Surface Tension



SURFACE TENSION

"How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!" (Hamlet)


* * *


Reality: the sum of all that is real, absolute and unchangeable

Reality Principle: awareness of and adjustment to environmental demands in a manner that assures ultimate satisfaction of instinctual needs

Realize: to comprehend completely or correctly; to bring into being, to culminate, to actualize


* * *

Sam wants to pant, to scream. But the only ones who can hear her won't help.

Inhale. Hold. Release.

Inhale. Hold. Release.

Breathe.


* * *


Sam stood at the window and watched Daniel get into his car. Today, he wore a trench coat over his tweed jacket, but his head was bare, his wet hair spiky on his forehead and already dripping into his eyes behind his glasses. She couldn't see this, of course, from all the way across the street, but she remembered his hair in the rain, the way his glasses would fog up and how he would wipe them on the sleeve of his jacket like people did who have worn glasses all their lives and treated them either with the contempt of long familiarity or with secret resentment, daring scratches. He opened the back door of the Honda Civic and tossed his satchel carelessly into the back seat, then bent and reached inside, probably to right the bag, stuffing papers back into the pockets. As he turned to get into the front seat, he saw her at the window and waved briefly before folding the trench coat across his chest and himself into the car.

Sam raised her hand, too late, and instead let it rest on the window pane, fingers spread, and watched him reverse out of his driveway and head off down their street, tail lights red streaks on wet pavement. Her breath fogged the window. She didn't bother to wipe it away.

It was Wednesday. So, he would be gone for about nine hours and would return with some kind of take-out in a brown paper bag. The light would come on in the room over the garage and he would eat at his desk, a shadow behind the blinds. Sam would look out the window and after awhile she would go into the kitchen at the back of this house across the street and she wouldn't cry. Then, awhile later, it would be Thursday. Again. One times one is one, she thought. One times two is two.


* * *


It was quarter past eleven. Sam sat in the car listening to the rain batter the roof and studied the neon sign in the window of the bar. It said "Pool" and the colour ran in streaks down her windshield, dissolving. She watched people, mostly men, sprinting across the sidewalk into the bar, or walking slowly there as if the rain could go fuck itself for all they cared. She wondered if she was a sprinter or a walker.

As it turned out, she was a sprinter, only she dropped her keys as she got out of the car and by the time she had fished them out of the river in the gutter, she was soaked. At the entrance to the bar, a man with a bald head and an untidy black goatee held the door for her, but stood with his arm across the opening--what was she supposed to do, play London Bridge?--his tongue sliding across his lips as he looked her up and down. Returning his stare, she waited, and in her mind she drove the heel of her hand into his face, feeling bone and cartilage give. Grunting, he dropped his arm and she stepped past him into the smoke and the gloom.

Hovering inside the foyer, she peeled off her jacket, shaking it and turning it inside out before folding it over her arm. Her jeans were wet and cold against her thighs, but her orange turtleneck was mostly dry, her short, blonde hair weatherproof, as was her mascara. Catching her reflection in the mirror above the pay phone, she decided she looked presentable, sexy, even, if you liked a woman who stood, feet apart and back tensed, like she was willing to take hostages. Taking a deep breath, she rolled her shoulders and relaxed her spine, sitting down into her hips in an approximation of a casual slouch, the civilian version of "at ease."

It was a drinkers' bar. No disco lights or loud music, the picture on a muted television over the bar alternating between that of two men in suits opening and closing their mouths and two men in shorts pounding each other in the ribs against a backdrop of avid faces. She looked away, straddling a stool and hooking her heels over the foot rail.

The bartender came over and leaned on the bar in front of her, arms spread wide to show his biceps and the cut of his pecs under his tight white t-shirt. He seemed familiar, the way all beautiful people do, like he was cut out of a popular magazine and filled with air.

"What can I get you?" he asked, baring white teeth.

"Gin and tonic, no twist."

She tried to make her face welcoming, but she hadn't come to talk. Actually, she'd come here to feel flesh, to find something that seemed real enough to dig her fingers into. To fuck. The word was ugly, a serrated edge, a crude tool, and she imagined using that, somehow, to cut a hole in the shiny surface of this place. To feel flesh in three dimensions, just for a while. It was a dangerous need; it made her want to forget herself, who she really was, and give in to this place. Such forgetting was dangerous. Almost as dangerous as remembering. But there was a thin margin between them, a flimsy scrim of thought stretched over an act of deliberate un-knowing, cognitive dissonance, a self-inflicted mindfuck. One times three is three. One times four is four. One times five is five. She swallowed her drink without tasting it and signaled for another. All she had to do to stay sane was to go crazy.

Swivelling on her stool, she gulped half of the second drink and surveyed the room. Slim pickings. A couple of crumpled men in crumpled business suits were looking tragic over in the corner, hanging over tumblers of scotch and talking about the bottom falling out of something or the cost of doing business or the unfuckingbearable weight of being middle-aged white men in the age of feminism. There was a couple leaning their heads close together, like an ad for breathmints, and a noisy crowd of men in baseball shirts emblazoned with the logo for a tech company. They were eating nachos and drinking beer, each with his own pitcher. The bald man with the untidy black goatee came in and sat at the other end of the bar, smoking and looking at nothing in particular. He was big, paunchy, a heap of muscle gone to fat.

A couple of guys were shooting pool with a woman who clearly knew how to play the game. Taking her time with each shot, she leaned over to display her tanned cleavage, tossing her dark hair back over her bare shoulders, tight, round ass swaying. She looked like she, too, should be emblazoned with a logo, for motor oil, maybe, or Snap-On Tools. And she could play pool, clearing the table easily. The guys, more magazine golems, were enjoying the show, but not the skill, and so leered more lasciviously and showed more teeth. Looking up as she slipped their money into the pocket of her denim skirt, the woman caught Sam's eye and winked. The two guys leaned on their pool cues.

Alright, Sam thought, downing the rest of her drink and sliding off the stool. One times six is six. One times seven is seven.

"I'm Molly," the woman said, handing Sam a cue. "And that's--"

"Mike," Mike said.

"Nathan," Nathan said.

"I'm Elizabeth," Sam said, showing her teeth.


* * *


Today, Daniel was in the green tweed. He didn't have his satchel with him, which was odd. It was Friday. That meant an early day, home to change and then out again, somewhere, in another tweed jacket but without the tie. Sam smiled to think that some things, at least, were the same. Whoever he went to see, he never brought them home, returning after midnight alone. She liked to imagine him meeting the "mystery her"--or "him"--illicitly, in a hotel room outside of town, coming home to his modest suburban house with its neglected patch of garden and the front door that needed painting, slipping back late at night with someone's musky scent on his skin, under the tweed. About time he got some. But lying would hurt him. Alternatively, maybe he went to meet his mother for dinner and a movie. Maybe Daniel had a mother. Maybe he went to Al-Anon. Maybe. . . .

After a few seconds, the car door opened and Daniel got out and ran back into the house.

"Yummy," Molly said from behind her, leaning into her and soaking up the vision that was Daniel over Sam's shoulder. Molly's breath was moist, laced with Sam and coffee.

Returning in a moment with his satchel, Daniel waved at them as he got in and backed the car too fast down the driveway. He was running late.

"Who is that boy?" Molly purred against her neck, her smooth, manicured hand on Sam's arm.

"Nobody," Sam answered, shifting away from Molly's soft body and turning her back on the window. "Just a neighbour." One times eight is eight.

Molly's lips were full and pouting and pink, even without lipstick. Her green eyes were glassy, like a doll's. "Liar." The word lingered on her tongue with the intimacy of a pet name. Sam walked away. Sipping from her cup, Molly followed her into the kitchen. "What's his name? He looks familiar."

"I don't know," Sam responded, her head inside the refrigerator. One times nine is nine. When she stood up, she was gripping the edge of the fridge door too tightly, her knuckles white. "You should go," she said.


* * *


Sam found Colonel O'Neill on CNN. He was dead. They showed his picture, silver-haired and smiling thinly in his dress blues, eyes dark and sardonic beneath the brocaded rim of his hat. Then they showed wreckage: a plane, or what used to be a plane, and a long, black scrawl in the grass of a horse field, a tumble of faraway mountains sketched in the bottom margin of the sky, a woman crying and trying to look brave. Then a man in uniform opened and closed his mouth against a backdrop of avid faces. Sam pulled her pillow up close to her chest and didn't rock back and forth. Her eyes were dry.


* * *


Breathe.


* * *


Taking the paring knife from the rack by the sink, Sam sat at the table and drew the blade across the back of her arm, just below the elbow, leaving three precise parallel lines of red welling up on her skin. It didn't hurt a bit, but the blood was just as red as she remembered it. She flung the knife away. It quivered in the wall beside the kitchen window.


* * *

The bartender leaned on the bar, showing his pecs and his teeth. She ordered gin and tonic, no twist, and avoided looking at him. The bald man with the untidy black goatee sat at the end of the bar, smoking and looking at nothing in particular. She squinted at him through the bottom of her glass, but he didn't look any better. When she was finished her drink and getting ready to go, she felt someone settle onto the stool beside her and an electric shiver seared across her skin, making her heart stumble. She looked up and Teal'c looked back, his mouth turned up in a small smile, but his dark eyes were solicitous.

"You okay?" he asked, and his clear brow creased a bit.

Sam swallowed and stared at her empty glass. Seeing him askance, reflected in the polished wood of the bar, she could tell that his mock turtleneck and blazer were expensive, not designer, but good quality and tailored to fit. No rings on his fingers, but one, a tiny loop, in his ear. He took up so much space, so real, and he was waiting for her to say something. Gripping her empty glass tightly, she shrugged, her mouth feeling nerveless. She raised her head and met his eyes.

"Jack O'Neill is dead," she told him without inflection, and stopped breathing, watching his face.

There was no recognition in his eyes, only the kind of sympathy people have for strangers and victims of natural disasters in other countries. Sam waited, but other than softening even more as her eyes began to fill with tears, his expression didn't change. Everything inside her dissolved. She clutched her slick glass so tightly that it sprang from her grasp and shot across the bar onto the floor on the other side, leaving her nothing to hold on to. He motioned to the bartender and in a few moments she had another glass to twist between her hands. She wasn't crying.

"That's the Air Force guy, right? I saw it on the news," he said, opening a door for her with his quiet, gentle voice. She went through it because she was tired and worn thin enough to see through, her thoughts threadbare.

"Yeah."

"He was a hero."

"Yeah, I guess he was." She smiled up at him, tight-lipped because she wasn't crying.

"Did you know him well?"

She shook her head. "Not at all." One times ten is ten. One times eleven is eleven.

His eyes narrowing a bit in confusion, he hesitated, obviously wondering what he'd gotten himself into and looking for a convenient way out.

She gave it to him, saying with finality, "Thanks for the drink."

But he didn't leave. Instead he held out his hand. "I'm Hector."

A laugh jumped out of her, and she covered her mouth with her fingers. "I'm sorry. It's just. . . okay, well, I guess I expected something different."

"Yeah, me too. My mom was a highschool teacher with a thing for the Classics." His smile was broad, his eyes dancing just like a man's eyes might dance if he hadn't lived a hundred years as a slave. As she continued unsuccessfully to suppress her smile, he went on, laughing too, "Hey, it could be worse; she could've called me Homer."

At that, Sam collapsed in a helpless giggle, dropping her head onto her folded arms on the bar. Just as she was winding down he added, "Or Agamemnon," and she was off again.

Sitting up finally and wiping her eyes on a cocktail napkin, she held out her free hand and introduced herself. "I'm Sam. It's short for Samson."


* * *


Sam lay with her head on the pillow next to Hector's and stroked his brow, trying to remember if she had ever touched the brand that should have been there. His face seemed softer now, without the kohl over his eyes. Lowering her hand to his stomach, she pressed her palm to the firm muscles there. The pouch was gone, too. A part of her was relieved for him. At least some things were better.

As she circled his navel with the tip of her middle finger, he caught her hand and raised it to his lips, kissing the offending fingertip with gentle admonishment. "That tickles."

"Sorry."

"S'okay, Samson," he murmured drowsily and fell asleep with his smooth hand over hers on his chest.


* * *


Daniel was wearing a flannel shirt, chinos and sneakers as he jogged across the street, narrowly missing being run down by the paper boy on his bike. Sam could hear him muttering to himself as he climbed the steps onto her porch, but he stopped when he saw her watching him through the window and waggled his fingers at chest level in a close-quarters version of their daily wave. Her hands were shaking as she turned the doorknob and pulled the door open.

"Um, hi. I'm your neighbour," he began, pointing with both hands over his shoulder at his house, and then made a half-smile and ducked his head, looking at her over the rims of his glasses. "But, of course you already knew that." In one hand he held a bundle of envelopes and fliers fastened with a rubber band.

"Hi. Yeah, I remember you from somewhere." She tried to smile so he would know that was a joke but her face felt novocained.

"Yeah." He scratched the back of his head, and then seemed to recall why he'd come. He proffered the stack of mail. "This was delivered to my house by mistake." As she took it from him without reply, he shuffled a bit and continued, "I thought, well, I thought it might be important, and I'm just on the other side of the street, so. . . ." His voice trailed away and he scratched the back of his neck. "So, there it is, anyway."

Because he was Daniel and nervous, his gaze was itinerant, wandering over her head, to the numbers on the wall beside the door, the withering begonia in its pot on the porch rail, his shoes. Sam wanted to clasp his face between her hands and say, "Look." Instead, she twisted the rubber band around two fingers, tighter and tighter, until the fingertips were purple. His flitting eyes arrested by this, he said, "Okay, well, I'll be, uh, waving," and started to back down the steps, stopping when he glanced up and saw the expression on her face. "Hey, are you. . . are you okay? You look. . . are you sure you're alright?"


"Jack O'Neill is dead," Sam blurted at him, and the rubber band broke, scattering mail.

Coming back up the steps, he put a hand on her elbow, his eyes soft behind the glasses. "Oh. I'm sorry. I'm. . . was he a friend of yours?"

One times twelve. One times twelve. One times twelve is. . . is. . . .


* * *


Breathe.


* * *


There was no talking because her throat was raw. They'd pumped her stomach. Nice try, they said.


* * *


The shrink sat with his hands folded across his round belly and regarded her from between the puffy lids of his eyes. In other circumstances it would be hard for her to take him seriously because he looked just like Mr. Magoo. But these weren't other circumstances.

"Tell me about these dreams you've been having, about space-travel, fighting a war against aliens."

"They're only dreams."

For the next hour, his voice droned on, question plodding after question. In her head she recited the multiplication table up to twelve times twelve and then the birthdays of the Presidents. What she didn't think was "classified."


* * *


Hector came to see her every Saturday. She wouldn't speak to him, but he came anyway. And then, after awhile, he didn't.


* * *


The day she was packing to go home, she found Janet, or rather, Janet found her. She came to Sam's room and watched her put her things into her suitcase. Wearing blue pyjamas and a matching flannel housecoat, Janet leaned in the doorway and chewed her hair. Sam noticed that she was wearing bunny slippers. They were lined with pink and the bunnies lay on their backs, looking up a t Janet with pink plastic eyes. She stood in their plush pastel guts. Some things weren't better.

When Sam zipped the bag shut and moved toward the door, Janet blocked her way and stepped up very close, craning her neck and looking with wide, bloodshot brown eyes into Sam's blue ones. "You haven't talked, have you?" she demanded in a furious whisper. "You can't tell them. You can't tell them. You can't tell them." Her voice got louder with each repetition. Spittle flew from her lips onto the front of Sam's blouse.

"Tell them what?" Sam asked, her heart pounding. Janet's breath was sour with fear.

"About the program!" She gripped Sam's arm. "They fuck with your mind. But you can't tell them about the program."

An orderly appeared from nowhere and wrapped his muscled arms around Janet's waist, heaving her off her feet. He was paunchy and bald with an untidy black goatee. The bunnies kicked ineffectually at his shins, ears flopping. As he carried her away, Janet screamed, "They. Fuck. With. Your. Mind!"

Sam felt sick. But she left the hospital, anyway.


* * *

She didn't go home. Instead she went to the bar, even though it was still daylight. People were walking on the sidewalks, going places, jobs and the like. It didn't matter where. It didn't matter who they were and why. Inside the bar, she walked directly up to the big man with the bald head and the untidy black goatee. He was drinking beer and tequila shots. It was eleven in the morning.

"Let's get out of here," she said, showing all of her teeth, her hand on his thigh.


* * *


The big man's mouth was opening and closing. He was shouting something, but it didn't matter what it was. His arm was moving fast and he hit her across the mouth. That shouldn't matter, either, but it did because she was angry. She was so angry that, as he swung at her again, she deflected the blow with her forearm. Then she drove the heel of her other hand into his face, feeling bone and cartilage give.

After he fell, she spat blood and fell, too. She curled up on the floor, naked, drawing her legs up to her chest and, elbows together, covered her breasts, her head tucked down, hands splayed across the back of her neck. Her teeth were chattering so hard that her jaw was beginning to seize up, her body shuddering. Her back still felt vulnerable, but she doesn't dare roll over, expose more of herself. She made herself smaller, squeezing her eyes shut until she sees stars. With conscious effort she draws in a breath, filling her lungs, holding air for a slow count of five, then blowing it out, disgusted that it escapes as a sob. She repeats the exercise, sucking in a breath through her nose, holding it, counting, blowing it out her mouth, making her body submit to her mind. She wants to pant, to scream. But the only ones who can hear her won't help.

Inhale. Hold. Release.

Inhale. Hold. Release.

Breathe.

"Carter." That's Colonel O'Neill's voice, tight, angry. His breath is in her hair. "Sam, c'mon. C'mon." The colonel is dead. He crashed his plane into a rancher's back forty in Montana. He didn't eject. Nobody could figure out why he didn't eject.

"Oh God, Jack, look at her." Daniel's voice is choked. She can feel his tentative fingers on her back, her flank, tracing along her bones, her hips and ribs so close to the surface of her skin. She quivers, but can only curl tighter, nowhere to go but in. Daniel was shot by a jealous lover in a hotel room outside of town. He didn't even say "No" when the gun was leveled at his head.

"This device is the means by which they attempted to extract information," Teal'c asserts. His big hands are on her neck, over her own. The weight of his touch is familiar. One day he drove his Jeep into the desert and was never seen again. All the papers said that was a real good mystery as it illustrated the vastness of the great state of Nevada.

Gentle fingers pry her hands from the back of her neck, where they are gripping the wire lead. She feels a tugging, a twisting in the centre of her mind as the lead is pulled free, and then she vomits, but there is nothing in her stomach but bile. Someone holds her head.

Opening her eyes, she looks across the floor at the bald man with the untidy black goatee. His nose is smashed, bone fragments in his brain. But he is not a man; rather, he is something like a man, bluish, scaly skin stretched across his bones. The man-like thing has glazed golden eyes with vertical pupils that stare unseeing at her over the ruin of its face, and the other end of the wire lead disappears into the side of its head, where an ear should be. The man-like thing has a small mouth that opens and closes, opens and closes, as the body dies. She watches it die.

Inhale. Hold. Release.

"One times one is one," she whispers. "One times two. . . is. . . ."


* * *


Teal'c removes his utility vest so that, when he lifts her, swaddled in the crinkling thermal blanket, she will have someplace soft to rest her head. He cradles her like a small child against his chest and she can hear his rhythmic breathing as they move through the phosphorescent corridors. Careful not to jostle her, he walks with measured and gliding steps, but her muscles, burning with dehydration, are twisted with spasms, her joints creaking like ancient hinges, and every movement sends sparks dancing behind her eyelids. Her head lolls, eyes unfocused. She is anchored only by pain and the rushing of air in Teal'c's lungs.

She tries to match her breathing to his, but in her the air rasps raggedly, hitches and burns and tastes bloody.

She hears the chevrons engage, one after another, and when the 'gate tears a hole in the universe her mind tears too. Memory rips through her like high voltage grounding in her brain, drags the barbed hook of a scream from her unused throat as her body bucks, back arching. Losing his footing, Teal'c falls to one knee.

The distance folded in behind him like the Red Sea collapsing on the army of the Pharaoh. Refusing to settle, the dust hung in the air, a gritty pall, and where he vanished at the horizon the blue sky cut across the desert like a blade.

"Dead."

"Who is dead?" Teal'c asks her, gathering her closer, rising fluidly to his feet as Daniel tucks the blanket back around her.

Rolling her head, she squints and follows Daniel with her eyes. He looks at her for a long moment--he's a dim flame wavering in front of the event horizon--and then turns and is swallowed without a struggle.

"Colonel. . . T. . . niel."

"You are deceived. Your friends are very much alive. We have come to take you home." Teal'c speaks with his head bowed, close to hers, his breath on her face. She takes his words into her lungs because they are only air.

O'Neill waits for them, a trick of the light.

One times five is nine. One times twelve is three.


* * *


Daniel is wearing blue BDUs and combat boots. He is slouched down in the infirmary chair beside the bed, his glasses perched on top of his head. They are sliding slowly forward through his short hair as he slips deeper and deeper into sleep, chin dipping toward his chest, over his folded arms. The light snags on the rims of the glasses, but he is mostly beyond the halo, his edges indistinct, fading to nothingness. There are shadows where his eyes should be.


* * *


Hands in his pockets, the colonel rocks back on his heels, cracking a brief, one-sided grin. "Rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated." The crease between his eyebrows remains.

The mountains were serrated teeth at the horizon. His visor caught the world and cast it back, the face behind the mirror untouched. As the ground came up to meet him, he raised his hand, spread in its glove, and pressed it against the canopy toward the sky. Light streamed between his fingers as Montana closed its jaws around him.

"Let me go," she moans. Her fists are pressed against her eyes.


* * *


"Oops. Sorry." Daniel is standing in the doorway, leaning forward in an attitude of arrested momentum, a file folder in one hand. Settling back, he says, "I didn't realize you were counting. Did I mess you up?"

"I wasn't counting."

Confusion flickers in his eyes, but he comes into the lab anyway.

One times three is three, Sam says, silently this time, as Daniel talks, opening and closing his mouth. He's not showing any teeth, but that doesn't mean they aren't there.


* * *


Gravity. Magnetism. Strong and weak nuclear forces. Sine and cosine. She recites Pi to twenty decimal places as she walks to the elevator, swipes her key-card and waits for the doors to open. Inside, she leans against the cool, steel panels and pictures the electron shells--s, p, d, f, g, h--the logical dance of charges around the nucleus, the place where atoms talk to each other, form alliances, get divorced. She begins with hydrogen, working her way up to nitrogen before the doors slide open. She didn't feel the elevator fall, but she steps out into the new scene anyway, calculating the Schwarzschild radius for Cyg X-1 (vesc = (2GM/R)«) in her head, and then does it again for photons (R = 2GM/c2). Calculating the size of the universe takes her to the Control room. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. Matter is energy poised. As she climbs the stairs to the general's briefing room, she recites the laws of thermodynamics: "Left to itself, an isolated system tends toward a state of maximum disorder" or "left to itself, an isolated system tends toward a state of higher probability." Clausius, Newton, Kelvin, Kepler. Not Einstein today. Einstein let things get too slippery. The observer, locked up in her box of perceptions and spatio-temporal limitations, is a wild card she doesn't want to deal with, or be dealt. By the time she pulls her chair up close to the table, next to O'Neill, she is back to multiplication.

"I vote no," the colonel is saying. "If voting were an option, that is," he concludes with a deferential nod toward the general.

Daniel holds up a pen instead of his finger to silence him. Daniel is incredulous, briefly inarticulate, blinking rapidly behind his glasses. "Wuh, what? Wait. . . wait just a minute. How can you vote no?"

"Easy. N-O."

"Jack, they're not technologically advanced, but that doesn't mean they're stupid."

"I didn't say stupid. I said naive."

"You're doing what you hate to have other races do to us."

"Such as?"

"You're treating these people like children."

Abstaining, Teal'c doesn't raise an eyebrow.

Hammond fixes Sam with a hopeful look. "Major?"

"I agree with him, sir."

"Who?"

She points at Daniel, who makes a "See? Told you" face at Jack.

"Him." Jack turns to her, mildly accusing. "You guys do that just to tick me off."

"What, sir?"

"The geeks-of-a-feather thing. You always flock with him."

"You know," Daniel mutters a bit petulantly, "'him' has a name."

And he does, but it's not his.

She glances up to find him looking at her intently, mouth gaping open in a silent "oh," the expression he gets when an elusive text suddenly leaps into meaning.


* * *


"Carter!"

O'Neill stops her in the corridor by the elevator, a hand reaching for her arm and missing as she steps back. There is a slippery kind of resistance between her and the world, like the positive ends of two magnets forced together. She can't stand the thought of their smooth hands on her skin and she is deflected subtly sideways when they try to touch her, a slave to an immutable law. His hand hovers uncertainly in the air for a moment before retreating to his pocket.

The colonel is chipper, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, but his eyes are searching, an underlying hum of concern deforming the surface of his good mood. "Beer. Hockey. Coming?"

"Sorry, sir. I can't."

"C'mon. It's the Blackhawks. Teal'c's betting money. Even Daniel's coming." He waggles his eyebrows enticingly.

"Another time, okay?" She backs into the elevator.

"Steaks!" he exclaims as a final gambit. "Big, juicy steaks." He holds his hands wide to illustrate, but the gesture is compressed by the closing doors until he's just a sliver of green uniform and then nothing at all.

* * *


Sitting on the stool in the middle of her lab, Daniel turns slowly to watch her as she circles around him, her purposeful motion taking her closer to and farther from him, perigee, apogee, pushed and pulled by the opposed forces of momentum and gravity. She checks a calculation on her laptop, her shoulder almost touching his, and then passes on to the reactor on the other side of the table, making minute adjustments, then back again to the laptop.

"You should really come with us. Not that hockey is a big draw." He shrugs and makes a mock- pained face. "But you've been kind of, I dunno, hibernating down here since you got out of the infirmary." His hands hang between his knees, loosely clasped.

"I'm busy."

"It's just one night. Not even: two hours. If I can handle it you can. Geeks-of-a-feather, remember?"

On the other side of the table, she flips a switch and the reactor hums, sending a out a bow-wave of energy that makes the hairs on her arms stand on end. But the hum isn't quite right. It wavers on the edge of error. Switching off, she comes back to the laptop. As she's starting to type, Daniel reaches out and wraps his hand around her wrist.

Her fingers stumble on the keys.

"Let me go," she says to the screen.

"Daniel," he prompts her.

Her mouth is stitched shut.

"Let me go, Daniel," he repeats more pointedly and with an encouraging duck of his head, his fingers still circling her arm, but loosely, gently.

She could easily pull away, and she does. In response his mouth quirks up on one side. It's not a smile, but a gesture that conveys its opposite, the sign of his confusion and awakening realization. It's just the first of half a dozen expressions that suggest themselves in tiny, conflicting movements as each layer of emotion is exposed and stripped away. Finally, all that is left is understanding and a faint iridescence of fear. He's not afraid of her, but because she is afraid. She only recognizes this because she knows Daniel's face so well, and his face is so much like Daniel's.

"Sam, please--"

"No." Her teeth are clenched against what he knows.

She walks away, leaving him in a grey eddy, cold as an ache, the numbers beating inside her like a heart.


* * *


SG12 trudges past her, wet, mud-covered and weary, their hands barely making it to their brows in salute as they pass. One of Rajan's dark, almond eyes is swollen shut.

"Tough one, Lieutenant?"

"Yes ma'am, you could say that," Rajan answers, her 's's slurred, and winces when her nod makes the cut on her brow weep red. Then she grins, showing a gap where her two front teeth were when she left the Gateroom this morning. "We kicked their asses good."

Sam nods her approbation and the soldiers carry on toward the infirmary, boot heels dragging on concrete. Once they're gone, she continues her circuit, spiraling up through the heart of the mountain, floor by floor, passing overworked technicians, their eyes bright with caffeine, and late-shifters as alert and at home in the middle of the night as day-shifters at noon. But it's always noon in the mountain, always midnight. She climbs the stairs to level 20, walks the corridors, counting her paces, then does the same for level 19. On level 18 she stops, breathing shallowly.

Daniel is asleep at his worktable, head on his folded arms in a puddle of lamplight. He didn't go with O'Neill and Teal'c. Instead, he's been waiting here all night for her orbit to decay and deposit her in his territory like debris.

Moving quietly, she steps up beside him and lays a hesitant hand on his shoulder. When he stirs, but doesn't wake, she traces her finger down the sturdy fabric of his shirt, pausing to rest in the cup of a tear-shaped wrinkle at his elbow, and then touches the warm skin of his hand. As she's pulling away, his hand opens and catches two of her fingers, then gathers up the rest. His palm is a little clammy. She glimpses the shimmer of otherworldliness in his still-dreaming eyes as the lids flutter and open, but then he focuses myopically on her, his cheek still resting on his wrist.

"Good," he says indistinctly. This might be meant for her, or it could be a post script to his dream. She's not sure, but he doesn't explain as he sits up, rubbing at his eye with his free hand and then groping for his glasses.

The woman lay on her side, her back still bowed in the shape of him, still warm from their sated sleep, spooned together in the safety of this anonymous place. Her hair, heavy with dark curls, was flung across her face and the pillow like a veil and, in the second before the shot, he groped blindly beside him and twined a thick strand around his fingers, his other hand clenched in the sheet. After, when the echo ricocheted around and around the room because there was no way out, his fist uncurled slowly like a blooming flower. His hand was unnaturally smooth and unlined, like all of their hands--Molly's, Hector's, Janet's, even O'Neill's in its glove, pressed against the sky--the fingertips pristinely, impossibly blank.

He knocks the glasses off of the table with his sleeve and catches them awkwardly between his arm and his chest. Unwilling to let go of her, he fumbles one-handed for them, smudging the lenses with his fingers. His mouth tightens in a small grimace of irritation and he folds the glasses closed against his shoulder before hanging them from the collar of his shirt. The lenses catch the light, which is smeared and refracted to tiny rainbows there by oil from his hands. Fingerprints.

"Oh," Sam breathes, a long, wavering exhalation, and pulls her hand free, only to grasp his and turn his palm up under the light. His life-line is branched. She remembers their old joke about his destined resurrection and how two branches was already an underestimation. On his thumb, slicing through the whorls and lines, is a pale scar left by an Abydonian knife, a cut made to seal some pact of brotherhood. He told her once how glad he was that the sarcophagus hadn't erased this part of his body's memory.

"Daniel," she sighs and lets him close her hand in his again.

"Yeah. It's me. I promise."

Her eyes flick up and across his face, but she can't meet his gaze. "I knew it wasn't real," she tells him, her voice thick with the shame of her fear and confusion, her lip curling with self-disgust. "I knew, but sometimes. . . it was so seamless. . . and I was so tired." Again, her eyes pass over him and away. She squeezes his fingers tightly until her knuckles turn white, but he doesn't complain. She hates the tone of pleading rationalization in her voice. "I tried so hard."

"I know." She looks at him, a sheen of tears making her eyes seem larger and bluer. "Because I know you," he answers her unspoken question, but her gaze falters and falls away again, uncomforted.

"They didn't just make me know. They made me see. I saw you. . . your--" The memory is like a blocked artery, a painful pressure depriving her of oxygen, greying out the world. "I saw. But I wouldn't let them make me feel so they pushed and pushed. And I was so tired. And now there's this--" she presses her fist against her chest until the dogtags bite into her skin, her eyes squeezed shut, "--this hole in me where you used to be. All of you."

He says nothing because there aren't any words for this, and because it runs too deep for mere sympathy. When she finally looks at him, he simply nods his understanding, and his eyes are Daniel's eyes. She lets him put his arms around her. It's real enough.



THE END


Notes:  As always, thanks to Aces. And to Martha who realized that I hadn't told the whole story and asked me to tell it.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

Return To Outside The Box