"An empty vessel makes the most noise." (Shakespeare, Henry V)
Blinking rapidly to clear her thoughts, Leda Novak turned away from the cold glow of the computer monitor to focus on the shape in the doorway, silhouetted against the dim light of the corridor. It was a tall shape, leaning its shoulder on the doorjamb, hands in pockets, one heel perched sideways atop the other foot. She lifted her small hands from the keyboard and rubbed her eyes, suppressing a yawn.
"Hey, yourself, Dr. Jackson," she said, blinking again, and reaching out to redirect her desk lamp to include most of him from the neck down in its circle of white light, in deference to his tired eyes. "What brings you here to the heady heights of level sixteen?"
He shrugged slightly and yawned himself, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. "Just back from offworld," he answered with what wasn't really an answer at all.
Leda nodded, waiting for more. When nothing else came, she folded her hands on her lap and asked conversationally, "So, good trip? Did anybody try to kill you?"
"Yes. And no, not this time. It was. . ." he paused, his brow creasing as he searched his tired brain for the right word. "Refreshing," he concluded.
She nodded again, her grey eyes sliding sideways to the glow of the screen and its multicoloured pie chart.
"Actually," Daniel's voice arrested her descent back into the abyss of budgetary analysis. "I've been ordered to eat. Jack pulled rank. I think there's a memo."
Again with the nod, this time with the addition of the little, sympathetic frown of someone who has just been informed that lemming fatalities were up this month.
"In fact, my team told me that, if I don't stop living on coffee and have a real meal in a restaurant, they aren't going to speak to me anymore." He paused, letting the enormity of this threat sink in. "Hey," he added, as an afterthought, straightening slightly and planting both feet on the floor, "maybe you'd like to come with."
"I see. Hmm," she answered with detached interest, as though he'd just revealed that the inhabitants of P2X 881 preferred the sarong to the sari. She leaned back and steepled her fingers, considering the second half of his statement. Her eyebrow rose the tiniest fraction. "So, under duress, you're asking me to go to dinner with you, correct?"
He nodded, the little frown furrowing his brow telling her that these circumstances caused him no little pain. She wasn't smiling, but it was there, lurking, that slow upward curve of her lips like a fiddlehead unfurling out of the snow. Her platinum hair was, as usual, sticking out in every direction, and was now lit from behind by the computer screen and glowing like the unruly halo of a punk-rock seraphim. The eyebrow rose another fraction.
"So, what makes me so unfortunate as to be included in your sudden deference to the colonel's orders?"
Daniel made a one-handed, expansive gesture encompassing, maybe, the lab with its empty desks and worktables, or the subdued late-evening activity of the mountain, or the great, cold, emptiness between stars in the wheel of the galaxy. "You're the only one here."
She sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, contemplating the pie chart and chewing her lip. Finally, she fixed him with a look that both told him of the sacrifice she was making and demanded his depthless gratitude. "Ok," she said with a sigh. "I'll meet you at the elevator in five minutes." She leveled a finger at him and squinted her icy eyes. "And you're buying."
He pushed himself away from the doorjamb, turned abruptly and strode away, head down, hands in his pockets. As Leda swivelled her chair back to the screen and started to save her files, the smile surfaced, followed by the splash and brief plume of breathy laughter. A few paces down the hall, Daniel heard it and grinned at his shoes.
* * *
Daniel was drawn back to the living room by the sound of, well, what might have been music if the instrument weren't so pitifully, embarrassingly out of tune. He paused next to the coffee table, two wine glasses twined between the fingers of one hand, a bottle of Shiraz in the other, his expression caught in the limbo between a wince and a grin. He righted the wine glasses and filled them each half full as the wince won out and he said, with exaggerated politeness, "So, you play?"
Leda snorted, her fingers still running up and down the keyboard in a reasonable approximation of the "Peanuts" theme and segueing into a rousing rendition of "Chopsticks." "Well, not this thing," she answered as she attempted a few bars of "Heart and Soul" as a finale and conceded defeat. She turned to accept her wine from Daniel and matched his tone. "So, you play?"
He sipped and looked a tiny bit wistfully at the piano. "Hard to fit one of these into a suitcase." Chalk another one up to an itinerant past. "This one was here when I moved in," he added lamely to counter Leda's accusing frown, as if this were a valid excuse for the neglect the poor, delicate instrument had suffered. Even a stray cat would get its shots, if you committed to letting it live with you, her face implied.
But, instead of accusing him, she shrugged. "Too bad. You have a pianoman's hands." She put her glass down on the piano behind her and raised his hand up so she could measure it against her own. Her thin fingers reached only as far as the last knuckle before his fingertips. "These," she said, wiggling her fingers against his, "are not pianoman's hands."
"Piccolo hands, maybe," he offered helpfully. He realized that he was leaning forward, looming actually, and that she was pressed back against the piano. And she smelled like bubble gum, which was both odd and perfectly fitting, somehow, and of something else, musky, warm. Something good, like skin heated by a desert sun. The thought made him smile a bit, admitting that, with her pale skin, the desert would be the last place he'd expect to find her, no matter what he knew about her work in the Middle East. She seemed more suited to snow and the piercing light of high altitude.
Speaking of high altitude, he was starting to feel a bit heady himself as he looked down on her from what suddenly seemed like his great height. He'd gotten so used to looking almost eye-to- eye with Sam that he'd sort of forgotten how tall he was. Okay, Leda wasn't a pygmy or anything. About as tall as Frasier, actually. But that wasn't a fair comparison; Frasier was bigger than everybody. Now, though, as Leda looked up at him, her head tilted back, he felt like a giant, too big for the space they seemed to be sharing.
He was pulling self-consciously away to release her when she folded her fingers, lacing them between his, trapping his hand in her own. He swallowed, aware that he was still looming, yep, definitely looming, but unable to move away just yet: it was a principle of gravity . . . Newton's law, something about two masses, two . . . bodies . . . in proximity, a universal principle . . . . Her pupils widened, black and huge in her grey eyes, too deep to climb out of. Gravity wells. Time stops on the edge of the gravity well. Nothing escapes. Stop thinking, Daniel, he thought. It was useless to struggle against natural law, and he suddenly felt totally--apparent--as though she could see him minutely, the hairs rising on his arms, the capillaries dilating in his lips, the pores opening in his palm where his skin touched hers. He felt like he was etched in impossibly fine detail in delicate black lines on an ivory surface. Seeing him begin to fluster, she started to smile, that sultry, slow, seductive curve of the lips giving him a shiver that started in some primordial gland in his brain and traveled rapidly south.
But there was something else there, too, that made him imagine the leap into the grey pools, prepared to be as happy sinking as swimming. The eyes were smiling, framed by smile-lines that testified to a lifetime of amusement, of compassion. He could see this now in Leda's eyes: affection, acceptance, understanding, each of them tender and fierce. A confusing lump forming in his throat, he suddenly wanted to blurt out every secret he'd ever kept, every word he'd ever been afraid to speak. Hell, he was more than apparent; he was transparent. And her light shot through him, acceptance and friendship made incandescent with need. The curling lip was a hook, the tiny flash of her pink tongue between her even white teeth without a doubt an invitation.
He licked his lips and her eyes released his to focus on his mouth as his tongue disappeared and he caught his lower lip in his teeth, thinking. Stop thinking, Daniel, he thought. Her eyelids were soft and vulnerable-looking, the lashes long and dark, in contrast to her white hair which had long ago escaped any provisional order Leda had managed to impose and was now sticking up crazily, some of the curls framing her face in wisps against her fair skin. He wanted to hook one of those curls with his finger, to feel its softness wind around him, but one hand was still interlaced with hers and the other held his wine glass. So, leaning forward, he brushed a wisp away from her temple with his lips. Her skin was warm. Looking up, she stretched her neck and kissed him lightly, her lips barely touching his, her ice-grey eyes locked on his desert-sky blue. The shiver was back, moving a lot faster this time. He kissed her knowing eyes shut, lingering first on the left and then the right, his tongue flicking gently against each lid. Then he lowered his mouth to hers.
Even his skin was humming with the awareness of her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest beneath the baggy-but-unaccountably-clingy t-shirt she wore, and the steady flutter of the pulse just under the skin of her throat. A sudden image flashed across his mind of a bird caught between his hands, the white heat of intense life warming his palms. Her tongue darting between his teeth to find his, the shiver passing through them both, rebounding and amplified, he pressed her backward. Collapsing a little, she sat down on the piano with a clamour of keys like the first flourish of the symphony Beethoven had never had the guts to write. Daniel felt her grin against his lips as Leda's laughter rose upward from her throat and into his mouth. It was like being filled with the beating of wings.
* * *
"Hang on, Dr. Jackson," warned the airman--Kirby, Daniel remembered--as Daniel began to pick his way cautiously down the slope toward the half-excavated mouth of the tomb. "It's slicker 'n a greased pig," Kirby finished colourfully as he jammed a shovel into the mud about halfway down the little hill. "You can hang onto this if you git goin' too fast."
Noticing Daniel's hesitation, the airman flashed the archeologist an encouraging grin, his teeth startlingly white in his besmirched face. Then Kirby turned and headed back to the rest of his team, who were busy pulling the hoses of a second portable pump down into the dark hole. By the time Daniel had slithered his way to the shovel, the pump was already starting to snarl and gurgle in time with its counterpart, a thin plume of grey smoke rising up from the exhaust pipe and losing itself against a sky the colour of steel. Downslope, thick, grey water belched out of the drainage hoses and ran greasily off toward the river, five klicks away. Above them, the kite-- an alien bird that wasn't quite a buzzard--continued to circle, watching, its wings motionless, a black cross against the oppressively low, smooth ceiling of clouds.
Daniel finished the trip down the hill in two giant, skidding strides, his arms windmilling as he tried to keep his balance. He came up against the stone doorpost of the tomb with a crunch, bruising his shoulder and almost sliding down through the entrance. Kicking his boots into the clay to steady himself, he gripped the stone lintel with one hand and aimed his flashlight with the other, peering into the gloom. Inside, three members of SG-11, one of them Kirby, his grin replaced by an uneasy frown, slogged through mud and black standing water that rose up past the tops of their boots and, toward the far wall of the room, over their knees. The pump hoses stretched down into the water and thrummed and writhed slightly on the ground like serpents drinking their fill. They didn't seem to be making any visible progress, but the steady stream of silty water flowing down the gully outside contested that illusion. The criss-crossing beams of the men's helmet lamps did little except to accentuate the cold darkness of the spaces between them and Daniel shivered as he played his own lamp across the walls, unwilling just yet to train its light on the floor.
Roughly square, the room was about six meters on a side, its walls made of stone slabs each about a meter long and half that high. He could just make out the suggestion of stairs leading down to the floor level, about a meter or so below him, but these were for the most part reduced to a kind of ramp of clinging, grey clay except where the soldiers had stomped out footholds on the more-or-less level risers. It was difficult to tell with any accuracy, but Daniel was pretty sure that he could identify at least three distinct forms of writing carved into the walls. Much of this was still caked with clay, but the parts near the ceiling were reasonably clear, set off by their shadows as the light played across their raised surfaces. One of the scripts was definitely Goa'uld. The others he didn't recognize. Not exactly the trashy, gilded excess he'd come to expect from the Goa'uld, he mused, aware that he was avoiding what he came here to know.
Taking a deep, rather shaky breath, he carefully lowered himself into the tomb, the clay that sucked at his boots adding to his appearance of reluctance. Joining the three men, he fell into step with them as they began their search, standing in a line about an arm's length apart and moving forward together one short step at a time, feeling with their feet as they advanced toward the back of the tomb through the black, viscous water. Their progress was painfully careful and slow as they covered every inch, their eyes slightly glazed as they tried to "see" through the murk with their feet. With each step Daniel had to hold his breath, letting it out slowly when his foot did not bump up against anything under the water. He felt suddenly grateful to have these three capable, solid men with him, to know they were moving with him, also holding their breaths, hoping and dreading with equal measure. This was the last place there was to look. If they weren't here, under the water, buried in mud-- God, he thought, and that was all: he didn't know what to pray for.
Halfway across the tomb, they made their first find, Captain Scott bending down to grope in the mire and rising to shine his helmet light on the compact shape of a video camera. With a gloved finger he scooped mud out of the eyepiece and the lens and wiped the window on the side of the machine. "Looks like there's still a tape in it," he observed, handing the recorder to Kirby, who passed it on to Daniel. They all stood in silence as the meaning of this find sank in, and the air in the tomb seemed to get several degrees colder. They were in here. This was Leda's camera. Or Kresky's. They had been in here, Daniel amended. He wiped what mud he could off of the camera and stuffed it inside his jacket. They moved on.
After an eternity, when Daniel's neck was aching and stiff with the effort of concentrating on what he couldn't see, they came to the back wall, and there, Daniel's feet came up against resistance, something much bigger than a camcorder and soft, but not yielding. Swallowing back a surge of bile, he bent and reached into the icy water, his hands fumbling, numb. His half-laugh of relief was shockingly loud to his ears after the tense silence of the last forty minutes. He clamped his teeth down on it quickly as he pulled a backpack out of the mud by one of its shoulder straps. After a moment Johnson produced another backpack, Kirby a hardsided equipment case--and nothing else. No-one else. God, Daniel thought, raising a trembling hand to his face and tugging his glasses off to rub his eyes. God. He couldn't even get his mind to pose the question begged by the evidence. The tomb seemed to get darker. His eyes were stinging from the mud.
Turning abruptly, he sloshed back toward the entrance, steadying himself against the wall, one hand sliding across the carved surface of the stone slabs as though he were speed-reading braille. He was dimly aware of Kirby following a pace behind and, as they stopped at the foot of the steps, he replaced his glasses and turned to the meet the younger man's concerned gaze. The airman's eyes were sorrowful, an expression at odds with his square jaw and jovial, good ol' boy manliness.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said simply. All Daniel could do was nod, not trusting himself to speak, unsure if he would thank the man or tear a strip off of him. Finding them meant--dead. Drowned in a tomb when the river crested and the entrance filled with mud. Not finding them meant-- what? Sorry, sir. Sorry. God. His mind stuttered. He nodded again, this time with genuine sympathy, and put a hand on the airman's shoulder as he heaved himself up the stairs. He felt Kirby brace himself to take his weight.
Outside, he gasped for air, the cold bite of it in his lungs cleaning out the close dankness of the tomb as he clambered up the slope. Once at the top, he turned slowly in a circle, scanning the flat, almost featureless grey of the floodplain. Glistening with a glassy illusion of solidity, the clytte stretched on and on and he could see for miles in every direction. Way off to the east, the spindly line of forest along the river was the only vertical landmark, each spreading, stunted tree straining upward out of the muck like a desperate, beseeching hand. Here and there he could see vague mounds, the bodies of drowned animals half-buried, contorted, as if they were struggling upward from the primordial ooze instead of succumbing to it. He watched as the kite wheeled down in a lazy spiral and, landing awkwardly near one of these mounds, hopped toward it with a curious, sidewize motion. Climbing up on the shoulder of its new prize, the bird spread its wings wide and flapped them vigorously for a moment, its raw, screeching voice unfurling in the still air like a tattered flag, claiming ownership.
His stomach lurching, Daniel looked away to the north where he could see two people approaching from the direction of the 'gate. They seemed poised at the point where the unbroken clouds and the grey plain came together, or, rather, merged into an undifferentiated middle space that was neither earth nor sky. There were no shadows, no contours to offer perspective, and the two seemed, not so much to come closer as to grow incrementally bigger, resolving into detail as they did so. Green fatigues, packs, P90s hanging across their chests. One of them raised a hand and the thin sound of a shout come to him, attenuated more by the etiolated nature of the place than by the distance between them. Starting to raise his hand in reply, he realized that the shout was meant for another pair of travelers in fatigues, one carrying a staff weapon, the other a pack slung carelessly over one shoulder. They were crossing the mud from the west, from Camor's, camp, a string of dun-coloured tents balanced on the spine of the single ridge that broke the unending evenness on that side of the world. He watched as Sam veered off to the west to meet Gruber and Teal'c and Jack continued straight toward Daniel and the tomb.
Hesitating, Daniel wondered if he should return to the tomb or set out to meet Jack, unsure if the colonel would be in his irascible-talkative or stoic-reticent mood and even more unsure which of these would be more helpful. Or annoying. The decision was made for him when, as he shifted his weight, his feet shot out from under him and he went down on his ass and slid a few meters, stopping himself finally by bracing his feet on the blade of the shovel he'd just used to pull himself up to the top of the slope. Even though he could feel the mud seeping into his clothes, clammy and cold, he didn't bother to get up. He was covered with the sticky, smelly stuff anyway. Wiping his hands on his jacket under his vest, the only part of him that wasn't saturated, he gingerly removed his glasses, and pulling a tissue from a plastic package in one of his pockets, he began to clean them slowly and deliberately, as though sitting in a sea of mud under a leaden sky on an alien planet were the most normal thing he could ever expect to do again.
He didn't look up when he heard Jack approaching from behind him, the squelching of his boots sounding in rhythmic counterpoint to a stream of barely sub-vocal bitching. The muttering stopped abruptly and was followed by a sucking, sluicing noise as Jack lost his footing and came surfing down the slope sideways, preceded by a bow wave that lapped against Daniel's butt a fraction of a second before Jack's boot connected with the small of his back. The archeologist locked his knees and braced his feet harder against the shovel as Jack steadied himself by clamping a hand on the top of Daniel's hat.
"Sorry, Danny-Boy," he said, giving Daniel's head a squeeze while he dug his boots into the slope at an ankle-breaking angle and straightened up. "You okay?" He wasn't referring to the boot-shaped bruise Daniel was likely to develop. Sitting in the mud was, apparently, more of a cause for concern.
Looking down at the dark maw of the tomb entrance, Daniel adjusted his glasses, smudging them again at the edges with mud from his fingers. "Yeah," he answered vaguely. Then, considering the question from another angle, "No."
"Not in there, huh?" The hand returned to the top of Daniel's head for a second, although Jack's purchase on the slope was more or less secure.
Jack blew out a breath, his eyes roaming over the dully-gleaming plain. "Crap," he spat softly, and then, after a second, "Good." And a moment later, "Crap."
"Yeah," Daniel agreed.
They stayed that way, precariously motionless for a few moments, until their attention was captured by a shout from the tomb entrance. Kirby appeared, uniformly grey with mud from head to foot, and started up the slope, stomping and wedging his boots into the slick incline with each step. He had a harder time of it because he was carrying something tucked under his arm like a football and only had one hand to hold out for balance. As he was coming up, Sam slithered down the slope from behind them, using much the same technique Jack had and stopping herself the same way, only using Jack as a bumper instead of Daniel's kidneys. Leaning into her, Jack steadied her with his shoulder and then himself with Daniel's head. The shovel was starting to lean ominously. Daniel considered getting up, hoping, maybe, to meet the struggling airman halfway, and made a few preliminary motions to that effect, but Jack's hand on his head vetoed the plan.
"Don't even think about it," he warned. "You lose it, we all lose it."
By this time the airman had made it to the shovel and hooked his free arm around the listing handle, straddling his legs wide and kicking his feet as far into the shifting ground as he could. "Found this in the mud, sirs, inside the tomb there," he panted, holding the object at arm's length toward Daniel, who had to stretch his own arms to reach it without shifting his weight too much and sending the whole lot of them sliding.
Even before he began to wipe the mud from its surface, Daniel recognized its familiar, unwelcome shape. Sam did too, and left the relative security of Jack's wedged feet to move down beside Daniel, gripping her CO's jacket sleeve with one dirty hand and Daniel's shoulder with the other. Once she'd stomped her own feet in securely, she bent down for a better look.
"That's not what I think it is, is it?" she asked, her voice betraying her foreboding.
"Yes, I'm afraid it is," Daniel responded distractedly as he turned the jar over in his hands looking for the inscription. There was none. "Must be the base model," he conjectured, turning it upside down and watching a stream of muddy water pour out onto the ground beside his legs.
"What?" Jack demanded, tilting his head to get a better look. "What is it?"
Daniel started to turn to look at him, but got a peremptory "Ah ah ah," and a tighter head squeeze, so he answered Jack while looking at Kirby. "It's a canopic jar." Then, to the airman, "Was it open like this when you found it?"
Nodding, Kirby adjusted his grip on the shovel handle as it canted further. "Just like that, sirs. Only full of mud. And it was backed up with Novak's and Kresky's gear against the wall."
The airman fished in his pocket and pulled out the jar's lid, tossing it lightly to Daniel who caught it one-handed. Like the jar itself, the lid was plain, white ceramic, without the representation of the human or animal face that would normally give the lid the appearance of a "head" atop the "body" of a typical canopic jar. The ones Daniel had seen recently had borne the images of gods, along with their significant iconography and an inscription in Goa'uld: "Banished for eternity." But this one was blank. Otherwise, though, it was identical, about a foot tall, broad at the "shoulders" and tapered toward the base in an abstracted version of a mummified human form.
"Just the one?" he asked Kirby.
"So far, sir."
Fearing that they were calamitously close to losing their shovel, Jack dismissed the airman with a nod and Kirby turned and began the slow descent to the tomb entrance.
"So-o," Jack drawled, scouring his memory. "This is the same kinda thing that whatzisname was in?"
He released Daniel's head and looped his hand around the P90, his index finger tapping the trigger in an uneven staccato. "Any chance the snake just, y'know, slithered away? And died?" he asked hopefully.
Sam shook her head, her eyes widening like they always did right before she turned killjoy. "I don't think so, sir," she said.
Fitting the lid back onto the jar, Daniel concurred, "I doubt these things open from the inside."
* * *
The day he had the piano tuned, a couple of weeks before Leda had left for her field assignment, he'd led her to the instrument and motioned to her to play.
"Haven't you suffered enough?" she asked incredulously, her mouth curving down in a mock frown.
"Go on. Just--" he made playing motions with his fingers. " make with the music already."
Shrugging, she humoured him, settling down with a pained, "I warned you," expression. She began with the rapid tumble of a C scale and suddenly "Heart and Soul" emerged in all its glory, followed by a few bars of "Ode to Joy." "Right on!" Leda exclaimed, pulling him down on the bench beside her. He was expecting "Peanuts," but what he got was an amazing, monstrous, high-speed medley of mis-matched fragments of everything from jazz to show tunes to boogy- woogy, honky-tonk, and down home, dirty blues. The speed with which her small hands flew up and down the keyboard seemed to make up for their lack of reach, and her head bobbed with the ever-changing beat until her curls burst out of the pins that corralled them off of her face and began to bounce and fly with a will of their own.
None of the bits she played was long enough for Daniel to even get a toe-tapping in, but he wasn't too disappointed. It was a mess, but a sublime one. Finally, she ran out of steam and the last trill went on and on while her eyes glazed over as she trawled through her mind for another scrap to play. Finding none, she dropped her hands to her lap and the two of them sat on the bench, looking at the keys while the lingering vibrato faded, leaving them in silence. With a whoop and a burst of joyful energy, she whipped her head around and kissed Daniel on his shoulder, huffing and spitting when she came away with a mouthful of wool fluff from his sweater.
"So," he said as he carefully plucked fluff from the end of her tongue. "You play."
"Mrs. Kellimore certainly wouldn't make that claim for me," she replied, biting his finger.
"Piano teacher, fourth grade." Leda cupped her hand to her ear. "Hear that?"
"Ah, you think so, but no." She leaned sideways and whispered dramatically, "That's Mrs. Kellimore spinning in her grave."
This time she aimed her kiss higher and caught him on the side of the mouth. He was too slow to catch her lips, though, and had to be content with brushing her curls with his chin. She cracked her knuckles and shook her fingers out, resting them on the keys again. Then, after tilting her head to appraise his face for a moment with her steady gaze, she took a deep breath and settled into Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," her phrasing limpid, her hands so soft and delicate and languorous on the keys that she hardly seemed to touch them.
Something happened to him as he watched her eyes close, her body beginning to lean into the rocking rhythms of the repeating low notes. Something shifted inside him--almost with an audible "click"--and the dissonance that had vibrated for ages just below the conscious surface of his life suddenly resolved itself and was gone.
* * *
The images on the monitor were taken by a steady hand, the rows of carved script flowing by at a slow, regular pace from left to right, top to bottom as the camera "read" them into the video record. It was a miracle that the tape had not been destroyed; everything else that came out of the tomb was saturated with the mud and silt. Even Daniel's fingernails still held traces of it, three very long, very hot showers later. But he didn't notice any of that now as his left hand hovered over the video playback controls and his right scribbled notes onto the yellow legal pad on the desk in front of him. He was watching and writing at the same time, the images on the monitor reflected on his glasses, his mouth hanging open slightly as he concentrated.
The tape had also recorded sound. With the volume turned all the way up he could hear movement, the clack of the clasps on an equipment case being opened or closed, a zipper being pulled, and from farther away, the occasional roll of thunder. But for the most part, whoever was in the tomb worked in silence as the flickering lightning caused the carvings to waver a bit in their shadows in spite of the camera's focused white light.
"So, what does it say?" Kresky's voice blared out of the speaker and Daniel reached quickly to dial the volume down.
"Damned if I know." Leda's voice. He notched the volume up again. "This top one's Goa'uld. This one here's some kind of Cyrillic script, but I don't recognize the vocabulary." The image jiggled. Daniel could picture her one-shouldered shrug of self-deprecation. "We didn't cover too many alien languages at Stanford."
Kresky's short, gruff laugh. "Guess Dr. Jackson'll be happy, though."
"Ye-es, he will," Leda agreed in a thoughtful sing-song as she continued to "scroll" across the wall. A long pause. Thunder. "He'll be happy as a pig in--" Pause. "--a clam." Kresky's chuckle. "And I won't get a peep out of him for days. You thought golf-widows had it bad."
"Aw, he'll love ya for it, Dr. Novak. Points in heaven, etcetera etcetera."
Leda's breathy laughter. Pause. "A noble sacrifice on my part." Then the image focus shifted as Leda's hand came into the frame, her fingers together, forming a little birdlike hand puppet. It looked into the lens. "Hope you like your present, Dr. Jackson," it mouthed in time with Leda's words. "I don't want my points in heaven. Wink, wink." Lightning flickering. A long, slow roll of thunder. The puppet turned to look out of the frame. "He'll kill me for that," it said.
Daniel hit the rewind button and the images ran backward. " alien languages at Stanford." Forward a few frames. "--kill me for that." Suddenly, his hand shot out and his finger jabbed the monitor's off switch. The screen went dark. His glasses reflected nothing.
* * *
Carter's mouth twisted with effort. She held the jar under her arm and wrenched the lid with her other hand as hard as she could. It didn't budge. With a significant look around the table, she passed it over to Teal'c. The Jaffa repeated the demonstration, the muscles of his arms flexing and bulging to an alarming size. Jack's mouth made a silent "whoa" of admiring envy.
"Okay," Carter said, retrieving the jar and handing it to Jack. "Now you, sir."
Jack looked incredulous and hooked a thumb in the direction of Teal'c's biceps. "You gotta be kiddin'."
"Just trust me, sir."
Sighing dramatically to show that he was humouring her, Jack took the jar, held it under his arm and twisted with all his strength. The lid came off so easily that he almost threw it across the table. He looked up at Teal'c, his expression one part surprised to two parts smug. For his part, Teal'c simply raised an eyebrow. It wasn't his "I find this show of strength impressive" eyebrow, but rather his "I possess information that you do not possess" eyebrow. Jack's face fell. "Okay, so what's the game?"
Picking up her remote, Carter aimed it at the display screen and called up an MRI image of the jar. A second later a magnified image of a section of the jar appeared as an inset, showing a cross section of the ceramic outer shell. The outer surface was pierced by dozens of tiny ports.
"These are sensors. Hundreds of them embedded all over the surface," Carter reported, pointing to the almost microscopic dots. "Now, we think that they're designed to scan whoever's holding the jar. Our hypothesis is that they look for the presence of naqahdah or some other indication of the presence of a Goa'uld symbiote, like, for instance, the protein marker Jolinar left in my blood. If it finds these, the jar locks. That's why neither Teal'c nor I can open it." The image on the screen rotated to a top-view of the jar's opening, the notched locking ring turning inside the rim. Beside it, in a new inset, a similar view of the lid showed a matching ring. Then the two images came together and the rings meshed. "If, however, it doesn't sense a Goa'uld, and certain other criteria are met--"
Daniel spoke up, beating her to the punch. "The jar opens and the parasite takes its new host." He threw his pen down on his journal and slumped back in his chair. "Very clever," he concluded without the tiniest hint of admiration.
Jack let out his breath in a low whistle. "So, you figure Novak or Kresky got ahold of the jar and. . . ." He let it hang.
"Wait a minute, though." Retrieving his pen, Daniel leaned forward again, his face brightening a bit with a flash of hope. "We don't know it was them. It could have been one of Comar's people." Then, realizing what he'd just wished on some unsuspecting shepherd, he shook his head and dropped his pen again.
Carter lowered herself into her chair across the conference table from Daniel, her face reflecting her discomfort at having to deliver the bad news. "I don't think so, Daniel," she objected. "Comar's people left for the high ground before the river's run-off unearthed the tomb, and none of them knew of its existence before that. And, once the river crested, the whole gully was flooded even before the rest of the plain, and stayed that way until the water receded and Gruber identified the site on the UAV flyby. So there was no time for anybody from the camp to make it back there. And, unlike our people--"
Daniel had started to nod mechanically, his eyes on the table, before she'd finished her second sentence. Now he held a hand up defensively. He got the point.
"--all of the locals are accounted for," she finished, her voice dropping almost to a whisper.
They sat for a moment, nobody looking at anybody. Finally, Hammond broke the silence. "SG- 7's iris code has already been locked out. We've contacted the Tok'ra to ask them to keep an eye out for our people in their, ah, spheres of influence." He spread his hands in a gesture of resignation. "Beyond that, there's not much more we can do."
"I bet the Tok'ra are thrilled to hear we've sprung a leak," Jack mused, not quite hiding the bitterness of his tone under his studied nonchalance.
Hammond folded his hands on his briefing folder. "Fortunately, none of the missing personnel had ever been on missions involving the Tok'ra, and none of them knows the location of their base. The Tok'ra, at least, are reasonably unaffected by this." He paused, aware that his next statement was not going to go over well. Taking a deep breath, he forged on. "I'm recalling the remaining search party, and as of right now I'm officially declaring Major Purchase, Sergeant Kresky and Dr. Novak missing in action."
To Daniel's ears, Hammond's Texas drawl made the last three words go on forever. He looked up at the general, his eyes at once accusing and resigned. He wanted to protest, but he couldn't think of a single argument that would make a difference. God, he thought, and that was all.
Hammond met his gaze squarely. "I'm sorry, Dr. Jackson." When Daniel did not respond, he said, not unkindly, "Dismissed."
* * *
Daniel jumped, jolted out of his thoughts by the hoarse voice. The light from the hallway was being blocked by the bulky form of Jan Gruber, who filled the doorway of Daniel's office, his huge hands balled into fists at his sides. Putting his pen down on his journal and swivelling his chair to look at him, Daniel took a deep breath, steeling himself against what he knew was coming.
"Hammond recalled us," Gruber blurted, his voice heavy and barbed with accusation. "There's nobody out there looking now." Gruber's thinning blond hair was wet, and a strand of it was stuck to his forehead like a scar. He'd obviously come straight from the locker room, propelled by frustration that had built itself up to rage, and he was looking for something to vent it on. His index finger pried itself out of the furious solidity of his fist and aimed itself at Daniel's forehead as Gruber took a step into the room. "Do not tell me you went along with this."
It was clear that this was, in fact, exactly what Gruber wanted Daniel to tell him. He needed Daniel to tell him that it had been all his idea to walk away from that mudpit shithole of a planet and close the iris behind them. Sayonara, so long, and fuck you, good friends and lovers. He wanted Daniel to stand up and even just deny it, either way, to just dare him to slip the catch on his control so he could have the satisfaction of smashing his fist into someone's face.
For a moment, Daniel's own damped temper flared and a part of him almost wanted to do it, to flip Gruber the bird and tell him to just bring it on. A good pounding from somebody else might be a nice break from the pounding he was inflicting on himself, anyway. Then they could have a manly bear hug and go off and drink a case of beer, or whatever manly men drank to seal their new manly friendship. And then the credits would roll and Daniel could get out of this goddamned rerun. Go back to the real world where nobody had snakes in their heads and people bargained with gods who didn't show up wearing the bodies of people you used to know.
But the flare died as quickly as it had come and left behind it only exhausted resignation. Daniel dropped his chin to his chest as though his head had just become too heavy to hold up, and then, after a moment, when his face was composed, he looked up wearily. "Gruber-"
Daniel's calm expression was apparently the last straw and Gruber crossed the remaining space between them in two strides, his fists coming up to his chest. He was built like a linebacker and, as he filled up the space in front of him, Daniel flinched. He hated himself for that, incidentally-- so much for manly fisticuffs--and he expected to feel his glasses being shattered as Gruber's punch connected--but there was nothing. Gruber was standing in front of him, his shoulders sagging, his face slack with horror.
Holding up his hands in front of him, Gruber took a step back, shaking his head, then turned and leaned against the worktable, his sweaty, shaking hands crumpling the maps and papers next to Daniel's open journal. "Jesus," he whispered, his voice thick. He raised an arm and wiped his nose on his wrist, then ran his hand through his damp hair. "Jesus, Daniel. I'm sorry," he apologized without looking up. "I just--" He wiped his nose again. "She's--"
"She's your best friend," Daniel finished for him, and the big man seemed to crumple inside himself. His fingernails were white where he gripped the table, not from anger now, but to keep himself from sitting down on the floor and bawling like a baby.
Getting to know Leda had been a challenge for Daniel, not only because Daniel was really shy around people who didn't live on other planets, but because he'd had to contend with Gruber, the Cerberus at Leda's door. Gruber and Leda went way back, all the way back to the UN where they'd worked together in Bosnia, the Middle East, any place where disaster tore up communities and the international agencies moved in to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Leda liked to say, when asked what she did for a living, that she chased ambulances the size of nations. That usually shut people up. They'd both been recruited by the SGC when it became clear that exploring and fighting bad guys also entangled the Command in lots of sticky issues, especially with abandoned and liberated populations who looked to the Tau'ri for help and guidance. A social psychologist specializing in trauma, Leda was a godsend. And Gruber came with her, part of the package, a linguist almost as talented as Daniel, if lacking his flare for extrapolation. First contact wasn't Gruber's strong suit, but he had a photographic memory, could pick up languages like other people picked up cold germs, and had a voracious passion for his discipline.
Daniel liked him, sometimes in spite of himself.
That first day when Daniel had turned up in their lab looking for clarification of some obscure point of analysis in one of Leda's reports, Gruber had listened attentively to Daniel's question, which went on like a lecture for about five minutes, and then had waved him into silence and pointed to Leda, saying, "Hey, I'm just the mouth. She's the brains." When Daniel continued to find reasons to wander up to level 16, to compliment Leda on a report or Gruber on a translation, Gruber started watching this new guy more closely, making a point of standing too close to him, all six-foot-six of him towering over Daniel, as intimidating as any big brother could ever hope to be. For his part, Daniel did the occasional double-take, craning his neck to look Gruber in the eye, his own eyes studiously innocent as he pushed past the big man to make his way to Leda's corner of the lab.
The jig was finally up when Daniel came upstairs from level 18 on his way down to level 28 for a briefing, and Gruber stopped him in the doorway to the lab, observing acerbically, "So, you come to tell her you admire her pie charts?" He walked away laughing, leaving Daniel alone with Leda for the first time, and Daniel couldn't help but feel like he'd passed some kind of test, was being rewarded for persistence, maybe. That didn't stop him from blushing to his ears, but it seemed like Leda had mercifully been too absorbed in her work to hear Gruber's comment. As Daniel drew near her desk, though, she said nonchalantly, her eyes on her paperwork, "Actually, I'm quite proud of the pie charts. Especially my creative use of blue." Daniel was sure he could hear Gruber laughing from the hallway.
So Gruber had given his reluctant and tacit approval of Daniel's affection, and seemed grudgingly to admit that there was enough of Leda to go around. Daniel had been very careful to make sure that Gruber never felt eclipsed. It had been an amiable detente. But now Leda was gone and they were together in Daniel's dim office, sharing the pool of lamplight on the table, bound together by absence.
Shifting his weight, Gruber raised his head, his eyes roaming aimlessly over the jumble of artifacts and books on the shelves across the room. "They found a--a jar? A, um, a canopic jar?"
"Yes." Daniel's voice was calm, detached. This was the voice he used when he was facing up to reality, saying hard things. He could see Gruber's muscles tightening in his neck. His jaw was moving from side to side as if he'd just taken a punch on the chin. Daniel wanted to feel sympathy. He did feel sympathy for Gruber, but it was far away now, held at bay by the detachment, the rational, logical voice making sentences that carried unspeakable things, terrible nightmares from one person to another. "We're pretty sure that one of the team opened it. It was a trap, a way for the Goa'uld to find a host."
"So, that's it? We just let the snake have her?" Gruber's small, blue eyes were glazed with tears, but they didn't fall.
Daniel wanted to acknowledge Gruber's pain, even though he was sure the big man would rebuff any overtures, but he knew that if he opened up to it, even enough to soften his tone, Gruber's sense of loss and impotence would set his own into sympathetic vibration and it would build and build until his fragile shell of self control would crack and the pieces would fly apart and there would be nothing left but incoherence. So he sat silently while Gruber's body absorbed what his brain already knew, the muscles of his back and arms twitching with tension.
When Daniel didn't answer, Gruber turned to look at him, the anger and frustration building again, provoked by Daniel's impassive expression. He needed outrage, not reason. "So, that's it?" he repeated, his voice low and ominous.
Daniel looked down at his journal. The pages were blank. Funny, he thought he'd been writing. In his head, the steady murmur of language that was the constant background of his waking life was blurred, indistinct, deformed by a faint, buzzing vibration. He returned Gruber's gaze, his own eyes calm. "Unless we get more information, yes."
"Shit!" Gruber spat the word at Daniel's face and stalked out the door, his fists balled again at his sides. Daniel heard him in the corridor, his voice choked, a wail clamped down and forced into one clipped, vehement syllable: "Fuck!"
Letting his breath out in a long, shaky sigh, Daniel threw his glasses down on the reproachfully blank pages of his journal and leaned back in his chair, tilting his head backward and pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. Then his hands dropped limply to his lap.
"Yeah," he agreed, and that was all.
* * *
Daniel knew what was to come. Everyone would try to help. Sam would try to get him to talk. Jack would try to keep him from talking. Hammond would let him work, and work, and work. Frasier would tell him he was working too hard. Teal'c would incline his head and say, "I am very sorry that we did not find your friend, DanielJackson," and that would be the only response that wouldn't make Daniel want to scream.
He thought it would get better, like it always did. Or at least the scar tissue would form, a tough shell that would resist probing. Time would pass and it would only ache when it rained or during the Holiday Season. That he would go to another planet, and then another, would translate this or that, find something amazing or wonderful or terrifying, defy death and beat the odds and things would return to something like normal.
He did all of these things. And it didn't get better. And it wasn't normal.
He stopped talking.
That's what really got Jack's attention. It was one thing for Jack to do the recalcitrant out-of- touch-with-his-feelings manly man routine, but it was another to get it from Daniel. Jack's sense of order and cosmic balance was seriously disturbed when he no longer had to try to keep Daniel from opening one big emotional can of worms or another. And it was even worse than Daniel closing up and locking his friends out. He'd done that before, after Sha'uri's death, after that weird encounter with the Harsisis. This was different. It was less like Daniel was protecting them or simply working through the mess on his own than like there was nothing going on in there behind the glasses at all. The kid hadn't so much as furrowed his brow in consternation or exasperation in days, and Jack knew this because he'd taken to baiting him. He'd gone so far as to quote Budge, and out of context, too, and that took research and effort and got him exactly squat as far as reactions go. Daniel still did things: drank coffee, contributed to briefings, flapped like a chicken or whatever it took to get aliens to friendly-up. But he was, well, hollow. A hollow man. Not all there. Not the regular Absent-Minded Professor thing, either. It was like most of him was distracted by a sound nobody else could hear.
Daniel knew Jack was watching him and he did his best to be himself. In fact, he decided that if he could just act like himself, he would be himself again. He honestly thought that it would go away, this strange, grating, buzzing dissonance that seemed to fill up all the space in his head that wasn't occupied by a task or a conversation. At first he thought it was hope that had outlived its season but refused to die, like a fly bumping, torpid and stupefied, against the window in the dead of winter. But then he wondered if it was just denial. And that had its uses but surely couldn't last forever. Eventually, he believed, the suspension bridge would break free of its moorings, ancient rope fraying, and there would be a moment of vertigo as he watched the pieces fall into the chasm and then at least he'd have the stillness and the silence of resignation if not peace. He'd even dreamed about it, about hacking away at the ropes to speed up the process, but in the dream he was always on the wrong side of things, the bridge side, and there would be a sickening split second of freefall and he'd wake up spread-eagled on the bed, fingers digging into the mattress.
The nights were long and filled with noise. He started to look haggard. Jack told him he looked like hell, and that by hell, he meant crap.
One night, seeking silence, he spent hours watching Teal'c meditate. He sat on the bed that the Jaffa never used, leaning against the bare concrete wall with his legs drawn up, his arms clasped on his knees, his eyes as unblinking and watchful as Teal'c's were shuttered and serene. If Teal'c thought that this was strange behaviour he didn't show it. Daniel knew it was strange behaviour, but he didn't care. He just wanted to see if he could borrow some of Teal'c composure. Maybe figure out how his friend lived with such a dark thing inside him and still managed to be sane. He'd lived a hundred years. A century of history that would make a normal person's hair curl. Daniel was thirty-six and his past was catching up to him already. Sitting there in the flickering yellow light cast by Teal'c's candles, he started to understand that there was more to this than Leda's disappearance, that this loss had torn something open inside him and everything he'd thought he'd coped with and put to rest, every loss he'd accepted, every violation he'd learned to live with was leaking out, pooling in his lungs, heavy with silt. He'd been treading water, he realized, for a long, long time. And now he was tired.
The dissonance didn't go away. It grew to a whine, like metal on metal. Soon it would become a wail and Daniel knew he wouldn't be able to keep it in anymore. One day he'd open his mouth to answer a simple question and it would flood the world and he'd drown in it. He'd had that dream, too. Trapped in the tomb as the river crested. Only it wasn't water. It was noise, its force dashing him against the rough stones, floating him up to the ceiling as his hands clutched at the carved writing on the wall, seeking purchase. His face pressed against the clay-slimed stones in the inch of air that remained, he gasped his last breath--over and over.
He didn't wake up screaming from those dreams. Those dreams went on and on.
* * *
At the first peal of the siren Daniel's head snapped up, just as it had every time there had been an offworld activation for the last three weeks. He listened to Sergeant Davis's voice over the loudspeaker and pictured the defense teams charging through the maze of corridors to the Gateroom. If the base were alive, these men would be adrenaline. He didn't move. He wanted to, but he willed himself to stay still, forcing his head down--it was like moving a rusty hinge--so that he could look at his journal. The pages were blank. With deliberate concentration he picked up his pen and began to write. He wrote his name. Then he wrote in small capital letters: "I will not go to the Gateroom." That seemed to satisfy him. But the pen hovered over the paper.
For three weeks he had ridden the wave of adrenaline when the siren sounded, most of the time beating everyone to the Control room. It got so the technicians expected him. Even the night shift, since he rarely went home these days, in spite of Jack's orders and Sam's cajoling. But he'd noticed lately that the technicians' own expressions of hopeful anticipation had begun to fade and were replaced now with a respectful sympathy when they saw him. They were careful to be looking anywhere but at Daniel's face when the computer confirmed the IDC of another team returning from a mission or checking in by radio with a progress report. It was only a matter of time before sympathy made that sickly slide into pity, and Daniel wasn't so out of touch that he didn't have at least an academic sense of dignity. So he sat on his stool at his worktable, his pen wavering.
He was concentrating so hard on ignoring the siren that when his phone rang he started and the pen tore a hole in the paper. For a second he stared at the phone like he'd never seen anything like it before, and then picked up the receiver and slowly raised it to his ear.
"Dr. Jackson. You're needed in the Control room."
"Um, yes, of course. I'll be right there."
He felt something blooming in his chest, an almost painful pressure.
As he rode the elevator ten floors deeper into the mountain he told himself that some aliens had probably dialed them up and were looking for somebody who spoke Acadian. Or maybe Burber. They hadn't met any Burber-speaking aliens for awhile.
By the time he got to Level Twenty-Eight, the blooming had grown to a kind of pulsing ball, like a star in the final moments of its life, and the pressure was definitely painful. He folded his arms across his chest. His ears were ringing. As he was climbing the steps to the control room it occurred to him that he was having some sort of breakdown. This was interesting in a general, distant sort of way, but was hardly germane at the moment. The Acadians, or whoever they were, were probably waiting on the other end of the line, tapping their fingers--or their fins, or tentacles--impatiently. The show goes on. It must, after all, go on.
The control room was crowded. Sam was seated at her terminal tapping keys, a small frown creasing the brow between her blue eyes. Jack and Teal'c were side-by-side, two pairs of brown eyes looking up at the monitors hanging down from the ceiling, Hammond in front of them watching Sam's monitor over her shoulder. Closed when he came to the top of the stairs, the iris had wheeled open again by the time he came to stand next to Jack. The wormhole was gone, Sergeant Davis's' monitor flashing "idle." Sam's monitor, though, still showed the computer's IDC status display. Below the standard row of numbers the dropdown window flashed white on a red background: "IDC LOCKOUT SG-7."
Daniel's breath rushed out of his chest. The bloom collapsed into itself and then burst outward, silent, white-hot. He felt his ribs cracking. Then there was a rush of sound in his head. He raised a fist to his ear for a moment, swaying slightly, his shoulder brushing up against Jack's.
"What?" He stuffed his hands into his armpits. "I'm fine." Jack's eyes narrowed suspiciously, and Daniel forced his face to relax. "I'm fine. Just--" he pointed at the monitor. "Tell me nobody--that there were no travelers."
Alarmed at the implications of his question, Sam turned quickly to reassure him. "No! Daniel. Just the GDO signal."
Daniel licked his lips and dropped his arms to his sides, then put his hands in his pockets, relaxed, just like a regular, normal person. "Okay," he said, very, very calmly. "So, they know that we'd have locked out their code by now, and they're just sending us a message, telling us they're okay."
"Or," Jack contradicted him with the air of stating the obvious, "Some sadistic S.O.B. of a System Lord's got ahold of the code and is getting his jollies messing with our heads."
The whine of metal on metal. Daniel's fist started to come up to his ear again, but he caught it and clamped it in his armpit before Jack had a chance to notice.
"Major," Davis's voice interrupted their debate. "That second signal is cleaned up now."
As she swivelled back to her monitor, Sam explained. "There was something piggy-backed on the GDO signal." She paused while the IDC window dissolved to be replaced by the 'gate dialing status display. One after another, seven glyphs loomed up large in the centre of the screen and then stacked themselves neatly to the right of the 'gate graphic. Sam's frown deepened. "It's a 'gate address."
"I didn't think a GDO transmitter could carry that kind of signal," Hammond objected in the face of the evidence to the contrary.
"Normally it can't, sir, but it's not impossible." Pointing at the screen, she concluded, "And it looks like somebody figured out how to do it."
"Looks like an invitation," Jack mused lightly. Then his voice turned colder. "Or a trap."
Next to him, Daniel shifted silently, his eyes almost focusing on the monitor, but not quite, his teeth working at the inside of his lip. He caught Jack looking at him again, his eyebrow slightly raised, and met his gaze, challenging him to find anything worth commenting about. They squared off for a moment until, apparently deciding to table his judgement for the time being, Jack pulled himself to a reasonable state of attention and asked for his orders.
Hammond turned to look at Jack, sparing a glance for Daniel who worked to keep his face impassive, and made his decision. "We'll dial out. If it's an active 'gate, we'll send a probe. But nobody's going anywhere until we get a better read on this."
* * *
"No, sorry, I don't recognize it," Daniel answered, his eyes shifting from one monitor to another as though the identical displays might somehow add up to something else.
Instead of the M.A.L.P video image they'd been expecting, they were looking at a graphic, its signal overriding the probe's telemetry. It was something like an inverted ampersand framed on either side by what appeared to be stylized lizards.
"I am familiar with this symbol," Teal'c said, and waited until they'd all turned to look at him before continuing. "It is the sign of the Breen."
All eyes then shifted to Daniel, who shook his head, shrugging with his face. His hands were still safely stowed in his armpits, unavailable for gestures.
"The Breen?" Jack asked for all of them.
"They were once a great civilization until they were destroyed by the Goa'uld millennia ago. There are stories that a very few of them survived, living in secret and continuing to fight."
"Another resistance?" Hammond looked hopeful. "Why haven't you told us about them before?"
"The Goa'uld insist that they are extinct. Others believe that they are merely mythical. They are like the Unas, the occasion of stories that Jaffa children tell to frighten each other."
"Okay, so we know that the Unas aren't as mythical as they're reputed to be. It seems like these," Daniel inclined his head in the direction of the image on Sam's monitor, "these Breen are real. What puts them in the Unas category, in terms of scariness, I mean?" he wondered.
"In the stories the Breen set traps for Goa'uld and Jaffa. The traps are ingenious and inescapable. It is said that no Jaffa who sees a Breen will live to speak of it. For this reason, no-one even knows what species the Breen may be."
Jack rocked back and forth on his heels a couple of times, his hands in his pockets. "So, what you're saying is we just got a postcard from the Jaffa boogie-man."
Teal'c was raising a questioning eyebrow and Jack was opening his mouth to explain the concept when Sam interrupted, "But why? Why contact us?"
Teal'c redirected his attention, pausing to consider. "News of the Tau'ri resistance is spreading. Perhaps they wish an alliance."
"So this is some kind of, what, handshake?" Jack looked doubtful.
Before Teal'c could answer him, the image on the monitor began to fade.
"Looks like telemetry's coming back online," Sam announced, tapping keys.
Jack raised his eyebrows approvingly as he assessed the M.A.L.P.'s video image on the screen above him. "Well, the neighbourhood's not what it used to be," he observed.
It was a room in some kind of Goa'uld palace, featuring the familiar gilded writing covering the walls, the red drapery, the gunmetal doors with the trademark scoring in seemingly random intersecting arcs. But most of the far wall was missing and through the jagged opening they could see a livid, roiling sky alive with forked lightning that seemed to walk like a row of spindly incandescent giants across the razorlike ridges of mountains in the distance. Rain was pelting down outside, falling occasionally in almost solid sheets across the opening and drowning the view as the wind churned under the climbing thunder heads. The room itself showed more evidence of disaster: chunks of debris scattered inward from the breach in the wall, blackened scarring on the floors and walls, the drapery torn and flapping fitfully. Whatever had happened, it didn't look like the Goa'uld had come off very well.
Leaning over Sam's shoulder, Daniel pointed at a shadow barely visible on the left margin of the screen, something against the wall just inside the gaping hole. "What. . . what is that?" he asked. "Can you pan left and zoom in?"
Sam tapped a command and the camera repositioned itself, the shadow coming into the middle of the frame. Zooming in jerkily, the camera refocused on what seemed to be a large box or metal tank sitting flush against the wall, partially obscured by ragged drapery.
Daniel's finger pressed against the screen. "Look there. What is that? Could that be a person?"
A few more commands and the image dissolved into pixels and reassembled itself as Sam enhanced the picture. What had been a lighter blur against the dark background was now revealed to be an arm dangling down over the edge of what now seemed to be some kind of a vessel about the size of a deep, raised bathtub. They could also make out a head leaning on the rim, the face turned partially away from the camera. The hair was curly and white.
"It's Leda." Daniel's voice was perfectly flat.
End of Part One
* * *PART TWO
"In a distress that lasts an instant, I seem to be feeling what she feels: that every void continues in the void, every gap, even a short one, opens onto another gap, every chasm empties into the infinite abyss." (Italo Calvino, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler)
Finally, they were moving. This was what they needed: action. The waiting, it was very clear to Jack, was a weight so heavy that Daniel was starting to visibly shake from the strain of carrying it. And it didn't matter how calm Daniel tried to look; Jack had seen a lot of guys over the years go to pieces because they'd left somebody behind, because they couldn't live with the images their brains manufactured in the absence of solid intel. And none of the team needed to make stuff up, least of all Daniel, who had plenty of personal experience to furnish material for his nightmare scenarios. There were scary echoes ricocheting around inside the hollow man, and Jack gambled that knowing the truth, no matter how bad, would maybe be some kind of relief.
Daniel had been uncharacteristically quiet during the briefing, obviously not wanting to appear like he'd let his own personal point of view eclipse the bigger issue of team safety. But there was no doubt in Jack's mind that he'd be through the 'gate in a heartbeat and damn the torpedoes if he was the one making the decisions. Watching Daniel obliquely as they debated the issue, Jack had to figure Daniel's stress level, and the recklessness this would likely provoke, into his risk assessment. He was still doing the math as they made their way to the locker room, Daniel silently bringing up the rear, the team propelled along the corridors ahead of him by the urgent pressure of his need to know.
They spoke little as they checked their gear. His jacket pulled halfway on, Daniel paused, staring at Jack, who stopped singing a sotto voce rendition of "It's Not Easy Being Breen" to look at him with his "what is it now, Daniel" face. Glancing over at Teal'c and Carter who were checking their packs on the other side of the room, Daniel said in a soft voice as he zipped his jacket, "Teal'c's pretty pissed off about being left behind."
"How can you tell?" They both looked over at the Jaffa, who, in spite of being grounded for this mission, was prepping his pack just in case. His dark face wore what Jack had come to think of as his "stand-by" expression, an attentive impassiveness that betrayed nothing of what was going on in his head. But Jack knew what was going on in his head, because the same things were occupying his own. He considered for a moment as he turned back to his alcove and yanked his jacket from its hanger, deciding it was time to get to the bottom line. He pulled the jacket on before answering, "Actually, he's probably thinking what I'm thinking, which is, if anybody should be sitting this one out, it's you."
"What?!" Daniel's voice was breathless with disbelief.
Turning to look squarely at him, Jack kept his voice low and reasonable. "C'mon, Daniel, we both know you haven't exactly been traveling with all four wheels on the ground lately."
Ignoring this, Daniel responded, matching Jack's tone, "You need me."
"To read inscriptions, instructions, warning labels. The regular stuff."
Jack took a step closer, noticing that Carter and Teal'c were now paying attention, but were trying not to show it. "This is not 'regular stuff' for you. How do I know you're not gonna lose it over there?"
Daniel's fist came up and pressed against his ear for a moment, and Jack decided that this gesture was getting downright creepy. In the face of Jack's critically-assessing expression, Daniel lowered his hand deliberately. Jack followed it all the way down to Daniel's side, where it hung, innocently open and relaxed--and practically shaking with the effort of looking that way.
"I guess you're just going to have to trust me."
Something in Daniel's tone snapped Jack's eyes up to his face. Daniel was no longer slightly unfocused but was glaring at him with an intensity that was almost predatory, his eyes bluer than Jack had ever seen them. Involuntarily, Jack shifted his weight, leaning back a bit out of range.
"Please, Jack." Suddenly the voice was Daniel's again, and his eyes were pleading. "If I could just know . . . ."
Jack searched his face for a moment; his expression was open like a wound, but there were no pinwheels in his eyes. He had his answer. "Alright," he relented, but his voice was hard, leaving no room for debate, his finger pointing emphatically at Daniel's chest. "But you follow my orders to the letter, no objections, no questions. That clear?"
"Perfectly." Some of the tension seemed to ebb out of Daniel's posture, not much, but some. Jack told himself that he'd made the right decision. He hoped he was telling himself the truth.
* * *
"Okay, campers, listen up." Jack stood on the ramp facing the crowd and recapped. "Major Carter, Dr. Jackson and I will go through and assess the situation. If it checks out, SG-3 will escort the medical team. We keep each other in sight and we stay in radio contact at all times. These Breen are supposed to be the good guys, but they've got a reputation for setting traps. Nobody springs one and we can all be home in time for dinner. Any questions?" He paused and scanned their faces. They were ready. "Doctor."
"Sir!" Frasier came to attention and he had to admit to feeling a little bit of satisfaction at being the one giving her orders for a change. She seemed smaller than usual now that she'd traded her four-inch heels for army boots and her lab coat for fatigues and vest. Basic training must've been a bitch for her, he mused--she was so small and pretty--but then he remembered a story he'd been told by a member of her unit, something about a half-Nelson and a soup spoon. Nobody had given her a hard time after that. Now her large, expressive brown eyes were steely and focused and she was every inch Air Force, competent and ready to move, the perfect resolution of that ultimate oxymoron, military care-giver.
"We're going to want to move fast."
"We're ready, Colonel. Level Two Quarantine protocols are in place. Just say the word."
Jack nodded and turned to his team. Or most of it. He could feel Teal'c's stare boring right through the bulletproof glass of the Control room where the Jaffa stood with General Hammond, in full gear, prepared to step in if called upon. Teal'c was not happy about being left behind, but Jack had decided that he couldn't expect Teal'c to walk into what could be an inescapable trap. Of course, Teal'c had offered not a single word of protest beyond stating clearly that he was willing to take the risk. Well, Jack wasn't. And as strange as it felt to leave Teal'c behind, it was more important to pare down the risks to the team, and right now, Daniel was going to be taking up a bit more than his fair share of Jack's attention. He had none to spare for a Jaffa likely to be the prime target of Breen party tricks.
Jack crooked a finger at Daniel who leaned in so that Jack could speak without broadcasting to the assembled masses. He reiterated his orders sternly, "Remember, you stick to Carter like white on rice. I don't want you galloping across the room setting off poison darts, or giant rolling boulders or whatever these Breen have waiting for us. You got it?"
Wordlessly, Daniel nodded. For once, no objections or negotiations.
* * *
It was cold. It hit them as they stepped across the event horizon into the flickering, watery light of the devastated room. Outside, the rain had turned to sleet and fell like a shimmering wall across the blast hole. The wind had picked up, too, and the drapery that hung on the walls billowed out into the centre of the room, blocking and revealing the view in an almost beautiful dance of scarlet velvet, as first one set of curtains and then another rose and fell in the swirling, icy air. Behind the drifting material they could see doorways, two on each wall. Three were closed, the fourth twisted and melted and gaping, showing only darkness beyond. Although they couldn't see it, the lightning was still striding across the valley, making the air crackle. Jack could feel the hairs on his head and arms rising, responding to the charge even through his jacket and the cowl of his gas mask. He knew that, if he took the mask off, the air would smell of ozone.
She held her meter up close to her eyes, straining to read it in the silvery light of the wormhole. "Shows nominal, sir, same as the M.A.L.P. readings. I think we're safe." She waited until he began to pull his mask off before tugging off her own. Daniel was staying true to his word and stood silently at Carter's elbow, removing his mask and stuffing hers by feel into her pack for her, his eyes fixed on Leda. One foot hovered for a moment above the steps down into the room, but he stepped back and waited while Carter stowed his mask and Jack considered their next move.
"You know," Daniel offered, clearly going into scientist mode in an attempt to restrain himself from galloping across the room triggering poison darts and giant rolling boulders, "It's possible that the Breen picked this location to reassure us."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "How's that?" He found Goa'uld palaces ever so reassuring.
"Well, it's obviously deserted, and the Goa'uld obviously didn't do so well here fighting whomever they were fighting. It's sort of a sign. It says, 'We have vanquished them. You're safe.' "
"Or, it's a sign that says, 'Here little fishy, come get the tasty worm.'" Jack glanced at the vessel against the far wall, Leda's arm still dangling as before limply over its edge. Looks like bait to me, he thought.
But he started down the steps, slipping the safety on the P90, heading for the first door to his right. He could hear the faint whir as the M.A.L.P.'s camera swivelled to follow his progress and he paused to waggle his fingers at the folks back home. "Looks quiet, sir," he said unnecessarily, receiving Hammond's "Acknowledged" immediately in his earpiece. Carter and Daniel went left, opening the doors and checking behind them. The corridors beyond were dark and empty. Closing the doors again, they continued along the wall, stepping carefully over debris. In the distance, thunder rolled, but the only other sound was the wind and the slow whisper of the drapery as it breathed in and out across the floor.
Finally, they made it to the far end of the room without getting poisoned or squashed by rolling boulders. Moving carefully on the slippery stone of the floor, Jack crossed in front of the opening in the wall, pausing to lean out a bit to inspect the damage. The edges of the gash were smooth and glassy, melted by the heat of an energy weapon. Fingering the stone and the bronze- coloured inner wall for a moment, he could picture a ship--a Death Glider maybe, or something Breen, assuming they flew in ships--hovering outside hidden in the sleet, cannons white hot and ready to unleash enough power to blast through three feet of solid rock and at least four inches of metal. He took a couple of quick steps and moved out of the wind to join the others next to Leda. Standing with his back to the wall at the foot of the tank, the sleet pattering against his sleeve, he swept the empty room with his gaze, separating shadows from substance in the shifting light, his finger twitching on the trigger of his gun.
"She's warm." Daniel's voice was still marked by his self-imposed detachment as he knelt and touched Leda's arm. Hesitantly, he raised his hand and pressed his fingers to her throat. "She's got a pulse." Jack could see his hand trembling as he lowered it to rest his palm against the smooth, slightly convex side of the vessel. "This, um, tub thing is warm, too. I guess this is what's keeping her from freezing to death in here."
"Some kind of life support unit, maybe," Carter offered from behind him as she leaned in to look over his shoulder.
"Can we pull her out of there?" Jack demanded, his attention split between them and the room.
Carter shook her head. "I wouldn't recommend it, sir. Not until we have a better idea of what this thing is doing to her."
Leda lay naked inside the tank as though she were taking a leisurely bath, her head resting on the rim. Her chest was rising and falling rapidly and shallowly as she breathed through slightly parted lips, her breath escaping in tiny puffs of vapour as it hit the cold air. Her eyes were open, but unseeing, each eye clouded by a white, opalescent membrane that covered it completely and disappeared under each lid. So white was her skin that, if Daniel hadn't confirmed it, it would be hard to believe she was alive. She looked as though she'd been carved from alabaster. Even her hair, stiff with the cold and moisture in the chamber, seemed like it had been sculpted from stone.
The tank was half full of a pearly liquid the consistency of syrup which rippled sluggishly when Daniel bumped against the side as he leaned in to look more closely at Leda. Snaking up from the depths of this liquid were several thin, translucent tubes. Each of these pierced Leda's skin like I.V. tubing, one in her wrist, another in the crook of her elbow. He conjectured aloud that the other arm, hidden beneath the surface of the liquid, was similarly connected to the tank. A thicker tube stabbed into the supersternal notch at the base of her throat, and another of the same gauge entered her breast over her heart. Leaning in a bit, Daniel pointed out a third trailing down from the base of her skull. Where each tube entered her flesh, Leda's skin was puckered, but there was no sign of redness, blood or irritation to mar her unrelieved pallor. "What's this?" he asked no-one in particular, indicating with a finger a glimmer of reflected light. Daniel narrowed his eyes and fumbled on his vest to detach his flashlight. Shining it on her face, he traced with the beam of light two almost invisibly fine filaments lying across each cheek and disappearing into the corners of each eye, the other ends, like all the rest, hidden somewhere down in the walls of the tank.
"Daniel, let me get in here."
Carter's voice startled him and he dropped his flashlight. It spun across the floor, sending shadows leaping, and stopped with its lens against the wall. Nodding mutely, he sat back on his heels and then shuffled over toward the foot of the tank to give Carter room. Her face assuming an expression of concentration, she placed a hand on Leda's head, crushing the frozen curls. For a moment Carter's eyes glazed over and then she closed them slowly and bowed her head, her shoulders sagging.
"No." Daniel's voice was dismally accepting, in spite of the word.
"I'm sorry, Daniel."
"No." He slumped down and leaned his shoulder against the tank.
She turned to look up at Jack, her face pained. "She's Goa'uld, sir." Opening her mouth to say more, she hesitated, her brow furrowed.
Carter shook her head, looking back to Leda as though she might find an answer there. "I don't know, sir. It's. . .different somehow. Strange."
Jack shifted impatiently, cocking his head. "Is she or is she not a Goa'uld?"
His tone mentally snapped Carter to attention as she looked back at him. His face was impassive, but there was anger crackling behind his eyes. "Yessir. Definitely."
"Alright, both of you. Back off." He emphasized the order with a wave of his gun, taking a step away from the unit himself. Obediently, Carter rose and moved a few steps away, bending to retrieve Daniel's flashlight. It dangled limply from her hand as she stood in its pool of yellow light watching Daniel, her face tense and sorrowful.
"Jack," Daniel protested wearily, not moving or bothering to turn to look at him. "She's hardly in any condition to hurt us."
"Exactly. So the snake's prob'ly looking to trade up." Jack's own concern made his voice harsh. Then he added more softly, "C'mon, Daniel. Just back away."
For a moment it looked like Daniel was going to be stubborn, but he sighed and dragged himself to his feet, took a few deliberate steps away and then turned to stare down at Leda, his arms hugging his chest.
Jack inclined his head toward the 'gate. "Carter, go lead the med team back here. Stick to the walls."
"Sir." Carter strode away, retracing her steps, batting the swaying drapery out of her way with an impatient sweep of her arm. The wormhole's light caught her and sent her multiple shadows writhing up the walls. A minute later her voice came clear in Jack's earpiece, Hammond responding immediately. Jack watched her as she waited by the DHD, alert, but her posture bowed slightly by defeat.
Christ, I hate the Goa'uld, Jack thought for only the millionth time in the last five years. In fact, he'd thought that so often it was starting to wear a nice, comfortable groove in his brain. The wind whipped in through the blast hole and he felt an icy lash of sleet on the side of his face. He didn't move, but shifted his attention to Daniel, who stood motionless, closed up. Also for the millionth time in the last five years, Jack wished he could think of something to say that would make one bit of difference. The goddamn, fucking snakes. And the Breen weren't looking so friendly right now, either. Involuntarily, his gaze slipped down to the opaqueness of Leda's eyes and a shudder rattled his spine. Why the hell was she so white? She'd always been a kind of Ice Princess in his mind, with that crazy white hair--who goes perfectly white at her age?--and grey eyes, but this was a whole new world of white. What the hell were they doing to her? She looked like she'd been drained of blood. Vampirized.
And Daniel wasn't looking much better. Jack forced his eyes away from Leda's face to contemplate Daniel's. He'd gone about twenty shades of grey, each one paler than the last. But, true to his word, he hadn't lost it over here. And if there ever was a reason to lose it, this was it. But Daniel rarely lost it. Oh yeah, he'd take Jack's head off on a regular basis, never hesitating to come out like a tiger to protect the moral high ground, but his own nasties stayed locked up down deep, rattling their chains. Jack wondered as he watched Daniel chew at the inside of his lip what was really going on inside that head. Easy to guess but impossible to know.
Right now, the shimmering light that filtered through the screen of sleet turned Daniel's blue eyes to shards of glass.
* * *
For Daniel there was only the wind and the ripping sound of the 'gate disengaging, the chevrons clunking mechanically as someone re-established the wormhole for the return trip. But these were outside things. Irrelevant. Inside his head there was silence, just. . . nothing. He stared at Leda in the tank, at her blank eyes, and he felt like her--suspended. Between noise and silence. Between thoughts. The empty place before words.
In the inch of air at the top of the tomb. Between stone and water.
God. He threw the word away, tainted.
Then something happened. Leda stopped breathing. A quick intake of breath. A small noise almost like a gasp of surprise. And nothing.
Daniel took a step toward her, but Jack's voice stopped him, softly commanding: "Daniel." Jack shook his head, once, and Daniel stumbled back a step, his fists clenching and unclenching impotently at his sides. The curtains billowed up, filling the room with red, blotting out the blue ripple of the 'gate-light. Leda was still, a Greek statue with blind, marble eyes. White.
Then, the tubing was suddenly no longer translucent and milky, but dark, pulsing. Red. After only a few seconds, Daniel could see her veins, a fine, spidery tracing beneath her skin. Blue, dark against her paleness. On her cheeks were splotches of hectic colour, like rouge applied clumsily by a child. Her lips were pink, her tongue red between her white teeth. Her fingers, no longer lifeless, were extended, straining, the veins on the back of her hand thick and bright under the skin stretched taut, the hand bending backward at the wrist, shaking with the spasm. As the tube in her chest pulsed, harder now, pumping blood--or something, something like blood--into her, her back began to arch, her head crushed against the edge of the tank, the blank eyes aimed sightlessly at the ceiling. Bending backward, impossibly far, a back-breaking angle, the hand rigid, the arm stiff, the tubes livid, the syrupy liquid in the tank sloshing sickly, slowly. Her head jerked back in a single, tortured convulsion.
Daniel wanted to scream.
His fingernails stabbed at his palms as he raised his clenched fists, one to each ear. The silence exploded into noise, the raging, wordless roar of blood pounding through his head.
And then she breathed. A long exhalation that burst out of her, carrying with it a strangled cry. She collapsed back into the tank as she was before and resumed the shallow panting, just as she had been, arm dangling down, head resting on the rim, eyes opaque. Only now, she was infused with living colour. A statue brought to life. But not yet aware that it was alive.
Empty and clear now, the tubes began to withdraw. Daniel half expected to see at the end of each one something like an I.V. needle, but instead there was a filament of metal, ten inches long, that took an eternity to pull out of her skin. Each one was branched, terminating in a bundle of fibers that twisted themselves neatly together in a strand as they finally left her body. Leaving thin glistening trails on her cheeks, the filaments pulled free of her eyes, but the membranes remained intact. Like the rest, the wires disappeared somewhere below the level of the liquid and Leda's body was free of its tethers. Whatever the machine had been doing, it was finished.
Suddenly, it was crowded. Frasier was on her knees beside the tank, one medic on either side. Carter was leaning down, peering into the liquid, confirming that there were no other tubes still attached to Leda's body. The stretcher was snapped open and the medics in their protective suits and elbow-length gloves reached in and heaved Leda out of the tank, laying her gently on the stretcher, and Frasier began her inspection, checking Leda's pulse and flashing her penlight fruitlessly into her eyes. All she got was the glimmer of light across the membranes' shimmering surfaces. Folding her arms across her chest and covering her with a blanket, the medics secured Leda with straps to the stretcher and moved to either end to raise it up. Beyond the swirling curtains, the 'gate waited, flooding the room with its light.
Daniel heard Jack's voice, authoritative, in control, as he spoke into his radio. "We're ready to send the med team back. Daniel's returning with them. We've got some technology to secure and samples to take. Carter's going to supervise that. The rest of us are going to have a look around, see if we can find any sign of Purchase or Kresky."
General Hammond's voice came, thin and tinny, through Daniel's earpiece. "Acknowledged, Colonel. Report in three hours. Be careful."
"Affirmative. Three hours."
Then Daniel was walking beside the stretcher. Then he was dissolving. Then the 'gate put him back together again. Almost.
* * *
"It's dead." Frasier's large, brown eyes conveyed all the relief and puzzlement Daniel, Hammond and Warner were feeling. They were gathered around a monitor in the observation gallery of the isolation ward. Below them, Leda lay motionless in a bed in the middle of the room. Nurses moved around her, checking readouts and taking samples of her blood, her skin, her hair, swabbing her fingernails, her tongue, looking for anything that might hold answers to the swarm of questions that surrounded Leda's unexpected return. With an extended finger, Frasier traced the shape of the Goa'uld parasite as it wound itself around Leda's spine in the MRI image. Highlighted in red, the Goa'uld's body was covered with black splotches. "You can see here where it's already starting to decay, being absorbed into her body." She shook her head, continuing, "And it's happening very fast. Much faster than we saw in Major Carter's case."
Hammond was suspicious, unwilling to make the same mistake twice. "Are you sure, Doctor? It fooled us before. We thought we'd removed one from Major Kawalski and it still had control of him."
Warner spoke up. "Yessir. But we know what to look for now, and there is no part of the symbiote that isn't suffering from this decay, and no sign of it on the E.E.G. It's definitely dead," he concluded, reaching up to settle his glasses more firmly on his nose.
Daniel's eyes shifted from the monitor to Leda and back again as he took this in. Shivering slightly in his medical scrubs, he ran a hand through his damp hair. His uniform was in a biohazard bag, along with his boots and his vest and everything in it. The floor felt cold through the slippers he was wearing on his bare feet. He was Level Two Quarantined to within an inch of his life. It was impossible that a single germ could have survived the scrubbing he'd given himself with that awful, burning soap. His skin was raw. It felt good. Slowly, the world was coming back to him a bit. First these sensations, next, little things like maybe words, rational thought.
"Also," Frasier was saying, calling up a second image on the monitor. "The membranes on her eyes are dissolving." The monitor showed a close-up of Leda's eye, the dark circle of her pupil just visible now beneath the thinning film. "It's possible this was some kind of protective covering. Hard to say. Anyway, the eye seems to be intact, but. . . ."
Her hesitation called Daniel back from the inner recesses of what lately passed for his mind. "But what?" He started to shiver again.
She looked reluctant, but then, resigned, she led the way down the stairs and into the ward to Leda's bed. "Well, we'll just have a look. Dr. Warner was going to try to remove the remaining substance."
Hammond and Daniel stood on one side of the bed while Warner worked on the other, Frasier handing him instruments. Carefully, he slipped the edge of a fine pair of forceps under the edge of the membrane of the eye closest to him and worked it free of Leda's lids. It came away easily, trailing gummy strands of mucous. Unable to see past Warner's gloved hands, Daniel tilted his head, trying to get a better look while the surgeon removed the membrane from Leda's other eye.
"Yes, well, that's what we thought," Warner said cryptically as he wiped her eyes with a sterile pad, closing the lids before Daniel could see what the hell he was talking about.
"What is it?" Hammond was evidently as uninterested in typical doctor evasive-speak as Daniel was, and the question sounded more like an order.
Pushing past Warner, Frasier produced her pen light and gently pulled open one of Leda's eyes with a thumb and forefinger. It was a normal eye. Except it was pitch black. It looked like the pupil had swallowed up the iris completely. Daniel's stomach clenched. He swallowed hard.
"Well," Frasier told them as she bent close to inspect the other eye. "The pupil is responding normally. It's hard to see it, is all. Seems like there's just some hyper-pigmentation in the iris. Doesn't look like there's any damage, but we'll have a better idea when she wakes up."
"When's that likely to be, Doctor?" Hammond asked.
Frasier straightened and shrugged slightly as she responded. "Could be any time now, sir. We won't know for sure what her mental status is until she regains consciousness, but her scans look good. There's no physical trauma, remarkably." Raising her head to look at Daniel's pale face, she finished reassuringly, "Physically, she's okay, Daniel. Whatever these Breen did to her, she survived it, or maybe because of it."
Nodding, Daniel let out a slow breath. All he needed now was for her to just wake up. Wake up, Leda. C'mon. He could even handle the creepy black eyes if she'd just open them on her own and recognize him.
He jumped as he felt a hand on his arm. Frasier had come around the bed was looking at him appraisingly. "As for you, I recommend you go change and get something to eat." When he opened his mouth to protest, she cut him short. "I can make it an order." Her commanding expression softening, she squeezed his arm sympathetically. "We've got more tests to run and then we're going to move her back into the main infirmary. We'll call you as soon as there's a change."
As she smiled at him, he actually found himself smiling back. Not much of a smile, but it was a start, and the only thing like it Frasier had seen on his face in weeks.
* * *
Four hours and a stinging Level Two Quarantine shower later, Jack pulled up sharply in the doorway of the infirmary, checking his momentum with a hand on the doorjamb. "Oh, that does not look good," he said, half to himself and half to Teal'c who, of course, did not run into him from behind.
Absorbed in her examination of the folder she carried, Carter did collide with the two of them, her head coming up sharply as a reflex apology tumbled out. Following Jack's gaze, she gave up the apology and opted for "oh." Even from halfway across the infirmary they could see that Daniel's knuckles were white. He stood leaning back against the foot rail of an empty bed, his shoulders hunched, his hands clutching the rail like it was the only thing keeping him standing. Without his glasses, he stared myopically at the concrete floor in front of him, his jaw clenching and unclenching rhythmically. This was Daniel in the grip of something he didn't even have the strength to fend off by folding his arms across his chest.
Across the aisle from Daniel, in an identical bed, Leda lay, a small mound under blankets. Frasier was beside her, overseeing an orderly who was tightening the restraints around Leda's limp wrists. Noticing the trio hovering in the doorway, Frasier collected her clipboard from the end of Leda's bed and strode over to make her report.
"What's with the restraints?" Jack demanded in a low voice, waving a hand toward Leda and the orderly. "The snake is dead, right?" Restraints and snakes went together in his mind; restraints and Leda's thin wrists did not.
Frasier reassured him, "Yes, Colonel, it's definitely dead, and almost completely reabsorbed." She acknowledged Carter's surprised expression with an arched eyebrow, then pulled herself up to her full height and assumed the professional face she put on when reporting bad news. "But Dr. Novak woke up, delusional. She tore open the back of her neck." Frasier turned her head to sweep an assessing gaze across her patient and Daniel's unmoving form. "She did it with her fingernails. It took eleven stitches." Her mouth turned downward in a meaningful grimace of sympathy and concern.
"Oy," Jack breathed, swiping at his eye with the side of his hand before settling both hands onto his hips.
With a questioning glance at Jack, for which she received a curt nod, Carter walked over and leaned against the bed next to Daniel, her file folded in her arms against her chest. Like Jack's, Carter's blond hair was still wet from the decontamination showers, her skin shiny and red. She was exhausted after hours of searching the empty Goa'uld fortress and finding nothing of the missing soldiers. Jack knew she was as frustrated as he was. He could see it in the tense line of her neck. But she seemed to put that away now, speaking softly and gently to Daniel, her hand releasing her folder to cover his where it gripped the rail. If he noticed her, he gave no sign of it.
"So, how's our boy?" Jack asked, his dark eyes intense with concern as he watched Carter trying, and failing, to get something out of the boy in question.
Frasier sighed. "He's alright. Physically," she finished with meaningful emphasis that drew Jack's attention back to her. "I'd like him to get away from. . . this," she waved her clipboard in the direction of Leda's bed, where the orderly was putting the finishing touches on the restraints at her feet. "Colonel, I learned a long time ago that I can't keep you people out of the infirmary if you're sufficiently motivated to be here, but I think he needs some time to regroup, at least. Food. Sleep. And, since I gave him a sedative, it's necessary that he's supervised."
"Ya think?" The man didn't look like he could operate a fork, let alone drive a car or cook a meal. Jack rubbed his eye again and straightened up, ready to take control. "No sweat, Doc. Get Carter to fill you in on the, ah," he wiggled his fingers, looking for the official term, "the magic Breen-goo. And tell her to meet us in, say, twenty."
Frasier nodded and collected Carter and the preliminary spectrography on the samples she'd collected. Many more tests lay ahead and that file was going to get very thick. As she rose, Carter squeezed Daniel's arm, but got no response. His eyes stayed fast on his spot on the floor. With a pained look at her CO, Carter followed the doctor out of the infirmary and on to the biochem lab.
With Teal'c a pace behind him, Jack sidled up to Daniel slowly with the wary caution he'd use around a wounded animal. He knew Daniel well enough to recognize what was going on behind that fixed stare. Daniel was trapped in a replay, and probably beating himself black and blue because, from his cock-eyed perspective, he felt responsible.
It was . . . Daniel didn't even have a word, in any of his twenty-three Earth languages, ancient or modern, for what he was seeing in his mind's eye. Leda hadn't floated up from the depths of catatonia, surfacing gently into the light and a circle of concerned and familiar faces. She tore into consciousness pursued by a demon. Her scream was so sudden, piercing the ordered silence of the infirmary, that a nurse dropped a tray of instruments onto the floor with a tremendous crash and clatter. As Leda struggled against an invisible assailant, her IV pulled out of the back of her hand, the EEG leads that haloed her forehead popping free, causing the machine's alarm to chime, adding to the chaos. Inarticulate with terror, she shouted out garbled fragments, something almost recognizable as language, like someone speaking in tongues. Her hands scrabbled at the back of her neck and her fingers came away bloody.
Daniel heard all of this from down the hall as he returned from the commissary. His cup of coffee slipping from his hand and smashing on the concrete floor, he sprinted down the corridor and into the infirmary to find her struggling against two orderlies whose broad backs blocked his view of everything but her thrashing legs, caught up and tangled in the bedclothes. Instinctively, he leapt on the two men, pulling them back, forcing his way between them and Leda, knowing that they were trying to help, but certain, anyway, that they would hurt her. Without the pressure of their hands to hold her in the bed, Leda squirmed away, sliding onto the floor with the sickening slap of bare knees on concrete. She crawled away and wedged herself into the corner between the next bed and the wall.
Cowering, one hand held up in front of her face, the other on the back of her neck, she looked up in wild panic from between her fingers. "God!" The word exploded out of her as she met Daniel's eyes. For a moment she almost seemed to recognize him and the panic receded a bit, supplanted by a ferocious expression of determination. "I. Won't!" she insisted with distinct defiance, her impossibly dark eyes glaring into the middle distance. But she couldn't stare her opponent down, and faltering, she began to speak rapidly in Goa'uld. "You are nothing," she roared, looking directly into Daniel's startled face. "I rule here! And you will know your place." Then she squeezed her eyes shut and, with a scream of impotent rage, she began to claw at her neck again, pounding the floor with her heels in frustration.
The orderlies started to close in, but Daniel waved them away. Speaking softly to her, calling her name, he crouched down beside her, grasping her wrists and pulling them away from her bloody neck. At the sound of her name she opened her eyes, but there was no recognition in them now, only terror. Yanking him toward her as she tried to free herself, she pulled him into the wall beside her, where he cracked his elbow against the concrete. He yelped at the singing wire of pain that shot up his arm, but managed to retain his hold on her wrist, clamping it in his numb fingers as she writhed away from him. He maneuvered himself until he was sitting, legs straddled, behind her and pulled her into him, folding both their arms across her chest and holding her wrists tightly. Now she was held fast between his legs, and he threw his legs over hers as she bucked and strained against him. His mouth close to her ear, he whispered to her, shushing her like a baby in a tantrum, saying her name softly over and over, until Frasier moved in with the hypodermic needle and plunged it into Leda's arm. Leda arched her back, her head hard against his collarbone, and then went slack. Her eyes gazed blankly for a moment at the ceiling before they rolled up in her head and the lids slid shut.
At a signal from Frasier, one of the orderlies bent down and lifted the unconscious woman from Daniel's grasp. Daniel could see Leda's arms hanging down limply like broken wings and he turned suddenly and threw up, one hand on the cold floor, the other braced against the wall, his glasses slipping off and skittering under the bed. When he'd righted himself, sweaty and shaking, he drew his knees up and pressed the heels of his trembling hands hard into his eyes.
Now he was standing--how he got that way, he didn't know--anchoring himself to the bed rail, and feeling oddly afloat. Frasier had given him a mild sedative and it had calmed his body but left him at the mercy of his mind as it spun endlessly through the loop of memory. He could still feel Leda against his chest as she struggled to escape from the ghost of the thing inside her, her screams of terror and defiance drowning out every other sound. He was distantly aware of Jack standing near him, outwardly calm but tense with worry like a spring wound tight, and of Teal'c behind Jack, his hands clasped behind his back, his stoic solidity a kind of counterweight, balancing and braced to absorb the tensions of the others. Daniel heard Jack ask him if he was okay, but that seemed like such a colossally stupid question that he couldn't be bothered to rally his limited resources to answer it. Hell, he couldn't even raise his eyes from the floor. Besides, the floor was safe. If he looked up he'd see Leda strapped to the bed, and that made his stomach lurch and he didn't feel in the mood right now for dry heaves.
"Daniel," Jack repeated, getting decidedly unnerved by the archeologist's blank unresponsiveness. "C'mon, look here." He positioned himself between Daniel and his magic spot on the floor and bent down to put his face directly in the young man's glazed line of sight. As Daniel's eyes focused finally on his face, Jack straightened up, relieved when Daniel's head rose to follow him. "Geez," Jack said, laying his hands briefly on either side of Daniel's face, "how much did Ol' Doc Frasier give you?"
Daniel might be looking at him, but his face was still expressionless, and Jack felt a kind of helpless anger rise up, tightening his chest and making his ears burn. He wanted to stomp something, preferably a snake-something, but there was only Daniel here, waiting for him to take action that would break this spell. With no little difficulty, he put the soldier away for the time being, gently gripping Daniel's shoulders and firmly tugging him upright. Responding without resistance, Daniel straightened, releasing the bed rail, but swaying a little unsteadily on his feet.
"Well, you're a fright," Jack observed wryly, reaching up to finger Daniel's shirt which was stiff and dark with Leda's blood. "What say we get you cleaned up, okay?"
Blinking like he'd just come to, Daniel looked down at his shirt. Then he raised his puzzled eyes to Jack's, and the colonel winced inwardly. Outwardly, though, his face was calm. "C'mon," he urged, guiding Daniel out of the infirmary by the arm, Teal'c walking protectively on the other side of him.
Between the two of them, they managed to get him undressed and into the shower. As Daniel was still unsteady, Jack hovered just outside the half-closed curtain, prodding him gently into motion again when he became transfixed by the sight of Leda's blood as the soap carried it off of his neck and down the drain. His left elbow was mottled by the beginnings of an ugly black bruise, but he didn't seem to notice it much. By the time he stepped from the stall, he was coming back to himself a bit, drying off and mechanically putting on each piece of clothing as Jack handed it to him. Lowering himself onto the bench, he bent to tie his shoes. His first attempt was unsuccessful, as his drug-numbed fingers fumbled with the laces, and he ended up with a knot instead of a bow.
Leaning on the locker behind him, next to Teal'c, Jack tried not to watch as Daniel yanked petulantly on the laces and then tied a bow on top of the knot, swearing softly. Out of the corner of his eye Jack could see Teal'c's face, his eyes also politely averted from his friend's clumsy frustration, but there was a muscle jumping in his jaw.
"We have seen others who have survived infestation by the Goa'uld," Teal'c said suddenly, his deep voice a soft purr. "Your friend is very strong. I believe that she will recover from this ordeal, DanielJackson."
Daniel's head came up and then bent again as he contemplated these words. With his long hair, Jack mused, Daniel had sometimes come off as a kid, practically doe-eyed, needing protection from his own curiosity; the short hair made him look more adult, harder, more the incisive intellect and capable man he really was. But now, as he sat there with his long-fingered hands hanging slack and useless between his knees, his exposed neck seemed vulnerable, the knotted muscles twitching under the skin. It made Jack's hands ache. He put them in his pockets.
After a moment Daniel turned to look at Teal'c over his shoulder. "I hope so," he answered without much conviction.
The Jaffa inclined his head in a bow that acknowledged this hope and managed to convey sympathy and even some of the outrage that Teal'c somehow kept tightly contained. Turning to Jack, he raised a questioning eyebrow and, when Jack nodded, he went to the door.
With another brief bow, he was gone, the door closing softly behind him.
As Daniel went back to tying his laces, Jack came around and straddled the bench beside him. After watching two more failed attempts, he leaned down and, swatting Daniel's hands away, finished the job. "Frasier's gone a bit overboard with the meds, here," he muttered, "Or didn't your mom show you how to do this when you were a kid?"
"Sandals," Daniel responded vaguely, plucking at his plaid shirt as if realizing for the first time that Jack had dressed him in civvies instead of fatigues. Bristling, he refused to look up.
"You don't even know what I'm gonna say," Jack protested with spread hands.
Daniel sighed and bent down to wipe a scuff off of the toe of his very scuffed, very unmilitary brown suede shoes. "No, I don't. But I'm--"
"You have to step back from this." Jack's voice was businesslike, as detached as he could make it, the commanding officer making the hard call.
Daniel looked up at the locker in front of him, his brow furrowing. "Step back."
"Yes," the colonel responded in a determined, level voice. He could see the tension building in the line of Daniel's jaw, the way his back was straightening. Oh, boy. He braced himself.
"I have to," Daniel inhaled and let it out slowly, considering. "Step. Back." He turned to look at Jack, his face finally showing an expression, which was some improvement, but it wasn't pretty. "Really, Jack. That's what you think, is it? I'll just step back." He enunciated the last two words clearly, pausing between them as though the sound of them alone were enough to demonstrate the absurdity of Jack's statement. "Just," an ironic, dismal laugh, "walk away." He made a fluttering motion with his hand, indicating a desertion. "Like you would do, if it were one of us." He waited for Jack to reply and when he didn't, he shook his head and looked away. "Right," he said bitterly.
Jack felt his hackles go up and struggled to smooth them again. He raised a finger in warning, his face tight as he controlled his anger. It wasn't Daniel he was angry at, he reminded himself, even if he was being a typically contrarious pain-in-the-ass. At least he was that far back to normal. "This isn't about me, Daniel. It's about you." With a derisive snort, Daniel got up and pulled on his jacket, but Jack continued, raising his voice. "And about how there's no way you can stand to go through this again."
"Oh, I'll tell you what I can't stand--" Daniel retorted, heading for the door.
"Daniel!" The urgency in Jack's voice arrested him, his hand on the doorknob. He didn't turn around, but he didn't leave either. Jack hesitated, unsure of where to go from here, whether or not to push it. He stood and put himself between Daniel and the door. Opening and closing his mouth a couple of times, he finally pleaded in frustration, "For cryin' out loud. Can we just shut up and get out of here? Can we do that, please?"
"Daniel." He softened as Daniel raised his eyes to the ceiling and then lowered them to gaze stonily a point somewhere in the middle of Jack's chest. This could go either way--belligerent resistance or resigned obedience--but whichever way it went, Jack was not leaving the mountain without Daniel and, god help him, whatever complex, messy crap he was bringing with him. "She's down for the count," Jack told him, gently, "at least until tomorrow. And you should be, too." He tilted his head to catch Daniel's eye. "Leave some of the agony for the rest of us, okay?"
Daniel's shoulders sagged, the fight gone out of him. He nodded and let himself be ushered out of the locker room and through the maze of the complex. Standing in the elevator between Sam and Teal'c, he took off his glasses and put them carefully into his jacket pocket, not bothering to try to squint the world into focus. "Sometimes we can forget," he murmured at the floor. "It's either your way, Jack, or another couple or five of Janet's pills."
With raised eyebrows and a glance at Carter's surprised face, Jack nodded. "Okay," he conceded, "Food first, though. And if you can get Doc's drugs out of your system, we'll see what we can do." Pushing himself up from his casual slouch in the corner as the doors slid open, he pointed a finger at Daniel's bleary eyes. "But you puke in the car, I kill you."
* * *
"Blurry. I know."
"Blurry. Blurred. I feel like a smudge." That made him laugh, which made him squirm, which made Sam lose her balance and dump him on his face on his bed, which made him laugh, but he was too tired to squirm anymore, which made Sam happy.
"Well," Sam grouched as she rolled him over and lifted his feet up onto the bed. "You're the heaviest smudge I've carried to bed in awhile."
"Carried many to bed lately, Major?" Jack's face was blandly innocent as he stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets, watching Sam as she sat down beside Daniel's feet and undid one of his shoes.
"Only when I pull the short straw, Colonel," she answered without looking up. After prying at the knot on the other shoe with her fingernails for a few moments, she gave up and tried to pull the shoe off. It wouldn't budge. Blowing air out in a huff, she pulled her Swiss Army knife out of her coat pocket and cut the laces with a couple of practiced swipes. She tossed Daniel's shoes in the general direction of his closet. "You don't have to stick around, sir," she said, working on his socks. "I've got it from here."
"Uh huh." Jack sauntered into the en suite and returned with the waste basket and a glass of water, placing the basket on the floor near the head of the bed and the water on the bedside table. "Sure?"
She nodded. "The couch doesn't look too bad," she observed skeptically.
"Okay. Back for you at 06:30." He made a show of looking at his watch. "Ooooh, that's not very far off. Not enough time to get a sore back on that couch, anyway."
"Sweet dreams, campers," Jack sang, waving over his shoulder as he left.
Sam heard him lock the door as he and Teal'c booked like the cowards they were, leaving her with a potentially maudlin and most certainly woozy archeologist. Or, if she was lucky, an unconscious archeologist and a couch that looked like it was designed by a sleep expert for the Inquisition. Looking covetously at the expanse of comfortable posturepedic space on the other side of Daniel's queen-sized bed, she wondered idly for a moment if he'd even notice if she just curled up here, way over on the edge, like. But then she remembered the woozy archeologist part of the equation, and the couch started to look better.
"What are you doing?"
She stopped and looked up at him for a second and then went back to wrestling his pants off of the deadweight of his almost sleeping body. "I'm taking your pants off," she said matter-of- factly.
"Y'know, you could help a little," she grumbled, finally getting them down around his knees and pulling them over his feet. "Geez, Daniel, where'd you get such inconveniently long legs?"
"Right." Climbing up his body, she straddled his hips and, grasping his wrists, heaved him upright, draping his arms over her shoulders as she pulled his shirt up over his head.
When his face was visible again and they were nose to nose, he said earnestly, "We're so much alike, Sam. Not like the rest of them."
"That's the plan."
"Nope." She nudged him, letting him flop back down on the pillows and pulling his sleeves the rest of the way off of his arms as he fell. "Danger pay."
He stared at the ceiling, his hands gripping the bedclothes. "The room is spinning."
"No, kiddo, that's just you."
His eyes slid shut. "Well, that is a relief."
She leaned down and ruffled his hair, which was less satisfying than it used to be, now that he'd cropped it, and clambered off of the bed. There was no way she was going to get the covers down and him inside them, so she settled for folding the bedspread over him. He was breathing steadily, but there was still a crease of tension between his eyebrows that no amount of alcohol could ease. At least he was sleeping. They'd managed to follow Janet's orders that far. Sam was not looking forward to the reaming the colonel was going to get tomorrow when they dragged Daniel's sorry, sodden ass back down to the infirmary. Thank you, god, for the chain of command.
Just as she was turning to go to face the tortures of the couch, he spoke, his voice thick with sleep, and something else. Sadness. "You'd better just get far away, Sam. Far. Away."
Curiosity is gonna kill this USAF Major Carter-cat, she told herself as she came back to the bed. "Why's that, Daniel?" she asked, sitting next to him and caressing the crease with a finger. It wouldn't go away.
"Stick with me, you get it in the neck." A little, sad laugh. "Literally. Kiss me, and Bam! a snake in your head." He threw his forearm over his eyes. The laugh again. "Of course, this is assuming I actually am the miserable centre of the whole fucking m'levolent universe." And that, folks, Sam thought, is Daniel in a nutshell: too much ironic self-awareness even to let himself enjoy a good, drunken, self-pitying wallow.
Sam watched him for a moment, unsure of what to say. He'd already used her best argument. She leaned closer, pulling his arm away so that she could see his face. "Relax about that one, Daniel. They already put a snake in my head, remember? And I'm not going anywhere, either."
Okay, why did she say that? "Snake in my head." Geez. This was not an avenue she wanted to follow in the middle of the night with a friend she'd protected from having to talk about this very thing for years. It wasn't like it was a secret. But she never said it. She said "Jolinar" or "symbiote" and, yes, there was a difference. And, yes, it was exactly the same. A snake is a snake is a snake when you don't have a say in the matter. Being taken gave the words "meat puppet" a whole new meaning. And on one level--an important but pointedly-unacknowledged level--it didn't matter that Jolinar turned out to be one of the "good guys," or that Sam herself had come to understand that Jolinar had had no choice, or that her own father was blended and got along famously with his new room mate. There was no violation she could think of that could even come close. Except seeing it happen to somebody you loved. There were mind-fucks and then there were mind-fucks, and she and Daniel were, like he said, so much alike. Lucky us.
Daniel opened his eyes and reached out to twine his fingers around hers. "I'm sorry, Sam," he whispered. Then, louder, "I didn't mean. . . . I'm obviously very drunk and very stupid."
She squeezed his fingers and ruffled his hair again with her other hand. "No, that's not it at all," she clarified, perhaps a tad too brightly. "It happened and I survived it. That's what matters."
"How?" His eyes were pleading. "She was speaking Goa'uld, for god's sake."
She tried not to shrug. The truth was, she didn't know. And she wasn't past it. Not at all. Almost three years later and she was still waking up in cold sweat every other night, feeling the creature curling around her spine, insinuating itself into her mind. Sometimes she still even got that weird double vision, as though a second negative were laid on top of her own perceptions. Floating feelings that didn't belong to her. Distasteful thoughts. That lingering arrogance that rose up at unexpected moments, causing her to come close to losing her temper because some human wasn't working fast enough or thinking hard enough. And this was the nice Tok'ra hangover. Lucky me. But she was functioning. Somehow she'd been able to find a way to separate the alien from the familiar, at least enough to make it through the day, most of the time, without that awful feeling of vertigo as she looked into the abyss of the Other and remembered what it was like to be lost there. She'd survived because she'd had to. Because they'd needed her to. And that was enough.
She touched the crease on his brow again, and this time it started to relax a bit. "I had you," she said simply, putting the rest of it away again.
* * *
Sam was instantly alert, knowing she was being watched. Lifting her head from the pillow and shifting on the bumpy cushions of the couch, she peered into the grey light. Across from her, Daniel sat in the armchair. One elbow rested on the arm of the chair, his forefinger rubbing gently against his lips in a familiar gesture of contemplation. His other hand, though, plucked nervously at the piping along the edge of seat cushion between his legs. As was usual these days, Daniel looked like he was moving in two directions, toward introspection on the one hand and agitation on the other. How long can he keep this up? she wondered, watching him watch her.
"What is it?" she asked finally as she levered herself up onto her elbow.
He lowered his hand, picking at the wooden arm of the chair, his knee starting to bounce. Clamping his other hand down on it, he forced it to be still, then leaned forward, both elbows on his knees, his lips pressed against his folded hands.
"It's okay. You can ask me anything you want to." Sam sat up, crosslegged, and pulled the pillow onto her lap.
"I--" he started, his voice muffled by his hands. A deep breath. He looked up, his eyes fixed on a spot on the wall over her left shoulder. "I just need to know . . . what it--" His face crumpled and he bowed his head. "I just need to know what it felt like," he said indistinctly to the floor, his lips barely moving.
In almost three years no-one had asked her this. Not really asked, that is. Warner had been clinical. Was there pain? How long did it take for the symbiote to take over your motor functions? Did the symbiote communicate directly? Even Janet had been circumspect, just like the rest of her friends. They'd respected her privacy, knowing she was too stubborn to let this thing take over what it meant to be Sam Carter. Hanging on to Sam Carter meant coping with this in the same over achieving way she coped with everything. She was an Air Force officer, a scientist, not Jolinar's host. Not a victim. And holding on to that meant coping privately with that messy, scary stuff that woke her up at night and made her feel sometimes like her grip on her identity was way more slippery than anybody, especially Sam Carter, was willing to admit. She would use Jolinar's knowledge just as Jolinar used her body. Jolinar was intel. Jolinar's memories were fingerprints, the smudged traces of a presence that was long gone. They could mark Sam's surfaces but they couldn't change her substance. Sam had repeated this to herself so often it had taken on the character of truth. Sometimes she believed it.
Who could understand it, anyway, who hadn't felt it? How could she possibly describe what it was like to realize that she'd become something alien? Sure, they talked about the Goa'uld as though they were like humans. Love, hate, evil, arrogance. But the Goa'uld were none of those things. They just borrowed these things when they borrowed a human mind. These things were just an imperfect grammar through which the alien expressed itself. But you can't get violin music out of a piano, and the human expression of the Goa'uld was always only an approximation, an illusion of familiarity, of common ground. There was no word for what it felt like to touch the absolutely Other. No metaphor that could come close to expressing it.
But now Daniel was asking, needing to understand.
"It was like--" She held her spread hands up to her head, over her ears. "--like drowning, but not in water. In. . . in--"
She looked at him, sitting there in the grey dawn light, resting his forehead on his folded hands, and suddenly that gesture, that fist pressed against the ear, made perfect sense. There were mind-fucks and then there were mind-fucks. Lucky, lucky us.
End of Part Two
* * * PART THREE
Being so caught up, So mastered by the brute blood of the air, Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? (William Butler Yeats, "Leda and the Swan")
Both General Hammond and Dr. Frasier were giving Jack the face, sometimes alternately and occasionally, when he was unlucky, hitting him with the full double-barrel. The face said, "What were you thinking?" and Jack responded with a shrug that said, "Archeologists. Who knew?"
The object of their silent dialogue sat across from Jack and Carter at the conference table, flanked by Frasier and Dr. MacKenzie on one side and Teal'c on the other. Daniel was gripping a coffee mug like it was the last solid thing in a disintegrating universe. Pasty would be a good word to describe him, except that the word implied too much robust colour and vivacious energy. He still hadn't put his glasses on, although they were lying unfolded on the leather cover of his journal in case he were called upon to actually join the rest of the world. For now, Daniel was happy with a bit more blur, although he wished that people wouldn't insist on rustling their clothing quite so energetically. And there was something downright malicious in the way they kept blinking. Crash, crash, crash.
Agreeing tacitly to table their reprimands for later, Hammond and Frasier released Jack from the grip of their admonishing expressions and Hammond started the briefing.
"Alright, doctor. What have you learned about the substance SG-1 brought back?"
Frasier opened her file, which sounded to Daniel precisely like a slab of stone being dragged across the floor in a giant echo chamber, and reported, scanning her notes. "We introduced the substance from the, ah, life support unit to both human and Goa'uld cells, those ones cultured from Teal'c's symbiote, and we've confirmed that the agent attacks only Goa'uld physiology. Which may be why the, ah--" a quick glance at Daniel, "--parasite decayed so quickly in Dr. Novak's body."
"Sweet," Jack said, looking up from his copy of Frasier's unintelligible notes. "Goa'uld repellant!"
"More like a Goa'uld antidote," she corrected. "The substance is based on nanocyte technology." As Jack's expression turned wary, she hurried to explain, "Once they complete their task, which is apparently to break down the Goa'uld cellular material, the nanocytes deactivate, so there's no risk to humans from the substance at all. Teal'c will have to be careful around it, though," she qualified, looking around Daniel and receiving a nod of acknowledgment from the Jaffa. "Unfortunately, sir," she continued, turning to Hammond and folding her hands on her file, ready with the bad news, "it seems to have a limited shelf life. The entirety of the sample brought back by SG-1, along with everything we were able to harvest from their uniforms and the grey water from the quarantine showers is now inactive and," she spread her hands resignedly, "useless to us."
"Can you synthesize it?" Hammond asked hopefully.
Frasier shook her head. "We can duplicate the organic and the chemical components, but until our own nanocyte technology advances considerably, we won't be able to replicate the results. This will have to remain theoretical for now, sirs, unless we can find a reliable source of the material and then learn how to preserve what we bring back."
"So it's a good news-bad news scenario," Jack concluded, unable to hide his disappointment.
Turning to Carter, Hammond was clearly looking for more on the good news side of things. "What about the machine, the medical device, or whatever it is, that you brought back?"
Carter also had to disappoint him. "Sorry, sir. All of the internal mechanisms and circuitry in the tank are fused. It seems it had some kind of anti-tampering protocol. We're still working on it, though. We might be able to salvage something, anyway."
Nodding, Hammond turned his pale blue eyes on Dr. MacKenzie, who was peering through his half-glasses at his report. "Doctor, what's your assessment of Dr. Novak's condition? Is she still under restraint?" Daniel winced slightly at his words. The fingers around his coffee mug tightened their grip.
MacKenzie adjusted his glasses on the end of his nose and flipped pages. "Yessir, she is. According to Dr. Frasier, Dr. Novak in is in pretty good physical health, aside from acute dehydration, some irregularities in ocular pigmentation, and the injuries she inflicted on herself yesterday. It's hard to say what she went through while she was infected or during her time with the Breen, since the Goa'uld repairs most injuries to the host body, leaving almost no trace of them."
"So we can't tell if she was forcefully brought to the chamber or if the Breen injured or interrogated her," Frasier clarified. "We've been going on the assumption that the Breen are interested attacking the parasite only and not the human host. But they've covered their tracks very well, so it's hard to say what their ultimate goals are or what the long-term effects of exposure to this technology will be."
"Yes. Those details are as of yet unknown."
"So we still can't say for sure if these guys are white hats or black hats," Jack summarized.
"As I said, while the preliminary findings suggest that the Breen's interventions were intended to be positive, the data do not allow us to determine that either way." MacKenzie turned the page in his folder. "Now, as for her mental condition, she awoke yesterday in a delusional and violent state. We'll have to wait to see what the consequences of her infestation will be. The question will be how much of her Goa'uld memory she will retain. I'd conjecture, though, that her delusional attempt to remove the parasite suggests at least some conscious awareness of the blending."
Daniel snorted softly at his word, blowing air out his nose with barely-concealed frustration.
MacKenzie noted his response, but continued, "Based on what we know about Major Kowalski's experience, and that of the woman you met on Cimmeria--" He consulted his notes. "Kendra, and Dr. Jackson's experience with Sha'uri when the parasite was dormant during her pregnancy, we can surmise that the host personality remains intact, if obviously stressed by the experience of blending." He hesitated, looking at Daniel over the rims of his glasses. "However, Dr. Jackson reported that Dr. Novak was speaking Goa'uld when she awoke yesterday. This is not something we've encountered in similar cases. This may be some cause for concern if the patient has lost the ability to distinguish between her own personality and that of the parasite. We'll have to wait, of course, until Dr. Novak regains consciousness to get a clearer picture."
Carter was nodding, her arms folded across her chest. "I know that even in the most detailed of Jolinar's memories, I still don't have full command of the Goa'uld language. It's like watching a foreign film without the subtitles. And, actually, that's one of the things that helps me keep her experiences and feelings distinct from mine." She met Daniel's eyes. After their hesitant talk in the small hours of the morning, he had a better idea than anyone at the table how crucial and sometimes tenuous this distinction was for her.
"But Jolinar was Tok'ra," Daniel said, leaning forward and joining the discussion. He delicately picked his way through the information that Sam had shared with him, careful to protect her privacy. "She knew you weren't a voluntary host and possibly tried to shield you from a more, uh, penetrating symbiosis. This parasite would have had no motivation to spare the host in that way. It's goal was total subjugation."
"You're assuming that the symbiote was not Tok'ra," Frasier objected. "We've no way of knowing that."
"Aw, c'mon," Jack growled in his best cut-the-crap tone. "I think trying to pry the thing out with your bare hands would be a clue that this was not a warm relationship here."
Now Hammond leaned forward, cutting off what was becoming fairly fruitless speculation in the absence of solid information. His round face sober, he considered a moment before speaking. "Of course, Dr. Novak's recovery is a priority. But she was infected by a Goa'uld, so they know what she knew, and we have to ascertain to whom and how far her knowledge of this facility was disseminated."
"And what happened to SG-7," Jack added. "If she's still alive, maybe they are too."
"And the Breen. It would be nice to know something about them," Carter chimed in to finish the list.
No-one raised the obvious: the more Leda Novak retained of her Goa'uld memories, the more useful she'd be as a source of intelligence. They all knew what such an "advantage" would mean to the woman lying tied to the bed on Level Twenty-One.
Hammond turned to Frasier. "When will she be available for questioning?"
"She's sleeping now, but not sedated. Sometime today, if she doesn't have another episode."
"Alright, then, Colonel O'Neill, you and Dr. MacKenzie--"
"I'll do it," Daniel interrupted him quietly, his head down, his fingers picking at the binding of his journal.
"Dr. Jackson, I think that it would be a good idea for you to--"
Daniel turned to him, his blue eyes determined. "Don't ask me to step back from this." Sensing Jack tense at his insubordinate tone, he went on in a calmer voice, explaining, "She trusts me." He looked down at his hands clasped tightly now around the edges of his book. "At least she used to."
* * *
I WILL NOT GO TO THE GATEROOM. Daniel read the words printed neatly at the top of the journal page again. Then, with equal neatness, he drew a line through them, then two more. He added crosshatching, first angling his short, even strokes to the left, then to the right. Finally, he blotted the whole thing out with a close, looping scribble. By this time, the ink from his pen was beginning to seep through to the back of the page. It didn't matter. That page, too, was blank beneath the date inscribed in the top-left hand corner. In twenty years Daniel had never crossed out anything he'd written in a journal, except to correct for accuracy. This small act of vandalism in itself would normally have generated a page or two of self-analysis. But there were no words today, either, and his pen hovered over the latest of twenty-four dated, blank journal pages.
Casting his mind back, he tried to remember a time when words had deserted him like this. He couldn't think of any. Even after Sha'uri had been taken, even after she'd died, he'd filled pages, mostly with self-recrimination, and fervent promises that he would not give up and he would not forget. Testimony to a private judge, an unseen jury. Not exactly great literature, but it served a purpose. He needed grammar, sense relations, the neat boxes of paragraphs to contain his thoughts, syntax to remind him that the universe could be controlled by the orderly progression of meaningful characters. He needed the uncritical, ruled pages to impose order on his labyrinthine thinking as he wandered his way back to the centre of himself again. But now, not only that centre, but the means of finding it eluded him. Theseus had lost hold of Ariadne's thread.
Disgusted, he snapped the book shut and slid down in the uncomfortable infirmary chair, resting his head against the hard edge of the chair back, his eyes closed. God, he was tired, but the infirmary was restless, offering no comfort but its watchful efficiency. Beside him Leda's pulse monitor beeped softly, and he could hear the sounds of nurses moving back and forth executing tasks, their voices quiet, their movements purposeful. Hospitals and churches, he thought, hushed voices and mysterious rites. He'd never been at ease in either. There was always that feeling of being watched, anatomized, weighed and measured and found wanting. Sin and sickness. One so easily mistaken for the other. The priest peering through the screen: "Show me your corruption and I'll absolve you." Frasier with her penlight searching the windows of the soul: "Show me your pain and I'll cut it out." Show us. Show your weakness and we will devise your penance, your drug. He thought of MacKenzie with his half-glasses, watching his patient flay himself alive with words, displaying his battered psyche like an exploded diagram in a textbook. Precise arrows pointed at each neatly-labeled scar: survivor guilt, post-traumatic stress; here, raped by a bitch-goddess; here, soul-devouring addiction; here, left for dead, and left for dead again; here, a wife abducted; a wife raped and impregnated; a wife killed in the act of murdering him--the litany decayed into a buzzing whine.
Above it, in the outside world, he could hear the faint whir of the security camera, feel its mechanical gaze sweep across him, and with an effort he kept his hands in his lap, the familiar pressure of the pen against the callous on his middle finger stopping him from raising his fists to his ears. Suddenly, he could see himself from the camera's perspective: a man in rumpled fatigues, slouched in a chair in the darkness of secrecy at the heart of a mountain, pierced by a dozen inquisitive or solicitous or calculating gazes, each one a laser beam lighting him up like a lantern as it impaled him. Confession and cure. Show us. Show it all. Slumping lower, he folded his arms across his chest, getting smaller, harder to see. Churches and hospitals. Doctors and demons and gods. He'd looked into the glowing eyes of gods and it didn't matter that they were false gods because their violence was real. It didn't matter that in fact they were dependent and weak because their dependence and weakness made them vengeful. And if they wanted to see into your heart, they just took it and made it their own. And Daniel had no words, nothing to hold any of them at bay.
Even if he went to see MacKenzie, what could he say except that there were no more words? In four short years he'd used up every word he had for loss. And the rest was silence.
His eyes fluttering open, he looked around, uncertain whether or not he had actually heard his name. The nurse was counting boxes at the supply shelf; Frasier was on the phone by the door.
"Are you okay?"
Slowly, as if unwilling to prove himself wrong, he turned his head and met Leda's open eyes. She was looking at him, her head turned on her pillow, her brow creased with concern.
"Are you okay, Daniel?" she asked him again.
Leaning forward in his chair, he grasped her hand, his fingers sliding over the leather of the restraints to squeeze hers. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Instead he ducked his head, gulping a couple of breaths before looking back at the frightening darkness of her eyes. "It's alright," he reassured her then, his voice husky. "It's okay." With his other hand he reached up to smooth a wisp of hair off of her forehead. "How are you?"
Her lips quirking up in a quizzical smile, she searched his face. "Better than you, I think," she observed as the smile faded. "Daniel, what's wrong?"
Wiggling her fingers free of his, she started to reach up to touch his face, but was stopped by the restraint around her wrist. Her eyes on his, she tugged at it experimentally a couple of times, and then lowered her gaze to look at first one hand, then the other and then her feet. When she raised her eyes again, they were shadowed by growing panic.
"It's okay, Leda." She tugged at the restraints on her hands again, harder, her breathing becoming ragged. He closed his hand tightly over hers and leaned closer, speaking firmly and softly. "It's okay. You woke up before and you were confused. These are just to keep you from hurting yourself."
Calming down, she closed her eyes, considering. "Hurt myself," she repeated. Then, in a level voice, she said, "Well, I'm not going to hurt myself now."
Nodding, Daniel turned and caught Frasier's eye. The doctor hung up the phone and came to the other side of Leda's bed, her face brightening with that trademark, winning smile. "Well, hello, Dr. Novak. Nice to see you. How are you feeling?" Without waiting for a reply, Frasier whipped out her penlight and flashed it in each of Leda's eyes.
"Restrained," Leda answered, the tone of her voice leaving no doubt about her opinion on the matter.
Frasier leaned back, checking the readouts on the monitor at the head of the bed. "If you can assure us that you're feeling yourself--"
"What I feel is tied to a bed. I don't want to be tied to a bed. If I'm still tied to a bed in ten seconds, I'm gonna feel like calling a lawyer, or my uncle Derek who, in addition to having the biggest ball of rubber bands in three states, knows karate and is dying to use it. I can dial the phone with my tongue. I've done it before--"
"Alright! Alright, already!" Frasier held up her hands in surrender, trying not to smile. As she worked at the buckles on her side of the bed, Daniel on the other, she wondered aloud, "Are you at all related to Colonel O'Neill?"
Rubbing her wrist with her hand, Leda fixed Daniel with a "no bullshit, please" stare and demanded, "What the hell is going on?"
Daniel pulled up his chair and sat down again while Frasier raised the head of the bed and rearranged Leda's pillows, puttering and staying close for moral support.
"What do you remember?" he asked working his way up to things.
"What do you mean, 'what do you remember?' What kind of a question is that? If I don't remember something, how would I know I don't remember it? I remember what I remember."
He closed his eyes and tried to gather his thoughts. Two minutes awake and she was already talking him into knots. "What's the last thing you remember?" he tried again.
"I was in the tomb with Kresky. I was taking video of the inscriptions for you. It was raining and we were worried about the river."
Her brow furrowed as her eyes glazed over with concentration. "Then. . . . Then I was here tied to the bed." She bit her lip. "Obviously something happened I don't know about, and the fact that you're being so damn cagey about it means it was not something good. Is Jan okay? Kresky?"
So much for soft-peddling this. "Gruber's fine. He'll be here soon. Hammond recalled him from offworld when we brought you back." He paused, debating how much to hit her with at once, but he admitted that she wouldn't be satisfied until she knew it all. "But he and Cole came back from Urda alone. That was over three weeks ago. We don't know what happened to Kresky or Purchase. We were hoping that you would remember."
"Remember. Remember what?" she asked herself in a small voice. She shook her head in frustration, wincing as she felt the stitches pulling on the back of her neck. When her eyes darted back to fasten on his, they were full of dread. Daniel grabbed her hand, but she pulled free and, like she was moving in a dream, raised her hand and touched the bandages, feeling the healed entry scar where it extended above the gauze. Her eyes closed as understanding flooded her like icy water. "Oh God. Oh sweet Jesus."
Frasier stepped in, laying a comforting hand on Leda's leg. "The parasite is dead, Dr. Novak, and it's completely decayed, completely gone from your body."
Leda acknowledged this with a long exhalation of barely-formed relief. A tear leaked out from between her closed lids and traced its way down to her chin, where she wiped it away roughly with the back of her hand. "Did I hurt anyone?" she asked, her voice cold.
Again, Daniel's chin fell to his chest, his mind swerving, avoiding. Finally, he looked earnestly at her, and asserted emphatically, "No. You didn't hurt anyone, Leda."
Opening her eyes, she raised her hand and traced her finger gently across his haggard cheek. "Oh, I think I did."
* * *
The nurse leaned across Leda to untangle the cord for her pulse monitor.
"It's a blank, like I told you, like I told Hammond, and MacKenzie, and oh, I dunno, who else was here? Oprah? Larry King?" Leda was sounding both worried by the apparent--or not so apparent--holes in her memory, and irritated by having to keep retracing what wasn't there to be traced in the first place. "There's just nothing--"
She stopped, staring at the nurse's face. As the nurse started to straighten up, Leda reached out and clasped her face between her hands, turning her so that she could look at her more directly. Rolling her eyes to look at Daniel, the nurse seemed, quite understandably, confused by this, until Leda released her and carefully slid the nurse's glasses off of her nose, peering intently into the lenses.
"Oh," Daniel said, understanding now.
"I'll get a mirror." The nurse left her glasses with Leda and went to rummage in a cupboard.
"Any other surprises you're saving?" Leda demanded acidly, still trying to catch her reflection in the lenses.
Daniel shuffled uncomfortably. "N-no. Well, we're definitely getting to the bottom of the pile, anyway."
By this time the nurse was back with a rectangular hand mirror about the size of a book. Glancing at Daniel to double-check that this was going to be okay, and getting a nod, she handed the mirror to Leda.
"Oh my God!" Leda wailed when she looked into the mirror and saw her reflection looking back at her with jet black eyes. "Look at this!" She brought the mirror up close to her eyes for a second and then held it at arm's length. Finding that both views showed her the same picture, she settled for the middle distance. She slumped. "Well, it's official," she announced dismally. "I'm a freak."
"No. You're not a freak," Daniel objected calmly, trying to take the mirror from her. She was having none of it, though, and held fast. "It might just be temporary. And it'll just take some getting used to."
Leda shot him a "don't patronize me" glare that would have been deadly even without the admittedly somewhat freakish black eyes, and proceeded to poke holes in Daniel's logic. "If it was just temporary, I wouldn't have to get used to it, would I?" Wiping her hand across the mirror as though she could erase her reflection, she observed bleakly, "I look like a bloody cartoon character."
Daniel opened his mouth. All that wanted to come out was, "Which cartoon character?" but it occurred to him that this wasn't going to be the most helpful response.
The nurse, who had remained by the bed in case Leda lost it, smashed the glass and tried to cut herself to ribbons, rode to Daniel's rescue. "Actually, you know, blue eyes are seriously over- rated. No offence, Dr. Jackson."
Daniel raised his eyebrows. "None taken." He lowered them again into a frown.
"And dark eyes like yours are really kind of nice. Very . . . um . . . very--"
"Striking!" Daniel offered, too loudly.
Casting a withering look in his direction, the nurse corrected, "Sultry."
"That's it. Sultry."
Leda was tilting her head from side to side, trying to see anything seductive in the mirror.
"Believe me," the nurse plowed bravely on. "Guys go nuts for the dark, mysterious types. They'll be putty in your hands." She winked one of her own dark brown eyes at Daniel, who embarrassed himself by blushing, and so blushed more. Point made.
"Humph!" Leda went for the long view again. "Sultry, huh?" Turning the mirror over, she put it down on the bed, her hand pressing it firmly into the bedclothes. Then, folding her hands, she looked at the nurse, a half-smile tugging her lips up on one side. "You know, Nurse--"
"You know, Nurse Sally, whatever they pay you, it's not enough."
"Tell me about it!" Nurse Sally snorted as she retrieved the mirror and her glasses, tucking the former under her arm and slipping the latter onto her nose. Looking over first one shoulder and then the other, she leaned in close and said in a stage whisper, "Better yet, tell them." She pointed with her finger upward at the ethereal realm of bean-counters on Level Three. Laughing, she patted Leda's knee with a gentle and capable hand. "You need anything?"
Daniel smiled. "Oh, I think you've done your above and beyond for now."
"Okay," Sally winked at him again, and he rewarded her by blushing. "I'll be back to check on you a little later."
Pulling herself up straighter in the bed, Leda murmured to herself, "Sultry. Alright, I can do sultry."
An odd, bemused smile almost forming on his lips, Daniel watched Nurse Sally as she collected a stack of charts and climbed up onto a high stool at the counter to catch up on paperwork, managing, in that magical way that nurses have, to be completely out of the way and simultaneously reassuringly available. In Daniel's head, things--moments, overlooked gestures-- were settling into place, a pattern:
Jack's hand on Daniel's head; Jack's hands tying Daniel's laces; the orderly who crawled under the bed to retrieve Daniel's glasses, wiping them carefully on the tail of his shirt before sliding them into Daniel's shirt pocket; Sam, folding the bedspread over him and tucking it in around his cold feet; Comar's son, all of eight years old, slogging through the mud from the camp to the tomb with a sack of bread and cheese, and a wineskin almost as big as he was slung across his thin back; the way the kid had stayed with them while they stood in a circle to eat--there'd been no place to sit down--and how he'd mimicked Kirby's every move, gesture and facial expression until the big Virginian had snapped and, with a roar, heaved the kid off of the ground and held him head down by the ankles over the mud shouting, "Say 'uncle'! Say 'uncle'!" the kid more than willing, but laughing too hard to surrender; Teal'c's voice that night when Daniel had stayed to watch him meditate and had been snared by a dream: "You are safe, DanielJackson."
Daniel watched the nurse, who sat bending over her charts, her feet in her white nurse's sneakers swinging between the legs of the stool. She was chewing gum, blowing the occasional discreet pink bubble and popping it silently. A strand of reddish-brown hair escaped from her ponytail and hung in front of her glasses. With a practiced puff of air from the corner of her mouth, she blew it out of the way, and the sight of this made Daniel smile.
"What are you grinning at?" Leda was looking at him with a mixture of concern and amusement.
"Just a reality check," he answered.
He shrugged, hands in his pockets. "Note to self: Get your head out of your navel and pay attention."
"Ah," she raised an approving eyebrow. "Cryptic, and yet applicable in a wide range of contexts."
They looked at each other in silence for a long moment until Leda stretched and clasped her hands behind her head. "Well," she observed nonchalantly. "This has been the strangest day of my life. How 'bout you?"
Daniel tugged at his earlobe, considering. "Actually, there was this time on--"
"Never mind, never mind."
"What? I'm just saying that we met these people. Well, actually, they weren't exactly people--"
"Now, why do you have to do that?"
"Steal my thunder. Do you think that I could be the strangest one in the room just this once?"
"You are! Really, you are. I'm just saying--"
Leda crossed her arms, her eyes widening in mock incredulity. "I don't believe it. You're jealous."
"Of my eyes."
"Your eyes. Those eyes?"
"Yes," she nodded emphatically, her curls bouncing. "You're jealous because you know that my new black--obsidian!--my new obsidian eyes are going to make me more popular than you are."
Daniel's raised eyebrows said, "Really," but he didn't get a chance to vocalize.
"Because my beautiful obsidian eyes are--"
"--sultry. And I can turn men to putty."
"Or nail them to the wall." He spread his feet wide and braced himself, folding his arms, too.
"Either way," she waved a dismissing hand, "It's just more evidence of my overwhelming charisma."
"Okay," Daniel leaned his knuckles on the edge of the bed, trying a new tack. "On P4J 2--"
"Offworlders don't count."
"You're not the boss of me."
"Oh, but I am!" She narrowed her sultry, obsidian eyes and waggled her fingers in a conjuring motion. "You are putty. Silent putty."
Sensing that this turn from logical debate to necromancy meant that he had her on the ropes, he continued, "On P4J 233, they'd never seen anyone with blue eyes before. They thought I was a--"
Leda held her arm out, her palm in front of his eyes. "Talk to the hand, Spacemonkey."
Daniel blinked. Jack was going to die--gruesomely and in some humiliatingly compromising position if Daniel had a say--long before that damn nickname did. Leaning around her hand so he could see her face, he pressed on. "I'm plenty popular, believe me. The chief named his second son after me. And they called me 'The Wise and Beautiful Eyes of Sky,' although it sounds better in the original language."
Leda's sing-song chant, "I'm not list-en-ing to you! I'm not list-en-ing to you!" was cut short by a brusque "ahem" from the nurse's station. They both turned to see Nurse Sally trying to give them a stern look, which was difficult, given the large, pink bubble that obscured most of her face. They smiled sweetly at her until she went back to her charts.
Daniel leaned in, but Leda saw him coming and pulled her blanket up over her head.
"They even have a special ceremonial drink," he said slyly as she folded the edges of the pillows up against her ears. "They drink it on Jackson's Eve."
* * *
MacKenzie coughed softly to get their attention. Three of them--Leda, Daniel and Nurse Sally-- turned in unison to look at him, each sporting a gum bubble of prodigious proportions; Gruber studied his shoes. Leda and Sally popped their bubbles expertly; Daniel fared less well, and, instead of collapsing neatly into his mouth, the bubble deflated and hung from the rim of his glasses. Hastily, he disentangled himself and dropped the wad of gum into the waste basket behind him, turning to the psychiatrist with a serious and dignified expression. For her part, Nurse Sally did a smart about-face and headed off to find something to count, double-check or sterilize. Gruber, who was sitting backwards in his chair on the other side of the bed, slapped a palm to his forehead and groaned, "Busted!" Of course, he had no worries, since the only time he chewed gum was to supplement the nicotine he was getting from the patch he wore on his arm. Nicotine gum was too sacred to waste on bubble-blowing contests. So, naturally, he was acting as judge.
"Hello, Dr. MacKenzie," Leda called out cheerily, popping another small bubble. "Come to see if I've cracked yet? Or, maybe, how cracked?"
MacKenzie folded back the cover of his clip board and clicked his ball point a few times before looking over his half-glasses at her. "I don't believe that 'cracked' is a term recognized by the American Psychiatric Association," he deadpanned.
Leda nudged Daniel with her elbow. "I think he made a joke," she said, delighted. Then, to MacKenzie, "We're making progress. We should increase your sessions to twice a week. In a couple of years, you'll be able to pass as human."
MacKenzie actually smiled, a somewhat pained smile, but that, too, was progress. "How are you feeling?"
"If you'll excuse us," MacKenzie said to Daniel and Gruber, who each squeezed one of Leda's hands before heading for the infirmary door. Turning back to Leda, MacKenzie continued, "I don't think that forgetting three weeks of your life necessarily qualifies as perfect health."
In spite of himself, Daniel paused in the doorway, waiting for Leda's reply.
"That depends," she said, the cheer gone from her voice.
"On the nature of the things you've forgotten."
* * *
A week later Frasier discharged Leda in self-defense, having been threatened with the rubber- band-wielding karate expertise of Uncle Derek once too often. Leda found that she wasn't all that surprised to learn that, when Daniel said he'd take her home, he meant his home. It was justified at least from the perspective of the shrinks, she guessed, on the grounds that she still required supervision as it was possible that she was in fact cracked and that the cracks might begin to show eventually and somebody had to be there, ready with the superglue. But as she ran her fingers over the new toothbrush hanging from its little slot in the soap dish next to Daniel's and then the toiletry bag that was usually under her vanity in her own bathroom, she began to suspect that Daniel's motivations weren't exclusively medical.
Her suspicions were confirmed in the kitchen. First, there was the cereal. Daniel never ate cereal. In fact, after years of Orwellian self-conditioning, Daniel believed that coffee was a grain in addition to being a bean and therefore counted as roughage, carbos and protein, thus meeting all the dietary requirements of breakfast. Then, there were the tea bags: a box of regular orange pekoe for early cups and one of decaf for after dinner. Large boxes. This was a dead giveaway, since, for Daniel, a decaffeinated beverage was like a flat-topped pyramid. It was what she found behind the boxes of tea, though, that sealed Daniel's fate.
Leda's whoop from the kitchen caused Daniel to straighten up too quickly and he got a headrush. Bracing himself against the top of the dresser, he dropped the last of the clothes he'd brought over from Leda's apartment into the bottom drawer of his dresser. He didn't get a chance to shut it, though, as he turned to see her in mid-air, having leapt at him from the doorway of the bedroom. Catching her around the waist, he stumbled a bit as she wrapped her arms around his head. It was really a valiant try, but between the headrush and Leda's momentum, he didn't have a chance, and he toppled over, landing on his back on the rug with Leda on top of him. He made a mental note to thank Teal'c for all those "how to fall down comfortably" lessons. Not just for hostile alien encounters anymore.
Struggling up to straddle his waist, Leda looked down at him smugly. "You love me," she declared accusingly.
The wind knocked out of him, and not because of the fall, Daniel raised and lowered his eyebrows a few times to buy a couple of seconds while he groped for an answer. "I don't think I actually said that," he protested lamely.
She held the now-squashed box of decaf tea in front of his eyes. "A-HA!"
"Okay. Well, that could just mean that I'm conscientious about my house guests."
"Alright," she flicked the box over her shoulder. "If Exhibit A won't prove it, what do you have to say about Exhibit B?" With a flourish she brandished a fistful of Rainblow bubble gum, two packages of cherry flavoured and three assorted, the little round pieces cheerfully rattling in the cellophane. When he didn't answer, she said, "Aha!" again and then raised three fingers. "There are only three types of people who would know about the Rainblow. One," she ticked them off one at a time, "someone who is in love with me, two, some kind of really creepy stalker, and three, the CIA. Now, you're just not the stalking type."
He shook his head, pitying her. "You gum-addicts: you think we can't smell it on your breath."
"Okay, then how'd you know the specific brand, hum? And my favourite flavours? Who pays that kind of attention?"
"I could still be working for the CIA."
That deflated her a little bit. Chewing her bottom lip, she regarded him thoughtfully. Then, she lifted his hand from around her waist and pressed it to his chest. He didn't need this demonstration to tell him that his heart was pounding.
"The truth always makes the heart race." His fingers tightened around hers and she reassured him, "I'm not going anywhere, okay?" Bending down, she planted a sloppy kiss on his forehead. As she sat up she caught sight of the inside of the drawer. "At least not in any of these clothes!" Reaching in with one hand, she pulled out a pair of cherry-red stirrup pants. "Oh my gawd! I haven't seen these since 1992! What did you do, rummage through my dust rag box?"
"I thought those were kind of cute."
She stopped pulling things out of the drawer and, waving a baby-blue angora sweater studded with tiny pink pom poms in front of his face, she snorted, "You did, did you? This, from the Plaidman. So what crime could I possibly have committed to warrant house arrest?" She considered him for a moment, her head cocked to one side. "When we're a hundred and drooling on the porch swing at the Home for Decrepit Spacemonkeys, I'm picking the matching leisure suits, okay?"
* * *
Daniel was delighted when the elevator doors opened to reveal Leda, trim in her black business suit, in the process of herding the more wayward of her curls off of her face with a bobby pin. Two more pins in her mouth, she was unable to speak, so she winked instead, stepping aside to let him join her.
"Going down?" he asked, reaching to punch Level Twenty-Eight and finding the button already illuminated.
Taking the pins out of her mouth and jamming them somewhat haphazardly into the white mop, she nodded. "Yup. I've been summoned to the conference room." She noticed that her suit jacket was misbuttoned and, swearing under her breath, redid it.
"Hm. Me too. I wonder what's up." Daniel had a distinct sinking feeling that had nothing to do with the elevator, and the cautious optimism he'd been coasting on for the last two weeks got grittier the lower the elevator fell.
"I've only been back on the job for a week. What could I possibly have cocked up in that little time?" Her wink said, "Besides you, that is."
He grinned back in spite of the knot that was forming in his stomach. Hammond had granted him a week's leave after he took Leda home and they'd spent every minute of it together, sometimes with the rest of the team, eating dinner, watching movies, doing normal things. At the end of that week she had declared that she would go insane if they didn't let her go back to work. And here she was. It seemed impossible, miraculous that she was back, just as she was before. Three weeks ago she was in the infirmary, weeping as she touched the entry scar on her neck. Three days ago she was standing on Jack's couch wearing Daniel's boonie, returning Jack's "Mile High Salute" as the Broncos scored a touchdown in the final second of the fourth quarter. Leaning in the doorway to Jack's den, Daniel watched as she collapsed down next to Jack on the couch and slopped beer over her hand as they crashed their bottles together in a noisy toast. Gruber was sputtering something unintelligible at the tv screen and clutching his chest like he was having a heart attack while Teal'c raised a deadly eyebrow and said, "I believe you owe me twenty dollars, Dr. Gruber." The whole thing seemed so perfect, and like a lucid dreamer, Daniel observed with the expectation of waking.
Sam had come up behind him and circled his waist with her arm. "She seems okay," she observed, resting her chin on his shoulder.
He leaned his head against hers. "Yeah."
She poked him in the ribs. "Daniel."
Catching her fingers and folding them in his, he let out a breathy laugh. "Alright. No tickling. I'm good." He turned his head a little to look at her out of the corner of his eye. "I am."
"So, why are you so tense?" She prodded his knotted shoulder muscles with her chin to prove her point.
He emptied his wineglass before answering. "She doesn't remember any of it." His shrug dislodged her and she came around to lean on the other side of the doorway. "And I don't--"
"--want her to," she finished for him. He glanced at her, but his eyes slipped away, focused vaguely over her shoulder. "Nobody would blame you for that, you know," she said, tugging his sleeve to make him look at her.
"Nobody but Purchase and Kresky."
Leda and Daniel were learning how to live in each other's space, moving around in his kitchen and his bathroom and his bed, colliding and exploring until they'd managed to choreograph something that he might cautiously call a life together. But the three-week gap in her memory was a pitfall, and the dance they did involved a lot of sidestepping of that blankness. They were getting good at it. But maybe, he feared now as the elevator sank deeper into the mountain, not good enough.
Leda's eyes widened in mock panic. "You don't think MacKenzie told George that stuff about how he reminds me of my Uncle Derek, y'know the one with the giant ball of rubber bands?"
With a quick glance up at the ubiquitous security camera, he kissed the top of her head. "I think that's privileged. Besides, I doubt they'd call a meeting."
"Right," she said, relieved, as the doors slid open and she stepped out into the corridor. "It must've been something you did, then."
They met Sam in the Control room and, as they mounted the stairs to the upper level, she caught Daniel's eye and mouthed silently, "Tok'ra." Daniel's mood bottomed out. So much for coasting.
He maneuvered himself in front of Leda and pulled up at the top of the stairs. The three of them stood together while Daniel quickly got the lay of the land. Off to the side, the two Tok'ra were talking with Hammond, Frasier and MacKenzie. Jack was with Teal'c by the observation window, his hands casually in his pockets, but from the look on his face, it was clear that his mood was a match for Daniel's, point for point. Reaching behind him, Daniel guided Leda with a hand on the small of her back, keeping her close. She hesitated, her hand coming up to her mouth as she caught sight of the Tok'ra. He felt a shiver run up her spine.
Leaning close, Sam said softly, "You can feel them, can't you?"
"Sort of like what I feel around you and Teal'c. It's the naqadah, right?" Leda lowered her hand, pressing it against her stomach. "Yuck. It's like I'm eating a sandwich and I find half a spider." She nudged Sam with her elbow, not taking her eyes off of the Tok'ra. "No offense."
Sam grinned. "None taken. You'll have a pretty strong reaction with two mature symbiotes in the room."
Leda nodded and swallowed hard. "Does it go away?"
At this point, the general turned and beckoned them to the table. It was crowded on the near side and the far end, with all of SG-1 and Dr. Frasier standing together with Leda, only the Tok'ra and Dr. MacKenzie on the other side. After Hammond took his seat at the head of the table, the rest of them sat down, Leda between Daniel and Jack. Daniel noticed that Jack inched his chair closer to Leda as he pulled it up to the table. Noticing this, too, Leda flashed Jack a small smile and he returned it along with his "no sweat" shrug.
"Hey, I've been meaning to compliment you on the look," he whispered, waggling a finger at her dark eyes.
"Well, Colonel Jack, it works so well for you, I thought I'd run with it. Apparently it's striking." She nodded at his own silver hair and deep brown eyes, letting her smile grow. "Maybe Frasier's right: we are related."
"Dr. Novak," Hammond said, drawing her attention. "I'd like to introduce you to our guests. This is Freya and her colleague, Jalil."
Freya had large, soft green eyes, full, unsmiling lips, and a somewhat excessive amount of cleavage. It was clear that Freya liked to look at Jack, and that Jack made a point of not looking back. Jalil, however, gave Leda his full attention, smiling at her, his white teeth bright against his dark skin, his brown eyes friendly and open.
"I trust that you've read the briefing on the Tok'ra?" Hammond was saying.
"Yes, General. I have. Interesting reading."
"Well, then you know that we have a treaty with the Tok'ra that stipulates that we share any information we have that is pertinent to our common cause."
"Yes, I am aware of that stipulation." On either side of her, Jack and Daniel shifted in their chairs, stiffening slightly. She didn't turn to look at them, but Daniel could feel her responding to his own tension, her back straightening in her chair. He reached for her hand under the table.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Novak. We are very interested in learning more of your recent experiences." Freya spoke in slightly accented English, her words measured as though she were translating as she went. "The Tok'ra have long wished to establish relations with the Breen, but have so far been unsuccessful. Your encounter constitutes our first contact with them in over three hundred years."
Jack sat forward, his face tight. "You mean our first contact with them. I don't remember seeing your name on the invitation."
"Colonel," Hammond warned.
Jack closed his mouth, but his face kept talking. After another stern look from the general, Jack rearranged his features into a reasonable facsimile of polite attentiveness.
Giving Daniel's fingers a squeeze and pulling free so that she could fold her hands on the table in front of her, Leda answered, "I'm sorry to have to disappoint you, but I have no memory of those experiences."
"So we've heard from Dr. MacKenzie," Freya acknowledged. "But we've brought with us technology that can help you to retrieve your memories."
"Oh, here we go!" Jack threw his hands up in exasperation.
"With all due respect, sir, haven't we had enough of that--that--machine, and the Tok'ra poking their technologically-advanced noses into our--"
"What machine are we talking about?" Leda's calm, businesslike voice cut through the rising tension.
Jalil smiled again, looking for all the world like the front man for an infomercial. "It's a remarkable piece of technology. It can help you to focus on specific memories, recall details that you didn't even know you knew, help to retrieve sublimated memory--"
"Or convince you that you're an alien time bomb--"
"Colonel O'Neill." Hammond's voice was dangerously level.
Freya addressed Jack, her eyes wide and innocent. "The research we were able to do after the Za'tark incident has allowed us to improve the technology and eliminate those flaws in its design, Colonel O'Neill. There is no chance of a similar error in this case, since we are only using the machine to recover sublimated memory, not to break through Za'tark programming."
"Okay, look," Leda squeezed her hands together, visibly struggling to keep the frustration out of her voice. "You're saying that you have a way for me to recover what I've lost, correct?"
"Yes," Jalil and Freya said together.
"So, if I agree to this, I'll be able to remember what happened to the rest of my team?"
"Yes," Freya confirmed.
Leda chewed her lip. Turning to Daniel, who was staring hard at the table, she asked, "Alright, then, what's the downside?"
He didn't look at her, his jaw clenching. After a long moment, he answered, "You'll lose yourself."
* * *
Daniel watched Leda as she kicked off her shoes and pushed them under the coffee table with her toe. Then, she pulled off her suit jacket, threw it on the arm of the couch, untucked her blouse and rolled up her sleeves. She did this exact thing every day when she came home, in the same order, unraveling herself into comfort. Today, though, her face was serious, and, instead of throwing herself on the couch and slouching down with her hands folded across her stomach, instead of crossing her feet on the coffee table, she walked slowly to the balcony door and stood staring out the window at the setting sun.
Daniel left her there and went to the kitchen to fill the kettle. They were both exhausted, but there was a lot of thinking to be done, even if neither one of them felt up to it at all. The debate in the conference room had gone on and on as Leda negotiated the cross-currents of tension and SGC-Tok'ra--and, more specifically Jack-Tok'ra--relations, trying to learn enough to make a rational decision. Weighing the pros and cons of the memory recall technology was hard enough without the layers of history between the players complicating the matter.
Leda was already familiar with the concept of Goa'uld genetic memory, and understood in an abstract way that what was buried inside her was a minefield of atrocity. Daniel had recited Shifu's dictum: "The evil that is in my subconscious is too strong to resist. The only way to win is to deny it battle." But he hadn't been able truly to communicate what he knew to be the truth of those words without divulging what he'd kept hidden for months.
His hand faltering as he reached for the box of tea, he leaned on the counter and bowed his head, breathing hard as Shifu's dream rushed back into his mind as vivid as the first time he'd dreamt it. He felt that smug satisfaction as he gave the command and obliterated millions of lives in a second,-- shouldn't we just nip this in the bud? --and that same, superior conviction that he'd done the right thing, even if he was the only one who knew it--and it sickened him, literally-- Sam thinks I'm trying to take over the world -- Swaying, he leaned over the sink as his stomach lurched. It was no use telling himself that those were Goa'uld feelings, not his own, because, no matter what he told himself, he still felt them as his own. And there was always the question-- There's just one flaw in that theory --no, the very real possibility-- one flaw --that in fact they were his own-- you're assuming this is not what I've wanted all along. That thought really did make him sick, and he coughed and retched into the sink until his stomach was empty and his whole body was shaking.
Feeling Leda's hands on his arms, turning him around, he tried to resist her, but she was firm, supporting him as he slid down onto the floor and leaned back on the cupboard door behind him. Pulling a tissue out of her pocket, she handed it to him and then stood to run water into the sink and fill him a glass. He accepted this from her as she settled down against the cupboard beside him, her legs drawn up, her hands clasped on her knees.
Having half-emptied the glass and blown his nose, Daniel leaned his head back and closed his eyes, saying wryly, "Witness: the pillar of strength and support."
"More like the 'bean bag chair of strength and support,' actually. But I'll take it, nonetheless." Leda reached for the glass and took a sip. "Well, we are a pair, aren't we?"
"You're the higher-functioning one, at least."
"Yes, well, there's that. But only because I'm in deep denial, apparently." Swirling the water in the glass, she decided against another drink. "We almost got away with it."
"The June and Ward Cleaver routine."
"Happily ever after."
"Yep. But the jig is up." She toasted the jig, whatever that was, and sipped.
"Aye, there's the rub."
"The other shoe has dropped."
"And Elvis has definitely left the building." Daniel took the glass, drained it and put it down at the intersection of tiles on the floor between his legs, adjusting it carefully so that it was perfectly centred.
"So." Leda turned slightly to lean on her shoulder so that she could look at his profile.
"So," he repeated slowly, drawing out the syllable as he turned the glass in a circle, avoiding her gaze.
"I take it that there's more to this than you let on in the briefing."
He moved the glass to another intersection of tiles and made his adjustments. "Yeah."
"Something you've kept from them."
Turning the glass in a circle, moving on to the next intersection. "Yeah."
"Because it doesn't concern them. It concerns you, what you think about yourself."
No more intersections within reach. "The Goa'uld have taught me a lot."
"Like I'm not the man I thought I was."
"Welcome to the club. Seems like you turned out to be human after all." She traced a finger along his cheek, trying to read his expression. He didn't want to be read. She seemed to accept this, but she told him gently, "Daniel, I can't turn my back on those men, or their families. You of all people know what 'missing in action' does to the people left behind. I know you wouldn't hesitate to do it. Why do you expect any less of me?"
He perched an elbow on his raised knee and cradled his forehead in his palm. Because I love you, he thought, and if I lose you I'll be trapped in this non-place and I'll never write another word again. Because I don't want to think about Ivan Kresky and his mother or Michael Purchase and his wife and two kids. Because I'm so damn tired of paying the piper and never getting the music. Because I want a fool's paradise.
"Because it will hurt you," he said aloud, his voice dismally flat. "It'll change you. You can't resist it, no matter how good you are or how strong you are." He looked at her, his face gaunt with exhaustion and sadness. "Shifu gave me a dream. He showed me what I would become if I knew what he knew." Turning away, he leaned his head back again and closed his eyes. "You deserve to have a life."
Leda shook her head, gazing into the middle distance. When she spoke, her voice was hard. "You're asking me to buy my life with theirs."
My life. I'm asking you to buy me out of limbo. He couldn't stop the thought from forming. I'm asking you to stay with me. All you have to do is forget. It's as easy as dying. "I know. You're right. Of course you're right." He reached up and grasped the edge of the counter, dragging himself to his feet. "Of course you are."
Leda struggled up, following him out of the kitchen. "Where are you going?"
Pausing to kiss the top of her head, he headed for the door. "It's okay. I'm just going to get some air. I'll be right back."
* * *
Daniel took his shoes off in the hall and draped his dripping jacket on the doorknob so that he wouldn't have to make a racket opening the closet. There was a light on in the kitchen, but the doorway to the bedroom was partially closed, only darkness beyond it. He started to go in, but changed his mind and slumped down on the sofa instead, listening to the low hum of the refrigerator and the traffic hissing through the rain on the street below. Like his hair, his collar and pantlegs were wet and his mind felt numb. He'd walked. And when his thoughts stopped going around in circles and settled into a cold stillness, he came home, hoping Leda would be asleep. She wasn't. She found him in the livingroom, sitting on the sofa in the dark, one finger caressing his lip, the fingers of the other hand plucking fitfully at the piping on the seat cushion.
"Did you eat?"
Lowering his hand, he looked up at her shivering in one of his USAF black t-shirts and a mismatched pair of socks on the landing by the dining table. He couldn't see her face, but her hair was lit by the light from the kitchen and glowed around her head. He looked away quickly, the pale bloom of returning pain in his chest.
"I'll get something in a minute. You should go back to bed. You're cold."
She stared at him for a long moment, and he was glad that he couldn't see her eyes. Slowly, then, she turned and went back to the bedroom. She was only gone for a minute, though, and when she came back she strode over to stand in front of him, shaking now from anger instead of cold.
"You want me to choose, is that it? You or them?" Her voice was quiet but quaking.
The pain grabbed at him, squeezing. Yes. "No. Of course not. I want to find those men, too." He pressed his fist against his ear.
She came around the coffee table and sat down on it in front of him, her bare knees between his. Reaching up, she pulled his fist away from his ear and unclenched his fingers one by one, finally twining them in her own. "That's good, because I'm not willing to make that choice, and I'm not willing to concede defeat before the fact, and I can't do this without you." Her voice was tender, and the tenderness made the pain in his chest flare up, intense and hot.
God, he thought, and that was all.
* * *
Freya frowned slightly as she made adjustments to the machine. Addressing no-one in particular, she explained, "The beam is having some difficulty reading Dr. Novak's eyes. This has something to do with the hyperpigmentation, I suspect. I'm adjusting to compensate." Then, to Leda, who sat in front of the console, her head, wrists and ankles immobilized by velcro straps, "It's important that you look steadily here at all times." Freya indicated the machine's red eye on its elegantly curving stalk.
Leda started to nod, but of course she couldn't. In spite of Freya's instructions, she stole a quick glance around the room. She was a star attraction, it seemed. In the room with her and Freya were Daniel, MacKenzie and Jack. Up on the next level, watching her from the observation booth, were Carter, Teal'c, Gruber, Hammond, Frasier and Jalil. Except Jalil, who looked his usual amiable self, and Teal'c, who was a picture of stoic serenity, all of the observers looked grim. Leda was really not all that reassured by this, thank you very much. And she couldn't get that stupid song out of her head: "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I fee-eel fi-ine!"
"Daniel!" Her voice came out as a whisper. He stepped up beside her and leaned close so that she could speak in his ear. "Look," she licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry, "no matter what happens after this, promise me. . . you have to remember. . . you know. . ." She faltered.
He closed his hand over hers. "I know," he murmured and brushed her forehead above the restraining strap with his lips. Then he looked her in the eye. "And I'm not going anywhere."
"We are ready to begin, Dr. Jackson."
Leda tried to assume a calm expression, if only to reassure Daniel, who looked downright tragic. He recognized this, and a ghost of a smile crossed his face. "See you soon, June," he said.
Daniel stepped back behind the console so that he could see the readout over Freya's shoulder. In the observation booth the others watched a similar image on their monitor: a close-up of Leda's dark eye and, above it, the blue circle with a revolving band around its circumference like a comet in orbit around a watery moon.
"We'll begin with some basic questions to establish a baseline," Freya said, making a few more minute adjustments. "What is your full name?"
"Leda Alaine Novak."
"And what is your position here at the SGC?"
"I head the Offworld Human Populations Remediation Task Force."
"Which does what?"
Leda's eyes flicked to Jack's, asking how much of the SGC's business she was to divulge to these "allies." He nodded. "We assess the needs of recently liberated or abandoned human colonies in order to help them to establish independent governance and social systems. Infrastructure, education, trade, that kind of thing."
"Is that what you were doing on Urda, er, P2K 115?"
"Tell us what happened the day you discovered the canopic jar."
Leda took a deep breath, butterflies turning to something less pretty and more dreadful in her stomach. Still familiar territory, kiddo, she told herself. Don't peak too early here. "We found the tomb just two days before we were supposed to return to Earth. The run-off from the river-- the one to the south, not the main artery to the east--opened up the entrance and we were trying to get as much information about the tomb as we could before the big river crested. Kresky and I were taking video and rubbings while Purchase, Cole and Jan struck camp. I guess Jan and Cole came back through the 'gate with the first shipment of equipment--"
"Please recount only what you remember, Dr. Novak," Freya interrupted, "not what you've been told since your return."
"Of course. Sorry." She took another breath. Leda could feel the implant on her temple, a warm throb that penetrated her mind, except that it was less like a probe than like a lens, an eye with an almost mechanical presence. Shifting and adjusting, it seemed almost physically to pull things into focus, moving rapidly and fluidly from foreground to middle ground to background, shuffling through moments made sharp and vivid by the intensity of its attention, jumping from image to image. For her, the feel of the mud under her boots in the tomb, and the rich, moldy smell of the silt had immediately connected her to the Nile delta twenty years ago. She stood on the banks of the river with her father, her camera poised to snap a picture of her mother whose dark hair was blowing sideways across her cheek in the dry desert breeze. But the machine discarded this memory as soon as it had formed, incisively reorganizing and making linear what her mind brought together kaleidoscopically through its more intuitive associations. The alienness of the machine's cold logic made her throat constrict.
She coughed, as much to buy time as to clear her throat. Now, she was moving into the fog at the limits of her conscious memory and it chilled her as the machine brought back to her the feel of the tomb, it's dank stillness, the sound of the rain pounding down into the mud outside, the flicker of lightning throwing her shadow up around her, first here, then there, menacing. No, it hadn't seemed menacing then, only distracting, the shifting light making it difficult to capture the writing carved into the stone. She'd been excited about bringing something like this back to Daniel. She hadn't been afraid there because she saw it then through his eyes. Now, it was only the knowledge of what lay hidden still in the darker parts of her memory, the sense of something malevolent waiting, that cast its pall over the scene, distorting it. A wave of sadness flowed through her as she accepted that the experience, the excitement and anticipation, were inaccessible now, lost forever to the dread of what came after like clear water tainted by dye-- "The dram of evil doth all the noble substance over-daub." She smiled in spite of herself to hear Hamlet speaking, a voice in an empty theatre, a ghost conjured by a machine that had no appreciation for the contribution and discarded it immediately. Exit, stage left. And then she was alone with the machine and the memory it insistently pressed upon her which, though she searched for it, she didn't want to know.
"Kresky found a hidden catch in the wall, and it opened a door to an alcove. Inside was the jar, a ribbon device and what I suppose was a--um--zat?" Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jack nod. "Okay, a zat. He, Kresky, pulled the jar out of the alcove and right away it started to get hot, to light up, glowing. I told him to drop it, but he couldn't. It was like he was electrocuted, welded to it--galvanized." Leda cleared her throat again, her fingers tightening on the arms of the chair. "I didn't know what to do. I--I just tackled him, just to get him to drop the damn thing and then it--and then it opened."
Leda's eyes widened as the machine drew her deeper into the past, casting the light of its gaze into the protective darkness her mind had folded over these things. Only fragments of language tumbled from her lips to provide narrative for the observers; she wasn't watching her past, but reliving it. She felt the mud, cold against the skin of her back as she skidded into Kresky feet- first, knocking him to the ground, the video camera flying from her grasp, the jar from his. And then she's hitching herself backward with her elbows, her heels slipping in the mud, unable to get purchase, too scared even to turn over and crawl as the lid of the jar falls away and the snake uncoils into her world.
"Its eyes--its eyes are red."
Kresky lurching to his feet, hands fumbling for his Beretta, but still numb from the bolt of energy from the jar, his fingers are unable to hold the pistol. His legs buckling, he's sliding down the wall, his eyes awake and aware, but his body dead weight, unresponsive, helpless.
"Oh, GodsweetJesusinheaven help me."
Finally, she turns over, her body responding like a puppet, awkward--
"Move it, goddamn you, Leda!"
--scrambling on all fours through the mud toward the entrance, through mud and water sluicing in, looking over her shoulder--
"Where is it? Oh, God, where is it?"
--the red eyes coming for her, through the air, like a whip, a snap like a whip, she's there, at the steps, her fingernails in the mud, if she could get up, clawing at the stone, if she could just--
"I am here."
"Who are you?" Freya responded, also in Goa'uld, waving Daniel into silence.
"Malecshee of Kar?"
"I will answer no questions."
"Then we will ask Leda Novak."
"Nothing of the host survives."
"We know that this is not true." Then, in English, "Dr. Novak, you must concentrate. These are memories only. Malecshee is dead. He has no hold over you. Tell me your name."
"Malecshee of Kar."
"No. Tell me your name."
"Leda Alaine Novak."
"Where did you find the Breen?"
"They found us."
"A message. They said they could cure us."
"What did they look like?"
"We never saw them. We were blind. We crawled to them."
"What did they do to you?"
"They killed us--me--it."
"Where are they now? Do you know the co-ordinates?"
"They'll find you."
"Do you know the co-ordinates?"
"They'll find you. You can't find them."
"Where are Ivan Kresky and Michael Purchase?"
"Dr. Novak, where are Ivan Kresky and Michael Purchase?"
"I don't know."
"Are they dead?"
"I don't know."
"Did you take them with you through the Stargate?"
"I don't know."
"What happened to them?"
"I don't know."
* * *
"Dr. Jackson, please, will you sit down?"
Hammond's voice was sympathetic, but firm, drawing Daniel's attention back the conference room. With effort, Daniel pushed himself away from the window frame where he'd installed himself so that he could stare down at the Startgate and curse the Goa'uld in all the languages he knew, beginning with the earliest to enter the written record and organizing them by language family. So far, this exercise had kept him from launching himself at Jalil's calm, friendly face and attempting to do some serious damage.
As Daniel took his seat between Jack and Sam at the table, Freya motioned to the monitor beside her. It showed an image of the memory recall device's display, a recording of the last few seconds of the session with Leda. The comet circling the blue moon was red. "It's clear that Dr. Novak was not being truthful about her knowledge of the whereabouts of your personnel, General."
"Or, maybe she was just freaked out by having to relive the worst experience of her life," Jack exploded, not even trying to keep the contempt out of his voice. Before Hammond could interject the by-now reflex admonishment, Jack plowed on, "And, by the way, whatever happened to the adjustable settings on that thing, huh? Did she have to do the whole thing in surround-sound and technicolour? And what's with talking to her in Goa'uld? Is that really helpful?"
For once, Daniel was grateful for the colonel's ability to cut through the crap in the most undiplomatic way possible. Freya looked mildly affronted, but Jalil was maddingly calm and conciliatory.
"Colonel, we had no way to anticipate how she would respond to the technology. It is possible that there will be no permanent damage." Jalil smiled reassuringly and Jack snorted in disgust.
No permanent damage. Daniel pictured Leda's face, the panic, and the way her expression had suddenly changed, had become. . . Goa'uld. He'd seen Sam ambushed by Jolinar's memories before and watched her face twist and crumple as the feelings swamped her, but never had Sam spoken as Jolinar, never had she lost so completely the sense of boundaries between her own personality and that of the Tok'ra. Daniel tried to assure himself that it was the heightened effect of the technology that brought out the Goa'uld memory as a defined and fully present personality. But the fear remained that there was more to it than that. Even after Freya had brought Leda back, Leda's voice had been so toneless, so deadened that he knew she was building a bunker to hide in and that it would be a dangerous and delicate task to coax her out of it again.
Jack had seen it, too, and he knew it for what it was. And when Freya had tried to get around Leda's stubborn refusal to answer by addressing Malecshee again directly, Jack had intervened, stepping between Leda and the machine, breaking the connection: "That's enough." He'd helped Daniel undo the straps and lift Leda onto the gurney, where she'd immediately curled into a ball, silent and shaking. He'd walked beside Daniel to the infirmary and stood with him while Frasier gave Leda a sedative and they watched her sink into a mercifully dreamless sleep. And now Jack was feeling the anger that Daniel felt and expressing it the way that Daniel wanted to but couldn't because he was starting to drown again in noise. And right now, that noise was Jalil's smooth voice.
"We did get some useful information, though. And I suspect that the next session will provide more detail."
"There's not going to be a next session," Daniel said evenly.
Freya opened her mouth to protest, but Hammond cut her short, not wanting to get into a shouting match, especially with Daniel and Jack reinforcing each other's anger like a feedback loop. "What do we know about this Malecshee?"
Jalil turned in his chair to direct his comments to Hammond in an attempt to escape Jack's scathing glare. "Malecshee is--was--of the line of Kar, the Goa'uld who destroyed the Breen homeworld. We suspected some kind of connection with this line when we first saw Dr. Novak."
"The discoloured eyes," Freya interjected.
"Yes. When the Breen understood that they would not survive Kar's attack, they found a way to take Kar with them. The entire fleet was obliterated, and, as Kar was a minor power and therefore had committed all of his resources to his attack, almost all of the Goa'uld of his line died there. Shortly after, those who had not been present in the campaign also began to die."
"How?" Hammond asked, leaning forward.
Freya picked up the narrative. "A disease. The Breen designed a pathogen that targeted only the symbiotes of Kar's line. Malecshee was one of these."
Carter leaned forward, too, as she started to put the pieces together. "So that's why you have no genetic memory of the Breen, because any who possessed the code were destroyed and the information was lost. That's why you need Leda."
"But that doesn't explain what Malecshee was doing on Urda," Carter continued.
"It is likely that he hid there from the System Lords." Looking around the table at their questioning faces, Freya explained, "Malecshee and others of the line who survived attempted a millennium ago to find a cure for the disease, but all they managed to do was to cause the disease to mutate, so that, instead of attacking only the symbiote of a certain line, the pathogen afflicted hosts as well, becoming contagious among them. The first symptom was the discolouration of the iris, then blindness, then complete organ failure. The System Lords were now threatened and attempted to exterminate that threat."
"Typhoid Mary." Frasier looked up from her notes, asking sharply, "Are you suggesting that we may have brought this disease back here?"
"No, Doctor, it is unlikely. If you had, most of you would be dead by now."
Frasier sat back, a bit mollified, but making notes furiously in her file. Tests. There would be lots and lots of tests. "So that's what they were doing to her eyes," she surmised as she wrote, "Correcting blindness."
"That is likely. The Breen have no quarrel with humans and, in fact, seem to be willing to establish some kind of relations with you. Dr. Novak is the first former host we know of who has been returned to her homeworld in this way. She will be an extremely valuable resource, if she can be persuaded to continue with the recall procedure."
"I already told you," Daniel said, his eyes intense as he turned them on Freya, his measured, reasonable voice barely masking the emotion he was attempting to contain, "there will be no more sessions." As he went on, though, his veneer of control started to crack. "She is not a 'resource' and there is no way in hell she's going through that again, do you understand?"
Freya was unmoved. "There's still the question of the missing men, Dr. Jackson. No matter what trauma she experienced during the procedure, nothing can change or excuse the fact that she lied about her knowledge of their fate."
"The only one who needs an excuse here is you," Daniel snapped, surprised himself at his own vehemence. "She had a chance at coming out of this and having a normal life. But you're willing to trade that for--what? Information about a race that have made it abundantly clear that they want nothing to do with you or your kind." Immediately, he grimaced, knowing he'd made an unforgivable error, a prejudiced conflation he didn't even believe in himself.
"Dr. Jackson," Freya responded stiffly, "the Breen's quarrel is with the Goa'uld, not the Tok'ra."
"Hey, if the snake fits. . ." Jack muttered, almost inaudibly. Almost.
At that, Jalil's smile disappeared. "We are not Goa'uld," he declared, the underlying rumble in his voice and the flash of gold in his eyes indicating the sudden emergence of the symbiote. "And we resent your implication, Dr. Jackson. We came here to assist you in making a contribution to our common cause, not to be insulted."
Sensing an imminent diplomatic incident, Hammond stepped in to throw water on the fire. Addressing Jalil's symbiote, he said soothingly, "We have no intention of insulting you--"
"Vir," the symbiote offered.
"Vir. You must understand that emotions are running high for us in these circumstances, and I'm certain that neither Dr. Jackson nor Colonel O'Neill meant any offence." Hammond pinned Jack and Daniel to their chairs with a look that dared them to claim--even to think--otherwise, and continued, "We appreciate your efforts in this matter, but, that said, I think it would be best if we gave my medical staff a chance to assess Dr. Novak's physical and mental condition before considering any further measures."
Daniel visibly slumped in his chair with relief. Jack tried not to look smug and failed.
"What of your missing personnel?" Vir was gone, Jalil assuming his former place as front man. "You can't hope to find them without our help. You don't have the technology--" His huckster smile was rigid as he emphasized his words through clenched teeth, "--or the resolve--to extract the information efficiently--"
Hammond cut him off, meeting his smile with a sincere and somewhat deadly smile of his own. "Oh, we'll muddle through using our own primitive techniques. We might just get lucky." His tone was perfectly smooth and polite and cutting. "We'll let you know if there are any developments that would be of interest to you."
"As you wish," Freya said. "We will report to the Tok'ra Council." The threat of chilled diplomatic relations was taken as read. Then, the two Tok'ra rose, bowed stiffly and swept out of the conference room.
"And don't let the iris hit you on the ass on the way out," Jack muttered at the table.