Jackfic Fiction Archive Story

 

Here Among The Living

by Charli Booker


  Death stands above me, whispering low

                                                   I know not what into my ear . . . .1

 

                                                                   

 

            Seven miles down; five more to go.  Not far.  I’ve walked that far for a cold beer.  It’s not far at all.  Unless you feel like crap.  Which I do, by the way.  I’m sitting on the grass, leaning back against my pack.  I’d called a halt 20 minutes ago, and I’m really not looking forward to the remainder of the trip.  While the others had munched on energy bars, I’d unwrapped mine, took one look at it, then wrapped it back up and shoved it into a pocket on my vest.  I settled for a lunch of water and aspirin.  Seems my appetite is hiding behind the marching band performing its heart out somewhere behind my eyes.

 

            Only half listening to the conversations among my team members, I frown at the brilliant sun, which has somehow managed to pry past the bill of my cap, dark sunglasses and closed eyelids to poke incessantly at my sore eyes.  Eyes:  doorways to the soul, some say.  Or, in this case, to an all-drum band beating a frenzied, manic rhythm.  The throbbing tempo reminds me of a rock group I’d seen while channel-surfing a few weeks ago, but I can’t place the name.

            “Colonel?”

 

            I manage a “hmmm” in response to Carter’s soft voice.

 

            “It’s nice here, isn’t it?”

 

            Actually, it’s hot here.  And bright.  Very bright.  Eyes still closed, I nod.  Big mistake.  One drummer drops his instrument behind my left eye and a sharp pain shoots straight through my temple.  “Yeah, Carter.  It’s nice.”

 

            “Sir, we’re over halfway there.”

 

            I may not be an astro-physi-whatever-ist, but I can take a hint.  I lift my head and squint over at them.  The three of them are all quietly, expectantly, watching me.  “Then we’d better get going, huh, kids?”

 

            I’m digging in my pack for more painkillers when I realize two things: my team members are waiting on me, and the bottle of aspirin I’d started out with two days ago is empty.  Sighing in frustration at the glare, the heat, the pain, the whole damn day, I give up my search and slip my pack onto my back with practiced ease.  “Teal’c, take point.  I’ll catch our six.”

 

            Teal’c heads out, Daniel close behind him.  I take a last look around to make sure we’re packing out everything we packed in.  Daniel gets a little sloppy sometimes.

 

            “Sir?”  Carter is holding something out to me.  I look at it and smile before taking it from her.  A packet of aspirin.

 

            “Thanks, Carter.”  I try not to look too grateful as I dry swallow two of them to go with the two I’d swallowed just minutes ago.

 

            “You okay, sir?”

 

            “Smashing Pumpkins!”  I smile at her, pleased with my not-so-failing memory.

 

            “Colonel?”

 

            “The name of the group.”  I realize she has no idea what I’m talking about.  “Never mind.”  I shake my head.  Damn!  Another drum rolls around behind my eyes.  Or maybe it’s a pumpkin being slung to the ground, splitting open, its innards decorating the inside of my head.  I look over to find Carter eyeballing me like I’ve grown another head.  “I’m fine, Major.  Just a little headache.”  Only this isn’t your average headache.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “Jack, I’d like to go ahead and get started right now.  I don’t know how much time it’s going to take, but the sooner I get started –,”

 

            Yeah, yeah.  The sooner we can go home.  The sooner we get to march back across the same 12 miles we’ve just put behind us.  I know that.  But, right now, the way I feel, the whole idea pisses me off.  I glare over at Daniel and start to snap something like, ‘Dammit, Daniel, will you give me a minute!’, when I see his face and suddenly realize he’s not whining.  He’s asking nicely.  Too nicely.  Obviously, Carter has been running off at the mouth about the health of her CO.  Fine, I’ll take it out on her then.  Call it the privilege of rank.

 

            “Carter!”  She flinches, surprised by the sudden anger in my voice.  “Go with Daniel.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”  Throwing me an occasional glance, they gather up Daniel’s video gear and Carter’s weapon, and trudge off toward the ruins a hundred yards distant.

 

            “And, dammit, Carter, don’t let him touch anything!  I’m holding you responsible!”  She waves at me without looking back, and I see Daniel look over at her, his mouth moving.  Probably saying something about what an ass I can be.  He’s right.  I can be.

 

            I sense Teal’c staring at me, and glare over at him for good measure.  “What?”  It comes out harsh, making my head pound harder.

 

            “You are angry, O’Neill.”

 

            “I’m not angry!”

 

            He remains stoic, as always.  “You sound angry.”

 

            I do.  I know that.  What am I, an idiot?  “I do not!”

 

            “O’Neill–,”

 

            “Teal’c!”  I hold up my hand to silence him, to silence myself, then rub both hands over my face wanting nothing more than to wipe away this entire day.  Barring that, I’ll settle for an end to this headache ad nauseam.  I begin again, more civilly.  “Teal’c, please, just – go patrol or something.  Look mean.  Anything.  I don’t care.”  Silent, he stares back at me, but I can see concern in the arch of his left eyebrow.  I hate concern.  It makes me uncomfortable.  “Please.”  He bows stiffly and taking his staff weapon, walks away.

 

            In the quiet left by my team’s departure, I feel the anger slip away leaving behind a slimy trail of guilt, something with which I’m only too familiar.  I roll my head around gently, trying to loosen my stiff neck and shoulder muscles in an effort to reduce the pain in my head.  My efforts are rewarded with a flash of pain so intense I stagger.  “Shit!”  I reach out and brace myself against the nearest tree.  Breathing in through clenched teeth, I wait until the pain levels off enough that I can stand on my own.

 

            Maybe the best remedy is to take my mind off whatever’s going on in my head – no pun intended.  I start by looking around at our campsite, noting the packs strewn about and the sun which is beginning to lower in the sky.  Swallowing back a wave of nausea, I go about setting up camp, starting with erecting the tents.  Ashamed as I am to admit it, I know it’s as close as I’ll get to apologizing to them.

 

            An hour later, the tents are up, and a fire is going.  I’ve heated water for MRE’s, and made coffee.  And, I have good news and bad news:  The bad news is that all the bending, squatting and tugging has left me even more nauseous and dizzy.  The good news is that while pulling out their tents, I’ve managed to filch more aspirin from the others’ packs.

 

            It’s almost dark when I drop down by the fire, and pour myself a cup of coffee.  I see the beam of a flashlight as Daniel and Carter exit the temple.  Daniel is so excited that I can hear him babbling to Carter from clear over here.  This whole trip has been one big field day for Daniel.  Two days ago, we’d set up camp one mile from the gate at the site of an old settlement. While Daniel and Carter had unearthed artifacts and studied ruins, Teal’c had kept a watchful eye.  I, on the other hand, had stumbled around the ancient city measuring the passage of time by the increasing pressure in my head.  What had started as a twinge back at the SGC had, over the course of two days, blossomed into something resembling the effects of a Goa’uld ribbon device.  Truth be told, I’m beginning to worry.  But, not wanting to bother the others, I’m struggling to keep evidence of my pain and concern tucked away.  So, when Daniel and Carter step into the ring of our firelight, I’m reclining against a dead tree, trying to look casual and not sick.

 

            “Hey, kids.”  I’m speaking softly now, trying to make up a little for earlier, but also trying not to jar my head.  “Went well, I take it.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”

 

            “Coffee!”  Daniel drops down across the flames from me, and pours a cup for himself and for Sam.  He sips his gratefully.  “Jack, this place is amazing!  It’s going to take an entire day just to videotape.  Maybe more.”

 

            “That’s great, Daniel.”

 

            Taking the cup of coffee Daniel is holding out to her, Carter sits down beside him and looks over at me to see if I’m being sarcastic.  I’m not.  I’m long past having the energy for sarcasm.  I avoid her scrutiny by sitting up straighter, a small grunt slipping out as I do so.  Carter frowns and opens her mouth to speak but is interrupted by Teal’c’s return.  The Jaffa sets down his weapon and lowers himself to the ground beside me.

 

            “Everything clear, Teal’c?”

 

            “All is well, O’Neill.  I do not believe anyone has been in this area for many years.”

 

            “Yeah,” Carter is helping Daniel mix up the MRE’s, “the building appears to have been abandoned decades ago.  At least.”

 

            “If I were guessing by the state of the artifacts inside, I’d say no one’s been here for at least a hundred and fifty years.  Maybe two hundred.”  Daniel attempts to pass me a helping of whatever it is he and Carter have mixed up.  Macaroni and cheese?  But I decline.  “You should eat, Jack.”  Even as he is trying to convince me, Daniel sniffs his suspiciously.

 

            “Already did.”  Technically, that’s not a lie.  Half an hour ago, thinking I must be hungry, I’d managed to swallow half of the energy bar from earlier before staggering off into the trees to throw it all back up.  Now, hit by the smell of their dinner and the sounds of their eating, even the coffee threatens to come back on me.

 

            I set down my cup and push myself up onto shaky legs.  “Neighbors or no, we’ll keep an eye out as usual.  Daniel, take first watch, will you?  Then Carter, me, Teal’c.”

 

            “Sure, Jack.”  They look puzzled.  The sun has barely set and it’s just after 1900 hours.

 

            “Are you turning in, sir?”  Sam sounds incredulous.  I never go to bed before first watch.

 

            “After I water the garden, Major.  ‘Night, kids.”  I stumble out into the trees before sinking down to my knees and clutching my head.  Panting, swallowing, sweating, I remain motionless until my stomach settles and my vision clears.  Well, partially clears.  Squinting, I look around.  Not all of the stars I’m seeing are constellations.  I ‘water the garden’ while on my knees, then force myself upright and stumble to my tent.

 

            I fall onto my sleeping bag, resting a moment before pulling another packet of aspirin from my pocket.  I’m getting way too proficient at dry swallowing these bitter, little pills.  This time, I wash them down with a prayer that these four are the ones that will finally cure me.  I fall asleep to the sound of my team’s voices, and Sam’s soft laughter.  The high point of my day.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            Third watch.  I always take third watch.  Long ago, I’d learned that it was the most dangerous time of night.  It’s when the majority of all nighttime raids happen.  So, I always take it.  I will never ask one of my people to cover what I know to be the most deadly shift.  Just like I will lead them into battle and follow them out, unless there is a valid, strategic reason to do otherwise.

 

            I usually awaken 15 to 30 minutes before my turn at watch, even at home or on base.  No need for an alarm.  Just years of practice that I wouldn’t recommend to my worst enemy.  Well, Apophis maybe.  Tonight is different.

 

            I wake without moving; listening.  Even without knowing the time or the schedule, I can tell who’s on watch by the noises they make.  With Daniel comes the sound of pouring and sipping coffee; and the quiet sniffing brought on by his allergies, although his sneezing is usually at a minimum during the nighttime hours.  Carter’s presence is announced by her soft pacing, followed by the click of a weapon being laid across her knees, and the slide of cloth against cloth as she hugs her arms tight across her chest; then, every 10 to 15 minutes, a whisper-soft sigh – something I don’t think she even realizes she does.  With Teal’c there is mostly silence, a silence that is somehow louder than anything Daniel and Sam do.  At other times, I sense his massive body circling the camp, and imagine I can even hear the sound of his staff weapon touching the ground like a walking stick.

 

            I listen:  a whisper of cloth; a soft sigh.  Sam.  I glance at my watch.  I’m early tonight.  I have another 45 minutes.  I should sleep, but the Smashing Pumpkins have other ideas.  So, I lay there in the dark, one arm across my forehead.  I don’t really care what I’ve done to deserve this, but I’d sure as hell like to know when it’s going to end.  If it’s going to end.  One more day here, another back to the Stargate; and, at the rate I’m chugging aspirin, our supply will be gone by tomorrow night.  Of course, judging by the amount of painkillers I’ve already ingested and the amount of pressure still building behind my eyes, I don’t think a few more aspirin are going to make much difference.

 

            “Dammit.”  I crawl out of my tent and, acknowledging Carter with a grunt, traipse back out to the men’s room.  At least this time I manage it standing up.  I come back to camp and sit down next to her, our backs to the fire.  She hands me a cup of coffee.

 

            “Can’t sleep, sir?”

 

            “Oh, you know, early to bed and all that.”  I study the sky and take a sip of the coffee.  “God.”  Grimacing, I pitch the foul liquid into the dirt and set the cup down.

 

            “Daniel made it.”

 

            “Tell me something I don’t know, Major.”  It’s kind of a joke:  Daniel loves the stuff, but he really sucks at making it.

 

            Carter looks down at her feet.  “We all know you’re sick.”

 

            Okay.  I walked into that one.  Should have seen it coming.  But, I can’t say I’m surprised.  We’ve been a team too long; we know each other too well.  “Yeah, well,” I shrug it off, the movement itself setting off the band and underscoring her point.

 

            “We think we should head back first thing in the morning.”

 

            “We do, do we?”

 

            She nods.  “Even Daniel.”

 

            “S’that right?”

 

            “Yes, sir.”  She can tell I’m getting pissed.

 

            I rub my forehead, pinch the bridge of my nose.  I don’t know why I do that.  It has yet to cure a headache, even a normal one.  Certainly not this monstrosity.  “We came here so Daniel can study this,” I wave in the direction of the ruins, “temple-thingy.  We’re here.  We’re staying.  There’s no reason to rush home.  Waste all this time and effort.”

 

            “Except that you’re sick.”

 

            “Carter, this is not a democracy!  We stay.”

 

            Sam isn’t stupid.  Not by a long shot.  She knows my hand trumps hers.  “Yes, sir.”  She manages to sound pitiful, mad, and resigned in two simple words.

 

            “Major, I’m fine.  I’m not sick.  It’s just a headache.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”  She has that tone in her voice.  The one that says, ‘You may be in charge, but you’re still wrong.’  Kind of an advance ‘I told you so.’  I hate that tone and she knows it.

 

            “Carter!”

 

            “Sir?”

 

            “Don’t.”

 

            “Don’t what?”

 

            “Don’t give me that look.”

 

            “Look, sir?”

 

            “Dammit!  You know what look.”  The pain in my head chooses that moment to shift heavily.  I moan and rest my face in my hands.

 

            “Colonel, with respect, look at yourself.”

 

            “I’d rather not,” I mumble through my hands.

 

            “It’s obvious you’re miserable.  We’d feel better if we got you back to the base.”  She knows how to play me, I’ll give her that.  Hell, the entire team is expert at it.  It must be in some damn SGC handbook:  If you want your way with Jack O’Neill, appeal to him via his team.

 

            In my weakened state, I almost fall for it.  Almost.  “Carter,” I sit up, looking out at the dark, “it’s just a headache, for cryin’ out loud.”  I hate talking about myself like this, so I stare straight ahead, trying to pretend she’s not really there.  “Thanks to Janet and her buddy McKenzie, you all know she’s been treating me for them.  It’s no big deal.”  Sam starts to protest, but I stop her.  Where am I going with this?  “Tomorrow – well, today, we’ll let Daniel do his videotaping.  We’ll leave bright and early tomorrow morning.  I promise.”

 

            “But–,”

 

            “Major, to be honest, I could use the break.  I’m not exactly looking forward to the walk back.”  She looks over at me.  See, I know how to play her, too.

 

            “Yes, sir.”  She stands up.  “Colonel, I’d be happy to cover your watch.”

 

            “That won’t be necessary, Carter.  Get some sleep.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”

 

            I wait until she’s settled in her tent then grab a canteen, my vest and my weapons.  Tossing more wood onto the fire, I head out into the cover of the trees.  For the next hour, I circle the camp, studying the lay of the land in the moonlight, eyes and ears open for anything that seems out of place.  I devote extra attention to the ruins before settling down for the remainder of my watch.  I find a natural depression in the grassy area about 50 yards north of the camp.  From here, I can see the camp, the ruins, and the tree-line.  I can also keep an eye on the horizon.  I sink down with a sigh and squirm around until I’m as comfortable as I can get under the circumstances.

 

            During our travels, I’ve discovered that all planets are different, with their own unique sounds.  This place is quiet – absolutely quiet.  I mean, no noisy bugs, no babbling creek, no scurrying animals, not even the sound of a breeze through the trees.  It’s eerie actually, and the silence makes the throbbing behind my eyes seem even louder.  I have to strain to hear around it.

 

            Irritated at my own weakness, I break open another packet of aspirin and wash them down with water for a change of pace.  I think I read somewhere that aspirin thins your blood.  If that’s true and if I skin my knee or something, I’m probably going to bleed to death.  I smile at the stupid irony that my bum knee might be the death of me yet.  I always suspected it would be, but I’d always imagined it would be because it failed me just as some Goa’uld had me in his sights.

 

            Unexpectedly, my left temple flares with pain and I grab at it, cursing softly.  This is so not funny!  Cradling my head, I wonder briefly if I’ve picked up some weird, alien virus.  I’m also beginning to think I’ve made a bad command decision.  When we left our camp near the gate yesterday morning, I was already sick.  I had operated under the assumption that it couldn’t get any worse.  Obviously, I was wrong.  Not only was I wrong, I was now a full day and 12 miles from getting my team home.

 

            At least, whatever this is, none of the others are sick.  Guess that probably rules out the alien virus theory.  Maybe something went wrong during our trip through the gate.  Or, maybe it’s true that we have a finite number of trips allotted to us and I’ve just reached my limit.  That possibility makes the thought of the trip home even less exciting.

 

            Finally, with agonizing slowness, the pain recedes, dulling to its previous racking, thrumming, pulsating ache.  Breathless, I lean back against my shallow foxhole until I find a measure of comfort.  I remain motionless, fearful of waking the sleeping beast that has taken up residence alongside my brain.  I wonder what time it is, but I’m afraid to make even the small movement required to look at my watch.  When I see Teal’c emerge from his tent, I know it must be 0400.

 

            Carrying his staff weapon, he walks to the edge of the camp and turns around slowly in a full circle, staring out at the night.  I realize he is searching for me.  I am so motionless that his eyes sweep past me.  Then, as if sensing my presence in the periphery of his vision, he turns back and looks directly at me.  Bravely, risking another bout of agonizing pain, I lift a hand, acknowledging him.  He bows slightly, then disappears into the night in the opposite direction.  It is not uncommon for us both to remain on watch until the others awaken, so my presence does not alarm him.  But knowing Teal’c is on duty, I can now lower my guard and allow my tired eyes to close.  The grass cool against the base of my skull, I drift into a light slumber.

 

            I’m awakened by the sound of voices and the smell of fresh coffee.  The sun is coming up on my left, and Daniel and Carter are milling around the campfire.  I locate Teal’c sitting at the base of a tree on the edge of the clearing.  Having spied me, Daniel is making his way towards me, bearing 2 cups.  He hands me a steaming mug and lowers himself to the ground nearby.

 

            “Morning, Jack.”

 

            “Daniel.”

 

            “Sam says we’re staying.”  I look up at him.  “Do you think that’s wise?”

 

             I don’t respond because I’m not quite sure what to say.  The way I feel, no, I don’t think staying is wise; then again, I’m not sure leaving is an option.  Instead of answering, I take a sip of the coffee, but I’ve had nothing to eat since early yesterday morning, and my stomach lurches.

 

            “I mean, you look like hell.”

 

            “I love you, too, Dr. Jackson.”

 

            “Jack.”  His blue eyes search my face, and he frowns.  “You sure you’re up to this?”

 

            I shrug.  “I’ll be fine.”

 

            “Yeah, sure.  You’ll be fine.  Let me guess, you’re feeling peachy, right?”

 

            “Actually, Daniel, today, I wouldn’t go that far.  But I’ll be okay.  This’ll pass.”

 

            Daniel gives me a look of something - disappointment maybe?  I know he and Carter think I should open up more, quit hiding behind the SOB routine.  I can’t.  I won’t.  I don’t think I want to.  Anyway, I’m not so sure it is a routine after all these years.  I sometimes worry about what will happen if they ever see the real Jack O’Neill.  The things I’ve done.  God, the things I’ve stood back and let happen!  Why would I want to share that with these kids?  They have so much ahead of them.  Smart, talented, and pretty damn innocent from where I’m standing.  I mean, what the hell am I but a hired gun?  A paid killer?  A glorified mercenary?  Point me in the right direction, tell me who to assassinate, then pin another medal for bravery on the breast of my nicely pressed blue suit.  I look down at my hands, a little surprised at how clean they appear.  Unstained.

 

            “Jack?”

 

            I look back up at Daniel.  I want to tell him the reason I don’t open the floodgates even just a little is because I’m terrified of what lies behind the dam.  “What?”

 

            “I asked if you wanted some breakfast.”

 

            I can’t speak for the thoughts clogging up my synapses.  It must be the effect of too much pain, or a symptom of aspirin overdose.  I simply nod, wondering if he can hear the thrum of Smashing Pumpkins from two feet away.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            I’m sitting again.  I’ve been doing so much sitting today that my butt is getting sore.  Funny.  Normally, I can’t sit still through a single briefing.  I have to get up, pour myself some water, stare out the observation window, pace.  But today, I’ve been sitting in this same spot for over three hours.  Hammond will never believe this.

 

            I stretch out my bad knee and study the back of Daniel’s head.  He’s still intent on recording the hieroglyphs.  As usual when he’s faced with some new archaeological find, he’s totally immersed.  I doubt he even remembers that I’m here.  The mid-day sun is peeking through the fissures in the sagging roof of the ruins, lighting up the wall where he’s working, but over here, leaning back against what Daniel says was once an altar, it is cool and shady.

 

            At breakfast, I had managed to swallow half a dozen bites of reconstituted egg and a few swigs of water.  That was nearly six hours ago and so far, so good.  Nothing has backfired on me yet.  No sooner had we finished eating, than Carter had hurried off to do her soil sampling bit, and Teal’c had walked away saying he wanted to check out some tracks he’d come across during his watch.  That left me to babysit Jackson.  I didn’t realize until it was too late that I’d been set up.  I’m glad.  If I’d known what they were up to, I would have been compelled to protest and so would have spent the day painfully wandering around in the hot sun.  Instead, I’ve been sitting on my ass inside this decrepit building, resting my eyes while half-listening to Daniel’s running commentary to himself on what an amazing find this is.

 

            But, I think the rest is helping.  I think I’m feeling a little better.  It seems like there’s a little less drumming and thumping taking place behind my eyes.  Maybe the band has finally run out of pumpkins.  Or, maybe it’s because I haven’t turned my head for the last two hours.  I really hope the latter’s not the case because I’ve taken all but a couple of doses of the remaining aspirin, and I’ll have to move eventually – I have a 12-mile hike ahead of me tomorrow.

 

            Still, to be honest, I have to say I haven’t felt this bad in a long, long time.  Shaky and weak as a kitten; stomach full of agitated butterflies; head made of eggshell.  The sunlight, while meager, is still too bright.  Even in here, I’m wearing my shades.  And the latest symptom, discovered just moments ago, is the sudden increase in gravity - seems my limbs now weigh twice what they did when I got here.  To top it all off, I’ve had to pee for the last hour.  Despite trying, I can’t seem to work up the energy or the courage needed for that daunting task, and I’m a little embarrassed to ask Daniel for help.  But, I think I’m feeling better.

 

            “Jack?”  I must have zoned out because, unnoticed by me, Daniel has set aside his camera and is squatting down beside me.  I must look bad judging by the fright evidenced on my friend’s face.  “Shit, Jack.”  He rests a hand lightly on my shoulder.  “You okay?”

 

            It’s really rather comical: here I am, sprawled awkwardly back against this pagan altar like some messed up, too old, sacrificial lamb.  And Daniel looks a little funny, too: kind of fuzzy around the edges.  “Hey, Daniel.”  My voice sounds far off, unreal.

 

            Daniel puts a cool hand on my forehead.  I want to pull away, but can’t.  “Jack, you’re white as a ghost.”

 

            I grunt and think about making a joke that, no, I’m white as a lamb.  A sacrificial lamb.  But I’m kind of wrung out.  So, instead, I shrug clumsily.

 

            He keys his radio.  “Sam.  Teal’c.”

 

            “What’s up, Daniel?”

 

            “Sam, you guys should probably get in here.  Uh, now might be nice.”

 

            “Crap,” is all I can manage.

 

            Daniel removes my sunglasses and leans close, studying my eyes.  “Jack, what are we gonna do with you now?  Huh?”

 

            “Daniel?”  I see Carter approaching over Daniel’s shoulder; Teal’c isn’t far behind.  Seeing me, she hurries over and kneels down.  “Sir?  What’s wrong?”

 

            “I am not sick.”  But I am.  They know it.  Even I know it.

 

            “Of course, you’re not.”  She’s ignoring me now; talking to Daniel.  “How long’s he been like this?”

 

            “Shit, Sam, I don’t know.  I wasn’t paying attention.  I was–,” he waves back towards the wall, his video camera.  He grabs his head with both hands, a sign that he’s feeling guilty.  “Could be two hours, maybe more.”

 

            “Damn!”

 

            “Oh, God.  Sam, what have I done?  Jack–,”

 

            “Don’t worry about it, Daniel.  Just help me out here.  We need to lay him down, elevate his legs.  He looks like he’s in shock or something.”  I feel like giggling; I mean, Carter’s talking about me like I’m not here, and I’m letting her.  “Teal’c, go get the sleeping bags and the med kits.”  Carter and Daniel ease me up into a sitting position, and begin working my vest over my shoulders.  I endure it only because I can’t think how to stop them.  Everything on me seems mushy – my arms and legs, my thinking.  “Colonel, we’re just going to get you comfortable.”

 

            “I’m fine.”  I sound drunk, but I’m fine.

 

            “Yes, sir.”

 

            The vest comes off.  They start to lay me on my back, but I manage to grab Sam’s wrist to get her attention.  “Problem,” I tell her.

 

            “What?”  I look at her, thinking about what I need to say and how exactly to say it.  My head is banging again and it’s hard to concentrate.  “Colonel, what is it?”

 

            Damn, I hate this.  “I have to pee, Major.”

 

            “Oh.”  She starts to smile, but I guess she realizes how difficult this is for me because she suddenly metamorphs into a taller, blonder version of Janet Frasier.  “Okay.  Not a problem.”  She looks around and spies something across the room.  She brings it back and sets it in front of me.  “Will this work?”

 

            I look at it.  It’s some kind of artifact, an urn or something.  Daniel must be dying inside.  I try to smile.  “Kind of small, but I’ll manage.”

 

            She laughs at that and pats me on the arm.  “Okay.  I’ll – I’ll just go help Teal’c.”

 

            I owe Daniel big time.  In my book, helping your CO take a leak into a priceless museum piece certainly makes you eligible for a medal for bravery in the line of fire, or something.  At the very least, he deserves a good steak dinner and a bottle of wine.  When I’m finished, he lays me down gently and zips my trousers without saying a word.

 

            “Daniel–,”

            “Jack.”  He sits on the floor beside me.  “Jack, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t realize how sick you were.  I should have paid more attention.  But, dammit, Jack, why didn’t you say something?”

 

            “Guys?”  Carter sticks her head around the door.

 

            “Yeah, Sam, come on in.”

 

            Carter and Teal’c both enter the room, carrying the bags and packs.  They make a bed out of the sleeping bags, then Teal’c squats down beside me.

 

            “O’Neill?”  I know he’s asking permission to pick me up, put me on the bed like I’m a stinking invalid.  I debate refusing him, but I have very little pride left at the moment and my head is clanging, so instead I just shut my eyes.  I feel his big arms slip behind my neck and my knees.  Despite the gentleness with which he lifts me, I feel something shift inside my skull.  My eyes shoot open, and I moan as he lays me down on the makeshift bed.

 

            “Colonel?”  Carter makes the mistake of getting too close and I grab her hand, hard.  “Colonel, what is it?  Tell me what’s going on.”  I try to ride the wave of pain, control my breathing, but it’s difficult when you’re trying not to puke on your 2IC.

 

            “Sam, what’s wrong?”  Daniel’s sounding scared again, but I’m past trying to comfort him.  “Jack?”

 

            I stare up at the broken ceiling, battling for control of my own body.  Slowly, the searing pain eases down to something manageable.  Without turning my head, I look over at Sam.  Her blue eyes look huge and watery.  I realize I’m still gripping her hand in a vise and I let go.  “Carter?”

 

            She leans over me.  “What, sir?”

 

            “I think, maybe, I’m sick.”  I manage a tight smile.

 

            She humors me with one of her own.  “Ya think?”  I shut my eyes as Teal’c puts something under my legs, elevating my feet and sending the room into a slow spin.  “Is it your headache, Colonel?”

 

            I keep my eyes closed and mumble, “Give the girl a gold star.”  The Headache.  “Smashing Pumpkins,” I really wish I hadn’t said that.  Now, they’ll think I’m delirious.  Am I delirious?

 

            “Have you taken anything?  Any aspirin?”

 

            I chuckle.  “Oh, a few.”

 

            “When did you last take them?”

            Eyes still closed, I try to think.  “When we got here.”

 

            “Three hours,” I hear Daniel mumble.

 

            “Sir, do you hurt anywhere else?”  Trying to think past this monstrous thing in my head, attempting to assess the rest of me, proves difficult.  Arms, legs - heavy but pain-free; stomach - all fluttery, but okay for the moment.  I must be taking too long to answer because Carter shakes my shoulder, causing the pain to spike.  “Sir?”

 

            “Don’t do that, please.”

 

            “Sorry.  Anything else?”

 

            “Nope.  Just The Headache.”  Jeez, isn’t that enough for her?

 

            I hear someone digging around in a pack.  Then a moment of silence.  “Sir, I’m going to give you some morphine.  Okay?”

 

            “Okay.”  Honestly, I can hardly wait.  Someone pulls up my left sleeve and I feel the welcome swab of alcohol, then the prick of a needle, before they lay my arm back down.  “Thanks.”

 

            It’s quiet.  Seems we’re all waiting for the drug to kick in.  Daniel begins fumbling for something to say.  “You’re being unusually cooperative, Jack.”

 

            I say nothing; remain motionless.  The morphine’s not quite there yet and I’m afraid of losing the tenuous hold I have on this thing in my head.

 

            “Daniel,” Carter forces a laugh, “what are you talking about?  The Colonel’s always a model patient.  Every nurse in the infirmary is itching to get her hands on him.”

 

            “Yeah, quite the patient all right.  Last I heard they draw straws on who has to be assigned to him.”

 

            I’m aware of a heat pulsing through my veins and it’s not from the warm, gushy things they’re saying about me.  The drug hits my chest; inches its way up my neck and across my face.

 

            “Indeed.  I have heard O’Neill referred to as the Nurse’s Curse.”  I carefully squeeze open one eye and look up at Teal’c.  “As well as the Bossy Bastard.”  I open the other eye.

 

            “Hey, Teal’c, did you know that when they see Jack coming, they stick the bedpans in the freezer?”

 

            “I did not.  Were you aware, Dr. Jackson, that his room in the infirmary is known as the Room of Doom?”

            “You do realize I can hear you, right?”  Carter and Daniel smile at the sound of my shaky voice.  Teal’c merely raises an eyebrow.  I know they’re just trying to distract me.  Take my mind off what’s happening.  “Teal’c, I cannot believe you just said that.”

 

            “Hey, Colonel.”  Carter pats my arm.  “How’s the head?”

 

            I sigh as the morphine starts to work its magic.  My skull is still pounding, but the edges of the pain have softened.  Are softening still.  “Better and better all the time, Major.”

 

            “So, what’s going on, Jack?”

 

            “Do I look like a doctor, Daniel?”  My words are starting to slur and my eyes are feeling heavy, unfocussed.  “I’ve got a headache.  A very, very bad, ugly, son-of-a-bitchin’, got you by the short ha–,”

 

            “Uh, I think we get the picture, sir.”  Carter feels my forehead.  “No fever.  You didn’t fall or anything?  Get bit by something?”

 

            I shake my head.  “Ah, shit!”  Big mistake, O’Neill.  Morphine is great, but it ain’t perfect.  I think there must have been one pumpkin left because it’s rolling around behind my eyes, making me dizzy.  Oh, maybe that’s the morphine.  I feel my eyes closing.

 

            “Okay, sir.  Just rest.”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            I wake up lying on my left side, facing the gaping hole that was once the entrance to this temple to some unknown god.  It’s still light out.  Somewhere behind me I can hear Daniel talking to himself.  I remember watching him videotaping the hieroglyphs.  Crap!  I’m supposed to be watching out for him.  I must have dozed off.  I try to push myself up, but I feel hung over and my head hurts.  Where’s my gun?

 

            “O’Neill!”  Teal’c kneels in front of me and pushes me back down.

 

            “Teal’c, where’s my gun?”

 

            “It is there.”  Teal’c points to my P90 which is laying across my pack several feet away.

 

            “Is Daniel okay?  I’m supposed to be guarding him.  He didn’t touch anything, did he?”

 

            “Dr. Jackson is unharmed.”

 

            Hearing us, Daniel and Carter approach.  “Hey.  How you feeling?”

 

            “You okay, Daniel?”

            “I’m fine, Jack.”

 

            “Sorry.  I must have fallen asleep.”  I feel tired, and the pounding in my head is getting worse.  I put a hand to my forehead.  “I don’t feel so good.”

 

            Carter takes my pulse, and lays the back of her hand against my cheek.  “You’re sick.  You had a bad headache, and I gave you some morphine.  Do you remember?”

 

            “Oh.  Right.”  I roll over onto my back and look up at the three of them.  No, five of them.  No, three.  I blink, trying to clear my vision, but they keep fading in and out, multiplying and moving.  “How long have I been out?”

 

            “A few hours.  It’s about 1700 hours, sir.”

 

            “Dark soon.”

 

            Carter nods.  “We decided it was best to stick with your plan, sir, and start back first thing in the morning.”

 

            I roll my eyes over at her.  I may be sick, but I’m not deaf and I’m not stupid.  “You decided to stick to my plan.”  Carter swallows and looks away.  “I believe it was an order, Major, not a plan.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”  I glance around.  All of our equipment has been moved inside.  Carter knows what I’m thinking.  “I thought we should bed down in here, sir.  It’ll give Daniel extra time to finish up.”

 

            “Good idea.”  I try, but fail, to hide a grimace as a cold shaft of pure agony shoots through my head, front to back.

 

            “Sir?”

 

            “Jack?  You okay?”

 

            I close my eyes and throw an arm over my aching head, shutting out what light there is. “I’m just gonna shut my eyes a minute, kids.”  I feel someone, probably Carter, pull a blanket up over me.  I’m already too hot, but I’m too sick to protest.  I’m not a praying man, but right about now I’m wishing I was.  Aside from an end to this agony, I can’t think of anything I’d ask the Big Guy for other than the miraculous appearance of Dr. Frasier and her infirmary.  I swear when I get back, I’m gonna kiss that woman and apologize to every nurse who’s ever so much as emptied a bed pan for me.

 

            Despite the pain, I must have slept because I’m awakened by another flare of pain.  “Aagh.”  Grabbing my head, I struggle to sit up.  Almost immediately, Carter is next to me, helping me.

            “Careful, sir.”

 

            Panting, I look around.  I’m lying near a fire and it’s pitch black outside.  Daniel is sleeping on the floor a few feet away, curled up on his side with his head resting on his pack.  He looks cold and I remember they used all the sleeping bags to make my bed.  Teal’c is nowhere in sight, so I assume he’s pulling guard duty.

 

            “What time is it?”

 

            “Just after midnight.  How do you feel?”

 

            I glance over at Daniel and push my blanket towards Carter.  “Cover him up.  He looks cold.”

 

            She drapes the blanket across him and comes back.  She hasn’t forgotten her question.  “Now.  How do you feel?”

 

            I sigh, and pulling my knees up, rest my head on my arms.  “Not one of my better days.  Can I have a drink?”

 

            “Sure.”  I hear her fumble around and then a canteen is being pressed into my hand.  I hold it there a minute before raising my head to take a small sip.  I have to rest a minute before taking another, and then hold the canteen out to her.  “You should try to eat something, sir.”

 

            “Can you help me up?”

 

            “I don’t think you–,”

 

            “Little boy’s room, Carter.”

 

            “Oh.  What about–,”

 

            “I’m not peeing in a bowl again, Major.  Just help me outside.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”

 

            It takes us a few minutes, but between the two of us we manage to get me upright and out the door without waking Daniel.  One arm draped around her shoulder and the other braced against the wall of the temple, I stumble to the corner of the building.

 

            “I can manage from here, Carter.”  I wait until she discreetly retreats, then lean my whole body against the wall and do my stuff.  I have a theory:  you don’t realize how often nature calls until you’re dependent on someone else to help you take a pee.  I’ve developed this theory during my many stays in the infirmary and, unfortunately, today has proven my theory sound.

 

            The trip back is more difficult.  The pain is worsening; the effort of moving is exhausting.  I’ve got the shakes and my vision has narrowed to a pinhole of light in the center of my eyes.  Everything on the edges is dark and blurred.  Carter is talking, but I can barely make out her voice over the throbbing in my ears.  She lowers me down to my bed and props me up against a pack.

 

            “Sir, you should try to eat.  You haven’t eaten anything but a few bites for the last three days.”

 

            Has it only been three days?  My God, I could swear we’ve been here a week, maybe two.  Trying to catch my breath, I look over at her.  She looks tired.  “You should rest, Major.  We have a long day tomorrow.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”  She moves over to the fire and I lean my head back, shutting my eyes.  “Sir.”  When I open my eyes, she’s holding out an MRE and a spoon.

 

            “You’re kidding, right?”

 

            “What’d you expect?  Grandma O’Neill’s chicken soup?”

 

            “Potato.  It was Grandma O’Neill’s potato soup.”  Carter dips the spoon into the packet and then holds the spoon close to my mouth.  My stomach convulses slightly at the smell of – whatever it is.  “Thank you, no.”  When I lean my head back, staring up through the cracks in the roof, she finally gives up and sets it aside.  Just like last night, it’s quiet.  The sound of the fire is the only noise other than Daniel’s snoring.  “Carter?”

 

            “Yes, sir?”

 

            I shut my eyes, they’re not working that good anyway.  “I could use another one of those shots if you’ve got one.”  I know I’ve surprised her because I never ask for morphine.  Ever.  I hate the stuff, the way it makes me feel.  But anything is better than this.

 

            “Sure.  It’ll just take a minute.”  I hear her switch on her flashlight and then rummage through a med kit.  She’s back in a moment and my sleeve is being pushed up.  There’s a cool swab of alcohol then the slight prick of the needle.  The morphine warms my veins and I wonder how many minutes it will take for it to kick in.

 

            “Still with me, Colonel?”

 

            “Mmm.”

 

            “I’m sorry you’re sick.”

 

            “Not your fault, Major.”

 

            “I know, but–,” she doesn’t finish the thought and I realize with a pang of guilt that I’m making my team feel as helpless as I feel myself.  “Sir, I know Janet is treating you for headaches, but are they all like this?”

 

            I don’t respond for a minute as I track the progress of the drug in my bloodstream.  Come on, baby.  A shaft of pain enters the back of my skull.  Come on morphine, come to papa.  I feel the warmth inching up my arms, my chest.  Not fast enough.  The pain fires like a torpedo into the back of my right eye.  I flinch and grunt softly.  Head - 1; morphine - 0.  Too soon, another spot is building, this time on the left side, near my temple.  The warmth has reached the base of my throat.  Fire!  Another grunt.  Two to zip.  “No, Carter.  This is a first.”

 

            “Do you think it could be something else?”

 

            I’m a little breathless, and have trouble ironing out her question.  “You don’t think this is a headache?”  I laugh a little, wishing I could give her a sample taste of this thing that’s happening in my head.  No.  I take that back.  I wouldn’t do that to her.

 

            “No.  I mean, do you think something else is causing this?  If it’s not like any others you’ve had–,” she lets the idea hang there.

 

            “Thought about that.”  The morphine settles into my brain.  I slowly lift my head and look at her.  The torpedoes are still firing, but through the fog of the drug their impact is softer, more bearable.  “Some kind of virus; problem with the gate.  But why just me?”

 

            “I don’t know.  But I think we should consider the possibility that it’s not just–,”

 

            “A stroke.”  I laugh again, a little giddy from lack of food, too much pain, and too many drugs.  The sound ratchets through my head causing more pain, and I have to shut my eyes again.  “Dammit!”

 

            Carter drops a hand to my chest, letting me know she’s there.  Succumbing to the drug and the comforting presence of my 2IC, I relax back against the pack.  “Tell me what I can do, sir.”

 

            I pat her hand lightly with my own.  “Get some sleep, Major.  That’s what you can do.”

 

            She’s quiet for a few minutes, but I know she’s there because her hand is still resting on my chest.  My own hand slides numbly to my side.  As I slip into drug-induced sleep, I hear her mumble a soft goodnight.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            I’m vaguely aware of voices.  The voices of my team.  I hear my name.  Sense movement.  I’m being lifted, I think.  Teal’c?  Daniel?  Carter’s here, too, speaking softly into my ear, her breath on my cheek.  I want to open my eyes, look at her.  But I can’t.  I don’t want to leave this dark, painless place I’ve found.  I’m too tired.

            Whispering now.  In my ear.  A voice.  No.  Voices, plural.  Strange.  Disturbing.  I try to brush them away, but they follow me.  Then the bottom drops out of my world, and I’m floating.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “Jack, stop!  It’s okay!”

 

            “Colonel!  Colonel, it’s us!”

 

            I wake up yelling, and struggling against numerous hands, holding me down, pressing hot and rough against my skin.  I look up into a brilliant, blinding sun that is suddenly blocked by Carter’s flushed, stunned, beautiful face.  Teal’c has my arms pinned to my side, Daniel is laying across my legs, and Carter is pushing down on my chest with one hand and with her other is holding my chin, forcing me to look at her.

 

            “Something’s here,” I gasp.  She ignores me, they all do, which for some reason makes me panic.  I renew my struggles, despite the pain that flares in my head from my efforts.

 

            “Sir!  It’s okay.  Calm down.”  The urge to vomit and a surge of weakness, not her soothing voice, bring an end to my struggles.  They’re all panting.  For that matter, so am I.  Sweat drips off Carter’s chin onto my cheek.  Slowly, tentatively, my teammates ease their grip on me.

 

            “Something’s – here,” I repeat.

 

            “Nothing’s here, Colonel.  Just us.”  Carter releases me and sits back on her knees, catching her breath.  Even Teal’c looks winded.

 

            Daniel pushes himself off my legs and crawls his way up near my shoulder.  “God, Jack, you scared the crap out of me.”  Still breathless, I must look as confused as I feel because Daniel starts to explain himself.  “One minute you were completely out of it; the next you were throwing yourself off the stretcher.  What were you screaming about anyway?”  I shake my head and swallow hot bile.  I have no idea what he’s talking about.  He pats my arm.  “That’s okay.  Just give us a little warning next time, all right?”

 

            I’m starting to catch my breath, and my heart rate is returning to normal.  My headache is unchanged; in other words, it hurts like hell.  I look down to discover I’m lying mostly on the ground, but my right leg is sprawled across a stretcher constructed of tree limbs and sleeping bags.  “Where are we?”  My voice comes out weak and ragged.

 

            “We are returning to the Stargate, O’Neill.”

 

            “We’re about six miles from the gate, sir.”

 

            “You’re carrying me.”  It wasn’t a question so much as a protest.

            “Yeah, well, we were.  Until you decided to take a flying leap.”  Daniel wipes his glasses and smiles at me.  “Even unconscious, you really know where to kick a guy, Jack.”

 

            “Sorry.”  I try to sit up, but fail miserably.  I have a vague recollection of something.  Voices.  I rub my eyes, trying to clear my head.  The movement sparks gut-wrenching pain.  “Aagh.”  Moaning, I curl up on my side and press my hands to my head, trying to ease the building pressure.

 

            Immediately, Carter is digging in a med kit.  She pulls out my good friend, Mr. Morphine, and scoots back over to my side.  “Colonel?”

 

            What?  She needs permission?  “Just do it.  Please.”

 

            Here’s how sick I am:  I don’t care that that bordered on begging.  Because I’ve already waited too long and orange bombs have begun their firing sequence.  Even as Carter injects the drug into my vein, the pumpkins are lining up, one after the other, inside my head.  Squinting, I look at my team.  I can’t believe they don’t hear the explosions concussing my brain from the inside out.

 

            Speaking of which.  “I heard someone,” I say again as Carter pulls down my sleeve.

 

            “Ah.”  Resting a hand on my arm, Carter smiles and looks over at Daniel.  “Dr. Jackson here was expounding on what he believes caused the demise of this planet’s civilization, and the fall of the temple back there.  That’s probably the ‘someone’ you heard.  Lord knows he hasn’t shut up about it since we left.”

 

            “Hey!  You’re the one who asked.”  Daniel tries to sound hurt, but he’s more concerned with studying my face.  “Jack, please tell Sam if she doesn’t want my opinion, she shouldn’t ask for it.”

 

            I blink and move my head once, just barely, indicating no.  I know they’re trying to make me feel better, but the only thing funny right now is the way my vision is bending and fading and flashing.  “Don’t feel like playing.”

 

            They immediately grow serious.  “Sorry, Jack.  What can we do?”

 

            “Shut up and give me a minute?”  I try to say it nicely and close my eyes, waiting for the inevitable release of the drug.

 

            “Sure.”  True to their word, I sense them silently gathering around me as if they can by their very nearness protect me from this unseen enemy.  I have to admit, while it doesn’t lessen the pain, it helps.  I draw strength from them.  I handle this better with them than I could alone.  Minutes pass, I’m not sure how many, before the drug once again hits my brain.  It’s a slow process and maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems like the morphine doesn’t pack quite the same punch it did earlier.

            Whispers.

 

            “Go away,” I mumble.

 

            “Sir?”  Carter leans close, her soft hand touching my head.  “What did you say?”

 

            “No.”  I push at her hand and the whispers, wanting them both to go away.  They hurt my skin.  Make my head feel brittle, crisp.

 

            A faint, strange voice–voices rattle in my ear.

 

            I force my eyes open.  “Teal’c?”  Teal’c will help me.

 

            “I am here, O’Neill.”

 

            “Do you hear that?”  I see Carter and Daniel exchange a look that speaks volumes, even to me.  Teal’c, however, merely cocks his head, listening.

 

            “I hear nothing unusual.”

 

            “Somebody else is here.”  My voice is soft, with no force behind it.  I have to admit, I’m only half with them; the other half of me is trying to recall exactly where ‘here’ is and how I got ‘here.’  For a moment, I can’t remember what I was talking about.  Something important.  Then, Teal’c hefts his staff weapon, nods, and walks away, causing it to come back to me.  He’s going to scout out the area, in the unlikely event his CO hasn’t lost his marbles.

 

            “Come on, Daniel, let’s get him back on the stretcher.”  Carter gets her arms under my shoulders.  “Sir, we’re going to move you now, okay?”

 

            I don’t respond.  I’m straining to decipher the voices amid all the pounding, the strike zone inside my skull.  What are they saying?  “Listen,” I tell her.

 

            “Listen to what, Colonel?”  They’re pulling me onto the stretcher.  Limp as a rag, my head falls back, making the pain flare.  I moan, wishing they’d just leave me the hell alone - my team; these stupid, stupid voices; everyone.  Just leave me here.  Alone.  I want to sleep.

 

            I blink; even my eyelids hurt.  “Leave me.”

 

            “Jack,” Daniel is talking extra loud, too loud, “we’re not leaving you.”  He arranges my legs on the stretcher.  “What do you hear, Jack?”

 

            I look at him, puzzled.  Whispers.  He can’t hear them?  They’re right here.  Voices.  On my left, on my right.  All around me.  I just can’t figure out the words.  “I can’t understand.”

 

            “What don’t you understand, sir?”  Carter’s face suddenly appears, startling me, making me flinch.  She’s fuzzy, blurred, upside down.  Her eyes aren’t glowing, but she sounds like a Goa’uld.  All – I don’t know – echo-y.

 

            “The words.  I need Daniel.”  See, Daniel knows all those languages.  I’m slipping behind the morphine now, and I struggle to rise above it.  “Daniel!”

 

            “I’m right here, Jack.”

 

            Plant boy.  Language guru. “Daniel will know,” I hear myself say.

 

            Then the sun is setting and all the light fades away.  It’s just me.  Alone.  In the dark.  Me and the whispers.  Alone, but not alone.

 

Someone’s hand is covering my mouth.  The funny thing is:  I don’t panic.  I open my eyes as if someone trying to smother me is an every day occurrence.  Daniel is speaking softly, his mouth pressed tight against my ear.  “Jack, don’t make a sound.  You have to be absolutely still.  Jaffa.  Jaffa have come through the Stargate.  Do you understand?”

 

            I nod my head.  Jaffa?  What the hell?

 

            He removes his hand slowly.  “We’re about 75 yards from the gate, hiding in the brush.”  His words are feather soft in my ear, reminiscent of earlier, stranger voices.  “We were getting ready to dial out when half a dozen Jaffa came through.  Sam and Teal’c have spread out.  We’re waiting to see where they go.  Do you understand?”

 

            Again I nod, and turn my head towards him.  “Which direction?”  Daniel points past my feet.  “Carter?  Teal’c?”  Again he points, indicating 10 and 2 o’clock.  I lay there a moment, trying to force my muddled brain to function.  Come on, O’Neill, you’re their CO.  You may be sick and drugged, but you’re still responsible for these people.

            Shaking, I force myself up onto an elbow and look around.  We’re on flat ground, our cover mostly tall grass, with a few bushes spread out for good measure.  Ten yards behind us is a large tree.  My P90 is laying on the stretcher beside me.  I tug it closer, slipping off the safety.  Then, pulling my sidearm from its holster, I slip off the safety on it as well and sluggishly, like a new recruit, I chamber a round.

 

            Fighting against the pain in my head, I reach over and pull Daniel to me, pressing my mouth against his ear.  In the few seconds that have passed, I’ve come up with a plan.  Not a great one, but the only one I can manage given the short warning and the degree of pain I’m in.  “Backtrack 50 feet, right angle from the tree.  Understand?  Stay away from the tree, Daniel.  They’ll expect you to hide there.”

 

            “You’re coming, too.”

 

            I shake my head no, causing the pain to ignite.  “I can’t make it.  I’ll stay here.  If they come this way, they’ll find me first.  I’ll take as many as I can.  You’ll help with the rest.”

 

            “Jack–,”

 

            “Daniel,” I give his collar a pathetic shake, “please.  I’m counting on you.”

 

            He looks at me, doubt clouding his eyes.  But, in the end, I know he’ll do as I say.  Sure enough, he nods and drawing his weapon, disappears into the grass.  Once I’m sure he’s in place, I lie back on the stretcher and throw a blanket over myself, leaving only my head and shoulders exposed.  If they find me, I need them to think I’m incapacitated.  Ha!  Funny one, O’Neill.  I’m so close to incapacitated, pretending shouldn’t be a stretch.  I tug my cap down, trying to shield my eyes from the sun, and tuck the barrel of my sidearm under my butt, my right hand on the grip, finger on the trigger.  Under the blanket, I can feel the P90 against the left side of my rib cage, and I position my hand on the weapon.  I’m a better shot with my right hand, but I can qualify with my left.  I settle down to wait.

 

            I hate waiting.  But I really hate waiting when I’m waiting on an enemy that may or may not be coming.  When I’m not sure where he is; if he’s even headed my way.  Today’s game is particularly trying.  I’m baking beneath a blanket in the afternoon sun; sweat is running in irritating lines across my face and is pooling along the back of my neck.  My scalp is tight and sore beneath my cap, and I can almost feel the last of the morphine leaking from my system, causing sharp, shooting pains to gather inside my skull.  My vision is blurred, and I realize I’m grunting softly at the seemingly endless agony building inside me.  Then, the first faint whispers sound in my right ear, and I have the most crystal clear thought I’ve had in days:  if the enemy is coming, he’d better come now.

 

            No sooner do I think this than I spy faint movement in the grass beyond my feet.  I shut my eyes down to narrow slits and watch their advance.  Three silent killers are heading towards me.  Three?  Daniel said six had come through the gate.  Where are the others?  Where are Teal’c and Carter?  Lying perfectly still, I scan the grass to the sides, trying to spy any other movement.  Nothing.  Just these three.  The grass is so tall they are almost on me before they see me.  The leader grunts and signals the others, stopping them.  Now is the moment of reckoning.  Will they shoot first, ask questions later?  Or will they approach, their curiosity overcoming their caution?

 

            I tighten my hand around my sidearm, but otherwise remain motionless.  Hello, boys.  Jack O’Neill, here.  Just a lone Tauri; dead, dying maybe; helpless as a kitten.  Come on over here and I’ll prove it.  The three stand there, frozen, staring.  The leader, a big dude, bigger than Teal’c –  although that may be because I’m flat on my back and vulnerable as hell – raises his head and scans the area around us, his eyes lingering on the tree behind me.  I can only pray that Daniel has heeded my warning.  I’m still concerned about our missing halves:  the three Jaffa, and Teal’c and Carter.  But, I have to focus on these three.  Worry about the others will have to wait until these have been dealt with.

 

            Big Dude silently signals the man on his right, and the man fans out.  Then, as Dude takes a step, then two, in my direction, the remaining Jaffa readies his staff weapon, pointing it at my head.  Dude draws nearer, his weapon raised but not armed.  He stops at my feet, glancing at me while continuing to scan the surrounding grass.  He nudges my foot with his boot.  I remain limp, unmoving.  He walks around to my left side and stops mere inches from the rifle hidden beneath my blanket.

 

            Suddenly, a shaft of pain shoots through my temple, momentarily blinding me.  It takes everything I have to not cry out, but I can’t stop the flinch.  Fortunately, Dude chooses that moment to look back at his teammate and speak.  Probably saying something along the lines of, ‘This one’s dead.  Saved us the trouble.  Kneel before your god.  Jaffa, kree.’  Some shit like that.

 

            My vision swimming in and out, I know I have to act while his attention is diverted.  Dude is too close and his weapon isn’t armed, so I raise my sidearm and fire at the man who poses the greatest threat – the one who is aiming at my head.  I fire six rounds into him before he can react.  His staff weapon discharges into the dirt near my leg and finally, once, into the air, but the man himself is dead before he hits the ground.  At the same time, I hear weapons fire behind me and to my left.  Daniel.  Hopefully taking out the man who is circling my position.

 

            Before I can swing my arm around, Dude has recovered.  Too close and unprepared to fire his weapon, he swings at me like he’s Mark McGuire and my head is the ball.  Too late, I try to roll to my right, and Dude’s weapon hits the left side of my face with bone-crunching force, snapping my head back and slinging blood out into the grass.  I cry out at the surge of agony that shoots across my face and through my skull.  Clutching my head in my hands, I struggle drunkenly to my feet.  As I hear the unmistakable click of a staff weapon being armed, I realize I’ve dropped both of my weapons.

 

            Panting, blood pouring from my mouth, I force my eyes up to my enemy.  I look my executioner in the eye, and watch helplessly as he raises his weapon, takes aim.  Noise swells inside my head, crowding out all other sound and impairing my thought processes.  I sink back down to my hands and knees, blinking back tears of pain.  Maybe I can feint to the right or to the left, or lunge at him.  Maybe.  I can’t decide.  As I struggle to regain my senses, Dude looks to the right, as if he hears or sees something I can’t.  Just as he turns, multiple bullets rip into his torso and a single shot tears through his neck.  The roaring in my ears deafens me to the sound of the assault, but I’m close enough to feel the spatter of his blood on my face and hands as he drops bonelessly to the ground.

 

            I stare over at my would-be-executioner and watch as he shudders out his final breath.  Then, moaning, I sink to the ground beside him.  The pain in my head and face has now reached a new level, and I press my uninjured cheek into the dirt, praying for the release of unconsciousness.  Instead, strong hands pull at my shoulder, turning me over, and I squint up into Daniel’s face.

 

            “Jack?”  I can barely hear him, and have to strain to make out the words.  His eyes take in my battered face.  He looks pale, yet flushed.  “Ohmigod.  Jack, can you hear me?  Stay with me, buddy.”

 

            Stay with you?  I just want to pass out.  Please, Daniel, let me pass out.  I need to–

 

            “Jack!”  He shakes me by the shoulders and I scream at the pain.  “Don’t pass out on me, jarhead!”

 

            I struggle to pull away from him, but I’m too weak.  “Don’t call me that,” I mumble through a swollen face and a mouthful of blood.

 

            “Well, don’t act like one.  Jack, I hear weapons fire near the gate.  We may need to make a run for it, so you can’t pass out on me.  You hear?”  He shakes me again.

 

            I moan in response, gagging on the blood running down the back of my throat from the inside of my left cheek.  “Teal’c?  Carter?”

 

            “I don’t know.”  Daniel kneels there beside me, peering intently in the direction of the Stargate, listening to things I can’t even begin to hear.  All I get is the sound of my ragged breathing, my slowing pulse, and Daniel’s muted voice.  That’s about it.

 

            Well, campers, the good news is, it seems that along with my blood and maybe a couple of teeth, Dude’s home run swing has knocked the whispers clean out of my head.  The bad news is, the side of my head feels all squishy, like an over-ripe melon, and everything around me, even the sun, is fading out.

 

            “Sam?  Teal’c?”  Daniel is speaking into his radio.  There is a brief period of silence and then his radio crackles; Teal’c’s voice is amplified around us.  I cringe as my hearing goes from non-existent to overly acute.

 

            “Daniel Jackson.  We have killed three Jaffa guarding the Stargate.”

 

            Daniel’s voice, too, is loud, hurting my ears.  “Same here, Teal’c.  Are you guys okay?”  Daniel struggles to stand and for the first time I realize he’s injured.  I can smell the burnt flesh of a staff wound and see a charred area on his thigh.

 

            “Major Carter has been injured.  She is unconscious, but I do not believe the wound is serious.  Are you and Col. O’Neill well?”

 

            “I’m – okay.  Took a little hit on the leg.  Jack’s hurt.  Got hit in the face.  We’ll head your way.”  Daniel is pulling me to my feet.  “Come on, Jack, we’ve got to get to the gate.”  I’m trying to help him, really I am, but my legs are like rubber.  Daniel slings my arm over his shoulders, grabs me around the waist, and with a loud grunt he gets us moving.

 

            “You’re hurt.”  I can’t tell if it’s my voice or my hearing that’s fading out.

 

            “I’m fine.”  But even in my sorry condition, I can tell he’s not.  He’s breathless with the strain of our combined weight.  “Dammit, Jack, you’re getting fat!”

 

            I’m concentrating on helping Daniel; I’m trying my damnedest to put one foot in front of the other.  But even with my eyes closed, my equilibrium is off and I’m stumbling around like a drunk.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve hurt so bad.  Antarctica?  Iraq?  I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep, but I know Daniel needs me to stay awake.  He’s counting on me.  Daniel’s hurt.  Carter’s hurt.  “Weak – bastard.”

 

            “Thanks a lot, Jack.  I’m trying for Pete’s sake.”

 

            “No.”  My head rolls around on my neck like a dead weight and the earth tilts upward momentarily.  The pain seems to rattle around in my head with the movement and more blood oozes down the back of my throat, making me cough.  “Me.  Weak bastard.  Sick.”

 

            Even grunting with the pain and effort, I can hear the anger in Daniel’s voice.  “God, Jack, would you give yourself a break!  Besides, I thought you weren’t sick.”  I try to laugh; nothing comes out but a weak cough and a fine, bloody mist.

 

            We press on for what seems like hours, but given that we were less than 100 yards from the gate to begin with, it can’t be more than a minute or two.  And then Teal’c is there, meeting us.  A safe harbor in a wobbly, nauseating, pain-wracked world.

 

            “Can you walk the rest of the way, Daniel Jackson?”

 

            “Yeah, Teal’c.  I think so.”

 

            “Teal’c?”  I try to look at him, but my vision is pretty near gone.  I squint and pain streaks across the left side of my face.  Instinctively, I reach up a hand to the offending cheek; my own touch causes the pain to escalate.  I moan and force my hand down.  “You okay, Teal’c?”

 

            “I am uninjured, O’Neill.”  With that, Teal’c scoops me up in his strong arms.  He carries me like a baby to the base of the Stargate, and I let him.  Gently, he sets me down on the steps beside Carter, who is out cold.  I reach out a hand to steady myself.  I want to look Carter over, see what’s wrong with her, but I can’t.  She’s moving, multiplying, shifting in and out of focus.  Instead, I shut my eyes, and swallow blood and bile.

 

            “She – hurt bad?”

 

            “I do not believe so, O’Neill.  A glancing blow off her shoulder knocked her down.  She hit her head when she fell.”

 

            I choke back a cough.  “Good.  Teal’c?”

 

            “Yes, O’Neill?”

 

            “Get us out of here.”

 

            “Daniel Jackson is dialing home now.”

 

            “Good,” I manage to whisper.  Soon, I hear the rush of the blue plasma stream sweeping out from the gate, and flinch as I imagine how close it must be to touching my swollen face.  At a moan beside me, I open my eyes and think I see Teal’c lifting Carter up in his arms.  I’m startled by a hand on my elbow.

 

            “Jack?”  It’s Daniel.  “Come on, Jack.  Just a little further.”  Together, we get me to my feet.  Staggering, half-blind, I lean on my wounded archaeologist and we step into the pool of light.

 

            A normal trip through the Stargate is disorienting, to say the least.  Even when you’ve done it hundreds of times, it throws your body out of whack for a few seconds.  Despite outward appearances, the first time I went through, I was sick, freezing, and scared shitless.  This trip was about 20 times worse than that one.

 

            I stumble onto the ramp and into chaos.  Teal’c is already placing Carter’s limp body on a gurney at the base of the ramp.  Dr. Frasier and a team of medics are hovering over her.  In the background, a dozen SF’s are lowering their weapons.  Daniel and I sink down to our knees as the event horizon shuts down.  I look over at him.  He’s panting, his face is pale, and he’s obviously in pain.  Someone kneels down in front of him, and I realize Janet has moved up the ramp to us.

 

            “Daniel?  What happened?  Where are you hurt?”

 

            “Just–,” Daniel grimaces, “just my leg.”

 

            Janet examines the wound, mumbling to herself.

 

            “Janet?  Janet!” Daniel tugs on her sleeve to get her attention.  “Jack.”  He nods at me.  “He’s hurt bad.”

 

            I don’t remember seeing her move, but suddenly Frasier is peering into my eyes from just inches away.  “Colonel?”  She looks funny.  The whole room looks funny.  Like the view through a wide angle lens.  Maybe this is The Goldfish Point of View.  Or maybe it’s The Beginning of the End.  “Colonel!”  She’s yelling now, trying to get my attention.  “Can you hear me?”

 

            Of course, I can.  Idiot doctors!  I try to push her away, get her out of my sore face, but she merely brushes my hands aside.

 

            “Colonel?  How do you feel?  Where are you hurting?”

 

            How do I feel?  Where do I hurt?  Damn, woman, look at my face!  I haven’t seen it, but I can imagine how it looks.  Where do you think I hurt?  Since I can’t seem to manage words just now, instead, I’ll give her one of my patented O’Neill looks.  The kind designed to make enlisted men and junior officers run crying from the room.  My plan, however, fails miserably when my stomach suddenly rebels.  Before I can stop myself, I’m vomiting blood and God knows what else all over the ramp, myself, and Janet’s once-white smock.  Watching the red gore ooze in heavy droplets through the ramp and onto the concrete floor beneath, I dry heave a few more times for good measure.

 

            Then, hands are pushing me down, or maybe they’re catching me, and I hear Janet hollering for a gurney.  She shoves a cold stethoscope under my vomit spattered shirt, then checks my pulse and my pupils.  “He’s in shock, people!”  Her small hands grip my jaw as she examines the left side of my head and touches my cheekbone.

 

            “Shit!”  I try to crawl away from her and my hands grab for hers, but medics have surrounded me and are holding me down.

 

            “Sorry, Colonel.  We have skull and facial fractures,” she announces to the room.  “Let’s get him to the infirmary.”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            It’s quiet.  My eyes are closed.  I’m lying on a comfortable bed, out of the glaring sun at last.  Artificially cooled air is circulating around me.  I feel a soft blanket beneath my hands.  And it’s quiet.  No talking, not even inside my head.  I strain to listen.  Nope, nary a whisper.  Just a faint, rhythmic beeping.  Oh, and the sound of footsteps - high heels clicking on tile.  Near me, there is a faint rustle of paper – a page being turned.  I roll my head towards the sound, but it takes a while to gather strength enough to open my eyes.  Well, one and a half eyes anyway – my left eye feels swollen and watery.  My vision is blurry and I blink to clear it.  It improves a little, just enough to make out dark hair and glasses.  Daniel?  I think he’s staring back at me.

 

            “Jack?”  He sets something down, a book maybe, and leans forward in his chair, resting an elbow on the side of my bed.  He must have pushed the call button because a disembodied voice asks if we need something.  “Yes.  Please tell Dr. Frasier that Col. O’Neill is awake.”  With a grunt, Daniel pulls himself to his feet, and I have a hazy recollection of him being hurt somehow.

 

            “Leg?”  This voice can’t be mine; it’s weak and breathless.

 

            “Janet fixed me up.  I’m going to be fine.”  Messed up as I am, his use of the future tense doesn’t escape me.  I wonder where Carter and Teal’c are.  How they are.  Daniel must be reading my mind because he says, “Sam’s going to be fine, too, Jack.  Just a scratch on her shoulder; a little bump on her head.  In fact, she woke up right after we arrived.  Teal’c’s with her now.”

 

            Relief washes through me, and with it exhaustion.  My eyes are already sliding shut.

 

            “You need to stay awake a minute, Jack.”

 

            “Colonel,” Janet’s voice causes me to jerk, and open my eye and a half again.  She walks up to the side of my bed, glancing at the monitors as she does so.  “Glad you decided to join us, sir.  How do you feel?”

 

            I think about the question.  I assume everything works, but I haven’t tried anything.  Don’t want to.  Nothing hurts.  In fact, everything feels kind of – “Numb.”

 

            “Good.  Good.  That’s the plan.”  Janet leans a little closer, studying me closely.  “Colonel, can you follow my finger with your eyes?”

 

            She shoves something blurry in front of my face and moves it slowly back and forth, making my head swim.  I don’t even try to follow it.  I shut my eyes, trying not to be sick and mumble, “Don’t.”

 

            “That’s okay, sir.  That’s normal with a head injury of this magnitude.”

 

            Head injury?  Frowning, I look up at her.  This magnitude?  I reach up to touch my head, and Janet pulls my hand back down.  “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Colonel.  You took quite a blow to the head.  You have a skull fracture, and a fractured cheekbone.  Your face is bruised and swollen, and you have a severe laceration on the side of your head, and one above your eye.”  She smiles down at me.  “You were very lucky.”

 

            This woman is twisted, obviously.  “Define lucky,” I manage to whisper.

 

            Janet and Daniel both laugh softly.  I feel my eyes slipping shut again.  Janet pats my arm, and I can feel Daniel’s hand resting on my shoulder.  “Go back to sleep, Colonel.  Get some rest.”

 

            Okay.  Think I’ll do that.  I slip into darkness listening to the sound of Janet’s and Daniel’s soft, relieved voices.

            I blink heavily and when I open my eyes, Daniel is gone.  He’s been replaced by Teal’c, who is sitting in a chair beside my bed with his eyes closed.  Doing his kel-no-reeming thing.  A nurse is checking my blood pressure and when I look up at her, a blurry smile appears on her out-of-focus face.

 

            “Time?”  My voice is still weak.

 

            Teal’c’s eyes open.  The nurse finishes with my blood pressure, makes a note in my chart and looks at her watch.  “It’s almost 0600, Colonel.  How do you feel?”  I try to shrug, but it makes my head hurt.  “Dr. Frasier is just coming on duty.  I’ll let her know you’re awake.”

 

            I look over at Teal’c, who stands up.  Like the nurse, he’s fuzzy.  “How long?”

 

            “You have been unconscious for over three days, O’Neill.”

 

            Three days!  Damn!  Must have been some party.  I try to shift my weight on the bed, and discover I’m weak as a kitten.  I’m not numb anymore either.  My head and face throb.  “Drink?”  Teal’c picks up a glass from the nightstand, and helps me sip cool water through a straw.  “Carter?  Daniel?”

 

            “They are recovering.  Dr. Frasier sent them home and instructed them to not return until later today.”

 

            “They were getting under my feet.”  Janet enters the room, smiling.  “About time you woke up, Colonel.”  I look over at her, squinting against the overhead light.  She studies the chart hanging on the foot of my bed.  “I see you were nice to my staff last night.”

 

            “Unconscious.  Couldn’t help it.”  I lean my head back.  Being this verbose is exhausting and makes my face throb.

 

            Janet laughs.  “Well, God help us, you’re awake now.  So,” she leans over and looks at my face and head, then studies my eyes, “how are you feeling?”

 

            “My jaw hurts.”

 

            “You took a hard hit, Colonel.  How’s the headache?”

 

            The attempt at a shrug is half-assed and it hurts, but I manage it anyway.

 

            “I’m told you were pretty sick back there.”

 

            She didn’t actually ask a question, so I don’t bother responding.  Besides, I’d really rather just go back to sleep.  She adjusts something on my IV; I know because there’s a slight tug on the needle coming out of the back of my left hand.  I don’t realize I’ve closed my eyes until I open them again.  She’s standing over me and I see a white streak where her mouth should be, so she must be smiling.

 

            “Can you follow my finger, Colonel?”  She does that bit with the blurry digit again.  Waves it around in front of me like a skinny, little flag.  I try to follow it, really, but she and I aren’t even playing in the same ballpark, let alone the same league.  I mean, it’s not what you’d call a fair game, and she definitely has the home team advantage.  I grab her hand, hold it still.

 

            “Do that again, and I puke.”  I’m not kidding either.  Shaking with exhaustion, I let go of her hand.  “Can’t see straight.”

 

            “Nausea and blurred vision are just some of the symptoms of a skull fracture, Colonel.  So are headaches.”

 

            “Learn that in school, did ya?”  Great.  On top of everything else, I’m turning into a regular bitch – my mood leaning towards the Hulk with his nuts in a vise.  That a symptom of skull fractures, too, Doc?

 

            “Do you remember what happened?”

 

            Frowning, I look to Teal’c for assistance, but he just stares back at me.  No help there.  I vaguely recall someone slugging me, the hot sun, my team was there.  That’s about it.  “Teal’c beat the crap out of me?”

 

            She actually laughs a little at that one. Guess that means I won’t have to apologize for my earlier comment.  “Not quite, Colonel.”

 

            Daniel beat the crap out of me?”

 

            “Colonel, do you remember P3X-275?”  I stare back at her blankly, sleepily.  “Daniel was studying some temple carvings?”  Nope.  Nada.  Zilch.  “You were returning to the Stargate when some–,”

 

            “Jaffa.”  Daniel’s hand over my mouth.  “Jaffa came through the gate.  Then Mark McGuire slugged me.”

 

            Janet’s sporting the white streak again; Teal’c’s head tilts and I know he’s pondering the Mark McGuire reference.  “Hmm.  Okay.  Good.  Anything else?”

 

            I close my eyes and put a hand to my face.  I think Hulk man’s nuts are being squeezed again.  “My head hurts, Doc.”

 

            Janet pats my arm.  “I know it does, Colonel.  The painkiller should be kicking in.”

 

            She’s got great timing, Doc does.  I guess that tug on the IV must have been a little happy juice because I’m suddenly feeling decidedly wonky.  The warmth of whatever drug she’s giving me is spreading through my veins, making me feel slightly breathless, helpless.  “I hate this part,” I hear myself say.

 

            “I know you do, Colonel.  I’m sorry.”  By the tone of her voice I know she means it.

 

            “I will remain while you sleep, O’Neill.”  I know Teal’c means it, too.

 

            Breathless.  Helpless.  I drift back into the blackness.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            hear us?

 

            Who?

 

            talk . . .

 

            What?

 

            can’t make . . .

 

            I don’t understand!

 

            reach . . .

 

            Aw, Jeez, give me a frigging break here!

 

            we’re here.  hear us?

 

            Just go away!  Please!

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            I struggle up out of the nightmare.  Panting, sweating, dazed, a little panicked.  Carter and Teal’c are sitting in chairs beside me, and Daniel is perched on the foot of my bed.  They’re staring at me like I’ve been quoting Shakespeare in my sleep.  We should all be so lucky.

 

            “Jack?”

 

            I’m trying to get vertical.  Not very successfully.  Carter jumps up and works the controls of the bed, easing me into a sitting position.  I fall back against my damp pillow, breathing heavily, smiling my thanks.

 

            She touches my hand.  “Okay, sir?”

 

            As my breathing returns to normal, I become more aware of the pounding in my temples.  “Yeah.  Sure.”

 

            Janet appears in the doorway.  Does she have a damn camera hidden in here, or does she just have some kind of freaky sixth sense?  Sam steps back, allowing Janet to stand next to me.  Eyeing me closely, she places a hand on my wrist, checking my pulse.  It’s racing.  Nightmares will do that.

 

            “What’s going on, Colonel?”

 

            I shake my head tenderly.  “Weird dreams.  What kind of cocktails you serve here, Janet?”  She ignores my question and continues to check my vitals.

 

            “Hey, Jack, have you seen your face lately?”  I glance over at Daniel and give him what I hope is my most evil glare, which is difficult considering that half of me is numb and the other half is in agony.  Daniel raises his eyebrows.  “Uh, do you want to?”

 

            “What do you think, Daniel?”  Carter takes the words right out of my mouth.

 

            “Daniel Jackson, why would O’Neill wish to view the extensive damage to his face and head?  What purpose would it serve?”

 

            I glance up at Janet.  I’ve been here a little over a week now, including my three day time-out.  Today, for the first time, I can make out the details on their faces.  For instance, I can see that Janet is gently biting her lower lip, deep in thought.  “Doc, can’t you put them out of my misery?”

 

            She smiles and leans close, whispering in my ear.  “I’ll slip a little cocktail in their coffee.  Okay, Colonel?”  I nod, trying not to let her see how much pain I’m in.  She brushes a hand gently across my forehead, dodging the bandage over my left eye.  “Sir, I know you’re in a lot of pain.”  Okay.  Gotta be the sixth sense thing.  “I can give you more painkillers, but I know you don’t like them.  If you–,”

 

            “No.  No more drugs.  Not yet.”  I still feel loopy from the last round.  And the dreams they produce leave a strange fear in their wake.

 

            “Okay.  We’ll try it another way.”  Janet takes charge of my team.  “One person can stay.  Everyone else out.  Now.  Go.”  By unspoken agreement, Carter remains by my bed.  Janet gives me a drink of cool water and lowers the head of my bed.  Then, she switches out the overhead light and pulls the door closed.  I can hear her in the hallway instructing the nurses to keep my room as quiet and as dark as possible.

 

            Carter pulls up a chair on my left and lays her hand on mine.  I clutch at her fingers, smiling over at her, before shutting my eyes.  The pain is still there, despite the darkness.  As if to prove that fact, a little flare goes off in my fractured cheek, causing me to flinch.  Carter must have seen it.  She makes a soft “shushing” sound, and strokes her fingers lightly across the back of my hand.  I glance up at her once more, then shut my eyes.  Letting her touch soothe me, I drift into healing sleep.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            hear us?

 

            Who’s there?

 

            talk . . .can’t reach . . .

 

            What?

 

            make you . . .

 

            Please, I don’t understand!

 

            we’re here.  here.  hear us?

 

            Get the hell out!

 

            we’re here, jack.

 

            Gasping for breath, I manage to get untangled from the damp sheets and plant my feet on the floor.  Disoriented, I look around.  My bedroom.  Judging by the light coming in the window, it’s afternoon.  Still panting, I rub my hands across my face, trying to wake up, and am rewarded with a stab of pain.  Moaning, I struggle to my feet and stumble into the bathroom.

 

            I flip on the overhead light and splash water on my face.  Gingerly patting myself dry, I look in the mirror.  The bruises, which cover the entire left side of my face and head, are now a subtle blend of yellow and purple.  I turn my head to the right, looking at the fresh, pink scars, one about three inches long over my ear and another, shorter one over my eyebrow.  The white of my left eye isn’t.  It’s streaked with red, which – trust me on this – is a vast improvement over the solid red of a few weeks ago.

 

            “Frankenstein’s monster.”  That’s who I’m reminiscent of.

 

            I hear a soft tap on my bedroom door.  “Jack?”  I sigh at Daniel’s muffled, worried voice. Getting no response, and being Daniel, he opens the door and enters the room without an invitation.  “Jack?”  Still staring at the mirror, it’s only seconds before his face appears in the doorway reflected there.  “You okay?”

 

            “For cryin’ out loud,” I grumble, “can’t I even go to the bathroom alone?”

 

            Daniel smiles and leans against the door frame.  He can tell by the sound of my voice that I’m not really angry.  “Nope.  Janet said,” he begins ticking items off on his fingers, “make sure he takes his meds, no alcohol, no driving, no over-exertion, eat right, and no going to the bathroom alone.  I distinctly remember it.  Think I even wrote it down somewhere.”

 

            I turn away from the sink and squeeze past him to go back into the bedroom.  “You’re a real funny guy, Dr. Jackson.  A regular comedian.”  I pick up a pair of sweat pants from the armchair and pull a t-shirt from the dresser, carefully slipping them on.

 

            “So.  You okay?”

 

            “What time is it?”  I feel a little out of it, and wonder how long I’ve been asleep.

 

            “It’s about 3:00.  You should eat something.”  At least he’s no longer reading from the ‘Are You Okay’ script.  “I’ve got some more of that soup and Jello you loved so much.”

 

            I glare at him.  “Pizza?”

 

            “What?  You think I’m going to chew it up for you?”  He’s right.  Two and a half weeks after being at the receiving end of a little Jaffa batting practice, and I’m still not up to the hard stuff.  Last time Janet checked me out, two days ago, she’d made it obvious she wasn’t happy about the weight loss.

 

            “Soup and Jello, huh?  Sounds – lovely.”  I force a stiff, sore smile on my face.

 

            Half an hour later, I’m leaning back in my deck chair enjoying the fresh air, when Daniel sets a tray down on the table beside me.  “Lunch is served!”

 

            I silently study the tray without moving.  Let’s see, for our entree, we have tomato soup and saltines; to be followed by a course of lovely red Jello; all of which will be accompanied by a tall, cool glass of our house water.  And, let’s not forget Chef Frasier’s specialty: a smart side dish consisting of a little white pill, a turquoise tablet, and two brightly colored capsules.  For Daniel’s sake, I bite back a curse.  What I wouldn’t give for a steak and cold beer.

 

            Unaware of my thoughts, Daniel sighs and sinks down onto the steps.  “This weather is great,” he murmurs behind closed eyes.

 

            He’s right.  It’s gorgeous.  The sun is out but the air is still leaning towards spring, and there’s only a hint of the unbearable summer heat to come.  Here, in the shade of the house, it’s almost cool.  I glance up at the trees which border the edge of my backyard, admiring the way the light plays among the various shades of green.  Despite my protests, I really do like trees – at least when there’s no possibility of a horde of hostile aliens hiding behind them.

 

            nice – nice here, jack.

 

            I flinch and suck in a deep breath, causing Daniel to glance over at me.  I force my breathing to remain normal.  Try to keep the panic off my face.

 

            hear us?

 

            “No,” I whisper.  They aren’t real.

 

            “What?  Jack?”

 

            I look over at Daniel, not really seeing him.  “I said, I don’t even know what day it is.”

 

            “Oh.”  Daniel turns back towards the yard.  “It’s Thursday.  The 16th.”

 

            God, what’s wrong with me?  I shiver, suddenly cold.  I shouldn’t be hearing what I’m hearing.  I mean, these are my dream voices.  Right?

 

            right, Jack.

 

            No!  You’re just dreams.  Nightmares.  That’s all!  Still shivering, I wipe sweat from my upper lip.  It’s just a nightmare.  I’ve been having them since our return from P3X-275.  Along with the headache.  The one I have now.  The one I’ve had since before time.  Since the planet.  But, at least it’s been a dull, ordinary headache.  Dull, ordinary nightmares.  Constant, irritating as hell, but manageable.  Janet says it’s a symptom of the skull fracture – the headache that is.  That I may have to live with it for a while.  I mean, so what?  I’ve had headaches for years anyway.  But this?  I don’t know.  She doesn’t know.  I haven’t told her about the nightmares.

 

            ja–ck?

 

            The sing-song voices make me want to puke.  I’m shivering and sweating at the same time.  News flash, campers:  This is totally scaring the shit out of me.  Nightmares are one thing.  But hearing voices?  While I’m awake?  That isn’t normal, not even after a skull fracture.  Is it?

 

            define lucky.

 

            Oh, God.  Okay.  Think, Jack.  You’ve had skull fractures before.  But I never heard voices.  Did I?  And these voices – these particular ones?  They’re freaky.  Fill me with an odd sense of dread and deja vu.

 

            “Jack, your soup’s getting cold.”

 

            “Huh?”  I jump at Daniel’s voice.

 

            “You okay?”

 

            “Yeah.  Fine.”  I pick up the bowl.  My hands are shaking.  I lift the spoon to my mouth, not looking at Daniel, not looking at anything, just – listening, but not wanting to hear.  They’re still here – the voices – just out of hearing range.  If I concentrate, I can almost make out what they’re saying.  Buzzing, like flies or pesky mosquitoes.

 

            “–ere and I think we can.”  I realize Daniel has been talking to me, and I look at him.  He’s staring out into the yard again.  The spoon is still poised halfway to my mouth, empty because of my trembling hand.  “What do you think?  Should I talk to Hammond?”  Finally, he looks at me.  “Jack?”

 

            “I–I don’t know.”  I put the spoon back in the bowl, and set the bowl back on the tray.  My heart is racing.  Tomato soup is splattered on the leg of my sweat pants, like tasty droplets of blood.  “Daniel?  Am I dreaming this?”

 

            He tilts his head at me, concern creasing his face.  “What?”  He rises to his feet.  “Jack, what’s going on?”

 

            what’s going on?

 

            Don’t mock him!  “I can’t be awake.”

 

            “Jack, come on.”  He’s walking towards me.

 

            I shut my eyes.  I don’t want to see him.  I will not see him when I open my eyes.  You know why?  Because:  I AM NOT AWAKE!

 

            “You’re scaring me, Jack.”

 

            you’re scaring me.

 

            I’m scaring him?  Hell, I’m scaring myself.  Daniel touches my arm, and I shoot up from my chair, away from him – away from them, knocking my chair into the side table, which tips.  A blend of water, pills, tomato soup and red Jello lands in wet, shiny, gory chunks across my deck; crackers skitter off onto the lawn.  I scramble for my balance, falling backwards against the French door.

 

            Daniel reaches for me, and I put out a hand to stop him. “Stay back.”  Dammit!  What’s happening?  I’m so damned panicked, my chest is on fire.

 

            scaring him, Jack.  Jack.

 

            “Jack?  What–,”

 

            “Daniel!  Please,” I’m imploring him now, almost sobbing, “just – don’t.”

 

            Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the voices are gone.  The buzzing stops.  I can hear birds chirping in the trees nearby.  I can hear myself panting.  Like the cowardly lion, I’m pressed back against my own backdoor, cowering, terrified, my heart racing and sweat running down my face.  But they’re – “Gone.”

 

            “Jack, I’m going to call Janet.  Okay?”  Daniel’s voice is soft, non-threatening.  I straighten up, reach out a shaky hand to him.  He flinches, and I want to cry at the thought that my best friend is scared of me.  But, I can’t blame him.  I’d felt the same way when Daniel had had Machello’s little buggers in his system, and he’d come at me trying to save me from an imaginary Goa’uld.

 

            “God, Daniel.  I’m sorry.”  I press the palms of my shaky hands against my eyes, trying to rub away what I’ve just seen in Daniel’s face.  I force myself to look at him, try to smile.  “I’m okay.  Really.  No need to call Janet.”

 

            “Then let’s just go inside, and you can tell me what’s going on.”  My only response is to nod, and let Daniel lead me back into the house.  His grip on my arm is tentative, as if he’s frightened that I’m going to flip out again.  I feel inexplicably weak, tired, exhausted, my head is throbbing incessantly, and I’m nauseous.

 

            “Daniel,” I stumble across the door jamb, “I think I need to sit down.”  My voice is as shaky as my legs.  Daniel leads me to the couch and helps me down.  I sit back, catching my breath, then lie down and pull my legs up onto the sofa.  “I just need to rest a minute.  I’m fine.”

 

            “Sure.”  Daniel pulls the afghan up over me and rests a hand lightly on my arm.  “Jack?”  I shut my eyes, willing him to go away.  Willing myself to sleep – not think.

 

            “Hmm?”

 

            “You sure you’re okay?”

 

            “Yeah.  I’m just tired.”

 

            He’s silent for a few seconds, then he pats my arm softly.  “Take a nap.  I’ll be around if you need me.”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            I wake up in the same position, curled up on my side, facing the glass windows at the back of the house.  The sun is low on the horizon and there’s a soft murmur of voices emanating from the kitchen.  Real voices.  Not the scary ones.  Daniel and someone else.  Sam?  No.  Janet.  Damn!  I sit up too quickly, my head reeling and my muscles protesting the sudden movement.  The headache is still there, although it’s leveled off slightly.

 

            “O’Neill.”

 

            I jump.  “Damn!  Teal’c?”  He scared me.  With the dying sun behind him, I hadn’t noticed him sitting quietly in the armchair near the fireplace.

 

            “I did not mean to frighten you.”

 

            “Yeah?  Well, you did.”  I sound pissed.  I am, a little, but mostly I just feel like shit, and I’m scared.  Not of Teal’c, but of what had happened earlier.  “What’s going on?”

 

            “Daniel Jackson was concerned about you.  He telephoned Dr. Frasier.  I accompanied her here.”

 

            Good old Teal’c:  the master of understatement.  “Concerned, huh?”  I toss off the afghan and run a shaky hand through my hair.  “Can’t a guy flip out without everybody getting all whacked out over it.”  I make sure to mumble it beneath my breath.  His face in shadow, I see him tilt his head, and know Teal’c’s eyebrow has just crawled up his forehead.

 

            “Colonel?”  Janet steps into the living room, followed by Daniel, who switches on a lamp.  “How’re you doing?”

 

            I glare up at her, then at Daniel.  “Oh, just great, Doc.  Thought I’d go out for a five-mile run, then stop by O’Malley’s for steak and a couple of beers, before heading down to the gym for a little boxing match with Teal’c.”  I pause for effect.  “How ‘bout you?  You doin’ all right?”

 

            Janet keeps coming; not once since I’ve met her has she backed down from me, no matter how much of a bastard I’ve been, and now is no exception.  Sitting down next to me on the sofa, she graces me with that tight little smile of hers that says ‘you may piss me off, but you will not make me lose it.’  Janet always takes the high road.  “Oh, I’m just wonderful, Colonel.  But, it sounds like someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”

 

            “Sofa,” I grumble as she grasps my chin in order to examine my healing head.

 

            “Okay, sofa.”  She prods my scars, and feels around my still tender jaw.  Then, she whips out that damned penlight of hers, and shoves it in my face before I realize what she’s doing.

 

            “Dammit!”  I jerk away from her hand.  “I swear to God, one of these days, I’m gonna take that thing and–,”

 

            Her smile tightens.  “And what, sir?”

 

            Even I know enough not to finish that sentence.  Instead, I direct my anger at the cause of my problems.  “So, Daniel, called for back-up, huh?”

 

            “Jack–,” he shifts his weight nervously, and motions with his hand.  “I – uh – what the hell was that out there?”

 

            I know exactly what he’s talking about: the whole ‘Jack’s freaking out and I think he’s losing it here’ scene that we’d engaged in earlier.  The Episode, for short.

 

            “Yeah, Colonel,” Janet’s smile, the real one, is back, “want to tell me what happened?”

 

            I look down at my hands.  “I’m sure Daniel filled you in.”

 

            Janet’s hand rests on mine, then not so subtly moves up to my wrist, checking my pulse.  “I’d like to hear your version.”

 

            “I guess, I just–,” I pull away from her touch, and roughly, painfully rub a hand across my forehead, trying to erase the memory of the voices.  “Things just went a little wonky.”

 

            “Wonky?”  She sounds doubtful.

 

            “I’d been having weird dreams.”  That’s no lie.  “I guess they followed me.  I wasn’t thinking clear.  I just –,” I look up at Daniel.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

            “Sorry?  Jack, would you not apologize.  Please.  For once.  I’m just worried about you.  We all are.”

 

            “Colonel?”  I jump at the feel of her hand on my face, checking for a fever I guess.

 

            Why the hell am I so jumpy?

 

            I see Janet frown and know she’s asking herself the exact same thing.  “How about now?  Are you feeling – wonky now?”  I have to smile.  It just sounds funny, especially coming out of Janet’s mouth.  She laughs softly.  “Maybe I should re-phrase the question.”

 

            “No.”  Still smiling, I lean my head back on the sofa.  “I’m not feeling wonky now, Doc.  Just – tired.”

 

            “Headache?”

 

            I roll my eyes over at her.  “Of course.”

 

            Janet pats my arm, and I force myself not to flinch.  “Let’s see what we can do about that, Colonel.”

 

            Twenty minutes later, I’m back in my bed stripped down to my boxers, and feeling the first, tentative tug of some painkiller that Janet had injected into my arm just minutes previous.  Pulling the sheet up to my chest, Janet switches off the light and sits down on the edge of my bed.  In the soft light coming from the bathroom, she’s watching me, leaning on her right hand and with her left, brushing my short, gray hair up and away from my forehead.  Between the soft, repetitive touch, and the pull of the drug, my eyes are drifting closed.

 

            “How you doin’, Jack?”  Her voice is as soft as her fingertips against my skin.

 

            “Mmm.”  I turn my head, trying to force my eyes to remain open.

 

            “Just relax, Colonel.  Let the drugs do their work.”

 

            “Easy – for you to say.”  I can hear the slurring of my words.  I sound slightly drunk.

 

            relax....

 

            I flinch; breathe involuntarily.

 

            “Shhh.  Don’t fight it, Jack.”

 

            relax.  we’re here.  here.

 

            “Doc?” I struggle to sit up, panic battling the pull of the narcotics in my system.

 

            She pushes me back easily.  “It’s okay, Colonel.  Just go to sleep.”

 

            here.  it’s okay.

 

            “Doc?  Please.”  I feel a brief stab of embarrassment at the wheedling tone of my voice, but it passes as I melt into the darkness.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            I settle back on the sofa, staring out at the darkness beyond the French doors, and savor the cold beer.  My third one tonight.  It’s been over six weeks since my now infamous Jaffa encounter, and five hours since Janet finally gave me a mostly clean, only slightly tarnished, bill of health.  I have to admit to a bit of disappointment when she had informed me that while I was healing nicely, she was still concerned about my headaches and weight loss.  Therefore, she’d cleared me for light duty only.  But she had cleared me.  I start back to work on Monday morning.  I never thought the idea of doing paperwork would be so appealing.

 

            Twenty minutes after Janet had finished my exam, I’d wrestled the keys to my pick-up from Daniel’s greedy hands, and was driving myself away from Cheyenne Mountain.  The feeling was similar to the one I’d experienced when we’d escaped from Hadante.  On my way home, I’d stopped at the local grocery and a liquor store, stocking up on junk food and beer.  I also bought a bottle of whiskey.  I’m not sure why, but probably out of pure spite.

 

            The last four weeks I’ve been coddled, spied on, nursed, and nagged by four of the most meddlesome, pushy, demanding, and unforgiving people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing:  namely, Teal’c, Carter, Daniel, and Frasier.  Tonight, for the first time since I can clearly remember, I have my house to myself.  My kitchen is stocked, and there’s not an organic vegetable or an ‘I-can-too-believe-this-is-not-meat’ filet within the entire house.  In addition, I have already renewed my acquaintance with my favorite pizza delivery man.  So what if I’d only eaten one slice before wanting to heave.  I’d still eaten pizza.  Not tofu on a whole wheat shingle.  Not homemade vegetable soup full of stuff that looks like limp lettuce, but which Daniel insists isn’t.  Pizza!  And not just any pizza – pepperoni and Italian sausage with extra mushrooms, olives, and green peppers pizza!  I mean, who the hell puts lettuce in soup?

 

            Chuckling softly, I’m barely aware of jerking my head, trying to rid myself of the ever present headache and the evil, insect-like chittering sound that only I can hear.  Gulping down the last of the beer, I grimace when the doorbell jangles obscenely.  Maybe I’ll just ignore it.  I set the bottle on the coffee table next to its siblings, and reach for numero quattro.  Damn!  Someone is leaning into the doorbell.  Really need to rip that thing out.

 

            I struggle up to my feet.  Three beers and two months of sobriety, and I’m a little unsteady.  I ease over to the door, open it, and make my way back to the sofa without even looking to see who it is.

 

            “Hey, Colonel.”

 

            Ah, Carter.  “Short straw?”  The beer has loosened my tongue, and I feel a twinge of guilt at the underlying inference, but if she caught the reference, she’s ignoring it.

 

            “Thought I’d swing by on my way home and see how you’re doing.”  She follows me down into the living room and sits in the chair across from me, her eyes sweeping the coffee table - no doubt taking an inventory of the pizza box and beer bottles.  “Beer, sir?”

 

            “Sure.  Help yourself.”

 

            “No.  I meant–,”

 

            “Carter!”  I know what she meant.

 

            “Oh.  Sorry.”  She smiles a little guiltily, then reaches over to grab one.  “Maybe I will.”

 

            “Plenty of pizza, too.”

 

            Without a word, she reaches into the box and pulls out a large piece, settling back into her chair and eating in silence.  She finishes the slice and wipes her hands on her jeans.  Emily Post, eat your heart out.

 

            “So, Janet released you, huh?”

 

            “Finally.”

 

            Carter chuckles.  “You know, you’d probably have gotten released a lot sooner if you hadn’t cussed at her every time you saw her.”

 

            “Ya think?”

 

            “Yeah.  She really hates that.”

 

            “See, you could have mentioned that.”  My head jerks, and I swig my beer to cover.  Carter frowns slightly, and takes a sip from her own bottle.  Uncomfortable, I pick up the remote and switch on the television.  I surf through 10 or 12 channels.

 

            “Oh, Daniel got back just after you left.”

 

            “Where was he again?”  Head jerk.  I keep surfing to avoid looking at her.

 

            “P4S-981, I think, with SG-11.  Big archeological site.  They found an abandoned Goa’uld outpost.”

 

            I turn the next jerk into a nod.  “Guess he’s happy then.”

 

            “Ecstatic.”

 

            I’ve stopped on some show about drag racing, but out of the corner of my eye I can see Carter watching me.  I try, unsuccessfully, to abort another jerk.  After four weeks, you’d think I would have figured out it doesn’t help, but I can’t seem to stop it – it’s like a knee jerk reaction.

 

            “Sir, are you–,”

 

            I turn up the volume on the television, studiously ignoring her.

 

            “Sir?”  She’s speaking louder now.  Not giving up.

 

            I increase the volume until the swelling noise of the revving engines makes the pain in my head spike.  I bite my lip and limit the jerk to a twitch.

 

            “Sir!”

 

            I hit the mute button and look at her.  “What?”

 

            Carter sets down her beer and leans forward, elbows on her knees, her voice soft and concerned.  “What’s going on?”

 

            The pounding, throbbing ache and the evil chittering are battling around in my head.  I stare over at her, really looking at her for the first time in weeks.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I suddenly realize that I’m mad at her.  But not just at her.  At Daniel and Teal’c, Janet, Hammond.  All of them.  Mad at them for not suffering this nerve-wracking, constant pain.  More so, mad at them for not having to endure this never-ending, unintelligible babbling.  Get this, I’m even mad because they haven’t figured out that I’m sick and mad.

 

            I swallow, forcing back a head jerk.  That’s me: Head Jerk.  Instead, my right eye twitches.  Oh, great.  I finish off my fourth beer, and turn back to the mute entertainment in the corner of my living room.  “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, Carter.”  Okay, call me chickenshit.  No, really, I insist.

 

            Carter sighs, and leans back in her chair.  Even from here, I can feel her disappointment.  Head Jerk.

 

            “Why don’t you get everyone together.  Come over for a barbecue on Sunday before I have to hit the coal mine again.”  I throw the invitation out as a form of apology, without looking at her.

 

            She’s silent for a minute, while I resume channel surfing.  “You sure?”  I answer with a stiff nod.  “Well, okay.  I’ll call around tomorrow.  Let you know.”

 

            “Sweet.”  I stop on some health channel where they’re performing – oh, God, this is ironic – brain surgery.  I look over at Carter to see if she gets the joke, but she’s looking down at the label on her beer.  “So, I guess I’ll see you Sunday then.”

 

            Her eyes shoot up to mine, and she smiles tightly.  “Yeah.  Probably.”  She stands up.

 

            “Let yourself out, will ya?”  To tell the truth, I think I’m a little drunk and I really don’t want to stagger over to let her out.

 

            “Sure.”  As she walks away, I turn back to the television.  “Colonel?”

 

            I look over at her, dread of her parting words beading up in the form of sweat on my upper lip.

 

            “Brain surgery?”

 

            I laugh softly at the incredulous tone of her question.  “Don’t tell, Janet.  Okay?”

 

            Carter nods, her smile lighting up the room.  “Whatever you say, sir.”

          

  The weather couldn’t be more perfect for a picnic.  It’s a cloudless day, and the temperature is in the 80's.  There isn’t even a breeze, but there will be.  As usual on this side of the mountains at this time of the year, a breeze will gather at dusk, chilling the air within minutes, and possibly bringing a brief, gentle rain.  But that is still hours away.  For now, the backyard is full of sunshine, and the sound of gathered friends.  In addition to my team, Janet, Cassie, and General Hammond are in attendance.  Usually, Sam and Cassie, at least, would bring along a friend.  But I think Frasier has instructed them to keep things toned down in deference to the convalescent ensconced  in a chair on the patio.

 

            That would be me.  I’m manning the grill, occasionally reaching over to flip a steak or a burger, or turn a hot dog.  Cassie is sitting beside me, quietly watching my every move while wearing her headphones and bobbing her head in time to something I can’t hear.  As my head jerks for the second time in as many minutes, I can’t help but notice there’s a certain similarity between us.

 

            Carter and Teal’c are teamed up against Daniel and Janet in a game of volleyball.  Hammond is refereeing.   Leaning back in my chair, I can’t help but smile as I watch them – all arms and legs, laughing and yelling.  Carter is in Hammond’s face insisting that Daniel’s last serve was out of bounds.  Apparently, unlike with me, she’s quite comfortable dropping the pretense of rank with the General during off hours.  Hammond doesn’t seem to mind either as he argues back just as vehemently.

 

            When they first paired off, I had thought that Daniel and Janet were woefully outmatched.  But as the game has progressed, Teal’c has demonstrated a surprising inability to grasp the finer points of the game.  Between attempting to cover her side of the net alone, and her growing anger at the disparity in the score, Carter is nearly breathless.  Everyone else seems to be enjoying her discomfort.  Including Teal’c who, if I am not mistaken, is growing more inept in direct proportion to Carter’s growing lividity.  The slightly upturned corners of his mouth have also not escaped my notice.

 

            Finally, realizing she’s met her match in Hammond, Carter gives in.  Daniel raises his arms in victory, sparking another protest from my 2IC.  I chuckle, jerk my head, and swig my beer, in that order.  Cassie stares at me.

 

            “What?”

 

            She makes a sign indicating that she can’t hear, but I have good reason to believe she’s lying.  A few minutes ago, she’d answered a question that Janet had posed from 20 feet away.  I’m sitting elbow to elbow with her and she can’t hear me?  I don’t think so.  Cautiously turning my profile to her, I shut my eyes behind my dark sunglasses.  Much as I’m trying to enjoy the day, my head is pounding and the buzzing in my ears is merciless.  You’d think I’d be used to them by now.  And mostly I am, but I have my moments – moments when I think I can’t take it for a minute longer.  But I do.  I always do.  Today just seems a little worse than usual.  Maybe it’s the increased noise, the sun, or the heat.  Maybe it’s because there was a full moon last week, or because my neighbor’s dog has four legs and a tail.  I don’t know and I honestly don’t care.  But, whatever it is, it’s bringing on a bout of nausea that isn’t being helped by my role as chef.

 

            Without warning, I stand up and shove the tongs into Cassie’s hand.  “Take over for me a minute, will ya?”  I don’t wait for an answer, but hurry into the house, shutting the door against her protests.

 

            “Hey!  Uncle Jack!  What the hell am I supposed to do with these?”

 

            “Cassandra Marie Frasier,” I hear Janet yell, “I will not have you talking like Jack O’Neill!”

 

            I stumble into the kitchen, shove my head under the faucet, and turn on the cold water.  Finally, my scalp burning from the cold, I feel the nausea recede.  Shutting off the water, I grab for a towel and pat myself dry.  When I look up, Janet is standing there.

 

            “What’s going on, Jack?”

            “Hey.  Game over?”

 

            She’s grown accustomed to my diversionary tactics.  “For now.  What’s wrong?”

 

            “Just got a little over-heated.  Next to the grill and all.”

 

            “You know, I can always tell when you’re lying to me.”  Janet approaches and grabbing my head between her hands, studies my face.  She releases me only to grab my wrist, measuring my pulse. The woman’s relentless.

 

            “You’re relentless.  You know that?”

 

            She smiles sweetly, then grows serious.  “You’re still having the headaches, aren’t you?”  I smile back at her.  “Aren’t you,” she says a little more firmly.  I nod in response.  “Are they getting better or worse?”

 

            I decide to go with honesty for a change.  “Generally, neither.  Today, a little worse.”

 

            “Anything else I should know about?  Any other symptoms?”

 

            I hesitate.  Well, maybe the honesty thing is slightly overrated.  After all, I don’t want to end up in one of McKenzie’s padded rooms.  My head jerks, which she thankfully takes as a no.

 

            “You’re still under-weight.  You look pale, tired.”

 

            “And here I thought this was a tryst.  Now you’re saying you don’t find me attractive?”  Hey, give me a break, humor has gotten me out of worse situations.

 

            “Seriously, I’m worried about you.”

 

            “Janet–,” irritated, I toss the towel onto the counter.

 

            She grabs my arm, silencing my protest.  “Jack!  I feel like I’m missing something.  Are you sure you’re telling me everything?”

 

            Does Hulk-man, nuts in a vise, ring any bells?  Well, my headache and the noises are beginning to spike under the pressure of interrogation, and I’m starting to feel just an itty-bit bitchy.  “Dammit, Janet, we just went through this two days ago.”

 

            “And we’ll go through it again!  And again after that if necessary!  Until I’m satisfied!  Or, until you’re yourself again!”  I’m startled by her yelling.  I’ve seen Janet angry before, but nothing like this.

 

            I know she’s probably just feeling frustrated, but I pull away from her anyway, suddenly feeling the need to retch again.  Please, God, not now.  Not now.  I turn back to the sink, just in case, and in the process notice Cassie is standing in the doorway, headphones gone, barbecue tongs in her hand, listening to and watching our every word and move.  “Cassie,” my voice is weak.

 

            Janet turns to her daughter.  “Cassie, honey, please go back outside.  The Colonel and I–,”

 

            “Are done here,” I state with a certainty I don’t feel.  I brush past both of them in an effort to escape.

 

            “Colonel,” at the sound of her voice, I stop but don’t turn around.  “When you report for duty tomorrow, I want to see you in my infirmary first thing.”  Now, I do turn around, just as Cassie squeezes by me.

 

            I reach for her.  “Cassie, wait–,” but she slinks from my grasp and is out the door.  Janet takes a steadying breath and approaches me.  Dammit!  Why’d she’d have to go and upset the kid?

 

            “Jack, please, don’t make this difficult for me.  I’m just trying–,”

 

            The sound in my head escalates.

 

            “–job.  I know you’re–,”

 

            I catch only bits and pieces of what Janet is saying, and I pinch the bridge of my nose, trying to hold my head steady.

 

            “–but I am, too, an–,”

 

            I lower my hand, watch her lips move, and think, ‘Man, she has a little head.’

 

            “–with me on this.”  Finally, her litany ends.  “Jack?  Well?  Say something.  Please.”

 

            “The food’s burning.”  Feeling sick but utterly calm, I turn away from her and make my way back out to the deck.  Cassie’s radio and headphones are lying on the ground near her chair, but she is nowhere in sight.  The barbecue tongs, too, are MIA.  Smoke and the aroma of charbroiled beef roll up out of the grill, but Hammond and Teal’c are on top of it – Hammond forking the meat onto a platter that Teal’c is holding.  Sam and Daniel are still arguing over the game while they’re setting the picnic table.  Unnoticed by them, I slip off the deck and around the corner of the house.

 

            Sure enough, I spy Cassie in her favorite hideaway – in the bed of my pick-up truck, pressed back in a corner with her legs drawn up, hugging her knees.  She’s lightly tapping the greasy tongs against the sidewall of the truck leaving shiny little smears that I’ll scrub off as soon as everyone leaves.  Grunting a little from the effort, I step up onto the rear bumper and smile at her.

            “Knock, knock.”  She turns her face away from me, staring out towards the street.  “Okay,” I warn, “incoming Colonel.  Hope you’re decent.”  There’s no response as I crawl into the bed of the truck and ease myself down beside her, leaning back against the cool, metal cab.

 

            We sit in silence for several minutes, the only sounds the passing of a few cars, the tapping of the tongs, and the voices – both the ones in the backyard and the ones in my head.  For someone so mouthy, it’s amazing how quiet I can be when the situation calls for it.  And this situation does.  I love Cassie like she’s my own kid.  I know her.  I know when to talk and when to listen.  Finally, the tapping stops.  Head silently twitching, I continue to wait.  Facing the opposite direction, her voice when she speaks is muffled, and I have to strain to hear her.

 

            “She’s mad because she cares about you.”

 

            “Yeah, I know.”

 

            She resumes the tapping for a couple of minutes, then suddenly stops.  “I’m scared, Uncle Jack.”

 

            “Cassie, come here.”  She drops the tongs and buries her head in her arms, sobbing softly.  My heart rips a little at the sound.  “Cassie?”  I scoot over and wrap an arm around her shoulders.  She cringes a little at my touch, but I pull her to me until she is pressing her wet face against my neck.

 

            “I’m so scared.”

 

            “Sshh.  Don’t be scared.  It’s okay.”  I hug her to me, wrapping one large hand around the back of her head, stroking her hair.  “Sshh.  Please don’t cry.”  But she does.  We sit there until her sobs grow quiet.  I continue to hold her, and she lets me, which tells me a lot about the depth of her fears.  “Cassie?”

 

            She doesn’t answer, just snuggles a little closer.

 

            “Cassie, why are you scared?”

 

            For a minute I think she’s not going to answer.  Then she sniffs loudly.  “I’m scared of you, Uncle Jack.”

 

            She’s totally shocked me.  My whole body freezes, and I have no idea what to say.  Cassie is scared of me?  Not for me.  Of me.  My God.  What have I done?  “Cassie,” I grab her shoulders, holding her away from me and studying her face, “why?  Have I done something?  What–,”

 

            She’s shaking her head no, beginning to cry again.  “No.  No.  It’s just – you’re changing, Uncle Jack.”

 

            “What are you talking about?  Changing?  I’m still me, Cassie.”  I laugh a little, trying to dry her tears with words.  “Same old, stupid Colonel you’ve always known.”

 

            “No,” she swallows loudly and I catch a glimpse of the fear she’s talking about in her eyes, “you’re not.”

 

            Suddenly, I’m reminded of another conversation I had with this child.

 

            ‘Sam loves you.  She’d never do anything to hurt you.’

 

            ‘She would now.’

 

            “Remember Sam?” she says, as if reading my thoughts.

 

            “What?  What are you saying?”  I give her shoulders a shake causing her to sob again.

 

            “Stop.”

 

            “What are you saying, Cassie?  Huh?”  I shake her again, harder than I should.

 

            “Please, you’re hurting me.”

 

            “You think I’m a Goa’uld?”  She’s struggling to get away from me, but I have a firm hold on her.  “Is that what you think?  You stupid, little–,”

 

            “Colonel?”  Carter’s voice stops me.  I can tell without looking that she’s standing by the back corner of the house, her view of Cassie blocked by me.  I’m trembling, out of breath, and have no idea what I was going to say or do to this girl that I love so much.  Cassie’s face is streaked with tears, and she’s gasping for breath.  “Colonel, didn’t you hear me hollering?  Lunch is ready.”

 

            “Oh, God.  Cassie–,” I release my grip on her and she clambers away from me.  I reach out to stop her.  “Cassie, please, I’m sorry.”  But she’s scrambling out of the bed of the truck.  I watch as she races past Carter and disappears around the corner of the house.

 

            Carter watches her, too, then turns back to me with a puzzled look on her face.  “Sir?  What’s going on?”

 

            I don’t answer her.  How can I?  What the hell was I doing?  What the hell was I going to do?  Hurt her?  No!  I wouldn’t hurt Cassie.  Never in a million years.  An ice cold blast of pain shoots through my head, and I gasp softly.

 

            you wanted to–

 

            No!

            you wanted to wipe that terrified look off her stupid, stupid, ugly, snot-nosed face!

 

            “No,” I say out loud.

 

            “Colonel?  Was Cassie crying?”

 

            I awkwardly crawl out of the truck, and lean back against the tailgate.

 

            “Sir?”  I feel her cool hand touch my arm, and stare down at the point of contact.  “Are you okay?”

 

            I look up into Carter’s face and notice that she has little black dots dancing around on her cheeks.  Then, I’m watching the pavement fly up past my feet and into my face.

 

            “Colonel!”

 

            I feel Carter grab for my arm, but I’m too heavy and have a headstart.  All she manages to do is change my trajectory, so instead of landing flat on my face, I hit on the oh-so-recently-healed left side of my head.  I have good news and bad news: The good news is, I don’t completely pass out.  The bad news is, I wish I had.

 

            “Oh, God.”  I roll over onto my back.

 

            Carter is kneeling beside me.  “Don’t try to move.”

 

            “Shit.”  I grab at my head.

 

            “I’m going to get Janet.  I’ll be right back.”  Still moaning, I manage to get up on one elbow.  “Dammit, sir, I said don’t move.”  Despite her protests, I force myself into a sitting position.

 

            “Carter, help me up.”

 

            “Sir!”

 

            “Fine.”  I’m not sure if I mean ‘I’m fine’ or ‘Fine, I’ll do it myself,’ but I grab the bumper and start pulling myself upright.  Realizing I’m going to do it with or without her help, Carter cusses under her breath, but gets in the act by stepping under my arm and grabbing me around the waist.  Bet my neighbors are loving this.  They probably think I’m falling down drunk.  I should be so lucky!

 

            I try to pull away from her, but one wobbly step proves I’m not going anywhere on my own.  Together, we weave our way around the back of the house and head for the nearest lawn chair.  At first, the others don’t see us.  They’re gathered around the table.  All except for Cassie, who is noticeably absent.

            “I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” Janet is saying.  “She’s crying.”

 

            Hammond pats Janet’s hand reassuringly.  “Doctor, you know how teenagers are.  One minute they’re–,”

 

            “Jack!”  Daniel has spied us and at his shout, four people are rushing towards us.

 

            With Carter’s help, I ease down onto the chair.  “Just calm down everybody,” I order as they crowd around me.

 

            Janet kneels next to me, muttering, “Now what.”

 

            “I’m fine.  I just fell getting out of the truck.”

 

            “Let me see, Colonel.”  She begins inspecting my head, taking a handkerchief that Hammond holds out to her.  Oh, great, that must mean blood.

 

            “That’s not true,” Carter says.

 

            “What’s not true, Sam?”  Daniel has that worried look on his face.

 

            “Is Cassie okay?”  I try to look back towards the house, but Janet prevents me from turning my head.

 

            “She’s fine.  Just upset about something.  Lean back.  What’s not true, Sam?”

 

            “The Colonel didn’t fall.  He fainted.”

 

            “Dammit, Carter, I didn’t faint.”  Once again, I look towards the house hoping to spy Cassie, but Janet’s hands and the dots still swimming in front of me make seeing anything difficult.

 

            Janet frowns down at me, watching my eyes for more than just missing pupils, or crossed eyes, or whatever it is she’s always looking for.  “Is that true, Colonel?  Did you faint?”

 

            I find it hard to lie to her when she looks at me like that.  Besides, I have a mother of a headache, and I’m beginning to think that maybe Cassie is right.  Maybe I’m becoming ‘not me’; I mean, how could I even think of treating her like that?  I feel sick to my stomach at the thought of what I’ve done, but I force the panic out of my voice.  “No.  Well – maybe.  But I didn’t really pass out.  Everything just went kind of – fizzy.”

 

            “Fizzy?”

 

            “You know, Doc, you really should study up on these terms a little.”  I push her hand away, and feel my face for myself.  Still there.  Just stings a little.  “It just stings a little.”

 

            “That’s because you have a huge scrape down the side of your face, sir.”

 

            If you only knew, Janet!  If you only knew what I just did you wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the state of my face.  Well, except for slapping it up one side and down the other, maybe.  I’m suddenly confronted with a vision of Cassie telling her mother what Uncle Jack did.  Oh, God, my ass is so grass.  And I deserve anything Janet and Cassie dish out to me.  I mean, jeez, I shook her!  For cryin’ out loud!

 

            “Colonel,” Hammond is standing back from the others, frowning, “perhaps you should take another week of leave.”

 

            “No, sir!  I mean,” I can’t stand the thought of sitting around my house, listening to voices and crying into my beer, “I just – I haven’t eaten today and I had a few beers.  That’s all.  I’m fine.  Really.”

 

            They all look at me like I’ve sprouted wings.

 

            “Really.  I’m fine.”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            And I was.  Mostly.  Even Janet had to agree as I sat on the exam table, pulling on my shirt and giving her an ‘I told you so.’  It was still early Monday morning and, as ordered, I had reported to the infirmary upon my arrival at the Mountain.  After my little episode the day before, we had finished our picnic.  Cassie and I had desolately picked at our food, avoiding looking at or speaking to each other for the remainder of the day, but no one else seemed to notice as they ate, laughed and continued the volleyball argument.  By 1900 hours, everyone except Teal’c had gone.  Despite my vigorous protests, Janet had insisted that I not be alone overnight in the event I had another ‘fizzy’ spell.  Teal’c volunteered to stay, and I readily took him up on it.  Teal’c is just so much easier than Daniel or Carter.  Daniel constantly wants to talk, examine everything – feelings and stuff; and Carter, well, for reasons I don’t even want to think about right now, there’s always an extra measure of tension in the air when Carter and I are off duty and alone together.

 

            As I had assured Janet would be the case, there had been no more fizziness.  In fact, the only reminders of the entire incident are a wide path of red, raw-looking flesh down the side of my face, and a heavy robe of guilt draped around my shoulders.  The raging headache and chitty voices are still there – no better, no worse.  And the nausea is holding at the ‘I only want to vomit when I eat’ level that I’ve been living with for the past six and a half weeks.  All in all, nothing new; same old, same old.

 

            “So, how’s Cassie?”  I’m trying to look and sound as casual as possible.

 

            Janet has her back to me, fiddling with something on a metal tray, but at my question, she swings around and looks at me curiously.  “She’s – okay.  Colonel, did something happen yesterday?  Between you and Cassie?”

            I shrug and look down, struggling with the buttons on my shirt.

 

            Janet walks over and is standing just inches from my right leg.  “Sir?”

 

            Damn button.  The third button from the top is stubborn, and my hands tremble slightly as I roughly tug on it.

 

            “Jack!”  Her hand drops to my arm, startling me and causing me to flinch as if she’d struck me.  I’m forced to look up and face her.  “What happened?”

 

            “I–,” What can I tell her?  How can I tell her?  My head jerks.  “We had a – we had a little – disagreement.”

 

            “Anything I should know about?”

 

            I shake my head and feel a pumpkin roll around behind my eyes.  Funny, I’d thought they were all gone.  “No.”  I swallow, and look away, then look back at her.  This woman is my colleague, my doctor and, more than that, one of the few friends I have.  What if I’ve screwed that up?  Despite the pain it causes me, both physical and emotional, I shake my head again.  “It was just something stupid, Janet.  She said something.  I overreacted.”

 

            Janet frowns.  “What did she say?  If she–,”

 

            “No,” I cut her off.  “It’s not what you think.”

 

            She studies me for a few seconds.  “What do I think, Jack?”

 

            I smile and my head twitches again, the pain flaring slightly.  “I was married for almost thirteen years, Janet.  I know better than to answer that question.”  She laughs softly, and I take the opportunity to hop off the bed and begin tucking my shirt in my pants.  “It’s just – this thing with Cassie?  It was totally my fault.  She said something that is, well, maybe, kind of, true.  I didn’t want to hear it.  So, I – let’s just say I didn’t handle it well.”  And here I thought Teal’c was the master of understatement.

 

            “That’s why she was crying?”

 

            I can’t even answer that one.  I just turn my back to her and finish buttoning my shirt.

 

            “Colonel – Jack, I’m sure, whatever you said, Cassie knows you didn’t mean it.  She knows how much she means to you.  She’s a teenage girl.  She was upset, still is, but she’ll get over it.”

 

            “She shouldn’t have to,” I mumble.

 

            “Well,” she says dismissively, “it’s water under the bridge.  She’ll be fine.”

            “I know.”  I don’t, but I won’t admit it.  I turn to face the diminutive doctor. “Would you tell her I’m sorry anyway?”  I grimace slightly and jerk my head as a particularly haunting voice says something incomprehensible in my left ear.

 

            “Colonel, why are you doing that?”

 

            “Huh?”

 

            “Sit back down a minute.”

 

            “What?  Why?”

 

            “Just humor me, sir.”  Feeling an almost overwhelming sense of dread, I allow her to lead me back to the bed I’ve just vacated.  I perch on the edge of it.  She stands in front of me, wedged clinically between my long legs, and holds my head in her hands, watching my face.  She says nothing, just stares.

 

            “What?”

 

            Her eyebrows pinch together slightly in concentration.  She ignores my question.  Over her shoulder, I can see nurses coming and going.  They, too, are oblivious.  Am I the only one who thinks this is strange?  Suddenly, without warning, pain flashes and voices skitter at the edge of my hearing, causing my head to twitch.

 

            “There!  What was that?”

 

            I don’t answer her.  Can’t.  Won’t.

 

            “You’ve been doing that since you got here.”  Tiny hands are palpitating my neck muscles, then are gently feeling along the line of my most recent scar.  “Actually, now that I think about it, you’ve been doing that quite a bit lately.  Why?”

 

            “What do you mean ‘why’?  You’re the doctor.  You tell me.”  I feel defensive, brittle.  I get the distinct impression something is about to break, and it’s not going to be pretty.

 

            “Does it hurt?”

 

            “Does what hurt?”  My stupid head chooses that particular moment to jerk once again.

 

            “That.  Does – did that hurt?”

 

            Technically?  “No.”

 

            “Are you doing it?  I mean, is it voluntary?”

 

            “Why would I do that?”  Maybe I should get business cards: Jack O’Neill, Master of Understatement, King of Subterfuge, Head Jerk, Chickenshit Extra Ordinaire

 

            “I don’t know, Colonel.  You tell me.”

 

            “I asked you first.”

 

            “Sir.”  She’s beginning to get mad.

 

            “Doctor.”  So am I, and I mimic her tone, pulling away from her grip on my jaw and brushing at her hands in an attempt to escape.

 

            “Colonel, you have to help me out here.”  Bet me, baby.  I ignore her and scoot back a few inches, not liking the feel of her hands touching my face.  “Colonel!”  This time, along with the voices, I swear I see movement out of the corner of my eye, causing me to flinch, quickly followed by a head jerk.  Dammit!

 

            “Jack!”  She yells at me now, trying to get my attention.  I’m halfway down the length of the bed before I realize it, stopping only at the sound of her voice.  I look at her, trying to ignore those little shadows dancing at the edge of my vision.  I feel slightly breathless, a little panicked, and I’m not sure why.

 

            “What?”

 

            “Colonel, what’s wrong?”  I look past her to the nurses, who have noticed our little wrestling match, and hover in the background trying to eavesdrop.  Janet notices my glance, and looks over her shoulder.  As she glares at her staff, motioning them out of the room and pulling the curtain around my bed, I take the opportunity to glance behind me, making sure that we really are alone.  Nothing there.

 

            Janet inches back towards me, her hand extended slightly like I’m an injured animal that she’s trying to treat without getting bit.  I chuckle softly at the apt analogy, then rub my forehead against the pain there.  “Sir,” even her voice is tentative, “we need to talk about what’s going on.”

 

            “What’s going on?”  I’m not trying to be funny now, or sarcastic, or evasive.  I just honestly can’t seem to think, can’t quite grasp what it is she’s wanting from me.

 

            “Your head hurts.”

 

            It isn’t a question, but I nod slightly, loosening a big, fat, overripe pumpkin.

 

            “What else hurts, Jack?”

 

            “My head.”

 

            “Yeah.  We’ve established that.  What else?”

 

            I think about it.  “Nothing.  Kinda sick.  Nothing hurts though.”

 

            Janet must think she’s struck pay dirt.  That’s the most information I’ve given her since Daniel dragged me through the gate nearly seven weeks ago.  “What’s wrong with your head, Jack?  Why do you keep – moving it?”  That’s putting it nicely, Doc.

 

            “Head Jerk.”  I grin at her, but she doesn’t seem to get the joke.

 

            “Do you know what’s causing it?  Is it your headache?”

 

            Gently, I shake my head no.

 

            “No?”

 

            “No.”  I scrub my hands over my face again.  I feel itchy, nervous.  “I can’t get rid of them.”

 

            “Them?”  She frowns at that.

 

            Uh-oh.  Now I’ve done it.  “Not them.  I just–,” I look up at her.  Suddenly, clear as day, I realize I have to tell her.  A calmness pours over me.  “The sounds bother me.”

 

            “What sounds?”

 

            us.

 

            I laugh softly.  It’s the first intelligible word I’ve had from them since the incident with Cassie yesterday.  Talk about great timing.

 

            “Jack?”

 

            “Noise.  There’s noise.  In my head.”

 

            “What kind of noise?”

 

            I’m trying to come clean here, but I can’t quite bring myself to tell her I hear voices.  It sounds too much like a line from that movie Teal’c made me sit through last year – the one about the messed up little kid who saw dead people.  “Kind of – buzzing, crackling?”  Almost, but not quite accurate.

 

            “When do you hear it?”

 

            “All the time.  But sometimes, it’s worse.”

            I have to hand it to her, Janet is handling this like a pro, and her manner is making me think I should have told her this weeks ago.

 

            “Worse, how?”

 

            I shrug.  “Closer.  Louder.  It makes the pumpk – it makes the headache worse.”

 

            “How long has this been going on?  Days?”  I don’t respond.  “Weeks?”  I smile a little, and feel bad that I didn’t trust her enough to confide in her.  She sighs, knowing she has her answer.  “Sir, you really should have told me this sooner.  It’s probably just a residual effect of the skull fracture, but tinnitus can be a sign of something serious, such as a cerebral aneurysm.”

 

            “Huh?  Tennis-itis?”

 

            “Tinnitus – that’s the term for the noise you’re hearing.  Never mind, Jack.”  She pats my arm; I’m still feeling confused, but a little relieved.  If there’s a name for this, it must mean I’m not crazy.  “I need to do some tests.  A CT scan.  See if we can narrow down what’s going on.  I’m going to have to revoke your driving privileges again, and I’d like you to remain on base, but as long as the tests come back negative and you’re not having any other problems, I don’t see why you can’t remain on light duty.”

 

            Relief floods through me.  “Thank you.”  I feel better, lighter, than I have in weeks.  Except for a nagging question that I try not to dwell on: How can these voices be caused by the skull fracture if they came before it?

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            My team and I are occupying a corner table in the busy commissary.  They’re in the nauseating process of lunch, and I’m nursing a lukewarm glass of water which is doing a substandard job of washing away the after taste left by one of Janet’s prescribed protein shakes.  It was some elaborate blend of strawberry/banana/elementary school chalk.  Considering it was issued by the military, I guess I should be thankful it didn’t taste like chicken or macaroni and cheese, but looking at the film it left on the glass sitting near my elbow, it’s a little hard to be that gracious.  I push the glass further down the table, and hope out of sight is out of mind.

 

            It’s been two days since Janet’s last round of tests.  There’s good news and bad news.  The good news is, the CT scan revealed nothing new, and Janet’s diagnosis of tennis-whatever still stands.  The bad news?  Apparently, there’s no cure for whatever ails me.  Seems the treatment mainly consists of masking the symptoms – you know, covering up the noise with louder noise.  Must have been some brilliant doctor that came up with that one.  In the interim, I wait and hope it passes.  If it doesn’t pass, then I can visit my old buddy McKenzie to get some tips on how to live with this.  I can also kiss good-bye to ever again going through the Stargate.  Personally, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell of either of those things happening.

 

            At least I can ease up a little on the ‘I’m fine’ routine, since Janet updated Hammond and my team on what’s going on.  In fact, I think the kids are getting accustomed to my little jerks and twitches.  They hardly seem to notice.  Who knows, perhaps after a while they’ll find them as endearing as my many other annoying habits.  I just hope that when this damn thing passes, my head stops bobbing like one of those damn dog in the back windshield thingy’s.

 

            “–to eat with us, huh, Jack?”  I look over at Daniel who has posed some question I’ve missed, and is now biting into a thick, greasy looking hamburger.  Head still pounding, my stomach contracts slightly at the sight of Daniel’s lunch, and I have to look away.  I know I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast, but considering the odors wafting around this room, it’s not my fault that lunch isn’t high on the menu either.

 

            “Well?  Are you?”  Still chewing, Daniel smiles at me.  Not a nice combo, trust me.  “Too good to eat with us?”

 

            I’m not unaware of the fact that all three of them have been watching me like hawks since Frasier’s briefing two days again.  Hell, if I were eating, they’d probably measure and make note of everything on my plate.  In grams, no less.  “No, Daniel, it’s just –,” I can’t help but grimace as I spy a chunk of what I can only hope is beef at the corner of his mouth, “that stuff’s going to kill you.”

 

            “Oh, that’s funny, Jack.  Coming from you, that’s a riot.  Didn’t O’Malley’s name you ‘Mr. Steak of the Year’ or something?”

 

            I give him a nasty smile, but otherwise don’t bother to reply.

 

            “I don’t blame you for not wanting to follow Daniel’s example, sir, but I could get you something healthier.”  Carter, ah, bless her pea-pickin’, interfering little heart.

 

            “No thanks.”

 

            “Jello?  Salad?  Some fruit maybe?”

 

            “Carter.  Daniel.  Just can it.  Okay?”

 

            “I believe Dr. Frasier intends you to consume this in addition to a nutritious meal.  Not in place of one.”

 

            I look over at Teal’c, wondering what the hell he’s going on about.  He’s holding up the filmy glass, displaying the remnants of my chalky lunch.  He stares over at me, slowly turning the glass.  As I watch, it catches the light, and I can see little grains of something stuck in the pinkish-hued coating.  It reminds me of two things:  the time I vomited a dose of Pepto-Bismol, and that impossibly thin layer of skin that my mother used to pull off her arm after a sunburn.

 

            Suddenly, that cramp in my stomach turns vicious, and I jump up from the table, knocking over my chair in a desperate dash to the nearest men’s room.  I fly into the room and nearly knock over a young Marine who has just vacated one of the stalls.  Slamming the door behind me, I lean over and heave violently.  Even in this hellish state, it strikes me ironic that the protein shake looks the same coming up as it did going down.  Thankfully, I empty the meager contents of my stomach fairly quickly.  Then, shivering slightly, I sink down against the wall of the stall, one arm flung awkwardly over the seat of the toilet.  A seat still warm from the Marine’s – my stomach lurches again, and I dry heave into the bowl.

 

            Shaking, nose running, eyes watering, sweating the sweat of the recently violated, I lean back feeling weak as a kitten.  God, I am so sick of this.

 

            “Jack,” there’s a soft tap on the stall door and Daniel gently pushes it open, peering inside.  “You okay?”

 

            I glance up at him and then shut my eyes.  “Oh, I’m just swell.”  I hear him walk away, then the sound of running water.  I don’t realize he’s returned until I feel him pressing a cool, damp cloth against the back of my neck.  “Thanks.”

 

            “You’re welcome.  Sam went to get Janet.”

 

            “Shit.  There’s no reason to.”  He doesn’t respond, which means he disagrees, but doesn’t want to argue.  I’m starting to feel a little better.  Still shaky, but not so – sick.  But, I keep my eyes closed to be on the safe side.  “So, Daniel, how’s your love life?”  Don’t ask me to explain it, this is just how my mind works - even on a good day, which this isn’t.

 

            “What?”  I can tell without looking that my question has surprised him.

 

            I swallow back another tiny wave of nausea.  “You do have a love life, right?”

 

            “Uh, no.  Actually, well – no.”

 

            “Come on, Daniel, good looking guy like you.  You’ve got to be getting some action.”

 

            “Does an evening alone and an old issue of National Geographic count?”

 

            I laugh softly and lean my head back against the wall, finally looking at him.  I can hear Janet’s voice and the tap-tap of her high heels just outside the men’s room door.  “Daniel, the way my life has been going lately, that definitely counts.”

 

            “Hey.”  At Janet’s voice, Daniel scoots back out of the stall, allowing Janet room to kneel down beside me.  “What’s going on?”

 

            “Nothing.  Now.  But you know that nice little protein shake you prescribed?”  She nods in answer, the fingers of one hand on my wrist.  “It was just as gross going down as it was coming up.”

 

            Now, she has her stethoscope under my shirt, and is frowning just slightly until she notices I’m watching her, then she smiles.  “Well, why don’t we go to the infirmary where I can check you over.”

 

            “What,” I look around, “you don’t like the accommodations?”

 

            “I try to spend as little time in the men’s room as possible, Colonel.”  She has a hand on my elbow, helping me to feet.  Once there, I stagger just a little before finding my place in the universe.

 

            I try not to notice all the looks we receive as we walk down the hall, Janet at my side, and three watchdogs covering our sixes.  “So, Doc, how’s your love life?”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            After a little arguing, Janet let me keep my BDU’s.  I’m laying on a bed in the infirmary watching as she tapes IV tubing to my wrist.  “This is just temporary, right?”  I am so fed up with being in this infirmary, I could almost puke again.

 

            “I told you, Colonel, I just want to get your electrolytes up.  You’re dehydrated.  I’m also going to give you something for the nausea.  So,” she indicates the bag of fluid that’s beginning to drip into my arm via the huge honkin’ needle in the back of my hand, “suck down one or two of these, eat something, and if you’re feeling okay, then you can go back to your quarters.”

 

            “Promise?”

 

            “O’Neill, you are beginning to sound like a sobbing infant.”

 

            “Crybaby, Teal’c.”  I look over at my team members, who are sitting and standing around the room.  They haven’t left, even when Janet was doing her poking and prodding.  I guess she realizes how worried they are.  “It’s crybaby.  And I am not.”

 

            “Are too,” Daniel murmurs.

 

            “Come a little closer, Daniel, and you’ll have an opportunity to demonstrate true crybaby.”

 

            “Okay, stop it you two.”  Janet pats my hand, then turns to the others.  “I want all of you out of here.  Now.”  She holds up a hand to silence their protests.  “The Colonel is going to take a nice little nap.  Which he can do without you watching him.”

 

            “But, I’m not tired.”

 

            Janet smiles at me.  “You will be.”

 

            “What did you do?”  I look at the IV as if it holds the answers.  Which it does, but even if I could read the bag from here, I wouldn’t know what it said.  Janet knows I hate drugs and I’m a little angry at her, so I tug on the line to loosen it.

 

            She’s on me immediately, pushing my hands away.  “Don’t you dare, Colonel.”

 

            “You drugged me!”

 

            “Calm down.”  I’m still fidgeting with the line, but am aware that my team members have stopped and are watching me.  I’m also aware that the noise in my head has increased in volume and intensity, something it does when I get upset.  “It’s just a side effect of the other medication.”

 

            I’m starting to feel the effects already.  My mind is fogging up, and my fingers are getting stiff and clumsy.  “You slipped me – a damned mickey.”

 

            “Sir,” Janet easily pulls my hands away from the offending IV, and gently pushes me back onto the bed.  “I didn’t drug you.  Not like that.  The sleepiness is just a side effect of the medicine to help your nausea.  I swear.”

 

            I look over at Carter, wishing she or Daniel would help me.  Help me what?  “Teal’c?”  My voice is soft, kind of pathetic sounding, which probably explains why Teal’c flinches slightly and makes a move towards me.

 

            “Go on, Teal’c,” Janet pushes him and the others towards the door.  “He’ll be fine.  I promise.”

 

            But I’m not fine.  We all know that.  I haven’t been fine for weeks, months.  I’m sick of this.  Sick of sick.  Sick and tired.  So tired.  Tired.  My eyes are drifting shut, then blackness, then nothing.

 

            I wake up on my side.  Something is tugging at my arm.  Not hard, but still it hurts.  I open my eyes to a nurse, I don’t know her name, trying to unwind the IV line from around my hand.  I’ve rolled across it, pinching it off, I guess.  She gets it straightened out, then looks at me.  She smiles and pats my arm.

 

            “Go back to sleep,” she whispers.  So I do.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “Colonel?  Colonel O’Neill?”

 

            I’m standing in front of the gate, halfway up the ramp.  I swing around, look up.  Sgt. Davis is standing in the control room, leaning over the microphone, looking concerned.  “Is anything wrong, sir?”

 

            I look down at myself.  I’m still wearing my BDU’s.  I’m surprised to find that I’m bootless, wearing socks, and have an IV needle dangling loosely from the back of my left hand.  A small rivulet of blood runs down the side of my hand, along my pinkie and drips onto the ramp.  I see a line of similar droplets marking a path across the floor to the open doors.  I look back up at Davis, confused.

 

            “What?”  I’m dreaming.  It’s a dream about the gate room.  Not unpleasant, but confusing.  Even more confusing because I hear the all-too-real sound of running footsteps in the hallway.  Suddenly, the doorway spills out a rush of white and green and blue as medics and SF’s, all led by Janet, surge into the room.

 

            “Colonel?”  Janet moves to the bottom of the ramp and begins to make her way up to me.  “Sir, are you all right?”

 

            I don’t answer.  Feeling shaky, I lower myself to the ramp.  The voices in my head have grown quiet.  Guess they don’t like this particular dream.  Janet squats in front of me, smiling.  Over her shoulder, I see General Hammond enter the control room and speak to Sgt. Davis.  As Janet tentatively touches my cheek, Hammond leans into the microphone.

 

            “Doctor, what’s going on?”

 

            Janet holds up a hand in response, but speaks only to me.  “Jack, you okay?  You know where you’re at?”  I nod.  Of course, I do.  I’m in the infirmary, sacked out from whatever drug it was she slipped me.  “How do you feel?  Are you sick?  Dizzy?  Anything I need to know here?”  I shake my head, cautiously because of my ever-present headache.  Keeping a hand on my shoulder, she turns to the General.  “Seems the Colonel decided to go on a little walkabout, sir.  I think we have everything under control.”

 

            “If you say so, Doctor.”  Hammond nods at one of the SF’s, indicating that they’re dismissed.  They file out, throwing odd looks my way.  That leaves me, Janet, a handful of medics, and the watchers in the control room.

 

            “Come on, Colonel, let’s get you back to bed.”  Janet grabs my elbow, slightly elevating my dripping hand, and one of the medics steps up to my other side.  They help me to my feet.  “Can you walk?”

 

            We make our way down the ramp and out into the hallway.  In my dream, it’s late.  I can tell by the dimness of the overhead lighting, and by the sparse number of personnel we pass on our way back to the infirmary.  Neither Janet nor the medic speak until they are helping me onto my bed.

 

            “Here you go, Colonel.  Easy.”  I slide under the sheet, clothes and all, and let Janet get me settled.  “Martin, let’s get a new IV started.”  The medic nods at Janet, and leaves the room.

 

            “Janet, why am I dreaming this?”

 

            “You’re not dreaming, Jack.  This is real.”

 

            “Sure.” Okay.  Whatever.  I suddenly feel tired, exhausted, and the voices in my head rush back at full throttle.  I grimace and push a hand against my temple.  The brief respite makes their return even more harsh.  “Make them go away, Janet.”  It’s okay to admit to pain; it’s just a dream.

 

            “I will, Colonel.  I will.”  She pats my arm.  Martin returns, and between the two of them, they manage to reinsert the IV line.

 

            Funny thing, this dream.  I hear the chittering in my ears, feel the throbbing in my head, and even dream-flinch when the sharp dream-needle is inserted into the back of my hand.  I watch as Janet toys with the line of the IV, feel her cool fingers press against the pulse of my wrist, and look deep into her eyes, so like mine in color.  I never really noticed that before.  But this is a dream, so I can look all I want.  The eyes soften when she smiles at me.

 

            “Go back to sleep, sir.  Rest.”

 

            “Yes, ma’am.”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “Doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that they would show up now.  Not after all this time.”

 

            “Why is that Dr. Jackson?”

 

            “Well, General,” Daniel stands up and moves to the end of the table where a slide of some strange writing is being projected onto the wall, “if you look right here, you’ll see that this seems to indicate that Ra was in power–,”

 

            I slip out of my chair, and make my way over to the water pitcher on another table near the back wall.  After all these years, I’ve gotten good at tuning out Daniel and Carter when they’re engaged in lecture mode.  I have a knack for picking out key words – such as weapon, defensive, offensive, attack, death, surprise, snake – and tuning back in as necessary.  I’ve done some calculations, and have come to the conclusion that I only need to know about a third of what Daniel and Carter tell me, about half the time.

 

            Filling my glass, I take a sip and glance over at the others.  General Hammond, Teal’c, and Carter are seated around the table, concentrating on Daniel.  The room is in semi-darkness in deference to Daniel’s little slide show.

 

            I quietly sigh, and lean against the wall.  Superfluous.  That’s how I feel, superfluous.  Not for the first time in my career here, but usually not for such an extended period of time as this.  It’s been two months since P3X-275, over a week since Janet restricted me to the base and to light duty, and there’s no end in sight.  I’m still suffering from that tennis thingy that’s messing with my hearing and my mind.  So, this planet that Daniel and the others are so intent on – PG-13 or whatever it is – is off limits for me.  Superfluous.

 

            I don’t realize I’ve sighed again, until Hammond looks over at me.  I straighten and saunter back towards the conference table.  The General gives me a little nod before turning back to the others.

 

            “Teal’c, what do you think?  Is Dr. Jackson right?”

 

            That’s another thing that bothers me – all these little nods and smiles and sympathetic looks.  What am I, some kind of freak?  A superfluous, sideshow freak?  Good thing I haven’t ordered those business cards yet.

 

            On my way back to my chair, I pass the window overlooking the gate room just as the chevrons light up.  The event horizon suddenly implodes in my direction, causing me to slosh water onto my hand.  I bite back a curse, and turn to observe who’s arriving.  There’s been no announcement of any unscheduled travelers, so it must be one of our teams returning.  I watch the shimmering blue of the wormhole, and suddenly realize how badly I want to step through it.  It’s not like it’s a damn drug, but still, I feel like I could use a fix right about now.  Just give me some nice, safe, little planet somewhere that I can step onto.  I’d even go to that place with the naked, singing guys, or the one with the guy that made us relive that shit over and over, or the one with the ugly fish man.  Hell, I’d even take trees!  In fact, trees sound great.  Give me–,

 

            “Colonel?”  I flinch at the sound of Carter’s voice right next to me.  “Who is it?”

 

            I glance at her, but she’s studying the gate room.  My hands are trembling, the water in my glass shimmering like the wormhole below us.  I feel a trickle of sweat run down my neck and under my collar.  “Uh, I’m not sure.”  I turn back to the room, surprised to find it empty.

 

            “They’re in the control room.  We’ll resume in an hour.”

 

            “Oh.”  Out of the corner of my eye, I see her staring at my hands.

 

            “Sir–,”

 

            “Carter,” my voice is soft, almost pleading, “please don’t ask me if I’m okay.”  I look directly at her.  “Please.”

 

            She hesitates before nodding and walking away, disappearing down the stairs.  After she’s gone, I place my glass on the table, and sit down in a chair.  Trembling all over now, I fold my arms on the table and rest my head on them.  The surface of the table against my forehead is cool and dry and impersonal.  I take comfort in it.  And in the silence.  It is so quiet here.  I know one floor beneath me, people are talking, orders are being issued, machines are beeping, footsteps are ringing, but here it is restful.  Silent.

            I raise my head, suddenly wary.  Silence?  It’s silent here?  I look around, and even swivel in my chair to look at the window behind me.  From this angle, I can’t see the gate, but I know it’s there.  Silence.  I hear my breath coming quick and shallow, but no chittering voices.  No buzzing.  No crackling.  I shut my eyes, and concentrate.  Headache - check; nausea - check; noises – no noises.  I open my eyes again.

 

            Oh, God.  Is this it?  Is it over?  Finally?  Is my life back to normal?  Well, as normal as my life gets anyway.  I stand slowly, gently, as if moving too quickly will jar the voices loose once more.  Still nothing.  I walk back to the window, look down at the activity in the gate room.  I lean my head against the cool glass, and turn, pressing my ear against it.  I almost imagine I can hear the excitement from two stories below.  But nothing else.

 

            “God.”  It’s a prayer, a sob, a thank you, a desperate plea for this moment to be real, to be final.  I stand there for what seems to be a long time, maybe five minutes, before straightening up.  I have to see Janet.  She holds the key to my life now.  Only she can release me, truly set me free.  Suddenly, I’m hurrying, the ever present headache and nausea a mere backdrop.  Insignificant.  Superfluous.  I smile at the irony.

 

            Before the elevator doors close, I hear the noises building in my left ear.  I stare blankly at the wall in front of me, ignoring the airmen standing on either side of me, and biting the inside of my lip against the heartbreaking knowledge that I was mistaken.  It isn’t over.  It will never be over.  By the time the doors open on Level 21, the sound has reached a crescendo and is bouncing around, filling my head.  I leave the elevator, no longer in a hurry.  I’m still looking for freedom, but I know it no longer lies within Janet’s grasp.  I don’t know where it is exactly, but it’s not there.

 

            Seeing a supply room on my right, I abruptly step into it.  I don’t bother with the light, just step inside and lean back against the closed door.  Shutting my eyes, I slide down to the floor.  If I were a crying man, I’d be sobbing right now.  I scrub at my face with my knuckles to no effect.  “Shut up.”  It’s hard to judge the volume of my own voice when it’s competing with a hundred thousand other alien voices screeching inside my brain.  “Shut up,” I demand a little louder.  “Shut up!”

 

            Despite my shouted command, there isn’t the slightest drop in the noise.  Pressing my palms against my eyes, I laugh almost hysterically.  This is so frigging not funny that I can’t help myself.  So, I get, what, five, ten minutes of peace and quiet before the volume gets cranked up?  If Ba’al had had access to this torture treatment, I’d have told him whatever he wanted to know.

 

            Five minutes of relief in two months?  That’s it?  That’s all I get?

 

            Wait.  Not the only relief.  I sit up, trying to concentrate through the noise.  What about my little nighttime foray into the gate room a week ago?  At the time, I’d thought I was dreaming, but had found out later I was sleepwalking.  Anyway, then, standing on the ramp in the gate room, I remember being aware of the absence of the voices.  So, twice.  Twice in as many months.

            all you get.

 

            I jerk my head, trying to shake off the nasty feel of the combined voices stringing together intelligible words – the only sound worse than the vague chittering I’ve lived with for so long.  “Is that it?”

 

            it.  gate.  hear?

 

            “That’s it.”  I stumble to my feet, knowing there’s only one way to test my theory.  I slip out of the supply room and on auto-pilot, head back to the elevator.  Soon, I’m standing just inside the open doors, staring up at the gate.  The room is empty now, except for Sgt. Siler and another technician who are working at one of the electrical panels on the far wall.  Quietly, I make my way to the base of the ramp.  The voices are gone.  They had stopped the moment the elevator doors opened, and I had stepped into the hallway here on Level 28.

 

            Trying to wrap my mind around the significance of this event, and savoring the peace of having my mind to myself, I poke at the metal ramp with the toe of my boot.  I smile at the memory of advising Hammond to put a sign here warning of the hazards of gate travel.  Prophetic, huh?  Because, as much as this thing now seems to be a cure for what ails me, I believe it’s also, somehow, the cause.  I walk up the ramp, slowly, and try to calculate the number of times my feet have crossed this way, albeit usually at a run.  Hundreds?  Thousands?  I stop beneath the arch of the gate.  Typically, this is where the gate room disappears, and I find my molecules ripped apart and flung across the galaxy.  Not today.  Today, I stand here with my eyes closed, savoring the feeling of wholeness.

 

            “Colonel O’Neill?”  The voice is quiet, but intrusive, and I open my eyes to stare at the concrete wall beyond the end of the ramp.  “Is there something I can help you with?”

 

            “No, Siler.”

 

            “Sir, Rogers and I need to–,”

 

            “Sergeant,” I finally turn and look at Siler.  The technician, I don’t know his name, is standing behind him holding a ladder.  “Not now.”

 

            “Sir?”

 

            “Whatever you’re doing – getting ready to do, do it later.”  I don’t know Siler that well, but I can tell he’s wondering what the hell I’m talking about.  “Come back in half an hour.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”  It sounds more like a question than acknowledgment of an order, but the two men turn and leave the gate room without another word.

 

            I look up at the control room and spy Sgt. Davis.  Poor guy.  His lucky week, I guess.  He’s watching me, while trying to look like he isn’t.

            I holler up at him.  “Sergeant?”

 

            He hesitates a second before leaning towards the microphone, as if he doesn’t want to hear what I’m going to say.  Hell, he probably doesn’t.  “Yes, sir?”

 

            “I want you to close the doors.  All of them.”

 

            “Sir?”  Davis sounds more than a little shocked.  Obviously, this wasn’t what he was expecting.  He looks around, probably for a witness, but fortunately for me he seems to be alone in the control room.

 

            I feel sorry for the man, and decide to help him out a little.  I raise my voice and walk down the ramp, away from the gate and towards the cameras mounted at the back of the room.  “Sergeant, I’m ordering you to close the doors to the gate room, lower the blast doors, and turn off all lights to the gate room.  For ten–for fifteen minutes.  Under no circumstances, are you to open the doors or turn on the lights before fifteen minutes has expired.  Is that understood?”

 

            Davis looks around again, helplessly.  He’s still leaning towards the microphone, and has one hand wrapped around it in a deathlike grip.

 

            I put on my best command voice.  “Sergeant?  Do you understand?”

 

            “Yes.  Yes, sir.”

 

            I nod at him.  “Then do it.”

 

            “Yes, sir.”

 

            I see his hands moving over the controls, then Davis look down at me regretfully.  The gate room doors begin sliding shut, and with a loud, clanking rumble the blast doors begin to lower over the windows to the control and briefing rooms.  As they snap into place, the lights in the room go out and I am suddenly plunged into blackness.  A cold pit devoid of sound and light.  I lower myself to the ramp by touch, and take deep cleansing breaths.  Finally, when I am certain that I am finally safe from the voices, from the rape of my brain, I lay over on my side and curl up like a baby.  I press my cheek against the cool, hard surface of the ramp, and stare out into the darkness, thinking about nothing, and savoring the joy of being absolutely alone and sane.

 

            I lay there in pure silence and peace.  Above me, I know there is havoc.  Soon, I must join it.  But for this bliss, it’s a price worth paying.  I’m not sure I’ve had my entire fifteen minutes when I hear a loud metallic click, followed by the sounds of the doors opening.  Blinking against the harsh lights, I sit up and prepare myself for them.  Before the doors have barely cracked open, SF’s are swarming into the room.  Janet, General Hammond, and my kids are hard on their heels.

 

            “Stand down, people.”  With a gesture, Hammond moves the SF’s to the edges of the room, but doesn’t entirely dismiss them.  He and the others approach me.  “Colonel O’Neill, would you care to let me know what’s going on?”

 

            Before I have a chance to respond, Janet is sitting beside me.  “Colonel?”

 

            “Jack, are you all right?”

 

            “Sir.”

 

            With the exception of Teal’c, they’re all talking at once.  I raise a hand to silence them, feeling calmer than I have in a long time.  “Okay, okay.  For cryin’ out loud.”

 

            As one, they shut up, then look to Hammond.  “Well, Colonel?  Care to explain?”

 

            “Actually, sir, I was kind of hoping someone could explain it to me.”

      

   “So, Jack, you’re saying that when you’re in the vicinity of the Stargate, the noise stops?”

 

            I look across the briefing table at Carter.  “Isn’t that what I just said?”  She smiles and nods her head.  “Yes, Daniel,” I explain once again, enunciating clearly, “when I’m in the vicinity of the Stargate, the voi–the noise stops.”  Headache aside, I’m beginning to feel like my old self.  I have been eerie-voice/chittering-noise free for over an hour.  Maybe I’ll have Daniel bring my sleeping bag up here, and I’ll sack out on top of the conference table.  Better yet, I’ll stretch out on the ramp itself.  Siler can bring me some of those orange cones he’s always setting up around his work area, and we’ll just direct all gate traffic around me while I catch a few zzz’s.

 

            “–of the naquadah, maybe.”  I look up when I realize Carter has been talking.  She smiles again, knowing I wasn’t listening.  “I said, maybe it’s something to do with the naquadah in the Stargate.”

 

            “Yeah, maybe,” but I sound unconvinced.

 

            “What?”

 

            I shrug at her.  I can’t explain it, it’s just a feeling I have.

 

            “You have another theory?”  I look over at the General.  He seems to have aged a couple of years in the last few months.  Guess maybe I’m largely responsible, especially for those lines on his forehead and the bags under his eyes.  I don’t see how I can be faulted for the Hitchcock stomach though.  “Colonel?”

 

            I’m drifting again, and I sit up straighter in my chair, trying to force concentration.  “Not exactly.”

 

            “And what does that mean, Jack?”

 

            “It means, Daniel, I don’t really have a theory.  I can’t explain it.”  Actually, I possibly could.  But, I’m not sure I want to.  Not yet anyway.  I mean, so far, I’ve only ever talked about the ‘noise’ in my head.  I have yet to use the more accurate, the more honest description.  It’s not noise.  Well, it is, but it’s always been so much more.  Come on, Jack, say it.  Voices.  They’re voices.  Not something made up, or imagined.  Not something that sounds like, but really isn’t, voices.  They’re voices.  Pure and simple.  And, here’s the bad news, campers:  I don’t think they’re mine.  I don’t think I’m making them up – putting words in my own head, so to speak.  I might have been able to convince myself of that before, but now that they seem to be somehow governed by the Stargate – I mean, how could I control that?  On top of that, I know the voices aren’t a product of the skull fracture.  They’re a product of whatever made me sick before my stint as baseball in a game of Jaffa batting practice.  I frown down at my hands, which have picked up a pencil and are twirling it without my knowledge.  I lay the pencil on the table, and force my hands to my lap.

 

            They’re all watching me.  Expectantly.  Finally, Frasier gives me a break.  “Well, I agree with Sam.  There has to be something about the Stargate that’s affecting the Colonel’s physiology.  The most obvious answer would be the naquadah.”

 

            “And how do we go about determining whether that’s the case, Doctor?”

 

            “Test the theory.  I suggest we remove the Colonel from the vicinity of the Stargate. See if the noise does, in fact, return.  If it does, then we expose the Colonel to the Stargate again.  See if the noise goes away.  Simple.”

 

            “Yeah,” I snort sarcastically, “simple.”  Easy for her to say.  She’s not the one who has to hear those – things.

 

            “And if the Stargate does hold the secret to a cure?  What then, Dr. Frasier?”

 

            Yeah, that’s what I’d like to know.  What?  I’m supposed to lick it, rub up against it, or something, and be miraculously healed?  Teal’c’s highly under-rated if you ask me.  He’s a smart man–Jaffa, whatever.  He may be quiet, but he’s always thinking.

 

            “Well, Teal’c, then we try to figure out a way to make the ‘cure’ permanent.”

 

            “Guess that means you’ll be moving my stuff into the gate room, huh?  Be extra careful with the china, would you; it was my mom’s.  Think I’ll put my stereo over on the left, next to the ramp.  Hang a blanket, maybe some beads, down the middle of the room – a guy needs his privacy, you know.  For the record, I want you to know this is really going to cut into my sex life.  I mean, it’s hard enough to meet women as it–,”

 

            “Colonel.”  Hammond sounds gruff, but he’s working at hiding a smile.  “I’m sure that’s not quite what the doctor had in mind.”

 

            “Not quite.”

 

            “Oh.”  I look back down at my hands.  The damn pencil has found its way back.

 

            “Problem, Colonel?”

 

            I look over at Hammond.  Is he serious?  Problem?  Do I have a problem?  Hell, yes, I have a problem!  “No, sir.”  I glance at Carter and Frasier, wondering if they realize exactly how much I’m counting on them to solve this thing.  Yeah, I guess they do.  I force a quick, half-smile.  “No problem.”

 

            “Good.  Doctor–,”

 

            “Well, General, Colonel, I think we should start by giving you a once over in the infirmary.  Then, since it’s getting late, I suggest we see how things go overnight.  If the noise returns, tomorrow morning, we’ll experiment with bringing you back to the gate room.  See if that helps.  How’s that sound, Colonel?”

 

            “Oh, sounds peachy, Doc.”

 

            “All right, then, people.  Dismissed.”

 

            Everyone walks out of the room, except for me.  I move back to the window, and rest my forehead against it, knowing without a doubt that my respite will soon be over.  I feel a ball of dread building in the pit of my stomach at the very thought of leaving.  Maybe if I hang out around the gate long enough, this whole thing will just blow over.  ‘What do you say, guys?  Will you just go already?’  Even though I try to project the thought, wake them up wherever they are, the voices have been silenced for now.  They refuse to speak, but somehow I get the impression that they’re standing just outside the door, eavesdropping perhaps.

 

            “Colonel?”  I jump as Frasier speaks my name.  “Sorry, sir.  But, I’d like to escort you to the infirmary, if you don’t mind.”

            Well, I do mind, but–

 

            “Jack?  Are you all right?  Are you hearing–,”

 

            “I’m fine, Doc.  No noises.  It’s just–,” I straighten and turn to face her, “I’m not exactly anxious to leave, if you know what I mean.  No, of course, you don’t.  Well, I–,”

 

            “Colonel.”  Janet rests a hand on my sleeve, silencing me.  “You know, Jack, it’s okay to be frightened.”

 

            I chuckle softly.  “Oh, really?  Since when?”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            I watch as Daniel prepares to make a castling maneuver with his rook and king.  He’s been studying the board for over ten minutes, and when he finally decides on his move – it’s illegal.  He puts his hand on the two pieces, preparing to switch them.

 

            “Uh, Daniel,” I frown over at him, not so much because he’s trying my patience as because there is a particularly strident screaming in my ear at that exact moment.  I jerk my head, wincing at the pumpkins which have once more taken to flying around inside my much-abused skull.

 

            “What?”

 

            “I don’t think you want to do that.”

 

            “Why not?”  He suddenly removes his hands like he’s touched something hot, and studies the board again.  “Oh.”  There is a momentous pause, filled by something I alone can hear.  “Shit.”

 

            I start removing the pieces from the board and from the surrounding table, putting them away and hopefully signaling to Daniel that I’ve had enough.  It’s a little after 2100 hours, and nearly six hours since Janet finished her last examination.  As I had suspected, I hadn’t even made it halfway to the infirmary when the symptoms had returned.  She had tried to keep the exam as quick and painless as possible, and had then sent me to a VIP room for the night, where I was soon joined by my team.  Since then, they’ve been ‘entertaining’ me – and I use that term loosely.

 

            “Have you been practicing, Jack?”   Daniel lends me a hand, managing to sound accusatory.

 

            “No.  But, last I heard, there’s no law against it.”

 

            “Daniel Jackson, is this not the second time tonight that O’Neill has beaten you at chess?”

 

            “Yes.  And thank you for pointing that out, Teal’c.”  Daniel shoves the game into the cabinet and slams the doors.

 

            “I believe he also won the game of poker.”

 

            “Yes.  Yes.”  Daniel sits back down at the table, and glares over at Teal’c, who has been flipping through a magazine and watching some chick flick with Carter.  “And two hands of gin rummy.  If you have a point to make here, Teal’c, please get to it.”

 

            “I believe I have already done so, Daniel Jackson.”  Teal’c resumes flipping through the magazine, a slight smile turning up the corners of his mouth.  I see Carter hiding a grin behind one hand as she tries not to look at Daniel.

 

            If I didn’t feel so crappy, it would be funny.  But, as things stand, I’m back in the ‘I think I’m going to puke any second’ routine.  I stand up and make my way over to the bed against the far wall.  My teammates suspiciously watch as I stretch out across the bed.  I lay an arm across my forehead, squeezing out as much light as possible while still being able to observe them.  Teal’c and Carter pretend interest in the movie, but keep glancing at me.  Daniel doesn’t even pretend; he merely stares, frowning.

 

            “You know, much as I think it might help, I don’t think my head’s going to explode.”

 

            Sam and Daniel flinch; Teal’c blinks.

 

            “Sir?”

 

            I raise my arm just long enough to look her in the eye, then drop it back down, groaning.  “You’re staring, Carter.  It’s impolite.”

 

            “Sorry.  It’s just that we’re–,”

 

            “I know.”  I cut her off before she can say it.  I’m tired of hearing it.  “Just don’t.  Okay?”  My head is pounding so much that I shut my eyes, no longer caring that they’re probably still staring.  “Don’t you guys have homes to go to?  Lives or something?”

 

            There is a slight pause before Teal’c’s soft voice responds.  “We will be staying here tonight, O’Neill.”

 

            Okay, well, that brooks no arguments.  And truth be told, I’m too sick to care whether they stay or not.  I swallow hard as a lump of something, only bile I hope, rises up the back of my throat.  The voices, a couple of loud ones in particular, whisper something in my ear.  I’ve learned over the years that you don’t always have to understand the words someone’s saying to understand their meaning, and although I can’t make out these words, their meaning is, without a doubt, nasty.  And I don’t mean they’re discussing my mother’s virtue.

 

            “Well, if you’re staying, could one of you do something useful, please?”  I hear movement, and sense that someone is now standing close to me.

 

            “What can we do, Jack?”

 

            I swallow again, but otherwise don’t move.  “Get Frasier.”  Have I mentioned I hate this?

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “There.  That should help.”  Janet puts the cap back on the needle, then checks my pulse – the same one she checked not three minutes ago.  Sitting on the edge of my bed, she reaches over and drops the needle into a small tray on the nightstand, straightens the water glass sitting next to the tray, and reaches for my wrist again.  For the first time since I’ve known her, I realize that Janet is as fidgety as I am.  She’s just better at covering.  “Colonel?  Feeling any better?”

 

            “Yeah.  A little.”  And I am.  A little.  The nausea and the headache are beginning to edge back, and although the voices are still there, at least I can hear around them.  To prove my point, I finally lower the arm that’s been resting across my eyes.

 

            “Colonel,” Janet’s voice has softened, lowered, “Cassie’s been asking about you.”

 

            “Yeah?”

 

            “Yes.  Sir,” Janet fidgets with her penlight, twirling it in her hands like I do pencils, “she told me what happened.  Between you two.”

 

            “Yeah?”  My voice is shaky and weak, and I suddenly feel very vulnerable.  Beginning to feel the effects of the pain killers pulsing through my bloodstream, I’m still acutely aware of my team hovering around the room.

 

            “Yes.”  She looks back up at me.  “All of it.”

 

            “Janet, I’m so sorry.”

 

            She nods.  “I know you are.  Cassie knows you are, too.”  When I start to protest, she holds up a hand, silencing me.  “Jack, I’m not saying what you did was right.  It wasn’t.  In fact, it was very wrong, and when she first told me, I wanted to slug you.  But, to bottom line it:  you weren’t well, and while Cassie was upset, she wasn’t hurt.”  Janet reaches over and wipes at something, sweat maybe, on my forehead.  “I forgive you, Jack.  More importantly, Cassie forgives you.”

 

            For some reason, that hurts worse than my headache ever has.  Ever could.  I nod, biting my lip.  “Thank you, Janet.  Tell Cassie–well, just tell her–,” but I can’t come up with anything suitable.

 

            “You tell her.  She wants to see you.”

 

            I blink slowly, succumbing to the happy juice.  “Okay.  I’ll tell her.”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “No!  Let me go, dammit!”  I wake myself up screaming.  Screaming and struggling against something big and unyielding.  Whatever it is, it’s fighting back.  Groggy, confused, I push against a warm, solid wall.  I swing blindly with my fists and kick out with my right foot, connecting with something hard enough that pain shoots up my leg.  I’m barefoot.  What?  I look down briefly, trying to figure out where I am, where my boots are, and am taken by surprise when something or someone grabs me from behind.  Hands, numerous hands, dig into my arms, my shoulders, even my legs.  Besides myself, I can hear others grunting and swearing with the effort of the wrestling match we’re engaged in.  At the feel of their hands on me, I increase my struggles, but I’m outnumbered.  It’s only seconds until my face is pressed against the cold, hard surface of the floor.  One arm is twisted painfully behind my back.  Several knees, sharp and heavy, press into my ribs, forcing me to breathe in shallow, painful gasps, and effectively immobilizing me.

 

            get up.  up!

 

            “O’Neill.”  Teal’c’s voice is close to my ear, and I realize one of the knees in my back must belong to him.  I try to twist, wanting to see him; I want to make sure it’s really my buddy, my teammate, who is for some unknown reason ganging up to beat the crap out of me.  I barely move before my arm is wrenched harder, causing my eyes to water with pain.  “O’Neill!”

 

            “Teal’c?”  I force his name out on a shallow breath.

 

            go.  get up.

 

            “Teal’c?  Wh–what’s going on?”

 

            “What the hell’s going on here?”  Janet reiterates my question, albeit with more volume.  “Let him up.  You’re going to dislocate his shoulder.”

 

            “Dr. Frasier, O’Neill became violent.  We are merely restraining him.”

 

            leave.  now.  now!

 

            “God,” I gasp at the pain shooting up my arm and try to turn to ease the pressure on the joint.  “I’m not ‘violent.’  Teal’c?”

 

            “Well, un-restrain him!”  There is a slight pause before I feel the knees easing off of me.

 

            “Very well.”  Slowly, one by one the hands release me; the one wrenching my arm lets go last.

 

            “Aagh.”  I roll over onto my back, clutching my shoulder, and squinting against the overhead lights.

 

            still time.

 

            “Colonel,” Janet kneels down next to me, “are you all right?  Don’t try to move.  Let me check you out.”  She runs her hands along my arms and legs, prods my ribs and abdomen, and exams my face and head.  In the meantime, I lie there, regaining my breath and adjusting to my whereabouts.  I’m in the hallway, about 15 feet outside the VIP room where I was staying.  Teal’c and half a dozen SF’s are towering over Janet and me.  “Well, sir, I don’t see any real damage.  I’m afraid you’re going to have some bruises, and we might want to x-ray that shoulder.”

 

            I roll it, testing it.  “It’s fine.”  It’s not, but it will be.  I push myself up and curse as pain shoots across my hands.

 

            “What is it?”

 

            Sitting on the floor, I study my hands, turning them over, marveling at what I find there: blood and raw knuckles.  I look back up at Teal’c and the guards, noticing for the first time that three or four of them look like they’ve slammed their faces into my fists, repeatedly.  One is fiddling with a loose tooth, and suddenly I’m pretty sure who was doing the arm wrenching.

 

            Janet takes a closer look at my swelling fingers.  “What happened?  Where’d all this blood come from?”

 

            “Uh, that might be mine.”  I hear Carter speaking in a somewhat muffled voice, and watch as she squeezes past the ring of guards.  She’s holding a bloody towel up to her nose.  When she removes it, I see that her left cheek is cut and bruised, and her eye is already swelling shut.  That’s to say nothing of her nose, which looks like it might be broken.

 

            “Oh, God.”  I drop my head in my hands.

 

            “Sam, let me take a look.”

 

            “I’m fine, Janet.  I’ll be fine.”

 

            “Shit, shit, shit.”  I’m ranting out loud, but I can’t help it.  Whether I remember doing it or not, I’ve apparently just assaulted my 2IC.

 

            little bitch.  in the way.

 

            “Just shut up, you bastards.”  Of course, they don’t.

            “Colonel?”

 

            I look up to find Janet and Sam staring back down at me, puzzled and a little worried.  Daniel has joined them, and from the flushed look on his face and the state of his clothes, I’d say that he didn’t entirely escape my attentions either.

 

            “Dammit.”  This is ridiculous.  My head pounding, the voices whispering not-so-sweet little not-so-nothings in my ears, I struggle to my feet intending to escape down the hallway.  Teal’c steps in front of me, blocking my path.  As soon as I brush against him, I realize he is the ‘something big and unyielding’ that I was fighting against when I awoke.  I have to get out of here.  Now.  “Teal’c, let me go.”

 

            “I will not.”

 

            “Teal’c.”  I push against him ineffectually, and sense the SF’s taking a step closer, preparing to do battle once more.

 

            knife.

 

            I can’t help but look.  Teal’c isn’t armed, but he does still have his knife.  I glance back up at him, embarrassed to find that he knows what I was doing.

 

            “O’Neill, why are you doing this?”

 

            must.

 

            “I–I have to.  Teal’c, I need to leave.”

 

            “Where do you need to go, Jack?”  I look over at Daniel, who has one hand on Carter’s arm, steadying her, but it’s me he’s staring at.  “Why do you need to leave?”

 

            I shake my head, and feel myself wilt slightly against Teal’c.  A strong arm slips around my waist, lending me strength to stay on my feet.

 

            “Okay.  I want all of you down in the infirmary.  Now, people.”

 

            As a group, Janet, Sam, Daniel and the injured guards move down the hall.  Two of the guards remain behind, eyeing me suspiciously.  I pull away from Teal’c, and take one step to follow the others, then stop and stare down the hallway, thinking about the gate room.

 

            coward.  couldn’t do it.

 

            “O’Neill?”  I brush away Teal’c’s hand.

 

            “Don’t.”  Glancing at him, I’m surprised at the feeling of revulsion that sweeps through me.  “I can do it.”

 

            can’t.  couldn’t.

 

            “Can, too,” I whisper, and I push myself toward the infirmary.  I’ll show them.  I can do it.  I will.  One step at a time I stagger forward.  I sense Teal’c and the others behind me, but they leave me alone.  When I stumble, I see Teal’c reach out to grab me, but he pulls back just as I catch myself.  And I’m glad.  The thought of being touched by him, by anyone, is making my skin crawl and causes the noise in my head to spike.  Once again, I’m aware of shadowy figures darting around at the edge of my vision.  I can’t see them clearly, but I recognize them as the ones causing all this.

 

            I enter the infirmary, oblivious to the sounds of my teammates and the guards receiving treatment.  I pass by them, making my way to the back of the room.  I know people are talking, I see their mouths moving, but their voices are lost within the larger commotion in my head. Teal’c and two guards still trailing me, I go to the last bed, the only empty one, and stand behind it, my back pressed against the wall, watching the chaos surrounding me.  Nurses dabbing at bloody lips, getting ready to suture cut cheeks, examining suspect noses.  I inch my way to the corner, and lower myself to the floor.

 

            “Nurse,” I hear Teal’c call to someone, but can’t understand what else he tells them.

 

            A shadow approaches my sore shoulder, and I flinch away from it only to find it’s not really there after all.  My vision seems to be tunneling, my line of sight narrowing.  I shiver at the thought that the shadows are creeping up on me, and I can’t see them.  They could be anywhere.

 

            “What do you want?”  Have I asked them that before?  I can’t remember.

 

            “Colonel?  Jack, it’s Janet.  Can you hear me?”  I turn my head to the voice, and finally spy her.  She’s right next to me, yet far away.  “Tell me what’s going on, Jack.”

 

            screw you.

 

            I chuckle.  “Screw you.”  Janet frowns at me.  “They said it.  Not me.”

 

            She looks up at someone, then back at me.  I know that look.  I’ve used it myself on more than one occasion.

 

            “I’m not crazy.”

 

            “I know you’re not, sir.  Will you tell me what’s wrong?”

 

            LEAVE.  NOW.

 

            It hurts.  God, the voices are building.  I thought they couldn’t get any worse.  I was wrong, and this so hurts.  I grab my head in my hands and try to rock away the pain.  It doesn’t help.

 

            “Jack,” Janet’s voice sounds tiny but terrified, “what’s happening?  Are you in pain?”

 

            GET.  OUT.  MUST.  NOW!  NOOOOOW!

 

            “No.  No.  No.”  I’m crawling now.  I can barely see, but I know I’m crawling.  Trying to escape.  Where?  I’ll go anywhere.  Anywhere.  Just leave me alone.  Please.  “Please. Please.  Please.”

 

            I can no longer see the floor in front of me.  I feel something on my skin.  I’m crawling.  Aren’t I?  Am I crawling?  No, I’m being lifted.  Hands on my skin.  Something against my back. A wall?  A bed?  There should be lights overhead.  Loud, bright, annoying lights.  But I can’t see them.  Nothing but darkness, and the sound of Janet’s voice.  She’s whispering in my ear, telling me to calm down.  Everything’s going to be fine.  She has everything under control.  She’s whispering.  Like them.  Whispering.

 

            “No.  No.  No.”  A pinprick.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “–gloomy tile-paved entry to the gloomy tile-paved staircase, Monsieur . . .”2

 

            A soft, soothing voice tugs me from sleep.

 

            “–Defarge bent down on one knee to the child of his old master, and put her hand to his lips.  It was a gentle action, but . . .”

 

            Cassie’s voice.

 

            “–not at all gently done; a very remarkable transformation had come over him . . .”

 

            I try to turn my head toward the sound of her, willing the sweet melody of her, of Cassie, to wash over me, to cleanse me.

 

            “–in a few seconds.  He had no good-humour in his face, nor any openness of aspect left . . .”

 

            I try again, this time forcing my eyes to open.

 

            “–but had become – Uncle Jack?”  There’s a soft rustling of paper and cloth, and her thin, waif-like shadow drifts over my bed.  “Uncle Jack?”

 

            I work to moisten my dry mouth.  “Cassie.”

            She smiles down at me.  “It’s you.”

 

            I know exactly what she means, and take no offense.  “So to speak.”  I turn my head, looking around me.

 

            “One of the iso rooms.”

 

            “Ah.”  I nod at her, and try to reach for her hand.  That’s when I discover that I’m in restraints.  “Oh,” I mumble, studying the leather straps wrapped around my wrists and ankles.  I tug at them with no real thought of escape.  To be honest, I’m feeling very fuzzy, probably thanks to the IV connected to my right arm.  The headache is a mere backdrop, as insubstantial as the paint on the wall behind me.  And the voices, while still there, are subdued, as if something stands between them and me.

 

            “I’m sorry.  Mom says they have to stay on a while longer.”

 

            “S’okay.”

 

            Cassie fidgets with the edge of the sheet.  “Does your nose itch or anything?  I’ll scratch it for you.”

 

            “No,” I chuckle at her weak attempt at a joke.  “I’m fine.  Really.  It’s okay.”

 

            She nods knowingly.  “I wanted to tell you that I’m not mad at you.  I mean, I know it wasn’t you that did – I know it wasn’t you.”

 

            “Thank you, Cassie.  I’m sorry.  I never meant to hurt you.  I would never intentionally do anything–,” but I drop my head back on the pillow, unfinished, exhausted by more than just the act of speaking.

 

            “I know.”  She rests a soft hand on my bare arm.  “I love you, Uncle Jack.”  She leans over and kisses my cheek, and I have to shut my eyes against the pain that races through my chest at the touch of her innocent lips on my face.  Finally, she stands up, releasing me from the agony that unconditional forgiveness can bring.

 

            “So,” I nod towards the book still clutched in her hand, “that’s pretty heavy stuff for a dumb, old flyboy.”

 

            “What do you mean?”

 

            “Come on.  A Tale of Two Cities?  That’s a little out of my league, don’t you think?”

 

            She smiles as if she’s caught me at something.  “How did you know what book it was?”

 

            I start to make a smart-assed reply, but can’t think of one.  So, I shrug instead.  “Touché.”

            She holds up the book, displaying the dog-eared pages, and I recognize it immediately.  “Sam and I went over to clean out your fridge, and check on things.  I found this next to your bed.  I hope you don’t mind.  I thought – I just thought you might like to, I don’t know, hear it.”

 

            “I don’t mind.  It’s a great idea.  In fact, why don’t you get me a drink of water, and read some more.”

 

            “Sure.”  She helps me sip some water before settling back into the chair next to my bed.  She stares at me briefly before opening the book.  “Where were we?  Oh, yeah.  He had no good-humour in his face, nor any openness of aspect left, but had become a secret, angry, dangerous man.

 

            Ironic, huh, the timing of that passage?  Hanging onto her voice, I stare up at the ceiling.

 

            “‘It is very high; it is a little difficult.  Better to begin slowly.’  Thus, Monsieur Defarge, in a stern voice, to Mr. Lorry, as . . .”

 

            I tug gently at the wrist restraints.

 

            “–they began ascending the stairs.

 

            Against my will and my better judgment, I tug again, harder this time, causing my shoulder to send shooting pains down my arm.

 

            “Uncle Jack?”

 

            Ankles, too.  I squirm restlessly.

 

            “Uncle Jack, what’s wrong?”

 

            I bite my lip, fighting the urge to flee, the need to escape, that’s inexplicably building inside me.  Her voice will help.  If I can just concentrate on her voice.  “Cassie, read.  Please.”

 

            There’s a moment of silence; when she resumes, her voice is trembling.  “‘Is he alone?’ the latter whispered.  ‘Alone!  God help him, who should be with him?’ said the . . .”

 

            Heaving myself against my bonds, I cry out, not meaning to.  The leather straps squeak their own protest.

 

            “Uncle Jack, listen to me!  I’m reading.  Listen.  ‘God help him, who should be with him?’ said the other, in the same low voice.  Cassie’s voice, on the other hand, has risen in volume, as if she knows she’s competing with something she can neither hear nor see.  She’s standing by the bed now, book held aloft, working the room like a pro.  ‘Is he always alone, then?’  ‘Yes.’  ‘Of his own desire?’  Uncle Jack, are you listening?”

 

            Even as my mind and body are wrestling to free themselves, I manage to keep my eyes on her, recognizing that she is my only hope.

 

            “Pay attention!”  With a snide, bossy tone in her voice, she manages to sound like a damned teacher, or a commanding officer, but at the same time tears are streaming down her face.

 

            “Cassie,” I force her name out of my mouth.  Wanting to apologize, even as my arms ache with the force I’m exerting on them.  A part of me knows that if I can, I will snap my own wrists just to be free.  My body arches, struggling to rise from the bed, and I see Cassie discreetly press the call button by my pillow.

 

            “Concentrate, Uncle Jack.  Please, please, don’t let them have you.  Please just concentrate.  Here,” hands shaking, she lifts the book once more.  “‘Of his own–of his own desire?’  Wiping tears away with her free hand, she looks down at me, pleading.  “What’s the next line, Uncle Jack?  I know you know it.  Come on.”

 

            I have to listen to her.  I know that.  But, first, I have to get free.  To do that, I have to loosen these straps.  I pull with everything I’ve got, and for a moment, I think my bonds are going to snap.  But they don’t.

 

            The door slams open, and Janet and two nurses rush into the room.  “Cassie!  What’s going on?”

 

            Cassie ignores her.  “‘Of his own desire?’  What’s the next line, Uncle Jack?  Tell me.  Of his own desire?’”

 

            “Okay.  Let’s up the sedative.  Jack, can you hear me?”  Janet and one of the nurses grab onto my shoulders.

 

            “No!”

 

            “Uncle Jack, ‘of his own desire.’  What’s the next line?  Think.”

 

            I’m gasping for breath, thrashing around, trying to escape bonds, hands, this place.  But through it all, I hear her.  I hear the childlike quiver in her voice.  She sounds like Charlie.  His voice used to shake like that when he had a bad dream, or when he was sad.  I have to help her.  Help Cassie.  What is it she’s wanting?  A line?  A line from a book?  I know this.

 

            Still straining, sweat pouring off me, I hear myself stammering.  ‘Of his own–,

 

            “That’s right.  Keep going.”

 

            “Cassie, get out of here.  You shouldn’t be here.”

 

            ‘Of his own – necessity.’” As I hear the words come out of me, it’s as if a great force is released.  With one last roar of indignation, and one last, terrific pull against my bonds, I hear a snap and feel the need, like sweat, drop from me.  I collapse back onto the bed, limp and exhausted.  The fight gone as suddenly as it had appeared.

 

            Janet and the nurses are rushing around the bed, checking vitals, playing with the IV, shoving Cassie – my salvation – to the corner of the room, talking to themselves, to each other, and to me.  I stare blankly at the ceiling, vaguely aware of a burning in my left arm to match the burning in my lungs.  I’m still panting, my heart is still racing, but I’m no longer consumed.  It’s over.  For now.

 

            “‘Of his own necessity,’” I repeat, trying to locate Cassie in the room.

 

            She pushes her way past Janet, and leans towards me.  “That’s good, Uncle Jack.  You did good.”

 

            “Cassie, I thought I told you–,”

 

            “Please,” my voice sounds like Cassie’s did earlier – shaky and scared, “let her stay.”

 

            “Colonel,” Janet starts to protest, then stops.  “For a minute.  But we have to take you to x-ray.  You’ve fractured your arm, sir.”  Janet frowns over at one of the nurses.  “Let’s schedule another CT scan also.  Nancy, get on the horn to Academy, I want to call in Dr. Mathis for a consult.”

 

            “No.”

 

            Janet looks down at me.  “Sir?”

 

            “It’s not – the skull fracture.”

 

            “We don’t know that, Colonel.  Just because I haven’t found the cause, doesn’t mean–,”

 

            “Janet, this has nothing to do – with my head injury.  Trust me on this.”

 

            In response, she tilts her head at me, confused.

 

            “Cassie.”  I look up at her.  She’s standing beside me, her arms wrapped protectively, defensively, around her middle.  “Cassie, tell her.”

 

            Cassie stares at me a moment, then looks over at her adoptive mother and nods slightly.

 

            “What are you two trying to say?”

 

            “Mom, there’s something in him.”  Cassie’s voice is soft, but sure.

 

            “In him?”  Janet looks more confused than ever.  She glances down at me.  “What does that mean, ‘there’s something in you’?”  Suddenly, her eyes widen and instinct causes her to take a step away from the bed.  “A Goa’uld?”

 

            “No.  Not a snake.”  Despite the sedatives coursing through me, despite my broken arm which is beginning to throb, I feel my limbs tensing as if preparing for another battle.  They don’t want me to reveal this.  Don’t ask me how, but I know.  It’s them causing this.  “Janet, I need to talk to Hammond, my team.”  The need is writhing in me again; I feel myself beginning to struggle against my will.  “Ple–Janet, pl–please.”

 

            “Jack, just stay calm.  You can talk to them.”  She reaches over and adjusts the drip on the IV.  “First, x-ray.”

 

            “N–no.”

 

            “Yes.  Sir.  We have to set that arm.  Jack?”  She and the nurse reach for me as they see me begin to fight the straps again.  Quickly, Janet removes the restraint from my already injured arm.  She’s trying to limit the injury to it, but I can’t help myself as I use it to strike out at them, trying to force them back and away.  Janet merely pins my broken limb down on the bed, and waits for the drugs to kick in.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            I have a cast on my arm, and I’m drugged to the gills on some special juice of Janet’s own concoction.  It’s been over an hour since they finished x-raying and plastering my arm.  I’m back in an iso room, still strapped to the bed, and I’m exhausted.  The voices are almost non-existent – so far away they might be a figment of my imagination, or maybe just a memory.  But they won’t let me rest.  Now, they’re using my body because, I realize, the voices have failed.  They’ve been molesting my mind for months; now the assault is physical.  A last, desperate attempt.  Through the fog of drugs, I recognize that they will stop at nothing.  The sedatives help, but it’s a battle to maintain even a semblance of control.

 

            The door opens and Janet enters, followed by the General, Daniel, Carter and Teal’c.  They form a semi-circle around the foot of my bed, staring at me in stunned silence.  I have to assume Frasier has given them a head’s up because they look like they’ve seen a ghost.

 

            They’re so serious, I laugh softly.  “Here’s Johnny,” I sing-song, but from the looks on their faces, I don’t think they appreciate my humor right now.  “Sorry.”

 

            “Colonel,” Hammond clears his throat, “Dr. Frasier tells us we have a bit of a problem.”

 

            When I don’t respond, Janet speaks up.  “The Colonel believes that there is – ‘something’ inside of him.  Cassie agrees.”  They all look at me expectantly.  I smile, pleasantly I hope, causing Teal’c to lift an eyebrow and Daniel to frown.

 

            “He is not a Goa’uld, Dr. Frasier.”

 

            “Thank you, Teal’c.”  My voice may be thick and unclear, weighed down with narcotics, but I can still be polite.

 

            Carter shifts her weight, and squints down at me through her bruised and swollen face, as if by doing so she might find visible evidence of what can only be called infestation.  Infestation?  God, what a nasty word.  “Sir, if not a Goa’uld, then,” she searches for a word, “what?”

 

            “Hitchhikers.”  Drugged as I am, I still manage to tug sluggishly at my restraints.

 

            “Hitchhikers?  Plural?  Jack, do you know where they came from?  I mean, how did they get in you?”  Daniel is hugging himself, still frowning.

 

            “On the way to P3–,” I can’t remember what it was called.

 

            “P3X-275,” Carter supplies.

 

            “Yeah.  That.”

 

            “The last planet he was on.”  Daniel looks over at Carter and Teal’c, then back at me.  “Why you, Jack?  Why not the rest of us?”

 

            “No, Daniel, he said ‘on the way.’  Is that what you meant, sir?”  I nod at my 2IC.  “The Stargate?  Do you literally mean, you think it happened while going through the Stargate?”

 

            “Yes,” I smile at her.  She’s so smart.  I always feel a little proud, but I’m not sure why.  It’s not like I can claim any responsibility for her brains.

 

            Her eyes take on a familiar, glazed look, the one she gets when she’s thinking through a particularly difficult problem.  “He was the first one through the gate.”

 

            “But,” Hammond sounds frustrated, “how is that possible?  I mean, could something else exist in our wormhole?”

 

            Carter shrugs.  “I’m not sure anything can, sir.  But–,” she looks over at me.  “Remember what happened with Teal’c?  When he didn’t emerge from the Stargate, but his energy pattern was stored in the memory buffer?  Maybe the same thing happened with these – things, beings.  If they were somehow interrupted in the process of transporting, if their gate on the receiving end was unable to translate their energy signature and reconvert it, maybe our matter stream crossed paths with theirs, sort of like – like crossing telephone lines.  If their energy patterns were somehow ‘linked’ to the Colonel’s, it’s possible they remained linked during reassembly when we emerged on P3X-275.”  She looked around at us, like we could possibly have understood her.  “It’s possible.”

 

            “Colonel, how long have you been aware of these – beings?”

 

            I stare up at Hammond, pondering how to answer that question.  As fuzzy as I am, I decide to keep it simple.  “Not long.”  Technically true.  While I’ve suspected for a while, I wasn’t sure until I realized the effect the Stargate was having.

 

            Daniel studies me.  “So, Jack, let’s say an accident caused you to be blended, so to speak, with these creatures.  Do you, or they, know what’s going to happen now?  I mean, what can we do?”

 

            I bite my lip and moan against the urge to flee.  Janet has so many drugs running through me, grunting is about all the fight I have left in me.  Sorry, guys.  Looks like we’re staying.  “What I can do, Daniel.  Me.  Which is anything and everything – necessary to accomplish their goal.”

 

            “Their goal.  Which is what exactly?”

 

            “To live.”

 

            “And how do they intend to accomplish that, Colonel?”

 

            I look over at Carter.  “By going through the gate again.  They think.”

 

            “And what do you think, sir?”

 

            I think I’m going to go nuts, that’s what I think.  I think I need to get the hell out of here.  “I think they’re full of shit.  I think – going through the gate – will accomplish one thing, and one thing only.”

 

            Janet drops a hand onto my leg. “What’s that?”

 

            “They take me with them.”

 

            “To where, Colonel?”

 

            “What is this – the inquisition?”  I pull miserably with my right arm and try to kick with my feet, but my efforts do nothing more than make me sweat.

 

            Hammond frowns at my pathetic struggles, but repeats his question.  “To where?”

 

            “To wherever they – decide to go.”

 

            “Once there, O’Neill, will they leave you?  Will they allow you to return home?”

 

            “I don’t think so – Teal’c.”  I’m starting to pant again, and I think I could throw up with very little effort.  “I’m not sure – it would even – be possible.”

 

            “Why not, Jack?”        

 

            “Because they’re dead already, Daniel!”  Despite feeling angry, I laugh softly at the look on his face, and try ineffectually to sit upright.  “They’re just hiding – here, among the living.”

 

            Daniel’s eyes widen behind his glasses.  “You’re kidding, right?  Tell me you’re kidding, Jack.”

 

            I try sitting again, but apparently Janet’s figured out the dosage on the old IV bag, because I’m pretty much limp as a rag.  Soggy as a wet noodle.  Weak as a kitten.  Wilted as lettuce.  Smooth as Jello.  Pumpkin as pie.  Pumpkins.  Smashing.  “Aagh,” I cry out in frustration.  “Please.  Janet, Doc, just let me go.  Please.”

 

            Janet cringes slightly at my pleading, but resolutely shakes her head.  “No, sir.”

 

            “Please, you don’t have to – remove them.  Just – loosen them.  Okay?  Just – this one.”  I indicate the restraint on my broken arm, my skin crawling at the tone of my own voice and the words coming out of my mouth.  “My arm hurts.”  I see sympathy in their eyes, except maybe for Teal’c and Hammond.  But with the others, I might have a chance.  Give me a few minutes alone with them, and I think maybe I can get us out of here.

 

            Suddenly, I realize what’s happening.  “No!”  Feeling helpless beneath the combined effects of the drugs and the dead little creatures infesting my thoughts and my body, I pound my head against my pillow – a useless, painful move, but proof to myself that I retain at least a modicum of control.  “Janet, don’t – listen to them.  General, please.”  Hammond quickly steps up to the side of the bed.

 

            “What, Jack?  What is it?”

 

            “You have to – promise me – no matter what – you won’t let me go.  Don’t let me–,” I feel them trying to shut me up, trying to force my tired, hurting body to get them out of here.  But I know there’s no hope for them.  Hell, They know it!  They just won’t admit it.  Maybe we’re more alike than we know.  After all, Jack O’Neill is no slouch when it comes to lying to himself.  I feel tears running unchecked down my face, but I’m not sure if they’re theirs, mine or ours.  “General, please.  Your word.”

 

            Hammond studies me for a minute, his mouth tight with worry and anger.  “All right.  You have it.  But what should we do, Colonel?  I’m afraid this is a little out of our league, and you seem to – know them.  What do you suggest?”

 

            “Wait them out.”  I wish I could wipe the tears away, but of course I can’t.  “They’re – dying.  I don’t – think they can – last much longer.  So, wait.”

 

            Seeing my plight, Janet has retrieved a towel and gently wipes the sweat and tears from my face.  “And in the meantime, Colonel, what about you?”

 

            I have to concentrate to force a tight smile onto my face.  I look up at them, these friends of mine, and wonder how many times I’ve seen them from this angle.  Way too often, that’s for sure.  “Well, seeing as I’ve – already done the drugged out – strapped to the bed thing – before.  Once more can’t hurt.  Can it?”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “–advance had begun to overwhelm the city.  Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance.  In the fair city of this vision. . .3

 

            A Tale of Two Cities.  Again.  This time a la Jaffa.  Wonky as my head is, I’m still able to grasp the implausibility of Teal’c reading Dickens.  I’d like to open my eyes, just to catch a glimpse of the bald head buried in the book, but nothing on me seems to be working.  Except my ears, and my brain.

 

            Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

 

            God, why is he reading this damnable passage?  Next time – God help me if there really is a next time – next time, I demand lighter fare.  No Dickens, no Dumas.  How about Louis L’Amour?  Don’t think anyone ever wanted to commit suicide over good old Louis.  Hell, I’d even take Stephen King.  Scaring the crap out of me would be a step up from this.

 

            “Chapter six,” Teal’c announces.

 

            As Teal’c proceeds to the lodgings of Dr. Manette, I lie here, letting his soft, sonorous voice lull me back to sleep.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            “–I have imagined her, in the moonlight, coming to me and taking me out to show me that the home of her married life was full of her loving remembrance of her lost father.  My picture was in her room, and I was in her prayers.  Her life was active, cheerful, useful; but my poor history pervaded it all.4

 

            Daniel?  God, what’s he going on about?  And who’s he talking to?  Me?  Doesn’t he know I’m out of it, that I probably haven’t heard half of what he’s said, and can’t understand the part I have heard?  I blink.  I think I do anyway.  Yeah, I must have because I’m suddenly blinded by a shaft of light against my pupils.  I try to turn my head away from the source.

            “I think he’s awake.”  A woman’s voice silences Daniel.

 

            “Sha’re?”  Is that who Daniel’s talking to?  No, wait, she’s a Goa’uld.  No. She’s dead.  Yeah.  “Dead.”

 

            “What’s he saying?”  Wait, if Sha’re’s dead, how can she talk?

 

            “Jack,” Daniel’s voice is close.  I force my eyes to open and see him leaning over me, his blurry face just inches from mine.  “Jack, you with us, buddy?”

 

            “Daniel?  Your poor – history?”  My voice sounds paper thin, and dry.  Daniel must have noticed, too, because he helps me take a drink of water.

 

            “What?  Oh, no.  I was – Cassie left this here,” he holds up something, a book, I think.  Blurry Daniel shrugs.  “We’ve been reading it to you.  We thought it might, I don’t know, help.”

 

            “Sir.”  Sir?  That means it’s Carter, not Sha’re.  She stands on the other side of me.  “How are you feeling?”

 

            “Depressed, Major.”  I shut my eyes, the conversation having exhausted all my reserves.  “Next time – I want Stephen King.”

 

            There’s a moment of silence.  Just as I feel myself drifting back to sleep, I hear Carter mumble, “God, I hope there is no ‘next time.’”

 

            “Yeah,” Daniel agrees.  “I hate Stephen King.”

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            After having long been in danger of my life at the hands of the village, I have been seized, with great violence and indignity, and brought a long journey on foot to Paris.  On the road I have suffered a great deal.  Nor is that all. . .5

 

            Oh, God.  You have got to be kidding me.  I groan, and eagerly dive back into oblivion.

 

                                                                       * * * * *

 

            It took 11 days.  Actually, it might have been less than that, but it was 11 days before Janet lowered the amount of sedatives in my system to the point of my regaining what could be loosely termed ‘consciousness.’  Four days after that, and I’m starting to feel honest to God, I’m in here alone, flesh and blood, smart-assed, not too bright human.  Singular.  Just me.  Nobody else.

 

            They are gone.  Aside from the complete absence of their voices, don’t ask me how I know.  I can’t explain it any more than I can explain how I know when I’m being followed in the field, or why I get that tickling sensation on the back of my neck right before things begin to go terribly wrong.  Maybe it’s just something I was born with – a freak of nature kind of thing.  But all that matters is, I know I’m in here alone.

 

            The only things they’ve left behind are the nagging headache, which seems to be easing up a little each day, and a weird sort of empty feeling.  Again, it’s nothing I can put my finger on, and it’s difficult to put into words, so I haven’t tried.  Not out loud anyway.  It’s just that I feel like for months I had all this ‘stuff’ filling up my head – voices, shadows, pain, flying pumpkins – and now I’m alone.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good feeling.  But I keep getting these little bits and pieces of – something, echoes of them or memories maybe.  Like little photo-thingy’s of their lives that make me think they were just your average, ordinary, every-day kind of aliens, and maybe they were like me when I was stuck on Edora, and they were just trying to get home.  Only difference is:  I made it – they didn’t.

 

            Logically, I realize that they were probably on their way out anyway.  If Carter was right that their gate couldn’t put them back together, then I’m pretty sure no other gate could either.  And if they hadn’t crossed into our wormhole, then they’d probably still be buzzing around out there somewhere – a bunch of disassembled ET’s trying to phone home.  So, really, when you get right down to it, I just put them out of their misery.  Right?  Right?

 

            Please, somebody, tell me I’m right.  Because despite all the ‘if’s,’ ‘maybe’s,’ and ‘probably’s,’ I can’t help but wonder if there was another way.  If I had just let them take me through the gate, maybe they’d still be alive, even though I’d probably be dead.  No, I’m pretty sure I’d be dead, and them along with me.  Don’t ask me how I know.  It’s just another thing I can’t explain.  And, trust me on this, I wish to hell I could.  I wish anyone could.  Explain it to me, that is.  Assure me that I made the right call.

 

            So, deep down, part of me feels a tiny bit guilty.  So what?  So what if I can’t help but wonder if I’ve single-handedly annihilated a race of innocents who weren’t doing anything but trying to get my attention?  So what if the part of me that isn’t a cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch prays that none of them were children?  Oh, please, God, don’t let there have been children.

 

            “Uncle Jack?”

 

            I blink, pushing back the thoughts that have been plaguing me the last four days, and look over at Cassie, who is sitting in a lawn chair next to me.  It’s a nice day, but a little hotter than I like.  I push my sunglasses higher up on my nose, and wipe away a drop of sweat that’s tickling my chin.  Seems that during the last few months while other things have been on – make that, in my mind, spring has been replaced by full-blown summer.

 

            “Hey, Cass.”

 

            “I overhead mom talking to General Hammond.”  I look over at the people she’s referring to; they’re playing a round of volleyball revenge with my team.  “She says you’re a little down, and that we just have to give you time.”

            Time.  Really?  Is that all it will take?  “I’m fine, Cass.”

 

            “No.  You’re not.  But you will be.  You know.”  It wasn’t a question.  Thank God.

 

            “Yeah.”  I smile at her certainty, and my chest tightens with love and gratefulness for this young girl, this alien child.  Alien child?  Suddenly, I’m blinking back tears at the thought that those inside me could have been like her – sole survivors of a lost world.  Dead now, at my hand.

 

            “Uncle Jack?”

 

            “Hmm?”

 

            “Was it kind of like with Sam and Jolinar, you think?”  I don’t answer her, so she continues.  “You know, Jolinar went inside Sam without asking, just like these – people did you.”

 

            I cringe at her choice of the word ‘people.’  We sit in silence long enough for a bead of sweat to run across the still fresh scar on my head, trickle along my recently healed jaw bone, pause on my chin for a moment, and then drip onto my grey Air Force t-shirt.  Like a tiny bullet, it impacts just over my heart, and I stare down at the small, wet wound it leaves behind.

 

            “Maybe, Cass, but I don’t think so.”

 

            “Why not?”

 

            Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe because Jolinar gave up her life in order to save Sam, and I traded in a whole civilization to save my sorry skin.  “They weren’t Goa’uld.”  That’s the best answer I can come up with.  The only one I’m willing to say out loud.

 

            “Neither was Jolinar.  She was Tok’ra.”

 

            Touché.  Jack O’Neill - 0; aliens - 1.  The dark stain on my t-shirt spreads.  I can’t bear to watch it grow, and so I lean my head back, shutting my eyes.  I can hear Sam railing against Hammond’s referee skills, and in the background, Daniel is humming ‘We Are The Champions.’

 

            “I want to finish this, Uncle Jack.”

 

            I don’t reply, because although she may not know it, this conversation is finished.

 

            “The book.  A Tale of Two Cities.”

 

            I groan a little, and look over at her, secretly relieved at the change of topic.  “You’re kidding, right?”

 

            “No.  There’s only two pages left.  I want to know how it ends.”

 

            “I’ll tell you how it ends – badly.”

 

            “Spoilsport,” she says under her breath.

 

            “Cassie, you do realize I’ve been read to for over a week, right?  All thanks to you, I might add.  Which, I’ll admit, in itself wouldn’t be so bad, but Teal’c reading Dickens?  Come on.  And even worse – Hammond reading Charles Darnay with a Texas accent?  Give me a break.”

 

            “Well, I’m finishing it.  Don’t listen if you don’t want to.”  With that, she turns away from me and defiantly opens the book, clearing her throat in the process.  They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there.  Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.  One of the most remarkable sufferers. . . .6

 

            I lean my head back again, letting Cassie’s voice roll over me.  Actually, it’s rather nice, sitting here listening to her soft words.  See, despite my protests, I still love A Tale of Two Cities, and all it stands for.  I always thought that Dickens was trying to tell me about the good and the bad that exists in and around me all the time, and that I’ll take from life what I give to it.  Kind of the proverbial, if life gives you lemons . . . .

 

            ‘I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine.  I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his.  I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away.  I see him, foremost of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place – then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement – and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.’

 

            At those words, my mind is filled with a memory of Sara and Charlie.  It was just two days after we had brought Charlie home from the hospital.  I had gotten up in the middle of the night, sensing Sara’s absence, and had wandered through the house searching for her.  I found them in the living room.  Sara was holding Charlie in her arms, standing in front of the wall of frames containing my certificates and medals.  As light from a full moon cast a surreal glow over the room, I watched as my wife looked from the infant nestled in her arms to the frames – the only part of my career that I could share with her.  With anyone.  I heard a soft noise and at first thought she was singing to him.  But as I silently approached, I heard her telling Charlie what the medals were for, how his daddy was a brave man, a hero, and how Charlie would one day be so proud.  And I remember, at that instant, desperately praying that neither Charlie nor Sara would ever have to know what that wall truly stood for.  The lives and innocence snuffed out by my hand, and memorialized on our living room wall.  Funny, I had forgotten about that night until just now.

 

            “Uncle Jack?”

 

            “What?”  Once again, Cassie pulls me from my thoughts.  I look over at her and find that the volleyball game has ended.  General Hammond, Janet, my team, they’re standing around us.  “Is it time to eat?”

            Cassie giggles.  “No.  I said, that’s my favorite part.”

 

            “What is?”

 

            “‘It is a far, far. . . .’”

 

            I cut in, without asking, “‘–better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’

 

            “See,” Cassie smiles up at Daniel, “I told you.”

 

            I look at them both.  “What?  Told you what?”  But their only answer is to smile and shake their heads.

 

            “Remind you of anyone you know?”  Carter poses the question to the group at large.

 

            “Yes, oddly enough.”

 

            I look at Daniel, not wanting to think about why he’s looking at me when he answers.  Because despite what they may think, what Sara once thought, I am no hero.  And I am certainly no Charles Darnay.  In fact, if you think hard about the wall of medals over my fireplace, and if you examine recent events, you’ll see that I’m the opposite of Charles Darnay.  After all, Darnay gave up his life to save someone else.  And me?  There’s no doubt about what I’ve given to, nor about what I’ve taken from life.

 

            “You okay, Colonel?”

 

            Janet’s hand drops onto my shoulder.  I look up into her concerned face, forcing a smile.  “When’s dinner and what’s for dessert?”

 

            There are a few chuckles, and Carter smiles broadly.  “Dessert is your favorite, sir, pump–,”

 

            “Carter,” I stand up, abruptly silencing her, “if you say the word ‘pumpkin,’ you’re pulling double watches for the next year.”

 

            “Oh, uh–,” she looks around at the others.  “I think Cassie brought a bag of Oreo’s, sir.”

 

            “Great.  Let’s eat.”

 

            Teal’c and I move to the deck, while the others go inside the house.  I get the grill set up, then let Teal’c light it just because I know he gets a kick out of the little ‘pouf’ when it ignites.  Leaving him to watch over the flames, I grab a beer out of the cooler and lean against the rail, looking out across the yard.

 

            I watch as the sun lowers itself over the mountains to the west, and close my eyes waiting for the inevitable light breeze that heralds the close of each summer day.  It isn’t long before I feel the soft, tentative touch of it on my skin.  I lift up my head to catch each nuance of it, and realize for the first time that the twitch I had been so concerned about a few weeks ago is totally gone.

 

            I feel a sudden warmth near my elbow, and open my eyes to discover that the sun has disappeared and Teal’c is standing by my side, staring out at the mountains with me.

 

            “The passage of time can be beautiful, can it not, O’Neill?”

 

            The passage of time.  According to Janet, that is what will heal me.  I look away from this man who calls me brother, and gaze up at the dark silhouette of mountains.  There, just above them and twinkling insanely bright, appears the first star of evening.

 

            “Cassie says I’m going to be okay, Teal’c.”

 

            A momentary silence falls, punctuated by the sound of my neighbor’s dog yipping a single, solitary bark.

 

            “Indeed, you will.”

 

THE END

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1  On Death, by Walter Savage Landor.

2 All quotes in this section are taken from A Tale of Two Cities, Book the First, Chapter V, by Charles Dickens.

 

3 All quotes in this section are taken from A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Second, Chapter V, by Charles Dickens.

 

4 A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Second, Chapter XVII, by Charles Dickens.

 

5 A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Second, Chapter XXIV, by Charles Dickens.

 

6 All quotes in this section are taken from A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Third, Chapter XV, by Charles Dickens.

                                             

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