by Rebecca Ratliff
DATE: September 2004
ARCHIVE: If I haven't submitted to your archive, please ask. (I'll say yes, I just like to know where it is.)
CATEGORY: Jackfic cliffhanger war!
WARNING: Language, violence. AU after Endgame.
SPOILERS: Lots of 'em. Everything up to Endgame.
SEASON/SEQUEL INFO: Late Season Eight and forward.
SUMMARY: A routine mission turns into a wild rollercoaster ride of high adventure and daring escapes beginning when General O'Neill and SG-1 are kidnapped and turned in for the bounty on their heads.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is my entry to the cliffhanger challenge on the Jackfic list.
DISCLAIMER: All Stargate SG-1 characters are the property of Stargate SG-1 Productions (II) Inc., MGM Worldwide Television Productions Inc., Double Secret Productions, Gekko Film Corp and Showtime Networks Inc.
This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. Anybody that you don't recognize is probably mine, so if you borrow them please send me an email to let me know where they are and have them home by midnight. :)
FEEDBACK: Much appreciated.
General Jack O'Neill opened his eyes slowly. Man, for a formal diplomatic banquet with only a couple small glasses of wine, he sure had a doozy of a hangover.
As soon as he got a look at his surroundings, the pounding in his head went way down on the priority scale. The bars on the window were a real good indication that he wasn't in his room back at the hotel. His jacket and shoulder holster were gone--of course--but other than that he was still in uniform. It didn't look like he'd been fighting. He wondered just what he had done to land in jail.
Fighting back an attack of nausea, he looked around the rest of the cell. He was lying on a bare metal lower bunk in a six by eight cell. He couldn't hear anyone breathing above him. There was the one window, and at the foot of the bunk he could see a metal door. The walls were gray plaster. Across from him were a sink and a toilet in one corner, and small table and chair were bolted to the floor in the other corner.
Nobody was in sight, and it was awfully quiet for a jail. He stood up.
He had been right, no one else was in the cell. Jack stood still until the nausea subsided. The door had a small barred window in it. There was an identical door across the hall, and to his relief, an apparently unharmed Daniel Jackson was on the other side.
"Daniel! What happened? Where are Carter and Teal'c?"
Jackson squinted, he didn't have his glasses. "Jack? Are you OK?"
"Yeah, yeah! What the hell's going on?"
"I was hoping you could tell me. The last thing I remember was saying good night to Prince Havawan, and then I woke up here."
Jack was thinking he was going to strangle Prince Halfwit for drugging them, because that had to be what had happened.
A struggle down the hall drew their attention, but he couldn't see what was going on. It wasn't long until two guards appeared, burly guys in black uniforms. One of them had a black eye and the other was walking funny. They dragged a semi-conscious Col. Carter between them.
"Hey! What's all this about? Where are you taking her?"
The guard with the black eye gave him a sour look. "You'll find out soon enough, and then you'll wish you hadn't."
Carter focused on him with some difficulty. Their eyes met for a moment before the guards dragged her on out of sight, and momentarily a large metal door closed with a resounding slam.
O'Neill kicked the cell door, which didn't hurt the door and didn't lessen any of his anxiety for Carter. All it did was aggravate his knee and start it throbbing in time to the hangover he already had. He decided to take the direct approach to information gathering. "Hey! Who else is in here?"
Teal'c's voice came from somewhere to his left. "I am here, O'Neill. ColonelCarter occupied the cell across the hall from me."
No one else spoke up.
"What do these guys want? Do either of you remember anything happening at the banquet, or after, that would have got us locked up in here?"
"I do not. As with the two of you, my last clear memory is of bidding farewell to our hosts. Shortly thereafter I believe that we were loaded into a truck, but that memory is very hazy. After that, I recall nothing until I heard the altercation when the guards removed ColonelCarter from her cell."
Daniel said, "Jack, I'm pretty sure we didn't do anything at the banquet to set them off. Maybe we've been kidnapped by a rival political faction or something."
A loud string of invective echoed from somewhere on the other side of the cell block door, Carter cursing someone to keep from screaming in pain. Immediately all three men started kicking their cell doors, to no effect other than to make a lot of noise.
The cell block door opened, and the guards took Carter back to her cell. Jack couldn't see what had happened to her. She was unconscious and her shirt tail had been pulled out of her waistband, but he couldn't see a mark on her. There were a couple of extra guards this time.
"What did you do to her?"
"Shut up," the nearest guard told him. It was the one with the black eye. "Which one do they want next?"
"That one," replied one of his partners, indicating Daniel.
The archaeologist had better sense than to start a fight when he was probably going to need his strength against whatever had happened to Carter. He went with them peacefully.
Jack stood at the door, expecting to hear Daniel cry out, but there was nothing. After another ten or fifteen minutes, the guards returned him, unconscious like Carter.
It took all four of them to move Teal'c. Even though they had him shackled hand and foot, he was still a threat and they knew it.
Daniel came around quickly and hauled himself over to the cell door.
"Danny! Are you all right? What did they do to you?"
"God...that hurt! They shot me with something..."
"I--I think I'm all right now."
He didn't sound all right. Obviously he was confused and hurting, Jack didn't think he'd be able to tell him any more. At least he was on his feet.
Once again, Jack heard the guards coming. They took Teal'c to his cell, then they stopped at his door and he heard keys jangle.
It didn't take them long to pin him down--he was still drugged and they knew the Tau'ri were dangerous. But he managed to give that one guard another black eye to match the one he already had, before they got the shackles on him.
O'Neill heard Daniel call out to him, but the guards hustled him down the hall before he could answer. There was a barred door leading out of the cell-block, which contained only their four cells. Six other cell blocks opened off a central guards' post. An eighth door opened into a long hallway. The guards took him past several featureless doors and opened one at the end of the hall. They wrestled him onto a metal table and attached chains to the restraints he was already wearing.
"What's going on? Who are you people and what the hell do you want with us?" Jack demanded. The situation brought back way too many memories, and he fed the anger to keep the terror at bay.
One of the guards loaded a small device into what looked like a large caliber pistol and yanked his shirt up. "You're worth a lot of money to the right people, General."
"Just a little something to make sure you cooperate."
Jack steeled himself as the guard pressed the gun against his side and pulled the trigger. There was an explosion of searing pain, then he felt something moving inside him. A moment later, the agony spread through his whole body, and blackness closed over him before he could even scream.
This time consciousness came back slowly. At first all he could comprehend was a blindingly bright light in his eyes and bone-deep aching everywhere else. He closed his eyes and this time opened them very carefully. The light was coming through the barred window of his cell.
He lurched to his feet and staggered to the door. "Sam! Danny, T!"
Sam called, "We're all here, sir! How are you doing?"
"Did anybody get the number of that Mack truck?" He rubbed his eyes. "How long was I out?"
"Five minutes, tops, after they brought you back here," Daniel replied.
He felt something pull in his side and remembered being shot. He yanked his shirt up to find a red scar about an inch in diameter, half way between his ribs and his hip bone. He poked, experimentally.
The wound was apparently fully healed, but that wasn't all. He could distinctly feel something in there--a hard metallic sphere slightly smaller than the scar--marble-sized or so. He yelled, "What the hell?!"
Daniel cautioned, "Don't mess with it or it'll go off again! One of them said it was to make sure we behave."
With some difficulty, Jack dredged up a memory of something similar. "Yeah, they said we were worth a lot of money."
Teal'c observed, "I do not believe that we are still on the same planet as before. The gravity here seems distinctly lighter."
A moment later, Sam agreed, "He's right! This star is smaller, more yellow."
Jack leaned against the door as the implications of that sank in. The SGC would be looking for them on PCX-119. But whoever had kidnapped them had brought them through the stargate to God only knew where. Unless someone back there talked, nobody would know where to look for them. They were completely on their own. And whoever had taken them hostage had stuck something in their guts to make them cooperate. He figured that was only the beginning if their captors were going to sell them. The system lords had put a price on their heads years ago. It looked like someone was trying to collect.
The cell block door opened and an old man gave them each what looked like a big granola bar. Jack asked, "What is it?"
The old man gave him a pitying look. "It's your supper, and you'd better not turn your nose up at it, because it's all you'll get until tomorrow evening. You'll get hungry in here, but you won't starve, not if you eat what you're given."
"Who are these people?"
"Have you ever heard of the Braxians?"
"No, should I have?"
"Not unless you run with dregs like smugglers and slavers, sonny. I never had until they raided the space station where I was working as a laborer," the old man told him. "You got the look of soldiers about you. Normally they don't take your kind alive. You must have a big bounty on you, is all I can figure."
Jack bit into the granola bar. It tasted like old shoe leather. Jail food was jail food from one side of the galaxy to the other! "If we're worth so damn much money, you'd think they could feed us something worth eating. Look, you help us bust out of here, we'll take you with us."
The old man laughed bitterly. "Everybody's gotta try it for himself. You ain't goin' anywhere, sonny, not with that beacon in your gut. It won't kill you, not unless you try something stupid like cutting it out yourself. But just you step one foot outside the pen, and it'll sure make you wish you were dead! Even if you could keep movin' anyhow, which you can't, it squawks your location. You might outrun the guards, but you ain't gonna outrun their radios." The old man got back to work before the guards had the chance to catch him talking to the prisoners.
The door slammed behind him. Jack was really getting to hate that sound.
He finished his ration and drank tap water from his hands, as they hadn't left him a cup or anything. The meal, such as it was, had seemed to clear his head somewhat.
The warnings about the implanted beacon notwithstanding, he had to know what they were up against. He lay down on his bunk and carefully explored around the scar. It felt like there was something coming out of the metal sphere, a wire maybe?
Then he touched the wrong thing, and it activated. Instantly he was crushed in the iron grip of intense nerve pain. He gasped one breath and rode it out. This time, having pretty much expected it, he didn't quite lose consciousness, but he sure wanted to. After a long few minutes it started to ease off, letting him breathe again.
The old man was right, they weren't going to get far like that. He stared up at the underside of the top bunk and tried to figure a way out of this one.
As the effects of the implant slowly dissipated, Jack became aware that Sam and Daniel were calling his name with increasing urgency. He winced and forced himself onto his feet, and then over to the door where Daniel at least could see him. "Settle down, people. I'm OK now."
Daniel opened his mouth. Jack told him, "If you're gonna say 'I told you so,' don't."
"I was going to ask what you found out, since obviously you didn't listen when I did tell you so."
Jack was more than a little worried that he had to make an effort to remember. Was he confused just because the pain had been so severe, or was it the aftereffects of whatever mickey finn they'd been given? He wouldn't bet against their food or water being drugged to help keep them from trying to escape. "I could feel something coming out of it, a wire, or a tube maybe? And there's some kind of button. That was what made it come on."
Sam said, "There are at least two of those wires, sir, one on either side of the button. I think they deliver electrical shocks to nerve centers to fool the brain into thinking there's a severe burn--but it doesn't stop because there's no actual damage to the nerve endings."
Teal'c said, "The effect seems somewhat similar to that of a Goa'uld pain stick."
Jack speculated, "Sounds like I wasn't the only one dumb enough to mess with it. What, if you try to get it out, it shorts out or something and you get electrocuted?"
Sam said, "That sounds reasonable. It wouldn't even have to be a huge charge, if it stopped the heart. It's probably possible to get them out, but I'd want to see a diagram before I tried messing with them. I wonder if it would be possible to neutralize the device by draining the power supply somehow."
Jack figured he'd accomplished something positive, anyway. If Carter was absorbed in figuring out how to get rid of the implant, she wasn't scaring herself sick worrying about what was going to happen to them next. He could do that perfectly well without any help from the rest of them.
He didn't like their chances at all. Ba'al was the most powerful among the system lords right now. If these Braxians intended to sell them to the Goa'uld, he was the most likely one they would deal with. It had been bad enough when he'd been the only one in that bastard's hands. Having his team there with him would be unimaginably worse. Not only would Ba'al use them against him, each of them had information he would want. Daniel had been ascended. Teal'c had a lot of information about the Free Jaffa. Sam had Jolinar's memories of the Tok'ra. That damn snake would have a field day. Jack would have seriously considered that they commit suicide before they could fall into his hands, but he doubted that would be an escape. There was no way to prevent the Goa'uld from bringing them back with a sarcophagus.
He could admit to himself, if no one else, that he was scared out of his freakin' mind.
The glare through his window was subsiding quickly as the sun set. Jack checked out the view. His hopes for a possible escape were dashed, they were several stories up. His window overlooked a drab prison yard surrounded by a wall. Even if they could have climbed over it without specialized equipment, there were guard towers, and the guards inside didn't look like they were likely to go to sleep on the job. And there were still the implants to consider, if they did manage to break out of jail.
Beyond the wall was an open-air marketplace that reminded him of those he'd seen in the Middle East, and on the far side of that was the stargate. It activated as he watched, and a lot of people came through, but they were too far away for him to make out details with the sun behind them. Anyway, getting to the gate without being spotted would be difficult even at night. If they got that far, there were more people standing around the DHD who were probably armed guards.
There was no glass in the window. The cell started to get cold as the sun dropped below the horizon. Jack resigned himself to a miserable night, and hoped against hope that things weren't going to get a whole lot worse in the morning.
A commotion out by the guard station woke Jack before dawn. The guards came in and got them, checking their shackles with practiced efficiency. They were lined up chain-gang style. When Jack balked at the pushing and shoving, one of them aimed a hand-held gadget that looked a lot like his TV remote at him, and he almost doubled up around a jolt from the implant. It wasn't the crippling, overwhelming pain from last night. This time it just knocked all the wind out of him and reminded him that he'd better not cause trouble. He settled down, but silently vowed that one of these days he was going to come back here with plenty of C4 and cause these people more trouble than they'd ever seen.
Something else soaked in. If they were going to be sold, they'd have to be taken out of the jail without the implants knocking them flat. Something had to make that possible, and that remote control looked like a real good candidate. Any escape plan was going to have to include liberating that doohickey.
His worst nightmares came true when a dozen of Ba'al's Jaffa trooped in to take custody of them.
Jack was at the head of the line. Ba'al's first prime, Tar'ac was a short, dark-haired guy with squinty, close-set eyes who reminded Jack of a cross between a pig and a fire hydrant. He rattled the chains between Jack and Teal'c with the business end of his staff weapon and grinned. "SG-1. The Braxians have earned their gold today."
Jack wisecracked, "Hey, Tar-ass, this is a surprise. You're still alive."
"And you are just as insolent as ever. My lord will be most pleased to see you again."
Jack renewed a promise he'd made a couple of years ago, that he was going to be the last thing Ba'al ever saw. The galaxy would be a much nicer place with that snake out of it. "Oh, yeah, I'm sure he can't wait to lose another round."
"It will be interesting to see how much of that fire remains a few days from now. Move."
They were marched down a long staircase and out of the lock-up. Jack felt a twinge from the thing in his guts as he stepped across the threshold, but nothing worse. His guess about the remote control was looking more and more likely all the time.
They passed between rows of traders' stalls on their way to the stargate. The crowd seemed amused by their predicament, if they weren't annoyed at having to move out of the way. Jack didn't see a single sympathetic face. The smell of fresh-baked bread and roasting meat reminded him that he hadn't had anything to eat since the day before.
They were forced through the stargate at staff point. Jack stumbled coming out the other side, tripped up by his ankle chains, but he caught himself as quick as he could to avoid dragging the others down with him. There were four wide stone steps down onto the red sands of a desert world that baked under twin suns.
The stargate opened into a walled compound crawling with heavily armed Jaffa. Once they were recognized, a huge set of heavy doors creaked open. Whitewashed adobe buildings with flat roofs and tall, swaying palm trees lined both sides of a wide avenue. Their destination was a large domed building at the other end of the avenue, Ba'al's palace and temple. From the intel he'd seen, Jack was fairly sure they were on Ba'al's throne world, Nippur.
There could be no attempted rescue here, either through the stargate or by ship. Jack didn't see anything over the gates that looked like it might say "Abandon all hope." Apparently Ba'al had never read Dante. Not that Jack would ever admit having read it himself.
As they approached Ba'al's temple, the wind changed, carrying the aromas of incense and burnt meat, as well as another scent they all knew too well--death and decay.
A circle of stakes surrounded the temple. On each of them, a body was impaled.
Some of them were still moving.
Maybe Ba'al had read Dante after all.
The corridors of Ba'al's palace were a cool, dimly lit contrast from the midday heat outside. Jack and SG-1 were taken past the temple area into a large hall, quite similar to those they had seen in the domains of other system lords, but the garish decorations had been toned down quite a bit. The walls were the same beige stucco that Jack had seen before, decorated by black wall hangings with Ba'al's sigil in blood red. Between the hangings were wall sconces whose light reflected off a weapons collection representing the many diverse worlds where Ba'al reigned. The whole effect radiated restrained power.
Ba'al watched from his throne as his Jaffa brought his prizes forward. Jack's features were an expressionless mask. He knew that his old adversary would exploit the slightest weakness. Without looking around, Jack knew the others followed suit. He never took his eyes off Ba'al, and the Goa'uld spared little attention for the rest of SG-1.
Tar'ac knelt before Ba'al, rising only when granted permission to do so. "My lord." He turned the remote control gadget over to the Goa'uld, who studied it briefly.
When he looked up, there was a gleam of anticipation in his dark eyes that sent an icy chill down Jack's spine. This was personal.
"Take them away. I'll have time for them this evening."
The Jaffa marched them down a stone staircase and opened a heavy door. There was a circular chamber inside and they were apparently near the top of it. More stairs spiraled down, clinging to the ancient stones like moss. There was flickering light from below, and Jack could hear distant screaming.
Without warning, Tar'ac gave him a shove over the side of the landing. For a moment, Teal'c braced and took his weight on the chains. Before Ba'al's Jaffa shoved him over the side as well, taking Daniel and Sam over with them, Jack caught Tar'ac by the ankle and yanked him down too. Jack had an impression of falling past torches in wrought iron holders on the wall, then the bloodstained stone floor rushed up at him and there was a brief moment of crushing agony before everything went black.
The next thing he knew, he was hanging in chains. It took his vision a moment to clear, and before it really had, he felt the full force of a pain stick. In his disorientation, there was nothing but sheer animal survival. The device was withdrawn just before he could slip back into unconsciousness. He gasped for breath and focused on Tar'ac, who must have just come back from the sarcophagus, and looked anything but pleased with him. Several rips in his uniform suggested that he'd made a really bad landing. There was a lesson in that--never count Jack O'Neill out until you're sure he's dead--but it didn't look like the Jaffa had learned it yet. A small, cold smile didn't quite reach Jack's eyes. Tar'ac took an involuntary step backwards, and covered the reaction by handing the pain stick off to a nearby underling and leaving in search of a fresh uniform.
That gave Jack a chance to take in his surroundings. Teal'c was hanging a few feet away from him, and Daniel's broken body still lay where he had fallen. It was a good thirty meters down the stair well. Even though he had known what he was going to see, the spectacle of his best friend's bloody corpse still hit him like a gut punch. Sam wasn't there--it was her turn in the sarcophagus, most likely.
Teal'c had watched the whole thing with his usual impassive calm. He understood very well that the last thing Jack needed was for Teal'c to let this crowd know he could be moved by his Tau'ri friend's suffering. That was something they would all have to worry about, that their very concern for each other could make things even worse.
Hanging like this was painful all by itself, and it was difficult to breathe. Jack knew if they were left here long enough, they'd suffocate. Not that it mattered, as long as Ba'al had that damned sarcophagus.
They returned Carter to the cell and chained her to the wall to his left, just out of reach, then took Daniel away. After checking to be sure their bonds were secure, the Jaffa went off to supper.
Carter's eyes met his. "Nice boring diplomatic thing, right, sir?"
"Yeah, I should've known that was too good to be true," he replied.
"Where's Daniel?" She asked.
Too much talking wasn't going to help. They were both out of breath after that short conversation. Considering that whatever they said would probably be overheard, that was probably for the best.
A guttering torch marked the passing minutes. Jack knew there wasn't much time. Until--he refused to think unless--their chance came, the best he could hope for was to keep Ba'al's attention focused on him instead of his kids. He wasn't one to pray for himself. After Charlie, he'd always figured nobody would be listening anyhow. But he prayed for the courage and the strength to protect them.
It was weird how time seemed to pass at different rates. Summer afternoons on the lake disappeared in a flash. Team nights were over almost before they began. Reports--reading or writing them--dragged by. Days spent stuck in the infirmary staring at the ceiling seemed not to move along at all. Hanging on this cold, damp stone wall like that guy in the Wizard of Id was an order of magnitude slower than that. Jack tried to make good use of the time to prepare himself mentally for what he knew was coming. He envied Teal'c's ability to slip into kel-no-reem under just about any circumstances, making the most of the calm before the storm.
All three of them looked up when they heard the approach of booted feet. Two Jaffa appeared through a door opening from the stairwell chamber into whatever further rooms and corridors were on this level. They half-dragged a semi-conscious Daniel between them. His glasses were missing, and Jack found himself thankful for that, even if it would make their eventual escape more difficult. In the meanwhile, Daniel would be spared seeing the details of what was happening to the rest of them.
Daniel was in no condition to object as the Jaffa manacled him on the other side of Carter. Once they had finished with that, they didn't stay long. Daniel said, "Wow, that first step was a long one."
Carter said, "What--they threw us down the stairwell? Was that what happened?"
"It was," Teal'c replied. "O'Neill saw to it that Tar'ac joined us," he added, sounding quite satisfied with that.
Sam grinned momentarily. In this hellish place, they would take their victories where they could find them. She struggled against her chains for a moment, trying to breathe more easily, but she soon concluded that there was nothing she could do about that.
They heard more people coming down the stairs, talking and laughing. Jack recognized Ba'al's voice among them and fought down an unreasoning panic.
Teal'c steadied him with one quiet comment. "We have all been here before, alone. To freedom or to Kheb, this time we go together."
Jack nodded. Teal'c was right. Together they were stronger than any of them could be alone. Ba'al could use them against one another, but they could draw strength from each other as well. There was always a choice between hope and despair. He chose hope.
If Ba'al had expected to find a ragged bunch of terrified hostages, he was sadly disappointed. Teal'c was the picture of Jaffa stoicism. Carter looked at him like he'd crawled out from under a rock. Daniel was all calm serenity. And O'Neill could have been thinking anything behind that cold, dead-eyed stare. He had seen defiance before, but rarely in anyone who had dared to defy him previously.
None of them would break until he turned them against one another. He opened a cabinet to reveal a selection of knives and bottles and other things probably better left uninventoried. He gave them plenty of time to appreciate the contents, then returned to his captives, inspecting each of them in turn, beginning with Teal'c. "The infamous Shol'va. You must be at peace with yourself. You have buried your masters. Your people are as free as any other in the galaxy. Yet, here you are--if this is a hero's lot, it should discourage heroism."
"I do not expect kindness of destiny, Ba'al. If I pay the price now for the things that I have done while I served false gods, then I carry that much less with me into the afterlife. Everything balances at the last."
"Ever the warrior."
"So I would hope."
"O'Neill. General now, is it. Perhaps I should be thanking you. You simplified things for me considerably when you eliminated Anubis. Now little more than the remnants of Yu and Bastet's fleets stand between me and my final victory."
The Goa'uld moved on to Carter. "Host of Jolinar of Malkshur. Daughter to the host of the vaunted Selmac. Hero of the Tau'ri in your own right. I hardly know where to begin with you."
"I'm sure you'll think of something."
"Daniel Jackson, the failed Ascended. What wisdom from the world beyond has led you here to face the judgment of a god?"
Daniel replied, "You are a nothing more than a parasite riding around in the body of a slave. You're no more a god than a tick or a louse is."
"Such pride and fire." Ba'al turned to O'Neill again. "Because I do owe you something for the defeat of Anubis, I will allow you to choose. With which one of your people here shall I begin?"
Jack somehow managed not to react to that. Ba'al wanted him to decide which of his friends was the first to be tortured? He refused to play that game, to let the Goa'uld drive a wedge between them that easily. "Uhh--like it matters? Does anyone have a particular preference who goes first?"
All three of them caught on immediately.
"Not me," Daniel said.
"Me neither," said Carter.
"Nor I," Teal'c contributed.
Daniel said, "Well, we could draw straws, but it looks like I'm out of straws."
"That is most inconvenient, DanielJackson."
Carter said, "Hell, let him pick, it's his party."
Ba'al examined the Braxian remote device. "Perhaps I should simply begin with all of you. This is interesting technology, after all."
They had only a split second to prepare before the nearly-forgotten implants activated. Carter had compared it to burns, and Teal'c thought it was more like a pain stick. All Jack knew was that it hurt like a son of a bitch. Wave after wave of blinding pain. He didn't know if the others were screaming, could barely hear his own cries over the rush of blood in his ears. He rode it out, one ragged breath at a time, and eventually it subsided to a point that he was aware of his surroundings again.
Jack knew if he let himself just collapse in his chains, he'd probably black out, just as Sam and Danny already had. It was a real temptation, but he decided there was too much chance Ba'al might just let him suffocate. He was determined to keep himself alive and coherent as long as he could. He didn't know how many exposures to a sarcophagus in a short time would lead to permanent mental effects, he didn't know how cumulative it was from the last time he'd been addicted to the damn thing, and they'd already chalked up one.
Ba'al nodded to one of his Jaffa, who threw cold water on Daniel and Sam to wake them up. Jack figured out one thing right away--anything bad enough to really get to him and Teal'c would be severe enough to knock the two of them out almost immediately. If Ba'al turned it down so they would stay conscious longer, then he and Teal'c would be able to get through it--well, not easily, but successfully anyhow.
Sam wakened with a bitten-off cry that went right through Jack. He desperately concealed all reaction. If Ba'al figured out that she meant anything else to him besides any other officer under his command, it would single her out for special treatment. There was no way he was going to be responsible for that.
Jack hadn't thought of one thing. When Ba'al set the levels for Daniel and Carter, it wasn't bad enough to block out awareness. He could hear them screaming. Nothing Ba'al did to him personally was as bad as that. He didn't dare allow himself to react in the slightest.
More people coming down the stairs distracted Ba'al for a few precious minutes. It was a dark haired woman with a couple of female Jaffa attendants.
Ba'al smiled and extended his hand to her. "What brings you down here, my queen?"
"Forgive my curiosity, Lord Ba'al. I wished to see these outlaws for myself. They hardly seem the menace that rumor would describe, do they?"
"Appearances can be deceiving, Astarte. Remember, they have killed many of our more careless brothers and sisters, including Ra himself."
"Such weak, pathetic creatures to have caused so much upheaval."
Ba'al gave her a tolerant look. "Much of their success has been due to luck, I admit, but they do have a certain cunning about them."
Astarte studied them. Jack met her gaze, and was startled to see a quickly-disguised flash of compassion there. Could Astarte be as much a prisoner here as they were?
She asked in a low, seductive tone, "Will you be occupied with them all evening, my love?"
He kissed her small delicate hand. "Perhaps not."
She bowed, then she and her handmaidens departed. Not long afterwards, Ba'al ordered Tar'ac to put them into a cell for the night, and followed her up the stairs.
When Tar'ac released Jack's shackles, any idea he'd had about attacking the Jaffa went right out the window when his legs refused to hold him up. He couldn't do anything about being roughly dragged down a corridor and thrown into a cell. He landed on the floor and the others were tossed unceremoniously inside as well. At least here the gravity didn't change directions like the last place he'd been.
The pain receded somewhat, but didn't stop. Jack saw Tar'ac place the remote device in a niche in the corridor wall opposite the cell door. "Sleep well," he taunted.
Jack's reply was a universal one-finger salute that the Jaffa seemed to understand about as well as anybody else in the galaxy. He had the inane thought that some caveman must have invented flying the bird. Tar'ac only laughed and left them there. As long as there was a barred door between them he wasn't worried. Jack decided that the next time he killed that Jaffa, the SOB would stay dead.
Daniel asked, "Am I imagining things or--"
Jack guessed what he was going to say and butted in, "The walls probably have ears, Danny." If Astarte had really distracted Ba'al on purpose, he wasn't going to turn around and pay her back by speculating about it where their comments would get back to the system lord.
Jack knew that queen Goa'uld traditionally kept a harem of male slaves who were drugged with her nishta to be totally devoted to her, using their DNA to make their larvae more readily able to blend with humans. He had the dreadful thought that when Ba'al was done with them, he and Daniel could end up in her seraglio. And that led him to some very unwelcome speculation about Sam and Teal'c's eventual fate.
After lying where they had fallen for ten or fifteen minutes, familiarity with the constant pain bred contempt enough that they took an interest in their cell. The walls were roughly hewn stone blocks and the floor was paved with flagstones, just like the torture chamber at the foot of the stairs. There was no furniture. Water ran continuously from a spout into a simple grate-covered hole in the floor, which served as a toilet. The only light was from a glowing crystal fixture in the corridor outside. It was cold and damp.
They weren't the only prisoners. From further down the hall they could hear the piteous cries of other inmates. It sounded less like a prison than a nineteenth-century madhouse.
Jack's first interest was the barred wall facing the corridor. The bars were solid iron as thick as his wrist, firmly socketed into the floor and ceiling. The door hinges and the lock were cast iron as well. Not even Teal'c would be able to break them. He didn't have anything to use as a lock pick, but if he happened onto something like that, it did look like it might be possible to open it.
The remote control was well out of reach--the hallway was about five feet across, and he had nothing to throw to knock it closer. Reaching for it would likely attract the attention of a pair of guards stationed a short way down the hall. He wanted a better chance of success before he tried that.
Teal'c tried the water first, and when it tasted all right and didn't immediately make him sick, he insisted that the Tau'ri drink as well. Sam helped Daniel to his feet. She studied the filth-encrusted grate over the hole, but quickly dismissed any hope of escaping through the sewers. The hole wasn't big enough for her, much less any of the men.
Once they had all drunk enough water to stave off dehydration, they huddled together for shared warmth.
Jack thought the pain and fear would keep them all awake, but exhaustion won out as soon as they stretched out on the floor. Even Teal'c slept rather than meditating. They got a couple of hours' rest before a Jaffa making the rounds of the cells woke them. When he passed by with no more interest than making sure the cell door was secure, Daniel went right back to sleep. Jack was thankful that the archaeologist was so hard to wake up. It was the best thing for him right now.
Teal'c sat up cross-legged and soon put himself into as deep a kel-no-reem as he could manage without a symbiote. That was more than enough to block his perception of the pain from his implant and allow him to rest.
Sam shifted positions restlessly, trying to find one that hurt less. Jack wanted nothing more than to reach out and hold her close, as much for comfort as to give it. He didn't want the Jaffa to see that. Silently, he closed his hand over hers. After a startled moment, she laced her fingers with his.
Jack felt guilty for enjoying that simple contact so much. She wasn't his, never had been anywhere but his dreams. But even if she was going to be Pete Shanahan's wife, between the two of them there would never be any such thing as "just" friends. Whatever this devoted platonic relationship was, it wasn't "just" anything. It was hope in the midst of crushing despair--light in the deepest darkness.
Neither of them got back to sleep after that--every sound startled them wide awake, as they expected Ba'al's goon squad to come for them any minute. But they did get a few more hours' much needed rest, as morning drew ever nearer.
A few hours later the dungeon started to awaken. Jack regretfully woke Daniel so that he could get some water, and they took turns in the corner. No food was forthcoming, and they hadn't eaten anything since that granola bar that the Braxians had given them. He didn't expect anything. Hunger was just one more thing that sapped a prisoner's resistance. He dismissed that. Hunger was the least of their worries.
Moving around made the pain worse. Jack sat down on the floor and stared at the remote, taunting them from its perch between two stones, safely across the corridor from him.
Fifteen minutes later, the Jaffa came after them. They did exactly what Jack had been expecting, turned the implants up all the way to incapacitate them before they opened the cell.
They were taken to a different room this time, strapped down on slanted metal tables rather than hanging from the wall. The tables were arranged in a circle so that they could all see each other. There was a thing hanging from the ceiling that reminded him of a video camera on a swivel.
Once the Jaffa had checked to be sure they weren't going to be able to wriggle out of their bonds, Tar'ac turned off the remote and set it on a shelf near the door. Then they were left alone to wonder what was going to happen next.
The doohickey came on, emitting a beam of the same yellow glow that he associated with a pain stick. Instead of radiating outward from the spot the pain stick touched, this hit him everywhere at once. He bucked against his restraints once, then regained enough control to look around and see how everyone else was doing. He was the only one hit, while the others had to just watch.
He noticed something else. There was a little red button near everyone's right hand. He figured if he pushed the button, the device would pick a new target. Well, that was a no-brainer. He made sure his hand was well clear of it so that if he clenched his fist he wouldn't hit it by accident.
He told himself this wasn't the worst he'd ever been through, and settled in for the duration. He figured he could shield SG-1 right up until one of them noticed the buttons and put two and two together.
Ba'al hadn't even started questioning them yet. They still had plenty of fight in them. Right now if he asked them anything, they'd just come up with some inventive new way to insult his mother. The Goa'uld was trying to wear them down as well as play them off against one another. Jack doubted that he was even watching. He knew it would take a while.
It didn't take long for Sam to spot the buttons, and when she did, she acted without hesitation. Daniel swore reflexively as the beam of light swept over him on its way to focus on her, then he and Teal'c figured it out as well, and both of them had the same idea at once, which made the device spin around a couple of times. That was definitely no fun for anybody.
"Hold it!" Jack ordered. "It's the worst when it first starts. We'll trade off every so often."
Daniel had ended up with the hot potato this time. He didn't even bother complaining about it. Stubborn always had been Danny's middle name, but even beyond that, Jack understood why he didn't scare easily. Not too many people set 10 on the scale equal to radiation sickness. Jack watched him close his eyes, take a couple deep breaths and relax into it.
Ba'al's reaction was what worried Jack the most. This was bad enough, but he knew from experience it wasn't anywhere nearly the worst they were up against. The Goa'uld's goal was to drive them apart. This was having exactly the opposite effect. It wouldn't take him too long to move on to something else and pull out the knives and acid.
A few minutes later, though, Jack realized he'd been missing some really important information when he made that assessment. The back of his hand started prickling and itching. When he twisted his wrist around to scratch it on the strap, he felt something pop and tear. A fierce stinging began as wetness ran down his arm. He looked around to see what the hell was going on. He'd burst a blister the size of a quarter and now most of it was a raw open sore. Within a couple of minutes he was blind and blistered from head to toe. And there was nothing, nothing at all he could do to spare the rest the same thing.
Several hours passed. Jack felt so alone in his blindness, even though he knew everyone was still there. Nobody wanted to talk with Ba'al or his minions listening, so he only knew his friends were still alive when one of them cried out. Every small movement burst blisters, making things worse, but he didn't have the control to lie completely still. The fluid soaked into his clothes, wicking the heat away from his body until hypothermia set in.
The device clicked off and keys jangled in the lock. He could hear the Jaffa unlocking Daniel's restraints. His first thought was that Daniel must have died, but then he heard the archaeologist cursing them in his fluent, Egyptian-accented Arabic. Then they got around to Jack and he figured out why Daniel had been swearing--their rough handling skinned his arms raw. They were all put back into the cell. At least Jack thought it was the same one. At the last minute Tar'ac shoved him, and the pain when he hit the floor nearly caused him to black out.
The door locked and everything went quiet.
"Guys? Where are you?"
They all spoke up, and Jack commented, "Jeez, you people sound awful!"
Daniel said, "You're not exactly a meadowlark yourself, Jack."
Jack carefully got to his feet and homed in on the dripping water. It hurt like hell to move, but he was so thirsty it was worth it. He found a clear spot on the floor and more or less collapsed. He wondered how much of a rest they'd get and what Ba'al was going to do next. So not a good idea to think about that.
It must be night again, anyhow things got pretty quiet. Then he heard something interesting, two zat blasts and two muffled thuds, followed by four more zat shots in quick succession.
"My Lady, we must hurry!" Female Jaffa.
"I believe that they are this way." Astarte? Jack wished he could see what was happening.
"Lady, they are here! Where are the keys?"
"I don't know, stand clear."
There was a sharp crack that sounded like a pistol shot in the quiet night. Astarte must have used her ribbon device to break the lock. She said urgently to her Jaffa, "Secure the ring room. I'll bring them."
"Yes, my lady."
Astarte gasped when she got a look at them. "I don't think they can walk--"
Jack told her, "If we're leaving, we can walk."
Astarte said, "Grant me and my women sanctuary from Ba'al and I will get you out of here!"
"Lady, you've got yourself a deal." He didn't trust her any further than he could throw her, and right now he doubted he could lift her--but anything had to be better than here! He forced himself to stand and felt along the wall until his hand contacted the remote. He put it securely into his pocket. "We're not gonna get far like this."
"There is a ring portal not far from here. Are all of you blind?"
No one contradicted her, so Jack had to assume the answer was yes.
"I have a sarcophagus, if we can but ring to my ship."
The Jaffa went first, and presently one of them returned to report that the ring room was clear. She helped Astarte guide them to the rings, a terrifying journey into an unknown darkness with benefactors whose motives were anything but certain.
The two Jaffa went, and Astarte got them onto the platform. They had no more materialized when her ladies-in-waiting rushed them out of the way so that Astarte could ring up.
Takeoff was a very hurried affair, and not especially a smooth one. Neither of the Jaffa women were trained pilots, and while Astarte was marginally more competent, she was on the edge of panic. "My lady, Varga is tracking us!"
"The cloaking device is on, Li'ac!"
"I know, but look--"
Jack realized how they were being followed. "Before the Braxians sold us to Ba'al, they implanted us with some kind of doohickeys. You're going to have to get them out and zat them."
"We must do something quickly," Li'ac said. "We cannot outrun Varga."
Varga was Ba'al's flagship, the pride of his fleet. Not much could outrun her. Jack said, "Give me a knife."
Astarte closed his hand around the hilt of her own jeweled dagger. Before he had time to lose his nerve, he pulled his shirt out of the way and cut down to the implant. Blood-slick fingers slipped--then it activated and he cursed, staggered, nearly fell.
Li'ac juked wildly to avoid fire from the pursuing hat'ak. Just one hit and they would be vaporized.
There wasn't time to screw around--he probed the shallow cut again, this time got hold of the implant and pulled hard, and that was the last he knew about their great escape.
Jack woke up to bright white light and his first reaction was sheer panic. He would never be able to wake up in a sarcophagus without being overcome by unreasoning terror. But his second reaction was that he could SEE it, and that was a mark in the good column.
The lid didn't open. And he was lying at some kind of weird angle.
The lid still didn't open. Panic took over again and he beat on it and yelled.
Someone was answering, but he couldn't understand what they were saying. Then the whole sarcophagus moved and landed with a tremendous jolt.
That jarred the lid mechanism free. He was out of there like a shot as soon as it opened.
He stared around in confusion at his weird surroundings, then realized that the tel'tac was canted over about ten degrees left. Li'ac brought Astarte's limp body over to the sarcophagus and tenderly placed her inside. She fell to her knees in relief when it activated.
"Li'ac? We crashed?"
She nodded. "Varga struck us a glancing hit just as we escaped into hyperspace. There was a cascading failure in the drive system. I do not know where we came out or what planet this is--or how we did not crash and explode upon landing. I alone survived the impact--though your friends were already dead from having removed those tracking devices."
"Did you get a chance to zat them?"
The Jaffa shook her head. "My Lady was afraid to fire the zat'nik'tel and possibly further damage the craft. She jettisoned them out the disposal chute. They are somewhere in hyperspace."
Jack looked around. The wreck didn't seem to be in any immediate danger of catching fire, but he could see right away that it would never fly again. "Is there power to anything but the sarcophagus?"
"There were sparks, and I know nothing of repairing such things. I pulled the main circuit breakers. The sarcophagus has its own source of energy."
Jack assured her, "You did good. Where's your partner?"
"She is still at the pel'tac. The hatch is jammed. I have not yet had time to attend to her properly."
He went forward and shoved at the hatch to the cockpit. It really was stuck, warped from the landing, but he put his back into it and it finally opened enough for him to squeeze through. He jammed it open with a piece of debris so they wouldn't have to keep fighting with it. Li'ac's friend was in the co-pilot's seat. A fragment of the view screen frame had cut her throat.
Jack backed out quick. "Where the hell is her symbiote?"
Li'ac said, "It died with her. I would not have allowed it to take a host in any case. It is young, and will sustain Risha for several years yet."
Jack looked back at the sarcophagus and got himself under control. "Do you know if this planet has a stargate?" It was the middle of the night. There was little to see but the silhouettes of trees and two big full moons hanging far lower in the sky than Earth's moon.
"I know nothing of it, except that it apparently will sustain our lives."
"First things first." He helped Li'ac get Risha out of the seat. She had respectfully covered Sam, Daniel and Teal'c with blankets from an opened locker. Jack got another one for Risha.
After that there was nothing to do but wait while the sarcophagus did its work and returned their friends to them. Time enough in the morning to find out where they'd ended up.
Jack looked around at the wreck of the once-opulent royal barge. "How are we doing for supplies?"
Li'ac said, "The lockers should be fully stocked, but I do not know what has survived the crash. Let us see." While Jack opened the storage compartments that she identified as holding food and water supplies, she recovered Risha's and her staff weapons, and found them both in working order. As far as weapons went, they also had three zats and Astarte's ribbon device.
Jack found that they had food supplies that would last for several weeks, if they were careful. Most of the water was gone, but there was a distillation/purification unit that worked. It looked like a lot of things could be salvaged. Carter would be able to tell them more about that.
Astarte came out of the sarcophagus completely disoriented and terrified. Jack and Li'ac were forced to restrain her for her own safety, no easy thing against a panicked Goa'uld. When they finally got through to her that she had been killed by the impact of the crash, that Ba'al hadn't directly done anything to her this time and that they had safely eluded their pursuers, she cried in Li'ac's arms until she finally fell into a healing sleep.
"Is she all right?"
"Hashak! She is anything but all right! Do you think Ba'al treated his queen with anything resembling kindness? She was as much a slave as any of the rest of us! Yet I cannot count the many times I have seen her draw his wrath upon herself, or take him to her couch, just as she did to spare you before. If I ever get the chance, I swear I will rip that monster out of his host and feed him his own tail! And OF COURSE I know that he is no true god--but this is the first opportunity I have had to do anything about it." Li'ac dashed angry tears from her eyes.
Jack believed her. "For what it's worth, he'll have to come through me to take any of you back," he promised.<P>"Forgive me. I was not truly shouting at you."
"Don't worry about it, Li'ac. You're entitled to blow off a little steam. Let's get someone else into that thing."
By the time the local sun came up, everyone had got their turn in the sarcophagus. Jack pried the main hatch open and found it six feet in the air.
A long trail of broken trees marked their trajectory. In the light of day, Jack could see where they had impacted the ground and rolled several times before they came to rest on a grassy hillside. There was a stream at the bottom of the hill, and he could hear a lot of birds and small animals in the surrounding forest.
Astarte looked out the hatch and drew her first breath of fresh air as a free woman. "We made it. I don't believe it! By the eternal, we made it!"
Sam grinned. "We sure did."
Jack said, "I'm not trying to rain on anybody's parade here, but does anybody have a clue where the hell we are?"
Astarte said, "I had set a course for Lendas, my host's home world. It has been deserted for many hundreds of years now, but there is a stargate. I do not believe we got that far."
"Can you tell if there's a stargate here?"
"If there is, it is too far away."
Sam said, "The ship's sensors may have recorded something. I'll see what I can recover."
Daniel located a cargo net and they rigged it in the door.
Teal'c asked, "Astarte, do you have any of our belongings?"
She shook her head. "I brought along clothing for you, but I have no idea what happened to your own things."
"There is the matter of my tretonin."
Jack couldn't believe he had forgotten all about that.
Astarte asked, "Would be possible for you to accept a prim'ta?"
"I do not know."
"A newborn could do little more than give you immunity to disease, but would that not allow you to survive without the drug?"
"I see no reason to believe otherwise," he said. "I will not foster another Goa'uld."
"Neither will I birth any! Ra and Hathor are dead, and Ba'al has no power over me here. I will never poison another of my offspring with their legacy."
"You would make Egeria's choice, Astarte?"
"Many of the younger queens would, I think. We are as Hathor made us, but we have lived in the courts of the system lords long enough to know that our society is rotten from within. All it took was one strong wind to blow Ra away for the whole thing to collapse around us."
Jack said, "It might not come to that, T. Let's see what Carter can find out from the black box."
Astarte asked, "What is this black box?"
"English word for flight recorder."
"I will help her."
Jack said, "Li'ac, let's you and I take a look around and meet the new neighbors. T, you and Risha secure a perimeter closer to the ship and take first watch. Danny, check out the storage lockers that we missed earlier and figure out exactly where we are with supplies."
Li'ac inclined her head and took up her staff weapon. Jack and Li'ac descended the cargo net and took a better look around. They were in the foothills of a mountain range that rose majestically into a pristine blue sky to the west. Everything seemed unspoiled. Jack doubted the presence of an industrialized society here, judging from the lack of pollution. But there were places on earth that seemed just as untouched, to someone who was no scientist.
A search of the area turned up no signs of human habitation, but they did see a herd of antelope and an abundance of smaller game. The stream was full of fish.
By the time they returned, Daniel had cleared an area for a camp fire and found some containers to get water from the creek. "Did Carter get anything from the sensor data?"
One-word answers from Daniel were rarely good news. Jack climbed the net and found Carter and Astarte up to their elbows in a panel of crystals and circuitry. "Carter? Daniel said you got something?"
"Yes, sir." She wiped her hands on a rag and led the way into the cockpit. They had cleaned up one panel and got it working. She called up a holodisplay of the planet. To Jack it looked fairly earth-like, mostly ocean with four large continents. Sam indicated their position, on the seaward side of a mountain range on the largest northern continent. Sam said, "The good news is, there's a stargate."
"What's the bad news?"
"It's over here." She indicated another large land mass across a couple thousand miles of open ocean.
Jack looked around the comfortable camp that surrounded the wreck. They had decided to stay close to the wreck, because the plentiful game in the area suggested that there probably were also large predators. It was their best refuge. But it would be hard to sleep in there with the deck at that angle. While Carter and Astarte repaired the ship's systems as well as they could, and Li'ac and Risha stood guard, Jack, Daniel and Teal'c had rigged some tarpaulins as a shelter and set up a cooking and living area outside.
Astarte climbed down the net carefully. She had never done anything like that before. Her silk gown and slippers had been completely unsuitable for roughing it. She was wearing Jaffa clothing and had confined her long mane of chestnut hair into a simple braid. Li'ac gave her a calculating look. "My lady, but for the lack of a tattoo you could well pass for one of us."
Astarte laughed. "Until someone handed me a staff weapon and I shot off my own foot with it, perhaps! The only weapon in which I am in any way proficient is my kara-kesh. No Jaffa is so unskilled."
Sam said, "Well, that--you might have time to learn."
Astarte's face fell. "There is that." She told Jack, "The communications system is beyond hope. Sam has managed to restore the power to most of the ship's systems, but the main communications crystal was shattered and there is no replacement."
Sam said, "I've also got a lot better idea of our position. If we do manage to phone home, we're out on the fringes of explored space. It would take the fastest Tok'ra ships three months to even get here."
"So at best we won't get home for at least six months, unless the Asgard come after us," Jack said.
Astarte sat down. "If your people have any idea that you are still alive. If they discover that you have disappeared into Ba'al's dungeons, and there is no further sign of you, then what could they think but that you are dead? I might have planned this somewhat better, I think."
"We're one hell of a lot better off than we were, even if we end up living here!" Jack told her. "We have to stay positive and keep focused on what we need to do to get by. It's summer now, but we don't know how long that will last or how long the winters are. We can survive here and probably do pretty well for ourselves, but it's going to be a lot of hard work."
Risha said, "My mother was a healer. I know many uses for plants, and which can safely be eaten." As an example, she parted some grass stems and picked a handful of small sweet berries, which she shared around. "These are delicious and they ward off scurvy as well. There will surely be many more things to be gathered and put up for the ice moons. We should also begin to dry fish. Also, the grazing beasts may lead us to a salt lick--and with salt, we can cure meat."
Li'ac said, "My clan are nomads who follow the herds of the Sakarra Steppe. I know of curing meat and of using the hides as well. We will need heavier clothing for the cold."
Daniel said, "And firewood. We need to start cutting it now, in case there's heavy snow that will make it hard to get any."
Sam agreed, "It would be better not to count on the ship's power plant, sir. I've got it going for as long as it holds out, but we won't have spare parts when something breaks down. We need to be prepared to live completely off the land."
Jack nodded. He had survived in much worse places than this. Were it not for being marooned so far from home, they could thrive here. Astarte, Li'ac and Risha had left nothing behind them, but the rest of them missed their homes. Daniel and Sarah had been slowly moving back towards a closer relationship. Teal'c had his son and new daughter-in-law. Sam had Pete--he stepped on the cynical observation that Pete might not wait for her when she was declared MIA. She didn't need to hear that from him. Jack realized that he missed people as well--especially Cassie, who had spent a lot more time at his house since Janet had passed on. "I believe they'll find us," he said. "Jacob won't give up on you, and he won't let the Tok'ra give up. The least we can do is be waiting for them when they show up."
By then supper was ready. Jack assigned watches, and they turned in when it got dark. Li'ac and Risha sat kel-no-reem with the flickering campfire for candlelight, not far from Astarte's bedroll. Daniel had found a data pad to use for a journal. Teal'c stood outside the firelight, on first watch. Jack lay awake after Carter slept, watching the stars come out. He felt minor symptoms of withdrawal from the sarcophagus, but nothing anywhere nearly as bad as it could have been. He could handle putting up with keeping a clear path to the latrine and having a pounding headache for a few hours. All told, going from prisoners to pioneers was a huge improvement.
Sam murmured something in her sleep, then called, "Jack? Jack!"
He assured her that he was there and she settled without ever really waking. A few nightmares were the least they could expect. Jack fell asleep thinking that she'd called out for him, not Shanahan.
Two weeks later, Jack thought the camp was much more homelike, if your home happened to be a Viking village crossed with a Mad Max movie. Downwind, the Jaffa women had set up frames to dry fish and the hides of two antelope that they had brought down. Jack figured any Jaffa third-grader could pass SEAR school.
Sam had found two solar panels and set them up as a roof for a second shelter, so that they had separate men's and women's quarters. Only one of the panels worked, but now they had electric lights in both shelters, and a water heater. That had been necessary. Teal'c needed a symbiote and Astarte needed to spawn in water. She had secluded herself in preparation for the last week.
Daniel had been making a more detailed study of the area around camp armed with a zat, a walking stick and a big sack. He brought back something for supper--a rabbit, some fruit, once a lot of wild potatoes which Risha had roasted in the ashes wrapped in some fragrant leaves that gave them such a nice flavor they barely missed salt. It brought back bittersweet memories of exploring the desert near Nagada with Sha're. His nearsightedness limited him, but he could see well enough up close. At the same time, Jack was satisfied that he had enough experience at night fighting that he wasn't really endangered by his poor vision.
Jack checked on Teal'c. He was sitting in the shade of the wreck putting a good edge on a knife that he had made from a fortunately shaped piece of scrap metal. Twice already he had needed the sarcophagus to keep him alive as the last of the tretonin worked its way out of his system.
"O'Neill. You have saved me looking for you."
Jack sat down. "What's up, T?"
"Should the prim'ta ceremony fail, I wish to allow nature to take its course. The sarcophagus is beginning to affect me already. I would rather die and remain myself than live as what it will make of me."
Jack closed his eyes and nodded in acceptance. It was the same choice he would have made, but after they had come through so much, he didn't want to lose a friend like this. "It'll work," he said.
Teal'c smiled. That had been what he had expected his warrior brother to say. With no more discussion, he went back to his work. Jack kept him company for a while before going off to gather some more firewood.
A couple of hours later, he heard Daniel running through the woods. "Jack! I found something! You gotta see this!"
"Over here, Danny, what have you got?"
"I found some ruins!"
Jack rolled his eyes at the thought of rocks, but he figured he'd better have a look to make sure it was safe. He shouted to Carter to let her know where they were headed, then caught up with Daniel.
The archaeologist was talking a mile a minute the whole time, and Jack just let him go on. There was nothing like finding some old rocks to keep Daniel's morale up. Jack wasn't looking forward to cabin fever this winter. He wondered if they could make ice skates.
Daniel led them him over the hill and around the side of the next one to another forested valley. He saw some big boulders, one of them with a tree growing out of it. "Uh, is that it?"
"Part of it," Daniel said. "There used to be a stone tower over there somewhere. It's collapsed--or possibly been knocked down, I've seen signs of possible fire damage."
When Daniel pointed it out, he could see that the boulders were laid out in a pattern. He'd assessed enough battle damage to know it when he saw it. "Yeah, something knocked that down all right. It wouldn't be this far from the foundation if it just fell over."
"But the good stuff is over here."
Jack scrambled to keep up. When Daniel was on the trail of a new discovery, he could climb over rocks like a mountain goat. He also tended to take bigger risks.
He found Daniel crouched by a crumbling stone wall, using a brush made out of feathers from day before yesterday's supper to clear the dirt off a large stone block. He had found an inscription. "Can you read that?"
"I wish I had my references. I believe it's Mayan. This whole complex appears to have been a temple dedicated to a local water goddess."
"Daniel, I see no complex. There's one tower over yonder and this one little bit of a wall. That isn't a complex."
"Yeah, well, you haven't seen the sacred pools yet."
"The what? Sacred pools?"
Daniel stood and picked up his walking stick. "Over here." The stream had been diverted into a stone-lined ditch. Most of it was overgrown, but Daniel had discovered that it led to a series of pools, each feeding into the next. Jack watched a small carp gobble up a water bug, and somewhere nearby he could hear a bullfrog.
The last pool was as clear of fish, bugs and water plants as if someone had cleaned it out this morning. Jack warned, "Hey, don't get too close! Something's keeping the wildlife out. It might be dangerous."
"The animals use it for a watering hole," Daniel pointed out.
"So what is it?"
"I don't know, but Bill and I found Tel-Chak's device in a place that looked a lot like this. There could be an underground complex."
"Uh--yeah, which we could fall into any minute, right?" Jack asked.
Carter looked up from her work. She had spent the last two hours sealing cracks in the cargo container that was going to be Astarte's spawning pool. "OK, I think that's got it! Let's fill it up and make sure there aren't any more leaks!"
She and Risha collected some buckets and headed for the stream.
Teal'c was still sitting in the same place. "Teal'c, have you seen Daniel and the General anytime in the last little while?"
"I have not, ColonelCarter."
"Daniel was going to show him something he found, but that was right after lunch."
"I will look for them."
"You rest. I want to let that container sit under pressure for a while so I can be sure it's sealed. We'll have a look around while we're waiting."
It took them a few trips to the stream to fill the crate, then they went off the way Sam had seen the men go earlier.
Risha asked, "Is GeneralO'Neill your mate?"
"Oh--no--I'm engaged. To someone else."
"It is no good thing for a father to promise his daughter to someone other than her true love. That pairing is doomed to fail," Risha pronounced. "On your world, do you not have the right to speak against such a mismatch?"
Sam said, "I--it's a complicated situation, Risha. The General and I are in a direct chain of command."
"And it is forbidden for the two of you to be together?"
"That is indeed complicated. So much so that I do not understand it at all."
Sam had been around Teal'c long enough to have an ear for Jaffa sarcasm. "There are good reasons. The general might have to give an order that would endanger me. And it could cause morale problems if people thought I was getting special treatment."
"If those were going to be considerations, would they not already have happened?"
"I suppose so," she sighed.
By then they had reached the tree line. Risha slowed her pace, searching intently for the men's trail. O'Neill habitually left very little of a trail to follow, but she quickly found the marks left by Daniel's walking stick.
The Jaffa led the way past the ruined tower, to the wall fragment with its carved glyphs. "They stopped here for a while. This has been brushed clean recently. Then they went on this way."
Sam called, "General O'Neill!"
There was no answer. The two of them followed the trail to the series of pools, and they both started calling.
Jack was lying on something soft. He groaned and tried to get up, and pain lanced up his leg.
"Are you all right?"
"Did something to my ankle, but other than that I think so."
"You just had to mention falling into an underground tunnel, didn't you?"
"Don't turn superstitious on me now, Danny. OW damn it!" Jack stopped trying to get up.
Daniel squinted into the darkness and followed Jack's voice, carefully feeling ahead with his stick. He didn't want to find a shaft or a well the hard way.
"Did you get hurt when you fell?"
Daniel assured him, "Nothing but my pride. I landed on my ass in a big pile of leaves and vines."
"Yeah, we'd have busted ourselves up real good if that stuff hadn't been there."
Daniel found him then, and his fingers gently checked Jack's ankle. "I don't think it's broken, Jack, just sprained."
Jaffa boots buckled rather than laced. Jack pulled each buckle as tightly as he could manage, and that was the best he could do towards bandaging it.
Daniel asked, "How far did we fall, anyhow?"
Jack looked up. "Eighteen, twenty feet, maybe. Looks like this hole is supposed to be up there and the vines and junk just grew across it. A lot of that stuff came down with us."
"What else is in here?"
"Looks like there might be something down here. The room's pretty big and it's pitch dark in the corners, but there are some doorways off each side."
"If this is Mayan I'm surprised that there aren't pyramids," Daniel said. "Possibly it was settled by a minor Goa'uld who didn't have a mother ship."
"Those vines hanging down don't look sturdy enough to climb. I guess we're stuck here until somebody finds us and brings a rope." Jack sounded bored already.
Daniel wasn't in any better frame of mind. He missed his glasses, and he couldn't help the morose thought that he might have to spend the rest of his life without them. He reminded himself that he had a rest of his life to miss them, and that put things into priority.
"Jack, did you hear that?"
Daniel listened closely. He was about to dismiss it as the vines moving in the wind. Then he heard it again, a slithering sound followed by an unmistakable rattle. "Jack, is that--"
Daniel could hear the angry rattlesnake plainly, but it was far too dark for him to see it. He didn't dare move. This wasn't the kind of place where one would think to find a rattlesnake. He figured that it must have been sunning itself on the mat of vines when he and Jack had fallen through, and been carried down with them. No wonder it was upset.
Jack got a good look at the snake. It was at least as long as he was tall, and it was slowly coiling itself, rattling constantly. His zat was out of reach. He reached for his knife and slowly unsheathed it.
He and the snake both struck at the same time. The snake fell dead in front of him with his knife through its head.
He took a couple of deep breaths before he responded. "I got it. I just hope it doesn't have any more friends down here." After everything they had been through, a plain old rattlesnake seemed downright mundane--but he'd lived in Colorado long enough to know how dangerous a bite could be.
Teal'c had a serious point about the sarcophagus. They all needed to avoid it like plague, and that meant not taking foolish risks.
Daniel recovered Jack's knife and expertly whacked the snake's head off.
"You gotta be kidding."
"Supper," Daniel grinned.
"I haven't had rattlesnake since survival training, and I ain't starting now," Jack told him.
"More for the rest of us. I learned how to fix them on Abydos. They're actually pretty good eating."
"Yeah, that's what the survival instructor said, too."
"General O'Neill! Daniel!"
Jack yelled, "Carter!"
"General? Risha, I heard him, but I don't see him. Can you tell where that came from?"
"This way, I think."
"Sir! Keep yelling so we can find you."
Their voices were steadily approaching. Jack warned, "Watch out, we fell down a hole! You're close!"
A moment later, Risha and Carter appeared at the opening.
"Sir, what are you doing down there? Is Daniel OK?"
Daniel yelled back, "I'm fine, but Jack sprained his ankle. Get a rope!"
Risha said, "I will go."
Presently she returned with Li'ac and a coil of line. Li'ac asked, "Can you climb?"
"Should be able to," Jack replied.
Li'ac simply made the rope fast around her waist. "Watch out!"
Jack got Daniel out of the way and she tossed the other end of the rope down. "Danny, you go first so you can help them pull if I can't climb it."
"OK. Tie my stick and my carry bag to the rope before you start up."
Presently they were out of the hole. As he had expected, Jack easily climbed out, but the trouble started when he got to the top. Leaning on Daniel and the walking stick, he hopped along on one foot.
Li'ac looked in the bag. "That is a good fat one."
"What?" Carter asked.
"Rattlesnake," Daniel replied. "Jack got it."
"I'm not eating that," she replied.
"More for the rest of us," Li'ac said.
Jack snorted, missed a step, and almost went down in a heap.
Risha asked, "What is that place?"
Daniel said excitedly, "We haven't had much time to find out yet, but there seems to be more than just that one chamber. We need to come back with lights and see what we really do have. It could be an old outpost of Tel-Chak's."
Risha said, "Shelter for the winter, possibly, and perhaps even a cache of supplies."
Li'ac said direly, "Or one of his laboratories, with who knows what horrible experiment in it!"
Carter said, "It'll stay right where it is till we can check it out without people breaking their legs."
O'Neill told her, "It isn't broken."
Teal'c and Astarte were waiting when they appeared. Teal'c would have started down the hillside to meet them, but Jack waved him off. A sprained ankle was a nuisance but no real cause for alarm.
It swelled like a balloon when they got his boot off, but to the best of their ability to examine it, no one thought it was broken. Carter taped it firmly and cut him a walking stick to match Daniel's. "Astarte, do we have a healing device?"
"Yes, but I won't be able to use it until after I give birth."
Jack said, "You can, but it wears you out. I can live with it for a couple of days."
Carter asked, "Will this symbiote be a Tok'ra?"
Astarte shook her head. "I have not passed on the racial memory of my kind at all. This child will know of life what it learns from Teal'c and from its first host."
Teal'c said, "You trust me with a great deal, Astarte."
"I do not feel my trust to be misplaced," she replied. "This little one is blessed to grow up knowing nothing of the Empire and its evil. Care for my child as you would your own. In that is the hope of both our races."
"I will," he promised.
Carter checked on her improvised bath tub, and found that there were no leaks. Risha chose to take that as a very good omen. "Now it must be cleaned and purified, and we have little time to prepare. Tomorrow will soon be upon us."
Carter helped carry water, but over and above that, there was little she could do but watch. She didn't know the rituals that Li'ac and Risha were performing. Not long after the container had been filled for the last time, with warm water and a carefully prepared mixture of herbs, it was time.
Sam had thought from Hathor that Goa'uld spawning was nothing compared to human childbirth. But Astarte had put a lot of energy into creating just one larva and protecting it from the curse of the Goa'uld racial memory that she carried. Her exhaustion made this much more difficult than usual. She was pale and weak when she gave birth.
Risha had prepared a container for the larva. There was a ritual involved with that, as everything else. Both the queen and her handmaiden hesitated over the ancient blessings at first, until Astarte smiled radiantly and set her own name aside to call upon the Eternal.
Risha took her precious burden off to Teal'c.
Carter was suddenly alarmed, because she remembered where she'd seen that "I've lived to see this moment" joy on someone's face before. Egeria.
Her fears were confirmed when she saw blood in the water.
Li'ac said urgently, "Lady, your host is bleeding. You must stop it."
"I do not have the strength," she admitted, but she was at peace. "Dal shakka mel."
"Live free!" The Jaffa told her intensely.
"Li'ac, swear to me--I dare not risk the sarcophagus again so soon. You cannot know how it calls to me. Swear it!"
"I swear it, my Lady."
Carter asked, "Li'ac, do you know where she keeps the healing device? Get it, quickly."
Risha and the men realized something was wrong when they saw Li'ac run for the wreck and climb the net hell-bent for leather. Risha ordered Jack and Daniel, "Stay here and keep Teal'c quiet, whatever you do!" She took off like a shot for the women's shelter.
Risha arrived to find Carter desperately trying to slow the bleeding. A moment later Li'ac returned with the healing device. Carter slipped it onto her bloody hand and fought for two lives.
Jack reached for his makeshift cane, determined to find out what was happening. Daniel said, "Damn it, Jack, stay put! You can't do anything over there except get in the way!"
As much as he hated it, Daniel was right. "What could've happened?"
Teal'c said, "I do not know. I have never heard of a queen having any trouble in spawning. Had I known that she put herself at risk for me, I would never have allowed it."
Daniel said, "That's why she didn't tell you. She took her destiny in her own hands and made her own decision."
Teal'c nodded, accepting. "Freedom is a choice made, DanielJackson, and once made, rarely unmade. Whatever else comes of this, from this night onward, I honor Astarte as a fellow warrior."
Light from the healing device flared, silhouetting Carter and the two Jaffa women against the tarpaulin wall of their shelter. The fight went on for a long time, and ended only when Carter could continue no longer. The silhouettes dimmed, backlit now only by the shelter's usual lighting.
Jack, Daniel and Teal'c could only wait. Over an hour later, Risha came out with buckets to fetch more water, and told them that Astarte was alive. Before that night, if anyone had ever told Jack he'd be thankful to hear those words about a Goa'uld, he'd have called them a damn liar.
After that night, there was no more division between SG-1 and the refugee women. They were a family.
It took them all a while to get over that eventful day. Hunting and gathering fell to Daniel and the two Jaffa women while Jack kept his foot up, Astarte healed, Teal'c regained his strength, and Carter rested and made sure Jack kept his foot up. Daniel chafed in silence knowing the ruins were just over the hill waiting for him, but it was another week before they were ready to go exploring.
The first order of business was a detailed exploration of the site to make sure there weren't any more holes waiting for somebody to fall in, and they were all careful to watch for snakes. Then Carter picked out a sturdy tree. After they had chopped it down, she trimmed off the branches and cut notches in it to make a staircase. It was hard work for all of them to pull it into place with a block and tackle, but it went into place wedged in the corner of the "skylight" even more securely than she had hoped.
"Sir, be careful of your ankle."
"Don't be a mother hen," Jack retorted, grinning. He descended into the skylight chamber with Daniel hot on his heels.
Daniel reminded everyone about the booby-traps that he had found in Tel-chak's temple in Central America. Jack went first, on the alert for anything that could be a trap.
The place was a tomb, with burials on both sides of four long corridors. While Daniel was fascinated with the discoveries to be made here as he translated the inscriptions on the walls, he shared everyone else's disappointment that they hadn't found a treasure trove.
Li'ac asked, "Do you know who is buried here?"
"Well, as far as I can make out, this whole place was built by a sect of Tel-chak's priests. These are the tombs of the high priests. As you can see, this corridor has only two burials. If I'm interpreting the dates correctly, the last high priest to be buried here died about eight hundred years ago. The place was probably destroyed sometime during the next high priest's reign. Astarte, does that ring any bells?"
She shook her head. "I recognize these glyphs as the language of Tel-chak's followers, but his priesthood was very secretive. Small cults of his followers had hidden temples like this on out-of-the-way planets. They guarded their secrets fiercely, sacrificing any outsiders who stumbled onto them to protect their location. After Tel-chak was defeated many such temples were destroyed in uprisings of the local peasants. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that was what happened here."
"The Mayan god Chac was seen as beneficial, a rain and fertility god associated with Kukulcan."
Astarte said, "And my namesake was an aspect of Great Goddess Herself!"
Daniel said, "Ha! I knew it. Jack, if we ever get home, you owe me twenty bucks." At Astarte's puzzled expression, Daniel explained, "We had a bet on whether Ra and his court started the religions that grew up around them, or whether they assumed the identities of gods that the early Egyptians already worshiped. I thought that was the case, Jack thought they made it all up as they went along."
Astarte said, "Well, in that case, you may still have an argument over who wins your wager. They did assume the identities of the nature spirits of the local Tau'ri, that much is true, but at the time those Tau'ri were a simple nomadic folk. It was Ra who shaped their worship to his own ends. Ra thought the existing beliefs of the Tau'ri tribes to be nothing more than superstition. He, personally, did not believe that the Eternal truly exists. I think as the ages passed he actually came to believe in his own pretense. Ba'al certainly does."
Risha jumped backwards, bringing her staff up defensively and starting a chain reaction as everyone else immediately prepared for trouble. "That moved!"
"What did?" Jack asked.
"That carving. I touched it without thinking. It went back into the wall. I thought I heard something else move," she explained.
Astarte looked down the unfinished corridor, and took a hesitant step forward. "Wait, there is something, I sense naquada."
Daniel examined the panel closely, then pushed the small carving of a flower in the rest of the way with his walking stick. For a moment, nothing happened, then the wall at the end of the corridor began to slowly grind upwards.
Everyone moved back into the skylight chamber and took cover. When the stone door stopped grinding upwards, Jack listened intently for a while before risking a glance down the corridor. He and Teal'c checked it out. Behind the door was a small hidden room.
Teal'c's ability to sense naquada had returned now that he once again had a symbiote. "O'Neill, this is a ring room."
"I wonder where it goes." He was sweeping the room carefully, floor, walls, ceiling.
There were more Mayan carvings on the walls. Jack called the others up when he discovered nothing dangerous in the room.
Daniel looked at the carvings. "Jack, I can't be sure, but I think this may go to the main temple of this sect."
"Danny, what are the chances that the main temple is somewhere near the stargate?" Jack asked.
"Pretty good, I'd think! This could be our ticket home!" He peered at the walls. "There has to be a control panel somewhere."
Astarte looked around for naquada inside the walls, her senses were much sharper than those of the Jaffa and the former host. "Somewhere...here, I think."
Daniel said, "Better step back, everyone." He examined the panel of carvings that she had indicated. Sure enough, he found a section that slid open to reveal the ring controls.
Jack said, "Folks, since we don't have a MALP handy, let's try this first with a rock or something."
When they sent some debris from the skylight chamber round-trip with no damage, Jack said, "OK, I'm gonna check it out first."
Astarte said, "We should both go. How will you find the ring controls?"
"There's that," he admitted. Jack took a deep breath in case they ended up somewhere that had been closed up for a long time, then signaled Carter to activate the rings.
They came out on top of the world. The ring platform was at the top of a massive pyramid. Half a mile away a cliff dropped off. Beyond that was the sea. It was breathtakingly hot after the chill inside the tomb. Landward, jungle had overtaken a large city. Only the tops of lesser pyramids were visible over the treetops. There were no signs that the city was inhabited. It was very like Central America back home, maybe that was why Tel-chak had located his main temple here.
Astarte jumped up and down in excitement, grabbing his arm and talking a mile a minute in Goa'uld. Jack spoke a few words of Goa'uld, most of which he had picked up only recently from being around Astarte and the Jaffa. He couldn't make any sense of that torrent, though.
"Hey, either slow down or speak English!"
"The chappa'ai! It's very close, no more than an hour's walk into the jungle!"
Jack let out a whoop of his own. "All right! Let's get back and tell everyone."
Astarte found the ring controls and activated them with her ribbon device. Jack said, "We are so outta here! The gate's only a couple miles from the ring portal!"
That set off a loud celebration. Daniel said, "I'm going to get a new pair of glasses and a cup of coffee--not necessarily in that order!"
Sam said, "I'm going to take an hour-long shower."
Daniel teased, "You'll need it after we cut our way through a couple of miles of jungle!"
Jack said, "I'm gonna find the biggest pizza in Colorado Springs!"
Astarte asked, "What will become of us?"
"I'm not sure earth would be the safest place for you. That's the first place Ba'al will look as soon as he finds out we made it home," Jack said thoughtfully. "The political situation back home is complicated, too." He didn't want to think of her as some sleazy politician's bargaining chip, but it was all too likely.
Teal'c said, "It may be that you would be safest among the Free Jaffa. It will take time for you to earn my people's trust, but I have given my word to protect you, and that will be honored. You will be the hope of many Jaffa who cannot take tretonin--if and only if you will not put yourself at such risk again."
Sam said, "The Tok'ra wouldn't trust you easily, either, but they would protect you. They've had a lot of experience with hiding out from the system lords."
Jack said, "Depends on what you want. For that matter, there are some folks who owe me a few favors. You could just disappear."
"If I run, I will always be looking behind me to see who might be catching up. If my people see that I can change, perhaps it will give some of them the courage to do so as well."
Teal'c said, "Where ever you go, Astarte, people will want to know of your host."
"Her name is Adrana. She was a farm girl cursed by her beauty to be chosen as my first host. In time, perhaps, if we are free of Ba'al long enough, she will come out into the world again. I do not deny her that right, but neither will I force her before she is ready."
Teal'c nodded understanding. "O'Neill, how much do you think we should take with us from the camp?"
"As much as we can carry, in case the rings stop working and we don't make it right home."
It was heading toward evening, and as much as everyone wanted to see the pyramid and start making their way home, Jack didn't want to be around the ruins after dark. As long as the light held out, they worked on packing up the things they were going to take with them.
It was Sam and Daniel's job to fetch water. As she was filling the tank of the purification unit, she teased, "You'll be glad to see Sarah again, I'll bet."
Daniel grinned. "I won't deny it. I'll bet you've missed Pete."
She suddenly realized that she hadn't even thought about Pete since her conversation with Risha about the regulations. She told herself that she just hadn't had time, but the truth was, she really hadn't missed him. She'd had plenty of time to think about Jacob and Mark and Cassie. She lied, "Oh, yeah. Sure have."
A few feet away, Jack had overheard that conversation, and for just a moment he grinned. She might love Pete--in fact, he was sure she did. She wasn't the kind of woman to lead someone on. But she wasn't in love with him. The person you were in love with was always on your mind, first, last and always.
He slipped away without either of them seeing him and dished himself up a bowl of fish stew. By this time tomorrow, they might be home.
Everyone was up before the sun the next morning, rushing through breakfast to get to work securing everything they had to leave behind inside the wreck. Wintering here had dropped to plan C, behind going home and making a new camp in the warmer climate on the other end of the rings--but they couldn't discount the possibility.
Jack let everyone party until they got to the ruins. "All right, let's get serious. We're not home yet and we don't know what's between us and the gate. T, Li'ac, you're with me."
By the time they descended the steep stairs down the pyramid to stand on a stone road that disappeared into the jungle, everyone had gotten down to business. Astarte said, "It looks like this road points directly to the chappa'ai."
Daniel missed his glasses. Risha walked with him and described everything for him.
The roadway was overgrown but passable, unlike the emerald wall on either side. Jack said, "Watch yourself. This is a game trail now, which means the predators will be waiting for breakfast to come along."
"May there be nothing that would attack such a large group," Astarte said nervously. "If there is, I do not want to meet it."
The trees were full of hundreds of birds, like winged jewels. Jack told her, "If the birds get quiet, you can really start worrying."
In many places, lianas from the overhanging trees blocked their way. Teal'c and Li'ac made short work of that--when it was too time-consuming to hack through them with their knives, a few staff blasts opened a path in short order. Jack didn't object to the noise. They hadn't seen any sign of human inhabitants that they might alert, but the racket would help scare off anything that might be big and hungry.
About a mile in, the road turned to a causeway above a swamp. Sam said, "There's got to be a spectacular waterfall where this goes over the cliff to the sea."
Jack kept scanning the black water on either side of the causeway, visions of boa constrictors and alligators dancing in his head. They did start seeing big reptiles right away. The creatures had no instinctive fear of human beings. The most common ones looked like small crocodiles, about four feet long counting the tail. The only huge snake they saw was stretched out on a fallen log a fair distance from the causeway, and nobody had the slightest desire to get any closer to it. They couldn't see the entire length of it, but the part they could see looked a lot like a green and yellow telephone pole. They moved on from there without delay.
Daniel swatted yet another bug and tried not to think about malaria and yellow fever. They had been vaccinated against everything that the SGC could think of, but they all knew how easily they could run across some new alien disease. If he wanted to find something like that, a tropical swamp would be exactly where he'd look.
Soon after they left the swamp, Li'ac said, "We are getting close."
Astarte nodded. "We are practically standing on it."
"Okay," Jack said, "Spread out a little and look for it. But if you lose sight of the rest of us, stop where you are and yell. You wouldn't believe how fast you can get lost in undergrowth like this." He and Teal'c let the others search, concentrating on keeping track of them and keeping watch. It wasn't long until Astarte found the gate, heavily overgrown but still standing.
Sam immediately began looking for the DHD, and when she found it she let out a triumphant yell. Willing hands immediately pitched in to clean off all the vines and accumulated detritus of the centuries that it had stood idle. She looked up. "Where to, sir?"
Without a GDO, they couldn't go to Earth. "Beta site. Ladies, I hate to do this, but I'm gonna have to ask you to turn your backs on the DHD before she dials. I don't want anyone who doesn't already know those coordinates to have them."
Astarte was insulted and then she realized if Ba'al ever got his hands on her again--she shuddered and did as he asked.
Sam punched in the first glyph, but it didn't light up. She hit it again a couple of times. The cold chill that settled over them had nothing to do with the weather.
"Try it anyhow, maybe it just isn't lighting up," Daniel suggested. Sam complied, but as she had expected, the gate did not dial.
She used her knife to clear the dirt around the access panel and got it open. All the crystals were smashed. "Somebody made damn sure nobody else was going to be using this gate!"
Jack said, "Ok, we'll clear all that crap off it and try to dial out manually." They had to try, but if he wanted to sabotage a stargate, he'd have dialed out manually himself to make sure there wouldn't be enough energy left for somebody else to do that.
Stargates were designed to stand up to worse than staff fire and zats. It took little time to clear the vegetation. They dialed out, but no wormhole formed.
The morning's jubilation gave way to defeat. They weren't going home today, or any other day, unless somebody found them. And they all knew the long odds against that.
Jack said, "OK, people, let's pack it up and head back to the temple. Looks like this is our planet now. We need to figure out what we're going to do with it."
One by one they gathered up their weapons and packs, turned their backs on the useless gate, and fell in behind him on the ancient stone path that led to what was now their home.
It was a subdued, dejected group that finally trudged out of the jungle and sat down on the bottom steps of the temple.
Jack said, "This was a hell of a disappointment, but we're still better off than we were yesterday. Take a look around, people. We can walk back and forth from Aspen to Cozumel. We're really going to appreciate that when there's three feet of snow on the ground at the crash site."
Teal'c said, "Indeed, O'Neill. This is a most beautiful place."
Carter speculated, "The rings can't be the only high-tech things left here. At the very least, when Tel-chak was visiting, I don't think he roughed it in a mud hut. I'll bet his palace is around here somewhere. We'll find it."
Astarte said, "Yes--perhaps in this very temple."
They walked around the temple, looking at it from all angles to try to find a way inside. It differed from the Mayan pyramids that Daniel had studied in that there wasn't an altar atop it, where the ancient Mayan kings had sacrificed their own blood or that of high-ranking captives to sustain their gods. There also was no immediately obvious entry at ground level. They climbed to the ring platform, where they determined that this was the hub of the ring portal system. There were three other remote locations besides the one in the ruins.
It was too late that afternoon for any more exploring, as they still had to find a place to set up camp. Teal'c found a likely spot a distance up the coast. There was a stone building there which apparently had once been the home of a high-ranking nobleman, from its size. They had some cleaning out to do, but it would be comfortable enough. At least if it rained they had a roof over their heads. Nearby, also, was a narrow path leading down to the beach.
The large villa was designed with wide windows meant to be shaded with awnings to catch the cool sea breezes. The view was spectacular. She could see the former owners sitting outside and enjoying the cool of the evening. The house had a cistern, apparently they depended on the tropical rains for fresh water. Sam thought it could be repaired, but in the meanwhile they would have to supply their own.
Cooking had been done outside, there was a fireplace in a walled courtyard. That kept the heat outdoors, and reduced the risk of a fire getting started. After supper they lounged on the wide porch to watch the sunset.
Jack said, "Y'know, if ol' Tel-chak's palace is in that pyramid, it would have to be pretty fancy for me to rather stay there than here."
Daniel nodded. "Do you guys think there's any reasonable chance of us getting home?"
Sam shook her head. "After some of the amazing coincidences that have got us out of no-win situations before, Daniel, I'm not going to say anything's impossible. But look at the facts. We can't get a call out to let anyone know where we are. Even if somebody got their hands on flight data from the Varga, they wouldn't be able to determine exactly where we left hyperspace or where we went from there. I know Thor has been able to track the General before...."
Jack hated to squash that bit of wishful thinking. "Yeah, it's that DNA marker thing. Apparently when they scan a planet for life forms, I stick out like a sore thumb. But I'm not gonna hold my breath waiting for some Asgard to come along and scan this planet. Danny, what are the chances Oma or Shifu might look in on you and tell somebody where we are?"
"They wouldn't interfere. This could be our proper path." Daniel steepled his fingers. "So...all that having been said, Jack, at what point do we decide this is our future and just start living it?"
Jack watched a flock of birds fly by on their way from the shore to the trees. "I waited a hundred days on Edora before I gave up. That wasn't long enough."
Sam acknowledged that admission with a little smile. "We knew where you were then. And any other time somebody went missing, we were able to find out what happened, even if only to take them off the MIA roster. This time there just isn't anything for anybody to go on. I think they will find out we escaped from Ba'al, but that's where the trail will go cold."
Daniel said, "You and Teal'c lost a whole hell of a lot more than the rest of us did. You guys have family back home."
Teal'c replied, "True. But it has also been an accepted truth that what we do is hazardous. Even those who never knew the whole truth, were aware that we could be lost without a trace. My son has his own life now, and Ishta is a warrior. She will honor my memory and go on with her life."
Sam nodded. She hoped that her father did find out that they had escaped from Ba'al. Selmac would comfort him, and he would have the consolation that she had gone missing in the course of doing her job. Mark.... Sam and her brother had never been close. This would just be one more reason for him to hate the military. She hoped that Pete would move on without spending too much time in mourning. She felt a deep sense of sadness that he had always loved her more than she had loved him in return. Cassie was her true sorrow. The girl had been left motherless twice, and now Sam and Jack were lost to her as well. Sam wanted to reach across the distance between them and tell her to go to medical school and marry her Dominic and live well. But after the horrors that they had endured, they were here together and safe. Sam was vibrantly aware of being alive and profoundly grateful to have been given another chance.
Jack watched her emotions play across her face. Their lives here might not be what they had planned, but they could be good.
(From Daniel Jackson's journal)
We have made a great deal of progress over the last few weeks since we discovered the ring portal. There are four other stations in the ring portal network, of which the temple at Cozumel is the main hub. Yes, Jack's names for the crash site and the abandoned city have stuck. I have no idea why that should surprise me. Of the four portals, only one is working. It goes to a hangar about five miles up the coast. At one time, there was a squadron of udajeet based here. Not much was left, but we did recover quite a few tools and a hoversled, which has made it much easier for us to bring water and firewood to the villa. There were also several light crystals, which we were happy to find. Sam has been occupied with repairing the cistern and moving one of the ship's generators here. Finally we have all the major utilities. We've also restored the palm frond awnings that shade the windows, making it much more comfortable in the afternoon heat. We have decided to try growing some of our food, right now the wild potato plants that we found in Aspen and some melons that grow here. There are coconut palms and various citrus trees growing near here, and a wide variety of things in the jungle. Many of the plants and animals seem identical to species found on Earth, but there are others which are new to us. There's no way for us to tell if they've evolved here from Earth species or if they were native to the planet.
After some discussion, we moved to the villa permanently. Our concern was riding out the hurricane season here, but this is a solid building which has remained sound through several centuries of storms. The interior rooms should be safe. We decided to take our chances with what the sea might throw at us, rather than winter over in Aspen. It's early fall there and already there are frosts almost every morning.
Most of our time has been taken up with the business of survival. We must either find or make everything we need, or do without. Sam is often frustrated by knowing how to build things to make our lives better, but not having the tools and supplies to carry out her ideas. She has been spending a lot of her spare time working on the ring portal trying to get the other three destinations opened up. As for myself, I don't have the time I would like to study the site.
If this is where fate has decided we're going to retire, it was a good choice. Many nights, however, we all look up into the night sky, knowing that a war still rages out there and that people we love are still caught up in it. I am afraid that we'll never quite manage to reconcile ourselves with beating our swords into plowshares.
(end journal entry)
Trouble hit before he knew it was happening. Something slammed into him from behind like a linebacker. Fortunately the hoversled coasted to a stop as soon as he took his hand off the switch, or he surely would have wrecked it. Talons raked his back. He yanked his knife from its sheath and turned around, and almost got a face full of bird beak. He whacked it away with the back of his left arm and slashed with the knife, catching flesh. It squawked and bit at him. That beak could take his whole arm off. He grabbed a piece of wood with his left hand to ward it off.
It was clearly a raptor, and it wasn't going to let its prey escape now that it had tasted blood. Jack was even more determined not to become lunch. The next time it lunged at him, he ducked its attack and slashed with the knife, cutting its throat. It fell back on the woodpile.
Then he got a good look at the critter. It was at least six feet long, and it looked like a cross between a lizard and a bird, with a long thin body and tail. Its wings were feathered and powerful, while its body was covered with iridescent green scales. There was a tuft of feathers at the end of its tail. He would have thought it was funny looking if its inch-long talons hadn't been razor sharp, and he wasn't getting dizzy. He was bleeding, a lot. He got home as fast as he could.
Li'ac saw him driving like a drunk, and dropped her hoe and came running. Taking in the scene, she picked him up like a little kid and ran for the house with him, yelling for help. He passed out before she got to the door with him.
O'Neill's back hurt. A lot. He opened his eyes and saw a pair of warm green ones looking back at him. Risha.
"Lie still. You gave us all quite a scare. How are you feeling now?"
"Fine," he said. "Giant rooster."
He heard Sam's laughter, full of weariness and relief. "You're not fine, exactly, yet, but you will be. Don't move around too much. Risha will be mad at you if you bust your stitches."
The healing device was lying nearby. He could also see some bloody rags that used to be his shirt. He must have been in worse shape than he'd thought if he still had stitches after they'd used the healing device on him. "'Kay." He was tired. Going back to sleep for a while seemed like a good idea, so he did.
Risha stood up and washed her hands. "I do not know how he drove himself back here after losing so much blood."
Sam said, "That's the general for you." She sat down beside his bedroll to watch over him.
Risha shook her head. Still "the general." Well, that was none of her business, as tempted as she was to shake some sense into the both of them sometimes. She took the shirt and a basin of water away with her.
It was evening before he woke up again. This time he had to use the bathroom. Daniel was sitting with him now. When he started trying to get up, the archaeologist said, "Whoa, you're not going anywhere."
"That's what you think. Gotta use the can."
"At least let me help you up."
"Yeah. That's--ow!--probably a good idea." It was a few steps across the hall to the bathroom, but he felt like a new kitten. It was a good thing he'd let Daniel help him navigate. By the time he got back to his bedroll, he was worn out.
Sam heard him moving around and brought him in a bowl of something.
"What's that, chicken soup?"
"More or less."
He made a face.
Sam said with an evil little smile, "Actually, it's giant rooster soup."
He dug in. Not too shabby to make a meal out of something that had intended to make a meal out of him.
Sam sat down next to him. "Wonder how many of those things there are?"
"I think if there were a lot, we would have noticed them flying around before now," Jack reasoned. "For all we know, they might be flying south for the winter."
Sam said, "That sled would be a lot better if it had a cab up front. I could use some of the interior panels from the wreck. We don't have any glass, but bars over the windows would've given you a chance to get to your zat."
He nodded. They couldn't always anticipate trouble coming, but they'd do their best to make sure the same thing didn't happen twice. Now that they knew about the flying lizards, they'd be on the alert for them, just as they were for the jungle's other predators.
Sam took the empty bowl and he carefully settled himself on his side. "How long am I gonna have to put up with these damn stitches? They itch like hell," he complained.
"Probably no more than tomorrow. Astarte and I both wore ourselves out. We'll be okay for another session in the morning. I'll see if Risha has something that will make it stop itching."
Jack took a good look at her, there were dark circles around her eyes. He figured he must have come pretty damn close to bleeding out, if it had taken everything the both of them had to get him stabilized. That was what he got for going off by himself, like it was the woods around his Minnesota cabin instead of an alien planet. He'd got overconfident and almost ended up on the menu because of it.
Sam came back with a pot of strongly medicinal-smelling salve. He wrinkled his nose. He remembered staying upwind of the kitchen when Risha had been boiling that stuff. Sam said, "She told me you'd get used to the smell."
"If it works, I can live with it."
She drew his blanket carefully away from his back.
"How does it look?"
"It's probably going to draw," she said honestly. "Risha did a good job sewing you up before Astarte and I did anything more than get the bleeding stopped, but none of us is a surgeon. If you want to avoid scarring the sarcophagus is the only way you're going to do that."
"Oh, hell, no. Not for this. If I got range of motion back after Iraq, I can work through this."
"Risha said this stuff should help."
The cooling salve eased the itching immediately. Sam's hands were gentle and caring. He closed his eyes and relaxed into her touch. "A guy could get used to this."
She said, "You don't have to get yourself half-killed--" She stopped in the middle of the sentence, but he heard the anxiety loud and clear.
"Yeah, tell that to the damn flying lizards," he replied.
"I will if I see one."
Jack laughed softly and instantly regretted that. He'd just bet she would. With a zat.
The next day, Sam and Daniel drew laundry duty. It was hot, hard work, scrubbing the clothes on an improvised washboard and stirring them in a wash boiler, wringing them out by hand and hanging them over a clothes line.
Daniel asked, "How was Jack this morning?"
"Better, he can get up and down without having to get someone to help him. You know how he hates having to depend on other people."
Daniel winced. He'd been around a convalescing O'Neill often enough over the years to know exactly how much he hated it. "Now all we have to do is come up with something to keep him occupied until he's well enough to go back to work. I never thought I'd say this, but I miss ESPN."
Sam snickered and bailed some shirts out of the wash boiler. She decided the next thing she was going to make was a wringer.
Daniel said, "Sam, this is none of my business, but...how long are you going to wait?"
"Look, we all know how you and Jack have felt about each other for years. Are you waiting to get back to Pete?"
She shook her head. "I never should have accepted Pete's proposal. I do care about him, Daniel--"
"I never said you didn't."
"I hate it that he's probably waiting for me, and when I get back, I'll have to tell him it was a mistake."
"That won't be easy. But I don't think you have to do penance for it."
"What do you mean?"
"You and Jack. Sam, I know I'm butting in, but--there are a lot of things I never did with Sha're because I thought there was plenty of time. Things I never told her. I don't regret anything about the year I had with her, but I regret like hell the things I didn't do."
"I don't know that there even is a Jack and me," she said pensively. "He never said anything, he's never let me finish telling him how I feel. That damn zat'arc test was four years ago. I don't know if he still thinks about me that way. He never even spoke up when he knew I hadn't accepted Pete's proposal yet. If he'd said one word to make me think--"
"You settled," Daniel said, without judgment, simply stating a fact.
"Yeah, I settled, okay? What's that go to do with now? We're not going home. We all know that. Why can't we just admit it?"
"I don't know, we just don't want to give up I guess. But...talk to him, OK?"
She sighed. "I hear you, Daniel."
O'Neill was bored. There was nothing left to do around the villa, not that anyone would let him do anyway. He wandered around pestering people until Teal'c told him in no uncertain terms to go take a nap. Instead he went outside where Daniel was just hanging up the last of the laundry. Sam was standing around nearby, keeping watch.
Daniel said, "Hey, Jack, do you think you could climb the pyramid?"
"Yeah, sure, I probably wouldn't set any new land speed records but I could get up there. Why?"
"Well, Sam wanted to work on the rings before it gets dark. If you go with her to keep an eye out while she works, I can help Risha. She's teaching me a lot about the herbs that grow around here."
"Great." Daniel took the empty wash basket back to the villa, grinning to himself as he walked away.
Jack asked, "Do you think you can get those other ring portals working?"
Sam said, "Maybe. I've been working on some better tools. There are a few more things I can try now. We'll still have a few hours of daylight after dinner."
They never got tired of the ocean view from the top of the pyramid. Jack made himself comfortable out of the way and watched Sam work. He noticed that she had her zat laid out where she could get to it in a big hurry. The only things flying around right now were seagulls, but neither of them was taking the chance that there weren't more flying lizards. Daniel had told them that they probably were the basis for the legends of winged serpents sacred to a god known as Kukulcan to the Mayans and Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs, if Tel-Chak and his friends had brought a few of them to Earth with them as pets.
Sam reached a pair of forceps into a crack. "Hello! There's something wedged under here. If I can just...get hold of it..." She pulled, and pulled. It gave way all at once and she tumbled over backwards, nearly rolled down the stairs. Jack grabbed her and let out a yell as his back pulled, but they came to a safe stop at the top of the steep staircase. It was a long way down.
Sam asked, "Are you OK? Did you hurt your back again? I'm sorry!"
"It doesn't hurt any more. I think it was just the scars pulling," he said. "Will the rings work now?"
"Maybe, if that's all that was jamming the selector system." She made sure the rings were clear and fiddled with the controls. Jack was curious enough that he had to remind himself he was supposed to be standing guard while she worked. After a few minutes, she got the selector moving freely, and triggered the rings. Lo and behold, they activated to all three stations. The first two operated without anything remarkable, but the last one brought back a lot of leaves and sticks and some ripe apples.
"Looks like this one's out in the woods somewhere--temperate woods, too."
Jack checked out one of the apples. "Looks like a plain old apple to me."
Sam cut it in half and smelled it. "I think so. I'm really tempted to take a bite, but Teal'c would have a fit if we didn't let him taste it first." He had taken up the job of food tester, because his symbiote would protect him from anything dangerous.
Jack said, "Hey, apple cider."
"You know how to make apple cider?"
"Oh, yeah. Grandpa used to make cider every year. It isn't as hard as brewing beer," Jack grinned. "Not small batches, anyway. I don't know how to get yeast, but I'll bet Daniel does. We'd have to find something to bottle the cider in."
"We'll come up with something," Sam grinned. She picked up her tools and the rest of the apples, and they began the long slow descent.
Jack decided that getting down the stairs was harder than climbing up in the first place. There was no hurry. They had left themselves plenty of daylight to get back to the villa. They stopped to rest about halfway down.
Sam said, "Y'know, when I was a kid watching Little House on the Prairie, I used to think how awful it would be to get stuck in a place like that. But now--you're gonna think I'm crazy, but I feel guilty for being happy here."
"I don't think you're crazy. It's like, if you let yourself be happy it's the next thing to going AWOL or something." He paused then said, greatly daring, "Or deserting your fiance."
She wondered if Daniel had been at him too. "I was wrong to accept Pete's proposal. If we ever do get back, the hardest thing will be looking him in the eye and breaking up with him, but that's what I'll have to do." She looked up. "I thought finding yourself went out of style when I was in high school, but that's what I was doing, and I hurt you. I'm sorry."
"Sam, there was no other way you were going to find out what you wanted out of life. You're not the only one who made mistakes. I should have said something. I should have retired a long time ago."
"I should have requested a transfer off SG-1 four years ago."
"I practically threw you at Pete. He could give you everything I couldn't. We both did what we saw as right and necessary at the time. He's a big boy, Sam, and he's already had one bite at the apple the same as I have. The whole reason for an engagement is to make sure you've made the right decision before you promise that you'll stay together for the rest of your lives."
She nodded. She was heartbroken that Pete woke up alone every morning and she was still missing in action. The not knowing was hell. At least with a body you could mourn and move on. But there was nothing she could do about it. "There are still the regs."
"I know. If we ever do get home, I'll resign immediately, and if they want to court-martial me, they damn well can. I think under the circumstances they'll just let me retire. But I think we both know this is it."
"So where do you want to go from here?"
"One day at a time," she said. "If we really have what we think we have, it'll take care of itself."
He brushed a wayward strand of golden hair away from her eyes, a simple gesture yet so eloquent in its tenderness. "I wish we'd thought of that four years ago."
"Well, we have now."
"Let's go home," he said.
Sam and Jack returned to the villa to report their success with the ring platform. Teal'c ate one of the apples, and pronounced it both safe and delicious, so they shared out the rest.
They held off exploring the other ring portal destinations until Jack's wounds had healed. They first explored the one with the apple tree. When they first went through, it was the middle of the night there, so all they did was explore the area right around the ring platform and pick up a sack of apples. There was an old building that looked more technologically advanced than the neo-Mayan construction they'd seen so far, but it was too dark to explore
The next one was on a hill overlooking a wide valley with a broad river running through it. That place immediately became St. Louis and the river, the Mississippi. The wide flood plains on either side of the river were covered in grass. On the near shore, a flock of wooly goats grazed. Li'ac immediately zatted a nursing mother and her kid, then hurried to leash them before they recovered.
All hell broke loose. A big billy-goat charged, sharp horns at the ready. Risha moved in to shoo him away, but he wasn't that easily dissuaded. In the end she zatted him as well. If he wanted to come along that badly, let him!
Jack and Daniel were both too busy roaring with laughter to be much help at first. Li'ac said pointedly, "Some help might make goat's milk and new clothes come your way a little faster."
"How many are you taking back?" Jack laughed.
"Just these three for now. We will have to provide shelter for them and watch over them while they graze. If all goes well with these, we can capture enough to supply our needs. They will keep me very busy."
There were the foundations of several buildings nearly hidden in the grass. They found a place to tie up the goats and had a look around. It soon became obvious that the town had been burned to the ground. It was of archaeological interest to Daniel, but even he had to admit that the goats and the wild grain growing here were going to be more practically useful than anything else here.
They took the goats back through the rings with them. There was a small building opening off the kitchen courtyard and that was where they put the goats for the time being. Once the effects of the zat wore off, the animals were anything but cooperative. The amount of noise that three goats could make was phenomenal--and, up close, they smelled like, well, goats. Li'ac took all of that in stride as she found something to contain water for them.
Astarte brought some grass to feed them. That was the first step towards actually taming them, a process that would take time. Jack figured that bad-tempered billy goat would never be tame, not from the baleful look he gave everyone in sight. He sure wasn't going to turn his back and give him a convenient target.
Sam was making sure that the kid hadn't suffered any injury in its capture. "They have really soft hair. Is it hair or wool?"
"Hair, I believe," Daniel said. "But then, Angora wool comes from goats."
She giggled. "Maybe it becomes wool when you use it to knit a sweater."
Li'ac said, "It depends upon the breed. These have wool. Goat hair is rough and scratchy, but strong, such as tent makers would use."
"We won't really get that much wool from just three goats, will we?" Jack asked.
"No," Li'ac said. "Enough for each of us to have a warm hat, scarf and mittens, perhaps, for when we go back to Aspen in cold weather. I will be able to care for more animals in time. I know how to do everything up to spinning the wool into yarn, but I have never learned how to weave or knit."
Shyly, Astarte said, "I know how." And then one by one they realized, that wasn't Astarte. It was Adrana.
Sam said gently, "I was wondering when you'd say hello."
"It's strange. For so very long, I had to pretend to be Astarte. I think I forgot how to be Adrana."
Teal'c promised, "You will remember."
The goats were enough of a distraction that it was the next day before they returned to the apple orchard. This time they arrived early in the morning of a gloriously beautiful late summer morning. In daylight they found that there were also cherry and walnut trees nearby, but that caused less excitement than the building did. There were metal doors with the push-button locks that they were so accustomed to seeing. Sam got them inside.
Daniel got a whiff and said, "Let it air out! It's been sealed up for a long time, the air is bad in there."
Li'ac wedged the door open with a large stick and they walked around the outside of the building while they let some air circulate.
The building had been a barracks for a platoon of Jaffa and their officers. There was no sign of the garrison, and their weapons and armor were missing. Things were in disarray, they had evidently been called out in the middle of the night and never returned.
Teal'c broke into the armory and found enough spare weapons for all of them. The whole place was a treasure trove, as far as they were concerned. The clothing and other fabric goods had deteriorated over the years, but everything else from furniture to pots and pans was theirs for the taking.
Sam was overjoyed to discover a computer, as well as a supply of short-range communications orbs--short-range by interplanetary standards, that was. They would now be able to keep in contact anywhere on the planet. In this star system, for that matter.
Risha found the infirmary, with its metal instruments and precious medical texts on data crystals.
They took quite a bit of loot back to the villa with them, and then there were chores that had to be done. They were all in high spirits after making a find like that, and there was a lot of speculation about where the last ring portal might go.
Li'ac was bringing the goats back right before dark when she looked up and saw a bright streak across the evening sky. She remembered the children's stories about wishing upon a falling star. Then she realized that it was coming in at an odd angle. That was no meteor. That was a ship with its shields in heat-shield configuration. She watched to see where it landed--probably near the old hangar. Then she ran into the villa.
"My Lady! A tel'tac just landed not far from here!"
Li'ac's alarm brought everyone running from different rooms of the villa. The Jaffa pulled on their armor and everyone grabbed up their weapons. Jack watched Astarte turn white as a sheet in pure terror--then she stopped and deliberately reached for her kara-kesh and her dagger.
"Astarte, you can hang back."
"If Ba'al has found us, you'll need every hand." She met his eyes with the courage of one who had finally found something worth fighting for.
"Ba'al wouldn't send just one tel'tac all the way out here on the fringes like this. Besides, if he'd found us, that ship wouldn't have landed. It would be hovering overhead and the whole place would be crawling with his men by now," he tried to reassure her. "This could be bounty hunters or who knows what. If they're here to give us trouble, we can use that ship as well as they can." He looked around at the whole group. "If anything gets started, everyone be damn sure who you're shooting at. Nobody's gonna be able to tell people in Jaffa armor apart in the dark. Daniel, that goes double for you."
The archaeologist nodded, and took the reminder without insult. He knew that, without his glasses, he was a menace with a zat--especially after dark.
Astarte put the healing device in her pocket as they ran out the door.
They made for the edge of the jungle as fast as they could go. Getting caught in the open would be suicide. The trees would be some cover. Life sign scanners would still pick them up, but they weren't detailed enough to target an attack.
Jack took point, with Sam and Li'ac on their flanks and Teal'c watching their six.
Bounty hunters was a generous term for the people they found. A dirty, ragtag gang of eight men were standing around arguing in some language that none of them understood. Behind them was a large tel'tac that looked just as much the worse for wear as her crew. A couple of young teenagers, a scarecrow-thin boy and a girl with more bruises than unmarked skin, stayed fearfully at the back of the crowd. One of the men pointed at the girl, and a huge bear of a man, who was apparently the captain, turned around and backhanded her to the ground. Terrified, she backed away, protesting. He drew some kind of a weapon with obvious intent.
The pirates froze as they heard staff weapons and zats powered up. The captain was the only one holding a weapon, and he kept it trained directly on the girl. Everyone else's hands shot up like they were on springs.
Jack said, "You might want to re-think that one."
Seven to one led to an obvious bottom line. A look of hate blazed in the big man's eyes, and for a moment Jack was afraid he was going to go out in a blaze of glory, with the girl the first casualty. But then self-preservation won out. He dropped his weapon and joined his men in surrender.
The kids fled behind their rescuers, clinging to each other and whispering in yet another unknown language.
Daniel said, "The kids' language is similar to Greek. I don't know what the rest of them were speaking, but it doesn't seem related to Goa'uld."
Astarte said, "They have a fringe worlds accent, Daniel. Strange things come up the arm."
The unmistakable tones of a Goa'uld voice clearly scared them. Jack surreptitiously waved her forward. She walked up to the captain bold as brass and demanded in Goa'uld that he identify himself.
He knew when to simper, and replied. Daniel translated, "His story is that something's wrong with the engine and they had to put in to make repairs. He claims that they rescued the kids from a derelict freighter, and the girl's a witch who put a curse on them and made the ship crash."
The kids protested and the boy said in Goa'uld, "He lies! Our family were long-haulers out of Trevin. We had just come out of hyperspace near Malvean when this ship and another attacked us. They disabled our engines and boarded us, killed all our family and took us as slaves. You'll find our cargo in their hold--naquada and raw crystals on the way to the shipwrights at Malvean! We did nothing to their ship! She's no better maintained on the inside than out. It's no wonder their engine failed!"
The captain yelled, "Don't believe them, Lady! They're evil little devils. That cargo is ours, meant for Malvean all right but it's never been in their hold!"
Astarte simply nodded to Jack, as if giving him permission to act--not that she had the slightest idea what to do next! He ordered the pirates to turn around and put their hands against the side of the tel'tac, and Daniel collected their weapons. Then, leaving Daniel and Risha to help Astarte guard the prisoners, the rest of them went on board to check it out.
The inside of the ship looked and smelled like a pigsty. Their first concern was that there were no more pirates on board, and there weren't--they checked every bay and opened every panel to be sure.
Sam checked the engine room. There were grease and coolant leaks everywhere, and a thick layer of grime covered everything. Half the crystal panels had crystals either cracked or missing entirely. "General, this crate is an explosion waiting to happen! They lost power because the mains went down, and they bypassed the safety protocols and routed everything through a secondary system that couldn't handle the overload. If they'd been legit traders and this happened on their way anywhere near a port, they would have made an emergency landing and got it fixed."
"Can you get it to fly again? What about using parts from the wreck?"
Sam said, "I'd have to look at it some more, but even if I can jury-rig something, I really don't like the idea of trying to leave atmosphere in this. It's a flying coffin."
He assured her, "Unless there's a big change in the situation, we're not going anywhere in it. But getting it flyable again might not be a bad idea in case it turns into the lesser of two evils."
Screams and weapons fire sent them pelting for the hatch before they could discuss it any further. They found several dead pirates and a couple of incapacitated ones with Daniel threatening a second shot if they so much as breathed, and Risha on the ground beside Astarte, who had a wicked little butterfly knife through the bones of her left arm. Daniel apologized, "He had that knife under his belt buckle, Jack, he had it out and went for Astarte before we could stop him."
He'd never do it again. Astarte had reacted with her kara-kesh and slammed him against the side of the ship hard enough to dent the panel. Risha and Daniel had no choice but open fire on the rest, the pair of survivors had been lucky enough to be Daniel's targets rather than Risha's.
Li'ac gave Astarte a look of apology, then yanked the knife out of her arm and immediately got pressure on both sides of the wound.
The kids had taken cover behind a huge tree. Now that the fighting was over, they peeked out skittishly.
Sam asked, "What do we do with them, sir?"
Jack looked at the two remaining pirates. Honestly, if he hadn't known how Daniel would take it, he would have shot them on the spot. They were a serious threat as long as they were breathing and he couldn't spare the manpower to guard them day and night. He couldn't keep them around the two kids, either, not after they'd murdered their family and victimized them.
He zatted the dead bodies. "Teal'c, tell them to start walking. Tell them I'll kill them if I ever lay eyes on them again."
It didn't take them five seconds to obey. They took off up the coast like two bats out of hell.
By then Astarte had a good start on healing her wound. "Children, it's all right to come out now. We won't hurt you."
They came forward because they were too frightened to do anything else. Daniel assured them, "You're safe now. Those two won't be back tonight, if ever. I'm Daniel. Who are you?"
The girl said, "I'm Crenn Zaidi. This is my brother Arun."
When Daniel translated, Jack grinned at the kids and immediately got a pair of shy smiles in return. "Ask them how a bath, some clean clothes and a hot meal sound."
Obviously all that sounded great to the kids. Sam grinned. Even though they only had a few words in common, he'd already wrapped a couple more kids around his little finger.
Jack asked, "Sam, any chance of moving the tel'tac down to the villa? I don't want to leave it here for those two, and we don't have enough people to guard two sites."
"Oh, sure, we can make a little hop like that on auxiliary power. But I don't know how many of you want to ride with me. It's pretty nasty in there. We're going to be having a really big bonfire tomorrow."
Jack said, "Right. Just us two, then. Astarte, if you want to ride--?"
She glanced inside and wrinkled her nose. "I think I'll be fine walking back, if it's all the same? I think something may have died in there--some time ago."
An hour later they were all home. Sam secured the tel'tac just outside the villa wall.
Risha took the kids under her wing and checked them over. She would only feed them soup tonight, she said they needed to get used to having food in their bellies again and anything heavier would make them sick.
They looked like two different kids. They sure smelled like two different kids. Risha had sheared their dirty matted hair off like a couple of new recruits. She mouthed the word "lice" and gestured for Jack to accompany her out of the room.
He asked, "How are they?"
"Not well," she said. "Both of them have been mistreated in every way I can think of."
Jack said, "I hate to suggest this, but do you think the sarcophagus would help them?"
"I think it is a necessity. Those creatures were almost certainly diseased."
Jack said, "They all got off too easy."
Risha said, "You did well. We have all had enough of killing. Let the jungle be their executioner, unless they are foolish enough to return."
He nodded. "Risha, keep an eye on them. I want them to be just a couple of kids who got caught up in a bad situation, but we can't really verify their story."
"Sadly, this is so."
They next day, Li'ac and Risha took the kids through the ring portal to the wreck and the sarcophagus. While Teal'c stood guard from the villa rooftop, Jack, Daniel and Sam took on the dirty, unpleasant job of cleaning out the tel'tac.
Sam wrinkled her nose at the smell as she used a long stick to separate some bedding. Despite her disgust, they needed to keep what could be sanitized, but she wasn't going to touch any of it until it had been boiled.
Then she saw that there were bugs crawling in it. She had a strong stomach, but the idea of those poor kids living under these conditions made her nauseous. Any of the clothing and bedding that didn't seem worth rescuing, they simply zatted. That, and a lot of strong, home-made soap and boiling water later, and they had it at least fit for human beings again.
Sam and Astarte worked on the tel'tac the rest of the day. Jack climbed the ladder to the roof, ignoring the twinges of protest from his back. The best way to prevent the scars from healing drawn was to keep moving.
"See anything interesting, T?"
The Jaffa said, "I have not, O'Neill."
"I'll take watch for a while, if you want to move around some. One of us needs to take the goats out to graze. Not to mention milking Nanny." Jack had decided at an early age living in Minnesota that he didn't care to ever milk a cow--and the same thing went for goats.
Teal'c smirked, but gladly traded jobs. He could wait as still as a statue for hours, alert to everything going on around him, but that didn't mean he liked guard duty. O'Neill, on the other hand, had been hard at work cleaning that filthy mess in the pirate ship. He was more than ready for a duty that let him sit still and bake in the sun for a while.
The afternoon passed quietly. Risha and Li'ac returned with the kids just before supper time. Risha came up to take his place on guard.
"How does everything look at Aspen?"
"Nothing had been disturbed, either at the ruins or the crash site," she replied. "The trees have all changed color. There are many herbs that need to be gathered at this time of year. I must spend a day there one day soon."
"How are the kids? Did the sarcophagus scare them?"
"No, I do not think they know much about it. Being raised aboard a trader, they have never learned to be afraid of small spaces. It is the opposite thing, they are not comfortable in the open. I have no doubt they will be hungry for a while, even over and above the appetite to be expected of growing young people. Otherwise, they are fine physically. Beyond that...they must put the memories behind them and begin anew."
Jack said, "They'll have a lot of help with that."
She inclined her head in a gesture so familiar from Teal'c. Jack climbed down from the roof and washed up for supper. They were going to have some planning to do.
A noisy crowd gathered around the supper table. Crenn and Arun were overwhelmed by everyone asking about them, and encouraging them to take generous helpings of the fish and vegetables and stewed apples.
Sam confirmed that they couldn't make the ship spaceworthy again, too many of its systems were worn out. It was unlikely that they could reach the nearest known planets with stargates before they had a major malfunction without any spare parts. But it would do very well in atmosphere. She was most excited about the crystals that had been part of the cargo. She had found over half the set that they needed to repair the DHD. She thought that it might be possible to interface a computer with the DHD and bypass the missing systems, much as she had done with the dialing computers at the SGC. Once again there was a possibility that they might get home, someday.
Astarte asked, "When do you think we should explore the last ring destination?"
Jack washed a mouthful of fish down with a drink of orange juice. "Nothing like tomorrow for finding out what's there. If we can make planetary hops with the tel'tac, I'd like to see if we can't move some of that larger stuff from the barracks. Especially that perimeter alarm system. We could use another cistern, too. We might find more stuff we can use at the other station."
Sam nodded when he mentioned the cistern. They had run short on water before it rained the last couple of times. There was plenty of rain, they just lacked storage capacity. "The barracks has a large tank that's three times the size of our reservoir. We should be able to move it with the tel'tac. In the meanwhile, I saw a lot of buckets in a storeroom there. No reason why we can't set them out the roof and just empty them into the cistern whenever it rains."
"Risha said she wants to gather some herbs and things from around Aspen. Daniel, ask Arun or Crenn how they'd feel about helping her with that. I want you with me in case we run into something at the other ring portal that needs translated."
Daniel translated back and forth. Crenn said, "We would be happy to work. It's good that we can help out."
Arun asked, "May I help with the goats? I love animals."
Li'ac told him, "You most certainly may. It will be time to shear them soon. Then we will spend evenings spinning the wool."
Crenn asked, "Will it make yarn?"
"It will. Thick yarn at first. It takes some practice to spin fine yarn and eventually weaving thread."
Sam asked, "How do you do that? I've seen spinning wheels, but I never looked at any of them closely enough to be able to make one."
Li'ac replied, "I do not know what a spinning wheel is. I learned with a drop spindle. It is just a weight on the end of the yarn, and a convenient place to wind it as it is made. We can start carving some tonight. Spinning is not hard, it simply takes practice to keep the yarn at an even thickness."
There was some speculation about whether or not the pirates would try to come back. Jack was fairly sure that they wouldn't, or he never would have turned them loose in the first place. All the same, with first the flying lizards and now pirates, someone was always going to be on guard duty from now on.
That didn't last long, though, before conversation turned to the last remaining ring portal again and from there to stories--usually cautionary tales--about things found in abandoned Goa'uld settlements. The storytelling made the evening chores go a lot faster.
Everyone had things to do. Daniel was making a basket from some long-stemmed marsh grass that he had harvested. Crenn took an avid interest in that, and soon she was beginning her own little basket. Jack was whittling a chess set. Li'ac ground together some herbs and willow bark to create a medicinal powder, which she was carefully storing in small bottles collected from the barracks infirmary. She put Arun to work shelling some small black seeds out of dry pods and putting them in similar bottles. Sam was patiently cleaning grease out of some kind of doohickey from the tel'tac. Astarte was braiding a belt from scraps of deerskin left over from Daniel's coat. Teal'c had disassembled his staff weapon to clean it, something all their weapons needed regularly in this climate.
Jack looked up from the pawn he was carving and reflected on how lucky they were, all things considered. Being stranded here had been the end of one life, but the beginning of another. It wasn't like Edora, where he had resigned himself to making the best of living out his life in a place he didn't want to be. He would be sorry to leave a lot of things here. He glanced over at Carter and swore to himself that there were some things they were going to take back with them.
A soft noise awakened Jack sometime in the middle of the night. He listened, but didn't hear it again. He decided to get something to eat. As his small room's window opened onto the kitchen courtyard, he had only to put his pants on and climb out the window.
He found Sam already out there, with a cup of herbal tea in her hands. Twin streaks of tears glittered on her cheeks in the moonlight. Jack sat beside her and she leaned on his shoulder. For a while neither of them said anything. Except for Li'ac's occasional nearly-silent footsteps on the roof as she kept watch, everything was quiet and peaceful.
Finally he asked, "Nightmare?"
"Yes, but then after I woke up I started thinking about that horrible ship and what the kids went through, and it all just sort of caved in on me at once. I just decided to get up."
"Uh-huh." Jack knew the feeling. Real well.
"How the hell do you do it? Put what we went through behind you?"
"I wish I had an easy answer, Sam. I guess the bottom line for me is, I won, he lost. Doesn't stop me from having nightmares about it, though, you know that."
Sam nodded, but didn't answer, and Jack suspected that was because she didn't trust herself not to start crying again. He held her and said, "It gets better, I swear. Give yourself time."
"That damn sarcophagus brought me back to life, but right now I don't feel alive--just--numb--and I hate it."
Jack dropped a kiss on top of her head. "No wonder. We've been so busy just surviving that we haven't had time to do anything else. Look at me. You're alive. Sam, I'm right here, as soon as you're ready."
Her eyes met his, sparkling black with just a narrow rim of sapphire in the pale silver moonlight. He took her cup and set it on the bench then kissed her gently. And then she was kissing back.
After a while, they remembered that someone was right up the ladder keeping watch. They climbed back over the window sill into his room.
Much later the next morning than they were accustomed to sleeping, Daniel stuck his head in. "Jack, did you want to get started sometime today or what?"
"Go away, Daniel," Jack tried to growl, but he was grinning too much.
Then Daniel saw Sam trying to hide under the covers, and he grinned back. "Well, it's about damn time!" He made a quick retreat before they could throw something at him. Sam found her clothes and quickly got dressed. She was blushing from the top of her head to her toenails but she was smiling anyway.
Everyone else had already eaten breakfast, so they had plenty of time to offer congratulations, and lots of teasing. Eventually, though, they settled down to planning the day's work. Jack, Sam, Daniel and Astarte were going to scout the last ring portal destination, while Risha and Crenn went on an herb-gathering expedition. Teal'c, Li'ac and Arun would be staying close to the villa just in case.
Risha showed the kids how the communication orbs worked. "You can use these to transmit to any of us, once you learn our comm-link codes. But for now, if you should happen to get separated or if anything untoward happens, just push the large button. We all will see you and come to help."
The six of them walked to the temple together. Once Risha and Crenn had ringed away, the four of them went through to the unexplored portal.
They came out into the baking heat of midday. The rings were inside a walled enclosure. Once the gate had been guarded by two huge metal doors, but one lay flat and the other hung askew from one hinge where an explosive charge had blown them open. The burnt-out ruins of a long, low building stood against the opposite wall from the gate.
They crossed to the gate and looked out over a desert that stretched to the horizon in all directions.
Astarte knelt and put her hand palm-down on the sand. "This feels like naquada?"
Sam said, "Not huge deposits, but yeah, I can feel it too. Have you ever been around a mine?"
She shook her head. "Do you think there was a mine here?"
"Probably. They'd bring it here to be ringed up to a ship, I think. I wonder why they didn't just land." Sam looked out over the dunes.
Daniel shook his head. "I wonder if there are any surviving walls with inscriptions inside there?"
Jack said, "This looks like a colossal bust."
Sam was inclined to agree. There was more naquada here than anywhere else on the planet, but they didn't have any use for it. Naquada in its natural state was harmless. Trying to purify enough to build a naquada reactor in the shed, on the other hand, would be asking to end up like Madame Curie, with no means to protect themselves from radiation exposure.
Daniel poked around inside the structure and found nothing but some little brown lizards. "Well, we came, we saw, there's nothing to see."
Jack said, "Oh, I don't think I'd exactly say that...."
Everyone turned around to see what Jack was looking at. Some kind of small creatures were burrowing out of the sand and swarming toward them!
"Ring platform--now!" Jack ordered, activating his staff weapon.
Astarte saw how quickly the creatures were approaching and cried, "We're not going to make it!" She pulled on her kara-kesh and the gem lit up as she activated her personal shield.
"Just keep moving," Jack said. He fired into the approaching mass of animals. The dead and dying became prizes for the ones behind them. The rest simply went over or around them and continued their charge.
Astarte swept her hand in a wide arc, flinging the creatures back and creating a brief pile-up that won them a few more seconds.
Jack remembered something that he had seen Bra'tac do once, and fired a series of blasts into the ground very close to each other, creating a brief wall of fire. By now they could hear the animals squeaking and hissing. They looked very ratlike, with mouths full of very sharp teeth.
Sam yelled, "Look out, they're going around the walls trying to cut us off!" She fired her zat several times, doing her best to keep the way clear to the rings.
For all their efforts, the swarm got to them before they could activate the rings. A large mass of the animals came through with them. Astarte shrieked when she discovered that her shield was as useless against them as it would have been against a thrown knife. One of them bit a big chunk out of her ankle, and she kicked hard enough to fling it over the side of the pyramid.
Daniel yelled, "Don't throw them!"
"Are you crazy?"
"Kill all of them! If a pregnant one gets away, we might get them started here!" He explained.
By the time they had dispatched all the creatures, all of them were bleeding from numerous bites. They made sure they zatted into oblivion all of them that they could find, and then they searched carefully for any stragglers that they might have missed.
Astarte had stopped her own bleeding. She exchanged her kara-kesh for the healing device. Daniel was closest, so she started with him. Oddly, though, the wounds resisted healing, and some of her own began to seep blood as soon as she stopped concentrating on them. She handed off to Adrana for a few moments so that she could pay closer attention.
Adrana said, "There's something contaminating the bites that makes them bleed. Astarte can work on mine, but we need to get pressure on yours."
Quickly they bandaged the injuries. Jack called for Teal'c to bring the hoversled to pick them up. By the time they got home, their bandages were soaked with blood.
Li'ac said, "I have heard of those creatures. There are two things to be done. One is the sarcophagus. The other is to cauterize the wounds--the heat destroys the venom so that the burning can halt the blood loss."
"I'm not using that thing if I don't have to," Jack said. "Try cauterizing one first and see if it works."
Li'ac asked, "Are you certain?"
"Hell, yes, just about anything's better than going in that thing again!"
Sam and Daniel were a lot more dubious about it, but they also preferred to avoid the sarcophagus if they could. Daniel had also fought the addiction and never wanted to do that again if he could help it. Li'ac gave them the strongest pain killer that she had, an opiate that knocked Sam and Daniel both out. Jack had built up a resistance, so all it did was take the edge off. It took all Teal'c's strength to hold him down so that Li'ac wouldn't do more harm than good. He cursed at the top of his lungs in a mix of English, Arabic and Spanish. Astarte used the healing device to stop the pain the instant Li'ac took the poker away. Jack fell back against the table, fighting for breath. Li'ac said, "It is successful, but, O'Neill--"
"Get it over with," he said. His tone was closer to an order than a plea, but Li'ac realized speed was the only mercy she could offer.
"It will not be long now," she promised. She finished that awful job as quickly as she could. Fortunately, the other two stayed unconscious through it all. The Jaffa didn't know if she would have had the courage to continue if they hadn't--not that she would be admitting that in front of Teal'c any time soon.
"How fortunate that only you four went--there would have been no more room on the ring platform for any more to go through at once, and none of us would have left the others," she commented.
Jack nodded, well aware that there were any number of ways this could have been worse. "Damn little furry piranhas--we're not going there again!" His vision was blurry, he rubbed his eyes to clear it but that didn't work.
"What is wrong?"
"Just reaction, I'm getting too old for this crap." He decided to sleep it off.
When Li'ac checked on them a couple of hours later, Sam and Daniel were still drowsy from the drug she'd given them but otherwise seemed fine. She found Jack running a fever, and she couldn't wake him.
The next thing Jack knew he was burning up. Disoriented and sick, he flashed back on Iraq, and knocked a startled Risha across the room before she even knew he was starting to wake up. She got well clear and shouted, "O'Neill!"
Carter staggered in. "What the hell--?"
Risha said, "He awakened disoriented and struck me."
Sam didn't speak a lot of Arabic, but she recognized it when she heard it. In her best command voice, she yelled, "Airman! Report!"
If anything was going to cut through the confusion of a flashback, that did. He snapped out of it and tried to get his bearings.
The yelling had brought half the house running. Sam shooed them away. They didn't need a crowd.
Risha stopped him from getting up. "You are fevered. You must lie still."
He saw the bruise forming on her face. "Did I do that?"
"You certainly did. You knocked me all the way over there," she said, with a bit of admiration creeping into her tone. "It is not the first time I have tended a warrior who awakened combative. The fault was entirely mine for not expecting as much. How do you feel?"
He lay back. "Like road kill," he admitted. "Hot."
"You have a considerable fever. I was just going to check your wounds for signs of infection."
He settled down and let her work. Sam wasn't too steady on her feet, but she thought that was more the hangover from the drugs than anything else. She sat down on the floor beside his mat, leaning against the wall.
Risha found the wounds clean and said, "It must be a reaction to the venom. I would give you willow bark tea, but not when the venom itself caused excessive bleeding." She left and returned presently with a basin and some cool water. "Let us see if the fever will break on its own."
Sam wrung out the cloth and cooled Jack's forehead with it. He caught her hand and drew her fingers to his lips. The cool water felt heavenly, and his weariness was such that he was content just to let her tend him. After a while, he fell asleep, and when his fever finally broke, she lay down to rest as well.
(From Daniel Jackson's journal)
The near-disaster at the desert site kept Jack in bed for a week, which of course was no picnic for any of us. Even after he got up and around, it took him longer than he thought necessary to regain his strength. All of us were kept busy finding things to keep him busy. He finished his chess set, and after that at least we could keep him quiet for the time it took to play a few games.
Sam has taken on the monumental task of recreating the dialing computer programming on the tel'tac's computers. Rewriting all that code written for a different operating system a decade ago would seem impossible for anyone else, but we are speaking of Samantha Carter here. Jack has made it his personal project to keep her from becoming too involved with the project, to the detriment of her health. I think this is his way of making it up to her for the way he acted after Edora, so long ago. They grow closer every day, to the joy of us all. For everything the universe takes from us, sometimes it gives back something wonderful.
Crenn and Arun have been recovering and blossoming into a couple of normal teenagers. In teaching them English, we have all fallen into an atrocious pidgin of Goa'uld and English, choosing whatever word from either language best suits the moment. I think we were all more relieved than annoyed the first time one of the kids threw a temper tantrum, but fortunately they aren't inclined to do that very often. Crenn has joined me as Risha's apprentice herbalist. Risha says that she has the knack for it and will be a fine healer one day. Arun, on the other hand, can rarely sit still for five minutes. He works and plays hard outdoors, but squirms constantly whenever anyone tries to get him to sit down and learn something. He will stay in one place if he has a fishing pole in his hands, so Jack has finally found a willing fishing buddy.
The goats were sheared about a month ago. Li'ac taught the rest of us to spin with the billy's wool, while she spun the kid's wool into a very soft, fine yarn.
We found some wild maize in St. Louis, and got to a good bit of it before the blackbirds did. Most of it we kept for seed. Next year, if it grows, we should have a good-sized cornfield.
Yesterday I realized that it has been weeks since I thought about home, referring to Earth rather than the villa.
(end journal entry)
Daniel put his journal away when he noticed Sam standing outside looking out to sea. He joined her. "What is it, Sam?"
"There's weather coming in," she replied, studying the sky with a veteran pilot's eye. "It's probably starting into the rainy season."
Daniel nodded. There was usually a drenching rain every afternoon that cooled things off then cleared up for a beautiful evening. Monsoon season would be something else again. He hoped they were right about how secure the villa would be in bad weather.
Sure enough, just after dark a heavy rain rolled in and kept up well into the next day. The cistern filled to overflowing, and water gushed out of the mouths of several carved figures around the foundation of the house. There were tile-lined ditches to carry it away from the foundations, but these had filled in over the years, allowing water to run under the buildings. It was a lot of hard work to clear those out in the pouring rain.
Crenn and Arun had just finished feeding the goats when they and Jack heard a noise that sounded at first like some sort of animal in distress. The three of them looked at each other in puzzlement, since the goats were safe in their shed and few other creatures would come that near the settlement. They investigated, and saw a human figure lying in the mud.
This ragged scarecrow bore little resemblance to the pirates, but he was undoubtedly one of them. Most of his skeletal form showed through the rags he was wearing.
It was Crenn who moved first, and what Jack saw on her face was pity and forgiveness. They brought him in out of the rain and called for Risha.
When Risha arrived, Jack got out of the way. The pirate was no threat in his current condition. The only thing about him that looked alive was his eyes, and they were the picture of sheer terror when they recognized him. Jack went out front and leaned against one of the carved columns that supported the veranda, watching the rain pour down and listening to the roar of the surf.
Sam came outside. "Jack?"
"That guy would have been better off if I'd shot him on the spot. He's damn near starved."
Sam said, "You gave him a chance, Jack, that's more than a lot of us would have done."
"Crenn gave him a chance this time. She didn't end up like me."
"Jack O'Neill. What's that supposed to mean?" She put her arm around him and leaned into his side. He held her close.
"She's still able to forgive."
"And maybe not old enough yet to know when it's a bad idea," Sam said. "I hope her kindness doesn't bite her on the ass. He probably won't live through the night anyway. At least this way she doesn't have to feel guilty about refusing to help."
"Yeah, that's what I figured."
"Even if he does live, he won't get up to any trouble with all of us watching him. He knows we won't put up with anything out of him."
Jack had to agree with that. He went back inside with Sam.
Risha was washing her hands. "His ankle is very badly broken and has healed wrongly, but that is of no consequence just now. He is nearly starved and very cold. I will make him a hot broth for both those things. It will give him some comfort, but I still think he will die. Still--he had either the courage or the desperation to come here begging for help. Perhaps it is not yet his time. Perhaps he has suffered enough." She didn't seem to care one way or the other if he lived or died, although as a healer, once someone had been brought under her roof she would do her best for him.
To everyone's surprise, the pirate was still alive the next morning, although he couldn't so much as raise his head, and if anyone touched his injured leg, his screams were awful. Risha padded and splinted it just to spare him the torture of the broken bones shifting around, but he was far too weak for her to do anything else about it. She spoon-fed him broth.
He was muttering something about gold. Risha asked, "What is your name?"
"Tomazek, they call me Tom."
"You found gold, you say?"
"I never found it. One-Eye, he found it, he did."
"One-Eye is the other man who was with you?"
He nodded. "He had a glass eye."
"What happened to him?"
"Went back after the gold. I told 'im not to. Found him with a spear in his gut. Damn place got me too, dropped a rock on my ankle. You ain't gonna cut my leg off, don't cut my leg off!"
"Shh! Hush. Your leg is crippled, but I do not think it will need to be cut off! This was some weeks ago, yes? If you had been going to get gangrene, you would have by now."
"Woman, where are my clothes?"
"I burned those rags, and you don't have to worry about more until you get ready to get off this mat. Right now, you drink broth and you sleep, and that is all that needs to concern you."
He subsided. The broth was good and he was so tired. Risha shook her head. "Just close your eyes and sleep. We'll see what happens tomorrow."
Risha left him to rest. Jack asked, "How's he doing?"
"Well enough to fear losing his leg, and to notice that he is naked," she replied. "He has a wild story, though--O'Neill, he said that the other pirate, One-Eye, found gold. Apparently One-Eye was killed. He said that 'the damn place' dropped a rock on his leg and that is how he broke it. From the condition of his leg, I do not think that could have been long after we sent them off."
"Gold? And the 'place' attacked him?"
"That is what he said. And that it killed One-Eye with a spear. He could be raving."
"Or not. Gold on the walls? Full of booby-traps?" Jack gave her a long speculative look. "They could have found Tel'chak's palace."
That intriguing possibility had to wait. Tom's condition began to improve slowly, but there were still long stretches of time when he was incoherent. When he had his wits about him, he was scared to death. He didn't understand why they were helping him and his imagination came up with plenty of possible reasons. Nobody did anything to him--in fact, he was treated with kindness--but he was also clearly never left unguarded.
Finally he gathered up his courage in both hands and asked Sam one day when she brought his plate, "What are you going to do with me?"
"Nobody's going to do anything with you, as long as you stay out of trouble, and don't bother Crenn and Arun." she replied. "You're lucky Crenn felt sorry for you. None of us is going to just shoot someone who isn't doing any harm and isn't likely to."
"H-how long will you let me stay here?"
"That's kind of a moot point right now, Tom, you couldn't walk across the room. We'll see."
"Kid should have left me lay there."
"Maybe she didn't like the idea of what that would have made her," Sam said. "You told Risha that you and One-Eye found gold."
"We did. Whole place was full of it. Walls, furniture....king's ransom. Never saw nothin' like it. But....wasn't just there for the takin'. I told him, leave it, I said. But he went back after I went to sleep. Gonna get it all for himself, y'see. He took this little gold god. And there I found him, right where a spear flew out of the wall. I knew I shouldn't've gone back. Stepped on somethin'. Heard this little click, then these blocks started comin' down out of the ceiling. I fell over one, and another one came down on my leg. Got out, though. Been livin' on frogs, snakes, whatever I could get....long as I could move around. Don't know how I got here."
"You got yourself here, but I'm not surprised you don't remember about that. You must have had an awful time of it. What do you remember about where you found this place?"
"Up the river from where we landed, three, maybe four days. We was lookin' for a way across. You go after that gold, you'll end up like One-Eye."
"I couldn't care less about the gold, there's nowhere to spend it," she smiled.
Tom laughed, a hollow sound that turned into a wheezing cough. "Now that's what I told One-Eye."
Sam went back out to join the others for supper and recounted Tom's story.
Arun said, "I don't believe it. They actually found treasure. After all the big talk about what they were going to do when they finally hit it rich."
"It isn't the gold I'm interested in," she said. "It's the tech. There could be anything. Maybe a communications orb powerful enough to reach my father," Sam said.
Astarte said, "If the palace is so full of traps, perhaps it is best left alone. Could there truly be something there that we really need?" She shuddered. "We were nearly killed by those rat creatures, and for what? There would have been no coming back from that! What is worth our lives?"
Jack nodded. "Good point. There isn't a damn thing in there worth getting one of us killed over. I just want to be sure there isn't anything dangerous to us there. It doesn't sound like it's too far away."
"Dangerous?" Arun asked.
Jack remembered his and Daniel's little adventure in Central America. "If Tel-chak was experimenting with things that create zombies again, I want to make sure Tom and One-Eye didn't wake any of them up."
Sam abruptly got up from the table and ran to the bathroom.
Jack met everyone's glares with an innocent look. "What? She's heard the zombie story before." He went to check on her, and heard her throwing up.
"Sam? Are you all right?" He pushed the curtain aside and went in. She was just rinsing her mouth.
"I think so--it's just this is the third time this week I've thrown up."
"Sam--when was the last time you had your--uh--you know, your friend?"
"I--well--" Sam had been taking birth control shots, which meant her "friend" only came to visit four times a year...but that should have happened by now.
They looked at each other.
Sam stared at him. "I'm probably not...The changes in my body chemistry from Jolinar, Janet didn't think I could..."
"Sam, I didn't think about your shot wearing off--"
It soaked in that he actually might think this was bad news. "Oh, Jack! No, no, it would be wonderful--! I want to have babies. I just don't know if it's possible for me to get pregnant. I--I don't want to get my hopes up because it would be so disappointing if I'm not."
Jack held her. "I guess we just wait and see what Mother Nature decides is gonna happen."
"Yeah, that's about all we can do, isn't it?"
"Maybe Risha knows a way to tell for sure," he suggested.
"I'll ask her. But don't tell everyone else yet. If I'm not, I don't want them to feel sorry for me."
"You can tell them whenever you want to. Or, if you are, just wait and see how long it takes somebody to notice," he grinned.
She laughed in spite of herself.
"Do you want to go back to the table, or do you think the sight of food will make you sick again?"
"I think I'll be OK. I have to eat something. Just not that spicy stew."
They went back and Sam let on that the talk about zombies was what had done it. But that didn't fool Teal'c and Daniel for a minute.
"Risha, can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Of course. What do you need?"
"I think I'm pregnant. Is there any way you can tell?"
"How far along are you?"
"About six weeks I think," Sam estimated.
"That is early. I do not know of any way to be certain so soon. This is why you were sick yesterday evening?"
"I think so, and yesterday morning, and the morning before that."
"No, I thought I was going to, but I sipped some water, and it stayed down."
Risha examined her. "It is possible. You have started wearing an undershirt instead of that wide band that you usually wear. Is that because it is becoming too tight?"
Sam nodded. "About a week now."
"It is likely that you are pregnant. This is your first?"
"Yes, and at my age...."
"SamCarter, did you not realize that, although your outward appearance has not changed, you are physically much younger? One of the things that a sarcophagus repairs is the effect of aging. This is true for all of us, save Li'ac, who has so far managed not to die. You need not worry about your age making your pregnancy more difficult," Risha assured her. "I have delivered many babies, and besides that remember that we have the healing device or the sarcophagus if they should be needed. You and your child will be fine."
Sam smiled. "I know all that, I just--I haven't had a whole lot of preparation for being a mom."
"For the first little while, they need to be fed and cleaned and loved. The more complicated things come along one at a time. It is simply the natural course of life. You will see."
Sam really wanted to believe that. She had never missed her mother so much. She had gone into battle with less trepidation than she felt at that moment.
At breakfast the talk returned to the palace and what they were going to do about it. Sam suggested that a fly-over with the tel'tac would be a good first step. After the rat-swarm, they were all inclined to be a little more careful, and the palace had already claimed one life.
Jack said, "OK, Teal'c and I will do a sensor sweep as soon as we get a break in the weather, and then we can figure out what we're going to do next."
Crenn asked, "How long is it going to keep raining like this?"
"Probably another month, but if it's like the tropical rainy season on earth, we'll start getting a few more nice days pretty soon," Sam replied. "I'm tired of it too!"
"There is moss growing behind the bath tub," Crenn complained.
Jack said, "That's just a house plant."
Arun laughed, and Crenn crossed her eyes at him.
Sam decided she could get used to this family thing. "Be careful with that fly-over, Jack, there could still be automated AA defenses in place. Just because we haven't seen anything like that from the Goa'uld yet doesn't mean nobody ever thought of it, and Tel-chak liked his gadgets."
"Noted. You did get the shields working on that thing, didn't you?"
"You got 'em but they're only about 55%, and I wouldn't even look sideways at that shield generator," she said.
"Oh, well, that's good to know."
She shared his dubious look. They'd both been spoiled by flying state-of-the-art planes that were maintained by a professional crew to keep them in top condition. The tel'tac, on the other hand, was a junk pile on lifters. It was still better than hacking their way through several miles of jungle.
It was afternoon before they got their break in the rain. Sam watched them away, feeling that she should be with them--but she knew that if Jack was worrying about her and their baby, it would distract him. Her heart went out to people on the home front everywhere. Waiting at home was for the birds.
A muddy ribbon of rain-swollen river cut its way through the jungle. If not for the sensors, they would have flown over the palace without ever knowing it was there. The canopy had swallowed it up as though it had never existed. But Teal'c pinpointed a power source.
"Can you get anything else through that cover?"
"Yes, I am getting a clear image of the structures. Nothing seems to be reacting even to such an in-depth scan. There are innumerable small life forms, but I do not see anything human-sized."
"Tell me something, T--would a zombie show up on a life-sign monitor?"
Teal'c thought about that one. "If there are any in the open down there, we will know that they do not. It is also possible that anything within the structures would be shielded from our scans."
Jack brought the ship around for another pass, and noted a small clearing about a hundred meters from the palace compound. "What do you make of that, Teal'c? Does it look like somewhere we could set her down?"
"It would appear so. In fact, the sensors are detecting a paved area. It is possible that this is, in fact, a small-craft landing pad."
On that pass, Jack barely skimmed the treetops, giving the sensors the best possible view. Then he took them home, where he knew Sam would be waiting impatiently to get her hands on the data.
Sam felt relief wash over her as the tel'tac landed. Once she saw that Jack and Teal'c were none the worse for wear, Jack let her have his seat and they went over the scans.
What they saw was a larger version of the villa. Where they had the one main house and its attached bath house, and the goats' shed, attached by stone walls that surrounded the open kitchen area, the palace itself was about four times as large as the villa and two stories tall. There were several outbuildings.
Jack asked, "What's this in the courtyard?"
"It has water in it, but I can't tell if it's a pool or fountain of some sort."
There was also a wall around the front yard. "Apparently Tel'chak didn't want the rabble coming up on his porch and ringing the doorbell. Can you copy this to a data pad or something so I can show it to Tom? I want to see if I can get any more details out of him about the layout of the place."
Sam said, "Maybe you'd better let me talk to him. You and Teal'c scare the crap out of him."
Jack laughed. "He doesn't know you're meaner than the both of us put together."
Teal'c actually chuckled out loud. Sam glared at them. "Thanks--I think."
The rain had started up again. They ran for the back gate, but halfway there Carter slipped on the wet grass and fell. Jack scooped her up, with such a look of anxiety on his face that she didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, she told him, "I'm pregnant, not an invalid! Put me down!"
Teal'c turned around. "Congratulations to both of you! Why have you not said anything?"
Sam said, "Because it's too early yet to be a hundred percent sure. But Risha and I both think I am. Jack, really, I'm fine."
Jack put her down and they went on inside. Teal'c would say nothing to the others yet. He recalled his happiness when Drey'ac told him she was pregnant with his child, and silently rejoiced for his dear friends.
Sam showed the diagram of the palace to Tom. It took her a while, and more patience than she thought she had, to keep him focused and get some useful information. He didn't remember a whole lot, but he was able to tell her that there were open gates into both walled areas. They had forced a back door, using a metal bar they found in one of the outbuildings. They had passed the kitchen and some servants' areas without paying much attention, and ran into trouble in the large salon in the front of the building. Tom had escaped the way he had got in. He also recalled seeing stairways that went both up to the second floor, and down to a subterranean level, from both the kitchen and the front entryway.
He started to nod off, so Sam decided that was enough for now. She didn't think he would be able to tell them much more anyway.
Daniel took the data pad and held it close to his eyes where he could see it. "Tel-chak's private chamber is probably upstairs. If he had a communications orb, that's probably where he kept it."
"And his lab is probably in the basement," Sam said.
Jack said, "OK, here's how we're going to do this tomorrow. Teal'c and I are going to scout the place first, since we already know it's booby-trapped. After we've cleared an area, you can come in--but assume we've missed the traps and keep your own eyes open. Risha, you stay here with Crenn and Arun."
He almost added Sam to that list, but bit his tongue. It wasn't like he could order her any more. She'd dig in her heels, and then everybody else would want to know what the fuss was about. He decided to wait and talk to her that night. He got down his wood carving and sat on the window sill to work on a hammer handle.
They heard a clatter and then a thump from Tom's room. Li'ac was closest, so she went to check on him. He'd forgotten his leg wouldn't hold him and tried to get up on his own. Without a word, she offered her arm, helping, not carrying. A man needed his pride. After he finished his business, she asked him, "Tom, would you like to come out and sit with us for a while?"
He flushed and looked down at himself. Jaffa shirts were long, but his legs stuck out like two broomsticks. "Ain't got no pants. Sides, them kids don't need me around."
"The children have already given you another chance. You would be a fool to pass it by. I will find you a robe. Can you sit here for a little while without falling?"
He nodded. Presently, Li'ac returned with the robe and helped him limp the short distance to the front room.
Arun gave Tom a long level stare, thinking it over. Then he got up off the long bench where he had been sprawled braiding a rawhide rope, and rolled out a mat on the bench. Without a word, he sat down by his sister and went back to work.
As usual, they started off to bed after it got full dark. Jack rolled out their mat and shook the blanket, checking to make sure there weren't any lizards. It was impossible to keep the small green lizards out of the house, and no one really wanted to because they got rid of bugs. He didn't particularly want one in his bedroll, though.
Sleeping on a cold stone floor in damp weather wasn't doing his joints any good at all. Jack wondered why the sarcophagus didn't heal his arthritis. But then it hadn't got rid of any of his old scars, either.
"Sam, stay here tomorrow."
"Jack, I'm not going to let you smother me, so just get used to it."
"I know that. I know that, Sam. But you know as well as I do the kind of crap we could find in there. Chemicals that could hurt the baby, or some alien device that could do God only knows what."
She saw the common sense and relented. "OK, as long as you don't start getting it into your head that I'm going to stay barefoot in the kitchen just because I'm pregnant."
"Who do you think I am, Turban? I learned my lesson watching him get his ass kicked. Mrs. O'Neill didn't raise any idiots."
She rolled over and nestled her head on his shoulder. "Just you remember that about your mom not raising any idiots when you get in there. Teal'c will zat you before you can blink, if it even looks like you're thinking about sticking your head in anything."
"I had a good reason--"
"We don't friggin' care."
And he could tell from her tone of voice, she meant it. His family wasn't going to lose him again if they could help it, even if that did mean knocking him out with a zat. No more big heroic sacrifices. It was somebody else's turn to save the universe. He had his hands full with his own little corner of it.
He was going to be a father again.
"Oh, God, Sam, how do I know I'm not gonna screw this up?"
"You're having my baby."
"Yeah." She couldn't keep the grin off her face. "You won't screw up, no more than anyone else does."
"Tell that to Charlie."
She raised her head to look him in the eye. "That was a god-awful accident. It wasn't your fault."
"I left my gun unlocked."
"And Charlie was old enough to know not to mess with it. He could have run out in traffic or played with matches. Nobody has to be at fault because something incomprehensibly terrible happens. And nothing is going to happen to this child." For just a moment, her eyes glittered like ice in the near-darkness. And he believed her. This woman had blown up a sun, and she would loose that same fury on anyone or anything that threatened her family.
The moment passed, and a fun-loving little devil replaced the avenging angel. But that sense of certainty remained. Together, they would keep their family safe.
Teal'c piloted the tel'tac to a smooth stop on the stone landing pad. A wide path, its flagstones now mostly overgrown, led to the palace complex. They retraced the pirates' entrance, on the logic that they would have already triggered at least some of the booby-traps.
The courtyard had grown wild in the centuries since the palace had been abandoned. Paving stones were uprooted around the trunks of several huge trees. What once had been a central fountain was now choked with water vegetation. The constant patter of rain on the leaves reminded Jack unpleasantly of Viet Nam.
Teal'c spotted the door that Tom and One-Eye had entered. They checked it carefully. It and the corridor beyond were free of traps. Jack wasn't surprised. There was nothing in the kitchen and the slaves' quarters that the Goa'uld had seen as worth protecting.
Adrana commented, "I am surprised that one of the ring portals didn't come here. He would have had some means of escape."
"Probably a secret tunnel," Jack replied. "We've seen those a time or two."
"We are far from the stargate, though. It was foolish of Tel-chak to--what was that phrase you used--paint himself into a corner so distant from his one sure escape from this world. Perhaps that is how he found the gate sabotaged."
They reached the entrance to the salon. It was exactly as Tom had described, the walls covered with gold. There was only one piece of furniture--Tel-chak's throne. Everyone else would either have stood or sat on mats on the floor. The entire room was littered with heavy blocks that had once formed a false ceiling. In one corner, a grotesque little golden statue lay on the floor next to a niche in the wall. There they found One-Eye, his skeletal remains still hanging from the spear that had killed him.
Jack and Teal'c crossed the room carefully, walking on the stone blocks that had already fallen. It didn't look like there was any way for the trap to reload! From there, they poked at the paving stones with their staff weapons until they had triggered all the remaining blocks. Now that it was safe to cross the floor, they turned their attention to the throne itself.
It was a massive thing, intricately carved stone plated with gold and set with gems and crystals. Teal'c said, "Take care. There is more here than meets the eye. The crystals are set in naquada. Undoubtedly they are more than mere decoration."
Astarte said from the door, "I can't be sure from here, but it looks as though the throne acts as a ribbon device."
Jack said, "That figures. He could torture prisoners and kill his enemies without moving his royal butt."
Daniel said, "There probably is a way to arm and disarm all the traps from the throne."
Jack said, "Yeah, but it wouldn't surprise me if there isn't something to recognize Tel-chak and do something nasty to anybody else who sits down on it."
"Remember that to the Maya, blood was life," Daniel said.
There was a round carving on the right arm of the chair, with a hole in the center. Jack used the blade of his knife to depress the carving and a needle sprang up. A few moments later there was a sharp click, and several foot-long spikes shot out of the chair. He and Teal'c jumped back away from it.
"Blood was life, huh?"
"Yes, the Mayan royals used to offer their blood to feed the gods. The queens used to pierce their tongues--you don't want to know what the kings pierced. Anyhow, they'd collect the blood on paper and burn it as an offering to the gods. When that wasn't enough, they sacrificed high-ranking prisoners, cutting out their hearts like the Aztecs did, or sometimes loading them down with heavy jewelry and tossing them into a well."
"Ack. Nice bunch o' people."
"To them it was all very noble, Jack, and actually it was pretty heroic from their point of view. They believed the universe would come to an end if they didn't feed the gods. When they went to war, they knew if they lost they would be sacrificed, so they served the greater good of their people in defeat as well as in victory."
"A Goa'uld told them that, Daniel," Jack pointed out.
"We're back to that same old argument about the Goa'uld taking on the personas of existing deities. The Maya also believed that the universe would come to an end and be reborn on December 21st, 2012."
Jack didn't want to think about the universe coming to an end in eight years, especially if there was nothing he could do about it. "Let's keep our minds on what we're doing here!" He snapped, a little sharper than he had intended.
Daniel just gave him that "look," and humored him. "I might be able to tell you more if I could see the inscriptions."
"OK, come over, but don't touch anything."
Daniel was cautious enough to feel ahead with his walking stick and listen for a click before he took a step. He examined the throne, with a low whistle for the spikes that had sprung out of it.
"Jack, these writings don't all refer to Tel-chak. They mention the moon goddess Ix Chel, the corn god Yumil Kaxob, and there are a lot of references to the god of death, Yum Cimil, also called Ah Puch, who was the ruler of Xibalba, their name for the underworld. Astarte, do you recognize any of those names?"
"Yum Cimil could be Shamil, one of Tel-chak's underlords," she replied. "I think he was killed in Tel-chak's last battle with Anubis, but I'm not positive about that. Ix Chel was his queen, and I know she died. Kaxob was another underlord who escaped the fighting and received sanctuary from Sokar. I don't know what became of him after that."
She came closer and carefully examined the throne. "There is a concentration of naquada in the right arm here. It could be the device that recognizes the user's blood and controls the spikes, but it sort of feels like more than one object."
"Step back," Jack told her, and examined the arm rest more closely. Once again, using the point of his knife, he depressed a carving. A panel opened to reveal a ribbon device and couple of other things that were wrapped in cloth. "Bingo!"
"How are we supposed to get that stuff out of there without setting off something, like One-Eye did?"
Jack carefully examined the compartment, then checked the wall beside him. Sure enough, there was a small opening concealed in the mouth of a snake carving, in just the right place to shoot a spear at someone kneeling beside the throne. "Astarte, can you use your ribbon to push one of those blocks against the wall here?"
"Yes, but watch out. Stone chips might fly if I hit it too hard."
He stood well clear while she maneuvered the block into position. Then he used his knife to snare the ribbon device. The bottom of the compartment raised a fraction of an inch, and a spear flew out of the wall to strike the stone block with a solid thunk. When nothing else happened, he retrieved the other two objects. One was a ring with a brilliant blue stone. No one knew what it did. The other was a comms orb.
He bagged all three items to take back to Sam. She'd forgive him for leaving her at home when he brought her some new doohickies to play with.
It didn't look like there was anything else in the throne room, so they retreated back to the hallway to decide whether to explore the second floor or the basement next. Jack was the last one out.
As soon as he set his foot down, he realized that he'd overlooked one vital fact. Instead of stepping over the threshold, this time he had stepped on it.
Jack held perfectly still. He'd armed something by stepping on a pressure plate, but it wouldn't go off unless he moved.
"OK, everybody--out of here now."
"Jack...? What happened, what's wrong?"
"I stepped on something, I'm not sure what."
"Let me see."
"Daniel, for once will you not ask a bunch of questions and just get the hell out? Even if you had your glasses, there's nothing to see--I'm standing on one of those floor triggers."
Nothing would probably be unrecoverable...unless he got a head injury, or blown to kingdom come, or.... Shut up, O'Neill!
Nobody moved until Teal'c said, "Go. I will attempt to determine the nature of the trap. The worst thing would be for all of us to be caught in it--then there would be no one to help us."
That was common sense that no one could argue with. When they were all clear, Teal'c studied the doorway carefully. There were a number of very small holes in the lintel.
Jack said, "Can't be darts, I don't think. Too small. I think it's gonna dump something liquid."
Teal'c said, "I concur."
"There's always a chance that whatever it is could have evaporated over the years."
Teal'c set the butt of his staff on the pressure plate. "It appears to be fully depressed. Move off it carefully."
"Then what?" Jack asked skeptically.
"We run for the door and hope that it is not an aerosol."
"T, that's a dumb plan."
"Have you a better one?"
Jack didn't. Teal'c clearly wasn't going to budge without him. He slid first one foot, then the other, off the pressure plate.
"On three. One...two...three!" They dived as far down the corridor as they could. From behind them, they heard glass shatter, then an acrid smell filled the corridor as something dripped to the floor, splattering and sizzling.
Jack knew that smell. He didn't stop, or let Teal'c stop, till they were outside.
"T, check your clothes, make sure you didn't get splashed." He jerked off his boot and sock as a familiar burning told him he was a moment too late.
Astarte looked around wildly for something that would hold water and found a broken clay pot. She dipped water out of the fountain and doused the innocent-looking little red mark on his foot over and over again.
"O'Neill, I do not appear to have been hit. What is it?"
Astarte asked, "Is it still burning?"
"I don't think it's getting worse any more," he told her. Still hurt like a son of a bitch, though.
Just to be sure, she kept flooding it for a couple more minutes to make sure the acid was all diluted and washed away. She got out her healing device and said, "I don't care what else is in this death trap. If there are zombies such as you described, neither we nor the pirates have attracted their attention. It is foolhardy to attempt to explore it any further!"
Jack held up his hand. "No arguments. We got what we came after, anyhow."
Astarte's healing device glowed, and to Jack's relief the acid burn started to heal immediately. She had flushed it all before it had a chance to get into his bloodstream, so all he had was a minor localized burn that quickly disappeared.
Daniel said, "Let's get the hell out of here."
Jack pulled off his remaining boot rather than limp around wearing just one, and they went back to the tel'tac.
Everyone was excited over the comms orb, but Jack saw Sam turn white as a sheet when she heard about his close call. He reassured her and said, "Just tell me it was worth the risk--can you reach your dad or Bra'tac or someone with that?"
"It's long range. Maybe," she said, excited. She opened it and changed some settings, then sent a hello.
They waited tensely. After a few moments, Jacob's holographic image appeared. Sam let out a joyful cry. "Dad!"
"SAMMY?! Thank God, you're alive! Where are you?"
She rattled off gate coordinates, but told him, "The DHD's inoperative and there isn't enough energy to dial out manually. We need a ride."
"I'm on my way. Is everyone else all right?"
"Yes, Dad, we are! There are ten of us all together."
"Those coordinates are pretty far out on the fringes. It's gonna take me a while to get there," Jacob said. "What do you want me to tell the SGC?"
Jack said, "Let me talk to him, Sam."
She handed the orb over. "Jake, don't tell anybody yet. I don't know if Ba'al has agents anywhere, and I'd rather not take the chance--we've got nowhere to run if he finds us here. Time enough to start making big announcements after we're away."
Jacob didn't want to think about a possible spy in the SGC, but they had never found out who had sold them out in the first place. "Roger that. What do you need to fix the DHD?"
Sam took the orb back to tell him which crystals she needed. Neither of them wanted to end the conversation, but Jacob left her with a promise to call back and let her know when he was under way.
Jack sat down and pulled Sam into his lap. He figured all he had to do now was figure out how to convince Jacob Carter not to kill him for knocking his daughter up!
They were going home.
Sam sat on the window sill combing out her hair. Sunlight flooded the courtyard, a welcome sight after the weeks of steady rain. "I'm going to tell everyone."
Jack said, "They'll be figuring it out for themselves any day now. You're, what, about three months along?"
"Yeah, about. How long have we been here now?"
"You know, I'm not sure--five, six months."
"Do you think we should tell Dad?"
"Uh, yeah, about the time the kid graduates from college," Jack said.
"Jack, he'll know when he sees me. I'll be showing by then. This way he'll have plenty of time to get used to the idea before he gets here."
Jack figured it would just give him and Selmac more time to plan his murder, but he was going to have to face Sam's dad one way or another. That reminded him of the trouble they were going to be in when they got home. Once again he was filled with doubts that Sam had thrown away a promising career for him and that he wasn't worth it.
Sam got up from the window sill and kissed him thoroughly. "What was that frown for?"
"Just thinking about only seeing you on visiting days at Fort Leavenworth," he replied.
"I don't think so," she replied. "I'd get Thor to spring you. Besides, they'd never let us go that easily. They'll want us where they can use us if they need us through the gate for something."
Jack grinned. "Yeah, that's true."
Sam told him, "Whatever happens, we'll deal. If I've learned anything from these past few months, it's that they can get along without us, and family comes first. We'll do what we have to do to make it work."
Once all of them had gathered around the breakfast table, Sam reached for Jack's hand. "Guys, Jack and I have an announcement to make. I'm going to have a baby."
That started a celebration that lasted well into the day.
That evening, Sam sat with the comms orb for a good while before she called her dad. They talked frequently. His tel'tac wasn't big enough for eleven people on the way back in case the gate couldn't be repaired, so he had enlisted Bra'tac and a larger vessel. Bra'tac's presence was another reason Sam wanted to tell Jacob now--at his most stubborn, Jacob respected Bra'tac enough to listen to sense.
"Hi, Sam, how's it going?"
"Good, Dad. Good. But there's something important that you need to know. Are you sitting down?"
"Dad, Jack and I are together now, and you're going to be a grandpa again in about six months."
For a moment, Jacob froze, then he bellowed, "You're PREGNANT? By your COMMANDING OFFICER?"
Sam replied, "Don't you take that tone with me. It was a million to one that we were ever going to get home. We lived our lives. I am in love with Jack O'Neill and we are a family now. If my own father can't understand that and be happy for us, then by God I don't know who you are."
Jacob stopped in his tracks, staring at her holographic image. "Christ, you're Elizabeth all over again," he said. He shook his head. "Well, I guess between us George and I know some good JAG lawyers. Can't have my grandkid's parents in the pen."
"Dad, I really think when we impress on them exactly how much of a miracle it is that we ever even managed to contact anyone, much less get home, they won't throw us in prison. Dishonorable discharges, maybe," she winced.
"After everything you two have done and sacrificed for Earth, they owe you one hell of a lot better than that," Jacob replied. "Sammy, I know I haven't been there for you. But Selmac and I've decided, that's gonna change. Especially now. I'm not missing out on watching any more grandkids grow up."
"I love you, Dad."
"I love you, too."
She set the comms orb safely on a shelf and went out to the courtyard to check on things.
Late that night, Jack heard some quiet movement in the hall. He slipped out of their blankets without waking Sam and picked up his knife on his way out into the hall.
Tom went out into the common room, leaning heavily on his crutch, and took down the comms orb. He sat staring at it for a long time, then put it back up on the shelf without activating it.
He jumped sky high when Jack said from the shadows, "I'd been wondering how long it was going to take you to make up your mind."
"I knew it would have been one hell of a coincidence for a pirate ship to just land here right after we did. How much of a bounty has Ba'al put on us?"
"To get his queen and his prize prisoners back? A whole lot more than the cap'n told us, I'm sure."
"How much does he know?"
"Not a lot or he'd have been here by now. He's got a general idea where you dropped out of hyperspace, but it's still like lookin' for a needle in a haystack. Mostly it was just dumb luck that we found you. Somebody else will too. He ain't gonna be happy when he finds out I knew where you were and didn't tell him."
"We'll just have to hope Jacob gets here before he does," Jack said. "Go back to bed. And don't you ever let me catch you anywhere near that comms orb again."
Tom did as he was told. Jack took the comms orb back to his room with him. He would keep it on him or well hidden from now on, in case Tom's fear got the better of him again. He lay down again, but didn't sleep the rest of the night.
At breakfast the next morning, Jack said conversationally, "You
know, Tom, I've been doing some thinking. It was a pretty damn huge coincidence that you folks landed here. What do you think are the odds that your captain came here on purpose, looking for us?"
Tom stared at him, unable to believe that Jack wasn't going to tell anyone that he'd considered turning them in to save his own skin. If he had needed anything else to cement his change of heart, that did it. "I-uh-pretty good, probably. Every smuggler and bounty hunter in this sector knows Ba'al has a price on your heads. We dropped out of hyperspace a coupla times before we landed here. He was probably doin' scans."
Arun confirmed, "He was. I brought food up to the pel'tac once when he was doing one. I never put it together that he was looking for you guys, though."
Astarte said, "It was just chance...it had to be. We could be on any of thousands of worlds, or through a stargate by now to anywhere in the galaxy. He has to be too occupied with the business of governing his holdings to spend too much time searching for us."
Daniel said, "If he put out a big enough reward, every bounty hunter in the galaxy is doing it for him."
"They do not know where to look. JacobCarter does," Teal'c replied.
Arun's food was suddenly a lot less appetizing. "But what if they find us anyway?"
Jack told him, "Then they'll have found themselves a pack of trouble, won't they?"
"Easy for you to say. You know how to fight."
Teal'c said, "You are well of an age to learn."
Crenn asked, "Aren't we really too old?"
The Jaffa told her, "It is true that Jaffa children begin to train at an early age, but one can begin at any age. O'Neill had never so much as seen a staff weapon until around a decade ago. He is better than many who have trained with the weapon since childhood."
(From Daniel Jackson's journal)
That day, we all started training together in earnest. Fighting as a unit is second nature to SG-1. Li'ac and Risha are excellent fighters but they were trained as bodyguards, not soldiers. Astarte can defend herself very well with her kara-kesh, but its range is severely limited and she had only fired a zat a few times. Tom and the kids were complete beginners. Nobody needed any extra motivation besides the knowledge of our fate if we fell into Ba'al's hands.
Jack has fallen back into his old mission habits, sleeping lightly when he sleeps at all. Teal'c and I are little better, but when I've had enough of lying awake, I often find Jack already sitting up. I think Sam would be just as bad if she didn't know she needs her rest for the baby's sake.
Somehow we've all kept up with the day-to-day necessities of survival. It would be easy to let the stress get to us, but Jack has a real talent for keeping morale up. Take yesterday, for instance--he declared a day off and we had a cookout on the beach. I think all of us were able to forget our situation for a few hours and just relax--all of us except Jack. I wish there was more I could do to
(end journal entry)
"Everybody out!" Jack's order brought everyone running from every corner of the villa. Daniel came out of his room with his journal in one hand and his walking stick in the other. Jack rushed everyone out the back gate and under the tel'tac's cloaking screen.
Once he counted heads and found everyone safely aboard, he explained, "Something just came out of hyperspace and cloaked."
Sam lowered herself into the co-pilot's seat and checked the passive scanners. "Have you got the comms orb?"
He gave it to her so that she could check with Jacob.
It took him a few minutes to answer. "What's up, Sam?"
"Something just came out of hyper and cloaked, was that you?"
"No, I'm still a good three days out. What's your situation?"
"We're all on the tel'tac with the cloak up."
"Can you wait it out?" Jacob asked.
"That's Plan A," she replied.
Meanwhile, Jack and Teal'c had gone back into the villa to grab provisions and their few belongings. The tel'tac's water tanks were kept topped off. On the way out, he turned the goats loose and wished them luck.
Sam asked, "Where to?"
"Let's go down the coast and see if we can find a good place to land near the tree line. I don't want to flatten a tel'tac-sized patch of weeds out in the open," Jack replied.
She took them up, and about thirty kilometers down the coast they found a good place to go to ground. Sam shut down everything but the cloaking device and they opened the hatch for ventilation.
It was still several hours till morning. When absolutely nothing happened for a couple of hours, most of them got tired and found places to bed down for the night. Sam persuaded Jack to get some sleep as well, arguing that if they had to fight, they'd all be better off rested. Teal'c took first watch, with Risha and Li'ac sitting kel-no-reem behind him near the escape pods where their small oil lamps wouldn't get kicked over if someone had to get up in the night.
The next day dawned clear and beautiful, a wonderful day for flying. Jack hoped the udajeet squadrons combing the planet for them could get away with taking a few moments to enjoy it. One flight passed right overhead, flying along the coast line. Only the cloaking device saved them from being spotted.
When they found the villa, they would know people had been living there, they had a tel'tac which was no longer there, and they'd left in a hurry. Jack hoped the obvious inference would be that they had skipped out of the system. He sat in the sand with his back against the hull, well within the cloak, and kept watch.
Sam came out, staying carefully close to the hull, and sat down beside him. "Any more sign of them?"
"Nope. My guess is they found the villa."
Sam ran her finger through the soft white sand. "Yeah. They'd have had a hard time missing it."
A dark speck caught Jack's eye. "Oh, yeah. Take a look at that."
They watched as the speck grew larger, enough for them to recognize a mother ship. The roar of her lifters drew everyone to the hatch.
Crenn said fearfully, "They've found us!"
Jack wasn't so sure she was wrong. If something was wrong with the cloaking device.... He put his hand on her shoulder, steadying her.
The great ship's shadow fell over them, close enough for them to look up and see every hatch and piece of equipment on the underside of her black hull. They were, by sheer fortune, bracketed between her massive lifters. One side scattered debris off the cliff top to rain down on the palm trees, and the other threw a flume of water thirty feet in the air. They had bet everything on the cloaking device. If it failed there was nowhere to run, no choice but stand and fight. Every one of them vowed to make their capture as expensive a proposition as they could.
The deafening roar of the mothership's lifters drove Crenn to put her hands over her ears. The ship was so large it seemed to take it forever to pass over them--but then it headed on up the coast! They watched, incredulous, as it disappeared over the next headland.
Sam said, "They're just looking for a good place to set her down!"
Crenn burst into tears of relief and Jack held her as he would have held a frightened Cassie when she had been that age. "It's OK, sweetheart, they're gone now."
"They won't find anywhere besides the pyramid to land that huge thing," Daniel said.
"Yeah, then they'll tramp around the ruins, take some pictures, look for somewhere to buy souvenirs...." Jack wisecracked.
Astarte sat down, letting her breath out in a whoosh. "Jack, remind me never to gamble with you." She was shaking with her host's adrenaline rush, and didn't have the sense to get it under control until Adrana gave her a mental poke.
"Ah, you're our lucky charm. Things started breaking our way when you showed up," Jack teased, making Crenn and Arun giggle.
Astarte laughed and wished for a glass of wine to settle her nerves. Adrana told her to make it a whole damn bottle.
After that, there was nothing they could do but wait. Storytelling passed the time, and between them they had a lot of stories. They kept a constant watch, and slept in shifts with their weapons close at hand in case a foot patrol found them. If Varga had flown right overhead without spotting them, Sam was fairly sure that all they had to worry about was someone walking on the beach who would notice the tel'tac's footprint, cloaking device or no cloaking device. When it came to sending out recon patrols, it was a very big planet.
The third day, it rained, and Jack sweated that. They had a big square of dry sand just sitting there. The wind and surf would be enough to keep any search parties up on the cliff--he hoped.
Jacob would be arriving soon, and everyone was more than ready to get the hell out of Dodge. Sam looked down at her clothes, Jaffa boots, loose pants two sizes too big cinched in over her belly, and a hand-woven shirt, knife and zat hanging from her rawhide belt, shaggy hair tied back with a band decorated with shells and beads made of blue stones.
Jack asked, "What's wrong?"
"I was just wondering if Dad will recognize me like this. I look like an extra from a Mad Max movie," she said.
Jack laughed, "We all look like a pretty rough bunch. Your dad won't give two hoots in hell what you look like," he grinned. "But I'll bet he wants a picture."
Sam said, "For blackmail purposes!"
Jack laughed. "The next time you're up to your ears in mission reports, you're gonna miss this place."
"I'll miss this time," she replied softly. "Things are simple here. Nothing's going to be simple when we get home."
"We love each other and we're a family now," he said firmly. "There's nothing simpler than that anywhere."
She smiled and nodded. "This is true."
Jack looked out the hatch where Risha was sitting keeping watch. The wind was really whipping up. Heavy waves were crashing much higher up the beach. If this kept up, they'd have to move by high tide. But for now, he was thankful for the weather. It kept the patrols well out of their way.
The long-range comms orb started beeping for attention--they all were. Sam said, "That must be Dad."
Jack said, "Sam! Wait. Just receive the message until we know what's up."
She played the message. Instead of her father, Ba'al's face appeared. "O'Neill! I know that you are out there. If you and my errant queen surrender yourselves, I will let the rest of you go--including some others who may be familiar to you." The hologram shifted to show first Bra'tac, whose face was bloody but who looked like a captive eagle all the same, then an impassive Jonas Quinn, and finally Jacob, all Tok'ra reserve and military dignity.
Sam drew a sharp breath and almost dropped the orb. Jack took it and turned it off.
She looked up at him. "What are we going to do now?"
"I'm gonna go kill that damn son of a bitch and get our people out of there, that's what."
Astarte said, "Not alone. I never would have sought out this fight, and the prospect of it terrifies me--but I shall have no peace anywhere while Ba'al lives. I do not look forward to a life spent in hiding. Let it end today, one way or the other."
Li'ac said, "Where you go, Lady, I follow."
Risha said, "And I."
"Do you not understand? You are free women, no longer my servants."
Li'ac said, "Am I not free, then, to fight at your side in this cause for which we would both gladly give our lives? Del shakka mel!"
Teal'c echoed in a low, terrifying rumble, "Del shakka mel."
Tom said, "Not sure what good I'll be, but might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. I'm in."
Carter asked, "Do you know how to fly this thing?"
"Then I can use a co-pilot. Daniel, can you see the instruments?"
He nodded. Up close, he could see just fine.
"Then you're my navigator. Arun, you've got the portside guns--Crenn, you're on starboard."
O'Neill, Astarte and the three Jaffa geared up while the ship's crew took their places. Jack stopped to kiss Sam, then she watched them disappear into the storm. Her heart and soul went with them, but it was Colonel Carter who turned back to her instruments and started bringing the ship's systems online. Ba'al had come a long way looking for a fight. Sure enough, he'd found one.
For this particular infiltration, Jack couldn't have picked a better team. They wouldn't be distinguished from the Jaffa who were looking for them on Varga's scanners. The naquada that Kan'an had left in his blood would fool them. As long as they didn't get spotted by a patrol, they wouldn't make anyone suspicious. In this weather, once they found a way up the cliff and got into the jungle, they were unlikely to be noticed.
Teal'c took point and Jack brought up the rear. They were closer spaced than he would have liked, but it was way too easy to get lost in this kind of cover. They didn't have time to play hide-and-seek. They were all soaked to the skin and muddy before they got very far. He allowed himself a brief grin. They didn't look like a bunch of people that he would want to meet in any dark alleys.
Li'ac passed along Teal'c's signal to halt. Jack did so, but when he didn't see any reason why from his position, he moved up with cautious stealth. Teal'c signaled that he had sighted the enemy. Jack spotted them, a patrol of eight men on a game trail. He targeted the leader in case they were spotted and waited silently until the patrol went by, deeper into the jungle. Then the five of them moved out.
By the time they reached the pyramid, it was dark and they were getting gale-force winds. Varga could ride out a hurricane, but Jack didn't think the tel'tac would be as lucky. He didn't see Jacob's ship anywhere. He figured it was probably in a landing bay.
The mothership took up the whole area from the cliff edge to the jungle. Jack reflected that you really didn't realize exactly how big those things were until you were standing on the ground looking up at one.
Barely audibly, he asked Li'ac, "What's the best way in?"
"I would think one of the entrances near engineering," she replied. "That is, if we can take out the guards before they can raise an alarm."
"Leave that to Teal'c and me. Wait here." Under the deep shadows of a massive landing strut, the two men advanced silently. There were two guards on the hatch that Li'ac indicated, but that hatch was broadside to the wind. They had been forced to take shelter in the recessed hatchway. Jack nodded and the two men drew their knives. Jack killed the first one before he ever knew their was danger nearby. The other one had time for his eyes to widen in terror before Teal'c slit his throat.
At Jack's signal the others moved up. They were on the clock now, with no way of knowing how long they had before those sentries would fail to check in on time and be missed.
Jack got the door open and cleared the small room inside.
"Where's the detention area from here?"
"Three levels up and to the right, but only two of the prisoners will be there. Ba'al will have the other."
"Near the top of the central pyramid," she said, "But the only access to those levels is a central core, which is heavily guarded at all times."
Astarte said, "Not quite. There is a small secret passageway that runs from Ba'al's personal fighter bay on Hangar Deck One to his chamber. He doesn't know that I found out about it. The hangars will be very busy, and that is to your advantage--dressed as you are, you just look like two Jaffa returning from a patrol. You will find a locker that has his flight armor in it. The back of that locker is a secret door. Turn the helmet peg to the right. Once you are in his chamber, go out into the corridor. The interrogation chamber is one level down the stairs and at the end of a hallway. You should not run into a great many people, possibly his lotar and perhaps one or two other trusted servants, or Tar'ac. Ba'al is careful who has access to his chambers."
"Can you get into the detention area and free whoever's in there?"
Astarte replied, "We did it before!"
Li'ac and Risha were very familiar with the back passageways of the ship. They led the way up a narrow stairway to the detention level, where they went different directions.
Astarte said, "Fortune favor you."
"You too," Jack told her. With that, he and Teal'c simply strode through the corridors to the docking bay, a couple of dirty, wet, tired soldiers with just enough of a break between patrols to dry out a little and get something to eat before they had to go back out and slog through the mud again. Not surprisingly, nobody questioned them on the way to Ba'al's hangar.
There they ran across a snag. Two very alert guards kept anyone from walking into that bay. They hid behind a tool container to figure their next move. Whatever they were going to do, they were going to have to do it quickly. Their plan depended on extracting all the prisoners before an alarm was raised, and then escaping under the confusion of multiple incidents happening simultaneously at different places in the hat'ak.
Jack's eyes fell on something very interesting. "Teal'c, when I give you the high sign, distract the guards. I have an idea."
Jack worked his way quietly behind the tool locker and crouched there momentarily, judging distances. As someone who had spent most of his adult life around fighter planes, he knew the respect all aviators held for jet fuel. Now, while he knew a death glider didn't use jet fuel, he also knew they went up like the Fourth of July when they decided to explode--and he was willing to bet that whatever was in that bright red and yellow striped hose was probably the guilty party. At his sign, Teal'c threw a bolt over into the far corner. Both guards instinctively looked to see what the noise was. Jack edged a hand around the corner of the locker and snagged the hose, and poked a hole in it.
The liquid that sprayed out had a strong odor and he was careful not to get any on him. When he carefully released the hose, it fell back into place and a large puddle soon formed.
As soon as someone noticed the spill, he yelled something in Goa'uld that ended in "kree," and the whole place erupted. Everyone in the bay, even the guards, scrambled for breathing gear and started looking for the leak. Under the confusion, O'Neill and Teal'c ducked into the bay.
It wasn't hard to find the suit locker. Jack twisted the peg and the hidden panel slid aside. They ducked through quickly, knowing it wouldn't take a well-trained crew very long to lock down a dangerous leak. As he was trying to figure out how to shut the panel behind them, it slid closed on its own.
The corridor they were in was only about three feet wide, and often took odd twists and turns around structural elements of the hat'ak. Jack took a moment to shake off the irritation caused by the fumes he'd inhaled--at least until his eyes stopped watering. After that they hurried up flight after flight of stairs. Astarte would only be able to give them so long before she had to act.
Bra'tac awakened, confused and disoriented from the sarcophagus. The last thing he remembered was hanging on a gravity web with half a dozen knives in him. Now he was lying down, and unharmed as far as he could ascertain. His first instinct was to figure out where he was, and worry about how he'd gotten there later. Cell. Jonas Quinn was leaning against the wall opposite him, still bruised from the fight preceding their capture, but with no new marks on him. Bra'tac was relieved to see that--if the bruises had been gone, he would have known that Jonas had been in the sarcophagus. There was still a chance they could get out of this before the younger man came to any worse harm.
Overhead, Bra'tac could see the toe of a guard's boot through the slight shimmer of a force screen. "JacobCarter?" He asked. His voice sounded rough and long-unused in his own ears.
Jonas replied, "They came after him a little while ago."
Bra'tac closed his eyes for a moment, fighting an irrational guilt that he hadn't kept Ba'al occupied longer, and a righteous fury that had no outlet at the moment. Being used as bait in a trap for dear friends was not something the old Jaffa took lightly. Ba'al had better take care to kill him once and for all, or the false god would pay dearly for this insult. For now, though, he sat up and entered into a light kel-no-reem, gathering his strength for the next ordeal.
He was shaken out of his meditation when the guard collapsed sideways, from his perspective, and lay clinging to the wall. A few moments later a female Jaffa came over and retrieved her knife from his throat. Another that he thought was also Jaffa until he saw the kara-kesh on her hand came over and turned the gravity field off. Bra'tac and Jonas got their balance and ran out of the cell as soon as the force field went down. He took the guard's staff weapon and threw the zat to Jonas. "My thanks, Lady Astarte."
"I am not certain that you owe me any thanks until we are safely away," she wisecracked.
Bra'tac asked, "Is O'Neill with you?"
She pointed up. "He and Teal'c have gone for Ba'al. He has Selmac?"
Jonas said, "Yes."
Bra'tac said, "This is no place to discuss it, Lady."
"Certainly not. We got in this way."
"What is the plan?"
Li'ac said, "To reach O'Neill if we can, Tec'ma-te, otherwise to create confusion to cover his escape."
"I have an idea how we might accomplish both of those objectives at once, if you know how we can reach the power core from here."
"There is a way just past the guard station."
"Then shall we get past the guard station," Bra'tac suggested.
There was a brief but fierce firefight when they got there. One of the guards got to the alarm before Jonas shot him, just as they had planned, and soon sirens were wailing throughout Varga.
For all that he and Selmac could both do to fight it, Jacob writhed in agony as a single drop of acid burned into him. His symbiote had all she could manage to keep the dreadful substance out of his blood. He had to deal with the pain himself, and nothing in his life had ever hurt like that.
When the alarms started blaring, Ba'al looked up with a smile. "It sounds as though O'Neill has taken the bait. They will be here shortly, I believe."
A staff blast took out the gravity web generator. Unexpectedly freed, Jacob staggered and barely caught his balance. Ba'al whipped around.
"We're already here."
O'Neill would have paid good money for the look of surprise on Ba'al's face. "What? It isn't my fault if you assumed I'd knock on the front door when you sent out an invite."
Ba'al reacted as O'Neill had expected, with a wave of energy from his kara-kesh. The Tau'ri dodged and rolled under it, and came up with a knife in his hand--he didn't even bother trying to shoot through a personal shield.
Ba'al dodged back from a slash that came too close for comfort and the two men circled, eyes locked on each other.
Teal'c edged around the room and got to Jacob. When he discovered what had been done to the Tok'ra, he found and quickly administered the antidote. Jacob fell back in relief, gasping a couple of breaths.
Ba'al drew first blood, opening a long shallow gash across O'Neill's cheek that just did miss his eye. Jack's knife bit deep into his side, a much more serious wound that forced Ba'al to turn some of his attention to stopping his host's bleeding. He backhanded the Tau'ri and knocked him flying. Jack landed and rolled to his feet in one graceful motion and threw the knife. The only reason it didn't go through the system lord's eye socket was that he reflexively threw his hand up to protect himself. Instead, the knife cracked the kara-kesh's crystal and went on to slash deep into his palm.
He roared a furious curse and hurled himself at Jack, shaking off the now useless ribbon device as he went. They both went down in a heap. Jack knew he didn't have a chance in a wrestling match with a Goa'uld. He broke the hold with a vicious punch to his adversary's wounded side and scrambled out of the way, grabbing up a pair of knives from the table.
Once again they started circling. Ba'al realized that he was getting the worst end of it from this infuriating Tau'ri. O'Neill knew it too. "Things go down a little bit differently when the other guy's got a knife, don't they, Bocce?"
"Where are the rest of your people? Did Colonel Carter get herself killed attempting to rescue her father?"
"She was fine the last time I saw her. Sounds like they're raising hell down there, doesn't it?" O'Neill was breathing harder, and he realized something was wrong. He was having trouble getting enough air. Those damn fumes. He couldn't spare the time to worry about that right now.
Ba'al immediately noticed his weakness and changed strategy, slashing and forcing him to dodge. O'Neill was able to keep out of the way, mostly, but the longer the fight dragged out the worse his chances. O'Neill feinted with his right hand, and attacked with the left-hand blade that he had been using to parry. It caught flesh, but Ba'al landed a punch with his wounded hand that broke ribs and knocked O'Neill back into the table. The next thing he knew, Ba'al's hands were around his throat.
This time, he couldn't break the Goa'uld's hold on him. He started to black out.
Jack scrambled desperately for anything and caught the acid bottle. He splashed a generous amount on the Goa'uld's back.
Ba'al howled in pain, and he was distracted just long enough for Jack to stab him again.
His eyes flashed once then all the life went out of them.
Jack staggered and gasped for breath. He got rid of the acid bottle. It had been sheer good luck that he had avoided getting any on him. He was about to zat Ba'al once and for all, but an explosion shook the room violently and knocked him flying. The whole ceiling came down and the air was quickly filling with acrid smoke. "What the hell--?"
Teal'c said, "I do not know, but it came from the power core. We must get out of here immediately!"
The Tok'ra struggled to his feet. "Right here, and roger getting out of here! Where are Bra'tac and Jonas?"
"Astarte was going for them first. If she hadn't got them out she wouldn't have been in the power core."
O'Neill spared one look for Ba'al. All he could see was one black boot sticking out from under the debris. They hurried back the way they had come, and when they were in the hidden passage, Jack turned on his comms and yelled, "Sitrep!"
Li'ac answered, "We cannot get to you! Some fool shooting at us damaged something in the power core! I believe the whole ship is going to go up in flames!"
Jack ordered, "Get the hell out any way you can! We've got Jacob, we'll make our own way out! Sam, get ready to extract Astarte's team."
"Roger that, what about you?"
"We're stealing Ba'al's glider, don't shoot us down!"
Jacob said, "If this thing explodes, it could take the gate with it!"
"Where's your ship?"
"Hovering right over the stargate. We ringed down to fix the DHD, and a patrol lead by Ba'al's First Prime found us."
Jack had to stop talking. He was increasingly short of breath and getting half-strangled hadn't helped. By the time they got down to the docking bay, Teal'c had to support him. The Jaffa put Jack and Jacob in the back seat like two sardines in a can, then got into the pilot's seat and pulled down the canopy, bringing systems online as fast as he could.
A second blast set the glider rocking in its moorings and threw everything that was lying loose flying across the bay. He sent the command to open the bay doors, but nothing happened. He blasted the doors open and maxed the throttle, counting on the inertia dampers to protect his passengers from the sudden acceleration. The confusion saved them--if any of Varga's gunners were still at their stations, they didn't dare fire on Ba'al's own udajeet.
Jacob took Jack's comms orb. "Sam, this is Dad, what's your status?"
"Taking on passengers," she replied. "Everyone else is safe with me. We have Bra'tac and Jonas and they're OK."
"Head for the gate! Be careful, my ship is hovering right over the gate about twenty meters up with her cloak activated. You should still be able to establish a ring lock, though, if you can get close enough."
When they reached the gate, Sam got as close as she dared and Daniel and Tom ringed over.
That was when Teal'c told them to meet him at the crash site.
An udajeet was much faster than a tel'tac. Teal'c, Jack and her father had been on the ground for a while when Sam landed in the grass near the wreck. She turned off the cloaking device so that the second, larger cargo ship could land more safely, and ran for the wreck as fast as she could go. If they were found, it would be because the glider was squawking its location, and she seriously doubted that.
She found Teal'c and Jacob holding Jack down while he convulsed violently. There had been no opportunity to deal with his cuts, so there was blood all over him. He wheezed horribly with every gasped breath. "My God, what happened?"
Jacob said, "I don't know for sure, Sam. He inhaled some coolant vapors and he was having trouble breathing, but that wouldn't explain this. We don't know if Ba'al's knife was poisoned or what?"
"Why didn't you just put him in the sarcophagus?"
"He made us promise we wouldn't put him in there alive. He wants to try to see if he can fight it out on his own," Jacob explained.
Risha knelt and checked his fingernails, no easy job when she had all she could do to hold his arm still. "He is not getting enough air. SamCarter, you are the mother of his child. If he stays long enough like this he may live only to regret that decision."
Sam said, "Then he can change his own mind if he does."
Risha looked at her.
"Risha, it isn't just today, he's made his wishes clear on several occasions."
Jonas argued, "Sam, we have to do something before he gets brain damage from being without oxygen for too long!" Kelownans held a lot more oxygen in their bodies than Tau'ri did. When they had been trapped on the sunken mothership, he had been surprised to find that he could hold his breath much longer than they could. Tau'ri could experience brain damage in just a few minutes without oxygen.
Astarte came running with the healing device. After two attempts failed, she said, "I will not be able to use the healing device as long as he is convulsing like this! I have never seen Ba'al use a poison with these precise effects. It must be the coolant."
Teal'c asked, "Astarte, you are saying that you will be able to help him if the convulsions stop?"
"Then please move away."
Teal'c activated his zat and fired.
As soon as Jack fell still, Astarte tried one more time, and this time it worked. She got his airway open and stopped the bleeding, then she and Jacob took turns supporting him in getting the poison out of his system. In the end they would never know if it had been the coolant or if the knife had been poisoned. Either way, such an extensive use of the healing device left him very weak.
Jacob and Bra'tac took the smaller cargo ship to find out what was going on with Varga and if they could use the stargate. Meanwhile, everyone else moved the sarcophagus and everything else that might be useful onto Jacob's ship.
Jack didn't wake up until Jacob and Bra'tac returned from their scouting mission. Presently he heard people coming on board and sat up, shaking his head to clear it. He looked accusingly at Teal'c. "You zatted me."
Jack rubbed his eyes. "Thanks, I guess!"
"You are most welcome, O'Neill."
"What's goin' on?"
Bra'tac fielded that one. "Varga is still there, but heavily damaged. It looked as though most of her crew managed to escape and then extinguish the fire. The area around the stargate is now heavily guarded."
"Sounds like we're flying home," Jonas replied.
Exhaustion weighed Jack down like a full load of gear after a fifty-mile hike. He lay back down and let the final launch preparations swirl around him like leaves in a stream. They were all safe and they were going home. What awaited them back on Earth was uncertain, but that was later. Sufficient unto the day.
The engines powered up and the sky outside the small sliver of viewport that he could see from where he was lying faded to black. A few moments later they jumped to hyper. He fell asleep.
A few days later, Jack was sitting in the co-pilot's seat. Not that there was anything to do there while the ship was in hyper, but it paid to have somebody keeping an eye on it. They had moved things around in the main hold to make room for training, and the familiar noise kept it from getting too quiet.
Jacob came up and took the chair on the other side of the console, taking the time to stretch out his legs. Selmac was still working on some of his injuries, and they were both still pretty freaked out over what they'd gone through. "Are you doing OK, Jake?"
"Yeah, pretty much. Thanks to you. Jack, I had no idea--Selmac had no idea."
"Well, about that--I'm sorry you ever had to find out."
"How long has this been going on between you and Sam?"
"You know we've had feelings for each other for years, but we never did anything about it. You know she was engaged to Pete Shanahan."
"Yeah, I never did figure out what was up with that."
"I tried seeing somebody else myself, but she saw right through me like a plate glass window. We were both trying to accept and move on. But then we got stranded back there and there was no reasonable expectation that we'd ever get home. The DHD was beyond repair, and that bucket of bolts wouldn't have made it out of the system, much less to a planet with a working stargate. If I'd known Sam had a career to go back to--"
"I can see that. But she's giving up a hell of a lot for you now that you are going home. If you ever make her regret that, I swear to God I'll hunt you down and I'll kill you."
"I know that. I'm gonna marry her, if you have any doubts about that--"
"No, Jack, I don't doubt that. I know how you feel about her. She loves you. You make her happy. And you've given her the child she always wanted. That's what every father wants for his children, you know that."
"I'm gonna retire if they don't kick me out. They've found somebody else to run things now. They won't need me now."
"Yeah, Dixon's been doing a fairly good job."
"They promoted Dave and gave him my old job?"
"Yeah, and his wife's pregnant again, too," Jacob grinned. "Twins this time. Hell, she's probably had 'em by now."
Jack just about choked laughing. Dixon was well known for complaining about his kids, despite the fact that everyone who even knew him in passing was aware that they were his whole world. "Well, at least that's one guy who won't be on my case about havin' a kid at our age. Lord knows how the Air Force is gonna take it."
Jacob said, "I don't know what's going to happen, to be honest with you, Jack. I do know Earth owes you, and I've got a few markers of my own to pull in. So will George when he hears you're home. You'll probably lose your pension, but you won't do jail time if I can help it."
Jack didn't think so either. "They won't want to lose Sam, and if they piss her off, they will. So I think you're right, they'll just let me go quietly. She thinks they'll make her resign from the Air Force and stay with the project as Dr. Carter. I can see that happening."
Jacob nodded. "I think she'll take a desk job either way."
"Whatever options she has, I'm behind her a hundred percent whatever she decides."
"Yeah. It's been way too long coming, but me too," Jacob said.
Crenn came in with a couple mugs of something steaming hot. "This one's yours, Jack."
"What, is that coffee?"
"Whatever it is, Daniel made it."
"It's coffee then."
"Watch, the cup's hot. Jacob, Jonas said this is yours."
Jacob took the strong tea, the compromise they had arrived at after Selmac's valiant but unsuccessful effort to develop a taste for coffee. He drank tea, which he really didn't mind as long as it was real tea instead of that wimpy herbal stuff, and she tolerated chocolate-covered coffee beans or cafe mochas whenever he could get them. A good life, Selmac reflected, was often the art of making wise compromises. Jacob had always thought Sam was career military all the way through, but when he saw her light up talking about her life with Jack and the child they were having, he agreed that the art of wise compromises extended to things far more important than coffee.
(From Daniel Jackson's journal)
After everything we had been through, our journey home was somewhat anticlimactic, and that turned out to be just as well. It was a week after we left before Jack was up and around again, and much longer before he really regained his strength. Sam's pregnancy turned troublesome and she nearly had the baby prematurely, requiring her to stay mostly bedfast for the rest of our trip. I think she would have gone insane and taken the rest of us around the bend with her if she had been confined to bed on Earth, but here on the ship was the next best thing to having a bed installed in her lab. So far we have managed to keep her occupied, or at least entertained. And this may be an uncharitable observation, but we've all been relieved that Jack has been busy keeping her busy!
It's been good to spend more time with Jonas. He has been catching me up on what has been happening politically from the time we were captured until we first contacted Jacob. I tried to thank him for dropping everything to come to our rescue, but he wouldn't hear it. He believes that he has contributed all that he can to Kelowna. They're on the track towards solving their problems, but now it's in the hands of the people to do it. He means to return to a more active role in the war against the Goa'uld. What that actually means, of course, will depend on how the situation with Jack and Sam resolves itself.
The kids and Tom are used to shipboard life. Our months in space have been simply the way things have always been for them. But now that we are almost home, they're beginning to wonder where they will go now. Likewise, Astarte, Li'ac and Risha are concerned. With Bra'tac to grant them safe passage, though, nobody will dare do anything more than ask him to take them somewhere besides Earth.
Tomorrow, we will be home.
(end journal entry)
Bra'tac set them down on a little used runway at Peterson AFB. As soon as they stepped out of the cloaking field, a bus with darkened windows pulled up to drive them up to Cheyenne Mountain. Everything from the color of the sky to the gravity under their feet had the familiar and normal feeling of home.
Jack and Jacob carefully helped Sam into the vehicle, with Risha and Astarte hovering. Jacob's glare at the young driver promised dire consequences if he so much as hit a pot hole.
"Are you okay, Sammie?" Jacob asked.
"Scared to death," she admitted quietly.
Jack took her hand. "You don't worry about anything except the baby. Anything else, the rest of us have got your back."
She nodded and took a deep breath, or at least as deep a breath as an almost-term pregnant woman could manage. The bus pulled out.
Crenn and Arun were plastered to the windows all the way across town. Trader brats saw the docking bays of ports all over the galaxy, but they rarely got to go out and see the neighborhoods where the local people lived. Traffic on the freeway was fascinating and scary all at once. When a truck driver in the next lane saw the Air Force emblem on the bus and honked his horn in salute, they almost jumped out of their skins, much to Jonas' amusement. He had reacted almost the same way the first time he'd got loose downtown. That seemed so very long ago now.
The bus navigated the twists and turns of Norad Drive, and Sam's breath caught in her throat as the majesty of the mountains surrounded her. Home. Her child would be born on Earth, on American soil. "God, I never thought I'd see this place again."
Jack wasn't sure what Jacob had done, but the bus driver took them directly into the mountain and let them off at the elevator, where a medic was waiting with a wheelchair. It was a big elevator, but there was barely breathing room when they all crowded in.
They got off the elevator and came face to face with SG-2, who were on their way to the surface after a long debrief. Lou Ferretti did a double take, then yelled, "Jack?!" A hand shake turned into a bear hug. "General, you're the scruffiest lookin' sight for sore eyes there ever was!" Then he got a look at Sam and his eyes popped. "Sam, you're pregnant! REAL pregnant!"
She laughed. "Lou, you look like life's been treating you pretty well. Don't I get a hug?"
"You bet you do." He bent over to hug her and kissed her cheek.
Daniel, Nyan and Jonas were talking a mile a minute. Nyan looked around. "Where's Emily?"
Lou looked around and said, "There goes the grapevine!"
Emily Satterfield had ducked into a nearby conference room and made a call. She came out doing her best to look innocent. Then she said the hell with it and started crying and ran up to hug Sam.
Before they'd got ten feet down the hall, a crowd poured out of the labs and offices to welcome them. There were so many handshakes and hugs that it took them half an hour to get as far as the infirmary.
General Dixon caught up with them there. With a wide grin on his face, he yelled, "What's this I hear about somebody hauling in an AWOL SG team?" He looked around and started counting Jaffa. "Bra'tac, are these folks yours?"
Bra'tac said, "Astarte/Adrana, may I present General Dixon, the commander of the SGC."
"Well, now. I'll bet there's a story behind this. Welcome to the SGC, ma'am. Until I know what's going on, I'm going to have to ask you to remain in the company of Master Bra'tac and Jacob/Selmac."
"It is my pleasure to do so, General," she replied. "I have come to the Alliance seeking sanctuary for myself and for my friends, Li'ac of the Sakarra Steppe and Risha of Tiandara Valley."
Bra'tac said firmly, "The Lady is here under my protection, and upon my guarantee of safe conduct. It is she whom we all have to thank for the lives of SG-1."
Jack said, "More than once, Dave."
He nodded. "That's good enough for me."
Jack said, "Dave, I hate to rain on anybody's parade here, but we need to debrief ASAP."
Dave glanced at Carter and nodded. "Yeah, I guess we do. You guys clear medical, and I'll make a few calls. We can debrief as soon as Doc Brightman gives you the all-clear."
"Did you figure out who sold us out to the Braxians back on PCX-119?"
Dixon said, "No, we didn't, and believe me it was something of a witch hunt around here when we figured out somebody dropped a dime. I wanted to conclude that it was someone on 119, but we've had moles in the SGC before. Let's see if anyone spooks now that you're back. In the meanwhile, I'll post some SFs," Dixon said. He nodded to Sam. "I'm sure people with a lot more stars on their shoulders than I have will be lining up to chew your asses over this development, so I'll just leave that to the experts. Welcome home, and congratulations."
"Thank you, sir."
It was the better part of four hours before they all cleared medical and got issued new uniforms. Dr. Brightman set up for an ultrasound on Sam.
"Do you want to see, or do you want to keep the baby's gender a surprise?" The doctor asked, as she pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.
Sam and Jack looked at each other, then they both decided they wanted to see.
Brightman smiled. "It will show on the middle monitor, too, so you lot don't have to crowd in here," she told the rest of them. Sam laughed as they all shuffled back a few steps. Crenn asked, "You mean we can see the baby?"
Risha said, "Apparently so. I must learn of this."
Brightman looked up, one healer to another, and explained, "This device emits harmless sound waves, then receives them when they echo back. The computer over here turns that data into a video image that lets us see the baby. Sam, cold gel here. This gel helps the instrument glide over the skin smoothly so we get the best possible image."
Sam yelped, "Wow, that is cold."
"Here we go. Smile, kiddo, you're on Candid Camera." Jack took Sam's hand as the picture started to come in, and Jacob put a hand on each of their shoulders.
Brightman kept up a running commentary as more of the baby became visible. "Oh, yeah, you're a little cutie. And you're turned just like you're supposed to be. Sam, you're gonna be a mom before the week's out, and probably sooner rather than later. It's a girl!"
Sam's eyes filled with happy tears. "Risha, you got it right."
"I knew by the way you were carrying that it probably was," Risha replied.
Brightman said, "My grandmother always used to be able to tell whether a baby was going to be a boy or a girl by looking at the mom. I'm lucky we have the ultrasound, because I can never tell that way. And sometimes you get a kid who's camera shy, so you still don't find out until they're born."
"A few days?!! Oh, my God! Jack, Dad, we need everything!"
Jacob said, "Honey, I'm afraid I wasn't able to save the lease on your place. The landlord stopped leasing it out so his son could live there. Your bike and some of your stuff is in Jack's garage and the rest is in a storage locker. But don't worry, you can do your shopping on the computer and we'll take care of setting up the nursery."
Jack asked, "Does anybody know about getting a marriage license?"
A nurse who had just got married said, "You go to the county clerk's office downtown and pay $10, there's no waiting period and no blood test."
Jacob said, "They're closed now."
Sam said, "Tomorrow's soon enough. There's something I need to do before I can get married anyway."
Brightman said, "Wait a minute. Sam, I don't want you leaving the mountain. Your blood pressure is up, and because I don't know what kind of wrinkles the naquada in your blood might cause in delivery, the last thing we need is for your baby to be born in the back of the General's truck."
Jacob said, "Then we'll get somebody from the clerk of court's office to come here with the paperwork. What else did you need to do?"
Sam said, "The least I can do is look Pete in the eye when I give his ring back. I owe him that."
Jacob said, "I'll see if I can find him, and ask him to come here. I don't know if he's still working here, or if he went back to Denver."
"Dad, can you find out where the ring went? It would have been in my locker."
"I'll take care of it, honey."
Brightman came up with a towel and a sweat suit. Sam asked, "Can I go to debriefing, Donna?"
"In the wheelchair. I don't want you getting up and down any more than absolutely necessary. Standing raises your blood pressure. Generals, if anything upsetting happens in debriefing, you have doctor's orders to get her out of there immediately. If anyone gives you any flak about that, page me. Now, all of you, shoo while we get her dressed."
They all filed out into the hall. Bra'tac said, "I will be responsible for the civilians if you wish to attend to your daughter's obligations, Jacob Carter."
"Thanks, Bra'tac, I appreciate that."
"It is my pleasure."
An SF sergeant said, "Master Bra'tac, we've prepared a VIP suite for your use. If you'll follow me, please?"
That left Jack, Teal'c and Daniel standing in the corridor waiting outside the infirmary, as they had done so many times over the years. This time they weren't waiting in dread of bad news. Jack felt such a flood of gratitude for that, he honestly couldn't care less what the Air Force decided to do. Daniel had a different idea, but he needed to talk to Dixon about it.
The three of them went to the locker room to get changed. To Jack's surprise, their lockers were exactly as they had left them, with the exception that obviously their uniforms had not been sitting there getting musty all this time. Someone had foreseen that they would want to freshen up.
Since Sam was required to use the wheelchair, they had to take a different route to the briefing room, through Dixon's aide's office from the elevators. They were surprised to see General Hammond there.
Jack immediately snapped to. Hammond said, "At ease--Colonel, you stay put."
Dixon moved a chair so that Jack could wheel her up to the table. Hammond asked, "Colonel, do you have permission from the doctor to be here?"
"Provisionally, sir, the doctor gave strict orders that we're not to get her upset."
Dixon said, "With your permission, sir, the colonel could remain in my office during certain parts of these proceedings."
"Good idea, Dave. SG-1, whatever else happens, I am grateful to have you back alive. Let's all keep our priorities in order as we go along here. You're home safe. That's the main thing. Is that understood?"
Jack and Sam both answered, "Yes, sir."
"OK, then, start at the top."
The debriefing wasn't the worst they'd ever been through. Their captivity had been nearly a year ago and there wasn't anything they hadn't talked about before. Having been together through it all, there wasn't any perceived need to protect one another from the details, although Jack had a hard time getting through telling about waking up on Astarte's barge when he and Li'ac had been the only ones alive.
Hammond called several breaks to make it easier on Sam. He remembered when his wife and his daughter had been pregnant, and he knew sitting at that table for too long would be uncomfortable. He made sure that there was always another female nearby to assist her to the ladies' room. During those breaks, the rest of them got up and stretched their legs, and stood around the coffee pot talking and catching up.
He was skeptical about Astarte, but after he heard how she had risked her life for them on so many occasions, he had to admit that he was having serious doubts about Goa'uld being programmed to be evil by their queens and unable to change their attitudes. It gave him hope that there could be a just peace after the war.
Jack asked, "Any word from the Tok'ra about Ba'al after we headed home?"
Hammond shook his head. "None whatsoever. You might have got him for good."
"He was dead the last time I saw him, but we all know what that's worth," Jack said. "They apparently got the fire out pretty quick. There was pretty thick smoke in that area, and it was getting worse, but no indication that the fire was going to spread there from the power core. I wouldn't write him off."
George said, "I hate this. Jack, you and Sam waited until you'd made certain that the DHD was a lost cause and that pirate ship wasn't spaceworthy, am I right about that?"
"Absolutely. There was no reason to hold out any hope of ever getting off that planet."
"But the letter of the regs.... Damn."
"I know that, sir. I'll take full responsibility for what happened. I was the senior officer and that's the end of the story. If they want to court martial me, let them."
Daniel said, "General Hammond, I've taken the liberty of running an idea past the Air Force Judge Advocate General, and he thinks I may be onto something here. By all means, let's follow the letter of the law here. Nobody can be expected to do any more than give their life for their country. By doing that--according to the letter of the law--Jack and Sam fulfilled the obligations of their oath of service. Therefore, since officers don't re-up on a regular basis, they were essentially working for the Air Force without a contract from the time we were all shot by Apophis back on the Nox world until the next time they each were promoted and took the oath again. The same thing holds true from the time Tar'ac threw us down that stairwell. They weren't obligated to the Air Force for anything. Now I'm sure it'll take the Air Force about fifteen minutes to write a new regulation to plug that loophole, but if they decide to interpret the regulations strictly, so can we, and it'll open a huge can of worms if that happens."
Hammond grinned. "Dave, if you don't mind, I'd like to use the red phone for a minute."
"Of course, sir."
Hammond was still in the office when Sam got back. "What's going on?"
Jack didn't want to get her hopes up until he was sure they had something. "General Hammond had to make a phone call. He'll be right back."
Hammond came back, grinning like the cat who got the cream. "I've just spoken to the President. Rather than have Daniel's idea for a defense open up that 'can of worms,' he's decided to grant the whole lot of you a blanket amnesty for everything that happened while you were MIA. And since General Dixon is now in command of the SGC, I'd like to remind you that you two are not in a direct chain of command at the moment--nor are you likely to be again. Jack, the President told me to tell you he'll be getting in touch with you in a couple of weeks about a job offer that he'd like you to consider. In the meanwhile, he asked me to convey his happiness at your safe return, as well as his congratulations and best wishes."
"Thank you, sir!"
George clapped him on the back and turned to hug Sam. "Get this lady back down to the infirmary so she can get some rest, son."
None of them noticed the airman who slipped away from the group as they left the conference room and headed for the elevator.
A nurse asked Sam, "Would you like to sleep in your sweats, or would you prefer a gown, ma'am?"
"The sweats are fine. I'm going to have to get used to the chill down here."
"You were in a warm climate?"
"Oh, yeah, it was just like the Yucatan, Mayan pyramids and all. It was a really gorgeous place, but you'd have had to see the wildlife to believe it."
Jack said, "Yeah, there were these little piranha-rat things, and this critter that was half-bird, half-lizard and the size of a rottweiler."
"Oh, and garden-variety rattlesnakes the first place we were," Sam said.
Jack grinned. "There'd be an Indiana Jones movie in there if it weren't all classified."
The nurse said, "I'll get you another blanket, ma'am. Is there anything else you need?"
"No, Lieutenant, I'm fine, thanks. Jack, could you check on Dad and everyone for me?"
"Are you sure you'll be OK?"
"I'll be fine. Oh, I did think of something. I'd like to have a laptop, and ask someone to set me up an account to get on the internet. If I wake up at 0200 again, I'll just look at baby furniture or something."
"I'll see what I can do," he smiled, and kissed her gently. "You get some rest. It's been a hell of a day. I'll be back soon."
She smiled back. "I will. I promise."
Jack left the infirmary and looked for Walter and passed along Sam's request for a laptop computer.
"I'll take care of it. I can't reestablish her old clearances yet."
"I don't think it matters, she just said something about shopping for the baby."
"Oh, that will be fine, sir. I'll take a computer to her right away."
"Where did they put Bra'tac and everyone?"
"The large VIP suite, sir."
"You're welcome, sir."
Jack checked on their guests and made sure everything was going smoothly. Astarte was still debriefing Colonels Reynolds and Davis, and would be for some time. Jonas had introduced the kids to television, Tom was asleep, and the Jaffa, minus Teal'c, were sitting around talking. Bra'tac told Jack that Teal'c had gone through the gate to see his family, and would probably be returning with them later in the evening.
Jack went back to the infirmary, and found Jacob in the hall sitting on a folding chair. "What's going on?"
"Nothing, Jack. Pete's in there. I just thought I'd give them a little privacy."
"Yeah." Jack grabbed another chair out of the break room and waited with his father-in-law to be. "Did you get hold of anyone from the clerk of court's office?"
"One of the girls is going to come up on her lunch hour and bring all the paperwork to the NORAD chaplain's office. Her brother's in Iraq, so she said she was glad to help out. The chaplain can perform the ceremony right then, if that's what you and Sam want."
"That's fine with me, unless Sam wants to do something differently. I need to get a ring."
"Jack, I don't know if you'd consider..." Jacob pulled a gold chain out of his collar and opened the chain, releasing a set of wedding rings. "These were her mother's."
"Jacob, I'm sure Sam would be as honored as I am, but are you sure you want to part with these?"
"Elizabeth would have wanted Sam to have them."
Sam had been asleep when Pete and her father arrived. Jacob had quietly withdrawn as Pete came in. Sam woke up.
"Sam? Jacob told me you were alive. Why are you in the--oh. Wow."
"Are you all right?" He acted like he wasn't sure what to do with his hands. Finally he sat down in the chair beside her bed.
"I'm--I'm fine, Pete."
He put his hand over hers, and she saw the gold band on his finger. "Sam, I--I didn't wait either. They told me you were either dead or gone for good."
"Are you happy?"
"I am now," he said. "Are you?"
"Then let's skip the whole guilt trip, dear John thing and go straight to let's be friends, OK? Because I really care about you and I always will."
She started crying. "I'm sorry, it's the hormones," she said.
"Well, settle down or they'll kick me out of here."
Sam got a tissue from the box on the tray table. She picked up the ring box that her father had located for her.
"You keep that," Pete told her.
"Thank you, but I want you to have it. You could sell it and buy something nice for you and your wife. I--Pete, being with you helped me get my head on straight, and I owe you so much for that. I'm thankful that I didn't ruin your life in the process. I felt so guilty for the way I used you, even though that wasn't what I ever intended to do."
"My ex-wife and I got back together. You helped me get my priorities in the right order, too. The first time around, I was married to my job, and I made her feel like the other woman, or a piece of property. I learned my lesson about that and I really think we can make it work this time. That never would have happened if you hadn't come along. I think what happened between us was meant to be, and we're both wiser and better for the experience."
"Is this one of those things we'll get together in ten years and laugh about?" She asked.
"I don't know about that, but I'm sure our kids will if they ever find out about it."
Ruefully, she said, "My lips are sealed."
Pete put the ring box in his pocket and bent to give her a chaste kiss on the cheek. "Sam, thank God you're home. Take care of yourself...and give me a call when the baby's born, OK?"
Pete turned around and blinked away a few tears before he went out in the hall. He shook hands with Jack and said, "Good luck, General. And another thing. If you ever hurt her, I'll find you."
Jack nodded. "You'd be in line behind a lot of other folks, Shanahan."
"Yeah, I guess I would at that." He turned to the SF who had escorted him in. "I'm ready to leave now, Airman."
Jack and Jacob went in. Jack asked, "Are you OK, Sam?"
"I'm good. Pete went back to his wife, so it wasn't as awkward as it could have been. We're still friends. Did you talk to the chaplain, Dad?"
"He's off duty until tomorrow morning. I'll catch him then."
"Good." In spite of herself, Sam yawned.
Jacob kissed her good night. "I'll get out of here and let you get some rest, honey."
"G'night, Dad. Love you."
"I love you too, Sam."
Jack sat down in the chair. "I'm glad Shanahan didn't give you any grief."
"It wasn't exactly either of our shining hours," Sam said. "We agreed it was a learning experience."
"Life's full of those, but it all worked out for the best."
She smiled. "Yeah. We're getting married tomorrow! Yeah!"
Jack grinned. "Your dad offered--Sam, if it's OK with you, he offered you your mom's rings."
She burst into happy tears and threw her arms around him. "I've missed her so much, Jack, nobody should ever have to go through her first pregnancy without her mom there. This is a reminder that--she is here."
Jack said, "I've felt something like that too. It was really strong during the ultrasound. Like Charlie was here to see his little sister." His eyes were anything but dry.
For a long time they just held each other. Then Sam said, "You go sleep in a bed. Your back will be killing you tomorrow if you stay in that chair, and besides, it's going on midnight. It's bad luck for you to see the bride the day of the wedding."
After one last kiss, he turned off her light and went back to the VIP suite. Teal'c had got back with Ishta, Ry'ac and Kar'yn, so it was another hour while he got caught up with them. Then he finally crashed on the nearest unclaimed bed.
"Sir, it's too risky to try anything here. Security's just too tight. The CMO won't let her leave the mountain until after the kid's born, some kind of complications. But if we wait until they go home to O'Neill's place, we can pick our time....Yes, sir, I know how important this is. I'm just saying we'll have the best chance of success if we wait....Yes, sir."
Jack and Sam were married in a very quiet ceremony in the small NORAD chapel, but even so, it was packed with their friends and family. Cassie was Sam's maid of honor, looking very grown up in her ROTC uniform. Daniel was best man, only by seniority because he had known Jack longer than Teal'c and Jonas.
Jack thought every woman in the room paled next to Sam. No bride in a designer wedding gown had ever been more beautiful than Sam in a wheelchair wearing a hastily-altered set of class A's.
They had chosen the traditional marriage vows, with one exception. Keeping in mind the technicality that had got them out of trouble over the regs, they had replaced the part that went "till death do us part" with "forever." The poor chaplain had no idea why practically the whole congregation snickered at that. Sam and Jack had eyes only for each other. She couldn't hold back the tears of joy any longer when Jack put her mother's rings on her finger.
An arch of sabers waited in the corridor outside the chapel, and someone had raided the kitchen for rice--a custom which the Jaffa embraced with great enthusiasm. Jack did his best to keep Sam from getting pelted too hard, but they were laughing too much to avoid it all.
They had decided instead of a formal reception, to wait a few weeks until they got the baby home and throw a big barbecue. Today they made a short visit to an impromptu celebration in the commissary, to cut the cake and greet friends that they hadn't had a chance to see yet in all the bustle. Some people had brought gifts, mostly funny or sentimental things since everyone knew they were combining two households and didn't really need a new toaster. Cassie kept track of that for the thank-you cards. Then Dr. Brightman sent Sam back to the infirmary.
Jack got a cup of coffee while the nurses got her into bed. He came out in the hall and noticed an airman standing there with a clipboard.
"What are your duties here, son?"
The airman saw who it was and snapped to. "Laundry, sir!"
"What are you doing up here?"
"I have some papers for Dr. Brightman to sign, but she's with a patient, sir!"
Jack gave him a long look. "Carry on."
Daniel came up and asked about Sam. When he thought about the airman again, he'd gone, and about that time a nurse told him he could come in.
Over the next couple of days, things calmed down. Jacob stuck to Sam like glue when he wasn't running errands in town for her. Bra'tac went back to check on things at home. Jonas went back to Kelowna to visit with his family and friends there, but he would be returning this time.
After they saw him off, Crenn asked Jack, "What's going to happen to us now?"
"Well, that's up to you, really," Jack told her. "You can stay with Sam and me, or Bra'tac will keep you on as his apprentices. Risha would be glad to have you, too."
Crenn said, "I wish we were all going to the same place."
Jack told her, "So do I, kid, so do I. But we'll be seeing a lot of each other. And you know where ever you decide to go, if you and Arun need us, call us and we'll come."
"I know." The bonds of friendship and family that had connected them all over the last year were still strong. Even though they were going on to live their lives and they wouldn't be within arm's reach of one another, they were still together, come what may.
Jack was awakened at 0300h by a call from the infirmary. It was time. He threw on his BDUs and ran for the elevator. He looked around the infirmary--and her bed was empty. He turned to the nearest nurse and demanded, "Where's Sam?"
"Calm down, sir. She's in ISO-1. We've got three SG teams due back this morning, and you know how noisy that gets. Everything's fine."
Everything was not fine until he saw for himself that Sam was doing all right. He had been somewhere classified when Charlie was born ten days early, so he was just as new to this as Sam was. They had seen women have babies, of course, but it hadn't been Sam and it hadn't been their child. Brightman wouldn't let him in until he sanitized his hands and put on a paper gown.
Sam was doing fine, chatting with Risha. Brightman told him, "She's in early labor. It's going to be hours yet before anything happens. You can go on in. I'll wait out here to catch General Carter when he comes running in, then I'll be back to check in every so often, or just yell if you need anything. It's just like we decided, Risha is Sam's midwife and I'm right here if I'm needed. Sam's doing fine."
Sam lit up when she saw Jack. He bent over the bed rail to kiss her forehead. They had her on a blood pressure monitor just in case, but other than that things were going just as Mother Nature intended. He sat down beside the bed.
Jacob got there a few moments later, just as breathless as Jack had been. "Sammie, are you OK?"
"I'm fine, Dad. Why are you two hovering already?"
Jack and Jacob looked at each other. "Sam, if you want us to get out of here for a while--"
She laughed. "I don't mind if you want to stay, but you're going to be awfully bored until something starts happening! If I hadn't already been in here thanks to my blood pressure, I wouldn't even leave home for a long time yet."
There was plenty of room, so both of them decided to stay. It was just as well, because there was an unending stream of visitors once the word got around, and one or the other could always go out in the hall and talk to them. Sam instinctively wanted to get up and walk around to get things moving. When her blood pressure stayed normal, the two healers agreed it should be all right for her to walk around the room as long as someone was with her. Around about mid-morning things really started happening.
Brightman was concerned over Sam's silence. Sam explained, "Donna, I've been through worse. This doesn't last long."
The doctor paled a little. She'd had two Lamaze babies. But she kept her reaction to herself and said, "OK, if you want something just ask."
Daniel and Teal'c took up positions in the hall outside and nobody dared try to move them. Teal'c had not forgotten that the mystery of the traitor's identity was still unsolved.
A couple of hours later, they heard a slap and a loud squall. Daniel grinned, "Sounds like Jack's kid all right!"
Inside, Risha wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed her in Sam's arms.
Sam instantly recognized that pair of brown eyes. So like her father's, of course, but she remembered a little girl named Grace. And suddenly she knew what that dream or hallucination or whatever it was had meant. Everything "more" that she had needed and deserved, was right here in this room.
Dad and Grandpa as well as Uncle Daniel and Uncle Teal'c couldn't wait for their chances to hold her. Then Risha shooed everyone except Jack out so that Sam could get cleaned up and feed the baby. After she finished with that, Jack took Grace while Sam settled down for a well-earned nap.
Jack had forgotten just how small newborns really were. One look at that tiny little face, and he was gone forever. He didn't know how long he sat there just holding her and watching her sleep, until he heard a shutter click.
Sam was grinning as she put the camera back on the tray table.
"I thought you were asleep."
"Mostly," she yawned. "But you two just looked so cute I had to get a picture. What time is it, anyway?"
He glanced up at the clock in the observation room. "1600h."
"Have you had anything to eat yet? Why don't you pull the bassinet over here where I can see her, and go to the commissary for something to eat?"
"I don't want to leave you guys."
"I know you don't, but we'll just sleep anyhow, and there are probably a lot of folks who want to say congratulations. It'll be a few days before Gracie can meet her adoring public."
Jack laughed. "Y'know what, I'll bet we do have a little movie star here."
Sam said, "Nobel prize winner."
"All of the above."
Jack put the baby in the bassinet. "I think I will go take a shower and get something to eat, if you're sure you'll be OK."
"We'll be fine," Sam assured him.
He kissed them both, and wheeled Grace in her bassinet to a spot that Sam could see easily.
A few minutes after he left, a lab tech came in, checked her orders sheet, and drew blood from both of them. Then she stopped to soothe the baby and look at the pictures on the digital camera's preview screen before she took the samples back to the lab.
Late that night, a stealthy figure let himself into the lab and removed two vials of blood, then altered the orders sheet so that they wouldn't be missed. He then proceeded out of the mountain normally and stopped at a greasy spoon diner, where he duct taped the samples to the bottom of his table. A chalk mark on a telephone pole outside let his contact know that there was something in the drop.
Jack opened the front door and gave Grace to Jacob, then he lifted Sam to his arms and stepped across the threshold with her. Daniel was taking more pictures. He and Teal'c had turned into regular shutterbugs since the baby had been born.
Jack set her down carefully. He had been treating her like glass ever since she had the early labor scare, which was both endearing and annoying at the same time, but right now the look of love in his eyes just blew her away. "Welcome home, Mrs. O'Neill."
They kissed, much more briefly than she would have liked because Jacob and Daniel were there. She looked around the room. Some of the major decisions about which furniture to keep and which to give to charity had already been made, so there was room to walk around, but they still had two of a lot of things. "I want to see the nursery."
"Will you be OK on the stairs?"
Jacob said, "Be careful, Sam."
"I will, Dad, but I have to move around to get back in shape. I've been flat on my back for three months now."
Jack said, "Right, and you aren't going to come back from that in a week, either. Take it slow."
By the time she got to the top, her back and legs were telling her the same thing, but it was worth it. The nursery furniture that they had chosen online looked even better in real life. There was still a faint aroma of fresh paint. She really liked the greens and yellows. It was a warm, sunny, welcoming room.
The old fashioned secretary surprised her. Daniel said, "Go on, open it up."
There were all the expected baby things in the drawers, but when she pulled down the desk top, she found a new, large flat screen monitor and a keyboard. Daniel opened the wardrobe section to reveal the CPU and other hardware. "We thought you might want a workstation where you can watch the baby."
Sam kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Daniel, this is perfect."
Jack said, "This kid is going to be able to type before she can talk."
Jacob laughed. "That's nothing, wait until she decides to take the refrigerator apart to see how it works."
Sam turned red. "It wasn't that bad."
"Paying for your raising," her father grinned.
Sam ended up sleeping until supper time. Jack decided to get rid of the old bedroom set in the guest room downstairs and put Sam's in there, which kept the men busy moving furniture all afternoon. She didn't pay any attention to all the racket, but she woke up when the baby made the littlest noise. Daniel went out for chicken, and Jack went upstairs to tell Sam supper was ready. He found her sitting on the bed feeding Grace and sat down beside her.
Sam teased, "She's got your appetite."
"And your looks, thank God."
She just chuckled and leaned up against him.
Daniel yelled up the stairs, "Hey, Jack, come take a look at this!"
He didn't sound happy.
Sam said, "Better go see what he wants. I'll be down in a few minutes."
Jack pulled the door to so she wouldn't be embarrassed if somebody came upstairs before she got her shirt back on. Daniel was standing in the kitchen looking up at a small round thing in the corner where the dish cabinet met the wall and the ceiling. "Is that what I think it is?"
Jack climbed up on the counter top. "If you thought it was a camera, you're right. Somebody's bugged the damn place."
Jacob said, "What?! Is it on?"
"Can't tell, there's no light on it. I'm gonna call Dave and get some SFs down here to sweep the place." Jack let loose with a string of curses. They spread out to check the doors and windows, but didn't find any sign of forced entry. Somebody had made a key.
Jacob's eyes flashed and he--or rather Selmac--added a variety of oaths in Goa'uld and a few languages that even Daniel didn't recognize.
Sam came downstairs with her blouse tucked in and the baby monitor clipped to her belt. "What's going on?"
"Some SOB bugged the house!" Jacob told her.
"It's up there in the corner, but don't you climb up there."
"Is it wireless?"
"Looks like it."
"Then get it down and let me see it."
Jacob suggested, "Let's let the forensics guys look at it first, honey, there might be fingerprints or something."
"Right...then I guess we'd might as well eat while we're waiting for them to get here. Where are Jack and Daniel?"
"Looking around the outside of the house. Do you know where Jack keeps the paper plates and things?"
"The barbecue stuff is in the cabinet by the back door. It's probably there." Sam opened the side-dish containers and found a big spoon for the gravy. Jack and Daniel came in. They hadn't spotted anything around the house, but then they'd been careful not to get too close to the side of the house to avoid stepping on any footprints that might be there. They all sat down to eat.
Half an hour later the SFs got there, the forensics team and a couple of guys who had been assigned by General Dixon to keep an eye on the place. They swept the living room first, so that the family would have a place to sit down while they checked the rest of the house. Teal'c came in a little while later with new locks and a high end security system. He and Jack went to work installing those, wearing rubber gloves and following behind the crime scene people.
Finally, the chief investigator reported. "Sir, we found cameras and listening devices covering the entire house. The small safe in your bedroom shows signs of having been opened. An attempt was made on the one in the den, but I don't believe they got it open."
That made sense. The safe in the bedroom was only used as a gun locker, and while it was secure enough to keep ordinary citizens out, a trained expert could open it without knowing the combination. The one in the den was where Jack would secure sensitive papers if he ever had any at home. No safe was completely burglar proof, but if anyone cracked that one, it would be immediately obvious that they had done so.
The investigator went on. "This has been done recently, within the last few days. In a few places they drilled holes to conceal the cameras. We discovered fresh sawdust inside the walls."
"So what is this, the NID or the Trust, or whatever the hell they're calling themselves today?"
The sergeant scowled. "Possibly, General, but they've been more professional in the past. I wouldn't have expected them to leave cameras in places that would be so easily spotted. If I were you, sir, I'd be looking at folks who'd still have a personal axe to grind after you've been missing for a year."
"OK. Let me know what you find out."
When they had gone, Daniel said, "Kinsey."
Jack said, "I won't say you're wrong. No question he blames me for having to resign."
Teal'c said, "I have always wondered if he might not have been responsible for our capture to begin with."
"Haven't we all, T. But if he did, he's gone past being a damn fool to an outright traitor. It won't be easy to prove."
Sam said, "There's a pretty short list of people who have it in for us on both sides of the gate."
Daniel said, "If I had it to do over, I wouldn't have made a scene about finding the camera. They know we're onto them now."
Jack shook his head. "You did the right thing, Daniel. I might have played bait before, but I won't do it now with Gracie here. I want them scared off."
Jacob excused himself. "I'm going to find a pay phone and call a few old friends to find out what Kinsey's been doing to keep himself busy, now that he's a private citizen again."
Teal'c said, "I will stand guard tonight."
Now that Sam's initial fury had burned out, she was getting tired. Jack told her, "Go on to bed, Sam, I'll tuck Gracie in."
"OK," she smiled.
Jack checked on the baby, and found her sleeping. He checked the lock on the window and tiptoed out.
Sam got her shower and Jack couldn't have sworn that she was still awake when she crawled into bed. He knew Teal'c and Jacob were keeping watch and that was the only reason he was able to rest at all. As soon as he knew where this was coming from, he decided, he was going to take it right back home. Enough was enough.
Sam got up about 0500 when Grace started fussing. She needed a diaper change, then Sam sat down with her in the rocking chair to let her nurse. Jack woke up to the sound of singing, and realized Sam had forgotten to take the baby monitor with her. She was singing the baby to sleep.
A humming sound and a flash of light had him out of bed like a shot.
The nursery was empty. The rocker slowly came to a stop.
Jacob, Daniel and Teal'c came charging up the stairs when they heard Jack yell.
"What happened, where are they?"
"I don't know, one minute she was singing to the baby and the next, the Asgard took them!" Thor was notorious for teleporting people without asking first. They figured the Asgard was due for a surprise when he saw the baby. But when Sam and Grace weren't returned within a few moments, and no one was beamed up to join them, they started to panic.
Daniel suggested, "Call the SGC and have them try to contact Thor."
Jack got himself under control. He should have thought of that first thing. "Right. I'm gonna get dressed while I do that." He called the mountain and explained what had happened, then grabbed a pair of jeans and a shirt while he waited impatiently for the SGC to call back.
When they did, it wasn't good news. Dixon said, "Jack, I just talked to Thor, and he isn't even in the neighborhood. He's on his way, though. We're talking to our friends upstairs to see if they got anything."
Jack left Sam a note in case she was beamed back here, then they rushed to the mountain. Jacob had that turned-inward look that meant he and Selmac were having a conversation--Jack figured his father-in-law was having hysterics about now. If he didn't have to drive the truck, Jack would be joining him.
It seemed to take forever to get through the checkpoint, park the vehicles and get down to the control room, but Dave did have some news for them. A surveillance satellite had picked up an energy signature that might have been an Asgard craft briefly decloaking. Unfortunately there was no other trace of them.
Jack asked, "Dave, where are Astarte, Li'ac and Risha? And Tom and the kids?"
Dixon answered, "Astarte went with Bra'tac, and Li'ac, Risha and Tom went with them. The kids are still here, I checked on them when you first called in."
It was two hours before Thor got there. He beamed into the briefing room and Jack came very close to taking his head off. Thor took in the grim expressions.
"It is good to have you back, O'Neill."
"Yeah, well, never mind that right now, buddy."
Thor nodded understanding and got down to business. "General Dixon told me that you and Colonel Carter have a child, and that someone teleported them from your home?"
"That's right. NORAD thinks it was one of yours."
Thor said, "Undoubtedly. Loki escaped from custody about three months ago and stole a research vessel. Had I known that you had returned, I would have warned you of this."
"Where would he have gone with them?" Jack asked.
Thor said, "That, I cannot say. How did he know that you were home?"
"We've got a spy somewhere. Somebody bugged my place. They must have been in contact with Loki."
Thor agreed, "That is the only thing that makes sense. He had to have a human accomplice. But what they could offer one another is beyond me."
Teal'c said, "Revenge, Thor. Loki could offer a chance for revenge in return for information."
Thor said, "I have left the Daniel Jackson in orbit conducting scans. Possibly we will pick up a trail."
Jack said, "I think it's time we asked Kinsey a few questions."
Dave replied, "Jack, if Kinsey is mixed up in this, he's got an alibi and you'll never get near him."
"Oh, yeah?" Jack looked pointedly at Thor.
The Asgard said, "I could indeed transport you directly to him, if you can pinpoint his location. On my scanners, he is but one among six billion Tau'ri."
Jack said, "If we can pinpoint his location, you can beam him up."
"Yes, of course."
"I'd rather question him up there, where he has nowhere to run and he can't yell for his bodyguards."
Dixon said, "Jack, if you kill that son of a bitch, I don't want to find out about it."
O'Neill replied, "He's no use to me dead."
Dave had two-months-old twin sons of his own. "Do what you gotta do."
Thor slid a control stone on the arm of his chair and the five of them disappeared in a flash of light. Dixon poured himself a cup of coffee. He was extremely happy he wasn't in Kinsey's shoes right now.
The view of the Eastern seaboard was nothing short of awesome from the bridge of the Daniel Jackson. Jack ordinarily would have been teasing the hell out of Daniel about it, but at the moment that was the last thing on his mind. He could feel it in his bones that Kinsey knew where Sam and Gracie were.
Jacob said, "According to some old friends of mine, since Kinsey resigned he's been holed up in his place in the Hamptons avoiding reporters and concentrating on his business dealings."
"Where are the Hamptons?" Thor asked.
"Long Island--got a map?"
The Asgard called up a display. "This is in real time."
Jacob pointed out Long Island, and Thor zoomed in on it. "Jack, where is that place, anyhow?"
It had been a few years since either of them had flown over the area, but it didn't take them long to zoom in on landmarks and locate the Kinsey estate. It was a sprawling place on the beach, surrounded by a wall and patrolled by teams of armed guards with attack dogs. They were sure there were plenty of intrusion countermeasures as well.
Jack asked, "You can overlay the infrared so we can locate people in the house, can't you?"
Thor moved a couple of control stones. There were about a dozen people in the house, but there was no way of knowing who was who. Jack asked, "Can you knock them out, beam them all up, and put the ones we don't want back where you found them?"
Thor said, "I could render them unconscious once they are here, but they would still get a glimpse."
Daniel suggested, "What about beaming them into a bare room? That way, they won't see anything to explain what happened. They'll probably come up with eleven different stories. Kinsey is the only one who'll see anyone, and he isn't going to incriminate himself."
Jacob said, "You mean that no-good bastard's going to walk?!"
Jack said, "Right now I don't give a damn whether he does or not! After we get Sam and Gracie back, let Malcolm Barrett worry about putting him in jail--if I don't just zat him three times and let everyone wonder what happened to him!"
Teal'c said, "Indeed, JacobCarter. Rescue before vengeance."
Either Jacob or Selmac agreed with that, they couldn't tell because all he did was nod agreement.
Thor emptied a storeroom and turned out the lights in there. Then he loaded several images of Kinsey into a recognition program and instructed the computer to beam them all up, then immediately beam back anyone who didn't match Kinsey's profile. The bystanders would only be aware of a couple of bright flashes of light, and Kinsey would suddenly find himself alone in the dark. That done, he started the teleporter.
"I have him."
Jack said, "I'll talk to him. There's no need for him to know for sure who else is involved."
Thor said, "That may be unwise, O'Neill, he may be armed."
"I don't care if he is or not. Got a zat right here. Can you teleport me in behind him and turn the lights up full?"
"Yes, of course."
Kinsey had been working at his desk in his bathrobe and slippers when all of a sudden his chair got yanked out from under him and he landed on a cold metal deck in the pitch dark. He yelped and was still trying to get his feet back under him when the lights came up and he heard the whine of a zat powering up behind him. The coldest voice he'd ever heard in his life ordered him to freeze.
"What did you and Loki do with my wife and daughter?"
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Kinsey blustered.
O'Neill grabbed him by the collar and slammed him against the bulkhead. "If that's your final answer, you slime ball, it really is your final answer."
Kinsey realized that he was as good as dead if he didn't come up with the answers O'Neill wanted. He said, "He's got a research outpost on the moon. I don't know what he wants them for, but he said they wouldn't be hurt, I swear!"
"You'd better pray nobody's touched a hair on either of their heads, or you'll be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your real short life." Jack slammed him against the bulkhead once again for good measure, then said, "I'm done here."
Thor turned the lights off and ported Jack to the bridge. "If Loki does have a base on the moon, can we find it?"
Thor said, "With an intensive search, yes. This ship is equipped with our most advanced sensor technology. But your moon is large, nearly a planet in its own right."
"Then we'd better get started."
"What do you want me to do with Kinsey?"
Jack and Jacob looked at each other. Between them they could think of lots of things to do with him, but Jack said, "Put him back. We can always pick him up again if we need him."
That was as soon said as done, then Thor made a short hyperspace hop to the moon and began his scanner sweep. He deployed a number of remote sensors to cut down on the time it would take, but it could still be a long process.
Jack paced until Jacob yelled at him to sit down. Daniel and Selmac kept things from escalating. Teal'c counseled, "It does not seem to be in Loki's nature to harm those he abducts."
"It wasn't before when he grabbed me," Jack replied, hoping that wasn't just wishful thinking.
"Loki's crazy," Jacob said. "There's no predicting what he might do."
None of them could deny that. Jacob said, "Sorry I snapped."
Jack waved that off. They were all on edge. All they could do now was wait.
The last thing Sam remembered was instinctively wrapping herself around the baby when the teleport beam had engulfed them. Now she was lying flat on her back--floating in the air--and the baby was gone. She couldn't move and there were four green lights floating around her. It was identical to the situation that mini-Jack had described.
"LOKI!" She yelled. "Either you let me down from here right now, or I can guarantee you won't like the results when I figure out how to get myself down!"
"Be patient, Major Carter, the scans are nearly complete."
"It's Colonel now. Oh, and it's O'Neill now, too. And WHERE THE HELL IS MY DAUGHTER?"
"If you will look to your right, you will see that she is perfectly fine. Her scans are finished."
As she watched, Grace floated gently down to the bed below her. Where she immediately began to squall at the top of her lungs.
Loki had obviously forgotten what a baby crying sounded like. He fussed around her ineffectively.
Sam said, "If you don't let me down from here, so help me God when I do get loose I am going to wring your neck."
Between the threat, and the screaming baby, he let her down. She immediately picked up the baby. "What the blue blazing hell do you think you're doing?"
"Don't you understand? We thought that O'Neill's genes were the key to the salvation of our race, but we were wrong. It wasn't O'Neill. It was the combination of your genes and his--your child. She will come to no harm whatsoever."
Sam's hand shot out before he could react and closed with bruising force around the back of Loki's neck. "I know damn well she won't. Now I'll tell you what's going to happen. You're going to walk very slowly to the nearest command console, where I'm going to contact someone to come and get us. If I even think you're planning anything, I'll snap your neck like a twig. Do you understand me?"
He squeaked, "Absolutely! Please! There is no need to become violent!"
"There's something you need to understand about humans--and just about any other earth creature more advanced than a paramecium. Never mess with the mama! You just broke that rule. And before this is over, I'm going to be one hundred percent certain, one way or another, that you aren't ever going to come anywhere near my daughter again."
Loki didn't take long to add up two and two and get four. The quickest way to make sure he was no threat to the baby would be to kill him, and looking into those ice-blue eyes, he was sure that was what she intended. Distraction seemed his best chance. "Why--why is she making that noise?"
"She's scared and cold and she needs a new diaper," Carter snapped.
"I can adjust the temperature and--what is a diaper?"
Carter only gave him an evil little smile. He blinked apprehensively.
Thor said, "I have located the outpost's power plant."
"I knew you could do it, little buddy."
"There are four life forms there. I can identify Loki and Grace, but I cannot tell which of the other two is Samantha."
Jack said, "So just beam them all up."
The rest of them readied their weapons as Thor slid the control stones around his console.
Their were four flashes of light--Loki, Sam holding Grace--and a young woman with long blonde hair, wearing a nightgown identical to Sam's.
There wasn't time to demand an explanation, because the girl immediately went into a violent seizure.
Jack reacted instantly, rolling her onto her side and cushioning her head from the hard deck. Sam rounded on Loki. "Is that my clone or Grace's? What's wrong with her?"
Loki hid behind Thor and said, "She is you, and you have removed her from the pod before she was ready. There is too much sensory input all at once. It is unlikely that she will survive."
Thor brought in a medical pod and they put the girl inside. Her convulsions ceased immediately. Thor said, "The pod is damping the sensory input so they she will be able to deal with it gradually. You are wrong, Loki. She should be fine once the pod has stabilized her DNA."
Jack grabbed Loki by the arm. "That isn't all you were wrong about. Did you clone Grace? Are there any more down there?"
"There was no time. But it is as I have said. Grace is almost certainly the key. The mutagenic effect of the naquada in Samantha's body provided the necessary combination to unlock the Ancients' potential which you carry."
Thor said, "Then why did you feel that a clone of Colonel O'Neill would be necessary?"
"Not just one but many. We will not be able to grow clones of Grace in the usual way. We cannot provide the environment. Only she--"
Sam turned from the medical pod with murder in her eye. "Do you mean to tell me you were going to use her as some kind of--of brood mare? What did you do, put naquada in her blood?"
"Of course. It is this factor which--"
Thor beamed Loki out.
Jack demanded, "What did you do with him?"
Thor replied, "I removed him from my sight, before I did something that I would later come to regret. This will not happen again, O'Neill. I will see to it."
Jack asked, "What about the rest of your people when they find out Grace is their Holy Grail?"
"Loki is quite mad. There was never any need for all of this. It is not Grace herself whom we need, but only a small portion of her DNA, which we will replicate in the laboratory and introduce into our own genetic sequence. If Loki's theories are correct, this will allow us to return to a point in our own evolution at which our species was still viable."
Daniel said, "She's an O'Neill all right. She's saving the universe before she's even a month old."
Jack thought of something else. "Back up here. He said the naquada unlocked the Ancients' potential? What the hell did that mean? Does she have the Ancients' powers?"
Thor said, "I cannot say for certain, but it does seem likely."
Sam looked down at her peacefully sleeping twin. "How old is she?"
"Late adolescence," Thor replied. "It would not be right to age her further. She is already at her optimum age."
"She's already been imprinted with my memories, hasn't she?"
"I believe so."
Sam's heart went out to her new sister. She would waken to find out that her husband and child were not hers at all. Sam wanted to hold her close and protect her from that shattering reality. "Oh, God, Loki, what did you do this time?"
Jack walked over to Sam and put his arm around her shoulders for a moment, then told Thor, "I need to talk to Dave. We need to get this straightened out before the Trust finds out about her."
Sam said, "I didn't even think about them. Jack's right, they've been itching to get their hands on me. She won't be any safer."
Thor established a comms channel for Jack, then joined Sam at her clone's bedside. "Col. O'Neill, it might be better if you were to allow Daniel Jackson and Teal'c to be at her side when she awakens."
Sam agreed, they could try to break the news to her gently. "Tell her that Gracie's safe first thing. That's all she'll care about when she first wakes up." She took Grace out to feed her in private.
Jack had already explained the whole thing to Dave. "I was thinking we should take her to a safehouse somewhere. I don't want the Trust finding out about her, so the SGC won't be safe for her until we catch the mole."
"Have you got a place in mind?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I do have an idea."
"OK, I'll leave that in your hands and talk to General Hammond about getting papers for her."
"Hey! Tell Thor there better not be any more of this bullshit out of Loki, or I'm gonna solve the problem with my P-90."
"Yeah, that's pretty much the consensus up here, too. I'm gonna get off the phone and see about that safehouse."
"Right. Everyone's going to be glad to hear Sam and the baby are OK."
"Y'know what, there's one person who won't be glad to hear it. Let it hit the grapevine, and see who calls off sick all of a sudden."
Dixon grinned. "Roger that. I'll let you know if anyone takes the bait."
They rang off, and Jack turned to Thor. "I need you to drop me back home so I can get the ball rolling."
"Of course. Let me get you a communications device first. Things will still be in a state of flux with Kinsey and Loki's Tau'ri accomplices still at large."
"Yeah, Dave's hoping the one in the SGC will spook when he hears we got Sam and the baby back. If we get him, he can lead us to the rest of his cell."
Teal'c asked, "Shall I accompany you, O'Neill?"
"No, you stay here with Sam. She's got her hands full with the baby and the new little sister. I just need to talk to someone. I'll be back shortly whether this pans out or not."
"As you wish. Exercise caution. I fully agree with Thor. There is nothing more dangerous than a trapped rodent."
"Cornered rat..." Jack caught the twinkle in Teal'c's eye and grinned. "Take care of 'em for me, T."
The Jaffa bowed.
Jack stepped clear and pocketed the Asgard communicator that Thor gave him. A moment later he was standing in his own living room.
He saw Sam's jacket on the coat tree by the door, and that reminded him that she would probably want something else besides her nightgown to wear. He went up to their bedroom and packed a small bag with some of her clothes, and then got into a box of clothes from her house for a set of her pre-pregnancy BDUs for Sam #2. He threw that and Grace's diaper bag into the truck and headed across town.
This time when she awakened, there was no overwhelming rush of sight and sound and sensation. There was only a dimly lit softness that slowly came into focus as the inside of an Asgard healing pod. The cover retracted and Daniel kept her from getting up too quickly. "Where's Grace?"
Daniel said, "Take it easy. She's fine. Let Thor check you out before you try to move around."
Teal'c said, "He is safely under lock and key."
Thor assured her, "You are perfectly healthy. You may sit up now if you wish."
She did--and caught sight of her reflection in the viewport. "Oh...my...God..." She looked at her hands, with no scars or callouses. "Oh, my dear God."
Daniel said, "It'll be OK, Sam."
"What's going to happen to me now?"
"Well, Jack had an idea about that."
She looked up to see sun-bleached brown hair and brown eyes. "You're Jack's clone?"
"Yeah. I'm going by Jon now. It's like this, it isn't safe for you to be around the mountain or Jack and Sam's place till they catch their mole. I figured you could land at my place if you want to. At least until you get your bearings."
She found herself smiling. "That's a good idea."
Thor said softly, "Wyrd."
Jack had finally got Grace to sleep, so he whispered instead of yelled, "What's so weird about it?"
"Wyrd is an Asgard word meaning destiny. Some things are intended to be. In whatever incarnation, you and Samantha are two halves of a whole. Perhaps Loki was nothing more than the hand of fate in this."
"Maybe so," Jack said. All he knew was that if he ever caught Loki around his family again, he was going to shoot first and ask questions afterwards.
Jacob found Sam-2 staring out at the stars. "Honey, are you OK?"
"I don't know. I don't even know what to call you."
"'Dad' still works," he said. "Can I still call you Sam?"
"I guess. I told you, you should have given me a middle name."
"Your mom almost named you Melissa, but I talked her into Samantha."
"Melissa Carter. I didn't know that, but I've always liked that name."
"Sweetheart, I know a little bit about big adjustments. I was scared to death to become Selmac's host, but now--I can't imagine not having her."
"I want my baby, Dad! How do I adjust to that?"
"I don't know, but I believe you will. Grace may not be your daughter, but she is your niece. You're family and nothing can ever change that. Your kid, your sister's kid--what difference does it make? She's ours."
"Aunt Melissa. That doesn't sound half bad."
"How long do you think it'll be before Sam wants to get back to her lab? And who is she going to trust more than you to take care of Grace when she does?"
Melissa looked at him and smiled. She hadn't thought of that.
Jacob smiled. "Feel like coming back?"
"Yeah, I guess I do."
Thor beamed Jon, Melissa and Jacob to Jon's apartment, and everyone else to the SGC. Jon nudged an empty beer bottle under the couch with his toe before Jacob could see it. "It isn't exactly the Hilton, but it's home."
Melissa said, "Oh, you have a terrace!"
"Yeah, that's what sold me on the apartment. The view is fantastic, and there isn't as much light pollution as you'd think." He indicated his telescope. "The tradeoff is, the super thinks it's plenty warm enough as long as the pipes don't freeze and bust--and the guy who lives upstairs plays the drums!"
Melissa asked, "Where's the bathroom?"
"Right down the hall."
Jacob gave Jon a long hard look. "Listen up. You're not Jack, and Melissa isn't Sam, but she is my daughter, capice?"
"Good, we're gonna get along fine."
When Melissa got back, Jacob gave her the cash he had in his wallet. When she tried to protest, he said, "You're going to need clothes and stuff. That'll help tide you over until we can find you a job and get you set up with a bank account."
He kissed her cheek and said, "I need to get Jack's truck up to the mountain before the wrong somebody sees it parked out front and gets curious. I'll either be there or at Sam's if you need anything."
Dr. Brightman hung her stethoscope around her neck. "Sam, you and Grace are both doing fine."
Jack relaxed. "Then I guess we've put off debriefing about as long as we can."
Brightman grinned. "Yes, sir."
They met Daniel and Teal'c in the briefing room. Dixon asked, "Sam, you and the baby are OK, right?"
"That's what Donna said."
"Did the mole take the bait?"
"We've got a couple of possible suspects." He had two file photos. "Airmen Sanchez and Northbrook both called in sick after the word got around that you were safe, and we haven't been able to locate either of them yet."
She didn't recognize either of the men. She passed the photos to Jack. He immediately picked out Northbrook. "This guy works in the laundry, right? Well, right after we got married, he was hanging around outside the infirmary. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he had some papers for Dr. Brightman to sign. I didn't think anything more about it at the time--"
Dixon grinned, "Yeah, you had a few other things on your mind right then." He went a couple steps down the circular stairs to the control room. "Walter, any word yet on Sanchez and Northbrook?"
"Yes, sir, Sanchez has the flu. His sister thought he was too sick to stay home by himself so she took him to her place. Still no word on Northbrook, though."
"Go through Homeland Security and put out an APB on him, and send an SF team over to his apartment. I want him found. Then round up everybody who works closely with him and get them up here in half an hour."
Jacob came in and tossed the keys to the Ford to Jack. Sam asked, "Is Melissa OK?"
"I think so, but I don't want her stuck in a safe house and cut off from the rest of us any longer than necessary. Did you get the guy?"
Dixon said, "Not yet, sir, but we think we know who it is. We're looking for him now."
"Good. What's the word from George?"
"He's getting a new identity set up for her. He's going to be here tomorrow, so he's just going to bring the papers with him for her as well as Crenn and Arun." He grinned. "If you ask me, the real reason he's coming is to visit with Jack and Sam here, and see the baby."
Jacob returned the grin. "It'll be good to catch up with him before I have to get Selmac home."
Jack said, "If you don't mind, Dave, I want to check in with Crenn and Arun. With everything that's been happening, they probably think they've been pigeon-holed and forgotten about by now."
Dave said, "Nyan's been working with them, getting them acclimated, and they've been helping out in the archaeology department. Apparently kids love that stuff and they can always use more hands."
Jack had seen Daniel meticulously cleaning things with a paint brush often enough to believe that.
"Have you guys decided what to do with them? I don't want to keep a couple of kids locked up inside the mountain."
Jack said, "Sam and I have talked about it, and we'd like to legally adopt them."
"I figured, so I checked out the legalities with JAG. You'll all have to appear in court. Judge Cooper has always been real cooperative with us. He will want an in-chambers discussion with them the same as he did with Cassie, and with Jon before he approved the emancipation petition. We'll have to make sure they have their cover IDs down pat. If he thinks there's anything going on, he could really throw a monkey wrench in the works."
Jacob asked, "Will I have to adopt Melissa?"
"No, sir, nobody can argue that you're her biological father. We just need a background for her. What's Thor going to do with Loki?"
"Lock him up and throw away the key, if he has his way about it," Jack replied. "The Asgard don't want him in cahoots with the Trust any more than we do."
Walter came in. "General Dixon, pardon the interruption, but I have some news I thought you'd want to hear immediately."
"What is it?"
"A CSPD officer stopped Airman Northbrook for running a red light. He went for his sidearm, and the police officer shot him dead."
"He's got to be our guy. Why else would he panic and do something that stupid over a traffic ticket?" Dixon said. "The order still stands about his apartment and talking to his co-workers. This is going to make it damn hard to find out who he was reporting to."
The next day, the O'Neills' living room was crowded with people. General Hammond was there, as were Jacob, Melissa, Jon, Crenn and Arun.
Hammond had been holding Grace for a while, but he handed her to Jacob so that he could open his briefcase and pass out envelopes to Melissa, Crenn and Arun, now known as Karen and Aaron.
"We weren't going to get into job offers for a couple of weeks, but with Melissa here, President Hayes decided we'd might as well put the options out on the table so that you can be thinking about what you want to do. Jack, were you serious about wanting to retire, or would you consider a new assignment?"
"Depends on what it is."
"Commanding the new Air Force base at the Beta Colony."
"George, there's no way I can take an off-world assignment with a new baby."
"Not if you were the only one going. We're planning to move the majority of our research from the SGC to a new facility at the Beta Colony. Sam, the President wants you to head it up and hand-pick your staff. It's your decision whether you want to stay in the Air Force or retire and do this as a civilian."
Melissa asked, "What does this all have to do with me, sir?"
"The President doesn't want to lose you and Jon to the private sector. If you want to go to the Academy, you're both accepted, no questions asked. But if the two of you want to get back on the horse sooner than that, we can make that happen."
Jon said, "I don't know, sir."
Melissa explained, "We don't want to walk right back into that same chain of command mess, General. That wouldn't be fair to anybody. That having been said...we're not the same people now, and we don't want to rush into anything based on a lot of assumptions about who we used to be. We need time."
Hammond nodded. "No one wants to see that situation repeat itself. You won't be in the same chain of command. If it develops that you can't continue to be on the same team, then we'll find a way to work it out."
Sam said, "If we do this, I'll need Melissa assigned to the Beta Colony also. I was counting on her to help me with the baby, and that was when I thought I was only going to be working in the lab at the SGC. Melissa, Jon, will that work for you?"
Melissa and Jon looked at each other, and nodded with growing excitement at the prospect of starting a whole new life together. "That'll work just fine for us," Jon replied.
Hammond said, "Our plans are to be running all routine exploration, scientific and diplomatic missions out of the Beta Colony. The SGC will handle both military and humanitarian missions that require a great deal of support from this side."
Jon said, "We're going public, aren't we, sir? That's why the top secret stuff is moving off-world."
"We sure are. With the midterm elections coming up, President Hayes wants to make an announcement himself before the other party can leak it as an October surprise. Another thing we're going to be doing is establishing agricultural colonies to feed Earth's population as the environmental changes associated with global warming begin to affect more and more of our farmland. Jack, that's going to be as big a threat to humanity in years to come as the Goa'uld ever were."
Sam said, "The fresh-water melt into the North Atlantic is irreversible, isn't it?"
Hammond said, "That's the most likely scenario."
Jack asked, "What does that mean?"
Sam explained, "As the earth warms up, the ice caps are melting. As the sea level rises, that's going to cause flooding in the coastal cities where most of the people on earth live, but it's only the beginning of a much greater crisis. All that fresh water lowers the salt content of the oceans, which affects ocean currents. Right now, the Gulf Stream carries warm water into the North Atlantic, which gives Europe a temperate climate. When the Gulf Stream shuts down, the planet will probably go into an ice age. A lot of our farmland will be buried in ice, and a lot of it will become desert. More will be taken up by refugees moving south to escape the ice. Now that won't happen overnight like in the movies, but it could happen in our lifetime. Millions of people could starve."
Jon said, "So our mission to find new technology and new allies just became even more vital."
Hammond nodded. "The Goa'uld are still a serious threat as well. Whether Ba'al is dead or in hiding, his disappearance bought us some breathing room. A few of his underlords carved up his holdings and now they're fighting among themselves. But eventually one of them is going to come out on top."
Jacob said, "What we didn't have this time was some worse Goa'uld popping up to take his place. There isn't any one of them who can strong-arm the rest of the system lords into following him. That limits the harm that any one of them can do, but it's created a very volatile situation to say the least."
Jack looked around at his family and said, "Well, George, tell the President he's got himself a deal."
That night as Jack and Sam got ready for bed, Jack said, "Lots of changes in a few days."
Sam said, "This isn't going to be easy. Establishing these colonies is going to be a huge job."
"We never let that stop us before."
"No, we didn't," she smiled.
"Do you suppose there's any fish in that lake?"
She knew immediately which lake he meant, it was about two miles north of the Beta Colony's stargate. "I'm sure there are."
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