Daniel sighed a little wearily as he rounded the corner and saw the line of students outside his office. He could see that each of them was clutching one of the blue mid-term booklets he'd just handed back in class. Not for the first time, he wondered how students could defy the laws of physics and manage to be lying in wait for him before he'd made the two minute walk from the lecture hall to the wing that held the adjunct faculty bunkers. Smiling tightly, he shuffled past them, leaning and dodging in order to avoid smacking them in the face with the rolls of maps sticking out of his satchel or tripping over the ubiquitous backpacks. One student--whose face he didn't recognize because the midterm marked the only day he'd graced the hall with his presence--slouched his shoulders against the wall with his hips cocked forward into the narrow passageway and his arms folded across his chest. In his gloved hand the booklet was rolled tight enough to twist.
Daniel's office hours didn't start for thirty minutes.
Fumbling his key into the lock, he said, "Just let me get settled and then we'll get on with it." The students didn't reply. One of them huffed out a frustrated sigh herself as she slid down the wall to sit on the floor.
Inside his bunker--so named because it was windowless and had high walls that disappeared into murky shadow overhead--he dropped the satchel and the uncollected midterm booklets on his desk and shrugged off his jacket, blowing absently to get the hair out from in front of his glasses. Throwing the jacket across the back of the ancient swivel chair, he wrestled his laptop out of the satchel and set it up on the battered faux wood veneer of the desktop, unwound the ethernet cord and huddled over his knees to get it into the correct socket in the wall under the desk. The light on his phone was blinking. Out in the hallway, the students were talking in a low, dissatisfied murmur, like hornets in their nest.
Booting up the computer with one hand, he cradled the phone on his shoulder and tapped in his code. Two messages from the department chair about his placement for next term, neither one of them particularly good news, one from a student who'd decided to phone in her displeasure with his grading instead of coming down to the basement to stand in line outside his door. The last one, though, made his skin go prickly with sweat.
"You'll never guess where I'm calling from."
Six and a half years later and not one edge of the smugness or self-confidence had been worn off of that voice.
"Antarctica." A pause in which Daniel could see the broad hand waving away questions. "Can't go into that right now."
"When are you coming back?
"I don't know. I might not be coming back at all. It depends where this all leads."
"Where are you going?"
He drops another pair of socks into the suitcase and his shoulders fall into that exasperated slouch. "You know I can't tell you that." He hasn't packed any sweaters.
Outside the snow is falling straight down, thin and icy.
"I'll tell you all about it in Colorado Springs."
Getting up, Daniel hooked the door with his fingertips and swung it shut with a bang.
"You're going to get a call. They're going to ask you something, and, fuck Daniel, if you don't say yes I'm not only going to irretrievably lose all respect for you as an intellectual, I'm personally going to pin your ass to the wall." There was the tightness of not-so restrained excitement in the voice, but Daniel didn't doubt the threat, even though it was no doubt issued with that self-satisfied, teasing lopsided smile.
Daniel ran his hand through his hair and then across the scratch of stubble on his cheek.
"Look, the chopper's waiting. I gotta go. I'll see you in Colorado." There was a pause and then, "Bring your swim fins. We're diving for treasure."
Daniel sat back down in his chair and looked at the handset of the phone like he expected a trained dolphin to leap out of it to kiss him. After a moment, he dropped it back in the cradle and looked at it a little longer.
"I thought you were going to use your powers for good," Daniel says, making curves and lines in the condensation on the window pane with the back of his fingernail.
"I am." His head is down now, though. He rearranges socks that don't need rearranging.
"Nothing good is secret, Rodney."
The limousine smelled faintly of stale champagne and made Daniel think more of prom dates than military personnel--not that he had much experience with either. The back of the driver's neck was shaved and his dress blues were dusted on the shoulders with dandruff. He'd called Daniel "Sir," all polite deference and assured power. Daniel couldn't tell if the bulge in his jacket was a gun or a radio or ham sandwich, but the hands were strong, raw-knuckled, too capable-looking to be wasted on mere driving. He tried to picture what they'd look like holding a weapon, something big that could take down a battalion maybe, but he didn't know what kind of weapon would be most likely and so he gave up.
Outside, Washington was blurred and streaked by sheeting rain. At the stoplight, the limo rocked just slightly in the gusting wind. Daniel didn't go in much for pathetic fallacy, but late-afternoon darkness seemed to seep into his bones. His hands were sweating. He thought about the classes he'd canceled and distracted himself by rearranging the syllabi in his head to make up for the lost time.
"I might not be coming back at all. It depends where this all leads.
Rodney wasn't going to be there.
"Believe it or not, I have more important things to do right now" he'd groused, his voice going distant as he, presumably, lifted his chin away from the phone so he could signal someone or peer at a readout or scribble on a white board--whatever Rodney did when he was shuffling Daniel down in the multi-tasking hierarchy. "You'll be fine. Elizabeth is pretty damn canny. For a humanist. No," he added, redirecting his testiness to someone else, "not there. There. Where did you get your degree, just out of curiosity?" To Daniel he said, by way of goodbye, "Just don't be a flake."
The portico of the hotel shielded him from the worst of the rain, but his pantlegs were soaked by the time he made it through the doors into the lobby. Swiping at his hair, he spun on his heel, peering through the fogged lenses of his glasses. Finally he found the entrance to the restaurant tucked behind a two-story-tall ficus with a braided trunk.
At his stand, the maitre d' waited solicitously for him to approach.
"'m Daniel Jackson. The reservation might be under Weir, though."
"Of course, Dr. Jackson. Your party has already arrived."
Divested of his raincoat, Daniel shivered a little but managed to keep his hands out of his pockets. He rubbed them discretely on the hips of his chinos though before he ducked under another artful ficus and looked down at Elizabeth Weir. When he shook her cool hand, his own wasn't too embarrassingly clammy.
Dr. Weir looked up at him and smiled openly, waving him toward a chair across the small table. She didn't look much like a spook, but then, he figured, she wouldn't. In fact, she looked like a canny humanist. Well made-up, well-kept, tidy in a black suit and modest neckline, slim fingers nicely manicured, gestures contained and measured. Her eyes, though, were a little too bright, sparkling with some kind of lambent excitement, and gleaming with too many sleepless nights of travel. She didn't look the type to sleep on planes, even private ones. The bag at her feet was big enough for a laptop.
"Good trip?" she asked lightly, her eyes flicking over his shoulder. A second later, a waiter appeared at his elbow. "How about a drink?"
"Uh, fine and... whatever you're having," Daniel answered, nodding at her glass which was still mostly full.
His glass was filled--although he had no intention of drinking it--hers topped up, and then, once the waiter had moved into the shadows, she moved her napkin onto her lap and leaned into the space between her cutlery, hands pressed together like a prayer.
"You have lots of questions," she said, and the glitter in her eyes, the smile that tugged her lips, the coiled excitement she emanated just sitting there across the table from him made him want to down the wine in a gulp and say "yes" to whatever offer she was obviously so enthused to make. Maybe so Rodney wouldn't pin his ass to the wall--although it might be nice for old time's sake--or maybe because he really couldn't face another term teaching Anthro 101 again with no computer access and no lab time for himself and an office in the basement.
He pushed the wineglass away. "What do you want with me?" he asked bluntly, making her smile.
"You come highly recommended."
"Well, you haven't been talking to anyone in my field then."
"Dr. McKay was unequivocal in his assessment of your skills and potential contribution."
"Rodney's not in my field and, in spite of his almost endearing conviction that he knows everything about everything, he isn't qualified to assess my skills or potential contribution." Not my professional skills, anyway, he added mentally and looked away. When he looked back she was considering him appraisingly.
"You've looked at the documents we sent you?" she said, changing her point of attack. Canny. The text was the hook he couldn't avoid swallowing and she knew it.
"It's a derivative of Latin. Not one I've seen before."
"But you've had some success with the translation?"
He leaned in a bit closer. "You know I have."
Her smile widened. She looked like a kid getting ready to do a magic trick. "And?"
"And how about you tell me where you found it and I'll tell you what I think of it." His hands were sweaty again.
She narrowed her eyes, considering. "Dr. Jackson, you have been investigated to a level of thoroughness and minuteness that would probably frighten you. You've come back clean as a whistle," she suppressed another smile, "barring that small matter of a quarter ounce of pot in '97." She waved a hand, wiping his record clean. "That's just liberal street cred, though, and won't be a problem where we're going. You have a reputation for an incredible affinity for languages, especially dead languages--extrapolation, reconstruction--" She spread her hands to indicate the whole gamut of skills, including ones she didn't understand or have a name for. "You have also voiced theories that have alienated you from the academic community and this has kept you working sessional contracts in small universities for the past five years. For next term you've been hired to teach two introductory courses at $3300.00 each. You've been taking up the slack translating textbooks into Japanese." Her mouth quirked. "Fair to say a bit of a waste of your considerable abilities."
He winced and slouched a little lower in his seat. "I haven't made a lot of friends."
"What's a problem for the academic community--in terms of your theories--is a plus for us." She waited for his startled glance and went on, "Also, you have no family, few friends, you're a practicing homosexual--"
His hand tightened spasmodically on the stem of the wine glass. "So much for don't ask, don't tell."
Leaning her head to the side, she frowned. "You're a civilian, Dr. Jackson, as am I, as is the program I run and which I'm inviting you to join."
He looked at her through the top of his glasses. "That guy in the limo didn't look too civilian to me."
"There is a military aspect to the program but as a whole it's under civilian oversight. My oversight." Another dismissing wave, "Look, I'm just letting you know that I know, as a gesture of good faith, so that there's no sense that this is something worth hiding or being worried about. We're not out to blackmail you."
He surprised himself by being relieved by this and the quick sizzle of panic ebbed away along his limbs like a wave dissipating on sand. But it didn't go away completely.
"Where I'm going, I will need someone like you."
"You mean, a closeted idiot savant pot-head with no social skills and serious attachment issues," he summarized. "I'm not sure this is a club I want to be in, if I'm the kind of member you're looking for." He turned the wine glass around by the stem, but didn't drink. He really wanted to. "Where are you going, exactly?"
"I'm putting together an expedition team to explore an ancient city. A lost city. The city once inhabited by the people who wrote the text I sent you."
Daniel's frown deepened. "Okay. And Rodney's going?"
"Absolutely." That excitement was back again, sparking in her eyes.
"And you're not an archaeologist. You're a diplomat."
"And what kind of archaeological expedition involves a military presence, a diplomat and an expert in theoretical physics, mathematics and astrophysics and... whatever else Rodney's into these days?"
Folding her hands again in that prayerful gesture, she raised an eyebrow and waited. He licked his lips. His mouth was dry. He thought about the text she'd sent him. So tantalizingly familiar and yet different from any derivation or dialect he'd ever seen.
"Tell me," he said, leaning even further across the table so that his head was close to hers, "that you're not going to say this so-called lost city is--" He unclamped his fingers from around the stem of his glass and pointed up at the tasteful chandelier. "Because, trust me, you can dine out on that kind of talk, but only because people like a good joke." He was obviously out of his mind. But she was smiling at him again and his stomach was getting fluttery like it always did when he the pieces were coming together.
"I can't confirm or deny your inference, Dr. Jackson, until you agree to join the team, with the full knowledge that this may be the most important expedition ever mounted by human kind, and that there is a strong possibility that you won't return from it."
"To my $6600.00 job and my bunker in the basement?"
"That's before taxes, right?"
Daniel slouched down low in the lumpy cushions of Rodney's couch, shifted an ancient bag of Cheetos aside with his foot and crossed his ankles on the coffee table. The beer balanced on his stomach was warm, which wasn't helping its flavour much, but it was better than the open half-can of Pepsi, which was all that Rodney had to offer.
"I'm not here much," he'd said by way of explanation and bumped the fridge door shut with his hip. Now he was making a racket in the kitchen, banging cupboards and muttering to himself.
"So," Daniel shouted, "this is where you've been for the last six and a half years."
Rodney poked his head around the corner and Daniel craned over the back of the couch just in time to see a second bag of Cheetos on a collision course with his head. He managed to get a hand up to deflect it, and then had to kneel on the couch to reach over and retrieve the snacks. Rodney really knew how to impress a date, Daniel thought, smiling to himself a little as he squeezed the bag and popped it open. He picked a few arrant Cheetos off of his shirt and made a half-hearted attempt to blow the cheez dust off the fabric.
"Actually," Rodney was saying from the kitchen, "I've been here a year or so, but most of that time I was in Antarctica." He climbed over the back of the couch and slumped next to Daniel, confiscating the bag. Around an orange mouthful he went on, "Before that I was in Russia, and before that in Nevada." He swallowed and gathered another handful. "Area 51."
Daniel coughed up a Cheeto. "You're not serious."
"As a heart attack."
Daniel blinked silently at the television set, which was showing The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman with the volume turned down. "So, were there real aliens in that crashed ship from Roswell?"
Dropping his hand onto the bag with an exasperated crunch, Rodney looked at him like he was a particularly dense five-year-old. "What project do you have clearance for?"
Daniel raised his eyebrows, and then frowned. "Uh... Atlantis?"
"Do you get to ask me questions about Roswell?"
"No." Rodney turned to the t.v again and stuffed a handful of Cheetos in his mouth. After chewing contentedly for a minute, he added, "I don't even have clearance for Roswell. I have my theories though. 'Cept--" the "c" made orange crumbs explode from his mouth and he brushed them onto the couch absently, "--if I told you, then I'd have to kill you and then they'd have to kill me."
Daniel decided on principle it was best to believe he wasn't kidding.
They watched the Fifty-Foot Woman stomp on some buildings. "So," Daniel ventured, "when Mulder gets chased away from the secret base where they're testing alien-hybrid spaceships, the guys chasing him away, that's you."
"You're the bad guys." The Cheetos and beer were doing some kind of weird and unpleasant alchemy in his stomach. He swallowed.
Scowling, Rodney turned to him and said, in that overly patient tone that made Daniel nuts, "No. Mulder is a jerk who threatens national security. We're the ones protecting you from a reality so terrifying you'd vomit your breakfast daily if you knew about it. We're the good guys." He went back to watching people running and screaming on tv. "'Cept the NID. They're complete assholes."
Daniel's head was starting to swim a little. Rodney McKay, the geek from grad school who was the only other person loser enough to spend Christmas in his lab three years running (they'd had warm champagne in beakers stolen from the bio-tech lab that time, and Daniel wasn't completely sure there hadn't been something growing in his intestines ever since), that Rodney McKay, had spent years holed up at Area 51 dicking around with alien technology and then going out at the end of the day to buy Cheetos and beer he invariably forgot to put in the fridge. Daniel's mind stumbled around in that territory for a second. "NID?' he asked finally.
"Men in Black," Rodney answered, offhandedly, his eyes on the screen.
"Of course," Daniel said. On the stunned-deadpan edge of hysterical giggling, he held his breath and closed his eyes. On the only slightly scarier side of his eyelids, Rodney kept chewing with that familiar noisy contentment, and the Fifty-Foot Woman was going down fighting in black and white.
Jack leaned his hip on the counter and watched the milk ripple out of the carton and into the sink. He watched it with concentration, noting the little fold in the stream just past the cardboard lip, the way it twisted halfway down like a ribbon. It was still dark outside and his kitchen was doubled in the dark window over the sink, but he didn't look up at his reflection. The clock over the kitchen door ticked evenly, every two seconds, familiar as his heartbeat. It was cold in the kitchen now, with the heat turned down low, and he tucked the fingers of his free hand into the hip pocket of his jeans. He watched the milk until there was just an intermittent dribble from the carton, swirled hot water around in it, rinsed the sink, crushed the carton, and put it in the garbage bag at his feet.
The milk was the last thing in the fridge to go, and, unplugged, the fridge stood open and dark. The cupboards were empty, too, except for the dishes. There was a circle impressed in the rug in the hallway by the basement stairs where the draconia used to be. The curtains were closed in the front rooms. The lamps in the bedroom and the living room were on timers. Protesting mildly, the house made settling noises, and he unconsciously avoided the area to the left of the kitchen door where the floorboards creaked, as though his body remembered a time when there was someone in the house he didn't want to wake.
Dropping the garbage bag next to the front door, Jack went back into the dining room, sat down at the head of the table, signed and folded the sheet of crisp, white paper and put it in the envelope. He inscribed the envelope with his lawyer's address. The letter was simple: If he wasn't back in two years, sell the house and everything in it. If he wasn't back in seven, execute his will.
The other letter was shorter, and a lot less simple. It said: "One more mission." After his pen had hovered over the paper for a long moment, making thoughtful, hesitating circles in the air, the note concluded: "I'm sorry. Jack." This paper he folded in a square and laid it on top of the clothing in the cardboard box on the chair next to him--a highschool baseball team sweater, a pair of shorts, a notebook with only one page written in it, math equations begun and left unfinished.
The other note on the table wasn't his. It hadn't even been directed to him explicitly, although he knew that he was part of it. Three short sentences in Charlie's handwriting--but not really his. Not really. Something more jagged than the careful penmanship of the math book, something more yearning and frustrated and resigned, the lines slanting downward from left to right, 't's crossed with slashes.
Carrying the paper to the living room, he crouched in front of the fireplace, struck a match from the cup on the mantle and held it to the corner of the paper. He watched the orange flame follow the black edge all the way up until it almost touched his fingers and the paper had dissolved to ash.
Now he could go.
He drove across town and left the box on Sarah's doorstep.
The mountain wasn't sleeping, even though it was still dark when Jack pulled his truck into his designated space in the long-term lot and heaved his kit out from behind the seat. He made his way through the checkpoints without really paying conscious attention to them, although, if he were asked, he'd be able recount who was on each desk and who was with him in the line-ups.
The hallways were already teeming with personnel and he had to dodge moving equipment and groups of scientists and Marines and airmen milling among the crates and plastic-wrapped flats of supplies. Everyone was ready, more than ready, and there was nothing purposeful left to do. Level 28 buzzed with potential energy. He found his way to the temporary barracks to drop his kit on the floor with the rest, and set off to round up his teams and do a final check on munitions.
Cutting through the Gateroom, he noted the announcements coming over the address system, instructions for debarkation order, summons of personnel to one or another minor pre-test disaster. Cocking his head to look into the control room, he could see General Carter leaning over the technician's shoulder, Weir behind her peering down at him. He raised a hand briefly in acknowledgement and she nodded.
The Gateroom itself was pretty much deserted except for Siler on a ladder on the ramp with his clipboard, reading numbers off mechanically into his radio, and one shaggy-haired guy in the tan-and-blue of the science corps. He pushed his glasses up his nose with his middle finger and his head tilted back, his neck a little boneless, his mouth gaping open slightly as he stared at the gate. When he heard Jack stop beside him, his mouth snapped shut and he turned jerkily toward him.
"Um, it's okay to be here, right?" he asked, his eyes a little owlish behind his lenses.
Jack frowned. "Probably not. Who are you?"
"Daniel." He blinked. "Jackson. Dr."
"O'Neill. Jack." He tapped his collar. "Colonel."
More blinking. "Right."
Jack's eyes narrowed. "Scientist." The word came out with a slight hiss of disdain, but Jackson didn't seem offended.
"Ah, four of us. There's just four."
"Languages do you speak," Jack clarified, enunciating carefully.
Jackson smiled nervously but was happier on familiar territory. "Well, that depends if you mean the ones that are spoken, or include the strictly written scripts, and whether you consider derivatives--like Latin, which I've learned is not a root language at all but a derivative of Ancient, which didn't even originate on Earth--as separate--" Jack narrowed his eyes again and shifted his weight. Jackson closed his mouth for a second and then licked his lips slowly. "Thirty-three."
"Any of those going to be useful in a galaxy thirty gazillion miles away, ya think?"
Now Jackson's face hardened a little--with disciplinary pride, maybe--and he stood up a bit straighter before softening again with a faint, not-quite self-deprecatory smile. "It's not the ones I know, actually," he corrected him. "It's how I learn new ones. I'm sort of a prodigy that way." His hair fell over his glasses and he ran a hand through it to push it away. His eyes were too blue in the halogen glare of the Gateroom, a little too bright. He was clearly in low-grade freak mode.
Who wasn't, Jack wondered, except himself?
Nodding, Jack pretended to file that away for future reference. "What are you doing in here, Dr. Jackson? We don't ship for four more hours."
Taking this as conversation rather than the challenge it was, Jackson turned away and held his arms out to include the gate in an expansive gesture. "I think I was just trying to, I don't know exactly, get my head around it, I guess."
Jack scowled to hide the grin that threatened to undo his position as intimidating military type. "Don't bother. There's three geeks who can think it." He hooked a thumb at the control room where McKay was now looming over the technician's other shoulder. "The rest of us just do it."
Jackson turned to him then, squinting at him with curiosity. "You've been through it, the gate I mean, before?"
Jack shrugged. "A few times."
"And is it--" Jackson waved a hand in the air in front of him, clearly at a loss for words, and Jack wondered if those thirty-three languages actually included English. This did not bode well for Linguistics. "--fun?" Jackson finally blurted, wrinkling his brow with an ironic frown, his thoughts obviously on the same track as Jack's.
Leaning his head to the side a little, Jack appraised him for a moment. "Sure," he said. "It's fun. The part where you get--" he waggled his fingers "--fizzed is weird. And then the rest is all about the fun. Unless you get your ass shot off the second you step out the other side. Or you get sent back in time or into a black hole or a star or something. Or the gate shuts down with you inside it or forgets to de-fizz you and spits you out like confetti." Jackson swallowed and then his mouth gaped open again. "But, hey, I've been out of commission for--" Jack pretended to do some mental calculations, "--two years give or take. I'm sure they've worked out those bugs by now." He counted to three. "Most of them."
Jackson was a sort of pasty grey colour. He blinked twice, slowly. Then, Jack couldn't keep the grin from ghosting up one side of his mouth and he had to turn away to hide it. Walking on through the Gateroom, he looked back to find Jackson watching him, and he was laughing.
Elizabeth folded her arms over her uniform jacket and peered out through the window of the General's office into the briefing room which was already getting a little crowded as the department heads gathered for final check in. There wasn't much talking going on in there. Mostly, there was a lot of shuffling and gazing into space and lips moving silently. She could practically see them scrolling tables through their brains: checklists, checklists of checklists, back-up checklists. She squeezed her elbows and sucked in a not-so-calming breath. Counting to five, she let the breath leak out of her slowly and forced her shoulders to relax a little.
"Okay, now I have to admit I'm envious," Sam said from behind her.
Elizabeth looked over her shoulder at her. "Final confessions?"
Shaking her head, Sam smiled back. "No, because I expect you back here in a few days with at least two F.R.E.D-loads of ZPMs."
"Right," Elizabeth nodded, and went back to watching her team leaders. Close to the observation window, Colonel O'Neill stood with his hands in his pockets and looked down into the Gateroom. He was a little pale in the dark-grey-and-black Air Force colours, and the lines around his mouth were deepened by his thin-lipped frown. Looking at Sam again, Elizabeth said, "Okay, last chance. What do you think, really?" When Sam came up beside her, Elizabeth raised her chin to indicate O'Neill. "Is he ready?"
Sam straightened to her full height and folded her hands behind her back. "If you have doubts, don't take him."
Elizabeth turned to face her and sat on the window sill. "I don't have doubts, but you know him better than I do. In twenty minutes I'm going to give everyone out there a chance to change their minds. Would he take it, if he needed to?"
Meeting her gaze steadily, Sam nodded once, firmly. "It's not about ego with him." Her eyes shifted over Elizabeth's shoulder and narrowed a little. "It never was, especially if there are other people at stake." She looked at Elizabeth again, earnestly. "If he had any doubts about his ability to fulfill his duty, he never would have allowed you to reactivate his commission."
Elizabeth craned to look over her shoulder. The Colonel hadn't moved. "Okay," she said and didn't bother to hide the relief she felt. "We're lucky to get him, and not just because of the gene."
"Just don't push him," Sam added suddenly, and when Elizabeth turned a puzzled gaze on her, she found Sam's eyes were wide, still earnest, but concerned too. She closed them for a second and shook her head, then clarified, "I mean, push him as hard as you need to in terms of the job. But this other stuff... if you have any ideas about pushing him on that--" She passed an open palm in front of her face, miming falling blast doors. "--forget it. Believe me, I learned the hard way."
"Okay. No heart to heart."
"Right." Sam smiled again. "And how about you? Okay?"
Elizabeth had to laugh a little as she stood and tugged at her jacket, smoothed the red patches on the front. She was the only one with red patches. "Actually, if you really want to know, I think I might have to just take a little break and go throw up."
That made Sam do a little hop, her memory jabbing her. "Oh! I have something for you. A going-away present." She went around the desk and rummaged in a file drawer, coming up finally with a silk sachet. She laid it on the blotter. "Something no commander can be without."
Frowning quizzically, Elizabeth undid the ribbon and opened the neck of the bag. This time she laughed out loud as she pulled out eight rolls of TUMS wrapped together with a thick rubber band. "Thank you," she said gratefully and didn't wait to open the end of one of the rolls and pop two of the wafers into her mouth.
Shrugging, Sam grinned. "Easier to pack than a forty-pounder of scotch, and they come with extra calcium."
As she chewed and remembered how to breathe, Elizabeth wished she hadn't packed her toothbrush so far down in her kit; she knew that forever more, her memory of the most momentous day of her life would taste like cherry-flavoured chalk.
Pausing to tug at the stiff collar of his new Atlantis Expedition uniform, Major Sheppard sat down on his haunches and did a final check of his kit, leaning his head to the side to keep his shadow out of the way so he could see better. The lighting in this part of the hallway was obstructed by a plastic-wrapped flat of medical supplies. He ran through the check by rote, his hands moving over the familiar shapes he could feel through the nylon.
Even this light was blocked in a steady rhythm by the passing of scientists and soldiers who all seemed to have place to be which wasn't where they were, and he was sure he'd had to shuffle aside to let that one guy pass at least four times, which meant that what he was really doing was pacing and that was kind of pissing Sheppard off. He flipped the cover of his watch. Twenty minutes. Sheppard, himself, though, had nowhere in particular to be until it was time to go through the gate, and no duties other than to stay out of the way and be ready to shift his own gear when he took point with O'Neill and the Marines. He checked his watch again. Nineteen minutes. He wondered if pacing might be a good idea.
Pulling himself up to lean on the flat, he amused himself by watching a few perfect football passes on the inside of his eyelids. He wished he'd had more lunch. He wondered if there would be anything to fly in Atlantis. He opened his eyes and checked his watch. Seventeen minutes.
He stood up straighter to make way for McKay and some guy, also in tan-and-blue, his glasses low on his nose and his hair in his eyes.
"Been there, done that, ran the simulation," McKay was saying with typical irritation.
"You ran a simulation for confetti?"
McKay stopped and turned on his heel. "Look, Dr. Doolittle. These Ancients weren't just a couple of guys tinkering with space-time in their garage. The failsafes have back-ups. The back-ups have back-ups and those have failsafes. And anything that can go wrong I already thought of it and made extra back-ups with failsafes. Okay?"
Glasses looked skeptical. "You tested for confetti."
"It's called molecular decohesion and yes, I did." Sighing dramatically, McKay rolled his eyes in Sheppard's direction and getting no help there, shifted his gaze back to Glasses.
Now Glasses turned to Sheppard. "He says we're definitely going to get de-fizzed."
Snorting in disgust, McKay sneered, "That's the most pathetic term I've heard this week. I hope the people of the Pegasus galaxy have a better grasp of English than you do." He hooked a finger over his shoulder toward the stairs of the control room. "Can I go open an interdimensional doorway to another galaxy now? Do you mind?"
Sheppard and Glasses nodded in unison. As McKay strode away, Glasses called, "You know, you're ruining my adventure."
McKay answered by turning on his heel again, flipping him the bird and a grin.
When he was gone, Sheppard leaned into Glasses' line of vision and asked, "Confetti?"
[backing up an hour or so]
The Doc was over in the corner of the infirmary in a halo of light next to an empty bed, talking to Beckett. He nodded, smiled, and leaning down, kissed her on the cheek. She squeezed his arm and he walked away, her gaze following him until it snagged on Jack hovering in the doorway.
"Colonel," Beckett said with a nod as Jack turned sideways to let him pass.
"Doctor," Jack replied, but Beckett was already gone.
Frasier waited for him to come in. When he didn't, she tucked her stethoscope into her lab coat pocket and came to meet him, stepping out into the hallway with him. It was quiet here, compared to the gate levels, and only the duty sergeant watched them blandly for a moment from his desk near the elevator before turning back to his clipboard.
"Ready to go?" Frasier asked, carefully neutral. She looked tired, he thought, but the lines around her brown eyes became crinkles as she smiled up at him. The smile fading, she looked at her shoes. "Did you talk to Sam?"
"How's Cassie?" he asked.
"Just back off," he says levelly, holding out a warding hand, dropping it quickly, then raising it again to rub his forehead. "Amazing Grace" is humming in his head still, a thin, lone voice piercing him like a long blade. "Just back off, Carter."
She doesn't back off. She comes closer. Behind her, Frasier watches, her mouth thin with concern, her eyes gentle as she steps up to his other side and helps Carter undo the buttons of his dress blues, slide the jacket off of his shoulders. Carter's fingers are shaking and clumsy, but Frasier's hands are gentle like her expression, capable and unhesitating as they undo the cuff of his sleeve and slide it up past his elbow. He wants to shove her away, but the stench of lilies is caught in her hair and he's paralysed. Far away, his front door stands open, sunlight slanting through it into the hallway. There are two men on the porch, red medic cases hooked in their hands. They avert their eyes.
The prick of the needle in the crook of his arm might as well be a staff blast.
He's falling. Not the way he should be. Not the way he deserves.
Frasier sighed, and when she looked up at him her smile was knowing and rueful. "She wanted me to give you this," she said, pulling a photograph out of her pocket and turning it around so he could see it. "It's from the prom in June."
Taking it, he angled it into the light. Two years had made a difference. The gangly teenager was gone, replaced by this young woman. Maybe it was only the clingy prom dress, though, the heels. Maybe it was the guy in a tuxedo next to her, his arm possessively around her waist. "Who's the hero?"
"His name's Matt. He's just a friend."
Jack nodded and tucked Cassie's picture into the inside pocket of his jacket. The duty sergeant was watching them again, but looked away when Jack met his eyes.
He started to turn away, but Frasier's hand on his elbow stopped him. "Sam made the right decision, back then, you know," she said softly.
He stared at the corner of the sergeant's desk, the line between steel and concrete. "And what about now?" he asked, his lips hardly moving.
Frasier's shrug was passed along to him through the hand still on his arm. "You're the best judge of that."
When he opens his eyes he's in a new room, darkness pressed up against wide windows, a curtain hanging on a rail along one side of the bed. The lamp on the low table glows through Carter's hair, her face a blank of shadow.
"It's only temporary," she says.
The sedative has filled his veins with lead.
"Fuck you, Carter."
These are the last words they exchange for two years.
He started to move away again, but Frasier's fingers tightened on his sleeve, inviting him toward her. Her gentleness turned his spine to rebar. Still, he managed to bend his neck a little so that she could press a dry kiss to his cheek.
"Be safe out there," she told him, the CMO giving orders.
"You be safe here," he replied.
He paused at the corner at the end of the hall to look back. She raised her hand and waggled her fingers in a wave.
Jack turned to find the General dodging a slow-moving cart-full of MREs and waited for her to catch up to him at the foot of the control room stairs.
"I've been looking for you."
"Here I am."
She smiled thinly. "We heard from Teal'c. He's going to be gating in--"She checked her watch. "--in about five minutes."
Jack frowned. "That's ahead of schedule isn't it?"
Nodding, she stepped out of the way of two medics and a gurney. "The peace talks don't start until tomorrow, but when he heard you were shipping out, he wanted to come say good-bye."
Jack bounced a little on his toes and nodded too. "Cool."
"You'll only have a few minutes, though. The final briefing is in fifteen."
He was opening his mouth to answer but was interrupted by McKay, who was walking down the middle of the hallway--scattering airmen and expedition personnel--Jackson trailing along behind him.
"La la la," he was singing loudly. "I'm not listening to you."
"Your level of denial is astonishing!" Jackson exclaimed, a hand cutting the air behind McKay's back.
"And yours is laughable." McKay paused to turn a derisive scowl on him. "Don't fuck with the master, Danny-boy," he warned and, noticing Carter, muttered, "Oh. 'Scuse my French," as he deked around her and headed for the control room stairs.
"Don't call me Danny-boy," Jackson ordered.
"Sure thing, Danny-boy," McKay agreed airily and took the stairs two at a time.
All of Jackson's bottom teeth were showing as he breathed through his nose and narrowed his eyes at McKay's disappearing feet. Then he adjusted his glasses and turned to Jack. "I fucking hate 'Danny-boy,'" he told him.
"I don't blame you," Jack commiserated.
Grinning suddenly, Jackson mouthed "Thank you," and walked backward a few paces into a clutch of Marines. There was a lot of "Oops, sorry, 'scuse me, ow" as he extricated himself from them and disappeared into the milling crowd.
"Oy," Jack and Carter said in unison, both looking at their boots.
When Jack looked up at her, her mouth was turned up in a smile.
"You're glad they're going with us, right?" he asked.
"I know they're brilliant."
"Scientists," he hissed.
Shrugging, she started to turn away.
"General," he said, impulsively, and changed his mind, but she was looking at him again and it was too late.
His hand came up in front of him, waved in space for a second, and then retreated to his pocket. He looked at his boots again. "Look, I never thanked you." He met her eyes. "For backing Weir's request to reactivate my commission."
Her chin came up. "You're qualified. You've got clearance. You've been given a clean--" She looked away, regrouped. "You're welcome," she concluded formally, but her eyes were a little too bright.
She looked like she might say more and he winced at the thought of that, but he was saved by McKay, whose voice rose above the din of the hallway, shouting, "No! No, no no. Okay, everybody just take your hands off of your keyboards and sit on them." He didn't actually say, "Mo-om! The technicians are bug-ging me!" but he managed to make his "General Carter!" sound just like it.
Now Carter winced before looking at Jack ruefully. "You'll take care of them, right?"
"If I don't kill them."
That seemed good enough for her, and she turned and ran up the stairs.
Jack watched Sheppard's face as the wormhole activated and the vortex kawooshed outward. Kneeling on the floor checking his weapon for the thirtieth time since Jack had been standing in the Gateroom, Sheppard leaned back a bit from the watery flash, a hand coming up to shield his his eyes, and his mouth hanging open a little. When Teal'c stepped through, unruffled and in one piece, Sheppard closed his mouth and, after thinking about things for a second, decided on "Cool."
Jack tried not to grin, but he couldn't keep it entirely at bay when Teal'c stepped off the ramp and his hand came out of the fold of his robes to grip Jack's.
"It is good to see you well, O'Neill," he said with a bow and a brightening of his eyes.
"It's good to see you at all," Jack replied, and thumped him gently on the shoulder. "Thanks for coming early." He looked Teal'c up and down. "You look good." What he meant was that Teal'c had all his limbs and that the scar that bisected the tattoo on his forehead hinted at near decaptitation, instead of the real thing.
"As do you." He scanned the Gateroom with its ranks of wrapped equipment and waiting F.R.E.D.s, and didn't inspect Jack too closely, for which Jack was grateful. "You are ready."
"Wanna come?" Jack offered, feeling suddenly magnanimous. "You could be the first Jaffa in the Pegasus Galaxy. Nice gig."
Teal'c's smile was genuine but short-lived. "I wish circumstances would allow it," he answered.
Jack nodded. Sheppard checked his weapon for the thirty-first time. In the control room Carter was shouting at McKay. Time was passing. It was a river sluicing between Jack and the gate.
"I killed Ba'al," Teal'c said evenly to the side of Jack's face, as always cutting to the chase, or the quick. Whatever. "I regret that I could kill him only once."
Wincing up an eye like he'd been struck by an open hand, Jack nodded. He knew about all that. Breaking regs, Carter had sent him the report. The Airman had stood at the other end of Jack's dining room table, his face studiously blank, while Jack opened the blue folder and read the matter-of-fact tale. When the Airman had taken the document back to be locked up in the mountain again, Jack had sat for awhile and thought about what he would do if there were alcohol in his house. In the end, he threw up anyway.
Now, though, he didn't know what to do. "Thanks" seemed a bit laughable, as did the anger that clenched under his ribs, undirected but solid like a fist. So he nodded again and braced for the next slap.
"I was very sorry to hear about your son. So soon after your return."
And there it was. The gate was too damn far away. Still twenty-seven minutes.
"And I am also sorry that I was unable to attend the--"
Jack waved a hand, more sharply than he meant to. Sheppard wasn't listening, was not-listening. Jack turned away from him and put the hand in his pocket without rubbing his forehead first. "It's okay. You were busy saving the galaxy. Besides," he finished, staring at the wall beside the blast door, "it got a little ugly at the end there." Making a brief, dismissing grin, he faced Teal'c--and Sheppard again, who had his back to them now, but who obviously didn't know how to edge away without looking like he was edging away. "How goes the war?" Jack asked, turning the blade around and aiming it in a safer, if more craven, direction.
Sighing a little, Teal'c pressed his lips together in frustration. "Not well. The Tok'ra are intransigent."
"Yeah, they're like that."
"They have limited distribution of tretonin to those who agree to serve in their forces."
Jack frowned. "Ouch."
"Many Jaffa feel that we have thrown off one master only to become thrall to another."
"Carter won't let that happen."
Teal'c's face was hard, unyielding to even this slim offer of hope. "It has happened. It happens even now." His lips thinned again. "There are those among us who would rather die than serve. And if progress is not made in these talks, they will die, one way or the other."
Now Jack did rub his forehead. "Look, Teal'c. I'm not going to tell you how to lead your people, but sometimes, buddy--and take this from a guy who figured it out the hard way--if you don't bend, you break."
Accepting this home-spun wisdom with more polite equanimity than it probably deserved, Teal'c bowed slightly, but his answer was cut off by Harramond's voice over the P.A.: "All Atlantis Expedition team leaders report for final briefing."
"Damn," Jack sighed. "That's me. I gotta go."
Closing his fist over his heart, Teal'c bowed his head, more deeply and reverently this time. "Be safe, O'Neill."
Jack accepted the proffered hand and matched Teal'c's strong grip on his forearm. "You too. Die free." Then he added, "But not soon."
Teal'c's smile was broad as Jack turned away.
Heading for the door, Jack had to do a little two-step with Sheppard, who was trying to get out of his way without actually looking at him.
Daniel felt a little nauseated, kind of like he felt in the endless minutes he stood in the hallway after his oral defense waiting to see if the committee would grant him the doctorate, except now, the feeling came with a bit of prickling effervescence--like he was a champagne bottle ready to pop. At the defense he'd just felt like somebody had been beating him about the head and shoulders with a bag full of dimes. This was scarier and better. Or so he told himself, the phrase "scarier and better" starting to rattle back and forth in his brain like the opposite of a mantra.
On the ramp, Weir was saying something, probably inspiring, but to Daniel she was pretty much doing her impression of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon: "Mwah mwah mwah" and something about backing out, last chance, that kind of thing, all of it drowned out by "scarier and better, scarier and better," and the thudding of his heart in steady syncopation.
If he craned his neck he could see O'Neill at the front near the ramp, the Major too. As Weir finished--apparently no-one taking her up on her offer of a no-hard-feelings bail-out--and wove her way through the crowd to head up to the control room, Sheppard twisted around and scanned the crowd, catching Daniel's eye. Sheppard's eyebrows came up in an expression that asked "Are we out of our fucking minds?" When Daniel nodded in confirmation, Sheppard's mouth quirked up and then the gate opened behind him and Daniel wasn't noticing Sheppard so much anymore.
The splash was impressive, but it was the event horizon that made Daniel sort of stumble a little in his brain as his senses got tangled with his convictions about how the world actually worked: the event horizon looked just like water, rippling and blue and lit from beneath--or rather, he corrected himself, behind--and it was that weird skewing of perspective that accounted for the vague sense of vertigo that swept through him, that made him feel for a moment like he was suspended above the gate, looking down at its surface. Because water doesn't stand on end like that, his brain asserted, even though his eyes insisted equally firmly that, well, quite obviously it does. For a second, Daniel had the undeniable feeling that gravity was pulling him down toward that pool, that he was falling. He gripped the shoulder straps of his backpack to anchor himself.
"Aw, crap," someone said from beside him, the "r" rolling and delaying the emergence of the curse. "I think I'm going to pass out a wee bit."
"Me, too," Daniel agreed, turning to find Beckett beside him, looking about as grey as his uniform, his pale eyes reflecting the watery light.
On the ramp, the Marines and the AF teams took up their formation with their gunsights at their eyes. Weir was with them, in the middle of the phalanx, her pack on her back. Then they moved forward and, with a sort of swishy gulping sound, the gate swallowed them. Sheppard and another AF guy, Ford, were last, hesitating in front of the ripple. Suddenly Ford let out a yell that Daniel's rational mind recognized as a sort of thrill-ride whoop, but which his animal brain interpreted as a shout of terror. Then both of the soldiers were gone.
Nobody moved. Daniel didn't breathe and even the not-mantra in his head was silent.
Then, a crackle on the PA system and General Carter said: "Atlantis Expedition Team, move out."
The crowd started to shuffle forward, F.R.E.D.s and M.A.L.P.s taking turns with personnel and flats of supplies, crawling up the ramp and disappearing.
"Any idea what to expect?" Daniel asked Beckett as they waited their turn. He didn't think of confetti, but confetti fluttered around in his head anyway.
"I've not done it myself," Beckett answered, "But one of the Airmen said not to hold your breath before you step through."
Daniel frowned. "Why not?" Seemed a bit counter-intuitive when diving into a pool of not-water.
"I dinna know."
Shouldering his way between them, his equipment cases knocking Daniel in the leg, Rodney said, "It's because when you remolecularize the air in the lungs is forced out and you squeal like a little girl."
Dumais followed him and aimed an icy glare between Rodney's shoulder-blades before turning to Beckett and Daniel with a shake of her head. "He is so full of shit," she informed them.
Backing up the ramp a couple of paces, Rodney grinned in agreement, waiting for Dumais to catch up with him. "That's why you like me," he informed her.
"I don't like you," she answered.
"Oh, I think--" Whatever Rodney thought, he finished thinking it in the Pegasus Galaxy.
Daniel was at the foot of the ramp. "After you," he said generously to Beckett, who gave him a politely acid, "Why thank you, doctor," and headed up. Apparently choosing the "dive in quick" philosophy, Beckett went through hastily, adding a little hop to his stride like he was climbing over a hurdle.
"One long, very, very long step for man..." Daniel thought absurdly as he came close enough to the event horizon to feel the slippery static of its surface. "And me without my seven league boots," he muttered out loud. Reaching out, he passed his palm across the surface, but the ripples of his touch were lost in those sent out by travelers who stepped in on either side of him. The not-water wasn't cold. It wasn't warm, either. It wasn't there. Of course it wasn't. It wasn't a thing, after all, but an absence of things. It wasn't even space, was it? Rodney had explained it to him in detail. All Daniel could remember was that someone said not to hold his breath.
Swallowing hard, he raised a foot, closed his eyes and leaned forward a little. At the last instant, in spite of himself, he sucked in a breath. His final thought on Earth--or potentially, anyway--was, "I hope I don't squeal like a girl."
"I'll need Jackson and McKay," Jack said.
"You can't have them, Colonel." Weir raised her eyebrows at him and folded her arms. "I need Rodney here working on the extending the life of the shield so that we don't drown." She drew out the last word for emphasis and pointed behind him at the window visible through the empty circle of the gate. The ocean was pressed close to it now. The city shuddered.
"We just lost another tower," McKay announced to everyone and no-one in particular.
"What about this?" Jackson was saying, turning his laptop around and pointing at the screen.
McKay frowned and then nodded. "You're in the right neighbourhood. Try power allocation or a variation on that."
"Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling," Jackson sang to himself under his breath, his glasses reflecting the rapidly passing columns of Ancient text on the laptop screen.
"If I'm going to recover Ancient tech, I'm going to need someone who reads Ancient faster than I do, and someone who knows Ancient tech," Jack rejoined evenly. He didn't add, "Time's a wastin'." But it was, and Weir knew it as well as he did.
She shook her head. "We don't now that you're going to find any Ancient technology right away. If you do, you can radio in and we'll put Dr. McKay on the ground at that time. In the meantime he can instruct Major Sheppard in the use of the scanner."
Sighing, Jack conceded. "Fine. But have him geared up and ready to go." He turned to Jackson. "You."
"Gear up now. We go in five."
Jackson blinked at him like he'd asked him to turn into a pekinese. "What?"
"You're with the recon team," Jack explained, speaking slowly. "Get Ford to fit you up with a vest and a sidearm." Even though he knew the answer, he asked anyway, "You do have basic small arms, right?"
"Scored second in my class, after Dumais."
Jack grimaced. "I saw Dumais's score. I wouldn't be bragging if I were you."
In the end the wavering flicker on the scanner was a ghost, and not worth the cost, all the different kinds of cost. And when a recovery team returned to "the city of the Ancestors" days later, their pantlegs and boots blackened and dulled with the soot of incinerated crops, their faces hidden behind surgical masks to keep out the drifting ash, they found nothing in the building but smashed consoles and the fragments of a ZPM. The signal that Sheppard had picked up on the scanner, McKay speculated later when he examined the pieces, might have been the ZPM itself, bleeding out a thin wash of energy as its internal structure collapsed finally into entropy. It wouldn't have been useful to them, even before it was destroyed in the ambush. Jack chewed on this information and grunted noncommittally. Teyla's face was composed but shuttered. Weir retreated to stand stiffly in her office, and Jack knew she was wishing the room didn't have windows.
The darts looked just like they sounded, Jack decided in some compartmentalized corner of his mind as he shoved Jackson into the shadow of a wall and tracked the ship through the sight of the P90. One-man pods, fast and maneuverable, definitely strike ships, probably short-range. The weapons seemed to be plasma-based, like a Goa'uld cannon, maybe, with power to dig a crater big enough to hide a car in. Teyla had been right; in retrospect, going into the city hadn't been such a good idea.
"Do you not know the Wraith where you come from?"
"We have wraiths, sort of. We don't usually put 'the' in front of them, though. Kind of pretentious, don't you think?"
Jackson's elbow was jabbing Jack in the back hard enough that he could feel it through the kevlar, jerking with each concussion. In the corner of his eye, Jack could see movement, a hazy drifting in the trees at the end of the street. It was vague, might have been the moon shifting on the water of the lake on the other side of that thin screen of woods, but Jack wasn't going to take the chance. With its fallen spires and listing buildings, the city was a visual tangle of tumbled shadows and awkward angles, all of them prime hiding places, ambushes waiting to happen. Twisting in a crouch, he caught Plummer's eye and whispered loudly. "Get Jackson back to the gate. Intercept McKay and Sheppard and round up anybody else you pass. Munty and I have your six."
Plummer's nod was only a blur of white against the darkness of the wall. Jackson lowered his arms from around his head and watched a dart slicing a band of clouds. His glasses were silver discs.
"Go on," Jack ordered, nudging him to his feet. "Stay low and keep to the trees. We'll be right behind you."
Across the lake, the settlement was burning.
Keying his radio Jack barked, "Everyone retreat to the gate!" As he scrambled over a low wall, Plummer and Jackson ahead of him, slivers of paler shadow flashing between the trees, he plotted the perimeter of the gate in his head, mentally positioned his forces to provide cover fire so someone could get to the DHD and dial out. The darts were seriously going to bitch the exit scenario.
Running almost silently, Munty grunted as she vaulted over the wall and whirled to scan the trail behind them. They were out of the city now, into the woods. That vague shifting followed them, always in Jack's peripheral vision, the suggestion of a presence, too fleeting, too amorphous to be flesh and bone.
"They're all around us," Munty rasped as they pulled up against the bole of a tree, back to back. Munty was breathing hard; he could feel it as she leaned into him to whisper.
"I don't think so," Jack disagreed. "I dunno." Around them the darkness was thick with layers of smoke writhing sinuously on the still air. His cheek resting on the bark of the tree as he peered around it into the meadow, he realized he could smell cinnamon; it wafted up out of the bark and mingled with the blunt, earthy stench of burning grass. At the edge of his vision, the forest blurred and shifted, shadow sliding across shadow. Fumbling his night vision goggles out of his vest, he fitted them on one-handed. Nothing, except for the blurry luminescence of Jackson and Plummer ahead of them, pulled up at the edge of the clearing, and the slippery, cold glow of the gate.
Fuck. It was open. They couldn't dial out.
His radio crackled and Sheppard's voice cut through the momentary stillness, "Concentrate on the ships. What you see on the ground isn't real!"
His suspicions confirmed, Jack keyed his radio. "Roger that. Concentrate on the ships. Establish covering fire at the gate clearing. As soon as it goes dark, Sheppard will dial out." He waited for Sheppard's "Roger that," scanning the woods around the meadow until he found his team taking up positions. They were all accounted for, including McKay, who had come through on his own just before the attack. Good.
Jack spat into dry leaves at his feet and then ducked his head as another dart strafed the ground in front of the gate, the explosions flaring out the goggles. When he raised them to his forehead and looked up again, blinking spots out of his eyes, Jackson and Plummer were silhouettes against the orange of the burning field, the dart low behind them, foreshortened as it dove toward them and leveled off just above the trees. Then there was a blade of light angling down from the belly of the ship, a sound like howling, like space tearing, and then Jackson and Plummer were gone.
A moment later, the ship was above Jack and Munty, the beam slicing the air, howling and tearing and stabbing through the tree cover as it passed over them. Jack could feel it taking him. Nothing like the prickling dissolution of Goa'uld transport rings, the beam seemed to rip him away from himself from the inside out, guts, bones, muscles, skin and mind, torn upward into nothing.
The last thing Jack thought was, "Finally."
Daniel batted away the hand that was touching his face and then grasped for it and held on tight so that he wouldn't slip back into the nightmare. When he blinked his eyes open and stared up at the blur of a low, mottled, strangely webbed ceiling, felt the cold floor under his back, he realized that he had it all backward, that the nightmare wasn't in his head at all. Then he wished he could be unconscious again. He let go of the hand and pushed it away as he sat up, scrambled backward, and connected with the wall.
His glasses were gone. For a moment, a lance of pain blurred his vision even more and he pressed a fist into his eye. "Not," he managed. His mouth felt like it was full of cotton.
"Not what?" O'Neill asked, still crouching next to where Daniel had been lying.
Cocking his head a little, O'Neill actually smiled. "Better luck next time." He rose and looked down at him, his eyes hidden in shadow. "Okay?"
Daniel's laugh was thin and a little closer to hysterical than he'd've liked. "No," he answered, as if O'Neill had asked him if he could fly or pull a rabbit out of his ear. He could still feel that tearing, like he'd been disassembled with a pair of garden shears and put together again, hastily, by someone who'd never seen a Daniel Jackson before and had a pretty low level of interest in getting it right. He resisted the urge, though, to pat himself down to make sure all the parts were there. "Where are we?"
Turning, O'Neill made a pretense of looking the place over. "Oh, you know. The standard dungeon-like cell. All the bad guys have them." He pointed over his shoulder at the the door with its asymmetrical webbing of bars. "Any second now a thug whose arms are the size of your legs is going to come down the hall with his boss and the boss'll say something arch and I'll parry with a witty quip and he'll tell me I'm insolent and hit me in the eye with something hard and heavy."
Daniel squinted at him and nodded. "Standard bad guy stuff, then." Bracing a hand against the wall, he managed to get his feet under him and stand up. "Good," he added as he wiped his fingers on his pantleg, trying to scour away the feeling that he'd just laid his hand on dry, withered, but living skin. "That's reassuring."
No-one looked particularly reassured. Teyla and two other Athosians were in a huddle in the corner, talking in low voices. Munty was standing to one side of the door looking like she was ready to break the neck of anyone who came through it, regardless of how thick his arms were. Her dark hair had come unbraided and hid one side of her face, curled untidily against her neck, stuck to her skin. Hanging at her sides, her hands were fists. Plummer leaned against the wall beside her, his chin low, his hands in his pockets. Daniel couldn't make out the expression on his face but his eyes were closed. He might've been waiting for a bus. None of them had a weapon.
The light in the cell was poor and the air smelled strange, like the updraft from the bottom of a deep ravine, cold and sunless, a scent sharp-edged like wet stone, faintly organic with the acidity of waterlogged leaves.
Finding he needed some extra support, Daniel gritted his teeth a little and leaned against the wall. It wasn't so bad if he had the thick fabric of his jacket between his own skin and that strange, leathery surface. He squinted at O'Neill again. "Who?" he asked.
"Who are the bad guys?"
Instead of answering, O'Neill turned to Teyla and invited her into the conversation with the sweep of a hand.
"The Wraith," she said, and paused. When he didn't gasp in horror, or whatever it was she was waiting for, she went on, "They have taken us. They will feed now."
Daniel straightened from the wall. "Feed?"
"It is their way," she added, unhelpfully.
"Feed on what?" Even before he'd finished the question Daniel was sure he didn't really want to know the answer.
The thug really did have arms the size of Jackson's legs, and a bony mask over his face that wasn't elegant like, say, a Horus-guard helmet, but had a lot going for it in the creepy intimidation category. The boss was predictably waspish, fine-boned in a close-fitting coat, a lean stroke of too-white meanness. And there were a lot of teeth, razor-like, fit for tearing, and long, pin-straight white hair glowing against the dark of the hallway. Aside from the teeth, though, and the extra nostrils, the boss was a dead ringer for Johnny Winter, displaced to the Goth-rock era. As he watched him stalk--in the way of waspish boss-types--down the hallway, Jack mused idly about the apparently universal evolution of bad guy species that seemed invariably to produce waspy-Eloi bosses and hulking-Trog bag men. It was nice when things were predictable.
The webbing over the door parted and the Trog entered, Eloi hanging back. He didn't say anything arch. Jack was disappointed. Stepping up and addressing Eloi over the Trog's shoulder, Jack said, "Colonel Jack O'Neill. And you are?"
Eloi's black eyes passed over him without so much as pausing. Now Jack was insulted. Then, Eloi raised a bony, taloned finger and pointed at one of the Athosians. The Trog grabbed the man by the arm and heaved him out of the corner. Unresisting, the man seemed to have gone completely boneless, hanging limply in the thug's grasp. But his eyes were bright and wild as he looked at Teyla, not pleading. Saying good-bye.
Getting himself in front of Teyla, who was moving to protest, Jack held up a hand. "Wait a second. How 'bout you take me to your leader first? This guy is nobody. I'm the one you want." He grinned winningly and tapped his temple. "I got all kinds of interesting information, not to mention witty quips."
Turning without a flicker of interest, Eloi stalked away--adding a bit of hunched-shoulder prowl for extra effect--and the Trog prodded the docile Athosian ahead of him like a sheep. Before Jack could take a step, the webbing snapped back into place.
"You know," Jack shouted after them, "you really have to work on your material."
It wasn't even an hour later when the gang was back, only there were two thugs instead of one. This time, though, when the webbing snapped open, Munty aimed the side of her hand in a really nice chop at Eloi's throat. Moving blindingly fast, the Wraith caught her wrist, and bending it back with an audible snap, dropped her to her knees. Jack and Plummer had even less luck with the Trogs. The last thing Jack saw was some kind of weapon aimed at his chest, and then he felt a crackling burst of pain as every muscle spasmed, twisted, and the world flared to nothingness.
It wasn't the slickest landing Sheppard had ever executed, but only he knew it. The inertial dampeners smoothed the bump and rattle out of it, and the rescue team was too wired to notice the finer points of jumper travel, what with suddenly being in space and all. After touchdown they were out of the jumper, taking up defensive positions in a clearing that was too much like Earth for Sheppard's liking. Alien planets should be, well, alien. Too familiar meant maybe they'd forget to expect the unexpected. He checked his vest one last time and set the cloak on the jumper.
"No, see? This won't work for me," McKay told him and pressed the life signs detector back into his hands. "It's obviously not one of those components that just need to be initialized by the ATA gene. Which makes me kind of superfluous on this trip, I think." He blinked, his face strangely neutral, like he couldn't decide whether to look insulted or relieved.
"Sorry, doc," Sheppard said, ushering him out of the jumper. "You're still going. I'm sure there will be lots of other fun stuff for you to play with."
"Wraith stuff," McKay corrected. "I seriously doubt that 'fun' and 'Wraith' can ever legitimately occupy the same sentence." But he fell into step behind Sheppard, checking to make sure Ford and Markham were armed and alert at their backs. Stackhouse and Miller were blobs of darkness leaning against the empty space of the invisible jumper. "You do know that I specialize in theoretical physics, right? I run simulations."
Sheppard answered him without looking, his eyes instead on the scrubby woods, the wind drifting through the trees making shadows shift and glide and get generally confusing and dangerous. "You solve problems." Raising a fist to signal his team, he dropped into a crouch and peered through his P90's sight at the vague shape of a structure half-buried in the side of the mountain. "There are bound to be problems that need to be solved in there."
Jack's eyes snapped open. He was floating.
"Colonel, you've been hit by a stun weapon. Can you move?" Teyla's face loomed into his field of vision.
Not floating. Paralysed. Fuck.
Concentrating hard, Jack managed to raise his hand, saw it pass in front of his face like a distant spaceship operated by remote control and disappear again. He didn't feel it fall.
"Who'd they take?" he croaked as the world shifted sideways and then upright again and he was somehow on his knees, Teyla's hand on his his arm.
"Two of your men. Sergeant Munty is injured."
Wincing at the sudden stabbing of pins and needles, Jack clenched his fists, spread his fingers and clenched them again before shifting his weight to get a foot flat on the floor. With a grunt, he managed to stumble upright, but he felt like he was standing on stilts, no feeling in his legs and his feet too far away. Munty was sitting against the wall, cradling her arm to her chest. Curling his fingers around the webbing on the door to steady himself, he bent over her. On close inspection, he could see that her fingers were blue.
"How you doing, Munty?"
Starting to shrug, she closed her eyes for a moment and hissed a breath between her teeth. "Not too bad, sir." She looked up at him, an apologetic frown wrinkling her brow. Her thin face was almost Wraith-pale in the dim light, her dark eyes narrowed with pain. "I shouldn't have let him get me like that, sir. He was so fast."
"You did better than me," he reassured her. "At least you were conscious at the end of the day."
Munty smiled wanly. "Thanks, sir."
Looking over his shoulder at Teyla, he asked, "How long was I out?"
"Since your device read three two four." She tapped the back of her wrist.
He checked his watch. Four fifty. Damn. "What are the chances that my men are still alive?"
She shook her head.
Jack wasn't in a position to resist when the Trogs came for him and Munty. He still felt like his body was ten sizes too big and his movements were too broad and clumsy to do much good. For her part, Munty struggled hard, using her feet mostly, until the Trog got tired of that game and thumped her on the top of the head with his fist. Jack stumbled along behind them, a stun weapon jabbing him in the back, and craned his neck this way and that, counting doorways and branches in the corridor. The ship reminded him of that CSI episode he saw that time, the one where they zoomed in through the trachea and lungs; there was something organic about the way hallways angled away, curved out of sight. The building or ship must be round, he figured, or something close to it. There was something... weirdly alive about it, almost, in an industrial kind of way.
Munty's boot heels dragged on the floor in front of him.
The chamber was like the others he'd glimpsed, gloomy (either the Wraith saw in a different wavelength than humans, or they really liked the ambiance), with the addition of a long table set with a mouldering feast, and, of course the bodies. Or what was left of them. The uniform on one of them identified him as Plummer, slumped face-down in what looked like a soup-bowl, shoulder blades poking hard against the fabric of his jacket, skull covered by a scraggle of white hair, wrists and hands reduced to a stretching of pale, mottled skin over bones. On the other side of the table were the remains of the Athosian man, grinning sightlessly as the Trog positioned Jack in the centre of the room. The Wraith, it seemed, didn't use those teeth for tearing and feasting.
Jackson sat stiffly upright at the end of the table, his head bowed, his mouth gaping a little. His hair hung over his eyes. He was motionless, seemingly oblivious, but alive. Jack wondered what made him so special.
Shoving Plummer out of his chair, the Trog dropped Munty into his place and she slouched low, her head lolling against the chair back, eyes fluttering open. Eloi retreated against the wall with an air of bored unconcern. The other Trog took up a position by the door but stepped aside to make way for what might be considered a Wraith bombshell, all slinky curves under a slinky off-the-shoulder number, long, slinky, firetruck-red hair showing off the hypothermia blue of her skin. The teeth and the extra nostrils, though, were a bit of a turn off. Especially when she came close to him and made something similar to a smile.
"I have not tasted ones like you before," she breathed, and Jack's nose wrinkled at the scent of rotting leaves, cold water, deep shadows. Her voice was layered, like a chorus speaking together from far away, at the bottom of a well, but purring, insinuating.
"We taste good, but the cholesterol will do you in. Honestly."
She smiled again like she knew what cholesterol was and walked around him in a slow circle, inspecting, assessing. His skin prickling as her talon scraped across the back of his neck, Jack wished he had a nice, sturdy shark cage to stand in, but his eyes were on Jackson, who was still as a statue.
"Jackson," he called. Wraith-girl paused and turned to watch him, too. Jackson didn't move. "C'mon." Nothing. "Daniel."
Jackson's head came up slowly. He blinked and found Jack's face. His expression was blank for a moment, and then he frowned. He licked his lip, leaving a sheen of red behind. He'd bitten through his tongue. Jesus.
At that, Daniel's focus clarified and he leaned forward a bit. "I didn't say... anything," he told Jack earnestly.
"This one has been very uncooperative," Wraith-girl interjected, her mouth next to Jack's ear, her voice slithering into his brain.
As the Wraith left Jack's side to stand over Munty, Daniel's eyes followed her, dull, beyond panic or fear. "But I don't know if I can--" Daniel swallowed and licked his lips again, staining them with more red. "I don't think I can--"
"You're doing fine, Daniel," Jack interrupted. "You're doing real good."
"Where are the rest of your kind?" Wraith-girl asked, leaning low over Munty, who stared up at her, unable to struggle in her seat. The Wraith's hair slipped over her bare shoulder and a few strands clung to the sweat on Munty's face until the Wraith wiped them away, almost gently, with the back of her hand.
"Fuck you," Munty spat.
Turning to look at Daniel, Wraith-girl repeated the question, her thick fingers playing along the skin of Munty's throat. Jack watched Daniel clamp his teeth down hard on his tongue again, eyes closing against the pain. Clawing open Munty's jacket and jersey, the Wraith laid her hand on Munty's chest. "Where is this Earth?" the Wraith demanded in a low, sibilant voice, in a hundred voices that slipped into the spaces between Jack's thoughts, skittering like bugs into the dark corners. Daniel's face was set, blank, but his body was taut, hands fisted on the table in front of him. A little new blood showed at the corner of his mouth, white against his pale skin.
Munty opened her mouth in a silent scream as she began to wither. Her eyes filmed over as her flesh wasted from her face.
"Stop it!" Jack shouted leaning forward against the retraining grip of the Trog who'd come up behind him, anticipating his resistance. "If you want information, ask me!"
Arching backward against the chair, Munty gasped in a breath and her good hand scrambled across the table top, knocking platters and cutlery onto the floor, unable to latch onto anything to save herself.
"Where do you come from?" The Wraith's lips were pulled far back, showing all her teeth gleaming on the watery light.
"Chicago," Jack answered bluntly.
"How many of your kind are there?"
"Fifty-three, if you count cousins."
"How did you come to this galaxy?"
"In a ship, a big ark called the Spruce Goose."
Looking up at him, the Wraith leaned harder against Munty, causing her to jerk in the chair. "You lie." And the voices writhed in Jack's head, spiders, snakes, every small, dark thing prying into every small dark space inside him. If the Trog hadn't been holding his shoulders, he would have fallen to his knees.
Munty's hand half-closed into a claw, bones held together by skin. Her face was dessicated, eyes white, her dark hair drained of colour, brittle yellow.
"You fucking bitch," Jack growled.
Daniel bowed his head.
"Smells like the space under my grandma's porch," Ford observed as they slid along the wall and waited behind Sheppard at the corner while he checked the corridor beyond.
"Yeah, if a dog got mummified in there, maybe," McKay elaborated with what Sheppard was learning was his typical flare for weird--and oddly apt--imagery. It really did smell like a mummified dog. Not that Sheppard had smelled one, but if he ever did, he knew it would smell just like this. He didn't waste time considering McKay's history with dogs or mummies.
Instead, he craned his neck to look around the corner again, and then checked the life signs detector. Nothing but a curving corridor full of shadows, and their own three blinking dots on the screen, Markham's fainter, back by the entrance. Where was everybody? How big was this place, anyway? He leaned back to whisper to McKay, "Forget what it smells like, and tell me if there are any energy readings. Somebody's gotta be home and if they're home, they're using power, right?"
Yanking his own scanner out of his vest, McKay hunched over it and then raised it up higher, aiming it first one way and then the other down the intersecting hallway. "That way." He pointed left. "Or, no, wait." He pointed right. "That way could work, too."
Sheppard glared at him. "If you start singing, 'If I Only Had a Brain,' I'm going to shoot you in the knee."
"Very funny." McKay's smile wasn't very amused. It was a little amused, though, until his face remembered that he was supposed to be scared and the smile went away. "Look, I'm guessing here. The energy readings are strongest to the left, which probably means Wraith central. On the right we have lower readings. It's your call." As Sheppard opened his mouth, McKay interrupted, "Personally, I don't vote for Oz."
Sighing a little, Sheppard looked down the corridor, debating with himself. "Stay here," he ordered and slipped around the corner, going left. At the next branching he checked the detector again. In addition to his own dot, and the ones that indicated McKay and Ford behind him, two more winked on dimly. He clicked his radio twice and waited for the others to join him.
Once they'd decided which signal to follow, it was easy to stay on track. At every branch, Sheppard expected an ambush and was disappointed. Waiting for the trap to spring--and it had to be a trap--was making the muscles along his spine bunch into knots. Leaning his shoulder into the hollow between two bonelike struts, he rolled his neck a little, listening to it crackle. Ford kept six silently, while McKay whispered to himself occasionally and breathed out a soft "yup" each time he chose a direction. Sheppard didn't really need to follow the energy readings now, since they were clearly coming from the same place as the life signs, but that spooked look receded from McKay's eyes when he was focused on his screen, so Sheppard let him keep at it.
"I'd think of things I never thunk before," McKay sang under his breath, and finished with a whispered "yup" and a finger aiming left again.
In his head, Sheppard was building a map, tracing corridors branching but mostly curving in the same direction, like threads wound around a central spindle with short, intersecting passages cutting across the spiral. Each left turn took them closer to the centre. It seemed like an inefficient way of organizing space, and it was going to be a bitch of a long way to run if they had to make a break for it, but on the upside, finding their way back would involve only following the spiral as it wound outward. Stooping, at the intersection of one of the short-cut passages, he slashed his knife across the wall near the floor, scoring it with a little notch for direction.
When they finally found it, the cell was unguarded, the bars across the doorway unprotected by electricity or a force field. Teyla came close and whispered, "Major Sheppard!" her face shocked and then brightening suddenly with hope.
"Hey, Teyla," Sheppard answered, leaning in to peer around the cell. Except for Teyla and another Athosian--Halling, Sheppard remembered--it was empty. "Where are the rest? The colonel--"
"Dr. Jackson," McKay interjected, scowling at the room.
Coming forward, Halling answered, "They were taken." His hands on the bars were white-knuckled. "My boy. Is he safe?"
"Jinto, right?" Halling nodded. "He's fine. We brought him to Atlantis. All of them actually." Sheppard turned to McKay and gestured at the bars, shifting to let him by as he set his case down on the floor and started to scan the walls. "Where is everybody?" he asked Teyla. "Wraith-wise, I mean."
"We have seen only three."
Sheppard frowned uneasily. "Why aren't there any guards?"
Tilting her head, Teyla looked at him in genuine confusion.
"To watch over you guys." Her brow furrowed. "In case you try anything. Like, oh, maybe escaping?"
Understanding smoothed the confused frown away. "No-one resists the Wraith, Major."
"Right," Sheppard drawled with a grin and was glad to see it mirrored a little on Teyla's face. Crouching next to McKay, he said, "I'm leaving Ford here with you. Once you get that door open, head for the jumper. No side trips to look for toys."
"Don't worry, Major," McKay assured him without looking up. "I have no desire to meet the man behind the curtain." Then he did turn to him, his eyes a little wide with distress. "Where are you going?"
Tapping the screen of his detector, Sheppard showed him the six new blinking dots at the edge of its range. "Oz."
Wraith-girl peeled her hand away from Munty's chest and her head fell back a little with a sigh like she was blissing in a heroin nod before she opened her eyes and turned slowly toward Jack. In a kind of parody of the Wraith's posture, Munty's head lay on the back of the chair, her dead eyes staring up at the ceiling. Her body settling with a dry whisper, the bones of her broken wrist made a soft popping as they tore through the tissue-thin skin of her arm. Daniel jerked at the sound as if he'd been struck and lowered his head even more.
Wraith-girl shifted her black gaze to Daniel and her lips parted again to show teeth.
As she stepped closer to Daniel, Jack jerked his arm free from the guard's grip. "Leave him alone," he ordered her. "He's not going to tell you anything."
Brushing Daniel's hair away from his eyes, the Wraith bowed low to look at his face. "No," she agreed. "He is no longer useful in this way. So fragile." Her eyes were bottomless when she straightened and came close to Jack. "Eventually, we will find your ship and it will tell us what we need to know." Running a finger along his jaw and down his throat, she showed teeth again. Her skin was papery, almost scaly, finely abrasive. "But you will slake our hunger, first." The talon ripped his jersey from neck to navel.
Behind her, Eloi straightened from the wall and moved toward Daniel, an identically predatory smile stretching his thin lips.
Crawling forward on his belly, Sheppard leaned as close to the grillwork as he dared and looked down into the room. Jackson was sitting at the end of the table; the colonel stood in the centre of the room with a Wraith who looked like she was still in her nightie. Sheppard hissed softly between his teeth when he recognized Munty and then Plummer on the floor, all angles and loose fabric like a sticks in a sack. Jerking back a little as a second thin Wraith appeared below him--he must've been against the wall below the grate--Sheppard eased in a slow breath and let it out again as he revised his count. Two thin ones, one muscled enforcer type with a bony mask and a weapon that looked kind of like a marlin, glowing between the ribs and tapering to an impressive sword-like point at the back end. Nasty. There should be six all together, though. Where was the other one? A glance at the detector showed him a dot moving back the way he'd come. Damn. Damnit.
He was still working on his game plan when the red-headed Wraith ripped open the colonel's shirt, exposing his chest. O'Neill's face hardened with resistance as the Wraith nodded to the enforcer and he leaned on the colonel's shoulders, forcing him to his knees. But then, his expression cleared as he looked up at her, as she leaned down to lay her palm on his chest. For just a moment, O'Neill's eyes flicked upward and over her shoulder, meeting Sheppard's gaze directly before shifting toward Jackson and back again, giving Sheppard his orders.
When O'Neill looked back at the Wraith, he was smiling.
Sheppard re-aimed the P90, the red dot of the laser jittering on the back of the other thin Wraith's white hair.
His finger tightening on the trigger, Sheppard froze as an inhuman shriek tore the air, and more than that, seemed to rip right through his brain, seething like fire ants, tearing like shrapnel. Squeezing one eye shut, he flattened a hand against his ear.
Still touching O'Neill's chest, the girl Wraith was arched backward, mouth wide, howling in agony. O'Neill watched her, his face puzzled and, although Sheppard's brain denied it, disappointed. After a moment, though, he gripped her wrist and shoved her away, falling over her and then stumbling to his feet as she convulsed on the floor.
Sheppard put twenty bullets into the thin Wraith before he could reach the colonel, and managed to wing the guard, making him spin away and drop his weapon. Moving without hesitation, O'Neill retrieved it, and, raising it high above his head, brought the speared end down through the enforcer's throat just below the mask, pinning him like a bug in a display.
In ten seconds, Sheppard was in the room with them, turning the corner through the doorway in time to fell the thin Wraith again as he was lumbering upright behind O'Neill.
Ducking his head and then looking over his shoulder, O'Neill nodded thanks and went back to dealing with Jackson, who, for all the action, was in exactly the same position he was in before.
"C'mon, Daniel," O'Neill said, shaking him by the shoulder of his jacket. "Cavalry's here. We're going home."
Jackson raised his head slowly and his gaze slid across Sheppard without recognition.
"He's in shock," O'Neill explained. "Help me get him to his feet."
On the floor between them, the girl Wraith opened her eyes. Her arms fell wide, hands open and twitching. And then she laughed, a sound like the scrabbling of claws against glass.
Sheppard cocked his head. "What's so funny?"
Her eyes focused vaguely on him. "You've poisoned me, but when I die, you will all be destroyed."
Looking pointedly at the dead Wraith in the room, Sheppard said, "I don't think so."
The laugh came again as O'Neill guided Jackson around her head. "You will die. We are but the caretakers. Now the rest will awaken. All of them."
The room grew brighter. Sheppard followed O'Neill's gaze as he craned his neck to look up at the ceiling. Above them, a honeycomb of intersecting chambers flickered and then glowed with a lurid amber light, revealing within the sinuous writhing of bodies. Lots of them. Hundreds.
"Ah fuck," Sheppard and O'Neill said together.
They were stumbling along with Daniel between them, his legs moving mechanically, Sheppard with one eye on the life-signs detector (and thinking crazily just then that they needed a shorter name for it, and LSD was no damn good) as the screen filled up with dots, Wraith dots, too many fucking Wraith dots--Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck--and were just a couple turns away from the cell where he'd left Ford and McKay when there was a short burst of P90 fire and a sound like a ray gun from a science fiction show and now he was in a goddamn science fiction show only it wasn't fiction and it probably was a fucking ray gun--
"Stun weapon," O'Neill said, pulling up for a second against the corner of the wall and looking around it into the intersecting corridor.
Straightening, Daniel pulled his arm from around Jack's neck, and then, after leaning hard on him for a second, from Sheppard's shoulder too. His hand came up to his face in a weird, aborted gesture that Sheppard belatedly recognized as an attempt to adjust his missing glasses. "They got you with that," he told O'Neill unnecessarily. "You fell."
"Yep. And I got up again." O'Neill held his hand out and accepted Sheppard's side arm. "Let's go."
As they slipped into the corridor, O'Neill on point, Sheppard on their six, a second stun blast was followed by eight 9mm shots. No reply from the P90. There was a pause and then four more shots, McKay's voice shouting, more pissed than scared, "Who are you, Zombie Bob?" Three more shots. That was fifteen. No more bullets.
O'Neill paused fractionally at the next corner to duck his head around it, and then led them forward. The cell door was open, Teyla and Halling outside it against the wall in the feeble shelter of a depression between those bone-like struts. Ford was on his back in the middle of the hallway, McKay crouched beside him, one knee resting hard on his chest for balance, his gun still in a straight-armed grasp, one hand cupping the the bottom of the grip to keep it steady. Just like he'd been shown in small-arms class. By the book.
Ten feet away, a Wraith enforcer-type was laid out, feet toward them, arms spread wide. As they came up beside McKay, the Wraith's hands closed into fists and it started to rise.
Twisting to look up at them, McKay said, "This is ridiculous."
O'Neill didn't stop to agree, but stepped over Ford's legs, strode up to the Wraith and shoved it back down with a boot on the side of its masked face. Then he pressed his 9mm to the Wraith's skull behind the ear and pulled the trigger twice. He waited for it to stop twitching, and then a few more seconds just to be sure, then straightened to look at them with a shrug. "That works," he said, and headed off down the corridor toward the exit, leaving Teyla and McKay to lift Ford between them, Sheppard to herd them all along from behind.
"Somebody bring my kit, okay?" McKay grunted as he pulled Ford's arm across his shoulders. "And remind me to tell Ford to lay off the MREs."
Stooping obediently, Daniel gathered up McKay's equipment, neatly coiling the leads for the scanner and carefully packing each piece in its appropriate foam hollow, taking too much time.
"Okay, go go go," Sheppard whispered harshly and Daniel rose and followed the others, Halling behind him.
The jumper seemed a long, long way away. But fortunately, the Wraith liked to take their time waking up, and the dots that filled the detector screen stayed put.
Inertial dampeners and neural interfaces meant never getting to screech to a halt, so Jack was a little disappointed when when the jumper zipped into the Gateroom and stopped on a dime without fishtailing or a even a little jolt for effect. A stray shot from a Wraith dart took a chunk out of the balcony next to the control room, though, and that made up for any lack of drama. He waggled his fingers through the window at Weir as she rose from her crouch behind the railing. After a second she waved back, her smile tight and relieved, before turning and, no doubt, ordering a med team to the jumper bay. Behind him in the passenger compartment, Ford groaned and said something that sounded like, "--ver drink again, Gramma, promise."
While the jumper rose up into the bay, Sheppard's hands slowly unpeeled from the sticks.
"Nice shooting, sir," he said without looking at Jack. The control panel went dark and the interior lighting winked on.
"Thank you. And how many hours do you have in this thing?" Jack asked.
"Um, including this trip, sir?"
"About thirty minutes."
Jack nodded. "Nice flying, Major."
Sheppard's mouth turned up in a lopsided grin, but he still didn't look at him. "Thank you, sir."
Beckett was in the bay along with a gaggle of medics and a three gurneys. As soon as the ramp was down, he was inside doing his doctor thing to Ford, who kept swatting his hands away and talking about his Gramma. Teyla and Halling stood gaping in the middle of the bay until one of the medics led them out, Sheppard following with a strange, narrow-eyed, thoughtful look over his shoulder at Jack.
Jack stood on the ramp and watched Daniel and McKay still inside the jumper. McKay was kneeling on the deck in front of Daniel, one hand on Daniel's knee, the other slapping Daniel gently on the cheek.
"Hey there, Danny-boy."
"Hey Rodney," Daniel responded without intonation, but his mouth made the beginnings of a smile, and McKay settled visibly with relief.
"You scared the shit out of me, you know," he scolded, scowling eloquently.
"You invited me on this trip."
"And you got captured on your very first day."
"And you got to rescue me."
McKay smiled, wide, proudly. "Yes, yes I did. I'm your own personal super hero." Leaning on Daniel's knee to stand, and then starting to pull him up by the hand, he went on, "That makes you the damsel in distress."
"Fuck off, Rodney," Daniel said, but it was dull around the edges. Finding himself on his feet, he peered at McKay closely. "The Amazing Super Geek," he added and headed toward Jack.
"Able to make stunning leaps of intuition--" McKay continued in a good 1950's television voice-over tone, but broke off to steady Daniel as he stumbled at the top of the ramp. When Jack stepped forward to help, McKay put an arm around Daniel's shoulders and waved him away. "It's okay. I've got him."
Withdrawing, Jack held out his arms a little to let Beckett probe at the claw marks on his chest, and looked over Beckett's shoulder at McKay helping to settle Daniel onto a gurney.
"Don't call me Danny-boy," Daniel was saying.
"Sure thing, Danny-boy," McKay replied by rote.
"I'm going to kick your ass, Rodney."
"You'll have to catch me first." McKay tugged at the restraining strap the medic was clipping across Daniel's chest for the trip to the infirmary. "And right now you're tied to the bed, so I'm not too worried."
When he raised his head, Jack saw his smile fade, leaving behind a shadow of fear more profound than when he'd been facing down a Wraith. Catching Jack watching them, and following his gaze to his hand clasped tightly around Daniel's, McKay's chin came up, set, defiant.
Jack looked away. He started to protest when Beckett led him to a gurney, but he gave up and laid back, anyway, his body too heavy for something so hollow.
Shut your fucking mouth, Jackson.
Weir was looking at him, her brow furrowed. They were all looking at him. Jack had a knuckle pressed to his lips, his index finger stretched along his cheek to the corner of his eye, and he rested his chin on that hand in almost a posture of boredom, but his eyes were keen. Rodney's knee leaned against Daniel's under the table.
Munty's hand fumbled across the table, knocking a platter to the floor. It spun on edge like a coin.
Shut your fucking mouth, Jackson.
He cleared his throat again, adjusted his glasses. "Plummer told me to--not to tell her--it--her anything," he repeated.
"Yes, you said that, but you said she 'did something' to your head? Can you just clarify what you mean by that?" Beckett's pen hovered over his notepad as he leaned forward.
"Oh. Sorry. Um."
Muntry's hand fumbled across the table. The platter spun on edge like a coin.
"Some kind of telepathic interference," Jack said, speaking like this was old stuff, boring stuff, same old same old all over again. "Weakens the will somehow. It's all in the voice."
"Shut your fucking mouth--"
Jack waved a finger at his temple. "Feels like spiders in the brain."
Oh, yes. The old spiders in the brain thing. Yeah. Hate when that happens.
Beckett was scribbling on his pad. Sheppard was leaning sideways a little in his chair, elbow on the table, fingers spinning a pen across his thumb. Spinning. Spinning. "Her scream could cut glass, I'll tell you that much," he said, catching the pen but not looking up.
"If you were holding something special that you needed to protect, something delicate that you really loved," Daniel said, his own voice coming to him as if from far away, attenuated, compressed, the aural equivalent of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. "And you were holding it to your chest, to keep it safe. And then someone--someone big, I mean, strong, fast--came out of nowhere and--say someone strong and fast came out of nowhere and before you even knew he was there he grabbed this thing you were protecting, whatever it was, snatched it right out of your hands--"
"Shut your fucking mouth, Jackson."
His hands fell to the table.
Plummer stared at him the whole time, until his eyes were blind, just a few seconds, right? And he said--
"Dr. Jackson, maybe you can put this in writing, if that would be easier, or we could try again another time, when you've had a chance to get your bearings." Weir had a soft voice, with a bit of a sharpness at the far edges. Worry. She exchanged glances with Beckett.
"I'm fine," Daniel said, and sat up straighter. "Sorry. I'm just trying to--" He waved his hand again, like the words were hovering there unsteadily like moths. "I'm trying to explain. But it's not--"
Rodney shifted and spread his hand flat on the table next to Daniel's elbow. Daniel knew he wanted to take Daniel's hand, maybe rub his thumb across his knuckles like he used to in the back seats of taxi cabs at night, in movie theatres, in the dark of Daniel's bedroom when Daniel woke shouting from dreams where he was drowning. He didn't dream of drowning anymore, though. He wasn't going to dream because he wasn't going to close his eyes. Problem solved, Rodney. Rodney's fingertips were white.
"We can wait until you're ready," Weir insisted. She turned smoothly to Beckett, redirecting everyone's attention away from Daniel while he shoved back his chair and walked out.
"It may just be an isolated incident," Beckett said, but his eyes were all happy with the possibilities. "It may be that this particular Wraith had some kind of susceptibility--"
"Like an allergy?" Sheppard asked, looking skeptical.
"That would make you lemons," McKay said, smiling a little bit smugly, to Jack.
"Actually," Beckett interjected, "that may not be a bad analogy. It's possible that this Wraith was, in fact, allergic to you, Colonel, like Rodney is to lemons."
Jack filed that little bit of information away, for Rodney's sake.
"Or," Becket went on, "and this would be the more interesting scenario, you may have some kind of natural immunity or--"
"Wraith repellant," Sheppard finished.
"Like what?" Weir asked.
Beckett shrugged. "Could be any of a thousand things. We'll run tests. It would help if we knew more about how the Wraith feed on their victims." Looking down at the file he was fingering, he hesitated, then pulled the file out from under his notepad and opened it. "I do have one preliminary theory." His eyes flicked over Jack and away again. Sucking in a breath, he turned a page, and Jack caught sight of a header.
"As you know, a few years ago, Colonel O'Neill suffered long-term exposure to the Goa'uld sarcophagus. We've known for quite some time that such exposure can alter a human's brain chemistry, although the full extent of the damage and the potential for secondary trauma is still a matter of debate." Again, his eyes rose to Jack's and fell to the pages turning in the folder. Beckett was editing liberally. Jack suddenly liked him better. "It's possible that some of these residual effects impede the Wraith's ability to feed on someone like the colonel."
Weir looked at her hands folded on the table.
McKay shook his head. "Not exactly a working therapy, is it, Carson? Since we don't have a sarcophagus with us. And, even if we did, it tends to turn people--some people--into psychopaths." He didn't look at Jack.
Ignoring the sarcasm, Beckett agreed. "No, but as I said, we'll run tests, and possibly we can come up with something to mimic the results without the secondary effects." He took a moment to glare a warning at McKay. Jack pretended not to notice. So did McKay.
Jack sighed heavily. He was already missing his cell in Wraithland. Better than the infirmary.
Oh the lab rat's life for me.
Weir met his gaze with a sympathetic smile.
It came from behind him, a sort of wave boiling angrily over his head so that he stumbled and had to put a hand out against the wall to steady himself. Near him, a door slid open in response to his presence, letting in the salt-air and a cool tongue of wind. The door waited politely for a moment and then closed with a slightly grating hush.
Daniel breathed hard through his nose and concentrated on his shoes, at least until the floor started to fold under his feet, like a swell on a slow-motion sea. Then he closed his eyes, turned to brace the other hand against the wall too, and hung his head between his shoulders.
His knees were starting to buckle when he felt a warm hand on the back of his neck.
"Rodney." Daniel sighed.
Swallowing hard, he forced himself to raise his head and to give up the security of the wall. He backed up a step so that only the fingertips of one hand kept him anchored. With the other hand he pulled the hair out from in front of his glasses.
"I'm okay," he said, more firmly than he felt, When he turned to face the colonel, though, the vertigo rolled through him again and he staggered a bit to the side.
Catching him by the shoulder of his shirt, Jack steadied him. He said, "Hey. Look here," and aimed two fingers at his own face.
With an effort, Daniel managed to meet Jack's steady brown eyes.
"Focus here. Let it go," Jack ordered softly. He shifted his hand so that it rested at the crook of Daniel's neck, thumb on Daniel's pulse, fingers strong and gentle against his spine. "Breathe."
Daniel looked into Jack's eyes until the floor stopped lurching under his feet and the roaring in his ears resolved into the sound of their breathing, the muted whispering of the ocean. It was then that he realized he was gripping Jack's other wrist so hard his fingers were aching. He licked his lips and managed a smile. Jack's hand stayed on his neck, fingers gently massaging along his spine.
"You're good at this," Daniel observed a little shakily.
Half a grin brightened Jack's eyes for a second. "I've seen my share of this kind of thing," he answered and let Daniel go with a final squeeze.
"You mean civilians losing their minds on alien planets?"
"More often than you might think." Then he added, "And military people. Even the aliens. It's a universal response to near-death experiences."
Daniel remembered that he still had a death-grip on Jack's wrist and unclamped his fingers. Jack rubbed his wrist with the other hand. "Sorry."
Jack shrugged. "S'okay." He raised his eyebrows. "You?"
"Yeah," Daniel lied. "No," he confessed. The floor was starting to rise under him again and he narrowed his focus on Jack's face. "I wasn't--I mean I didn't expect--" Looking away, he felt a flush rising, shame maybe, or just a response to the unjudging attentiveness of Jack's gaze. "I didn't expect to have to watch people die," he blurted finally. "I'm... I don't know how to think it."
Cocking his head a little, Jack blinked at him thoughtfully. Finally he answered, "Don't think it. You just feel it and then you let it go."
"There's a lot to do around here." Jack waved a hand at Atlantis, at Pegasus. "Work. Either that, or drink, or run, or find something to pound." His face was unreadable. Daniel decided not to take that as a joke. "Whatever it takes. We don't have time to go crazy here. Find somebody to distract you." This was pragmatic advice. Then, though, he added as he turned to go, "McKay's not as much of an asshole as I thought." He paused without turning around. "But you could do better."
Daniel groped for the wall again and watched Jack walk away.
"Well, that's a pretty back-handed compliment," Rodney said, his mouth turning down. "Actually, that's not even a compliment, is it?"
Daniel rolled over and groped for a bottle of water to hide his smile. "Well, he doesn't think you're an asshole. That's complimentary."
"As much of an asshole," Rodney corrected. "And who, I'm interested to know, would be better for you than me?"
"Everybody," Daniel answered around the mouth of the bottle.
Rodney smacked him sharply on the ass. "I didn't see you going to everybody's quarters when you needed to work off that little post-traumatic stress thing." He let Daniel roll back toward him and even raised his arm so that Daniel could put his head on his chest. His fingers played in Daniel's hair for a minute before Rodney remembered that he was insulted and pulled on it instead.
"Ow. How do you know I didn't try everybody else first and you were the only one home?" Rodney pulled his hair again. Daniel bit his collarbone in retaliation. "Still, it was pretty good advice, the part about finding someone to distract me." Stretching luxuriously, Daniel closed his eyes and then opened them again just in time.
"Well, I make sacrifices for you, remember that. I have better things to do than play psychiatrist."
"I thought you were playing sex therapist."
"I was multitasking."
Daniel could feel Rodney's chin against the top of his head as he looked down at him, and his hand started to play in his hair again, a slow, soothing rhythm. Daniel willed his eyes to stay open and looked at the side of his own hand, too close, splayed wide on Rodney's chest. Muntry's hand fumbled on the table, and the other arm was broken, blue, and she knocked the platter--he held his breath and focused instead on Rodney's fingers in his hair, the salty scent of his skin, the tickle of his chest hair against Daniel's cheek. After awhile he was able to narrow his focus so that there was nothing left but these things. Rodney's breathing was even and deep, his heart a steady, unhurried thumping under Daniel's ear. Rodney covered his hand with his and his thumb stroked across his knuckles.
"You did the right thing, you know." Rodney's voice came from far away, and from very close, thrummed directly into Daniel's bones.
It was too hard to talk, everything was too heavy, swaying perilously close to sleep, and so Daniel objected only by closing his hand into a fist.
"You couldn't have saved them, but maybe you saved all of us." The matter-of-fact gentleness of Rodney's voice was painful.
"I know," Daniel whispered but Rodney didn't shut up.
"If they find us before we get that shield up--"
Rising up on his elbow so he could look Rodney in the eyes, Daniel said, "I know."
"I'm just saying that you bought us some--"
Daniel's focus was slipping again, and the dark shadows were pressing in at the edges of his vision, a creeping cold, and the platter spun like a coin, making a hollow hissing sound. "Please," he said, and covered Rodney's mouth with his own. "Just this, for now, okay?" he murmured against Rodney's lips. "Please."
"Okay," Rodney agreed, and the world contracted to the space of the bed, and the limits of their skin.
Sheppard followed the sound of grunting and was just at the lounge doorway when McKay and Daniel shouted a the same time, "You damn, dirty ape!" Both men turned to look at him over the back of the sofa when he came in. They were slouched low with their feet on the table. On the big monitor, Charlton Heston was being hosed off by some hairy guys in uniform.
"What the hell is this?" Sheppard asked, pointing the screen.
McKay looked at him like he'd just tipped out of the egg. "This is Planet of the Apes, Major," he answered and then leaned away to make room as Sheppard swung his legs over and sat on the sofa back with his feet between him and Daniel.
"Somebody actually brought Planet of the Apes as a personal item?"
Daniel raised his chin at the film, where a woman with big hair was huddled half naked in the straw. "Loincloths and leather bikinis," he explained.
"Ah." Sheppard laced his fingers together. He watched Heston show his teeth some more, and various chimps and orangutans run their government and talk about sterilization and lobotomy and so on. Then, he lunged forward, snatched the remote out of McKay's hand and switched the movie off.
"Hey!" they objected in stereo.
Daniel perked up and looked even more interested in this than in the bikinis--or loincloths, Sheppard suspected; McKay frowned and looked away.
Shifting around to lean his back on the arm of the sofa, Daniel tucked a foot under him and assumed what Sheppard could only describe as animated lecture face. "Ba'al is Phoenician deity, but when the Canaanites migrated into new territories, this was the name they gave to the local masculine gods of fertili--"
"He's a Goa'uld."
"A what?" Daniel broke off and looked at McKay. "Oh, one of those--" He pointed at the back of his neck.
"Yes, the snakes who would like nothing better than to play you like a meat puppet. Arrogant. Delusions of grandeur--"
"So, kind of like you, only more snaky."
"And with less fashion sense."
Sheppard leaned between them and eyed McKay sternly. "Ba'al?"
McKay stopped glaring at Daniel and nodded. "Right. He's a system lord, by all accounts one of the nastiest, although he is reputed to be a snappy dresser, which distinguishes him from the rest of his kind."
Sheppard frowned and rested his elbows on his knees. "So what's he have to do with Colonel O'Niell?"
Now McKay looked shifty.
"C'mon, McKay. I need to know."
"Okay. But I don't know the details, alright? If you want the full story, you'll have to talk to O'Neill and good luck with that by the way." He stared at the blank screen for a second and then met Sheppard's eyes. "A few years ago, O'Neill was captured by Ba'al who tortured him--and I'm talking to death, as in killed him, more than once--and used the sarcophagus to revive him for more." His mouth twisted in a grimace. "If even half the rumours are true, it's no fucking wonder O'Neill's chain came off the sprocket."
"He lost it."
"O-oh yeah. Like 'hello boys in the white coats' kinda lost it. Resigned his commission. Apparently Elizabeth had to pull a lot of strings to get him into the program."
"She must've believed he was okay, if she did that," Daniel interjected thoughtfully.
Sheppard shook his head. "I dunno guys." He laced and unlaced his fingers a few times, considering. "I saw something in his eyes, when we were in the Wraith installation. And I'm telling you, it scared me more than the Wraith."
Sheppard jerked upright at the quiet voice behind him. "Sir!" He swung around and got his feet on the floor, pulled his spine into rebar alignment.
O'Neill was looking at him, eyes narrowed. He wasn't in uniform, just jeans, a t-shirt, but he looked it just the same, like the uniform had nothing to do with clothing. He chewed the inside of his lip, considering.
"Oops," McKay breathed and faced the blank monitor. Daniel was still.
"I've been talking to Weir," O'Neill said, just when the tension in Sheppard's muscles was about to snap his spine in two.
"Sir?" Now he was confused.
"She wants us to set up a couple of recon teams. Basic meet and greet and 'do you have a ZPM?' kind of thing. She thinks you should head up your own team and I agree." His face was completely neutral. It made Sheppard sweat.
"Really, sir. Um. Thank you, sir."
"Consider who you want. We'll go with four-man teams. Briefing at 0700."
Then O'Neill stepped forward until he was almost chest to chest with him. "And, Major." His voice was low and steady and worse than a fist in the mouth. "If you ever question my command again, I will bust you down to sergeant and you will never see the inside of a ship for the duration of this expedition, gene or no gene. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir. It's clear."
O'Neill's mouth twitched up in a humourless, short-lived smile. "Good. 0700, then."
Sheppard waited until he couldn't hear his boots in the hall before he relaxed. "Son of a bitch," he whispered.
"No doubt," McKay agreed.
Daniel got up and followed the Colonel out.
"Jack!" Daniel had to jog to catch up with him and call his name two more times before he stopped, slumped in resignation and turned to face him.
Now that he was face to face with him, Daniel's brain stuttered a little. He rubbed his hands together and then pulled at the waistband of his jacket to cover the small of his back and then rubbed his hands together again. Jack shifted his weight and cocked his head, halfway between expectant and impatient.
"Okay. I think you were a little rough on Sheppard. He's only--"
"Sheppard understands the need for chain-of-command, Daniel, and what you think isn't relevant."
"You're not the first one to tell me that," Daniel said. "But since you can't bust me down to sergeant, I guess I'm the only one who can tell you stuff like this, aren't I?"
"Maybe, if you had any fucking clue what you were talking about."
He started to turn away, but Daniel hooked him again with his voice. "I'm on a pretty steep learning curve." Coming a little closer, he lowered his voice and spoke to the colonel's back. "And I saw what Sheppard saw." Stiffening, Jack turned his head so Daniel could just see the curve of his cheek, the tendon taut behind his ear. "You think I was out of it. You think I didn't see anything, but I saw everything, Jack. All of it. I can't stop seeing it." Jack was still, leaning into walking away, but not walking away. "Sheppard saved your life. I think he deserves--"
Now Jack turned to face him, his face hard. "Sheppard did his duty. We all did. That's it." And now he did start walking.
Again, Daniel cast into the water, snagged him. "What was her name?"
"Who?" Turning again, confused, exasperated.
Frowning, Jack considered him for a moment. "Jessica. She went by JJ." He didn't ask what this had to do with anything, but he didn't leave, either.
"She died for us."
"Anyone who puts on this uniform is willing to die."
"Willing to die and wanting to die are two different things, aren't they?"
Jack went perfectly still, his face hardening again into an expressionless mask, but his body was eloquent, poised, ready to fall, one direction or the other.
The platter spun on the floor like a coin.
Shut your fucking mouth, Jackson.
Plummer looked right at him the whole time he was dying. Just a few seconds, right?
And then Jack moved, fast and almost like it wasn't of his own volition, tipping toward words, closing the space between them so he was close enough that Daniel could smell the cold sweat on him. His eyes were bright. Daniel didn't flinch away.
"I died seven times," Jack whispered roughly into his face. "And every time I woke up in hell. And every time I was right here." He thumped his own chest with a loose fist as he stepped back. "Don't pretend Sheppard did me any favours."
Daniel swallowed as the horror rose up in him like black floodwater. "I don't accept that," he asserted.
"Get some sleep, Daniel," Jack ordered him. "You look like hell." Then, he broke the line between them and walked away.
"And we commit the soul of Charles Liam O'Neill to the care of our most holy and loving Father--"
Jack isn't running. The grass is lushly green, long, curls over the toes of his dress shoes and tries to trip him, so he's walking deliberately.
"Our Father, who art in heaven--"
Two shadows waver across the grass in front of him, one stretching out from his own feet, the other a little shorter, lagging behind. He can outrun one, but not the other.
"Hallowed be thy name--"
Jack almost made it to the stairs before he heard Daniel following him again. He pretended he didn't hear his name, reconsidered his decision to go to the control room and bypassed the stairs, heading toward his quarters instead.
Daniel caught up to him in the shadows just under the staircase. Above them, Grodin was reciting apparently random numbers in a mechanical voice, someone else saying "Check... check... check" like a ticking metronome.
When Daniel stepped in front of him, Jack considered grabbing his collar and throwing him out of his way, but it didn't seem like a good idea to touch him, not even like that. He expected Daniel to backpeddal away from his forward momentum, but he didn't. His eyes were a little scared, but he didn't back down.
"I don't accept that," he said earnestly, laying a hand on Jack's chest. He took a step forward and somehow Jack found himself retreating, one step, two, three, until he felt the wall behind his back. The numbers marched on above them, the metronome confirming, "Check... check... check." Daniel's hand was hot and sweaty. "I don't accept that," he repeated.
A 9mm Beretta weighs just over two kilos with a full magazine.
This one doesn't have a full magazine. There is just one bullet in the chamber.
It hangs from Jack's hand, cool against his thigh, as he uses his thumb to slip the safety.
Carter is very still in front of him, the door still open behind her so that she's a silhouette bound by a frame of white, summer light. She's holding up a hand like she can stop time.
Daniel was leaning into him now, not touching him, except for that hand in the middle of his chest, and the thin space of air between them, Jack thought, was turbulent. It made him feel unsteady, like maybe he could get caught in some kind of thermal and blown off course. Way off course. The Gateroom was empty except for Grodin and his metronome.
"Listen," Daniel said. "Munty's hand fumbled across the table."
Pressing him harder against the wall, Daniel repeated, "Listen." He licked his lips, a quick dart of the tongue that left his lower lip gleaming. "Munty's hand fumbled across the table because she was fighting to live. Plummer looked at me the whole time he was dying, to keep me quiet." The tremour in Daniel's voice was in his body, too, passed through his hand into Jack.
"Colonel... Jack, please."
"It's bullshit, Carter."
"What is?" She's still. Very, very still.
The 9mm Beretta weighs just over two kilos.
"Our Father, who art in heaven--"
"I was there, Carter, and there was nothing! No-one."
Daniel came even closer so that the warmth of his body fixed Jack to the wall. His eyes were steady, piercing, his hand heavy, anchoring them both. "Maybe you're right, Jack," he whispered, and his lips didn't touch Jack's at all, even though he could feel them, anyway. "Maybe this is all there is. But if it can be hell, it can also be heaven." With a last push for emphasis, he stepped back, cool air and voices from the control room sluicing between them. "Your choice." He rounded the corner and was gone.
The 9mm Beretta weighs just over two kilos. This one weighs five hundred.
Jack eases the safety back on with his thumb.
END OF "THE PILOT"
He walked through the event horizon on his own steam, and stopped at the bottom of the ramp. The Tok'ra came after, flanking him like a reluctant honour guard, both of them meeting her eyes without expression.
His shirt was torn. No. There were holes in it, across the chest. Burn holes, she guessed. She didn't want to guess. She told herself to stop guessing. She finally had to close her eyes.
"That bad, huh?"
"No! No, Colonel." She couldn't stop her hand from coming up in front of her and waving toward the burn holes that exposed no burns. "You look...." Good? God.
"Yeah. Tell me about it."
Then he passed out. The Tok'ra, one on either side of him, let him fall.
Janet rolled up his sleeve. As she pricked his skin with the needle, he looked right at Sam, the whole time. He was in dress blues. Perfectly pressed. His hat was on the table, upside down, with his watch in it. For a long time after, she'd wanted to ask him why he took off his watch.
Later, Janet told her that it wasn't a big enough dose to knock him out. But his legs buckled as the needle slid out of him. He didn't pitch forward, or crumple. He sank to his knees like someone finally driven to prayer.
I will not feed your hunger with my blood
Nor crown your nakedness
with jewels of my elegant pain
--Naomi Long Madgett
This Sulum is aching.
This Sulum is hollow.
This Sulum echoes, echoes, and is hollow and is aching.
When this Sulum opens her eyes she is sprawled amid the whispering, the waking, and is empty.
There is nothing in her for the Slalen to take, the spines of his palm hooking deep in her flesh, finding only hollowness and echoes. She does not see his eyes when she rises. They are hidden behind the mask of bone. When she tears his hand from her chest he does not resist her. When she throws his muscled bulk onto the floor, straddles his waist, tears the chest plate away, pierces his skin--talons, spines in the hands seeking the glimmer--and drinks and drinks and drinks, he withers and gives her everything without withholding. She is Sulum. It is her right.
But the hollowness remains. So black, so cold, the emptiness will tear her open, splay her, too great for this Sulum's shell. The emptiness is a monster turning, turning, pacing, raging, growing, tearing. She does not know that she has bent to the Slalen's throat, has raged, has torn, more more more, Slalen, there must be more, and the monster slavers, emptiness between its jaws and her teeth open flesh.
This Sulum hunches lower.
This Sulum will not turn, not yet. The Slalen has more to give her, still some spark there there there deep in the dessication, a glimmering...
The hunger prowls inside her.
This Elehm will not bend, but this Sulum guards her feeding, until this Elehm places a foot against her shoulder and kicks her away. His hair is white, the white of grace. He bows toward her but will not bend. He does not smell of need.
The hunger, oh, the hunger that is left. All that was in her has been devoured, each cell an open mouth spitting poison, needing needing all that she took from the others, the three beasts still there at her table. Each cell demanding, taking, using until the poison is gone, and all that is left is hunger. The poison devoured all and left this monster inside her. This Sulum growls and feels the texture of flesh between her teeth. Vile.
"The Slalen dared to touch me," she says. "To touch this Sulum who is not his for he is hers. It is my right."
"To feed. But to eat?" This Elehm hisses the word.
The monster presses against her bones, gnashing its fangs. This Sulum is so empty, has devoured herself to kill the poison and the monster gnashes its fangs against her bones.
This Elehm turns and leaves her. His hair is the white of grace. He does not smell of need.
She will not swallow, spits and claws away the eating with her fingers so that her tongue leaks. When she stands she sways amid the whispering of waking all around her.
A glint, a glimmer there about the neck of the beast. So like the glimmer that was in the Slalen--She lowers her head to see, hooks a silvery chain with her talon. The wafer on it slithers along the beaded chain, makes a soft, dull noise almost lost in the whispering and waking of the Sulum and the Elehm above her in their chambers. There were two wafers here, once, she remembers. Now, one. The Earther--poison poison poison--took one. Yes. Lifting the wafer to her eyes, she traces the indentations there. The beasts trust their magic. These lines. M-U-N-T-Y. What prayer is this? In her memory the taste of this beast is a glorious burst of glitter, slivered sharp with newness and with fear. But the Earther, the poison one stole it all, left her to devour herself and with the monster gaping, pacing beneath her bones.
This Sulum yanks the chain away, and the carcass crumbles into dust.
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