known him to start a war, or to lose one either. He has always been the most humane of all of the system lords, with the possible exception of Bast. Minal'c may be right about him, or he may have deliberately allowed her to bring us false information. I don't know what to believe is going on now, George. Nothing has united the System Lords this way before. They form brief alliances to achieve a common goal, but betray each other as a matter of course. Anubis may just be powerful enough to unite them, and that will go very badly for our side. Drawing in our agents as we have been forced to do has left us blind and deaf at the worst possible time!"
Hammond nodded. "We need some way to get intel on what's happening out there, and we need it yesterday. Selmac, there isn't going to be time to place deep cover agents. It's too late in the game for that. Ask Jacob."
"Believe me, I have, and he's telling me the same thing you are. Whatever is about to happen, is going to happen soon. The reason we came over here is to ask if you want to see Minal'c for yourself, and talk to the Council. We have had a string of very damaging defeats in the last months. I hear my people starting to sound beaten. They need to hear from someone who can convince them that we of the Alliance are not beaten yet. And someone who can explain to them why we can't keep depending on the same old methods. Changing three thousand years of habits overnight isn't easy."
Hammond nodded. "I've got a few things to wrap up. I'll be able to leave in about an hour."
Ren'auc got back from patrol to find Jonas lying on his cot with his nose in a book. "What are you reading?"
He jumped violently and had his rifle in hand so fast she barely saw him pick it up, yet he didn't aim at her.
"I am sorry, Jonas, I did not mean to startle you. You did that very well, though."
He relaxed. "Thanks--I guess! I didn't know I was that jumpy."
"You had a very bad time of it yesterday."
He swung his legs over the side of his bunk and finger combed his hair. "Yes, I have got to admit that was the worst yet. Remind me not to come back as a pin cushion."
"I think I will avoid that as well," Ren'auc agreed.
"How was your patrol?"
"We saw some of Stonesinger's servants watching us from the side of the road. I ordered my patrol not to allow them within knife range. They did nothing hostile so we took no action. They did not follow beyond the meadow, but they were waiting when we returned. I reported it." Ren'auc didn't look happy about the situation. "I do not trust that thing."
"Neither do I, but I suppose we can't be that picky about our allies."
"Allies? If Anubis' Jaffa start pouring through the gate, I am not so certain that I want to have to deal with them and keep one eye on those little devils at the same time," Ren'auc said. "I admit that I have no liking for Stonesinger. Every time someone tells me what an ally it could be, I see it attacking you again."
Jonas tried to conceal a smile. He and Ren'auc looking out for each other felt right somehow. "It's at a disadvantage. It knows that now. I don't think you'll have any more trouble with it, but I'm not telling you to trust it either. And for the record, I never, ever want to go through anything like that again."
"Then you may well be in the wrong line of work."
Jonas nodded. "Goes with the territory," he conceded. "We tend to make some nasty enemies."
"My people have a saying, a warrior is known as much for his enemies as for his friends."
"When you put it that way...."
"I was going to walk by the river," Ren'auc commented, almost shyly.
"That sounds nice," Jonas said.
A footpath wound through trees at the bottom of the riverbank. Jonas reached for Ren'auc's hand. "You know, about yesterday--there were a couple of times that you kept me going. Thank you."
Ren'auc laced her fingers with his, dark and light alternating. "I-- could not imagine never finding out where this road will lead us."
"Would your father come after me with a zat if I kissed you?"
"I may if you do not," she replied.
Jonas drew her close and they kissed, gently at first. But they were young and so very much alive. Death had made a grab for them and missed. Their bodies celebrated every heartbeat, every new breath.
"Jonas, I want you to know that I do not offer myself to just any man I meet. But I offer myself to you now."
"I feel the same way. I don't know your people's customs. The only reason that I would have to wait would be making things difficult for you at home."
"My father already knows that I am not his property to barter for bride price. I will be owned by no one, god or man. I will live free and die free."
"I'll always be here for you as a friend. No matter what, call me and I will come to you."
"And I, to you." And for now, that was all they needed to know.
He looked around. They were right out in the open if anyone else came walking down the path. "Want to take this somewhere a little more private?"
She looked around and ducked behind a couple of big flowering bushes that grew almost against the riverbank. Jonas followed her. "These things had better not come to life on me."
She shook the nearest one. White petals showered down on them. Jonas drew her down to lie beside him. After a while he broke off kissing her to unbutton his shirt.
Ren'auc helped him ease it over his bandaged shoulder. She ran her fingers lightly over him. She was a little surprised that he was still covered with healing punctures and scratches from the thorns. Sometimes she took having a symbiote for granted. "Jonas? Does it still hurt you?"
"A little, now and then. I don't care. In a few more minutes, I doubt I'll notice, if you keep doing that."
O'Neill and Carter sat in on the Tok'ra council meeting that night. Selmac had been right about the Tok'ra sounding beaten. She had also been right that Hammond was the one who could shake them out of it with his practical, can-do attitude. The meeting went on late into the night, as they planned to infiltrate Goa'uld space to learn what assets Anubis had and where they were located. Malek sent for Bra'tac, since most of the ideas they had would depend on the knowledge and skills of the Jaffa.
Ren'auc rested her head back on Jonas' shoulder after dressing against the evening chill. He drew her close, no more willing than she was to see the evening end.
"How long do you think before you can come to Earth?"
Ren'auc thought about it. "As soon as General Hammond gives me his permission," she said. "It is no secret that I hope to fight with the Tau'ri rather than stand guard duty here behind the lines. Such is for the apprentices, and for the old who no longer hope to win glory in battle."
"There's no glory in battle, Ren."
She smiled and kissed him again. "Like many among the allies of the Jaffa, you find glory in a just peace. I respect that greatly, but I am among those who will get you to that point. And I would have my name known for it. So I would bring honor to my ancestors."
"I respect that too. I guess that's the difference in ambitions between a civilian scientist and a career soldier."
Ren'auc said, "I'm sure those differences will lead to a lot of discussions over time."
"That is good."
Jonas looked up to watch the clouds race across the moon. "I'm looking forward to it."
O'Neill and Carter ended up hanging around the commons after they saw General Hammond back to the stargate. There were still a lot of people around, but the small groups were scattered out enough that they could talk. O'Neill said, "This is turning into a real working vacation, isn't it?"
Carter shrugged. "That's how it goes, I guess. If we went up to your cabin and left the phone off the hook, someone would fall off the boat dock, get a chill, and catch pneumonia."
"Or some damned NID mad scientist would figure it was the perfect opportunity."
"There's that. You kicked their asses badly enough this time that I think the stakes would have to be pretty high for them to mess with us again."
"Only a matter of time till they feel like the ante's big enough to make the gamble worthwhile," O'Neill said. "The only way to eliminate that threat would be a bullet in Kinsey's head."
"I swear to God, Carter, I'm not going to do it, but you've got to know I've thought about it. As long as he's around, I'm going to be a target, and the rest of you are guilty by association."
"I know. You aren't the only one who's thought about it," she admitted. "When I saw you shot, well, let's just say people don't realize how dangerous their houses are. There are dozens of accidents just waiting to happen. It's just, you could get away with it."
"That's when you screw up, when you start thinking you can get away with it."
"God, what a conversation," Carter laughed. A little nervously, because the truth was, she had thought about it. Jonas lying in the back of the van with a bullet in him. Jack standing in that godforsaken alley with his pants leg soaked through with blood. Yes, she had definitely thought about it.
"Yeah," Jack agreed. "We've usually had a few beers before we start getting this weird."
"Weird week," she said. "I have to admit, having a few beers sounds pretty good right now. Let's head down to the pub."
"Sounds like a deal."
It had been clouding over all evening. Just as they got to the pub, with a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning that brightened the sky like midday, the clouds opened up and poured. They ducked inside. The bartender locked up their weapons and asked, "What'll ya have?"
Jack ordered up a couple of beers. The crowd had gone home. Except for a couple of Tok'ra who were playing some chess type game they had the pub to themselves. The bartender brought their drinks and went back to washing glasses.
A few rounds later, it was closing time, but nobody including the bartender was in any hurry to go out in the pouring rain. He didn't sound last call until the keg was just about tapped out and the guys in the corner finished their game.
They settled up their tabs. Rick was serious about never unlocking the weapons locker for anyone who was drunk. They headed back through a light rain, but they had only just made it as far as the commons when the rain picked up again. They ducked into a supply shed to wait it out.
They sat down on some lumber stored against the back wall of the shed. Jack stretched his sore leg out and listened to the rain on the tin roof. A little while later, he realized they were sitting right beside each other. He told himself they were cold and wet and hurt, and neither of them was young enough anymore to bounce back like nothing happened. *Yeah, Jack, that's what you just keep telling yourself.*
Tomorrow they could both die on some godforsaken mudball and nobody outside the Stargate program would know or care. Where would following the rules get them then? For that matter, he broke rules more or less whenever he felt like it. What made this one so damn important?
He wasn't quite drunk enough that he couldn't answer his own questions. It wasn't his career that mattered. He'd retire or die a colonel if the Air Force didn't kick him out first. He'd retired twice already, and there was an undated, unsigned letter of resignation in his desk drawer back at SGC, in case something he did went wrong and threatened to reflect badly on General Hammond. He didn't regret the decisions he'd made that had got him labeled a loose cannon, because they had generally involved doing what was right. There were career consequences and that had been an acceptable price to pay.
Sam, on the other hand, was a brilliant officer whose future was her own to choose. A scandal involving him would take away all those choices, and most likely end her career as well. It was her future that mattered to him.
Jack wasn't strong enough that dark, cold night to move away from her, but he didn't put his arm around her or kiss her, either.
Finally the rain slacked off again. He walked Carter as far as the Tok'ra tunnels, then turned and headed back to his tent.
The rest of their leave passed without incident. By the time they went home, everyone was ready to get back to work. After routine post-gate exams, O'Neill headed for his office to see what was in his in box. He met General Hammond in the hall and asked, "What have we got on the board, sir?"
"A first contact mission. The one where the MALP scared the daylights out of that crowd of archaeologists who were studying that old temple near their stargate..."
As the two of them headed up to General Hammond's office to discuss the upcoming mission, the wormhole shut down and the iris closed behind another team coming home from a mission. In the control room, a technician started a routine series of system checks, and a level below, the SF team on gate duty went back to their ready room. Whatever the next challenge turned out to be, SGC waited to meet it.
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