by Rebecca Ratliff
DATE: May 2003
ARCHIVE: If I haven't submitted to your archive, please ask. (I'll say yes, I just like to know where it is.)
CATEGORY: Action/adventure, supernatural
RATING: PG-13, language, violence
SPOILERS: Small ones up through the end of season 6.
SEASON/SEQUEL INFO: Between season 6 and 7. "Gates of War" Series sequence: Abyss Novelization, Sirikat, Fields of Gold, A Nice Quiet Week in the Country, Brothers in Arms, Shadows on the Moon, Parada, Light Duty, Snowbound, Planet of the Damned
SUMMARY: A routine mission to explore the ruins of an extinct civilization becomes anything but routine when things begin to go bump in the night.
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. No infringement of those rights is intended. 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. :)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Thanks to Mama Beast for the beta.
FEEDBACK: Much appreciated.
Carter watched the mist curl through a gap in the low stone wall surrounding the ruined building where SG-1 had made camp for the night. The heavy dampness was a perfect complement to the chill. It seeped through their BDUs and into their sleeping bags, making it impossible to get warm.
The mission wasn't a complete wash. They had found some stone tablets, similar to the Ancients tablet from Abydos, that had been packed for return to the SGC with them. Other than that, they had found burnt-out bronze age ruins, unlikely to be useful in their war against the Goa'uld.
They had decided to camp here for the night and check two other locations that the UAV had found on their way back to the gate tomorrow.
Carter thought she saw movement. Rifle at the ready, she checked it out.
Something big and hairy was hiding behind the wall. She scrambled back and opened fire as it jumped at her throat. To her horror, the bullets were completely ineffective. She warded it away from her throat but its fangs sank into her arm.
O'Neill grabbed the animal off her and wrung its neck. He flung its carcass back over the wall. Jonas and Teal'c looked around for more and thankfully didn't find any.
The initial shock of Carter's injury was starting to wear off and O'Neill had to force her arm away from her body so he could assess the damage. Her arm was a mess of jagged triangular gashes and he could see bone in several places. There wasn't any severe arterial bleeding, by some miracle, and her arm wasn't broken. "I hope Janet likes to embroider because you're gonna have a whole lot of stitches before she gets done with you."
"What the hell was that thing? Colonel, I let it have a full burst at point blank range. There's no way I missed!"
He indicated a neat round pattern of bullet holes in a wall. "I don't think you did."
"It must stay out of phase until it closes to attack. If I'd waited to fire, I might have hit it."
"Now we know," he told her.
Jonas had built the fire up. There was no question of moving before dawn. There were twenty miles of desolate moors and bogs between them and the gate. It would be suicidal to risk another encounter with these things, possibly with multiple creatures at once, in the dark.
Carter refused a morphine shot. The last thing she wanted was to be all doped up if more of those things came out of the night. After an hour or so, the pain subsided to a dull ache on its own. She fixed a pot of coffee.
Dawn had never been more welcome, no matter gray and anemic the light filtering through the heavy cloud cover might be. They broke camp and got moving.
When they topped a low hill, O'Neill paused for a long look around. He asked Teal'c, "How many do you figure?"
"I do not know, O'Neill. I have seen but one. There are certainly more."
Jonas asked, "How do you know?"
"They've been around. I saw their eyes in the dark outside camp last night," O'Neill said casually.
He laughed. "Don't look at the campfire, it messes up your night vision every time you do. That's why you couldn't see anything out there."
Jonas filed that bit of information under important things to know. He wondered if the creatures would attack by daylight, or if they would wait until dark. With ten hours of day to fourteen hours of night, they were going to have to push hard to get to the gate before sunset. Nobody was a bit reluctant to do that, not even Carter. After a quick breakfast of coffee and ration bars, they headed for home.
O'Neill would have preferred to stick to the high ground circling the moors. It was very difficult to tell a bog from solid ground, and anyone who fell in could easily disappear without a trace. But avoiding the moors would have required spending another night out here.
He toed a soft spot and looked for solid ground.
Jonas warned, "Watch out, there's water on both sides."
O'Neill hoped they wouldn't have to waste time backtracking. Carter wisecracked, "We should have left a trail of bread crumbs."
"Your critters would've eaten them," he replied, just to hear her laugh.
A crow-like swamp bird hopped from plant to plant just out of reach, occasionally darting forward to capture some unfortunate bug. From somewhere in the weeds, a bullfrog croaked. Mud squelched under their boots as they walked.
Lunch was more energy bars and water. Carter had just finished hers and stuck the wrapper in her pocket when she realized something was wrong. It was too quiet. The crow was gone. Even the bugs had stopped making noise.
Teal'c confirmed her suspicions. "They attack!"
Three of them rushed O'Neill and Teal'c. They were about four feet long, with heavy, matted fur and plenty of claws and teeth.
O'Neill tried zatting one, ineffectively. Dropping the zat, he held his ground until the animal was right on top of him and fired a three-round burst, killing the creature. Teal'c knocked one down and dispatched it with his staff. The third jumped O'Neill from the side, hanging on his backpack and trying to snap at the back of his neck. Jonas scruffed it and hauled it far enough off to shoot it with his Beretta without worrying about a blowthrough hitting O'Neill.
The creature's death struggles threw them both off balance. With a yell, Jonas fell in the bog, dragging the carcass with him.
He kicked desperately for the surface, weighed down by his gear. Something grabbed his ankle. He brought his other boot down solidly on something twice before it let go. He shot to the surface and yelled, "Get me out, there's something down there!"
O'Neill obliged. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, but s-something grabbed my foot."
"You probably just got tangled up with that thing's corpse," O'Neill replied.
Teal'c said, "I think not, O'Neill."
They followed his glance. Half a skeletal hand clung to Jonas' boot. The bones were bound together by a few scraps of rotting skin and sinew. Yelling, he kicked it off with the other foot.
"Shit!" O'Neill exclaimed. He looked around for the zat he had dropped. "Let's get the hell out of Dodge."
Nobody had to be told twice. Once they got to high ground on the other side of the moors, they paused only long enough for Jonas to pull on a dry uniform and field strip his weapons. Jonas was thankful now for all the hours he had spent practicing that. He had resented the boredom and blisters at the time, but now it was a physical skill that he could perform quickly and competently while still paying attention to what was going on around him.
Carter rationalized, "When people lived here, that guy must have fallen in and drowned. His hand got caught on your boot, that's all."
Jonas nodded. "That makes sense...."
O'Neill was less interested in finding logical explanations than in getting home in one piece. After they had caught their breath from their flight through the moors, they got moving again. As hard as they had been pushing, it still looked like the sun would go down behind the distant mountains before they reached the stargate.
Suddenly Teal'c stopped, scanning their back trail over his staff weapon. O'Neill readied his P-90, watching and listening. After a good sixty seconds, he asked, "What is it, T?"
"I do not know. Perhaps I am jumping at shadows."
The Jaffa didn't sound convinced, but nothing was moving now.
They hadn't signed on for things that went bump in the night. Teal'c wasn't the only one who was spooked and a little jumpy. In fact, as usual he hid it better than the rest of them. O'Neill said, "Yeah, lotta that going around. Let's keep moving."
Fifteen minutes later, Carter asked suddenly, "What the hell was that?"
"I don't know, Carter, what did it sound like?"
She shook her head. "Something rattled. The wind in the branches, I guess."
Jonas' eyes fixed on something about a hundred yards back that looked...off. Something white, maybe the size of a basketball or a little smaller. Then it stood up and he figured out what it was. He yelled at the top of his lungs and fired at a walking skeleton carrying a corroded bronze sword. The skull exploded but the body kept coming.
A blast from Teal'c's staff shattered it into bone fragments.
O'Neill spotted more coming out of the underbrush closer to them. He fired two shots into the nearest one's midsection, severing its spinal column. It went down in a clatter of bones, but the upper section continued to claw its way forward. Carter sprayed it with bullets until it quit moving, while O'Neill and Teal'c took out four more.
Jonas shouted, "There's more of them coming! Good gods, are those really walking skeletons?"
"I don't care what the hell they are! Keep moving!" O'Neill snapped. He and Teal'c brought up the rear, dealing with any of their horrifying pursuers that got too close.
An arrow whistled by her ear. Carter spotted more skeletons, armed with bows this time, and threw a grenade into a briar patch where they had been hiding in ambush. "Sir, they're herding us into a trap! We've got guys with bows up here!"
O'Neill swore and looked around. They were in a hilly area, the slopes covered mostly with tall grasses and occasionally dotted with clumps of brush and small stands of stunted trees. It was just enough cover for the skeletons to lie in wait.
On top of the next hill was a circle of huge standing stones. The gaps between them were fairly narrow. It was the best cover they were going to get. "Make for those rocks up there!"
Covering one another, they headed up the hill. Jonas turned to shoot a club-weilding skeleton that popped up from behind a rock not ten feet away. This close, he could see red glowing energy flickering in the thing's hollow eye sockets.
Even as he opened fire on the monster, Jonas stepped on a loose stone and wrenched his ankle and swore. He stumbled, but caught his balance and kept going for all he was worth. Lances of red-hot pain shot up his leg with every step.
For some reason known only to them, the skeletons wouldn't follow them into the stones. They formed a solid ring about sixty yards out. Teal'c blasted several of them but more stepped up to fill the gaps.
Nobody had to say anything. They were in a mess. If the skeletons charged, they had a snowball's chance in hell of breaking out. All that had kept them from already having been overwhelmed by sheer numbers was their gruesome enemy's refusal to approach or fire into the circle of stones.
Jonas sat on a large stone in the center of the circle while Carter got his boot off and checked his ankle. "It doesn't seem to be broken. I'll tape it but I don't know how it'll hold if you have to run for it."
"Believe me, Major, I'll be glad to hop back to the stargate on one foot if the gods in their mercy get us out of this!"
O'Neill said, "Son, I've been up against everyone from VC to drug lords to snakes to replicators. A bunch of escapees from a horror movie set are so not taking us down. Teal'c, do you know anything about skeletons who don't know they're supposed to be dead?"
The Jaffa replied, "There are tales of the unmourned dead walking, seeking revenge on those who failed to send them properly to Kheb. I never thought them any more than fanciful tales."
"So what do you do to get rid of them, give them a decent burial?"
"In some of the tales, it is so, if the name of the restless spirit is known. Otherwise, as you have seen they may be destroyed by force of arms, and they supposedly fear fire above all else."
O'Neill had one incendiary grenade. He weighed their chances to use it to blast a hole in their lines and fight their way through before the skeletons could get their act together. Not very likely, he decided, not with Jonas unable to run on that ankle.
Jonas felt something give under him and gave the big rock that he had been sitting on a closer look. It had weathered over the centuries, but when he shined his mag light on it, he began to see the remains of carvings in the stone. "Hey, this is some kind of an altar or something. I just felt it move. Help me check it out. Maybe the top comes off or something."
O'Neill found a catch and the top moved half an inch or so. "'S jammed. Give me a hand here, T."
With both of them putting their backs into it they slid the top back to reveal an arrangement of crystals. Carter said, "Ring transporter controls!"
"I wonder where they go?"
"Who the hell cares? Any port in a storm," O'Neill said. Teal'c had already started kicking away dirt and weeds to reveal the rings' location. He and Carter joined in.
When they had uncovered enough of it to be sure they would be safely inside when the rings descended, Carter activated the mechanism and prayed.
When the rings deposited them in their destination and disappeared, they were plunged into an icy blackness. The air was stale and everything was as quiet as a tomb. In fact, O'Neill would have given better than even odds that it was a tomb. He switched on his flashlight.
"OK, now this I recognize!" His light fell on a familiar gold-leafed wall of hieroglyphs. The others turned their lights on, until Carter located and activated the room lights.
"Some kind of lab," she observed, walking over to check out the nearest table, her P-90 at the ready in case something was lurking behind it.
"Jonas, Teal'c, see if you can make any sense out of all that on the walls," O'Neill ordered, as he began to search for a door.
Carter said, "Whatever happened, whoever was running this place left in a hurry. It looks like a lot of these experiments have just been abandoned uncompleted."
"Yeah, what kind of experiments?"
She glanced at rows of lab cages, each containing a pitiful little mouse skeleton, going about its mousey business with no apparent idea that it was long dead. "I don't know, sir."
Jonas said, "This is Nirrti's symbol."
Carter replied, "That's just wonderful."
O'Neill looked around. "Let's just sit tight. Maybe the skeletons will give it up and we can make a run for the gate in the morning."
Teal'c said, "Indeed. I do not see the ring controls."
That started a more frantic search that turned up nothing. O'Neill said, "She must've had some kind of remote control and took it with her when she ran out of here."
Carter scowled. "Guess I'll have to hot-wire it."
Jonas called, "Here, what's this? Colonel, I think I found a door control."
O'Neill brought his weapon up. "Open it."
Jonas obeyed. A door-shaped panel receded and slid open to reveal a long corridor with pairs of doors at regular intervals. It was a cell block.
Exploring cautiously, he wasn't surprised to find a skeleton or two in each of the spartan cells. They animated before his eyes and reached out through the bars at him. He was safe in the center of the corridor, but if O'Neill had ever seen a place that made him want to turn around and run like hell, this was it.
"Carter, you and Jonas look for a lab journal or something to tell us what was going on down here." He and Teal'c walked the skeletal gauntlet and checked out the door at the end of the hall.
It opened into a scene out of O'Neill's nightmares, a place that might have been a hospital operating room but clearly wasn't. A sinister machine of uncertain purpose stood over a table designed to restrain a human experimental subject in a spead-eagle position. There were still powdery streaks of long since dried blood leading down the sides of the table to a floor drain.
O'Neill forced his eyes away from the machine and started checking the storage areas in the walls and the laboratory tables around the perimeter of the room for anything resembling a journal.
Teal'c pointed to several scarab glyphs. "It appears that Nirrti was continuing her search for immortality."
"Yeah, if you call that immortality," O'Neill replied, pointing his thumb back over his shoulder at the cells.
"I would call it damnation," the Jaffa said. "But then, I am not Nirrti. A fact for which I am eternally grateful."
"You and me both, buddy." O'Neill continued his search of the lab.
Jonas and Carter hurried down the center of the hallway, pointedly avoiding looking from side to side. Jonas stopped when he saw the evil-looking contraption in the middle of the room, and gulped hard. "Colonel, I may have found something. According to this data pad, whatever Nirrti was doing down here, probably this...thing...was just an experimental model. Somewhere there's a full-size prototype and she was getting ready to fire it up. We can't get to the rest of the journal without the page-turning device, but it doesn't seem to be here."
Carter added, "We found another door out of the other room, too."
"OK, let's get back there." O'Neill's eyes wandered once more to the device looming in the center of the room, and he repressed a shudder.
Things seemed marginally better when they had returned to the ring room and closed off the cell block.
Carter asked, "Should we recon the rest of this place?"
"Not yet, we aren't in any shape right now to take on anything that we might find in there," he decided. "Rest and chow first. How's your arm doing?"
"Hurts some. Probably ought to change the bandages."
"You should've had stitches in that before now."
"I know, sir, can't be helped."
O'Neill wasn't happy with the look of the bites, although he tried to keep his reaction to himself. It looked like "hurts some" was probably the understatement of the year. He gave her another antibiotic shot, and this time insisted that she take something for pain, and let it work before he finished tending the injury.
After some discussion they agreed that there probably was enough air circulation to risk lighting a can of sterno. They had a hot meal of MREs, then settled in to get a few hours of sleep, or at least to try to sleep.
The next morning, another hot meal and a pot of coffee had them all back in the game. Jonas was limping on his ankle a little more than yesterday. Carter taped it again and he laced his boot as tight as he could stand.
"Carter, how's the arm?"
"Better, sir." While she had the first aid kit open, she gave herself another injection of antibiotics.
Carter pried up a floor panel by the ring transporter and said, "Good, this one's the hub. There are three other stations besides this one."
"One of them is the hilltop," O'Neill said. "I wonder if one of the others is near the stargate."
Teal'c said, "Perhaps, that would be the usual arrangement."
Jonas said, "There might be some answers in the rest of this place."
"Where did you say you found that other door?" O'Neill asked.
"Over there near the corner."
O'Neill glanced around to be sure everyone was ready, then nodded to the Kelownan to open the door.
This corridor led into the living area of the installation, and it seemed to be completely deserted. They found rooms that had been quarters for ten or twelve Jaffa, and beyond that a main sitting room. Nirrti's private quarters opened off that, once opulent hangings and floor pillows now in tatters. They found nothing of interest there.
A spiral ramp opened into the "parlor." They began to climb.
After some distance, the spiral ended in a door, which gave way onto a terrace overlooking a desolate view of the moors. A cold wind heavy with an approaching rain chilled them right through their BDUs. Something overhead moved with a ponderous, continual grating of metal on metal that set their teeth on edge.
At the other end of the terrace, a stairway led to the roof.
O'Neill climbed slowly, clearing each level as he came to it, and he was glad he had. Something human-sized with batlike wings that spread fifteen or twenty feet launched itself off the roof at him. He ducked a set of long, dirty, sharp claws on its feet, and opened fire. It fell to a rocky hillside far below and lay still.
On the roof, a much larger version of the machine in the abattoir below revolved slowly on a creaking turntable. A huge blue crystal on top of it glowed softly.
"Carter, how far are we from the stargate that this didn't show up in the UAV pictures?"
She surveyed the desolate landscape. "The terrain looks the same. I doubt it's too far."
"But we've got no clue which direction. I guess we're gonna have to take potluck with the ring transporter. Hope we end up somewhere we recognize, that isn't crawling with skeletons."
"That's about it, sir. I wish I knew what that thing does, but since Nirrti had something to do with it, I'm about half convinced we should blow it up on general principles."
O'Neill nodded, figuring out exactly where he'd put the C4 to do just that. "Leave it for now. Blowing it up might do more that we know about. We've got some of those page-turner doohickies back at the SGC, don't we?"
"Yes, and if that doesn't work I think I can extract the information from the data pad to our computers."
They were headed back inside when O'Neill barely heard a noise behind him and whirled. Another of the bat-winged creatures slammed into him with all the force of a steep dive. The impact knocked him to the terrace and drove its talons deep into his body.
Carter and Quinn both opened up on it instantly. It was dead before it started to fall, before Teal'c could even turn around. The last thing O'Neill saw was its blood fountaining from a dozen bullet holes. Then a second later its talons ripped out of him and he felt his own blood flowing over him as he fell away into blackness, away from his team's frantic shouts, away from Carter's desperate attempts to stop the bleeding.
There was something over his face, clinging like saran wrap. O'Neill opened his eyes and figured out it was a space blanket. It was an incredible effort to move his hand and get the blanket off.
They'd moved him to the ring room, which didn't sound right because he was sure they shouldn't have been moving him at all.
Then more of reality came into focus. Jonas was sitting on a lab table, staring at nothing, with an blank look of shock and grief on his face. Sam was sobbing in Teal'c's arms and neither of them seemed to care that her uniform was soaked with blood.
He figured out what it all meant and discovered that it was damn near impossible to let out a horrified scream with no air in his lungs. He tried to get his hand to his throat to check for a pulse, but the attempted movement apparently jump-started his whole nervous system. He instinctively curled up around an awful pain that extended down his whole right side from his collarbone to his hip.
That set off another hurricane of activity. Teal'c gave him a morphine stick. Any of his blood that wasn't on Carter had flooded out on the terrace upstairs, so how the morphine helped was anyone's guess. O'Neill just thanked God it did.
Carter had already cut his gear and clothing off him. He tried to get a look at his wounds, but Jonas was too fast for him. "Lie still, Colonel. Gods, we thought you were dead."
He relearned how to breathe, to force air through his vocal chords. "I think I still am, Jonas."
Teal'c said with eminent practicality, "That is patently ridiculous, O'Neill. However unpleasant your current situation, you are clearly here with us, not in Kheb. Therefore by any common-sense definition of the word, you are alive. You will only make things worse for yourself by giving in to panic."
"T, I am not going to be one of those skeleton things, do you hear me?"
"No!" Sam said. "You're not! Sir, whatever's going on, this place has you stabilized somehow. Nirrti's bound to have a healing device around here somewhere, we just have to find it."
"And the fact that I probably haven't got two drops of blood left in my whole body?"
"Doesn't seem to be a problem right now. Sir, please lie still while we figure out what to do!"
Jonas asked, "Do you think you'd be more comfortable if we supported your wounds with tape?"
"Yeah, that does sound like a good idea." Ten minutes and a lot of mummy wrapping later, O'Neill realized that Jonas had kept him occupied and free of panic while Carter and Teal'c tossed the place. Carter finally let out a cry of triumph and slipped the gadget onto her hand.
O'Neill could feel his body mending, internal organs first, then shattered ribs, finally skin. He found that he could breathe without pain. Sam couldn't restart his heartbeat. He guessed that probably was because there was no blood in his veins for his heart to pump.
OK, so he was some kind of a zombie. Maybe the morphine had calmed him down enough to face that idea without totally freaking out. He crammed his terror back into its box and forced himself to review the situation logically. As far as he could tell Carter had healed his wounds. He seemed to be oriented, even if he was scared out of his wits. He had been dead plenty of times before. The thing was, the other times he hadn't known he was dead.
He never wanted to wake up in another sarcophagus again, ever. But this was just as bad.
Carter put her hand on his arm. "We're going to find out where the ring transporter goes."
"I'm going through first."
"We don't even know if you're strong enough yet to stand up, sir!"
"Don't have to be. I'll just take a look around, then you bring me right back. That's an order, Carter."
Carter gave the others a helpless look, Teal'c raised an eyebrow and Jonas said, "This is a Very Bad Idea."
"Jonas, what the hell else can possibly happen to me now? You three are not dependent on that thingamajig up on the roof. As soon as we figure out how to get you back to the stargate, you people are gonna go home and figure out a way to friggin' FIX THIS!"
Jonas surrendered gracefully, but it was obvious they all shared the same misgivings. It was equally obvious that if anything further happened to him, Carter would never forgive herself for not relieving him of command for medical reasons. That right there sent any thoughts of taking any unnecessary chances whatsoever flying right out of his head.</P>
"Wait a minute, we've got a digital camera, right? Set it to shoot a picture automatically every few seconds or whatever."
Carter did that, and put a tape recorder next to it.
While she was doing that, O'Neill dug clean clothes out of his pack and got dressed. The marks where Carter had healed his wounds didn't look like scars, exactly. More like patches that had been glued precisely in place.
What the hell was he now? How was his brain working without oxygen?
Maybe that was it. Maybe this was one last fever dream brought on by lack of oxygen. Maybe he was still lying on the terrace in the final few seconds of bleeding out.
If that was true, there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. On the other hand, if this was real, they still had problems to solve. Shit. Teal'c was rubbing off on him.
O'Neill walked a few steps around the lab table to see what was going on. He didn't argue when Jonas "suggested" that he sit down on a crate. His legs were shaking with the effort.
"OK, I got it!" Carter looked up quickly to make sure everyone was clear of the rings and sent the camera and the tape recorder on their way. A few minutes later she triggered the rings again.
They checked the images from the camera. The standing stones were obvious in the photos, but they couldn't tell if the skeletons still had the place surrounded. O'Neill said, "Well, if they are still surrounding the hilltop, they aren't in the stone circle. OK, send me through to check it out. Thirty seconds should be plenty."
"Carter, the rings go up, I take a look around, then the rings come back down again," he said with exaggerated patience that dripped with his usual sarcasm.
"Yes, sir." As she bent her head over her work, he heard her mutter something about "freakin' arrow stuck in your ass" and "don't say I didn't warn you."
The rings materialized before he could come up with a suitable rejoinder. He staggered as he materialized with one foot on and one foot off the altar. He jumped down and flailed to catch his balance, his landing sending a shock wave of pain through his whole body.
If the damn skeletons thought it was funny, they didn't laugh. There were plenty of them with a front row seat.
The rings reappeared. "Our friends are still waiting for us."
Carter swore. "I guess we check out the other two stations."
Teal'c steadied O'Neill as he staggered. The three of them immediately turned into mother hens. He let them talk him into lying down while Carter prepared the rings to go to the next site.
Her eyes met his. Sam would move heaven and earth to get him home, he knew that. And just that suddenly, he threw off the weight of terror that had been threatening to crush him ever since he'd opened his eyes to find that blanket over his face. He was not alone, never alone. Peace settled over him and he gave her a little smile.
A sleeping bag on a hard stone floor wasn't the most comfortable place to lie down, but he was too tired to care. He took a long look around at each of his team, his family, because he wanted to remember every moment and because waking up again wasn't something he could afford to take for granted.
He thought about Sirikat, and realized how much was still left unsaid and undone. She'd already endured one shattering loss when her consorts had been murdered by the Goa'uld, how could he put her through another? His life had been hostage to fate for more than two of her short lifetimes. It would have been better for her if she had never remembered, better if he had never been anything to her other than someone assigned to guard her. He had too little faith left to simply leave her in the hands of her gods.
There were so many more people back home that he would miss. Hammond. Fraiser. Cassie. Ferretti.
Daniel. Wherever he was. After Abydos, O'Neill didn't know what to think.
Sara. He wondered how long it would be before someone told her. It wouldn't come as a surprise. She had been expecting that call for a long time. He thought she might be a little sorry that the other shoe had finally dropped, but surely no more than that. They weren't part of each other's lives any more, just old friends who ran into each other around town once in a blue moon, just fond memories in old photographs of a time and a family that no longer existed.
An exhausted sleep came over him. O'Neill had no sense of time passing while he slept. It seemed he had only blinked when Carter woke him, but according to his watch he had been out almost an hour.
Carter reported that they had found out where the other ring portals were, the stargate was visible from one of them and the last was in one of the other ruins they had previously planned to explore.
"Colonel, Jonas can't walk on his ankle. I'm going to leave him here with you in case we have to run for it. Teal'c and I'll bring back help."
He nodded. "We'll hold the fort, Major."
She and Teal'c left everything except weapons, GDOs, and radios. They stepped into the rings and Jonas sent them on their way.
Carter and Teal'c came out of the rings ready to kill anything that stood in the way of getting help for their teammates. There was nothing. A minute later she was pressing symbols on the DHD, and a minute after that, their boots hit the ramp in the gate room.
Janet gasped when she saw the extent of the damage to Sam's arm.
Carter said, "Shh."
"Sam, what are you trying to--you need to get to Academy General right now to get this put back together!"
"And you think McKay and Lee can figure out how Nirrti's machine is keeping Col. O'Neill alive without me? Until I came through the gate, I was using my arm normally," Sam replied.
"What are you asking me to do?"
"Patch me up so I'll have time to load up a FRED with stuff I'll need from my lab before we head back through the gate."
"I can't, Sam, you'll probably lose your arm if you do that."
"You can and you will. As an Air Force officer, I'm asking you not to leave a man behind. And as my friend, I'm asking you to trust my judgment and stand beside me."
Fraiser nodded and pulled down a suture tray.
Teal'c went to the lab and found Sirikat working with Dr. Lee. The Jaffa found the short, balding engineer to be a whiny, cowardly nuisance. He had little use for the man after he had given up on rescuing O'Neill and Maybourne from the Furling world. Apparently, whatever he was teaching Sirikat was important enough for her to put up with him.
"My lady, if I may interrupt your studies for a moment, may I speak to you?"
She smiled. "Teal'c, you are never an interruption. Dr. Lee, please excuse me for a moment."
She stepped aside with Teal'c and looked up at him. "What is--oh, Lord and Lady. Something has happened to Jack."
"I fear so, my lady. O'Neill was attacked by an alien and very seriously injured. Major Carter and I have returned to bring back help."
"I get my things."
"Lady Sirikat, as a father myself, I believe I can confidently say that it will be best if I can truthfully tell O'Neill that you are safe and awaiting his return."
Sirikat bowed her head. "Again your wisdom guides me, Master Teal'c."
"GeneralHammond asks you to wait with him for more news. We leave within the hour, and will send word back as soon as we can."
"Tell Jack that I with him in spirit, and that he--he must get well."
Teal'c bowed and gave her a subtle Jaffa smile. "It is my honor to convey your orders, my Lady."
Sirikat left him to prepare for his return to the planet. She blinked away tears and tried to regain her composure before she reached the General's office. I am a warrior and a queen of Daltregon, she reminded herself. I will not give Jack cause to be ashamed of me. I will not cry like a child. I will not.
When the SGC had to mobilize to solve a problem that was too big for one team, it was nothing short of amazing to Sirikat how much force they could bring to bear in a short time. Thirty minutes after they arrived to report in, Teal'c accompanied SG-2, 3 and 6 back to the planet. Armed with the combat shotguns that had proven so effective against the replicators, as well as incendiary grenades, their job was to secure the place for the medical and science teams to follow.
Carter and Fraiser's medical team followed immediately after, and headed directly to Nirrti's stronghold with two FREDs loaded down with equipment.
Sirikat stood in the control room, waiting and praying as loved ones have waited and prayed for the return of soldiers since the dawn of time. Hammond put his hand on her shoulder. He knew enough of life to understand that nothing he could say would help, but there was no need of words to walk her path with her as long as fate allowed.
Fraiser unpacked her kit and gave Jack a thorough exam.
"I can't explain it, Jack. We're just going to have to wait for Sam to figure the machine out. In the meanwhile, I'd like to start a transfusion and get your heart restarted as soon as possible."
He nodded, and glanced away while Fraiser started the IV, a difficult job in a collapsed vein. But eventually she got it in place and the IV started flowing. He drew a sharp breath.
"Colonel, are you in pain?"
"No, but it feels kind of like...standing under a high-tension power line. It's a hell of a rush."
"Since this is your own blood, sir, you'll have to tell me what you were on when you donated," Fraiser teased with a devilish grin.
"Very funny, Doc. For once I'm serious, this really is like nothing I ever felt before, not even during the seventies."
Carter snapped her fingers. She ran her hand over the other bags of blood that Fraiser had laid out and then checked the ID tags. "You're sensing the naquada, sir. I've been wondering why you've never done that before, you should have been able to all along."
"Carter, I don't think I wanted to."
"I hear that, sir. You don't have nearly as much of it in your body as I do, but apparently enough to make Nirrti's machine work the way it's supposed to on the two of us. My arm works normally here, but it was an unholy mess back at the SGC."
Jack said, "Oh, my God. Sam, I moved back to let Jonas go ahead of me so he could get off his ankle. I was going to get out my binoculars and take a look around. That was when the gargoyle thing attacked. If it'd been him instead of me, the machine wouldn't have brought him back, would it?"
Sam had gone white. "I think it might have brought his body back."
"So Kanen's the reason why I'm not some kind of a walking vegetable right now?"
"That sounds altogether possible."
O'Neill's breath hissed through clenched teeth and one hand went involuntarily to his chest. "Oh, crap! Now, this hurts."
Fraiser indicated the monitor. "Your heart is beginning to work again. It's beating rapidly and irregularly because your blood pressure is still so low. I think it'll convert on its own once we get more blood and fluids in you. The pains are muscle spasms."
"Then I'm going to be able to go home?"
"I think so, sir."
For a long moment he lay back closed his eyes and let the relief wash over him.
Carter fit the healing device on her hand and started to work on her arm. Fraiser snipped the bandages away to watch the wounds close. It left Carter with the same odd scarring as O'Neill's stab wounds, fine lines that looked as if the triangular rents had been glued back in place. That took a long time. Fraiser hung three more bags of blood before Carter was done with her repairs. Carter flexed her arm a few times. "Well, sir, we'll know if you can leave here the next time I gate home."
"Carter, if I get stuck here--"
"You won't," she insisted.
He winced and then his expression went blank as he rode out another muscle spasm. He felt short of breath, and then he realized that must mean his blood was carrying oxygen again.
The tachycardia wasn't converting on its own and it was getting damn uncomfortable. Fraiser injected something into his IV that made him feel like he was on a runaway elevator. He gasped for breath a couple of times, but then the unpleasant sensation passed, and he realized his heartbeat was back to normal. He just felt really tired.
Sam's experimental trip back through the gate was a success. She reported back, "My arm looks OK, Janet."
"All right, we're bringing him through."
O'Neill was riding in a basket stretcher carried by a couple of SG-2. Teal'c had never left his side the entire trip back. After a few tense moments, it became clear that he was doing well on his own and no longer needed Nirrti's device. Fraiser put him and Carter both in the infirmary over night.
O'Neill shifted uncomfortably in the briefing room chair. This had been one of the weirdest debriefings in a while. He had slept through most of the last four days, so he was hearing the scientists' findings for the first time at this briefing.
Carter summed up, "The really ironic thing about it was that Nirrti's experiment was a success. She never knew because none of her victims had naquada in their blood. Their bodies continued to function, even when there was nothing left except bones and an energy field. Unfortunately, they all went completely insane. If she'd had the guts to experiment on herself she would have learned that the presence of even a trace amount of naquada prevents the mental side effects, essentially allowing an unlimited time to treat injuries or to recover from diseases."
Hammond said, "A lot of people would call your survival a miracle, Colonel."
"Well, it didn't seem like it when I thought I was going to be marooned on the planet. I'm not sure I'd disagree with them now that I'm home, sir."
"As fascinating as all this is, since it's useless to all but the two of you, I'm afraid we don't have the funding for any further study. The Tok'ra are very interested, though."
"Interested enough to trade something worthwhile, sir?" O'Neill sounded more sarcastic than hopeful about that.
Hammond laughed, on the same page as his 2iC. "I'm not putting any money on that. SG-1 is on stand down for a week, and we'll see where it goes from there."
Teal'c took advantage of the downtime to visit his son, and Jonas had already made plans with his friends. O'Neill and Carter walked out of the complex with Sirikat.
"Hey, Carter, we're gonna be mall rats tomorrow. Want to come with?"
"Sure," she smiled.
"I'll pick you up about nine. We can get those big cinnamon rolls you like so much, Punkin."
Sirikat smiled up at him. She didn't care what they did or where they went. Her thoughts had been one long prayer of thanks ever since he had come back through the gate.
Sirikat had asked General Hammond not to say anything to O'Neill yet, so that he could enjoy his leave. They had word from Washington that, since the situation in the mideast had settled down, military advisors were now available to send to Daltregon. Soon she would be going home--and going to war. A few days here, and if she was lucky a few days in her village, didn't seem so much to ask.
O'Neill yanked her braid. She jumped for his cap and led a merry chase around the parking lot, all of them laughing in the sunshine. The cool mountain breeze carried the scent of wildflowers.
Horsing around with his two favorite girls, O'Neill knew how close he had come to losing all this, and it was all the sweeter for knowing that. He finally cornered Sirikat and rescued his cap. The afterlife was just going to have to wait a while. Heaven was right here.
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